Inside the Republican convention

Our man in St Paul penetrates the perimeter fence and bumps into Jon Voigt, again, and other luminar

I got through the heavily fortified perimeter around the Excel Convention Centre for the first time yesterday. There are two passes – one gets you into the actual auditorium where the magic happens, and one is just for the sprawling media metropolis next door. I just had the media pass, but hanging around there long enough I was able to talk to an interesting range of Republican bigwigs and smaller-time delegates and talking heads.

The first floor is dedicated to talk radio and I spotted John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and an extremist even within the neoconservative movement. The Guardian columnist, George Monbiot, attempted a citizens arrest on Bolton when he came to speak to the Hay-on-Wye festival in May. As he walked to the Convention entrance I asked him about the controversy during his visit to UK. “What was the controversy?” he asked incredulous so I told him what I was talking about. “I thought it was immature at best and really kind of threatening in some respects,” he replied, “because it respects an unwillingness to tolerate other points of view and I think it’s very disturbing to see it in Britain, and I was happy he was not able to arrest me because the whole thing was a sort of juvenile exercise.”

Next I talked to Alaska delegate, Ralph Seekins. He is from the state which has given us Sarah Palin, the much debated Republican VP choice. “I think the choice is exciting,” he said. What about her family history? “It’s a history of the American family,” he said, talking of her 17-year-old daughters pregnancy. “I think they handled the challenges to their family pretty well; I raised four children and eleven grandchildren and they didn’t always do exactly what I wanted them to do, and my mother shouldn’t be made accountable for what I did when I was a kid. So I think Sarah has an exemplary background; she represents Middle America very well and I think people will learn to trust her and I think they are going to be surprised.”

Seekins said he wasn’t a McCain fan from the start. “I was a Romney man early on, but I certainly will support McCain, I respect the man, you can’t question his patriotism, it’s a stronger ticket now with Sarah on there.”

The ever-present, ever-visible Republican apparition that has been actor Jon Voigt then showed up and was surrounded by the press corps. “We need an America that is going to be strong and safe,” he said, and I switched off involuntarily. Up popped then to give him a hug and kiss the Congresswoman from Minnesota’s 6th district, Michele Bachmann. It was all very lovely dovey. “Minnesota loves Jon Voight,” she beamed into the cameras.

The local channel 5 Eyewitness News was asking the normal round of boilerplate questions which she seemed happy answering. “She’s a strong, independent woman,” she said, talking about guess who. Then this: “We are really showcasing our state well, people will come back because they are wowed by Minneapolis-St. Paul.” I couldn’t let that go, so I barged in on the interviewed and asked her what she thought of the police behaviour vis-à-vis the protesters.

Her face dropped. “The police behaviour?” she said. “Well, I hope they bought law and order to the situation, because it was criminal what was going on downtown, not called for, certainly not representative of local Minnesotans.” I mentioned that journalists were being arrested for covering the protests. “Well, I don’t know anything about that,” she said, and moved on quickly.

I wanted to speak to a local journalist to get their perspective on the heavy-handed police behaviour. It emerged yesterday that 8 leaders of the RNC Welcoming Committee – an activist group trying to disrupt the RNC – have been charged with Conspiracy to Riot in Furtherance of Terrorism under the first use of the 2002 Minnesota version of the Federal Patriot Act.

Doug Grove works for the online publication “The hope of the Police Department was that they could handle everything with smiles and warmth and friendliness and obviously that quickly went away. And many of have been surprised that the reaction has been as strong as it’s been… Certainly it’s not the image that Minnesota was looking for.”

There has been much talk about the law-and-order sheriff amongst journalists and the protesters. “Well, the Sheriff of Ramsey Country, which is the county in which St. Paul is located, is a guy called Bob Fletcher,” said Grove. “Fletcher is an egomaniac with a dark side. And he has frequently put his foot in his mouth leading up to the convention.”

Going back inside, I spotted a young guy with a beard and a trendy hat; he looked like he should be a famous indie musician so I was curious how he had ended up at the RNC media circus. It turned out he was a guest Republican blogger and a serious ‘winger’. He supported Rudy Guliani because he “would be further to right than Bush on the Bush Doctrine. I want to take the terrorists and kill every single one of them,” he assured me.

He laid into the Iranian President who he called “Armaggedonijan” and said the time for a military strike on the “Islamo-fascist state” was imminent. He was firmly for John McCain, which gives an indication of what the Republican Presidential Candidate is expected to do by some of his fans should he win in November.

In the evening we went to a party in a hotel in Minneapolis hosted by the Creative Coalition, a lobbying groups for artists. Slated to turn up was Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, amongst other luminaries. Again, a no-show, and instead there was two hours of live country music from a Father Christmas lookalike. He proudly told us he was a “Redneck, like the rest of you”, and then proceeded to play tracks about tying a noose around criminal’s necks and hanging them from the tree.

It was all very posh except they served the drinks in plastic cups and the garlic-mash-potato in fancy Martini glasses. Didn’t understand that.

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood