Picture
This is a review of a book I’ve not yet read – The Fix, by Damian Thompson. I could wait to write it when I’ve finished reading it, but I’m so addicted to scribbling that I can’t. That and I take forever to read anything; reading lacks sufficient sensory excitement to engage me for a long period of time. Ninety minutes of Chuck Norris throwing himself out of helicopters is about all the storytelling that I can take.

Appropriately, Thompson's book is about addictions and how they are fed by a consumer culture that gets us hooked on tawdry sensual delights. At the core of the book is the controversial claim that addiction is situational. Thompson points out that US soldiers in Vietnam became addicted to heroin because it was dirt cheap. When they returned home the market evaporated, and “the near impossibility of scoring high-grade heroin in Middle America meant that the vast majority of GI heroin users became almost instantly un-addicted. Their environment had changed too drastically to sustain their habit.” From this, Thompson concludes that supply-driven behavior “hijacks reward circuits common to all human beings and most animals.” The cure is to cut off supply.

Alas, modern society makes that very difficult to do. Within the private economy there’s the problem of oversupply of everything – nasty porn on the internet, cheap booze in the supermarket, drugs being sold in the street. Within the public sphere, the bureaucratic approach of the welfare state has turned addiction from a personal failing into a medical challenge. Sufferers are treated as victims rather than moral agents. For example, Thompson decries in his blog the labeling of student binge drinkers as addicts rather than idiots: “Slapping the ‘alcoholic’ label on young people is counterproductive if it encourages them to buy into the ‘disease model’ of addiction. As Time points out, ‘most addiction treatment programs encourage them to see themselves as having a chronic, relapsing disease that requires a lifetime of attendance at 12-step meetings to keep in check.’” 

There’s a bit of Right and a pinch Left in Thompson’s analysis. Tories will take delight in the Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be complaint about the profligacy of 21st century society. But there’s also something in there that William Burroughs and the anarchists could agree with – the idea that private and public entities trap people in a net of addiction and cure that reduces us to the status of doped slaves. The chaos of narcotics, drink, or sex is an illusion: the pushers and the doctors are our puppet masters. The goal of the medical establishment isn’t to liberate but to supply and control. Thompson's thesis is a mix of the radical and common sense, both of which are in short supply on the subject of mental health.

I’ve done my best to stay away from doctors and social workers throughout my life, but I can testify to Thompson’s point about addiction being circumstantial. My relationship with alcohol is purely about my relationship to other people. Left alone on a desert island, I could survive on fresh water and bananas. Give me five minutes in the company of other human beings and it’s banana daiquiris all the way.

The social pressure to drink is insidious. When I was about 19, an older boy told me that if I didn’t drink in large quantities no one would feel comfortable in my presence and I’d never become Prime Minister. He took me to a restaurant and I drank so much that I had to retire to the bathroom to lie on the floor and giggle. A week later, I over indulged at a Labour Party garden party and left a trail of vomit all the way home. For the first time ever, I said, “Never again.” It wasn’t the last time, alas.

If things were tough at school, they got worse at university. There, drinking is epic. Being no continents left to explore, or causes to die for, reckless youths of my generation have had to drink their body weight in red wine instead. There were moments of glory (a swim in the fountain, throwing a flower pot at a college porter) but the downside of being permanently Brahms and Liszt is that I can’t remember my own highlights. Only recently was I informed of a brilliant bon mot I delivered ten years before. Apparently, I crashed a Conservative Association dinner party in a tuxedo, wearing a CND badge. Some tick asked me how I could be a conservative and be opposed to nuclear weapons. My answer: “When I’ve fired all the nukes at China, we won’t need them anymore.” You can tell that I had long since abandoned my ambition of becoming Prime Minister.

Although far from Wildean, that nuclear gag was unusually witty. On most drunken occasions while I thought I was sounding like Gore Vidal I was probably displaying all the wit of a meths addict arguing with a lamp post. The grape certainly doesn’t increase my sensitivity. A long lost friend from university once walked into a bar in Luxembourg to discover me locked in a drunken fist fight with a fellow who turned out to be his new brother-in-law. Evidently, nothing about Tim Stanley had changed since college. He’d just gone global.

