Monday, July 8, 2019

History’s Bridge

“It was only meant to be a few hours of fun. A lark. On a sunny Saturday morning the three of them set sail on Puget Sound because of Maria’s dream. Then disaster struck, and the three of them were plunged into a dark adventure in which they would confront good and evil, past lives, and a timeless curse born from a tragic love.”
—Marketing tagline for the novel The Curse of Septimus Bridge
One thing you soon learn from living in rural Ireland is that the past is never very far away.

I used to think that history did not weigh on Americans the same way it does on people in most other countries, but lately I question whether that is as true as I thought.

Americans seem to be going through a period of unearthing and rediscovering and reliving and, most pertinently, relitigating their country’s past. On one hand, this is a good and necessary thing to do. It is healthy to come to terms with past wrongs and to attempt to right them where possible. On the other hand, it can also be divisive. Dwelling obsessively on the past can lead to competing historical narratives and a sense of grievance that can be exploited by manipulative leaders.

I myself have been doing a fair amount of dwelling on the past during the past several months. As you can see by the shameless plug on the right-hand side of this page, I have a new “latest novel.” The Curse of Septimus Bridge is another one of my fantasies, but unlike The Three Towers of Afranor it does not take place in a made-up mythical world. It starts out in Seattle, Washington, and somewhere in the middle of the story, it finds itself (of all places) in 17th-century Ireland.

This had the strange effect of causing me to see the place I live at a temporal remove. The few remnants of Galway’s medieval wall, which now are incorporated into a city-center shopping mall, sprouted up to surround the central city as it did many years ago. The ruined castles that dot the surrounding landscape became new again and were once more inhabited by the twelve tribes, i.e. the dominant Anglo-Norman clans, of Galway. The city waited apprehensively, as an English army led by Oliver Cromwell headed its way, cutting a swath from Dublin across the island.

This sense of distant local history coming alive is new to me, but not to the Irish. Mention Cromwell’s name today, and you get a palpable reaction. There are plenty of reasons for the Irish to feel aggrieved by their larger neighbor—conquest, massacres, religious and national persecution, famines, and a bloody civil war that happened just a bit less than a century ago. Somehow, however, people manage to get on with their lives, mostly in peace and even in general prosperity—political dysfunction in Belfast and Brexit notwithstanding.

Of course, the peace is not absolute. For much of the late 20th century, Northern Ireland was rocked by violence. That is what comes of different groups adopting and adhering so strongly to their own mutually exclusive narratives that they cannot accept the legitimacy of imperfect but democratically elected leaders whom they cannot abide.

Just something to think about as we head deeper into the interminable 2020 election campaign.

By the way, the paperback edition of The Curse of Septimus Bridge is available from major online booksellers, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The digital version is available exclusively from Amazon’s Kindle Store. Those are US sites. For other countries, kindly consult my book blog.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Choosing Sides

“Political Scientists Trace American Democracy’s Severe Polarization to F***ing Idiots on Other Side of Aisle”
 —Headline in The Onion, October 31
The actor Liam Neeson found himself in hot water in February while being interviewed for his latest movie. Cold Pursuit was, by many accounts, a pointless remake of a cleverer Norwegian film called In Order of Disappearance, but it was consistent with the vigilante-action-hero persona that has been the Irish actor’s bread and butter the past few years. Perhaps that is why he thought an anecdote about his own misguided flirtation with street revenge might stir interest among his fans.

Neeson was nothing but contrite and self-critical as he explained to The Independent of London how years earlier, after a friend of his had been raped by a black man, he had gone “up and down areas with a cosh, hoping I’d be approached by somebody—I’m ashamed to say that. And I did it for maybe a week, hoping some ‘black bastard’ would come out of a pub and have a go at me about something, you know? So that I could… kill him.” Subsequently on the Good Morning America program, he said his reaction “shocked me and it hurt me. I did seek help. I went to a priest, I aired my confession, I was reared a Catholic. I had two very, very good friends that I talked to. And believe it or not, power-walking helped me. Two hours every day, to get rid of this. I’m not racist. This was nearly 40 years ago.”

Public reaction in the media, both traditional and social, was brutal. Not only was he widely excoriated for having had those feelings four decades earlier, he was roundly criticized for talking about them in the present. Few seemed inclined to give him credit for honesty in speaking about an extremely emotional reaction to a terrible event in his youth and having learned from it.

My own personal reaction, as usual, was different from the ones I kept hearing and reading about. What Neeson described did not sound to me like racism—at least as I have always understood the word. Here is the Oxford dictionary definition: “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” It does not sound as though the actor went looking to get into a fight with a black man because he thought black men were racially inferior. He wanted revenge for a crime and was apparently seized by the notion that, because a black man was the alleged perpetrator, all black men were therefore guilty. That would be tribalism, not racism.

As a native of County Antrim, Leeson should understand the concept of tribalism better than most of us. The six counties of Northern Ireland have been convulsed for generations by antagonism between those who identify as British and those who see themselves as Irish. The latest sad example of these old hatreds was the pointless death last month of activist/journalist/author Lyra McKee, who was struck down by a stray bullet fired by a teenaged member of the New IRA during civil disturbances in Derry. The intended target was presumably the police officers on the scene. Amid the shock and grief that followed, there were hopeful murmurings that perhaps this might be the senseless tragedy that would finally bring people to their senses. If only. My memories are all too vivid of people saying the same thing in 1998 after a bomb killed 18 Catholics and 11 Protestants (including a woman pregnant with twins) in the County Tyrone town of Omagh. The bomb was planted by yet another republican splinter group, the Real IRA.

People who commit such atrocities justify them with notions like justice, revenge, and sovereignty. They are harder to justify when described as what they actually are: murders committed because of hatred for someone else’s tribe.

These days in the U.S. I see a lot of what seems to me to be tribal thinking. Some of it breaks down along racial lines, and I think it is useful to see those divisions for what they are—the tribalistic mindset of us versus them.

What concerns me these days mostly, though, is the country’s political division. It does not seem enough anymore merely to demonize politicians. Their supporters and voters must also be designated as beyond the pale—even evil. You rarely hear officeholders or commentators give their ideological opponents the benefit of the doubt and at least having good intentions. The worst is always assumed.

The other day House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was reported as saying that she does not “automatically trust” President Trump to respect the 2020 election result “short of an overwhelming defeat.” Of course, the president’s response would be that many Democrats have yet to accept the 2016 election result and that they have never stopped trying to undo it.

Let us hope that talk like this stays in the realm of partisan rhetoric. When political parties in a democracy become reluctant to hand over power after an election because they do not trust the other party’s intentions or character, we run the risk of finding ourselves on the slippery slope to to overt tribalism. Sadly, there are all too many historical examples of where this leads.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Science Fiction/Double Feature

“Man Who Spent Last 2 Years Drawing Pictures Of Trump And Putin Making Out Beginning To Realize Just How Wrong He’s Been”
—Headline in The Onion, March 25
“‘There Was No Collusion, We’re Really Just That Stupid’ Confirm Americans”
—Headline on the satirical Irish newspaper web site Waterford Whispers, March 27
In my previous post a few weeks ago, I wrote about the different through which filters people see things, how two different reasonable and intelligent can look at the same event or piece of information and draw entirely different conclusions about it. The funny thing is that, when it comes to politics, neither of those two reasonable and intelligent people sees the other one as either reasonable or intelligent.

Last time I discussed the different paradigms—movies is a better metaphor for me—through which people in the UK and Europe see Brexit. Now let’s revisit the United States, which is more divided in the way people see reality than I can ever remember. Or does it just seem that way? No, I think it really is that way. And nothing exemplifies this better than the ongoing narrative of President Trump and Russian collusion. Not only has that not changed since Robert Mueller finished his long-awaited report, which was summarized by William Barr, but it looks unlikely to change no matter how much of the actual report itself gets released. Maybe if the whole thing were released unredacted? I’m guessing not, and there is absolutely zero chance it will get released without redactions anyway.

So we will continue along as a two-movie society. Democrats and other never-Trumpers are living in a movie that is a pastiche of All the President’s Men and The Manchurian Candidate. Every piece of information unavailable to them is proof positive that the president is the center of a nefarious, treasonous conspiracy protected by one of the widest-ranging coverups of all time. Trump supporters, meanwhile, are living in a movie with elements of Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View and half the oeuvre of Oliver Stone. In their world, there is an implacable campaign of major influencers in the corporate mainstream media, the Democratic Party and the federal bureauracy out to subvert any exercise of democracy that does not fit in with their own plans for the country.

