“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? I’d like–”
“It’s ‘If a body meet a body coming through the rye’!” old Phoebe said. “It’s a poem. By Robert Burns.”
“I know it’s a poem by Robert Burns.”
She was right, though. It is “If a body meet a body coming through the rye.” I didn’t know it then, though.
“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” I said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”
I’ve been put in mind of this this morning. Complicated emotions of feeling complicit in something that just should not be and not knowing what’s best to do: to leave it or to fight.
Today is the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow – this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Finally, here is the hat Abraham Lincoln wore on the night of his assassination.
John Gray’s writing is challenging. It makes difficult points about doctrines we as humans hold of humankind – our progress, our religion, our place in the universe – and does so in a straightforward way.
For example, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals, we have:
Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream.
Gray’s main point in this and his other books is that we are bound by our nature to repeat mistakes of the past. What’s worse, we think we have the capacity to get better, to improve, to progress, when history shows we have no such capacity.
Human progress is no such thing.
His argument has developed a little since Straw Dogs, in recognising that some forms of progress have indeed happened – in science and technology, for example. But he notes that the knowledge we gain from the recurring dilemmas of ethics and politics is not cumulative in the way it is in science. Instead, we are not capable of learning from past experiences of previously attempted solutions.
Gray concludes that we will not be different in future from how we have always been. Further, he argues that to think of progress as leading towards a future, attainable goal is wrong:
History shows history to have no goal.
But in this there is the possibility of freedom – a freedom that comes from the world having, in fact, no meaning. Thus, if there is nothing it “opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves”, and that we can be “liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made”.
This is a similar point to the one made by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. He concludes we must find Sisyphus, a man “condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight”, happy. Camus says:
Sisyphus’s passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing… I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.
Many find John Gray’s writing pessimistic. I find it redemptive, and recommend to you his work.
A beautiful short film has been produced by MadeGood films on “The Art of Repair”. It captures the trade and ethos of people who repair various objects – instruments, cars, electricals and upholstery – and reflects traditions of making old items new again and countering built-in obsolescence.
Richard Sennett dedicates a section of his book, Together: the rituals, pleasures & politics of cooperation to repair. He notes there are three ways to perform repair:
- Restoration: making a damaged object seem just like new
- Remediation: improving its operation
- Reconfiguration: altering it altogether
Restoration is relatively straightforward: in making something as it once was; it is the business of the craftsmen of “The Art of Repair”.
Remediation is far more interesting. Sennett concludes that it
challenges the repairer to consider different means to achieving the same end.
Remediation is therefore a process by which the function of something is maintained whilst the elements of the form it takes can be changed. To do this requires two types of judgment: the first to know what alternatives can replace existing parts, the second to know how resilient the object being repaired is and so how much change it can take before it becomes something different or breaks.
Sennett calls reconfiguration the most “radical” kind of repair. In such cases the breaking of the object presents an opportunity to create a new object, in both form and function. As there are two judgments in undertaking remediation well, so there are two risks in reconfiguration: curtailing the room for exploration by being too specific in what the reconfiguration should achieve, or forgetting what the problem to be solved was in the first place.
Repair – and particularly remediation and reconfiguration – offers a useful frame for considering a range of issues. A natural one to think of is some type of public service.
If a service is subject to remediation, then the purpose and aim of the service may still hold but the means by which this is achieved need to change. In undertaking this change there is a need for knowledge on what alternatives there are, how effective they might and whether, politically and Politically, the location of the change is resilient enough to consider the alternatives and act sufficiently well on them.
If a service is subject to reconfiguration, there is recognition that what currently exists isn’t working, and so there’s a need for something different. In this case, the two general risks of reconfiguration translate as follows. First, too much of what anything new should look like can be specified in advance. Many would argue the commissioning-procurement-provider triangle does precisely this, resulting in rigid contractual relationships that sometimes hit the target but regularly miss the point. Second, forgetting what aim a service exists for can be forgotten in favour of maintaining the service. The service is the means and end in itself, and its aim – and the people it serves – can be forgotten.
To give an example of repair and public services, many engaged in debates on the health reforms of the last 3 years may find meaning in Sennett’s own conclusion on repair:
An incoherent repair can provide the sensation of change but may sacrifice the value of the initial act of creation.
I, too, found much in one of Sennett’s earlier paragraphs – relevant, I think, to social movements and campaigning:
In fighting against resistance we will become more focused on getting rid of the problem than on understanding what it is; by contrast, when working with resistance we want to suspend frustration at being blocked, and instead engage with the problem in its own right.
Today, 6 November, is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election as President of the United States.
Here’s how he ended his first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
Then there’s Baudelaire, whose subjective life consisted of inner, sudden, short illuminations and whose social self was rigid, contained and unresponsive.
I like Baudelaire.
If there is also an inherent disjunction between the ideals on which the nation is [built] and the imperatives of effective government, imperatives which require the capacity to coerce and discipline the undecided and faint of heart, then effective leadership, especially at the executive level, must be capable of benign deception.
And if the political culture claims to derive its authority from popular opinion, which is by definition divided over the contested questions of the day, then leadership must at least appear to be followship, and the knack of political survival requires the skill to use language in ways that permit different constituencies to hear what they are listening for.
From American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (p361).
There is an excellent column from Ed Smith in this week’s New Statesman.
His central thesis is that people (very often politicians) talking or writing simply often have messages that are, deliberately, saying something that is anything but simple.
As Smith notes of political spin:
It aspires to replace awkward complexities with catchy simplicity. Successful spin does not leave the effect of skillful persuasiveness; it creates the impression of unavoidable common sense.
Indeed it does. Many is the time a radio interview or newspaper article frustrates the heck out of me for the way they try to reduce a complex policy or political issue to a line or two.
Smith rightly calls on Shakespeare to re-emphasize the point, reminding us that Iago
is often seen as an honest and blunt man… [He] is believed because he seems to talk in simple truths.
But as Iago himself mentions, and as it’s always worth keeping in mind when a complex issue is presented by someone as a case of “common sense”:
I am not what I am.
Karl Wilding – a brilliant and ridiculously nice man – recently tweeted:
It seems a bit of an indictment of where we've got to with designing services when 'human centred' is claimed as a new/novel characteristic—
Karl Wilding (@karlwilding) January 27, 2013
Karl’s is such a straightforward observation that belies how odd thinking about public services and the quest for innovation or newness is.
This reflection was further proven by this brief part of the Federalist Paper 73, where Publius (actually Alexander Hamilton) wrote the following in his discussion of the Executive branch’s powers over the Legislature:
The oftener the measure is brought under examination, the greater the diversity in the situations of those who are to examine it, the less must be the danger of those errors which flow from want of due deliberation, or of those missteps which proceed from the contagion of some common passion or interest.
It is far less probable, that culpable views of any kind should infect all the parts of the government at the same moment and in relation to the same object[.]
I’ve read many justifications and reasons for coproduction in public services. Hamilton’s two sentences above serve as one of the best there is, and was written in March 1788.