Sunday, December 15, 2019

Tory Tide

“The trouble with socialism is that it would take too many evenings.”
 —Oscar Wilde, on the potential time drain of central planning
Way back in 2013 (that’s six years ago, for those not completely awake) some lazy blogger chanced his arm by bringing up an article in The Economist magazine about political trends among young people in Britain.

“The writer concludes,” wrote this blogger, “by describing how he spoke to young people of varying backgrounds, regions and levels of political engagement and asked if there were any politicians that appealed to them. ‘The reaction was strikingly uniform,’ he writes, ‘silence, then contemplation, then a one-word answer—“Boris”—before a flood of agreement: “Oh yeah, I’d vote for Boris Johnson.” The chaotic, colourful mayor of London, a rare politician who transcends his Tory identity by melding social and economic liberalism, appears to have Britain’s libertarian youth in the bag. The 2020 election beckons.’ ”

Did I mention that was written six years ago? Well, fair play to the staff writer who penned that prescient Economist piece and, especially, to the insightful blogger who highlighted it. (Yes, ’twas I.)

In fairness, it was not a perfect forecast. The election was held in December of 2019, not 2020. More importantly, while Johnson’s brand of classic (as opposed to modern) liberalism was undoubtedly a factor, it was not the main thing about him that propelled his party to one of the most decisive and unanticipated victories in UK politics for quite some time.

What the magazine writer and the blogger could not have anticipated was that the almost-2020 election would be dominated by something called Brexit. In another country under other circumstances, the election could well have been a second referendum on whether Britain should really be leaving the European Union. Because of the quirkiness of the UK political system, the choices felt more like a carnival con man’s shell game than a straightforward binary choice. The two major parties were each internally divided between Remainers and Brexiteers. The one viable and unambiguously pro-Remain party (the Liberal Democrats) should have been positioned to replace one of the major parties, but somehow it was led by a seemingly nice Scottish woman, who not only managed to alienate voters in general but who ended up losing her own seat in Parliament.

If you were a Remainer who couldn’t stomach the Lib Dems, then your logical choice should have been Labour, whose position was to promise a second referendum and thus a chance to reverse the 2016 referendum that kicked off the Brexit process in the first place. Yet Labour’s vote fell way, way below the number of Remain votes three years ago, and in fact, Labour was routed worse than has happened for decades. Had that many people been won over to the Brexit side? Doubtful.

For his part Johnson, upon taking over Conservative Party leadership from the hapless Theresa May in July, was bedeviled by divisions in his own party. That plus successful machinations by other parties meant that his only hope of achieving an orderly Brexit was to win a decisive Tory majority. He succeeded smashingly.

How did he do it? For one thing, he went head-to-head with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in promising to spend shed-loads of government money. More importantly, though, he relentlessly and tirelessly repeated one single, simple message over and over and over: Get Brexit Done.

Unlike Labour, whose leader did his best to avoid talking about Brexit or to even take a personal position on it (he voted to leave the EU in 2016), voters had a clear idea what they were voting for with the Conservatives. The “Get Brexit Done” mantra was inspired in that, while obviously sitting well with Brexit supporters, it also had an appeal for the mass of voters who, after three years, just wanted the whole mess finally ended, one way or another.

There is another major contributing factor to Labour’s disastrous performance—one which Joe Biden was quick to seize upon in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in the States. Since the departure of Ed Miliband as Labour leader four years ago, the party has been permeated and controlled by the far left. Corbyn’s life and career have been devoted to socialism and left-wing causes, including violent insurgents such as the Irish Republican Army. Despite the state of lawlessness and extra-constitutional rule in Venezuela, he has yet to denounce or even criticize Nicolás Maduro’s regime. If he had become prime minister, the country could have looked forward to a wave of high taxes and wholescale nationalizations.

Particularly troubling have been the defections and internal criticism within the party itself having to do with Corbyn’s tolerance for a growing anti-Semite element. The situation got so bad that Britain’s Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis took the unusual step of publicly speaking out.