At one time it looked as though Mueller’s findings would reconcile these views. Despite regular verbal attacks from the president, the special counsel looked like it might be the one thing with the credibility and authority to put this particular division behind us. Ha. It’s like the time in the primary debate when Democrats lambasted Trump for not saying he would accept the results of the election—and then they didn’t accept the results of the election. Now, after saying that Robert Mueller would settle the collusion issue, they say that he hasn’t settled the collusion issue.

Here is what I wrote fourteen months ago: “We have gotten to a really interesting—and kind of scary—place in the whole Trump-Russia drama. There are basically only two places to go from here. If, after all this time, Mueller and his team come up with clear and incontrovertible evidence of subversion of the electoral process, they will justifiably be seen as heroes. If, on the other hand, it turns out that all their time and resources were spent on something inconsequential—or merely trapping a few individuals in ‘process crimes’ that only arose out the investigation itself—while handicapping the first year or so of a duly elected administration, then it will look to many like Mueller and the FBI themselves were participants—witting or otherwise—in the subversion of the electoral process.”

I wrote that with a completely open mind. If Mueller had reported that Trump or someone working for him had laundered money and paid Russians to pull dirty tricks in the election, I would have been appalled but not gobsmacked. It was a possibility that appeared at least credible. If, as he seems to have done, Mueller exonerated the president of collusion, I was not going to find that impossible to believe either. What about obstruction of justice? We will get further detail on that, though probably never as much as the Democrats want. So far it appears the only such indictments have been for actions unrelated to the Trump campaign and presidency. Curiously, Barr’s summary says Trump is not exonerated on obstruction, which is kind of curious since prosecutors never “exonerate” anybody. The closest you ever get to an exoneration from a prosecutor is to not be charged, so I’m guessing there is some venting in the report about the president’s lack of respect for the special counsel’s authority. It will be interesting to see if the released version of the report gets into detail about which team members advocated for and against charges. Will it break down along party lines, thereby showing that even Mueller’s office was riven by the same political forces afflicting the rest of Washington?

Was I at all prescient in writing that, given the apparent result of the Mueller findings, “it will look to many like Mueller and the FBI themselves were participants—witting or otherwise—in the subversion of the electoral process.” Well, yeah, kinda—if by “many” I was referring to people who already felt that way about Mueller and the FBI. That might also include whoever is left in the theoretical persuadable middle. You can count me in that category.

Based on what we know now—and this is always subject to change upon receipt of new information—it looks like the FBI and the special counsel, wittingly or unwittingly, wound up working as a de facto opposition research arm of the DNC and the Clinton campaign. Does that mean that the investigation was not worthwhile? Did not some good come out of it because it answered burning questions and put people’s minds at ease that the democratic process was not subverted by the Trump campaign? That might have been true if the investigation had actually settled the question for the vast majority of the country, but it looks like it hasn’t. So no, if political factions are going to go on believing only what they see in their own particular movies regardless of whatever new information is turned up, then it was just a waste of time and money.

And that also means that, yes, by spying—sorry, I mean, conducting surveillance—on one political campaign based on flimsy information provided by another political campaign, the FBI under James Comey actually did more to subvert the democratic process than anything President Trump has so far been shown to have done. That doesn’t make Donald Trump a better president than he has ever been. It just makes the FBI a whole lot scarier than it has ever been.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Road Rage

“ ‘EU Would Never Betray Us’ Confirms [Irish] Government Forgetting Bank Crash”
—Headline in the Irish satirical newspaper Waterford Whispers, January 23
After I returned from a year in South America and took care of a few commitments at home in California, I traveled to the Pacific Northwest for an extended visit with my old childhood friend Eric. It had been a couple years since we had spent any time together, and in the meantime, he had moved north with the rest of his family for a new start. They had become owners and operaters of an old-fashioned general store and gas station in a rural area. Eric still had his penchant for American-made muscle cars, and after work in the evening, he would drive me around the local backroads. As he laid rubber on pavement wherever he could and executed maneuvers resminiscent of the Steve McQueen movie Bullitt, I quickly came to realize that Eric was in fact living out his own Dukes of Hazzard fantasy. As he made sudden turns onto side roads and performed well-practiced hairpin turns on the mostly empty roads, he explained that the local sheriff deputies all knew his car and were anxious to track him down and arrest him but they simply could not keep up with him or outsmart him.

