Goodwill to all men

NOTE: This post was meant to go up on Christmas Eve, but WordPress clearly broke on me so apparently you get it now instead- sorry. Ah well, might as well put it up anyway…

 

Ah, Christmas; such an interesting time of year. The season of plenty, the season of spending too much, the season of eating too much, the season of decisions we later regret and those moments we always remember. The season where some families will go without food to keep the magic alive for their children, the season where some new feuds are born but old ones are set aside, and the season where goodwill to all men (and women) becomes a key focus of our attention.

When I was young, I always had a problem with this. I had similar issues with Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day even more so (I don’t know how I came to know that it was an entirely commercial invention, but there you go), and whilst Christmas was awesome enough that I wasn’t going to ruin it by seasonal complaints, one thing always bugged me about ‘the season of goodwill’. Namely, why can’t we just be nice to each other all the time, rather than just for a few weeks of the year?

A cynic might say we get all the goodwill out of our systems over Christmas in preparation for being miserable bastards for the rest of the year, but cynicism is unhealthy and in any case, I try to keep it out of my bloggy adventures. Plus, we are capable of doing nice stuff for the rest of the year, even if we don’t do so much as some might think we should, and humans never cease to be awesome beings when they put their mind to it. No, it’s not that we give up being nice for the rest of the year, but more that we are quite clearly eminently able of being more nice but not, seemingly, all the time.

Goodwill to our fellow man is not the only seasonal occurrence that seems more prevalent over the festive period for no obvious reason; many of our Christmas traditions, both old and modern, follow a similar thread. Turkey, for instance; whilst it’s never been Christmas fare in my household for various reasons, I know enough people for whom a turkey dinner plus trimmings is the festive standard to know that these same people never have the bird at any other time of the year (I know you Americans have it on Thanksgiving, but I don’t know enough about how all that works to comment). I saw a comment online a couple of weeks ago about eggnog (another seemingly American-specific thing), and mentioning how this apparently awesome stuff (never tried it myself, so again can’t comment) is never available at any other time of the year. A response soon followed courtesy of a shop worker, who said there’s always a supply of it tucked away somewhere throughout the year in the shop where he worked, but that nobody ever bought it outside of December.

We should remember that there is something of a fine line to tread when we discuss these ideas; there are a lot of things that only occur at Christmas time (the giving of gifts, decorations, the tree and so on) that don’t need any such explanation because they are solely associated with the season. If one were to put tinsel up in June, then you might be thought a bit odd for your apparent celebration of Christmas in midsummer; tinsel is not associated with anything other than festive celebration, so in any other context it’s just weird.  This is particularly true given that tinsel and other such decorations are just that; decorations, with no purpose outside of festive celebration. Similarly, whilst gift-giving is appreciated throughout the rest of year (although it’s best to do so in moderation), going to all the trouble of thinking, deliberating, wrapping secretively and making a big fanfare over it is only associated with special occasions (Christmases or birthdays). Stuff like turkey and eggnog can probably be classified as somewhere in the middle; very much associated with the Christmas period, but still separate from it and capable for being consumed at other times of the year.

The concept of goodwill and being nice to people is a little different; not just something that is possible throughout the rest of the year, but something actively encouraged as being a commendable trait, so the excuse of ‘it’s just a feature of the season’ doesn’t really cut it in this context. Some might say that quite a lot of the happiness exuded at Christmastime is somewhat forced, or at the very least tiring, as anyone who’s looked at the gaunt face between the smiling facade of a Christmas day Mum can tell. Therefore, it could be argued that Christmas good cheer is simply too much work to keep up for the rest of the year, and that if we were forced to keep our smiley faces on we would either snap or collapse in exhaustion before long. Others might say that keeping good cheer confined to one portion of the year makes it that much more fun and special when it comes round each year, but to me the reason is slightly more… mathematical.

Human beings are competitive, ambitious creatures, perpetually seeking to succeed and triumph over the odds. Invariably, this frequently means triumphing over other people too, and this is not a situation that lends itself to being dedicated to being nice to one another; competition and the strive to succeed may be key features behind human and personal success, but they do not lend themselves to being nice to one another. Not infrequently, such competition requires us to deliberately take the not-nice option, as dicking on our competition often provides the best way to compete with them; or at the very least, we sometimes need to be harsh bastards to make sure stuff gets done at all. This concept is known in philosophy as the prisoner’s dilemma, which I should get round to doing a post on one of these days.

However at Christmas time achievement becomes of secondary importance to enjoyment; to spending time with friends and family, and to just enjoying the company of your nearest and dearest. Therefore, comparatively little actually gets done over the Christmas period (at least from an economist’s point of view), and so the advantage presented by mild dickishness to some others for the rest of the year disappears. Everything in life becomes reduced down to a state where being nice to everyone around us best serves our purpose of making our environment a fun, comfortable place to be. At Christmas time, we have no reason to be nasty, and every reason to be nice; and for that reason alone, Christmas is a wonderful thing. Merry Christmas, everybody.

