Non Bibemus Koolaid (I won’t drink the Koolaid)

If you know something will be harmful to someone, should you try to prevent that harm occurring?  Or, if the harm has occurred, should you try and ameliorate it?

I think the answer to both, for most people, would be yes.

I thought about this issue because of two events: one five days ago and one almost forty years ago.

The older one first.  November 18th marks the fortieth anniversary of Jonestown, the mass-murder/suicide committed by the followers of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple cult in Guyana.  Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in Guyana to investigate the cult at the behest of relatives, some of whom travelled with him.  He offered repatriation back to the US for any People’s Temple members who wanted to leave and promised to write a Congressional Report on his findings.  For his efforts he became only the second US Congressman in history  to be assassinated in office, and his killing directly led to the tragic murder/suicide of nine hundred and eighteen people including nearly three-hundred children.

There had been warning signs (they were what prompted Congressman Ryan’s intervention) but the question still remains: could more have been done?  I think not. With hindsight, maybe the US Government would have worked with their Guyanan counterparts, but we can only speculate.  The best intervention at the time seems to be the one Leo Ryan pursued, the worst could have led to a Waco type siege.

What about the event five days ago?  Hurricane Michael developed remarkably quickly forming as a depression in October 2nd and making landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane just over a week later, decimating the Florida pan-handle.

General evacuation orders were issued, but, as always happens, a few people held out and refused to leave. Should the people who stayed be abandoned to their fate? Should the authorities give up on them? Of course not, everything should be done to help as many people as possible, even if the decision they initially made was obviously detrimental. In those circumstances, where the threat is easily perceived and the response promises a reasonable degree of success, failure to act is a dereliction of duty. I firmly believe that governments have a duty to help much in line with the hippocratic oath of the medical profession:

“I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course…”

This if often shortened to the phrase: primum non nocere – first do no harm.

Doctors, like politicians, are privy to specialist information with access to experts and incredible amounts of evidence.  Much more so than the average person in the street.  I suspect it is why ¾ of the UK Parliament supported Remain in the Brexit referendum in 2016.  They knew then that Brexit would cause immense harm to an economy and society that, over the last forty years, has become indelibly entwined with our European neighbours.  

This Saturday I will be marching with hundreds of thousands for a new People’s Vote on the Brexit deal (or as it increasingly looks no deal).  I do this not because I support a People’s Vote as my primary solution, I don’t, it is very much my backstop.

My preferred solution would be for Parliament to exercise its duty and obligation and stop Brexit.  Stop it now.  Follow the part of the hypocritic oath that states:

“Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course…”

After two years negotiation we face the prospect of isolation in a world centered on free-trade. We face the possible break-up of the United Kingdom. As commentator after commentator has pointed out, the best agreement we can have with the EU is the current one we enjoy.

If Parliament abandons Brexit, will the people be angry?  Will they throw out the Members of Parliament who do not follow the “will of the people”?  The courageous ones who will not allow poison to be inflicted?  Maybe.  Will there be riots or civic unrest?  Possibly.

Will these things happen anyway as the full impact of Brexit are felt?  Certainly. If the prospect of no deal is as bad as the experts suggest I cannot see the people supporting MPs who inflicted it on the country, regardless of how they voted in the referendum, especially when we all know the posh-boys of the Leave campaign will take no responsibility for the mess they have created. As former British Prime Minister, John Major, said in a recent Guardian article:

“Those who persuaded a deceived population to vote to be weaker and poorer will never be forgiven.”

I would argue that those who voted to go through with “the will of the people”, knowing the brutality of the impact, will suffer the same fate.

It is hard to put your career on the line for the public good, it takes courage. Our Members of Parliament must recognize that they are representatives NOT delegates. The referendum was advisory. If they believe a policy is wrong they have a moral duty to vote against it or reverse it, particularly a mistake as serious as Brexit. Now, with timing that can only be described as macabre, the EU summit to respond to a potential “No Deal”  Brexit will fall on the anniversary weekend of Jonestown.

 The madness can stop.  The madness must stop.  Parliament can stop it, but only if it’s privileged members vote to stop it. That would be a vote on behalf of the people. A vote to take back control. A vote to stop the harm.

By Any Means Necessary

“You hide behind logic, secure with your facts
You've a history of time to back up your claims
Protecting the future by filling up the cracks
That might expose the real nature of your games”                                     

Dry Weather – Crass 

I woke up the other morning to the news that comedian Amy Schumer had been arrested at the US Capitol protesting the forthcoming confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to a life time appointment on the US Supreme Court.  An eventuality made certain by the complicity of Joe Manchin and Susan Collins in the wake of the stifled FBI report.

Coincidently, I was also watching episode seven of Ken Burns’ and Lynn Norvick’s breathtaking series on the Vietnam War.  It was this episode, centred around the 1968 Presidential election, where I first heard about the treachery of Richard Nixon.  Emissaries of Nixon, with his approval,  conspired with the South Vietnamese government to undermine negotiations and withdraw from peace talks.  In order to win Richard Nixon engaged in treason four years before Watergate. 

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In fact, with the exception of President G.H.W. Bush (who beat Dukakis fair and square, yes Willie Horton was rough politics, but that is to be expected), every Republican President in the last fifty years has been elected with nefarious help that, in three examples, bordered on treason.    

Of course it was likely just coincidence that the US Iranian Embassy Hostages were released  at the exact minute that President Ronald Reagan completed his first Inaugural.  Just as it is coincidence that the negotiations where slowed down before the November 1980 Presidential elections.  This, of course, had nothing to do with the Iran/Contra scandal and the selling of arms to Iran in breach of a legal embargo, that happened later.  Pure coincidence and not, definitely not, treason.

Then we get to Dubya.  President by decree of the Supreme Court.  He lost the popular vote but apparently won the narrowest of Electoral college victories; we’ll never really know for certain, the court stopped the count and 9/11 “united” the country.  I am assuming the ignorance regarding the warnings of activities of Al-Qaeda that led to 9/11 was institutional stupidity.  I don’t think the US government was involved in some kind of Loose Change grand conspiracy.  I am definitely in the 9/11 cock-up camp.  But when you consider the damage that the reprobates of the Bush II Administration enabled with that particular cock-up, especially in Iraq… not to mention the lack of action on climate change and the 2008 financial crash, we will be living with consequences of the 2000 election for generations. 

Of course the jury is still out on Trump and the likely possibility of massive collusion with a foreign power to an extent not seen since the days of Richard Nixon.  We have yet to find out the degrees of sophistication the Russians employed on behalf of the Trump campaign, but indications suggest knowledge that would hint at GOP collusion.

In between these stolen and treasonous elections we have had the millions spent trying to undermine democratically elected Democratic administrations (Whitewater and Benghazi to name but two). 

We’ve seen the appointment of at first one, now two accused sex-offenders to the Supreme Court. 

We’ve seen the refusal to even consider a Supreme Court Justice (Merrick Garland) and hundreds of lower court appointees, such that the judicial branch is being reshaped for a generation or more, with the threatened attacks on regulations, voting rights, labor rights and, of course, Roe v Wade. Seats stolen from a legitimate Democratic President.

Then there is the use of Gerrymandering at the State level that means the Democrats will need an 11% lead in the popular vote in November to retake the House of Representatives.      

I titled this blog post after the phrase “By Any Means Necessary” coined by Jean-Paul Satre and popularized by Malcom X.  The phrase was used in the context of class warfare, and I use it here with a degree of irony.  Class Warfare is not being waged by trendy-lefties in black polo-neck sweaters and berets, well it is, but they aren’t very good at it.  The real class war is being waged by plutocrats and corporations, the elite class that scorns “liberal elites”.  If they haven’t actually won this war (and I think they have), they’ve come damn close.    

These Republicans who couldn’t care less about the Republic have been a cancer on the body politics for as long as I have been alive.  They have fought using all the means at their disposal,  they have cheated and they have won, repeatedly.  They care not one jot for the constitution of the United States, nor good governance, nor the people.  Their Presidential nominees have committed treason.  They have consistently lied, falsified and obstructed.  There is strong evidence that their latest Supreme Court nominee committed perjury at his own confirmation hearing.  They’re laughing at us.  They have no honour and they do not care one jot. They have done all of this with total impunity.  The believe they are entitled to power and will do anything to retain it, by any means necessary.  Anyone who disagrees is un-American.  “Lock her up! Lock her up!”

These market-driven Maoists deserve to be turfed out of office in November, not just for a couple of years, but for forever.  When we win, if we win, start the hearings.  Start the impeachments.  Start to treat them as they treat us. 

The means is the mid-term vote, and it is necessary.  

The Soundtrack has been update… six tracks of righteous female rage… it seems appropriate.

Oh, Mercè, Mercè, Me!

Food and festivals are the remnants of culture that follow paths of immigration across the world.  When a new diaspora lands amongst the first things the new community does is often establish a beach-head or restaurants or grocers shops that carry the items from the old country.  These develop into popular destinations:  China Town. Little Italy.  Little India. Little Portugal etc., etc.,  that you find in many western cities in both the new and old worlds.

 When I first landed in Canada, almost 18 years ago, high on my list of comestibles to remind me of home was Marmite or Chocolate Digestives.  When I couldn’t find the actual commodity (A Christmas Pudding or a Mince Pie) I made them from scratch.

Food laws in California have been relaxed to allow food entrepreneurs to cook and sell from their own home kitchens, something I’m sure happened on the black or grey market.  Offering a taste of home, or something new depending on the punter.

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One of the big changes I noticed in Toronto and Barcelona since 2016 has been in the provision of food.  In Toronto the number of Mexican restaurants, authentic ones not Tex-Mex taco shops, seems to have grown extensively.  I’m not sure that you can put this boon for Toronto down to Trump, but there seems to be a correlation, if not a direct causation.

Conversely, in Barcelona, I have been having a devil of a job finding British Tea.  I’ve been coming to the city regularly since 2014 and can honestly say that PG Tips and even Clipper (two of my preferred brands) used to be everywhere.  Now, the shelves that hold them have an empty space, or the brands have disappeared altogether.  I cannot place this change directly at  the feet of Brexit, but I have my suspicions.

Of course in all of this there is a paradox.  We have a tendency to look down on ex-pats who club together and create enclaves in various parts of the world.  Or we look down on the little Englanders or Heartland Americans who want to cling to a mono-cultural traditions.  While celebrating the same tendencies that bring mutli-cultural experiences to our great cities.  Toronto, London, Barcelona have a fantastic array of cuisine because of the tendency  of communities to seek solace in the familiar.  The second and third generations, with feet in both the new and old culture, often go on to create incredible fusion cuisines.

And maybe that’s the point.  When it comes to integration it is up to us, the people already here, to offer up the hand of friendship.  Visit the communities and restaurants.  Engage in Cultural exchanges.  Celebrate the new.  Become the neighbours who take a metaphorical cup of sugar or flour, or a tray of cookies around to the new folks on the block to make them feel at home, rather than be suspicious of the change that such new neighbours can bring.

The flow of culture, the dissemination of ideas, arrived on the back of trade, and food and commodities, and immigration.  Western philosophy was kept secure in the western dark-ages under the light of Islam.  There is a reason so many mathematical terms start with the prefix ‘al’. The food of Persia, became, under the Mughals, some of the most celebrated Indian dishes.   Dishes that were conscripted, in turn, by the British. Culture spreading through  food and community.  Through experience.  

This week, in my new, temporary home in Barcelona, they celebrated La Mercè.  This celebration is not just peculiar to Catalunya, it is peculiar to the city.  A five day long extravaganza of fire, frolicking, giant moving statues, old school cornet and trumpet playing.  Like most of our first few weeks here we felt welcomed into the throng.  Meeting old and new friends along the way.Then, when the crowds became too much, we sought solace in a Plaça or the beach, again bumping into new school friends and their parents.  Our kids are learning Spanish and Catalan and sharing a pride in Toronto, Canada, the US and Britain.  While learning about the incredible history of Spain, Catalunya and Europe.

