From David Maughan Brown in York: New Dawns

21st January

The new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light.
If only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.

The words of Amanda Gorman’s poem, read from the platform at Joe Biden’s inauguration by ‘a skinny black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother’ as she described herself, chimed perfectly with the President’s own words in his inauguration address: ‘And together we will write an American story of hope, not fear.  Of unity not division, of light not darkness.  A story of decency and dignity, love and healing, greatness and goodness.’  The oldest man ever to be inaugurated as President and the youngest Poet Laureate ever to give voice to a poem at a President’s inauguration, who happens to be a 22-year old black woman, successfully combined to embody the watching world’s hope for a better America.   At one end of the spectrum, Biden gives the impression of epitomising the decency and goodwill that will be one of the main qualities needed if unity is to overcome division; at the other end, Amanda Gorman embodied the intelligence, energy and bravery that will be essential if the new dawn is to bloom – the bravery to be rather than just to see.  The events of the day brought hope.

There are new dawns and new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.  For all Boris Johnson’s empty words in welcoming Biden’s inauguration as ‘a fantastic thing … for a country that has been through a bumpy period’ one can only hope that, as he watched the ceremony from Downing Street, he began to realize just how exposed he is now that his fellow populist has exited Stage Left (like the bear in Shakespeare’s  aptly titled The Winter’s Tale – except, of course, that Trump could only ever exit Stage Right.)  Johnson’s compulsive overuse of the term ’fantastic’ – as when he said his signing of the Brexit agreement was a ‘fantastic’ moment – is telling.  Much as he would have liked his soul-mate Donald Trump to have won the election, the bad news for Johnson is that Biden’s election is no fantasy, and the contrast between the two is already starting to become glaringly obvious, even as the stench of rotting fish and other meat being discarded from lorries trapped at our borders by Johnson’s ‘tariff-free trade deal’ wafts its way towards Downing Street.

Leaving personality traits, such as Biden’s decency, modesty and empathy, aside, the most obvious contrast where the processes of government are concerned is perhaps already to be seen in Biden’s choice of cabinet.  Whereas Biden has brought together a very richly diverse and vastly experienced group of people to help him lead the country through the aftermath of the divisive Trump era, Johnson’s sole job specification was that candidates had to be short-sighted enough to join him in his fantasy that Brexit would be a good thing for the UK, or sycophantic enough to pretend to.  It won’t take more than a week or two for it to become obvious which is the better set of selection criteria.  It is, of course, possible that one of Biden’s undisclosed essential criteria was that his picks needed to have an intelligent view of Brexit.  So, for example, in his informative run-down of Biden’s cabinet in The Independent* James Crump reports that Antony Blinken, Biden’s new Secretary of State, ‘called Brexit a “total mess” and compared the decision to the far-right French politician Marine Le Pen.’

Unsurprisingly in this context, Biden’s approaches to Islam and immigration are two of the most striking areas of difference between the two new versions of dawn.  In his first few hours in office President Biden signed 16 Executive orders rescinding central pillars of Trump’s policy, including overturning Trump’s “Muslim Ban” on travel from majority-Muslim countries and putting a stop to Trump’s family separation policy.   Biden will call a halt to the building of Trump’s border wall, and his administration will stop referring to immigrants as ‘aliens’, and will extend protections against deportation for thousands of Liberians living in the US.  Another of the executive orders signed by Biden calls on Congress to legislate a pathway to citizenship for Americans who were brought into the USA as undocumented children – the ‘Dreamers’ for whom Obama sought to provide some legal protection against deportation via the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme.  All very far cry indeed from the deliberate creation of a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants, which Priti Patel eschews in word even as she embraces it in deed.  Boris Johnson and Priti Patel don’t need a wall, they have the English Channel which Patel has used very effectively to enforce her very own family separation policy via closing off legal routes for unaccompanied refugee children to join extended families in UK. 

Those are particulars.  If one is looking for examples of the contrast between the decency, open-mindedness and generosity of spirit that informed Biden’s inaugural address and the juvenile pettiness and meanness of spirit that characterizes Johnson’s government, one need look no further than its refusal to grant full diplomatic status the EU ambassador to the UK, João Vale de Almeida, and his 25-strong mission.   The Foreign Office’s rationale for this juvenile playground vindictiveness is that it wouldn’t be appropriate to treat an international body as if it were a nation state.  The fact that 142 other countries around the world grant EU Ambassadors the same status as those of sovereign nations is, of course, beside the point in a context where one of the few points of Brexit was to assert British exceptionalism.  In this respect, when it comes to Trumpism, ‘Britain Trump’ is, via his Raab Foreign Secretary side-kick, even succeeding in outdoing Trump who briefly downgraded the EU’s diplomatic status in 2019 before restoring it on the grounds, more articulately expressed by his EU Ambassador, Gordon Sondland, than he ever could himself, that the EU is “a uniquely important organisation, and one of America’s most valuable partners in ensuring global security and prosperity”.**  If even Donald Trump could understand that, Biden’s ascent to the Presidency seems unlikely to come to Johnson’s rescue where salvaging any benefit from the “total mess” of Brexit is concerned. 

