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Note to Trump: the only beautiful walls are monuments to failure

I love walls. Many of them are beautiful, though not in the way Donald Trump predicts about his wall.

For me, walls that define and protect boundaries are symbols of failure. They are steeped in emotion – hubris, fear and sadness. Think of the famous walls that remind us of those emotions: Hadrian’s Wall, the Land Walls of Constantinople, the Great Wall of China.

All of them failed in their objectives. Hadrian’s successors couldn’t protect Britannia from the encroaching Saxons, let alone the Picts and the Scots to the north. The walls of Constantinople crumbled under the onslaught of the Ottoman cannon. And China’s wall, a landmark five thousand miles long, visible still from space, couldn’t keep out the Mongols.

Yet the bricks are still there for us to admire, as we contemplate the downfall of those who built them.

Other walls are not so beautiful. The Berlin Wall is mostly gone, but bits remain. Ugly chunks of concrete covered in graffiti, sitting close to the Gestapo cells where so many opponents of the Nazis met their end. Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, the Maginot Line and the Siegfried Line moulder away in rural France and Germany – overrun, circumvented or blasted into pieces. The Israeli wall is still in use, likewise covered in graffiti on the Palestinian side, splitting farms, communities and families. Its time will come as well.

There’s one thing that all these walls have in common. Those who built them didn’t require those from whom they wished to protect themselves to pay for their construction.

Donald Trump dares to be different.

That’s what I find strange about his beautiful wall. It’s easy to understand why he would want a barrier that stops people from entering the United States illegally. He’s worried about unchecked immigration, about drug-runners, about violent crime. Or, to put it another way, a substantial number of those who voted for him are worried, he knew that and he banged the hell out of the immigration drum.

What I don’t get is by what logic he proposes to get Mexico to pay for his wall.

So I googled the search term “why should Mexico pay for the wall?”. Strangely enough, I found very little by way of justification of Trump’s intention. Most of the stuff I found seeks to explain not why Mexico should pay, but how it could be made to pay.

The only piece of any substance questioning the rationale was by Michael Dorf, Professor of Law at Cornell University. In it, he identifies Trump’s tactic of implying collective responsibility on the part of groups he seeks to demonise.

According to The Donald’s narrative, Muslim Americans know who are the terrorists in their midst. They are not shopping them to the police. Ergo they are all responsible for acts of terrorism by Muslims. Mexico “sends” their people to America. Their people run drugs, commit crime and work illegally. Ergo, it’s their fault and they should pay for the wall.

Another point Dorf makes is about the dodgy statistics Trump trotted out during the campaign:

Trump’s various campaign statements about undocumented immigrants and criminals being sent by Mexico across the southern border earned him four Pinnochios from The Washington Post. His focus on illegal immigration ignores the fact that the population of undocumented immigrants in the United States has been stable, not increasing, for the better part of a decade.

Although some undocumented Mexican immigrants do, of course, commit crimes—as do some other immigrants, tourists and citizens—substantial evidence indicates that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the baseline population. In fact, their addition to the population lowers, rather than elevates, crime rates.

Par for the Trumpian course, I should have thought.

Now he’s gone to Congress to get funding for his giant erection. The story has moved from “we’ll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it” to “we’ll pay for the wall and Mexico will pay later – somehow”.

Not surprisingly he’s met resistance, mostly from the Democrats, who are objecting to a number of his budget plans. So the latest tactic is to threaten to de-fund Obamacare. Which is rather like a mugger holding up a little old lady and her dog. Something along the lines of “gimme the money or the pooch gets it”.

Promising to build a wall must have seemed a good idea at the time. Even if it gets built, it’ll be tunnelled under, climbed over or swam round. One way or another, those who run up against a brick wall will find another route into the US. And then, in a decade or so, it will start crumbling because there will be no need for it. The killer drones will be up in the sky the moment some poor migrant sets foot in the country, ready to blast the interloper into eternity. At least that’s the way things seem to be going right now.

By then, Trump will be gone, or he’ll be up in his Tower sucking liquidised chicken nuggets through a straw and staring blankly at Fox News.

And his wall will join all the other defunct walls that still stand – monuments to ego, paranoia, broken dreams and technological redundancy. Some beautiful. Others, like his, ugly.

