Best podcast episodes of 2019 (Part 1 – Reply All)

As I was compiling this post, I realised I had a problem: I was going to have a top ten which was mostly episodes of Reply All.

It is tech podcast with a difference, focusing not on the technology itself, but on the stories of those who have found their lives impacted by the internet in surprising ways.

It is largely made by This American Life veterans and uses a similar storytelling style, but for my money hosts PJ Voght and Alex Goldman and the rest of the team behind it have an even greater knack for finding subjects that are both revealing and have a very human core.

So here are my top 5 Reply All episodes of 2019:

5) Dark Pattern [June 27th]

Christopher Hitchens told a story about going to Prague whilst it was still under communist rule “determined to be the first visiting writer not to make use of the name Franz Kafka.” Only to be arrested and have his captors tell him he had no reason to know why he had been detained!

The lengths companies go to in order to prevent Americans exercising their legal right to file their taxes online for free make clichés about ‘Kafkaesque’ situations similarly hard to avoid.

4) 30-50 Feral Hogs [October 10th]

In August 2019, a little known twitter user responded to a tweet about banning assault rifles by asking rhetorically: “Legit question for rural Americans – How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?” Unsurprisingly, this decision made him a global laughingstock. It also prompts PJ Voght to ask why wild pigs became such a problem that someone would sincerely believe they need to military weaponry to deal with them. A strange (and very American) tale follows.

3) The Great Momo Panic [March 14th]:                              

It is easy to deride the parents and teachers who fell for a hoax story about a “demonic chicken lady” encouraging children to commit suicide. However, this episode makes a persuasive case that part of why this fake story caught on is that virtually all of its constituent elements (including messages about committing suicide being snuck into Youtube videos aimed at children) reflect things that have actually happened. Google comes out of this episode especially badly, having allowed Youtube to become a major presence in children’s lives, whilst taking little responsibility for what they see.

2) The Crime Machine (parts 1 and 2) [October 12th]       

The story of the NYPD’s embrace of data-driven police almost feels like a Greek Tragedy. At first, reformers used it to make policing not only more effective but fairer. However, over time what was once a useful tool, essentially hijacks the entire department, creating incentives for officers to conceal crimes and target ethnic minorities.

1) The Roman Mars Virus [11th April]                                   

An investigation into why a listener’s car stereo crashes when it plays 99% Invisible (and only 99% Invisible) turns into a loving homage to podcasting itself.

Best Podcast episodes of 2019 (part 2)

Having yesterday considered the best episodes of Reply All, today I’m moving on to the crème of the other podcasts out there:

5) Can My Stutter Be Cured? [Crowd Science]

A touching look at a group of patients struggling to overcome stammering.

4) The Fictional Presidencies of Hilary Clinton [Primetime]

Emily VanDerWerff uses popular TV shows to analyse America’s strange relationship with Hilary Clinton. Could the same women really inspire both Lesley Knope and Claire Underwood?

3) Mrs Sherlock Holmes [Criminal]

Criminal specialises in true crime stories that avoid straightforward mystery tales. Nonetheless, episode does raise the question why no one has made a TV series based on the life of Grace Humiston, a New York heiress born in 1869, who, despite her gender, became not only a crusading lawyer but also a famed criminal investigator?

2) Don’t Accentuate the Positive [Happiness Lab]

Anyone who finds the Onion headline “Perky Optimist Brings Joy Wherever She Leaves” as funny as I do, is sure to find validation in this episode. Yale psychologist, Dr Laurie Santos uses research and anecdotes to make the simple, but somehow still counterintuitive point, that only imaging success leaves us unprepared for failure and ultimately makes us more miserable.

1) The Missing Crypto Queen and the Dropout

I’m going to mess about with the format of this list in two ways for this one. Firstly, I am choosing two podcasts not one. I’m also choosing whole series rather than individual episodes. However, these two podcasts are both compelling and make a fascinating pairing.

They both centre on the women behind multi-billion dollar scams. Elizabeth Holmes won plaudits as “the new Steve Jobs” and persuaded some of the richest and most famous people in America to put their names and money behind a plan to revolutionise blood testing, which rested on devices that did not work and were probably physically incapable of ever doing what Holmes claimed they could. Ruja Ignatova sold an imaginary crypto currency to thousands of people around the world.

