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’m making that up!)

He may believe life is a joke, but he will go to Eaton, 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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Coming Attractions: Last Tango In Strasbourg

Like Bogart & Bacall or Tracy & Hepburn, Jean-Claude Juncker & Theresa May are better together. Now they explode across the screen as you’ve never seen them before!

(right-click to enlarge)

Two bored escapists find themselves thrown together in a room, as reality recedes around them, and only their fantasies are real. They meet, and part forever… only to begin the cycle again with renewed passion. The film’s raw portrayal of hard line negotiations resulted in varying degrees of censorship around the world. Now this newly restored version reveals the shocking relationship between two lost souls — as different as night and day, yet somehow drawn together — from every possible angle.

“A landmark in movie history” — The New Yorker

“One of the most important cinematic achievements” — Le Journal Du Dimanche

“This movie is more vile than Doctor Who, if such a thing were possible” — Mary Whitehouse

“We applaud the innovative use of dairy products” — Dairy Association of America

If there’s one movie you see this year, it must be Last Tango In Strasbourg.

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The Brexit Unicorn – Doctor Who vs. Boris Johnson

That pesky Brexit Unicorn has been sighted again! Is it real or a legend? Should we believe in it? Who would think up a crazy notion like this? And in a contest of wits, who will win: Doctor Who or Boris Johnson?

BREAKING: The Bear & Staff changes its name to The Brexit Unicorn:

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A humourous look at latest Brexit developments

The impasse Mrs May has reached in Brexit negotiations suggests that thinking outside the box is now required — perhaps even thinking from beyond the pond (echo effect here).

In between the extremes of Remain and a No-Deal Brexit, there are Brexits of various tensile strength: from the hopelessly flaccid Norway variants to the heroic Cox’s Codpiece (battery powered, and comes with attachments to Hoover your draperies).

If Mr Cox should ever fail utterly at diplomacy, I’m sure his services would be in high demand with a barbershop quartet!

I am no expert in UK politics, but here in the States I know the best way to sidestep a political disaster is to appoint a committee to study the problem. If the committee is permanent, this guarantees a permanent non-solution. The problem will simply be studied endlessly. A side benefit is that the more useless among elected officials can be relegated to the committee in question, where they will languish in well-earned obscurity.

Lest you complain that this doesn’t actually solve the problem, I will chirpily reply: That’s a feature! (not a bug). Some problems can’t actually be solved, but politicians stick out their chests (or whatever body part is most readily at hand) and proclaim they will solve said problem directly after next election. Of course, they can’t — but setting up a committee at least makes it look like they’re doing something.

I propose the creation of Permanent Brexit Committee to meet annually until the year 2120. If at that time they have reached no clear consensus on how Brexit can be most favourably and auspiciously achieved on behalf of the British people, then their mandate may be extended to the year 2220.

This solution is perfectly geared to the problem of Brexit, it being like a cat that thinks it wants to go out — only when the door is opened, it sits there by the doorstep realising all the benefits of staying in, including safety, security, regular meals, and a dog that it’s gotten used to circumnavigating.


Sidebar: More on the Irish Backstop

Brexit junkies would know that one of the sticking points in negotiations has been the so-called “Irish backstop” — not to be confused with an Irish backrest, i.e., a barstool. The Irish backstop is so incomprehensible to neophytes that (Photoshoplike) it’s spawned a series of “for dummies” books and videos — or, as the French say, “pour les Nuls“:

Unfortunately, these books and videos are either unavailable in Westminster, or else (like Brexit itself) they’re a few sandwiches short of a picnic.

The Irish backstop has nothing to do with Alpha Channels (the perennial bane of Photoshop n00bs). Rather, the essence of the problem comes down to this: How do you have a Customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland without it being a hard border that people will shoot at? (as they did quite often during the “Troubles,” before the Good Friday Agreement declared that there would no longer be any such hard border with checkpoints).

The answer, for politicians, was childishly simple: use AA! (Alternative Arrangements). But what exactly are these Alternative Arrangements? Mental telepathy was considered, but rejected as requiring too much discipline. Black light and fog machines were likewise nixed as being too showy. The current fad is for an “apps” solution involving mobile phones, as explained by the Beeb here (scroll down). Integral to this technical solution is the mobile inspection unit or MIU, cheerily described by drivewyze.com as a “trucker’s surprise.” (“Darling, you shouldn’t have.”)

Unfortunately, the MIU acronym is alread taken, as illustrated by this charitably brief dialogue:

“Have you seen Pat lately?”
“No, he’s gone MIU.” [missing in Ulster]

Lots of people went MIU during the Troubles, and Brexit seems in a fair way to duplicate that phenomenon.

There are other potential problems with the acronym. For example, Wikipedia helpfully points out that Miu is the surname of a famous Romanian virtuoso cimbalom player, while the fashion conscious would surely know that Miu Miu is an Italian clothing and accessory line (a subsidiary of Prada). Devotees of the high art of French cinema would likewise know that Miou-Miou is one of its most beloved icons. (How I enjoyed her performance in Montparnasse-Pondichéry!)

Nor can one escape the dilemma by adding more repetitions of the acronym, for if one cries out MIU, MIU, MIU! one is apt to be mistaken for a cat and given a saucer of milk, or else taken for a Zen Buddhist and granted enlightenment. Either way, if you’re hauling a load of widgets from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland, you still risk getting your brains blown out when crossing the border-which-isn’t-really-a-border-because-we-say-it-isn’t.


The Beach Boys’ recording of “Winds of Change” from their M.I.U. album, named after Maharishi International University

Michael Howard

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

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Brexit: Irish Backstop For Dummies (video)

With a little help from The Cranberries, and footage from the People’s Vote March, London, 3-23-2019

In my (literally) fevered brain, I’ve been searching for a way to make a statement about the People’s Vote March, the Irish Backstop, and the seeming lack of concern among politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg over the violence which could ensue in Northern Ireland if things aren’t handled just right. This is it:

Full screen it for best effect, and choose 720p. Any problem with the embedded video, try this Dropbox link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/96u0is2hoka9gdr/Irish%20Backstop%20For%20Dummies.mkv

I also made an animated GIF for added exposure:

During peacetime, we don’t recognize how fragile and precious peace is, and how easily the peace can be lost. To use a stupid pop analogy, it’s like a game of Jenga, where removing the United Kingdom from the European Union may cause a chain reaction which sends the Towers of Peace crumbling.

In the video, different media sources are blended to create an ironic commentary in the guise of a “for dummies” book, with British MP Jacob Rees-Mogg cast in the role of dummy (or zombie). The French version of “for dummies” is “pour les Nuls,” as was kindly explained to me 20 years ago by my then workmate Virginie Ducrot.

During the time of the “Troubles,” a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was a source of constant fighting in which thousands died, including innocent children. Then the Good Friday Agreement established an open border and fighting ended. Yet, the same forces still exist in Northern Ireland today, and might easily be re-ignited by Brexit. But the Brexiteers gave no thought to the Irish border, and don’t take seriously the need to avoid a hard border at all cost. What’s in their heads?

The Cranberries’ music video “Zombie” was banned by the BBC. It’s not hard to understand why. It’s one of those pieces of art that forces you to confront difficult issues. At first, I worried that the Crucifixion theme was sacrilegious. But while some of the imagery is garish, it makes the powerful point that innocent children are being crucified, and the consciousness behind this killing is not noble or heroic — it’s more in the nature of a gnawing spirit of hatred that knows no mercy.

This January marked the one year anniversary of Dolores O’Riordan’s tragic death at the too young age of 46. Her song “Zombie” transcended the Irish Troubles and became an anthem decrying senseless violence between warring tribes wherever it occurs — from Bosnia to Rwanda. As she hailed from Limerick, I offer her this sincere tribute:

There was a young girl named Dolores,
Who echoed a powerful chorus;
She protested the killing,
And in Heaven, God willing
She’ll put in a goodly word for us.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 2

(Well, mostly serious — with a sidebar on RINOs, WINOs, BRINOs, TINOs, and Tiggers.)

(Part 1 here.)

