breaking news from the world of ideas

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 23
September 2022

‘Eureka Day’ gives anti-vaxxers a voice

A new play sensitively probes one of society's biggest fault lines

Eureka Day, a play written by Jonathan Spector and transferred from the US, opens at the Old Vic today. It tackles our vaccine moment with surprising sensitivity and painful humour, leaving audiences, as all good ‘issue’ plays should, perhaps less sure of their accepted beliefs.

The title refers to the name of a progressive private school in California that is so aggressively inclusive that staff are encouraged to use gender neutral pronouns for all children. It borders on a parody, with polyamorous affairs and teachers agonising over the lengthy choice of options for racial self-identification. But this is all brought to a halt by an outbreak of mumps, and the subsequent revelation that many parents have not vaccinated their children. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 29
June 2022

Why do so many men find God later in life?

Paul Kingsnorth and Martin Shaw are following a well-trodden path

On this day in 1927, 29th June, T.S.Eliot was baptised. The colossus of modernist literature, who wrote one of the greatest nihilistic poems of all time, shocked many with his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism just five years after it was published. It happened behind locked doors because he said, with characteristic acerbity, that he hated “spectacular conversions”. A few years later, W.H. Auden followed a similar path, returning to the Christianity of his childhood. 

For both, it was partly an intellectual homecoming. Auden had slowly lost his liberal belief in humanity’s innate goodness thanks to the rise of the Nazis. He also felt that Christianity gave him a way to account for both human darkness and human potential. Believing that Jesus’ command to love our neighbours as ourselves was the defining ethical call, Auden valued the structure and rigour that the church offered. Eliot, says Richard Harries, also ‘wanted more than a vague mysticism…a self-sufficient moralism…something more solid than the individualism, relativism and emotionalism that he thought was rotting Western Civilisation.’ Both came to believe that the erosion of an objective moral realm was eroding the foundations of social and political order.  ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Saturday, 25
December 2021

Why celebrating Christmas is the rational thing to do

Cultures need myths to survive

Christmas is the sole surviving day on which most Britons mark any part of our deepest myth, the Christian story. It’s confusing, expensive, and given that only a minority of the population will be centring the biblical narrative in their celebrations, largely irrational. Or is it?

A people are made by their myths. Carl Jung said that a person disconnected from their culture’s myths “is like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past or… with contemporary society”. Alex Evans, author of The Myth Gap argues the same applies to cultures. He has come to the conclusion that societies can only thrive in turbulent periods with the help of Big Stories. For people and cultures to be resilient, they need myths to locate themselves inside. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Monday, 11
October 2021

What Thomas Cromwell taught us about ambition

The chief minister realised too late that careerism would lead to his undoing

Last week I saw Hilary Mantel’s ‘The Mirror and the Light’, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. It’s compelling, amusing and stunningly staged, but the most haunting moment is Cromwell’s meditation on ambition as he comes to the end of his life. Even Henry had already reflected longingly on what his own life would have been like as a quiet rural landowner, away from the crushing weight of the crown. 

On Cromwell’s final days in the Tower, sentenced to beheading by the King he had served faithfully for decades, he is visited by the ghost of Cardinal Wolsey, himself no stranger to ambition. “As a boy I put a ladder against a wall and I have been climbing ever since”, Cromwell says, and in the pause the realisation sinks in that the top of a ladder is the most unstable place. “There is a flaw in the nature of ladders”, says Wolsey. “Or climbers”, Cromwell replies.  ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 21
September 2021
Seen Elsewhere

Paul Kingsnorth is right: we’re in a spiritual crisis

The West's consumerism has run amok

Paul Kingsnorth wrote an excoriating essay this week, in which he placed the fault of the climate crisis at the feet of the Western bourgeoisie. Kingsnorth certainly wouldn’t call himself a Marxist, but he believes that Marx’s analysis of the bourgeoisie provides a canny prediction of the world that has come to pass:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.
- Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

Continual product innovation (which may in fact be a delusion), disruption, creative destruction: all of these approaches have normalised the stark reality that things that were luxuries for our grandparents have become necessities, even rights, to us.

We are all #bougie now. When Marx popularised the term, the bourgeoisie were distinct from rural peasants and the ruling aristocracy. They were defined by their ownership of the means of production and ability to amass capital and thus indulge in aspirational consumerism. Schumpeter used the term with a particular focus on entrepreneurs and innovators who use creative destruction to continually create new ‘needs’ and thus new markets. But #bougie, as a social media meme, implies very little power beyond the ability to purchase slightly fancy consumer goods. It’s an insult, but a knowing one, applicable to all but the most hair-shirted hermit. Upwardly mobile, aspirational, primed to see the good life as the pursuit of ever more comfort, convenience and status. Hyacinth Bucket, for those who remember her. If we’re honest, all of us too. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Monday, 31
May 2021

Gen Z: Puritanical about everything except drugs

Cocaine use among young people is at a 16-year high

The dark underbelly of middle-aged, middle class drug habits was displayed last week, after a major police operation against “county lines” drug dealing — the movement of drugs, mostly cocaine, from urban centres to rural markets. These activities exploit vulnerable people, using them as couriers and their homes to deal and store drugs. This week alone nearly 1000 of these “cuckooed” homes were visited, and “1,138 vulnerable people were safeguarded, including 573 children.”

The relaxed attitudes of Gen X and Millennials towards drug taking are well documented. The nineties and noughties saw a libertarian attitude to personal morality take hold in which the ‘live and let live’ served as a generational creed. This period also led to a rise of sex-positivity and porn-positivity, and judgementalism becoming the most mortal of sins. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Monday, 10
May 2021

Wellness is no replacement for religion

Yoga and mindfulness won't fill the spiritual void

Sam Byers is an English novelist whose work, particularly his last novel Perfidious Albion, has been compared with Martin Amis. His new book Come Join our Disease tracks Maya, a homeless woman who is offered a new start via a rehabilitation programme run by a tech company. Set up with a new job and a flat, she must chronicle her ‘journey’ on social media, inspiring her audience as she becomes a polished and productive member of society. The programme emphasises health via a rigorous schedule of yoga classes and wellness retreats, and her new boss takes a personal and directive interest in “Project Maya” — the remaking of the self. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 30
March 2021

Will we ever return to our rural roots?

Re-connecting with the land is vital, argues a new book

As companies begin to settle, post-pandemic, into new rhythms — which will include ongoing remote working — many people are asking if they really need to remain in cities. A new book published this week argues that this might have benefits beyond individual lives.

Uprooted by Grace Olmstead sits in the tradition of great poet and environmental essayist Wendell Berry. Olmstead muses on her childhood in Idaho farming country, and the impact of the many people, like her, who have left it behind.

It is in part a polemic against the impact of the practices of global agribusiness on soil, and an urgent plea for a return to small scale, diverse, locally appropriate farming which invests in the health of the land for future generations. ...  Continue reading

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