breaking news from the world of ideas

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 20
January 2021

The two faces of Christianity in Joe Biden’s America

In the lead up to the presidential inauguration, when Joe Biden will put his hand on a Bible and swear to defend the Constitution (so help him God), the US has been occupied with two very different faces of political Christianity.

The first has been burnt into memories by a goat-horned shaman, covered in tattoos of the Norse pantheon, thanking Almighty God and a very New Age “white light” for “allowing” the Capitol insurgents to “send a message to communists, globalists and traitors” in the Senate chamber. Ridiculous, yes; heretical, almost definitely; but followed by pastors and many bearing Jesus banners. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 17
November 2020

Nice guys finish last — or do they?

Nice guys finish last…or do they? David Bodanis thinks they don’t – or at least, in the long term, it’s more often the bad guys bringing up the rear. In his new book ‘The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean,’ the writer argues that there are two ways to succeed.

Firstly, as we’re all too familiar with: by a will to power, through division and fear. Bodanis’s extended essay on Josef Goebbels unpacks this path, though readers will think of contemporary examples.

Secondly, through fairness, exemplified by three characteristics of listening to those around you, giving generously, and defending the good (i.e. being savvy enough not to be taken for a ride). Franklin D. Roosevelt is the extended case study for this approach, not least because he and Goebbels were contemporaries. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Monday, 2
November 2020
Seen Elsewhere

You can’t quantify the effect of lockdown

Has there ever been a global emergency communicated with this much data? The numbers are vital for leaders making agonising decisions, and useful for the rest of us as we modify our behaviour. But most of us are drowning in a sea of deadening graphs, charts and figures. Data is not designed to engage our emotions or our senses, so it can have a numbing, even anaesthetic effect.

With prescient timing, a new album has reminded me that one antidote to this anaesthetic is aesthetic; we need art, beauty, creativity to also help us process what is happening. This week, the BBC released ‘Isolation, In your words,’ a song cycle, commissioned as part of the Culture in Quarantine series.   ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 18
September 2020

Boeing’s deadly sin

The full extent of corporate failure at Boeing over the 737 Max has been revealed this week. The congressional investigation into the crashes is damning, findingcost-cutting… that jeopardised the safety of the flying public”, “regulatory capture” and a “culture of concealment” leading to the deaths of 346 people in two separate crashes. 

The dry procedural language used in the report stood out to me, in part because I have been reading an economics classic by E.F Schumacher, Small is Beautiful. While official documents condemn “troubling mismanagement misjudgements”, and Boeing admits “mistakes were made”, it is left to the bereaved families to use words which for most of us come closest to an accurate summation: “I lost my dad to greed, corruption and lack of human decency.” ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 26
August 2020

Outside religion, who’s talking about forgiveness?

This week the mother of one of the victims of the Christchurch massacre forgave the perpetrator

Speaking with moving dignity, Janna Ezat spoke about her son who “didn’t have an enemy in the world until the day he was killed. He used to give me flowers for my birthday. Instead I got his body.” She added: “I decided to forgive you. In our Muslim faith we say…if you are able to forgive, forgive”. 

The archetype of a grieving parent forgiving their child’s killer has become a horribly familiar, and it is always moving one. Perhaps because the act runs so contrary to expectations, it is always covered in the news. The most recent memorable example is the Charleston massacre, in which nine churchgoers were gunned down by (again) a white supremacist who had joined their bible study. Three relatives went on to offer forgiveness at the attacker’s bond hearing. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 12
August 2020

The spiritual transgression of facial recognition technology

Yesterday the civil liberties campaign group Liberty won a landmark court case against South Wales Police around their use of facial recognition technology. The court ruled that the use of Automatic Facial Recognition (AFR) was unlawful because there was a lack of guidance on where AFR could be used and who could be put on a watchlist, as well as data protection issues.

Facial recognition technology has many uses, primarily in law enforcement, but it also raises substantial privacy concerns. Many of us who object to its widespread use do so for concrete reasons about how power in society is structured, but also for deeper and less definable ones. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Thursday, 16
July 2020

How social media became a rancid Babel

This week I interviewed Mary Harrington, a columnist on these pages who is also a trained psychotherapist. We discussed the role of social media in driving division, and she framed the problem in a way that illuminated a tired old trope. She thinks that behind these warring factions online there is:

…something very deep, a real yearning for connection, for recognition, to be understood. This is knocked back again and again because you can never really be fully understood except face to face, and even then it’s difficult because it takes self-reflection, charity and a willingness on both sides to try. Online you have this magnification of the different ways you can be misunderstood, and the ever more desperate yearning to be understood, and then it curdles into this kind of rancid Babel of acrimony.
- Mary Harrington

There are often substantive legal and conceptual issues underneath our most painful debates and focusing on the relational dynamics, tone and existential tenor can be dismissed as trivial or avoiding the issues. It isn’t. Social media is, for better or worse, now the main site of our collective reasoning. It is where we narrate ourselves to ourselves, as individuals and collectively. It shapes how we see our own identity and that of others, and the health or otherwise of those conversations has an enormous impact on whether we are able to resolve, or even live with, our differences. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 3
July 2020

Let’s put an end to macho cultural pessimism

The only ‘Big Book’ I’ve managed to catch up with during lockdown is a year out of date. Fleishman is in Trouble was last summer’s high-status holiday read, and coming to it now feels almost nostalgic. The central themes have been well treated elsewhere, but one side thread stood out, around tone. Our narrator (Libby Epstein), a female reporter, describes trying to write like macho, superstar journalist Archer:

 The way he had of releasing the valve of his anger slowly, tensely, beautifully….created a generalised disgust for the state of the world that seemed like the only conclusion a smart, thinking person could come to.
- Libby Epstein, Fleishman is in Trouble

The narrator envies the cultural power of this style of writing. Archer’s womanising, entitled, expense account-milking behaviour is tolerated, encouraged even, because his sharp sardonic prose sells magazines. ...  Continue reading