Will the wall actually be built? Maybe – at least a section long enough for the president to be able to say he’s kept his promise.

But I suspect that come 2020, if he hasn’t been impeached by then, Trump will have learned that walls built to keep people in are far more effective than those that keep them out. So expect in his next campaign a promise to build more beautiful walls. This time they’ll be rectangular, and full of bars. “Round’em up – lock’em up”. That’ll go down well with his supporters, I would imagine.

One more thought. Trump is a bit of a movie buff, or so I’m told. I wonder if he ever watched The Day After Tomorrow, in which a sudden change in climate turns the northern part of the US into an ice shelf overnight. At the end of the movie, after half the population has been frozen to death, Mexico graciously opens its borders to millions of American refugees.

Now wouldn’t you think the president might wish to stay in Mexico’s good books, just in case?

Macron shines while the Men of Shadows lurk

Vive La République! The people of France have spoken, and have so far proved resistant to the demagogue. Despite the best efforts of Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, an army of bots of indeterminate origin and a motley crew of agents provocateurs armed with knives, trucks and AK-47s, Marine Le Pen looks set to fall at the final hurdle to the centrist Emmanuel Macron.

That would seem to be the case anyway, unless the forces of discord have some scandal up their sleeves that might yet derail Macron.

I have no idea how he will fare as president, and I suspect most people in France haven’t either. My French correspondent Fils De Danton, who nveterate 59steps readers will recall railing against Sarkozy in highly scatological terms a few years ago, has declined to comment this time, at least in writing. Last time I spoke to him, though, he told me that he had a low opinion of Macron, though for reasons I don’t clearly recall. Wishy-washy and opportunistic were words I do remember.

Perhaps Fils de Danton was too busy prepping for the apocalypse, burying his cognac in a mountain cave somewhere, along with a year’s supply of jambon and saucisse. I’m hoping he will emerge soon to dispense his wisdom.

Back in the UK, the Daily Mail, true to form as the standard bearer of the reactionary right, has a huge picture of Le Pen on the front page, and a smaller one of Macron, as though she was the winner and not him. We are told that this was a revolution, because the main parties have been displaced. But the Mail was unable to crow about the impending dissolution of the European Union. Macron’s election will actually strengthen it, leaving the United Kingdom further out on a limb.

Macron is certainly an unlikely revolutionary. It may be surprising that the socialists and the right-wing UMP have been beaten out of this election, but the man of the hour looks very like the men of previous hours. He’s a graduate of the two grandes écoles that normally churns out the political elite – Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration. He’s a former banker, civil servant and minister. You could argue that he has considerably more experience in government than Barack Obama when the latter took office.

As for Le Pen, she has only marginally improved on the benchmark her father set when he got to the second round back in 2002. Assuming she doesn’t make the final hurdle this time, she will probably have another go in 2022. Whether the other demogogues will have been routed by then remains to be seen.

All of this sound and fury coincides with the screening in the UK of Spin, a French political thriller about duelling spin doctors at the commanding heights of the French state. Simon Kapita is the doctor-in-chief to the President, a tetchy soul called Marjorie. We in Britain might snigger at the name, just as we would if our Queen changed her name to Eric. But I’m sure his surname is quite normal in France.

The said Marjorie is coming to the end of his term. All around him unscrupulous rivals, aided by their spin doctors, are manoeuvring for position in the upcoming elections. He is labouring under one or two disadvantages. His wife is mentally unstable, which makes her something of a loose cannon. He’s having an affair with one of his ministers, who herself is on the media radar because of suspected corruption.

In the last episode, his prime minister resigns, to be replaced by his thuggish minister of the interior. There’s a hilarious scene during the official handover, conducted in public with cordial words spoken by both men. They pose for the cameras, all smiles and apparent chit-chat, while the one promises not to reveal compromising information about the other in return for his support in the forthcoming election. It seems that in France the politicians haven’t heard of lip-reading.

Kapita is suffering from post-traumatic stress after witnessing the assassination of a right-wing politician in a TV studio. Marjorie has a permanently worried expression that softens only when he falls into the arms of his ministerial squeeze. Little does he know that his affair, and her dubious dealings, are about to be exposed, thanks to efforts of a rival spin doctor. We wait to see how the traumatised Kapita deals with the fallout.

