To get hospital consultants to agree to his new National Health Service, Nye Bevan had to allow them to mix private work with NHS work. Photograph: PA/Empics Sports Photo Agency

To get hospital consultants to agree to his new National Health Service, Nye Bevan had to allow them to mix private work with NHS work. Photograph: PA/Empics Sports Photo Agency

Anyone who has cringed at Ayn Rand’s rant against the NHS in yesterday’s post will resonate to this Guardian article by GP . Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

. . . . In my work as an NHS GP the corrupting effect of private practice is less immediately obvious, but through my correspondence with specialists I know it still goes on: scans, arthroscopies and follow-up appointments are all more lavishly recommended when the patient is paying, which makes one wonder about the criteria used to recommend them. Recently an angry father insisted I refer his son for consideration of a tonsillectomy after a couple of episodes of tonsillitis. If I want to refer someone to have their tonsils out on the NHS, my local surgeons won’t countenance seeing them unless they meet certain criteria: seven episodes of tonsillitis in the last year, or 10 over the last two years, or three a year for the last three consecutive years. There are good reasons for this: tonsillectomy risks haemorrhage, infection and leaving you more prone to throat problems in the future. Though we all pay for NHS care through taxation, no doctor in the NHS will now remove your tonsils just because you’ve asked them to – that would be considered a grave abandonment of professional standards, and a flouting of evidence-based practice. But the private healthcare market specialises in treatment on demand, and the rules are different over there. When the father repeated his demand at a private clinic the surgeon’s professional reservations melted away and the operation was scheduled within days. The surgeon’s later correspondence contained a tortured justification for tabling the surgery that was painful to read. It must have been painful too for the patient who went on to need NHS hospital admission to address subsequent complications (bleeding and infection). Several of my own clinic appointments were used to deal with the aftermath. There is as yet no reliable mechanism for the NHS to bill private health companies for the expenses incurred when private procedures go wrong.

Private providers sell an image of excellence and efficiency, but that glossy sheen, in the UK at least, is built on the assurance that whenever a patient becomes unprofitable, or presents too much of a risk, the NHS will step in. This is what some of the private companies taking over aspects of NHS care are beginning to discover: profitability is high if you can pick and choose which patients and procedures you deal with, but drops off when you are confronted with providing a comprehensive service for everyone based on need rather than privilege.

Altruism Black EarthThe previous post, triggered by two contrasting books – Altruism and Black Earth – raised the possibility that we might repeat the horrors of the Holocaust. We may not have travelled as far down the road of moral enlightenment as we would like to think. We are prone to rationalising our self-centredness and have not freed ourselves from the virus of racism.

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand (for source of image see link)

Ayn Rand

That a popular strain of American thought idolises the guru of egotism, Ayn Rand, should give us pause for thought. While proponents might contend that Rand and her acolytes place sufficient emphasis upon preserving the powers of the state to protect individual freedom in a way that will prevent any repetition of Hitler’s state destroying excesses, it is worth examining for a moment some of her ideas and the results that they are having to this day.

Ricard (page 302) recalls a televised interview in which Rand stated: ‘I consider altruism as evil . . . Altruism is immoral . . because . . . you are asked to love everybody indiscriminately . . . you only love those who deserve it.’ Her ‘sacred word’ is ‘EGO,’ but it did not bring her any happiness (page 305).

If she were not so influential in the States her bizarre position would not matter. Many Americans, in a 1993 survey, ‘cited Atlas Shrugged, her main work, as the book that influenced them most, after the Bible!’ Furthermore, as Ricard points out, she has powerful advocates (page 301):

Alan Greenspan, former head of the Federal Reserve, which controls the American economy, declared she had profoundly shaped his thinking, and that “our values are congruent.” Ayn Rand was at Greenspan’s side when he took the oath before President Ford. . . . Paul Ryan, who was a candidate for the American vice-presidency in 2012 as Mitt Romney’s running mate, requires his co-workers to read the writings of Ayn Rand; he asserts it was she who inspired his political career.

She has shaped libertarian economic thinking (page 303) which regards the poor as ‘killers of growth, beings who harm entrepreneurs.’ Moreover, ‘Only the individual creates growth; society is predatory, and the welfare state, a concept that prevails in Europe, constitutes “the most evil national psychology ever described,” and those who benefit from it are nothing but a gang of looters’ [The quote is from Ayn Rand 1976 in The Economist, 20 October, 2012, page 54].

I understand that it is important not to be simplistic about this and dismiss all libertarians as narrow-mindedly self-seeking. Jonathan Haidt analyses some of the complexities in his excellent The Righteous Mind. He clarifies that on the American political scene the word ‘libertarian’ denotes someone of a conservative mind set.  He teases out some important aspects of this world view in order to get out from under his preconceptions about it (pages 305-306):

[Libertarians] do not oppose change of all kinds (such as the Internet), but they fight back ferociously when they believe that change will damage the institutions and traditions that provide our moral exoskeletons (such as the family).

He unpacks this in the context of his understanding of the value of moral capital (page 292):

. . . we can define moral capital as the resources that sustain a moral community . . . . . .  and thereby enable the community to suppress or regulate selfishness and make cooperation possible.

He writes (page 307):

We need groups, we love groups, and we develop our virtues in groups, even though those groups necessarily exclude nonmembers. If you destroy all groups and dissolve all internal structure, you destroy your moral capital. . . . . To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.

