A history/archaeology of Crazy Shit

I have a belief about beliefs

Posit: certain beliefs cluster. Through an unknown combination of crowd effect (you like the stuff your friends like) and perhaps some weird, alchemical property of the things themselves to locate near each other in the human mind, the kind of people who believe this thing are also more likely to believe that often-associated thing. This is true of societally acceptable belief clusters (e.g. Lib Dem membership, taste for real ale, Dr Who fandom) and it is also true of what I shall call aberrant beliefs. Crazy shit, basically. Anything that marks one out as a proper tinfoil hat-wearing weirdo who is standing foursquare against societal norms (as opposed to merely a shambling sandal-wearer with over-developed ideas about land taxation). And this works, I suggest, in a scalar way. Such that it is not true that everybody who believes the CIA assassinated Kennedy and NASA faked the moon landings also thinks that aliens are controlling their thoughts through the radio and lizards rule the world. But it probably is true, I suggest, that the people who seriously think aliens are controlling their thoughts and lizards rule the world have already passed, quite some time ago, through the tamer pastures of Kennedy/NASA-related conspiracy theory.

What are the characteristics of Crazy Shit?

We could say this particular variety of belief cluster has several characteristics.

1. Its component beliefs tend to be large in design – they all comment on some matter of great scale and importance.

2. They have some core feature that the societal consensus would consider bonkersly unlikely (I am adopting this as a technical term).

3. They presume superhuman skill and usually deceit on the part of some other, often unknown and shadowy party.

4. And the person who holds the belief is a member of a tiny minority, either representing themselves blessed/lucky or perhaps exceptionally unlucky, who have seen the truth, and to a greater or lesser extent there is always some implication of persecution or at least differentiation from the rest of society.

Some of the people in the modern era who are a long way into aberrant belief clusters presumably get diagnosed with illnesses like schizophrenia, but I guess not all of them do. I’ve picked a particularly schizophrenic example there with aliens controlling their thoughts but not all of them are like that. So let’s just say the inclination towards these particular aberrant beliefs is the result of some kind of psychological state or set of conditions (not necessarily a “bad” one, if we are using that label, but certainly an unusual one). Certain people, not very many of them, are nudged towards aberrant belief clusters in a way that causes them to become the subject of comment and disparagement from wider society.

So this is my question: assuming this psychological state is a human constant in anatomically modern humans, how might it have manifested itself in the medieval period? Or even better, in the Neolithic? I asked The People of Twitter this, because they know everything. The trouble is I think I did it wrong.

My tweet said:

Answers from various people: fairies, miracle cures/King’s touch, séances/ectoplasm, building Stonehenge, paganism, druidism, any polytheism that was taken as more than allegory. @Heresy_Corner, @LeithMotive, @cmccrudden, @PhillipRotty, @daveweeden.

(Edit: late entry from @CJR23 which I REALLY need to look at. But this post is too long already.)

In other words, having planted the idea of “religion” in people’s heads as a core association with “irrational beliefs”, lots of them came up with religious/mythological/mystical stuff as evidence of crazy shit from previous eras. And actually I think these answers usefully cover the kind of stuff that usually comes up in these debates (I am not the first to ask this question, obviously). But surely the point is, these things were not perceived as crazy shit at the time. Even my own example of religious visions is inadequate because they were an accepted component of conventional religion (although I am on to something with it because visions were closely policed by the Church, and the wrong sort of visions could land you in trouble at least analogous to the sort you can land in now for aggressively harassing the FBI over suppression of files about UFO sightings – essentially, life-changing trouble).

Thus, the number of genuine aberrant subcultures in this list seems extremely small. I like séances/ectoplasm as the nearest example, mainly because it truly fulfils the “bonkersly unlikely” criterion, but in other respects (being very fashionable amongst the cool kids, namely) it falls a long way short. It’s more analogous to rock music in the 1950s than lizard theory in the 2010s. Here is my tabulated summary, green to show the belief meets the criteria, pink to show it doesn’t. Blue (oh bite me, I never did have a design eye) shows a mix.

Crazy Shit table

What this tells you is that all these things are actually the commonplace quirks of a society. At best they are the equivalent of hipster trends, and actually most are quite close to societal norms of the time. They only look weird now. The very fact that we are chatting easily about them on Twitter, with the range of expertises we presumably have, suggests to me that we aren’t really identifying the psychologically aberrant behaviour in medieval society, or maybe only bits of it by accident. The stuff that was only ever commented on as evidence of just out-there crazy. And I include myself in this, because while I am technically a medievalist it is in the sense that I know a metric fuckton about high politics and constitutional crises and almost nothing about the wider culture and worldview. I am the medievalist equivalent of the modern Westminster Villager, precluding of course any incidental implication that I might have dung on my head.

So what would qualify as historically situated Crazy Shit?

But then Andrew Hickey arrived and as usual things IMMEDIATELY made more sense:

For medieval I’d suggest things like Perkin Warbeck. Earlier stuff like Gnosticism, Arianism.

Now, I might come back to Gnosticism and Arianism another time because I think they are quite complex examples, as are Cathars, Lollards, and other heretics.

But Perkin Warbeck! He is a window onto an abiding historical mystery, what happened to the Princes in the Tower, which makes it into William D. Rubinstein’s excellent Shadow Pasts, in which an academic historian explores his fascination with the passionate and well-informed communities of amateurs who grow up around certain historical oddities – junior-grade crazy shit fanciers in fact (the book also features the provenance of the Pyramids, the true identity of Shakespeare, and critically, JFK’s assassination). Furthermore, Warbeck was not even the origin of this particular brand of crazy shit, and he is not the end of it. A previous Yorkist pretender, Lambert Simnel, had been defeated by Henry VII and set to work in the royal kitchens, only a few years earlier. Less than 10 years ago someone claimed to have another candidate for a surviving Richard (Mail link). This is a crazy shit storyline that still resonates with us.

  1. Large in design?

Warbeck meets the first criteria. Who was the rightful King of England might be a matter of parlour game interest to modern minds, but it sure as hell wasn’t in the 1490s. It’s easy enough to forget, from the other end of the telescope in which we know what happened down to 1603, how recently a forty-year period of civil and constitutional warfare had ended. If it was true that Perkin Warbeck was Richard of Shrewsbury, it changed everything, and in a way deeply troubling to the medieval intellectual and political mind.