UPDATED! Those making an honest, fact-based cost-benefit analysis of Brexit are coming back to say, “Leave the EU? Are you barking?” But those wedded to Leave as a political ideology (almost a religion) are turning every fact-based study counterclockwise (putting their thumbs on the scale, so to speak) in order to continue stoking the emotional fervor for Leave. Apparently, “It’s all about democracy.” Toffee-nosed Tories like Jacob Rees-Mogg are transformed almost overnight into humble servants of the common folk — the latter demanding that politicians deliver Brexit or else.

But who was it who aggressively propagandized the common folk (sometimes using dark or foreign money) in order to persuade them that Brexit was something like re-fighting the Second World War or repelling an invasion of terroristic foreigners? I admit this is an oversimplification, but to me Brexit looks like something dreamt up by a clique of eccentric millionaires of the English aristocracy, then put over on the common people by appealing to the worst sentiments in human nature.

(Note: To describe the architects of Brexit as eccentric millionaires may be misleading in that it suggests they act without rhyme or reason. One theory is that at least some of them act with the quite specific intent of turning the UK into a so-called “low-regulation” country where workers’ rights and environmental protection standards are gradually eroded, taxes are lowered, government services are drastically reduced, the NHS is privatised, and food safety falls well below EU standards. Perhaps the mascot for UKIP should be a chlorinated chicken!)

There is presently a similar populist phenomenon in America. Donald Trump has got millions of people begging the government to make them poorer by taking away their health care and lavishing billions on an unnecessary border wall with Mexico. Trump seems increasingly unhinged from reality; to subscribe to his views and policies, one has to intentionally blind oneself to the real world data coming in from reputable professionals whose life work has been to know whereof they speak. So, we can take this as a symptom of populist movements which lead to a dangerous disconnect between real world facts, and policies based on unicorns or folk devils: That symptom is increasing reliance on “alternative facts” and spinning the tale.

I am an American, and am familiar with the “ugly American” and “oafish American” memes which at some points in history have been absolutely spot on, and whose ingredients include imperialism, disdain for anything foreign, and a desire to dominate rather than participate coequally. But have a gander at this video of MEP Nigel Farage addressing the European Parliament just after the 2016 referendum:

Doesn’t he seem to be acting out the worst stereotype of an ugly Britisher? Yet, this type of snide, superior attitude (and corresponding disdain for the EU) is an oft-encountered feature of the Leave movement.

To high EU officials, Farage is both Mr Brexit and Mr Big Mouth. He’s well-known to go out of his way to insult and abuse people just for sport, to be loud, obnoxious, and obstreperous. In the above clip, at 4:10 he famously tells the EU Parliament: “I know that virtually none of you have ever done a proper job in your lives, or worked in business, or worked in trade, or indeed ever created a job. But listen, just listen…”

To the average viewer possessing sense and sensibility, such massive put-downs worthy of an insult comic would be the main takeaway from his speech (plus the loud boos Farage certainly earned). Here’s a quick mashup of the same event, with more comments from MEPs:

But strangely, just after this eccentric performance Farage was interviewed by BBC News, and the accompanying chyrons seem to treat him as a sober statesman, e.g.: “Nigel Farage: The UK is a beacon of hope to democrats.”

Farage is proud of being the perennial “pantomime villain” in EU Parliament, but how does this set the table for Brexit negotiations? Keep in mind that his music-hall comedy act does not consist only of personal abuse.

He’s on record wanting the European Union to fail and die, and never misses an opportunity to gloat over any setback. Thus, he’s about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party; yet he’s arguably the most visible (and audible) face of the UK in Brussels, sapping good will at every opportunity.

To the EU, Brexit represents the odd, temporary victory of no-nothing big mouths like Farage. The EU is committed to minimising the damage incurred from UK withdrawal, while remaining true to core principles.

Compared to Farage’s Eurosceptic or Europhobic view, most young people (who will be the inheritors of whatever policy is adopted) have a completely different view of the EU. They have their British identity, true. But they don’t see that identity as being fundamentally in conflict with the EU. Having grown up with things like open borders, hassle-free travel, cheap and easy access to food and medicine produced in the EU, and close friends who are from the EU, their attitude tends to be open and welcoming. They too want the best deal they can get from the EU, but they’re more apt to believe it can be gotten by staying in. They don’t see the UK as being in a geopolitical conflict with the EU, and don’t agree with the far right that those who fail to support Brexit are “traitors.” Nor do they think the EU is run by (pick your stereotype) Nazis, Soviets, or George Soros. Their daily experience does not lead them to believe that British sovereignty is in danger from EU membership. The two can easily coexist.

The genius of James O’Brien’s Germany+ reframing (see Part 1) is that it gets us beyond the Leave/Remain dichotomy and returns us to the fundamental question: What’s the best deal? Imagine you put a diverse group of voters to a blindfold test of different deals available, using neutral labeling such as Option A, Option B, Option C, etc. Each option would be summarized in neutral language, with no appeals to sentiment, patriotism, or bias of any kind, and no promises of unicorns — only facts that can be agreed upon as accurate by a neutral regulating body composed of respected figures representing diverse views, but no obvious crackpots, demagogues, or politicians-on-the-make.

Under those conditions, it wouldn’t surprise me if a majority of voters chose the option which (when the blindfold was removed) turned out to be Germany+, a.k.a. Remain.

The sad and absurd fact is that after three years of messing about with Brexit, trying to figure out what it would actually mean in practice, a great many experts have concluded that it would mean a poorer UK with a reduced standard of living — especially for those already living in poverty. Under one scenario there would be further depreciation of the British pound, as well as a rise in prices for fruit and veg imported from the EU during late winter/early spring. Under that scenario, some working class families might be reduced to a diet of mostly beans on toast. (Call it Project Fear if you like; it remains a possibility.) And as noted in a lovely dance with language by Baroness Bull in the House of Lords:

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

Again, the problem with large, complex systems with many variables is that no one knows for sure what will happen when you throw the switch on a massive, fairly sudden change. It might come right in the end, but that could take years. In the meantime, a great many individuals and small businesses could go under; and some global firms might minimise investment.

There’s an increasingly odd disconnect between the happy talk of Brexiteers and the real world data coming in. According to The Times, the government have now quietly drawn up plans for a “hardship fund” to be used to offset the negative effects of a no-deal Brexit:

No-deal hardship fund planned for surge in jobless

Ministers are planning a “hardship fund” for Britons impoverished by a no-deal Brexit.

A leaked document from the cabinet committee dedicated to preparing for a chaotic rupture with the European Union reveals the extraordinary scenarios being prepared for in Whitehall.

Other measures under consideration include using “tax and benefits policy” to offset rises in the cost of living, protection for parts of the country “geographically vulnerable” to food shortages and sourcing alternative food for schools, prisons and hospitals.

The plans were drawn up at a meeting this month of the EU exit and trade (preparedness) committee, which is chaired by Theresa May and attended by almost every cabinet minister.

–Henry Zeffman, Political Correspondent

Pity that bit about hardship not being on the big red bus. 😉

Only a few years ago people were saying: “Brexit — What a lovely idea!” Now they’re saying: “Brexit — We made it through the Blitz, we can make it through this.” That’s a scary lesson in how expectations are being managed. Good news, citizens! Your chocolate ration has been raised again: from 30 grams to 20 grams per week.

How We Got Here

It troubles me that lately both the the UK media and politicians seem to have given up questioning how we got here — how the nature of the referendum and the means used to win Leave have led us to the present morass, this inability to reach some kind of deal or consensus. Of course, any reckoning of how we got here must include the “ugly Britisher” act performed by Nigel Farage at EU Parliament for years on end.

I suspect most EU officials are mature, practical people who don’t want to respond with ill will toward the UK, and are trying in good faith to negotiate a withdrawal deal which is fair to all parties. But how many daily insults from the likes of Farage can they withstand, knowing that his style of rhetoric leads to the burning of EU flags in the streets of Britain, and on social media?

Neither the Tories nor UKIP, nor those even farther right, have a clear sense of the ideals upon which the EU was founded, and toward which it tries to gravitate. Quoting Lord Davies of Stamford:

The Tory party has never understood the moral force or the genuine idealism behind the European Union, or its genuine commitment to the concept of solidarity. … The idea that the EU would take a permanent stand on behalf of the Irish, who are rightly defending their right not to have their country divided in half by a hideous permanent border, will not have occurred to them. They will have said, “Oh no. There’s no way that the EU, with 500 million people, will allow a country of 2 million or 3 million to stand in its way”. They were completely wrong on all those points — disastrously wrong.

