Sunday, 05 June 2016

Boaty McBoatface and William Shakespeare: two cheers for democracy The curious tale of Boaty McBoatface may soon be forgotten, but it might possibly mark a significant moment in the history of participative democracy. The Natural Environment Research Council invited members of the public to put forward and vote on names for its new polar research vessel. Someone suggested ‘Boaty McBoatface’ and I guess lots of people thought, that’s a laugh. Through digital media, endorsement is almost effortless, and it easily topped the poll. Personally I’d have favoured one of the alternatives, ‘It's Bloody Cold Here’ – but anyway it doesn’t look as though the vote-winning suggestion will be adopted. This modestly silly saga reminds us of the manifest lack of wisdom of crowds, which is effectively what Stuart Heritage seems to be on about in this recent Guardian piece. More pointedly I think, it is a little reminder that the ways in which organisations push notions of ‘public engagement’ and democratic participation can lead them into difficulties: and in so doing, perhaps they are exposing the limits of democracy. As Sophie Blake noted on the Involve blog, ‘engagement that hasn’t been thought out can damage the reputation of public engagement as a whole.’ Meanwhile, there’s been much ado about today’s 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, a man who understood clearly that crimes (or sins) and their forgiveness or payment of dues are often not equalised. In this respect, I do wonder with what forcefulness he might have written about the ways in which global corporations can buy and sell the right to pollute. Here I just want to draw attention to further, and more powerful, insights into the evolution of democracy, with reference to Gabriel Chanan’s marvelously lucid and readable book Shakespeare and democracy. Gabriel explains how Shakespeare played a fundamental role in building the culture that underlies modern democracy: he also argues that that contribution ‘continues to be essential to its survival and further progress’. This point is well worth pondering on the day when Barrack Obama visited the Globe Theatre in London. At its conclusion, the book offers a delightful reading of The tempest, first performed before King James and his courtiers. Gabriel suggests that perhaps the playwright is saying: ‘As for me, Shakespeare, all I have done is write harmless plays and given free rein to my imagination. You kings and nobles, on the other hand, have made aggressive wars, oppressed the poor, condemned the innocent and killed helpless people.’
Lightening the gloom of the referendoom… Talk about working in mysterious ways. Following my quick chat about Yerp with yer actual almighty the other day, one of his senior agents, an Archbish, no less – has come up with some words of wisdom in response to Nigel ‘I’m-Not-Racist-I-Just-Peddle-Racism’ Farage. Monsieur Farage (on a council estate, should we pronounce this to rhyme with ‘Garridge’?) is so concerned about the ‘cultural’ differences between British society and migrants. In a scenario curiously resonant with critical moments in the history of this country, this not-at-all-upstart priest sat before the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee: quizzed by the upstart democratic representatives. Yes it’s Archbishop Justin Welby – how reassuringly English the name sounds by comparison with his protagonist. He spoke about the ‘burden’ of immigration on communities and the role of government (emphasis added): 'It's a national issue not a local issue - not only for the direct cost of those who are coming in as immigrants but to strengthen the stability and infrastructure around particularly education, health and housing of those communities that are accepting people. 'That actually, in my experience, liberates the natural generosity of people to welcome, once the causes or the reasons for fear have been dispelled - and they are quite easily dispelled.' Thou art so right, squire: by strengthening the stability and infrastructure around communities, you liberate people’s natural generosity to welcome others. And let’s be clear, the opposite applies: if you allow the infrastructure to weaken and atrophy, you stifle that natural generosity to the point of animosity. We have already come dangerously close to the tipping point, allowing too much purchase for those like Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who would exploit people’s sense of vulnerability to the Other, in the cynical interests of their own political power. I have nothing but contempt for their readiness to jeopardise the prospects of at least the next couple of generations for their own saliva-dribbling glee at being seen as Important.

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