We seem to be in an age where political parties strive to cast their opponents as not just wrong on policy but as illegitimate and disqualified from even holding office. We see this approach in the U.S. with the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings and in the Republican response. Dems say it is not safe to leave the president in office for the eleven months until the next election. The GOP suggests that one-party partisan impeachment is a sign that Democrats themselves are anti-democratic.

In Boris Johnson’s case, he did not have to invent an opposition that was virtually disqualified from governing. Could one or other of the American parties next year find itself in a similar situation?

Friday, November 8, 2019

Going to Extremes

In my last post (discussing the situation in Chile) I once again violated a resolution I keep making and then breaking. I broke my promise to stop using the political labels of “left” and “right.”

The problem is that these labels—along with “liberal” and “conservative”—are just too handy not to use. After all, everyone else uses them, and people generally understand what you mean by them. The older I get, though, the more I wonder whether these labels actually have any real meaning or whether they are merely banners to cluster around—like national flags or the names of sports teams.

Do these labels actually inform our understanding of the day’s politics or do they simply impose a mental filter that keeps us from perceiving the true reality?

A brief recap. The left/right political paradigm goes back more than two centuries. It comes from legislative seating arrangements in the time of the French Revolution. Members of the aristocracy sat in the honored position to the Speaker’s right. Commoners sat to his left. It is worth noting that in those days commoners in the legislature were not peasants or laborers but the rising capitalist class, that is, the bourgeoisie. This is also the roots of our concepts of conservatives and liberals. The former strove to conserve the institutions of monarchy and the established church, while the latter worked to liberate the people from the power of those institutions. That is somewhat at odds with our modern concept of the two words. Nowadays in America a conservative is more likely to be trying to restrain the power of government, while the liberal would be in favor of increasing it.

Of course, individual people’s political opinions do not all fall neatly into two broad categories. There is a huge array of beliefs and positions on issues of the day. For convenience, people place individual philosophies on a broad spectrum, in an echo of 18th-century France, running from left to right. Movements like communism, socialism, centrism, libertarianism, and fascism are placed along a row like colors of a rainbow to help us understand how one might relate to the others. Movements at the extreme ends tend to be authoritarian in character, while those in the center are considered more democratic.

What is interesting, though, is the affinity that those near the center tend to feel for their more authoritarian fellows on their half of the spectrum. Republicans will accept—if not exactly advertise or celebrate—any votes they can get, even if they come from the far right. Democrats, likewise, will not refute votes from hard-core Marxists if it gets their candidates across the electoral line. Why do things work this way? Why is there not more cooperation among those in the middle, even if they belong to different parties? For that matter, why do believers in authoritarianism not cooperate with others who, like them, want the government to exert more control?

The second question is easier to answer. If authoritarians want the government to have more power, it is not simply as a matter of principle, They want the power specifically for themselves or for people who think like they do. That is why you do not see communists and fascists making alliances of convenience.

Actually, that is not exactly true, is it? Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union did exactly that with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939, although it did not work out well for either of them. In fact, what strikes me about German history between the two world wars is the proliferation of radical movements. They all meant to rescue the country from its post-war state, and they all had authoritarian tendencies. Adolf Hitler’s movement went through several name changes, but they all had the word socialist in the title, including the Nazi party of which the full name was National Socialist German Workers Party. Historians put the Nazis on the right end of the political spectrum, but one wonders why. Because Hitler was virulently anti-communist? Yet that enmity looks to me more like a vicious rivalry among radical autocrats than like movements separated by a vast philosophical gulf.

By placing the Nazis on the extreme right of the political spectrum, though, it makes it easier for Democrats to compare Republican presidents they do not like to Hitler and Republicans in general to fascists. Hitler and Stalin may have ended up as bitter enemies, but did they not have a fair amount in common—at least in terms of disdain for democratic norms? Of course, linking politicians of the present to extremists of the past is not exclusively a Democratic tactic. Republicans unhappy with Democrats’ handling of the current impeachment inquiry, for example, have been quick to compare the closed hearings to Soviet show trials.

What interests me is why politicians in the broad center have a certain amount of tolerance for the extremes on their side of the spectrum. Is it all down to political expediency because it is the only way to get to a majority? Does that lead them to hear only what they want to hear from the fringes? Extremists have a habit of extolling the virtues of democracy in their rhetoric, yet both the hard left and the hard right would be similarly repressive—although in different ways—if they ever came to power.