Now, I have to explore and find a good curry house… somewhere that does a good Chicken Tikka Masla, you know, real British cuisine! 

But Doug, I've Never Even Tried Matcha...

What is the greatest invention humanity has ever created?  The wheel?  The domestication and control of fire?  Writing, maybe? 

Personally, I’d put the city at the top of the list.  Dangerous, Dirty, noisy, smelly, vibrant, wonderful, beautiful, cities (delete as appropriate).  

Cities, like wars, have been the great driving force of human innovation.  Think of the use of “Ur” to signify old or original, a prefix that got its name from the Sumerian city.  This is the civilization that gave us Cuneiform the first recorded writing, baked on to clay tablets.

Cities create. They need engineers to create the apartment buildings, the plumbing, the aqueducts. They need scribes and accountants to keep track of commerce and business.  They needed lawyers to settle disputes.  They may not have needed politicians, but they got them, to help create the rules and laws to oil the gears and allow the whole edifice to work. In a word, they needed education. The great universities, (not) coincidently, are usually based in cities, or cities grew around them.  The exception may be the Liberal Arts Colleges of New England, but they are (probably) part of the Pastoral Reaction of the 18thand 19thCentury to the horrors of industrialization. 

Then there is democracy, that great experiment in governance create by the free-men (for the free-men it must be stated) of the city-state of Athens.  Their great (and ultimately triumphant) nemesis, the militarized society of Sparta, which overcame them in the Peloponnesian War

Then there is the greatest city of antiquity, arguably the greatest city of history: Rome.  The first city to reach a population size of 1 Million people at the end of the first century B.C.  It would take until the middle of the 18thCentury C.E. and the rise of London and the British Empire for Europe to regain such heights.  (Ankgor Wat reached similar heights between the 9th-12thCentury C.E.)  

Many of the countries of Western Europe still follow roads and boundaries of the Roman empire. Satellite cities grew to bring provisions and supplies to the great conurbation.  I am sitting in one such place now:  Barcelona.  The History Museum of Barcelona has a wonderful covered excavation of the Roman foundations of the city which shows and its role in providing two of the great staples of Roman domestic life:  Olive Oil and Garum, the fermented fish Ur-Condiment of Europe that Roman gourmets devoured by the gallon.  I have seen Garum vats, vast pots a meter wide (or the holes where they sat) all over the remains of the empire, but some of the best are in the museum here.  Their putrid produce destined to be sailed across the sea to Ostia and then up the Tiber to the City.  

The role of agrarian society throughout history has been to sell provisions to cities.  And, throughout history, that provision has rested on a battle between land-owners and their tenants.  Serfdom was the basis for much of medieval Europe’s economy, just as Slavery provided a similar function in the nascent United States.  

It might be coincidence but the Industrial Revolution in the United Kingdom, when vast numbers of “serfs” where sucked into the new towns and cities (Manchester in 1750 had 20,000 people growing to 250,000 within a century),coincided with the first great Enclosure Act of 1773 when vast amounts of ‘common’ ground (used freely for community farming and access) was enclosed by estate land owners. Access was denied.  Livelihoods were decimated.  People migrated to the urban from the rural.  A journey that still happens today across the world.  

The US, Canada and Australia in particular celebrate the wilderness and the role its domestication played in the creation of the country.  Think of Cowboys of the American West, or Bush pioneers of Australia.  HBC – the Hudson Bay Company in Canada and their iconic blankets owe their popularity and place in the Canadian mythos through this association, though that may be changing as their potential role in spreading smallpox to native Canadians has been investigated.

Our myths were forged in the country.  Our industry, in the cities.  

In 1870 50% of the US population was employed in Agriculture.  It is this economic clout that led to the creation of the US Electoral College system, which favoured rural states over their more industrial neighbours.  By 2008, less than 2% were directly employed in farming.  The electoral system has not shifted to keep track with these demographic changes.  Those left in the hinterland are facing exceptional economic poverty.  Those in cities, under-representation. 

To add insult to injury the agrarian workers who fled to the industrial manufacturing cities of the US rust belt, or the North-East or North-West in the UK, or South West Ontario, are now having those jobs shipped overseas or automated.  The old industrial cities, think Detroit, are left to fester, the satellite towns and villages facing a similar fate.  

Indignation has risen as the big “Modern” cities thrived.  People spit the word ‘Toronto’ or ‘London’ almost as an obscenity, like the teenager not invited to the popular party whose anger at being excluded becomes a plot to seek revenge and inflict harm.  Trump, Brexit and Doug Ford owe their success to such indignation.  Cities are in the firing line.  Brexit could inflict serious damage to the financial standing of the city of London.  The economic standing of the Bay Area could be impacted by Trump’s tariffs.  Doug Ford, in a fit of enormous unconstitutional pique, has thrown an enormous hammer into the municipal election of Toronto, bank on the rest of Ontario not giving a toss.

All in the name of punishing the so-called liberal elites such cities have come to represent.

But in inflicting damage on cities, we are potentially inflicting massive economic harm on the whole of our societies.  Cities now account for 80% of the World’s GDP.  They are drivers of wealth, and, therefore, the real trickle down through infrastructure and welfare.

They are our greatest invention.  We should celebrate them.  Support them. Value them.  See them as beacons.  Not places to sneer at, or feel jealous of, or fear.  Places not of the elites, but of all the people.  

There May Be Trouble Ahead....

After an August of family vacations, family reunions and preparing for our big move to Europe, the clarion call of ‘Back to School’ now races across what’s left of the airwaves and print media, calling me back to the sad, calcified world of Trump, Mueller and Brexit.  The air outside blows warm and sultry, a reminder that we are still in the midst of hurricane season, despite the reappearance pumpkin spice lattes and the first promotions of Hallowe’en candy.

As anyone who has travelled to a hurricane inflicted area, Florida, the Southern Coast of the US or even Hawaii, the idea that there may be a monstrous storm over the horizon seems preposterous.  In hurricane season the sun is usually blazing, the warm water is gently lapping, there is a often a cool refreshing breeze in the air.  It is a perfect tropical/sub-tropical day.  How can such wonder be intruded upon?  Yet, just out of sight (and out of mind?), clouds are gathering, air pressure is falling, a cyclone starts to swirl and with it the threat of twenty foot plus swells, storm surges, winds of fury and lashing, torrential rain. 

Well, in all the hype of (near) record levels on the Dow Jones, the NASDAQ and S&P 500, and the braggadocio of President Trump (best economy EVER!)  I see reminisces of that bright summer’s day sitting on a beach in Florida or Kauai looking at the lapping waves and thinking… how can this change?  

But there are signs.  Portents if you will.  

 

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The economy as we all know (from experience if nothing else) is cyclical.  Just as wind shear and ocean temperature can predict storms, there are similar predictors of economic peril.  One particular predictor is causing concern:  Bond Yield Inversion.

Government Bond Yields in both the US and Canada are heading towards inversion territory.  Normally, long-term government bonds demand a higher interest rate than short-term ones. This makes sense, the uncertainty of the long-term demands a higher interest rate.  Inversion happens when the interest rates on short-term bonds are higher than those of long-term bonds.  A “mercury retrograde” for the economy.  The inversion is a great predictor for economic slow-down and recession, one has occurred before every recession for the last forty years.  We aren’t at the inversion point yet, but we are very, very close.  Ripples in air streams and isolated thunderstorms around the Azures are coagulating and beginning to barrel across the Atlantic.  Thar be hurricanes!

We are overdue a recession.  The Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, since then the economy has essentially recovered, at least as judged from the headline figures.  In the US this is now the second longest period of economic growth since records began in 1785.  Reflecting this prosperity, both inflation, albeit slowly, from their historic lows.  

To counter the effects of inflationary pressure, interest rates are slowly beginning to rise from truly historic lows.  That action, though dampening economic growth, feels like the equivalent of the feds boarding up the windows in preparation for the storm.  Giving themselves enough wiggle room to have something to play with should the economic walls come tumbling down and interest rates have to be cut again.

The big problem is that the largesse present in the current period of US and Canadian economic prosperity has not been spread evenly.  Average wages are still stagnating and have only just recovered to their 2007 rates.  Household debt has exploded, with nervous eyes turning to those interest rate rises I mentioned.  Even R&D which has somewhat flatlined, at least in the west.  

We aren’t innovating.  Most of us aren’t growing richer.

All in all, it feels a bit like the wrong type of recovery.  A decade of prosperity has been lost for most of the 99%, despite near those record employment levels.  So, rather than a recovery that invested in people and innovation.  A recovery that built the economy up for all.  We got a trickle-down recovery that through a mixture of tax cuts, private sector bailouts, private sector stimulus and Quantitative Easing of money supply, encouraged corporate hoarding of immense profits, partly created by automation and off-shoring, which has led to vast rewards for executives and shareholders.  As we surely must have learnt by now the wealth never trickles down, it seeps out, suppurating into tax havens and secret bank accounts.

What has shifted in the economy to such a huge degree that the normal economic equilibrium has been overturned?  People speak of the demise of Unions and collective bargaining or automation and the gig economy, but surely these things alone cannot explain the ongoing denigration of the laws of supply and demand, as encapsulated in the current situation of low unemployment and virtually zero wage growth in real terms?  

The psychology of both employers and employees along with perceived economic uncertainty has certainly played a part, as has the continued squeeze of public sector wages.  In Ontario one of Doug Ford’s first act was to freeze pay rises for Managers and Executives in the Ontario Public sector, claiming profligate spending.  The UK Public Sector has suffered a similar fate, with both enforced austerity and Brexit uncertainty being blamed.  Trump last week, in a breathtaking display of hypocrisy, announced he wanted a pay freeze for federal workers to help with the Government’s fiscal rectitude - this of course after the eye-watering tax cut to business, that, despite assurance from the GOP, has NOT been passed on to the workers.

This is leading to calls on both sides of the Atlantic for a realignment of Capitalism.  Elizabeth Warren is making a case for new economic thinking in the US ahead of an expected Presidential run.  In the UK the IPPR has just issued a report on prosperity and justice that is being seized upon by British left, including followers of Jeremy Corbyn .  Neither Justin Trudeau or Macron in France have biten, yet, but both might be the tempted if the ability to squeeze the progressive vote might offset challenges from the right.  Jagmeet Singh and Jean-Luc Melenchon should both beware.

Capitalism has a way of blunting its most brutal edges in the face of mighty catastrophes.  You only have to see the gains of the welfare state that followed the World War II.  That habit of humanization appears to have been forgotten in this latest 'greed is good' iteration.  If such policies are not remembered and followed, I fear that the explosion of national/regional populism we saw with the Election of Trump, Doug Ford and the Brexit Victory might just be the start.

If that is the case, we all might be left facing the music... but today, the weather was beautiful.  Moonlight, love and romance... are mostly cheap to pursue and as always priceless to enjoy.  Let dance and the audacity of hope reign!   

 

 

 

 

 

The Prosperity of Cheats

Last week Geraint Thomas won his first Tour de France for Team Sky relegating his team mate (and favourite), Chris Froome, to a (relatively) unusual third position.  From the winner’s podium he declared it was all down to hard-word, that there was no hint of drug use or cheating, important in a sport that had been haunted by the use of drugs to enhance performance.  The Lance Armstrong affair still casts a long shadow over endurance cycling.