He did not tell me this with a wink or any other sign of a joke. He clearly believed it. We did occasionally spy a sheriff’s car on the road, but as far as I could tell, the deputies had no particular interest in us. Yet Eric was convinced that they and he were engaged in some desperate Smokey and the Bandit duel to the death. Always a nervous passenger in Eric’s car, I did not argue with him. I simply participated in the charade as I carefully checked my seatbelt one more time. It seemed clear that Eric was delusional, but how could I really be certain? Maybe I was the one who could not see what was going on around me. Maybe Eric’s crazy driving really was the only thing keeping us out of a night in the pokey.

There is a point to this story. One’s grip on reality is always a tenuous thing. As in the parable about the blind men and the elephant, we only perceive a portion of everything that goes on in the universe. When it comes to politics and world events, we are at the mercy of our news sources. If we do not read or hear about something, then to all intents and purposes it did not happen. We tend to fill in the gaps according our own individual experiences and our own expectations. Information which does not conform to our expectations tends to get filtered out. News that conforms and supports our biases looms large, mainly because we seek it out to confirm those biases. While Eric perceived a daring cat-and-mouse game with law enforcement, I looked at the same reality and experienced nothing more than a bracing, sometimes-harrowing drive through the countryside.

There is a further point to the story. What is currently going on in Europe and in the United States reeks to high heaven of people looking to the same elephant with entirely different filters. I’ll leave the American situation for later, as it will be interesting to see if any realities merge in the wake of the now-complete Mueller report. In the meantime, let us look at the UK situation.

The Brexit melodrama has been, at turns, fascinating and frustrating, as seen from the Irish media market. Needless to say, the Irish have all kinds of baggage when it comes to the British that affects how journalists and politicians see the situation. On one hand, there is some eight centuries of cultural, political, linguistic and military domination. On the other hand, there is the Irish establishment’s complete buy-in and commitment to the vision of European unification. This means that this small republic, which shares an island with its former colonial master, doggedly views the situation through the mindset of Brussels rather than of London. This creates the strange situation where the single thorniest issue caused by Brexit—what will happen with the border between the republic and Northern Ireland—is being negotiated between London and not the republic (which fought tenaciously for many years for sovereignty) but with an administration that was elected only indirectly and dominated by much larger countries on the European continent.

This is where the filters come in. The Irish media report as if the Irish government is somehow a crucial player in the Brexit negotiations. It is not. The republic has no control of its own land border because it has ceded its authority in such matters to Europeans in Brussels.

Meanwhile in Britain, the most incredible display has played out among the political class. A quick summary: In 2013 David Cameron secured his reelection as prime minister by promising a referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. When the referendum was held in 2016, to everyone’s surprise, a scant majority voted to leave. Cameron, who had opposed his own referendum, resigned and was replaced by Theresa May, who had also been on the Remain side. She has since done her best to negotiate an agreement with the EU that would provide the least amount of disruption to trade and travel. Her agreement—or any agreement for that matter—is optional. Absent an agreement, the UK would simply revert to a state with no established cooperation with the rest of Europe.

Here is where the filters come in for Brexit. People who were in favor of remaining have opposed May’s agreement because they hate Brexit. In their movie she is the one causing Brexit. People who were in favor of leaving have opposed her agreement because they think it keeps the UK tied too closely to the EU. In their movie the PM is ruining Brexit, but at least the Brexiteers are somewhat consistent. They actually want a hard Brexit. The Remainers, on the other hand, are just taking a situation they hate and are making it worse. The opposition Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn—less a faction that bolted because Corbyn is an unreconstructed Marxist and an anti-semite—opposes everything May does because the sole objective of Corbyn (who, as it happens, was on the Leave side) is to get power any way he can. In his movie May is all that stands between him and full authoritarian domination. As for the Irish media, they reflexively do what they have always done: heap scorn on the Conservative prime minister—even though her agreement is actually in Ireland’s best interest. In their movie May is Margaret Thatcher.

At this point it is hard to see any outcome other than a hard Brexit—the one thing most people say they do not want. The political establishments and the media are like passengers in a car hurtling down the rural backroads unable to agree on what movie they in, let alone on how to get to a happy ending.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Through the Brexit Looking Glass

“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
—Philip K. Dick, in the short story “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”

Why should you never rely on just a single news source? Because, of course, you get only one perspective, but more importantly, because it is much more entertaining to read two or more.