Ignatova was likely a con artist from the start and very possibly working in league with organised criminals throughout. Holmes appears to have been more a narcist, who genuinely convinced herself she could fake it until she made it. What unites them was their ability to harness the mythos and tropes of Silicon Valley to prevent their victims properly scrutinising the product they were selling.

Why ‘Knives Out’ is my favourite film of 2019

If you have not seen Knives Out yet; then whatever you are expecting it to be; expect something different. I intend to keep that surprise intact. Therefore, I will avoid saying anything too specific beyond noting that it is homage to the Agatha Christie style ‘stately home homicide’ whodunnit.

The best – and truest – complement I can pay it, is that it is an ideal use of cinema. By that, I mean it deserves to be seen in a bespoke place, specifically reserved for watching films. It works on myriad levels and no detail in it is incidental. Therefore, it rewards complete concentration. However, because of the effort that has gone into crafting the witty script, elegant editing and pitch-perfect performances; intense attention comes effortlessly to the audience.

Indeed, the quality of the filmmaking is something that can be savoured in and of itself. It is a pleasure to behold, even above and beyond the enjoyment of the film itself.

Knives Out absolutely merits a second viewing. Partly because there are more jokes than anyone can take in on a single viewing. However, it is also because, watching it again allows you to observe how writer/director Rian Johnson seeds information, creates and then subverts expectations, and finetunes the characterisations to make everything first fizz and then explode.

However, it is the joy of my first viewing that will stay with me. I confess, I was pretty unhappy when I went in to see it. I found the final stretch of 2019 quite a slog, more marked by doubts and fears than anything else. One film can’t change that. But one as engrossing and immersive as Knives Out stopped me dwelling on all the things that had been bothering me, for a few hours at least. It allowed me to follow a trail intriguing clues leading me on a humorous trail involving compelling characters, and forget about everything else for a while.

Clearly, escaping into fantasy long-term is unhealthy, but I’d argue that short breaks from an often-difficult reality are not only ok but actually vital for our wellbeing. That’s why I am so grateful films as good as Knives Out exist. Now and again we all need to kill time.

5 other films I loved this year:
The Farewell
Avengers: Endgame
If Beale Street Could Talk
Can you Ever Forgive Me
Ad Astra

Why ‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone’ is my favourite book of 2019

This year I have read the stories of spies, terrorists, serial killers and generals. Yet the book that had me flipping pages the fastest mostly takes place in an ordinary office in suburban LA, where regular people receive standard pyschotherapy.

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb – a TV producer and journalist turned clinical psychologist – examines the purpose of therapy and how it works. However, it is not a monograph. Instead, Gottlieb conveys this message through the interlinked stories of four of her patients, along with her own experiences in therapy.

Gottlieb spent most of her TV career working on ER, so knows how to craft drama. So she chooses a case with plenty of mysteries and revelations to serve as the spine of the book. That allows her to create cliffhangers and deliver emotional gut punches.

However, the real appeal is the way Gottlieb recreates the intense empathy inherent in therapy on the page, drawing her readers into the lives of other people and then showing us how people who seem utterly lost can, with the right help, find a path to contentment.

Hat-tip: The book was flagged up to me by YANSS and Longform

The rest of my top ten of the year:

10. Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren

9. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

8. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre

7. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

6. Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott

5. Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma

4. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

3. Yes to Europe by Robert Saunders

2. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Siren Call of Safety: My Rise of Skywalker review

I have avoided revealing anything in this post that is not in the trailers or other pre-release publicity

A fan’s lament

I noticed myself noticing something whilst watching the Rise of Skywalker. Perhaps because it was mostly shot in the UK, a lot of minor roles are filled by actors who have played major parts in British TV shows. So, my brain would regularly be like “wasn’t that X-wing pilot a detective in Sherlock. Even in one of the film’s most emotionally charged moment, I was distracted by the realisation that a small but pivotal role was played by someone strongly associated with playing a very distinctive character, very different from the one they were depicting in the Rise of Skywalker.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’m enthusiastic about the direction the saga has taken in the Disney/Kathleen Kennedy era. I would have been so enraptured watching The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi, that something small like this wouldn’t really have registered to me. That I was taken out of the film by it, illustrates that the new film did not cast the same spell on me.

Sure, it was still entertaining: the cast of characters remains hugely likable, John Williams remains a genius and ILM continue to deliver a mic drop visual after mic drop visual. However, it is impossible not to be disappointed that the trilogy has ended this way.

The criticism I’ve seen made most frequently is that the pacing is rushed. Which it undoubtedly is. In fact, it feels like two films have been edited into one. If films are often praised for their ‘lean’ storytelling, then the Rise of Skywalker is emaciated. It has been cut back so viciously that the bones of the plot are largely stripped of character development, thematic depth or anything else that might put flesh on them. The relentless gallop through the narrative also robs the audience of slower moments where tension can build. The effect of this pace is alienating rather than invigorating.

These writing and editing issues are exasperated in the first act of the film by the filmmakers trying to incorporate unused footage of Carrie Fisher shot for the Force Awakens. I appreciate why giving one of the saga’s truly great characters (and the fantastic actor who played her) a proper send-off seemed important. However, taking dialogue from one film and trying to jam it into another is the wrong way to do it. It feels out of place in the film it’s now in. And the editing doesn’t cover the joints in a smooth way.

The perils of playing it safe

However, I want to suggest a more fundamental flaw with the Rise of Skywalker: Lucasfilm was too cautious.

In his book Messy, Tim Harford cites numerous incidents where measures intended as a safety feature actually become dangerous. For example, part of a safety valve in a nuclear reactor breaks loose and causes a blockage which leads to a meltdown. Or more mundanely an anxious public speaker is so anxious about not knowing what to say, that they cling to a carefully pre-prepared script rather than reading the room and wind up saying exactly the wrong thing.

I fear Lucasfilm took a risky precaution by deciding to go back to a trusted director. It is understandable why they did this: the studio has been repeatedly burned by taking risks on directors – including parting ways with the Rise of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow. In that context, rehiring JJ Abrams, the man who successfully delivered the saga’s relaunch in Force Awakens, must have seemed like a way to almost guarantee they would get a decent film.

However, that created a problematic dynamic. In contrast to their Disney compatriots at Marvel, Lucasfilm do not have a masterplan for how the story will unfold film-to-film. Instead, the writer/director of each entry in the saga improvises. Now, as anyone who improvises on stage or screen can tell you, it only works if you are prepared to accept and develop others’ contributions, the so-called “yes and…” principle. Rejecting them breaks the flow of the process.

Just such a break is created, by bringing back the director of the episode VII to direct episode IX. Abrams clearly had ideas about how the rest of the trilogy would pan out. Judging from the Rise of Skywalker those ideas seem to have differed substantially from what Rian Johnson actually did in episode VIII.

Rather than developing the story Johnson bequeathed him, Abrams instead seems to have tried to pull the saga back in the direction he initially intended: Characters introduced in the Last Jedi are ignored; whilst characters from Force Awakens often act in a way that seems at odds with what we learned about them in the previous film; and the previous film’s big reveal is retconned away. This isn’t even done in an intelligent way. Instead a character simply goes (to paraphase slightly): “When I said X (in the Last Jedi) that was actually sophistry. I really meant Y, which is the literal opposite”!

It also feels like Abrams drives forward with ideas, like the return of Palpatine as an antagonist, which because they were not seeded in Episode VIII seem to emerge from nowhere.

I also couldn’t escape the sense that Abrams had used up a lot of his ideas for action sequences in Force Awakens. So in the Rise of Skywalker, he resorts to making things bigger in a way that doesn’t turn out better. The combination of this drive for scale and the rushed editing, mean that a lot of the battles sequences become an uninteresting blur.

Let the past die – Kill it if you have to

Thus the very thing that probably most recommend Abrams to Lucasfilm, having successfully directed the Force Awakens, was actually the thing that made him the wrong director for the Rise of Skywalker. He did not have enough fresh ideas to contribute. Plus, his preconceived ideas about the saga’s direction clashed with the direction it actually took. This makes for a film that whilst not bad is jarring and uninspiring. It also points to a real danger for Lucasfilm or anyone else handling a long-running franchise. If you don’t take risks and tweak your formula, audiences will tire of seeing the same film repeated. For a franchise, too much caution is path which leads, sooner or later, to certain death.

Scorsese v Marvel (or why fans make the best critics)

Image credit available here

*This post contains a spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War*

During an interview with Empire, legendary director Martin Scorsese was asked (for some reason) what we thought about Marvel films and replied:

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Look, I’m not going to try and tell you Iron Man 3 is better than Taxi Driver, but it seems a bit much to claim Marvel films aren’t ‘cinema’. Genius that he is, I would submit there are a few flaws in Scorsese’s reasoning.

Definition

The funny thing about equating being cinematic with “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” is that it fails to identify any quality of film that distinguishes it from other mediums. Surely most good plays, books and TV series also “convey emotional, psychological experiences”?

By contrast, one thing that cinema perhaps does do uniquely well, is deliver exciting spectacles that make you feel like you’ve just been on a great theme park ride. That kind of spectacle is in many ways the purest cinema; it was often all very early films consisted of. And it tends to be the aspect of a film that is most diminished when it is watched on a TV rather than in the cinema. Scorsese himself has demonstrated that character drama is less inherently tied to the cinema by releasing his latest film on Netflix, a decision which would be unthinkable for the next instalment in the MCU.

Boundaries

However, even if one accepts this definition of cinema, does it follow that Marvel films fall outside it?

There are films, including very good films, that are essentially a succession of adrenaline shots. The Raid, for example, doesn’t give much weight to the ‘emotional, psychological’ experiences of its characters. And for good reason, they are there to fight each other in magnificently choreographed martial arts sequences. Plumbing the depth of their psyches or watching them evolve as people would be beside the point.*

However, Marvel films aren’t really in this category. Character is a key part of the exercise. It’s not a coincidence that superhero films are almost invariably named after their protagonists. They tend to jettison the plots (and often the look and tone) of their comic book source material. They will, however, always retain the characters.

It simply isn’t true to say that these films aren’t trying to ‘convey the emotional, psychological experiences’ of these characters. For example, the opening act of Avengers: Endgame is essentially all about making the audience feel our heroes’ anguish at having failed to prevent half the universe’s population being killed. More of it is devoted to a support group meeting, than to action.

Not that we should mistake the presence of action for the absence of character. Good action sequences frequently express something about the characters in them. For example, the story of both the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy is about the formation of a team. Hence at the start of both films, the action sequences have the heroes opposed to each other or at least pursuing divergent objectives; around the midpoint they are working together but ineffectually so; and by the final battle, the audience sees them operating as more than the sum of their parts.

The point

I unpack these comments not because I think they are important in and of themselves. The MCU will continue not withstanding Scorsese’s disinterest and he has clearly earned his right to his cinematic preferences. It is disappointing that many outlets treated his off-the-cuff remarks about films he’s clearly not that interested in as important pronouncements, but they do need page views and this kind of thing gets people talking (as I’ve illustrated by writing a blog post about it).

However, they do illustrate something about the nature of criticism. That an undeniable genius can misread a sub-genre in a fairly basic way, illustrates that it is basically impossible to offer a meaningful critique of something unless you are interested and engaged with it. As interest and engagement tend to go along with enthusiasm, it’s almost invariably going to be the case that fans make the best critics. Ask a metal-head to assess an opera and it’s likely all you will learn is that it’s not a piece of metal music. Ask an opera lover who appreciates what an opera can be and you’ll get a real sense of if the work before you measures up. So, ironically if you want to know what’s wrong with superhero films, then you really need to ask someone who loves superhero films.

*Though it’s worth noting that even in a film like the Raid the filmmakers still need you to identify with the characters enough for you to emotionally invest in the action. Notice how before the fighting starts in this sequence (NSFW), there are multiple close-ups of the heroes face, giving you the opportunity to appreciate the extent of his fear.

My favourite films of 2018

Eligibility = Films with a UK release date in 2018

Honourable mentions

Spiderman: Into the Spider verse, Three Identical Strangers, Crazy Rich Asians, Black Klansman, Shape of Water, Thoroughbreds, Unsane.

Notable Absence

Solo – I love Star Wars. For two of the past three years, Star Wars films would have topped this list. Yet whilst I thought Solo was fine. The acting was notably good. However, it didn’t excite me or make the mythology feel notably richer.

Biggest disappointment

Avengers: Infinity War – Never has so much movie, felt like so little. Thanos was a (surprisingly) excellent villain but the heroes were fighting for screentime with the result that no one got enough. Plus, the big shocking ending felt like it had no stakes whatsoever as it will clearly be reversed in Endgame.

5. Widows

When we praise a film for its moral complexity, we often say it recognises ‘grey areas’. Widows certainly does that. However, it also inhabits an even deeper level of ambiguity. Many of its characters are doing bad things for good reasons.

Also, adeptly treads the line between arthouse and genre filmmaking.

4. Black Panther

A devastating riposte to anyone who thought either the superhero genre or the MCU had nothing left to offer. Takes the reliably entertaining Marvel formula and supplements it with bold new elements like Afro-futurism and thematic depth. It is the first film in the MCU you can have a meaningful debate about the meaning of.

Drifts a little towards the generic in its final act but prior to that it barely puts a foot wrong.

3. Mission Impossible: Fallout

The citizens of Ancient Rome simultaneously entertained themselves and sated their bloodlust by watching Gladiators fight to the death with wild animals and each other. In our more enlightened times, we replicate that experience by having Tom Cruise thrown off buildings, out of planes and into fires for our amusement.

Don’t allow the fact that this is pure popcorn cinema to blind you to its brilliance. It may not have deep character development, a story that makes sense nor any subtext. But Casablanca doesn’t have an epical final action sequence involving nuclear bombs, helicopters, martial arts, ropes, wires and the Himalayas. It is the perfect version of what it is. That takes incredible craftsmanship from very talented filmmakers. Don’t underestimate that.

2. Ladybird

I don’t really know why I adored this film so much but I can tell you that by the end I wanted to give every character a hug.

1. A Quiet Place

I fear this film may not have the cult afterlife it deserves. It is not really a film for DVD, let along a phone or tablet. It demands a proper cinema, where you have no ability to pause it and there’s strong social pressure to stay as silent as the tormented protagonists.

Not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition, but for everyone else it’s an extraordinary demonstration of how a simple premise can be developed into an extraordinary work of art.

The 5 best podcast episodes of 2018

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Created by Freepik

Podcasting is growing into a powerful medium. These episodes are as profound and compelling as any articles I read this year.

Some caveats in decreasing level of obviousness:

  1. I have not heard every podcast episode that came out this year.
  2. This is my selection and therefore inherently subjective.
  3. For both of the above reasons, podcasts about current affairs will probably be overrepresented whilst comedy, fiction, sport and many other genres are probably shortchanged.
  4. I am a politically restricted public servant these days, so have not chosen any episodes, which rules out me recommending any partisan podcasts
  5. I am judging individual episodes rather than a show as a whole. So there are many podcasts I love that have been great this year but didn’t have (what seemed to me like) stand out episodes, like By the Book, the Weeds, Talking Politics, Dear Prudence, Slate Money, Longform, Analysis, Beyond Today, Sinica and Susan Calman’s Mrs Brightside.
  6. I’m not ranking these episodes relative to each other. They are listed in order of their publication date.

Five Women (This American Life) 2nd March

This episode juxtaposes the stories of multiple women who worked for (and were sexually harassed) by the same man. It attempts to seriously answer questions that are usually used to dismiss accusations, such as ‘why didn’t they say something’ or ‘if it was that bad, why did they working for him?’

I first heard about Five Women on an episode of Longform that explores the inspiration for and craft behind this episode.

Star Wars: the Music (the Soundtrack Show) 9th May

A bit of a cheat because I am treating a three part series as one episode, but my goodness it’s brilliant. The original trilogy arguably has the most iconic score in film history and presenter/author David W. Collins has done audio work on numerous Star Wars projects ranging from computer games to the Last Jedi. That makes him an ideal person to pay tribute to John Williams’s genius as a composer. More surprisingly, he also rehabilitates George Lucas. I cannot think of another example of a fandom treating the creator of their beloved property with the kind of contempt that Star Wars fans display towards Lucas. He is (rightly) blamed for the terrible prequels. And even his initial success seems to have been achieved in spite of himself. However, through the prism of the music, Collins is able to show that without Lucas’ peculiar combination of nostalgia and forward thinking, Star Wars (and consequently much of contemporary cinema) is unimaginable.

INVCEL (Reply All) 10th May

How did a community born of kindness and solidarity morph into one defined by bitterness and ultimately violence?

Robert B. Talisse on Overdoing Democracy (Philosophy Bites) 23rd July

A warmly stated but sharply argued case for a counter-intuitive idea: As the stakes of political conflicts rise, they need to be kept more firmly in their place.

The Science of Being Transgender (Science Vs) 18th December

The Science Vs keeps its head when all about it are losing theirs on this topic. Somehow manages to be both fair and clear, wide ranging but to the point, and to take its subject matter seriously while retaining a light touch. A good demonstration of how being objective and reaching a conclusion are not mutually exclusive.

Liberals may not want to defend Tim Farron. We still should.

TimFarronPortrait

Religion is not an excuse for discrimination. But that should not blind us to the fact that evangelical Christians are now a minority in the UK, whose rights liberals may need to fight for.

Part 1: What liberalism is NOT

To the surprise of essentially no one, Tim Farron has confirmed that he does in fact believe that gay sex is sinful. Equally unsurprisingly, this has led some to question his liberalism and whether he belongs in a party that espouses liberalism.

Writing in Prospect, the philosopher Julian Baggini explains the misapprehension this view embodies:

Suspicion of Farron’s equal rights credentials reflects a wider misunderstanding of the very nature of politics and its relationship to morality. Secular, pluralist democracy rests on the assumption that members of society have different, often very divergent conceptions of morality and the good life. It negotiates these differences by distinguishing between public and private space, allowing individuals to live according to their own consciences as far as that is compatible with allowing others to live according to theirs.

To be a liberal in such a polis is to be firmly committed to this principle of individual liberty of conscience. It doesn’t require actually having a liberal personal morality. A political liberal can be a moral conservative. What matters is not whether Farron believes that gays will burn in hell for their sins but whether he believes they have the legal right to secure their own damnation before rule passes from the human to the divine.

Part 2: the wages of Tim

Now, one can give Farron too much credit when it comes to separating politics and personal morality. As I blogged about back in 2015:

there does seem to be a pattern whereby Tim is lobbied to do something by Christian groups, does it and then on reflection realises he shouldn’t have.

And one of those instances does seem to be what initially provoked journalists to begin asking questions about what Farron thought about homosexuality. However, these infractions are generally minor. For example, instead of voting for equal marriage three times, he did so twice and abstained once. For that reason, I still feel comfortable endorsing the position taken by Jennie Rigg, acting chair of LGBT+ Lib Dems, that the two things that matter in this regard are:

1. How Tim Farron votes in parliament

2. How he treats people – LGBT+ people in particular – in everyday life

And that on both these matters he has a defensible record.

Indeed, it is striking how removed the discussion about Farron and his views have become from these concrete concerns. It may have begun with a discussion about how he voted on equal marriage, but it has ended with us parsing a purely psychological phenomenon, and seldom bothering to consider why Tim Farron’s views matter beyond the confines of his skull.

It would be different if he had used his public position to preach to his fellow citizens about what they should do in their private lives. But that was emphatically not he was doing. Indeed, he spent his entire tenure trying to avoid telling us his views on the matter – and on occasion claiming even to hold a wholy different view. Even now, his coming out and saying he thinks gay sex is sinful, seems to be less an attempt to convince others of his viewpoint, than to set right a moment of dishonesty on his part. Throughout, he seems content that his private views to remained private. It is his critics, who made them a matter of political salience.

Part 3: the wider issue

Now I am wary of taking this argument, where I am about to. I appreciate that many in the LGBT+ community would take umbrage at a straight Christian – even an LGBT affirming one – making a case that conservative Christians deserve to be seen as oppressed rather than oppressors anywhere close to the issue of gay rights. I completely acknowledge there are valid reasons for that, including but not limited to the fact:

  • In many parts of the world churches continue to perpetuate extreme legal and societal repression of people on account of their sexuality
  • That has historically been the case in the UK too
  • Nor has such behaviour in the UK entirely disappeared. Evangelical churches continue to be a major barrier to equal marriage in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, too many churches – even in the UK – continue to make life miserable for any young person unfortunate enough to grow up gay in their orbit.
  • When Christians make claims about their rights not being respected, they often do so in an overwrought, intellectually lazy manner that fails to show empathy for others. It often involves exageration, hyperbole, equating the inability to discriminate against others with being discriminated against oneself, making unwarranted connections between the challenges faced by Christians in the UK and indisputable instances of oppression in places like Saudi and North Korea, or making resentful comparisons with the supposed preferential treatment given to Muslims that manage to imply either that the predicament some Christians face is the fault of Muslims or that Muslims do not deserve to have their human rights protected.
  • Being fined for not baking a cake or being asked unpleasant questions by politics reporters are problems of a wholly different magnitude to being imprisoned or prevented from being married.