Of course, when it was established beyond doubt that Armstrong had cheated, all of his victories were stripped from him.  The same goes for other sports.  The 4X400 Meter relay in the 2000 Sydney Olympicsis a case in point.  In the race we saw on TV the US won and received gold.  Four years later the medals were stripped when the IAF stated that Jermone Young was not eligible to run in Sydney due to use of performance enhancers.  This was challenged and though the resulting back and forth wasn’t fixed until 2012 when Team USA was disqualified, Nigeria were finally granted the gold medal permanently.

Russia was banned as a country from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics for cheating, though individuals were allowed to compete under the Olympic Rings of the IOC flag.

The jury is still out as to whether Qatar will retain the 2022 FIFA World Cupwhere the whiff of corruption has hung around like a bad cloud.

In business, cheats, when exposed, are often dealt short-shrift.  Famous casualties like David Tovarhave resigned, others have even been sacked, when they are found to have lied their way into a position, usually by exaggerating, or making up, qualifications.

Cheats, as the old adage says, never prosper.

That is true, except where it matters most, in the arena which can have the biggest impacts on our lives:  politics.

 Image: "We the People" script, in Constitution

Image: "We the People" script, in Constitution

I’m not talking about the made up BS about electoral fraud.  The Voter Suppression and ID laws being used by the right-wing in the US and now the UK to suppress the poorest in society from voting.  All in the name of stopping the (non-existent) crime of voter fraud.

I am not even talking about First Passed the Post which allows politicians to rule over us like kings or queens with 40% (or less) of the popular vote.

No, I am talking about stealing elections.  Whole ones.  We have mechanisms for dealing with corrupt individuals.  In the US the power to impeach officials can and has been used, usually sparingly.  The threat of impeachment led to Richard Nixon’s resignation.  The crime of “High-Crimes and Misdemeanors” is broad, but has the power of the US Constitution to back it up.

In the UK there is the Representation of the People Act.  The last person to be removed from office was an old acquaintance of mine from my student politics days: Phil Woolas.  Phil was the New Labour MP for Oldham East and Saddleworth who put out incendiary leaflets aimed at stoking up the “angry white vote” by unlawfully linking his chief opponent to Muslim extremists.  He was thrown out of office.   

But what about when the cheating isn’t individual, but is something more insidious?  What about when the cheating steals a country?

The official Vote Leave Campaign that won the 2016 Brexit vote has been shown to have broken the law.  They have been fined the greatest amount that the Electoral Commission (the independent arbitrator of elections in the United Kingdom) and several people have been referred to the police.  The Leave campaign has been proven to have cheated, and this is before there is any talk of Russian interference.  They overspent by hundreds of thousands of pounds in a very, very tight election.  Money that was funneled into Facebook Advertising.

Yet, despite this, the mechanism for annulling the vote or holding another is unclear.  If the result is subjected to a court challenge then the executive can be held to account, but I am not sure that the court can over turn the legislation passed by Parliament as a result of that referendum.  There is no clear recourse.   But, at least in Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 there is legislation to invoke.

Not so the US election.  While an individual can be subject to impeachment under the US constitution, there seems to be no provision for an election to be declared void.  If collusion or illegality is proven then Trump could be impeached, but that would leave us with President Pence, who benefitted from said collusion too.  If both are impeached, then President Ryan rules, then President Orrin Hatch. Ditto.

Unlike sports and business, there is no mechanism for a US Presidential election result to be overturned.  Once certified, even if illegality was proven, the real winner cannot be given the prize.

We have 18th Century systems in a 21st Century world. 

In this era of  Facebook and Twitter, of Google Advertising and AI, the methods for manipulating elections are way, way ahead of the methods for controlling them.  The checks and balances of our “modern” democracies are not up to the job of policing our electoral systems from such abuse.  In a democratic system such results are catastrophic because the fraud is found after the event.  Electoral victories, even those fraudulently obtained, will have been given the veneer of the “will of the people”, and if proven to be falsified, cannot easily be undone to a satisfying result.  Nigeria finally got their gold medal and place in history in 2012, but, in the event that the 2016 vote was proven to be rigged, there is no methodology for over-turning that vote and making Hillary Clinton president.   

The votes have been counted and certified.  The oaths taken.  The ships have sailed.  As we see with the Brexit result, cheats may prosper after all.

Another World

I have just arrived back in the city from a few days spent at a friend’s cottage in the Muskoka’s.  The landscape of Cottage Country, to the North of Toronto, is stunning: clear blue lakes girdled on all sides by a rich blanket of birch and pine; part of the vast hinterland of trees and lakes that makes up Ontario’s portion of the great Canadian Shield.  There is an immensity to this wilderness, a sense of the infinite.  It truly is another world.  It amazes me that this extraordinary biomass, this plethora of life, is suspended on a sliver of topsoil too weak to support more needy crops like wheat or corn.  

You can see evidence of the shield in the outcrops and rocks that heave throughout the landscape.  These are some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, 3.5 billion years old, dating from the great continent of Laurentia.  

There is a chameleon like aspect to this part of Canada.  On the surface, pretty tourist towns selling ice-cream and maple syrup give a picturesque feel to a carefree summer, but scratch the surface and you soon find that logging and mining still form the primary industries of the area.  Everyone one knows someone who is connected to Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources, either through direct working or via permit gathering.

To the north of Muskoka lies Sudbury, the Nickle capital of Canada.  There a comet about 10km wide, roughly the size of the asteroid that finished off the dinosaurs, gouged a knife shaped incision into the proto-Canadian wilderness 1.89 billion years ago, long before the trees that stand there now were even a twinkle in evolution’s eye.  That wound, terrifying beyond belief to consider, was filled with the Earth’s rich magma:  Nickle, Iron, Copper, even some diamonds.  It is a bounty we are still extracting to this day.  

The Sudbury impact was not responsible for any of the great mass-extinction events of recorded Earth’s history.  Life had not evolved much beyond the single cell at that point. If a particular group of single celled organisms had dominated, we lack fossil records to support their fate. Yet, just standing on those rocks, knowing their age, brings a sense of awe.  The rocks that form this place, that provide the foundation for the woods where we walked, or the basins to hold the water where we swam, have witnessed  the whole of history, including all five of the Earth’s mass extinction events.  

Muskoka.gif

Our current way of life depends on three of those events, four if you include the last one, 65 million years ago, which saw off the dinosaurs and allowed our mammalian ancestors to rise to their current prominence.  

Reading Peter Brannen’s thrilling and evocative The Ends of the World, (currently a bargain in both iBooks and Kindle) suggests that the organisms that became our oil supply were brought down by the first great mass-extinction, 445 Millions Years ago: the End-Ordovician Mass Extinction (86% of species lost).  The Shale gas that is currently being fracked in the US was created by the Late Devonian Mass Extinction (75% lost), 364 million years ago.  Coal was formed before and by the mother of all extinctions at the end of the Permian era:  The Great Dying, 251 million years ago, which saw a whopping 96% of all life on Earth snubbed out.

It is these resources, amongst others, that we are exploiting to such an extent that we would require 1.7 Earths to meet our needs in a sustainable way.  1.7 Earths, another world.  I arrived back in Toronto to the news that Earth Overshoot Day this year is August 1st, next year it may well be in late July.  Overshoot day marks the point in the calendar where humanities resource consumption exceeds the capacity for nature to replenish it.  The point in the calendar when we collectively roll-up the concept of sustainability and throw it out of the window or set fire to it like trash in a garbage bin.  We haven’t gotten close to sustainability since 1970.  

It is not a day that is likely to be marked by our new Conservative Premier in Ontario.  Doug Ford seems to be going out of his way to ensure that efforts to sustain our environment are being degraded or removed entirely.  Like many on the right he is laying waste to the environmental protection that has been put in place to try and conserve our planet as a viable living space for humans and other species on an ongoing basis.

I don’t get it.  Even if you completely ignore the science and declare climate change to be a hoax, wouldn’t you at least want to hedge our future for the sake of your children and grand-children?  Wouldn’t you want to try and make money from sustainable industry?  Wouldn’t we want to find ways to wean ourselves off, or at least control, our love affair with cars, oil and meat?  (And, by the way, where did all the new CO2 in the atmosphere come from if we’re not burning it?)  Is it simply a knee jerk reaction to the prospect of more Government regulation or more tax?  

We are losing our biosphere at an alarming rate.  200 species are being driven to extinction on a daily basis.  We do not know the effects of this new mass extinction.  The new great dying that will mark the Anthropocene era, or as it has now been reclassified, the slightly more prosaic: Meghalayan era.  (Under political pressure?  You have to ask.)  Interesting fact: I have written a climate thriller that is set partially in Meghalaya in India, and was constructed before this latest nomenclature surfaced, but I digress.

As a species we are too small in thought.  Too myopic. 

Life on planet Earth will sustain.  It will continue.  We have seen this pattern repeat itself five times already.  The planet will recover.  Then, from those ashes, another world will rise.  In a few million years a new intelligence may form and, as it looks deep down into the layers beneath its feet, it may question the thin layer of organic compounds, a plasticity that could be the only lasting signature of our contribution to the story of Earth.  

A plasticity of exploitation, but, alas, not of thought.   

One Hundred Days 'Til Solitude

One hundred years ago this week the great spring offensive of the German empire fizzled out, doomed by overreach and ineffective supply chains.  The offensive was designed to bring an end to the stalemate of World War I, a last ditch effort to break the bloody, stagnant, log-jam of the previous four years of trench warfare before the Americans arrived en masse to save the day. Though considered a tactical victory, in the end it failed.  Germany was defeated within six months.

Theresa May tried something similar over the last week. First there was the summit at Chequers, the PM’s pad in the country, then the launch of a white paper to finally lay out the UK’s position on Brexit.  Knowing she faced rebellion in her own party she invited opposition MPs from the rival Labour, Scottish National and Liberal Democrats to review, discuss and (please, pretty, pretty, please)  support.  It failed.  

The white paper promised a Custom’s Union in all but name, an end to the Free Movement of People that retained some free movement (principally temporary and skilled workers, students) and the pushing forward of a Single Market for goods (but not services), all under the umbrella of a formal Association Agreement.  A starting position for negotiations with the EU (one that should have been put in place beforeArticle 50 was triggered, noteight months before we are due to leave!)

At first there seemed to be a modicum of acquiescence.  Then the resignations started and the Hard Right European Research Group (ERG) wing of the UK Tory Party went ballistic.  Events moved quickly.  The Tory Party descended into the familiar tropes of Britain becoming a vassal state and a colony of the EU, now supported by Labour supporting Remainers.  All made the point that we would be rule takers but not rule makers.  They even rehashed Boris Johnson’s old musings about staying in the EU being better than Soft Brexit.  

So, with the Tory party split, the Labour Party was left sitting back, safe in the current knowledge that they will oppose any agreement brought forward by Theresa May since it cannot meet their tests (have cake and eat it, sorry, leave but retain all benefits).  Since the smaller parties do not have the fire power to do anything without one of the big beasts, the UK faces a complete stalemate. If politics is at its heart a numbers game, then currently within the House of Commons there appears to be:

No majority for a soft Brexit

No majority for a hard Brexit

No majority for no deal

No majority for staying in the EU

Since one of those eventualities is certain, something will have to give, or be received.  Most likely one of the two extremes.  Stay or completely go.

One school of thought is that May will be challenged in a vote of no confidence.  I don’t think this is likely, the ERG have the numbers on paper (claiming eighty MP members with 48 being the magic number needed to trigger an internal ballot), but at present she will win it, and win it comfortably.  I don’t think the majority of Tory MPs want to risk opening up the leadership election to their membership, having seen Labour members elect the left-wing firebrand, Jeremy Corbyn.  They know that the rabid Brexiteer and (rabid) Catholic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, would be the likely shoe in if the Tory grassroots had their say, that, or (shudder) Boris Johnson.

