Only 352 shopping days until Christmas…

So those of you expecting an anti-commercialist, sanctimonious moan about not buying things might be surprised when I exhort you to spend these 352 days thinking about gifts for people.

Yep, you read me correctly.

Of course, naturally, I don’t mean start buying animatronic singing Christmas elves and wrapping them in glittery paper. But I’m serious about the gifts.

This particular train of thought comes to you courtesy of the ever cheerful Giorgio Monbiroder, who you may remember from ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, in a column in which he details the impact of our rampant consumerism on the planet. It’s cheerless but deeply necessary reading. Read it now and come back, I’ll wait.

George suggests that we eschew giving commercial gifts entirely and make cakes, write poems, tell jokes and give hugs for Christmas instead and, whilst I understand the sentiment, there’s also a part of me that thinks that’s perhaps not going to work for everyone. I for one am not a great baker of cakes, if I write someone a poem it’s probably going to be so depressing that they’ll hang themselves on Boxing Day, my jokes are mostly (as regular readers will attest) stupid, offensive or both and I’m currently wearing a beard that makes me look like a paroled killer so going in for the festive hug is just going to give people the Christmas willies 1.

So maybe not. And I don’t want to be that git that buys the family a card saying that they’ve bought a goat for a village in Niger or a cobra for a nursery in Burkina Faso. And not just because goats are difficult to wrap.

There are plenty of Ned-Flanders style suggestions about giving people vouchers for hugs, favours, foot rubs or whatever, too, but I’m going to call bullshit on that. Doing a good deed should be special for Christmas? A favour is something you do to help – any time of year. You help someone put up a picture or wash the car or whatever because you can. Because it’s how we get along. You don’t need a voucher to give someone a hug- why? Because you’re not a dick.

There’s nothing wrong with giving gifts at any time of the year. There are lots of things that you can buy from real shops that don’t cost the Earth (yeah, I’m talking financial and ecological cost there…) There are plenty of things that people will get through during a year that you can buy them a slightly nicer version of. Whiskey, in my case.

Good wine, coffee, preserves, sauces, crackers… come on, people. Books don’t cost the Earth and there’s no finer gift than a well chosen book. Music that you’ve chosen really carefully; you could even support an emerging, independent artist (Do consider buying your relatives something by one of my musical friends…). Make jam, sloe gin, fudge, a notebook.

There are loads of things that you can buy to support local producers, ethical trade. If you want to go big ticket for someone, there’s even an ethical smartphone.

You’ve got 352 shopping days until Christmas. If you can’t resist that urge to fill someone’s stocking in 2017 then you’ve got 352 days to search online, in charity shops, ethical producers. To learn to make really good chutney. To take a woodworking course so that you can make someone a custom office bookshelf.

You’ve got 352 days to keep giving small, thoughtful gifts to the people that you love. To keep doing nice things for friends and strangers alike.

Because not being quite as miserable as George Monbiot doesn’t have to mean you’re a dick.

1. Christmas willies make a great gift but only for consenting adults


Let’s compare Russell Brand to Jesus and see who we can offend…

If Jesus strode into your meeting tomorrow and started talking about social justice, I dare say he’d get thrown out. For one thing, by modern standards he’d look a bit threatening – as many of you probably realise in that remote part of your brain used for thinking vaguely about things you don’t give a crap about, he probably didn’t look like a blond, bearded nancy in a dressing gown. He was a carpenter, a job requiring huge strength in the day, so he’d be a bulky lad, probably a bit dusky of skin, scarred of hand and a bit ripe, as was the standard back then. Oh, and hair was worn short at the time, especially by carpenters for health and safety reasons.

Even if we update him for contemporary society, the poverty, outspoken nature, challenging conventional views that polarised popular opinion and his use of unusual constructions of speech and thought would still mark him out as someone likely to be ejected by security.

Naturally, as I make this tenuous comparison between Mr Brand and Mr er… Christ, I’m fully aware that it’s a fatuous point made for the purpose of debate.

But here’s my point. I’m not a fan of Jesus and don’t wanna be in his gang, although not as much as I’m glad I wasn’t in Gary Glitter’s. Now there would be an offensive comparison. He does, (Christ, not Glitter) make some good points, though. You can’t argue with that stuff about loving thy neighbour. In fact, one can’t help but think that if every world leader took Jesus’ advice to heart, the world would be a substantially better place than it is now.

