On politics and the dichotomy of the human condition

This post took a lot of thought detours in its creation, and in so doing strayed very far from its roots. Nevertheless, it has been a while since I’ve posted a genuine ‘musing’.

At any rate, this post started life as a tweet.

Oh good, always nice to see news that makes me proud to be a ‘liberal’ leftie… Some days I’m embarrassed I even studied politics.

Today was the Conservative Party Conference, an event marred by the thuggish behaviour of a small number of otherwise peaceful protesters. It was yet another story about how a subset of the wouldn’t-say-boo-to-a-goose left had been perpetrators of violence and acts against the fabric of democracy itself.

I’d made mutterings when similar behaviour occurred after the General Election. But the sentiment expressed in the tweet I mentioned above (which, incidentally, I ended up not posting) wasn’t a fair one. It wasn’t fair to the rest of the left who don’t throw eggs or spit on people. It wasn’t fair to the right, who’s anger I was stealing and making my own. I was being, as much as it is possible to be in 140 characters, entirely self-serving.

Yet I am frustrated by events like this, and not just because they are brainless acts of cruelty.

To my mind, I have the brain of an economist. I studied Economics at A level and onto my Bachelors degree. I believe in free markets and in the power of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. I believe that supply and demand should be the sole arbiters of value, and there is still a tiny part of my brain that believes in the logic of the ‘trickle down effect’ (despite all evidence to the contrary). On paper I agree with the notion that government should be as small as possible, and – to quote the character of Ainsley Hayes from The West Wing – we should “just stick to the [laws] we absolutely need to have water come out of the faucet and our cars not stolen.”

But that’s my head – the cut and dried academic in me.

I also believe in social security, in a state funded healthcare system where doctors and nurses are appropriately compensated for the incredible work they do. I believe in benefits for those who cannot provide for themselves. I believe that price gouging is not just reprehensible, but should be illegal. And I believe that those who earn more should be taxed more. I’m not saying that these are things that people on the right can’t believe, of course. But by and large when these issues are raised in a discussion I fall decidedly to the left.

The two don’t compute. To grossly oversimplify things, how can I on the one hand agree that markets work best when they are left completely free, and at the same time demand there be a state-mandated minimum wage? Does it make sense that I want government to be as small as possible, and yet want it to subsidise things like public transport and to regulate the banking sector?

I know that there is a middle ground with all of these things. It just frustrates me that those lines have to be drawn by political parties. Whenever the media reports on politics with an ‘us vs them‘ attitude – regardless of who is on what side, that is what goes through my mind. Party politics is, in my opinion, one of the most damaging things to our country’s interests. It facilitates, no – it encourages, ignorance of the issues at stake in favour of ideological entrenchment.

This, incidentally, is not merely the insomnia inspired ramblings of someone going through a minor existential crisis (though, I can’t entirely deny that might be a contributing factor). I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on political apathy in the ‘younger generation’, and a similar set of feelings played a large part in the lack of engagement.

Politics is seen by many – and perhaps younger people moreso – as nothing more than childish. Sure, we occasionally have flickers of real moments from our elected officials. Ultimately though, politics just seems too small a vehicle to tackle today’s issues. It sounds like an insolent thing to say, but all politics ever seems to do is divide people – strange, when you consider the Ancient Greek root of the word means ‘for the citizens’.

Throughout history, great leaders have stood at the genesis of their terms in office and promised a new way of thinking. We have been told that “what unites us is far greater than what divides us.” That we can “go forward together with our united strength.” That change will come “block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.”

And yet the narrative never changes. And the media, eager to retain our fickle attentions for as long as possible, focuses on the conflict because it makes for the more interesting story. We – driven to the gossip like lab rats on dopamine drips – lap it up.

We are homo sapiens – a species literally defined by a thirst for knowledge. In the last 100 years we have advanced further, seen more, and achieved greater than in the 1000 before that. Relatively recently, we fired a probe at a rock over 500 million miles away, on a journey that would take 10 years, just to see what we could learn. A rock the size of a town travelling at 150,000 feet per second, and we hit it, missing the ‘ideal’ landing site by only half a mile. And that was only because a harpoon didn’t fire and the damn thing bounced.

This year – to continue this space theme I’ve got going on – we’ll watch a science fiction film about a guy stranded on the surface of Mars that is actually more science than it is fiction. And one of those pieces of fiction? The film’s costume designer decided to make edits to the character’s space suit because, and I swear I am not making this up, the actual NASA concept is “far too futuristic”. We live in an age where fact is more unbelievable than fiction.

I mention these things to ask whether it seems ridiculous to anyone else that this is happening? That, not resting on the laurels of eradicating polio, we are developing cures to some of the most terrifying diseases in the world. That we are so dissatisfied with what we know of our universe that we built a 17 mile long magnetic ring to smash particles together as fast as humanly possible, just to see what would happen. That we have developed a way to literally print ways to repair the human body. Yet at the same time we are programming cars to falsify emission tests. We’re destroying rainforests in the name of profit. We are throwing eggs at people whose political views don’t align with ours. And even that – not to diminish the act – seems laughably benign compared to the countless atrocities facing the oppressed around the world.

Its a strange and lamentable dichotomy of the human condition.