Politics, Philosophy and Mashed Potatoes

On a philosophical point, I have issues with left-right spectrums because they are one-dimensional.  They can be seen to represent either a purely economic scale (state planning v free enterprise) or a measure of individual freedom. Of course the far left and the far right are equally totalitarian, with only Camp Anarchy (not to be mistaken with Camp GTMO) inbetween, as the spectrum bends into a rainbow shape and then a circle.  Moving to two-dimensions with an ‘x’ axis that measures economic intervention (central planning on the left, free market on the right) and a ‘y’ axis that measures personal liberty (totalitarianism at the top, naked policemen running around smoking pot at the bottom), I am slap bang in the middle, three quarters of the way down.  A position I share with Gandhi apparently. Perhaps not a surprise as my humour has been observed to be as dry as his flip flops (more on flip flops later).  All of the current mainstream parties presently sit in the upper right quadrant which does go some way to explaining my feelings of isolation.

I found studying political philosophy at university very unsettling. One week I would be studying Hegel and the dialectic of materialism and nodding my head in agreement.  The following week Hobbes’ Leviathan would get my vote.  Edmund Burke made sense, as did Rousseau, equally so.  Utilitarians and Levellers seemed appealing.  Curling up with a naked fresher, reading from Camus’ L’Etranger with a Gitanes on the go even more so.  I have at times prostituted myself to each of the three main parties and on a glorious weekend in May 1997 while the rest of the country celebrated a Blair victory, a Eurovision win and a Bank Holiday during which the sun shone I had new found wealth.  I had seconded the Referendum Party candidate in the Hertford and Stortford constituency, much to the horror of my employers, who on being met by my name in the polling booth, gave me a pay rise, making my post politically restricted and supposedly ending any illusions of greatness.

I like to think that my politics haven’t flip-flopped (call-back to Gandhi noted) but that the mainstream parties have taken various changing orbits around me.  “I haven’t changed, the parties have”, of course not Mr Hutchinson and your money is safe in the bank (yes as safe as Mr Papadopoulos’ of Cyprus is).  It was while dining in a Paris restaurant that I had my Eureka moment.  I am not sure about French cuisine, they play about with their food far  too much for my liking and if you ask for vegetables they treat you like one.  I like a shank of lamb, a rich gravy, mashed potatoes and peas.  I like chicken, roast potatoes, carrots and cabbage.  I like egg and chips (beans or peas optional).  I like shepherd’s pie.  “What do you want for your tea?” my mother used to ask.  I’d ponder, lamb, chicken, egg ‘n chips, shepherd’s pie.  All good, all different, all with something to offer.  And that is how it was with politics but you know what? I realised I like bloody potatoes, potatoes were the constant in every dish.  In fact give me a baked potato on its own and I’m happy.  Yes potatoes, baked, roasted, chipped or mashed.  A bit like people, I like them in all of their varieties too.  And that is when it struck me.  It is the part of each of those political philosophies which deals with the individual which appeals to me.  The parts that deal with the hopes, the dreams, the aspirations, the needs, the wants of the individual and the rights and responsibilities that they bear in return.  Yes the individual is at the heart of my thinking.  Not the state, not even the community.  In fact I would go so far as to say that what is good for the individual is not necessarily good for the state and that what is good for the state is rarely good for the individual.

A Potatoes2012-06-25 21.34.19

Each of us has our own unique journey.  Each of us faces our own unique challenges.  We cannot walk a step, let alone a mile in another’s shoes.  Striver or shirker, pacifist or militarist, libertarian or socialist, straight or gay, atheist or convert, commentator or psychiatrist, each story a different individual, a different journey.  Workers, soldiers, drones, queens, whether we’re talking about ants, bees or humans we each have a role to play. Mine as criticalfriend, as agent provocateur.  Yes politicians and economists may be the subject of my scrutiny and the butt of my jokes but if he or she is just a man or woman whose intentions are good, then as the song says, “Please Lord don’t let him be misunderstood”.  And continuing our musical references, “Hats off to Larry” whichever party he leads for I have never had the responsibility of power fall upon my shoulders and never had those difficult choices to make.

AAAAAThe problem for me is that both socialism and capitalism are forms of collectivism. I am an individualist who travels light (not to be confused with an internationalist who has a lot of the baggage of the left) and a member of the new precariat, though often mistaken for a member of the elite, who finds himself much happier in the presence of a punk rocker than a banker. Bohemian Anarchist?  Well maybe. I value friends, family and community but I am not a fan of the nation state. I tolerate it as it has the potential to protect against corporatism and globalisation with its steady march to neo-serfdom and a new world order but that’s about it.  I go along with the monarchy, I don’t loathe it, I don’t cheer it. I’m certainly not apathetic to it though, for I realise that I’d no longer be able to take the moral high ground and lampoon America, as the prospect of a President Blair, a President Boris or President Branson makes me blush.  It certainly wouldn’t be a beauty contest.  There is a reason why politics is 18 rated.

