The right to roam

“In Sweden, they call it allemansrätt,” says Ken Ilgunas. In Finland, it’s jokamiehenoikeus; in Scotland, “the right to roam”. In these countries, you’re free to walk almost anywhere you want. Not so in America. In rural areas of the US you see “no trespassing” signs everywhere. It wasn’t always thus. When the US began, everyone was free to walk or hunt where they liked – a right “cherished by early Americans because it distinguished them from the English, whose aristocracy held exclusive hunting rights”. But this freedom started being curtailed in the late 19th century. “In the South, states passed trespassing laws for racial reasons, seeking to keep blacks from hunting and fishing so as to starve them into submission.” Elsewhere, rich landowners simply sought to exclude outsiders. Modern laws making landowners responsible if someone gets hurt on their property have made things worse. Hikers can still head to national parks, of course, but that’s no good for “people longing for a stroll from their front door”. The US needs to change the law to address this. Its citizens might become less sedentary if they could amble over fields rather than having to stick to dangerous roads. “Walking across the so-called freest country on Earth should be everyone’s right.” (The New York Times)

Back in Anglo-Saxon and Danish times it was the law that established footpaths between villages, towns, etc would be open to everyone in England. Even with the Elizabethan enclosures the Courts upheld the right to walk across private land on paths that had been there for centuries. This is part of the Common Law that crossed the Atlantic with the early settlers.

But you are very lucky if you can walk in the American countryside at all. Years ago we took a break in a pretty part of Maryland. The hotel was nice, but when we decided to go for a walk the only option was beside a very dangerous road. The result is that, aside from some specific walking route, such as along the top of the Appalachians and in the National Parks, there are few countryside paths. When the American Continent was divided up into blocks of land for settlers, no allowance was made for footpaths. Thus, we, avid walkers who this summer walked in Brittany and Umbria, have very restricted ability to walk in America and confine walking mostly bto the gym. Shame that. Americans miss a lot, not just exercise.

Young teenage girls and unhappiness, No. 2

I recently posted a piece on working mothers and unhappy children. Here are some further facts, published by The Guardian:

A study of data from 674 GP practices across the UK has found that instances of girls aged 13-16 self-harming rose 68% in just three years. The figures, which chime with separate NHS data, also revealed it to be more common in deprived areas. Youngsters who self-harmed were found to be about 17 times more likely to die from suicide, and 34 times more likely to die from acute alcohol or drug poisoning. (The Guardian)

A whole collection of things can account for this shocking trend: poverty, lousy schools, overworked and stressed out mothers, divorce, the dismal influence of Facebook and the “ popularity race”, the sexualisation of young girls and bad upbringing that fails to imbue young teenage men with respect for the opposite sex, the constant publicity about joblessness of young people and the consequent despair of those unable to access higher education……well, be my guest and add your favourite reasons. Whichever you prioritise, the sitution is grim. Does the whole capitalist, neo-liberlal system share the blame? In any event, this all looks reminiscent of situation of the working classes in 19th Century Britain. We should be ashamed.

Lexit: further update on Brexit

Only by leaving the EU will Britain be free to become a “social democratic nirvana”. So claim prominent left-wing advocates of “Lexit”. They argue that EU laws stand in the way of us reforming our economy along more Corbynist, that is, very left-wing, lines.

But you only have to look at Europe to see this is nonsense. In France, university tuition is negligible; in Belgium, zero-hour contracts are banned; in Portugal, domestic energy consumers benefit from regulatory price caps; in Hamburg, people voted to return their power grid from private firms to municipal hands. Did the “neo-liberal jackboots of Brussels” try to block any of this? No. The Lexiters talk of a post-Brexit UK finally being able to stand up to the multinationals. “But who fined Google and Microsoft billions of dollars for anticompetitive behaviour? Who has ordered Apple to repay €13bn in avoided corporation tax?” The European Commission. The EU may be flawed, but the idea that it’s some kind of right-wing project represents “a combination of wilful ignorance and ideologically induced blindness”. (Ben Chu, The Independent)

There is no doubt that the EU is incredibly bureaucratic.  It has made the crucial error of expanding too far, including countries with few West European leanings, and in the process it has really annoyed the Russians.  It conducts a very unfair fisheries policy and an agricultural subsidy policy that not even the experts understand.