So the Tory Party will not fundamentally change position, but, such is the nature of negotiations, will likely soften the Brexit deal further as talks continue.  Watch Liam Fox resign when it becomes apparent that the UK will never be able to enter into its own trade agreements outside the confines of the EU.

That leaves the Labour Party.  At some point it will have to vote and  Labour is in a quandary.  70% of its members favour Remaining in the EU.  A majority of its voters favour leaving.  The party, being in opposition, has, as is its right, fudged the question.  There will likely be a vote at the autumn party conference to soften the Brexit stance, how such a vote (if it were to be passed) will be translated by the Parliamentary Party remains to be seen.  Jeremy Corbyn has been anti-EU forever, it will be interesting to see how democratic his new Labour Party really is if he doesn’t like the inflicted policy result.

In the end, the only way I can see the stalemate being broken is either through a General Election, where one party splits away from its current position and/or wins decisively (unlikely), or a new referendum where one of the positions is to remain in the EU.  Indeed, punting this back to the people in some form is likely to be the only option to settle this now.  That will entail trying to extend the Article 50 time frame which will require unanimity across the whole European bloc, while also persuading the EU to allow the UK to keep all the opt-outs we have negotiated over the years.

The UK is destined for months, maybe years, of trench warfare.  A feeling that I am sure the German high-command had in the summer of 1918. What happened next was General Ferdinand Foch, the French Supreme Allied Commander, started the Hundred Days Counter Offensive.  He seized the initiative, took leadership and ran.  Starting with the Second Battle of Marne the rout led to a strategic allied victory completed by November 1918.  Four years of bloody stalemate finished in a few months.  In the end it was over by Christmas, just like Brexit is supposed to be. When Parliament returns from its summer recess there will be approximately one hundred days to get an agreement in place.  One hundred days until we risk crashing out.  To stop that happening the UK will require a leader who can find the political gap, leadership and the courage to change: the UK needs a modern day Foch.


A New Feature: Here’s what I've been listening to this week to escape the heat, Trump, Brexit and to recover from the World Cup:

https://itunes.apple.com/ca/playlist/the-soundtrack/pl.u-Rg6m5UlvmML

Give Me Some of that Old Time Religion

There is nothing that Republicans love more than having a good old fashioned issue of principal to drive out the voters.  The 2018 mid-terms have the potential to be the second set of elections with a US Supreme Court seat up for grabs, if the Democrats manage to hold off the nomination process until after November. 

Whatever happens it will be another win/win for Mitch McConnell, the brilliantly unappealing Republican leader in the US Senate.  If he doesn’t get his nomination through the GOP have a red-meat rallying cry for November, if they do, the revolution can continue, though likely at a faster clip than under the current configuration. No matter how much the Democrats go on about stolen seats, and you will hear about that with every 5-4 decision from here until doomsday, you can’t deny McConnell’s brilliance.  

Take the vacancy after the death of Judge Antonin Scalia.  Obama could have put Merrick Garland on the court for a year using an intersessional recess appointment in January 2017.  There would have been howls of rage, but so what, Obama was out and the action would have been constitutional.  That appointment would probably have allowed a number of important cases to be won over the last year.  It would have put the Republicans (slightly) on the back foot.  The American people would have seen Merrick Garland, a reasonable man, on the bench. The democratic talking heads could have spoken about averting a stolen seat.  Some soft republicans could have been peeled away.  But, he didn’t.  Obama played within the expected rules of the game.  

Now, here’s a thought experiment, how do you think a Republican President would have reacted in the same scenario? What would they have done?

What makes the GOP so ruthless and the Democrats so toothless?  I think it comes down to one clear point.  The Democrats are a political party that respects the constitutional norms of good governance, without a unifying mission.  

The GOP are a revolutionary organization whose internal factions:  Evangelicals, Gun Nuts, Libertarians and High Finance are unified with a common theme. That theme is the elimination of what they see as government over-reach.  But very specific over-reach.  Religious and Regulatory.  It isn’t about  individual liberty versus the state, if it was the GOP would be solidly for a Woman’s Right to Choose.  It isn’t for State’s Rights per se.  If it was the GOP controlled federal government would not be chasing so called Sanctuary States, or threatening California over environmental standards

No, it is when the Federal Government (or State Governments) disagree with the two gods of American society: Jesus and money. The GOP is ruthless at protecting those interests.  At the moment it is environmental and energy legislation and the dismantling of Roe v Wade.  Next it will be the dismantling of social security to preserve tax cuts, further cuts to regulation and challenges to marriage equality. They will soon have enough seats to starting thinking about truly amending the US constitution, rather than just winning interpretation battles.  The GOP need to win control of two more states to be able to call a Constitutional Convention.  Two, that’s all.  The GOP get this.  The can rally around these obtuse issues.  When Susan Sarandon  and enough other progressives voted to support Jill Stein and deny Hillary Clinton the Presidency, the GOP were holding their nose and voting to control Supreme Court.  And no, Trump will not put forward a Centrist to fill the Kennedy seat.  He will put forward someone who looks very like Gorsuch, at least politically.  The GOP in Congress will demand this.  Their constituents will demand it.  Their paymasters will demand it.  And, unless the Democrats rally both in Congress and in the forthcoming election, the GOP will get it.  They could get it all.

That is the GOP theme.  Take Control of the Country for generations, maybe permanently. Preserve God for the poor and Money for the rich.  That is why they won’t turn on Trump.  He gets it, and he’s delivering.  Control - that is their religion.

The Democrats have no such unifying theme.  Like many soft-left parties across the world they have three distinct and somewhat contradictory constituencies:  The old blue-collar, white, working class, the urban, educated elite and ethnic minorities.  Their desires are somewhat contradictory. 

The first group wants to turn the clock back to when a high-school diploma could land you a good, well paid job that you could raise a family on.  They are economically confused because no one has solved this problem and generally socially conservative.  These folks voted Trump in the US and Brexit in England.  They have a tribal allegiance but it is fraying. 

The second, the urban elite, wants to fight for equality, especially identity equality, with a large dollop of environmental protection to be on the safe side.  Progressive economically and socially, these folks represent the current vocal and hegemonic leadership of their respective parties.  

The third are the disenfranchised ethnic minorities. Urban, poor and generally used as voting fodder.  Economically progressive and socially neutral.  The older generation tending towards social conservatism, the younger, social liberalism.

These worlds don’t interact, but when they do, upsets happen, which explains Alexandria Oscario-Cortez’s stunning victory in New York this week.

The Democrats have to galvanize their constituencies to vote this November.  Congress has to fight within the wording of the constitution, including taking action that will make the other side of the aisle and Fox News mad.  But, most of all, they need to find a unifying narrative. Something that all parts of the party can rally around.

So let me propose one, policies that center on one thing: Preservation.  Progressive Preservation.  Preservation of Jobs and Income.  Preservation of the environment.  Preservation of the American Middle Class.  Preservation of the mores of the founding fathers.  Preservation of the Constitution, including the second amendment (with background checks etc., etc.,).  Preservation of the greatest democratic republic the world has ever seen.  

Because there’s one thing I am absolutely sure about… The current Conservatives don’t want to conserve jack.  

 

I, Immigrant

This week we have witnessed one of the most odious chapters in recent American history.  The separation of children, some as young as nine months old, from their parents is such a stain on civility that every GOP candidate who, by their silence condoned this horrific action, deserves to lose in this November’s mid-terms.

It comes on the heels of a similar scandal in the United Kingdom: the forced deportation of immigrants to the UK, whose parents came here to work from Commonwealth countries in the fifties and sixties: the Windrush Generation, so named after the first ship to bring the much needed workers across the ocean.  Many of these original immigrants, British subjects given permanent leave to remain in the UK, brought children with them.  It is these children, most now retired, who, after a lifetime of living in the UK, are being faced with a deliberate policy of official hostility.  If they were unable to provide the necessary official documentation to cover all of the years since their landing they could be considered illegal and deported.  A policy of throw them out, then ask questions. 

Many of the Windrush victims suffered this fate because they needed medical help (as seniors are want to do), or because their landlords or employers, through legislation, had been turned into unofficial wings of the British Immigration service by increasing pernicious legislation.  

At the same time the records of landing, an invaluable historical archive, was deliberately destroyed.  So when records were requested, the UK Home Office stated (correctly, though disingenuously) that no such records existed.

There are still at least sixty-three known seniors, deported without cause to countries they left as children decades previously, who are unaccounted for.

This is my fear for the two and a half thousand children separated from their parents by the monstrous policy in the US.  The fear that a large number of these kids will become systemic orphans.  I have worked in a government bureaucracy, it isn’t always the most efficient, especially when placed under inordinate pressure, and most especially when the people who have been separated have been dehumanized with the language of “infestation".  Having gone through two or three plane rides, unable to speak English (or even speak at all), there is a strong likelihood that some of these children may never see their mom or dad again.  I think of them.  I think of the parents.  I think of my own children and what they mean to me, and I weep.

These policies did not arrive out of thin air.  The denigration of immigrants has proceeded in the west for many years and has resulted in a salami slice tactic of action to curtail this “calamity”.  Political parties of both the left and right have used the issue to bolster support amongst elements of the population and/or to prove themselves tough.  Mass deportations took place under Obama as well as Trump.  In the UK you have the mind-boggling situation of the British Labour Party arguing for free movement favouring goods and capital assets rather than labour. The UK is a service based economy, it is the free movement of labour that facilitates those services.

We’ve seen it before, this scapegoating, fear-mongering, dehumanization.  We know how this ends.  The holocaust did not develop overnight.  Auschwitz wasn’t built in a day.  The word “Pogrom”, the most famous example of which was the infamous Kristallnacht that occurred all over Nazi Germany on the night of November 9th and 10th, 1938, was a Russian word, coined at the end of the 19th Century.  A portmanteau of sorts it means to destroy, to wreak havoc, to destroy violently.  A policy with a history that stretches back to the middle-ages.  The “thing” being destroyed was, of course, Jewish populations, schools, synagogues, businesses, people.

The anti-Semitic laws of Hitler’s regime started in 1933 with the forced retirement of all non-Aryans from the German Civil service and legal practice.  This was three years before the opening of the first Concentration Camp at Dachau on the outskirts of Munich and eight years before the completion of Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the largest of the Nazi extermination camps.  

We tend to forget that the anti-Semitism that came to such an horrific end point that a new word – genocide – was created, held sway through much of Western Europe and North America.  Jewish refugees from the Nazi’s were refused entry in the UK and the US based on an ingrained prejudice.  The foundations for the horror of the Shoah had been laid well across all of Europe and beyond.  It is a convenient and modern contrivance to believe otherwise.

I must declare a personal interest in this argument.  I am an immigrant.  I came to Canada in my early thirties seeking a new challenge and following my heart.  The relationship that bought me to Toronto unfortunately didn’t last, but I stayed.  I met my wife here.  She was an immigrant from the USA.  We now have two beautiful Canadian/American/British girls, who, if you ask them, are Canadian first and foremost.  When they sing O, Canada, they even include the bits in French.

Like many immigrants my career took a hit when I settled here.  Despite over ten years working in the UK, USA and all over Europe, I lacked the required “Canadian Experience”, the passive-aggressive racism that most immigrants face when they come.  I got an analyst position rather than the management level I had left in the UK.  Still, I managed to make it work.  I am lucky, despite that (slight) initial set back, Canada has a very positive and welcoming relationship with its substantial immigrant community. 

As a country Canada recognizes the benefits immigration brings to our society and the economy.  Something that will become increasingly apparent in the UK or US as the health service is deprived of workers, or academia finds visiting professors and overseas students stay away, or when fruit rots in the ground for lack of seasonal workers.

