Christina Patterson: What a Harvard academic can teach us about people power


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The Independent Online

So, after the revolution, a chink of hope.

After the bombs, and the grenades, and the marches, and the pleas for help, and the promises of reforms that everyone knew wouldn't come, and the military equipment from other countries that finally helped the push to victory, a tiny chink of something you might call hope.

Yes, 62 years after the revolution that threw out a tired, corrupt regime, and replaced it with something that everyone hoped would be better, there definitely seems to be something that you could, if it wasn't in China, call a chink of something you might call hope and even the glimmerings of justice. It is, in fact, called Justice. It's a series of lectures by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, and it's available on NetEase, one of China's most popular internet portals, and has been viewed by three million people.

You could say that the country that leads the world in manufacturing, and will, in a few years, overtake America as the world's richest and most powerful nation, and looks set to be the big imperial power of the 21st century, doesn't need much in the way of chinks, or glimmers, or rays, or beams, of hope. You could say that it's doing very nicely, thank you very much, and that it's exporting more goods than anyone else, and that its economy is still growing when everyone else's seems to be on the verge of collapse.

You could say that its mix of communism with a wild capitalism that allows Blade Runner skylines to spring up where once there were paddy fields has served it very well, and also made sure that many of its 1.3 billion people who were very, very poor, now aren't. You might even say that it doesn't need any lectures from anyone else.

But you could also say that three million is a lot of people to be watching lectures given by a balding academic in a baggy grey suit. And particularly when the lectures aren't on marketing, or promotion, or business, or sales. Particularly, in fact, when the lectures are on things like responsibility, and democracy, and the limits of markets.

You could say that it's very interesting that, in a country that hasn't wanted to talk about history, and still doesn't want its citizens to know about a lot of things that are happening in the world, and blocks their internet access so they can't, three million people want to hear lectures on "the issue of individual rights and the freedom to choose", or on "what happens if our obligation to a family or community conflicts with our obligation to humanity", or on whether people should be compensated by governments for "historical injustice". You could say that it's very interesting that people who have grown up in a country where their government doesn't really want them to think seem to be very, very keen to think.

Sandel's lectures, like his Reith lectures here two years ago, on "Markets and Morals" and "Morality in Politics", don't give answers. They ask questions. Like how, for example, if we all have rights to life, liberty, and property, a government can enforce tax laws passed by a mere majority, and whether torture is ever justified, and how we should deal with the fact that people hold different ideas of what is good.

Three million people out of 1.3 billion people may not be all that much, but three million people is still a lot of people. Three million is a lot more than the number of people who have, in the past six months, learnt how to fire guns, and throw grenades, and bombs, in Libya. We don't know what these people think about tax laws, and rights to life, liberty and property, though we do know that quite a lot of them seem to think that if you find something after fighting, then it's yours. We don't know what they think about people holding different ideas of what is good. We know that they want to get rid of a dictator, and that they like the idea of democracy, but we don't know if they know what kind of democracy they want, or how to get it.

It would be nice if these people, who, like the three million Chinese, haven't been used to having political debates, because in dictatorships you don't get to have many political debates, could watch those lectures, and learn that the best chance for people to live together, with some freedom, and some responsibility, is if you think, and keep thinking, about all the things you need to balance, and keep asking other people what they think, and make your decisions, when you have to make them, by weighing those things up.

It would be nice if those of us who do live in democracies, but can't be bothered to think about the issues, because they're too difficult, and we much prefer things that are easy to things that are difficult, could watch them, too. If we did, perhaps we'd realise that very little in life, not even riots or "criminality", is "pure and simple". And that although the state of an economy is very important, it's not the only thing that's important. That there are other things that are important, like the choices we all make.

We might realise that there are things we can do, in our lives, and through our votes, that will make things better for other people, and things that won't. And that this is what Sandel calls "moral philosophy", and that "moral philosophy" matters. If a few thousand men can topple a dictator, then perhaps a few million people who think, and go on thinking, can change a world.

Once admired, now reviled

Every day more details emerge. The fruit flown in from Paris. The wallpaper at a grand a roll. The private jets, the flunkeys, the "pleasure domes". At the time, our leaders thought it was fine. But now no one seems to have a good word to say about poor, put-upon Fred Goodwin.

According to a new book, the former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland was quite fussy about the little things. He didn't, for example, like the wrong kind of biscuit, and threatened disciplinary action when it turned up. He didn't like regulations that said you couldn't smoke, and got an engineer to switch smoke alarms off. He wasn't, unfortunately, quite so fussy about the big things, which may be why the British taxpayer had to spend £37bn bailing his bank out.

Like another former friend of our government, Goodwin doesn't seem to have been all that nice. But he got not just big money, but a knighthood. This, perhaps, is what we call a "role model".

Living large in the Mediterranean

I'm a very big fan of the Mediterranean diet. All that pasta, and pizza, and paella. All that chianti, and rioja, and prosecco. And all that sitting around in pretty piazzas sipping cappuccino or café con leche. But I'm not absolutely sure that it's the answer to the "looming national health emergency" which means that by 2030 nearly three-quarters of us will be very, very fat.

In the Spanish mountain village where I've just spent a couple of weeks, almost every woman over 50 was gigantic. They all shuffled slowly around, in giant tent dresses bought in the market. After two weeks of the local food, I was tempted to buy one myself. But they did all look very happy. It's clearly a good way to go.