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Living for… when, exactly?

When we are young, we get a lot of advice and rules shoved down our throats in a seemingly endless stream of dos and don’ts. “Do eat your greens”, “Don’t spend too much time watching TV”, “Get your fingers away from your nose” and, an old personal favourite, “Keep your elbows off the table”. There are some schools of psychology who claim it is this militant enforcement of rules with no leeway or grey area may be responsible for some of our more rebellious behaviour in older life and, particularly, the teenage years, but I won’t delve into that now.

But there is one piece of advice, very broadly applied in a variety of contexts, in fact more of a general message than a rule, that is of particular interest to me. Throughout our lives, from cradle to right into adulthood, we are encouraged to take time over our decisions, to make only sensible choices, to plan ahead and think of the consequences, living for long-term satisfaction than short-term thrills. This takes the form of a myriad of bits of advice like ‘save not spend’ or ‘don’t eat all that chocolate at once’ (perhaps the most readily disobeyed of all parental instructions), but the general message remains the same: make the sensible, analytical decision.

The reason that this advice is so interesting is because when we hit adult life, many of us will encounter another, entirely contradictory school of thought that runs totally counter to the idea of sensible analysis- the idea of ‘living for the moment’. The basic viewpoint goes along the lines of ‘We only have one short life that could end tomorrow, so enjoy it as much as you can whilst you can. Take risks, make the mad decisions, go for the off-chances, try out as much as you can, and try to live your life in the moment, thinking of yourself and the here & now rather than worrying about what’s going to happen 20 years down the line’.

This is a very compelling viewpoint, particularly to the fun-centric outlook of the early-to-mid-twenties age bracket who most commonly get given and promote this way of life, for a host of reasons. Firstly, it offers a way of living in which very little can ever be considered to be a mistake, only an attempt at something new that didn’t come off. Secondly, its practice generates immediate and tangible results, rather than slower, more boring, long-term gains that a ‘sensible life’ may gain you, giving it an immediate association with living the good life. But, most importantly, following this life path is great fun, and leads you to the moments that make life truly special. Someone I know has often quoted their greatest ever regret as, when seriously strapped for cash, taking the sensible fiscal decision and not forking out to go to a Queen concert. Freddie Mercury died shortly afterwards, and this hardcore Queen fan never got to see them live. There is a similar and oft-quoted argument for the huge expense of the space program: ‘Across the galaxy there may be hundreds of dead civilizations, all of whom made the sensible economic choice to not pursue space exploration- who will only be discovered by whichever race made the irrational decision’. In short, sensible decisions may make your life seem good to an accountant, but might not make it seem that special or worthwhile.

On the other hand, this does not make ‘living for the moment’ an especially good life choice either- there’s a very good reason why your parents wanted you to be sensible. A ‘live for the future’ lifestyle is far more likely to reap long-term rewards in terms of salary and societal rank,  plans laid with the right degree of patience and care invariably more successful, whilst a constant, ceaseless focus on satisfying the urges of the moment is only ever going to end in disaster. This was perhaps best demonstrated in that episode of Family Guy entitled “Brian Sings and Swings”, in which, following a near-death experience, Brian is inspired by the ‘live for today’ lifestyle of Frank Sinatra Jr. For him, this takes the form of singing with Sinatra (and Stewie) every night, and drinking heavily both before & during performances, quickly resulting in drunken shows, throwing up into the toilet, losing a baby and, eventually, the gutter. Clearly, simply living for the now with no consideration for future happiness will very quickly leave you broke, out of a job, possibly homeless and with a monumental hangover. Not only that, but such a heavy focus on the short term has been blamed for a whole host of unsavoury side effects ranging from the ‘plastic’ consumer culture of the modern world and a lack of patience between people to the global economic meltdown, the latter of which could almost certainly have been prevented (and cleared up a bit quicker) had the world’s banks been a little more concerned with their long-term future and a little less with the size of their profit margin.

Clearly then, this is not a clear-cut balance between a right and wrong way of doing things- for one thing everybody’s priorities will be different, but for another neither way of life makes perfect sense without some degree of compromise. Perhaps this is in and of itself a life lesson- that nothing is ever quite fixed, that there are always shades of grey, and that compromise is sure to permeate every facet of our existence. Living for the moment is costly in all regards and potentially catastrophic, whilst living for the distant future is boring and makes life devoid of real value, neither of which is an ideal way to be. Perhaps the best solution is to aim for somewhere in the middle; don’t live for now, don’t live for the indeterminate future, but perhaps live for… this time next week?

