Last week Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health, tweeted that the number of doctors has increased by 7800 over the last year. However, the true number, when medical students are removed from the figures is 5862. That also doesn’t take into account that this year there are about 600 fewer GPs than there were last year. Last week Donald Trump claimed that Biden is “going to raise your taxes” when only those earning over $400 000 a year would pay more in tax. I could give more examples. Many many many more. An ability to spot and discredit fake news is becoming more and more important. Reason, logic and mathematical ability are essential tools to understanding what’s real and what is not.
In The Guardian on 27th October, Carlo Rovelli wrote an article titled “Statistical illiteracy isn’t a niche problem. During a pandemic, it can be fatal“. One of the things that he says is that during the course of this pandemic, statisticians have been criticised for giving “dodgy predictions” about the severity of COVID-19. Giving a range of possible percentages rather than a precise figure betrays an ignorance of probability. Just because we are given a range of numbers (e.g. the R number is between 1.1 and 1.4) doesn’t mean that we don’t know anything. Understanding statistics is “the powerful tool that guides us when we do not have complete knowledge, which is to say: virtually always.”
In May 1959, C.P. Snow gave a lecture in Cambridge, called “The Two Cultures”. In this, he proposed that the intellectual life of Western society has been split into two cultures – the humanities and the scientific. He explained that asking someone what the second law of thermodynamics was is equivalent to asking if someone had read Shakespeare. Or asking someone to say what acceleration was is equivalent to asking someone if they can read. On a personal level, I can say that when I told someone that I was a Maths teacher, a lot of people would proudly boast that they were never very good at Maths. I never heard anyone boast that they couldn’t read. Boris Johnson is always quoting Latin and Shakespeare but he has no potential for using logic and evidence to support his decision making which seems entirely predicated on narcissism. An aloof reluctance to use statistics is prevalent in some areas of society. There is a widespread preference to use bias and prejudice rather than seek to discover reality using hard evidence.
“Gates Of Eden” is the second track on Side Two of “Bringing It All Back Home” and the song digs deep into the notion of contrasts between truth and fantasy. The harsh reality of life is compared with the imagined serenity of Eden. Lampposts, that are attached to kerbs where babies are crying, will all ultimately crash down noisily but, thankfully, “there are no sounds inside the Gates Of Eden”. The truth doesn’t matter in Utopia. “The princess and the prince discuss what’s real and what is not. It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden“
Bob Dylan became well known in the early Sixties as a “protest” singer but when he stopped singing about Medgar Evers, Hattie Carroll and The Masters Of War, some people incorrectly assumed he had stopped protesting. In my opinion, he has always been a protest singer. In this album and the two that followed it, he was protesting against hypocrisy, falsehoods, lies and greed. In “Gates Of Eden”, by contrasting “what is real and what is not”, by seeking truth over irrational hypocrisy, he is seeking to open what Wiliam Blake called “the doors of perception”. In Michael Gray’s book “Song And Dance Man”, he quotes more of Blake when he writes that “‘Gates Of Eden’ is an attempt to focus attention on that ‘continuous consciousness of infinity’; an attempt to point through the ‘doors of perception’; and Dylan’s vision takes in our world, a world which largely fails to see ‘the Eternal which is always present to the wise'”.
The contrast in the song between friends and strangers, the glimpse and the ditch and other opposites is redolent of the problems with society when truth is overlooked in favour of prejudice. Let’s all believe in Boris Johnson’s Utopia of a normal Christmas, a world class track and trace system; let’s believe that Trump has cured coronavirus, that he’s a great businessman. Let’s all believe in paradise behind the Gates Of Eden because reality is too gruesome to face.
“Subterranean Homesick Blues” is the opening song on the album and takes the form of a dramatic monologue. There is a significant difference between a dramatic monologue and a soliloquy. The former presents a point of view whereas the latter starts in ignorance and hopes to find truth by the end. Robert Browning was a master of the dramatic monologue and in “Up At The Villa – Down At The City” he described the return of the Italian nobility to Florence from the seclusion of their villas after the restoration of the Grand Duke, Leopold II, in 1849, under Austrian military protection. These nobles, who have hitherto been shut up in their country villas to avoid anarchy, come back to face the invasion. Once again, there is a contrast between what’s real and what is not. They have been hiding from the truth and now have to face reality. Here is an extract.
“Look, two and two go the priests, then the monks with cowls and sandals,
And the penitents dressed in white shirts, a-holding the yellow candles;
One, he carries a flag up straight, and another a cross with handles,
And the Duke’s guard brings up the rear, for the better prevention of scandals.“
It’s also instructive to look at the rhyming words at the end of each line and compare them to these words from “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.
“Look out kid, they keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole, light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals, try to avoid the scandals
Don’t want to be a bum, you better chew gum
The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles“
This is a protest song – highlighting the contrast between truth and reality, between what you are told and what is really true. You’ll be all right if you word hard but “Twenty years of schooling and they put you on the day shift”. You don’t need someone else to tell you what to believe (“you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”)
Aldous Huxley believed that drugs such as LSD and mescalin could open the doors of perception and that our experience of reality is limited unless our minds are expanded. George Eliot wrote that if we could perceive everything, we would hear the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat. In the late Sixties, Roy Wood wrote “I Can Hear The Grass Grow” and Graeme Edge wrote “The Word” which included the lines
“Between the eyes and ears there lay,
The sounds of colour and the light of a sigh.
And to hear the sun, what a thing to believe.
But it’s all around if we could but perceive.”
In “Mr. Tambourine Man”, Bob Dylan is ready to have his senses stripped, he’s ready to go anywhere and enhance his perception of life. He is tired of being fed lies about reality and wants to see what’s really real.
“Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship
My senses have been stripped, my hands can’t feel to grip
My toes too numb to step, wait only for my boot heels
To be wandering
I’m ready to go anywhere, I’m ready for to fade
Into my own parade, cast your dancin’ spell my way
I promise to go under it“
“Maggie’s Farm” was performed with a dynamite electric band at The Newport Folk Festival in 1965 and in it, Bob Dylan sings a monologue in which he categorically states that he is not going to continue with a life of lies, he is not going to delude himself that a life of chores, compliance and convention is the only path he can follow. “Well, I try my best to be just like I am but everybody wants you to be just like them.“
In 1974, when Bob Dylan and The Band toured the USA around the time that Richard Nixon was being exposed as a narcissistic liar, every audience erupted onto its feet at the line from “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” which goes “even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked” In “Bob Dylan: Performing Artist”, Paul Williams wrote about this song: “It addresses the possibility that the most important political issue of our times is that we are all being fed a false picture of reality, and it’s coming at us from every direction. The song successfully paints a portrait of an alienated individual identifying the characteristics of the world around him and thus declaring his freedom from its ‘rules’.”
“Old lady judges watch people in pairs
Limited in sex, they dare
To push fake morals, insult and stare
While money doesn’t talk, it swears
Obscenity, who really cares
Propaganda, all is phony“
In other words, this is another protest song which exhorts us all to seek out and experience reality in order to scrutinise and expose fake news.
The US Election is on November 3rd.