Friday, 30 November 2018

Brace yourself, Britain. Brexit is about to teach you what a crisis actually is

Seven decades of prosperity have lulled the UK into thinking we’re special – that disasters only happen to other people writes David Bennun in The Guardian 

Keeping calm in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire: ‘The idea that we’re protected, we’re exceptional, is not articulated … but it’s there.’ Photograph: JOHN ROBERTSON 

Most British people don’t have the first inkling of what a crisis is. They think it’s a political thing. “Government in crisis”, and so on. Whatever happens at the top, life will go on as ever. There will be food in the shops, medical supplies in the hospitals, water in the taps and order on the streets (as much as there usually is). Anyone who warns you otherwise is a catastrophist, a drama queen, a scaremonger, a Cassandra.

That’s what a seven-decade period of general peace and collective prosperity does for you. It makes you think it’s normal, rather than a hard-won, fragile rarity in history. It makes most people complacent, and turns a small but unfortunately influential number into the kind of adolescent romantics who think you can smash up everything in the house and stick two fingers up to Mummy and Daddy because, no matter what you do, they will always be there to make it right in the end. Mummy and Daddy won’t let anything too bad happen to us. 

The idea that we’re protected, we’re exceptional, is not articulated or usually even conscious. But it’s there. That this is who we are. Disaster – mass, national disaster – happens to other people, in other places.

But there is no such rule. No such guarantee. Mummy and Daddy won’t always come to bail us out. And if you’ve ever lived in one of those other places, chances are you will have seen how quickly what you thought was an orderly society can disintegrate under pressure. If you’ve never known gunfire and mobs on the streets, or empty taps and empty shelves, or power that’s off more than it’s on, or morgues full of the victims of racial, political or tribal violence, you don’t have a clue how easily that can happen.

I experienced all these things when I was growing up in Kenya. Some were routine; the more severe, mercifully less so. Branded on my memory from an attempted coup d’état in 1982 is the sound of automatic rifle fire along the road; the crowds surging like waves; confusion and misinformation crackling from the radio; most of all, hearing the account of my late father, a doctor, of the aftermath of what I can best describe as a pogrom, unleashed by the breakdown of order, against the Asian people of Nairobi, his hospital full of the dead and grievously wounded people, many of them children no older than I was.

All the talk of “Blitz spirit” comes from people who have never known what it is to truly fear everything crashing down

Britain is not Kenya. It is, in the ordinary run of things, much better protected against such convulsions than a country such as Kenya. But do away with the ordinary run of things, and any place in the world can suffer as Kenya did then. You don’t have to look too far back at European history to see it, nor do you have to look away from home. The British people I know who most swiftly grasped and vividly understood the implications of present events as they began to unfold are Northern Irish. There’s a reason for that.

Democratic institutions, the rule of law, civic infrastructure, a culture of local and national governance in which corruption, while ever present, is exceptional rather than institutional: these things, flawed as they may be and ever improvable as they are, take generations, even centuries to build. But once they topple, they can topple at terrifying speed and with terrifying effect. Britain has forgotten what that’s like.

All the talk about the “Blitz spirit” comes from people who have never known what it is to truly fear everything crashing down around you. In liberal democracies enthusiasm for a revolution usually comes from people who have known nothing but the safety and freedom of the “system” – which is to say the imperfect protective structure – that they abhor. Talk to anyone who has experienced the glories of such upheaval and they are generally not quite so keen on it.

To be, politically speaking, a grownup is something to be sneered at these days. It means you’re lacking in imagination, in boldness of vision, in belief in a better country or a better world. That’s a view held invariably by people who would, without grownups running things, have been lucky to survive long enough to articulate it. Similarly, a contempt for expertise is inevitably expressed by those who, without experts contributing to society as they do, would be lucky to have a voice to speak with, let alone a platform on which to use it. Expertise, like democracy, is far from infallible; each, however, is always preferable to the alternative.

When the grownups fail, as they periodically do, and badly, what you need is better grownups. Awful things have happened, and do happen, in this country, chiefly as a result of bad policy and worse enactment. We don’t need to have homelessness, dependency on food banks or deprived areas ruled by criminals and bullies. We can afford to act against these evils, but we let them happen all the same. That shames us. Hand the keys and the controls over to eternal teenagers – populists of either stripe – and what you’ll get is a situation where that choice is gone.

We’re not special. If, in a deluded fit of national self-harm that ever more resembles the drift into war in 1914, we allow ourselves to wreck the complicated machinery that underpins our everyday lives without us ever having to think much about it, nobody will be coming to rescue us. Cassandra, as Cassandras are always ready to remind you, was right.

Imran Khan - The first 100 days

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Prime Minister Imran Khan is being hauled over the coals for failing to match words with deeds in his first 100 days in office. Indeed, he has made a laughing stock of himself by justifying 19 controversial decisions and 35 U-Turns so far as tactical policy befitting “great leaders” like Hitler and Napoleon. Since he wittingly proposed the 100-day yardstick to measure his government’s performance, he has only himself to blame for this media onslaught.

The most urgent item on PM Imran Khan’s agenda is related to the crisis in the economy manifested by a yawning gap in the balance of payments, falling forex reserves and a plummeting rupee. As opposition leader, he had thundered endlessly against crawling to the IMF or foreign countries for financial bailouts. Instead, he had pinned his hopes on billions in donations from overseas Pakistanis and tens of billions from unearthing black money stashed abroad. The problem arose when, after assuming office, he persisted in his delusionary approach, and the situation went from bad to worse. When his finance minister, Asad Umar, dared to baulk, he was forced to eat his words. It was only when the army chief, General Qamar Bajwa, “launched” himself purposefully that Imran Khan reluctantly packed his achkan, dragged himself off to Saudi Arabia and China with bowl in hand, and Asad Umar sat down to engage the IMF, both making a bald-faced virtue out of necessity.

But even this belated dawning of “wisdom” has failed to yield the desired results. China is not even ready to reveal the nature of its help. The Saudis have made an insignificant deposit that doesn’t tally with the tall expectations of government. And the IMF delegation has returned to Washington without any commitment, leaving the PM and his FM wringing their hands in despair.

The second item related to the efficient and honest functioning of government. On that score, there is even more confusion and contradiction. Parliament cannot function properly without consensual committees to steer legal reforms and oversee public accounts. But the hounding of the opposition parties at the behest of the interior ministry and civil-military “agencies” directed by Imran Khan himself has log-jammed the core committees. Worse, the PM’s intent to run Punjab from Bani Gala via a weak chief minister in a sea of cunning contenders for power like the Punjab Governor and the Speaker of the Provincial Assembly, has deadlocked the bureaucracy and administration. The rapid postings and transfers of high and low officials at one power broker’s behest or another’s has led to lack of direction and motivation.

The third agenda item is foreign policy. Here, too, the government’s stumbling is embarrassing. When the need of the hour is to keep the American beast at bay so that it doesn’t waylay the IMF on its way to Pakistan or lean on the Saudis to put pressure on us, Imran Khan has tried to win cheap brownie points at home by counter-tweeting President Trump. On the Afghanistan front, the war of words and proxy terrorism continues unabated even as Islamabad vows to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

Now Pakistan’s reopening of the Kartarpur corridor to the Sikh shrine of Baba Guru Nanak is being billed as some sort of “peace breakthrough” in Indo-Pak relations. It is nothing of the sort. Like the IMF, China and Saudi Arabia “openings”, this initiative comes courtesy General Bajwa whose bear hug of Indian cricketer Navjot Singh Sidhu at Imran Khan’s oath taking ceremony in Islamabad put Indian PM Narendra Modi and Punjab state CM Amarinder Singh in a tight corner. Neither politician’s prospects are too bright in the forthcoming elections in Punjab state next year. Therefore, they have reluctantly yielded to the Pakistani proposal only to curry favour with tens of millions of devout Sikhs. It is a tactical and short term concession as the hard, anti-Pakistan statements from Amarinder Singh and the Indian FM Sushma Swaraj, coupled with PM Modi’s refusal to attend the SAARC summit for the third year running, prove. Indeed, even as the Kartarpur protocol was being signed, proxy terrorists were taking a toll at the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, SP Tahir Dawar’s murdered body was being handed over to the Pak authorities at the Afghan border, suicide bombers were striking in the lower Orakzai Agency and India’s brutal repression in Held Kashmir showed no sign of abating.

