Aidan Ward
Aug 15 · 10 min read
Don’t go bananas

When Tony Blair said “education, education, education”, what did we hear and what did he mean? Did he mean that he was so much cleverer than us that he could sell us messages like WMD? Did he mean that he knew and we didn’t? Did we hear a leader?

Maybe a majority of people now have chronic cognitive dissonance. They hear public statements from prominent people and they know something is wrong with what is said even if they can’t articulate what it is. People may even have a sense that the dross is coming to the surface of public life: people who are simply not morally, intellectually, or emotionally fit are dominating the discourse.[1]

In this blog I want to argue that this is a necessary phase of the shift in public life.

Let me describe an example personal to me, so that this is not just a rant about politics. I offered some radical criticism of the RSA Food and Farming Commission, directly to Sue Pritchard who led it. I told her that the RSA was too establishment to do this project which requires confronting both Public Health policy and confronting the agricultural establishment, which of course is intimately tied in via land ownership to the entrenched political establishment in the UK. The project skirted round the issues, never consulted me and when I tweeted my sense of disappointment said I was picking the wrong fight and I had not read the report, which last is true! I was feeling a little uncertain and bruised, but then Sue Pritchard tweeted about people consuming fewer calories in the future: what a gift! If there is one phrase that shows in a nutshell that someone really hasn’t understood anything in this field, it is believing that calories are a thing.[2] I rest my case.

I watched the quite wonderful film Life and Debt, about the Jamaican experience, all set to Bob Marley. There was a talking head from the IMF, so articulate, so confident, so seemingly benevolent about what is best for countries like Jamaica. The film juxtaposes, of course, the actual experience of those policies, and more importantly the context that generated them. No third world country ever benefited from an IMF or World Bank structural adjustment programme. Equivalently, every programme produced huge benefits to the US corporates that asked for them. This is precisely the flow of money from the poor, destitute even, to the rich: from the third world to the first. I come from a colonial power and am an indirect beneficiary of the rape.

One example that was dwelt on, because it was Jamaica, was bananas. Banana growers in Jamaica had a special deal with the EU. The actual Jamaica producers of bananas pointed out that USA does not grow bananas. But Chiquita and Dole who dominate world production, using essentially forced labour in central America, wanted to end that relationship in order to consolidate their monopoly. The race to the bottom, disgusting and totally inhuman. Development and trade: cognitive dissonance gone bananas.

The presentation of politics

It matters who speaks. If a suave and persuasive banker from the IMF says something. If Trump says the same thing. When Trump says something, the scarcely hidden and sometimes blatantly present subtext is pretty clear. We know that the logic of the statement is there simply to provide some minimal plausibility to the audience of Fox News. We know that if we believe it for a moment we are being played.

When we watch and hear public figures speaking now, we hardly hear what it is they are literally saying. We are watching the eyes and the body language, paying attention to the context of the statement: why this, why now, what is not said, who is lurking behind it? This is not at all the same thing as a decline in trust.

Trust is not the issue. The issue is that, because this is public discourse, we need to know what the real issues are, which we know are no longer in the literal content. Some commentators are alive to this shift but many are not, thinking their job is to analyse what is said and to check the “facts”. These commentators, while worthy, are several steps behind their public.

A popular TV series that deals with this shift is Les Hommes de l’Ombres, men of the shadows, translated as “SPIN”. The multiple meanings of the plays that the characters make emerge slowly during a series so that you don’t even know who has most successfully played everyone else off until the end. The chief character is a spin doctor or PR chief for the government in Paris, but all the characters are exploiting public opinion is some way or another.

What produces the shift in the way people listen is the simple evidence that they get no information out of a Boris speech or out of a Trump tweet taken literally, and they do get possibly important information out of what elsewhere is called metadata: when it was said, where it was said, what preceded it in the news cycle, etc. Trump is not about to condemn a white nationalist gunman, so no-one listens for the nature of the excuses he gives.[3] But there may be a nuance of the agendas that he is being required to dance to.

I am not sure whether people read Erving Goffman anymore. His Strategic Interaction from 1970 deals with this dance of moves and meaning. Some of his key cases are from WW2, where incredibly elaborate schemes were set up to mislead enemy intelligence.[4] This is the territory we are in, and not many players seem up to the mark. Their notions about what other people will see and believe are half-baked and hubristic.

Why is this trend important?

If the stuff of public discourse is overwhelmingly diversionary and not about what it claims to be about, then the discourse that will reclaim legitimate and necessary debate is elsewhere. Of course, if the key players are never on the actual field, the game that matters is being played elsewhere. You could illustrate this with Brexit: for all its corruption and faults, the EU is somewhat engaged with the real global politics that matters to the UK. Brexit politicians are only involved in attempted diversionary tactics to “deliver” a goal they will never be honest about. At some point, maybe after the damage is done, the entire roadshow moves on and leaves them behind: the dynamics indicate it cannot be otherwise.