  1. Bonkersly unlikely?

Yes, due to the sheer scale of the stakes. Someone who was supposed to have died as a child turns up seven years later, not dead. You either believe it or you don’t. It has the zero sum characteristic associated with all high quality Crazy Shit. Once you make the leap to believing lizards rule the world, you can’t go back, you have started your mind on a set of problems that it solves by detecting ever more patterns, associations and explanatory narratives, and the human mind doesn’t do this stuff well in reverse (I have tried believing an allegory of the lizard thing, as an experiment; I went back, but it is hard).

  1. Superhuman powers?

Yes, not in the fairies sense, but in the same sense that JFK conspiracists attribute superhuman powers of judgement and action to the CIA. Somebody had to get “Richard of Shrewsbury” out of the fucking Tower of London (I mean have you seen that thing? Beats me how people ignore it as a harmless tourist destination, as a symbol of arbitrary establishment power it still scares seven shits out of me) under the close watch of loyal servants of the King, and then a succession of other people had to get him away and keep him in secret for seven years, believe his account of himself, make all the contacts and secure all the support he needed to declare himself in 1490. If you buy it, that is. But presumably the whole reason some people bought it is the corresponding unlikeliness of the counter-factual. If he wasn’t Richard of Shrewsbury (and we are tolerably sure he wasn’t) some people including him went to all that trouble to make him seem so. It really isn’t the easiest route to wealth and power, being the “legitimate” opponent of a usurper in fifteenth century England, as plenty of previous heads-on-spikes could attest. It is intensely high stakes and your prize if you win is one of the most difficult and (at the time, because you are yourself a usurper) insecure jobs in Europe. The motivations we moderns think of, as we picture jewels, crowns, horses and courtly dancing and a long drunken slide towards monarchical security, are really not in point. There were better ways to be upwardly social mobile, even in early modern Europe. It was the sheer audacity of Warbeck’s bid, the sheer unlikeliness of it all, that qualifies this again as crazy shit.

  1. Truth-seeing minority?

Yes, no question. And for the very good reason that you faced the prospect of being Horribly Killed if you were a part of that minority. I have read it suggested somewhere that the only person who demonstrably really Believed in Warbeck was Margaret of Burgundy, his supposed aunt, Richard III’s sister (with the implication that this was wishful thinking on her part). Yet Henry did not, we note, come down hard on Warbeck straight away – or did he? After defeat, Warbeck was actually allowed to take up residence at court, but was forbidden – of all things – to sleep with his wife. There could be no more contemptuous dismissal of his importance. If – if – that man by some chance really was Richard of Shrewsbury… Good god. Beheadings were a mark of nobility, and by the end of the fifteenth century had I suggest become culturally associated with a great enterprise failed, inferior to actually falling in battle perhaps, but not by much. There could be no greater and more insulting punishment for a man born to that inheritance to be tolerated below the salt at royal banquets and barred from legitimate procreation. Eventually Warbeck tried trouble again and was executed for it; but if there is any evidence that he was the younger Prince in the Tower, its strongest underline must come from that possible streak of political sadism on Henry’s part.

Cataloguing the crazy shit

So that concludes the case for the defence. I have not, at this point, proceeded with my central question, which I have left titling this post – what was a history of crazy shit down the ages look like? But I think I have got some way, with other people’s help, in thinking through what it doesn’t look like. We are very inclined to think of religion as a source when we try to come up with Crazy Shit from before 1900, but of course that is a function of our post-religious perspective. Some of it may qualify, lots of it doesn’t.

Any ideas? Once we have started a card index of authentic historical Crazy Shit examples, matching against the four criteria above, I would also like to proceed to the prehistoric, which is much harder and more intriguing because nobody is expressing their Crazy Shit beliefs in words anywhere, and nobody is reacting to them in words. People are getting increasingly interested in archaeologies of the deviant, of aberrant behaviour generally. (I myself am interested in the archaeology of failure. There must be some massive white elephant construction projects in the record somewhere, things that did not do what they were designed to do. Which ones are they?) An archaeology of what a Crazy Shit psychological state looks like in Neolithic material culture would really be something.

How to think about the entrenched wealth of the aristocracy

I was recently talking to a constitutional historian whose main interest is in the royal family. He was frustrated and amused by the fact that people’s default assumption about him was that he must be some sort of royal fanboy. I think that formed a part of my default assumption – people like Jenny Bond popped into my head (is she still around? Does the BBC have a “royal correspondent” now, or is that one of those last-gasp 1990s things?), and of course Starkey, Schama et al – people who comment on royal affairs (figuratively and literally speaking) and who show every appearance of being in some sense fans. But why should I assume that? After all, the royal family occupies a unique and odd place in British constitutional and political life. It is, as the historian implied, rather a matter of fashion and personal politics than rigorous historical principle that it isn’t much studied, and is perceived as less “serious” than the study of “real” politics. Somehow it’s just too big to tackle, too obviously a Thing, and anyone who does it is suspect.

This made me wonder if the British aristocracy is similarly under-scrutinised, and whether we are missing a very basic trick if we want to deal with entrenched privilege – at the very top, as it were. This week the Duke of Westminster died, and one of the quotes that went around was this:

An FT reporter, working through a standard set of questions, once asked him what advice he’d give to young entrepreneurs keen to emulate his success.

“Make sure they have an ancestor who was a very close friend of William the Conqueror,” he replied.

It’s interesting because, while pithy and amusing and self-deprecating and all the rest of it, it isn’t actually true in any more than a trivial sense, as the Duke was presumably well aware. I’m not sure how much people know about the medieval aristocracy here, so bear with me. I mean, we all have ancestors who were very close friends with William the Conqueror, that’s just a demographic fact. But what I’m interested in is this – is the commonly held idea that the aristocracy’s privilege was laid down in the eleventh century and has been essentially unbroken ever since actually damaging to the socialist revolution, by appearing to put the goal unimaginably out of reach? (Assuming you want to have one of those? I’m unsure. I mean, by all means, start without me and I’ll see if I want to join in. It’s just, I’ve made this cup of tea now.)