Brexit is not just bad policy, but bad policy arrived at by questionable means, and championed by questionable figures.

Due to the considerable deception involved in selling Brexit to UK citizenry, when it comes to actual implementation the pieces just don’t fit. There doesn’t seem to be a deal which can be cobbled together to satisfy all (or even most) factions.

Brexit as a concept has built-in structural problems. It was always likely to be deeply divisive; always likely to reanimate the Irish “troubles” and reinvigorate the call for Scottish independence; and as Tony Blair has pointed out, at one end of the Brexit deal spectrum you get a “pointless Brexit,” while at the other end you get a “painful Brexit”:

More and more, Brexit comes to resemble the thing that couldn’t be done, the carpet that couldn’t be laid. You tack it down in one place, it just sticks up in another.

What strikes me as particularly shameful is that leaders of the two main political parties seem engaged in a massive reenactment of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Neither is willing to face the naked truth that Brexit is a sham solution to some very real underlying problems — problems which are best solved whilst remaining in the EU.

If what we truly have is an Emperor’s New Clothes problem, this explains why compromise is so difficult. Those who smile wanly and commend us to adopt pleasant compromises are (in effect) suggesting that the Emperor is partially clothed — a view which pleases no one. (Perhaps he’s wearing only a jockstrap and a clown hat.) The 2016 referendum has arguably created a rift which — like the Catholic/Protestant rift among the Irish — leads to a binary split: Brexit is either the greatest thing since sliced bread, or else it’s total rubbish. Lord Davies claims it’s total rubbish:

This is rubbish. That is the point: this is total rubbish. We are buying hot air. There is nothing in it at all. There are no countervailing economic benefits from Brexit, no economic gains or economic revenues. Not one has been mentioned in the months of discussion here, and not one exists. None exists outside the fantasies of the Government. It is a very serious matter. I do not know whether the Government have deceived themselves, ​but they must not be allowed to deceive the British people.

–Lord Davies of Stamford

Some “good government” types take the position that yes, Brexit is mostly rubbish, but the people did vote for it, so we have to respect their wishes and enact it anyway. But to do so is to reject the very benefits of parliamentary democracy over direct democracy: The Greek philosophers were highly suspicious of direct democracy, having observed firsthand that the common people can easily be misled by false arguments or the arousal of base passions. (Perhaps a big red horse?) Such is the case with Brexit. In a parliamentary democracy, the duty of elected leaders is not to be a rubber stamp for popular sentiment, but to make decisions that will most benefit their constituents. Now, a tough question: Are the MPs who admit that Brexit is mostly rubbish but vote for it anyway really “good government” types? Or are they cowardly politicians, afraid to do the right thing lest they be punished by rowdy Leave voters?

It is in this context that we have to admire members of the new Independent Group. They’re like canaries in the coal mine, giving us all valuable feedback on how toxic British politics has become. They’ve defected from both Labour and Conservative parties, and have coalesced around the need for a People’s Vote. Such a vote, if politically feasible, would not solve all Brexit-related problems; but it would at least clarify whether — after seeing what Brexit looks like in the doing (and the government’s incompetence to implement it) — the people still want the government to proceed. If (as I’ve suggested elsewhere) Brexit is a phenomenon related to the madness of crowds for tulip bulbs and Internet stocks, then the hope for Remainers is that the fancy has largely passed, dampened perhaps by economic reports which trickle out (or are leaked by government officials) that Brexit will likely entail hardship and a lower standard of living for the British people.

The End Game

For both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit may have become a no-win issue. If Brexit is actually implemented in some form, the results may range from suboptimal to catastrophic. Better in the end to find some way of avoiding Brexit, perhaps via a People’s Vote. But whilst a Remain solution may yield better results for most Britons (and avert problems with Scotland and Northern Ireland), both May and Corbyn fear the political repercussions of turning back from the brink. Having hitched their wagons to the black star of Brexit, they fear looking weak, foolish, and indecisive. They dread the backlash from those common folk who have been propagandized to believe that Brexit is “all about democracy,” and that any failure by government to deliver Brexit should be greeted with violence in the streets, and more death threats to politicians.

It’s hard to see how this ends well. But truth will out in the end, so better to be on the side of truth, even as a latecomer, and even if it costs you votes. Perhaps some coalition of Tory Remainers, Labour Remainers, and fledgling Independents will do something brave and noble in the end. But there’s not much time left. (The House of Commons has plenty of green benches, but sadly, only one Green MP: Caroline Lucas.)

The EU can’t tell May in an obvious manner how to resolve the present impasse. But they’ve strongly hinted that they would be willing to reopen negotiations if she were to relax her red lines and work with Labour to come up with a soft Brexit that could garner wide cross-party support.

A soft Brexit is what Tony Blair also calls a “pointless” Brexit. He’s mostly right; but a soft Brexit is also a relatively harmless Brexit. At some point, the majority of politicians — both Conservative and Labour — may want out of this Brexit debacle. But they’ll want a fig leaf for doing so. So, a soft Brexit is also a fig leaf Brexit. If May and Corbyn reach a soft Brexit deal whereby the UK remains in both the Customs Union and the Single Market (or some variations thereof possibly renamed for cosmetic purposes), they can adopt the public stance that they’ve delivered Brexit for the people. Hoorah for Democracy, and let’s move on! Remain would be better, but political leaders fear it. It would leave them standing “alone and naked” (to coin a phrase).

So an extension of Article 50 followed by a negotiation leading to a soft Brexit is another possible end game scenario — maybe the best we can hope for, given the political realities.

I vote we call it a “Meat and Two Veg Brexit.” The “meat” would be an agreement (at least in principle) to exercise greater control over immigration. (The details can be fudged.) The “two veg” would be membership in the Customs Union and Single Market. Don’t mention Norway, or Germany, or the war, and people just might go for it! “What about that Theresa May, then? She gave us a right proper Meat and Two Veg Brexit. How’s that for democracy, mate?”


Sidebar: Night of the BRINO

Here in the states, we’re used to strife between the Republican right and far right. Moderate Republicans (a nearly extinct breed) who fail to support far right causes are often accused of being RINOs: Republicans In Name Only.

You may also know that our lunatic president, Donald Trump, is obsessed with building a huge, multi-billion dollar border wall to keep out Mexicans purported to possess excessive amounts of duct tape. The question has arisen: How do we pacify him, shut him up? One answer: Put up a Fotomat, call it a wall, then get the hell out of Dodge!

The Fotomat, an extinct structure belonging to an era when family snaps needed to be developed in a photo lab. It is here memorialised in oils by Skowhegan, whose technique is unusual — the clouds being fashioned with a palette knife, the medium being a mixture of Brylcreem and ground Lifesavers. Reproduction courtesy https://www.fotomatfans.com/fotomat-1984/

The Fotomat solution, if implemented, would be a WINO or Wall In Name Only. (Obvious headline: TRUMP BORDER PLAN SAVED BY WINO.)

Likewise, the BRINO acronym (attributed to Jacob Rees-Mogg) stands for Brexit In Name Only. Picture a Brexit so soft and delicate that its breath can barely be detected against the bright-burnished vambrance of a suit of armour. Who knows? March 29 could turn out to be the Night of the BRINO:

Typical false advertising. What they don’t tell you is that Night of the Lepus includes a cast of thousands… of bunny rabbits!

One thing’s for sure: If a you’re a politician who’s been selling Brexit door-to-door, a suit of armour is recommended attire. 😉

Michael Howard

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

P.S. Hate to ask, but since Anna Soubry is a Remainer and favours a People’s Vote, might she be a TINO? A dated joke, as she’s now left the Tories and gone Independent or “Tigger”:

There’s a new bill to ban dog meat consumption. Would that apply to Brexit as well? Is there an ethical way to dispose of dog meat like Brexit, without eating it raw as some are doing?

* * *

Serious Talk About Brexit – Part 1

With a sidebar about The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

I continue to care about Brexit for a number of reasons:

– It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck, but with some possibility that the wreck might still be averted, perhaps by getting the Conductor to stop sleepwalking or robot dancing.