On the Pakistan side, too, General Bajwa’s initiative is tactical, aimed only at reducing current Indian hostility – in the form of armed conflict along the LoC and proxy terrorism across the country – that destabilizes Pakistan and makes Imran Khan’s job of focusing on government difficult. This is the same Miltablishment that winked at the Labaiq Ya Rasul Allah during Nawaz Sharif’s time and crushed it in Imran Khan’s, the same that kicked Nawaz out for wanting to promote peace with India and is propping up Imran now at Kartarpur.

The Miltablishment has put all its eggs in Imran Khan’s basket. It will take more than 100 days of incompetence to shake its faith in their chosen man.


Bombs or Bread?

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times 16 Nov 2018

As we all know, the civil-military relationship in Nawaz Sharif’s time was severely strained. Among the factors often cited are Mr Sharif’s dogged pursuit of ex-army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, for the treasonable coup of 1999; his rush to “befriend” the hawkish Indian PM, Narendra Modi, without clearing the tactics and strategy with the Miltablishment; the “misuse” of the Pakistan-based jihadis in the proxy war with India, that led to the altercation reported in “Dawnleaks”; and Mr Sharif’s refusal to give the Miltablishment a seat at the roundtable determining CPEC projects and contracts.

But in a recent TV interview, Ishaq Dar, the ex-PMLN Finance Minister, has made a startling admission. He alluded to the issue of increasing defense budgets as the most significant area of conflict between the PMLN government and the Miltablishment. It appears that the Miltablishment wanted “more” money for new weapons systems because of the rising security threat from India but the PMLN government was strapped for funds and declined to do the needful.

The “Defense Budget” remains a sore point with every elected civilian government. At one time, it hovered around 30% of all budgetary expenditures and became grist for critics’ mills. So the Musharraf government cunningly took out military pensions from the Defense Budget and clubbed them with government expenditures, thereby reducing its weight as a percentage of budget expenditures and making it more palatable. When Coalition Fund Support from the US kicked in during the war against terrorism in FATA, it was also toted up outside the ambit of the Defense Budget. It has now become normal practice to post an increase of approximately 10 percent every year over actual expenditures for defense in the preceding year whilst beefing up the defense spending in supplementary budgets during the rest of the year, in effect giving the military much more than a 10% increase. The low levels of budgetary revenue collection and consequent government expenditures have also made defense budgets look overly inflated in percentage terms, especially in relation to India.

The security concerns of the Pak military have increased manifold for three main reasons. First, the aggressive nature of the Modi regime with its constant threat of “strategic strikes” across the LoC and its support of proxy war against Pakistan from non-state actors based in Afghanistan. Second, the perennial threat from its Cold Start Doctrine, now baptized afresh as Pro-Active Operations. Third, India is shopping for advanced weapons systems, the foremost being its proposed purchase of the Russian S-400 Triumf long-range, anti-missile system for over US$5.5 billion which is viewed in Islamabad as a major new threat. Now India has commissioned its first indigenously built nuclear-powered submarine, INS Arihant, armed with a 750km range submarine launched missile fitted with a nuclear warhead. Both these acquisitions are going to compel Pakistan to seek expensive equivalent systems to redress the security imbalance.

In other words, the Pakistan military will want lots more money going forward. The problem is that Pakistan’s economy has been failing and increasingly unable to bear this burden. Therefore, the choice of “bombs or bread” is bound to echo ever more furiously in the corridors of power, leading to renewed strains in civil-military relations and political instability that will in turn hamstring economic development and further strain the budget. When will this vicious circle end to create space for poverty alleviation, education, health, human resource development, etc.?

By definition, a “national security state” like Pakistan with a “permanent” and powerful enemy on its border like India requires a high level of defense preparedness. This is testified by the four wars, countless border skirmishes, and reciprocal proxy-terrorisms between the two in the last 70 years. Ostensibly, the root cause is the unresolved dispute over Kashmir. But we need to ask and answer some pertinent questions here.

How have many countries resolved similar border and territorial disputes in modern times without resorting to wars and proxy-terrorism? Which of the two is the originator of the wars in the subcontinent, regardless of the political provocation by the other? Why has the nuclearisation of the subcontinent spurred the conventional arms race instead of freezing it as originally argued? Who is hurting the most from this arms race, not just in financial terms but also in the cost to representative democracy of an overbearing political-military industrial complex that has created violent non-state actors at home to retain its political hegemony? Why is such a national security state unable to fully exploit Pakistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of three civilisations and markets – South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle-East – instead of replacing the yoke of one declining super power by that of another rising one? Why do we subscribe to the notion of a permanent enemy instead of a permanent peace in the national interest?

The USSR put a man in space and built over 10,000 nuclear bombs but couldn’t put enough bread on its shelves to feed its people. The arms race destroyed it. There are lessons in this for Pakistan.

Bowel movement: the push to change the way you poo

Are you sitting comfortably? Many people are not – and they insist that the way we’ve been going to the toilet is all wrong. By Alex Blasdel in The Guardian 

For their 27th wedding anniversary, the Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston gave his wife, Robin, a gift that promises “to give you the best poop of your life, guaranteed”. The Squatty Potty is a wildly popular seven-inch-high plastic stool, designed by a devout Mormon and her son, which curves around the base of your loo. By propping your feet on it while you crap, you raise your knees above your hips. From this semi-squat position, the centuries-old seated toilet is transformed into something more primordial, like a hole in the ground. The family that makes the Squatty Potty says this posture unfurls your colon and gives your faecal matter a clear run from your gut to the bowl, reducing bloating, constipation and the straining that causes haemorrhoids. Musing about the gift on one of America’s daytime talk shows in 2016, Cranston said: “Elimination is love.” 

More than 5m Squatty Potties have been sold since they first crept on to the market in 2011. Celebrities such as Sally Field and Jimmy Kimmel have raved about them, and the basketball sensation Stephen Curry put one in every bathroom of his house. “I had, like, a full elimination,” Howard Stern, the celebrity shock jock, said after he first used one, in 2013. “It was unbelievable. I felt empty. I was like, ‘Holy shit.’” The Squatty Potty has been the subject of jokes on Saturday Night Live, and of adulation by the queen of drag queens, RuPaul. This January, after Squatty Potty LLC hit $33m in annual revenues, the business channel CNBC, which helped bring the footstool to fame through its US version of Dragon’s Den, hailed the device as a “cult juggernaut”.

The Squatty Potty’s success is partly down to “This Unicorn Changed the Way I Poop”, an online ad that launched in October 2015 and has since been viewed more than 100m times. In the video, a fey cartoon unicorn, its rear hooves perched upon a Squatty Potty, Mr-Whippies rainbow-coloured soft-serve ice-cream out of its butt and into cake cones while an Elizabethan Prince Charming details the benefits of squatting to poop. (“I scream, you scream, and plop, plop baby!”) At the end of the video, the prince serves the ice-cream to a gaggle of kids. (“How does it taste, is that delicious? Is that the best thing you’ve ever had in your life?”)

  Squatty Potty’s unicorn advert, which has been viewed more than 100m times

At first, many people saw the footstool as little more than a joke Christmas present. But, like fresh bed linen and French bulldogs, the Squatty Potty exerts a powerful emotional force on its owners. “I have one and I have to tell you, it will ruin your life,” a Reddit user called chamburgers recently posted. “I can’t poop anywhere but at home with my Squatty Potty. When I have to poop at work I’m left unsatisfied. It’s like climbing into a wet sleeping bag.” Bobby Edwards, who invented the footstool with his mom, calls people like this “evangelists”. “They talk about it at dinner parties, they talk about whenever they can – about how the Squatty Potty has changed their life,” he told me. He sounded almost mystified.

The popularity of the Squatty Potty, and the existence of its many rivals and imitators, is one of the clearest signs of an anxiety that’s been growing in the west for the past decade: that we have been “pooping all wrong”. In recent years, some version of that phrase has headlined articles from outlets as diverse as Men’s Health, Jezebel, the Cleveland Clinic medical centre and even Bon Appétit. By giving up the natural squatting posture bequeathed to us by evolution and taking up our berths on the porcelain throne, the proposition goes, we have summoned a plague of bowel trouble. Untold millions suffer from haemorrhoids – in the US alone, some estimates run to 125 million – and millions more have related conditions such as colonic inflammation.