Spin is good clean fun, so long as you don’t object to politicians being assassinated every once in a while. What’s more, it’s not so implausible given the scandales that frequently afflict leading French politicians. Presidents Mitterrand, Giscard, Chirac, Sarkozy and – in the recent election – former prime minister Fillon have all been tainted either by accusations of financial impropriety or by various sexual shenanigans. Not to mention Dominique Strauss Kahn, whose alleged liking for prostitutes and rough sex derailed his presidential ambitions.

All of which makes our politicians seem rather tame, if you exclude John Major cavorting with Edwina Curry, which at the time seemed more ridiculous than dramatic. It’s hard to imagine Theresa May taking back-handers or having secret assignations with one of her insipid ministers. Boris Johnson has form, at least on the priapic front, but his antics are the stuff of comedy rather than affairs of state.

Still, my wife and I will have several more episodes of Spin to amuse us while the election campaign churns on at home. The French title is Les Hommes de l’Ombre, which translates as men of shadows. Presumably political communications is a male preserve across the channel. We wait to see if in real life the shadowy men have some surprises in store, either in France or in the UK. If so, I suspect that it will be the genuinely shadowy figures rather than the spin doctors who will be trying to turn the tables.

Step forward the FSB, the CIA, the military-industrial complex, the Bilderberg Group, the half-human reptiles and all the other usual suspects beloved of the guild of conspiracy theorists.

The truth is out there, folks. We wait with bated breath.

Politicians are human – well, most of them

William Hogarth – Soliciting Votes

Yesterday there was a knock on my front door. Amid the usual sound and fury of the dog giving a passing imitation of a thigh-chewing Rottweiler (she isn’t one by the way – she just demands respect) I opened the door to a mild-mannered chap who turned out to be my local county councillor.

In the UK, county councils look after roads and social services, including the funding of care homes. Councillors get expenses, but no salaries. So unless they’re retired, they usually have a day job. They serve on councils for a number of reasons. Perhaps because they care about their communities. Because they love committees, god help them. Maybe because they have political ambitions – getting involved in local politics is a popular route towards Parliament. Possibly because they get tangential benefits from the networking.

Anyway, we have county council elections coming up, so this chap was out knocking doors. I felt for him a little, because the local elections, which the media would normally have taken very seriously as an indicator of the fortunes of the main political parties, have been somewhat overshadowed by the general election that the government called a couple of days earlier.

It was the first time I’d met a local councillor in forty-five years as a voter. I’ve met a few members of Parliament and the odd peer (odd being the operative word). But this guy was, as far as I could see, entirely normal. It turned out that he was a Conservative, which was not surprising considering that I live in a fairly well-heeled neighbourhood.

We had a brief door-step conversation. I could have asked him in, but I felt that this would have been a little unfair, since I would never vote for his lot in a month of Sundays. In fact, given their stance on Brexit, I wouldn’t vote for them in a century of leap years. But he is my councillor, so I told him how pissed off I was about the council’s policy of saving a minuscule amount of money by switching off the street lights in my road between midnight and six in the morning. I also told him my thoughts on Brexit.

I could have laid into him about the state of the roads, about the county’s financial incompetence and about their difficulty in funding care home places for those who need them. But his party doesn’t control the council, so what would be the point? Actually, I should have, because they may gain control, given that the entire country apart from Scotland seems about to be rinsed in blue.

But I didn’t, and I didn’t even tell him that I wouldn’t be voting for him. He was such an inoffensive chap, and I didn’t want to make him cry with a stream of invective about his disgraceful party. He disarmed me to an extent by telling me that he also opposed Brexit, but what could he do?

Resign, I suppose, but that would make as much difference to the national discourse as a single plankton does to the composition of an ocean.

Anyway, after three or four minutes of conversation I took his leaflet and let him get on his way.

All of which serves to remind me that people like me are quite happy to sit at our computers pouring online disdain and derision over politicians whose policies we don’t like. It’s easy to do that, because we can vent our fury without erupting with spittle-flecked rage in person at the people we demonise. Just as it’s easy to make rude signs at bad motorists in full knowledge that they’ll never notice our gestures, and say nasty things about our work colleagues, but never to their faces.

