Why?

Comfort_logo28 March 2017

“Why, Daddy?”
I can remember, when I was a parent of young children, how challenging this question could sometimes be. And how easy it was to get irritated, not by the question or the questioner, but by my own inability to answer, to explain some of the bizarre and – frankly – stupid things that grown-ups did. It was easier to use trite phrases like “Just why!” or “You’ll understand when you’re older”, particularly if we were on a crowded bus and there was an audience eager to hear “how I was going to get out of that one.” Particularly if the question had to do with where babies come from or why we weren’t now speaking to Uncle Fred. “I don’t know” didn’t really cut it.
Yet those pure questions are full of the wisdom of innocence, fabulous gifts for our rationale or our conscience to work on, fuel for our decision-making if we choose to use it.
I’m struck how important “Why?” is now. It is so easy to react against people, events, statements and actions, to go into that place in ourselves which is filled with anger and fear, which consumes all of us and stops us from seeing and hearing anything beyond our own hurt. And it’s absolutely natural; we are momentarily all-consumed by the pain when we stub a toe or twist an ankle but then, after the initial shock, we have a choice. We can be angry that this has happened to us or we can ask ourselves why we fell over or bumped into something, why we briefly lost our concentration or dropped our guard. We probably won’t learn much from the first reaction, we may from the second. We can reinforce the anger/fear in us or we can appreciate the learning.
When 9/11 happened and the world was changed forever, I was desperately sad for those who lost their lives and I shared the sense of disbelief and outrage that engulfed the US. After a while I asked myself: as a developed, seemingly civilised society, what had we done, what had the Americans done to make it possible for someone to conceive, justify, plan and execute such a dreadful act? What had we done to be so hated? How had we co-created this cruelty? Why had this happened?
It wasn’t possible, I felt, to simply retreat into the briefly comforting shell of anger, or to occupy the reactive high-ground with our eyes tight shut to the causations. Nor was hitting back going to solve the underlying problem, the fundamental issues that were the cause. We needed to “why?” the situation, to dig deep into what we had perhaps contributed to birthing that searing, messianic anger.
Now we have other situations to ply with that simple but essential question. Why? Why is Syria being destroyed? Where did the lineage of hatred come from that is fuelling that ghastly situation? Can we trace it back to Imperial interference in the Middle East in the 20th Century. Or the shame heaped in Germany after the First World War? Should we go back as far as Ishmael and Issac?
Why did the UK vote to BREXIT? What really lay behind the (actually quite narrow) majority to leave the EU? Can we reliably blame the anxiety over immigration or is there really a deeper disquiet, a distrust of the so-called Westminster Elite? How was it that Farage was able to so thoroughly spook Cameron into calling for a Referendum that clearly he wasn’t prepared for unless it returned the status quo? Why weren’t we doing something about the underlying causes before the Referendum, rather than leaving it to a misinformed electorate to knee-jerk in an ill-prepared plan to undo decades of development and co-operation? Why?
Meanwhile, across the pond, following a telling mirroring of our own, UK pre-occupations, is it enough to dismiss Trump’s win as the result of an electorate fearful for its future, bitter at the dereliction of disappeared opportunity, new and unfamiliar societal changes, and anger at the political establishment that encouraged the disintegration of old, American Dream “certainties” in the face of opportunist globalisation? Can we leave it there?
I think not. We have to go deeper. We have to get beyond the fury – stoked up every day passing the lines of empty, abandoned factories and homes on the way to the corner store. We have to ignore the easily inflated indignation of a media desperate to maintain ratings and readership.
Curiosity – purposeful curiosity which informs, as opposed to idle curiosity which sometimes merely titillates – is one of our most valuable human qualities.
Curiosity can lead to a thirst for knowledge, for understanding. In turn, this can lead to respect and – perhaps – compassion. Maybe compassion is the route to reducing our fear and its companion anger.
So even if we don’t fully understand the causations, the hurt that leads to cruelty, at least we could search for a better and less destructive way of reacting to hatred, perhaps we could learn from those it is so easy to call our enemies, perhaps we could look at and maybe heal our own hurt.
So I’m for curiosity. Particularly if it leads to more wisdom. As Franklin D Roosevelt once said: “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” His words are perhaps prescient just now, as the world faces some hard choices ahead.

