Ask Dr Johnson!

Readers send in their questions to Dr Boris Johnson, and he answers them in true Tory fashion.

Dear Dr Johnson,

My husband and I vacationed in Swaziland in the summer of 2018. We went for the glass, but stayed for the sorghum! Since then, I discovered I have a large, cauliflower-shaped rash on my left elbow. What is this rash, and do you know of a cure?

Matilda Heath-Mullins

Dear Matilda,

I’m sorry to hear of your ‘rash’ vacation exploits. If it truly is cauliflower-shaped, then perhaps some form of pesticide would avail you. What I always say is British cauliflowers are the best cauliflowers! But under EU regulations, our fantastic British cauliflowers are forbidden to be sold on U.S. Army bases or cooked in U.S. Army kitchens. So we need to get Brexit done, leave the EU, and forge ahead with an amazing new trade deal. Then I’m sure we will experience a veritable renaissance in British cauliflower-growing and consumption. Speaking of consumption, your unusual rash could be a symptom of the latter. I’d have that looked at if I were you.

I happen to be a Swaziland trivia buff. Did you know that the King of Swaziland has 15 wives and 23 children? This hardly compares with the British aristocracy, but they are good people and they are trying.

Swaziland is, of course, a member of the Commonwealth and an area where we’ve already negotiated a fantastic post-Brexit free trade deal. They will be sending us goat meat, and we will be sending them videos of Downton Abbey. Cheers!

Boris Johnson
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Dear Dr Johnson,

My little Timmy was playing in the lanes when seemingly out of the blue a lorry carrying elderberries bore down and ran over his tail. We rushed him to A&E at Shrewsbury and Telford, but the wait was horrific. During the 11 hours before Timmy was seen, he lost a lot of blood. It was gushing out all over the waiting room floor, putting us rather in mind of the Hammer Horror era. Finally, a very nice but tired-looking Indian doctor examined him and confirmed that he had, indeed, lost a lot of blood. He said there was a shortage of hemoglobin due to Tory austerity measures, and there was nothing he could do. We buried Timmy in the back yard the next day, and since then our marriage has hit the rocks. My husband’s been made a dundancy and now collects alarm clocks. What do you advise, and how is it the Tories have instituted such drastic cuts that everyone’s tail is on the chopping block?

Melody Rundquist

Dear Melody,

I’m afraid I cannot agree with the premise of your question. Under this Conservative government, hemoglobin production is up 73%, and the production of other bodily fluids has vastly increased. The previous Labour government left us with no bodily fluids whatsoever, and a crudely scribbled note saying ‘Ham in fridge’. Well, that’s the Labour Party for you! Since taking office, this Conservative government has been proactive in increasing bodily fluids across the board. We are directly responsible for upping bile production by 36%, and vomitus by 43%. But we are not ones for resting on our collective laurels. My simple campaign pledge to the people of Shropshire is this: Return me as Prime Minister, and I will level up semen production to hitherto undreamt of levels, and produce a race of British Supermen ready to fight the Third World War!

Coming back to your original question: You fail to state categorically (but strongly imply) that little Timmy was of the, ah, canine persuasion (hence the tail). If Timmy was what we Etonians call Canis lupus familiaris, I must regretfully inform you that, unfair as it may seem, home sapiens receive priority treatment at most A&Es. I am neither a veterinarian, funeral director, nor marriage counselor, so am unable to advise you further.

Boris Johnson

P.S. Under this Conservative government, elderberry production has seen an increase of 26.3%, far greater than any other EU country. The alarm clocks are harmless, unless taken internally.
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Dear Dr Johnson,

My wife and I live in West Mersea and are both consummate fish freaks — though as I might prudently add, very conventional in other respects. In our garden pond, we have everything from bass to herring to octopi, and have managed to get them to live harmoniously together by singing to them regularly. They mostly prefer folk tunes, but do not complain too loudly if we slip in a bit of Cole Porter, or the odd aria from Pagliacci. (My wife likes to dress up as Cher and sing ‘Believe’.) Anyway, just last week our prize orangutan Pepe began exhibiting listlessness and shortness of breath. He refused to swim with the other fish, and began whistling ‘Show Me The Way To Go Home’ on an almost nonstop basis. My wife says it sounds more like the love theme from Romeo and Juliet (the film version with Olivia Hussey), but that is neither here nor there. Pepe also seems to compulsively report the latest news headlines every half hour. What can we do?

Frank and Mildred Wylkes

Dear Frank and Mildred,

Take it from one who knows: You and your wife are not just freaks, but (with apologies to Rick James), superfreaks. Keeping an orangutan in with the fish is bound to dampen their spirits (as well as the orangutan), and Cher impressions are quite déclassé. It all sounds rather hopeless. Orangutans are not good swimmers, and the shortness of breath you describe is entirely to be expected when a tree-dwelling mammal remains in aquatic conditions for extended periods.

Even I sometimes experience shortness of breath in my renowned role as a cunning linguist. And while I regularly pose with fish and fishmongers (see photo below), I am not, strictly speaking, an ichthyologist — nor is Pepe even a fish.

Boris Johnson demonstrates his fish snoggery technique while being coached by a past master

I am therefore unable to answer your question definitively, but have a sneaking suspicion your orangutan has swallowed a small transistor radio. (The news headlines every half hour are more or less a giveaway.) The tune he whistles may be a manifestation of homesickness (as orangutans are not native to West Mersea), but it could also be a mating call. If the Romeo and Juliet theme gets on your nerves, try teaching him something from Porgy and Bess, or any love song that you find more agreeable. Orangutans are talented mimics, and he’s bound to pick it up in no time.

However, I fear that as with certain other letter-writers, your query is rife with superfluous detail and strays rather far from my core area of expertise. I hope future correspondents will stick more to the point, and not take unfair advantage of what is (after all) a free service provided by the Crown.

Boris Johnson
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Dear Dr Johnson,

We have a yellow-fronted Amazonian parrot which we love dearly. We think it’s a male, so we named it Romulus. But lately, it has developed a discolouration in the region of the beak. This used to be greyish-brown, but now shows a large white rectangular area. Romulus is very fond of marshmallows, and we worry that feeding ‘him’ too many marshmallows has caused the discolouration. Do you recommend a change of diet?

Edna and Edith Farthingworth

Dear Edna and Edith,

Firstly, I must protest the proliferation of pet complaints among these letters! I state (and repeat for emphasis) that I am not a veterinarian. I did once sleep with a veterinarian, but it was a one-night stand, and she later voted for the Liberal Democrats. I wish her well… As for your Amazonian parrot, I’m afraid it’s suffering from a condition which we Tories call ‘surrender bill’. The large white rectangular area is a classic symptom.

I advise you to prorogue your parrot for at least five weeks, or as long as the Supreme Court will allow. After that, treat it as you would any mushroom, writer, or parliamentarian: Keep it in the dark, and feed it lots of sh-t.

Marshmallows are right out, at least until ‘his’ beak returns to normal. If you have an excess supply of marshmallows, you can send them to my honourable friend the MP for Rayleigh and Wickford, who has a peculiar yen for marshmallows. (He puts them in a pudding.)

Boris Johnson
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Dear Dr Johnson,

Help! I’m trapped on a fishing boat with a curved cucumber and no condoms. Am I in violation of EU law?

Signed,

Distressed

Dear Distressed,

While your question is not a medical one, it does relate to Brexit, so I feel qualified to answer. EU regulations concerning curvature of vegetables only apply to rutabagas, and even then only on oddly-numbered days. As for condoms… EU law requires that all fishing boats be equipped with condiments. I’m afraid this is a rare case where the Sun did cause needless panic due to inaccurate reporting. We must get Brexit done and dusted so that we can finally be free of all these draconian regulations which no one rightly understands. I myself have fallen foul of EU regs regarding serial liars and pompous windbags. Apparently I need some sort of license, or a jab with some foul, froggy concoction that will make me sound like Jacques Cousteau.

Boris Johnson
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Send in your letters to Ask Dr Johnson!, but please do keep questions on-topic.

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Disclaimer: All names of letter-writers and pets are fictional. Any resemblance to real parrots, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Boris Johnson: Too Clever By Half

Latest Brexit news. Johnson’s “three letters” strategy for weaseling out of the Benn Act and Letwin Amendment is sure to infuriate Remainers. But how will the Scottish court react, and will Johnson’s two-faced (or many-faced) behaviour gain him political advantage?

No question about it: At the populist level where Johnson currently hangs, this latest brush with unlawful behaviour is seen as a hearty f-ck you to Hilary Benn, Oliver Letwin, the Scottish Court of Session, and Remainers in general. But will the tactic succeed or backfire?

My guess is that Johnson will lose in the Scottish court, and then in the Supreme Court, but may score political brownie points by showing himself to be recklessly obsessed with leaving the EU, thus giving Nigel Farage a run for his money.

Money is indeed what worries me at this juncture. The Tories have always been the party of big money, and I wouldn’t put it past them to find a couple of billion with which to essentially bribe some DUP and Labour MPs to vote for Johnsons’s deal. It might be dirty money, but by the time an investigation uncovers this, Brexit may be done and dusted. (I’m speaking hypothetically here. I possess no evidence of actual wrongdoing.)

The three letters strategy undoubtedly seems clever to Johnson and his cronies, but looks rather bonkers to people outside the UK, as if the Brits have finally and completely lost their minds.

The subtext of Johnson’s letter to EU leaders is: “Just ignore Parliament, just ignore the law they passed. Pretend they’re some crazy aunt locked up in the basement of Westminster. We in the Big Boys Club can manage our own affairs without them.”

This pivots to the underlying legal questions: Is Parliament truly sovereign? If they pass a law requiring Johnson to ask for an extension, does that law make asking for an extension the official policy of the UK? And if so, is Johnson required to carry out that policy with integrity, without attempting to undermine or lobby against it? If he intentionally refrains from signing the letter, and also sends (or causes to be sent) additional letters which discourage the EU from granting the extension, does this frustrate the will of Parliament, and frustrate the intention of the law? Will the courts empower some third party to send a more “official” letter that actually includes a signature?

Just as with his unlawful prorogation of Parliament, Johnson is once again acting like a monarch. But he’s continuing to follow the same populist playbook: People vs. Parliament, with Johnson cast as ardent defender of the Will of the People for Brexit. This is rather sick-making for those who see through all the lies and propaganda.

Sadly, the opposition parties find it difficult to agree on a unified strategy, as this rather bonkers news report vividly illustrates (starting at around 13:20):

It underscores my theory that Brexit is like a monkey wrench thrown into the Parliamentary system, causing it to break down (at least temporarily). What’s happening is not stagnation or paralysis, but rather an extended tug-of-war, or a flushing operation needed to restore normalcy. Remain is the normal, sensible state of the UK in relation to the EU, and the best possible deal that can be gotten. People should not give in to Brexit, which remains (as it has always been) an eccentric project of English Conservatives. Stay strong, and keep flushing the system with the Drano of truth! Don’t give in to Tory sandbagging.

The opposition may be driven over the edge by Johnson’s latest antics, which are not just unlawful but insulting, seeking as they do to relegate Parliament to the position of a potted plant. Paraphrasing an old saw: “Don’t get mad, cooperate!” It’s not impossible that opposition parties may finally agree on a vote of no confidence followed by a caretaker PM (John Bercow???). If Johnson is out as Prime Minister, it seems likely the EU would grant an extension to allow the dust to settle. Still, I admit the Tory steamroller is powerful.

The quote that “Character is destiny” is attributed to Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Political number-crunchers believe the Tories need to woo Labour votes to get Brexit over the line. But the supercilious qualities exhibited by Johnson, Rees-Mogg, et al. tend to frustrate any such efforts.

At the end of Saturday’s main festivities in the House of Commons, the Tories left the Speaker and the Opposition without a flaming flamingo of a clue as to what would be happening on Monday. Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the House, was purposely tight-lipped, and unexpectedly did a runner when fellow MPs tried to pry loose crumbs of information.

MPs were equally stymied as to how Johnson planned to both obey the law (as he promised in a filing with the Scottish court), and yet not send a letter requesting an extension to the EU. Tracking Brexit has given me a warm spot in my heart for the Scottish Nationalists, who often come up with off-the-wall jokes about the Tories. Pete Wishart (always good for a guffaw) piped that Johnson could announce his plans on Strictly Come Dancing. One can easily picture a conga line snaking around the studio, consisting of all the people Johnson has b.s.’d over the years.

If you know the plot to The Producers, you know that Max Bialystock got in trouble by promising too much to too many different people. Likewise, Boris Johnson’s trust issues seem to be reaching a zenith with his sellout of the DUP (by putting a customs border in the Irish Sea), and by the incompatible assurances he’s reportedly giving to both the ERG and Labour.

The gentle Sir Keir Starmer metaphorically drew blood with his trenchant analysis of the weaknesses and hypocrisy inherent in the Johnson deal:

Starmer asked why it’s necessary to weaken provisions guaranteeing workers’ rights and environmental protection — unless, of course, you want to deregulate in these areas. Again, it’s rather sick-making when Johnson et al. claim the purpose of weakening these provisions is so that the UK can exceed EU standards. Definite Orwellian territory. As Starmer elucidates so clearly, there’s no law against exceeding EU standards. You only weaken these provisions if you plan to lower standards over time.

Well, so ends another crazy day in Westminster. And you thought things were surreal when every newscast was accompanied by Glockenspiel Man!

Possibly not in the G-Man’s repertoire:

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Links

“Boris Johnson’s Saturday drama turns to farce – and it was all his own fault”
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/20/boris-johnson-saturday-drama-turns-to-farce-all-his-own-fault

“Labour could back Brexit bill if second referendum attached, says Starmer”
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/oct/20/labour-could-back-brexit-bill-if-second-referendum-attached-says-starmer

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Brexit: Further Discussion of Leavers’ Motives

Is the EU crackdown on tax havens another reason for Brexit? We also discuss the Tories’ love of statistics and economic theories, which can sometimes obscure the faces of real people and how they’re affected (Windrush). What about Guy Verhofstadt’s claim that some Brexiters want to turn the UK into a “Singapore at the North Sea”?

In a previous post, I suggested that we might expand on Zanny Minton Beddoes’ analysis of Brexit as a coalition between “red trousers” and “blue collars.” I posited the existence of a third and distinguishable group who funded Brexit, which I dubbed the “rich uncles.” Under that rubric, I listed financial speculators, anti-regulation corporate actors, and Russians or third parties representing Russian interests.

A correspondent has identified another group of “rich uncles” who might fund Leave: those whose wealth is greatly enhanced through the use of tax havens, and who are keenly aware that the EU is trying to crack down on tax avoidance schemes. See these links (as supplied to me):

“European commission to crack down on offshore tax avoidance”
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/jun/18/european-commission-to-crackdown-on-offshore-tax-avoidance

“The more we learn about Brexit, the more crooked it looks”
https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-more-we-learn-about-brexit-the-more-crooked-it-looks/2019/03/08/b011517c-411c-11e9-922c-64d6b7840b82_story.html

“EU blacklist names 17 tax havens and puts Caymans and Jersey on notice”
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/dec/05/eu-blacklist-names-17-tax-havens-and-puts-caymans-and-jersey-on-notice

“The Brexiters who put their money offshore”
https://www.theguardian.com/news/2017/nov/09/brexiters-put-money-offshore-tax-haven

“Revealed: Isle of Man firm at centre of claims against Arron Banks”
https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/01/isle-man-company-allegations-arron-banks-leave-eu-brexit

“Arron Banks and Brexit’s offshore secrets”
https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/dark-money-investigations/brexit-s-offshore-secrets-0/

“UK and territories are ‘greatest enabler’ of tax avoidance, study says”
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/may/28/uk-and-territories-are-greatest-enabler-of-tax-avoidance-study-says

Of course, the nature of international finance means that much is purposely kept opaque. It’s hard for even seasoned investigators from a single nation to penetrate the complex web of offshore entities woven by those whose speciality is minimising tax bills for their clients. If you’re staring at a financial black box which stretches (hypothetically and figuratively) from the Isle of Man to U.S. Guam, how do you know whether what’s inside is legal or illegal? Where did the money trail begin or end?

This makes it hard to draw direct arrows, and leads to stories which show connections between parties without being able to state categorically that any of them broke the law. Such international finagling to hide assets and minimise taxes certainly looks fishy, is not easily policed, and seems to rarely result in jail time for those caught crossing the (barely visible) line between what you can get away with, and what’s illegal. Those doing the finagling often seem to be one step ahead of the regulators.

Where the world of international finance intersects with the world of Brexit, there are huge clouds of smoke, but so far no one has been able to locate an actionable fire. All those black box entities and subsidiaries of subsidiaries tend to mask the flames.

Brexit is obviously a project of English Conservatives, who have historically been the party of big money; so showing the connection between big money and Brexit is helpful but not earth-shattering — unless investigators can nail down specific violations, and those violations are not swept under the rug.

It can be difficult to prove who owns exactly what, or to be certain which Leavers are motivated by what factors, given that Leave has become a mass movement or mania. Perhaps no one theory explains Brexit — or at least no one theory explains all the different subgroups who’ve piled on.