Having said that, as the excerpt above by Ben Chu points out, it has been a stalwart supporter of human rights and has, in comparison to the US, tamed the worst excesses of hyper-capitalism. It has avoided a European war for decades, and, owing to free trade policies, has been responsible for a huge rise in the living standards of most Europeans.  Leaving it is a self-inflicted wound.

Working mothers

Almost three quarters of women with dependent children in England are in full or part-time employment. The number of working mothers has risen from 3.7 million in 1996 to 4.9 million. (Office for National Statistics/The Guardian.)

May I, liberal in tooth and claw, a closet “feminist” in many ways, be allowed to ask a question that I know will cause an uproar, but needs to be asked? After two generations of mothers having full time jobs (I don’t count part-time) is there any consensus about the effect on children, in terms of discipline, manners and behaviour, in having mothers working full time, probably doing the shopping, cooking and housework, and still overcoming tiredness sufficiently to give the kids adequate attention?

What seems to have happened is that prices and cost of living has been edged up by employers so that actually families are no better off in real terms with two incomes, and maybe worse off, than with the husband’s income alone, in the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, both parents are working harder, competition for jobs has increased, and job security itself is disappearing, partly because companies have a bigger pool of people to choose from.

While parents become more fraught and exhausted, and divorce pops up everywhere, the children seem unhappy. Depression is now a major problem. One could go on about the general impression of unhappiness, but what I want to know is whether the outcome is what the most vocal feminists expected, or are they keeping mum, aghast at what they have wrought. I enjoyed being greeted by my relaxed mother when I was at my first school. My grandchildren, I’m glad to say, are likewise greeted by their mother when they get home from school.

Is it really worth policing hate diatribes on the internet?

The UK Crown Prosecution Service announced recently that online hate crimes are to be treated just as seriously as crimes committed face-to-face. It’s a crazy idea, says Clare Foges in The Times. For an offence to be classed as a hate crime, it is necessary only that the victim or someone else perceives it as one. Given that half of social media is “a carnival of bile”, how is this policy remotely practical? Will the police have to pursue people over the use of an “offensive emoji”?

At a time when crime in England and Wales has risen by 10% in a year, knife crime by 20%, gun crime by 23%, the police can ill afford to waste time chasing online bigots. Trolls should of course feel the full force of the law when their online abuse threatens real-life harm to an individual, but the law already provides for that. The threshold for action should remain at genuine threats or a clear incitement to violence, and we should ignore “the whole world of mud-slinging below this level”. The great thing about the internet, after all, is that “you can always switch it off”. (Clare Foges, The Times, London)

From time to time one gets hate or other disruptive comments. But you can block the sender and zap the comment. If you are trying to promote the thoughts of Epicurus, which include moderation, thoughtfulness, good manners and consideration for others, it is a shock to encounter these nasty, anonymous people, but one gets over it after a beer or two. What you cannot switch off is the dangerous driving (both in the UK and the US) on roads and streets. The police have disappeared everywhere from day-to-day traffic monitoring, but it is becoming physically dangerous to cross a road, as drivers gaze at their phones and pay little attention to pedestrians. You won’t be killed by an internet troll (I hope!), but sloppy driving is another matter. At least in the UK you are banned driving if you fail to stop for pedestrians on a zebra crossing; in America these crossings are routinely ignored. This is where we need more police attention. Roll on the automatic car!

City vs Country- an Epicurean perspective

Here in the English speaking world, we’re all familiar of the tale of the city mouse and the country mouse: the city mouse invites the country mouse to his house. While containing riches beyond the country’s mouse’s dreams, it also contains terrifying dangers, like the cat. In the end, the country mouse decides his own life, while poorer, is also safer and thus happier. As Epicureans who see pleasure in negative terms, we thoroughly approve of the country mouse’s choice.

