Outside of my ‘circle of competence’

Tablet 5

Here is another tablet from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art’s extensive collection. Dating from the 20th-19thC BC, the tablet is of a type used by the Assyrian merchants to track the income and expenses generated by caravan shipments, which traded in a range of goods transported by donkeys which were themselves valuable goods which formed a key element of the trade.

So: led by donkeys. You can probably guess where I’m going with this.

Many years ago, in a secondary school art class, we were asked to do a painting on the theme of transport. My favourite band at the time were ‘Yes’ and I plagiarised a painting of three cone-shaped planetoids hanging in space from the inner-sleeve of the ‘Yessongs’ triple-gatefold, on the spurious grounds that it represented space travel. As I was putting the finishing touches to my masterpiece, Mr Cawood disappeared into the storeroom and reappeared with a poster-sized catalogue of Roger Dean’s artwork that featured the very picture I had just copied. I was mortified, but instead of just admitting the obvious, I blustered the excuse that yes, I was a fan of Yes and had been inspired by Roger Dean, but didn’t have that particular album and the resemblance was just coincidence. It clearly wasn’t, but a mix of misplaced pride and deserved shame kept me from admitting what was obvious to me, to my teacher and to my classmates, and I even elaborated unnecessarily on the story with some nonsense about the rock-like structures actually being futuristic spaceships or something. It wasn’t for an exam or coursework or anything, and artists are continually drawing inspiration from the work of others and even doing direct reproductions of the subject matter and composition of others’ work, and I had adapted Dean’s work to make it fit the transport/spaceship theme. We hadn’t been specifically told we couldn’t copy someone else’s work or ideas, so I wasn’t breaking any rules. I even believed my own story, and felt angry and indignant, as well as humiliated, that Mr Cawood had confronted me in front of my classmates, and that they were taking the Mickey out of me for being ‘rumbled’ by him. This turn of events stung all the more because only the week before I’d been praised for my ingenuity and sensitivity when we’d been asked to interpret the transport theme in clay, and while others made crude models of sports cars and other mechanical conveyances that aren’t readily suited to the ceramicist’s art, I’d fashioned a rather lovely pair of feet.

I was reminded of this when reflecting on Dominic Cummings’s No.10 rose-garden performance, his stuttering, pause filled responses, and the look on his face under questioning. At the time, like many I’m sure, I was literally putting my hands on my head and screaming ‘What? You did what?’ when he told us he’d driven to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight. I am predisposed to despise Cummings for a variety of reasons, and over the past few days I have composed, in my head, what could have been a monumental essay on the dangers he and his ilk pose to our society. At times I have fantasised that I could whittle my thoughts into one of those social media posts that goes viral, and I have thought of all the approbation that would bring: the admiration of my friends, the congratulations of strangers sympathetic to ‘the cause’. But then I have thought of the vituperation of the trolls, the angry threats by direct message, and the silent contempt of those of my family and friends of a more conservative persuasion. And I am paralysed. Cummings needs to go; those who are directly or indirectly victimised by his ideas and those of the Tory ideologues need to have their voice heard and amplified. But who am I, I comfortably off, middle-aged, middle-class, Oxford educated white guy to weigh in with my hypocrisy? When people share posts showing ‘the media’ – that frenzied mob attacking poor Dom outside his house – crowding together without thought of social distancing to get their picture or quote, when all he did was, in his mind, seek to ensure the safety of his child (and I can actually believe he believed that’s what he was doing), then although it seems obvious to me that it’s not a fair comparison because they are not people with power helping to drive policy and decision-making, I can’t, in good faith say no more than ‘that’s different’ in response to their whataboutism. But any response that might make a difference takes effort, time, and perhaps above all empathy, and when I feel angry and hurt and indignant, that’s difficult to find.

There is a problem with Cummings, and it isn’t primarily that he drove 260 miles to Durham when most of us were staying at home regardless of circumstances. It isn’t even that he told a stupid and implausible fib about ‘testing his eyesight’. In his circumstances – as I did in that art room – I may well have done the same. The real problem with Cummings is easy to overlook in the hot air of the media fire-storm, but fortunately (though you might not know it from looking at Facebook) the media is still more than face-mask comedy and clickbait memes. There are plenty of places you can see evidence of this but if you’re genuinely interested in Dominic Cummings, this might be a good place to start: https://members.tortoisemedia.com/2019/09/18/190918-cummings-and-i/content.html?sig=V3ep8Di90VEsADMEg8fZ7UUHeKwBE-FtKNLriRS7hGY

Or you could go directly to the words of the man himself. Since long before anyone had heard of coronavirus, I’ve been reading Cummings’s blog. I was talking about it with my son, now himself a Civil Servant as it happens, at Christmas. You might have heard about it yourself now, as his editing of a post about the risk of pandemics to include a reference to coronavirus that wasn’t previously there, has made the news. The blog is fizzing with really interesting ideas, many of which I think deserve to be at the heart of government thinking and decision making, such as the importance of evidence-based decision making and the contribution that things like AI and machine-learning could make to more effective governance. I find much of what Cummings writes convincing, and much of what I have, after further thought and reading come to find unconvincing, I nevertheless find seductive. I can really see the appeal of Cummings to the class of people that constitute the current Government, perhaps because I am a cigarette paper’s width from being like them. But go and read, carefully, the most recent post on Cummings’s blog, written shortly after the Conservative government was returned to power (https://dominiccummings.com/2020/01/02/two-hands-are-a-lot-were-hiring-data-scientists-project-managers-policy-experts-assorted-weirdos/) and if you don’t begin to see serious dangers in having such a person at the heart of government, with the influence he clearly has, then come back to me and we can talk substance. Spoiler: it’s not the ‘weirdos and misfits’ thing I have a problem with.

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