After a recent presentation on post-war American foreign policy I was asked if I was anti-America.  In short, no but let me shed more light by defining my own version of GAP analysis.  I always think of a country as a stool (no pun intended) with three legs: Its Government; Its Aesthetic; and Its People.

So when I am asked, “Do you not like America?” I am happy to point to the GAP:

  • Its aesthetic, its landscape and its contribution to culture, I admire;
  • Its people, I respect
  • Its Government, I suspect

The same holds true of my own country and any other. We come into the world alone and we leave it alone. It is the voyage of self-discovery that gives our lives meaning as we slay dragons and tilt at windmills.  I’m just not a fan of my slaying and tilting being caught on CCTV.  Left and right, will someone please tell our politicians that George Orwell’s 1984 is a novel, not a user manual.

All rights reserved © 2015 Andrew Hutchinson

Fight, Flight or Freeze


In trying to understand ourselves we’ve got to remember where we come from. Emotions exist to put us into motion in an appropriate manner to aid our survival. Sometimes, complex thought can be too slow to deal with an emergency. Lucky for us, we have an area of our brain that can over-ride the slower thinking processes and respond instantly. This is achieved by “pattern matching” the present situation to a set of pre-existing templates and then setting off the “fight or flight” response. It would seem that the earliest expressions of emotion in mammals, which we still possess, was all to do with fighting for your life or your dinner, escaping from becoming dinner, or freezing. Freezing helps to escape being noticed by predators, whose vision is usually configured to spot motion more effectively. There is also an element of playing dead after being caught, on the off-chance that your predator may want a nap before dinner! It can be helpful to think of our emotions as going towards emotions, moving away emotions, or freeze emotions.

In action the system looks like this:- A happy go lucky cave man sets off for a day of hunter-gathering. Suddenly a tiger leaps out of the bushes. Hesitation would be fatal. Immediately the amygdala, part of the brain’s emotional system, initiates a powerful cascade reaction. Working memory is cleared, attention narrows and focuses, time seems to slow down. Adrenaline and cortisol are released which speeds up the metabolism. The heart rate and breathing rate both increase. Blood circulation is diverted from slow systems like digestion and to the major muscles. Blood pressure is increased, as is the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Occasionally, and completely involuntarily, our cave man may empty his bladder and bowels and possibly vomit. This could be lightening the load to facilitate sprinting away or making a less appetizing smell for the predator. Subjectively, before he realizes what is happening, Mr. cave man will find himself running faster than he’s ever run before. Alternatively, he will find himself up a tree or standing astride a dead tiger, into which he has plunged his spear. That’s assuming things went well. So, he has experienced an immediate metabolic mobilization and a short period of high intensity physical activity (sprinting or fighting). He then goes home for tea and stories around the camp fire.

The fight or flight response is great for dealing with quick emergency situations. It sometimes gets it wrong: freezing in front of an on-coming bus instead of jumping out of the way. However, our species would probably have become extinct by now without it. The trouble comes when this ancient system tries to respond to modern, complex and long term problems. The predators have been replaced by bank statements, relationship difficulties and office bullies. These are interpreted as threats to our well being, and our brains respond with the only system available to them. We feel anxious, frightened, tearful, desperate to get away from a situation, but it’s not as straightforward as running away from a tiger. We feel irritated and angry, but giving vent to our rage has consequences. Sometimes we freeze. We can become “stuck” and unproductive. It’s also important to note that strong emotions simplify our thinking processes. They make us stupid, and trap us in emotionally extreme black and white thinking.

Physically, long term activation of the fight or flight response is disastrous. We are effectively talking about the physical effects of stress: dodgy tummy; headaches; poor sleep; suppressed immune system; inability to concentrate…You don’t want it.

The solution: calm down the emotions; use your full brain power to problem solve; work to get your needs met in balance.

Reproduced with the kind permission of the author, Rev (Wg Cdr) Ian Andrew Jones, Padre to the European Joint Support Unit based at SHAPE in Belgium

The Crazy Ones

My clan are the mavericks, the vagabonds, the mad scientists, the gypsies, the theatre people, the artists, the musicians, the deviants, the radicals, the outsiders and you.

Your clan may well be diferent but we should all raise a toast to those who inspire us and reflect upon the excellent words of by Rob Siltanen, with the participation of Lee Clow, written as part of Apple’s “Think Different” campaign.  The campaign was about reinforcing and reflecting the company’s philosophy. It was ordered by Steve Jobs when he finally resumed control of Apple, the company he once co-founded.

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes.

The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them.

But the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward.

Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art? Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written? Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?

We make tools for these kinds of people.

While some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Be inspired to think differently too and to break the rules and raise a toast to the crazy ones who featured in Apple’s groundbreaking campaign.