There seems little doubt that the uber-wealthy with tons of offshore money can be passionately pro Brexit, and not averse to playing the role of “rich uncle.” This includes the owners of some tabloids. In a sense, this fills in a missing puzzle piece: Most EU regulations don’t impact negatively on the daily lives of most UK citizens. In fact, quite the opposite: EU regulations tend to guarantee workers’ rights, safe food and medicine, etc. Why then have numerous fake news stories been circulated about the EU, with themes typically suggesting that the EU is going to ban something Britons like, e.g. pounds and ounces?

There’s a whole website devoted to debunking such Euromyths, which often appear in tabloids like the Sun. (And yes, the EU did alphabetize them. The C’s alone contain Euromyths about everything from condoms to cucumbers. Fishing boats must carry cucumbers, and condoms must be straight. Or maybe I have that wrong, and it’s the fishermen who must be straight…)

Perhaps one explanation for recent Euromyths touted to the public is that the EU is actually poised to crack down on offshore tax avoidance schemes, an issue which only affects the uber-rich. So the public must be given fake reasons to hate the EU.

Who are the con men, and who are the conned? If Brexit in some respects resembles a huge Ponzi scheme or multi-level marketing scam, there may be some people situated at the mid-level who are true believers, and whose sales pitch is sincere (if misguided). There are also those “good government” types for whom process is more important than outcome. They argue that regardless of how the Leave vote was won, a majority did vote for Leave, so government is duty-bound to implement it. (Flawed logic, in my opinion.)

Brexit is sometimes described as an outward manifestation of a decades-long Tory psychodrama. Some Tories exhibit an inbred sense that they are born to rule and born to empire. There’s an element of paternalism in that, an often unspoken assumption that what the English decide will (of course!) be best for Scotland and the other nations; and if the system is gamed to favour the English aristocracy, the poor will benefit from the runnel. (A variation on trickle-down economics.)

One should therefore not assume that the Tories hate the poor or wish them ill, or that every Tory move is a conscious plot to harm the less fortunate. Many Tories live in their own bubble world (as do members of many political, social, and religious groupings.) The Tories are able — through a combination of willful blindness, paternalism, superciliousness, and over-reliance on questionable statistics — to believe that all their policies are beneficial — even where a more objective analysis would tend to reveal manifold harms.

Perhaps, rather than there being a single conspiracy theory which explains Brexit, there is a confluence of interests at the top of the pyramid, coupled with the power and influence to persuade those lower down that Brexit is something beneficial. It must be remembered that some Labour MPs have their own reasons for supporting Brexit, such as political expediency or ideological disagreement with the EU.

I want to be clear that I consider some Tories to be very decent folk who would personally extend kindness to anyone in need, and who favour policies which they honestly believe to be of benefit — not just to the upper class, but to the nation as a whole. Even some Tories who voted for austerity measures did so because, based on their education and upbringing, they were absolutely convinced that debt reduction was the only viable choice following the Great Recession.

But as for Brexit, that policy remains redolent with the stench of lies. Maybe those who consciously craft the lies are more guilty than those who merely go along with them; but if we all had a more sincere longing for truth, and were more scrupulous in rejecting lies (and in permanently expelling politicians caught lying), then we might be able to fashion a Brexit-free zone.

Each individual has a role to play in creating a society which is fundamentally honest. At the same time, improvements in education might help the general public identify the techniques of populism, and understand how social media can be used to unfairly manipulate opinion. A better-informed and educated public is less likely to be deceived by politicians who use populist techniques to put over elitist policies like Brexit.

Lies, damned lies, and statistics

The Tories are fanatics for statistics. According to them, everything is going swimmingly well, and life is getting better and better each day! On the other hand, one hears that food banks are overflowing with customers, homelessness is epidemic, and some schools close on Fridays because they can’t afford to stay open five days a week. A United Nations report (presumably apolitical) states that poverty in the UK is “systemic” and “tragic.” According to Prof Philip Ashton — the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty — quoted in this BBC article: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

I would argue that said replacement also creates a need to relocate blame for the harsh conditions thus created. Don’t blame vulture capitalists for the financial meltdown of 2008, nor blame the Tories for subsequent austerity measures. If you’re living in poverty, blame immigrants and the EU, and threaten to riot if Parliament thwarts the “will of the people” by failing to pass the government’s Brexit deal. (Obviously, I’m being sarcastic.)

However well-meaning some Tories may be, their love of statistics and economic theories may blind them to the real world consequences of policies which look good on paper — or which at least make them look good to their conservative base. The Windrush scandal was caused in part by excessive zeal to make good on Conservative Party promises to decrease net immigration figures. The people affected by the policies had real faces and real stories, which Amelia Gentleman brings to light in her book The Windrush Betrayal: Exposing the Hostile Environment:

Yet, these people didn’t seem to “register” with government bureaucrats intent on tamping down the figures.

I don’t want to wax alarmist, but still: When we hear government ministers talk about “short-term displacements” caused by Brexit, we need to ask, “How many people will die because of Brexit?” It’s a valid question, even if not a polite or subtle one. It concerns those people just barely getting by today who may go under if conditions worsen even slightly.

Returning to the possible motives of Leavers: It’s widely implied in UK media that changes to the backstop are the only aspect of Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal which fails to meet with EU approval. But if you suss out EU spokespeople, it’s clear they’re also objecting to a “downgrade” of the political declaration which scraps language guaranteeing workers’ rights and environmental protections. See “Beyond the backstop: how Johnson wants to change Brexit deal” in the Guardian.

These changes scrapping certain protections lend credence to the theory that Johnson has thrown in his lot with those who favour a low tax, low regulation Singaporean model for post-Brexit Britain. Witness this exchange in EU Parliament, where Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt accuses the (perennially loud-mouthed) Brexit Party of wanting to turn the UK into “a Singapore at the North Sea”:

The video is edited by the Sun to bring out conflictual elements and perhaps glorify the Brexit Party; but it does suggest that some European leaders think they know what the end game for Brexit really is.

As always, you can pick your theory of choice. And by the way, the video does show that factionalism and incivility are not confined to the House of Commons. Madam President, I would accuse Mr Farage, that worthless piece of belly-button lint, of closing the Barnier door after the horse has already gone to the Verhofstadt… 😉

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Brexit, Strange Loops, Star Trek and the New Johnson Plan

Understanding where we are with Brexit, by examining where we’ve been. We also ask the question: How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?

Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan has been dubbed “two borders for four years.” Pardon me, but wasn’t that the basic setup for Rising Damp?

Of the many possible scenarios describing where Brexit is headed, in this post I’m concerned with one particular scenario which sports these features:

– The UK doesn’t leave the EU on October 31st.
– Boris Johnson or another government official is forced by the Benn Act to request an extension.
– The EU grants an extension of a couple of months.
– A general election ensues in the UK.
– The election returns either a hung Parliament, or a very slender, unconvincing Tory majority.

Some would call this the “back where we started” scenario, since it’s more or less where we stood after Theresa May called a snap election in 2017. But it’s also an example of a strange loop. The main feature of strange loops is that after traveling a considerable distance and expending a lot of energy, you find yourself (inexplicably) back where you started. I first read about strange loops in Doug Hofstadter’s book Gödel, Escher, Bach. One of several examples he cites is a Bach piece which modulates into different keys, seemingly getting farther and farther away from the starting point, but (surprisingly) arriving back at the “home” key by the final bar (though an octave higher). Such is the endlessly-rising canon from Bach’s Musical Offering.

One type of strange loop often explored in sci-fi and fantasy is the time loop, of which a popular example is “Cause and Effect,” an episode of the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation. (The film Groundhog Day is another example.) You can read more about the TNG episode here. (I leave it to Whovians to enumerate all the relevant Doctor Who episodes.)

When characters are caught in a time loop, they keep re-experiencing the same set of actions or circumstances (sometimes with minor variations). They may gradually become aware that they’re caught in a time loop, and evolve a strategy for breaking out of it. This might consist of tying a string around one’s finger (metaphorically speaking), so that when one heads back into the next iteration of the loop, one has some inkling of what to do or not to do — what to change in order to not keep getting the same result. As this applies to Brexit, we need to understand what mistakes Theresa May made in nearly identical circumstances, and resolve not to make them again.

After the snap election of 2017, Theresa May lost her majority in Parliament, and had to enter into a so-called “confidence and supply agreement” with the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland in order to have even a slender working majority. Under those circumstances, passing legislation (especially if it’s controversial) requires working across the house to reach a compromise. So, a Conservative prime minister would need to compromise with Labour on an issue like Brexit.

However, Theresa May insisted on acting as if she had carte blanche to push through her preferred Brexit deal, regardless of what opposition parties thought about it. She kept bringing the same deal back again and again, trying to force Parliament to vote for it by threatening that it was either her deal or no deal. This brute force strategy went over like the proverbial lead balloon. It exasperated and infuriated Parliament; but May didn’t begin to change it until the end of her tenure, by which time it was too late.

What May had mostly done was to throw scraps of meat to her right flank, i.e., to the European Research Group (ERG), the most ardent Brexiters. Those scraps of meat failed to satisfy them, and they ended up eating her instead, then installing Boris Johnson, whom they regarded as more Brexity. (Meet the new boss, worse than the old boss…)

Under our specified scenario, Johnson may find himself in much the same pickle as Mrs. May, with little room to negotiate. Still, Johnson (or whoever is PM) should not repeat the mistakes of the previous loop, by trying to force through a hard Brexit that Labour, the Lib Dems, and the Scottish Nationalists can’t sign onto. Rather, the next PM should negotiate in good faith across the house in order to arrive at a deal which can both gain a majority in Parliament, and also satisfy the core concerns of the EU regarding the Irish backstop.

This would probably result in a softer Brexit than the ERG would like; but what’s lost in ERG votes would ideally be made up with more votes garnered from opposition parties. Compromise may or may not be possible (or even desirable), but that’s probably what genuine compromise would look like. That’s a way out of the dreaded time loop.

A soft Brexit is still inferior to the deal which the UK currently enjoys with the EU, but a soft Brexit would at least be less damaging than a hard Brexit or no-deal Brexit. How remarkable that a policy originally sold as bringing sunlit uplands and windfalls for the NHS should, in the cold light of morning, be revealed as a policy requiring us to minimize the damage. If I hear one more person say, “We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this,” I’ll seriously freak!

A footnote on compromise: It requires trust, but Johnson is considered untrustworthy, especially after he tried to prorogue Parliament for five weeks and pretend that was normal. (The Supreme Court decided it wasn’t.) At the time, I had this recurring image of a young and foolish lad taking a cricket bat to a hive of bees: “Take that, you dratted bees!” — not thinking what would happen if the bees survived. And indeed, when Parliament returned on September 25, their marathon session was filled with rancour.

Some female Labour MPs were basically telling Johnson: Don’t call the Benn Act the Surrender Act, because we get death threats quoting that language, and one of our number (Jo Cox) was murdered by a right-wing extremist. To which Johnson replied “Humbug!” and continued to repeat “Surrender Act” about 12 times, allegedly because it tested well with his base. Perhaps both sides were responsible for the breakdown in civility, but on this occasion I can’t help feeling that the Tories were the worse provocateurs.

Latest Brexit Gripes

Just now I heard a fellow from the Brexit Party, Julian Malins Q.C., describing a no-deal Brexit as a “clean break.” It is anything but. After 45 years of intense cooperation between the UK and EU, there are many, many helpful structures which connect the two, covering multiple areas: everything from food, medicine, finance, education, travel, security arrangements, and shared commitments to continuing peace in Europe. It may help you to picture these structures as a great expanse of skyscrapers filled with offices where people have spent decades learning to cooperate on all the issues which together comprise the minutiae of daily life. Their successes greatly outnumber their failures.

A no-deal Brexit means that most of those structures are demolished overnight, leaving only rubble. It is not a “clean break.” Rather, on November 1 you’re faced with the daunting task of cleaning up that rubble, and starting to build new structures to replace the ones you destroyed with a no-deal Brexit. You are now outside the EU, so the terms you can negotiate are less favourable than before. Plus, you’re likely, at the very outset, to face the same issues you failed to resolve during prior negotiations, as this BBC article astutely points out.

Another of my gripes is the claim: “Parliament can only say what they’re against, but not what they’re for.” Here, it helps to put aside the Leave/Remain dichotomy for a moment, and concentrate solely on getting the best deal possible from the EU. The Brexit which was advertised in 2016 has proved undeliverable. After years of research and discussion, it’s become apparent that the Brexit which is deliverable is not much liked by either Leavers or Remainers. Its benefits fall far short of what was promised, and far short of what the UK currently enjoys through EU membership. At the same time, the problems created by Brexit are manifold. Some may even be insuperable.

Parliament has been voting fairly consistently for the best deal the UK can get from the EU, which on careful inspection turns out to be the deal the UK already has. It helps to get over this polarization around Remain and Leave. Remain is a label for one kind of deal with the EU, while Leave is a label for a different kind of deal. Those who compare them carefully and objectively tend to find that Remain is the better deal.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the general public is majority Leave, while Parliament is majority Remain. It pains me to say this, but one possible explanation for the divergence is that Brexit is a specialist subject which requires thoughtful analysis by persons with some background in the relevant fields, or a general ability (as well as the time and interest) to educate themselves. Based on my informal survey (through media ingestion) of man-or-woman-in-the-street opinions about Brexit, the general public largely lacks these qualifications, while many people in Parliament possess them.

The problem is complicated by the ways in which propaganda and money were used to turn public opinion against the EU. Parliamentarians, being politicians themselves, tend to be more aware of how propaganda and money can distort reality; they can (potentially) see through the conjuring tricks, and plot a course which is more sane and rational. That’s one of the benefits of representative democracy over direct democracy.

If the general public were to develop a mad posh for putting arsenic in their tea, one hopes that Parliament would be proactive in passing legislation which makes arsenic difficult to obtain, in order to reduce the number of deaths. Populists might call that Parliament thwarting the will of the people. I would call it Parliament acting responsibly to protect the interests of the people — Parliament doing its constitutional duty while receiving precious little thanks.

What we find in the present period is that populist strongmen want to bypass (or prorogue) democratic institutions set up as safeguards — safeguards intended to prevent mad poshes from leading the country into ruin. Like the madness for tulip bulbs in the early seventeenth century, or Internet stocks in the late twentieth, Brexit is such a mad posh. There are a few people — very shrewd and wealthy — who may benefit from it (e.g. financial speculators, disaster capitalists, Russian oligarchs), but for most people it is likely to lead to a reduced standard of living, particularly in the short term. And while the quote from Keynes that “in the long run, we are all dead” is often taken out of context, it does have its broader application to the ethics of Brexit. Short-term displacements will hit the poor hardest, especially women in their role as caregivers. Baroness Bull waxes eloquent on this point:

Perhaps the biggest threat to women is dependent on what happens to our economy if — and after — we leave the EU. Any negative impacts of an orderly Brexit, or, in the worst case, of leaving without a deal, will hit women — specifically, the most vulnerable women in our society — hardest. Reductions in public spending have a higher impact on women, as the primary users of public services. Cuts in public sector employment or pay disproportionately affect women because of their greater concentration in this sector. Strains on social care increase pressures on women because they are more likely to care for elderly or disabled family members.

Baroness Bull of Aldwych

In what I may be so bold as to call the “consciousness” of Brexit, there is a certain hard-heartedness or lack of empathy. Perhaps this is why those women who speak up for the poor and downtrodden, and oppose Brexit because they know it will most harm those least able to cope with scarcity, are targeted for abuse and accused of being traitors. For in the consciousness of Brexit, there is also some misplaced relic of World War II thinking, as if the EU were an enemy which must be vanquished, and those who favour Remain are somehow collaborators. So, in addition to many logical reasons for opposing Brexit, one can oppose it because one recognizes that it does not proceed from a good consciousness, but rather from a distorted picture of reality which seems to bring out people’s hatred and misogyny.

The dove has torn her wing, so no more songs of love…

Expanding on Zanny Minton Beddoes’ Analysis of Brexit

Another person who’s influenced my thinking on Brexit is Zanny Minton Beddoes, who edits The Economist. She’s smart, poised, and a terrific explainer of things Brexit and UK politics, as here:

She suggests that the reason the Brexit referendum succeeded is because it was a coalition between “red trousers” and “blue collars.” The “blue collars” are obviously blue-collar workers. The “red trousers” are the wing of the Conservative Party which have historically been Eurosceptics and have (for decades) clamoured and harrumphed for the UK to leave the EU. It may be argued that prior to 2016, they were largely dismissed as nutters.

Similarly, before 2016 few “average” Britons thought much about the EU. Leaving it was not high on their list of priorities, and doing so certainly had no aura of a universal panacea about it. They did not believe the EU had robbed them of their sovereignty or depressed their wages until they were heavily propagandized to believe so. Realistically, the financial crisis of 2008 followed by years of austerity were major factors leading to deplorable conditions for the poor. As the joke about Tory austerity goes, “There are too many libraries in Wolverhampton. We must shut them down!”

