The Impossibility of Angels

A Classic AngelYesterday, I attended an activists’ training course which was held at my union’s headquarters in London. I arrived slightly early, but as I sat down, I noticed that the overhead projector was switched on and that a Powerpoint presentation was ready to go. I raised an eyebrow: the presentation’s template was one that I had utilised at a previous event. I opened my pack of course materials and found a printout of the slides: to my surprise, I found that fully a third of them were ones that I had written. No acknowledgement was present.

My suspicions were further aroused when the trainer entered the room: upon seeing me, he became pale. He did verbally acknowledge my contribution; however, he let slip two facts which added to my discomfort with the situation. First, he made it clear that he was being paid by the union to train us; in contrast, I had used up valuable holiday days to attend yesterday’s course and previous ones. Second, he made it clear that the course was winging its way around the country. I have no reason to think that the appropriate attributions have been made in these additional sessions.

Part of the purpose of the course is to build enthusiasm for the creation of “action groups” on university campuses. One would think that after having indulged in a petty act of plagiarism, the trainer would have sense enough to give me a wide berth. However, my union is under pressure: it and two other unions took government money with the promise that they would set up these “action groups”. The numerical targets, which are to be achieved by Spring 2011, are laughable to say the least. Nevertheless, the union is making a go of it and going at it hard: I first heard about these groups in late November from the same trainer; I attended a further session in early December, and though I was visibly ailing from the last stages of the flu, he asked me how setting up the action group in my vicnity was going. At that point, my choked up voice and coughing did the talking for me.

He felt the need to press me on this issue again yesterday; when I explained to him that the results of such efforts were unlikely to be instantaneous given the exam period, Christmas holidays and the threat of redundancies among university staff, he replied, “What, after all the training we’ve given you?” If yesterday’s session is included, the sum total of the “training” was 3 days. The “training” has included a request for donations from my local chapter, as well as an attempt to sell books to the participants at the course. Furthermore, if one takes into account the slides and some of the themes I had raised at previous sessions which were then repeated, it would appear that the relationship was not a one-sided matter of his giving and my taking. Strangely, if his statement was a joke, it fell flat, if he was being serious, his quip was laughable.

After the session ended, I proceeded home and mulled over the day. I not only thought about the trainer’s actions, but also how the union had gotten itself into the mess. No doubt there were good intentions, but they had grabbed hold of government cash without a clear plan of achieving their targets. Furthermore, “not criticising the government” was part of the deal: this struck me as odd. As union members, we not only have a right to “speak truth to power”, often, it’s a duty. One of my colleagues was openly frustrated that the “action groups” and by extension, the unions, had been stitched up in this manner. The whole business remains a dreadful muddle, and it made me question the wisdom of the union’s management, from engaging in the project to begin with to its choice of trainer and project manager.

It’s at this juncture that one has to stop: venting is fine, up to a point. However, it would be unrealistic of me to expect the union to be run entirely by altrusitic idealists who are always exemplars of probity. While this was a mistake, or indeed, a series of errors on the union’s part, the causes for which it stands are not devalued. It may reach around in the dark, but at least it is tasked with looking for the light.

It’s often tough to remember this; we live in a world that increasingly believes in throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Sometimes this tendency is perfectly understandable and reasonable: Tiger Woods probably shouldn’t show his face in public for a while. He’s a great golfer, but considering the frequency and the brazenness of his liaisons, it will take more than sporting triumph to resurrect his image.

A more important example is the set of scandals associated with the science of climate change. The contents of the hacked emails from the University of East Anglia and the mistakes made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regarding the retreat of Himalayan glaciers are well known. To add insult to injury, because of the widespread misinterpretation of the term “global warming”, in Capra-esque fashion, “every time a snowflake falls, a climate change denier takes wing”: the recent blizzards in both Britain and America haven’t helped matters. However, in order to deny climate change, one has to adhere to an unrealistic proposition: i.e., man’s influence on the environment is not significant. This is simply not true; dramatic examples abound, from the Great Smog of London in 1952, which killed 12,000 people to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl in more recent years. We do have the power to affect the world around us, and in quite profound ways. It’s not a pleasant truth, but the truth it remains.

Under these circumstances, acting as if our emissions are harmless is taking a tremendous risk. As I said to my colleagues yesterday, even with the most generous spirit towards the climate change deniers, following their way is rather like handing over a Smith and Wesson with one chamber loaded and inviting the recipient to play a game of Russian roulette. The only way to be absolutely sure of emerging alive is not to pick up the gun.

Climate change deniers, if pressed, cannot be absolutely sure that we have no or only marginal effects on the planet; truly, science is generally a matter of inquiry, not certainty. However, the message of climate change denial is particularly potent because it is so convenient. It’s lovely to think we can keep on using our cars, our television sets, and our jet aircraft without consequences forever. The sheer beauty of this illusion makes matters difficult for those sounding the alarm: I believe the detrimental activities of the UEA and IPCC were due to their desire to find something suitably dramatic with which to fight back. However, they forgot to be scientists first, and to leave propaganda and spin to politicians. Mixing the two roles is invariably a recipe for disaster, and only helps those who are all too ready to dump proverbial infants by the lorryload along with the water in which they bathe.

I really am not sure what to make of the mess with my union; I probably will bring up my concerns but do so calmly, and attribute what has happened to individuals being misguided. There is value in what the union does; but extrapolating from a statement by Karl Marx about society, without the dynamic of criticism, nothing can progress. But criticism is not abandonment, nor rejection; we do not live in world populated by angels, it is ridiculous to expect it to be such. The best thing we can do is try to keep our heads about us and not be swayed by momentary wrath, passions or delusions: this is easy to say, but as events prove, very difficult to follow through.

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