Be well

Max

Random Acts of Kindness

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It feels as though there is a lot of unkindness around at the moment. Trump is being horrid to Hilary (and other women), MEPs are seemingly slogging it out in Brussels, and some of us here in the United (soon to be Isolated) Kingdom have allowed our fears for our uncertain futures to become prejudice against our friends and colleagues from Europe. This makes me sad. So what can I do about it? What positivity can I personally inject into an increasingly toxic and confused situation?

Let’s turn to an expert. When asked what his religion was, His Holiness the Dalai Lama replied: “Kindness”.

So I’m going to try to be kinder and less judgemental. To just allow things to be and not get all puffed up about how “wrong” they are. To accept that even if people are acting really stupidly or with anger, I don’t need to interact with that part of them, but instead seek the bits of them that are loving and compassionate. Perhaps look out as well for the bits of them that are hurting. This isn’t going to be easy! The older I get, the shorter my fuse. But I’ll do my best.

Where to start? Maybe just smile at people. I don’t mean leering, just a quick, friendly image of friendliness. Smiles bring out the best in peoples’ features; even an apparently plain face becomes beautiful when it wears a smile, particularly a loving one. Smiles are not hampered by the inadequacy of language, nor held back by rationality. They just are, pure and simple.

We’ve all noticed, I’m sure, that whilst out walking in the lovely Cotswolds – and elsewhere in Nature – people actually say “Hi!” when you pass them on the bridleway. Occasionally, a conversation might happen. I don’t think this would be the case in Stroud High Street, let alone on the London Tube, despite the encouraging badges. So how about we start a trend?  We say “Hi!” to complete strangers in our respective metropolises, accompanied naturally with a smile. Perhaps beginning with 5 a day – like fruit and veg for our bodies, this could be good for our souls.

Here’s another – seasonal – thought: some years ago, at the Findhorn Foundation leading up to Christmas, a group of us played a game called “Angels and Mortals”. Some 25 people put their names into a hat and then drew a name out randomly, not divulging who they had drawn. They became a secret Angel for that person, finding out about their needs and desires, then answering those needs anonymously. A book someone had wanted would mysteriously turn up on their doorstep, a friend they had lost touch with would suddenly make contact, or an envelope with tickets for a concert would drop onto the mat. It wasn’t about spending lots of money, but it was about spending lots of goodwill.

The great bonus for the Angel was getting to know their Mortal better, as a kind of invisible networking went on, with careful questions asked of their friends and family, discrete digging into their recent past. And, of course, excitement mounted as the Christmas holiday approached; “Who could my Angel be?”, “Has my Mortal guessed yet?” Then, at a festive party, the Angelic host revealed itself to itself, with much hilarity and gratitude, incredulity as to how secret aspirations were uncovered, congratulations on the clever research ruses adopted and the lengths undertaken to conceal Angels’ identities.

Of course, Kindness can be effective in less exciting ways too. Sometimes it’s enough just being with someone regularly, being consistent, listening, watching out for how they are feeling, intuiting perhaps what they may be going through. Not judging, not trying to “fix” things – just being a friendly and undemanding witness.

And while we’re considering Kindness, it would be good to see how we could extend it to include other sentient beings. It doesn’t cost us anything more to be kind to animals; we could perhaps refrain from buying meat that has been reared in cruel conditions, we could encourage our children not to pull the wings off bluebottles, or we could reflect on the last few weeks in the life of a foie gras duck and choose an alternative Yuletide treat.

Finally, I’d welcome examples of random – or premeditated – acts of Kindness, both because it would be good to know that they are happening, and as an inspiration to others to follow suit, to take up the habit.

 

Be happy!