There are new dawns and there are new dawns, and some give promise of a lot more light than others.

*  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/joe-biden-cabinet-picks-who-list-b1789950.html

** https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jan/21/uk-insists-it-will-not-grant-eu-ambassador-full-diplomatic-status


			

From David Maughan Brown in York: The Boris and Donald Duo

Follow my Leader

January 9th

One of the more surprising things about Wednesday’s first storming of the Capitol in Washington since August 14th1814 was how surprised and shocked the majority of the world’s politicians and media commentators purported to be.   Trump had pre-emptively started to call the validity of the election, particularly of all postal votes, into question long before Election Day on November 3rd.  For the previous five years, Trump’s Twitter followers, now numbering over 88million, had been encouraged to live in an alternate reality, regaled with a narrative that cast him in the role of the Swamp-Draining Super-hero who was on their side in the battle against the swamp-dwellers.  With that narrative as the base, it was easy for him to build the grand delusion that the election had been fraudulently stolen from him and them; their votes had counted for nothing.  Rather than countering the myth-making, every single one of the 62 failed lawsuits contesting the outcome of the election merely served as further proof to his followers that there was a grand conspiracy at play and that their votes had been stolen.  The indistinguishably socialist/communist/Marxist swamp dwellers were in the process of illegitimately seizing power.

So when, after an inflammatory speech outside the White House, Trump said ‘After this, we’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you.  We are going to be walk down to the Capitol…’ and continued with ‘… you’ll never take back our country with weakness.  You have to show strength, and you have to be strong’, his followers took him at his word and invaded and trashed the Capitol headquarters of the swamp-dwellers, at the cost of five lives.  Trump had omitted to mention that, while he would be with them in spirit, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be with them in person: he had retreated to the safety of the White House.   It is clear from interviews with their leaders in the Capitol that the motley gang of what Biden rightly called insurrectionists genuinely believed that in invading the Capitol they were reclaiming their democracy.  The next day, Trump, having earlier tweeted to the rioters in telling them to go home that ‘We love you. You’re very special’, clearly awoke belatedly to the realisation that his immediate interests lay in disowning any responsibility for inciting the insurrection.  So he promptly betrayed his followers by executing a U-turn worthy of Boris Johnson and declared: ‘Like all Americans I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem.…To those who broke the law, you will pay.’  

The comparison with Johnson, whom Trump once approvingly labeled ‘Britain Trump’, is not coincidental.  When asked, Johnson condemned the invasion of the Capitol and Trump’s role in inciting it: “I unreservedly condemn encouraging people to behave in the disgraceful way that they did in the Capitol.”  But, inadequate as ‘disgraceful’ was as a label for what went on, Johnson’s condemnation came across as the equivalent of Trump’s own volte-face from incitement to insurrection to ‘outrage’ at the insurrection he had incited.  Johnson was Trump’s man and vice versa.  As Foreign Secretary in 2017 Johnson is on record as saying that Trump was doing ‘fantastic stuff’ and ‘making America great again’; in 2018 Johnson bizarrely made the case for Trump to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Needless to say Trump agreed with him: “I’m going to get a Nobel Prize for a lot of things — if they gave it out fairly, which they don’t.”  The admiration was mutual.  Prior to Johnson’s election as Prime Minister by the Conservative Party, Trump told The Sun: “I actually have studied it very hard. I know the different players. But I think Boris would do a very good job. I think he would be excellent. I like him. I have always liked him.”  

The mutual admiration is not a case of opposites attracting.   Both men appear to be entirely lacking in either principles or scruples when it comes to getting what they want.   Both men have been caught out lying countless times, are inveterate womanisers and seem compelled to handicap their effectiveness in government by  surrounding themselves with sycophants of limited or no competence.  Both men belong to a minority social elite, have a history of racist utterances, purport to be men of the people, and, somewhat surprisingly, seem to manage to convince a significant proportion of ‘the people’ that are just that.  Both men foster grand delusions among their voters in order to achieve their political ambitions: Trump’s most recent one being the stealing of the election; Johnson’s being the delusion that Brexit can be of benefit to the UK.  Johnson’s distancing of himself from Trump at this juncture will, as always, be a matter of expediency and opportunism, not principle: he needs now to try to cosy-up to Biden.   The only question for me is whether in similar circumstances our wholly unprincipled Prime Minister would be prepared to incite an invasion of Parliament if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.  He was very happy to prorogue Parliament illegally.  He was entirely comfortable with introducing legislation in Parliament to renege on an international treaty he had himself signed less than a year previously.  I’ll leave it to you to consider the extent to which scruples about democracy would get in the way of Johnson’s ever inciting his followers to violence if he saw it as being in his interests to do so.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Optimist or pessimist?