What I want to focus on is exactly how did this “coalition” between red trousers and blue collars develop? Was it spontaneous combustion, or something more akin to arson? Did either the red trousers or blue collars possess both the means and willingness to pour millions of pounds into the Leave campaign? If not, where did those millions come from? Is there a third group which we might call “rich uncles” who are largely distinguishable from both red trousers and blue collars, and who funded Leave for their own self-interested reasons?

I don’t claim to have all the answers, but based on my reading it’s possible that some such “rich uncles” included:

– Financial speculators who thought that Brexit presented an opportunity to make a killing by (for example) shorting the pound.
– Corporate actors who believed that long-term, getting the UK out of the EU could lead to a rollback of workers’ rights and environmental protection regs, which would boost corporate profits.
– Russians, or third parties representing Russian interests, who believed that both the UK and EU would be weaker after Brexit, and that Russia would be a net beneficiary.

If this list is accurate, then some of the rich uncles’ support for Leave would necessarily have been covert.

The “just get it done” Meme

If you’ve ever seen nature footage of a cheetah taking down an impala, you know that once the cheetah sinks its teeth in, it hangs on until its prey is all tuckered out and no longer has the will to fight. The Tory strategy with Brexit strikes me as similar. Long live the bulldog breed!

In the modern political era, it’s common to take a poll, find out what the public are thinking, then simply feed that back to them during an election campaign. Johnson et al. have obviously found that the average voter is thinking:

– Brexit: Just get it done
– More police on the streets
– More money for the NHS, and for education

So that’s what the Tories are promising. However, “just get it done” is a fairly nonsensical slogan regarding Brexit. At the populist level, it’s as if Brexit were a TV series which has gone on for too many years, so people are sick of it and want to see it cancelled. But Brexit more properly admits of karmic explanation: While Brexit is truly a mess, it’s a mess which was painstakingly constructed over a number of years. There is no push-button solution. The sad truth is that the mess must be painstakingly cleaned up, dismantled. Regardless of which scenario eventually prevails, fixing Brexit will take time. Again referencing the Beeb: “For anyone who has had enough of Brexit, the uncomfortable fact is that — whatever the outcome — many years of technical talks and political drama lie ahead.”

Brexit was marketed as a push-button solution to underlying problems which were not, in the main, caused by EU membership. Now “just get it done” is the new push-button solution to the slew of problems spawned by Brexit. This inane solution is being marketed by the same old “peesome threesome” — Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Dominic Cummings — that brought us Brexit in the first place. And if Brexit is not handled with great diplomacy, there will be no more “awesome foursome.” The Scots may be the first to leave.

When it comes to just getting it done, how about harvesting those fantastic British crops? Sadly, the raspberries are rotting on the vine, because not many seasonal workers from the EU are willing to come and pick them anymore. This ITV report explains:

To Compromise or Not?

There are certain types of compromise which strike us as inherently reasonable. To take a hypothetical example: Education advocates say the schools need an infusion of one hundred million pounds. Government ministers say there is no money available. Eventually, a compromise is reached at fifty million pounds.

Brexit is a more difficult issue on which to compromise. One reason is that it was marketed under false pretenses. Brexit reality differs so markedly from Brexit fantasy that it feels odd to try and interpolate between the two, to find centre ground. How do you plant a flag somewhere between Wigan and Wonderland? What sort of creature is half unicorn, half lipstick-besmirched pig?

I respect people who want to vote for a compromise deal, but I tend to be more of a Remain purist. My feeling is: Get the policy right, and over time the politics can be fixed. The mad posh for Brexit cannot last forever; but once you’re out of the EU, you’re out of the EU. It’s not like a magazine subscription which you can simply renew when the mood strikes you. The fruit which has rotted can never be reclaimed, and this may apply to the next generation of young people, who may find their options for education and enlightenment severely curtailed by Brexit.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Brexit Analysis: Real World Effects of Proroguing Parliament

As Brexit aficionados would know, the UK’s Supreme Court is currently reviewing whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament is or is not legal. Johnson essentially sent the House of Commons on a five-week forced vacation during which time they cannot sit or hold committee meetings.

Of course, it’s perfectly obvious in the abstract that this means MPs cannot pass any legislation, or perform vital investigative and oversight functions, holding government ministers accountable for their policies, actions, and statements. Such oversight includes determining whether government are faithfully obeying and implementing laws which Parliament passed, or are relaying accurate information to the public on issues about which the public are rightfully concerned and have a need to know.

However, at least one Supreme Court member, Baroness Hale, has expressed interest in seeing real world examples of what Parliament are being prevented from doing as a result of being prorogued. Hence this blog post, hastily written, but providing two major examples and one minor example.

On the last day the House of Commons sat before being prorogued (September 10), Dr. Sarah Wollaston — who chairs both the Liaison and Health Committees — noted that by proroguing Parliament, Johnson neatly sidestepped appearing before the former, which he was scheduled to do the very next day (September 11).

I’m appalled. The prime minister is running away from scrutiny. We had a series of reassurances from him over the summer that he would come to the liaison committee – initially before parliament came back, so on the first Monday. He then moved that date to this coming Wednesday and we very specifically queried with him about the position of prorogation and he assured us that he would be coming to liaison.

I’m afraid that is a promise broken because he has prorogued parliament and select committees can’t sit. But in fact we decided that we would invite him anyway – that we would come back and sit on an informal basis, and I’m afraid we’ve heard today that he’s not prepared to come.

He is unaccountable. We have seen how everything has unravelled, with just a week of scrutiny in parliament. And I suspect that he didn’t want that to continue.

— Sarah Wollaston, BBC Newsnight interview, Sep-10-2019. Transcript published online by The Guardian here.

Wollaston is a medical doctor who left the Conservative party last February, and is currently a Lib Dem. She has a history of grilling the prior PM, Theresa May, about the effects which a no-deal Brexit would have on patient care:

Wollaston is a gifted, perspicacious, perhaps even prescient questioner who is never distracted by spin, and always manages to bring the witness back to her original question. It’s virtually certain that had Boris Johnson appeared as scheduled before the Liaison Committee, he would have faced tough questioning about the shortages of medicine predicted by the government’s own Operation Yellowhammer documents (in the event of no-deal), which were leaked to the press, and which the House of Commons subsequently required the government to release in full. (They only released a summary.) It is unlikely that Johnson’s legendary tactic of throwing a dead cat on the table would have fazed Wollaston in the least.

Whilst debates in the Commons are often dramatic — as can be Prime Minister’s Questions — much of the genuine oversight work is done in relatively sedate committee meetings where ministers are questioned slowly and patiently by MPs, with ample time for follow-ups, which are often needed to hone in on the truth. (Crucial where the facts are not flattering to the government, and ministers are inclined to evade, spin, or even openly deceive.)

Indeed, my second example relates to ongoing controversies about Operation Yellowhammer. The government documents originally leaked to the Sunday Times indicated that the assessments contained therein represented the “base case” — i.e., what was likely to occur in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, government ministers (including Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Andrea Leadsome) have claimed that:

1. Operation Yellowhammer is an old, outdated report describing possible effects of a no-deal Brexit which have largely been mitigated through careful government planning.

2. The effects described in Operation Yellowhammer — such as shortages of food and medicine, civil unrest, and the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland — were never anything but worst case scenarios, not “base case” or likely effects.

This is a significant issue, the facts about which were, prior to prorogation, being actively pursued in committee meetings where ministers were required to testify.

One such meeting of note occurred on September 5, when the chair of the Select Committee on Exiting the EU, Hilary Benn, questioned Michael Gove, who is the cabinet minister in charge of Brexit preparations. Benn questioned Gove carefully, patiently, and at length. Though reluctant to do so, and initially denying it, Gove was eventually forced to admit that — contrary to what he and other ministers were claiming — Operation Yellowhammer appears to describe the base case, not the worst case scenario. This information is important because:

1. The public have a right to know what to expect in the case of a no-deal Brexit, and to arrange their personal affairs accordingly.

2. MPs who may be required to vote on (or even originate) Brexit-related legislation likewise need accurate information in order to make informed, conscientious choices on behalf of their constituents.

This video of the hearing is concrete evidence of the type of oversight in which the House of Commons would surely be engaged were it not prorogued:

This tweet by Benn shows a transcript of the relevant part — where Gove is forced to backtrack, correct his earlier statement, and admit that the Yellowhammer report contains the phrase “base scenario”:

Though dull, the video does show Gove squirming, spinning, and hedging. Thus, one possible motive for proroguing Parliament is so that government ministers don’t have to face skilled and dedicated truth-squaders until after they’ve nearly run out the clock to a no-deal Brexit. In that respect, a non-sitting House equals a license to spin.

Ian Dunt seems to have live-tweeted the hearing; his pithy comments may provide additional insight:

You can view his complete live-tweet more easily on Threader.

But the story doesn’t end there. Subsequent to the prorogation of Parliament, there have been renewed efforts by ministers to float the story that Operation Yellowhammer represents only a worst case scenario. When government finally did release the report, in addition to redacting it, they apparently retitled it. An article (with typos) on The New European discusses these developments, referencing a letter Benn sent to Gove on September 17:

In a letter, Benn said: “I would be grateful if you could explain why the document we received is entitled the ‘reasonable worst case scenario’, whereas it has been reported that a very similar if not identical version obtained by the Sunday Times was entitled the ‘base scenario’.

Benn has tweeted the complete letter:

The crucial point is that because Parliament is currently prorogued, it’s doubtful that Gove is under much pressure to respond. If he fails to do so, he cannot be hauled before the relevant committee(s), because the relevant committee(s) cannot meet! He presumably can’t be held in contempt, because that too would be a function of a sitting Parliament.

In practical terms, proroguing means that Hilary Benn cannot bring Michael Gove before the Brexit Select Committee and ask him: “I thought we’d cleared up this business about Operation Yellowhammer being a worst case scenario. Why are you now resurrecting that claim in government statements?”

As regards contempt, note well that Dominic Cummings was found in contempt of Parliament in March, 2019. Cummings is a former special adviser to Michael Gove, and former campaign director of Vote Leave. He is currently a senior adviser to Prime Minister Johnson, and is alleged to be a major architect of Johnson’s policies and tactics regarding Brexit, including the prorogation itself. It is therefore reasonable to believe that the Johnson/Gove/Cummings camp would be sensitive to the possibility that a sitting House of Commons might exercise its powers of contempt if confronted with a no-show witness, or a witness who knowingly deceived a committee of the House.

A third example, which I do not describe in detail, concerns Amber Rudd, the former Work and Pensions Secretary. She resigned from the Johnson cabinet shortly before the proroguing of Parliament. Her main stated reason was that she saw a huge gap between Johnson’s public claims that he was actively seeking a deal with the EU, and her perception as a cabinet insider that most of the effort was going into planning for no-deal, and that no concrete proposals were being put forward by Johnson to actually get a deal.

The strong implication that government were saying one thing while doing quite another thus came to a head shortly before Parliament was prorogued. It is likely that had Parliament not been prorogued, relevant committees would have held hearings on this issue in order to get at the truth.

These examples speak to both motive and real world effects. Parliament has been prorogued for an excessively and praeternaturally long period at a time when its oversight functions are most desperately needed — a time when government are contemplating taking drastic actions (e.g. leaving the EU without a deal), while at the same time there remain serious questions about the accuracy of the information government are releasing to the public.

Such examples put “meat on the bone,” making the abstract notion that Parliament is being prevented from performing its duties more concrete, and more relevant to the day-to-day issues faced by the UK in the lead-up to the October 31st Brexit deadline.

These examples could, in turn, be bolstered with additional evidence and citations, and put into the form of an addendum to the legal briefs, in a manner which might satisfy the Court as to the real world effects of prorogation.

The inevitable conclusion is that Parliament has been prorogued not merely for political reasons, but for reasons intended to frustrate its core function. Parliament has been prorogued to prevent it from scrutinising and overseeing exactly those aspects of government which, in a parliamentary democracy, it surely must scrutinise, oversee, and respond to in timely fashion. The clock is ticking!

Yet, even if one were to ascribe the most benign of motives to Boris Johnson’s proroguing of Parliament, the malign effects still persist. On that basis alone, it should be declared illegal.

There is, then, a useful distinction to be made between the courts wading into day-to-day political matters, or (as here) the courts preventing the executive branch from sabotaging the core function of the legislative branch. A government might conceivably have various permissible motives for proroguing Parliament, some of which might even be political; but frustrating the core function of Parliament is simply not a permissible motive, and the effects thus produced do not comprise a constitutionally acceptable outcome.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Sri Chinmoy Birthday Music Mix, August 2019

Exploring the subtleties of Sri Chinmoy’s music with a delightful mix including flute, esraj, singing, and piano, plus detailed notes

UPDATE 5. A very happy birthday to Sri Chinmoy, who would have been 88 today, August 27th, 2019! In the music world, when we hear the number 88 immediately we think of the piano, which has 88 keys. And indeed, the piano is an instrument for which Sri Chinmoy showed tremendous fondness. He played many instruments, and imparted to each a particular quality or manner of expression. Taken together, these begin to comprise his musical oeuvre.

Sri Chinmoy was a man of action, not a dry theoretician, or a composer removed from the performance of his works. He wrote countless spiritual songs, and was very active in singing, playing, and teaching them. But though his songs represent a significant corpus, he was also known for his striking improvisations on piano and pipe organ. Often times, at the close of a concert of one or two hours in which he played his songs on a variety of instruments, he would end with an avant-garde piano improvisation.

Sri Chinmoy as many remember him: in the spiritual and musical spotlight. Photo courtesy https://au.srichinmoycentre.org/articles/piano

His flute melodies are extremely pleasing to the ear — the essence of zenlike simplicity. When he played the Indian esraj (a bowed instrument similar to the better-known sarangi), this imparted a haunting, ancient quality. His singing was all heart and soul, seeming to embody the seeker’s plaintive cry to know the Divine, and to be freed from the shackles of ignorance. He himself was ever-free, but identified with the pangs of seekers.

When he sang in concert, it was as if he were bundling up the collective longing for God of his audience, and directing it as a single prayer upward to the Divine. Something more: As a spiritual Master, he was able to fulfill that prayer, to bring it to fruition. So inwardly, in the course of a concert he would play the role of both a seeker and a Liberator, carrying the collective longings of his audience Heavenward, and showering them with inner blessings from the Highest Height of meditation — throwing them into the Universal Consciousness (as he would put it). The closing moments of his meditations and concerts were indeed special for this reason. They are coloured deep blue in my memory.

He approached each of the instruments he played with a sense of discovery, spontaneity, and childlike enthusiasm, bringing out the unique qualities of each. He was fearless in the manner of David Amram, always ready to grab a new instrument and start jamming. (A photo from Amram’s first autobiography Vibrations shows him wigging out at the Fillmore East with violin and kazoo.) Like this, if someone gave Sri Chinmoy a Hawaiian slide guitar, he would not hesitate!

He was also like a quick-change artist or showman. There was always something more about him than met the eye (or ear). He was a perfect example of the artist as shaman, creating art not simply for art’s sake, but also as a means of inner awakening for both the individual and the assembled collective, the gathering tribes.

As listeners, it is always our challenge to remain attentive. There is a regrettable human tendency to replace the actual experience of art with our mental attitudes toward it. The liner notes (or our knowledge of the musical devices employed) become a substitute for hearing the music itself.

Listening to Sri Chinmoy’s flute music, we could easily be lulled into thinking that his entire message is one of peace. But he knew how to guard against complacency on the part of listeners. Just when you thought you had him pegged as a purveyor of serene flute melodies, he would rotate the circular table on which a host of exotic instruments were assembled, and choose one with a striking and unusual sound, like the African wind spinner. Or he might rise and walk over to a different part of the stage where his cello was waiting for him, and proceed to sing and play in unison, perhaps “Ore Mor Kheya”:

Ore Mor Kheya (English translation)

O my Boat, O my Boatman,
O message of Transcendental Delight,
Carry me. My heart is thirsty and hungry,
And it is fast asleep at the same time.
Carry my heart to the other shore.
The dance of death I see all around.
The thunder of destruction indomitable I hear.
O my Inner Pilot, You are mine,
You are the Ocean of Compassion infinite.
In You I lose myself,
My all in You I lose.

– Sri Chinmoy, from The Garden of Love-Light, Part 1 , 1974

 

Here then is a specially selected mix of Sri Chinmoy’s music as performed by the Maestro himself, and by his students. Not every track has piano, but that instrument is well-represented, including one of Sri Chinmoy’s immortal piano improvisations. Taken together with his other music, we can see how in the course of an evening he could easily span the distance from ancient to modern. He expressed not only deep peace, but also dynamism, vastness, and infinitude:

For now, you can also access this m4a audio file containing all the referenced music. Plays in most players. If you use iTunes, VLC, SMPlayer, or another chapter aware player, you can use the chapter markers to go to any track. Also see track list at bottom of this post.

Because the individual and the collective go together, I find it especially meaningful to hear the same song performed by Sri Chinmoy and by his students. There’s completion of a circle in that. The whole of his music consists not only of what he sent out, but of what was received, embraced, and understood by others. The same is true of his teachings.

