Travellers to Britain are advised that they may run into a type of person colloquially known as an “eccentric”. These individuals can be identified by their penchant for wearing purple and green striped blazers during Wimbledon fortnight, a bowler hat in the middle of July, or more commonly, by their insistence on sitting in train stations during all kinds of weather and marking down carriage numbers in a large, red leather bound notebook.
Do not engage in conversation with them, unless you are interested in discussing each individual shot Steffi Graf took in the 1996 Wimbledon final or relish long soliloquies about the culinary perfection of beans on toast. If by accident you do end up locked in verbal repartee with such a person, deploy the following emergency phrase: “I am seeing a therapist”, whereupon the “eccentric” will break off, believing you to be more mad than they are.
I’m kidding, of course. However the jest contains a kernel of truth about British society: few are willing to “come out of the analyst’s office” and admit they are seeing a therapist. Therein lies an interesting paradox: it is quite all right to act “barmy” or claim to be “bonkers”, it’s quite another to seek professional help. Personally, I have been seeing one for the past six months, but as one of my best friends recently reminded me, as I’m an American this is not a surprise. Indeed, as I’m originally a New Yorker, I was probably given a referral the moment I was born.
There is much to admire in a skillful therapist’s technique: the careful, patient listening, the insertion of critical insights, the gentle guidance towards self-revelation. No flat-out cure is necessarily on offer, but certainly understanding and an enhanced ability to cope with life’s problems do arise out of the process. I have thought on the long walks home after sessions about how lovely it would be if whole nations could take a moment to lie on the proverbial couch and talk out their hopes, their fears and their haunting nightmares.
If both Britain and America could do so, I imagine that much would be said about a loss of faith in themselves. Politics see-saw between two political parties, neither of which is competent nor organised. Business is full of thieves, the media is full of scandal-makers and scandal-mongers, our food is genetically modified, our air is impure, some of our scientists may have tipped over into becoming propagandists, Lady Gaga wins music awards and even our documentary makers proclaim with pride that they smothered former lovers with pillows. We’re utterly screwed up. As the tagline on American news programmes would say, “film at eleven”.
At such a point, perhaps the therapist would suggest that the patients reflect on what is going well. For all the faults that have just been described, there are good things happening at the moment: the economy has stopped declining. Doctor Who is coming back this year. Shani Davis won a gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics. Organic food and farmers markets are popular. Big Brother, at long last, is coming to an end. Seeds of hope are germinating and may soon come into bloom.
Then it may fall to the therapist to suggest that the patients do something in order to give greater reasons for optimism; in my experience, that something is usually practical and focuses in on one problem rather than trying to address all of them at once. In this case, an adequate place to start may be the first issue in the litany: the see-saw nature of political discourse and governance.
America, and to a lesser extent, Britain suffer from having a binary choice in who governs them. In America, the selection is either the kind-of-sort-of left-of-centre Democrats or the kind-of-sort-of right-of-centre Republicans. I add these qualifiers because while the Republicans have a strong and militant far right, as exemplified by people such as Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, they also remain home to much more moderate politicians such as Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. The Democrats’ personality is even more distorted; at one point in its history it was simultaneously home to Maxine Waters and Zell Miller, whose ideological positions are on opposite sides of the universe. Such a coalition is only possible in a duopoly, because the parties are not there to represent a viewpoint in particular, rather, they are broad coalitions in the pursuit of power. Each party may gravitate towards a particular ideological pole, however they are really working towards getting a sufficient amount of centrist support in order to win. As we’re witnessing in the United States, once a majority is achieved, the party often may have problems using it decisively, particularly if it wants to continue on into the future. The result is inertia.
How does one reshape politics so that it becomes more about ideas rather than the pursuit of pure power? Though I’m no “political therapist”, I have a suggestion. One of the most beautiful diagrams I have seen is of the composition of the European Parliament. Its multicoloured dots, each representing a Member of the Parliament, look like a scattering of Skittles candy, a sweet from my youth that was memorable for its strong flavours and its slogan, “taste the rainbow”. What the diagram shows is how a different system of voting, namely, proportional representation, can shift politics to a more strongly ideological footing.
For those who are not familiar with Europe’s political spectrum, the blue and orange dots represent various type of conservative; light blue dots are the more moderate kind, the orange are the more militant ones who advocate the dismantling of the European Union. The gold “Skittles” represent the various liberal parties. The green, naturally, are the Greens and ecologically minded parties. The shades of red are reserved for the left and far left. No one party holds a majority: thus legislation must be achieved through finding consensus between multiple factions. However, the strength of this system means that ideas are let rip in the corridors of power, not smothered in backroom deals and hidden behind party manifestos. It is not a perfect model: in the case of Israel, proportional representation has been taken too far, and small, extreme parties hold undue influence; however that is a flaw of method rather than principle.
At this point, both American and British readers may decry the idea on the basis that it is either “un-American” or “not cricket”. However, the mathematical formula which is used in many European elections (including Britain’s allocation of European Parliament seats) should assuage such fears. The “D’Hondt Method” was originally devised by none other than Thomas Jefferson; in his case, he used it to allocate Congressional seats on the basis of population. Proportional representation thus has a direct linkage to one of the finest and most enlightened minds in the English-speaking world and is decidedly not some “scary foreign import”.
Were it adopted, a renewal in both British and American politics might ensue: people would be free to vote for what they believe, rather than choose between two evils. The duopoly could be broken: Greens and Libertarians could sit in Congress alongside Moderates, Liberals and Conservatives. Each issue could then be approached from a different angle, unbound from the discipline of party whips. Perhaps genuine idealists would feel more free to step forth and persuade. Inertia could be smashed. Given these potential benefits, at the very least, “tasting the rainbow” should be tried. It is preferable than remaining a prisoner of the couch, able only to ruminate rather than resolve. As someone who does go to therapy, I know that at some point that it will end, and I will have to cope on my own: there is no shame in needing help during the broad, deep night times of one’s life. However, daylight and cheer return with both the passage of time and a willingness to do something. Perhaps if we focus less on complaining and rejoice more in doing, even that which is different, wild and “eccentric” as compared to past history, we will restore ourselves to a better state of health.