Where illness goes, big business follows. The markets for treating these ailments – with creams, surgery and haemorrhoid doughnut cushions – are worth many billions of dollars. Although diet is widely believed to be a contributing factor in these problems (eat your fibre!), lately attention has focused on the possible effects of toilet posture. The renowned Mayo clinic is now conducting a randomised controlled trial to see whether the Squatty Potty can ease chronic constipation, which afflicts some 50 million Americans, most of them women, many over 45 years old.

The Squatty Potty

People often say pooping is taboo, but lately it seems more like a cultural fetish. There are poop emoji birthday parties for three-year-olds, people WhatsApping photos of their ordure to friends, TripAdvisor threads on how to avoid or avail yourself of squat toilets. Through the miracle of online media, you can now discover that, in the past year, both Brisbane, Australia and Colorado Springs, Colorado, suffered reigns of terror by mystery “pooping joggers” who ran around crapping on people’s lawns. There’s a whole YouTube subculture devoted to infiltrating restrooms with vintage toilets and surreptitiously flushing them over and over again (one of thesechannels has more than 16m views). The renowned novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard has devoted passage after passage to his bowel movements. You can even read opinion pieces about the pleasures of evacuating in the nude.

But it’s the banal Squatty Potty that’s doing the most to change not just how people discuss poop, but how they actually do it. “It’s piercing that final veil around bodily use and bodily functions,” Barbara Penner, professor of architectural humanities at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, and one of the preeminent scholars of the modern bathroom, told me. Perhaps it’s because this small, unlovely stool embodies a grand ambition: to upend two centuries of western orthodoxy about going to the loo.

Shitting, like death, is a great leveller. It renders beluga caviar indistinguishable from tinned ham, a duchess as creaturely as a dog. Even God’s only son may be transformed by the act: the stercoranistes, an early Christian sect, believed in a double transubstantiation, Christ into the communion wafer, and thence into dung. Though at different times and places the excrement of certain personages – be they the Dalai Lama or those with “healthy” gut biomes – has been revered for its healing powers, shit itself is a strict egalitarian. Faecal-borne disease knows no kings; cholera can kill anyone.

People have long tried to resist the democratic power of defecation, imposing rigorous distinctions on and through the act. Since at least the 19th century, bathrooms have been arenas of racial and gender oppression, from the Jim Crow south to the era of trans rights. Hinduism is infamous for its caste system, according to which the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”, are forced to manually dispose of the faeces of higher castes. In Kenya, the nomadic Samburu use personal trowels to cover their excrement; the beading on the handle expresses the owner’s status within the tribe. In the US and UK, the bathroom is often, per square foot, the most expensive room in the home. Wedgwood, who made your posh grandmother’s dinner set, made her posh grandmother’s toilet pan.

An Ancient Egyptian toilet bowl from the New Kingdom period (1600-1100 BC). Photograph: Science Photo Library

The recorded history of human defecation can be read as a series of attempts at differentiation: how do we separate our excrement from our bodies, our sewage from our homes and cities? How do we keep the sounds and smells of our bodily functions from infesting other people’s senses? How do we enforce social hierarchies by dividing the bodies of the powerful from the bodies of the oppressed?

To these questions, the bathroom with its seated water closet, or flush toilet, was a surprisingly recent but remarkably potent answer. Though sit-down privies and latrines have existed at least since Egyptian antiquity, for almost all of history the vast majority of Homo sapiensdefecated squatting, in the open. As the planet filled up and humans clustered together in cities over the second half of the previous millennium, open defecation became a scourge, leading to rising rates of diseases such as dysentery – still a major problem in parts of the world without modern sanitation.

It’s generally held that the water closet was invented by an English nobleman at the end of the 16th century. But it wasn’t until the the industrialisation of Britain’s potteries and ironworks in the mid-19th century that water closets ceased to be the preserve of the wealthy. As they spread to homes across northern Europe, toilets led to revolutions in sanitation, medicine, social relations and even psychology.

With more and more people going to the bathroom at home and in private, defecation became a solitary and almost unspeakably vulgar act. Some wrongly believe that other people’s bowel movements elicit universal disgust. But as recently as the 16th century, a treatise on etiquette scolded well-to-do Europeans not to flaunt the stinking cloth with which one wipes one’s arse. For several hundred years, into the 18th century, English monarchs did their business in front of literal privy councils while enthroned upon an upholstered box containing a chamber pot. Indeed, “social defecation” has been observed across times and cultures. In the 1970s, the anthropologist Philippe Descola documented it among the previously uncontacted Achuar people in the Amazon; open-plan, ni-hao (“hello”) bathrooms are still common in many parts of China.

In the period of late empire in which it was popularised, the private toilet and bathroom came to be seen as the sine qua non of European achievement. “The Civilisation of a People can be measured by their domestic and Sanitary appliances,” the pioneering Victorian sanitary engineer George Jennings wrote in the 1850s. It’s a sentiment still shared by many a bewildered western tourist when first confronted in parts unknown by what appears to them to be a tiled hole in the ground.

 A ‘close stool’ chamber pot, circa 1670-1705, from Hampton Court Palace. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust

So profound is the link between the water closet and people’s vision of the modern west that the German architect Hermann Muthesius predicted in 1904 that “when all the fashions that parade as modern movements in art have passed away,” the bathroom, with its beautifully functional fixtures, would be “regarded as the most eloquent expression of our age.” Edward Weston, one of the fathers of artistic modernism, agreed. After spending two weeks in the autumn of 1925 photographing his toilet, he pronounced its “swelling, sweeping, forward movement of finely progressing contours” a rival to the most celebrated sculpture of so-called western civilisation, the Winged Victory of Samothrace.

Like any technological solution, however, the water closet set in motion new problems. The use of water to dispose of faeces has been “a central element of our perilous fantasy that the planet was created for human convenience,” one Canadian scholar has written. Alongside improved hygiene and stronger taboos also came an explosion in various so-called “modern” diseases, such as haemorrhoids and constipation, which were attributed to seated toilets. One 20th-century physiotherapist described constipation as “the greatest physical vice of the white race”.

Antidotes, such as low-to-the-ground toilets known as “health closets”, which would allow for a half-squat position, have been on the market in Britain since at least the 1920s, Barbara Penner notes in her book Bathroom. Around mid-century, a predecessor of the Squatty Potty was on sale at Harrods. In the mid-1960s, in the US, a Cornell University architecture professor named Alexander Kira proposed a number of squatting and semi-squatting toilet designs in his monumental study The Bathroom, in which he called the seated toilet “the most ill-suited fixture ever designed”. Yet no solution to the problems posed by the modern toilet really took off. Until now.

The most primitive things sometimes require extraordinary sophistication to produce. The passage of a humble turd demands the orchestration of the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system, muscles skeletal and smooth, three anal reflexes, two sphincters and a weight of cultural knowledge about where and when it’s appropriate to go. It is a “masterful performance”, writes the German scientist Giulia Enders in her international bestseller, Gut.

On its descent through our bodies, faecal matter traverses a landscape marked by the poetry of the gastroenterologist: the flaps of tissue that project into the rectum, known as the “valves of Houston”; the bouquet of blood vessels contained in the “anal crypt”. As the rectum fills with the products of digestion, it signals, through nerves running into the sacral region of the spinal cord, that defecation may be necessary. The internal and external anal sphincters then begin a culturally mediated pas de deux, the former pressing for release and the latter restricting discharge until the opportune moment.

When that time comes, a person may perform the Valsalva manoeuvre, increasing the pressure inside the abdomen by exhaling against a closed airway as if popping one’s ears on a flight. The pelvic floor muscles relax, the perineum descends, and the external anal sphincter opens up, delivering your creation into the world. It takes mammals about 12 seconds to pass a stool, with humans accomplishing the task at a rate of one to two centimeters of faeces per second. In a deep squat, with our buttocks about 150mm from the floor, it takes us under a minute, on average, to go from initiation to a sense of elimination, according to one study.

Ancient Roman communal toilets at Ephesus in Turkey. Photograph: Leonid Serebrennikov/Alamy

But to perform this act on a seated toilet, which can range from a standard 13 or 14 inches tall to a “comfort height” of as much as 20 inches, more than doubled that time. Imagine that your bowels are a prison revolt, and the inmates – your faeces – are trying to storm the gates. If they have to take a hard corner, they’re going to lose momentum and get trapped. With a straight shot, they can easily come pounding down the door. When we sit to defecate, we need to force our feces through a bend in our rectum created by a little hammock-shaped muscle called the puborectalis. While standing or sitting, the puborectalis helps to keep us continent by cinching our bowel closed. In a full squat, that cinch relaxes, the bend or “anorectal angle” opens up, and intra-abdominal pressure rises, reducing the need to push.

This is an eminently good thing. Straining to force your crap around the puborectalis can induce haemorrhoids, intestinal inflammation, fainting – even strokes, brain haemorrhaging and heart attack. One theory has it that the pain from a thrombosed haemorrhoid was so distracting that it cost Napoleon the battle of Waterloo. Elvis Presley’s personal physician famously speculated that a cardiac arrest brought on by straining is what finally did the King in. The kink in your tail may also give you a backlog of faeces that’s not able to leave the gut on schedule. This “faecal stagnation” is thought to be a factor in colon cancer, appendicitis and inflammatory bowel disease. It’s estimated that the average adult produces over 300 pounds of faeces in a year; legend wrongly but tellingly has it that John Wayne died with 40 pounds, or more than a month’s worth, of crap in his gut, and Elvis with something like 60.

The Squatty Potty was born in similarly unfortunate circumstances. “I was constipated my whole life,” Judy Edwards, the Squatty Potty co-creator, admitted in 2016. For a long time, she had been using a little footstool in the bathroom. “We’d teased her about it for years, about this stupid poop stool she’d bring on vacation,” her son Bobby told me. But the footstool wasn’t quite right, so one day, after Bobby, who was working as a building contractor, started taking design classes, Judy asked him to take a look at it. “She took me to the bathroom and she showed me how it worked, and as she was sitting there explaining it to me, it’s like a light went on in my head,” Bobby said.

With paint cans and phone books, they determined the perfect height and width for a new stool. The template Bobby created became the design of the first Squatty Potty. “It was hilarious,” Bobby said. “I thought, this is brilliant, I can picture the infomercial now.” The Edwardses began manufacturing the first Squatty Potties in their garage in 2010.

But sales were sluggish. The family is from St George, Utah, a high-desert town where 70% of the 80,000 residents are Mormons like Judy – not the sort of folks who gossip about their bodily emissions on a regular basis. “She’s a believer, she’s super faithful, she goes to temple every Sunday,” Bobby said of his mother. “That was an interesting dynamic when we were creating this. We embarrassed her a lot.” (This wasn’t so much of a problem for him, Bobby added; he left the church at 17, when he came out as gay.) One local woman told Judy she should be ashamed of what she was producing.

People’s reluctance to embrace the Squatty Potty wasn’t helped by the fact that the Edwardses promoted it at the local trade show with a skeleton on a toilet. (Although the Squatty Potty itself is designed to be as discreet as possible – the standard, white plastic version almost blends away into the colourless expanse of many modern bathrooms – the marketing could never afford to be minimalist.) But friends and family to whom the Edwardses had gifted Squatty Potties where pleasantly surprised by the stools, so Bobby and Judy carried on. St George might not have been ready for the Squatty Potty, but it was about to make a bigger splash than they could ever have imagined.

One of the dizzying ironies of our time is that an earlier reverence for the trappings of civilisation seems to be giving way to a pervasive distrust of modern habits and modern technology. Cars have ruined cities, atomised people and poisoned the atmosphere. Plastics have poisoned the seas. Deodorants and air fresheners have poisoned us. Antibacterial soap has led to the rise of superbugs. Your chair is killing you. So are your running shoes. If you listen to Jared Diamond or Yuval Noah Harari, the development of agricultural civilisation may be the gravest mistake humans ever made. For vigour and vitality, you should renounce thousands of years of grain-based eating and return to a paleolithic diet.

We have even come to look upon the toilet with a jaundiced eye. As a result, there’s something beguiling about the suggestion that the Squatty Potty, for the few moments we mount it, allows us to return to a more natural state. “It’s all about basic mechanics,” Bobby Edwards told an interviewer in 2014. “It’s about taking it back to the way it was done thousands of years ago.”

But for all its squat-like-our-ancestors logic, it’s no surprise that the rise of the Squatty Potty tracks the spread of social media. The vogue for lifestyles that are cleaner, greener, more organic, paleo, supposedly more in tune with human evolution, and closer to nature has largely spread through hi-tech means. (To a dieter’s exasperation, there seem to be more paleo apps than paleo-conforming appetisers.) One of Squatty Potty’s earliest significant sales boosts came in 2011, from a vegan blogger with 75,000 followers. It has also been lauded by influential blogs and websites such as The Paleo Mom, Wellness Mama and the Mother Nature Network.

 An advert for a pedestal closet toilet, 1899. Photograph: Science History Images/Alamy

It’s a commonplace that social media such as Instagram pressure us to present perfect versions of ourselves: here we are, beautiful and happy, living our best lives #blessed. Like the earlier craze for colonics, the fad for clean eating and the mania for mindfulness, the Squatty Potty seems to translate this perfectionism to our internal states. “The Squatty Potty almost turns the body itself into this efficient flushing mechanism,” like the complex sewage systems we’ve constructed, Barbara Penner said. “There is this element of ‘Let’s empty ourselves out’.” The implicit notion seems to be that ridding ourselves of “bad” foods, unthoughtful thoughts and every last pellet of faeces can help us achieve not only health, but something approaching a state of purity.

At the same time, social media has had other, more humanising effects. In the 1970s, Alexander Kira of Cornell University diagnosed Americans with a psychological and cultural aversion to squatting, as well as to talking openly about our basest bodily functions. Today, after little more than a generation, people are opening up about defecation in a way that was presaged by early, faeces-focused social media sites such as and These sites were often anonymous and almost completely free from the cultural censors that ran traditional media. By contrast, today people happily put their names to stories about their bowel movements, and you can read about anal fissures in the pages of the New York Times.

This unabashed attitude is a major part of the Squatty Potty’s appeal, too. By combining the science of the puborectalis with the whimsy of crapping unicorns (and, in a later ad, gold-bullion pooping dragons), the company is trying to transform the private indignity of awkward bowel movements into an almost universally shared joy. “If you’re a human who poops from your butt,” this stool’s for you, the prince in the unicorn video avers. People were listening: in the three months after the video aired, the company sold 195,000 footstools, and grossed more than $7m.

The Squatty Potty website features a nearly endless feed of Instagram testimonials for its products, which now include a nine-inch version, a bamboo version, a kids’ version that looks like a hippopotamus, stools in black, grey and pink, and a host of other faeces-related goodies, such as witchhazel-infused foam that turns standard-issue toilet paper into flushable wet wipes and a plunger shaped like the poop emoji. New footstools are shipped with a pin-on badge that reads “I POOPED TODAY!”

But this sudden enthusiasm for disclosing private habits masks a deeper truth: shitting and shit have never stopped being profoundly public. Behind the closed door of the bathroom have always lurked the public structures – the pipes, the laws, the labour – that manage human waste. And, behind those, lie defecation’s two inescapable conditions: our bodies and the planet.

There’s a set of common fallacies that equate the “natural”, the “healthy” and the “good”. We often decide that something we think is good must also be healthy (that morning cup of coffee or nightly glass of red wine, say) or natural (polyamory for some, religion for others). But we also like to run things in the opposite direction: if we believe something is natural, whatever that means, we often assume it must also be healthy and good. Our caveman ancestors, in their wise state of nature, ate nothing but acorns and barbecued mammoth? Me eat nut butter and grass-fed steak!

Squatting may be natural, but the question remains: is the Squatty Potty also good? Post Darwin, we no longer tend to believe a couple of hundred or thousand years of human ingenuity can improve upon the immemorial march of evolution. Those who think the water closet has been vindicated by history ignore how contingent, and in some ways irrational, modern sewage systems with seated toilets really are. This is underscored by the fact that billions of people regularly use modern, hygienic squat toilets to poop.

So it does seem plausible that the Squatty Potty might return us to a sort of pooping Eden. But the limited research that exists on footstools is equivocal. In three studies that were either uncontrolled or had very small sample sizes, there was evidence that squatting to defecate has positive effects on the ease and extent of elimination. When it came to simulating a squat by using a footstool, though, the results were inconclusive. The semi-squat position did not appear to open the anorectal angle, or reduce the amount of straining needed to go, though the studies were not rigorous enough to establish anything approaching a scientific fact.