Q: Why would anyone need a lorry park?
A: To replace the green fields of Kent

December 11th

To get the ball rolling (or, alternatively, decléncher la conversation) at our final U3A French conversation group for the year, our excellent group leader asked us each in turn to say whether, and why, we were feeling optimistic or pessimistic about the prospect of 2021.   I was tempted to offer, but didn’t think my French was up to an instantaneous translation, so refrained from offering, a French version of William E. Vaughan’s definition of the difference: ‘An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.’   

Given that it was a French conversation group, it could be taken as read that our collective vision would by definition extend to the world beyond the white cliffs of Dover, or, perhaps more pertinently, the newly created lorry parks of Kent – one of which has seen 27 acres of the famed green fields concreted over to provide ‘spill-over’ space for around 2000 heavy goods vehicles when the motorway inevitably becomes completely impassable.  Our government’s recently postured conversion to environmentalism would appear not to have seen any contradiction in the creation of 29 such concrete lorry parks around the country to cope with the fall-out from its failure to achieve what it had predicted would be the “easiest (trade) deal in human history”.

But I digress (it is very easy to get carried away when contemplating such matters.)   In spite of the Francophile character of the group, I found that I was the only member to declare himself or herself to be ‘very pessimistic’ in response to the question.  A couple of the other members came down on the side of pessimism, but most declared themselves, overall, to be optimistic in spite of their lack of enthusiasm for Brexit.  In each case this was on the strength of the remarkable success of the scientists in managing to produce an effective vaccine in less than a year.  One member’s partner had already been contacted and given a date for his first vaccination next week.   The vaccine will unquestionably make our lives much easier in the short to medium term, but, however damaging and distressing Covid-19 has been and still is, its longer-term effects are bound to be eclipsed by the damage a no-deal Brexit will wreak.

In what is still, though one suspects not for long, the fifth richest country in the world, the Social Market Foundation recently released a report stating that nearly two million UK children ‘went short of food this year.’  The report stated that some 16% of surveyed parents had said their children had to make do with smaller portions, had to skip meals, or had to go without eating at all for at least one day between March and September.  Any kind of Brexit can only make matters worse over the coming months and years, as every serious economist has been making abundantly clear for years now, and even our congenitally mendacious government has had to admit. The no-deal Brexit we are now hurtling towards, with the introduction of tariffs and the inevitable increase in food prices, will inevitably make matters very much worse.   It is shameful that so many families in UK already have to rely in food banks , and there is a limit to the extent to which food banks, and the likes of Marcus Rashford, can compensate for our government’s stupidities and inadequacies.

If Donald Trump’s reign of chaos and incompetence has been catastrophic for the United States in terms of lost lives and reputation, it seems reasonable to fear that the scar left on his country will be likely, in the medium to long term, to be far less disfiguring and long-lasting than the one that will be left on what is left of the UK by Boris Johnson and his fantasist colleagues.  More individual and family lives in the USA will be permanently scarred by the number of unnecessary deaths that country will have suffered, but most of the short-sighted and often self-defeating policies Trump has embraced can be undone by Biden over the next four years.  Brexit, by contrast, cannot be easily reversed.  The damage Johnson’s contemptibly immoral and dishonest behavior has done to our national standing and reputation is almost certain to be equally irreversible, as is the damage done to our relations with the countries of Europe whom Johnson persists in hypocritically referring to as “our friends”.  Both men have been equally divisive for their countries, and my only hesitation in anticipating that Johnson’s legacy will be far worse in the long term than Trump’s will be lies with the deranged number of guns carried by both sides of the divide in the USA.   

I’ll certainly be staying up on December 31st to make sure that the old year leaves, but I don’t think it is too unreasonable not to be wildly optimistic about the New Year as I see it in.

From David Maughan Brown in York: If you didn’t laugh you would cry

November 20th

With all too little of interest happening on the home front during lockdown, one is obliged to look elsewhere for subject matter to write about.  More traditional theatres being closed, it is a blessing, if a mixed one, that there is more than enough political theatre being enacted on both sides of the Atlantic to provide ample material for blogs, as well as keeping newspapers, journalists and, in particular, comedians and cartoonists in business.   The latter will be viewing the prospect of a very grey future once Donald Trump has eventually been dragged kicking and squealing out of the White House after wreaking whatever damage he can on the United States and the rest of the world in the interim.  Biden comes across as boringly sane and normal by comparison.   This side of the Atlantic, the comedians and cartoonists will be hoping that whoever is in charge will wait a bit longer before they come to the conclusion that putting the clown in charge of the circus was a seriously stupid thing to do and replace him with the far less colourful Rishi Sunak.  It will then be the turn of the playwrights to realise that much of what comes across as high farce in the present provides scope in the future for rewriting as tragedy.  If you didn’t laugh you would cry.