– It’s very sad for the UK, the EU, the world at large, and all the people who are likely to be adversely affected.

– I want to see the UK thrive in the present and in the future, but Brexit looks to me like a retreat into the past. That never works. (Maybe it should be called brexosaurus rex.)

I take the subject of Brexit seriously, but often treat it with humour because that’s my approach to reality in general. Humour is not just entertainment, but also a way of stepping outside the system and looking at things in novel ways that the bureaucratic process (or a purely logical mindset) might filter out.

So much has been said about Brexit, and I’ll try to avoid stating the obvious or oft-repeated. Still, let me begin by discussing a couple of terms which have arisen during the Brexit debate:

Blindfold Brexit: This term suggests that by and large, people don’t really understand what Brexit is or how it will affect their daily lives. Before we can really understand the concept of leaving the EU, we need to understand what it has meant to be part of the EU for 45 years. This is, to some extent, specialist knowledge. One needs to examine all the ways in which the UK and EU are intertwined after nearly half a century of intense cooperation. It’s a study of complex systems, including how the two are joined economically, politically, legally, culturally, and even physically (via the Channel Tunnel) — taking into account things like frictionless trade, ready access to health care for the 300,000 British pensioners living in Spain, and the sense among the younger generation of Britons that they can easily live, work and study anywhere in Europe and greatly benefit from the experience.

Understanding what being in the EU has meant also entails fully valuing the peace dividend — that benefit conferred when European nations engage in a long-term strategy of cooperation. It means recognizing that the tide of history post-World War II is toward greater cooperation between nations, in order to avert further world wars and tackle global problems with global strategies. The UK can express its leadership qualities most effectively through participation, not isolation. Decisions are made by those who show up.

By contrast, the Leave campaign seemed to mischaracterize the nature of historic cooperation between the UK and EU, to frame issues deceptively, and to play on jingoistic passions which discourage fact-based inquiry and obscure the genuine issues at stake.

The concept of a “blindfold Brexit” gives rise to the terms “Brexit fantasy” and “Brexit reality.” Voters were arguably subjected to a marketing blitz which tried to hook them on Brexit fantasy. Three years later, as the data comes in from economists, industry leaders, and affected citizens, Brexit reality seems far harsher than the pleasant fantasy voters were spoon-fed. This naturally spurs interest in a second, fact-based referendum, or a super soft (Norway style) Brexit which does minimal harm.

Questions of national identity and how people feel about the EU are certainly important. It is a matter of balance. The trouble is, the Leave campaign seemed to stress nationalism and fear of foreigners, while making unrealistic promises about economic benefits, and downplaying the complex problems which might arise from Brexit.

It is not a simple matter, and may be likened to a difficult surgery about which expert advice is desperately needed. In this sense, it may be argued that Brexit was not an ideal question for a referendum in the first place. Suppose I have heart trouble. I know full well that the experts are often wrong. But should I put the question of my surgery to a footballer, a manicurist, and a pub crawler? On balance, I place more stock in the opinion of a heart specialist, even knowing he or she might be wrong.

There is also this to be said about large, complex systems: When making major changes that are untested, no one can be certain of the outcome. An outgrowth of this view is that those championing Brexit are not true conservatives, but rather reactionaries. (Nod to Anna Soubry*, who might agree.) They are steeped in foolish derring-do. “Full speed ahead, and damn the torpedoes!” But if, as experts predict, Brexit will mean a poorer UK and at least some breakdown of existing systems, it is not Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, or Jacob Rees-Mogg who will feel the shock. Rather, it is those who are presently just getting by, but will go under should economic conditions worsen.

*I sometimes indulge in a stereotyped view of the Tories, but there are some like Anna Soubry whom I genuinely admire for their courage and integrity. (See below for exciting news about Soubry!)

Given that the existing relationship between the UK and EU has been built up over 45 years, it may be argued that the true conservative position would be to make any changes gradually, preserving as much as possible of what is beneficial, and avoiding any sudden shock. But what we appear to see is a reactionary approach gaining the upper hand. The choices presently being pushed by the ruling party are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse — between shooting ourselves in the foot, or both feet.

This brings us to two other terms: “blackmail Brexit” and “sleepwalking to no-deal Brexit.” The basic stance of the blackmailer is to say, “If you don’t do X, then I shall do Y.” As has been repeated ad nauseum, Theresa May’s strategy seems to be running down the clock to late March, then hitting MPs with a binary choice: either my deal or no deal. She is like some digitised rhinoceros ramming a shed, trying to get her deal through by sheer force and dint of repetition. But imagine if her deal should win the day! How excited can one get about writing home to say, “Good news! I only shot myself in one foot and not both feet”?

The position of the Tory party is that no-deal must be left on the table as a negotiating tactic with Brussels. 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 are 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.

On an issue such as Brexit, positions tend to harden over time, rather than becoming more flexible. Just look at the history of warfare, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and the War in Iraq. One would have expected cooler heads to prevail, or deals to be reached at the last minute; but instead positions hardened and leaders found no way out. Perhaps some leaders wished to avoid or quickly end these wars; but neither they nor the institutions they represented possessed the necessary creativity and brinksmanship. In this vein, if we look to both the May 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 highly doubtful, especially since some in May’s own party are clamouring for no-deal — not as a negotiating tactic or empty threat, but as a consummation devoutly to be wished. Given the deceptive nature of the Leave campaign, Brexiteers are not much trusted outside their own circles.

A no-deal Brexit is like a gun which some moderate Tories claim Theresa May only needs for protection. Meanwhile, ERG members 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 binding legislation.

The nature of the political forces at work is that we are gradually being groomed to accept a choice between bad and worse. We need the insight and courage to step outside the system and return to fundamental questions about Brexit: What is it really (in the doing, not the selling), and will it really benefit the UK? If not, then by all means change course, rather than being carried along by the inertia of entrenched political interests, whether Conservative or Labour — both of which have grown increasingly strident and extreme. Quoting Tony Blair: “We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it.”

brexit-may-corbyn-boat-throwing-up-bertrams

The Four Nations of the United Kingdom, The English Aristocracy, and Hubris

I love the English, and indeed the United Kingdom with all its complications. Most readers will know that the UK consists of four nations: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. But much of the power remains with the central government in Westminster. It rests with the English, even though the other nations have so-called “devolved governments” which allow them to make many decisions locally.

When you love someone, you get to know their best qualities, but also their worst qualities as well. The worst quality sometimes exhibited by the English aristocracy is a sense of superiority which can lead to arrogance, superciliousness, and hubris.

In hubris, one badly misreads a situation due to excessive pride or self-will. Now, truth be told, the Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish view Brexit as primarily an English invention. Some support it, some don’t. Of crucial importance, the majorities in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The Scots in particular are hopping mad about being dragged kicking and screaming out of the EU by the English, and are threatening to secede from the Kingdom.

But out of hubris, some Brexiteers wrongly assume that the thread which weaves together the four nations is so strong that nothing they could do would rend or tear it. Whatever the English aristocracy decides (their thinking goes), the other nations will have to go along with in the end. This way of thinking is wrong. The alliance between the four nations is a fragile one, and if the English forcibly pursue a major policy initiative (e.g. Brexit) which the Scots and Northern Irish oppose, this may have the long-term effect of tearing the Kingdom apart. The same nationalist sentiment which Brexiteers have unleashed to justify leaving the EU can easily arise within individual nations, so that they too vote Leave: Leaving the UK.

Peace in Northern Island is also fragile. The legendary “troubles” can easily start up again. The opposing forces which fought bitterly for three decades have not gone away, and the Good Friday Agreement was not a permanent solution, but rather a long-lasting truce which has (thankfully) held until the present time, with passions still running high beneath the surface.

“Zombie” Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg seems oblivious to the human suffering which could ensue in the event Brexit leads to a hard border:

As ERG members like Rees-Mogg have pulled the Conservative party farther to the right, Theresa May has responded by pandering to their demand that the Irish backstop be removed, weakened, or replaced by unspecified “alternative arrangements” which critics claim don’t currently exist.

Do not doubt that Northern Ireland is still like a vial of nitroglycerin. Don’t even think about a hard border between NI and the Republic of Ireland, or you may set off an explosion. This is why the EU 27 remain strongly opposed to any compromise on the Irish backstop.

