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American idol

The roots of Obama's popularity are not hard to find. After eight years of dangerous American nation

The president, we read, is “dashing and attractive”, “quick in thought and admirably articulate . . . eager to hear both sides of a controversial issue before he reaches his own conclusion”. Not Barack Obama, though all those things have been said of him, but Jack Kennedy, the last US president with whom the British fell in love, as reported in the Times in 1960.

The comparison in coverage is illuminating, in part for the many similarities. Like Obama, Kennedy was young and good-looking and had an attractive wife who was recognised as a stylish dresser. The Kennedys also came to power during a national mood swing. Like Obama, Kennedy scored a first – in his case, the first Catholic to occupy the White House – and, like the Obamas, the Kennedys’ glamour earned them an attention that went beyond their politics. As the Times reported in June 1961, when the Kennedys arrived in Britain, crowds gathered in front of Buckingham Palace shouting, “We want Jack,” until their hero appeared on the balcony.

But if the Times allowed itself some coy observations on Kennedy’s “exuberant smile” and his “appeal to the women’s vote”, its coverage remained sedate. In those distant days before Andy Warhol predicted that everyone in the world would be famous for 15 minutes, before the fetid churn of celeb culture infected the world of politics, Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban missile crisis still took precedence over the assessment of his personal charms or his wife’s shopping habits. Nothing the Times wrote about Kennedy had the breathless quality of its description of today’s president: “Obama steps on to the stage, rangy, handsome and composed, a thin dark knight come to reclaim Camelot . . .”

Britain’s Obamania is shaped in a different context. The roots of his popularity are not hard to find. After eight years of highly ideologised and dangerous American nationalism, the sharp rupture with the Bush years is cause for celebration. The arrival of a president who can speak in complete sentences and who promises a return to reason, negotiation and moderation, and of a black man who embodies redemption for an unhappy America that many had come to loathe and fear, was bound to lift the spirits. That America, grown disillusioned and ashamed of the Bush years, has the chance to make a fresh start can only be a relief. Hope is back in fashion.

In this country, where Obamania broke out as a fully fledged fever, Obama offered the chance to hold on to the illusion that Britain is the US’s best friend, without the stigma that serving as handmaiden to the old regime brought. Perhaps our nearly bankrupt country, scarred and humiliated by Tony Blair’s love affair with George W Bush, could share in America’s rejuvenation and the promise of redemption-by-association. For Labour, it might offer a facelift to an ageing government; for the Tories, a boost by proxy to the idea that it was time for a new and younger face at the top. To a population without much to cheer in sport, with empty wallets and a future that promised little but ever greater indebtedness, Obama held out a rare opportunity to believe in political leadership and the hope that someone could show the way out of the nightmare.

How else to understand the bipartisan gush – untrammelled, it seems, by political reservations – which greeted Obama’s one visit here last year and threatened to break out again as the Obamas arrived on 31 March for Gordon Brown’s G20 summit? Even the Queen appeared to want to be in on the show, inviting the Obamas for a meeting normally reserved for leaders explicitly making state visits. Look, they seemed to be saying, we are putting out the best china. Now you must surely love us.

Yet these are fragile hopes, and their vulnerability showed in the mood swings of the British press. After the Blair years, when Britain embroiled itself in the worst the US can do, politically and economically, there lingers the queasy suspicion that we could be left with the stigma of the Bush legacy while the US emerges from its ritual political cleansing in a new and lovable form. Being the handmaiden of one president has tarnished our sense of self. Is adoring the new one really enough to bring the shine back?

For us, there is no easy redemption by proxy and there are painful limits to the possibilities of vicarious rejuvenation. There has been no political catharsis in the UK and none is in prospect. The electorate may want a change, but the best that is on offer is a change of personalities. Who can pretend that the Tories represent a repudiation of Labour’s military adventurism or financial recklessness, when the traces of their opposition to the most discredited of Labour’s policies are so slight? A change of regime here would merely underline the lack of rupture, a demoralising continuity instead of a fresh start.

Britain’s crush on Obama threatens to exacerbate this malaise. The press veers unsteadily between searching for hints that Obama thinks we are special and the fear that he does not. When Gordon Brown became the first head of government to get through the new administration’s door, right-wing commentators did not know what to do first – cheer this reassuring token of Britain’s importance or sneer at the Prime Minister for seeking it.

When the visit took place, the confusion only deepened. Brown was never going to photograph well standing next to Obama, and British national pride at the meeting was haunted by the fear that the contrast between the two men would be a national humiliation. In an exercise in self-flagellation that would have been comic, were it not so mortifying, the meeting was dissected less for its content than for the quality of its tailoring and body language. Did the Prime Minister cross his legs? What did he do with his hands? Was his shirt up to snuff? The Times reported excitedly that “Mr Obama had helpfully reinforced the impression of togetherness by dressing in almost identical fashion to the Prime Minister: dark-blue suit, white shirt, black shoes, blue tie”. Was a 22-minute question-and-answer session for the British media in the Oval Office as good as the twin-flag press conference they had been promised?

When it came to Brown’s address to Congress, the Times was similarly torn between fear and hope as it nervously assessed the Prime Minister’s chances of matching up to the “world’s best orator”. Obama had addressed both houses of Congress “faultlessly, stirringly, pointedly and passionately”. In case Brown let us all down, they advised that “it would be a mistake to reach for rhetorical power in imitation”.

It was over Presentgate, however, that the British commentators really became unhinged, in a collective reaction that brought to mind a dowdy schoolgirl who fears that the most popular girl in the class despises her, but who cannot resist dreaming of being the star’s best friend. Every head of state or government builds up an embarrassing collection of ritual gifts for which no earthly use can be found. In the entrance hall of Windsor Castle, for instance, there sits an astonishingly kitsch metal grasshopper that opens to reveal a cocktail cabinet. It was a gift from a French president to Her Hapless Majesty, who, unaccountably, failed to make space for it in the state apartments.

Such offerings, however hideous or inappropriate, rarely threaten to precipitate a national nervous breakdown, but the British press outrage when the Obamas’ personal gifts to the Browns on that highly charged Washington visit were judged inferior narrowly missed assuming the status of a diplomatic incident. The DVD

collection from Barack to Gordon was “about as exciting as a pair of socks”, according to the Daily Mail, and the Times found it necessary to complain that Michelle Obama’s present of toy helicopters to the Brown sons was “solipsistic” and “inherently dismissive”. For the Daily Mail, it was a chance to humiliate Brown, with the nation’s dignity as collateral damage. The Daily Telegraph, not noted for its unconditional support of the Prime Minister, and which earlier had praised Obama’s “effortless eloquence and, more important, pitch-perfect judgement”, now complained that “President Obama has been rudeness personified towards Britain” and that “his handling of the visit of the Prime Minister to Washington was appalling”.

The imagined insults are the stigmata of the martyred also-ran who still imagines walking with champions, but they are also the product of the cultural shift that has taken place since Londoners gathered to cheer Jack Kennedy’s appearance in 1961. Today’s celebrity industry, with its insatiable appetite for manufactured scandal and synthetic novelty, can make fortunes for those who know how to exact the rent. But it has metastasised so far beyond the gossip columns that it has infected and trivialised the national conversation.

After two decades of conditioning by celebrity culture, we seem ready to live our national hopes and fears through the image of a stranger. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the G20 summit, the Gordon-loves-Barack/Barack-snubs-Gordon game will go on.

Isabel Hilton is editor of

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2009 issue of the New Statesman, God special issue

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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