Not liking someone doesn’t make them wrong. In fact, even when someone you don’t like is wrong about something, it doesn’t make them wrong about everything and it doesn’t mean that you can just screen out everything that they say. I believe that law and government should be 100% secular but I can still find a great deal of wisdom in selected religious teachings. Much of what went into the evolution of religion was to help people, after all.

I happen to agree with the YouGov poll, although I don’t like anything about the organisation and I think that the poll is part of an organised part of a smear campaign to discredit Brand. I still, personally, don’t find him that funny.

I disagree with him on some major issues, too. Like voting. I believe passionately that everyone should use their vote – albeit by voting for the issues, (which would give us a green government, by the way) and not the politician they find most affable (although Farage has queered his pitch with the breastfeeding thing – we all seem to have decided that we prefer an accidental flash of boob to repeated exposure to that prick)

Still, I admire Brand for some of his views, for bringing the debate about the power of corporations to a wider audience, for the compassion and sense in his views on drug rehabilitation, for wanting to try to do something to help the people on the New Era estate.

And in this video, where he talks about the Murdoch empire, he’s bang on.

Brand will continue to divide opinion and will attract an ever larger and more powerful list of detractors. I supported his inclusion in the A level English syllabus and I approve even more so now, because his opponents will provide a set of sterling examples of logical fallacies for people to study – and if you think that “logical fallacy” is a bit rude, you’re half right, it can be used to prove that you’re a bit of a dick (I know, I like Radio 4 humour, ok?) so you might want to check out a guide to them before you start leaving inane comments on a web page.

So regardless of what you think of Brand, Jesus (OK guys, the church is facing declining numbers, how do we get ‘Brand Jesus’ back up to number 1? Shudders and gags a bit…) or even me, for that matter, know your logical fallacies, listen to the arguments and let’s see if we can think clearly about the issues without getting carried away with the personalities, shall we? Whether it’s an election, an account of the news, religion or some obscure philosophical point, it shouldn’t matter who says it, it should matter if what’s said makes sense. We should be looking for collective reason, not prophets. We all know that Brand is not the Messiah…

(wanders off shaking head without delivering dreadful punchline)

Voting for dummies. As if there were an alternative.

“Here, sir, that Russell Brand says I shouldn’t vote.”

“No, Jimmy, you should definitely vote. It’s really important.”

“Who should I vote for then, sir?”

“Well, Jimmy, that’s not for me to say. You should make your own mind up.”

“My Dad’s voting for UKIP, ‘cos he doesn’t want immigrants bringing Ebola over ‘ere and nicking our jobs. I reckon I’ll vote for them.”

“Well, you should probably look at what all the parties say. Look at their manifestos.”

“Ah, that sounds really boring. I reckon that Boris bloke should be Prime Minister, he’s a right laugh.”

“You shouldn’t… look, you have a right to vote and that means a responsibility to vote for the party that you think are doing the right thing.”

“Yeah, but what’s that, sir?”

“If I give you five quid, will you fuck off?”

It’s hard knowing what’s right. You can assume that you’re just right about everything, or, assuming that you’re not quite so spectacularly arrogant as a politician, you have some homework to do.

You’re then faced with two choices. One is to do the hard work – do the background reading. You can learn some shortcuts and heuristics that will help you through the easy stuff and also equip you better to deal with the hard questions. The problem is that it’s hard work. There’s quite a lot of background reading and some hard thinking to do about what you’ve read. You may even end up having to ask your dad a question and listen to one of his rambling explanations. Ahem.

It’s tempting to not bother. The other choice is to go out and play instead of studying for the test and hope that you can see Sarah’s answers over her shoulder. The only problem there is that teacher might re-seat you all so that you end up sitting behind Nigel. Nigel is confident and kind of charming and he’s happy to lean to one side so that you can copy his answers. The problem is that Nigel’s a fucking idiot but if you haven’t done your homework that’s all that’s left to you.

It may seem like this is a thinly veiled swipe at UK political thinking but in truth, I think that our current merry-go-round of braying, wealthy crooks is a symptom. The political Type two diabetes to our intellectually indolent obesity. We’re equally culpable of failing to think about our personal morality, our conduct with others, our own personal philosophies are non-existent.

We can’t be bothered to do our homework. The problem with democracy in our comfortable nations is that it’s handing over decisions to people who are too lazy to make them so they go along with whatever decision stresses them out least. Believe what you read in the Daily Mail. Listen to the man on the television. Vote how your parents voted.