The Germany+ Option

If you follow Brexit, you may have heard of options like Norway+ or Canada++. James O’Brien, a broadcaster with LBC (Leading Britains’s Conversation), has come up with something he calls Germany+:

Whether as a thought experiment or an experiment in framing, it’s a valuable addition to the debate. You can read more about it in this Twitter thread:

In case you missed the reveal, or the penny hasn’t dropped, O’Brien is actually describing Remain, i.e. the deal which the UK presently enjoys with the EU. He’s calling it Germany+ to see who bites. Very clever!

This helps us focus on the underlying question behind Brexit: Can the UK get a better deal than it already has with the EU? If not, what would be the point of Brexit? Unless (as was sometimes said of fancy handkerchiefs), Brexit is for “showing, not blowing” — an attitude (of defiance) toward the EU, rather than a substantive policy proposal which (if implemented) would actually benefit the UK.

This way of framing things highlights the oddness of voting Leave based on sentiment, when most of the practical questions surrounding Brexit involve trade, borders, health care, employment/unemployment, appreciation/devaluation of the pound, and attracting or discouraging business investment.

Here’s a thought: Is it possible that some Brexiteers who are wedded to Brexit for purely sentimental reasons (e.g. nationalism, racism, or belief in the natural superiority of the English aristocracy) might be shading the facts in order to boost the popularity of Leave? Could they be deceiving the fellows at working men’s clubs into thinking that in addition to being some sort of patriotic revival movement, Brexit will also make them richer and improve their quality of life? Don’t the facts suggest the very opposite?

As regards Brexit fantasy versus Brexit reality, this leads back to the oft-posed question, “Did people really vote Leave knowing it would make them poorer?”

Increasingly, businesses are shouting right out loud, “We’re closing this plant because of Brexit. We’re shuttering this airline because of Brexit. We’re moving our facilities to Amsterdam because of Brexit.” Here, the evidence that Brexiteers are sentiment-based rather than fact-based is this: As the data comes in from businesses saying point blank that they’re closing or leaving because of Brexit, the argument from Brexiteers is: “Oh, these were just badly run companies in highly competitive fields. They say they’re folding because of Brexit, but we shouldn’t believe them. They’re only using Brexit as an excuse.”

So, the party of business no longer trusts businesses to give honest feedback about why they’re leaving. Blame has to be relocated away from Brexit at all cost. Media spinners must come up with “alternative facts” to explain away the frank complaints from business owners that Brexit is already costing them millions.

brexit-uk-closed-for-business_v2Another way of deflecting these complaints is to blame it all on Remainers, or even on those Leavers who don’t agree with the Prime Minister’s withdrawal plan. According to this manner of spinning, Brexit would have gone swimmingly well if only everyone had gotten on board. Brexit isn’t bad for business, only uncertainty is bad for business. Therefore, don’t you dare put the brakes on Brexit, or rethink the wisdom of the policy. Just conform, conform, conform. If you won’t vote for May’s deal, we’ll strap you down and inject no-deal intravenously. Belt up and eat your Brexit! But in truth,

1. Brexit was always flawed policy.
2. That Brexit would be highly contentious was entirely forseeable.
3. Even at this late date, the emphasis should still be on getting the best deal possible for the British people, even if that turns out to be Remain.

Even the most wackadoo Brexiteers aren’t suggesting that the UK should have no trade with the EU, that travel to EU countries should be banned, or that all security arrangements should be scrapped. These things will always continue in some form, and that form will always constitute a “deal.” The Leave/Remain dichotomy tends to obscure this essential fact.

I would rephrase the question asked in the initial referendum thusly:

If the UK can get a better deal and improve its standard of living by leaving the EU, would you support that decision?

The key word is “if.” It would then have been up to experts in diverse fields to study the problem exhaustively and reach a consensus not based primarily on sentiment, unicorn worship, magic beans, or EU hatred, but on what genuine benefits can be achieved, and at what risk or cost. This would include the long-term benefit of the peace dividend which comes from EU membership, and the long-term risk that leaving the EU might fracture the Kingdom.

Some data from experts is flowing in now, in the final days before the March 29 deadline. But unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between the real world data and the sentiment-driven political momentum for Leave. The experts are increasingly telling us that Brexit is (to use the technical term) “bad mojo.” But Leavers are swinging the lamp and spinning the tale, claiming the experts are wrong and businesses who say they’re leaving because of Brexit are just fibbing.

The facts are moving in one direction, but the political demand for Leave is moving in the opposite direction. This is very bad, and does suggest that UK politics is currently broken. Yet, there are exciting developments!


Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard

Call me a terrible UK politics geek, but I’m genuinely excited that the self-proclaimed “three amigos” — Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston, and Heidi Allen — have defected from the Conservative Party and joined the new Independent Group alongside several former Labour MPs who likewise defected. It’s a sort of Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment:

The sun seems to be shining on these new independents.

One senses their joy in breaking away from the rigidity and extremism of their respective parties, and trying to create something new based on shared human values, not the old party machine. May their efforts be crowned with success, and may many more join them!

I don’t want to go completely bendy bananas over them, or fall victim to “any port in a storm” syndrome. It remains to be seen whether they can keep their movement relatively pure, when much of the political system revolves around money and entrenched interests, and treats anyone who tries to change that as a threat to be put down.

Calling it an Amazing Mrs Pritchard moment actually implies this dual nature of new political movements. They may begin with great hope and promise, but are sometimes brought down by money matters or internal strife. It takes a lot of love and shared human values for refugees from both the Tory and Labour parties to form a lasting coalition which works. That being said, I do see in them genuine idealism and a real longing to change things for the better. We shall see!

Here, my identity as a spiritual seeker overlaps with my occasional role as a political commentator. I know that if you try to change things for the better, you may be subjected to hatred and harassment. At least three members of the new Independent Group — Luciana Berger, Anna Soubry, and Sarah Wollaston — know this all too well. The threats they’ve received in the past can’t be brushed aside so easily, given that MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered in 2016 by a political extremist. Three years later, Twitter abuse hurled at politicians is often punctuated with the hashtag #JoCox as a grim reminder.

Politics in the UK, the US, and many other nations has become toxic. We seem to be going through a cosmic period in which people are driven to extremes of difference or polarity. As in Yeats’ immortal poem “The Second Coming,” the centre cannot hold, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.

I’m tempted to switch poets in midstream and say: “Well, what can a poorboy do/ ‘Cept to sing for a rock n’ roll band?” But I’ll quietly resist the urge. Better to quote the immortal Sri Chinmoy:

No more am I the foolish customer
Of a dry, sterile, intellectual breeze.
I shall buy only
The weaving visions of the emerald-Beyond.

–Sri Chinmoy, “Visions of the Emerald Beyond”

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon (we hope).

Michael Howard

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

* * *

EU’s Juncker hasn’t read his George Lakoff

Today’s topics: Brexit, poindexters, I am not a nerd, and yes we have no bananas. Oh, and Donald Tusk’s “special place in hell” comment.

In an impassioned (for him) but possibly counterproductive speech, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said he had a message “for those who are saying that the Commission is composed by blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats…” What was his message? No one knows, because the audience quickly drowned him out with cries of “They’re right!”

Okay, maybe they didn’t, but the point is: This is a prime example of what George Lakoff might call “negative framing,” e.g. Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” speech, or Monty Python’s “There is no cannibalism in the British Navy.”

Once you plant the image in the mind of your audience that the EC might at least possibly consist of blind, stupid, stubborn technocrats, you then have to fight to overcome that image. I like President Juncker well enough, but this is a gaff which invites parody:

What Juncker should have done is open with a couple of jokes about bendy bananas, or perhaps a musical number entitled “Yes, We Have No Bendy Bananas.” Then, once the crowd was warmed up, he could have continued on a positive note: “I come to you today with good news! EC members have excellent eyesight and fare well on intelligence tests. They’re super flexible. They include sports jocks and passionate lovers. No, there are absolutely no poindexters in the EC. Oops! I did it again…”

Monty Python served up a prime example of intentional negative framing in “POLITICIANS – An Apology”:

We would like to apologize for the way in which politicians are represented in this programme. It was never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent. Nor to imply at any stage that they are squabbling little toadies without an ounce of concern for the vital social problems of today. Nor indeed do we intend that viewers should consider them as crabby ulcerous little self-seeking vermin with furry legs and an excessive addiction to alcohol and certain explicit sexual practices which some people might find offensive.