If we could all get collective amnesia and forget about the well-entrenched left/right political-spectrum concept, I wonder if it would become clearer to moderates of both parties that their interests lie with each other rather than the more extreme elements upon whom they sometimes rely for votes. As it is, though, Democratic voters currently appear to be leaning in a more socialist direction. Moderate Republicans, on the other hand, have worried for more than three years about the direction President Trump is taking their party.

Will the so-called center somehow prevail in spite of all this? Or do politicians, perceiving the country as having an appetite for radical change, doing their best to foster an impression of providing it? In doing so, though, do they risk power ultimately landing with either the nationalist right or the socialist left? And we have seen plenty of examples in history of where that leads.

If it should happen, we can blame (at least in part) that concept of the left/right political spectrum that has been pounded into our brains for the past two centuries.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

October Rising

In the late 1970s I spent a year living and studying in Chile. Ever since, I have followed news from that country with great interest, and to this day, I maintain contact with some of the people I knew there.

You might think that this would mean I have some insight into the country’s current turmoil, yet I am totally perplexed and not certain exactly what to think about it. I guess this should not be surprising. After all, I was born and have lived most of my life in the United States, and yet current events in that country are completely baffling to me. The funny thing is that I know many people who have never lived in U.S. who are absolutely much more certain about what is going on there than I am. Go figure.

Chile's then-unused La Moneda presidential palace in 1977
Here are some things that I do know about Chile. (Conveniently, I have lately been revisiting many of my old memories, as the novel I am currently writing has a couple of chapters set in Santiago in the early 1980s.) Unlike much of the rest of Latin America, throughout its history Chile has mostly been a stable country with a truly democratic political system. There have been, however, periods where this was not true. Between 1927 and 1931 General Carlos Ibáñez del Campo headed an authoritarian government. In 1973 General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government of Salvador Allende and led a military dictatorship that lasted until 1990.

My own personal first-hand experience with the country was during the early years of the Pinochet regime. Even though it was a dictatorship and there was a suspension of many civil liberties, I did get a clear sense of the divisions in Chilean society. Supporters of the government, that is to say, conservatives were quite vocal about their views. Alternative views were, not surprisingly, less forthcoming, but non-supporters of the regime were more than willing to share their opinions once I gained their confidence. What was striking were the completely disparate accounts of what life had been like a mere couple of years earlier under Allende’s government. It was difficult to believe that people were all actually talking about the same country. What was consistently clear, though, was that there was much turmoil. In the early 1970s the middle classes were out in the streets and banging their pots on their apartment balconies in protest of the left-wing government. Under Pinochet, of course, there were no protests, and a military night-time curfew ensured no one was out late at night.

What do we know about the current series of protests? We know they began as a student-led protest against an increase in fares of the Santiago subway system and that they then exploded into violence that included looting, vandalism, arson, and fatalities. One million people turned out which works out to about one out of every seven Santiago residents. As a result, conservative President Sebastián Piñera declared a state of emergency and then initiated a government shake-up.

The city center of Santiago in 1977
Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady notes the irony that this has happened at a time when Chile’s economic statistics are very positive. The official poverty rate has recently declined to under 9 percent, down from 68 percent in 1990. Furthermore, public transportation is heavily subsidized, and student fares were not actually affected by the recent increase. As a way of explanation, she cites a heavy leftist influence in Chilean schools to explain the young’s readiness to take to the streets. She also points to Cuban and Venezuelan influences.

Is it a paradox that instability should strike Chile when it is doing better economically than its neighbors? No. There was strong growth in the post-Pinochet 1990s, but in this century the middle class has seen its fortunes slip with rising prices and stagnant wages. Also, Piñera (who last year succeeded Socialist Michelle Bachelet as president) is one of the wealthiest people in the country and so makes a convenient target for student protestors. Objective commentary on the ground there suggests that the people’s grievances are real and justified while at the same time being exploited by the hard political left. Some also talk about intellectual and political laziness of millennials fed by materialism born of the years of economic prosperity.