That doesn’t mean you need to hit the squat toilets that still exist along the French motorway or – to the horror of the Daily Mail – in Rochdale’s Exchange shopping mall. Dr Adil Bharucha, who is leading the Mayo clinic’s randomised controlled trial of the Squatty Potty, hopes that his study will establish more conclusively whether the Squatty Potty works, and why.

Of course, even if it does cut down on haemorrhoids and constipation for many people, this doesn’t make the Squatty Potty natural. Rather, the stool shows it’s actually impossible to go “back.” “We are locked into these systems and patterns of use,” Barbara Penner said. “But the Squatty Potty intervenes into that system and modifies it without actually requiring a massive retrofitting of the system.” (One Reddit user suggests crapping in 10-inch stiletto heels.) It’s also pleasantly low-tech, something of a riposte to wifi-connected toilets that heat your bum cheeks and analyse your urine for you – and whoever else has access to the data.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has claimed to discern in the toilet designs of Germany, France and England basic ideological differences between Europe’s three principal cultures. Germany’s “lay and display” toilets, which allow excrement to rest on an exposed shelf for inspection before being suctioned away, reveal a blend of conservatism and contemplativeness. French toilets, designed to remove faecal matter as swiftly as possible, express that people’s revolutionary hastiness. Anglo toilets reflect a pragmatic medium: according to Žižek, “the toilet basin is full of water, so that the shit floats in it, visible, but not to be inspected”.

If the Squatty Potty expresses a worldview, it may be an almost evangelical one: a yearning to purify and perfect ourselves, to be saved from the messiness of this world. Part of the fantasy of the Squatty Potty, Penner pointed out, is that it will completely separate our faeces from our bodies the way sewerage purports to separate it completely from our lives. (Bobby Edwards says his hope was simply to create a successful business, and to help people.) 

It’s tempting to read into this lust for evacuation an anxiety about our current age, when our rejectamenta of various kinds are bearing back down on us from all sides. We are now realising that there is no “away” to which we can flush our excrement; it is always coming back to us in some form, be it faecal bacteria in seafoam, or the hundreds of thousands of pounds of human excrement that climbers have left on the slopes of Denali, north America’s highest, and among its wildest, peaks. The complete evacuation of faeces from our bodies and our world is a chimera.

But the Squatty Potty also represents a more worldly sort of devotion. Our anal sphincters “are concerned with some of the most basic questions of human existence,” Giulia Enders, the scientist, writes: how we navigate the boundaries between our internal and external worlds. One might add the spiritual world, too. The simple hedonism of a full bowel movement reminds us that the body is the ultimate seat of the soul. Like Bryan Cranston, we all want the ecstacy of elimination, the self-love we feel after a really good shit.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Why we stopped trusting elites

The credibility of establishment figures has been demolished by technological change and political upheavals. But it’s too late to turn back the clock. By William Davies in The Guardian

For hundreds of years, modern societies have depended on something that is so ubiquitous, so ordinary, that we scarcely ever stop to notice it: trust. The fact that millions of people are able to believe the same things about reality is a remarkable achievement, but one that is more fragile than is often recognised.

At times when public institutions – including the media, government departments and professions – command widespread trust, we rarely question how they achieve this. And yet at the heart of successful liberal democracies lies a remarkable collective leap of faith: that when public officials, reporters, experts and politicians share a piece of information, they are presumed to be doing so in an honest fashion. 

The notion that public figures and professionals are basically trustworthy has been integral to the health of representative democracies. After all, the very core of liberal democracy is the idea that a small group of people – politicians – can represent millions of others. If this system is to work, there must be a basic modicum of trust that the small group will act on behalf of the much larger one, at least some of the time. As the past decade has made clear, nothing turns voters against liberalism more rapidly than the appearance of corruption: the suspicion, valid or otherwise, that politicians are exploiting their power for their own private interest.

This isn’t just about politics. In fact, much of what we believe to be true about the world is actually taken on trust, via newspapers, experts, officials and broadcasters. While each of us sometimes witnesses events with our own eyes, there are plenty of apparently reasonable truths that we all accept without seeing. In order to believe that the economy has grown by 1%, or to find out about latest medical advances, we take various things on trust; we don’t automatically doubt the moral character of the researchers or reporters involved.

Much of the time, the edifice that we refer to as “truth” is really an investment of trust. Consider how we come to know the facts about climate change: scientists carefully collect and analyse data, before drafting a paper for anonymous review by other scientists, who assume that the data is authentic. If published, the findings are shared with journalists in press releases, drafted by university press offices. We expect that these findings are then reported honestly and without distortion by broadcasters and newspapers. Civil servants draft ministerial speeches that respond to these facts, including details on what the government has achieved to date.

A modern liberal society is a complex web of trust relations, held together by reports, accounts, records and testimonies. Such systems have always faced political risks and threats. The template of modern expertise can be traced back to the second half of the 17th century, when scientists and merchants first established techniques for recording and sharing facts and figures. These were soon adopted by governments, for purposes of tax collection and rudimentary public finance. But from the start, strict codes of conduct had to be established to ensure that officials and experts were not seeking personal gain or glory (for instance through exaggerating their scientific discoveries), and were bound by strict norms of honesty.

But regardless of how honest parties may be in their dealings with one another, the cultural homogeneity and social intimacy of these gentlemanly networks and clubs has always been grounds for suspicion. Right back to the mid-17th century, the bodies tasked with handling public knowledge have always privileged white male graduates, living in global cities and university towns. This does not discredit the knowledge they produce – but where things get trickier is when that homogeneity starts to appear to be a political identity, with a shared set of political goals. This is what is implied by the concept of “elites”: that purportedly separate domains of power – media, business, politics, law, academia – are acting in unison.

A further threat comes from individuals taking advantage of their authority for personal gain. Systems that rely on trust are always open to abuse by those seeking to exploit them. It is a key feature of modern administrations that they use written documents to verify things – but there will always be scope for records to be manipulated, suppressed or fabricated. There is no escaping that possibility altogether. This applies to many fields: at a certain point, the willingness to trust that a newspaper is honestly reporting what a police officer claims to have been told by a credible witness, for example, relies on a leap of faith.

A trend of declining trust has been underway across the western world for many years, even decades, as copious survey evidence attests. Trust, and its absence, became a preoccupation for policymakers and business leaders during the 1990s and early 2000s. They feared that shrinking trust led to higher rates of crime and less cohesive communities, producing costs that would be picked up by the state.

What nobody foresaw was that, when trust sinks beneath a certain point, many people may come to view the entire spectacle of politics and public life as a sham. This happens not because trust in general declines, but because key public figures – notably politicians and journalists – are perceived as untrustworthy. It is those figures specifically tasked with representing society, either as elected representatives or as professional reporters, who have lost credibility.

To understand the crisis liberal democracy faces today – whether we identify this primarily in terms of “populism” or “post-truth” – it’s not enough to simply bemoan the rising cynicism of the public. We need also to consider some of the reasons why trust has been withdrawn. The infrastructure of fact has been undermined in part by a combination of technology and market forces – but we must seriously reckon with the underlying truth of the populists’ charge against the establishment today. Too often, the rise of insurgent political parties and demagogues is viewed as the source of liberalism’s problems, rather than as a symptom. But by focusing on trust, and the failure of liberal institutions to sustain it, we get a clearer sense of why this is happening now.

The problem today is that, across a number of crucial areas of public life, the basic intuitions of populists have been repeatedly verified. One of the main contributors to this has been the spread of digital technology, creating vast data trails with the latent potential to contradict public statements, and even undermine entire public institutions. Whereas it is impossible to conclusively prove that a politician is morally innocent or that a news report is undistorted, it is far easier to demonstrate the opposite. Scandals, leaks, whistleblowing and revelations of fraud all serve to confirm our worst suspicions. While trust relies on a leap of faith, distrust is supported by ever-mounting piles of evidence. And in Britain, this pile has been expanding much faster than many of us have been prepared to admit.