However, the urban-rural divide is more complicated nowadays than when the tale of the two mice was written. The city mouse didn’t have to deal with the challenges of deindustrialisation, urban deprivation, mass immigration or unaffordable housing. Equally, the country mouse didn’t have to deal with rural flight, climate change, an ageing population or right wing nationalism- something which is always disproportionately popular in rural areas. So today I’ve set out to assess the benefits and drawbacks of city and country living, with the (however unintentionally) Epicurean values the country mouse upheld.

Many of the benefits the country mouse believed the country to contain remain today. The countryside generally has lower crimes rates. The people are for the most part friendlier. There is usually a stronger sense of community. The rural pastoral ideal of the Epicurean garden is a stark juxtaposition to the frantic and stressful life urban dwellers tend to lead. Rural areas are also more economically equal, true to Epicurus’ egalitarian vision. The city mouse may have been rich, but many of his fellow mice lived in squalor. Such disparities have all sorts of negative effects, from lower life expectancy to worse educational attainment levels- see a book called The Spirit Level for more details. I’ve compiled a list of British local authorities by deprivation levels, and the lowest ones are all nearly all either rural or suburban; you can see the list here https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1OCQoEjK_3FzVTLdH0I_u68g8kMO6Ex-RUhHlP8CBpwg/edit?usp=sharing. These local authorities tend to have the highest levels of personal satisfaction, and the fewest number of children growing up in inadequate conditions.

However, the city mouse may have been more Epicurean than the fable’s writers were letting on. The city mouse might have had to be vigilant, but he also enjoyed the ease and convenience of urban living. He could visit the doctor or the shops in almost no time at all. He could walk everywhere, instead of relying on long and environmentally unfriendly car journeys. His children would have a wider choice of schools and after school clubs, and would be less likely to be bored as teenagers. The city mouse could also meet mice from other countries on a regular basis, increasing his knowledge of the world. His descendants would have better internet and a stronger mobile phone signal. He could experience theatre, museums and art galleries the country mouse could only dream of. Epicurus may have wanted to avoid stress, but he didn’t cut himself off from the world entirely. Many rural areas feel very cut off, and such isolation increases ignorance, cultural insularity and in some cases xenophobia in my view.

Overall whether I would recommend city or country living would depend very much on the country you’re living in. If you’re living in an extremely sparsely populated country, like the US, Canada or Australia, I would suggest living as close to the city centre as possible. The alternative is living in mind-numbingly boring suburbia, a repetitive horizon of single-family homes and ugly supermarkets. You would become a slave to your car, and consequently would be more likely to get fat. Or you would be in the country, which would also be a car-dependent existence, but even further cut off from the cultural amneties that in my view are necessary for an enjoyable life. North America and Australia are currently seeing a concentration of good jobs in the cities, while rural areas go into relative decline, so for your future prosperity, move to the city. The urban crime wave we saw in the Eighties is thankfully no more.

However, in the UK, I couldn’t recommend the city as enthusiastically. The British countryside is for the most part, not as isolated as in America. British cities don’t have the extremely low-dense urban sprawl found in virtually every North American urban area. Rather, the trip from city centre to rural idyll can be a relatively short one. In the list of British local authorities I shared earlier, the least deprived areas are not the most isolated, but are close to major cities. These areas have the Epicurean ideal of a relatively stress free life, but also benefit from the wealth and cultural clout their neighbouring cities bring. But the most significant example of how British rural life is superior, is the huge losses British cities are experiencing in terms of domestic migration, London especially. People are moving from the country to the city in their droves, particularly those in their thirties who want to have children. Our cities’ populations are only kept afloat by migrants coming in from abroad, who like the abundance of low-paid jobs in the cities, and are discouraged by the countryside’s frightening ethnic homogeneity. This shows that British cities are increasingly unliveable, perhaps proving the country mouse right all along.

Some brief thoughts on Catalonian independence

A few weeks ago, the Spanish region of Catalonia held an independence referendum. The region’s distinct language and culture, as well as its prosperity relative to the rest of Spain, has made independence an enticing prospect for centuries. Moreover, the repression of the Catalan way of life under Franco has only increased animosity against the Spanish government in recent decades.