So, let us celebrate immigration.  Whether economic, family, asylum based or as a refugee.  Any human being willing to rip themselves away from their only known home, willing to move, often thousands of miles, willing to travel through dangerous terrain, subject to potential violence, discrimination and even death; then, after such a journey, settle down and raise a family, start a business or do the jobs other folks don’t want to do and pay taxes.  These people should be welcomed with open arms as “go-getters” in the same way those with wealth are.  These are the poor, huddled masses who built so many of our countries.  The foundation our way of life is built on throughout the west. 

Rather than saying there is an immigration emergency, and using slightly less offensive language than the far-right, we should be taking the argument forward and winning it.  Proclaiming that, like taxes, immigration is not an evil but a societal good. It is proof of our worth as a society that so many want to risk everything to come to our countries, then stay and contribute so richly.

It is a positive feature.  It is proof of our humanity, our ingenuity and our civilization.

You can donate to RAICES Texas, who provide legal aid and other support to refugees and immigrants at the Southern US border here:

https://www.raicestexas.org/

It's Coming Home! (To Roost?)

The 2018 World Cup started on my wife’s birthday, and, I must admit to feeling less than whelmed by the whole endeavor this time.  

The lack of qualification by Canada for Russia 2018 spares me from former UK Tory Minister Norman Tebbit’s infamous cricket test:  the test of loyalty for your new country’s sports teams over your old, which is supposed to signify some kind of advanced integration.  And, though I would relish a different result, I can’t see England’s young and inexperienced team going beyond the Quarter Final where they will most likely face either Brazil or Germany (though based on the quality of today’s matches that is definitely TBD).  Beat whichever of those two behemoths in the quarters and they’ll likely see the other one in the semis… Of course, if they make it out of their side of the draw, they’ll truly deserve to win the whole enchilada!  A dream, I know.  It’s coming home!  It’s coming home!

It’s not the prospect of England’s performance that is my main beef with the world cup this year.  It is where it is taking place and how that bid was won:  through bribery and corruption.  The fact that Vladimir Putin extended a branch to Sepp Blatter the disgraced FIFA head to attend the eventis just the cherry on a rather distasteful cake.  

That bribery is a but a miniscule step in one of the most intense, and successful, campaigns of covert political destabilization in recent history.  From plane crashes and assassinations, maybe including a Polish head of State.  Through the rise of new authoritarian regimes in the former Eastern Bloc, now causing existential crises in the EU.  To the big guns of Brexitand Trump.

I have visited Russia only once.  A week long business trip to Moscow in 1999.  I was amazed at the scale of the Kremlin.  The Cathedral of St Basil in Red Square took my breath away.  I was lucky to see Prokofiev’s opera The Love of Three Oranges, a production designed by Sir Peter Ustinov, at the Bolshoi. One of the more interesting observances was the bank notes.  I got a “before” and “after” in my change one day.  There was the addition of an extra three or four zeros, added to the denomination to cope with currency devaluation.  It was a salutary lesson in the primal economics the Russian people were being exposed to.

The other lesson was geopolitical.  The head of IT for the company I was with was ex Russian military.  I drove with him back to the airport through miles of dense forest (I had not yet lived in Canada so verdant isolation on such a grand scale was new to me).  On the way we passed two memorials.  One, he told me, was to commemorate the invasion of Russia by Hitler.  The second to commemorate the invasion by Napoleon.  After we passed the second he turned, fixed in me in a gaze that met the very definition of steel and said:  “All of our enemies, they come from the West.”  

The first England World Cup game will be played in Volgograd,  the new, old, name for Stalingrad.  Over the city stands the Mamayev Kurgan, the memorial to Mother Russia and her victory in the most decisive battle (with all due respect to the Battle of Midway) in World War II.  It is a salient reminder that without that victory, without the Eastern Front, the combined forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and the other brave nations would never have made it off the beaches in Normandy on D-Day.  A reminder that in France we were fighting the weaker third of the German Army.  Our Frenemies to the East had the much tougher job.

The authoritarianism of Stalin had its foundation on that built by Lenin (and his smuggling into St. Petersburg in a sealed train, to destabilize Russia from within, an act facilitated by Germany in 1917) and further back in the absolutism of the Tsar.  The inequalities of pre-revolutionary Russian society were laid bare in the masterpieces of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, just as that of the Gulag would be by Solzhenitsyn three-quarters of a century later.  

One of the things I find most annoying about the programs my children watch is the lack of ambiguity when it comes to villains.  Mission Force One, a spin-off from the more benign Miles From Tomorrowlandis a prime example:  the sole “mission” of the antagonists is to destroy for destructions sake.  I get that these shows are designed for kids, but I would prefer a little nuance.  

Where is the motivation?  

“All of our enemies they come from the West.”  I’ve thought a lot about that sentence, that world picture, since it was told to me all those years ago.  The truth of it.  The invasions.  The destabilizations we have done.  The provocations.  The way, from a different perspective, that democracy and capitalism could be seen, even after the fall of communism, as weapons.

To counter it, Russia seeks influence, and wields its power and  authoritarianism around the world: a political system that sees democracy and the west as a problem not a solution.  They have been very successful. 

Watching the World Cup feels a little like supporting that particular political strategy, or at the least, celebrating its outcome.  It, like so many elections and plebiscites and policies, just feels bought.  A celebration of Russia’s authoritarian expression and influence.

The biggest supporter of Russia right now is the 45th US President.  His actions are in almost perfect alignment with the geopolitical ambitions of the Kremlin. I wait with baited breath to see what he will do at the NATO summit on 11th/12thJuly.  If it is anything like the G7 we will scratch our heads in wonder and try and understand.  

But deep down, if we are honest, we all know.  Question is, what can we do about it?

Doublethink and the Em-pyrrhic-al Victory

Time and again politicians of the left and centre-left apply an academic or ideological sheen to issues on which the public craves a gut, “common-sense” response.  The right has no such qualms.  This is why personally popular leaders: Andrea Horwath, Jeremy Corbyn lose their respective elections. The danger is these loses are often presented as victories albeit pyrrhic ones.

A little doublethink may be in order.

George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four was published forty-nine years ago this week.  Orwell had already been diagnosed with the tuberculosis that would kill him at the age of forty-six, six months after the book’s publication.  He lived long enough to know it was a success, but not long enough to see how prescient his vision was or would become.  Nor how his name would become an adjective for the crushing over-reach of both states and corporations.

Nineteen Eighty-Four offered a number of key insights into how politics and society can be perverted by powerful interests.  The most important was the prevalence of ‘Doublethink’.  The whole of Nineteen Eighty-Four’s world is based on control, particularly the control of history and truth. The control of facts that doublethink espouses.  This was expressed by Orwell in the following maxim:

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

The basis for this internal deception is the holding two contradictory truths in your head at the same time, and believing in both of the them, absolutely.  The ultimate end state of cognitive dissonance, where the dissonance is reconciled and dissipates; where mental peace is restored.  It is doublethink, or the inability to consider it, that gets politicians of the left in trouble.  There is the right answer for the country and the right answer for the person.  Trouble brews when these are not the same thing and dissonance rears its head. 

Ideological purity infects center-left politics in a way that doesn’t apply to the non-fascist right wing.  It could be as simple as the fact that ideas around societal care require more definition and thought than the release of the individual or corporation from said responsibility.  The perception is that the left intellectualizes the problem, it speaks from the head, where the right is perceived to tell it like it is, to speak from the (all-important) gut. 

Perhaps the most famous example wasMichael Dukakis.  The Democratic Presidential nominee infamously suffered a evisceration over the death-penalty in a debate with GHW Bush in 1988.  The crime was not answering with technical brilliance the judicial reforms of his own governorship; the crime was ignoring the fact that the question was posed around harm to his wife and family.

When, in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK’s Labour Party,  intellectualized the use (or not) of nuclear weapons, he fell into the same trap.  His answer was a perfect example of being morally right, but perceptively out of touch.  A technocratic response to a gut issue. A perceived lack of empathy.  Just as Dukakis was seen as not caring about family, Corbyn was seen as not caring about country.  They intellectualized a problem that required, at the very least, a visceral statement at the start.   

This week, in Ontario, Andrea Horwath, the leader of the left-of-centre NDP, was the latest in this line to spout ideological points that were out of step with the popular gut.  Before the last, most watched, debate, the NDP was almost at 40% in the polls.  After that debate the NDP numbers stalled and then retreated down to the 33% they actually won.  This led to the majority government of Doug Ford.

What did Horwath say to cause such a rethink?  Firstly, she stated she wouldn’t use her legislative power to end a strike, a small point, but it showed her in the thrall of organized labour, and, like Corbyn and the nukes, happy to throw away a negotiating position she didn’t need to throw away. 

The second, more serious, was in decrying private, for profit, day-cares.  Even if you think it, don’t say it!  On this one, I’ll give Andrea the benefit of the doubt.  I’m sure in her mind she was seeing large unaccountable, greedy corporations.  In my mind, (and I suspect many others), I saw the small, local home day-care who provided a wonderful environment for my children and whose manager needs to make a (small) profit in order to be able to live in an expensive city like Toronto.  

In decrying profit, Horwath spoke to her ideology, and against the reality of most of our lives.  We all need to profit a little from our endeavours, even if it is to simply save something for a rainy day.  For a small business or indeed any employee that is what profit is, the surplus that remains when all the bills are paid; the ability to avoid living pay check to pay check.     

Through these views the press and her opponents presented Horwath as a left-wing ideologue out of step with the mores of Ontario.  Just like Corbyn and Dukakis before her, she showed a lack of political acuity, or nous as we used to call it in the UK.  Yet, like Corbyn, she exceed expectations and her loss is being presented (wrongly in my opinion) as a great victory.  Another example of the pernicious influence of doublethink.

I crave an authentic left-wing politician who gets it.  Someone smart who can connect with the populous and present progressive ideas in a way that gets a majority of people onboard.  A Blair or Clinton or even a Trudeau.  All had (or have) egregious faults, but all could project an encompassing empathy, a common touch.  I think there is an authenticity to Corbyn and Horwath, and Bernie Saunders too, but it is the authenticity of purity not pragmatism.

To deliver the change they want, leaders need to get over the electoral line.  To do that, a little bit of doublethink would go a long way. 

Riders on the Storm

What can one of the most disastrous medical holocausts in all of history teach us about politics today, and what might it mean for Ontario this week?  

On the long flight from Barcelona to Toronto I finished reading of Laura Spinney’s masterful Pale Rider – The Spanish ‘Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World.  One hundred years ago the world was in the midst of the Spanish ‘Flu global pandemic, a scourge that swept the planet and killed more people than the Black Death.  Unlike most ‘flus the victims were mainly healthy adults in the prime of life, not the very young or the very old.  Current estimates suggest that between 50 and 100 million people may have perished worldwide.

The pandemic was unusual in that there were three distinct waves of the illness.  The first in the spring of 1918 being the most benign with a similar pattern to a severe seasonal influenza epidemic.  It was the final two waves that were the most deadly with the middle wave achieving (if that is the right word) the highest mortality rate.  It was these latter bouts of illness that hit the adult population, normally only marginally affected, particularly hard. In these occurrences the virus represented more like Pneumonic plague than what with think of as the standard flu illness. The whole thing exasperated by the ongoing destruction of the First World War. 

The current theory as to why this is so suggests that the virus set off what is known as a “cytokine storm” a catastrophic immune response.  The body fights the virus but completely over compensates, inflicting more damage to the affected organs than might be caused by the initial illness, which in the case of the Spanish ‘Flu were the lungs.

I have had two personal experiences of such an event myself.  Two bouts of myocarditis, a ‘flu (like) virus, that instead of attacking the respiratory tract attacked my heart.  Both times my body released a cytokine storm to combat the invader.  This impinged my heart function creating a feedback loop and (very) near fatal Congestive Heart Failure.  In trying to heal the wrong, my body almost killed me.