Confronted by the rise of populist parties and leaders, some commentators have described the crisis facing liberalism in largely economic terms – as a revolt among those “left behind” by inequality and globalisation. Another camp sees it primarily as the expression of cultural anxieties surrounding identity and immigration. There is some truth in both, of course – but neither gets to the heart of the trust crisis that populists exploit so ruthlessly. A crucial reason liberalism is in danger right now is that the basic honesty of mainstream politicians, journalists and senior officials is no longer taken for granted.

There are copious explanations for Trump, Brexit and so on, but insufficient attention to what populists are actually saying, which focuses relentlessly on the idea of self-serving “elites” maintaining a status quo that primarily benefits them. On the right, Nigel Farage has accused individual civil servants of seeking to sabotage Brexit for their own private ends. On the left, Jeremy Corbyn repeatedly refers to Britain’s “rigged” economic system. The promise to crack down on corruption and private lobbying is integral to the pitch made by figures such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro or Viktor Orbán.

One of the great political riddles of recent years is that declining trust in “elites” is often encouraged and exploited by figures of far more dubious moral character – not to mention far greater wealth – than the technocrats and politicians being ousted. On the face of it, it would seem odd that a sense of “elite” corruption would play into the hands of hucksters and blaggards such as Donald Trump or Arron Banks. But the authority of these figures owes nothing to their moral character, and everything to their perceived willingness to blow the whistle on corrupt “insiders” dominating the state and media.

Liberals – including those who occupy “elite” positions – may comfort themselves with the belief that these charges are ill-founded or exaggerated, or else that the populists offer no solutions to the failures they identify. After all, Trump has not “drained the swamp” of Washington lobbying. But this is to miss the point of how such rhetoric works, which is to chip away at the core faith on which liberalism depends, namely that power is being used in ways that represent the public interest, and that the facts published by the mainstream media are valid representations of reality.

Populists target various centres of power, including dominant political parties, mainstream media, big business and the institutions of the state, including the judiciary. The chilling phrase “enemies of the people” has recently been employed by Donald Trump to describe those broadcasters and newspapers he dislikes (such as CNN and the New York Times), and by the Daily Mail to describe high court judges, following their 2016 ruling that Brexit would require parliamentary consent. But on a deeper level, whether it is the judiciary, the media or the independent civil service that is being attacked is secondary to a more important allegation: that public life in general has become fraudulent.

Nigel Farage campaigning with Donald Trump in 2016. Photograph: Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

How does this allegation work? One aspect of it is to dispute the very possibility that a judge, reporter or expert might act in a disinterested, objective fashion. For those whose authority depends on separating their public duties from their personal feelings, having their private views or identities publicised serves as an attack on their credibility. But another aspect is to gradually blur the distinctions between different varieties of expertise and authority, with the implication that politicians, journalists, judges, regulators and officials are effectively all working together.

It is easy for rival professions to argue that they have little in common with each other, and are often antagonistic to each other. Ostensibly, these disparate centres of expertise and power hold each other in check in various ways, producing a pluralist system of checks and balances. Twentieth-century defenders of liberalism, such as the American political scientist Robert Dahl, often argued that it didn’t matter how much power was concentrated in the hands of individual authorities, as long as no single political entity was able to monopolise power. The famous liberal ideal of a “separation of powers” (distinguishing executive, legislative and judicial branches of government), so influential in the framing of the US constitution, could persist so long as different domains of society hold one another up to critical scrutiny.

But one thing that these diverse professions and authorities do have in common is that they trade primarily in words and symbols. By lumping together journalists, judges, experts and politicians as a single homogeneous “liberal elite”, it is possible to treat them all as indulging in a babble of jargon, political correctness and, ultimately, lies. Their status as public servants is demolished once their claim to speak honestly is thrown into doubt. One way in which this is done is by bringing their private opinions and tastes before the public, something that social media and email render far easier. Tensions and contradictions between the public face of, say, a BBC reporter, and their private opinions and feelings, are much easier to discover in the age of Twitter.

Whether in the media, politics or academia, liberal professions suffer a vulnerability that a figure such as Trump doesn’t, in that their authority hangs on their claim to speak the truth. A recent sociological paper called The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue, by US academics Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan, draws a distinction between two types of lies. The first, “special access lies”, may be better termed “insider lies”. This is dishonesty from those trusted to truthfully report facts, who abuse that trust by failing to state what they privately know to be true. (The authors give the example of Bill Clinton’s infamous claim that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman”.)

The second, which they refer to as “common knowledge lies”, are the kinds of lies told by Donald Trump about the size of his election victory or the crowds at his inauguration, or the Vote Leave campaign’s false claims about sending “£350m a week to the EU”. These lies do not pretend to be bound by the norm of honesty in the first place, and the listener can make up their own mind what to make of them.

What the paper shows is that, where politics comes to be viewed as the domain of “insider” liars, there is a seductive authenticity, even a strange kind of honesty, about the “common knowledge” liar. The rise of highly polished, professional politicians such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton exacerbated the sense that politics is all about strategic concealment of the truth, something that the Iraq war seemed to confirm as much as anything. Trump or Farage may have a reputation for fabricating things, but they don’t (rightly or wrongly) have a reputation for concealing things, which grants them a form of credibility not available to technocrats or professional politicians.

At the same time, and even more corrosively, when elected representatives come to be viewed as “insider liars”, it turns out that other professions whose job it is to report the truth – journalists, experts, officials – also suffer a slump in trust. Indeed, the distinctions between all these fact-peddlers start to look irrelevant in the eyes of those who’ve given up on the establishment altogether. It is this type of all-encompassing disbelief that creates the opportunity for rightwing populism in particular. Trump voters are more than twice as likely to distrust the media as those who voted for Clinton in 2016, according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer, which adds that the four countries currently suffering the most “extreme trust losses” are Italy, Brazil, South Africa and the US.

It’s one thing to measure public attitudes, but quite another to understand what shapes them. Alienation and disillusionment develop slowly, and without any single provocation. No doubt economic stagnation and soaring inequality have played a role – but we should not discount the growing significance of scandals that appear to discredit the honesty and objectivity of “liberal elites”. The misbehaviour of elites did not “cause” Brexit, but it is striking, in hindsight, how little attention was paid to the accumulation of scandal and its consequences for trust in the establishment.

The 2010 edition of the annual British Social Attitudes survey included an ominous finding. Trust in politicians, already low, had suffered a fresh slump, with a majority of people saying politicians never tell the truth. But at the same time, interest in politics had mysteriously risen.

To whom would this newly engaged section of the electorate turn if they had lost trust in “politicians”? One answer was clearly Ukip, who experienced their greatest electoral gains in the years that followed, to the point of winning the most seats in the 2014 elections for the European parliament. Ukip’s surge, which initially appeared to threaten the Conservative party, was integral to David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on EU membership. One of the decisive (and unexpected) factors in the referendum result was the number of voters who went to the polls for the first time, specifically to vote leave.

What might have prompted the combination of angry disillusionment and intensifying interest that was visible in the 2010 survey? It clearly predated the toughest years of austerity. But there was clearly one event that did more than any other to weaken trust in politicians: the MPs’ expenses scandal, which blew up in May 2009 thanks to a drip-feed of revelations published by the Daily Telegraph.

Following as it did so soon after a disaster of world-historic proportions – the financial crisis – the full significance of the expenses scandal may have been forgotten. But its ramifications were vast. For one thing, it engulfed many of the highest reaches of power in Westminster: the Speaker of the House of Commons, the home secretary, the secretary of state for communities and local government and the chief secretary to the treasury all resigned. Not only that, but the rot appeared to have infected all parties equally, validating the feeling that politicians had more in common with each other (regardless of party loyalties) than they did with decent, ordinary people.

Many of the issues that “elites” deal with are complex, concerning law, regulation and economic analysis. We can all see the fallout of the financial crisis, for instance, but the precise causes are disputed and hard to fathom. By contrast, everybody understands expense claims, and everybody knows lying and exaggerating are among the most basic moral failings; even a child understands they are wrong. This may be unfair to the hundreds of honest MPs and to the dozens whose misdemeanours fell into a murky area around the “spirit” of the rules. But the sense of a mass stitch-up was deeply – and understandably – entrenched.