Over the last thousand years privileged families have risen and fallen. I was a medievalist as a student, and I hardly noticed the Grosvenors. Technically Norman in origin, I’m sure, but bit players, the kind of name you might see popping up in a list on a Letter Patent of oyer and terminer, or in a worthy study of gentry networks in any number of counties. Certainly not the stuff of government – nothing near the power of the Fitzalans or the Beauchamps or the Nevilles or any of the other names that will be much more familiar to late medieval historians who are now nowhere to be seen. The real “privilege” of the Grosvenor family dates from a lucky marriage to an heiress 300 years ago, whose inheritance was composed of the green fields of what is now West London.

I say “lucky”, which is both true and false. Clearly, it was the kind of calculation these people made with every marriage and in every generation, so in that sense the luck was not unforeseen. It was all a numbers game, and some of those marriages were bound to be the ones that paid off. And yet the luck is also false in the sense that it’s not a complete explanation – you have to be in a position to attract such an heiress in the first place, and that is where the Conqueror bit comes in. The same goes for a lot of the “great aristocratic families” who are commonly understood – and who for all their history have very keenly let it be understood – that their lineage and power go back a thousand years. The Spencers, for example? Northamptonshire sheep farmers to a medievalist.

But it was always a numbers game, and the winners in the eleventh century were different to the winners in the fifteenth, who were different to the winners in the eighteenth, and so on. What this boils down to is that if we are serious about society moving forward we should not be seeing aristocracy in terms of a thousand year old protected and privileged bloodline standing at the very head of Privileged People, some terrible locus of power to focus a sort of awed opposition. We should be seeing it in terms of, in this case, three hundred year old protected spivvery and speculation. And spivvery and speculation are a lot easier to tackle in terms of any movement that seeks to attack entrenched privilege and reduce inequality.

It’s a philosophical and linguistic point but I think it might be an important one. In public understanding of history, being mates with William the Conqueror is what aristocratic privilege is, and whence it draws its power, and by implication that’s what all wealth and power in Britain ultimately derives from or seeks to emulate. But it just isn’t true, any aristocratic power and wealth that we see today is generally much more recently located than that. The things they have done to capture and concentrate their power are not mystical or quasi-Arthurian or rooted in deep ill-understood stretches of hallowed time. They have generally been done in what you might call “the modern era”. And that means they, or rather future examples, can be tackled with legislation on wealth taxes, or any other of the fairly humdrum campaigning aims available to any modern movement that seeks to tackle privilege.

Mandates and who has them

It will tickle you if you are of a constitutional cast of mind and also like saying the word “mandate” repeatedly to note the following:

On the one hand, Prime-Minister-by-the-end-of-tomorrow Theresa May arguably doesn’t have a popular mandate (yup, never gets old) to govern. This is only arguable in an angry-person-on-twitter sense, of course. I feel as broadsided by her coronation as anyone, but her lack of mandate is something one feels rather than knows to be true. The fact is British representative democracy doesn’t work like that and never has. Not only do we elect MPs rather than Prime Ministers, and entrust them with the capacity to make decisions on our behalf (including nominating a new PM if they like) but also the twentieth century was stuffed with “unelected Prime Ministers” who subsequently called elections at times of their own choosing. It’s the last forty years that seems to be the aberration.

So it feels to some like Theresa May doesn’t have a mandate, but constitutionally speaking she sort of does.

On the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn appears to enjoy a big popular groundswell of support (groundswell is pretty funny too). It’s hard to tell how big this is, how politically active it is, or how well it would translate into an election situation. Polling behind the Don’t Knows is probably not a good sign, but those tens of thousands of people joining the Labour party may or may not be being reached by polling (although likewise they may or may not be intending to vote for Jeremy.) Anyway, at the very least, you can say that Corbyn’s supporters reckon he has a popular mandate – in fact it’s the argument they make repeatedly, in defiance of the idea that he might need the support of the Parliamentary Labour Party or indeed a functioning shadow cabinet. But in this they are technically incorrect:

While ‘confidence’ as a concept is difficult to define with precision, it does not rest directly on the support of voters. Normally, it involves being the accepted leader of a party with a majority in the Commons.

So it feels to some like Jeremy Corbyn does have a mandate, but constitutionally speaking he sort of doesn’t.

It’s interesting this contrast has come about now because it feels like the God of Constitutional Reform is toying with us (he probably wasn’t one of the more successful gods, got turned into a gerbil by Athena all the time, that sort of thing). Massive constitutional upheaval was inevitable from the moment the referendum was won, but this adds another ingredient to the sticky mix. If we’re going to tear up some things (which we have to) why not tear it all up while we’re about it?

I have friends who are socialists – the Corbyn leadership challenge

*eyes down*

I have friends who are… socialists.

*indrawn breaths and mutterings all round*

I have an unresolved tension in my political soul – I am not much of a socialist, yet I yearn for them to exist. I will speak up for their existence at any turn. Call it the ultimate pluralism. Or maybe a nagging lack of conviction around whether I am really right about absolutely everything. Anyway, I have these friends in and around the Labour party. And I got impatient with the whole attitude of the Blairite wing during their leadership election last year, the one which toppled The Wrong Brother Ed Miliband and elevated Jeremy Corbyn to leadership (which they despaired about), and it’s only now I really understand why.

To be clear (in case it isn’t), I am not particularly a Jeremy Corbyn fan. I would likely find his politics inadequate for the kind of society I envisage as ideal, even if he could express them adequately, which he can’t. He seems, by one report, to be paranoid and strange.

But is his existence a step forward nonetheless?

What I must have seen in him, and what the Momentum movement presumably sees (in a different way), was the possibility that we could stop playing by the old rules, that maybe the “normal” behaviour of politics no longer applied. And this isn’t necessarily because it takes someone particularly brave or mould-breaking to do it, whatever Momentum would like to think.

It might just be that it takes someone a bit dense about that stuff, someone a bit cloth-eared and rigid and without the quick thinking to, say, break up a nasty altercation happening in front of their eyes involving a self-styled supporter. Someone who – and this takes a bit of sinking in – lacks the nous to know when the game is up.