 

Max

Fluffing up the Fluff

Comfort_logo2I promised you some thoughts on money, so here goes…

I guess the first question is: where did money come from?

Money developed as a medium of exchange. Barter wasn’t always convenient – goods may have been seasonal and available at different times – there was no “coincidence of wants”. Around 9000BC, to get around the problem, people started trading in “commodity money”, initially cattle, camels, grain and cowry shells.

Coins started around 700BC, with gold and silver the most common metals used, often minted by the current ruler in an early form of monarchic brand management, reminding the users who was boss every time they bought a flagon of best Malmsey or a bushel of olives. After Charles I seized £200,000 worth of private gold stored in the Royal Mint in 1640, merchants found it safer to stash their bullion in the vaults of goldsmiths and jewellers, who thus became the first bankers. They issued notes confirming the amount of the deposit and soon these notes began to be used instead of the coins. Providing they trusted the banks, merchants and shops were happy to take the notes.

Realising that they could issue these notes against the security of the coinage they were looking after and which, increasingly, wasn’t being used, the bankers started lending notes and charging interest. The coins stayed in the vault, as collateral. Now they knew they were onto a winner, the banks started issuing more credit notes than they had coins for, and control of the nation’s currency passed from the government and its coins, to the bankers and their seemingly unlimited notes. The banks had acquired the power to create money. Which is where we are now, with 97% of the money in the economy created by banks, and a mere 3% by the government.

Which is why most money doesn’t exist. It’s merely froth created by the banks. Made out of thin air. Here’s how they do it: when a bank makes a loan it creates a line of credit, temporarily on loan from the bank. Once the loan is paid back, the line of credit – and the “money” – disappears and meanwhile the bank has made a profit from the interest charged on the loan. So they want to lend as much as possible when people are able to pay them back; when they are not able to, the banks don’t lend. Sound familiar? Ten years ago, the banks got over-confident, didn’t properly check on peoples’ ability to repay their debts, particularly “sub-prime” mortgage interest payments, and precipitated the great crash of 2007. So Northern Rock came a cropper in September that year, as its customers lost confidence in its ability to give them their money, there was a “run on the bank” and the British taxpayer picked up the tab.

The froth flies in one direction only, with customers repaying their loans with real money, money that represents energy expended, real endeavour. The banks have thus achieved what centuries of alchemic endeavour has so far failed to do: to create something out of nothing.

And of course banks quite understandably want security against big loans, usually property. What’s interesting though, is that the value of this property depends almost entirely on confidence, the confidence we have in its value not just holding but increasing, the same confidence that underpins pretty much everything we do in the economic sphere – the value of shares, unlimited growth, permanent supplies of natural resources etc. And what underpins confidence? Optimism? Right. That shaky, Micawberish faith that either “something will turn up” or posterity will pick up the tab – sometime. Scary how insubstantial this is as a basis for sustainable human evolution. Amazing how quickly confidence can switch from high to low, how much fear lurks behind either mood.

How close we all sail to that Lorelei Rock of loss or liquidity – like it or not, as most of us don’t have a hand on the tiller.  That siren call is for those creating and then selling a dream most of us can only imagine, a dream that pushes the present far into the future, contaminating it for all time with a fearful confidence, and neatly dispensing with responsibility.

And even more extraordinarily, this funny money, this froth, is traded as a commodity, just like sugar, copper, oil and other real staples. Fantasy finance! We now have HFT, high frequency trading, or algorithmic trading, using superbly sophisticated techno tools and algorithms to speed up trades, making buying and selling decisions automatically and far more rapidly than a mere mortal. Frothing up the froth.

And here’s the killer realisation: in calling for all debts to be written off, Will Self, that brilliant commentator on our all-consuming, consumerist, image-fixated, technology driven world, points out that the $199 trillion of world debt is entirely founded on the sands of expectation; that “…mortgages, bank loans, government bond issues, they all work on the basis that in the years to come, our heirs will continue not simply to work and innovate, but also to extract the world’s natural resources as much, if not more, as we’ve done historically.” He calls this “[an] advance drawn on the future” and talks of our refusal to accept the true economic – and by extension political – fault line running through our society: “…the divergence in interests [lying] between the old and the young”.

