Leadership in an age of populism…

I have to check myself when I think about our current political discourse, lest I sink into despair.

The problem is that this kind of thinking might just play right into the hands of the populists.

We are living in a time when we seem to be surrounded by complex insurmountable problems that traditional politics offers little obvious hope of solving.

Some of these problems are real (climate change, mass extinction of species and rampant inequality both within and between countries) but these tend to be minimised in the media because dealing with them means confronting the most powerful vested interests and lobby organisations on the planet. If you try to take on this kind of power, it can get ugly very quickly.

You could argue that the powerful were in trouble for a moment or two; the global economic downturn lifted the curtain on the operation of international capital. There might have been a whiff of revolution in the air, if not for the fact that the narrative was so effectively managed and austerity was applied brutally, in a way that punished none of the excesses of the rich, but made victims of the feckless poor.

Two tactics have been long been used by those in power to manage those of us who form the masses; distraction and fear. It is hardly surprising then to know that millions have been spent over the past decades to achieve both. Follow the money pouring in to think tanks and right wing media outlets and ask again whose needs are being served. Except you will struggle, because these same organisations go to extraordinary lengths to stop us finding out. Check out this article for example.

Deliberately or not, this too plays right into the hands of the populists.

What is needed, we start to think, is a STRONG leader. Someone who can shake things up. Someone who can drain the swamp. Even if that leader is impetuous, quick to anger, thin skinned, constantly lying, brazen, vulgar and with an almost unbelievably grandiose sense of self and his own accomplishments because at least he is STRONG.

What is needed, we start to think, is a leader of character. Someone who can tell it like it is, who has no truck with slick, well spun political correctness. It helps of course that our politics has been successfully detached from ethics, or from objective truth or scientific research. This leaves room for loud opinions of the sort that might once have been heard in the corner of the pubs we no longer go to (because we are busy watching 24 hour ‘news’ channels.) We hold our leaders to account for their entertainment value, not their policies.

What is needed, we start to think, is someone who is from our tribe- someone who will fight for us, who will make US great again. Someone who will drive away the others- those who are massing at our borders trying to take away what is ours.So our whole politics becomes tribal- we stick with what we know through think and thin, because that is what tribes do. Those from other tribe are the enemy, after all.

How do you combat this kind of leadership?

Cas Mudde, writing in the Guardian, suggested 4 ways for liberal parties to respond to populism;

  1. A return to inclusive, not exclusive policies- ways of delivering benefits to all, not just the few.
  2. People’s forums, citizens assemblies etc. whould be embedded into the decision making process
  3. Social media outlets should be regulated and held accountable for misinformation, and the ‘megaphone’ they give populists.
  4. Unity of centrists- establishing and maintaining the politics of common good. Avoiding the division that so often hands power to the loudest voice.

But- what about leadership? If we don’t want the Trump or the Farage, what DO we want? What do we need?

Corbyn in the UK has flirted with a kind of populism. He too has a power base in the grass roots of his party, and his message has flourished through social media, but has been largely shunned by the main media outlets. It seems however that whatever momentum he was gathering has stalled for now at least, derailed by the binary economics of Brexit. Perhaps it is time for him to consider a new kind of…

…O sod it all. I don’t care about strategy. Show me a leader with integrity. I want my leader to believe in something, I want him/her to start for a position of integrity. I want my leader to be brave in his or her pursuit of social justice and peace. I want them to care deeply about things much more than their own political success.

Sure leadership has to be about communicating those ideas, but I refuse to believe that the selling is more important than the product.

But then again, I am no leader.

Letter to Dunoon Project on rewilding…

The Dunoon Project is a fantastic, ambitious, community led project, which intends to bring the hills of Cowal into Community ownership and establish a tourist hot spot with zip wires, toboggan runs, mountain bike runs and visitors centres. If it all works out, it could transform this area.

I wrote to them today, saying this;

Dear Dunoon Project


I have been following your progress with great interest, attending two public meetings and reading all your blurb. You deserve the highest praise for your vision, ambition and community mindedness and I for one want to thank you for what you are trying to achieve. I hear on the grapevine that the project evaluation report is now complete, and I look forward to reading this as soon as you are able to release it. I know that you are looking in to ways of making sure that the project actively involves and engages with the wider community at all levels so in particular, I hope that the report is able to give some indications as to how you might achieve this goal.