So, after this analysis of the way that liberals, with whom he identifies, fail to understand some of the crucial insights of their political opponents (and of course vice versa), he reflects upon a disturbing trend (page 309):

America’s political class has become far more Manichaean since the early 1990s, first in Washington and then in many state capitals. The result is an increase in acrimony and gridlock, a decrease in the ability to find bipartisan solutions. . . . .

So even from within his own balanced critique which accepts the value of moral capital, he is clearly aware of the dangers of group identity and especially of any group identity with a black-and-white view of the world and/or with an egotistical creed.

Narrow ideologies of this type are many and varied.


During the Second World War, for example, those who believed in some form of nationalism, originally well-short of Nazism’s totally racist ideology, when battered by the depredations of the Soviet Union during the period of its cynical pact with Hitler, were more likely to collude with pogroms (Snyder: page 130-31):

Insofar as the Soviets removed states that people wanted, and insofar as the Germans could pose as the ally of those who wished to restore them, the Germans could manipulate a powerful desire. The nature of this opportunity depended, of course, upon what leaders of national groups believed they could gain or lose from occupiers.

He explains exactly what this specifically meant in practice (page 142):

By destroying the Lithuanian and Latvian states, the Soviets gave the Germans the ability to promise a war of liberation.

What the Germans learnt (page 143) ‘was to exploit the experience of the Soviet occupation to further the most radical goals of their own, and what they invented was a politics of the greater evil.’

That pogroms were in fact somehow related to the sense that the Nazis were liberators is made clear (page 150):

. . . pogroms were most numerous where Germans drove out Soviet power, . . . Pogroms and other forms of local collaboration in killing were less likely in Poland, where anti-Semitism had been more prevalent before the war, than they were in Lithuania and Latvia, where anti-Semitism was less prevalent.

That pogroms tended not to escalate where that hopeful belief in liberation was absent is confirmed by their rarity in Poland where (page 161) ‘Germany could not even pretend to offer Poland to the Poles. Germany had already invaded Poland once.’ It seems as though people are not inclined to go the whole hog with wholesale systematic slaughter on the basis of psychological or material gain alone: you need an ideological component as well.

Narrow ideologies, possibly always in combination with greedy and/or self-serving tendencies, make us more vulnerable to perpetrating systematic atrocities against those who are seen as beyond the Pale[1] we have ourselves arbitrarily created. Self-interest and dissonance reduction seem to have played a strong part in the Holocaust as well: for example, blaming the Jews for all the ills perpetrated under Soviet occupation exonerated everyone else in those territories from the shame of their own collusion as well as ensuring the property they had gained would not be restored to their original owners (Snyder page 152-54). Killings do, of course, occur without an ideology to back them, and can involve large numbers of victims, but never on the same massive and sustained scale.

Raising a more general and bleakly pessimistic point, Snyder earlier quoted Herling, a victim of the Gulags (page 122): ‘. . . There is nothing, in fact, which a man cannot be forced to do by hunger and pain.’ Herling became convinced that ‘a man can only be human under human conditions.’

While the examples of heroic self-sacrifice in Nazi and Japanese concentration camps, in the cases of Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi and Nelson Mandela, as well as in the current example of Bahá’í prisoners in Iran, suggest most strongly this is not true for everyone, Herling’s point is probably true for most of us under such extreme conditions. In our relatively benign social climate, the rarity of whistleblowing in the face of toxic reactions within an organisation suggests that most of us are too craven to stand up against abuses.

Expanding our Circle of Compassion

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

Zimbardo in Warsaw 2009

This sad probability is what drove Zimbardo, after his many experiences of humanity’s inability to resist evil, to formulate his ‘ten-step programme for resisting the impact of undesirable social influences and at the same time promoting personal resilience and civic virtue’ (The Lucifer Effect – pages 452-456). He ends his explanation of the steps by saying (page 456):

Before moving to the final stop in our journey, celebrating heroes and heroisms, I would like to add two final general recommendations. First, be discouraged from venal sins and small transgressions, such as cheating, lying, gossiping, spreading rumours, laughing at racist or sexist jokes, teasing, and bullying. They can become stepping-stones to more serious falls from grace. They serve as mini-facilitators for thinking and acting destructively against your fellow creatures. Second, moderate you’re in-group biases. That means accepting that your group is special but at the same time respecting the diversity that other groups offer. Fully appreciate the wonder of human variety and its variability. Assuming such a perspective will help you to reduce group biases that lead to derogating others, to prejudice and stereotyping, and to the evils of dehumanisation.

All this has confirmed my conviction that there is an imperative need for our society to actively believe in two fundamental truths: first, that altruism is as natural as egotism and can therefore be nurtured in our children, and second, that in this age it is not enough for us to extend our compassion only as far as our family or immediate neighbourhood – we can and should learn to embrace the whole earth and its inhabitants, living and non-living as our concern.

A core aspect of this is articulated in a message of the Universal House of Justice to all those gathered on Mount Carmel to mark the completion of the project there on 24th May 2001:

Humanity’s crying need will not be met by a struggle among competing ambitions or by protest against one or another of the countless wrongs afflicting a desperate age. It calls, rather, for a fundamental change of consciousness, for a wholehearted embrace of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching that the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionizing principle will increasingly empower individual believers and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to the Day of God and to the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

There is a challenging aspect to this as we discovered as we explored this together in a recent workshop at the Bahá’í Summer School in Keele.