Sri Chinmoy’s voice is not prettified in the manner of an opera singer or pop star, but is the true voice of a shaman — one who through spiritual knowledge is qualified to conduct the sacred ceremonies. His performance is always the most austere, but the most true. And where there is abundant truth, is that not also beauty? The spiritual truth is most beautiful in itself, without any artificial sweeteners.

Sri Chinmoy blended the boundaries between purely sacred or ceremonial music, and music which could be enjoyed simply for its aesthetic beauty. His flute music is pleasing to all, and his Bengali songs are arranged most beautifully by his students. But as with much music with sacred origins, the more you know, the richer your experience. His music is an invitation or portal to the consciousness which inspired it. When he sang a bhajan which called upon the Divine to bless and illumine each soul present, the Divine answered! No matter if Sri Chinmoy missed a note or two.

How do you listen to music? I know I always ask myself “What is the musician getting at? What is he or she trying to say?” In the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth we hear a tremendous striving to communicate something which is beyond words, employing every possible device, but always going beyond, beyond, beyond. Like this, in his meditation, music, and poetry, Sri Chinmoy is constantly going beyond. The lyrics to his English song “There Was A Time” say:

There was a time when I stumbled and stumbled,
But now I only climb and climb beyond
And far beyond my Goal’s endless Beyond,
And yet my Captain commands: “Go on, go on!”

– Sri Chinmoy, from My Flute, Agni Press, 1972

In his philosophy, Sri Chinmoy suggests that there is a subtle distinction between the words “God” and “Supreme.” When we think of God, we may think of Him as a great but finite being; but when we think of the Supreme, we become more conscious of His (or Her) “infinite beyond” aspect.

These are ideas about the beyond, but in his piano improvisations Sri Chinmoy often seems to be dealing with the infinite in a manner far beyond words and ideas, as infinite energy, or as an endless sea with no shores. His piano improvisations can be highly gestural, with no discernible melody or harmony, but a maelstrom of notes that strives to communicate something about the vast and eternal.

Sri Chinmoy traveled widely, holding free concerts and meditations in major cities around the world. He would often write a song honouring the city or landmark he was visiting (which for some reason is making me cry remembering it). We hear a medley of five such songs: “Monticello,” “Philadelphia,” “Moskva” (Moscow), “Eternal Peace Flame” (Oslo, Norway), and “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” (Borobudur Buddhist Temple in Java).

The contrast between “Monticello” (arranged by the group Ganga) and “Philadelphia” (arranged by Archee Moffitt) is striking because the first uses all acoustic instruments like harmonium, recorder, and tabla, while the second makes extensive use of synthesizers. (Gotta love that classic DX7 tubular bell patch!) “Philadelphia” sounds Philip Glasslike in spots, and the revered minimalist spoke highly of the Master:

The passing of Sri Chinmoy represents the loss of one of the last of the great spiritual teachers who brought the tradition of Indian spirituality to the West.

He had a very special connection to music. In his performances, with clarity, simplicity and directness, he was able to move his listeners in a very immediate and deeply emotional way.

In his lifetime he brought tremendous joy to the people who were with him. For me, his life was a special and personal inspiration.

Though at this moment we may feel great sadness, he will always be in our hearts.

— Philip Glass

Source: https://www.srichinmoy.org/kind_words/leaders/tributes

After his passing, his music has continued to live on in many, many forms, including the Songs of the Soul concerts presented worldwide by his students, where Philip Glass has been a beloved guest artist.

Returning to our mix: “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” (here performed by the groups Mountain Silence and Akasha) has a somewhat different character than the other city or landmark songs: first, because its subject is an ancient holy site extremely significant in Buddhism; second, because it is in Bengali, which language is (obviously) far closer to ancient Pali and Sanskrit than is English. The compact nature of Bengali lends itself especially well to spiritual poetry, as Vidagdha Meredith Bennett hints at in her doctoral thesis Simplicity and Power: The Poetry of Sri Chinmoy, 1971-1981 (footnotes omitted):

It is possible that Sri Chinmoy’s use of the compound noun has its origin in an attempt to find in English the natural analogue of the Sanskrit and Bengali forms of comparison. Gerow notes that translations from Sanskrit into English “tend to be flabby and prolix precisely where the original displays a tense compactness and is most striking in its beauty.”

In the case of Sri Chinmoy’s own mother tongue, Bengali, this compactness is inherent in the language. The formation of compounds is frequent and, in fact, the grammar of compounds cannot be distinguished from that of phrases. The words “swapan sathi,” to take an example, may be translated in an interpretive way as “companion of my dream.” Literally, however, the words read as “dream-companion,” with the two words closely intersecting. In so far as a direct English equivalent may be found for the Bengali words, Sri Chinmoy most commonly elects to keep the true form of his source language. As a result, he is able to use the compound noun to establish a greater cohesion within the English language itself. The life-principle of poetry, he would seem to affirm, does not lie in any of the norms of grammar and logic but in the interactions of words within the language.

See the song “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” (discussed further down), which includes the compound nouns “mind-jungle,” “Forgiveness-Eye,” and “World-Lord.”

Because Sri Chinmoy is a gifted poet in both Bengali and English, his best translations of his most significant poems are absolutely outstanding! Why? Because he does not merely translate. Rather, he re-imagines the Bengali poem in English, so that it becomes a significant poem in its own right. (See “Ore Mor Kheya” above.) His groundbreaking 1972 volume My Flute includes many such translations.

Another example of things coming full circle manifested in 2016, when a bilingual edition of The Garden of Love-Light was published, including (for the first time) the Bengali script. (See this article in The Indian Panorama.)

Without diving too deep into the ethnomusicology weeds, we can note that like fellow Bengali Rabindranath Tagore (whose songs the Master greatly admired), Sri Chinmoy employs lines of different metric lengths. So while much of “Philadelphia” is in 4/4 time, the words “Liberty Bell” bring in two bars of 5/4. “Karuna Mayer Jyotir Dulal” (here arranged and performed by Temple-Song-Hearts) is a striking example of this phenomenon. The piano introduction alone tells us we’re in for a bumpy ride, mapping out as:

4/4 + 4/4 + 5/8 + 7/4 + 7/4 + 7/8 + 3/4 + 7/8 + 3/4

Others might count it differently, but still: Not even the Mahavishnu Orchestra in its heyday adopted a metric cycle this ambitious! (In songbooks, Sri Chinmoy’s songs are usually notated without barlines, but when groups arrange them, barlines become more of a practical necessity.)

“Sabai Amai Pagol Dake” (performed by Aspiration-Flight) and “Jago Paran Jago” (the Sri Chinmoy Bhajan Singers) are further examples of the polyrhythmic quality which Sri Chinmoy’s style of plainsong can take on in group arrangements. At the opposite end of the spectrum, “Borobudure” and “Peace: Humanity’s Flower-Heart” bring out the more monastic quality. See also In Vastness-Peace, a CD recorded in the churches of Iceland.

Directly preceding “Peace: Humanity’s Flower-Heart” is Sri Chinmoy singing “Peace In My Flying Soul.” It’s a song in that it has words and a melody — indeed, the melody is quite exquisite in the way that it modulates further afield and then returns perfectly to its starting point in circular fashion. Sri Chinmoy did not painstakingly construct a melody; the melody often came to him all at once in a flash of intuition. When we hear him sing “Peace, peace, peace… Peace in Heaven, peace on earth, peace in every human life,” this is a chant for peace or invocation of peace.

Peace is not just a concept or the absence of war, but an actual quality of God which we can experience directly. When he invoked peace, peace descended upon the hall in boundless measure. At public events, you might see some people who were not used to receiving peace with their heads bobbing. But those more experienced in meditation would relax their body and mind, but maintain a slender thread of alertness so that they could drink in this delicious peace. In this way, they were able to enjoy the Peace Meal that the Master Chef was preparing for them.

So, Sri Chinmoy’s music has this dual nature that it is the outer expression of a powerful inner force, a blessingful force. When he would go off to the United Nations to give a “concert” — arriving with his collection of instruments both familiar and exotic — we should understand that he was really conducting a blessing ceremony in which music and sound played an essential role.

Perhaps it is science which makes us think that if there were a God, He would be formless to the point of being antiseptic. Yet, the inner world is filled with beings who have their distinctive forms and qualities. The Goddess Saraswati plays the vina. Why does she not play the saxophone or harpsichord? Because it is her nature to play the vina. She has always played it.

Sri Chinmoy’s nature as a spiritual teacher, visionary, or shaman, is that he imparts his teachings not just through talks on philosophy (of which he gave many), but also through art, music, and poetry. Why? Because that is his nature. We should not so much question it as marvel at it!

At the United Nations, 1998: Sri Chinmoy meditates, then plays the blue dove ocarina. Screenshots from a video by Mridanga Spencer.

Sri Chinmoy’s music is like a garden which we can enjoy for its simplicity and beauty, or if we are so inclined we can learn the names of all the different flowers and analyze how they are arranged. Retaining our simplicity, we can yet begin to recognize certain key Bengali words which recur: karuna is compassion, shanti is peace, ananda delight. (The Bengali language has different classes of words, some of which are Tatsami, meaning “same as in Sanskrit.” See also this brief comment from Sri Chinmoy himself.)

The music of India is rich in scales (or more properly ragas) which can sound exotic to Western ears. Statistically, Sri Chinmoy does not make much use of the more exotic flavours, but since he wrote thousands of songs, we can discover notable exceptions. One such is “Chinta Amar Amai Kare,” again arranged and performed by Temple-Song-Hearts. In Western music theory, the melody might be described as alternating between the Double Harmonic and Major scales.

sri-chinmoy-songs-chinta-amar-amai-kare

Another class of songs worthy of mention is the bilingual songs. Sri Chinmoy’s bilingual fluency dates back to his ashram days, when he became close personal assistant to noted Indian savant Nolini Kanta Gupta, translating many of the latter’s articles from Bengali to English for publication in the English-language journal Mother India.

Sri Chinmoy (top left) with Nolini-da (bottom left), August 27, 1962

Years later, Sri Chinmoy would provide beautiful English translations of his own works. But there is a special class of songs (usually short) where he weaves Bengali and English together in the same song. These possess a unique charm all their own, as we can see from “Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara” (sung delightfully in rounds), the cheery “Gan Likhi Ami,” “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” (offered in two contrasting versions), and the soaring “Everest-Aspiration,” whose melody literally peaks!

Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara

Pit pit mit mit sanjher tara sanjher tara
Atmahara heri tomar sudha dhara

Twinkling, twinkling evening star, evening star!
Watching the flow of your nectar-delight,
Myself I completely lose.

* * *

Gan Likhi Ami

Gan likhi ami gan geye jai
Nidra dekha nai
Ganer majhare parama shanti
Charama tripti pai

Songs I write
I keep singing
Sleep remains unseen.
From my songs, I receive peace sublime
And satisfaction deep.

* * *

Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal

Dhire ati dhire man jangal
Bishwa prabhu khamar nayane hase

Slowly, very slowly in my mind-jungle,
The Forgiveness-Eye of the World-Lord
Is smiling.

* * *

Everest-Aspiration

Everest-Aspiration!
Gauri shankara dan
Open my heart’s silver door
Dao more aji amarar bhor.
O highest mountain peak!
Janame marane karo nirvik.

* * *

In some cases, the Bengali and English may not have been composed in the same instant, but appear close together in the same songbook, and are combined by the performers. For example, “Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara” and “Twinkling, Twinkling Evening Star” appear nearby in the collection Your Face Is My Dream. But in “Everest-Aspiration,” we see the two languages tightly interwoven. After each English line, Sri Chinmoy pens a rhyming Bengali line.

A solo sitar medley by master of the instrument Adesh Widmer rounds out this section of the mix, underscoring the melodic interest inherent in the songs.

Sri Chinmoy’s music-world is rich in beauty, and there is always more to discover. I hope these notes, initially written in haste, will help you in your journey of discovery.

sri-chinmoy-mega-music-mix-artists

I began this article feeling tired and thinking that I could find no good words to say. I am grateful that some words did come, and that listening to Sri Chinmoy’s music inspired and uplifted me. May it do the same for you, dear Reader!

sri-chinmoy--vaasa-statue-finland-1

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.


TRACK LIST

Start Time – Track No. – Artist – Title – Source

00:00:00 – 01 – Sri Chinmoy – “I Came To Your Lotus Feet” – from The Life-River (CD)

00:01:15 – 02 – Sri Chinmoy – “Ore Mor Kheya” – from Silence Speaks (CD)

00:05:51 – 03 – Temple-Song-Hearts – “I Give” – from Temple-Song-Hearts XIII (CD)

00:09:02 – 04 – Srinvantu – “Swarupananda” – from RadioSriChinmoy.org

00:11:25 – 05 – Temple-Song-Hearts – “Swarupananda” – from Temple-Song-Hearts (1st cassette)

00:14:28 – 06 – Sri Chinmoy – “Swarupananda” – from Music Meditation (CD)

00:15:24 – 07 – Temple-Song-Hearts – “Bhoy Kena Bhoy” – from Temple-Song-Hearts XII (CD)

00:18:44 – 08 – Sri Chinmoy – “Jaya Jaya Jaya He Niranjana” – from My Japanese Heart-Garden (CD)

00:20:15 – 09 – Gandharva Loka Orchestra – “Jaya Jaya Jaya He Niranjana” – from concert recording

00:23:55 – 10 – Arthada & Friends – “Jharna-Kala” (short version) – from Om Shanti (CD)

00:27:47 – 11 – Blue Flower – “My Sunlit Path/Ecstasy-Flood” – from Blossoming (CD)

00:31:35 – 12 – The Blue-Gold Shore of the Beyond – “Om Taranaya Namaha” – from Taranaya Namaha (CD)

00:34:08 – 13 – The Four Universals Singers – “Farewell” – from RadioSriChinmoy.org

00:40:04 – 14 – Temple-Song-Hearts – “Karuna Mayer Jyotir Dulal” – from Temple-Song-Hearts (1st cassette)

00:43:09 – 15 – Sri Chinmoy – “Ami Jabo” – from Silence Speaks (CD)

00:50:15 – 16 – Tanima’s Group – “There Was A Time” – from Songs of the Soul (CD reissue of 1975 cassette)

00:52:08 – 17 – Sri Chinmoy – “Chinese Gong Improvisation” – from 107 Blue Heart-Boats (CD)

00:53:41 – 18 – Shindhu – “Hasir Prabhat Sanga Habe” – from Eternity’s Dream (CD)

00:57:39 – 19 – Sri Chinmoy – “Finnish Harp Improvisation” – from 107 Blue Heart-Boats (CD)

00:58:18 – 20 – Aspiration-Flight – “Sabai Amai Pagol Dake” – from Ascending Cry (CD)

01:01:32 – 21 – Sri Chinmoy – “Hiya Pakhi” – from Flute Music For Meditation (CD)

01:03:30 – 22 – Sri Chinmoy – “African Wind Spinner Improvisation” – from My Prayerful Salutations To The United Nations – Part III (CD)

01:04:05 – 23 – Sri Chinmoy – “Piano Improvisation” – from 107 Blue Heart-Boats (CD)

01:10:32 – 24 – Ganga – “Monticello” – from Sacred River (CD)

01:14:00 – 25 – Archee & Friends – “Philadelphia” – from RadioSriChinmoy.org

01:17:26 – 26 – Temple-Song-Hearts – “Moskva” – from Temple-Song-Hearts Collection 1 (CD)

01:20:45 – 27 – Shindhu – “The Eternal Peace Flame” – from RadioSriChinmoy.org

01:24:48 – 28 – Mountain Silence – “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” – from Be Thou My All (CD)

01:25:44 – 29 – Akasha – “Borobudurer Bhiti Stapan” – from unidentified cassette

01:30:47 – 30 – Ganga – “Pit Pit Mit Mit Sanjher Tara” – from Sacred River (CD)

01:33:51 – 31 – Japaka Orchestra – “Gan Likhi Ami/Songs I Write” – from Songs of the Soul Compilation 1 (CD)

01:39:04 – 32 – Agnikana’s Group – “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” – from In My Heart-Sky (CD)

01:41:48 – 33 – Bartika’s Group – “Dhire Ati Dhire Man Jangal” – from RadioSriChinmoy.org

01:43:54 – 34 – Sri Chinmoy – “Everest-Aspiration” – from The Peace Concert/Concert De Paix (CD)

01:46:13 – 35 – Adesh Widmer – “Everest-Aspiration/Rama Raghava” – from Joy of Sitar (CD)

01:48:09 – 36 – Temple-Song-Hearts – “Chinta Amar Amai Kare” – from Temple-Song-Hearts (1st cassette)

01:51:07 – 37 – The Sri Chinmoy Bhajan Singers – “Jago Paran Jago” – from Songs of the Soul Compilation 1 (CD)

01:53:45 – 38 – Sri Chinmoy – “Peace In My Flying Soul” – from My Prayerful Salutations To The United Nations – Part I (CD)

01:56:37 – 39 – Shindhu – “Peace: Humanity’s Flower-Heart” – from Sacred Dawn (CD)

02:02:18 – 40 – Sri Chinmoy – “Rainstick Improvisation” – from India: World-Cynosure – Part 2 (CD)

02:03:45 – 41 – Ananda – “Sundara Hate” – from Ananda (CD)

02:07:02 – 42 – Sri Chinmoy – “Medley with He Gopal” (bowed/plucked psaltery)” – from My Japanese Heart-Garden (CD)

02:10:43 – 43 – Sri Chinmoy – “He Gopal” (singing with electronic keyboard) – from Bhajan Balika (CD)

02:12:11 – 44 – Sri Chinmoy – “Ocarina” – from 107 Blue Heart-Boats (CD)

All compositions by Sri Chinmoy, except “Rama Raghava” (traditional text), “Jago Paran Jago” (words by Ahana Chinmoy). “Moskva” originally in English, translated into Russian by a student of Sri Chinmoy.