Where will all of this lead? I for one do not have a clue. The political hard right had its way with an authoritarian hand for the better of two decades in the last century.

Is the hard left now gearing up for its turn?

Friday, September 6, 2019

True Believers

“The believer is happy, the doubter is wise.”
 —Hungarian proverb
“Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents … Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”
 —Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951)
When I write fiction, my ultimate aim is simply to tell a good story. To the extent that my own personal world view slips in—or my opinions of political or social issues—they are meant only to serve the story, not to proselytize. Nothing kills the artistic quality of a work quite as definitively as the obvious, crass spectacle of blatantly serving the aims of a particular government, political party, or public pressure group.

Still, it is impossible not to let a little social commentary slip in once in a while. In my latest novel, The Curse of Septimus Bridge, I showed such weakness in the nineteenth chapter, called “Cultists.” A pertinent excerpt:
Lola fought the urge to panic. “Who are they? Are they demons?”
 “No,” said Septimus, getting to his feet. “They are worse than demons. They are human beings—and the worst kind of human beings. They are cultists.”
 “Cultists? You mean, like the people who hang out at the airport?”
 “Not precisely. The Fiend preys on those with weak minds, and he has no trouble finding simple intellects who can be duped. There are always those who will happily follow the tenets of his false religion and become warriors and agents for a cause they do not understand. There is never a shortage of aimless souls willing to be recruited and follow blindly.”
Five pages later:
The demon hunter went from one cultist to another, kneeling by each one to whisper something in his ear. One by one, they each stood and plodded—or limped—away.
  “The one good thing about true believers is that they are, by nature, easily open to suggestion.”
This is, of course, a thinly-veiled potshot at people who buy into their religion or politics with a dull, unquestioning loyalty. One reader emailed me to say that, in his experience, an example of such cultists was Trump supporters. I am Trump supporters could read the very same passages from my book and conclude that the real cultists are the NeverTrumpers or some other group with which they disagree.

That is the thing about identifying people who we think are easily led or who are mindless followers. Those people are always someone else. None of us thinks that we are the unquestioning true believer. We know that we arrived at our opinions through reason, experience, and insight. It is that other fellow who is easily manipulated by propaganda and open to suggestions from demagogues.

It was not an accident that Septimus referred to his foes as “true believers.” That was my nod to Eric Hoffer, the philosopher and author who wrote one of the best explanations of fanaticism ever published: The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. Writing in the aftermath of World War II, he clearly had in mind such movements as Nazism and Communism. Of such movements, he wrote chillingly, “[A]ll of them, irrespective of the doctrine they preach and the program they project, breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single-hearted allegiance…”

Hoffer was a fascinating character. As a young teenager, I became familiar with him through a 1967 CBS News special in which he was interviewed by journalist Eric Sevareid and which was re-aired two months later by popular demand. Born in the Bronx in 1898 to immigrants from Alsace, he never lost his German accent. After the death of his parents, he wandered for years, worked odd jobs, lived on Skid Row, became a migrant farm worker in California, and also prospected for gold in the mountains. In his 40s, he got work as a longshoreman on the docks of San Francisco. A voracious reader, he acquired a library card wherever he was living. He also wrote, and he came to public attention in 1951 with The True Believer. In his mid-60s, he left the docks to become an adjunct professor at UC Berkeley. He died in 1983.

Given the penchant these days to liken leaders whom one does not like to despots (both presidents Obama and Trump have been compared by their respective detractors to Hitler), it would be a great thing if more people read Hoffer to understand what fanatical movements are really like. If there is any optimism to be gleaned from the tribalistic rhetoric that increasingly fills our airwaves and social media, it is perhaps this observation by Hoffer regarding fanatical movements: “All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action.” Trumpers and NeverTrumpers are all certainly willing to troll and provoke, but are any of them actually willing to die for their beliefs? Probably not. But the danger may be that they inadvertently inspire and influence others who might be.

One final Hoffer quote that particularly intrigues me, from Reflections on the Human Condition (1973): “The Savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets.”