The latest act in the Johnson-Patel political psychodrama has seen considerable fall-out resulting from the long delayed release of a two-page summary of a report by Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minster’s former adviser on ministerial standards, into allegations that Priti Patel, our Honourable Home Secretary (how much irony can one honorific carry?), had been bullying members of the civil service in three separate departments unfortunate enough to have to report to her.  Allan found that the bullying had taken place, if ‘unintentionally’ (!), and that the ministerial code had been broken, which, in terms of every UK precedent, should have led either to the dismissal or the resignation of the Minister concerned.   Instead, Johnson did the exact equivalent of what he had done following Cummings’ excursion to Barnard Castle: demonstrated a total incapacity to learn from his mistakes; in this instance decided that the man responsible for doing the investigation had got it wrong, Patel hadn’t broken the Ministerial code or bullied anyone; and declared that he had full confidence in Patel and the matter was closed. Presumably worried that the media would be nasty to poor Priti in response, Johnson then ordered his MPs to “form a square around the Prittster (sic),” thereby demonstrating that he was, as so often, doubly delusional: first in imagining that he was on a par with the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, and, second, in imagining that the matter was closed.

Sir Alex Allan’s predictable and honourable response to having his painstakingly researched and carefully considered report ignored by Johnson was to resign his role as the independent adviser on the ministerial code.  Trying to advise Johnson on ethics was always going to be an uphill struggle, given that Johnson has made a career out of treating morality and ethics with total contempt.   University Vice Chancellors in general being given the same autocratic free-rein as Prime Ministers, I can understand how Sir Alex would feel, having on one occasion been undermined in a very similar way by one of the four Vice Chancellors to whom I was deputy.  Being unable, unlike Sir Alex, to embellish my CV with a knighthood, I couldn’t afford to resign.  

It is a truism that the distinguishing characteristic of bullies is that they will always pick on those who are weaker than themselves.   Asylum-seekers are among the weakest and most vulnerable people in our society.   Nobody, apart apparently from those sycophantically prepared to form Johnson’s dutiful square around the “Prittster”, needs to read Sir Alex’s long-suppressed report to discover that Patel is a bully: there can be no question that the way the Home Office is treating asylum seekers at the behest of Patel constitutes a particularly cruel and brutal form of bullying.  Could there ever be a more loudly trumpeted invitation to potential bullies to get on with their bullying than the deliberate and overt creation and continuation of a “hostile environment” for any group of people?

Patel’s latest ploy has been to reinstate the regular compulsory reports by asylum seekers to Home Office offices that had been suspended in March on the basis that, however great the temptation, it wouldn’t look good if, after all they have been through to get here, asylum seekers were seen to be succumbing to Covid-19 as a result of having to make unnecessary journeys by public transport to report to the Home Office.  Apparently that doesn’t matter any longer, perhaps because Patel has decided that if they die of Covid that will simultaneously pre-empt the challenges of the “leftist” lawyers who have the unpatriotic cheek plead their cases, and also save her the cost of deporting them all.  It is all grist to the cartoonist’s mill, but none of it is remotely funny.

from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Oops! Sorry, it wasn’t a pizza box!

Our Premier, Steven Marshall looking for explanations

November 22. Well that was a mistake. Our severe lockdown lasted a mere three days. It was announced on Wednesday and by Friday there was a major backtrack.

This weekend the newspapers are full of analysis, recriminations and quite a lot of finger-pointing. What went wrong?

On Monday, our creative writing group had returned from the Flinders Ranges to hear about the ominous virus ooutbreak in our northern suburbs called the ‘Parafield’ cluster. It all seem to be under control until Wednesday when with little notice we were put into severe lockdown.

We were told that this was definitely a more virulent strain of the virus. The only hope for our state was to shutdown at short notice. There was a sense of panic in the community: hour long queues developed outside supermarkets. There was a flurry of emails cancelling appointments, weddings, funerals, travel plans; closing clubs, restaurants etc … think ALL activity outside your home. Borders were closed and incoming flights diverted.

Only one person from each household was to be allowed out once a day to shop. Dogs were not allowed to be exercised.However, people were quite innovative. I noticed walkers with backpacks on the way to shops, sometimes with a large dog in tow which they tied up outside. (For the first time I wore a mask to the supermarket. I found it mildly unpleasant.)

Then on Friday the news came out that the lockdown was unnecessary. There had been a mistake. What went wrong? I suppose we are all in a learning curve and the state government and medical authorities are as well.

Authorities believed that the virus was being transferred into the community on pizza boxes! It seems silly to say this now. But do you remember all that discussion months ago about how the virus could survive on different surfaces?

Contact tracers had interviewed an infected man who said that he had bought a pizza and from a pizza take-away business where another infected person was working. That’s how he had caught the infection. Our authorities jumped to the conclusion that this young man had been infected by merely handling a takeaway pizza. If this was true, then all the people who had collected pizzas during this period needed to be quarantined. Authorities went into overdrive contacting everyone who had been to that pizza parlour. Over 4,000 people were put into quarantine. (I wonder if they all bought pizzas – if so that was one very popular pizza restaurant!)

However, after checking they found out that this individual had lied. He was in fact working shifts at the pizza parlour and had been infected by a colleague working there. Apparently, this makes all the difference. No infected pizza boxes. No hundreds of customers potentially infected.

Our premier Steven Marshall reacted quickly. On Friday he announced the error and declared that on Saturday night the severe lockdown would end. People were allowed out to exercise and take their dogs out walking once more. We are still under restrictions but bearable. We ourselves are going out to lunch at friends shortly – 10 people are allowed to gather. We will be only 8. Outings next week are back on the calendar.

Now people are looking for someone to blame. Why did the authorities not double check when the concept of pizza box transmission seemed a little unlikely?

Why did the young teenager lie? Was he in fact paid cash over-the-counter? That’s avoiding tax. Was he a temporary resident? Perhaps a student struggling? Whatever the story, the poor youngster is in trouble. Apparently, he is being interviewed by the police but it appears there is no real sanction for lie telling. Even the current US president gets away with it daily – on a mighty scale. Why shouldn’t the teenager occasionally protect himself? And perhaps he was frightened and did not realise the enormity of his lie.

Either way, our state has had a shock, emotionally and financially, but we are on the better side of the event: no rampant community transmission.

And most critical, we have no Donald Trump look-alike spinning nonsense to undermine our democracy.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Lock him up!’

November 13th

I suspect that the only way the United States is going to be able to put a metaphorical strait-jacket on Donald Trump, appropriate as a literal one would be, is going to be to turn one of his crowd-rousing rally slogans back on him and “Lock him up!”.  His psychologist niece, Mary, author of Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man, who is making a name (and no doubt a fistful of dollars) for herself with her insights into her grotesque uncle, is quoted by The Independent as saying that ‘He’s psychologically incapable of dealing with, processing or moving on from this kind of loss.  Interfering with a peaceful transfer of power is obviously bad, as is undermining the legitimacy of the incoming administration … but who knows what other kind of smash-and-grab activities he’s going to engage in?’[1]   

Speculation about possible kinds of smash-and-grab activity ranges from pardoning all his criminal cronies on his way out of the White House, to resigning on 19th January so that he himself can be pardoned by stand-in President Spence, to setting up an alternative Presidency ‘in exile’ at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida retreat, for the next four years.  A more benign speculation is that he will simply bide his time and stand for election again in 2024, but that is only marginally more benign as it would, at the very least, involve four more deranged years of racist, xenophobic and misogynistic tweets to his 70 million followers, aimed at further undermining Biden’s administration.  What is certain is that Trump is determined to flout the assumption (and tradition) that outgoing Presidents will behave like adults rather than tantrum-prone toddlers. 

Besides undermining the legitimacy of the democratic process in the USA, this turns the otherwise very sensible 70-day hand-over period between the date of the election and that of the inauguration into a very fraught two months that carries the serious possibility of armed conflict.  There are millions guns in private ownership in the US; we’ve been shown TV footage of heavily armed private militia gearing up for a fight; and Trump’s behaviour, cravenly supported by senior member of the Republican Party, seems at times calculated to encourage violent responses from men with guns.   Investigations are under way into a whole range of potentially criminal acts Trump has been accused of, so locking him up out of political harm’s way might be a good solution, although that would be certain to further enrage what is appropriately referred to as his ‘base’.   The USA does, however, have a written constitution whereby if Trump is still refusing to leave the White House by then, which seems entirely possible, he can be forcibly escorted out of it by the secret service on January 20th.

A number of commentators have suggested that Democracy in the US is in serious danger of being ’broken’.  Donald Trump may be doing his best to help it in that direction, but the USA does at least have that written constitution to fall back on.  Democracy in the UK is arguably on even more shaky ground in that we all too evidently can’t fall back on a written constitution to protect us in the longer term from dangerous mavericks.   The 70-day handover from one duly elected President to another in the US assumes a respect for tradition and a level of decency and political maturity on all sides, but where that is lacking, as in the present case, the law can ensure a resolution to any impasse.   Similarly, our representative democracy in the UK assumes a level of integrity and responsibility on the part of the Members of Parliament who are elected by the people to approve the laws that govern them, and it assumes that it will be the people’s elected representatives who will ultimately be responsible for overseeing the implementation of those laws.  But where this is manifestly not what is happening, where we find ourselves having to ask ‘who is it really that we are being governed by?’, we don’t have any constitutional remedy.   Reinforcing this question, our news headlines have been drawing attention to unedifying stories about Downing Street ‘special advisers’ fighting like ferrets in a sack, and we have been regaled with photographs of the dishevelled losers emerging from the sack into such light as there is on a rainy autumn day in London. Watching them limp off into the gathering dusk one is tempted to wonder whether that is what our democracy has come to. But that merits an entry all to itself.


[1] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/mary-trump-biden-election-emily-murphy-b1721263.html

From David Maughan Brown in York: The naivety of hope.