So the can gets kicked further down that yellow brick road and, like Pilate, we can wash our hands as the world bleeds.

Next time I might venture into the chaotic, confusing world of largely unregulated commerce. Or I might not, opting instead for something altogether more pleasing and real.

Go well!

 

Max

Child Abuse

Comfort_logo2I promised you some thoughts on branding babies so here’s an extract from my soon to be published book “Who Needs a Proper Job Anyway?”.  It challenges creative types about to leave academe to be proactive in co-creating a future that is based on responsibility, compassion, kindness and sustainability for all.  It argues against “business as usual”, namely commerce which exploits people and planet, which is based on kicking the US$199 trillion debt can down the street for future generations to sort out, and which promises an unattainable dream in order to accumulate vast wealth for an unscrupulous few.

In researching for the book I wanted to set out some of the practices I was keen for my readers to avoid.  Marketing and the power of brands loomed large in this investigation, marketing as in taking advantage of and – at worst – abusing babies and young children.  Don’t believe me?  Read on.

The word “brand” comes from the Norse “to burn” and, reading some of the eager pronouncements of professional marketeers and brand consultants, you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing much had changed, that just as cattle are branded with hot irons to establish ownership, so too some large corporations seek to “brand” us with an invisible but equally effective mark of ownership, a form of brain-washing far more potent than the archetypal Soviet model, since it is largely self-inflicted and we are hardly aware of it.

It starts very young.  A study in Adweek Magazine stated that by age 3, children in the US can recognise 100 different brands.  A telling quote: “Babies don’t distinguish between reality and fantasy, so they (companies) think ‘Let’s get them while they’re susceptible’”.  Jim McNeal, ex Professor of Marketing at Texas A&M University, says: “Kids become brand conscious at about 24 months.  Many kids can write the “M” for McDonalds before they can write their name.”  Rachel Geller of youth-oriented New York ad agency The Geppetto Group – boldly boasting that they can introduce their clients to The Youth Mindset – says: “There’s lots of evidence that the brands you are emotionally connected to as a child you remain connected to as an adult.”

Other market consultants recognise that brand loyalties and consumer habits that are formed when children are young and vulnerable will be carried through to adulthood.  The CEO of Prism Communications noted “…they aren’t children so much as what I like to call ‘evolving consumers’” and Toy’R Us President Mike Searles was quoted as saying: “If you own this child at an early age… you can own this child for years to come.”  A Ford executive apparently claimed: “Car branding indirectly happens at every stage of life…  Ford’s goal is to be there at every stage of the consumer’s life.  The earlier the better.”

Whole conferences are devoted to this stuff: one such held in New York in 2000 and entitled “Play-Time, Snack-Time, Tot-Time: Targeting Pre-Schoolers and their Parents”, aimed to help delegates “…create brand loyalty at an early age that will be remembered for generations” and included workshops on how to market to pre-school children and how to research their wants and needs.  According to media critic Douglas Rushkoff, “The fresh neurons of young brains are valuable mental real estate to admen.  By seeding their products early, the marketeers can do more than just develop brand recognition; they can literally cultivate a demographic’s sensibilities as they are formed.”

Which I imagine is why companies sell “…nursing linens, mobiles and crib toys decorated with brand logos or images of licensed characters…” so as to teach babies their brand logo before they can even say them.  In the 1990s, PepsiCo introduced a range of nipple-topped baby bottles adorned with 7 Up, Dr Peppers and of course Pepsi logos, in the hope that mothers would feed their infants and babies soft drinks and – yes – start their branding education.

So basically it’s open season on young minds, on sensitive and innocent “mental real estate”.  Surely this is another form of child abuse?

