In this week’s New Statesman: What make us human?

A new series exploring the most fundamental question of all.

Cover Story: What makes us human?

This week we kick off a series in collaboration with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. We aim to explore the pivotal question: “What makes us human?” Leading thinkers from a wide range of disciplines including Brian May, David Puttnam, Stephen Hawking, Mary Robinson, Susan Greenfield and Alain de Botton will contribute essays that will be read on the Jeremy Vine show and published in the New Statesman.

The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, has contributed his answer – “The family is where we learn love” – to begin the series. He writes:

As an answer to the question what makes us human, even in the age of neuroscience, it’s hard to improve on the Bible’s answer . . . We are each, regardless of class, colour or culture, in the image and likeness of God . . . It is the source of the idea of human rights.

The Chief Rabbi then focuses on families. “The centrality of the family is what gave Jews their astonishing ability to survive tragedy and centuries of exile and dispersion.”

“When it works,” he continues, “the family is the matrix of our humanity . . . relationships are what make us human.”

 

Len McCluskey: “If Ed Miliband is seduced by the Blairites, he’ll be consigned to the dustbin of history”

In an interview with George Eaton, the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, warns that Ed Miliband will be “defeated” and “cast into the dustbin of history” if he is “seduced” by the “Blairites” in his shadow cabinet.

McCluskey, the leader of Britain’s biggest trade union, which is Labour’s largest donor, singles out the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, and the shadow work and pensions secretary, Liam Byrne, for criticism.

Ed Miliband must spend most of his waking hours grappling with what lies before him. If he is brave enough to go for something radical, he’ll be the next prime minister. If he gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he’ll be defeated and he’ll be cast into the dustbin of history.

Read this interview in full on our website now.

 

Jonathan Derbyshire: The sorrows of Mr. Weak

In a Letter from Paris, Jonathan Derbyshire asks how it all went so wrong so quickly for France’s Socialist president, François Hollande.

"Never in the 55-year history of the French Fifth Republic have approval ratings for an incumbent president been so low so early in a presidency,” Derbyshire writes. “Hollande’s abject standing in the polls owes something to the humiliation of his former budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac,” he continues. “On 2 April Cahuzac finally admitted, after a series of straight-faced denials, that he had used a secret Swiss bank account to avoid paying tax in France. As a consequence, Hollande has become the focus of deep dissatisfaction in France with a remote and technocratic political class.

Hollande has other problems, not least in the economic sphere.

[His] economic policy is failing on its own terms. In the election campaign, in order to outflank his opponent, he accepted [Nicolas] Sarkozy’s commitment to reduce the deficit to 3 per cent of output by the end of 2013, partly by means of €10m worth of spending cuts. [Earlier this year, Hollande was forced to abandon the 3 per cent target.]

Who was the minister despatched to tour the radio and television studios to warn that a recalibration of expectations was imminent? None other than Jérôme Cahuzac. As the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro reported with some glee, one of Cahuzac’s last acts as a minister was to prepare people for the “burial of a presidential promise”.

 

Helen Lewis: Will a tattoo ever hang in the Louvre?

The New Statesman deputy editor, Helen Lewis, writes a first-hand report from inside room G34B of Blythe House, “the most fascinating room in London” and home to over 300 tattooed human skin samples from the 19th and 20th centuries.

She meets Gemma Angel, a tattoo historian who has spent three years working with the macabre collection, consisting primarily of skin from “sailors, soldiers and criminals”, sold to the 19th-century collector Henry Wellcome. She also talks to Matt Lodder, a PhD student, who describes how tattooing has long been popular with “members of all social classes”, and not just “ne’er-do-wells”. As two of the few experts in this rare field of art history, writes Lewis:

The mission of both Lodder and Angel is to drag the study of tattoos away from its early criminological roots towards something more modern. In this, they are not alone, although they could be forgiven for feeling somewhat lonely. Lodder estimates that fewer than two dozen academics are seriously studying tattooing worldwide.

Lewis also considers the contemporary phenomenon of the “celebrity tattooist” and tattoos as an “integral part” of celebrity image (think of David Beckham). She questions the human impulse for body modifications and asks whether tattoos will ever be taken seriously by the art world.

Over the past two decades, at least a dozen international artists have used tattoos to explore ideas of performance and permanence . . . All the academic study of tattoos eventually coalesces around a single question: what does it mean for an image – or a word – to be marked on to a human body?

 

In the Critics

The NS lead reviewer, John Gray, opens our Spring Books special. Gray reviews Philosophical Essays, a new collection of the non-fiction of the great Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa.

Judging by the standards of academic philosophy,” Gray writes, “there is little that is original in these pages.” But that is what he finds so alluring about Pessoa’s philosophical writings. “Far from trying to persuade anyone of any set of convictions, he used philosophy to liberate the mind from belief . . . Pessoa was – with all his fictive selves – a unique modern spirit. It is a cause for celebration that more of his writings are coming into print.

Plus

  • Jonathan Derbyshire talks to the Chilean author Isabel Allende about her latest novel, Maya’s Notebook.
  • Sarah Churchwell reviews John le Carré’s new novel, A Delicate Truth.
  • Peter Wilby celebrates 150 years of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.
  • Jonathan Bate reviews Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, an anthology of essays dealing with the claim that the Bard was not the author of the plays performed in his name.
  • Simon Heffer assesses The Greatest Traitor: the Secret Lives of Agent George Blake by Roger Hermiston.
  • Ryan Gilbey, reviews Michael Winterbottom’s biopic of Paul Raymond, The Look of Love, starring Steve Coogan;
  • Will Self’s Madness of Crowds, on ceremonial funerals.

And much more...

Read our full “In the Critics” blog post here.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder