Happy New Year, everyone. I had a very happy 2019 for about two days prior to reality gripping me by the throat with its insistence that this year can only be worse than the last. 2016 was almost universally despised as the year of Brexit, Trump and the death of many famous folk including David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher. Hopefully the death rate will be lower in 2019, and as it turns out, our national treasure, Billy Connolly, is not going anywhere fast after all, thank goodness. But the political sphere is shaping up already as an unmitigated disaster for the UK and its people.
What is to be done? God only knows. Many friends are retreating into the private sphere in an attempt to live the best life possible – the only escape from the madness – as there is a genuinely felt sense of futility to do anything about a country hurtling towards self-inflicted irreparable economic, social and cultural damage. Do dry January and take care of your own as best you can. That's all very well for those who can choose to ignore Brexit shenanigans and the consequences, but there are people living in fear: refugees, immigrants, students, the sick, and the poor. At the local, personal level, we can help: contribute to foodbanks, help support our EU friends living here, and take good care of each another.
As some wag pointed out to me recently, 'at least Brexit is not a war, for goodness sake. Get a grip!' Well, yes, it's not a war, but living like this is not peace either. And there was absolutely no need for this catastrophe. Or, as one of the most insightful and knowledgeable commentators on the state we're currently in, Anton Muscatelli (principal of Glasgow University) ruefully put it: 'calling for a "managed no deal" is equivalent to calling for a "Managed Armageddon" or an "Orderly Apocalypse".'
Doomster nouns are bandied around so much these days that they begin to lose their force. When the external world seems fractured, confusing and frightening, I derive comfort from reading about real catastrophes. It's a bizarre kind of therapy. So my first book of the year is 'The Ends of the World' by Peter Brannen. It's a clearly and well-written, witty, powerful and fascinating book written by a science journalist in his quest to understand the Earth's past mass-extinctions due to volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, death by fire, ice, poisonous gas, suffocation, and an asteroid strike. It is gripping and strangely comforting for reasons difficult to express – philosophy and cosmology are good at providing perspective.
Perspective is forced upon you by its insistence that we abstract or detach ourselves from the buzzing confusion of minor detail to focus on the 'big picture.' To recall and appreciate our smallness and insignificance is therapeutic: in the grand scheme of things, we are but tiny seed-pods popping in and out of existence with no cosmological purpose whatsoever, other than we just are
. A detached perspective has enabled me to appreciate that at least Brexit will not cause a mass extinction. Phew.
'Air Crash Investigation,' which explores the extremely rare catastrophic events when something goes wrong during a flight, has a new series. Although not therapeutic, it too provides a detached engagement, a kind of mindfulness with content. These documentaries do not focus on the emotion and terror, but the sheer determination of the investigators to determine the causes in order to prevent similar catastrophes. Thanks to experts, air travel is the safest form of transport in the world. Human ingenuity, rationality and the capacity to determine forensically cause and effect for the common good, is the remarkable aspect of the series. It's a pity these capacities are not utilised in our politics. Experts were our only hope to preventing Brexit, and we all know how that went.
It is likely that most will have missed the University of Hull's decision to close its philosophy and language programmes. Usual protesting in the philosophical community, in the hope that management might change its 'strategic' mind, has had no impact. I guess the bigger story is that a number of universities are now on the verge of bankruptcy and so forced to consider far more than the closure of some humanities programmes.
Such decisions always spark academic unrest, and with good reason. Unfortunately, they also spark pompous nonsense about how universities are governed by philistines who refuse to recognise the 'value' of philosophy. Trouble is, its value is seldom articulated, the rhetorical implication being that only to a boor would it need explained. Sometimes philosophy is said to instil 'critical thinking,' but outside of formal logic this usually amounts to little more than learning how to strike the right ideological pose concerning whatever identity issue is the flavour of the day.
Ever since Veblen's (1899) 'The Theory of the Leisure Class' – which closes with the conclusion that the whole point of a humanities education is that it is a conspicuous instance of wasteful consumption – humanities departments have been on the back foot. C P Snow's talk of 'Two Cultures' – the STEM subjects on the one hand, and the humanities on the other – was overly optimistic in suggesting that there was genuine rivalry between the two. There was not. There is just the slow decline of the humanities, slowed only by the reluctance of many to undergo the hard graft involved in mastering a STEM subject, but who feel they ought to go to university nonetheless, and so opt for the more sparkling social sciences and humanities.
Truth is, departments of mathematics are also dwindling, as are chemistry and engineering. Not every university in the land has a dedicated physics department. So if the 'philistines' are bean counters, at least they are consistent bean counters. That's something, I suppose. So, as this doom-laden year marches on, keep telling yourself: perspective, dear girl, perspective.