5th November

One might have thought one had learnt by now.  It wasn’t, surely, possible that people in the UK could be so easily fooled, or perhaps so desperate, that they would think Brexit a good enough idea to vote for.  Wrong.   Donald Trump was so unspeakably awful that, however uninspiring Hilary Clinton might be, there couldn’t really be any serious chance that he might become President.  Wrong again.  Boris Johnson had made such a dog’s dinner of the Brexit negotiations and showed such overweening contempt for parliament that if he were to win the 2019 general election it had, surely, to be by a wafer-thin margin.  Wrong yet again.  Well, anyway, if anything was absolutely certain it had to be that, after four years of racism, misogyny, deranged tweets and 220,000 Covid-19 deaths, the predicted ‘blue wave’ of Biden-voting states must surely materialize as an eminently well deserved landslide come-uppance for Trump.  You didn’t need a vibrantly youthful and charismatic visionary to knock a grotesque caricature of a President out of the park; surely you just needed someone who was decent, intelligent and reasonably articulate? Wrong again – at least where anything remotely resembling a landslide is concerned.

So where does my seemingly irredeemable naivety in such matters come from? High on my list of suspects would be my 43 years spent working in Higher Education.  You can’t spend your working life in the company of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed university students, almost always intelligent and often very idealistic, without coming away with some hope for and belief in the future.   Higher education must, surely, imbue graduates with an ability to distinguish what has a good chance of being true from what is obviously untrue; with some degree of ethical sensibility; with some level of social conscience and environmental awareness?   Wrong again – or, at least, there seems to be a lot of evidence to the contrary. 

60% of the United States electorate is said to be ‘college educated’; 35% of them have bachelor’s degrees.  I haven’t seen a more recent statistic with regard to the number of USA adults who believe that the world really was created in seven days in 4004 BC, but in 2000, when George Bush was elected President via the infamous ‘hanging-chad’ election, the figures I saw indicated that precisely the same proportion of the electorate, marginally over 50%, were full-blooded creationists as had voted for him.  That may, or may not, have been a coincidence.  Sceptics might be inclined to ask: ‘What about the multi-million year-old fossils that would seem to belie this belief?’  The answer to that is obvious:  ‘God planted the fossils in 4004 BC to test our faith.’  If a context of wholly irrational religious belief, which must, statistically, be informing the lack of thinking of many voters in the USA who have been through Higher Education, provides any kind of clue, one can begin to understand some otherwise incomprehensible aspects of the wider intellectual climate behind what our televisions have been showing us over the past few days:  how can so many women be ardent supporters of a man who has such obvious contempt for women? How can any black American possibly support so blatantly obvious a racist?  How can anybody from any religious faith root for a man who has spent the last four years sowing division and hatred, and deliberately fomenting violence?  So, what price universal education, and higher education in particular?

This side of the Atlantic, significantly over 40% of UK voters between the ages of 25 and 65 have first degrees, but it won’t only be the remainder who are sufficiently undiscriminating to regard The Sun, and the Daily Mail as sources of wisdom, nor will it have been only those over 65, many of whom are also university-educated, who will have voted for Brexit and Boris Johnson. It is a commonplace that Trump and Johnson have a great deal in common.  When Johnson stands up and tells us that it is a “moral imperative” to impose a four-week lockdown, we don’t have any reason whatever to think he has any greater acquaintance with the morality he invokes than his grotesque American counterpart.  Trump spent two years at Fordham University and followed that with a bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.   Johnson, as everyone knows, has a degree from Oxford.   Whatever else they might have imbued these two eminences of the global political landscape with, the universities that Trump and Johnson attended have clearly not cultivated in them a sense of morality, or much in the way of common decency.  That will not have stopped the universities in question from regarding Johnson and Trump as a credit to them, or deterred the universities in any way from cynically trying to exploit their political eminence for recruiting and fund-raising purposes.  Such is the nature of the Higher Education marketplace.  But that won’t stop me, perhaps naively, from regarding higher education as being ultimately a force for good, in spite of individual examples to the contrary.

From David Maughan Brown in York: Roosting chickens

October 14th

Flocks of chickens are coming home to roost on our Prime Minister, the supposedly Honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and it isn’t just the odd stray feather they are contributing to his general air of lazy dishevelment.  When the great moment came on Monday for the unveiling the new Covid-19 tiered lockdown system that had been trailed so extensively for the better part of the previous week, Boris Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer, standing a socially distanced few feet beside him, calmly asserted that he had no confidence that it would work.  Immediately after the news conference, the Scientific Advisory Council for Emergencies (SAGE) released the minutes of a meeting it had held on 21st September at which the Government’s own hand-picked scientists unequivocally advocated a short, sharp, ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown as the only way to get the rapidly escalating incidence of infections under control. Boris Johnson rejected their advice and implemented his Rule of Six and the 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars instead, thereby comprehensively demolishing any last remnants of his endlessly repeated claim to have been ‘following the science.’  He can no longer get away with blaming the scientists.