Here we are two weeks on from Brexit, the crisis-to-end-all-crises which should have toppled a doubtful Remainer in days, what with all the other shit hitting the fan, and Jeremy Corbyn is not only still here – he is possibly facing down the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Now, Brown didn’t do this (he stood down before it became ridiculous). Even Blair didn’t do this (he stood down before it even threatened to become ridiculous). The thing is, neither of them were idiots. And maybe it takes an idiot to break a pattern.

Look at what’s happened here. The Parliamentary Labour Party have played their trump card. They have clearly invoked a leadership challenge. They have carried a vote of No Confidence. And Jeremy Corbyn remains, albeit seemingly filming propaganda in his bunker, but he abides. And really, what can you say to that?

Normal people stand down when there is a leadership challenge, normal people know when they’re beaten. Normal people (let’s not be coy about the real mechanism here) know when the press has turned against them, and they curl themselves up into a ball before the lion that is the collective press barons, knowing (because they are clever) that they can either be killed cleanly, or messily. Maybe it takes an idiot to break that cycle.

Jeremy Corbyn probably isn’t a visionary. Nonetheless he has shown us something useful, something that may yet come to fruition in a new and better leader (from any party, not necessarily his): that if you don’t play by The Rules of when you should resign and when you should admit defeat, nothing really that terrible happens to you. As far as the country (usefully distracted in this instance by a bloody Tory leadership election) is concerned, you just carry on.

The great battle of our times – politics and psychopaths

It’s hard at the moment not to conceive of the wider political context in terms of Lord of the Rings quotes. This probably explains why I enjoyed the otherwise devastating Game of Thrones finale last night as a bit of light relief.

The big game in town now is stopping the rise of the fascist far right, whether that means Farage or (and don’t rule this out over a five year period) someone worse. Everything else is detail. Everything. I mean, I have actual sympathy for the two main parties at the moment and I see how their internal struggles are unavoidable, but their activists must not lose sight of the fact that it is all detail, it is not the main event, and nor must the rest of us.

[UPDATED, and this will be a recurring feature of this post: Jeremy Corbyn’s unresignation, the forthcoming split of the Labour party – detail.] Boris Johnson with his terrifying ability to lie and delude himself and apparently not know it – detail. Theresa May and her desire to withdraw from the European Court of Human Rights – unbelievably, that is detail. Cameron and Osborne have, with the unerring personal survival instincts we have come to know them for, voluntarily made themselves detail in this picture, and actually they did that on Friday and it feels like weeks ago.

I swing between frustration and understanding about Labour. On the face of it, it looks like the most ridiculous act of self-destruction at the country’s greatest time of need and I understand why a lot of their supporters and fellow travellers are upset about it. You people have waited years for the Tories to self-destruct over Europe and now they’re finally doing it, you’re not capitalising because you’re too busy self-destructing yourselves. But I have some faith that some of the main players at least know what the big game in town I mentioned above is, and reckon they won’t win it in their present condition. I just hope they do whatever they have to do quickly. Jeremy Corbyn may now split from the Labour party, taking a couple of other MPs (Diane Abbott perhaps making a late but always predictable exit from reality) and his mostly young and recently arrived following with him. That will be detail too, and whatever the Labour party have got left after that point, they should carry on with. The fortunes of the Liberal Democrats are, at this moment, detail, and that’s both because the FPTP system is stacked against them, and because Tim Farron has chosen a positive, liberal, forward-looking message of reintegration into Europe as his election strategy. Bold, and it may yet pay off and put him in a vanguard position in the conflict to come, but currently detail, because like all the rest of the above it doesn’t get near pitting itself squarely against the real enemy.

So let me tell you briefly about psychopathy. In recent years people including the father of clinical psychopathy studies, Robert Hare, have written about the characteristics of psychopathy as applied to organisations and movements. Now, on a level of individuals, psychopathy as a diagnosis sits uncomfortably alongside the standard clinical reference framework, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, rather than within it. Psychopathy is neither one thing nor another. It overlaps most frequently with the disorders described in Cluster B of the framework, in particular Anti-Social Personality Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But if you are ever unlucky enough to encounter someone who embodies any of these disorders in their brain organisation (for these are thought to be a matter of basic neural arrangements rather than illnesses as such, and are hence largely untreatable, unlikely, say, schizophrenia) you will realise that Hare’s psychopathic checklist is a useful tool to have around to parse what is going on. So for shorthand I am going to use psychopath to indicate what might be a far wider and murkier range of disorders and behaviour clusters. Labels are just a way of describing and categorising complex realities rather than the reality itself, and as long as we keep that disclaimer in mind we can proceed.

So let’s take a few items from the checklist as it might be applied to political movements and organisations (I have omitted a large number of items such as “glib, superficial charm” and “versatile criminality” which apply more clearly to individuals, although you may well ask… etc. The full list can be found here).

  • pathological lying
  • cunning and manipulativeness
  • lack of remorse or guilt
  • shallow affect (superficial emotional responsiveness)
  • callousness and lack of empathy
  • lack of realistic long-term goals
  • irresponsibility
  • failure to accept responsibility for own actions

Now, all this is bad enough on an individual level, but in a culture embodying these traits it doesn’t even have to be the case that the individuals involved are psychopathic. Humans – where they are not psychopaths – are social creatures and will seek common behaviours and standards with each other, such that it is possible for a few bad or nearly-bad apples in a febrile atmosphere to draw a number of otherwise moral human beings into their game.

And “game” is the word. Look at some of the things that have happened this week. You could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has lost touch with reality. Yesterday he wrote in the Telegraph – this being essentially the pitch for high office from  one of the great victors of the Leave campaign after a weekend of silence – that the UK would be able to continue to enjoy all the things that normally accompany EU membership, without being a member of the EU. This drew an immediate and rather pitying dismissal from Brussels and caused at least two commenting academics to go full-on Henry Brubaker from the Institute for Studies:

It’s just so extreme, so delusional that you can’t quite believe that you’re seeing it. But you are. (Edit: since I wrote this, he has made it known the column was “sloppy” and he was “tired”. I mean you can’t even write about this stuff without jaw-dropping things happening while you’re doing it). And I suspect the people who have followed Boris’s trajectory all along would tell you, yes, all this is perfectly Normal For Boris (never have I missed @boriswatch’s commentary more). When a lie doesn’t work, tell another. With sufficient chutzpah, you can just make unpalatable realities go away by denying they exist. Whether that will work in Brussels is another matter.