That said, a real problem remains. We cannot ignore the extent to which secularisation has changed Christianity’s position within the UK. Those professing a Christian faith in an active manner are clearly no longer just a minority but a small minority. For some Christians – myself included – this does not pose an especially acute challenge. We are what Tim Farron would describe as – perhaps ‘dismiss as’ – ‘cultural Christians’. We see secular humanism not as a threat to our faith but an outgrowth of it. For us, its concern with equality and human flourishing, accord with the all human beings being made by God and loved by him. However, for others, no such harmony exists. As they see it, God has decreed there to be a certain order to things, and now humans are messing with it. That sets them against the values of the majority, and history suggests that in such a situation the temptation for the majority to act intolerantly will be strong.

As I have already mentioned, it is quite possible to overstate this danger. If you had to be out of step with the values of any society, you’d choose a liberal and humanist one because part of its essence is that it affords strong protections to minorities. Hence the authorities will not shutter churches, believers will hardly ever face prison, and the mobs they confront will be allegorical. That said it is also to understate the problem. Besides, what happened to Farron, there is also the case of the evangelical bakers fined by Norther Ireland’s equality commission for refusing to produce a cake with a pro-LGBT slogan on it and at least one case of the courts having to step in after someone was unlawfully dismissed from their job for posting to their private Facebook page that equal marriage was ‘an equality too far‘. I have on multiple occasions heard generally liberal-minded people using anti-Christian language like ‘God botherer’ or ‘Bible basher’. It is also worth considering the possibility that the changing demographics of the church-going population are liable to increase the possibility of anti-Christian discrimination. Black majority churches are growing whilst white ones contract. That creates the ugly possibility for racial and religious prejudice to align and feed off each other. In this context, the mixture of bemusement, derision and revulsion that characterise the reaction to Farron’s views on homosexuality, should seem like a warning sign of a minority in a vulnerable position, which should also be a call to action for liberals. That might feel uncomfortable because his opinion might seem abhorent, but that’s kind of the point. It is not the people who hold pleasing, widely shared views, whose right to hold them requires defending.

Conclusion

It is perhaps instructive to consider what would happen if the law allowed politicians to bring cases for unlawful discrimination against the electorate and the wider polity. [For clarity: I am not advocating that – this is just a thought experiment!] It seems pretty clear to me that if Farron were to pursue such an action, he’d likely win. The courts have previously recognised that for some Christians, opposition to homosexuality may be a manifestation of their religious beliefs. Given that, placing someone in a situation where they must affirm support for same-sex relationships or lose out on the chance for advancement at work (in this case leading a larger parliamentary party) would potentially amount to indirect discrimination, which is prohibited by the equalities act. It is possible to ‘justify’ indirect discrimination, if one can show a good enough reason why it’s needed. But could we as a body of voters? If it were necessary to defend the rights of LGBT+ people, then absolutely it would be. However, given Farron’s voting record it seems that argument would falter for lack of evidence.

Which brings me to what is the nub of the issue for me. Is stigmatising a man who voted for equal marriage, campaigned against section 28, tabled a bill to end the ban on gay men donating blood and pushed for the UK to take stronger stances on LGBT+ issues globally for thoughts he is reluctant to express, an effective way of promoting LGBT+ rights? Or is it punishing him for belonging to an outgroup that thinks differently from the majority of us?

When going home means leaving a home behind (Cable from Korea #15)

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And so, the end is here. This will be the last ‘Cable from Korea’. Tomorrow I leave this country for the UK. Friday was my last day at work. I intend to live elsewhere for the foreseeable future.

I am sure that this is the right decision but that doesn’t make it an easy one. The very thing I feel the need to move beyond – the rather cloistered existence of an Anglophone expat in Korea – could easily be seen as a blessing I am mad to forsake. What’s so bad about a well-paid job, that takes care of my housing, gives me lots of holidays, plenty of free time, (usually) low stress days at work, an inbuilt community of fellow expats, and many of the world’s best sites a short-haul flight away?