The latest figures show that very nearly 20,000 people were diagnosed as Covid-19 positive in UK yesterday.  There has been an exponential increase in the number of infections, hospitalisations and deaths in the weeks since Boris and his lackeys took that September decision, and we are headed within the next two weeks to equal the March and April numbers in intensive care and we haven’t hit winter yet.  The trailing of the severe Tier 3 restrictions in Liverpool five days in advance inevitably resulted in the predicted partying in the streets on Tuesday night in anticipation of the midnight implementation of the new rules.  The almost unbelievable stupidity of that crowd differed only from the stupidity of the similarly maskless crowd that flocked to Donald Trump’s recent election rally in Florida in that, whereas the stupidity in Florida was suicidal given the age-profile of that crowd, in Liverpool the sozzled revellers appeared to consist largely of young people who probably won’t die themselves but will inevitably be passing the virus on to their elders, some of whom most certainly will die.  The measures brought in by Boris on 21st September as an alternative to the lockdown simply haven’t worked, and there is no reason whatever to imagine that his new Tier system will work either.   The number of infections in York, currently in tier 1, has increased by almost 50% in the past 24 hours.

If the current exponential growth in infections and deaths is stripping the Emperor of whatever clothes he had left, the wedges Johnson’s incompetence has succeeded in driving between the different nations of the supposedly United Kingdom will soon be making his unsightly nakedness even more glaringly apparent.  Northern Ireland has decided to implement the national lockdown Boris is refusing to agree to.  In two weeks time it will be possible to compare the results of the two different approaches to the crisis.  In the meantime the government of Wales has felt obliged to take the extraordinary step of trying to protect the public health of its citizens by banning cars from the North West of England.  Scotland, one gathers, is contemplating taking similar measures.  So some parts of the UK are, indeed, taking control of their borders – but, again, not in the way Boris anticipated.

The flocks of chickens do not cluck in unison.  Johnson is caught between several competing factions.  One flock consist of the supposedly ‘libertarian’, Tory backbenchers who oppose any kind of lockdown on the basis of the damage it does to the economy.   Closer inspection would probably reveal that that group really doesn’t care how many plebs in ‘the North’ die, just as long as their own shares in in the Wetherspoons pub chain don’t take too much of a hit.  That group would be better described as braying rather than clucking.  Another group, including extra-parliamentary experts, is warning the government about the destitution that will result if a lockdown is implemented without adequate support for those whose incomes will suffer: parents won’t be able to buy shoes for their children; women will have to prostitute themselves to keep food on their children’s plates.  The official opposition is demanding a national lockdown along the lines of SAGE’s September recommendations.  The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, is still threatening to bring legal action against the government and refusing to cooperate if restrictions in his area of responsibility are raised to Tier 3 without adequate financial support being put in place

If the variously suicidal or homicidal crowds of revellers and Trump devotees can be fairly described as stupid, their idiocy does not begin to compare with Johnson’s stupidity as he steadfastly lumbers towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit in 10 weeks time, apparently intent on making sure that the worst crisis in UK since World War II gets a whole lot more catastrophic for everybody involved.   And ‘everybody’ includes the entire continent of Europe, even if it will be vastly more catastrophic for us in the still ‘United Kingdom’. Having opportunistically lied and cheated his way into the position from which he can do greatest damage to the country he is supposed to be leading, Johnson fully deserves everything the roosting chickens can dump on him.   If I sound close to despair, it is because I am.

From David Vincent in Shewsbury, UK: On Saints

St. John Henry Newman

September 25. I read that Cardinal Giovanni Angelo Becciu has resigned suddenly over a scandal concerning the purchase of property in London.

This is, of course, not the first time that a large sum has been used to buy housing in the world capital of laundering illegitimate money.  What caught my eye was the role in the Vatican played by the Cardinal, which presumably will be carried on by his successor.  The corrupt prelate was in charge of the department that decides who will become saints.

It might be supposed that in this time of crisis, when the wrath of God is being visited on the children of disobedience, we are in sore need of such exemplary figures.  Since the early days of the pandemic, there has been chorus of praise in the media for the devotion in particular of health professionals who were risking their lives to save the afflicted.  The now discontinued collective applause on Thursday evenings was a diffuse recognition of their selfless dedication.

It is important, however, to look carefully at the criteria for canonisation in the Catholic Church.  Besides leading an ‘exemplary life of goodness and virtue worthy of imitation’, and ideally having suffered martyrdom, the candidate also has to be shown to have performed directly or posthumously two miracles.  Much of Cardinal Becciu’s time will have been spent sifting out candidates who were exemplary moral beings but could not display the requisite number of verifiable miraculous actions.