I am not an addict. In fact, in the long spaces between bouts of drinking I live like a monk. No alcohol, lots of exercise, plenty of fresh fruit etc. I’m also borderline vegetarian – another good habit that I give up in company (because no chap with any sense of self-worth is going to eat a salad in front of another man). Nor does the booze disturb my work. I never write, Tweet, email, or call under the influence. The world will only ever know of my drunken exploits what it reads in the Italian press.

But like many Anglo-Saxons, given a flagon of ale and the company of heroes and I become a Beserker. I suppose that in days of old, that might have been put to some use – pillaging monasteries or laying waste whole villages. Today it just means petty vandalism and being barred from French nightclubs. Not only is the "addiction" situational (and "addiction" is quite the wrong word - "rampant idiocy" is better), but so is the manner in which is realized. Were I around in the 18th century I might have been regarded as a Romantic poet; sitting around in gin houses all day, spinning yarns before an audience of adoring dandies. In the grim universe of the 21st century, I’m just a pub bore.

 
 
Picture
Breaking: UK Prime Minister David Cameron is a human being. That was the big story over the weekend, when we discovered that the PM spends his Sundays singing karaoke, playing tennis, and drinking wine over lunch. Big whoop, as the Americans say. But our politics being a 24-hour scrape to the bottom of the barrel, you can easily find a politician willing to criticize him for it. Step forward Ed Balls, who admitted that even though politicians have the right to a day of rest, he always suspected that Cameron “is not on top of the issues” come Monday morning. Of course not. He’s probably still drunk after Sunday lunch, trying to deaden the pain of his tennis elbow.

At the root of this story is a misplaced faith that politicians can and should run the world. They try to, and sometimes they succeed. But it’s never a good thing and they ought to be encouraged to take all the downtime they can get. They are the one part of the public sector for which I would happily grant a three day week and retirement at 45.

Within the West, there are two visions of the democratic leader. The first, which used to be the preserve of the Left, is the tireless reformer. He isn’t just a cog in the machinery of government, he is a piston – driving the dreadnought forever forward. Chug, chug, chug. Work, reform, and public duty are synonymous. If one task is completed, discover another. This must be done repeatedly and steadfastly, forever and ever and ever … until the machine breaks.

The second model, which was how the Right used to regard its role in government, is to be the defender of the constitution – the upholder of tradition. Within the executive, this means enforcing the law. Within the legislature, that means critiquing the way the executive does its job; new laws should be kept to a minimum. The power of the state ought be as small as possible, and so it follows that politicians should do as little as possible. That doesn’t mean they don’t work assiduously or lend their energies to moral causes (there will always be a cat up a tree to rescue). But if they understand both the constitutional and practical limits of what government can do, they’ll find their weekends are long and happy.

As the Right in Anglo-Saxon societies slowly came to accept the welfare state, so they accepted the Left’s vision of the dedicated politician. Hence, the uneasiness that the Conservative Party has shown about rumors of their PM’s idleness testifies to their own commitment to the reformist, bureaucratic ideology. That’s a pity because some of the best leaders of our time maintained a full private self. Churchill would receive war reports in bed, downing an afternoon breakfast of cold champagne. Harold Macmillan read long novels and tended to his publishing empire. Even Jim Callaghan insisted on spending as much time as possible on his farm. Callaghan was perhaps Britain’s most authentically working-class Prime Minister, yet he affected the leisure pursuits of the faded gentry.

Then there are the great (or admirably adequate) men whose personalities embodied the principle of limited government. Calvin “Silent Cal” Coolidge was actually a hard worker, but his famous quietness articulated simplicity and intellectual efficiency. As the years go by, we’re also more and more aware of quite how much Reagan thought and read about big ideas. But he too encouraged the press to believe he avoided hard work less it killed him. 