However, my reason for contacting you at this time is because I was reflecting on the challenge being brought to our political system by ‘Extinction Rebellion’. I began to think about this challenge from a Cowal perspective. What environmental choices are within the gifting of this community, both in terms of holding our own politicians to account and (as with the Dunoon Project) imagining direct community action? It occurred to me that the scale of the Dunoon Project offers a unique opportunity to make a major impact on the environment and ecology of this region.


The Cowal hills are beautiful, but also broken. The once-thriving, richly layered and interdependent eco-system of the great arboreal rain forest has been largely destroyed. Some things are gone forever; the giant elk and the hairy elephants disappeared thousands of years ago, followed by bears and wolves and then countless small animals and insects. Despite the strength of iconic species such as the red squirrel and pine marten in our area, many less celebrated species are declining and under great pressure. We cut down all the old trees and replaced them with contour-planted conifers that act as a barrier to wilderness, and are themselves a barren habitat, by comparison to what was there before. You may think that I overstate my case, that things are really not so bad, but sadly if you speak to any ecologist (which I am not) they may well tell you that I am understating the scale of the disaster that we have wreaked on our local environment. Consider the exploding numbers of deer, who have no natural predators. Everything is out of balance.


I have listened carefully to what the Dunoon Project has said about your environmental aims, and welcome them, but it seems to me that they were mostly cast in terms of ‘doing minimal harm’. I wonder, given the ambitious nature of the project, whether this is enough? After all, we might be able to do so much better than this because preservation is no longer enough. We have to look towards restoration.


It is not too late for Cowal. There are many examples inspiring of rewilding projects across Scotland. If you have time to do some of your own reading, there is a lot of information here; http://www.rewildscotland.org/


Imagine the forests returning to their natural state; Birch and Oak, which support hundreds of unique creatures. Crucially, the concept of rewilding can in many ways go hand-in-hand with tourism. Think of what the re-introduction of Beavers (often described as ‘eco-engineers’) has done for Mid Argyll, or the Sea Eagles for Mull.


The Dunoon Project has the potential to bring a lot of people into our hills. We can give them a thrill, but perhaps we can also give them a taste of something that is truly wild. Imagine how different our hills would be if there were areas in which Wolves or Lynx were roaming? There is increasing evidence that the re-introduction of carnivores has a remarkable effect on the whole of the food chain.


There is a cost to all this, but in a world that is beginning to come alive to the alternative, I would argue that we have no choice. We have to take any opportunity to seek to redress the balance. We have to (literally) rebel against extinction, and so my plea is for the Dunoon Project to do just that. Help us re-create an environment in Cowal that becomes an example of what is possible- something that we can all be proud of, and something that, rather than ‘consuming’ in the manner of small touristic excursions, we can all participate within.

The possibilities are endless. Check these out;

Extinction (small) rebellion…

I took a walk today- up the hill behind our house. It was hot, and the south-facing slope I toiled up was baking. Spring life was bursting out- in fact, you could actually hear the bracken pop and squelch as it was growing and unfolding.

The walk took me up into the Argyll forest, but it is not what it was. Not even remotely.

Of course, the giant elk and hairy rhinos are long gone, along with the bears and wolves and lynx. The western Atlantic seaboard was once covered in the great arboreal rain forest; mighty oaks, beech, birch- all of which supported a vast hierarchy of teeming life.

The thing about ecosystems like these, is that they only exist because of a harmony and balance, not just from competition, but also from inter-dependency. Our understanding of just how complex and deep this dependency went is only in its infancy, but we can get some clues from this;

The forest I walked up into was not like this any more. In many respects, it has become a barren desert. A graveyard of giants, like the bones of dinosaurs long gone- except in this instance, we have no meteorite to blame for their demise. The finger points at us.

The forest is now made up almost entirely of fast-growing cash crop spruces, planted in serried ranks, acting as a barrier to wilderness. The life they support is sparse, and totally out of kilter. Deer do well in the cover of needles, with nothing to control their numbers but the front end of our cars. Other animals are remarkable when we see them more because of their rarity.