I never had time for all the japey Eton-bashing, I felt it undercut sound argument and made it easy for posh people to hit back with an identity politics of their own, which is not what we need to foster, for god’s sake. But I always knew it was getting at something, and this was it. Humans tend to be very good at sensing things instinctively but then coming up with a “rational” explanation for it. In this instance, everyone has always sensed that Boris was playing a game in his head the whole time; they just thought it was because he had an absurd sense of entitlement and an Etonian background. But, although those things are associated cultural window-dressing, I don’t think it was. I think he is literally playing a game in his head and that is literally all there is to it. Fin. If you try to understand it in terms of normal behaviour, you won’t be able to. It stands on its own terms.

Or look at this post-victory press release from the Leave campaign, which we are assured is genuine.

Nobody has any words for this, though plenty have tried.

Look, lastly, at Farage. He went very quiet after Friday, as his former colleagues in the Leave campaign rowed decisively back on cutting immigration (and he himself rowed immediately back on the £350m for the NHS figure). And today, he’s switched. He isn’t doing what a “normal” politician would do, gritting his teeth in the face of setbacks and seeking to work with what he has won. Normal politicians, when they don’t get quite what they want, opt in and try to make it work as best it can anyway – the Liberal Democrats in coalition are a classic example. It won’t work terribly well and it will get you vilified by the people who perceive you are betraying them. But if you are a normal human being, you may decide to take that on the nose in the interests of making what progress you can make, because you have got a certain distance and you do believe that those things are important. And also, you’re embarrassed about what has gone wrong – that’s a normal person response. And you’re locked in to these people, you have created bonds with them. I’m not saying it’s necessarily the right decision – sunk cost fallacy comes in here, and you may end up losing more than you bargained for; so does the normal human desire to co-operate with other people which kicks in after the more primitive big fight stage is over, and that’s not always wise if the other side aren’t really backing down. Farage is not doing any of that – he is straight back to the serious voice, chin down, opening eyes wide (I mean you can get body language coaches to train you in this stuff): “I am nervous. I am nervous. I am more nervous than I was on Friday morning. I’m beginning to hear noises, I’m beginning to detect there may be some backsliding and I do not find that acceptable.”

He is gearing up for an early election, and this time (so he calculates) he will be appealing to that 52% to support him directly. He won’t succeed in that. But he will get somewhere, further than he has done in the past, and in that sense the referendum was as much a ploy for him as it clearly was for Boris Johnson. Seeing them attempt to outfox each other with the same diabolical characteristics is extraordinary.

And while I’ve been writing this, Farage has been making a speech in the European Parliament. A truly embarrassing one. Here is what a commentator has to say about it:

No. No, he really, really doesn’t. That does not work as a shaming tactic like it would on most people, because it is absolutely 100% true. “Grace” is an apt word – it is the old-fashioned religious word for the quality of being human, and it is not in point here. The sooner we stop being surprised by this, the better. (A sidenote: I don’t think I am the only person to have been struck by the way journalists are responding to events in recent days – in fact since Jo Cox was killed. The sheer horror is so great, they are as angry and outraged and shocked and as likely to rant on social media as the rest of us, and I don’t think that has happened before.)

Let me be clear: the point of all this is not to suggest that any particular individuals are actually psychopathic. That would be illiberal, misconceived, and a foolish armchair diagnosis (and it has tickled me ever since I read it that the bar in Britain is set higher than in America – there you only have to score 25/40 on the Hare scale to be a clinical psychopath, here it’s 30/40, which is a useful reminder of how artificial all these taxonomies are in the first place).

But I do believe that politics as a whole, and the Leave campaign and the far right in particular, have fostered these characteristics in the collective, and caused individuals to behave at times in ways that reflect those characteristics, and that in turn gives us indicators about where this will go next.

The point about dealing with psychopaths, or whatever you want to call them, isn’t actually mentioned in the Hare traits listed above, but it is in a way the uber-trait that arises from them all, and as it’s late in this essay I’m going to put it on a separate line so you don’t skim it:

these people have no boundaries

None. Just, expunge the idea of boundaries from your normal healthy human mind. Take a very modest example, the other day, I signed a very silly petition. You may have signed it too. It called for the referendum to be run again if the winning side achieved a majority of less than 60%. Actually when it was created it wasn’t silly at all, it was just a mistake, created by a Leave campaigner before the referendum, who feared his side would indeed lose by a small margin. The silliness lies in the idea that people signing it now could genuinely trigger a retrospective change, which would be wrong in every important respect.

But I don’t care. You know why? It threw up a good headline for a day. Disruption of the Leave narrative is literally all I cared about at that point. In normal times I would not have signed that, I would have said I fundamentally didn’t agree with it, it went against my principles. People I respect very much did not sign it for that reason. But that’s a reflection of our boundaries, not those of the forces who are now ranged against us. And given the stakes now, some of my boundaries, and some of your boundaries, are luxuries.

This is the problem politicians who are basically moral human beings are facing. They’ve bought into the idea that politics is a game, that you can have PR triumphs, summarise things glibly in a soundbite so that you could be concealing a deep and subtle understanding or then again you could not, you can tell the truth selectively and say things you don’t mean – whole set-up virtually requires it of you. And it’s very hard for us, on the outside, to tell the difference. We tell ourselves, “Oh well, so-and-so’s outrageous, but s/he’s all right really!”. We tell ourselves, “That was incredibly glib and simplistic but s/he must know what s/he’s doing really”. We tell ourselves, “Well, that was an astounding instance of backstabbing such as would ruin us if we encountered it in our personal lives, but then politics is a dirty game!” And on some level, we believe that all these people must be human really. You know, deep down. That there must be a real person behind it all. And sometimes I think we’ll be right, and sometimes I think we’re just not at all.

(One thing to be said for the Westminster village, I bet they know all right. Given how high stakes politics is at that level, it must have exposed a lot of frightening and disordered behaviour to the people within it over a long period of time. There must be lots of normals in parliament who actually know full well how scary a handful of the people in their working lives are.)