We are sorry if this impression has come across.

— Monty Python’s Flying Circus, s03e06

As for poindexters (a.k.a. nerds), this YouTube attempts to explain the derivation:

Props to Simon Whistler! (I’ve seen a lovely portrait of his mother.) But the video fails to note that the term “poindexter” was further popularized by The Simpsons TV show, which emerged in the late 1980s — the same period in which Admiral John Poindexter gave testimony to Congress about the Contragate scandal:

Note memorable examples of framing in the clip. There can be a cascade effect to memes. This one may include the Poindexter from Felix The Cat, the Poindexter from Revege of the Nerds, but also the Poindexter brought to you by the U.S. Navy — which like the British Navy, has no history of cannibalism. Or at least, very little.

Poindexter from Felix The Cat

Poindexter from Revenge of the Nerds

The King of Poindexters: Admiral John

Was there really an outbreak of “Poindex-teria” in 1987? The author of this Chicago Tribune piece seems to have tongue (rather than pipe) firmly planted in cheek:

The country loved it. Young men flocked to barber shops to get “Dexter-dome” haircuts. Young women made passes at men who wore glasses. There were T-shirts: “Poindexter: What a Way with Words!” There were buttons: “We Luv Ya, Dex!” There were even bumper stickers: “Pipesmokers Do It With Their Teeth.”

At Navy recruiting stations, the lines stretched into the street. And things were even better at tobacco shops.

“It’s been unbelievable,” exclaimed one happy pipe salesman, whose store had a life-size cardboard Poindexter propped in the window. “It was the way the TV showed every puff rising to the ceiling–just mesmerizing. People come in here–they’ve been listening to this guy’s testimony for days–and all they want to know is, ‘What’s he been smoking?'”

— Rick Horowitz, “I Wish I Could Hold A Pipe The Way He Does”

Anyway, there are limits to George Lakoff’s theories on framing. But in the most trivial case, it’s easy to see how we can communicate better by creating our own positive frame, rather than trying to rebut someone else’s negative frame (Juncker’s fatal and risible mistake). As Lakeoff says in “The Power of Positive Persistence”:

Framing is about reclaiming our power to decide what’s important. Framing is about making sure WE set the terms of the debate, using our language and our ideas. … There’s a place for angry response and outrage. That’s only human. But we also need strategic action to make sure every passing day fuels positive action towards progress.

Sadly, Brexiteers did a better job of framing the issue than Remainers: a big red bus with a baldfaced lie about giving £350 million a week to the NHS, plus appeals to World War II nationalism and fears of Turkish hordes invading Britain. Deceptive framing obscures the real issues, arousing people’s passions about non-issues, leading them to make bad decisions.

What are the spoils of Brexit victory? Bendy bananas and faux sovereignty:

Brexiteers will poo-poo the prospect of a bananaless Britain as Project Fear. Meanwhile, unemployment is expected to rise, and The Guardian cites a new study claiming that Brexit is already costing the UK £500 million a week.

Jean-Claude Juncker seems like a good enough fellow, and the EU is an essential organisation for maintaining peace in Europe, as well as planning for economic prosperity and environmental responsibility. It does have its nerdish, technocratic aspects, but that’s no reason for the UK to up and leave it. A recent (fairly rude) comedy sketch on the German heute-show had a brilliant sugggestion, which was for Britain to stay in the EU while blowing off its rules whenever it suits them, just as Germany does. Quoting mock correspondent Birte Schneider, “English people, you can still stay in the EU and be an egotistical a-hole.”


Sidebar: Tusk comment spurs row in House of Commons – Bercow in top form

While quite funny, this clip is an example of dueling frames: The first MP (Peter Bone) frames Tusk’s comment more or less as “To hell with Brexiteers!” while the second MP (Joanna Cherry, who quotes Tusk more accurately) frames it as “Those who promoted Brexit with no plan for safely implementing it are deserving of blame.” Speaker John Bercow adds a note of levity by referring to Bone as a “delicate flower” easily wounded. The clip is a mini insight into UK politics, with Tory Brexiteers trash-talking the EU, and rebel Scots defending it. The trash talk got more toxic on Twitter, accompanied by the ritual burning of the EU flag:

Two of the more over-the-top responses to Donald Tusk’s (understandable) expression of exasperation at some who promoted #Brexit

What was it Monty Python said in their apology? “…never our intention to imply that politicians are weak-kneed, political time-servers who are concerned more with their personal vendettas and private power struggles than the problems of government, nor to suggest at any point that they sacrifice their credibility by denying free debate on vital matters in the mistaken impression that party unity comes before the well-being of the people they supposedly represent.”

Oh well. Maybe some right-wingers can do without fruit, veg, and jobs. They can live on hate alone.

Let’s go out on a cheery note with Bananarama singing “Cruel Summer” and throwing bits of ‘nanas at police:

Michael Howard

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

* * *

‘Twas The Night Before Brexit – GROUP READING! (YouTube)

I really like making things. After all, life can be so routine and boring. But when you make something, you never quite know how it’ll turn out. With any luck, the result may surprise you.

I had written a poem parody called ‘Twas The Night Before Brexit, and encouraged by the kind response from fellow bloggers (thank you!), I decided to turn it into a video:

I have a love-hate relationship with technology. I know technology can be incredibly useful, and I do use it; but I also hate the way our society is becoming so digitised. If you have a problem with a company, good luck reaching a human! And I hate getting calls from sooper friendly chat bots who are apparently programmed to sound like 18-year old girls, so happy they finally reached you, trying to keep you on the line until a real salesperson can take over and scam you with a credit card deal or Microsoft Support nonsense. Is that not the pits?

In the 80s, I was heavily into making music with synthesisers, and even eked out a minor living creating “patches” that other musicians could use. I still remember when synthesisers first emerged as expressive musical instruments with Switched-On-Bach, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and Chick Corea’s blazing synth leads on Where Have I Known You Before. But gradually, synthesisers became a cheap substitute for real musicians, and no low-budget production was complete without a fakey-sounding ensemble — a canned, frozen orchestra playing lifeless, soulless music.

I also used to write pop songs, which was fun even though I never really got anywhere. Back in the 80s I penned this lyric:

Computer bars where
Machines go to dance
Flashing their software
They pivot and prance

Time was humans
Could congregate too
I think of days…
Me and Susie Q would boogaloo

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And likewise early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Won’t someone save us
From this terrible fate?
Calling all aliens,
Please don’t get here too late.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

We’ve heard that Mercury
Has creatures for hire
We’ll give them anything
They need or desire.

Please send advisers
Who are licensed to kill
Destroy all silicon
And send us the bill.

CHORUS:
Now it’s early to bed
And early to rise
We serve the circuitry
We’ve gown to despise
We’re turning over
In graves we have dug
Machine is ruler
We can’t pull the plug.

Today, I like how some people use technology in a knowing, ironic way — sometimes even to counteract or engage in open warfare with tech’s dehumanizing aspects, going up against the people who send armies of chat bots and sales bots to invade our lives. There’s even one fellow, Roger Anderson, who creates chat bots to interact with telemarketers and waste their time — with hilarious results. His theory, in essence, is that the more time scammers spend interacting with bots, the less time they’ll spend bilking seniors out of their life savings.

So, given how much I hate things that are fakey, the challenge in creating the “Night Before Brexit” video was to try and use technology in a knowing, ironic, and humourous way. Yes, I used synthetic voices, but I tried to make them as expressive as possible. I hope I succeeded, but that’s up to viewers/listeners to judge.

There were innumerable technical challenges. The Scottish lass has oodles of personality, so I gave her some of the best lines. But she tends to speak much faster than the others, so I sometimes had to slow her down by as much as 15%, which does produce artifacts. Still, I was very happy with her performance!

As for the poem itself, it’s only one of many Brexit parodies based on Clark Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St Nick”. Some are quite funny, and some have gone viral. In my version, I wanted to do things a little differently. My two main criticisms of other versions making the rounds are that the authors don’t bother to make the lines scan properly as poetry, and often the language is too steeped in political rhetoric and doesn’t create a proper tableau, or pictures in the mind.

