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I told you when I came I was a stranger
This week: the power of details, the kindness of strangers, and why the most famous poem in the world doesn't say what we say it does.
I have mixed feelings about this week's admission, by the minister responsible for Brexit, that he hadn't realised Britain is an island (OK I exaggerate, though by disturbingly little). On the one hand, I share the general view that Dominic Raab, who is a rabid (raabid?) Brexiteer, ought to have acquainted himself with the basics of British trade long before he found himself in his current position. On the other hand I want politicians to learn on the job, and I want them to be able to admit to learning on the job, without getting pelted for it. Johnson and Davis didn't appear to learn anything during their terms in office, despite having a vast amount to learn, indeed they have made a virtue of being resistant to learning. I don't want that to become the only politically viable stance for a senior politician.
Raab might enjoy this piece, called "Reality has a surprising amount of detail." But seriously, it's really good.
PODS: STATE OF THE NATIONS
My appetite for news about UK politics generally has been quite low recently due to the hysterical pitch of the discourse, and, well, the absence of hope. But I really enjoyed this post-budget discussion between Rupert Harrison (former chief of staff to George Osborne) and Torsten Bell (former economic adviser to Ed Miliband), hosted by Channel 4's Gary Gibbon. They cover a lot of ground, from the state of the economy to the shape of the state, to the future of the main parties. It's the kind of low-bullshit, long-view discussion you get when two insiders from opposite sides who aren't interested in scoring points get together. I found it oddly calming, even mildly cheering. I also recommend this discussion of Identity Crisis, a new book on American politics by three eminent political scientists. It's a data-based conversation that goes deep into the 2016 election and its underlying dynamics, your mileage may vary but I found it fascinating. One theme is that the election was actually a lot more 'normal' than it seemed; most of it can be explained by historical precedent and underlying trends, rather than campaigns or candidates. (They don't say this, but an implication of the "things are more normal than they seem" principle would be that Trump has a better-than-evens chance of re-election, since incumbent presidents usually win a second term). One thing they're very sure of, by the way: Russia and fake news made no difference to the 2016 result.
In my latest Digital Dispatch for the New Statesman I talk about letting a stranger babysit my children and what this tells us about how technology is changing who we trust.
One on the one hand, the Republicans did worse than you would expect given economic conditions. Winning the House means no more legislation and a lot of powers for Democrats to make life quite painful for the White House. On the other hand, Trump won the battle he focused on: the Senate. A bigger margin in the Senate means more freedom to appoint terrible people to important jobs. The firing of Sessions and his replacement with a MAGA chimp may be the first move towards constitutional crisis. One interesting sub-narrative, discussed on the Weeds pod: Democrats from the progressive wing of the party fared worse than centrists. For deep structural reasons, the party can't focus on enthusing its base, even though that works well for the GOP. It needs to attract disaffected Republican voters. Finally, I point you to Nate Silver's argument that Democrats may have a reason to be cheerful about 2020.
The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost's poem about two paths diverging in a wood, is quite possibly the best known and most quoted poem in the world. It's also the most misunderstood. As this Paris Review essay says, the popular interpretation is that the poet chooses the path "less traveled by" and that this bold decision "made all the difference". That sounds inspiring - the kind of thing you'd want on a motivational poster. It fits with American ideals of individual heroism and agency. But actually the poem's stance is teasingly ironic. Read a little more closely and you see that the two paths only seemed different; they were in fact pretty much the same. When the poet imagines telling everyone, years later, that this decision made all the difference, he's commenting on the human habit of making up stories about ourselves - on the way that we shape, post hoc, the randomness of experience into meaningful, self-serving narratives. The Road Not Taken isn't about heroism. It's about self-deception.
Two days before Christmas in 2009, Rachele Gilmore, a 28 year-old opera singer, is at home in Queens, New York. She's an understudy for a production of Tales of Hoffman, by Offenbach, at the Metropolitan Opera. That afternoon, she gets the call. Four hours later, after a tense ride across the Triboro bridge in rush hour traffic, she's on stage in one of the world's great opera houses. The final aria is a famously bonkers, insanely technically demanding rollercoaster ride. Gilmore smashes it. Smashes it so hard and so far, in fact, that the performance has become legendary. You can view it here, and read about it in this brilliant blog post (which is how I came across it). Once you've done that, check out this lovely reddit thread, in which Gilmore herself, eight years later, reflects on the experience.
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