I think this is a good analogy for what ails the current political system in the western world, even down to the three waves we seem to be experiencing.

Capitalism as it is currently configured is not working for the majority of the people.  Income inequality is rising.  Jobs are becoming more precarious.  The prospects of joining the housing ladder is becoming harder and harder, particularly for Millennials.  Globalization is proving both a blessing and a curse.  The surety experience by the Boomer generation is gone.  This is like the weakness at the heart of the body politic, the equivalent of WWI in this analogy; an ongoing event that is wearing us all down.  The pandemic was the global recession of 2008-2010.

The people’s reaction in terms of Brexit (the first wave) and Trump (the second and worst) the equivalent of the cytokine storm.  

The populous wants to solve the problems they see, the disfunction in the system, but in doing so they unleash a catastrophic response which ultimately causes much more harm than good.  Such an outcome is possible this Thursday in an election which could form part (along with the recent election in Italy) of the third wave of the populist disease.    

The voters of Canada’s most populous province, Ontario, are about to go to the polls to elect a new government.  Provinces in Canada carry a lot of weight in the country.  We have a truly federated political system with most direct and impactful power residing at the Provincial level.  Ontario represents almost 50% of Canada’s population and 40% of the country’s GDP.

For perspective, if Ontario was a European country we would be the second largest by landmass after Russia.  At  almost 1.1M km2 Ontario is over a third bigger than the next biggest: Ukraine.  We are a ‘country’ the size of Spain and France combined.  

In terms of the economy, with a nominal GDP of  $640 Billion USD, we would be the 9th largest in Europe.  A smidge behind Switzerland, but ahead of Ireland, Austria, Sweden, Norway to mention but a few.

And, finally, our location is strategically important.  As well as the Canadian Provinces of Manitoba and Quebec, we directly border five US states including New York.  We are Canada’s access to the Great Lakes and the starting point of the St. Lawrence River.  We also contain James Bay, a gateway to the high arctic (and the same latitude as London, UK).  

It looks like Ontario is about to sweep away a Liberal government and replace it with the Doug Ford, brother of Rob, the former cracking smoking mayor of Toronto, now deceased.  Like his brother, the elder Ford is a right-wing populist, but without Rob’s (ahem) charm.  He is promising the world (tax cuts, beautiful services, removal of corruption) in a way that is reminiscent of a certain US President, who could have based his playbook on the Ford Brothers.  How to pay for it?  Silence.

A Ford victory would decimate safety nets.  Would increase the debt.  Slash services.  He would make life even more precarious for refugees and immigrants.   He will tear up climate agreements with California and Quebec and declare war on Justin Trudeau’s Federal Government. 

He will do this by winning less than 40% of the vote.

If you’re in Ontario I beg you to vote for the candidate who stands the best chance of stopping a Doug Ford Conservative MPP from being elected.  In the last election that vote would have been Liberal.  In this election it’s most likely NDP.

The problems that Brexit, Donald Trump and Doug Ford identified are real problems.  They are the problems of modern capitalism.  The anger is real, it needs to be addressed.  However, the solutions offered by these populist yahoos are not the ones needed.  Like a damaging immune response to a virus, in both the short and long terms, they will do way more harm than good. 

Let’s find real popular solutions to counter act the populist.  Let’s exercise our democratic prerogatives.  Let’s vote!  Vote ABF (Anyone But Ford)! 

Just don’t vote Cytokine Storm…

I Canna' Rewrite the Laws of Physics (but I can Rewrite the Ending)

This week I was in full-on edit mode of my new book, and, while typing away fixing plot holes, I thought:  This seems very similar to one of the newer theories of quantum physics.  Could the process of writing a book show how superposition may actually work?

I’m a “pantser”, writing books by the seat of my pants, rather than a planner.  I have a rough idea of the question the book is asking, and an equally rough idea of the answer it will most like give.  How the two meet is anyone’s guess, including, at the very beginning, my own.  

So, as part of my editing process, having done a first draft and a major re-write, I took the plot and logically dotted the I’s and cross the t’s. I set my novel’s timeline out, project plan like in Excel, to make sure the logic is still good.  I created a mind map linking the various concepts and the relationships.  I knew what passages are klugey and need a rewrite (well, kulgey at this exact moment, it is an ever shifting sand).  I knew what I wanted to change in the beginning and middle of the book to satisfy the flow and logic of the plot at the end, and I knew, at that moment, I was enacting an almost perfect metaphor for TSVF -  two-state-vector formalism, the theory I mentioned in the blog’s lede.

Superposition is that freaky bit of quantum mechanics that says a particle is a wave, and a wave is a particle.  The term in physics is a wavicle.  In the process of being both, the wavicle can be over there and they can also be over here.  Essentially, they can be everywhere and everything, within reason, until, that is, we actually observe.  Then the end result becomes frozen, looking, I imagine, both alarmed and guilty; rather like the precarious position my four year old finds herself in when we play statues.

The most famous thought experiment to explain superposition (and really a lot of quantum physics) is Schrödinger’s Cat.  You know the one:  Cat.  Box.  Poison.  Radioactive Decay.  The cat is both alive and dead at the same time, until we actually look.  Now, I would assume that Schrödinger was not au fait with the modern preclusion for all things Zombie Apocalypse because, if he was, his thought experiment would conclude that, all things being equal, an undead cat might be a perfectly predictive (if somewhat unhappy) outcome when the box was opened. 

Ignoring that possibility, we are left with the logical problem of cat’s state (other than pissed off), which is exactly what Schrödinger was trying to articulate:  alive and dead are binary propositions, one is either/or.  The cat cannot be both.  Yet, in quantum physics, that is precisely the cat’s state, until we look.  I must admit this concept is much harder for me to grasp than the one where the same wavicle can be in two places at the same time:  I refer you back to my four year old who seems to manage the same feat on an hourly occurrence.

A new paper posted on the Scientific American website posits a theory on how superposition works, and in reading it, I realized that when writing I construct the plot in a similar way.  The idea, as much as I can grasp it, is this:  time does not affect the wavicle until the observation occurs.  It/they can move freely backwards and forwards.  Essentially, Causes can occur after Effects, rather than the other way around as we would expect.  (If you want a fuller explanation on how time works I will refer you to the marvelous The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli.) When we observe the wavicle the superposition dissolves and we observe the effects, regardless of when causation occurred (before or after from a time perspective).  

How does this all link to writing?  Well, as I mentioned, I am not a planner.  There are some folks, and all power to them, who take (in project planning parlance) a waterfall approach to writing.  Each scene is planned and outlined.  The plan is written, you work the plan, the novel is constructed.  A logical, mostly linear approach. 

My approach is more agile (in project planning terms).  I do not know all the scenes, or all the characters.  The plot changes, ebbs and flows as the logic of the book takes shape.  The rough first draft is the equivalent of my plan (linear), but, then I skip around, zipping backwards and forwards, filling in the gaps, adjusting the plot: adding clues, McGuffins, red herrings and twists.  Removing whole scenes or even characters.  I liken the process to making a movie.  My books are not constructed in a strictly linear fashion, the logical time of the story does not apply to its construction.  This was probably one of the biggest lessons I learnt when I first started out on my writing career.  My books have copious bloopers and deleted scenes.

The plot of the book is the equivalent of the quantum particle in this analogy.  Like the TSVF answer to superposition, when editing, I often construct the plot's causes after the effects have been written into the book’s conclusion.  But, just like superposition, once the book is finished, or observed, my readers can only really approach the plot from a linear perspective, they cannot affect change within the confines of my manuscript.  Essentially on observation, the plot is frozen, regardless of whether, in the writing of the novel, the effect’s cause was constructed before or after the effect itself. The observed end does not care how it arrived at such a state.  

For me, as the writer, I do not have to construct the plot in a linear fashion.  The plot’s construction can flow in either direction until the book is delivered to a reader, until it is observed.  

But, for my readers, the plot, like time’s arrow, like the collapsed superposition, is fixed. 

And thankfully, no cats were harmed in the process…    

Different Colors Made of Tears are Different Strokes for Different Folks

The last week, wrapped in its banality of horror, has been, to my mind, obscene.  

There was the obscenity of yet another school shooting in the US, which has led to more kids being killed in US schools in 2018 than US soldiers killed in the military.

The obscenity of Hamas (an organization not normally known for its non-violent philosophy) encouraging unarmed or lightly armed civilians to charge the Israeli border with Gaza despite the terrible warnings of the IDF about what would await them.

The obscenity of the IDF following through with those threats in a manner that was redolent of Colonel Dyer’s terrible actions in Amritsar in 1919.

Obscenity is an existential response. It exists in the eye of the beholder.  The violence of current affairs is rarely seen in those terms.  Thoughts of obscenity are usually reserved for more intimate encounters.  

Culture in particular, is subject to much examination for offence.  In literature some of the greatest books of the last century were deemed, in their time to be far too rude.  Ulysses was banned for a scene of onanism that shocked roaring twenties America.  The premise Joyce explored is still very much a contemporary concern (older man gawping at younger women who all know he is pleasuring himself), the language used to explore it resides in wonderous obfuscation.  

It is human nature to find ourselves attracted to salacious outrage like a moth to a flame.  If something is deemed shocking not many of us can resist taking a peek.  Sometimes such a furtive look is worth it (i.e., A Clockwork Orange – banned in the UK by Kubrick himself).  Sometimes, not so much, for example, to my mind, most of the novels of D.H. Lawrence.  

In the 1960 Lady Chatterley trial, when the unexpurgated version of Lawrence’s novel was being prosecuted in the UK for obscenity, the prosecuting counsel, Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked the jury whether Lady Chatterley's Lover was “a book that you would even wish your wife or your servants to read.”  Which says more about the British Class system and patriarchy than is does about the possibility of literary appreciation.   In this argument obscenity is at its height when the work is sexy and (god forbid) the vulnerable or uneducated may get to consume it.  In the sixties such people were deemed to be the working class (servants) and women.  Of course such ideas had been parodied before: in 1984 George Orwell fed the Proles of Airstrip One a steady diet of pornography to keep them in line.  Still, for my mind, and this is a personal choice, I find Lawrence’s tome be ah-hem turgid next to the golden tumescence of Joyce. 

The scandal generated by such salaciousness often creates huge interest in the subject being chastised or discussed.  One of my favourite episodes of the wonderful comedy Father Ted was The Passion of St. Tibulus when a film somewhere between Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane and Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ is shown and faces the full, hilarious, glare of the Catholic church. Parishioner after parishioner asks the protesting Father Ted just how rude the film is.  As he explains how much explicit nudity is on show they all scuttle into the cinema.  The Passion of St. Tibulus becomes the most watched film in Craggy Island’s history.

The early sixties in particular seems to be a watershed moment, the point in time when society started to let go more than a little. May 1963, fifty five years ago, saw the dirtiest song of the sixties released, at least according to The New Yorker. The song was Louie, Louie by The Kingsmen.  The venerable magazine jokingly declared the rendition the dirtiest based on an infamous parental referral in 1964 to the then Attorney General Robert Kennedy.  A concerned father cited obscene lyrics.  

The FBI examined the recording for two years before determining the actual words that Jack Ely sang to be undecipherable.  

How Louie, Louie, wonderful though it is, could be considered “dirtier” than, say, Venus in FursLou Reed’s majestic paean to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella of the same name is beyond me.  You can tie me up, whip me and call me Severin but it still doesn’t make sense. Lou Reed’s song, released in 1967, was based on a book so profoundly explicit that they named an actual fetish after the author.  It shows how much societal norms can shift in a very short amount of time.