Now, if you write poetry, you might have had the experience that some verses are workmanlike and help establish the setting, but there’s a particular verse you like because of the pictures it creates:

As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.

Call me vain (and I am), but I like that verse so much! I admire Nicola Sturgeon’s rebel stance, and the way the Scottish National Party holds mini-insurrections during debates in the House of Commons (usually beginning with “It’s an insult to Scotland…”). The poem as a whole takes easy shots at right-wingers like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, portraying them as drunken, lecherous, toffee-nosed windbags who exploit Santa’s helpers (who are likeable SNP elves). Not the most nuanced take on UK politics, but in a parody you go for stark contrasts.

As a satirist, I insist on being politically incorrect in a variety of ways, so no need to tally them up. I intend no offence whatsoever, and am simply going for cheap laughs wherever I can get them. The views expressed by the (fictitious) Duchess of Ducks and Duke of North Prickly are not my views, and Santa’s (shall we say unique?) way of dispatching the Johnson is not meant to encourage any enterprising kidnappers at large in the Kingdom.

I’ve always been an odd duck. What interests, amuses, or enlightens me may not have the same effect on others. But I can say with gratitude that the way the video turned out has managed to surprise me.

I’m good at creating things, but not so good at promoting them. So if you find this video a helpful bit of agitprop in the anti-Brexit campaign, please reblog it, tweet a link to it, add it to your Facebook, or otherwise publicise it. The music is from YouTube’s royalty-free Audio Library. Thank you.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

‘Twas The Night Before Brexit

 

‘Twas the night before Brexit, when out in the Kingdom
Some wanker shot Boris, but the git only winged ‘im.
The Maybot was placed on her chill pad with care,
In hopes that St Nicholas soon would be there.
She had spent the whole week giving Corbyn a ragging;
Now she’d spend the whole night helping Santa with tagging.
Gifts for the gentry and gifts for relations,
For Labour MPs and for Tory Alsatians.
She had waited for Santa through elevens and twelves,
But began to despair the appearance of elves.
Then the clock struck out one with a note of revival,
As if presaging tidings of Santa’s arrival.
The Downing Street crowd, from toffs to plebeians
Beheld Santa’s sleigh, pulled by East Europeans!
“The Labour Exchange must be notified quickly”,
Said the Duchess of Ducks to the Duke of North Prickly.
“They’ve been fishing in Scotland, as is plain by the smell;
“And they’ve prob’ly been bonking the Sturgeon as well”.
But St Nick took no note of these tossers and yelpers;
He was flanked by a bus filled with SNP helpers!
As I blinked in the moonlight, there appeared a fine elf
Playing ‘Scotland The Brave’ — it was Nicola herself!
Her colours were grand, and crocheted on her nightie
Was “Bollocks to Brexit, and a new vote for Blighty”.
Then Nigel Farage arrived, driving a hearse;
He was stewed to the gills, and what made matters worse,
I could tell by the groans which emerged from the casket
He had Boris in tow, who had quite blown a gasket.
The two of them tried to take over the party;
Farage all too posh, and the Johnson all farty.
Between them they had only one sticky wicket,
But they tried to pull down Santa’s elves — was that cricket?
It’s an insult to Scotland, how these two carry on
On the holiest night, until well past the dawn.
So May in her ‘kerchief and I in my hoodie
Asked Johnson to leave — but do you think, would he?
His bellowed refusal resounded for miles,
But good old St Nick was all chuckles and smiles.
He bundled the Johnson up into his sleigh,
He sacked him and fracked him and took him away.
He shouted to May, before making his exit–
“Merry Yule, stupid woman! And to all a good Brexit”.

Michael Howard

Links

The Twelve Days of Trumpster
Christmas Music: The Rare and the Beautiful
Jesus is Born – in a World of Many Faiths
Simple Gifts, the Christmas Truce, and Benjamin Bowmaneer
Christmas, Childhood, and Cable Spaghetti

* * *

Bad, BAD Federal Reserve Chairman (according to Trump)

Are small rises in interest rates always bad? Should the stock market keep going up forever as long as Trump is president?

Amidst a torrent of news signaling a president in meltdown mode came reports that Donald Trump wants to fire Fed Chairman Jerome Powell for raising interest rates. This confirms the “president with fifth grade understanding” meme which has become so prevalent.

After the financial crisis (or depression) of 2008, the Federal Reserve kept interest rates artificially low for nearly a decade in order to stimulate economic growth. This was medicine for a badly ailing economy, but it came with side effects: Artificially low interest rates inflate the price of assets such as stocks. Speculators borrow money at super low rates and invest it in the stock market. As a result, the market soars to dizzying heights, from which it must inevitably fall because these heights are out of kilter with reality. By the end of a long bull market run fueled by low interest rates, stocks are simply not worth what people are paying for them. It’s like a game of musical chairs where no one wants to be the last one to sit down, or the last one left holding a basket of stocks bought at prices which far exceed the underlying worth of the companies whose shares they represent.

At Dow 25,000 and above, the stock market was a balloon inflated to the point that merely glancing at it might have burst the bubble. After a period of low interest rates, it’s the Fed’s job to gradually raise rates to reasonable levels to restore order to the marketplace. Stock market speculators may suffer. But do you know who was suffering during the extended period of low interest rates? Seniors who hoped to live off the meager interest from their savings. Now, as interest rates move toward historic norms, the stock market may come down, but there will be a better, more realistic balance between different asset classes — less “funny money” and a return to investing based on sound valuation.

Trump seems to have no clue about economic cycles. He thinks the stock market should just keep going up as long as he’s president (and the sun should always shine on days when he wants to play golf). Policy experts warned him not to take credit for a rising market, lest he own a market crash — but did he listen? No.

Michael Howard

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

* * *

Shutdown over border wall – Would you believe…

Just in time for Christmas, the government has shut down again. If the EPA is affected, that means NO coal in your Christmas stocking! (and any canaries stuffed therein won’t keel over).

Last week, President Trump took full credit for the shutdown, claiming he was proud to own it in the name of border security. But now he’s trying to blame the democrats:

Okay, Mr. Hi-Tech. Nothing from the ancient world better than the wheel? How about the rack? It’s cutting edge technology! Plus, scientists are testing a new invention called the loincloth.

Lately, Trump’s big, beautiful wall paid for by Mexico is turning into a slat fence funded by taxpayers. This raises several questions, uppermost in my mind being: Just how slatternly does this fence need to be to satisfy the Donald?

For those who remember the old Get Smart series, there’s also a retro “Would you believe?” meme being played out right before our eyes. Get Smart was a comedy about a bumbling secret agent named Maxwell Smart (played by the late Don Adams), and his reserved, sensible boss known as The Chief (played by the late Edward Platt). Max and The Chief worked for CONTROL, which stood for goodness and niceness. Their enemy was KAOS, which didn’t.

Get Smart has already given us one memorable Trump Administration meme: the Cone of Silence. This was a running gag about a super secret listening booth which muffled voices so effectively that even those enveloped in it could barely hear each other:

When the original gag wore thin, they came up with the portable cone of silence, which was even funnier:

Not to be confused with “The Silence of a Candle,” which was a lovely piece of music by The Winter Consort:

Anyway, when now dethroned EPA chief Scott Pruitt lavished tens of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money on an ultra secure phone booth, this was quickly dubbed the Cone of Silence by the press. Another running Get Smart gag was “Would You Believe…”:

As applied to Trump’s border wall, I think it would go something like this…

Max: Chief, we need a 30-foot high concrete wall to keep out illegal aliens.

The Chief: I’m sorry Max, that’s totally impractical.

Max: Really? Well, how about a picket fence painted by friends of Tom Sawyer?

The Chief: No, Max.

Max: Would you believe a ‘Keep Out’ sign and a really ferocious poodle?

I’m afraid that’s what Trump will be reduced to in the end. As for stand-up comedy memes, take this one out for a walk:

Potent Quote

“Another government shutdown? I asked you not to tell me that!