Anything except carry on rolling the stone.

Because the moral philosopher, the scientist, the rationalist – is Sisyphus. Each new achievement simply reveals a fresh vista of doubt and ignorance. There is no rest, no right answer, no point at which the testing ends and teacher says that you’ve passed the course. And that’s want it takes to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Endless labour.

If you’ve got to the end of this article, though, you’ve done well, you may take a break to go out and play

Do you have the right to your human rights?

You know how it is, you’ve just abducted someone off the street, dragged them to a deserted basement, you’re just attaching the electrodes to the testicles (usually theirs but each to his own) and then you suddenly remember the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and think “Ooh… should I really be doing this?”

Or maybe you don’t. I mean, if you’re the sort of person to regularly find yourself wondering “Am I violating fundamental human rights?” then what kind of life are you living?

Which leads me to question why exactly our most politically credible right-wing nut hatch has stated the intent to ignore European Court of Human Rights rulings. The UDHR is the document which our noble country has already watered down a little to produce the Human Rights Act of 1998.

I’ll echo the advice of Jack of Kent, and suggest that you read the bill and ask yourself which bits seem wrong to you? As the article there notes, opponents of the act tend to display a varied combination of ‘vague’ and ‘misinformed’ but it’s precisely such groundless peroration that tends to lodge in the mind of the careless voter.

The UDHR was drafted after the Second World War when (SPOILER ALERT) dreadful things were done to people in the hope that its adoption might prevent such atrocities in the future. It’s built on a long tradition of thinking by the most noted philosophers in history. The idea that a small cabal of privileged, rich white guys should want to start rewriting our relationship with it should set off alarm bells. Perhaps that Etonian classical education makes them wary; one of the earliest discussions of rights in religion is from Zoroastrian philosophy: “the recognition of the equality of men & women in all respects; the condemnation of autocratic & unjust rule and the recommendation to the faithful not to submit to oppressive rulers – all these demonstrates the values of human rights in Zoroastrianism. ” Yeah – do not submit to oppressive rulers. Who’d think that would make a Tory uncomfortable…?

In all truth, whatever the Tories do with the law concerning human rights, it’s likely to have little direct impact upon most of us; if you’re not currently exercising your right to peaceful protest and assembly (and most of us aren’t), seeking asylum or running for office, your life will go on as normal. But human rights is one of the pillars on which what is left of enlightenment in our society stands. As soon as we let the protection of those rights become eroded in the name of political expediency, we start a journey down a perilous and slippery slope. And if you look at foreign policy, education, health and just about everything else they’ve got their hands on, that’s a slope that our present government are sprinting towards like a steroid-abusing bobsleigh team at the top of the Cresta run.

So again, read the UDHR, it’s short, clear and easy to understand. Then ask yourself if you should be allowing someone who has a problem with any of those statements to be in power.

Practice compassion – and arse kicking.

Sometimes I’m so angry and frustrated with the world that I feel I might just burst open and spew molten, acidic bile that would eat a hole in the very fabric of the universe.

Other times, I can be so overcome with the beauty in the world that I feel myself smiling unselfconsciously and I could, if not careful, find myself in a monologue much like Kevin Spacey at the end of American Beauty. And nobody wants that.

Both of these feelings are profound and important. It’s easier to write about the former, of course. In fact, the writing is quite often the safety valve, the relief for the ‘rusty wire that holds the cork that keeps the anger in’ – and believe me, there are days when if I could push the button and scorch every corner of the Earth with cleansing fire…

You needn’t go far to find words of wisdom that teach you to cherish the latter emotion, to practice peace and compassion and to cherish all life and to eschew hatred and anger. They are toxic, and will burn you up from the inside.  I’m not sure that it’s true, though.

I read this article from George Monbiot  the other day, posted on Facebook by a wise and compassionate friend. It’s the kind of thing that’s wont to act as pilot light to the reserves of combustible fury that I can draw on when I think about the world in a certain way. There’s plenty to read about if you need fuel for that particular fire. Western governments in thrall to men of unimaginable wealth and limitless greed, unconscionable cruelty in war zones all over the world, a planet ravaged by poisons and misuse; all presided over by cow-eyed dolts masticating (or similar) in front of glowing screens.