Insect life is another new barometer, and we see a reduction in both numbers and variety.

This is not the rain forest, it is hollow cultivated imitation of it.

We live in a changing world. This is not a new thing, but the pace of change is no longer geological as it once was, rather we see huge change within human life-spans. It should not have been this warm today. What might have once been seen as a freak weather event has become the new normal. Lovely as it is to sit in the dappled sunshine, there are costs to other wild things;

Extinction Rebellion reminds us that there is hope. It is not too late. There is something yet worth fighting to preserve. Consider their three demands;

Tell the truth

In my context, I think this means seeing the forest for what it is, both in it’s remnant and it’s hollow imitation. I feel this like a kind of reverence.

Act now

Preserve what we have- but this is not enough. We need a massive programme of rewilding and restoration of natural resources. We need to allow the land to recover, and re-introduce apex predators, and large mammals. This will have costs and impacts which we may not fully understand until they happen. Agriculture has to fundamentally change, as will forestry. We have to support farmers and foresters financially and practically to become heroes not villains.

Beyond politics

ER want to establish people’s assemblies, because they believe that change is only possible if we establish a mass movement. We have to literally change our consiousness and our ways of life. We have to break the chains of materialism and commercial distraction.

This is my own small, on-line rebellion. I aim to make more.

McMindfulness…

Mindfulness. We see/hear it everywhere. It is touted as a spiritual/therapeutic hit for all; Lily-the-pink for the post modern age. It has much to recommend it; a simple moment of stillness that we can carry with us into our crazy lives.

Whilst appreciating the potential of mindfulness as a tool, something about it has always made me uncomfortable.

Is mindfulness just being used as a way to make the madness bearable, whilst changing nothing?

Perhaps it was the sense that a core tenet of an ancient faith was being appropriated.

Perhaps it was some of the people who I saw promoting it; expensive mindfulness retreats, shiny books, lots of mindfulness product.

Perhaps too it was a feeling I had that mindfulness should be a bi-product, not a short cut.

Then I read an article that summed up all of these feelings for me, entitled How capitalism captured the mindfulness industry.


The technical, neutral definition of mindfulness and its relativist lack of a moral foundation has opened up secular mindfulness to a host of dubious uses, now called out by its critics as McMindfulness. McMindfulness occurs when mindfulness is used, with intention or unwittingly, for self-serving and ego-enhancing purposes that run counter to both Buddhist and Abrahamic prophetic teachings to let go of ego-attachment and enact skillful compassion for everyone.

Instead of letting go of the ego, McMindfulness promotes self-aggrandizement; its therapeutic function is to comfort, numb, adjust and accommodate the self within a neoliberal, corporatized, militarized, individualistic society based on private gain.


McMindfulness aims to reduce the stress of the private individual and does not admit to any interest in the social causes of stress. In corporations, “[m]indfulness training has wide appeal because it has become a trendy method for subduing employee unrest, promoting a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and as an instrumental tool for keeping attention focused on institutional goals.” Mindfulness, they argued, needs to reclaim an ethical framework that goes beyond privatized adjustment to a society based on market capitalism that contributes to stress and other sources of unhappiness.
McMindfulness practices psychologize and medicalize social problems. Rather than a way to attain awakening toward universal love, it becomes a means of self-regulation and personal control over emotions. McMindfulness is blind to the present moral, political and cultural context of neoliberalism. As a result, it does not grasp that an individualistic therapized and commodified society is itself a major generator of social suffering and distress. Instead, the best it can then do, ironically, is to offer to sell us back an individualistic, commodified “cure” – mindfulness – to reduce that distress.

The other reason I am thinking about this is that every year, I lead a ‘Wilderness retreat’ over the May bank holiday weekend. An ever-expanding small band of friends hire some boats to drop us off on a small deserted Hebridean island for a few days. It is all about immersion in wilderness, the formation of temporary community, and engagement with Christian spirituality, albeit of a non-confrontational kind.

