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Tell me why you cried and why you lied to me
This week: why democracy may not be doomed, why people can't be copied, and why girl groups made the Beatles.
There is now a whole sub-genre of books which look at why democracy seems to have gone haywire. As this long but very lively review of them points out, democracy is a baggy and misunderstood term. It's not just about voting or "the will of the people", it's about processes and institutions and the rule of law. The process stuff is vital to a functioning democracy, but it doesn't make good TV or viral memes (except negative ones). It can easily be made to seem boring and arcane and irrelevant to everyday life. So in an age when we're used to having our say in the free-for-all of social media, that's what is getting steamrollered at the moment. Anyway, that's my interpretation - do read the piece itself, if only as an example of excellent essayistic writing. Then read this hopeful gloss on it from Twitter, which argues that democracy only seems to be 'in crisis' because it is doing what it does best: helping societies manage big change. Oh and never forget that maintaining a democracy will always be an uphill struggle, because it goes against the grain of human nature. It's a crazy idea, really, and yet it's the best we've had.
The forthcoming election must be the hardest to predict of any for a very long time. OK, the last one proved pretty hard to predict - I suppose the difference is we know this one will be incredibly unpredictable. In a four-way battle under First Past The Post (FPTP), the range of outcomes on small swings is insane, as Giles Wilkes (an economist and former Spad) explains in this eye-popping guide to possible scenarios. It's not implausible that the Tories could end up with 40 seats - or win a huge majority. The Lib Dems could conceivably flip Labour and take 200 seats; so could the Brexit Party; Labour could quite possibly win a big majority. As Giles puts it, "Any party is 3-5% points from nirvana or hell". One reason it might be better for Corbyn - and, weirdly, Johnson too - to have an election before the end of October is to reduce the range of probable outcomes. The pressure to avoid No Deal will bolster the FPTP logic that you vote for the party with the biggest chance of forming a government. (Perhaps we will see a realignment around the Pret a Manger map. For more on retail politics, see here).
My latest New Statesman column is on the role of "likeability" in politics. I use George W. Bush as an example of someone whose politics I don't like but whose character I do. That was partially inspired by this conversation from 2016 between (ex-Obama adviser) David Axelrod and veteran Washington journalist Ron Fournier, where - among other things - they share personal impressions of Bush and Bill Clinton. Fournier tells a story that has stayed with me about his son, who is autistic, meeting Bush. The conversation then develops into a really quite moving one about what it's like to raise a child with special needs, something both men have experienced.
MYTHS OF PRECISION
Apparently the future of healthcare is "precision medicine" (the NHS call it "personalised medicine"). Obama made it a centrepiece of his 2015 State of the Union. The idea is to use genetic profiling to custom-design treatments for individuals or small groups, instead of relying on one-size-fits all solutions. Everyone has their own version of heart disease - why not treat that instead of the generic version? Machine learning algorithms will analyse vast quantities of patient data - not just genomes or symptoms but what they eat and how they live - and eventually we'll know so much that we'll be able to design the perfect treatment for any one person. Sounds great, right? Well...maybe not. In this article, Cecile Jannssen, a professor of epidemiology, explains why we should be sceptical of it, via the metaphor of bread-making. To me it sounds similar to the hype around "precision targeting" in marketing. As with medicine, it may have benefits but they're being vastly oversold; meanwhile the efficacy of much simpler approaches is underrated. Precision engineering - the type that builds bridges and ships - has been such a huge success that we keep assuming it can be applied to people. But people aren't like rocks or metals, partly because they'e always reacting to each other. As Richard Feynman used to remark, physics would be much harder if electrons had feelings.
NATURE, NURTURE, NOISE
We're so fond of debating to what extent people are formed by nature (genes) or nurture (environment), that we usually leave out a third dimension - development, and all the randomness it involves. If a pair of identical twins are raised in the same household you'd expect them to be almost identical in personality, if nature and nurture were all that mattered. But they're not - they tend to be more similar than regular siblings, but they're very much their own people. That's because the brain responds in inherently unpredictable ways to its environment. The genome is not a blueprint, it can't account for everything that will happen to the organism. It's maybe a recipe, but even that would imply some final vision of how things should turn out. It's a very rough guide: "this sort of thing". People are grown, not built, and growing things is messy and unpredictable. Nobody has the same experience. Despite the wilder claims about genetic engineering, a person can't be copied.
HOW TO WRITE
Later in the autumn I'm planning to offer a workshop on writing for business (or any organisation). To know how to pitch it, I need to know what people want. So if you're a manager who would like your team to gain some writing skills, reply to this and tell me why.
After declining steadily for decades, pedestrian deaths in the U.S have risen by 50% since 2010.
TAKING BACK CONTROL
Perhaps more than you wanted to know about trends in Finnish masturbation.
One of the overlooked things about The Beatles is that in their early years they were basically a girl group. Look at the track listing of those first few albums: pretty much every second track is either a girl group cover (Please Mr Postman, Chains, Boys) or homage (This Boy, Tell Me Why - one of my faves). In fact you can hear the girl group influence in She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand, and many others - in the chords and in those three-part harmonies, so important to their sound, right up to Nowhere Man, and perhaps above all just a certain quality of yearning. (You can even see the influence in their name: "The Xs" was a girl group formulation - The Shirelles etc; at the time the conventional male group name would have been "Johnny and The Beatles"). I started thinking about this after listening to the excellent Samira Ahmed discuss her love of the album Please Please Me. Then I discovered this wonderfully observed article, which opened my eyes to just how extensive their girl group influence was. A wider truth about The Beatles is that they were quite feminine in sensibility and image, and of course fanbase, early on. More on that another time but for now I'll just note that they must have been close to the only four working class men in Liverpool who didn't give a crap about football.
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