There is no get-out clause in the wording that this message uses: ‘Each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family.’ So that means everyone must take responsibility for the welfare of everyone. I can’t wriggle out of it. This means me: I have to take responsibility for the welfare of everyone – no exceptions allowed.

Some aspects of this are not too challenging. I live near a college for the visually handicapped. Quite often as I walk to town I spot a blind person with a white cane at a difficult crossing, where traffic is hard to judge if you can’t see, struggling to decide whether or not it is safe to cross. It’s easy for me to offer help and let them take my arm as I choose the right moment to cross. It costs me no more than a minute or two and I know exactly what needs doing.

It gets harder with large groups that are equally in need of my help, if not more so, because effective help would require more effort and more knowhow. I might baulk at the idea of helping thousands of refugees even though I wanted to.

That was not the biggest problem though. What about those who undoubtedly are playing a part in creating the refugee problem, Isis for example? I have no problem helping the physically blind. What should be my attitude to the morally blind, those who might harm me if I try to help them and who are impossible for me to like let alone love? Isn’t moral blindness deserving of compassion and effective help?

In the workshop we got as far as realising that society has a responsibility to understand their deficiencies and seek to remedy them compassionately, while keeping those individuals who are doing this work safe from harm at the hands of psychopaths or fanatical ideologues.

It was heartening to find that Ricard’s book addresses exactly the same issue more effectively (page 28):

Like the sun that shines equally over both the “good” and the “bad,” over a magnificent landscape as well as over a pile of trash, impartiality extends to all beings without distinction. When compassion thus conceived is directed at a person who is causing great harm to others, it does not consist of tolerating, or encouraging by inaction, his hatred and his harmful actions, but in regarding that person as gravely ill or stricken with madness, and wishing that he be freed from the ignorance and hostility that are in him. This doesn’t mean that one will consider anyone who does not share one’s moral principles or deeply disagrees with them, as being ill. It refers to people whose views lead them to seriously harm others. In other words, it is not a matter of contemplating harmful actions with a equanimity, even indifference, but of understanding that it is possible to eradicate their causes the way that one can eliminate the causes of an illness.

In explaining a related meditative exercise he recommends (page 263):

Go further; include in this loving kindness, those who have harmed you, even those who are harming humanity in general. That does not mean that you want them to succeed in their malevolent undertakings; you simply form the wish that they give up their hatred, greed, cruelty or indifference, and that they become kind and concerned for the well-being of others. Look at them the way a doctor looks at his most seriously ill patients. Finally, embrace all sentient beings in a feeling of limitless and love.


James Fallon (far right) with his wife, daughters, and son.

What becomes even clearer both in terms of Ricard’s argument in his book as a whole, but also in terms of the Bahá’í model of civilisation building, is that prevention is infinitely better then cure. We need to address the problem of how to enable our society as a whole to widen its compass of compassion so that everyone who grows up within its sphere of influence embraces the whole of humanity in its circle of concern. There is some evidence (see link for Fallon’s view) to suggest that certain kinds of positive experience can temper the destructive aspects of even a genetic predisposition to psychopathy.

And once we have convinced ourselves of this, and we must do it soon, we need to ensure that we educate our children to become citizens who will feel inwardly compelled to take responsibility for the care of everyone and everything that lies directly or indirectly within their power. We must ensure that this sense of responsibility is not just a feeling. We must ensure that it is active.

More of this next time.


[1] The term ‘pale’ came to mean the area enclosed by a paling fence and later just figuratively ‘the area that is enclosed and safe’. So to be ‘beyond the pale’ was to be outside the area accepted as ‘home’. Catherine the Great created the Pale of Settlement in Russia in 1791. This was the name given to the western border region of the country, in which Jews were allowed to live. The motivation behind this was to restrict trade between Jews and native Russians. Some Jews were allowed to live, as a concession, ‘beyond the pale’. (See link for source of reference.)


Yesterday the regular email came into my inbox from The Greater Good website. Yet again it contained a link to another interesting article. This one is quite timely because Monday’s post will be dealing in part with the issue of egotism. This article by Kristin Neff makes an important distinction between selfishness and self-care. Below is a short extract: for a full consideration of the five myths see link.

Most people don’t have any problem with seeing compassion as a thoroughly commendable quality. It seems to refer to an amalgam of unquestionably good qualities: kindness, mercy, tenderness, benevolence, understanding, empathy, sympathy, and fellow-feeling, along with an impulse to help other living creatures, human or animal, in distress.

But we seem less sure about self-compassion. For many, it carries the whiff of all those other bad “self” terms: self-pity, self-serving, self-indulgent, self-centered, just plain selfish. Even many generations removed from our culture’s Puritan origins, we still seem to believe that if we aren’t blaming and punishing ourselves for something, we risk moral complacency, runaway egotism, and the sin of false pride.

Consider Rachel, a 39-year-old marketing executive with two kids and a loving husband. A deeply kind person, devoted wife, involved parent, supportive friend, and hard worker, she also finds time to volunteer for two local charities. In short, she appears to be an ideal role model.