Friday, July 26, 2019

In the Political Swing of Things

“Bailey has stuck to her guns by claiming that the swing at the Dean Hotel was unsafe and therefore she was entitled to make her compensation claim, despite being laughed at for a long period of time by the Dean Hotel, the opposition, her own party and indeed the country at large… but is she right? Not seeing any other way to put this issue to bed, WWN got shitfaced and headed to some local swings to see just how dangerous these things are…”
—“Are Swings Dangerous? We Get Locked & Find Out,” the satirical Irish web site Waterford Whispers News, June 24
Irish beer lovers and teutonophiles were disappointed on Wednesday when it was announced this year’s Dublin Oktoberfest has been canceled. The reason given was the rising cost of insurance. For the past several years the autumn festival has drawn festive crowds to George’s Dock in the capital.

A statement from the organizers read, in part, “In Germany we are not used to the claim culture that has developed in Ireland and therefore we have decided to take a break this year. The belief that putting in an insurance claim doesn’t hurt anyone except the insurance company is incorrect, consequently great fun events like ours find it hard to go ahead when suspect insurance claims from a small minority of people can ruin it for everybody.”

There is some dispute over how much the rapid increases in insurance premiums are owed to fraudulent claims as opposed to industry greed, but nobody who lives in the republic has escaped the ample anecdotal evidence of the so-called “compo culture.” And then there is this little factoid. Researchers at the National University of Ireland (NUI) Galway examined all reported instances of whiplash patients seen by spinal specialists between 1996 and 2011. How many of those patients went on to initiate legal action? All of them. How many of them continued visits to the specialists after the legal action was concluded? None of them.

For our own anecdotal purposes, let’s look at one random case that was reported in the papers in May. In 2015 while on a night out with friends in Dublin, a woman from Dún Laoghaire sat on a swing in the bar of a Harcourt Street hotel. She held things in both hands, at least one of which was a drink, but later said she had not actually imbibed. She fell off the swing and went to a hospital the next day. She subsequently sued the hotel on the grounds that the swing was “unsupervised.” Furthermore, her complaint said that she could not engage in her hobby of running “at all” for three months after the accident. When this is eventually reported in the papers, there was ridicule and outrage, not least because a national newspaper reported she took part in a The Bay 10k run just weeks after the incident.

You might wonder why this particular case received so much press attention. It is probably because the woman in question (Maria Bailey) was a county councilor at the time and, a couple of weeks after her accident, was nominated and (subsequently elected) by the Fine Gael party to be a TD (member of the Irish parliament). Making things more awkward, Fine Gael, which is currently in charge of the government, has made an issue of reform of the legal compensation system. Even more awkwardly, this all hit the papers and airwaves around the time of local and European elections in which Fine Gael generally underperformed. Many members of the public emailed Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar saying they would not vote Fine Gael because of the Maria Bailey incident. Shortly after the election, Bailey dropped her legal claim.

Fine Gael conducted an internal review of the matter, but the resulting report will not be made public. As a result though, Bailey has been removed as chair of a parliamentary committee but has not been suspended as a party member.

Given the current dissatisfaction with Fine Gael (yes, people are actually calling it SwingGate) and the fact that the party currently polls second to the main opposition party, Fianna Fáil, you might expect opposition leader Micheál Martin to terminate the “confidence and supply” agreement which keeps the minority government propped up and trigger parliamentary elections. After all, Varadkar has been Taoiseach for more than two years now but has never actually faced voters as the Fine Gael leader. But Martin shows no interest in doing so. The narrative for three years now has been that the next election should be delayed until the Brexit “emergency” is over.

In other words, voters, there’s no hurry in calling you back to the polls. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about all this government stuff for now.

Apparently this current status quo suits the political class just fine. Everyone has their Dáil salaries and perks and look forward to their generous government pensions. It’s not like there is a life-and-death political struggle going on or anything that needs to be settled. Heck, blow-ins like myself can’t even figure out what the philosophical difference is between the two main parties—beyond whose great-grandfather fought on which side in the Civil War.

Yes, everything is just fine—at least until someone gets a bit greedy and ill-advisedly runs to the claims courts.

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.