A society’s view of the acceptable ebbs and flows. We’ve seen shifts recently over feminism and the rights of women in society.  We’ve seen it over homosexuality and same-sex marriage. We’ve seen it over cannabis legalization.  We are seeing it over race.  Our societies are becoming flatter and more socially equitable.

Sometimes, as our preconceptions are challenged, it takes an effort to keep up.  Exposure and acceptance calls for an element of understanding, discernment and humanity. In the end the challenge is worth it as we see the wonderful matrix of creative individualism within the beautiful mosaic of society.  We can explore culture, literature and art safely with context and understanding, knowing that we don’t have to find everything to our own peculiar taste.  A world where I won’t yuck your (consensual) yum, if you promise not to yuck mine. 

Pop! The Praxis of Venal

Praxis  - the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, embodied, or realized.

Venality - capable of being bought or obtained for money or other valuable consideration.

We all live in bubbles, whether we know it or not. The world is full of alternative realities, alternative truths.  News is one of the key aspects of these bubble worlds.  The control of information, the control of the story. The control of the advert.  All these play into shaping our perceptions of the reality around us.  It is what makes Facebook so powerful and Rupert Murdoch the doyen of parties of the rich and powerful around the world.

Lost in Facebook, earlier this week, I was reminded of a time, at the end of my teens, when I had the great privilege to be elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the United Kingdom’s National Union of Students. One of my fellow NEC members had posted some old campaign material which bought back a lot of memories.  NUS is organization that acts as a national advocacy, campaign and lobbying organization for the UK’s seven million students.  

NUS Executive Members were given a series of policy areas they were responsible for.  One of mine was Northern Ireland.  My monthly trips to Belfast and Dublin were my first real exposure to the politics of the north of the island of Ireland outside the confines of regular British media.  The Troubles were ongoing, this was before the Good Friday Agreement, and An Phoblacht (Gaelic forThe Republic), the newspaper of Sein Fein - the political wing of the IRA, was printing stories about British oppression and atrocity that I never heard about in the mainland’s Main Stream Media.  

I was aware of alternate views, of course, but the stories in the mainland’s Trotskyist Left (Socialist Worker and the Militant), when one of those journals was shoved in my less than eager hands, were familiar.  They were obsessed with brutality of Conservatives and Thatcherism, but offered little more than the ratcheting up of the anguish you saw (and still see) in The Guardian.  Anger spewed in the language of the tabloid and with the added frisson of a “One Solution, Revolution!” mentality that was missing from the more safe, mainstream, middle-class, liberal journals.  

An Phoblacht was different. The stories and inference were not the same.  They were shocking and destabilizing.  They made me think, forced me to consider an alternative.  I was outside the bubble looking in.

If you (like me) are a regular viewer of MSNBC of an evening and suddenly switch from there to say, Fox News - from Rachel Maddow to Sean Hannity - you’ll get the same, sudden, disassociation I experienced all those years ago.  There is a confusion not just of tone, but of content.  The stories are different, the inferences are different.  Now, take one step further and switch to Al Jazeera, an altogether different perspective emerges.  You realize that Stormy Daniels may not be such a thing after all.

A major news story in the world this week concerned the actions of a key player in the middle-east.  A republic under the control of a single political and economic philosophy with one of the largest execution rates in the world and a police force which kills on average a thousand of its citizens a year.  A republic which regularly fights proxy wars to maintain its advantage throughout the region, particularly, at the moment, in Syria.  

The country I am describing is of course the United States of America, seen though a highly polished and one-sided bubble, one which many of its citizens would not recognize.  But, is the Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, that different?  

Iran holds (mostly) free elections via a list of candidates chosen by clerics, they are a theocratic democracy after all.  The US holds (mostly) free elections from a list of candidates chosen by big business, plutocrats and the conglomerate media, they are, in turn, a capitalist democracy.  And, before we even get into the issue of an unelected head of a religion running the country, well, I am originally from England.       

I’m reminded of the ending of the 1983 movie Falling Down, where Michael Douglas’ character finally understands that he was the bad guy.  Such a thought could apply to most countries.  

The United States just tore up an agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran and plunged the entire Middle East into uncertainty. Iran was in compliance with the treaty, though weren’t seeing the expected benefits. The US was the bad actor.  Trump, in one of those alpha-male pissing contests to mark his own dominance, dismissed the “Obama” Iran deal as a bad deal, maybe the worst.  At the same time he seemed to advocate exactly the same deal for his own diplomatic triumph in North Korea.  The lens of history and its attendant bubble presents the same view with a very different distortion.  

In this great information age we have both the opportunity and the ability, unprecedented in history, to explore different modalities and different points of view.  We can try and understand where we are all, as a single species, coming from: emotionally, economically and philosophically.  We can research other points of view, if only to understand what each other is thinking.  Monopolies of truth are rare and hard to find, most ideas cannot stand-up to such scrutiny.   

I try and read across both the geographical and political spectrum, and, in doing so, I see new ways (for me) of looking at the world. I might not agree with all perspectives, but I understand them better.  So I challenge us all this week to go to a new source of information.  Go to an unfamiliar news channel or newspaper.  One that challenges our presumptions.  Explore a different vantage point.  Consider your own views in relation to that.  If we look outside our own bubbles, or even pop a few of them, we may find a different proposition:  not venality but empathy.  

A Sense of an Ending

In art, as in life, finding the perfect ending can be a challenge.  Fiction in particular, be it through the medium of film or the written word, often struggles.  You sit through a two or so hour film, or get to the last thirty or forty pages of a novel and that slow creeping feeling prickles the skin, a little voice in your head urgently announcing that they, the director or the novelist, didn’t know how to finish the story.  You are provided with an ending that is half-baked or not in keeping with the artform or, in some cases, just plain bonkers.  You leave dissatisfied with a feeling of disheveled emptiness akin to that of the consumer of a McDonald’s Happy Meal:  the tummy rumbles and the cheap plastic toy has already broken.  For every wonderful, psychedelic journey into madness and alternative dimensions that the final ten minutes of 2001:  A Space Odyssey enthralls us with, we are forced to endure the likes of the ending of Gone Girl.

Now, to be fair, I enjoyed Gillian Flynn’s novel up until the dénouement.  It was frothy, escapist beach fare at its best, but, OMG, that ending…  Amy, the eponymous girl who has gone, having lied and murdered for the whole book traps her (unfaithful) husband with a contrived pregnancy.  He stays for the sake of the child.  Really?  There has been a recent Twitter storm about authors of the masculine persuasion and their inability to write female characters and/or descriptions, but sometimes it goes both ways.  As I finished the novel all I could think was: no guy would react like this.  Never.  The ending is not what I expected.  Not in keeping with the character and, to make matters worse, offered no real justice. 

Gone Girl is in good company.  One of the main cultural bugbears I have is with the ending of Hamlet.  The play is sublime: a heady amalgam of existential angst, human frailty, love, the role of parents and of course, the impact (or not) of revenge on the psyche.  To bring it to a conclusion Shakespeare took this four hour meditation (in its unabridged form) and basically tacked on a ten  minute scene of absurdly contrived murderous mayhem worthy of Monty Python.  Everyone dies.  Horribly.  All that’s missing is the killer rabbit

The Hamlet ending always annoyed the heck out of me, until I saw Robert Icke’s production on BBC while I was in England recently.  It was a modern setting which added menace through the use of surveillance and the twenty-four hour news cycle.  Andrew Scott (Moriarty from the recent BBC Sherlock series) played the Dane with a sense of revenge over shadowing all morality.  Even the most famous soliloquy is spoken softly with an exploratory, thoughtful inquiry that brings the dilemma into full effect. 

The play’s musical backdrop was provided by recycling the songs of Bob Dylan, and it was Dylan’s music that, for me at least, at last solved the conundrum of the ending.  The plot was the same, but the feeling was one of accidental, rather than revengeful, tragedy.  The song playing, “Not Dark Yet”, one of Dylan’s greatest late-period ballads, brought a sense of immense sadness as Hamlet fades and the shades of the dead appear behind him, he joins them, they fade into black, leaving a bereft Horatio.  The arrival of Fortinbras played as an epitaph.  It was a moving and beautiful presentation that, stripping away mych if the text, finally made a sense of the ending.  I suspect it may be the only production that succeeds in ending the play to my complete satisfaction.   

Of course most fiction, except the most modernist of modern literature, either aims at an (expected) ambiguity or else contrives to wrap up plot-lines and characters in a nice satisfying bow, usually in keeping with the mores of the age.  Marriage, dear reader, in the case of Jane Austin.  Coincidence resting on top of happy coincidence in the case of Dickens.  

Real life is not like that.  Endings tend towards the unpredictable and the messy.

Take two of the political puzzles of our time.  The end points for President Trump and Brexit.  How either finish is unclear and there are a number of ways they could play out.

For Trump I think the ending will, like Gone Girl, be unsatisfying.  A capitulation rather than some grand finale.  His supporters, the dogged forty percent, they want a Nobel Peace Prize and a glorious re-election in 2020.  The other side want a full Nixon: resignation in disgrace and/or a successful impeachment.  Neither is likely.  Even if the house passes an Act of Impeachment the Democrats will not have the necessary 67 votes in the Senate; under those circumstances the President will claim vindication and remain in power for the whole of his term.  Hopefully he will then be defeated by a progressive Democrat woman.  However, unless the electoral defeat is in Walter Mondale territory, the effect will be to normalize and legitimize his presidency in a way Nixon could only dream of.  We will all be moaning at that end.

With Brexit, my own preference would be that we forget the whole business, pretending it was a bad dream, Dallas style.  My gut, however, having seen the defeats imposed this week in the UK’s House of Lords, is that it will end like most versions of Hamlet: a tragic farce in which the political leaders are beyond repair, the country is left bereft and the solution lies with Norway.  The task will be completed to nobody’s satisfaction, revenge will be demanded on all sides. 

It must be said that my recent political prognostication has, with the exception of Justin Trudeau, been more than a bit off.  I believe the technical term is wrong.  I was wrong about Brexit.  I was wrong about Trump.  I thought the Conservatives would wipe the floor with Corbyn in the 2017 UK election, instead Prime Minister May lost her majority. 

I hope I am wrong about the ending of Trump and Brexit, but my sense is, this time, I might not be.

Good Cop. Bad C̶o̶p̶ Man.

It’s been a rough week in Toronto.  TFC lost the CONCACAF Champions League on penalties.  The Maple Leafs crashed out of the Stanley Cup; and an angry young misogynist drove a van into a crowd of people killing ten (mainly women) and injuring many more.

The fact that such an attack, linked to the American alt-right, happened here in “Toronto the Good” seems deeply incongruous in a city that is so far apart from that particular political heritage.  Going back through the decades Toronto was one of the end points for the underground railway.  We are one of the most multi-cultural cities on the planet.  We have a police force that is mostly helpful, mostly respectful/respected and mostly admired, especially when you see the bravery on show this week by the arresting officer of Alek Minassian, the suspect in the van attack.

What drove Alek Minassian on his rampage?  According to his social media output he wanted to instigate an Incel Revolution, a term which was meaningless to me a week ago.  The Incel -  Involuntary Celibate are a group of Angry Young Men who view themselves in the language of the oppressed minority, but with a murderous intent.  Their main point of anger, spoken in the language of absolute misogyny, is that women will not form relationships with them, like women are not aware of the fable of the Frog and Scorpion.  These men are socially awkward and sorry for themselves, like a majority of the young non-jock males out there, I should know I was one at school.

The difference: 

They take the rage at their inability to get a date or a girlfriend and place the blame on women, rather than their own potential failings.  That toxic misogyny is then baked in the pressure cooker of Social Media where it metastasizes becoming radicalized and murderous.  

And I grew up.  I read.  I listened.