But Rachel’s in therapy because her levels of stress are so high. She’s tired all the time, depressed, unable to sleep. She experiences chronic low-level digestive problems and sometimes—to her horror—snaps at her husband and kids. Through all this, she’s incredibly hard on herself, always feeling that whatever she’s done isn’t good enough. Yet she’d never consider trying to be compassionate to herself. In fact, the very idea of letting up on her self-attack, giving herself some kindness and understanding, strikes her as somehow childish and irresponsible.

And Rachel isn’t alone. Many people in our culture have misgivings about the idea of self-compassion, perhaps because they don’t really know what it looks like, much less how to practice it. Often the practice of self-compassion is identified with the practice of mindfulness, now as ubiquitous as sushi in the West. But while mindfulness—with its emphasis on being experientially open to and aware of our own suffering without being caught up in it and swept away by aversive reactivity—is necessary for self-compassion, it leaves out an essential ingredient. What distinguishes self-compassion is that it goes beyond accepting our experience as it is and adds something more—embracing the experiencer (i.e., ourselves) with warmth and tenderness when our experience is painful.

Self-compassion also includes an element of wisdom—recognition of our common humanity. This means accepting the fact that, along with everyone else on the planet, we’re flawed and imperfect individuals, just as likely as anyone else to be hit by the slings and arrows of outrageous (but perfectly normal) misfortune. This sounds obvious, but it’s funny how easily we forget. We fall into the trap of believing that things are “supposed” to go well and that when we make a mistake or some difficulty comes along, something must have gone terribly wrong. (Uh, excuse me. There must be some error. I signed up for the everything-will-go-swimmingly-until-the-day-I-die plan. Can I speak to the management please?) The feeling that certain things “shouldn’t” be happening makes us feel both shamed and isolated. At those times, remembering that we aren’t really alone in our suffering—that hardship and struggle are deeply embedded in the human condition—can make a radical difference.


For Source of image see link

Given how much I quote psychological research on this blog, I was not comfortable to read a couple of recent articles which call psychology methodology into question from two different angles: one in terms of the use of deception and the other in terms of failure to replicate. In all conscience though I felt I had to share them as I draw on this body of evidence so much: I owe you all a psychological health warning.

The first article, Lying for Science by Antonio Melechi on the Aeon website, is a long and interesting read that a friend flagged up for me and, while his treatment of the issue of deception is important including even a sideswipe in passing at Zimbardo, what grabbed my attention most were the doubts flagged up about the validity of Milgram’s work on obedience.

The Australian psychologist Gina Perry has recently claimed that Milgram, as well as overlooking the sizeable number of volunteers who refused to comply with the experimenter’s demands, ignored the misgivings voiced by those who were skeptical of his learning experiment. At least one of Milgram’s laboratory volunteers withdrew, suspecting that ‘the whole experiment was designed to see if ordinary Americans would obey immoral orders’. Some participants were nonplussed by the experimenter’s indifference towards the ‘learners’ and unconvinced by the anguished cries that came from a nearby loudspeaker; others had an inchoate sense of something being amiss. Far from providing a reliable proxy of real-life behaviour, Milgram had, at best, staged a bold but confusing charade, a ham-fisted invitation to make-believe.

Given how often I quote him to support my line of reasoning, this kind of undermining is not good!

Below is a short extract from this statement of valid concerns marred by the odd cheap shot: for the full post see link.

Nearly 50 years ago, a 35-year-old bank employee from Madrid named Jordán Peña had a fiendish idea: he would contact fellow UFO-spotters across the city, purporting to be an extraterrestrial – DEI 98, from the planet Ummo. Spinning an audaciously convoluted yarn, Peña would proceed to chronicle the turbulent history of the fictitious planet, drip-feeding his saucer-eyed compadres information on the curious physiology of Ummo’s inhabitants, the intricacies of their language and system of government, and the mind-boggling technologies that they had deployed on recent missions to traverse the 14.6 light years from Ummo to earth.

Several hundred letters later, Peña’s Space Age prank was running amok. Letters from DEI 98 were hot property. Academics were beginning to give serious attention to the Ummite language and their constellation of pseudo-scientific formulas. And a Bolivian spiritualist cult, ‘the daughters of Ummo’, embraced the Ummite teachings with messianic fervour. Have faith, the Ummites are coming.  

When Señor Peña eventually stepped forward to reveal himself as the author of the Ummo correspondence, ufologists had good reason to suspect that his prodigiously elaborate hoax was probably a government-sponsored exercise in misinformation. Peña remained poker-faced. He had acted alone. He was testing a pet theory of widespread paranoia, and he was using the tried and tested methodology of every social psychologist. Ummo was not a hoax: it was an experiment.

In many ways, this was a plausible cover story. Peña’s alleged experiment was certainly conceived in an era when all manner of risky stratagems and questionable illusions were deemed fair play within the social sciences, especially in the field of social psychology. A few years earlier, to generate evidence for the theory of cognitive dissonance, the American psychologist Leon Festinger had staged a CIA-style undercover operation, infiltrating the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, a Chicago-based Doomsday cult that was nervously awaiting the arrival of an extra-terrestrial rescue party, sent to save them from the Great Deluge which was, they believed, about to engulf North America.

