John Walsh: Tales of the City

'The whiff of Sixties hippiedom and Nelson Mandela saintliness are, I'm sure, unconscious'
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The Independent Online

John Brockman, the straw-hatted literary agent who looks after the fortunes of the world's major science writers, has had a smart idea. He's contacted 100-odd scientists, psychologists, evolutionary biologists and laboratory-based thinkers and asked them, "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?" The results, published next month, are provocative, if not exactly scary. It seems the most alarming idea is the possibility that the laws of physics may turn out to be local phenomena - that they hold true only in certain circumstances (like, say, living on Earth, specifically in south London) but might be completely different in a potentially infinite number of different universes - and that the world is (dammit) fundamentally inexplicable to the human brain. This is called "the anthropic principle" and you'll hear it being aired at a pretentious London dinner party, any day now, by the kind of person who used to bang on about Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle.

Elsewhere in Brockman's collection of "unthinkables", a chap from Princeton wonders if we've simply misunderstood the concept of time (for which there's no generally agreed interpretation in quantum physics) and if our notions of past, present and future, even our sense of individual personal history, might be just a lot of fairy stories.

A professor from Temple University suggests that the Self doesn't actually exist as a persistent entity, but is only an ever-changing assembly of beliefs, perceptions and attitudes - an idea that, he admits, goes back to David Hume - and that if we all woke up one day and realised this, it would screw up society in a spectacular fashion. Imagine the effect it would have on reality TV and other ego-dependent circuses.

A psychologist called Susan Blackmore advances the idea that "Everything is Pointless" - that all the gorgeous complexity of the world was built by a purposeless process, namely evolution by natural selection, and that creativity isn't the expression of human imagination but the working of umpteen "units of cultural information" called memes. (How depressing to realise that this column has been written for years by a lot of flipping memes, all fighting for the upper hand.)

My favourite Dangerous Idea, however, comes from Simon Baron-Cohen, a Cambridge psychopathologist, who suggests we try a political system based on empathy. He points out that parliaments and congresses across the world base their systems on combat, from waging war to the dirty-tricks campaigns currently enfuming the US airwaves. Isn't it time, he asks, that we tried the principle of empathising? It would mean "keeping in mind the thoughts and feelings of other people" rather than riding roughshod over them. It would mean acquiring completely different politicians and election strategies. Instead of choosing party leaders and prime ministers because of their kick-ass, "effective" leadership traits, we'd choose them for their readiness to understand other people's feelings, to ask genuinely interested questions and respond "flexibly" to different points of view.

The whiff of Sixties hippiedom and Nelson Mandela saintliness are, I'm sure, unconscious. Mr Baron-Cohen is a serious psychologist and his theory deserves sober reflection by political scientists, provided they can stop corpsing at the image of Prime Minister's Questions as a murmurous chamber of thoughtful, non-adversarial debaters, muttering, "How interesting - I never thought of it that way before," as their leader, no longer forced to behave like a stag at bay, tells the leader of the Opposition, "I wouldn't dream of arguing over this point because I know you're very sensitive to contradiction..." If media journalists joined in, Newsnight would become a Shavian dialogue with no conclusions, and Radio 4's Today a warm and fuzzy group hug in which John Humphrys and John Reid strove to find their common humanity in the maelstrom of ideas. I don't know about dangerous, but Mr Baron-Cohen's idea is certainly radical. If only I could stop thinking it's all a spoof masterminded by Simon's cousin Sacha...

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Long queues are forming outside the Novy Manezh Centre in Moscow, where an exhibition entitled Gifts to Soviet Leaders is causing a few jaws to drop. The 500 presents sent to the Kremlin from the arrival of Lenin to the last days of Gorbachev range from scale models of nuclear missiles to a bas-relief sculpture of Brezhnev made of sugar (just in case you're not sweet enough already, Leonid), a carpet showing sputniks and satellites circling around the head of Nikita Krushchev and a hammer-and-sickle telephone (you had to be careful which bit of it you applied to your ear).

Who sent these tokens of affection? Some apparently, came from star-struck kulaks who sent their leaders shoes, rugs and bits of Trans-Siberian railway. It's rather sweet to find that a Ukrainian farmer sent Stalin a bottle of cheap Yuzhny cologne for his 70th birthday, offering him (in wretched spelling) many happy returns; or to find that an Indian peasant, unable to afford a set of decanters or a cashmere scarf, sent Lenin a single lentil with his face carved on it.

Stalin comes out of the exhibition badly, for two reasons: one, he never had the manners to write a thank-you letter, and two, he never understood the spirit of gratitude - a 1930s film shows him at a party congress receiving a rifle, which he immediately pointed at the audience (cheers, Joe). By some way the weirdest gift is a head-dress that was sent to Stalin in 1942 by north American Indians. Why? Because, as part of the US-Russian alliance against Germany during the war, the Man of Steel became honorary Big Chief of 27 tribes. Shame he never visited them. He might have enjoyed the pipe of peace, a concept strangely alien to him.

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