The current fuss about Cameron’s supposed laissez-faire attitude is thus a blend of old-fashioned roundhead Puritanism and modern big-state nannyism. It’s the kind of get-go, whizz-bang, rationalized, super-secular, highly-educated, technologically-progressive, arid nonsense that forces ministers to fill the empty hours of a Whitehall lunch break with silly ideas like parenting classes or minimum alcohol prices. It raises the quantity of legislation, but rarely the quality. The cost goes up, naturally.

So take as much time over your Sunday lunches as you wish, Prime Minister. Some of us are arcane enough to desire a leader who does little more than uphold the constitution, defend the realm, and go salmon-fishing for the other 360 days of the year. Chillax, dude.

 
 
Picture
These past few days, I’ve been trapped indoors by the rain. England has been hit by a cloud of unhappiness; a cyclone of damp. I stood beneath an umbrella in the garden one afternoon, shielded imperfectly from a storm of hail – bare feet on the stone path, hands trembling at the stub of a cigarette. It’s a martyr’s weather, but without the satisfactory ending.

What to do between writing? There’s an occasional visit from my mother, which means a cup of tea and church gossip. [A mad woman comes every Sunday and interrupts the sermons. She says the pastor is an agent of the devil. Several members of the congregation probably agree.] Otherwise, unable to go out, it’s a cigarette beneath an umbrella, a cheese sandwich, and some music. I don’t like to read. Other people write so much better than me – it’s insulting.

In the same way that Proust was transfixed by smell, I find the right kind of melody transports me somewhere else. By accident, I rediscovered Couperin and now I’m listening to Leçon de Ténèbres again and again. I’m probably confusing my composers (Gesualdo? Palestrina?), but if I stretch out on the floor and close my eyes, I think I can hear this music ten years ago in a room in Cambridge. I have few happy memories of that place, but one of them was the year that I took lodgings at the lonely end of my college. The windows wouldn’t shut properly and a wind blew from the living room, down the hall, and into my bedroom. There wasn’t a corner of my home that wasn’t cold. The pain was exhilarating: like a wet electric shock running all over my body.

I converted to Christianity while living in those rooms, thanks to several exciting conversations with a priest in his study. He had a big black Labrador that stunk of nicotine. Then I’d return home and stretch out on the bed, close my eyes, and listen to the sacred music that travelled the breeze from the living room, down the hall, and into my bedroom. “Qui tollis peccáta mundi, miserére nobis; qui tollis peccáta mundi, súscipe deprecatiónem nostram.”

In that crystal clear isolation, I came closer to God than evermore. Perhaps it was the product of physical and mental discomfort, I do not know. But whenever someone opened the door of my cell – letting the wind and the music escape - the spell was broken. And yet, I could never resist inviting them in. I dreamt one night that I had put the nails through Christ’s hands myself. When I awoke in terror, I called a girl. Physical infatuation followed and I never felt the same frozen peace again. Lord, have mercy.

Some months later, I went to confession at an abbey. They said on the phone that I could turn up at any time and someone would hear me. I rang the bell repeatedly for ten minutes, until a man in his eighties opened the door wearing nothing but a bathrobe. I said I was here to confess. “I was asleep,” he replied. “I’m very old.” He complained about his knees throughout the confession and, at the end, said he was going back to bed. I suspect that I went home and did the same.

Ten years later, the music ends and I peel myself off the floor. Back to the kettle, back to the fridge, back to work. Tap, tap, tap, type, type, type.  The days of innocent slumber are over. A pretty memory for an ugly spring.

 
 
Picture
Caroline Lucas has stood down as head of the UK Green Party. Lucas is her party’s first and only Member of Parliament, an honor that voters nowadays rate about as highly as being “the last person to be hanged in England.” It’s a fascinating piece of trivia, but not the most flattering way to be remembered.

With Lucas gone the Greens will set about choosing a replacement in the traditional manner: whoever can eat a four course meal in a vegan restaurant and survive wins. Expect the contest to come down to a tight race between an unshaven sociology lecturer and a dolphin called Roger. Roger will win on personality.