The problem was, the referendum was illegal. Spain’s constitution declares the country to be an indivisible whole. Spain’s courts and government thereby view any attempt to be independent as totally illegitimate. But even though the referendum itself was illegal, the way in which the Spanish government tried to suppress the referendum was particularly brutal, with many voters being beaten by police simply for trying to vote.

I’m very torn on the subject. On the one hand, I don’t believe in breaking the law unless you are living under tyranny. Spain may be a somewhat corrupt and highly inefficient state, but it is not a repressive one. So breaking laws which have democratic legitimacy isn’t the right course of action. The Catalonian government called the referendum, knowing it would provoke a backlash and Madrid would try to prevent it using force- making the international community more sympathetic to their cause. The sensible thing to do would be to play the long game- wait until there is a left-wing government in Madrid which recognises the right of the Catalonians to a referendum, as the leftist PODEMOS party does. Calling a referendum which unionists inevitably boycotted for being illegal carries no democratic legitimacy, and is little more than a publicity stunt in my view.

Having said that, the Spanish government’s response plays into the separatists’ hands. By being so thuggish in their (failed) attempt to stop the referendum, the independence movement can now deploy a victimhood narrative, using recent events to demonstrate how authoritarian modern Spain is. What also doesn’t help is that a notable minority of unionist protestors in the aftermath of the referendum were giving fascist salutes (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4959952/Spain-supporters-fascist-salutes-independence-demo.html).

Overall, I agree with PODEMOS. I don’t believe in Catalonian independence. Most of the separatists’ grievances could be addressed though further devolution, without the economic shock and downturn leaving Spain would cause. More importantly, Spain could veto an independent Catalonia’s EU membership, bringing further harm to the region. It simply isn’t worth that risk. However, all people have a right to self determination, the Catalonians included. If they wish to hold a referendum on independence, then that is their choice. If Spain were a truly free country as the unionists claim, then it would respect that right. Furthermore, I don’t believe it is the role of the EU to adjudicate this dispute. EU neutrality is the only way to prevent more Euroscepticism from arising. However badly the Spanish government has behaved here, EU intervention would be seen as a violation of Spain’s right to determine its own affairs. We must only hope  peace and common sense prevail in the end.

The perils of a cashless world

The banks want to scrap cash, something which would hand yet more power to the financial sector. Cash costs the banks a lot of money. Simply counting and moving it is expensive. But they must not be allowed to phiase out cash – they are there to serve us, not us them.

If the banks have their way every payment you make will be traceable, so that governments, banks or payment processors would have potential access to that information, ushering in the potential for Orwellian levels of surveillance.

Cash empowers its users, enabling them to buy and sell, and store their wealth, without being dependent on anyone else, particularly at a time when interest rates are low. They can stay outside the financial system, if so desired. There are many reasons, both moral and practical, to want this, but an immediate concern is that consumer borrowing (in the UK), bad economic policies, and stagnant wages are threatening another financial crisis. We should have the option to take cash out of a bank.

However, billion people have a mobile phone, and need no bank account or credit to get one. A mobile phone and its airtime can be bought with cash and you have pretty much everything you need to participate in e-commerce (internet access) except the connection with Big Finsnce.  Which is why there will be an important role to play in the future for new forms of digital cash – from Kenya’s M-Pesa to bitcoin– money you can use even if you are not financially included.

Cash has its uses for small transactions uneconomic to process by other means. It will always be the fastest and most direct form of payment there is. Small start-ups and poor people need the cash economy. Cash means total financial inclusion, a luxury the better-off take for granted. Without financial inclusion – and there will always be some who, for whatever reason, won’t have it – you are trapped in poverty. So beware the war on cash – it is a war on the poor and unincluded.

What are the outward and visible signs of winding down cash transactions? The relatively new technology which allows you to touch a terminal in a shop with your debit card, without having to use a password, for transactions previously using cash. Convenient? Yes! Now watch the banks increasingly lower the amount that qualifies. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what the baks are trying to do, convenient though it is at the moment.