More than that, however, Korea now has a special place in my heart. That’s partly due to the people I’ve met here – both locals and expats – of which more later. But beyond that, this country is a remarkable one. I obviously admire it at a macro level. It shook off colonialism, civil war, invasion and military rule to become a prosperous, culturally-dynamic democracy. But that’s not what has really kindled my affection for it. No, that’s things like being able to hike to temples in the mountains. Or visit its myriad cafes. And leave my laptop and wallet on the table in one of them for hours, knowing that Koreans are so law abiding, I can rely on it being there when I return. Oh and the plentiful public transport that’s basically never late. Or how about the numerous idiosyncratic festivals? And of course, the food. I’ve been spoilt by it. I’m no so accustomed to being able to have delicious barbeque, bulgogi, bibimbap, bingsu, mandu, ramen, jap chae bap, tempura or soup pretty much whenever I want, that I’m not sure how I’ll cope without them. In short, while Britain may be my home, Korea (and for that matter Vietnam) also feel like home. And being away from them feels like a wrench.

So, may I take this opportunity to ask you to pray or keep in your thoughts – whichever seems more right to you – a place that has become very dear to me. As you will be aware if you have seen any news lately, the peace and stability that South Koreans have worked so hard to build, is threatened by reckless manoeuvring in both Washington and Pyeongyang. More mundanely, now it has achieved its aspiration to be a wealthy exemplar of modernity and civility, it must decide what it aspires to be next. Oh and in the near future they have a show to put on: the Winter Olympics are coming to town. Please wish the Koreans well in all these endeavours.

As I already mentioned, the larger part of what makes any place special are individuals. And I would like to take the opportunity to publicly thank some people I met during my time in Korea. Under no circumstance, could I possibly thank everyone, I owe debts to. And I am writing this quickly, whilst in quite an emotional state, so am liable to have missed some people who really deserve a mention. Nonetheless, I thought it better to mention some people and risk missing others, than to not thank anyone. If your name should be here and is not, please rest assured I know what you did for me and that it is but a momentary lapse. With that said may I thank the following people:

  • My colleagues at Jeungsan elementary school, and Beomeo and Bogwang Middle Schools, as well as my co-teachers for the Interview English program. Thank you for the patience and tolerance you showed someone who doesn’t understand your language or how things are done in your country.
  • The students who took risks to improve their English. Especially those in my Interview English classes. Every time you did, you made teaching English seem worthwhile again.
  • The congregation at AIM, especially the Basic U fellowship group, and even more especially Kimberlie, Storm, Leanri, Chris and Dianna. I often had a rather semi-detached relationship with the church. But even as I put myself half-in and half-out, you made me feel 100% welcome.
  • Everyone at Socrates Café. Not only was debating and discussing philosophy with you, fun and informative, it was also just the mental workout I often needed after a week of (frequently) dry drilling simple phrases into students for hours on end. Stay reflective guys!
  • Wendy for providing a comfortable and welcoming space for foreigners like me. The paninis, shakes and dandelion tea were definitely a bonus too!
  • Aakansha, we didn’t get to spend anything like as much time together as I’d hoped, but I will forever be grateful for the time we did have. Stay yourself always.
  • Jenna Kang at KLIFF. Thank you for not only helping me with my Korean – which was definitely useful – but also convincing me that I could make progress with a language – even one as difficult as Korean – and that my putting effort into learning languages is not in vain.
  • Every non-Korean speaker in Korea must on a semi-regular basis turn to someone who does know the language for help. In my case that usually meant Hannah or Justyna. Thank you both for responding to my requests with such patience and being so generous with your time.
  • Everyone who went to Thursday Evening Bible Study. Your fellowship was invaluable, your very different perspectives were educational, and your friendship remains priceless.
  • Most of all, to my family during a time I was thousands of miles from my actual family: all my friends in and around Yangsan. Lauren, Ksenia, Tricia, Chris, Justyna, Bella, Jennifer, and, above everyone else on this list, the big sister I never had, Aaren. I miss you all already and can’t wait for the day I will see you again. I long for it be soon.

It was without a shadow of a doubt, worth moving half way round the world to meet you guys!