Though women are the main targets of their hatred, this rampant male aggression targets the whole of society.  Even to this day I am put off by groups of loud men, particularly if they have been drinking. You never quite know when the violence will start.

This hyper-masculine anger and jealousy has been part of humanity since the very beginning.  One of the earliest books I read for my English Literature ‘A’ Level was Chaucer’s The Miller’s Tale.  A bawdy 14thCentury romp of cuckolds and their anger. The story ends with an unforgettable series of images, which, for fear of offending I will not translate.  Suffice to say the last is a lesson on the use (and abuse) of red-hot plough blades: 

“And he was redy with his iren hoot,
And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot.
Of gooth the skyn an hande-brede aboute,
The hoote kultour brende so his toute,
And for the smert he wende for to dye.
As he were wood, for wo he gan to crye,
"Help! Water! Water! Help, for Goddes herte!"

Cucks were not invented by Breitbart of Steven Bannon!

So, if young male anger has always been with us, what has changed?  For a start, as Chaucer shows us, this is nothing to do with emancipated women as the sudden source of the problem.  The problem exists in the men themselves.  

So what is it? 

That question is too huge for one blog post and I will probably look at social and economic inequality, or the rise of technological interaction, both of which are impactful, in other posts.  Here I want to talk about a key societal difference I can see now: the amount of unimpeded free time we have compared to previous generations and the lack of social interaction outside of the web.  Too many young men are holed up in bedrooms talking murderous rage amongst themselves.  And, true to form, the context of this aggression appears to be middle-class males from highly privileged societies.

From Chaucer’s time through to the end of World War II, Europe and North America was a predominantly agrarian society, albeit one in an almost perpetual state of war.  If young men weren’t away fighting, they were in the fields from dawn to dusk or, later, in the factories.  In the 19thCentury hard-work was viewed in the same way that education is viewed now, an essential step in economic self improvement. Young men would have been, to use a Britishism, ‘knackered’.  Perpetually busy and worn out.  They would have also been outside a lot more getting a large dollop of dopamine and Vitamin ‘D’, both of which help moderate anger and depression.  The truly aggressive ones would most likely be dead, killed on a foreign field well away from civilized society, their behaviour classed as heroic.  

Now, I don’t think the answer is to go back to days of constant war and harvest, but, as we have more leisure time available to us, or imposed on us, we need to consider the societal implications of this.  For too many young men anger ends in violence, either inflicted on society, particularly women, or themselves.  Men are more likely to commit suicide in every age demographic other than the 5-14 year old category.   It seems clear that we need to talk about male mental health. 

To my mind the key to breaking this cycle of anger is management education.  Not in the style of an MBA, but in the style of both expectation management and anger management.  We need, as a society, to understand that such anger may be a biological imperative in some men (but not to excuse it).  We should teach all boys and men understanding and coping mechanisms to deal with that anger.  We need to teach communication strategies too.  This needs to form part of the core curriculum throughout the education system from JK through to University.  It must go hand in hand with teaching respect, consent, social awareness, tolerance, patience and kindness.  We must, as a society, teach that these are core human traits that should be valued in everyone regardless of gender, age, race, sexuality or the amount of power a person wields in society.  

Earth Day's in the Cruelest Month

Happy Earth Day!  London has just ‘suffered’ its warmest April day for eighty years.  Meanwhile, the pathways around my house are under several inches of ice pellets that fell in an ice-storm that was described as ‘historic’: a swathe of ice, snow and freezing rain that impacted half of  continental North America last weekend.  In Calgary residents were getting a month’s worth of snow in a day while runners in the London Marathon are facing a heat wave and the prospect of exhaustion.  Their fellow runners in the Boston Marathon freeze in headwinds and ice.  In another part of the world, one that is so dear to the hearts of my family and I, the town of Hanalei on the North Shore of Kauai was hit by rainstorm that brought ¾ of a meter of rain in 24 hours.  The Hanalei  river diverted through the town:  roads, cars and even houses were washed away.   

Even the words of the Late Great Canadian Icon Gord Downie are no longer true, The Great Plains no longer begin at the 100th Meridian, now more like the 98th.  Doesn’t have quite the same ring.

Weather events in isolation are not indicative of climate change, but when combined with the data that is emerging about how hot 2017 was, I have a feeling even the most sceptical sceptics must soon admit that correlation is equating to causation.  

To add insult to injury, a few days after our (slightly) unseasonal last gasp of winter, news was announced that the Gulf Stream,/North Atlantic Drift or Atlantic Meridonial Overturning Circulation (choose your moniker!) has slowed down in keeping with climate change models. The prospect of such an outcome is not fully known but the modelling suggests colder winters in Europe, and, paradoxically warmer summers there too, but also increased desertification in North America and sea-level rises that will threaten East Coast cities and habitats.

Since the Gulf Stream is not an isolated phenomena, but is part of a global interconnected  series of currents that make up the planetary wide water cycle, there is likely to be impact on El Niño and on the other currents, ocean streams and climates in both the Northern and Southern Hemisphere too.

I currently live on a continent where the car is king.  Where energy titans govern policy in both conservative Trumpland and, to its north, the Liberal Île de Trudeau.  Pipelines are built, car fuel standards are reduced, plastics remain unbanned and the earth gets hotter. Even the campaigns to keep remaining fossil fuels in the ground have been lost amidst Stormy Daniels, and Mueller and North Korea and Putin et al.  Given the mass extinction event we have engendered across the globe, in all habitats, it begs the question what will remain?  A wasteland?

There was an interesting proposition being debated in The Atlantic this week that seems pertinent.  Was the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which bears a great similarity to the models for human derived climate change, indicative of a previous industrial society on our planet?  Other than the climate records, would any other evidence remain?  The article's conclusion is that the PETM was natural in its occurrence, but, the speculation is fascinating.  Given our species' ability to both deny that it is part of the natural world, considering itself above animals, while also suggesting that the fate of the world is intrinsically linked to humanity, which of course it is not.  The Anthropocene is not the first mass-extinction event, nor is it likely to be the worst, that record will most likely still be held by the so-called Great Dying which led to the age of the Dinosaurs, as their deaths, sixty-five million years ago, led to our current Mammalian age.

Left to its own devices the Earth will crush and obliterate most evidence of humanity until all that is left is the trace of micro-plastic in the oceans and the mass of junk we’ve shot into space.  These remnants, rather than some forgotten statue, will be our Ozymandias.

We need a rethink.  We need, in the spirit of Hawai’i, to connect with the aloha, the planet’s qi; connect to Gaia herself.  Remember our place, both literally and figuratively.  

Support keeping the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. Support the victims of both natural and man-made disasters. Question the use of plastic. Support bans of straws and other single use plastic artifacts.  Drive less, use public transit more. 

Doing something will cost time, money and effort.  Doing nothing, as the cliché says, will cost us the earth.   

 

Saving Private (Citizen) Ryan

This week, 204 years ago, Napoleon, a despot to some, a savior to others, was sent to jail on the Island of Elba.  Napoleon’s rise to power was propagated by the ultimate political fixer:  charming, witty, self-serving and completely unprincipled.  In reading this history, I found echoes in political events this week.  Charming, witty, self-serving, unprincipled, could Paul Ryan, in missing the (likely) demise of Trump, aim to become a modern day Talleyrand?

The French Revolution produced more twists and turns than a modern day thriller.  The revolution lurched from modest start of the Estates-General in 1789, through the liberal constitution of 1791 and the prospect of a constitutional monarchy.  Following the insurrection of August 1792 it stumbled into the First Republic, Regicide and the obscene paranoid absurdity of the Reign of Terror.  Then the whole edifice crashed down into Napoleon’s military dictatorship, the battles, the invasions and imprisonment followed by the Bourbon restorations.

Talleyrand, friend of Alexander Hamilton and house guest of Aaron Burr (he would have hated to be left out of the musical), wove through the heart of 18thCentury US and French Politics, always keeping above the squalor and ignominy. Keeping in favor.  He was crucial in the early formative years of the revolution, then fled.  Luckily for him he missed the Terror (he would have died).  He missed the regicide.  He kept his hand clean, and himself alive. On his return to France he was instrumental in the coup that rose Napoleon to power, became the dictator’s top diplomat then, with Napoleon’s fall, played a role in the Bourbon restoration too.

As the noose tightens around the 45th President, as the resignations and stand-downs mount, I find parallels with that history.  The current squalor in Washington lacks the savage, tragic power of 18th Century France, but there are echoes in the paranoia of the mob, the demands for loyalty and the cruel bullying mentality.  The threat posed by the narcissist who’s fate seems increasingly inevitable.  

What is the similarity between Paul Ryan and Talleyrand? Well, apart from the unscrupulous self-interest, it is another ability Paul Ryan hopes they share:  The ability to absent yourself from the regicide, the inevitable removal of Trump, only to rise again from the ashes.  In Talleyrand’s case he rose as a King-Maker, in Ryan’s case he hopes to rise as a King.

Paul Ryan’s decision to “spend more time with his family” signals his own exile to K Street.  I suspect that Ryan knows that Trump’s Presidency will eventually self-immolate, maybe even prior to 2020.  The treatment of those GOP members seen as participants in Trump’s fall by the republican base in the 2019-2020 primaries will be irrational and merciless.  Trump is a man who still carries a 40% approval ratings in the country and approvals in the GOP in the high 80s.  A man Fox News loves.  Venerated by certain sections of the populous despite, well, everything.  

But the net is closing in and Trump knows it.   Let’s review what happened this week:

The FBI stormed into the offices, the hotel room, the apartment of the personal attorney of the President of the United States, breaking down doors at 6 am, because they feared that attorney could destroy evidence.

In that raid the FBI removed personal emails between the lawyer and  the President which, due the suspected nature of the crimes, are not covered under Attorney/Client privilege.  

Read those last two sentences again.  Now imagine them applied to any other President, even Nixon. Yet, here we are.  The muted reaction to this raid, especially from the Congressional leadership, shows the level of corruption we now consider to be the new normal.  

The only person screaming about the Cohen raid is Trump, and Trump is looking (and sounding) scared.  Eventually he will lash out and all hell will break loose.  But what, realistically, can he do?  Sack Mueller or Rosenstein?  If he did he risks  immediate impeachment (well, okay, not quite immediate but soon after the GOP Primaries when GOP Reps may suddenly grow a backbone).  Pardon the people in his inner sanctum?  He can’t.  If he does, whoever is pardoned will lose their Fifth Amendment rights as they can no longer incriminate themselves.  They can then be compelled, under contempt of court, to testify under oath.  He cannot self-pardon.  

All political careers end in tears, only a very few, at least in Democracies, end in the prospect of jail.  

The Scooter Libby pardon Trump enacted on Friday was a test flight, not for the pardons Trump will make, but for the pardons President Pence will likely be making in the future.  The pardon that says to Trump’s cronies: Keep silent, we’ll look after you, maybe not now, but eventually, and for life.  

Paul Ryan’s decision moves him away from this circus and confirms the likelihood of the House being lost in the fall.  If Ryan stayed he’d lose power, influence and be placed in politically difficult circumstances.  Think how Hillary Clinton’s decision on Iraq haunted her, now think about Ryan and a potential Impeachment.  Support Trump, face the wrath of the general electorate.  Support Impeachment, face the wrath of the base.  Or, take the Talleyrand route and miss the regicide in comfort.  

If you were Paul Ryan it would be safer to excuse yourself from the whole sorry mess, make some (serious) money on K Street or Wall Street, then, when President Pence pardons Trump (and the rest) and pays the inevitable electoral price (a la Gerald Ford) you can, like your 18th Century mentor, return from exile and assume your rightful position at the head of the party.  Squeaky clean in 2024 at the (still young) age of 54.

Private Citizen Ryan will have been saved, to be replaced in his fever dreams by himself as the 47th President.