A miracle is a divine event that has no natural or scientific basis.  The latest English saint, Cardinal Newman, was credited with curing a man’s spinal disease and a woman’s unstoppable bleeding.  I used to teach Newman’s theology for a living as part of a Master’s course in Victorian culture.  He was the leading Christian intellectual of his generation in England, first in the Church of England, and then following his conversion in 1845, in the Catholic Church.  None of his writings, and no scholarly examination of his career, ever featured a personal role curing the sick, but the Vatican managed to find two instances which could not be explained by medical science.

It could be argued that this kind of saint is nothing but a threat in our present difficulties.  The public figure who by his own estimation mostly closely fulfils the criteria of performing actions that defy scientific reasoning is Donald Trump.  Since the outset he has made predictions about the course of coronavirus and the efficacy of remedies (including bleach) that are not only unsupported by medical knowledge but in his terms are the more credible because they are the product of a higher grasp of the truth.  Trump evidently believes that he has access to knowledge that has more authority than the reasoning of toiling scientists.  So, by extension, the internet is awash with covid-19 cures sold on the basis of their superiority to orthodox medicine.

We see it also in the pale imitations of Trump who govern our destiny in Britain.  Whilst they must make a profession of listening to scientists, their narrative of progress is essentially magical.  Johnson has made a series of proclamations about the course of the pandemic which have no basis in evidence-based fact, but are justified only by private insight into the future.  Similarly his hapless Health Secrecy has promulgated achievements and targets for track and testing (with a new app launched yesterday) that are the product of faith rather than substantive calculation. 

Now, more than ever, we should seek solutions that have a rational or scientific basis.  We want leaders of goodness and exemplary virtue; we have no use for saints.

That said, the odd martyrdom would not come amiss.  St Dominic Cummings would be a good start.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘News’?

August 11th

In an earlier blog some weeks ago I voluntarily offered up a plea of ‘guilty’ to spending too much time watching and listening to the ‘News’, even though nobody had actually accused me of doing so.  The point was made to me a couple of days ago, in not particularly accusatory fashion it must be said, that I almost invariably listen to the 7.00 am, 8.00 am and 1.00 pm BBC news and usually watch Channel 4 news (generally much more probing than the BBC) at 7.00pm and the BBC news at 10.00pm.  How sad is that?  The only plea I could make in mitigation was that I hardly ever watch the rolling news on any channel.   I couldn’t even claim that the only reason I indulge this vice is because there is nothing else to do under lockdown, or that I do it in search of something to blog about, because (while I’m coming clean I may as well make a full confession) I tended to do the same before lockdown.  

I suspect that this addiction has its origins in the two decades I spent in South Africa under apartheid when the South African Broadcasting Corporation was one of the main instruments the Nationalist government used for disseminating its unhinged racist propaganda and its paranoid perception of itself as the target of a ‘total onslaught’ from the rest of what it perceived as a communistic world.   For most of those years I was lecturing in a very traditional English Department, which saw itself as a global heir to F.R.Leavis and the New Criticism.  While students at all levels might have been good at analysing poetry, they were, with few exceptions, not applying any of the analytical skills they were acquiring to the language or subject matter of the all too often pernicious media they were consuming.   So, with considerable effort, I managed in the early 1980s to drag a Media Studies course onto the curriculum in the hope of enabling the students to discover that, if history is written by the victors, so the ‘News’ is not a neutral given but is, to a greater or lesser extent, selected for consumption, and controlled by, representatives of the dominant group in any society.   The withering, and wholly ignorant, contempt in which Media Studies as an academic discipline is held by conservatives, and many Russell Group universities (is there a difference?), in spite of the complex and rigorous body of theoretical work behind it, is obviously a reflection of the extent to which they would much prefer what goes into the print and broadcast media not to be subject to rigorous analysis.

So my self-exoneration when it comes to news addiction is that watching and listening aren’t a matter simply of accepting what one is being told or shown but, rather, a questioning of why it is being selected for our consumption in preference to the myriad other things that have happened nationally and globally, and of trying to analyse what lies behind the particular way in which it is being presented.   Sometimes, of course, the interesting thing is what is not being reported on, as with the long silence that suddenly fell on the ‘world-beating’ Test and Trace statistics.  What are we supposed to do, for example, with the daily list of the number of redundancies recently announced at major UK companies, or the wholly unsurprising drip of ‘news’ that their sales are down and their profits have dropped through the floor?   Why is Donald Trump’s being ushered away from a microphone because the US secret service have seen a suspicious man with a gun near the White House (Newsflash: said suspicious man has just been shot) seen as one of the three or four most important things to have happened in the world for the past 12 hours?  To raise our hopes?   One can assume that the difference between the BBC News and Channel 4 News has to do with Tory jabbering about the license fee, and I assume that very precise increases in the official Covid death statistics trotted out every day aren’t intended to depress us as much as to distract our attention from the very much worse ‘excess deaths’ statistics.   But, unlike the apartheid media in South Africa, the broadcast media in UK pose many more questions than they provide answers, and there lies a major part of their addictive interest for me.