Meanwhile, in order to study the whys and wherefores of inter-group conflict, the Turkish-born psychologist Muzafer Sherif donned caretaker’s overalls, spying on and stirring up enmity between 22 boys on a bogus summer camp in Oklahoma. And in the most controversial of all social psychology experiments, Stanley Milgram at Yale had tried to shed light on the kind of unthinking obedience found within the ranks of the Third Reich by way of a fake ‘learning experiment’, in which volunteers were asked to administer electric shocks to fellow subjects.

With the blustering chutzpah of the short-con artist and the slick artistry of the stage magician, Festinger, Sherif and Milgram led the generation of post-war psychologists that contrived to rewrite the rules of laboratory and field research. Whether hiding out in public toilets, staging blood-splattered accidents, feigning madness to gain entry to psychiatric hospitals, or commissioning Hollywood actors to deliver nonsensical lectures on game theory, these tenured tricksters were convinced of one thing: deception was the only reliable way of studying true-to-life behaviour.


Photograph: Pere Sanz / Alamy/Alamy (for source of image see link)

The second article Psychology experiments are failing the replication test by , from the Guardian at the end of August, I stumbled across myself and choked on the evidence indicating that ‘In the investigation, a whopping 75% of the social psychology experiments were not replicated, meaning that the originally reported findings vanished when other scientists repeated the experiments. Half of the cognitive psychology studies failed the same test. Details are published in the journal Science.’

Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

A major investigation into scores of claims made in psychology research journals has delivered a bleak verdict on the state of the science.

An international team of experts repeated 100 experiments published in top psychology journals and found that they could reproduce only 36% of original findings.

The study, which saw 270 scientists repeat experiments on five continents, was launched by psychologists in the US in response to rising concerns over the reliability of psychology research.

“There is no doubt that I would have loved for the effects to be more reproducible,” said Brian Nosek, a professor of psychology who led the study at the University of Virgina. “I am disappointed, in the sense that I think we can do better.”

“The key caution that an average reader should take away is any one study is not going to be the last word,” he added. “Science is a process of uncertainty reduction, and no one study is almost ever a definitive result on its own.”

All of the experiments the scientists repeated appeared in top ranking journals in 2008 and fell into two broad categories, namely cognitive and social psychology. Cognitive psychology is concerned with basic operations of the mind, and studies tend to look at areas such as perception, attention and memory. Social psychology looks at more social issues, such as self esteem, identity, prejudice and how people interact.

Dad in Civil Defence

My father (centre) in the Civil Defence

The first memory I have from my childhood is of my father stepping through the backdoor in the morning light after an anxious night scanning the sky and listening for the warning of the siren’s wail. I rushed to greet him as he was taking his helmet off.

I pleaded with him to let me try it on. He wasn’t keen but finally gave in. All I can remember after that was the sting of the dust that fell into my eyes. Since that time I have never been completely able to shake that dust out of my mind.

Baby gas maskFrom time to time over the succeeding years we would take out the gas masks and recall the times spent in the cellar hiding from the bombs with our sawn off Darth Vader headgear at the ready. I have no memory obviously of ever wearing the gas mask for babies, but when we tried on the adult ones after the war we looked like stranded frogmen and the humour perhaps helped soften the memories for my parents. At primary school on rainy days our lunchtime recreation took place in the windowless red-brick air raid shelter next to the playground. The two doors at each end were angled so that almost no light could travel in or out. In virtually complete darkness we would play a variation of piggy-in-the-middle using the stones which lay all around the floor. How there were no serious injuries with so much stone flying through the darkness I will never know.

It was quite some years after the war before the blackout blinds in our kitchen were replaced by something more cheerful and ration books disappeared at last. The terror of those days of war must still have been with me when I went on to grammar school. The last version of the nightmare that had haunted my childhood came only then I am sure. I was running for my life, pursued by the Gestapo. I burst through the doors of the gymnasium at Stockport School and dashed towards the wall-bars at the end (interesting symbol in such a situation). As I clambered to the top, the doors at the far end burst open and the pursuing gang of torturers burst in and I woke terrified.

Later, as I read about the war as a young adult I came to realise that Hitler was almost certainly a narcissistic megalomaniac psychopath. The mystery was how so many people bought into his fantasies and followed him. I could only hope the same thing would never happen again but books such as Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism and her concept of the ‘banality of evil,’ as well as Fromm’s The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness were not entirely reassuring on that point.

Altruism Black Earth

What about now?

The spread of a dark ideology is woven into the pattern of our current culture. It is derived from a distortion of Darwinism. It shapes behaviour for which it is also used as an excuse.

I am currently reading Matthieu Ricard’s book on altruism and Timothy Snyder’s book on Nazism in tandem. It feels a bit like switching the light on and off in rapid alternation.

Not that Ricard’s book is blind to the dark side of our world at all. He argues that the prevalent credibility of the specious argument that human beings have evolved to be selfish leaves many people feeling that this is a self-evident truth that we simply have to accept, however reluctantly, and is used by others to explain and justify their self-seeking egotism.

He quotes (page 165) Frans de Waal who, speaking of Enron, the company ‘which went bankrupt thanks to embezzlement,’ said: ‘”the company’s CEO, Jeff Skilling – now in prison – was a great fan of Richard DawkinsThe Selfish Gene, and deliberately tried to mimic nature by instigating cutthroat competition within his company.”’

Ricard’s argument against accepting this toxic doctrine is, in my view, clear and compelling. He not only quotes Darwin himself as supporting the force of cooperation as an evolutionary positive but also adduces a wealth of replicable evidence to refute the baseless conviction that all behaviour, however apparently altruistic, is selfishly motivated.  This creed is completely contradicted by test after scientific test.