I lived for two years in the Green Party’s political stronghold of Brighton, a seaside town on the Sussex coast. I was still a partisan Labour man back then, so I witnessed firsthand the slow decline of socialism and its eclipse by the ecology movement. The cause was demographics. Our people were dying out or couldn’t be bothered to vote. The Greens, on the other hand, benefited from the influx of middle-class professionals and students. By nature, Brighton is a working-class town (even those bits of it that are proudly gay), but gentrification took its toll in the noughties and changed its character. I lived in a Georgian dive opposite the burnt-out pier for just £650 a month. Three minutes down the road, BBC producers were forking out £2000 for a studio flat opposite an excrement-fuelled eco garden. The future was Green.

The Greens thus suited the peculiar social dynamics of Brighton - something they couldn't replicate elsewhere at a Parliamentary level. They won the seat by offering to send Labour a message from its disaffected core of middle-class sympathisers. Oddly, there was very little about that message that was green. Instead, there was a lot of classic socialist rhetoric about ending war, doubling pensions, being nice to immigrants, yadayada. It was obvious that the Greens were a catch-all for the disaffected Left; had they not existed, their place might have been taken by Respect. Lucas herself was perfectly pleasant, although it’s hard not to be when you offer the voters “the moon on a stick.” Dracula would sound nice if he promised to end dental charges.

In the course of an election, you come to hate your opponents. Usually, that’s entirely justified, but not in this instance. The green agenda is rooted in a conservatism that I’m actually very sympathetic towards: the idea that you are what you do. If you eat rubbish, you become unhealthy. If you disrespect the living space of others, you become uncivilized. If you exhaust the planet’s resources, you become hooked on money yet also impoverished. About once a month I seriously consider turning to vegetarianism; it pains me that our global economy is rooted in the cruel and senseless murder of other creatures.

The desire to conserve, to be frugal, to respect nature, to promote the Good Society above material greed – these are all conservative attributes. In its respect for the inherited earth, the Greens are perhaps the most conservative party on the ballot paper. 

And yet … no. By elevating environmentalism to a moral order, they sacrifice the freedom of the individual on the altar of the common good. When in power, bureaucracy flourishes. Poor people are fined for using the wrong bin bags and rich people are crippled by high tax rates. The folks in the middle are squeezed by lifestyle tariffs that seem determined to force us to operate within a single square mile – no flights to New York or car journeys to Cornwall. It’s a bleak outlook that swaps the pollution of Original Sin for the literal pollution of the urban space. Man is corrupt because he needs to survive, and by surviving he takes from nature and thus despoils it. Environmentalists miss the fact that we might be stewards of this Earth but we are not its servants. Eventually, we’ll move on to somewhere even better.

Then there is that cultural difference that I’ve alluded to crudely in this post – a sense that the Greens are the party of tofu and Gaia, Wicca and Quorn. Great fun if you enjoy them; but anemic and odd to those of us who are red meat and square. Conservatism is about preserving what’s good about the culture, not just the wilderness that shaped it. That’s why “heritage” – archived in churches, towns, cities, factories – is so important to the Right. To neglect or destroy these things seems foolhardy, even though some of them are built upon the insatiable exploitation of the natural world.

When I contemplate the green/conservative dilemma, I’m reminded of a moment in the movie The Shooting Party when an eccentric protestor walks in front of a volley of gunfire to halt the shooting of birds. The Lord of the Manor stops the guns and confronts the radical. He argues, “These pheasants wouldn’t have been here at all if we hadn’t hatched them, reared them. One could argue that we give them life and then, after a bit, take it away from them again – abrogating to ourselves somewhat godlike powers.” 

That makes my point about the relationship between man and his environment being rooted in necessary evil. But what happens next is equally pertinent. Studying the protestor’s manifesto, the Lord asks, “This is a very well produced pamphlet. Where do you get a thing like this printed? Is it expensive? You don't mind my asking you?” The protestor pricks up his ears and replies, “O no, not at all. I know a very good printer in Dorking, just near where I live. An excellent man of anarchistic views. He gives me very good rates.” The two men – Left and Right – find a common passion in words and debate. It’s a pithy lesson in tolerance. By competing in the public sphere, the conservative and the environmentalist can at least agree that they care about the world around them – that there is something about mankind that is still worth saving.