* * *

UK Politics Update #1

Latest skinny on the Boris Johnson administration, Change UK, Lib Dems, Labour, and a Rube Goldberg-like plan to stop a no-deal Brexit. Plus, we force-feed Jeremy Corbyn a nice kosher meal, that he shouldn’t be so skinny!

I don’t write much about American politics these days. It’s too depressing, with the mass shooting du jour egged on in part by racist comments from our president. He’s desperate to get re-elected by appealing solely to his base, which obviously includes white supremacists. That desperation is driven not just by political ambition and narcissism, but by the desire to stay out of the slammer. If Trump is not re-elected, there’s a fair chance he’ll be indicted for obstruction of justice. I feel as though I’ve done my part with numerous anti-Trump posts in the past. At this point, it’s like carrying coals to Newcastle.

I’m more interested in UK politics these days, maybe because it’s less predictable and can still make me laugh. There’s also the slow-motion train wreck aspect, which I’ve alluded to elsewhere. And if course, I love the Brits.

A lot has been happening in UK politics, much of it bad. Since being selected Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has appointed a diversity cabinet — but diversity is in the eye of the beholder. Some would say he’s appointed a cabinet consisting primarily of well-heeled Thatcherite toffs, some of whom happen to be non-white. This is faux diversity at best, with no true diversity of politics or culture, but rather the shared culture of money in politics. Johnson’s unity cabinet reflects a bunker mentality, with potential appointees required to sign a no-deal Brexit loyalty oath, and expected to be part of an aggressive general election strategy.

That strategy includes extensive deception about Brexit (surprise, surprise!), as well as a policy which Johnson announced in his first speech as PM, to provide “extra lubrication” to the UK economy by stiffing the EU for the 39 billion pounds owed it. At some point, the UK may want to negotiate a trade deal with the EU. That’s when the unpaid bill for 39 billion is likely to come due. The billions Johnson is currently dispensing like a fruit machine gone bonkers definitely won’t be lubricating future trade talks, and the British public are unlikely to see much of it once elections are over and done. But for that brief moment which is the election season, the party of austerity shall become the party of casting its bread upon the waters, the party of borrow and spend. I wonder how much interest the EU will charge on the 39 billion.

Johnson’s rhetoric often waxes Orwellian in its internal contradictions: The EU are our “friends and partners,” but those who try to maintain a relatively close and civil relationship with them are “collaborators.” No-deal is only a one-in-a-million chance and will not damage the economy, but the government are planning huge bailouts (known as “Operation Kingfisher”) to prop up businesses which fail.

I’m reminded of a line from a Raymond Chandler detective yarn: “I knew one thing: as soon as anyone said you didn’t need a gun, you’d better take one along that worked.” Likewise, as soon as anyone says that such-and-such won’t wreck the UK economy, you’d better start a mammoth contingency fund. Convert all your sterling to a more stable currency, like nacho chips. 😉

More On No-Deal Brexit Machinations

The consenus among political mavens is that the UK is headed toward a no-deal Brexit or crash-out from the EU, while at the same time the Johnson administration is engaged in a coordinated strategy of blaming the EU — and now British collaborators as well. It makes a kind of perverse sense that just as Brexit has philosophical underpinnings rooted in archaic World War II thinking, now that things are approaching a crisis point it becomes necessary to firm up perceptions about who’s the evil enemy (the EU), and who’s helping them work their evil (those accused of being collaborators, like Philip Hammond).

Hammond is, of course, a Tory ex-chancellor, Theresa May loyalist, and true believer in leaving the EU with a deal — a good deal as was promised by the Leave campaign. Hammond has made it clear that to him, leaving without a deal would be as much a “betrayal” of Brexit as not leaving at all. Because he strongly opposes no-deal, he’s been branded a “collaborator” by Boris Johnson. This occurred in remarks Johnson made in his premiere “People’s PMQs” Facebook video discussed here, though he did not identify Hammond by name.

Johnson’s public diplomacy on Brexit might be dubbed the Br’er Rabbit strategy: Oh please, European Union, don’t throw us in the no-deal patch. Anything but that! This meme, perhaps better-known in the US, consists of vehemently protesting an outcome which one actually desires.

In order to fend off encroachment by the Brexit Party, which threatens to steal votes from the Tories, Johnson has to be seen to deliver the hardest, most macho Brexit possible, i.e. a no-deal Brexit. But as the dire consequences of leaving the EU without a deal become more apparent over time, Johnson also needs to be able to shift blame to the EU and to purported British “collaborators.”

Indeed, even before the recent Bojo “collaborator” comment, ministers appear to have been sent out armed with written talking points instructing them to blame the EU for a no-deal Brexit, and to accuse the EU of failing to negotiate. Hammond pricked Johnson’s ire by pointing out (quite truthfully) that it’s Johnson who torpedoed negotiations by setting the bar impossibly high, with preconditions he knew full well the EU couldn’t meet. Welcome to the latest developments in the endless Tory psychodrama!

The problems associated with adopting no-deal, even as a limited negotiating strategy, I have discussed before. The position of some hardliners is that no-deal must be kept on the table as a tactic. But this is very dangerous due to the strong possibility of sleepwalking to a no-deal Brexit. To understand this danger, we need to recognize a fundamental problem with political bureaucracies. Far from being adroit and able to stop on a dime, they tend to be clumsy and subject to inertia. They’re like huge ships whose course is quite difficult and time-consuming to correct, even where the will exists to do so. You can switch off the engine, but the vessel may continue in the same direction for several miles.

If we look to both the Johnson government and the House of Commons, do we really have faith that they can come together at the eleventh hour and avoid a no-deal Brexit? This seems doubtful, especially since some hardliners are clamouring for no-deal — not as a negotiating tactic or empty threat, but as a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.

A no-deal Brexit is like a gun which some people claim the PM only needs for protection. Meanwhile, others are saying, “Yes! Yes! Give us the gun! We want to shoot it off. If we run out of feet, we can always shoot our arms and legs!” This naturally puts non-certifiable MPs in mind of gun control.

So the risk is high, but what is the reward? What crumb might Brussels throw at the last moment to justify the risk of a no-deal Brexit? Caving on the Irish backstop? Is that likely, and would it even be beneficial in the long run?

A cost-benefit analysis suggests that the risks greatly outweigh the rewards, and that the right course for Parliament is to take no-deal off the table through some series of legal maneuvers. No-deal is a weapon too dangerous to be left in the hands of a political faction whose members (many of them) have expressed an ardent desire to use it, and a callous disregard for the consequences, which could include the dissolution of the United Kingdom, with the Scots being the first to jump ship.

Change UK, the Liberal Democrats, and a Labour Plot

The sun shone brightly on The Independent Group, a.k.a. Change UK, when it first coalesced in February, 2019.

It began with tremendous enthusiasm and cohesion among former Labour and Conservative MPs who felt that their respective parties had grown too extreme, and were wracked with internal problems not being addressed by leadership.

Despite what I see as a genuinely promising start, Change UK has thus far not found a solid footing in the short period of its existence. Some members were discouraged by the fledgling party’s poor showing in the European Parliament elections of May 2019, where they failed to win a single seat.

Since then, there’s been an exodus from Change UK, particularly by some high profile members. Heidi Allen resigned to found a looser-knit group called simply The Independents. Chuka Umunna and Sarah Wollaston defected to the Liberal Democrats.

Change UK was right to believe that there’s currently a need for a centrist, Remainer party. Unfortunately, they were out-jockeyed by the Liberal Democrats, who aggressively claimed that territory for themselves. Change UK’s philosophical bent and admirable openness to different ideas coming from members may have (paradoxically) hurt them in an age of strictly-defined boundaries and no-nonsense branding. They may nevertheless continue to play a valuable role

– As a halfway house for MPs who’ve been made to feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in their prior parties, and need time to sort things out.

– As a platform for dissenting views and straight talk about the ways in which UK politics has broken down.

– As a forum to discuss hybrid solutions which don’t fit neatly into the manifestos of the other parties — a crucible in which to forge good ideas which might then be taken up in due course by those wielding more power.

– As a venue to voice conscientious objections, to shout loudly that the Emperor is stark naked — a soapbox from which to be delightfully curmudgeonlike, defying the mandate to be upbeat, optimistic, and can-do at a time when things seem to have gone to hell in a handbasket.

Much attention has now shifted to the Liberal Democrats and their newly elected leader Jo Swinson because, by and large, the Lib Dems succeeded in branding themselves as the centrist, Remainer party. Some of their methods lacked subtlety, as when newly elected Lib Dem MEPs all showed up wearing bright yellow “BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT” t-shirts.

Whether you give them an ‘A’ for realpolitik or an ‘F’ (for occasional crassness), the Lib Dems have taken center stage as the most viable general (non-regional) alternative to the Tories and Labour. They now figure prominently in potential plans to form a unity government as an interim measure to prevent a no-deal Brexit. As I write, things are in a particular state of flux regarding which parties would cooperate in such a plan, and who might be “PM For A Day” in such a unity government.

Under the UK parliamentary system, only the official opposition party (presently Labour) can force a vote of no confidence which could lead to the formation of a unity government. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s price for calling such a vote appears to be that he be selected as interim PM.

Corbyn is considered a toxic figure by some, and Jo Swinson has suggested that for the plan to achieve maximum inter-party cooperation, the caretaker PM should be someone who enjoys a great deal of respect among MPs across the House, and not someone with ambitions to become Prime Minister in the longer term. She’s floated the names of Ken Clarke and Harriet Harman (known respectively as the Father and Mother of the House), while other names surfacing include Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper, and Margaret Beckett — none of whom rankle in the manner of Corbyn.

If you’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Labour as the party of acerbic Sturm und Drang, you’d be astonished to discover it’s also the party of the eminently calm, reasonable (and likeable) Margaret Beckett.

Harman, Cooper, and Beckett are all Labour MPs, and it would be uncharacteristically humble and self-effacing of Corbyn to compromise on any one of these three prospective candidates. Were such a plan successfully implemented, it would also mean that one of them would be the first female Labour Prime Minister, even if in a brief caretaker role.

To be clear, it was Corbyn who put forward this plan in concrete terms. But will he back his own plan with a different “PM For A Day”? The change is needed for these reasons:

1. The Tories plus the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland) have an ultra-slim majority of only 1 in the House of Commons. Several rebel Tories who passionately oppose a no-deal Brexit are said to be close to supporting this type of plan entailing a vote of no confidence followed by a time-limited unity government. Their votes are crucial, but also hard to secure.

2. Those same Tories may see installing Jeremy Corbyn as PM, even for a day, as a bridge too far. Fairly or unfairly, he has come to symbolise everything the Tories hate about Labour, and their hatred of him is both white-hot and totemic.

3. Rebel Tories who dare to support a vote of no confidence take their political lives in their hands. In the present toxic environment, they’re sure to be branded traitors, and linked to Corbyn forever. The propaganda posters more or less print themselves, right down to the Photoshop flourishes making Corbyn look more like a Soviet-style dictator.

4. Again, fairly or unfairly, some people view Corbyn as untrustworthy and megalomaniacal. Already, a government spokesman (Transport Secretary Grant Shapps) has responded officially to the plan by raising public fears: implying that Corbyn might not leave on time, and warning that “he’ll wreck the economy; he’ll destroy people’s jobs, their livelihoods, their savings.” Ironic, considering that Brexit may do the same. Just try going on foreign holiday when the British pound reaches parity with the Mexican peso! (not to speak of the Mexican jumping bean).

5. The same plan — but with a more likeable, less divisive figure than Corbyn as caretaker — would be easier for rebel Tories to swallow. And let’s face it: Though the biggest Corbyn-haters are found among Conservatives, he has his share of detractors among other parties, even Labour. A number of independent MPs are refusing to support him.

6. In opposing the plan with Corbyn as PM, but supporting it with Clarke or Harman, Lib Dem leader Swinson claims she’s certain Tory rebels won’t tolerate Corbyn. This view is reasonable. Moreover, Swinson is not proposing that she herself, nor any Liberal Democrat, be interim PM. She’s shown herself more willing to compromise than Labour, which stubbornly continues to push Corbyn.

7. Tory rebels won’t easily stand up and be counted in support of a plan which would mean their political suicide. If you understand this, you don’t try and sell them Corbyn as PM. That is (as Swinson says) a waste of time and energy. (She’s persuaded me!) The numbers are simply not there.

If Jeremy Corbyn wants to show true leadership in a time of national crisis, he should back the plan he put forward, but with a different interim PM. Besides the reasons already stated, such compromise is necessary due to the rampant factionalism of UK political parties, both large and small — reminiscent of the Monty Python scene from Life of Brian where the Judean People’s Front is portrayed as endlessly squabbling with the People’s Front of Judea:

So, the plan cannot succeed without a universally liked reconciliation figure. Even then, there’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. The plan (which is still somewhat barebones) could face both legal and practical challenges.

Some might consider the Corbyn proposal an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, and prefer to focus on a more arrowlike solution, such as a single piece of targeted legislation which, if enacted, would prevent no-deal from happening on October 31st — perhaps by mandating an extension to Article 50, followed by a second referendum. This is Jo Swinson’s first choice. On the other hand, as long as the present government remains in power, there’s the potential for a no-deal Brexit to keep “respawning.”

The ultimate Rube Goldberg machine:

Getting Tory MPs to go along with installing Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister (even for a day) would be only slightly more difficult! Pick your simile… Like getting cats to march in a parade.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Jeremy, who does look sickly with no flesh on his bones. The man has no flesh! Such a skinny, he should essen ein bissel, not that it should make him fat like a beached whale or anything… Corbyn has been accused of coddling anti-Semites in the Labour party (which was the main reason Luciana Berger left), so I soulfully dedicate this tune to Corbyn:

Jeremy, dahlink, boobala… Eat something! That when you go to visit the queen, they shouldn’t slip you in through the mail slot. And for those still tripping on the Rube Goldberg meme, here’s a parting funny:

Kim Jong-un visits Singapore’s famous Rube Goldberg Hotel

So there it is, the latest skinny!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race 2019

News flash! 8 men and women brave NYC elements in world’s longest certified foot race

(Pics/videos to follow.)

For 48 days now, ultra runners from around the world have been competing in a race which lasts for 52 days and 3,100 miles. Why? For the love of running, and to experience the joy of self-transcendence. It all takes place around one extended city block in Jamaica, Queens, where runners must average 60 miles per day for 52 days in order to complete 3,100 miles, running lap after lap.

Mind-boggling, right? But of this year’s 8 competitors, 7 have run the race before. Speedy Finnish postman Ashprihanal Aalto is a 14-time finisher. For Harita Davies, who hails from Christchurch, New Zealand and is the only woman competing this year, it will be her second try; and third time out for Nirbhasa Magee, an Irishman who makes his home in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Other contenders come from as far away as Austria, Russia, Slovakia, and Bulgaria to brave the summer heat and indulge their passion for running really long distances.

This ultra event (now in its 23rd year) is the brainchild of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian-American spiritual teacher who believed that perfection of the body can aid in perfection of the soul. He himself was an avid athlete, and encouraged his students to integrate running into their spiritual practice, while using the benefits of meditation to stay calm and focused during long runs.

The race was featured in Sanjay Rawal’s 2018 film 3100: Run and Become, which connects the spiritual running practices of Navajo runner Shaun Martin, the Bushmen of Botswana, the Buddhist monks of Mount Hiei, and students of Sri Chinmoy. View the trailer here: https://vimeo.com/266754781. According to Rawal (himself a Sri Chinmoy student), “running is a prayer and a teacher and a celebration of life.”

Day 48 has been a banner day for those concerned, because this morning Ashprihanal Aalto reached his 3,100-mile goal with a time of 47 days, 1 hour, 39 minutes, 34 seconds. That makes him a 15-time finisher and 9-time winner. After a month-and-a-half of ultra running, featherweight Aalto looks as though a good wind might easily carry him aloft. But joy will do that for you also.

There is no cash award, but friends, admirers, and well-wishers line up to greet each finisher, and the sense of joy is palpable. Bells are rung and songs of victory sung. This year, one woman offered Aalto a small stuffed puppy dog as a prize — this in addition to the traditional garland of flowers, certificate of appreciation, and custom-baked cake with a message of congratulations.