Sadly, though, evidence which is compelling for me is incredible to the all-too-many adherents of this cynical dogma (page 138):

Nonetheless, when confronted with the numerous examples of altruism which, like us, they witness in their daily lives, supporters of universal selfishness set to work proposing explanations that defy common sense. In other cases, they simply take for granted that genuine altruism can’t exist.

We’ve been here before, of course, with the battle being fought by reductionist materialists against the possibility of psi (see my posts on Mario Beauregard’s The Spiritual Brain). Daniel Batson, one of the key researchers into altruism, has responded to the critics by repeatedly producing further evidence for the genuineness of altruism that answers their current particular criticism and rules out their alternative explanations. In the end, in terms of this belief in the inherent selfishness of humanity (page 139), Ricard concludes that ‘A theory that is in principle unfalsifiable is not scientific, it is an ideology.’


For source of image see link.

The Second World War 

And this is where Snyder comes into his own. His book is written as a warning to us that we should not complacently assume that we would never repeat the horrors of the Second World War. He feels that we are not so different from the people of that time that we could never repeat their nightmarish mistakes if the right conditions returned, as well they might, in his view. He raises the frightening possibility that, when we feel sufficiently threatened and an apparently plausible explanation comes along which appears to account for the threat and provides a supposedly effective defence, often by means of eliminating a scapegoat population, the vast majority of us will probably run eagerly after its proponents pleading to get on board, even if it means colluding in the slaughter of millions of completely innocent people, usually somewhere out of sight.

By what kinds of seductive pathways can this hell on earth be approached?

Most people born as I was in the shadow of the war will be fully aware of the Holocaust and its horrendous and abhorrent genocidal processes. What Snyder’s book does is examine in detail the various complex threads of argument by which this iniquity was made so palatable to so many.

In this first post I shall explore only one of these. Another will follow later. I am choosing this one first because of the overlap it detects between racist ideology and the very same culture that helped rescue Europe from Nazism – an irony that we would be wise to remember when we complacently assume that not only were we completely different then but that we could never ever be the same in the future.

While this thread links to the settlement made at the end of WW1 and the allocation of land that Germany thought should be hers, there is more to it than that, though clearly many in Germany felt that the settlement was unjust. And simply adding anti-Semitism into the mix doesn’t quite get there either. We need to add, amongst other things, the idea of Lebensraum and the provision of food that this would make possible. A key paragraph comes as early as page 15 in Black Earth:

“For Germany,” wrote Hitler, “the only possibility of a sound agrarian policy was the acquisition of land within Europe itself.” To be sure, there was no place near Germany that was uninhabited or even underpopulated. The crucial thing was to imagine that European” spaces” were, in fact, “open.” Racism was the idea that turned populated lands into potential colonies, and the source mythologies for racists arose from the recent colonisation of North America and Africa. The conquest and exploitation of these continents by Europeans formed the literary imagination of Europeans of Hitler’s generation. . . .

For the German general who pursued these policies, the historical justice was self-evident. “The natives must give way,” he said. “Look at America.” . . . . The civilian head of the German colonial office saw matters much the same way, “The history of the colonisation of the United States, clearly the biggest colonial endeavour the world has ever known, had as its first act the complete annihilation of its native peoples.” He understood the need for an “annihilation operation.” The German state geologist called for a “Final Solution to the native question.”

An equally sinister extension of this thesis was (page 17) the idea that ‘experience in eastern Europe had established that neighbours could also be “black.” Europeans could be imagined to want “masters” and yield “space.” After the war, it was more practical to consider a return to Eastern Europe than to Africa.’ To this end Hitler (page 18) ‘presented as racial inferiors the largest cultural group in Europe, Germany’s eastern neighbours, the Slavs.’ So it was not only the Jews who were racially slurred and targeted.

This relates closely to John Fitzgerald Medina’s thesis, in his thought-provoking book Faith, Physics & Psychology, about how the founders of America managed to reconcile the rhetoric of their egalitarian constitution with profiting from both their virtual genocide of the Native Americans and from their practice of slavery, and about how the Nazis derived part of their inspiration from this. The Nazis, as well as highly esteemed figures in American history, justified their self-serving actions by invoking the notion that Africans and Native Americans were inherently inferior, an ideology of racism that persists in America and to some extent in Europe to this day, potential seeds of future denigration and genocide if we do not find effective means of transforming our collective consciousness. The diverse reactions, some of them very negative, towards the current influx of refugees suggests we might still have a long way to go before we are cleansed of racism and would never again be tempted towards ethnic cleansing of some kind at some point if we thought it served our purposes effectively enough.

Ricard also deals in some detail with how certain social and psychological factors can distance us from the humanity of others and lead to extremes of cruelty and mass killings (cf especially Chapter 30 – Dehumanising the Other) even though there is a deep-seated natural revulsion against killing our own kind (Chapter 29). While it is hard to predict in any given situation what proportion of a population will actively participate in a pogrom, if we can convince ourselves the other is not human our reluctance to kill can be overcome with horrific consequences. This remains true to this day and we would be wise not to forget it.

This is just the starting point for an examination of where we might go from here. Next time we’ll dig a bit deeper into the problem before looking at some of the possible remedies in the final post.