But we should take some heart. There are psychopaths in every walk of life and they have not yet managed to blow up the world. They can’t be defeated forever, we will never rid the world of them, but they can be beaten to a draw and neutralised, perhaps every few generations. As a prehistorian I rather like Pieter Hintjen’s evolutionary model – psychopaths (or in social anthropological terms the “cheats”) drive social evolution. By cheating the system, they cause the system to organise against cheating; systems and people get better at spotting and punishing cheats, so the cheats get better at it, and so on. It’s not clear how, in detail, you defeat a psychopathic movement and become once more the system that spots and punishes the cheats effectively. It is only clear that social evolution proceeds such that this happens. It may well be, as James Graham suggests, that things have to get worse – maybe a lot worse – before they get better. But the world turns and we should be in no doubt of prevailing.

We just need to understand, all of us, very, very quickly, the enormity of what we are dealing with. I repeat, this movement, or whatever it is, has no boundaries (ironic, really) and it may well take itself outside the political consensus to get what it wants. We should expect it to have the capacity – which is not the same thing as the ability – to trash everything, and we should act and make alliances accordingly.

Will there come a time when Farage looks like a moderate choice?

The future of Nigel Farage’s political career may not be anyone’s idea of happy lunch time puzzler today. Actually it feels like I’ve been up eating shit sandwiches all night and am now voluntarily washing it down with a paper cup of cold sick. This all feels too big, too serious, just too damn awful to talk party political alignments yet – though frankly it’s the kind of parochial response to momentous international developments that we should probably get used to.

And yet, I can’t help wondering. His apotheosis today could herald the start of a truly sinister phase of his political career (when someone hails a political development as occurring “without a single bullet being fired” you have to wonder about their personal Overton Window. Quite apart from the fact that it is, ahem, not strictly proven to be true.) Or this could all be looked at from the opposite perspective. What else is there left for him to do? This is his big issue, and it’s over. Without the cover of all the (to a certain cast of mind) noble-sounding sovereignty and bureaucracy business, he might just start sounding like the nasty piece of work he probably is. Though by analogy with Trump we may well have decreasing confidence that this would signify loss of support.

But what really is going to happen now, from UKIP’s perspective? Most likely, the same thing that happens to every political force that enjoys success: disillusionment. The only way is down, and nothing makes them special. The European divorce will be technical, protracted and difficult, and generally a complete waste of everyone’s time, but under no circumstances is it going to be the stuff of a movie poster. I can see already Remainers crowing about Farage’s admission that the £350 million a week going to the NHS promise was a lie, as if this is going to make his supporters crush their heads into their hands and howl “What have I done?” Of course they won’t, they never really cared about all that in the first place – it was a figleaf “political-sounding” argument and it was understood as such by both those who proffered it and those who used it.

They cared about how Farage and his fellow travellers made them feel about themselves and their lives, and this is far more likely to be the area in which disillusionment sets in. There aren’t going to be square-jawed heroes with pints and union jacks around the negotiating table, there are going to be the same competent, faceless, subtly-minded people who have probably dealt with Brussels all along anyway. No-one is suddenly going to find their town transformed into Camberwick Green, or that all those inconvenient immigrants have disappeared, or that council houses are given out with free ponies, or that hated bosses, jobs and frustrating life circumstances are magically improved. In general, none of these people are going to find that the universe starts handing out validation lollipops in the way that they were implicitly promised would be the case. Given the economic circumstances their decisions have set in train, probably quite the opposite. It was all magical thinking in the first place.

In case you think I’m saying the potential slide of UKIP is a good thing, it’s actually very dangerous, with or without Farage. Once you’ve stoked people up with emotion, you’re both extremely committed to delivering, and you’ve conditioned them to be open to emotion. Certainly some of the Leave camp evidently think Farage and everything he represents can just be put back in its box, and, well, they may or may not be right. This is what Tim Montgomerie said this morning, and this is what the usually-correct @miss_s_b said in reply:



The trouble with “necessary evils” in politics (and I’ve thought this since 1997) is that it sets off a chain reaction. Everyone’s designated “necessary evil” embraces, at some point, another necessary evil of their own choosing. This means that whenever (as often happens) we are called on to choose between the lesser of two evils, we find that the choice is worse, and worse, and worse, each time. I can already see it happening today that the right wing of the Tory party are now positioning themselves as the appealing, moderate choice compared to the other shady chancers potentially on offer. And just like all the other briefly successful triangulating political operatives since Blair, they really think they can stop it there.

The death of Jo Cox. Enough.

It’s a little thundery outside, and I’m writing this. I’ll probably wish later I’d cloaked it in more protective, distant, ironic language, or indeed tried to write in proper sentences, but I don’t care. Because that is precisely the point I need to make.

Sometimes life insists on pressing itself into your eyeballs until you can’t not see what’s going on. Now, in any free speech argument I’m always on the side of let it all hang out. But it’s as much out of personal operating principles as political conviction. Frankly, that’s what I do, because it’s easy. I will turn a page or refresh my feed, I will laugh and change the subject. And you know what? I look back at how I haven’t been listening to the news so much over the last few years, because it got horrible, and I thought it was just me getting old and bored of politics and only secondarily politics being a bit depressing, and now instead I find it’s that our entire political establishment has let in this sleeper creed, abuse on a societal scale, bit by bit, red flag by red flag, until they’re fucking debating each other on Question Time, and nobody in all the apparatus has had the balls to stop it, and honestly there must have come a point where I subconsciously decided I just didn’t want to listen to this shit any more. But what’s happened today is too much.

Free speech comes with obligations. If you allow hatred, and fear, and cynicism to flourish because your principles forbid you to do otherwise, if your media basically sanctions hate-filled, frothing, ignorant, unstable views as legitimate political comment, and you by implication sanction the media you consume to do that, it’s not enough to say you are doing your bit for free speech. If you know your MPs (the female ones in particular) get frequent death threats from nasty inadequate little extremists who are sheltered by a wider so-called “political view” also shared by people who consider themselves sane and probably wouldn’t gun down MPs, what do you think is going to happen? You can expect the sort of thing that happened today, and you can expect it to get worse too. Isolated mentally ill person? Whatever. Nigel Farage fucking threatened us with this. And immediately I can feel all sorts of disclaimers coursing down my typing fingers – of course this isn’t to say he is in any way responsible, he has condemned the murder absolutely etc etc. And as far as it goes that is true. But it’s also trite. He fucking told us that it was “legitimate to say” that violence on the streets might be the next step. Legitimate. Read what he said. That’s what he said. That’s what’s happened.