Here is a good example. A headline today from the UK state broadcaster (the BBC): “Brexit: May looks for way to break deadlock.” A contemporaneous excerpt from a news item from the Irish state broadcaster (which no one calls “the” RTÉ): “Mrs May is to set out her next steps to build a Commons majority for a Brexit deal amid signs she is still unwilling to give ground on her central demands.”

Both takes are technically accurate, but together they demonstrate how nuance can influence news reporting. Neither broadcaster would be known for sympathetic treatment of a Conservative prime minister, but here the BBC does at least approach the story in terms of the difficulty—if not impossiblity—for any leader to bridge the gap between the European Union and her own government. RTÉ’s reporting, on the other hand, focuses entirely on the position of the Irish government (which is understandable enough) and how Teresa May’s apparent new strategy is incompatible with it. The result is that the BBC makes the British PM look a politician in a difficult position, while RTÉ makes her look stubborn and unreasonable.

This marks something of a change. Up until now, Irish coverage of May’s efforts have uniformly portrayed her as incompetent and hapless. Perhaps this is reflexive, given Ireland and Britain’s problematic joint history and Ireland’s experiences with female Tory PMs in particular. To this day, on-air Irish journalists cannot utter the name Margaret Thatcher without a noticeable, visceral frisson wafting through the studio. Their treatment of May seems particularly odd, though, to someone like myself who considers himself an objective observer. The fact is that the prime minister’s recent ordeal of undergoing a humuliating defeat over her negotiated deal with Brussels followed by a further humiliating no-confidence vote was all in the service of trying to implement the very deal that the Irish government—and presumably most Irish people—wanted. It would have given Britain more or less the same status as Norway, which is not an EU member but which enjoys many of the same economic and trade benefits that EU members enjoy. It would have kept the UK and Ireland in a common customs union, thereby avoiding the problem of this island being divided rigidly into different customs areas. Irish politicians were cheering (if that is the right word) her on, but RTÉ just kept shaking its head and muttering, “What a sad, old duck.” Seeing a Tory politician roundly humbled seemed to take precedence over Irish economic interests.

To be fair, though, Brexit has everyone thoroughly confused. You could see it on the night of the big Brexit vote in Parliament. After May’s deal crashed and burned at Westminster, TV crews did their usual vox pop among the rabble gathered outside, and everyone—I mean, absolutely everyone—was thrilled and ecstatic. It did not matter which side of the question they fell on. Remainers were joyous because they thought this somehow meant that Brexit would not happen. Leavers were happy because they thought May’s deal, in keeping the UK entwined with the EU, defeated the whole point of Brexit. When people with totally opposing views on a question both think they have won, either one or the other or both are is out of touch with reality.

No one seems more confused than the Irish, including their media. The politicians pontificate and make pronouncements and go through all the motions of being part of the negotiations, and yet Ireland—which more than any other country beside Britain will be changed by Brexit—is a mere bystander. The negotiations are entirely between London and Brussels. You could argue that the EU is not even negotiating. It has simply issued its terms. It looks determined to see Britain thoroughly punished lest any other uppity EU member try the same thing. The one issue that might actually have been a concern for Europe, the question of the EU/UK border in Ireland, was taken off the table almost immediately by May in agreeing to the famous “backstop”—a term that has become increasingly annoying, not only because of its over-use but also for the fact that most people do not seem to know what it is. (It is meant to be a guarantee that there will be no “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the republic.) Using that border as a bargaining chip may have been distasteful, but it was really the only leverage May had going into the talks. Her situation is further complicated by the fact that her perpetually-teetering government is propped up by an anachronistic Unionist party that is hardline pro-Brexit even though it exists in a province likely to suffer the most from a hard Brexit.

This entire preposterous situation comes down to a few awkward facts to which most of the local media seem blind. One is that Ireland, which struggled for centuries to get out from under the yoke of Britain, has happily handed over its sovereignty and its key decision-making to people in Brussels. Another is that the UK is Ireland’s largest trading partner and that, in the long run, the much-larger UK will do a lot better economically on its own than Ireland will if there are a bunch of barriers thrown up between it and the UK.

This is what can happen when you base your political positions on which politicians you personally like or dislike and ignore facts that are simply too inconvenient to contemplate.