2020: Caught in the Gaslights

“Are you trying to tell me I’m insane?” asks Ingrid Bergman’s character Paula of her husband Gregory (Charles Boyer) in George Cukor’s 1944 film noir classic, Gaslight. To which he responds “Now, perhaps you will understand why I cannot let you meet people.”

An emotional manipulation which makes the target doubt their own memory, perception or judgment, gaslighting is a very real and serious form of domestic abuse – and as such has been exacerbated through the periods of lockdown, like all forms of abuse.

It has also become something of a media buzzword, so it is no surprise to see it being liberally appropriated (to avoid for once the martial imagery of ‘weaponized’) for political purpose on all our favourite fronts, from Brexit (for and against) to COVID and Trump (in liberal propaganda outlet Stylist(!), as well as The Independent, Forbes , Washington Post, to name but a few).


The SmallDataForum’s fifth Xmas special was, of course, a socially responsible, zoomy affair – with the three of us in our respective WFH HQs, rather than sat around a table in our favourite Italian restaurant, Ristorante Olivelli by the Old Vic in South London, feasting on fine Italian foods and beverages, and recording to the clattering chattering sound of a busy lunchtime service (and afterwards testing Neville’s thankfully advanced audio editing skills).

That didn’t prevent us from recreating a discussion-fomenting prandial atmosphere though, complete with pizza (homemade sourdough in my case – not pretty but made by mine own hands, he humblebrags) and our respective choices of red wine (where only Sam stuck with an Italian job in Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, whereas Neville and I went down the Rioja route). For dessert, we had Brexit, COVID and Trump, in roughly that order.

As tasty as it looks

Neville gets us started with a skip across the latest Brexit headlines: what really went on behind closed doors in Berlaymont, between Ursula and Boris? I will leave some of Neville’s musings uncommented here – listeners can have their own ‘honi soit qui mal y pense’ moment… Deal? No deal? All the public huffing and puffing – for Neville, it’s “hands in a poker game”. How Demonic Goings, that game-theoretical past master of Von Neumann inspired Dr Strangelove politics, would agree. Shame he overplayed his two sevens.

Sam expects a deal on the back of POTUS46’s Irish heritage: like pretty much everything else in this mad mad mad mad world, Biden will make it alright (has someone shown him the in tray on the Resolute desk yet?!). But if not, who – he wonders – will take on the role of arbitrator, of that staple of Government-union deals in 1970s Britain, ACAS.

I take my ‘inspiration’ from a brief dive into the cess pit that is Brexit Twitter. In particular this gem by Richard Tice, businessman, former MEP and chair of the Brexit Party:

Tice tweet

“Real jobs for decent people.” Quite. Everybody has their own defence mechanism. Mine is to believe that tweets such as this express a tongue-in-cheek take on postmodern irony, rather than jackbooted boneheaded jingoism. Perhaps naïve optimism is already a mild form of being gaslit.

Neville’s observation that a certain obsession with “little Johnny Foreigner” is nothing new in certain recesses of the English psyche does rankle with me: if only for the fact that at 6ft5, I do take exception with “little”.

And on to COVID we go, where themes of jingoistic culture war hooliganism continue seamlessly in mediated political discourse. My personal favourite is Health Secretary Matt Hancock wiping away big jockey’s tears on breakfast TV, so “proud to be British” over the approval, purchase and application of a German-Belgian-American vaccine (made by Germany born children of Turkish immigrants, to add some extra spice).

Hancock tears
Overwhelmed with Great British pride

For Neville, the first thing that comes to mind is Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s claim that “we’re a much better country than every single one of them”. Again – postmodern irony or…?

Sam is strongly reminded of that – most likely apocryphal – Chinese proverb “may you live in interesting times.” Boy, have we got experience now what that is actually like. In splendid understatement, Sam concludes that “it’s much less interesting than we thought.”

Meanwhile, in the Polarised States of America, the interesting post-election times continue: with largely spurious, frivolous legal cases and much speculation as to what their actual purpose might be. Whilst one side shouts “Sedition!”, and the other, “Secession!”, Neville consults Wikipedia to provide some clarification: sedition is in fact the stage before secession, since you have to incite people first before getting them to act. For example, by “withdrawing formally from membership of a federation or body, especially a political state.”

Funny how it all hangs together, or perhaps starts to fall apart. Soon, the US Postal Service may not have the legal sanction to incinerate mail bearing the jokey euro-pinko-commie-subversive soubriquet “the Untied State of America”.

2021 loading
Almost there

Between second and third glasses of Olde European Rotwein, we come to our predictions for that Phoenix of New Years, Twothousandandtwentyone:

Ever the resident Eeyore, Neville sees an all-round chaotic start to 2021, as the deal / no deal conundrum remains unresolved. He expects talking behind the scenes to continue frantically yet constructively, while on stage, the Great British Prime Minister just keeps Pfeffeling on. For the US, Neville has real concerns as sedition-secession talk is “extremely dangerous.”

In Sam’s crystal ball, “the excrable Gove” is in charge by Easter – Cummings cumming back after going, ever the loyal aide-de-camp to little Govey – and Trump will be frogmarched out of the White House by the ‘Feds’ by lunchtime on 20th January at the latest.

In a much more positive outlook, he also sees the three of us in Spain, perhaps in September, to finally make that SDF away weekend happen – with multiple podcast recordings in my little place near Gibraltar, fuelled by rich helpings of various tapas and reservas.

And Gibraltar secured by the Royal Navy, as things are currently going:

Will Brexit have its Gotcha moment?

As for my main prediction: I just don’t know. Neither does anybody else, and we will continue to do so (spoiler alert: that’s the only jumping off point to constructively engage with the problem of radical uncertainty. Just ask Sam’s favourite advocate for the public understanding of statistics, David Spiegelhalter).

All those “ten trends this” and “three things that” and “the ultimate predictions for…”? The marketing equivalent of whistling in the dark. My favourite has got to be “the future is fluid.” And the present: viscous? The past: solid? Seriously – wtf?

I’m also reminded that the ancient Greek word for crisis meant situations where quick and firm judgements and decisions were required. And the Chinese symbol for crisis (as John F. Kennedy, a US President from differently interesting times, told us) combines the symbols for danger AND for opportunity (although that may again be apocryphal). If that isn’t the perfect platform from which to start 2021, I don’t know what is.


There’s lots more in this spirited 42nd helping of the SmallDataForum, including an ultra-mini review of Frank Knight’s 1921 opus Risk, Uncertainty and Profits. Worth a listen, if we say so ourselves.

By the way: Gaslight ends with Gregory’s criminal scheme being exposed by detective Cameron. As the police take Gregory away, Cameron comforts Paula to subtle romantic undertones.

So, 2021, see what you can do re opportunities to have heroic problem-solvers free us from self-serving fishy manipulators.

Boris and fish
Beware Old Etonians bearing fish

Festive Wishes from Neville, Sam & Thomas

[The SmallDataForum will reconvene on 15th January 2021]

Listen to Episode 42:

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