Amelia Earhart

14th Dalai Lama

Jackie Robinson

Miles Davis

Alfred Hitchcock

Jim Henson

Cesar Chavez

Jim Henson

Pablo Picasso

Miles Davis

Charlie Chaplin

Jane Goodall

Mahatma Gandhi

Ansel Adams

Pablo Picasso

Mahatma Gandhi

Thomas Edison

Lucille Ball

Orson Welles

John Lennon

Maria Callas

Desi Arnaz

Frank Capra

Yoko Ono

Martha Graham

Bob Dylan

John Huston

Cesar Chavez

Joan Baez

Frank Sinatra

Albert Einstein

James Watson

Ted Turner

Richard Feynman

Amelia Earhart

Francis Ford Coppola

As your critical friend I recommend that you act with integrity, never cease to question and fear nothing but fear itself.  In our age of mass media and hype, when it is too easy to be labelled, too easy to be marginalised and too easy to be offended, too many people say nothing, do nothing and contribute nothing.

All rights reserved © 2015 Andrew Hutchinson

I can confidently say …

Katty Kay is the anchor of BBC World America and a contributor and guest host for Morning Joe at MSNBC. She and Claire Shipman are coauthors of the New York Times bestseller, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know. For a taster of what can be expected from the book, have a good gander below:

“Confidence, it turns out, is partly genetic. You know that sense you have that some people just do find life easier? Well it could be that they have confident genes. They were simply born with the right DNA.

For years neuroscientists have been looking at the genetic factors behind negative psychological attributes – depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety etc. They are now just starting to research the genes that control positive character qualities – intelligence, optimism and finally confidence.

The scientists we interviewed as we tried to dissect self-assurance for The Confidence Code are mostly examining confidence in monkeys and rats (who knew there was such a thing as a confident rat) but much of the genetic make up is remarkably similar to humans. It is all groundbreaking stuff and the science is changing very fast.

The old nurture/nature debate is stale and the latest research looks more at how our nature (our genes) is affected by our nurture (our environment).

As they hone in on the science of confidence, our researchers insist there is no one confidence gene. Rather, there are a group of genes which are thought to affect our predisposition for either anxiety or, on the flip side, confidence. Anxiety and confidence are widely seen as the mirror traits of each other. Doubtless scientists will discover more of them but for now, here are three confidence genes.

  • SLC6A4 is the gene that controls the serotonin levels in our body. Serotonin you probably know is the hormone that is associated with feelings of well being. It’s the basis of many anti depressants or SSRIs. The gene that controls how effectively our bodies process serotonin is the SLC6A4 – or the serotonin transporter gene. It comes in several variants and the variant you have will affect how confident you are.
  • OXTR is the gene that controls our oxytocin levels. Oxytocin, also known as the cuddle hormone, is the wonderful stuff that floods our bodies and makes us feel the world is a friendly place (sort of a healthy version of ecstasy!). An efficient OXTR gene also helps predispose you to confidence. By the way, women get a surge of oxytocin after sex, when breastfeeding and from hanging out with female friends.
  • COMT is a tricky gene. It is also known as the worrier/warrior gene and it controls the level of dopamine in our bodies. That’s the hormone associated with stress and high performance. It too comes in different variants. If you get the worrier variant of the COMT gene the chances are you are more anxious and less confident. The warrior gene makes you more prone to confidence.

You can find out if you have the confident version of these genes by getting a genetic test done. We got them done last summer by two different companies – 23andme (when it was still doing testing) and a newer company, Genomind, which looks more at genes that affect our psychological characteristics.

Genetic testing is a very simple process. The company sends you a kit that includes a small plastic phial. You spit into that, shake it around, FedEx it back and a couple of weeks later you get the results emailed to you.

It’s the waiting for the results that is nerve wracking – a bit like waiting for your SAT results to come through. I had developed my own scenario for my genetic blueprint and somehow felt that anything less than a certain level of genetic predisposition to confidence would be failing. I know, that is totally absurd. One thing we really can’t control in life is our genes. But being a bit of perfectionist I wanted good strong confident genes.

I was disappointed. My genetic make up does not suggest confidence. I did pretty well on the OXTR gene – I have strong levels of oxytocin, which means I generally like people and find the world friendly. But my variants of both the SLC6A4 and the COMT gene suggest more anxiety than confidence.

Once I was over beating myself up for not having perfect genes, I realized something however. I am a confident person, even though my genes don’t predispose me to confidence. Which leads us to an even more important attribute of this essential quality. Yes, confidence is partly genetic, but even more so, it is a function of the choices we make. I am confident because of the decisions I have made in life, because of the things I have done, not because of my genes.”

If you want to learn more about how confident you are, you can take the free assessment at The Confidence Code website and find out.

All rights reserved © 2015 Andrew Hutchinson