That should make us angry. It should make us angry enough to take to the streets, to fashion petrol bombs, to march on the progenitors of this monstrous culture, drag them from their thrones and bring them back into visceral contact with the nature of the pain that they cause. And then our compassion should kick in, remind us that no one deserves to suffer that way. That we are wiser and better people. That there must be a better way. But the anger should remain, tempered by our wise and all-encompassing love, and drive us on to find that better way.

Nobody would deny me the savage part of me that would defend my loved ones with tooth and nail should it come down to it. But there are other things dear to me as well. Sharing music, laughter and good times with friends; peaceful, civilised, intelligent discourse; learning from new friends from all around the world. Culture, art, and all the fruits of civilisation in a society that treasures learning and values everyone. These things are under threat, though – should we not defend them? Fight tooth and nail?

Practice compassion, meditate on the wisest path. Absolutely. But don’t let go of your anger, it’s as much a primal part of who you are as the urge to comfort a weeping babe in arms. There is a war going on for your mind.

Welcome to the occupation… now piss off.

So, the cities of London, New York and Bristol have started to move in on their occupy protesters.

Do the protesters rack this up as a partial victory? It’s interesting to note that the clearances are being  undertaken in the name of public health and safety, in Bristol, on the grounds that the site is the designated landing spot for the air ambulance – one wonders whether we couldn’t possibly call on a couple of bankers to spend their bonuses on a helipad for the Bristol Royal Infirmary if that’s the case?

Meanwhile in New York, apparently the authorities are concerned that the camp may have become a haven for lawlessness – now this may well be true, let’s face it, the occupy camps are just the kind of thing that attract their share of nutters. I would point out, though, that Wall Street itself is something of a centre of excellence for lawlessness if you count rogue trading and the systematic defrauding of the American taxpayer and the (billionaire) mayor of New York hasn’t sent in the riot troops so far.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the protesters anyway – don’t get me wrong, I think that they’ve succeeded in bringing a debate about the effects that money ahs on the way that we live much closer to centre stage in the public eye and I’m all in favour about that and I’m proud that the protests have been almost entirely peaceful so far – I really hope that the clearances aren’t marred by violence.

I just wonder if there’s a trick being missed here – should we be working to conserve this cultural momentum? What comes next? I’d like to see some credible grass-roots political movements use the occupy protests as a springboard. Herein lies a rub, though – there’s such a spectrum of opinion caught up within these protests that it’s nigh impossible to draw up a political agenda that might invite serious consideration in the mainstream.

I have a lot of thoughtful, wise, compassionate, liberal friends here: help me, people. Where do we go when the tents finally have to come down?

What, no rioting?

It hasn’t taken long for the riots of last week to become nothing more than background static in the news, has it? Three days of trouble and then a night of rain was enough to put off most of the rioters. Anyone in teaching could have told you that kids’ attention spans are too short to put in a sustained effort these days.

All right, I’m being flippant – I don’t want to see that kind of violence on our streets again but we can’t change that it’s occurred and the worst thing that can happen now is… nothing.

There was a brief flurry of articles in some of the more intelligent press (I confess, I wasn’t brave enough to nose through the right wing gutter press letters pages…) about the importance of social and economic justice and, to my great delight, some surprisingly balanced and compassionate writing, particularly this piece by a political blogger.

Already, though, any debate of depth and substance is being washed away in the tide of drivel that passes for news and comment. David Cameron’s broken record about the broken society (written about with some panache by Roo on his blog, so I won’t repeat my similar feelings on the issue) merged with the usual Jeremy Kyle nutters banging on about stiffer sentences and it’s political groundhog day.

Then I stumbled across an article in the NY times – I forget why I was there – and came across two fascinating bits of writing. Firstly, on the topic of economic justice, Warren Buffet arguing for higher taxes – almost like finding a turkey voting for Chirstmas – and then this piece by Neal Gabler about the effect of information overload on proper thinking. I think he’s right. We live in such a deluge of information that we fail to stop and think about the things that are really important.

So what do we do with this little blip on the radar? How do we make sure that the damage suffered and the misery endured in those riots lead to something positive? Now that we can communicate and exchange ideas with everyone on the planet (results may vary: if your ideas are not being freely exchanged, check that you are not in a communist dictatorship or the offices of the Daily Mail) how do we screen out the crap? Is the answer in education? The media? A small group of thoughtful individuals changing the world? Or shall I start pouring petrol into my recycling?