No golden earring — as worn by sailors who’ve managed to circumnavigate Cape Horn — but finishers of the Self-Transcendence 3100 know they’re members of an exclusive club. Only 43 people have done it in its first 22 years.

This year, Aalto got a little extra (well-deserved!) appreciation in the form of congratulations from the Finnish Consul General, and reporters turned up in unusual numbers. The Bergen Record of North Jersey did a wonderful 3-minute video profile which also included an outstanding interview with veteran Race Director Rupantar LaRusso.

There are 4 days left before the race ends on the evening of Tuesday, August 6th. Of the 8 starters, 1 (Aalto) has already finished, 5 more are on track to complete the entire distance by day 52, and 2 more will probably keep on running till the cutoff, but may fall short of 3,100 miles.


Sidebar: Weather proves tough for tough competitors

The Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile race has an illustrious history, with numerous records being broken for time, distance, age, and gender. Ashprihanal Aalto nailed World Best Time with his 2015 finish, done in an astounding 40 days, 9 hours, 6 minutes, 21 seconds. He averaged 76.776 miles per day (123.56 km), under favourable running conditions.

But though Aalto has just chalked up another victory in 2019, this was far from his best time. 2019 will see relatively few records set, largely due to the weather, which has been abysmal!

The race began on Sunday, June 16th, with rain, rain, and more rain. Day after day of rain. Then for a change, a little more rain! (as the old song goes). You might think all that rain would cool the runners off, but it also makes them soggy and heavy, and increases the likelihood of blisters. The lack of sunshine can be a mood-dampener as well.

Finally, the rain went away for a bit, but returned on the heels of Hurricane Barry. A couple of beautiful, springlike days followed — perfect weather for running. But as it turned out, that was the Weather Gods’ version of rope-a-dope. They were just lulling the runners into a false sense of comfort — if you can call running 60+ miles a day anything resembling comfortable.

Then came the great heat wave of July 2019, with maps that seemed to invent new shades of vermilion just to warn folks how sizzled, fried, clam-baked, and London-broiled they would be. No exemptions for vegetarians.

The NYC Triathlon (with entrants in the thousands) was cancelled due to extreme heat and humidity. But the brave 3100 runners soldiered on, with their health closely monitored, taking breaks as needed.

The early leader in June had been Vasu Duzhiy of St. Petersburg, himself a three-time winner. But by the time the July heat wave hit, blisters and a sore Achilles had forced Vasu The Invincible to drop back to third place. Ashprihanal Aalto was in the lead, with Nirbhasa Magee nipping at his heels.

Then the heat wave struck, and this is where Aalto’s years of experience finishing this seemingly impossible race paid off: Unbeknownst to observers (and apparently invisible), a finely-honed gear change mechanism lurks within his pencil-thin frame. He magically switched gears and found a pace that he could sustain in the sweltering heat, suffering far less than other runners.

Nirbhasa Magee hoped to stay close and continue to challenge Aalto; but alas, the heat affected him. He couldn’t seem to adjust as well as the more seasoned Finn. He took a short break in the oversized receptacle for runner immersion (dubbed “Big Bertha”), which helps cool down fatigued runners.

Magee is still on track to finish second, with a current ETA of Saturday, August 3rd at 3 p.m. That would be a new PB for him. He finished third in the 2017 edition of the race, with a time of 48 days, 16 hours, 47 minutes, 1 second. He stands to shave off about 8 hours.

Harita Davies is the only woman competing this year. (I tried to place bets with the London betting shops that she’ll come in first in her division — but sadly, no takers.) She had hoped to finish with a new PB, but like Magee was slowed by the heat. A new PB is still within her reach, but is less certain post-clambake.

Her previous time on first attempt in 2017 was 51 days, 12 hours, 48 minutes, 14 seconds. Davies looks to come in sixth overall, beating two of the men who — despite noble efforts and some outstanding days — have nevertheless struggled to keep pace. But no one doubts they’re gaining valuable experience, both athletic and spiritual. Interviewed in mid-July 2017, Davies had this to say:

What will the 2020 Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race bring? Probably #1 on most people’s wish list is a hint of a smile from the Weather Gods.

Michael Howard

LINKS

Official Race Site (daily updates and live webcam)
https://3100.srichinmoyraces.org/

The 3,100-mile race around a New York block (BBC article)
https://www.bbc.com/sport/48702452

A Diva Who Is Not Above Walking 3,100 Miles (New York Times article)
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/20/nyregion/yolanda-holder-walking-diva-3100-mile-race.html

At 3,100 miles, the longest footrace in the world tests the mind (Bergen Record article)
https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/2019/08/02/3-100-miles-longest-footrace-world-tests-mind/1899125001/

Perfection Journey – 3100-Mile Race (Utpal Marshall’s blog)
https://perfectionjourney.org/category/3100-mile-race-2019/

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Boris Johnson’s Tom Bombadil Problem

Beginning with a few Boris Johnson jokes, and morphing into a discussion of his candidacy for PM.

I sometimes wonder if I shouldn’t leave political humour to the pros. But a rich target like Boris invites pros and amateurs alike to have a go, and from both sides of the pond:

One incident which caught my eye was Johnson’s penning of a limerick deriding the President of Turkey. Johnson wrote:

There was a young fellow from Ankara,
Who was a terrific wankerer.
Till he sowed his wild oats, with the help of a goat,
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

President Erdogan’s reply was less well-publicised, perhaps because originally in Turkish. My Turkish is a little rusty (verging on the non-existent), but with the help of a Turkish-English dictionary I was able to cobble together this modest translation:

There once was a Mayor of London,
Who wanked till it gave him a bunion;
He would venture a fling with any young thing,
Be it animal, mineral or onion.

(The accompanying graphic is best left to the reader’s imagination.)

In his present phase as a Brexiter, Johnson famously suggests that since every attempt throughout history to unite Europe has eventually ended in failure, we might as well blow up the current effort. He’s like Ace, the cheerful dynamiter with can-do spirit played by Sophie Aldred in the waning days of Doctor Who Classic. Johnson’s enthusiasm for Brexit is very much the dynamiter’s enthusiasm for blowing up something that’s well nigh irreplaceable. “Oh well, nothing lasts forever,” he muses with schoolboy abandon while lighting the fuse. By his logic, there’s no point in eradicating polio and smallpox, because cancer will get us in the end. And all crockery eventually breaks, so we might as well use it in a game of whiff-whaff.

If we had Mr Wells’s time machine, we might fast forward to an epoch in which the EU no longer exists, true. But today, in spite of its limitations and flaws the EU remains a magnificent Nobel Prize-winning peace project. That peace which it has helped to preserve for over 70 years is its crowning achievement. As long as it remains viable we should do everything possible to preserve it rather than detonate it. To preserve it also means to try and change it for the better from within.

Like other Brexiters, Mr Johnson advances the straw man argument that just because the UK leaves the EU today doesn’t mean war will break out in Europe tomorrow. Of course not. But the creation of the EU was a product of enlightened post World War II thinking in which leaders clearly saw that cooperation in economic matters would lead to greater interdependence between the nations of Europe, and away from the type of hyper-nationalism which leads to warfare. Likewise, over the long arc of history a weaker EU from which the UK is notably absent is an EU with less power to de-escalate conflicts between historical rivals like France and Germany.

Johnson has been described as a man who believes in nothing — a chameleon or weather-vane taking on whatever appearance or direction will benefit his political career. Why then do we like him? Because there’s some merit to the school of thought which says that life is one big absurdist joke. It’s easy to picture Johnson as a character in a Pirandello or Ionesco play, charging rhinoceros-like at an innocent schoolboy for a lark, or penning limericks about the President of Turkey. We need characters like that — just not in high office.

As the colourful Mayor of London Johnson did alright — allegedly with the help of a staff which formed and implemented policy. True, he did order a fleet of buses which doubled as steam baths. In the lower echelons of government, he’s gotten good at blundering his way through, but he’s no tightrope walker or diplomat. As Foreign Secretary he was a disaster whose most serious gaff was making inaccurate remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a dual citizen of Iran and the UK who was arrested while visiting family in Iran in April 2016. Johnson’s remarks were treated as a publicity coup by the Iranian government, who used them as a further excuse to unjustly imprison her. This highlights the criticism that Johnson is often unprepared, acts irresponsibly, shoots from the hip, and covers up his unpreparedness with bluster.

Then too, Johnson’s checkered history as a journalist is not sufficiently understood within the UK. He spent years on the Brussels circuit figuratively throwing rotten tomatoes at EU officials, writing articles for domestic consumption which arguably helped groom the British public to hate the EU and falsely blame it for all that goes agley in Britain, culminating in the current Brexit insanity (which Johnson helped urge on). If getting out of this Brexit mess will require diplomacy, tightrope-walking, and a reservoir of good will, Johnson is absolutely the wrong man for the job.

This brings me to what I call Johnson’s “Tom Bombadil problem.” Tolkien fans will surely know a pivotal chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring called “The Council of Elrond.” There, folk of many different races and species hold council in order to determine what to do with the Great Ring of Power which would spell doom were it to fall into the hands of Sauron — an evil specter or dictator. One of many options explored is to give the ring to Tom Bombadil, an outlandish, bombastic, likeable, but nutty character who epitomizes Amber Rudd’s famous shade-throwing line about Boris Johnson: “He’s the life and soul of the party, but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”

Incidentally, in the Harvard Lampoon parody Bored of the Rings, Tom Bombadil becomes Tim Benzedrine (a consummate druggie), and his hippyish girlfriend becomes Hashberry, of whom he sings:

O slender as a speeding freak! Spaced-out groovy tripper!
O mush-brained maid whose mind decays with every pill I slip her!
O mind-blown fair farina-head, friend of birds and beetles!
O skinny wraith whose fingernails are hypodermic needles!
O tangled locks and painted bod! Pupils big as eggs!
O flower-maid who never bathes or even shaves her legs!
O softened mind that wanders wherever moon above leads!
O how I dig thee, Hashberry, from nose to sleazy lovebeads!

Anyway, attendees at the Council of Elrond decide against giving the Ring to Tom Bombadil for safekeeping, on the grounds that “he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it, or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind. He would be a most unsafe guardian; and that alone is answer enough.”

Johnson’s ascension to PM may ignite a “Chameleonic War” in the Tory party — a war whose battle lines are already drawn between the old guard of Little Englanders, and more liberal One Nation conservatives. Johnson could end up being a figurehead who runs interference with his public buffoonery, while behind the scenes one faction or another pushes through its favoured policies. But if so, which faction? In his current incarnation of non-beliefs, Johnson is a Brexiter, but occasionally gives out grunts suggesting One Nationism. Some Remainers cling to hopes of a so-called “Nixon in China” scenario in which Johnson, being an arch Brexiter, can turn on a dime and support a second referendum. He is nothing if not unpredictable; still, the latter seems unlikely. Moreover, as PM he may find himself in the same pickle as Mrs May: saddled with a hung parliament, unable to move left or right without fracturing the fragile coalition keeping him in power.

Johnson is a genuinely likeable character — or would be, if only he weren’t in politics, and only he weren’t so ambitious. Deep down, he does believe that life is a joke, and that one might therefore ape any belief for the moment, like a comic actor playing a role. He often appears to be doing a slightly personalized Churchill impression while laughing on the inside. There’s a rumour that in order to ingratiate himself with Tories, he had jowl enlargement surgery. (Okay, so I made that one up!)

He may believe life is a joke, but he will go to Eton, he will scramble to the top of the pile of codswallop, he will fiercely pursue his hunger for the golden chalice (or Ring of Power). That ruthlessness adds a chilling knife-edge to his buffoonery.

Parallels with Donald Trump

Simplistic comparisons between Boris Johnson and Donald Trump abound (the mad hair thing being all but irresistible). Each of them may be better at playing Master of Ceremonies on telly than they are at actually governing. Both of them seem unconcerned about details at crucial moments, and more inclined to improvise — often contradicting their own prior statements, as well as experts in the relevant fields. Both are known to lie outright when it suits them; both enjoy the benefits of Teflon with their respective bases; and both are so-called “Marmite figures” — either loved or hated. Both men are examples of charisma as a substitute for leadership, and entertainment value as a substitute for character value; and both seem to suffer from entitlement-itis: a core conviction that they can grab who or what they want simply because they are who they are.

There may be deeper structural similarities in that each is not just a populist, but a particular kind of populist. Both men are elitists who use the techniques of populism to try and put elitist policies over on working class folk who would actually be harmed by such policies.

If and when Boris Johnson takes over the government, it will be crucial to watch what they do, as opposed to what they say. This is always true, but especially so when you have a populist figure trying to sell elitist policies like Brexit.

With his great jowly enthusiasm, Johnson tries to persuade us that the best way to avoid no-deal is to plan for it, and the best way to come closer to Europe is to leave the EU. If politics ever fails him, he has a bright future flogging pyjamas to dead cats.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker: Last Tango The Video

What if Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker were characters from a scandalous 1970s movie? What sorts of things might they say to each other as they exchange knowing glances? This parody answers that question… Later, we discuss Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, and whether there’s a scientific explanation for why Brexit seems to have caused the political process to break down.

Having advertised the video in a “coming attractions” post, I’m glad to have completed it. Maybe not everyone shares my “out” sense of humour or will take the film references, but once I got the idea and made some preliminary sketches, I had to see it through.

What was most interesting was working on the graphics, spending a lot of time in Dynamic Auto Painter and Photoshop to come up with things that worked. The main image visible for most of the video is a composite of several versions done in DAP, then combined on layers in Photoshop, painting with white or black paint on the layer masks to bring out the best features of each. This is a good way to use tools like Dynamic Auto Painter. Keep experimenting until you have a few different versions that you like, then work on combining them into a composition that reflects careful aesthetic judgement, and is not merely a pushbutton exercise.

The final (abstract) image in the video is based on customising the “Sunflowers” preset in DAP, then adding more texture in Photoshop, running the Texturizer filter with different channels loaded, and combining the results using layers and modes.

When trying to create a more 3D paint texture in Photoshop, you usually want to inspect the different channels and choose the one which shows the most variation and contrast. In this case, even though the underlying image was RGB, I ended up converting it to CYMK and saving the yellow channel as a texturizing source.

Sidebar: Theresa May, Brexit, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem

I heard an interesting discussion on LBC regarding whether Theresa May could have handled Brexit differently, or whether she was compelled by political circumstances to follow the course that she did:

This is the episode of James O’Brien’s call-in show where the now famous “Dino The Doctor” made an appearance (toward the end), and was subsequently written up in the Grimsby Telegraph. There are other good callers from diverse backgrounds who help round out the discussion. O’Brien’s riffing is in top form. (Do the Brexit Okey Cokey!)

In theory, in a universe in which we each have absolute free will, Theresa May could have done things quite differently. But most of us tend to be bound by our past choices and the institutions to which we’ve hitched our fate. In practice, we are more like the man caught in a net who has only limited freedom of movement, which he might use to try and free himself.

One can find many things to admire about Theresa May; yet, she did not have the degree of insight or strength of character that would allow her to break free from her assigned role as deliverer of Brexit. Indeed, that was a role she volunteered to play for the Tory party. She may genuinely believe that Brexit was the product of a praiseworthy democratic process, and therefore must be delivered “for the people.” But to what extent does this view reflect institutional blinders, and the blinders that come from personal ambition? Once she saw herself as the hero-bureaucrat who would deliver Brexit, how could she bear to face the truth that Brexit is bad policy, and that lies and corruption played a considerable role in winning the vote for Leave?

I’ve also been pondering the myth that the day after the referendum, the 48% who voted Remain were supposed to roll over and play dead. Brexit is not the kind of issue that can be settled by a one-time referendum. The UK has been involved in a relationship with the EU for over forty years. Many individuals and businesses are deeply invested personally, emotionally, financially, even spiritually in that relationship. They care. It was never reasonable to think they would meekly consent to having that relationship ripped away from them. Contrary to claims by Nigel Farage, that’s not how democracy is supposed to work. The rights of a significant minority need to be respected. Difficult issues require nuanced solutions in order build consensus, and Brexit was anything but nuanced. Changes which are fundamentally destructive of an existing long-standing relationship should be difficult to enact, and should require a confirmatory vote.

Granted that the initial referendum was a terrible idea; still, I find myself wondering in hindsight if it would have been fairer had it been subject to the following conditions:

– Three fifths majority in the popular vote
– Majority of nations must vote Leave

I do think that would have been fairer, and obviously would have been a win for Remain. Where we are now, with Leave winning by a slender 4% majority in the popular vote, and two out of the four nations voting Remain, it’s a hopeless muddle that will take years to resolve, and a great many people who are barely surviving today may go under in the interim.

Now, is there any scientific reason why Brexit might cause the system to break down? The answer is yes. A parliamentary system of government is a type of formal system, and Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem tells us that every formal system is incomplete. A corollary to Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that it’s always possible to introduce a formula into any formal system which will cause it to break down.

