Failure is an unavoidable element of any academic career. For all but a small number of ‘superstar über-scholars’, most of the research papers we submit will be rejected, our most innovative book proposals will be politely rebuffed and our applications for grants, prizes and fellowships will fall foul of good fortune.
The summer exam season is now upon us so let me start this month’s blog with a simple question: ‘What role does nostalgia play in explaining ‘the populist signal’?’ A recent report suggests that the role of nostalgic narratives has become a central element of contemporary politics that tap into (and to some extent fuel) anti-political sentiments amongst the public.
The social and political sciences have for some time defined their role in terms of intellectual critique and questioning. This chimes with the role of the independent scholar in terms of speaking truth to power and puncturing political pomposity wherever it is found. A confident and flourishing intellectual community of social scientists is therefore commonly thought to be a core element of a confident and flourishing democracy.
Some might say that in a world that is arguably defined by a complex set of global challenges (think food security, transnational organised crime, antibiotic resistance, sustainable development, etc.) you might think that the fate of a few trees in a post-industrial city in northern England is hardly worth the political equivalent of a raised eyebrow. You would be wrong. From healthy street tree stock to political laughing stock….
‘The politics of postcards’ is not a common topic of conversation or academic study but as the summer approaches, my mind is turning to how I can continue to write about politics from the seaside, campsite, or dreary ‘Bed & Breakfast’ hotel. Could the humble postcard possibly offer a yet under recognized outlet for political expression?
Apparently there is a Chinese proverb that says ‘unless there is opposing wind, a kite cannot rise’ but in the context of British politics it appears that only one kite is really rising, and the other is tumbling down. If truth be told the wind of opposition has arguably been so feeble that the Labour Party’s kite appears leaden rather than light.
There are some sounds in life that simply cannot be put into words. One of them is the sound I heard this morning as I ran along the canal in that very special part of Sheffield known as Attercliffe. The sound shook me to my soul and reminded me of George Orwell’s visit to the city in 1936 when he had been shocked by the realities of hard industrial life. For me, however, it was a glorious sound – the heartbeat of the Steel City.
Headlines are by their very nature designed to catch the eye, but Teddy Wayne’s ‘The Culture of Nastiness’ (New York Times, 18 February 2017) certainly caught my attention. Why? Because increasing survey evidence and datasets have identified growing social concerns about declining levels of civility. Politics, it would seem, has become raw, rude, direct, divisive… and don’t just think Trump…
The reason the life of ‘the Amazing Randi’ made me stop and think? Because I saw in the interactions between his charlatans and swindlers and the people they duped the same connection that I see between large sections of the public and the populist politicians who are emerging across Europe, offering a combination of nationalism, xenophobia, and snake oil. Their promises make very little sense.
I am not usually a worried man but today – New Year’s Day 2017 – I am a worried man. Gripped by an existential fear, my mind is restless, alert, and tired. The problem? A sense of foreboding that the impact of the political events of 2016 will shortly come home to roost on a world that is already short on collective good will or trust. There is also a sense that games are being played by a new uber-elite of political non-politicians.
The lexicographers at Oxford Dictionaries have been at it again with their choice of Word of the Year 2016 – ‘post-truth’. Now call me a pedant but I’d have thought ‘post-truth’ is two words, or at the very least a phrase, (‘Pedant!’ I hear you all shout) but I’m assured that the insertion of a hyphen creates a compound word that is not to be sniffed at. How then do words such as ‘post-truth’, ‘alt-right’, and ‘Brexiteer’ combine to explain the current situation of global political chaos?
In recent years my academic work has revolved around the analysis of two main concepts: ‘hyper-democracy’ and ‘normality.’ The former in relation to the outburst of forms and tools of democratic engagement in a historical period defined by anti-political sentiment; the latter relating to the common cry of those disaffected democrats – ‘why can’t politicians just be normal?
Imagine standing at the edge of a precipice. A combination of forces are pushing at your back, biting at your heels and generally forcing you to step into an unknown space. A long thin tightrope without any apparent ending stretches out in front of you and appears to offer your only lifeline. Doing nothing and standing still is not an option. You lift up your left foot and gingerly step out….
The phrase ‘scrotum artist’ was never going to be easy to ignore when it appeared in a newspaper headline. It is also a phrase that has made me reflect upon the nature of politics, the issue of public expectations, and even the role of a university professor of politics. In a previous blog I reflected on the experience of running a citizens’ assembly and how the emotional demands and rewards of the experience had been quite unexpected.
Sometimes a fragment of a book manages to lodge itself in the back of your mind. An idea, a description, a phrase…just something, and often completely unrelated to the core story, attaches itself to your mind like an intellectual itch you can’t quite scratch.
Post-truth, post-political, post-democracy: the tragedy of the UK’s referendum on the European Union
I used to cringe at the title of John Keane’s magisterial book The Life and Death of Democracy because of my belief in the innate flexibility and responsiveness of democratic politics – there could be no death of democracy. Now I’m not so sure.