And while we’re talking about abuse, let’s not forget that it’s not just young minds in the crosshairs – young developing bodies are also targets on the corporate firing range.  Through the clever use of branding, food companies can also build taste preferences and brand loyalty early in children, preferences and loyalty for sweet drinks and unhealthy food which can last for the rest of their lives.  Tim Lobstein of the World Obesity Federation says in a paper published in the Lancet that “Fat children are an investment in future sales…” and goes on to claim that getting kids to eat badly and more than they need is worth some $20bn a year in the US alone.

Make you worry?  Make you angry?  It does me.

Next time we’ll talk about money, and the fact that most of it doesn’t really exist, that it’s so much fluff, created by banks to maximise profits. Really clever stuff this!

 

Go well!

 

Max

What’s the point of school?

Comfort_logo2This is me re-entering the bloggersphere after a few years in the wild.  I’m hoping for a reasonably soft landing.  Last time I blogged it was about working from home.  You know the kind of thing: sitting in a shed at the bottom of the garden, procrastinating (the washing up was never so exciting as then), keeping the cats off the keyboard and naked typing.  (Well, there’s no need to dress if you’re not going to the office, is there?).

Now, having given up naked typing (the faux leatherette of the command post really sticks to your bum) I’m into reflecting on issues around work, why we do it, what it can do to us, what we can do for the world through our work and other existential questions.  Having gone (rather dramatically) through my midlife crisis and missed my quarter life one (it hadn’t been invented then) I’m quite looking forward to the three quarter life version (the latest lifestyle must-have I’m told, along with work:life imbalance and Pilates).  I’m not exactly sure what it will entail but I’m determined to make the most of it when it arrives.  I’m pretty certain it will include some wrath on my part as there is actually quite a lot to be wrathful about.

We could start with education.  And the fundamental question: what’s it for?  Is it designed to mould young people into shapes that fit the mass-consumerism based, image-fixated, corporately manipulated and technologically wound up way of life we’ve allowed to expand exponentially and envelop us?   Is it intended to equip them for the battle for the “good life” we’ve been told to aspire to, to help them get ahead of others in the great race to…who knows where?  Or is it to give them the confidence to be who they are, charting their own course, following their passion, their integrity and their innate sense of morality?

I’m really glad I went to a school where the individuality of the child was paramount, where the teachers’ energy went into growing my talents rather than shaping me for some pre-ordained structure.   I’m also hugely indebted to my parents who, although both committed non-conformists and resolutely in agreement on the education they wanted for me, could never see eye to eye on anything much else not to conform to.  Thus I was also well schooled in the art of hearing both sides of an argument, exercising diplomacy and dispensing large quantities of oil.

So I’m increasingly struck by the thought: what is my responsibility to young people?  Having seen huge changes in the way we organise ourselves in society, but also witnessed how often familiar attitudes and their concomitant mantras come round again over the years (the NHS is a great example of this constant recycling of temporary “wisdom” and fleeting orthodoxy), I feel challenged to find a way of tempering the excitement of the new and its rapidly evolving toy box with experiences from the past and the many lessons that can be learned from what we tend to call mistakes.   And mistakes that we rarely seem to have time to fully understand, losing in the rush to the new the opportunity to apply the insights and realisations they bring   Such is this scramble for novelty, our conviction is that progress can only happen in forward gear.  One of my more sensible crazy ideas is the establishment of a University of Unintended Consequences where, for perhaps a year, we would give time to learning about ours and other peoples’ supposed screw-ups, we would test the current definition of success and find ways of using “failures” to help in the fight against conformity and the bullying of the markets.  (Don’t get me started on branding babies – that’s for later!).

Anyway, before I begin to either bore you rigid or annoy you, I’ll stop and just say I hope you’ll give me feedback on the above.  I hope too that you will disagree as well as agree.  I believe that it’s increasingly essential to debate honestly and robustly what we intend with our education systems, what kind of people we want to welcome into the complex and challenging adult world, so I’d really welcome your ideas.

More in early September.

Take Care!

Max