I learned about this stuff by reading Douglas Hofstadter’s excellent book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid back in the day. He manages to be entertaining and funny while dealing with some profound concepts. He constructed a wonderful dialogue to illustrate exactly the point I’m making about formal systems and how you can feed them a proposition that will cause them to break down. Read it here. He uses the metaphor of a record player, i.e. phonograph (you know, like vinyl… what your grandparents still have.)

His dialogues often feature Achilles, the Tortoise, and the Crab. Here, a smooth-talking salesman has persuaded the gullible Crab to purchase a phonograph alleged to be Perfect — able to reproduce any sounds whatsoever. However, the shrewd Tortoise quickly dashes the Crab’s unrealistic expectations by bringing over a record entitled “I Cannot Be Played on Record Player I.” Sure enough, when the Crab attempts to play the record, the sounds produced create vibrations which cause the phonograph to self-destruct into a gajillion pieces!

Now, a democratic government is not a formal system in the precise way that Principia Mathematica is a formal system. Still, many people believe their system of government is Perfect and can withstand any shock, when the truth is that it’s possible to seriously foul up the system by feeding it garbage like the Brexit referendum or Donald Trump.

While no formal system is perfect, democratic political systems can be beefed up so that they’re more resistant to certain types of attacks. Democracy is more likely to flourish where you have:

– A well-educated public that doesn’t easily fall for racist propaganda or other appeals to base sentiment.

– Strictly enforced campaign finance laws which prevent dark or foreign money from influencing elections, and nullify the results if violations are uncovered.

– A free press which takes its responsibilities seriously and actively “truth-squads” claims by politicians, not permitting blatant lies to gain equal footing with established facts (a problem sometimes known as “false balance”).

Arguably, the way the Brexit referendum caused the system to break down is that it attempted to take a complex, multi-dimensional and highly technical issue about which people also feel passionately, and reduce it to a one-time binary choice — based, furthermore, on often misleading information. There is an element of falsity to doing this which is similar to introducing wrong figures into an equation, or attempting to divide by zero. Hence the breakdown.

It’s not easy to put Humpty Dumpty back together again after a rupture of this magnitude. Somewhat paradoxically or non-intuitively, a second referendum may actually help. The thinking is that a second referendum held three years later would be based on more accurate information, a more realistic assessment of what leaving the EU would actually mean, and a recognition that it would be a process which would take years to complete, and would involve “reinventing the wheel” in many areas of daily life where the UK already enjoys good solutions based on EU membership.

Then too, Brexit has been called “a solution in search of a problem.” One of the problems invented by politicians selling Brexit door-to-door was the notion that the UK had somehow lost its sovereignty and needed to get it back by leaving the EU. Such claims may have lost their lustre in the face of increasing factory closures and job losses due to Brexit.

Immigration was portrayed as nothing but a bother (or even a danger); but now that restaurants are closing because they can’t find sufficient wait staff, and the NHS is challenged to fulfill its social care mission due to lack of nurses, some Leavers are realising that European immigrants were performing vital functions in jobs that native-born Britons don’t want and won’t take.

Admittedly, there’s still the “fact vs. feeling” hurdle to get over. As I discuss elsewhere, the real world data flowing in mostly favours Remain, while Leave sentiment is still being aggressively stoked by Nigel Farage et al. If that’s not a breakdown, I don’t know what is.

Another concern about a second referendum is that Leavers will trot out the same bag of dirty tricks which (let’s face it!) worked so well for them during the first referendum. Would we see a Breaking Point II poster, and would another MP be assassinated by a crazed right-winger? Or has the general public become less gullible, less excitable in the intervening years, and would campaign finance violations be monitored more closely second time ’round?

I remain optimistic that truth will gradually out, and real world data will eventually overtake the type of faux patriotism (read jingoism) which Farage is peddling. If Brexit cannot be stopped today, then delay, delay, delay! Perhaps it can be stopped tomorrow through democratic means. Democracy includes a rich palette of tools, and it’s absolutely wrong when Leavers claim that a one-time referendum is the only tool in the kit that’s relevant to deciding the issue of Brexit. The UK’s relationship with the EU is something living, vibrant, and essential in the lives of millions of people. It will take more than a one-time binary referendum to kill it off. When MPs take a firm stand by voting against Brexit, that’s just as much a part of the democratic process as was the original referendum. They are not being undemocratic (nor are they “traitors”) for trying to protect against a bad policy that would actually harm their constituents. Indeed, under a parliamentary system it is their obligation to do so. If anyone can be accurately described as traitorous, it’s those who give in to the tide of populism and support Brexit in spite of privately admitting that it’s bad policy.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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European Parliament Elections – Free For All

A free ramble touching on elections, patriotism, true love, media cowardice, and referencing such diverse characters as Patrick McGoohan, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, James O’Brien, Nigel Farage, and Theresa May. Also reprising quotes on the problem of false balance.

“Free For All” was the title of an episode of The Prisoner which first aired in 1967. The title is sardonic because residents of The Village were not free. Elections weren’t free either, but they did descend into a free-for-all:

I always think of this Prisoner episode around election time, especially as politics grows more and more surreal, and what is odd or intolerable is “normalized” (to use a word which was absent from political discourse in 1967).

The Prisoner is (in part) about people living in a totalitarian technocracy; and what especially irks the main character (played by Patrick McGoohan) is that they have normalized the intolerable conditions under which they live. They enjoy electioneering as a community activity in spite of knowing it’s a complete sham; but perhaps “enjoy” is not quite the right word. They take perverse pleasure in playing out a role assigned to them with exaggerated gusto. So, these cheering crowds have a sinister quality, like those cheering for Mussolini in Fellini’s Amarcord.

It would be tempting to claim that I see the same sinister quality at Trump rallies or Brexit Party rallies, but in truth that is not the case. Those real world political rallies tend to be boring and insipid, because they’re attended primarily by people who don’t see very deeply into the nature of reality, or the character and motivations of the politicians they’re supporting. Most attendees are not downright evil or sinister, just frightfully dim, and prone to the character flaws which lack of insight can give rise to.

A theme which has emerged in some of my posts is: What is a genuine emotion? Since politicians and other salespeople are constantly pushing our emotional hot buttons in order to manipulate us, how can we be more discriminating in our responses to their stimuli, to propaganda? Can we learn to distinguish between emotions which are cheap and easy to produce (even through lying) and emotions which come from the core of our being and seem to radiate truth, or connect us with something truly eternal and greater than ourselves?

Patriotism is one of those emotions it’s difficult to question. Maybe people who attend Trump or Brexit Party rallies are genuinely patriotic. Or maybe like love (or what sometimes passes for love), patriotism can exist at a multitude of levels — some shallow, some more profound.

On her 1968 double album Any Day Now, Joan Baez sang nothing but Bob Dylan songs, including two which show how love can be viewed both cynically and idealistically. These are “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” and “Love Minus Zero/No Limit”:

Seems like only yesterday
I left my mind behind
Down in the Gypsy Cafe
With a friend of a friend of mine
Who sat his baby heavy on her knee
Yet spoke of life most free from slavery
With eyes that showed no trace of misery
The phrase in connection first with she occurred
That love is just a four-letter word

Outside a rattling storefront window
Cats meowed till the break of day
Me, I kept my mouth shut to you
I had no words to say
My experience was limited and underfed
You were talking while I hid
To the one who was the father of your kid
You probably didn’t think I did, but I heard
You say that love is just a four-letter word

I said goodbye unnoticed
Pushed forth into my own games
Drifting in and out of lifetimes
Unmentionable by name
Searching for my double, looking for
Complete evaporation to the core
Though I tried and failed at finding any door
I must have thought that there was nothing more absurd
Than that love is just a four-letter word

Though I never knew just what you meant
When you were speaking to your man
I can only think in terms of me
And now I understand
After waking enough times to think I see
The Holy Kiss that’s supposed to last eternity
Blow up in smoke, its destiny
Falls on strangers, travels free
Yes, I know now, traps are only set by me
And I do not really need to be assured
That love is just a four-letter word

Strange it is to be beside you
Many years, the tables turned
You’d probably not believe me
If I told you all I’ve learned
And it is very, very weird indeed
To hear words like forever, fleets of
Ships run through my mind, I cannot cheat
It’s like looking in a teacher’s face complete
I can say nothing to you but repeat what I heard
That love is just a four-letter word

My love, she speaks like silence
Without ideals or violence
She doesn’t have to say she’s faithful
Yet she’s true like ice, like fire

People carry roses
And make promises by the hour
My love she laughs like the flowers
Valentines can’t buy her

In the dime stores and bus stations
People talk of situations
Read books, repeat quotations
Draw conclusions on the wall

Some speak of the future
My love, she speaks softly
She knows there’s no success like failure
And that failure’s no success at all

The cloak and dagger dangles
Madams light the candles
In ceremonies of the horsemen
Even the pawn must hold a grudge

Statues made of matchsticks
Crumble into one another
My love winks, she does not bother
She knows too much to argue or to judge

The bridge at midnight trembles
The country doctor rambles
Bankers’ nieces seek perfection
Expecting all the gifts that wise men bring

The wind howls like a hammer
The night wind blows cold and rainy
My love, she’s like some raven
At my window with a broken wing

Love falls on strangers, travels free, and love (or what passes for love) sometimes results in loveless marriages and unwanted, unloved children; but love can also be true and constant, like ice, like fire.

Truth and constancy are wanting in our politicians, and in advertisers who flog us their products; and we have normalized the phenomenon of being lied to. These are, if not causes, at least symptoms of what ails us in modern life.

This allows me to segue into a recent interview with James O’Brien — a British journalist, radio talk show host, and author:

One of O’Brien’s points is that the media are not being honest or scrupulous in their treatment of our would-be leaders — not practicing good journalism. Their simplistic formula for a news segment is to get two people who hold opposing views to slug it out for a few minutes (or a few paragraphs). Lacking any reference point or North Star pointing towards truth, the outcome is decided more or less on force of personality, or who can most effectively appeal to base sentiments. A bounder like Nigel Farage rises to power because practically no one in the UK media is truth-squading him.

These problems are not new, nor is this analysis. A number of media outlets have, at one time or another, called attention to the problem of false balance and pledged to try and rectify or overcome it; yet we are still where we are. The BBC (which is, after all, a governmental institution) continues to believe — or act as if they believed — that pointing out when a politician is lying outright or contradicting his/her own prior statements would somehow be a “biased” thing to do. That culture in which truth and lies are treated as if coequal needs to change.

In a 2016 post, “Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic Minorities,” I discussed the problem of false balance, and compiled some potent quotes which I reprise here. Rem Rieder writes:

No matter what the news media’s many critics believe, most journalists endeavor to be fair, to give both sides rather than choose sides. In that effort, there’s a tendency to print what someone says, print what the other side says and call it a day.

The trouble is, there isn’t always equal merit on both sides. So, in instances where one side is largely fact-based, and the other is spouting obvious nonsense, treating both sides equally isn’t balanced. It’s misleading.

Often journalists are reluctant to state the conclusions that stem from their reporting, out of the concern that they will appear partisan or biased. But just laying out both positions without going further in an effort to establish the truth can create [false balance]. And that doesn’t do much good for the readers and the viewers.

Journalism isn’t stenography. It’s not treating everything the same when it’s not the same. It’s about giving citizens information about public affairs that is as accurate as possible.

— Rem Rieder, “The danger of false balance in journalism,” USA Today

Katrina vanden Heuvel writes:

False equivalence in the media — giving equal weight to unsupported or even discredited claims for the sake of appearing impartial — is not unusual. … There are many sides to almost every story, but that doesn’t mean they are automatically equal. Unfortunately, too much of the media has become increasingly fixated on finding “balance,” even if it means presenting fiction on par with fact.

Ultimately, forcing balance where there is none is not journalistically ethical. It’s not part of the proud and essential tradition of truth telling and evaluation, either. At best, it’s lazy. At worst, it’s an abdication of the media’s responsibility.

— Katrina vanden Heuvel, “The distorting reality of ‘false balance’ in the media,” The Washington Post

According to The Economist:

Balance is easy and cheap. In political journalism, a vitriolic quote from each side and a punchy headline is all that is needed to feed the news machine. Who cares if substance and analysis are thrown to the wind? Journalism is a commodity. There is always a need for more “inventory” on which to place ads. Journalism, real journalism — the pursuit of truth — also creates inventory, but not as much, and it is difficult, costly and time-consuming. Far easier to bolt together a few pieces of trivial comment from political pundits and move on.

— “The balance trap,” The Economist

Maragaret Sullivan, [former] Public Editor at The New York Times, writes:

Hardly anything sends Times readers for their boxing gloves as quickly as does the practice of “he said/she said” reporting. (Here’s an extreme and made-up example just for the sake of illustration: “Some sources believe that the earth is flat; others insist that it is round.”) … In general, The Times tries to avoid letting two sides of a debate get equal time when one of them represents an established truth[.]

— Margaret Sullivan, “Another Outbreak of ‘False Balance’?” The New York Times

Ms. Sullivan also writes:

Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side. And many people are fed up with it. They don’t want to hear lies or half-truths given credence on one side, and shot down on the other. They want some real answers.

“Recently, there’s been pressure to be more aggressive on fact-checking and truth-squading,” said Richard Stevenson, The Times’s political editor. “It’s one of the most positive trends in journalism that I can remember.”

You’re entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts, goes the line from [late Senator] Daniel Patrick Moynihan[.] … The trick, of course, is to determine those facts, to identify the established truth.

The associate managing editor for standards, Philip B. Corbett, puts it this way: “I think editors and reporters are more willing now than in the past to drill down into claims and assertions, in politics and other areas, and really try to help readers sort out conflicting claims.”

Journalists need to make every effort to get beyond the spin and help readers know what to believe, to help them make their way through complicated and contentious subjects. The more news organizations can state established truths and stand by them, the better off the readership — and the democracy — will be.

— Margaret Sullivan, “He Said, She Said, and the Truth,” The New York Times

In endorsing a policy adopted by National Public Radio, James Fallows writes:

With these words, NPR commits itself as an organization to avoid the worst excesses of “he said, she said” journalism. It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being “fair to the truth,” which as we know is not always evenly distributed among the sides in a public dispute.

— James Fallows, “NPR Tackles ‘False Equivalence,’” The Atlantic

False balance can occur when journalists don’t distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, or between scholarly research and popular prejudice. They fail to locate the “established truth.”

Not that truth-squading is a universal panacea. Some people simply prefer lies. As the Fleetwood Mac song goes, “Tell me lies, tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies.” (Or as is the case with some political or anti-religious propaganda: “Tell me ugly, hateful lies that just happen to coincide with my biased world view.”)

How do you fight feelings with facts? Some people claim it isn’t possible. But as I discuss elsewhere:

Offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information flowing in… Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions  can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue.

Returning to the subject of James O’Brien: He can be a bit dark and cynical because he sees through much of what is false in British politics. Maybe his insights would find more converts if he could sprinkle in a few dashes of hope. For, yes there is hope — if not in politics, at least in music, art, and poetry, and (of course) spirituality. There are realms untouched and untrammelled by the lies of politicians or advertisers — realms of peace, bliss, and beauty.

As for the problems of this world… Another issue with the media is that they accept things at face value when they ought to be questioning what they’re being handed. A thing is often not what it says on the tin!

Theresa May says she has a brand spanking new deal for Parliament to approve regarding Brexit. So the mimeo-mad press writes headlines like “THERESA MAY’S NEW DEAL” or “THERESA MAY OFFERS 2ND REFERENDUM.” What nonsense! Has Theresa May gone back to Brussels and negotiated a new deal with the EU? No! It’s the same old deal for the umpteenth time, tarted up a bit to tempt those on the cusp. Does she now support a second referendum? No! She’s offering to vote on having a vote, but only after the House of Commons approves her deal. Then she’ll whip her party to vote as a bloc against a second referendum. It’s all smoke and mirrors; Labour is right to have no part of it. Any promises she makes on her way out the door can easily be reneged on by the next administration.

“You don’t like my anchovy-and-marmalade sandwich? Here, I’ll wrap it in some seaweed and put some lipstick on it. Now it’s a new sandwich! Isn’t it appealing?” “Oh yes, Auntie May,” reply the press. “Please give us more so we can write headlines about it!”

In spite of these discouraging signs, and the potential for Nigel Farage to win big in today’s European Parliament elections, I do remain hopeful. Truth does win out in the end, but it can take a very long time. One should not lose hope! It is better to be in the minority that sees clearly and speaks rightly than to condition oneself to enjoy anchovy-and-marmalade sandwiches and regard them as manna from Heaven!

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Good Energy at the Change UK Presser on April 23

Discussing the breakdown of the two main UK political parties, and what recent local elections may tell us about Brexit. Also asking the trenchant question “How do you fight feelings with facts?”

I’m not saying I believe in politics to the nth degree. Often times, politics is where hope goes to die. It’s a rough business. So I continue to be amazed at the degree of hope (or hopefulness) expressed by the new Change UK party (affectionately known as the Tigs or Tiggers). I can only say that the sun continues to shine on them.

When someone starts a new venture, I’m a firm believer in looking to the consciousness with which that venture begins — the consciousness of the people involved. The consciousness of Change UK is very good. There’s a spirit of dynamism, cheerful cooperation, even joy. This differs greatly from the two major parties, who seem locked in extreme positions on many important issues, and who often find it difficult to get beyond politics as usual.