James-Rhodes-009An honest and refreshing take by  on the old and frequently rehearsed theme of ‘madness,’ whatever that is, and creativity, was published recently in the Guardian. Below is a short extract: for the full article see link.

The mad composer. Note after excruciating note dragged out on to manuscript paper, 2 stone in weight lost while composing his latest opera, bronchial infections from the cold, absinthe on a drip. Mumbling to himself, shouting at strangers, scribbling bar lines on restaurant napkins, sitting at a piano, freezing and alone in a garret with “it doesn’t have to be mad to work here but it helps” written on the wall. In his own shit.

It’s a cliche as erroneous as it is widespread and it is, forgive me, quite maddening and completely false.

The truth is that there is no more a link between star sign and intelligence than there is between madness and creativity. That a link has been drawn between the two is, however, under–standable. How else can we explain the outrageous creative power of a Mozart or a Beethoven without resorting to some kind of brain chemistry imbalance? If these guys were as normal as everyone else, then where is the magic? It is the sad way of the world that someone doing something extraordinary (Beethoven) has to have an extra dollop of extraordinary (bipolar disorder) to make it, well, even more extraordinary.

Creativity is a broad subject. Musical creativity is what I know about. It’s my job, my passion, my absolute reason for being. And let me tell you something categorically: the great composers were not mad. Disturbed, sure. Angry, broke, alcoholic, anxious, neurotic, syphilis-ridden, depressed, grieving – often. As are most of us for that matter (minus the syphilis). But with the singular exception of Schumann, whose fictional characters Florestan and Eusebius were invented by him to depict in music his bipolar mood swings, there is not one big-name composer who, by today’s standards, would be hospitalised, or likely even diagnosed, with one of the more severe mental illnesses.

And I think that qualification of severity is the point – we are all, to an extent, a little bit mad. We are all most definitely diagnosable. I have not met anyone who does not tick most of the boxes in at least one condition set out in the DSM-5 (the diagnostic manual for mental illness so beloved of psychiatrists around the world). Glance at Twitter, look at the NHS stats on obesity or alcohol-relate illnesses, open a newspaper. We are the emotionally walking wounded. We also know very little about the mind. Keats saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed him with a “mental illness related to poetry” and I’d love to think things have moved on, but my experience is that they haven’t. Not really. Medication has got better, diagnoses are slightly more accurate (and expanded), Jeremy Corbyn has introduced a new shadow cabinet post for mental health, stigma has been reduced. But I think that if we were really to understand just how little our doctors know about the workings of our mind as they prescribe yet more meds for us, we’d be absolutely terrified. I’ve been diagnosed with at least seven different mental conditions over the past 10 years and it scares me that, simply put, all or none of them could be true.

Mindfulness books

‘Where on earth has the Williams book on mindfulness gone?’ Bill muttered to himself furiously. ‘I knew it was a mistake to reorganise my books. Whenever I do that I can never find anything.’

He scanned his shelves, feeling as though his eyes were sticking out on stalks.

‘Ah, there it is,’ he spluttered triumphantly as he spotted it tucked at the top of a stack of books, almost hidden by the shelf above. He added it to the pile on his desk ready for the meditation experience that evening.

The plan was to do the meditation in the dining room. The upright chairs there were the only ones suitable for keeping a straight back in the hope of straightening the mind. The sitting room sofas and armchairs were great if you wanted to slump and sleep, but that wasn’t the aim this evening.

Carrying the books, he went downstairs to check on the state of the dining room.

‘That’s nice of her,’ he thought, as he spotted the small table with a candle which Mary, his wife, had placed in the centre of the space between chairs he’d laid out earlier. He spread the books on the dining table near the window: Easwaran, Williams, Leaping Hare and Thoresen.

There were only six straight-backed chairs and they were expecting seven people. He decided not to fret about that just yet. The first thing was to decide exactly what approach to take.

He had convinced himself that there were a number of those coming who hadn’t tried meditation before. Perhaps he should have been more surprised about this, given that currently meditation seems to be the third most popular activity after sleeping and eating, at least among his circle of acquaintances.

‘Right,’ he said to himself. ‘Think what to do. I’d better find out how much people really know. I think it’ll be pretty basic.’

He ran with that. He decided he’d make it clear he wasn’t an expert – more like we are all investigating together. He’d tell them it had taken him three months or so, when he started to meditate, to move from being able to focus on his chosen object of meditation for only a minute or so to being able to meditate, with the odd deviation, for ten minutes of more. He’d talk about how people differ and one size of meditation wouldn’t fit all. He’d use the example of how we all differ in terms of our default mode of sensing reality: some of us are visual and rely on our eyes, some are more auditory and verbal, preferring our ears, and some, like him, were tuned more into bodily sensations. He planned to give people a choice of how to meditate based on their preferences in this respect.

As he headed for the kitchen to make himself a coffee, he remembered a joke he’d read many years ago.

‘What do you do if you want to make God laugh?”

‘I don’t know. What do you do?’

‘Make a plan.’

‘I’ll just go with the flow,’ he smiled to himself.

. . . . . .

As the time for the session approached he found himself getting increasingly nervous. He kept pacing to the window to see whether any cars were driving up the slope to the house. He knew one person wasn’t coming: she’d had to visit her mother in hospital after an accident.

