One Saturday, two months ago, my family and I made a last-minute decision to escape the city for a night on Crete’s south coast. We’d arrived late, and I found myself alone on the beach with the final few tourists of the summer: foreign couples with thick hair, straight backs and bohemian jewellery, some meditating, others reading or doing yoga, all in their own private worlds. The sky was overcast, the hangover of an afternoon storm.
And then this happened.
We stood in awe. Someone waded out, apparently to get a closer look. And for ten minutes, a natural lightshow unfolded, of unbelievable colour and texture. It was marvellous.
And then, it fell into the Libyan Sea like a hot coal. No rewinding; no do-over. That was it.
As the sky faded, we all exchanged the same expression of childlike delight. And sat on the sand for a beat, digesting what we’d just seen, before heading our separate ways into the dusk.
* * *
And so went 2023. This was the year I lost my Iranian uncle (yesterday), who taught me the word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ as a precocious six-year-old. It was the year I somehow broke my sense of smell, a side-effect of antibiotics I took during the summer. And the year I unlocked the definitive challenge of middle age: caring for ageing parents and young kids.
In 2024, I’ll say goodbye to Crete, and to coastal sunsets like the one above, and return to Athens. But not yet.
Anyway, back to this newsletter, about how to do smarter activism. As is customary, here’s what I published in 2023. And some quick recommendations.
A look back at the last year of posts
I wrote quite a bit on Israel-Palestine in 2023. Because it’s a human tragedy of unimaginable scale, but also an activism case study in a time when things could get even tougher. On these pages I looked at the left’s own-goal of abusing Holocaust rhetoric, as well as more general take-aways from the early days of the online conflict over Gaza. And rounded it off with a detailed analysis on how social media shapes the narrative on Israel-Palestine, as part of a video interview I did with DiEM25’s communications director Lucas Febraro.
Moving to elections, I put forward what the left should do when the far right makes gains (short answer: study and adapt, don’t react), together with an interview with a Dutch activist on the topic (backdrop: Geert Wilders’ recent win in Holland). I argued that the rightward shift in Greece, my adopted country, could mean a resurgence of grassroots activism. And suggested we make peace with claims of election hacking (something we’ll see more of as Trump makes his comeback). I also sketched the speech I think a leftist political leader should give if progressive politics is to have a chance.
Activism how-to’s this year included why activist projects need a fixed mission and endpoint, and the benefits of withholding judgment, using the case of Russell Brand. Also: how to boost our immunity to online lies, prime our audiences for persuasion, and leverage the power of laughter.
I offered some fresh thinking on how we could approach the battle for trans rights (after hosting a contentious live debate on the topic), some ideas on anti-racism (not the CRT-kind) and positive reinforcement as an under-used tool for activism. I also also looked at some tools to supercharge our work: a parents guide to ChatGPT, and a review of a powerful reading app.
Lastly, there were some more personal accounts: a retrospective on lessons learned from living through a pandemic; some reflections on why books are so effective. And a lament for the magic of old technology.
And on that note, here are some things I read throughout the year and liked, in paper form:
- “Doppelganger” by Naomi Klein: a political memoir on polarisation and conspiracy thinking. Also darkly hilarious.
- “Four Thousand Weeks” by Oliver Burkeman. An antidote to productivity porn, guiding us to reframe what’s possible instead of optimising. The title refers to the average human lifespan.
- “Freedom” by Sebastian Junger. A road story in the tradition of Kerouac, a history of the US, and a meditation on what it means to be free. From the author of “A Perfect Storm”. You can read it in an afternoon.
And two articles: Joan Westernberg on
rediscovering the joy, the excitement, the sense of possibility that first drew us to glowing screens, late at night, while the rest of the world slept.
She misses the old internet. I know how she feels.
And Josiah Gogarty on how the ad industry exploits counterculture:
If hip is how American capitalism understands and explains itself, then its impotency spells trouble. The very first thing the system must be able to sell is itself.
This illustration of Robert Cialdini’s principles of influence is a goldmine for designing activist projects (print it and put it on your wall). Vibes is a great app with generative music to help you focus or rest.
And don’t forget, as every year, this brilliant system for new years resolutions, by a Yahoo executive, that I’ve been using for more than a decade. Make not one list, but three: Stop Doing, Keep Doing and Start Doing.
That’s all. Thanks for reading this newsletter. As the sun sets on 2023, all the best to you and yours — your people, and your projects. See you back here on January 18.