The other significant thing about the expenses scandal was the way it set a template for a decade of elite scandals – most of which also involved lies, leaks and dishonest denials. One year later, there was another leak from a vast archive of government data: in 2010, WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of US military field reports from Iraq and Afghanistan. With the assistance of newspaper including the New York Times, Der Spiegel, the Guardian and Le Monde, these “war logs” disclosed horrifying details about the conduct of US forces and revealed the Pentagon had falsely denied knowledge of various abuses. While some politicians expressed moral revulsion with what had been exposed, the US and British governments blamed WikiLeaks for endangering their troops, and the leaker, Chelsea Manning, was jailed for espionage.

Rupert Murdoch on his way to give evidence to the Leveson inquiry in 2012. Photograph: Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

In 2011, the phone-hacking scandal put the press itself under the spotlight. It was revealed that senior figures in News International and the Metropolitan police had long been aware of the extent of phone-hacking practices – and they had lied about how much they knew. Among those implicated was the prime minister’s communications director, former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, who was forced to resign his post and later jailed. By the end of 2011, the News of the World had been closed down, the Leveson inquiry was underway, and the entire Murdoch empire was shaking.

The biggest scandal of 2012 was a different beast altogether, involving unknown men manipulating a number that very few people had even heard of. The number in question, the London interbank offered rate, or Libor, is meant to represent the rate at which banks are willing to loan to each other. What was surreal, in an age of complex derivatives and high-frequency trading algorithms, was that this number was calculated on the basis of estimates declared by each bank on a daily basis, and accepted purely on trust. The revelation that a handful of brokers had conspired to alter Libor for private gain (with possible costs to around 250,000 UK mortgage-holders, among others) may have been difficult to fully comprehend, but it gave the not unreasonable impression of an industry enriching itself in a criminal fashion at the public’s expense. Bob Diamond, the CEO of Barclays, the bank at the centre of the conspiracy, resigned in July 2012.

Towards the end of that year, the media was caught in another prolonged crisis, this time at the BBC. Horror greeted the broadcast of the ITV documentary The Other Side of Jimmy Savile in October 2012. How many people had known about his predatory sexual behaviour, and for how long? Why had the police abandoned earlier investigations? And why had BBC Newsnight dropped its own film about Savile, due to be broadcast shortly after his death in 2011? The police swiftly established Operation Yewtree to investigate historic sexual abuse allegations, while the BBC established independent commissions into what had gone wrong. But a sense lingered that neither the BBC nor the police had really wanted to know the truth of these matters for the previous 40 years.

It wasn’t long before it was the turn of the corporate world. In September 2014, a whistleblower revealed that Tesco had exaggerated its half-yearly profits by £250m, increasing the figure by around a third. An accounting fiddle on this scale clearly had roots at a senior managerial level. Sure enough, four senior executives were suspended the same month and three were charged with fraud two years later. A year later, it emerged that Volkswagen had systematically and deliberately tinkered with emissions controls in their vehicles, so as to dupe regulators in tests, but then pollute liberally the rest of the time. The CEO, Martin Winterkorn, resigned.

“We didn’t really learn anything from WikiLeaks we didn’t already presume to be true,” the philosopher Slavoj Žižek observed in 2014. “But it is one thing to know it in general and another to get concrete data.” The nature of all these scandals suggests the emergence of a new form of “facts”, in the shape of a leaked archive – one that, crucially, does not depend on trusting the secondhand report of a journalist or official. These revelations are powerful and consequential precisely because they appear to directly confirm our fears and suspicions. Resentment towards “liberal elites” would no doubt brew even in the absence of supporting evidence. But when that evidence arises, things become far angrier, even when the data – such as Hillary Clinton’s emails – isn’t actually very shocking.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of the scandals of the past decade, nor are they all of equal significance. But viewing them together provides a better sense of how the suspicions of populists cut through. Whether or not we continue to trust in politicians, journalists or officials, we have grown increasingly used to this pattern in which a curtain is dramatically pulled back, to reveal those who have been lying to or defrauding the public.

Another pattern also begins to emerge. It’s not just that isolated individuals are unmasked as corrupt or self-interested (something that is as old as politics), but that the establishment itself starts to appear deceitful and dubious. The distinctive scandals of the 21st century are a combination of some very basic and timeless moral failings (greed and dishonesty) with technologies of exposure that expose malpractice on an unprecedented scale, and with far more dramatic results.

Perhaps the most important feature of all these revelations was that they were definitely scandals, and not merely failures: they involved deliberate efforts to defraud or mislead. Several involved sustained cover-ups, delaying the moment of truth for as long as possible.

Several of the scandals ended with high profile figures behind bars. Jail terms satisfy some of the public demand that the “elites” pay for their dishonesty, but they don’t repair the trust that has been damaged. On the contrary, there’s a risk that they affirm the cry for retribution, after which the quest for punishment is only ramped up further. Chants of “lock her up” continue to reverberate around Trump rallies.

In addition to their conscious and deliberate nature, a second striking feature of these scandals was the ambiguous role played by the media. On the one hand, the reputation of the media has taken a pummelling over the past decade, egged on by populists and conspiracy theorists who accuse the “mainstream media” of being allied to professional political leaders, and who now have the benefit of social media through which to spread this message.

The moral authority of newspapers may never have been high, but the grisly revelations that journalists hacked the phone of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler represented a new low in the public standing of the press. The Leveson inquiry, followed soon after by the Savile revelations and Operation Yewtree, generated a sense of a media class who were adept at exposing others, but equally expert at concealing the truth of their own behaviours.

On the other hand, it was newspapers and broadcasters that enabled all of this to come to light at all. The extent of phone hacking was eventually exposed by the Guardian, the MPs’ expenses by the Telegraph, Jimmy Savile by ITV, and the “war logs” reported with the aid of several newspapers around the world simultaneously.

But the media was playing a different kind of role from the one traditionally played by journalists and newspapers, with very different implications for the status of truth in society. A backlog of data and allegations had built up in secret, until eventually a whistle was blown. An archive existed that the authorities refused to acknowledge, until they couldn’t resist the pressure to do so any longer. Journalists and whistleblowers were instrumental in removing the pressure valve, but from that point on, truth poured out unpredictably. While such torrents are underway, there is no way of knowing how far they may spread or how long they may last.

Tony Blair and Bill Clinton in Belfast in April. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

The era of “big data” is also the era of “leaks”. Where traditional “sleaze” could topple a minister, several of the defining scandals of the past decade have been on a scale so vast that they exceed any individual’s responsibility. The Edward Snowden revelations of 2013, the Panama Papers leak of 2015 and the HSBC files (revealing organised tax evasion) all involved the release of tens of thousands or even millions of documents. Paper-based bureaucracies never faced threats to their legitimacy on this scale.

The power of commissions and inquiries to make sense of so much data is not to be understated, nor is the integrity of those newspapers and whistleblowers that helped bring misdemeanours to light. In cases such as MPs’ expenses, some newspapers even invited their readers to help search these vast archives for treasure troves, like human algorithms sorting through data. But it is hard to imagine that the net effect of so many revelations was to build trust in any publicly visible institutions. On the contrary, the discovery that “elites” have been blocking access to a mine of incriminating data is perfect fodder for conspiracy theories. In his 2010 memoir, A Journey, Tony Blair confessed that legislating for freedom of information was one of his biggest regrets, which gave a glimpse of how transparency is viewed from the centre of power.

Following the release of the war logs by WikiLeaks, nobody in any position of power claimed that the data wasn’t accurate (it was, after all, the data, and not a journalistic report). Nor did they offer any moral justification for what was revealed. Defence departments were left making the flimsiest of arguments – that it was better for everyone if they didn’t know how war was conducted. It may well be that the House of Commons was not fairly represented by the MPs’ expenses scandal, that most City brokers are honest, or that the VW emissions scam was a one-off within the car industry. But scandals don’t work through producing fair or representative pictures of the world; they do so by blowing the lid on hidden truths and lies. Where whistleblowing and leaking become the dominant form of truth-telling, the authority of professional truth-tellers – reporters, experts, professionals, broadcasters – is thrown into question.

The term “illiberal democracy” is now frequently invoked to describe states such as Hungary under Viktor Orbán or Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In contrast to liberal democracy, this model of authoritarian populism targets the independence of the judiciary and the media, ostensibly on behalf of “the people”.