Basically, we have all allowed this to go on far too long – Britain First, the BNP marches, Brexit, the awful Farage and his horrific poster teeming with small, terrified children on the run from murderous extremists to whom he doesn’t want to give succour or relief, even the softer rightists who in their worse moments might give a nod and a wink to some of the less obviously grim of all those people. Make no mistake, these people either are hate-filled destructive weirdos, or they harbour and legitimise them. And what do we do (me too)? We laugh at Farage because he looks like Alan Partridge on a boat. He must be laughing himself sick at us.

What is with our inexplicable collective shyness about getting this whole cavalcade of nasty, disordered shitbags to just fuck off to the far side of fuck and once they’ve got there, fuck off some more? An elected representative is dead, is that not enough? The whole blanket of irony that coats our political and our personal lives, the protective armour we use against the naked primitive aggression of nasty little people who are prepared to go far, far further to shame and silence moderate people than we ever would go to silence them – it has to stop. It has to stop. These are the consequences of irony and passivity. These are the consequences of that mildly cynical entertainment of the mildly uncomfortable evil staring you in the face. One-sided free speech where the silent reasonable majority don’t speak up – in fact don’t react with hair-tearing horror – to all this is not free speech; it is a harangue, it is a tirade, it is a series of orders. It is a rally.

Why is the concept of species so important to us?

In terms of the history of biological enquiry, I don’t know, but I think I know why the mind picks at things like the discovery of stalagmite constructions created by Neanderthals in a French cave 100,000 years before modern humans arrived in the area (they must have caught the 4am booze ferry).

It’s presumably the same instinct that drives UFOlogy and extra-terrestrial life investigation generally. We long to discover that sentient life exists in the universe, and our wildest dreams (our most terrible dreams, often) are that this life is self-aware. We want on a cosmic scale to find people like-us-but-not-like-us. We crave the perspective of others because it enables us to (re)create and define ourselves. The idea that there might have been Others in prehistoric eras who, to some extent, shared something of our instincts, our inner lives, our Feeling of What Happens, and the idea that these people are now both gone and, the intriguing inside-job opposite, incorporated into us, is an irresistible one – at once cautionary tale (“there but for the grace of the universe…”), congratulatory just-so story (“we survived, we won this race, we’re great!”) and also a delicious, mysterious, self-othering fairy story.

Perhaps literally fairy story. I have (you must tell me if you have the same) an inner longing I can’t explain for it to be true that some of the humanlike-but-other creatures populating the mythologies of North West Europe, like fairies, giants and elves, are our folk memories of Neanderthals and perhaps other hominins. I suspect this interpretation is scuppered by the simple fact that corresponding creatures are found in folklores across the globe, including in regions where modern humans did not co-exist with Neanderthals. And yet… It’s not that I’m obsessed with explanations and root causes, it’s almost the opposite – to find that fairy stories were true would almost make them more magical. Just think – to discover that we regularly in the most trite and childish fables tell ourselves as much about history, the universe and ourselves as we go on to (re)learn in later years of scholarly endeavour? Amazing. That is some impressive symbolic capacity our brains have developed there. What else can we learn from the simplest stories?

So while I’ve no idea whether the distinction between gloomy octopus and common octopus is a valuable one to anyone other than a marine biologist, I think it is clear there are particular implications of speciation within the Homo genus that are philosophically momentous and, on the grand scale, viscerally personal for us. Are/were these people like us? How like us were/are they? What do they think of us? What can they tell us? What do they know?

Of course this is obviously all a metaphor for how human beings relate to each other on an individual level – we seek each other because even the most grounded of us need reflection and differentiation. On an individual scale, people-who-are-like-us-but-not means literally anyone else at all. Or maybe really it’s the other way round, our individual drive for connection with each other is a rather pale and small-scale metaphor for our collective drive for defining ourselves and our consciousness in the universe. As, for want of a better word, a species.

The voice inside your head

On Saturday I learned something that blew my tiny mind, so much so that I was all out of wonder and awe by the time Eurovision came on. Apparently, some people don’t have an inner monologue – an “audible” voice inside their heads which narrates them ceaselessly and sometimes in complete sentences through their thoughts and activities. Actually, the mind-blowing thing to me wasn’t that some people don’t have a voice in their heads at all – it was that some (or most?) people do.

I don’t. I have never had one. I always thought “inner voice” was a metaphor (it makes me wonder what other things I’ve been taking as metaphorical that are in fact real. It also makes me wonder whether I have a barkingly different understanding of bicameralism to most people). It explains why I’ve never understood at gut level all that stuff about “silencing the critic in your head”. Again, to me, metaphorical. As a general rule I do not think in words, let alone sentences. As far as I can tell, the ideas I wish to express are sitting there conceptually fully formed in my brain, and somehow my speech facility selects the correct words from wherever they are stored and parses them into a sentence without any interim stage, at least not at conscious level.

This is, I hope, the only thing I have in common with Ricky Gervais:

Reading from Karl’s diary: “While I sat listening to The Kinks on my iPod, I wondered if everybody thinks in their accent. I know I do.”

Stephen: What’s this? What are you talking about?

Ricky: How do you know you think in your accent? Tell me a typical thought

Karl: I thought “that’s weird innit?” not “that’s weird isn’t it?” and I thought “I actually think in my accent”

Ricky: No, but, when I think I don’t think the sentence as like I’m saying it, it’s just a thought, the thought appears, it’s conceptual and it’s already there. It’s not like I go, “Rick?” “What?” “Just err… looking at that fella over there were you?” “Yeah, I was yeah. Erm, I was think he looked a bit weird” “Oh, so was I”, I don’t think out whole sentences…

What’s strange is that my verbal abilities in general seem above average. I’m eloquent in person, I’ve been a professional writer, so clearly my linguistic mode as a whole works fine. So what is going on? How am I able to get by? @Jackart wondered how I was able to do executive decision-making, for instance deciding to write someone a strongly-worded letter as an evolved alternative to stabbing them, and after I had hurriedly pushed all my stabby knives into a drawer I conceded he had a point. I’m not sure how I make decisions – they seem to happen, but it isn’t through an inner monologue. When I think about concrete things, like wanting toast (thanks to the ever excellent @CharlotteGore for this illustration), I don’t think “I want toast!”, I visualise a piece of toast sitting on a plate. (It’s always Platonic ideal toast too, white and fluffy, just the right amount of butter. Ahh.) Then something clicks into place, and there is a sense of “decision made”, without any verbalising. So I probably have the same ability to execute a decision to make toast as someone with an internal monologue.

