Autumn 2016

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The Autumn Balloon readied for flight with an intriguing passenger list: demagogues, hygge and extremism. As usual, a large audience of De Beauvoir friends and neighbours, along with very welcome guests from further afield, were stimulated by the idea pot pourri, and some surprising parallel themes emerged from the debates.

Against the backdrop of the US election, Richard Mollet argued the case for demagogues. They are a necessary evil, he claimed. In a polished and persuasive talk, Richard showed that demagogues like Donald Trump allow liberal democracies to test their own boundaries, thus deepening and strengthening their own values of freedom and toleration. Far worse, he said, to clamp down on obnoxious ideas in a climate of ‘safe spaces’. Richard faced some anxious questioning about the current rise of populism and Germany’s past experience of demagoguery. Lines should be drawn, he concluded, where demagogues cause harm, and adjudicated in the justice system. But overall they play a crucial role in maintaining the very freedoms we cherish.

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Humanity’s yearning for a sense of wellbeing was next on the agenda, as Signe Johansen took to the stage to extol the virtues of ‘hygge’. The Norwegian author and chef claimed that hygge (a Scandinavian concept that translates roughly as ‘cosiness’) is about far more than candles and cushions. Instead, hygge is an overall connectedness that comes from the wholesome Nordic lifestyle; an outlook that values companionship over consumerism, with healthy doses of the great outdoors. Skeptical audience members questioned whether the cynical Brits could ever ‘feel the hygge’, while one man asked how hygge will fare in an era of mass migration to the west. But Signe was adamant that, with a moderate lifestyle and inner gratitude for the simple pleasures of life, everyone can appreciate hygge.

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The last speaker of the evening was Sean O’Callaghan, a former member of the IRA. Now an author on extremist ideology, Sean argued that understanding the totalitarian mindset is crucial in the fight against extremism. When listening to Islamist prisoners, he said, “I could close my eyes and hear myself 50 years ago.”

Sean argued eloquently that today’s totalitarians are motivated by exactly the same forces that have energised extremists throughout history, namely a desire to establish utopia on earth and a love of death and violence.

We each of us contain the seeds of totalitarianism, Sean told a transfixed audience, as well as the seeds of beauty. Individual human spirits are “the building blocks” of society, capable both of profound love and kindness and thoughts of violence and barbarity. It follows, he said, that each of us has a responsibility to fight the war within, and resist the totalitarian impulse that seeks to impose ‘perfection’ on others.

Sean’s moving words provoked much reflection and questioning. The vote, when it came at the end, went overwhelmingly in his favour. It seemed the audience was ready to consider that Islamic State atrocity is simply the latest example of humanity’s propensity to fall for bad ideas. But it wasn’t all hopeless. This latest wave of wrong-headed utopians, will said Sean, eventually be told “Ah, just piss off.”

The Balloon returns on December 7th.

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