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I'm begging of you please don't take my man
This week: why we love to moralise, how clever teams make stupid decisions, and Sigmund Freud's advice on public speaking.
Barack Obama's gentle critique of call-out culture" - that is, the tendency among progressive activists to divide people in good and bad, sinners and saved - is only notable because it needs saying. It should be obvious that democracy survives only if we accept that people can be very different from us, with very different views, and still be worthy of some minimal level of respect. But it's simpler and less tiring to dismiss people as stupid or repellent; to dump them in the basket of deplorables. Not just simpler, but pleasurable. We get our sense of self-worth affirmed when we condemn others, and some people get a dominance kick out of it too. A team of researchers has named the phenomenon "moral grandstanding". I don't like the self-report methodology but their profile of a moral grandstander fits certain politicians and columnists to a tee. Having said that if we define "moral grandstanders" as a type of person and dismiss them, we'll end up repeating the problem.
KINDNESS OF CROWDS
My latest column for the New Statesman was inspired by this extraordinary footage of Extinction Rebellion protesters being shouted at by an angry crowd of commuters on a train platform. It made me ask whether XR is making a mistake by adopting this kind of confrontational approach. I was helped by this thoughtful post by a social activist, written before this incident, arguing that XR needs to rethink its tactics.
Also for the New Statesman, I wrote about Robert Iger's business memoir, The Ride of a Lifetime. Iger has been the CEO of Disney for the last fifteen years. He's been spectacularly effective, sealing a series of huge deals that transformed the company. His book is an education in the way the media landscape has changed, in how to produce great creative work, and in how to be a strong leader without being an asshole. He has good advice on giving feedback to creative people: always start with the big stuff, never the details, and be honest.
The people who created the epic disaster of the Vietnam war were far from stupid. The team around Kennedy and then Johnson was full of incredibly smart, high achieving and well-meaning individuals. Yet somehow, collectively, they made a long series of terrible decisions. This brilliantly written 1968 piece, from a former member of that team, analyses the reasons why. It stands today not just an explanation of why Vietnam happened, but as a cautionary tale for all decision-making teams.
A few months ago, David Attenborough argued that Britain should take the lead on climate change because we "started the problem" with the industrial revolution. I'm not sure if he meant it quite like this but it's not uncommon for people to say or imply that the industrial revolution was some sort of slightly unfortunate historical development, instead of what it is, which is by far - by far - the best thing that has ever happened to our species. This post from a few years back is a useful summary of the miraculous transformation of human existence wrought by those decades (roughly 1760-1830). It's hard for us to grasp now, but for most of our history the norm was extreme poverty, terrible health, and fear of imminent death from disease or warfare. Economic security and health and leisure were the privileges of a tiny fraction of the global population, rather than benefits enjoyed by billions of people. We take nearly everything that makes life bearable for granted. We assume it's natural or just the way things are, rather than the result of a historical rupture as freakish as the advent of multi-cellular life.
10% of McDonald's UK sales come via Uber Eats.
I think Olivia Nuzzi is my favourite writer/reporter on American politics. She can't write a dead sentence. Her new piece - a portrait of Joe Biden on the trail - is typically good. I don't buy its assumptions (I don't think he's doing quite as badly as she suggests) but there's so much to treasure here. Like all the best profiles it makes a sort of argument with itself. Anyway, just read it. If I was a Democrat I'd find it hard to pick between Biden and Warren. Both are capable of beating Trump, who is a weak candidate, but much depends on your appetite for risk. Given the nightmare of a second Trump term, mine would be extremely low (if the incumbent was President Romney, the calculus might be different). I think Warren would be a better president than Biden, but she seems like a riskier bet. Her healthcare plan involves removing people's private insurance. Fairness and efficiency disaster that the U.S. healthcare system is, if you're lucky enough to have good private insurance, you get a great service. Taking that away would be a huge and unwelcome change to the lives of millions of voters. That's before we get to Warren's other vulnerabilities, which Andrew Sullivan sums up in a couple of caustic paragraphs. But, well, she's impressive. If you want to find out more about Warren, listen to this interview with David Axelrod from a few months back. The Axe gently tries to get her off script and mostly fails; she's disappointingly disciplined, and, as a teacher, she likes to talk. But what a script - her personal story is amazing. By the way, one intriguing sub-plot of the election is who Obama favours. It should be Biden, right? But I'm not sure it is. One of the notable things about Nuzzi's piece is the number of critical quotes about Biden from Axelrod - Obama's close friend.
Rachel Aviv is an incredible reporter and storyteller. This story will make you angry but it will grip you from beginning to end.
Anyone nervous about public speaking can learn from Sigmund Freud's inspirational example.
POD: DOLLY'S WORLD
Dolly Parton is one of America's greatest songwriters, yet we rarely think of her that way. A new podcast, Dolly Parton's America, explores Dolly's life, work, and significance. I knew it would be good because it's from Jad Abumrad of Radiolab, a master of the form. But wow, it's better than good. I always find it moving when someone amazing that the culture doesn't take seriously or takes for granted gets given their due, and that's what Abumrad does here. He does something more than that, too - he puts Parton's life and career in the context of women in American society, and the rise of feminism. Make sure you stay for the story of Grandma Betty! Another podcast recommendation: this interview with the CIA's former "Chief of Disguise", yes that is a real job title. OK one more: go listen to Thom Yorke on Desert Island Discs.
EVENTUALLY, WE STOP KNOCKING
No Reply is not one of my favourite Beatles songs but reading this essay by Rosanna Cash made me hear it anew. She writes beautifully about her relationship to the song, the sound of Lennon's voice, and what makes a great song work.
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