Feature or bug?

But that’s concrete stuff, and given a toaster and enough training, a monkey can make toast. Thinking in terms of the human brain’s more evolutionarily recent capabilities, there are two ways I can suggest in which a lack of inner voice might be more feature than bug.

  1. It might free up capacity for more and faster conceptual problem-solving. Concepts do not translate as well as toast into imagery. But something visual is still going on when I think about ideas. The ideas or “thought units” I am interested in analysing sit in my mind’s eye (now THAT I have never thought of as a metaphor), often in the form of the page on which I read them, or the person who told them to me speaking, or the place I was when I learnt them. And I move these visual thought units around a blank space in relation to each other until I get a new insight (when there is a sort of internal “PING!”), which I am then able to “download” into words – and at that point if I am writing I DO hear the inner voice, I am hearing it right now as I type. At all times I believe I retain a full and rich sense of what each concept means; I am just not accessing it verbally when I’m moving it around. Something totally magical and synaptic is going on there that I have no conscious access to. Aren’t brains squidgy and fun? Now, by contrast, if I thought in sentences and had to think, or read, at the pace at which I can talk, I would find it unbearably slow and probably get less thinking done.
  2. No inner voice means no inner critic. Sarah Fox, the neuroscientist who provides the Ricky Gervais quote above, makes this point. A negative inner voice is correlated with depression, especially in people who are otherwise isolated and lack social inputs. In truth I wonder if this is a double-edged sword. If you don’t have an inner voice, you can’t use CBT to retrain it. And however I construct my thoughts I am still as prone to the nudges of my emotional neural network as anyone else, and I have indeed suffered from depression when younger – so clearly the causal mechanism of depression is something different. But it’s surely a structural advantage that I don’t have an inbuilt talking saboteur, perhaps akin to having better eyesight than most people or something. And it explains why my default mode on my own is to be a cheery soul. Sometimes, something verbal will break through, and it’s usually short and nice (and embarrassingly, it’s out loud for some reason, as if I can’t do it in my head at all). I will find myself saying “That’s good!” or even “You’re nice.” A decisive and galvanising “Right!” pops up fairly frequently. If this is my inner critic I should really take her out for a beer, she seems ace.

But features bring new bugs too – I wonder if, when you put the above two advantages together,  that is (a) thinking more and faster about more problems and (b) lacking an out-loud inner regulator (which is what a critic is when it’s operating healthily), what you have is a systemic explanation for something that definitely correlates with depressive tendencies: over-thinking. And indeed it is not in my nature to be satisfied with any of my own solutions. I tend to return to a problem and pick at it, in a way that perhaps I wouldn’t if I were verbalising my solutions as I went along and bringing them into the world of the logical right hemisphere.

There really isn’t that much on the internet about this, intriguingly. The Brainbank article linked twice above is the only direct and substantial thing I could easily find. I wonder what would happen if I taught myself to have an inner voice? And how might I make a start on this without disturbing everybody at bus stops?

Polymaths at war

This is a little potted biography of Moshe Feldenkrais from the introduction to The Potent Self (disclaimer, this book gets rave reviews across The Internet but I’ve only read his preface so far and he spends the greater part of it defensively explaining why most of the book is about sex, so I am reserving judgement)

blog post

Isn’t the biography itself fascinating though? I have a subjective impression, which I would be delighted to see reinforced by evidence that other people provide without me having to do anything, that it has been easier, at certain points in the twentieth century, to be a high-achieving polymath than it is now.

The practical framework of modern capitalism, it seems to me, tells against polymaths in two ways: (a) credentialism in the job market and (b) the hedonic treadmill. By credentialism, I don’t simply mean that one has to have certain bits of paper or experiences in order to be considered for a job – that is the least of it. One actually has to have an entire coherent narrative of events and self-improvement leading towards the particular job one seeks. I know this because where I work in HE it’s what we teach the students. If you’ve ever hired anyone you’ll know that, no matter what your best intentions, you’ll pretty quickly default to pattern-matching to pick out the applications you want to take forward – the ones that are the most obvious match, the ones that give the more coherent story about who these people are and why their names are in front of you. The ones who make it easy for you, because you have limited time and you need to cover your arse – and that’s capitalism, folks!

And the hedonic treadmill tends to keep us doing the same things, at an increasingly senior level, to maintain a certain lifestyle rather than start all over again doing things we might actually want to do, things that might expand our minds or make use of talents we haven’t developed properly. The hedonic treadmill is really just the driving engine of the narrative point above – newspapers may whiffle about the new millennial jobseeker and their “portfolio” (i.e. unsupported) career, but the whole point is that those people aren’t on the treadmill yet. I would guess that in most British work contexts it’s bloody hard to get in as a “new starter” at a senior age, even if you decide you want to. The decision itself looks suspect; the system is not set up for you. You’re not on the treadmill! Why would you want that?

What mechanisms might disrupt the operation of these two polymath-favouring factors? Well, some of them are associated with wartime conditions, at least in 20th century British history. For a start in wartime there’s a lot of work to be done, and someone has to do it – literally has to do it in the case of antisubmarine research for the Admiralty, or all our boats will be blown up. And in any technical field where there is a shortage of expertise (which right up to the present day is most of them) this will tell against credentialism. Wartime conditions also create movement, disrupt lives, and overrule personal narratives. Nobody expects someone who has just fled from genocide to have a totally coherent personal and intellectual narrative, unless of course you are the modern-day Tory front bench. Lastly, wartime conditions reduce opportunities for consumption. Not only is the hedonic treadmill transparently no longer the main business of life for people who are now fighting or working in munitions factories; its outwardly measurable consumables are not even available.

As such, war-torn Europe perhaps produced opportunities for polymathic activity which postwar Europe has, in the most well-meaning possible way, been stifling with increasing success ever since.

H/t @Andrew_Wyld for the convo


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