No chair problem, then. But it was already seven-twenty. Where was everyone else?

He spotted his car through the dining room window and realised it was parked too low down the drive. He went outside to pull it up a bit more to make room for the two other cars he was expecting. As he walked to the car with the keys in his hand, he saw a familiar figure in a fawn jumper striding round the corner at the bottom of the road. They grinned at each other.

‘I thought Megan was giving you a lift?’

‘She changed her mind. Not sure why,’ Ron replied.

‘Well, the walk will have done you good. Come on in.’

This plan to learn about meditation together seemed to be creating more stress than calm. Not what was planned at all.

‘It’ll just be the three of us and Fleur then, it seems,’ Bill said as they all sat down in the comfy hall chairs to wait for her.

Just as they began to explore why Megan and her friend hadn’t come, there was a knock at the door, somewhat to Ron’s relief.

‘Come in,’ Mary shouted.

‘She can’t,’ Bill exclaimed as he groped for the key. ‘The door’s locked.’

He opened it to find the tall pale figure of Fleur smiling just outside with her hand reaching for the door handle.

He welcomed her in and as they sat waiting for the magic moment of 7.30 to arrive he mentioned that Hereford looked as though it might be preparing to welcome its quota of refugees and that we might need to help in some way.

‘It’s fine but we need to find a way of putting an end to the wars that are driving this,’ Fleur replied.

‘Well,’ Bill said, ‘that’ll take at least a generation to achieve, and in the meanwhile we have to do something. I read a good suggestion somewhere that we should remove all restrictions and give everyone a visa for a year. That would give us breathing space to think, make quotas more acceptable, and go some way to making dangerous boat trips less appealing because there would be a legal way into Europe.’

Candle lit room

On that note of relative harmony they all moved to the dining room where Bill lit the candle as they sat. He asked how much they knew about meditation and quailed to discover it was a lot more than he had thought. Plan A was looking suspect. There was no Plan B.

‘Oh well, blast on regardless,’ he thought, explaining in addition that this was not about having mystical experiences but about connecting with one’s true self at the deepest level.

Which they obligingly tried to do. A candle for the visually inclined, a mantram for the verbal and following the breath for the rest.

‘I just can’t stop my thoughts,’ Ron shared as they spoke about the experience they’d had. ‘I look at the candle and I’m analysing it straightaway. The flame’s trembling. It’s darker at the bottom. I just can’t stop.’

‘I find it easiest to meditate while walking. I just focus on the middle distance and my mind quietens down,’ was Fleur’s experience. ‘Sitting still is harder for me. The after image of the candle is more helpful than the candle itself.’

‘The candle flame works beautifully for me,’ Mary explained. ‘As I stare at the flame my mind goes silent and all that I experience is the glow of the flame.’

‘That shows how different we are,’ thought Bill to himself.

Out loud he added, ‘I tried all three just to see if my preference for bodily sensations had changed. The candle didn’t stop me thinking, but as Fleur said, the after image worked better. Even so I find following the breath works best.’

They agreed to try again with only one method.

‘Can I use my app?’ Ron asked.

‘Only if you have earphones,’ Bill crisped.

‘No. It’s OK. There’s no music or instructions. It’s just the bells. I can set it so we can meditate for 15 minutes with one bell at five minutes and another at 10.’

‘I can’t do fifteen minutes,’ Mary chipped in with a hint of panic in her voice. ‘Can we just do five again or can I step out?’

So it was agreed to do only five minutes with a bell after two.

As soon as the last bell rang, it was clear they’d all had enough. Even before Bill could ask for feedback, Fleur said, ‘Time for tea,’ and they all stood up.

. . . . . .

They sat in the relaxing chairs in the entrance hall, each sipping their different tea: two with mixed fruit, one with camomile, and Bill with his favourite lemon and ginger. Fleur was thumbing through Easwaran’s book, which she’d picked up off the dining room table, wondering what Bill’s purple question marks in the margins meant, but not daring to ask.

‘How do you know when you’re meditating and a thought comes, that it’s not from somewhere deep inside and should be attended to?’ asked Ron.


‘That’s a good question,’ Fleur said, lifting her head from the book.

‘It is,’ said Bill. ‘I often have that problem. If I’m meditating during a period when I’ve been struggling to solve a problem the answer, sometimes quite complex, comes shooting into my mind out of the blue. Nowadays I keep a pad and pen close by and write it down if it seems that important. If I don’t and keep meditating, I either keep thinking of the solution so I don’t forget it, spoiling the meditation, or focus on my mantram and at the end can’t remember what the solution was exactly.’

‘But wouldn’t it still be meditation if you simply focused on the answer you have found for the rest of the meditation time?’

‘I suppose it would,’ agreed Fleur. ‘That’s how creativity works. Ideas come when the mind is quiet and you need to catch hold of them when they come or you lose them.’

‘True,’ Bill chimed in. ‘The soul or the heart, whatever you want to call it, usually only tells me once. If I ignore what it said, it doesn’t tell me again.’

‘I think I meditate so that I can choose when to tune into my heart and receive these insights, rather than wait for them to come at random when I’m doing the dishes or I’m out for a walk,’ Fleur continued.

‘Or listening to music,’ Ron added.

There seemed to be general agreement on this point. Everyone felt it was a good time to stop. It remains to be seen if they will meet again next month.



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