 
 
Picture
Britain went to the polls last week, which led to the following conversation with my mother. Me: "What did you think of the elections yesterday?" Mum: "There were elections?" Me: "Yeah." Mum: "O. I was out all day so I missed them." Whenever I want to know what the people of Britain aren’t thinking, I ask my mother. 

The old girl certainly spoke for the majority. In all the parts of the country that hosted elections on Thursday, only 32 percent of people bothered to vote. The dismal turnout was eclipsed by Labour’s landslide victory, but, as Brendan O’Neill argued in the Telegraph, it was surely the more significant story. That the British are so uninterested in politics in the middle of such a terrible recession speaks volumes about the decline of democracy. 

A few years ago, I might have been outraged. Like a lot of young people on the Left, I defined civic engagement by voting. In fact, turning out once every two years to cast a ballot for a complete stranger - who will go on to do (at best) nothing or (at worst) a lot of damage – hardly screams Citizen of the Year Award. There are countless other, better ways to improve the lives of your fellow man, of which the surest is to care for your family. You really want to create good citizens, rebuild the jobs base, and advance educational opportunity, all at no cost to other people? Try homeschooling.

But what of the argument that by not voting you lose a right to complain? It’s a magician’s misdirection. Across the West the relationship between the citizen and the state isn’t defined by voting but by paying taxes. That’s what gives you the right to complain. The citizen is rather like a consumer purchasing a car. He’s at liberty to involve himself in the process of making that car – become an engineer, buy shares in the company, vote at shareholder meetings, demonstrate outside the factory against pollutants etc. But even if he didn’t do all those things, he still has the right to complain when he lifts the bonnet of his brand new car to discover that it has no engine underneath. Why? Because he paid good money for it. As with cars, so with schools, hospitals, and even nuclear weapons.

Likewise, nothing is more irksome that the righteous MP or congressman who tells us that we have lost all right to complain about potholes or wars because we didn’t vote for or against them. Maybe the apathetic citizen didn’t vote for them, but he sure as heck paid for them – and that’s his mandate to moan. If we could come to some arrangement by which nonvoters could abstract themselves altogether from the farce that is modern government, then perhaps voting would reassert itself as a true act of civic-minded volunteerism. Democracy for the engaged; anarchy for the self-contained. Let’s call it “pay to play.”

I’m not anti-politics. On the contrary, I spend 90 percent of my life with a laptop on my lap writing about it. I’ve probably lost my fertility in the great cause of exposing Barack Obama’s insatiable appetite for dog meat. But my interest has shifted from partisan politics to the realm of ideas.

Show me a good thought and I’ll give it column inches. If it seems sometimes like I’m a schill for the American Right, it’s because they have the most interesting ideas at the moment. Be it their critique of the media, their emphasis upon constitutionality, or their concern for marrying the temporal and the spiritual, they never fail to fascinate. Among them, the most coherent (and therefore, from an academic point of view, most useful) is Ron Paul. That’s why I’ve written so much about him: he’s intellectually lively, consistent, engaging, and pure.

Conversely, my taste for big ideas is why I find it tougher to write either about the American Left or the diminishing spectrum of British politics. I was unmoved by the London mayoral contest – a battle between two personalities rather than contrasting philosophies. What differences there were had to be teased out, and they all typically came down to a few pence here, a couple of policemen there, and a refurbished sewer. All very important to people who consume whatever services the mayor controls but not the stuff that feeds the soul. Not enough to climb a barricade for. And not, in the opinion of 62 percent of Londoners, even worthy of a ten minute detour to the polling station. The silence of two thirds of the electorate was far louder than the applause for Boris Johnson when he won the final count.

Perhaps it’s time for a retreat from national democracy, for a return to the politics of the private sphere. This could translate into a greater emphasis upon individual or community activism. But most of all it should mean a revival of coffee house, salon culture. Away from the ceaseless mudslinging and name calling, we need a quieter, sophisticated debate about ideas. We’ve allowed politicians to set the tone of political debate for too long.