And it’s easy to forget that whatever their motives, however obnoxious their beliefs, the vast majority of politicians are just human beings like you and me, with their own entirely human hopes, fears, and ambitions. Even Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, I have to concede.

Yes, there are dangerous people in politics – dangerous because of perceptions skewed by lifetimes in their ideological bubbles, or because of egotism, greed and bigotry. No doubt there are also a few Frank Underwoods and Francis Urquharts out there – in reality as well as fiction.

We might think of politicians as pond life, worse even than estate agents and insurance salespeople. We might laugh at them when they choke with self-righteous bile about the opposition, in front of crowds of puppy-like supporters. We might heave with contempt about their lies, their spin and their hypocrisy.

But we’d miss them if they weren’t there, and we were ruled instead by some thuggish junta. And we should never forget that there are a good few – like, I suspect my visitor of the other night, and like poor Jo Cox, the MP who was gunned down last year – who genuinely believe that politics is about improving lives, doing good.

And before we are tempted to throw eggs at their pinstripe suits and shriek in the ears of the obnoxious, we should remember to do unto others as we would be done by.

I know this all sounds a bit pious. There are always people who are angry with politicians. I’m one of them. But anger is one thing. Abuse makes nothing better – not the target, not the originator and most likely not the situation.

Advice to myself that I shall no doubt forget next time I hear some self-righteous lemming-herder remind us that the people have spoken, next time I see a vicious headline in the Daily Mail calling out traitors and saboteurs, and next time I hear Donald Trump’s whiney, sneery voice and his piggy eyes bulging with faux anger.

At that point I shall probably rise up, and in an incoherent rage kick the dog and pelt the TV with beanie babies.

Over the next few weeks I fear there might be many such moments. Perhaps I should install a protective cage around the TV and go for a dose of electro-convulsive therapy. I was joking about the dog of course.

When the election’s over, I’ll sigh with relief, happily contemplating the impending demise of the nation, secure in the knowledge that no politician is likely to knock on my door for the next few years. I shall remove the cage around the TV, and get back to watching House of Cards.

Go travel the world, but watch out for poisonous oysters

A long time ago, when I was a student, I used to wonder what countries I would not wish to visit because of the policies of their governments. Top of the list was South Africa. In fact, it was more or less the only country on the list, apart from its little brother in white supremacy, Southern Rhodesia. Oh, and maybe Paraguay.

For me, this was a time when the possibility of travel was strictly theoretical. I lived on a student grant, though truth be told I would get through each grant cheque in a month, and rely on my parents to keep me in beer, books and bus fares for the rest of the term.

Some of my peers did travel quite extensively. The hippie trail was just getting started. The way-posts were celebrated in the names given to varieties of cannabis resin: Moroccan, Red Leb(anese), Afghani and Paki(stani) Black. You could get to India via North Africa, Lebanon, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, and perhaps end up in an ashram, where you would study meditation and hope to meet a Beatle. If your tastes were less spiritual, you could moulder away on the beaches of Goa amid clouds of sweet-smelling dope.

You might also head north to Kathmandu, where you could acquire your first taste of Buddhism. Or, if your money wouldn’t stretch that far, you could hang out in Kabul, which in those days was full of young backpackers eager to get hold of one of those smelly, shaggy sheepskin jackets much envied by the hippies back home.

Your parents would worry about you, often for good reason, and lived for the airmail you might send them every few months. They would dread hearing bad news from a local British consulate. A phone call from you would most likely only come because you were in trouble of some kind, though more often because you were broke and starving.

In addition to South Africa, there were many other countries that were off limits for a number of reasons other than political preference. Some, like Vietnam and Cambodia, were war zones. Others didn’t encourage tourists except under strictly controlled circumstances – the communist countries particularly. Then there were those that were far enough away to be inaccessible to all but the well-heeled. And there were countries so remote that those who visited them were usually categorised as explorers. Parts of Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Mongolia for example.