To extend the analogy used above, how is this not just a McWildernessretreat? Are we not just doing the same thing- consuming some space, taking lots of photographs to show what a adventurous people we are then returning to the same tramlines that we had only so recently vacated?

How is our own smug spirituality any different from those practitioners of McMindfulness who are after all doing their best to survive the wilderness of their own lives?

I suppose my answer to this is complicated. We get out of something what we give to it, so it is perfectly possible to engage with any experience in an eqo-first kind of way. But there are some things about our retreat that are different. Things that have me looking forward to it again more than I can say;

  1. The Wilderness is real. It is challenging, humbling, uncomfortable and awe-inspiring.
  2. The friendships are real. The conversations are real. The tears are real. The uncouth and poorly-judged jokes are real. The silent companionship is real.
  3. Faith is real- or at least we make faith a deliberate part of our encounter. This is of course highly individual, but even on the level of ‘suspension of disbelief’ it is a vital component of our gatherings.
  4. The hope for MORE is real. Not more stuff, more achievement, but just better. We are a group of people who want to be a force for good, even whilst the great wilderness forces us to acknowledge our own silliness and inadequacy.

You may feel (with some justification) that this does not get us off the hook – we too are creatures of our own culture – but nevertheless, I head out to the wild places with my friends in great anticipation, anxious to encounter the Great Stillness not as a cure-all, but as a discomfort, a disatisfaction.

How else can things change?

The door…

I officiated at a funeral yesterday- something I have never done before. I found myself having to learn the language and rhythm of collective expressions of grief. A friend of mine who does all this for a living (or used to) helped me to appreciate how the way we shape the service can act as an essential grounding rod for our emotional response to death.

So yesterday, we celebrated the life of Bob, who left behind a wife of almost 70 years, two daughters, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

His eldest daughter, my dear friend Pauline, told me a story about his last days.

She was alone with her father in the hospital room. Bob was very unwell, slipping in and out of consciousness, but when he was awake, she noticed that he was distracted by something in front of him. It was so real to him that he assumed Pauline must see it too.

It was a door.

Bob said that he knew he had to go through this door, and that he could take nothing with him.

Of course, we don’t know what this means. Perhaps his mind and body were preparing him for death; his subconsciousness was somehow allowing him to confront the inevitability that is facing all of us.

Or perhaps he was indeed being called onward for the next part of his journey.

I wrote this for the service yesterday;

…all we know is that a door opened in the corner of the hospital room
Seen only by him
He watched for a while, wondering what lay beyond
Wanting to stay but
Knowing he must go
Held for a while by tender threads, until even they
Were broken
At the door, he lingered, then
Stepped through, drawn towards the light
 
Blessed are we who mourn
Blessed are you, whose hearts are breaking
Because without great love, there can be no mourning
Without the shelter of our shared companionship
We could never feel the searing pain of loss.
Without this wrench of separation
We could never hope to meet again
It always takes darkness
For us to see the light
 
So, may your coming days be gentle, your companions ever kind
May memory bring great joy as well as pain
May grace find you like a feather, blown in on the breeze
May it lift you high into clear blue sky
Where only blackbirds go
 
And in those moments when grief overwhelms you, remember;
You are never alone.

Spring on the Secret Coast exhibition…

We (Seatree) are participating in another exhibition!

This is at the wonderful TIG gallery, over in Tighnabruach, overlooking the Kyles of Bute- long reputed to be one of the most beautiful places in Scotland (therefore the world.) What better way could there be to celebrate the arrival of spring? The blurb is below. Come and see!


We would like to invite you to the exhibition launch which is featuring some of our work. We are looking forward to seeing what the other artists have been working on too and hope to see you there!
Michaela and Chris

‘Spring on the Secret Coast’
Friday 19 April – Monday 6 May

Mixed exhibition featuring paintings, photography and ceramics by a variety of local artists, all capturing Spring as it bursts onto Argyll’s Secret Coast. 
Featuring work by Mary Taylor, Peter Walsh, Michaela & Chris Goan, Pauline Beautyman and Kyleside Art Club.

Exhibition Opening
Friday 19 April, 2-4pm 

Join us for a celebratory glass of fizz as we open the exhibition and celebrate the arrival of Spring!