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This week: why narcissists don't make for good democrats, the value of an empty mind, and whether or not you should have (had) kids.
THE DEMOCRATIC PERSONALITY
For me, one of the most surprising and depressing aspects of the political upheavals of recent times is how shallow our understanding and attachment to democracy is - how willing people are to throw its norms overboard in pursuit of their interests, or their side's victory. It has made me ponder the personal traits that go along an acceptance that societies should make room for different points of view. Democracy isn't just a political system - it's a mindset, a disposition. So I was interested to come across this study of how personality is linked to support for democracy - I haven't read the full paper but the abstract is fascinating. Narcissists, for instance, do not make for natural democrats (naming no names, Donald Trump). Democrats (small 'd') tend to be people who are not overly defensive about their own status, and who have high trust in others. I'm a fan of Albert Camus's definition of democracy, as the system for people who know they don't know everything. The more edgy and insecure we are about own status, the stronger our conviction in our own beliefs, and the more eager we are to ignore or crush all opposing views. True democrats don't care too much about being right because they're happy to admit they might be wrong.
My latest Digital Dispatch for the New Statesman is about the importance of switching off our devices and letting our minds wander.
REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL
The news is so bleak right now that I breathed this in like balm: 99 good news stories.
ON THE BEAT
The New Yorker produces so much high quality writing that some of its best pieces fly under the radar, like this one from last year, by Ben Taub. It's called The Spy Who Came Home, and it's about Patrick Skinner, a former senior CIA agent who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ex-CIA agents can make a lot of money in consultancy, which he tried for a while, but it didn't satisfy him. So he gave it up to join the local police force in his hometown. He's now an ordinary street cop in Savannah, Georgia, except for the fact that's he's incredibly over-qualified, bringing all the skills in learnt in the CIA to bear on the task of picking up drunk drivers and domestic abusers. It's a great premise for a drama and surely coming to a Netflix near you before long. But the piece is about so much more. Skinner, who is highly impressive and likeable, has been present at some of the defining moments of American foreign policy over the last 15 years (he describes himself as a kind of Forrest Gump figure), and he's a very shrewd analyst. So the piece is compelling on that level too. Beneath that, it's about America's racial division, and the meaning of home.
The ten most-streamed pop hits in the USA in 2018 had an average of nine songwriters each. For more on the process of creating modern hits read this fascinating interview with the writer/singer LP, and see also this profile of Janelle Monae's business.
GET OUT AS EARLY AS YOU CAN?
This tweet from Duncan Jones (film director and, incidentally, David Bowie's son) provoked an interesting discussion. Duncan said, in short, that he's not particularly enjoying being a dad to his young children and isn't sure if it was the right choice to have them. I think airing this kind of view, however uncomfortable, is useful because it reassures people who are having a tough time that they're not terrible people. The data on happiness and kids does not show that parents are more likely to be happy than the childless; if anything the opposite is true. My favourite present for fathers-to-be is The Reluctant Father - online version here, click on those little squares to navigate - by the photographer, artist, and Englishman in New York, Philip Toledano (I'm friends with Carla, his wife, and coincidentally caught up with her this week, so I can report that father, mother and LouLou are all thriving).
ROOMFUL OF TEETH
On Saturday afternoons, BBC Radio 3 hands the mic to a musician to talk through some of their favourite music. Recently the guest was Nadia Sirota, the American viola player who has somehow made the viola cool. Sirota has a very likeable, infectiously enthusiastic presence. One of the pieces she played is an accapella piece by the contemporary composer, Carolina Shaw, a friend of Sirota's. It's incredible music, queasy and exhilarating at the same time. Listen to it here, performed by Shaw's ensemble, Roomful of Teeth (the performance is staggering just on a technical level). Here's the whole R3 programme, strongly recommended.
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