Nowadays many of us in the wealthy west, including relatively impoverished students, can afford to go almost anywhere. So the question arises: if, forty years ago, we had moral qualms only about visiting South Africa, where can we go today with a clear conscience, safe in the knowledge that by visiting and spending our money – or perhaps working – we are not contributing to the continuance of an obnoxious, oppressive or exploitative regime?

In 2017 there are different war zones into which only the foolish would venture. But what of countries whose regimes fall far short of what we might find acceptable in our own countries? If we were born and raised in liberal democracies, do we avoid Russia, China, Belarus and North Korea, all countries that call themselves democracies, yet are to all extents and purposes are one-party, or one-ruler, states? Do we avoid Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, most of which make no pretence of democracy?

Or do we follow our liberal hearts and say to ourselves that governments are not the same as people, and no matter how objectionable we find the social and political regimes, it’s our duty to reach out to their populations because we share a common humanity? And perhaps thereby we can act as ambassadors for the freedoms we treasure in our own countries.

That might be a valid point of view, except that the people living in those countries might not appreciate our messianic zeal. They might say that they’re doing fine as they are, thank you very much, and that they don’t need arrogant westerners spouting orientalist claptrap and trying to upset a status quo that may not be perfect, but at least allows them to live in peace.

What if we’re of an analytic bent, and we try to set criteria that allow us to decide where to travel and where not to? What might those criteria be?

Freedom of speech?

Gender equality?

Absence of racial discrimination?

The rule of law?

Fair elections?

Universal enfranchisement?

A reasonable set of questions to ask about any country, I should have thought. Turning them into benchmarks would be hard, though.

I’ve left out one criterion because it can only be measured by an objective benchmark that would be hard to define and set: the gap between rich and poor. Apply what you might consider a fair measure, and you could be left with very few countries – probably excepting only very poor ones that might fail on a number of the other criteria – that your conscience would allow you to visit. Including, quite possibly, your own.

Let’s say that your moral qualms wouldn’t allow you to visit countries that don’t meet at least five of the six criteria we’ve agreed upon. You therefore rule out those I mentioned earlier. What are you left with? Perhaps fifty percent of the planet’s landmass. Even if you exclude the likes of Russia and China, the liberal democracies would get enough ticks in the boxes, wouldn’t they?

Perhaps we should think again.

The problem is that these criteria are moving targets. Politics and economics are constantly changing the goalposts. There are many countries that are in a fuzzy zone – sliding one way or another up and down the greyscale.

Take Turkey for example. How would it score, post-coup and post-referendum, on freedom of speech, fair elections and the absence of racial discrimination? Do we now refuse to visit Turkey because President Erdogan has acquired powers that move him close to dictatorship? And because so many journalists are languishing in jail, or because the country’s Kurds are treated as a potential enemy within?

And what of countries that we have hitherto seen as shining beacons of liberal democracy?

How would the United States – the ultimate exemplar – now score against the criteria? Racial discrimination may not be a policy of state. And yet under the aegis of state institutions, many Americans would say that police forces actively discriminate against black citizens and politicians racially gerrymander electoral districts. And that’s not to mention the question of whether the 2016 elections were fair, and the extent to which Donald Trump is attempting to erode the rule of law with his immigration policy. Does the US practice gender equality? Not in Silicon Valley, where pay differentials and the glass ceiling are as strong as anywhere.

What of New Zealand, where you might not find many Maoris agreeing that they were on a level playing field – except possibly on the rugby field?

And France, the home of liberté, égalité et fraternité? Do the ethnic Arab populations of the banlieues feel that they are not discriminated against?

And finally, my own country, whose police have been accused of institutional racism, and which recently decided to leave the European Union on the basis of a referendum polluted by lies on all sides of the argument? And where since the referendum acts of violence are increasingly being carried out against foreign nationals, often with impunity?

You might defend the US, New Zealand, France and Britain because they have laws that specifically forbid acts of racism and electoral fraud, and criminalise the infringement of a wide range of individual liberties. But those laws don’t manage the attitudes of society. And the rule of law depends not only on laws being in place, but on the extent to which they are obeyed. If the laws cannot prevent religious, racial and gender discrimination, you could argue that the rule of law – one of our key criteria – is weak.

All of which suggests that the countries at which we point the finger for their various political deficiencies have a right to tell us “judge not, lest you be judged”.

