breaking news from the world of ideas

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 30
March 2021

Will we ever return to our rural roots?

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

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Tuesday, 23
March 2021

What St John has to say about Teen Vogue

The latest victim of what is now known as “cancel culture” fell last week. This time it’s not a middle aged white man, but a young woman of colour, who lost her job as editor of Teen Vogue over racist tweets sent a decade ago, when she was 17.

Many people have expressed disquiet that, despite apologising and making clear she in no way still holds those reprehensible views, Alexi McCammond still felt she needed to resign.

“Cancel culture” is, like most phenomena to catch the public imagination, more complex than it appears. Sometimes it’s a label slapped on a long overdue reckoning, and other times, it really is just a self-righteous lynch mob throwing their weight around. It is, however, usually seen as less of an issue by younger people...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Wednesday, 10
February 2021

Will Covid-19 turn us into a nation of ethicists?

Never in living memory has public debate felt so much like a poorly-taught ethics seminar. Unless we happened to study philosophy at university, the last time many of us were forced to think through our deepest moral commitments systematically was during an RE lesson — though as this subject has been in crisis for years, maybe not even then. Perhaps that’s why the Netflix show ‘The Good Place’ spawned a meme: ‘This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors’. Today ethics is associated in popular imagination with obscure thought experiments or how many units of utility can dance on the head of a pin while the rest of us get on with living our lives. ...  Continue reading

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