There are few books that I ever feel tempted to re-read.
Let’s face it, there are so many great authors out there delivering insightful narratives and with so much to learn, does one really have the luxury of re-reading words already committed to the mind? A very good friend though told me about a particular book, making the claim that it was something that I would never put down – a compendium of perplexities.
The Book is The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo. I guess the resumé on the cover drew me in further: “why the new world disorder constantly surprises us and what to do about it”. I first read it 10 years ago and still as relevant as the day it was written. Indeed, I would put it in the same class as The Communist Manifesto of 1848 – not because it is a left leaning doctrinal narrative, but rather because of the quality of its structure, analysis, and the enduring principles and realities it offers.
There is a quote within Ramo’s book by the Noble Prize winner, Austrian economist Fredrich August von Hayek that really changed the way I look at how information is presented. The quote itself is this: “There is much reason to be apprehensive about the long-run dangers created in a much wider field by the uncritical acceptance of assertions which have the appearance of being scientific.”
And it doesn’t matter if it is a Brexiteer telling us that we would get back £350 million a week for the NHS made available by leaving the EU, or the notion that the dictator Maduro is a misunderstood and penniless keeper of the people’s rights whilst portraying to the world an air of normality. One’s gut feeling is normally correct, and we know these ‘things’ are probably not true. But there seems to be an inability to effectively challenge, be it through well-defined Parliamentary processes and voting or popular uprising.
Hayek titled his speech from which the quote was taken, “The Pretence of Knowledge”. It would appear that what we read or hear doesn’t have to be real, we just have to believe it or as behaviours today seem to suggest, we passively await either confirmation or an alternative through the passage of time. I now despise the phrase ‘kicking the can down the road’ not just because it has become such a hackneyed phrase adopted by politicians to justify ineptitude, but the implication that we have become so lackadaisical that we feel unable to make decisions or to take charge of our destiny. We are collectively in denial.
One of the problems with the world in which we live today is being able to discern what information is real, what is true and what decision do we need to make. The predilection of politicians to get their message out there – whether it is true or not – and at all costs has created the environment in which fake news thrives. I complained some months ago in a previous article about politicians being too arrogant to answer the question they are asked. Indeed, we used to joke in the Service: “How do you know a submariner is lying? Their lips are moving!”
But it isn’t just politicians: some of those charged with objectively presenting the facts are now indulging the mantle of defining the news, no better illustrated than on last Sunday’s Andrew Marr show, headlined for addressing the issues around the EU elections but delivering instead and at the insistence of the host “Nigel Farage, this is your life”.
Thank goodness we indulged something very real this week. The conversations headlined around the menopause and mental health – what a relief! A relief because the conversations were real, engaging, inspiring and decisive. They are necessary. They were human. And primarily because the conversations were around truth – both personal and collective experience, and a willingness by those participating to both listen and hear what was being said. There was a lot of information to absorb, but it was absorbing, and focused on making a difference for all. Facts, information, and skills acquired through experience – knowledge.
A ‘GoogleWhack’ is a search query consisting of exactly two words without quotation marks that returns exactly one hit. In the early days of the worldwide web it was possible to achieve a ‘win’; today it is most likely impossible. Much of the uncertainty today is created by our obsession with information: we have an insatiable appetite for ‘facts’, truth and reality and at any cost. But little information today has context or relevance, rather there is a burgeoning habit of finding the most tenuous of links rather than the right answer. Knowledge only adds value if it real.
Ultimately our national inability to recognise the realities staring us in the face – from political through economic to environmental – let alone our failure to address inequalities that purvey every aspect of our lives will only add to the increasing global denial. As the late Stephen Hawking put it: “We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overcrowded planet.”
James Johnston is a business owner, chair of the The Malt Whisky Trail and served as Station Commander for RAF Kinloss