Of course, as we all know, this ain’t how the world works. Most of us don’t solemnly go through a list of countries we might like to visit and cross off those that offend our principles. We get on the aircraft with the intention of seeing for ourselves, because we don’t trust the opinions of others. We might then make our judgements, and regale our friends back home with horror stories of what we encountered at our destinations. What counts is not the morality of our hosts, but our personal experience.

But there’s another factor that makes me at least think twice about visiting a country. It’s rooted in emotion. A sadness that what was once welcoming and outward-looking is no longer so.

Take the United States as an example. I have many friends there, and over the decades I’ve been enriched by its cultural influence. I think of America as an old friend.

But on recent visits I’ve felt as though the old friend has changed. It starts with immigration. Suspicion. Scant attention to the social niceties. An intimidating atmosphere that demands compliance on pain of rejection or arrest. Once in, I’ve sensed a harshness of opinion that tolerates no discussion. It’s almost as though the society – or communities within it – is shutting down free speech even if the constitution continues to guarantee it. Sacred cows roam the streets, and it’s taboo to speak against them – national security being the biggest and ugliest.

All this I noticed before Trump became president. I’ve not visited the country since then, (here’s something I posted last year on this theme) but everything I hear and read – and not just within the liberal echo chamber – suggests that those traits are getting worse.

The old friend is changing, and do I want to renew the acquaintance? I’m not sure. And anyway I might not get the chance, especially after all the critical things I’ve said about its current president.

And then there’s Turkey. I’m not one of those who looks at Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s bid for enhanced power purely through Western eyes. The guy was nearly killed in last year’s coup attempt. He may well see enemies everywhere. Perhaps with good reason, given that his country has felt the flames of the Syrian conflict. But his intemperate remarks about Nazis in Holland makes you wonder whether his narrow escape has destabilised him.

Be that as it may, he has won his referendum, and now – theoretically at least – has as much power as Ataturk. But he would do well to remember that Ataturk’s power came as much from the respect of his people as from the laws he created. One man does not make a nation, although if he has sufficient determination he can divide and destroy it.

I also think of Turkey as an old friend, yet I wonder whether I will ever visit Istanbul or the gorgeous southern coast again. An American friend of a friend expresses the sadness much more eloquently than I ever could. In a blog post published the other day, Margo Catts, novelist and journalist, writes about the dangers of a people reflecting their hopes on a strongman, and on the awkward, often parasitic, relationship between religion and political power:

I’m an American, and have watched my own country struggle with the relationship between government and religion. Religion provides a moral, tribal, unifying code; government provides the structure to uphold it. They should go well together, right? But I have ample support for the opposite conclusion: We could learn a lot from Bergman and Bogart.

For the results that are actually good for us, rather than the fake, rosy, unnatural ones we think we want, government and religion need to play the star-crossed lovers. They can never, never, get together.

And don’t get me wrong—they’re mad hot for each other. Religion is soft and sexy. It has people’s hearts, their better selves, their longings and hopes, the warm embrace of love. But oh, we struggle to be all she wants us to be. Government, on the other hand, has the muscle. It can make things happen, keep people in line, exact penalties for disobedience that actually have some teeth. Complementary personalities with the same objective. They seem made for each other, right?

For much of human history, they have been intertwined, and it doesn’t take a terribly close reading of history to see the disastrous results. Bloodshed and oppression in the name of God; immoral leadership operating under a stamp of religious authority; enforced ignorance, poverty, and enslavement to serve the selfish ends of the few, propping themselves up with certainty about God’s will.

I strongly suggest you read her whole piece, which you can find here.

She, like me, once lived in Saudi Arabia, and like me has frequently visited Turkey. Her worries about Erdogan’s fiefdom are informed by her experience of living in a country whose authoritarian government, full of awkward contradictions derived from need to justify its legitimacy on religious grounds, is what Turkey’s isn’t today, but might become in the future.

That’s what I mean by a moving target. Our last trip away was to one of the world’s few remaining communist states – at least in name. Our next one will be to a nation ruled by a military junta. How therefore can I have qualms about visiting the US or Turkey? Logically, I can’t. But emotions are something else. The pain of seeing a country that has given me so many treasured memories reduced in my estimation might, for now at least, be too great.