I am away on holiday for the next week, so posts should resume on the Monday after next. To tide you over until then, I leave you with a recommendation: YouTube ‘Crapshots’. Find a spare hour or two. Watch all of. Giggle.

The Power of the Vote

Winston Churchill once described democracy as ‘the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried’, and to be honest he may have had a point. Despite being championed throughout modern culture and interpretations of history as the ultimate in terms of freedom and representation of the common people, it is certainly not without its flaws. Today I would like to focus on just one in particular, one whose relevance has become ever more important in today’s multi-faceted existence: the power of a vote.

Voting is, of course, the core principle of democracy, a simple and unequivocal solution of indicating who most people would prefer as their tyrannical overlord/general manager and representative for the next five or so years. Not does it allow the common people to control who is in power, it also allows them control over that person once they are in that position, for any unpopular decisions they make over the course of his tenure will surely come back to haunt them come the next election.

This principle works superbly so long as the candidate in question can be judged against a simple criteria, a sort of balance sheet of good and bad as directly applicable to you. As such, the voting principle works absolutely fine given a small enough situation, where there are only a few issues directly applicable to the candidate in question- a small local community for instance. Thus, the performance of the incumbent candidate and the promises of any challengers can be evaluated against simple, specific issues and interests, and the voting process is representative of who people think will do the best for them.

Now, let us consider the situation when things get bigger- take the electoral process for electing a Prime Minister, for example. Now, a voter in Britain does not directly elect his or her PM, but instead elects a Member of Parliament for his area, and whichever party he is in affects who will get the top job eventually. The same thing actually happens in the US Presidential elections to help prevent hung parliaments, but the difference in Britain is that MP’s actually have power and fulfil the roles of Representatives/Congressmen as well. Thus, any voter has to consider a whole host of issues: which party each candidate is from and where said party stands on the political spectrum; what the policies of the various competitors are; how many of that myriad of policies agree or disagree with your personal opinion; how their standpoints on internet freedom/abortion/whatever else is of particular interest to you compare to yours; whether they look like they will represent you in Parliament or just chirp away party lines, and what issues they are particularly keen on addressing, to name but a few in the most concise way possible. That’s an awful lot of angles to consider, and the chance of any one candidate agreeing with any one voter on every one of those issues is fairly slim. This means that no matter who you vote for (unless you run for office yourself, a tactic that is happily becoming more and more popular lately), no candidate is ever going to accurately represent your views of their own accord, and you’ll simply have to make do with the best of a bad job. The other, perhaps even more unfortunate, practical upshot of this is that a candidate can make all sorts of unpopular decisions, but still get in come the next election on the grounds that his various other, more popular, policies or standpoints are still considered preferable to his opponent.

Then, we must take into account the issue of ‘safe seats’- areas where the majority of voters are so set in their ways when it comes to supporting one party or another that a serial killer wearing the appropriate rosette could still get into power. Here the floating voters, those who are most likely to swing one way or the other and thus affect who gets in, have next to no influence on the eventual outcome. In these areas especially, the candidate for the ‘safe’ party can be held responsible for next to nothing that he does, because those who would be inclined to punish him at the ballot box are unable to swing the eventual outcome.

All this boils down to a simple truth- that in a large situation involving a lot of people and an awful lot of mitigating factors, one candidate can never be truly representative of all his constituents’ wishes and can often not be held accountable at the ballot box for his more unpopular decisions. Sure, as a rule candidates do like to respect the wishes of the mob where possible just on the off-chance that one unpopular decision could be the straw that breaks his next re-election campaign. But it nonetheless holds true that a candidate can (if he wants) usually go ‘you know what, screw what they want’ a few times during his tenure and get away with it, particularly if those decisions occur early in his time in office and are thus largely forgotten come the next election- and that can cause the fundamental principles of democracy to break down.

However, whilst this might seem like a depressing prospect, there is a glimmer of hope, and it comes from a surprising source. You see, whilst one is perfectly capable of making a very good living out of politics, it is certainly not the best paid career in the world- if you have a lust for money, you would typically go into business or perhaps medicine (if you were really going to get cynical about it). Most politicians go into politics nowadays not because they have some all-consuming lust for power or because they want to throw their country’s finances around, but because they have strong political views and would like to be able to change the world for the better, and because they care about the political system. It is simply too much effort to try and work up the political ladder for personal and corrupt reasons when there are far easier and more lucrative roads to power and riches elsewhere. Thus, your average politician is not simply some power-hungry arch bureaucrat who wishes to see his people crushed beneath his feet in the pursuit of making him more cash, but a genuine human being who cares about making things better for people- for from this pursuit does he get his job satisfaction. That, if anything, is the true victory of a stable democracy- it gets the right kind of people pursuing power.

Still doesn’t mean they should be let off the hook, though.