This can get quite philosophical — how can politics not be about politics? I once claimed on the Preventable Surprises website with the excellent Raj Thamotheram that one global scenario was that the world of finance simply floated free of the world of real economic activity and became an entirely derivative casino. Similarly, the world of what we think of as politics, aided and abetted by the media circus, consumes its own tail and becomes distracting without dealing with any of the notional content issues it pretends to debate. Arguably there has been no politics of any application in the UK for three years now.

The positive comes in the radicalisation: the organic, deep, grounded realisation that I have a better grip on what is happening than any politician or commentator. No pride or hubris in that just the dawning understanding that I am on my own without anyone I can have a real conversation with. That last point about discourse partners is particularly disturbing I find: people who I thought were well connected and well informed find themselves unable to finally distance from the circus: they want to be players in the visible game not the real game and are not prepared to own that choice.[5]

An image for this is perhaps the long years of the Samizdat in Russia: painfully real decisions about who is to be trusted in establishing a discourse about what is actually going on.[6] Forget revolutionary ideals: this is simply about sanity and an ability to see a world whose representations have been hijacked.

And round again

Sue Pritchard at the RSA sees herself as radical and challenging the world of big food. She thinks that I need to be onside for her fight, such as it is. My problem is that her stated agenda is that people should eat more vegetables and legumes. This is an agenda that has received backing from the likes of the Wellcome Foundation and WHO, but also from big food itself. My understanding is that people trying to follow such a diet end up malnourished and eating too much processed food.

When I look at the metadata, the position taken by the commission is somewhere between complicit and positively stinking. I haven’t read the report because I know not to get drawn into the sort of “scientific” discourse that is all about providing plausible cover for bad ideas. I really don’t need to spend my time there.[7]

When we are grounded and in touch with our place in the ecosystem, we discover that the right arguments fall into place without too much effort. When we have been bought without our knowing, we find that nothing fits. It takes a lot of internal strength and honesty to follow through on this heuristic. But watching other people embarrass themselves is reasonable training in understanding what fits and what doesn’t.

The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again your reason for being. Someone says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you redefine and rediscover artistic merit. Someone says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge them up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing. Toni Morrison

It is not up to me to join a destructive and distracting discourse because someone says that is what matters. It is not up to me to take sides in a pseudo-discourse that doesn’t mean anything. It is up to me to know my own work and to do it. People can pay attention to my work, or not. They can join in discourse I find more grounded, or not. But there is no excuse for me wasting my time and in doing so selling everyone down the river. Moderation is no longer a thing.[8] It is fatal.

It is really hard for people to hear this message. They assume that someone who won’t debate the nominal issues is being arrogant or forceful or otherwise non-collaborative. That in turn closes them down. How to indicate that there is common ground available but not in the pseudo-debate, about Brexit or anything else? What is happening is more like an interrogation technique than a discussion.

We have rehearsed before the approach. Big oil making sure the research on climate change is thoroughly muddied. Tobacco giving themselves a few more decades of giving people lung cancer. Big food making in still OK to sell people sugar and soda. There is a playbook, there are experts, there are tried and tested techniques that work on a timescale of decades. Engaging them costs you money, energy, and time that you don’t have. It is not about the pseudo debate and moderation is not OK. Not moderate cigarettes, not moderate sugar, not moderate new oil pipelines.[9] It represents a victory for evil.

When David Graeber was involved in the organisation of Occupy Wallstreet, the standard complaint of the press was that the Occupy movement did not have any coherent demands. Precisely and necessarily so, as Graeber explains. To join the non-debate is to allow the villains to waste your time and energy and to grind you down. Real coherence consists in not being drawn in, in understanding the tactics of the game.

[1] In many social interactions, the less evolved approaches dominate. Nonetheless, gives me an excuse to quote Isaac Asimov as Salvor Hardin, “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

[2] Of course, calories are a thing — in physics — they’re a unit of measure of energy. But they have nothing to do with nutrition, certainly not in the ways that standard thinking imagines that they do.

[3] Though, in actual words, he roundly and promptly condemned white nationalists, if you read the transcripts. It’s also interesting how much airtime such groups get, given that membership estimates of KKK and similar USA groups total no more than about ten thousand. “The KKK is really small. They could all stay in the same hotel with a bunch of free rooms left over. Or put another way: the entire membership of the KKK is less than the daily readership of this blog.” So the anti-Trumpers are also skilled at bigging up the enemy and tarring with brushes…

[4] Have you heard the one about the Italian sailor and the Normandy Landings?

[5] Since we’re on philosophy and games, a good place to mention James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. “Whoever must play, cannot play.

[6] Kolmogorov walked this line successfully during the Stalinist period, when forbidden truths could be known but not expressed.

[7] Yes, I know, you’re horrified. But you literally cannot engage with the content and avoid it affecting your understanding of the context.

[8] Indeed, students at US universities now routinely refuse to host even moderately controversial speakers. On the one hand I’m sympathetic, because it’s the only way to avoid the content. On the other hand, I’m skeptical that their actions are in service of better thinking, rather than knee-jerk tribalism without reflection…

[9] The moderate’s mantra: “a bit of what you fancy does you good”. Except that it doesn’t.


Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

Aidan Ward

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Serious topics, gently treated. A collaboration by Aidan Ward and Philip Hellyer.

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