The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

Here are some thoughts, called “The Decent Life” from the philosopher Emperor, whose beliefs were Epicurean:

Honour and revere the gods*, treat human beings as they deserve, be tolerant with others and strict with yourself. Remember, nothing belongs to you but your flesh and blood – nothing else is under your control. 5.33

Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverend, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kid, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish acts. (6.30)

The only thing that isn’t worthless is to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t. (6.47)

……Truth, justice, self-control, kindness…. (7.63)

Nothing is good except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite. (8.1)

Nature of any kind thrives on forward progress, and progress for the rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it – the nature in which it participates, as the leaf’s nature does in a tree. (8.7)

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice – it degrades you. (9.4)

Injustice is a kind of blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm, one another, as they deserve. To lie is to blaspheme, too. Because “nature” means the nature of what is. And that which is and that which is the case are closely linked, so that nature is synonymous with truth – the source of all true things. To lie deliberately is to blaspheme – the liar commits deceit, and thus injustice. And likewise to lie without realizing it, because the involuntary liar disrupts the harmony of nature. Nature gave him the means to distinguish between the true and false, andhe neglected them and now can’t tell the difference. (9.1)

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable.
Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, ready to show them their mistake, not spitefully, or to show off my self-control, but in an honest, upright way. Never let the gods catch us feeling anger or resentment. As long as you do what’s proper to your nature, and accept what the world’s nature has in store – as long as you work for others’ good, by any and all means – what is there that can harm you? (11.13)

When you start to lose your temper, remember: there’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being – and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To behave like that is to bring you close to impassivity – and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger. (11.18)

*As Epicureans we may not altogether agree with revering the gods, but we should respect those who do. Epicurus was always careful to talk politely about the gods, but he didn’t believe they did anything very useful. Most of the time they sat on Mount Olympus, argued and, well, behaved like human beings.

Marcus Aurelius Augustus; 121 – 180 AD) was Roman emperor from 161 to 180, ruling jointly with Lucius Verus until Verus’ death in 169 and jointly with his son, Commodus, from 177. He was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors.

The growing religious tide

Across the world, from India and Turkey, to Hungary and the US, a tide of religious zealotry is on the rise. Britain – ignoring the hardline anti-abortion views of Jacob Rees-Mogg – seems one of the few places to have escaped the trend: the British Social Attitudes survey shows that for the first time non-believers are in a majority (53%). But don’t let’s be complacent about the encroachment of religion into the public sphere. It’s occurring here too, and our leaders are doing nothing to resist it. The Left has “abandoned Enlightenment principles for the fractured discourse of identity politics”, and indulges “those who cry racism at every challenge to religious rule”. It stays silent about Sharia courts that discriminate against women. Its leaders “sit in gender-segregated meetings with male elders that can deliver a block Muslim vote”. The Tories are no better: they have let faith schools proliferate to please their Catholic and Anglican base. Theresa May wants to overturn even the modest requirement that selection by religion be capped at 50%. We must stand up for our secular values. That we will hold together can never be taken for granted. (Janice Turner, The Times, London).

Human beings seem to be forever tribal, feeling secure in the knowledge that others like them attend the same religious services, vote the same way, hold similar views on race or gay marriage, have attended the same schools or live in the North as opposed to the South etc etc. The outward signals of tribalism are many and various, but some people like the comfort of not being alone in their views. We are herd animals.

The increase in religiosity can be attributed to huge, growing and faceless populations you have no apparent connection with, the lack of proper jobs and liveable accommodation, a breakdown of “normal” society and neighborliness, the cost and/or scarcity of food and increasing climate insecurity. Faced with all this people rely even more on the “certainties” of religion and tribalism. In contrast, Epicurus valued every human being, slave or free, local or foreign, black or white, Greek-speaking or otherwise.

My personal tribe is the Introvert tribe, which finds hordes of other people draining. Extroverts don’t understand us at all, but since we don’t form rowdy crowds or vote en bloc we are no threat to the political staus quo. If I sound tongue-in-cheek please forgive me – the plight of religious and ethnic minorities is no laughing matter, but I grew up encouraged to think for myself about everything and listen critically to preachers, politicians, writers and TV personalities etc. with a big dose of scepticism and a desire to understand their motivations and their hidden agendas, and where the money is coming from. To some people this is something an education imparts, which is why thinking for yourself is severely discouraged in so many parts of the world.