Brexit has been caused partly by distrust in “liberal elites”, but the anxiety is that it is also accelerating a drift towards “illiberalism”. There is a feeling at large, albeit amongst outspoken remainers, that the BBC has treated the leave campaign and Brexit itself with kid gloves, for fear of provoking animosity. More worrying was the discovery by openDemocracy in October that the Metropolitan police were delaying their investigation into alleged breaches of electoral law by the leave campaign due to what a Met spokesperson called “political sensitivities”. The risk at the present juncture is that key civic institutions will seek to avoid exercising scrutiny and due process, for fear of upsetting their opponents.

Britain is not an “illiberal democracy”, but the credibility of our elites is still in trouble, and efforts to placate their populist opponents may only make matters worse. At the more extreme end of the spectrum, the far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson, has used his celebrity and social media reach to cast doubt on the judiciary and the BBC at once.

Yaxley-Lennon has positioned himself as a freedom fighter, revealing “the truth” about Muslim men accused of grooming underage girls by violating legal rules that restrict reporting details of ongoing trials. Yaxley-Lennon was found guilty of contempt of court and jailed (he was later released after the court of appeal ordered a retrial, and the case has been referred to the attorney general), but this only deepened his appeal for those who believed the establishment was complicit in a cover-up, and ordinary people were being deliberately duped.

The political concern right now is that suspicions of this nature – that the truth is being deliberately hidden by an alliance of “elites” – are no longer the preserve of conspiracy theorists, but becoming increasingly common. Our current crisis has too many causes to enumerate here, and it is impossible to apportion blame for a collective collapse of trust – which is as much a symptom of changes in media technologies as it is of any moral failings on the part of elites.

But what is emerging now is what the social theorist Michel Foucault would have called a new “regime of truth” – a different way of organising knowledge and trust in society. The advent of experts and government administrators in the 17th century created the platform for a distinctive liberal solution to this problem, which rested on the assumption that knowledge would reside in public records, newspapers, government files and journals. But once the integrity of these people and these instruments is cast into doubt, an opportunity arises for a new class of political figures and technologies to demand trust instead.

The project that was launched over three centuries ago, of trusting elite individuals to know, report and judge things on our behalf, may not be viable in the long term, at least not in its existing form. It is tempting to indulge the fantasy that we can reverse the forces that have undermined it, or else batter them into retreat with an even bigger arsenal of facts. But this is to ignore the more fundamental ways in which the nature of trust is changing.

The main feature of the emerging regime is that truth is now assumed to reside in hidden archives of data, rather than in publicly available facts. This is what is affirmed by scandals such as MPs’ expenses and the leak of the Iraq war logs – and more recently in the #MeToo movement, which also occurred through a sudden and voluminous series of revelations, generating a crisis of trust. The truth was out there, just not in the public domain. In the age of email, social media and cameraphones, it is now common sense to assume that virtually all social activity is generating raw data, which exists out there somewhere. Truth becomes like the lava below the earth’s crust, which periodically bursts through as a volcano.

What role does this leave for the traditional, analogue purveyors of facts and figures? What does it mean to “report” the news in an age of reflexive disbelief? Newspapers have been grappling with this question for some time now; some have decided to refashion themselves as portals to the raw data, or curators of other people’s content. But it is no longer intuitively obvious to the public why they should be prepared to take a journalist’s word for something, when they can witness the thing itself in digital form. There may be good answers to these questions, but they are not obvious ones.

Instead, a new type of heroic truth-teller has emerged in tandem with these trends. This is the individual who appears brave enough to call bullshit on the rest of the establishment – whether that be government agencies, newspapers, business, political parties or anything else. Some are whistleblowers, others are political leaders, and others are more like conspiracy theorists or trolls. The problem is that everyone has a different heroic truth-teller, because we’re all preoccupied by different bullshit. There is no political alignment between figures such as Chelsea Manning and Nigel Farage; what they share is only a willingness to defy the establishment and break consensus.
If a world where everyone has their own truth-tellers sounds dangerously like relativism, that’s because it is. But the roots of this new and often unsettling “regime of truth” don’t only lie with the rise of populism or the age of big data. Elites have largely failed to understand that this crisis is about trust rather than facts – which may be why they did not detect the rapid erosion of their own credibility.

Unless liberal institutions and their defenders are willing to reckon with their own inability to sustain trust, the events of the past decade will remain opaque to them. And unless those institutions can rediscover aspects of the original liberal impulse – to keep different domains of power separate, and put the disinterested pursuit of knowledge before the pursuit of profit – then the present trends will only intensify, and no quantity of facts will be sufficient to resist. Power and authority will accrue to a combination of decreasingly liberal states and digital platforms – interrupted only by the occasional outcry as whistles are blown and outrages exposed.

Monday, 26 November 2018

The difficulty in managing things that cannot easily be measured

Andrew Hill in The FT 

If there were a tournament for Peter Drucker’s best-known dictum then “what gets measured gets managed” would make it to the finals, even though nobody seems able to pin the saying directly to the Viennese-born management thinker. Repeated misattribution has gilded the truism and propelled it into the Management Maxim Hall of Fame. 

En route, unfortunately, the assumption has taken root that everything can be measured. Worse, anything that does not submit to mathematical evaluation need not be managed, or is simply unmanageable. 

This is the most prominent example of a widespread phenomenon: the tendency to pay more attention to hard facts, targets, outcomes and initiatives than to soft factors that are equally, or sometimes more, important. 

Big data is hard. Culture is soft. Financial goals are hard. Non-financial targets are soft. Gender quotas are hard. Workplace inclusivity is soft. “Stem” subjects are hard. Humanities are soft. (Drucker himself described management as a liberal art.) Machines are hard — very hard. Humans are all too soft. 

The Harvard Business Review tries to reconcile the hard-soft tension annually in its ranking of the “best-performing CEOs in the world”, measured over their whole tenure. Jeff Bezos wins every time. Except he doesn’t, because in 2015, the publication changed its methodology and added soft environmental, social and governance factors to its hard financial assessment, knocking Amazon’s founder from first to 87th. Mr Bezos has crept back to 68th in the latest ranking, topped by Pablo Isla, chief executive of Spanish retail group Inditex with its (soft) family values. I bet, though, that most investors would allocate capital on the hard measures of Mr Bezos’s and Mr Isla’s success. 

The dominance of hard over soft is not uniform, though, and in a few areas it is receding. Would-be leaders aiming for MBAs have for years set equal, even greater, store on the value of the difficult-to-measure human networks they build during their studies. The hard MBA qualification itself has started to crumble, while employers increasingly stress development of executives’ soft skills. 

Elsewhere, companies have finally begun to realise that feedback (soft) trumps forced ranking and even bonuses (both hard) when it comes to appraising and motivating staff. Governance codes now place emphasis on long-term success, healthy cultures and corporate purpose, offsetting boards’ longstanding deference to pure shareholder value. 

Many of these pairs should coexist, of course. Too frequently, though, when a balance of two approaches would be best, the hard solution wins out as soon as pressure is applied. 

In the classic tussle between long-term sustainability and short-term returns, too many directors and executives still obsess about hitting close-range targets. Purpose makes way for profit. The demand to compete overcomes any impulse to reap the benefits of collaboration. 

Even if Drucker did not utter the “what gets measured” axiom, he had plenty to say about measurement. In 1955, he wrote in The Practice of Management how more sophisticated ways of gauging performance would enable managers and workers to direct their own work. But he also warned that if this ability were used to impose control from above, “the new technology [would] inflict incalculable harm by demoralising management and by seriously lowering the effectiveness of managers”. 

Persuading executives to take greater account of soft factors requires a concerted effort. One approach is to play to their utilitarian preference for hard facts and try to measure the unmeasurable. The mania for measurement has extended beyond the production output and profit margins that could be assessed in the 1950s. Start-ups and consultancies frequently pitch to me with new ways of quantifying corporate culture, for instance. 

 Putting a number on the nebulous is one way to give soft achievements a hard edge. Reminding directors of the hard landing that awaits those who ignore, condone or contribute to rotten cultures is another. 

At the same time, managers need to comprehend elements that cannot yet be recorded in 0s and 1s: the strength of team relationships, the importance of empathy, the value of intuition. Ingenious machines may one day put all the mysteries of human behaviour into a spreadsheet. I doubt it, though. This week’s Drucker Forum, in honour of the writer, will explore “the human dimension” of management. At least some of that dimension will always be difficult for chief executives to collect, crunch and codify on their digital dashboards. As a result, they must resolve to try harder to manage the things they will never easily measure.