Both the Conservatives and Labour support Brexit (or at least their leadership does). What’s that about? Politics as usual. The truth that Brexit is bad policy and will hurt the UK and its people is a politically inconvenient truth, so it is ignored (or perhaps not even seen) by leadership of the two main parties.

When political parties ossify, they act to a considerable extent like blinders. Members can’t see or won’t see the truth which is right in front of them. It is sometimes necessary to break away and start a new party in order to embrace a new or modern vision of the world as it really is — not as it once was, or as various hardened political and economic theories would have it be. Of course, none of this is to suggest that there aren’t good people in the Conservative and Labour parties. Certainly there are, but they’re often constrained by the political machine.

At its best, Change UK is a group of former Labour and Conservative MPs who have now taken off the party blinders and walked out into the sunlight, metaphorically holding hands. There’s joy and freedom in that. That sense of joy and freedom is palpable in the way they present themselves.

There were many excellent speeches delivered by the women and men of Change UK on April 23. I happen to have been struck by a couple of comments from Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes which I found forward-looking and reflective of a true and accurate picture of the world as it is:

If you (like us) love your country, and you believe the UK is a kind-hearted place, generous in spirit, and should be open to new ideas — people of different backgrounds, creeds, colours, and religions; if you are proud of our history, but also determined to embrace the future, and transform the UK into a place where all our citizens get to enjoy the benefits of modern Britain; if you believe absolutely key to achieving these things is working at an international level through the EU and other international partners, keeping our seat at the top table, then sign up as a supporter and campaign for us in these European elections. We must change our politics. We have to change the trajectory we’re on. If you want to bring an end to this Brexit nightmare, vote for us because we are the party of change. Thank you very much, everybody. – Chuka Umunna

One of the tragedies in British political history is that we have never discussed the reason why the European Community (and then the European Union) was established. We’ve never really put across the importance of bringing together France and Germany, and preventing war on the continent, and the fact that the European Union has been one of the greatest peace projects. And when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in other European countries that was regarded as a badge of pride. In this country, we had cyncial sneers from the mainstream media, or even no recognition of the importance of that. And our [older] generation has to remember that these debates today are not about us. They are about future young people in our continent, and insuring that we maintain that peace, as well as the economic prosperity, the good environmental standards, the international cooperation, and the vision that the European Union provides to the rest of the world of a successful, peaceful cooperation between twenty-eight countries. – Mike Gapes

Listening to their comments, my reaction was Yes! They get it! They’re seeing the world as it really is today, and looking rightly toward the future.

Now, politics breeds cynicism as proliferously as rabbits breed more rabbits. The cloud of cynicism which envelops UK politics does indeed extend to journalists, who may well be sceptical that a small band of dissenters can be of much use.

I find it helpful to distinguish between political power on the one hand, and being right on the other hand. The two do not always go together. Often, those with political power have gotten it by foul means, including telling blatant lies to the people, or making compromises with the devil. Those with a clear vision of what is right and true often do not have much political power, but this doesn’t mean they are without influence.

This is a place where the political world meets the spiritual world. We desperately need visionaries, people who see the world as it is — not in the mundane sense of the price of halibut or the efficacy of rhubarb subsidies, but in the more profound sense of what brings us together as human beings, and how we can make the world a better place, not just locally but globally.

Of course, most politics is local and tends to be governed by self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney.’) But in order to make the world a better place, we need to rise above petty self-interest and momentary advantage or gain, and embrace a vision for the future which we must first endeavor to see.

Politics is only one facet of that vision for the future, but politics plays an important role in how we move forward (or fail to do so). Politicians whose vision for the future is dynamic, enlightened, and consonant with that greater vision which proceeds from spiritual insight are really the gold standard among politicians, whether or not they hold much power. By being right and speaking rightly, they can move things in a good direction, even when acting from the margins. Plus, there is great personal salvation in speaking up for what you believe, even if no one listens!

Members of the UK’s two main political parties often have to “go along to get along.” This becomes distasteful to some people who hunger after truth. So, it becomes a personal decision whether one cares more for the old school tie and a safe home in politics (recalling the Peter Hamill song), or whether one cares more for truth unvarnished by political expediency. As the two main parties become increasingly shrill and wedded to inflexible ideologies, it stands to reason they will chalk up more defections from people who care more for truth. Perhaps there’s some indication of this in Friday’s local election results, where Tories and Labour lost ground to Lib Dems, Greens, and Independents. The numbers are impressive and are being interpreted by some as an anti-Brexit vote — if so, good news!

The BBC’s ‘England Scoreboard’ showing who lost and won in local council elections, May, 2019

There’s a very odd disconnect between those actual results — in which staunch Remain parties chalked up the greatest victories — and the claims of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, who are trying to spin this as a “just get on with Brexit” vote. If you want Brexit to happen, you certainly don’t vote for Lib Dems or Greens. (Change UK were not standing in these elections. Their first major test will come in the European elections three weeks hence.)

I want to discuss one other item from the Change UK presser. A trenchant point was made by audience member Simon Knighton, who chairs a not-for-profit health and social care facility. He said:

I believe that you cannot challenge emotion with fact. So, one of the mistakes I think that we’ve made consistently in the United States and in the referendum here was that we tried to challenge the emotion of the right with facts and experts, and everybody saying this, this, and this, and we wheel out the next expert. I think what we need to do — Chuka said it — there are two visions of Europe: We need to accentuate the positive vision of Britain as a free partnership, modern demcocracy in a global world in which our young people are equipped to move from job to job to job. And those become the defining policies of our future.

Knighton’s point is similar to George Lakoff on not responding to negative framing, but rather creating your own positive frame. This is helpful, but not a universal panacea. As LBC broadcaster James O’Brien has pointed out, much of the Leave campaign amounted to telling working class folk that European immigrants are out to nick your biscuit, and the only way to stop them is to vote Leave. It’s not clear that talk of Britain as a free partnership, modern democracy in a global world, etc. would entirely dispel the fear of biscuit-nicking, which is more immediate and less abstract. Still, offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information about Brexit as that flows in, dispelling fantasies of sunny uplands and a massive windfall for the NHS.

Knighton’s comment that “you cannot challenge emotion with fact” really got me thinking — not just about politics, but about my own activities favouring religious tolerance. There’s often a tacit assumption among intellectuals that simply explaining the facts should dispel hatred, intolerance, religious bigotry, or even belief in the much-storied Brexit Unicorn. In an article mostly about US politics, I wrote:

In his testimony before a British House of Commons committee, whistleblower Chris Wylie explained that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (of which he is former research director) doesn’t have to turn a profit like a normal company because it’s subsidized by New York billionaire Robert Mercer. It can therefore act as a covert means of funneling huge contributions to political causes handpicked by Mercer, regardless of supposed limits set by law. This is a concrete example of dark money being used to rig elections, employing hi-tech means as well as the latest psychological theories about how to manipulate voters by getting inside their heads and playing to their fears, using personal data scraped from Facebook.

This is the brave new world in which we presently live, where thinking people are held hostage to a populist majority which reacts slavishly to psychological stimuli supplied by political operatives obsessed with kingmaking. It is an ugly world, and just as we have a duty to leave our children a clean environment, we also have a duty to apply an emissions test to our politicians, rejecting and removing those who cast an odiferous pall over our nation, or pollute the seas of discourse with the toxic sludge of “alternative facts.”

At what point does political science become the science of psychologically manipulating the masses using lies, propaganda, fear, hatred, high technology, and stolen data? When people have been subjected to extensive psychological manipulation, including a large quantity of false and hateful depictions (such as graphics which Cambridge Analytica takes credit for, showing Hillary Clinton in handcuffs), how genuine are the resulting emotions?

These are difficult questions since at the populist level, people are taught to treat their emotions as sacrosanct. If the motto of the intellectual was once “I think, therefore I am” the motto of the Facebook consumer may be “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Yet, emotions can be manipulated. How can we judge their genuineness?

Democracy works best in an environment of openness and honesty. Too much money (especially dark money) is one universal surd in the political mathematic. The use of covert psychological manipulation employing hi-tech means is another significant threat. It remains to be seen whether democracy can survive the dual onslaught of billionaires funding covert psyops to shoe in their handpicked candidates.

An enduring question for our time: How do you fight feelings with facts? How do you get people to look more deeply into their responses to political advertisements or other forms of propaganda which try to bypass reason and appeal to their least noble selves, their fears and prejudices?

Insight is needed, but insight cannot be bought as cheaply as propaganda. Insight can come from many sources, including meditation, spiritual readings, and self-reflection.

Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media. It seems plain that technology has moved faster than our ability to understand and assimilate it. While progress in technology is good, it also leads to new problems which must be soberly addressed.

The freedom of the Internet includes the freedom to spread propaganda in ways hitherto undreamt of. Propaganda has always been a danger to democracy because it leads people to vote not for the best-qualified candidates or those who appeal to our noblest selves, but rather for candidates who put forth false but tempting arguments, or who appeal to our base emotions and least noble instincts. At its worst, the Internet is propaganda on steroids, injected with greater precision using so-called “psychographic profiling” or other discreditable techniques which seek to identify extremists and rally them to a dubious cause:

One of the problems with politics as a dirty business is the potential for dirt to be done with plausible deniability. The Internet amplifies this problem. If you see a Facebook ad suggesting that the UK will be overrun by criminal aliens unless you vote Leave, is that ad being paid for by an authorised UK group, American billionaire Robert Mercer, or elements of the Russian government? Who really knows these days? It pays to be sceptical. Democracy can best flourish when there is open, respectful dialogue with voters, not when voters are subjected to psyops targeting their subconscious fears.

I don’t claim that Leave used nothing but illegal tactics. Much of what was done was simply politics as we know it. Quoting Leave campaigner and money man Arron Banks (who is under investigation by the National Crime Agency), “It was ruthlessly executed in a businesslike way, and we stayed on message.” But in a crooked game of poker, a hypothetical cheater doesn’t need to produce all aces all night long, in every hand. He can afford to pick his spots. In a referendum that was decided 52 to 48, how many percentage points are attributable to lies, cheating, illegal or immoral tactics? One percent? Two percent? Five percent?

I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and neither do Change UK. But they do seem to have above average insight, are asking many of the right questions about Britain’s future, and do dialogue respectfully with voters. They’re off to a rollicking good start. May the sun continue to shine on them!

Note: I have not elaborated on the relationship between political propaganda and religious intolerance, but propaganda vilifying some purported “other” is certainly a connecting link. At the present time, much political propaganda targets immigrants as the “other” to be feared and hated. Anti-religious propaganda similarly targets particular religions, leading to the horrific acts of violence we have seen targeting mosques, synagogues, and churches.

Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue. Persons sought can be found. Help is available. Clarity is pleasurable. 🙂


Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

In February 2019, a group of Labour MPs defected from the party and formed their own centrist Independent Group (now Change UK), soon to be joined by a few Tory MPs. This has spawned vigorous debate about the role of independent parties, whether they can survive and thrive, what role money plays in UK politics, and how refugees from right and left-wing parties can coexist together. Many of these questions have already been addressed in the 2006 miniseries The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, written by Sally Wainwright. This clip consists of edited highlights from Episode 1, framing the issues for purposes of political discussion. Its relevance to Change UK is enhanced by the sense that both the fictional Purple Alliance and Change UK share a strong feminist component.

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

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Happy 55th Anniversary, Sri Chinmoy!

Shedding new light on the contributions made by this immortal teacher and his musical oeuvre

I am so grateful today, April 13th, 2019, to write something about Sri Chinmoy, the great and good spiritual teacher, musician, poet, and artist who came to the West exactly 55 years ago today.

I am grateful because I feel that Sri Chinmoy saved my life many times over (though I hardly deserve it). I was and am a poor student, but Sri Chinmoy always reflected such an effulgence of light that even the dullest student could not fail to absorb some of it and be changed by it.

And by God’s Grace, I think I have some inkling into how much he willingly suffered in order to be of help to those who sought out his spiritual guidance. As human beings, you might say we are half-devil, half-angel. Or you can say that when we try to go one step forward and become spiritual, then we discover the destructive tiger within us that wants to keep us in its den at all cost.

By challenging humanity to change for the better, to embrace ideals of peace and divine love, Sri Chinmoy had, at times, to endure the hatred of the world. And in offering a helping hand to those who specifically asked him to help them change their nature, he had to endure hatred, at times, even from his own disciples — from the destructive tiger within them.

Human nature is fickle. Today, and for a few days (or weeks or months or years), someone wants to become spiritual. But after a time, the same person may lose interest and intensity, or may fall victim to desire. At that time, they may hate and blame the spiritual teacher for taking them away from worldly life — forgetting that it was they themselves who asked the spiritual teacher to guide them, and they who assured him that they were ready and eager for the spiritual life.

A simple truth: Those who wrong or betray a spiritual teacher may hate him because deep down they know they have wronged him. I was reminded of this simple truth by a scene from an old movie: Ice Palace (1960), based on the novel by Edna Ferber.

Sadly, it is human nature to sometimes hate those whom we have wronged. But today, April 13th, is a day of celebration. And to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Sri Chinmoy’s arrival in the West, I want to offer 5 songs by Sri Chinmoy. These are not just any songs, chosen casually. Rather, they are a gateway to understanding the richness and depth of expression found in his artistic oeuvre.

The 5 songs lay the groundwork. But in addition, there’s a sixth bonus track, and what a track it is! — a medley incorporating all 5 songs, strikingly arranged and masterfully performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra. This is a large international ensemble of singers and instrumentalists dedicated to performing Sri Chinmoy’s music on a grand scale:

As a lifelong student of music, I’m very excited about sharing these songs in this particular format. It’s so gratifying to hear the individual songs, then see how they’re combined contrapuntally and polyrhythmically in such a powerful and joyous fashion. If there’s one concept that shines brightly from this experience, it’s the idea of call and response. Whether in gospel music or jazz, call and response is the essence of communication. And in the lives of great spiritual teachers, we see that it’s also a matter of call and response. The message of one enlightened soul is so electric that it lights the way for thousands of seekers who then take up that call and lend their own voices to it in richness and harmony.

When I hear Gandharva Loka Orchestra’s striking arrangement of Sri Chinmoy’s songs echoing through the large hall, and met with thunderous applause, I feel dynamically energized, but also I feel a sense of completion. I hear over a hundred people crying out (in essence): “We have heard your call, and now we are singing back to you, with immense gratitude, the songs you have taught us.” The cycle is complete.

More About The Songs

Sri Chinmoy was a prolific composer of spiritual songs in Bengali and English. These five songs are in Bengali, with English translations for two of them given by the composer:

Sukhero Lagiya

I lead my poor vital along teeming roads
To discover happiness birthless and deathless.
I see Your Beauty’s Feet
Shining and scattering their radiance
Inside a tiny twig of my hope-world.
A perfect stranger am I now
To the tired and sleeping life.
The confines of the hope-empty Sahara
Will never be able to imprison me.

Chitta Dolai

My heart-door is completely open.
O my sweet Lord Supreme,
Come and enjoy Your Ecstasy’s Dream
On my heart-swing.
Do come driving Your Light-flooded Chariot,
On the flower-decorated purity-road.
And the moment You come,
Do make me lose my division-self
And make me one with Your
Infinity’s Immortality-Self.

The character of these two songs is completely different. In the first, the seeker is still wandering through the desert, and only catches a glimpse of the spiritual Reality that will eventually liberate him. In the second, she is well along the path of Bhakti Yoga, and with open heart is enjoying a feeling of sweet devotion and oneness with her Lord Supreme.

These contrasting moods are strongly developed in the arrangement by Gandharva Loka Orchestra. There are elements of world music and jazz fusion: a large orchestra and chorus, tabla accompaniment, a Chinese erhu solo, and an amazing soprano sax solo by Premik Russell Tubbs, who listeners may know from the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Like any great band, Gandharva Loka Orchestra combines fantastic arranging skills with tremendous freedom on the part of individual soloists. Yes, it’s spiritual music, but it also swings.

These tracks collectively comprise a half-hour odyssey into Sri Chinmoy’s music-world, and begin to get at the variety of musical expression he fostered, both in his own compositions and performances, and in the way he inspired his students to form groups reflective of their individual style and musical experience.

There is always more to discover about Sri Chinmoy’s music, and I hope this brief introduction has sparked your interest. Thank you for reading!

Michael Howard

Track List

0:00 “Sonali Jyotir” performed by Arthada and Friends
2:42 “Mishe Phulla Dale” performed by Sri Chinmoy
3:56 “Oi Akashe” performed by Akasha
7:01 “Sukhero Lagiya” performed by Sri Chinmoy
9:34 “Chitta Dolai” performed by Mountain-Silence
11:39 Medley performed by Gandharva Loka Orchestra

Links

Sri Chinmoy Songs (sheet music, translations)
More Gandharva Loka Orchestra on Radio Sri Chinmoy
God, The Supreme Musician (Sri Chinmoy’s influential book on music)

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