More Videos

The West Wing – Shutdown episode:

Police: “Canary In A Coal Mine”:

Edward Platt in The Rebel Set (Mystery Science Theater version), where he plays a criminal mastermind who masquerades as both a beatnik and a priest:

* * *

Brexit and the Bells of Rhymney

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and MEP Ska Keller make a persuasive case for a second referendum, and why the U.K. will always be welcome in the E.U. Theresa May and Rupa Huq take Prime Minister’s Questions to a new level. Plus, we listen to (and discuss) the Welsh mining song ‘Bells of Rhymney’. (Yes, there is a connection!)

In my previous magnum opus on Brexit, much of my focus was on how E.U. membership benefits the U.K. After all, the nature of politics at the populist level is all about self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney’.)

Yet, there’s a quite different way of exploring the Brexit question, based less on self-interest and more on the visionary aspect. In a representative democracy, one ideally tries to elect leaders who have vision, who understand the direction in which the world is headed, and who try to align their nation with the right tide of history. Despite many practical problems with E.U. membership which need ironing out, the E.U. represents a noble effort at cooperation between nations who had previously engaged in open warfare. It’s also a response to the burgeoning awareness that many pressing problems, including climate change, can only be tackled at a global level.

Aside from practical benefits, the E.U. offers each member nation an opportunity to come together with other nations and contribute its unique qualities, while not losing its individuality. This coming together of nations and peoples, which may be described as ‘oneness in diversity’, is the right tide of history, the good direction in which the world is moving post-World War II. In this visionary understanding of what the E.U. represents, Britain is a beloved member nation which has many good friends among other nations, and which has something most meaningful and special to contribute to the mix.

From this point of view, Brexit represents a retreat into the past, a rejection of the sometimes challenging, but ultimately fulfilling promise of the future, in which cooperation between nations is understood to be the highest political good, and a necessity for survival of the planet. If Remainers are sometimes tearful and angry, it’s because they love their country and know that Britain has a big heart, a heart which has the capacity to identify with broader Europe and not cordon itself off. From the point of view of Remainers, the Brexiteers have fooled the people into making a retrograde decision which is bad for Britain, bad for the E.U., and bad for the world. The result will be salt and vinegar, not any kind of cake feast or champagne breakfast.

When did Brexit (which was supposed to be such a lovely idea) take on the character of an unstoppable juggernaut to which we are all chained? As Tony Blair recently noted, “Things do not need to be like this. We’re not in a state of hypnosis to do this. We can assume consciousness. We have free will, and it’s past time to exercise it”.

Between working and raising a family, the average citizen may not have time to ponder these deep matters. That’s why it’s so important that political leaders elected to do the job bring out the best in themselves, respond dynamically to the changing situation, and not be afraid to admit mistakes while there is still time to rectify them. When government economists considered the worst-case scenario of a no deal Brexit, even then they did not look into the future and weigh the possibility of new troubles in Northern Ireland, or a second referendum in Scotland which might result in that nation leaving the U.K. In a chess game one must look several moves ahead, but too many in government are only playing ‘Chequers’.

I admire Prime Minister May, but she has a deeply bureaucratic streak in her nature such that she will not deviate from plan. The ‘Maybot’ sobriquet has stuck because she keeps delivering the same speech over and over again, and during PMQs often gives the equivalent of ‘I am not programmed to respond in that area’. Her lack of creativity and flexibility in a time of crisis naturally causes other leaders to step in to fill the void.

It is uncharitable of her to savage Tony Blair for stating what is becoming increasingly obvious, even to some of May’s own allies: After two years of discussion in which Brexit reality has gradually come to replace Brexit fantasy, the people deserve a final say on a decision which will impact their lives for generations to come. It’s not a ‘do-over’ or mere repeat of the first referendum. History is not static, and neither is democracy. It turns out that the Brexit which can be delivered is much different than what the people were promised. Those who led them down the garden path should at least give them a final say before plunging them over the abyss.

Adding ‘Bells of Rhymney’ to the mix

Welsh miner turned poet Idris Davies penned ‘The Bells of Rhymney” in 1938. It was later revived by fellow countryman Dylan Thomas. American folksinger Pete Seeger set the words to music circa 1959, and his tune is the one used for numerous cover versions:

There’s also a version by Bob Dylan and the Band from 1967, but I’m guessing it’s pretty well locked down by copyright Nazis. 😉

As for the poem itself, it is perhaps best understood as an impassioned response to a Welsh mining disaster, with the church bells in different cities pealing out different reactions to the tragedy. These responses are variously political, legal, metaphysical, and so forth, creating a kind of geographic tableau which also reflects the poet’s inner dialogue. ‘Even God is uneasy, sang the moist bells of Swansea’.

‘Is there hope for the future?’ This is a question oft asked in times of crisis, bringing us back to Tony Blair’s speech defining Brexit as such a time. There is always hope, and as Ska Keller said when interviewed by Channel 4:

Of course, [a second referendum] is up to the people in Great Britain to decide. But if they were to decide to change their minds, then they need to be welcomed back. There should be open doors for the people of Great Britain. Absolutely! But that is up to Great Britain to decide. If the people of Britain were to change their minds, then our doors and our hearts and arms are very welcoming, very open to them. For me, the Brexit is a real tragedy. We have so many great friends there, but also Great Britain is not going to move away. It’s very close to the rest of us, and we’re linked in a partnership, we’re linked together in geography, and for creating a better future we need each other. That’s why I think it’s such a tragedy. [If nationalism rises in Europe] I wouldn’t blame the Brits. I would still think it’s a tragedy that they have left, and I would always want them to come back.

In her comments we can see much of what’s good about the E.U. Where there is love, forgiveness, and oneness in diversity, eventually practical problems can be overcome.

This is Michael Howard ringing in the Christmas season, and hoping that the bells which ring for you are joyful ones.


Sidebar: The Bells of Rhymney – Further Reflections

When I first heard the song performed by Pete Seeger, I was about 14 years old and he was a guest artist on WBAI radio, helping them out during one of their interminable fund drives. I liked it for its poetic images — the bells of different colours sounding out different messages, and picturesque town names like Caerphilly and Swansea — but I didn’t really understand it. Or, let us say, I understood it at a surface level (which is not always bad). Some singers have beautiful voices, but don’t know the history or meaning of what they’re singing. Here are two more cover versions of ‘The Bells of Rhymney’:

The Cher version is rather insipid, but no need to dwell. The John Denver version strikes me as somewhat prettified, and his introduction fortifies misimpressions about the song: that it was written by Pete Seeger (no mention of Idris Davies), and that it’s primarily about local colour. You can easily picture him crooning ‘They were buried alive/ Said a Belgian endive…’ without batting an eyelash. Still, the bell-like guitar harmonics are a nice touch. Some fancy fingerpicking, but I wonder if it doesn’t detract from the meaning.

For me the song imparts a rare dual memory — of what it sounded like when I was 14, and what it sounds like now. Having learned more about poetry, I now know that the speech of bells can be a stand-in for the speech of men and women who might gather at churches in different towns the first Sunday after a mining disaster, and speak out in a myriad of voices. As with church bells, these voices might not exactly harmonise. Some might trail off or speak at cross-purposes, but their collective clanging would signify that some momentous event has taken place. Fire! Flood! Or Mrs Cropley putting anchovy paste in her lemon curd tartlets.

Maybe on some deep level, that’s why I thought to connect the song with Brexit. After all, Brexit is a slow motion political disaster, and is typically accompanied by a school of porpoises from the University of Wales banging on about this or that option on the BBC. “I prefer Norway Plus Plus, but without the Norwegians, and a side order of Canadian bacon gently sautéed in a litre of Glenfiddich Gran Reserva.” Ding-dong.

Like any good disaster, Brexit also has its share of junkies tuning in to the news every five minutes, hoping against hope that someone will insert a new punch card into the Maybot, and maybe she’ll say something genuinely new for a change. You can make better book on the 3:30 at Ascot, though now and then she does surprise:

As for ‘The Bells of Rhymney’, I’m convinced there’s a Gordon Lightfoot version stashed somewhere in the compilation Gordon Lightfoot Sings Every Song Ever Written:

I’m avidly rummaging through all 379 discs, but oh wait! There’s an interview with Nyle Hogg-Filth on ITV. Apparently, he’s found a new solution to the Brexit problem which involves nuclear physics and buggery. I just have to watch…

* * *