That’s just the self-indulgent sentiment of someone who’s been around a bit. To anyone who hasn’t travelled much, I would say go forth and discover the world while you still can. But watch out for poisonous oysters.

UK elections – my money’s on the lemmings

A few quick thoughts about Britain’s upcoming general election, also referred to as a snap poll.

I have no idea why the word snap is used to describe an election called at short notice. Perhaps it has something to do with the card game, usually played by kids, in which the first person to turn over a card of same value as the previous one shouts snap, and gets to remove all the cards underneath. It usually results in fisticuffs when the two players shout snap simultaneously.

I’ll leave you to figure out how this is relevant to our political leaders, though children and fisticuffs might provide a clue. But in this context, snap has a different meaning for me – as in another bloody election will seriously challenge my sanity, and might actually push me over the edge.

The Daily Mail, which for the umpteenth year running is poised to win the Goebbels Award for Rabid Journalism, is having a field day. On its front page it has Theresa May staring at us with a demonic half-grin. Either that, or she was in urgent need of the bathroom during the photoshoot. Not blessed, as an Irish friend is fond of saying about people whose appearance leaves something to be desired. A shame, because when she’s not practising her death stare, she has a very pleasant face. Not that looks have anything to do with politics in my book, you understand, even if cartoonists might try and persuade you otherwise..

Anyway, the headline says “Crush the Saboteurs”, presumably referring to all those who have wilfully attempted to defy the Will of the People by obstructing Brexit. There follows fifteen pages of what the Mail, with its characteristic sense of humour, call Reports and Analysis.

Of those, pride of place goes to two pieces. One, written by their political editor, helpfully provides lists what he calls “charge sheets” against each of the saboteurs. He means, of course, the usual suspects: Labour, the Lib Dems, the House of Lords and so on. I imagine that after the election, he will suggest that these felons will be put up against a wall and shot.

The second piece shows a statue of Winston, under the headline “This election gives Mrs May the chance to do what every Conservative leader since Churchill has dreamed of – putting an end to Labour for ever.” A very conciliatory sentiment given the prime minister’s avowed desire to pull the nation together. The devil inside me wants to shout “Ein Reich, Ein Volk”. But I won’t, because I’m not one for summoning the ghost of Adolf whenever some tin-pot authoritarian newspaper editor gets above himself.

The writer has the cheek to refer to the Battle of Cable Street, in which Britain’s pre-war Fascist movement fought a pitched battle against its opponents in London’s East End. He cites that famous event as a “lesson of history about social dislocation”. He fails to mention that the Mail’s publisher at that time cheered on the Fascists in a leader entitled “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!”. Authoritarian instincts are clearly embedded in the Mail’s DNA.

Anyway, we are where we are. From where I sit, I wish success for any candidate or party committed either to destroying Brexit, or at least mitigating its consequences. I’m not sure that that’s the way things will turn out. The lemmings are likely to keep running. And if Labour are wiped out, which the Mail so fervently desires, our only hope of avoiding being in a country without a serious opposition is if the Conservatives, secure in a massive majority, start fighting each other. In other words, the only opposition worthy of the name might be within the ranks of a single party. A depressing thought, and certainly not what Mrs May has in mind.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be commenting further as the whole exercise pans out. The only good thing about this election is that the run-up is mercifully short.

But not too short for one significant event across the channel to take place in the interim that might add some spice. The run-off for the French presidential elections takes place on May 7th. How will political calculations change should President Le Pen take office?

The next few weeks should be grim but fascinating.

North Korea – some game of poker

What – if anything – goes through your mind today as North Korea test launches a ballistic missile which explodes almost immediately? I don’t say “if anything” to imply that you’re apathetic about the latest twist in the military dance between the United States, China and Kim Jong Un’s regime. But do you breathe a sigh of relief, or do you just get back to enjoying your Sunday with the thought that “it ain’t going to happen anyway”?

I can only speak for myself.

As two US aircraft carrier battle groups steam towards the Korean peninsula, it’s hard to find stories of frightened South Koreans and Japanese citizens panic-buying food and heading for their cellars. Is their relative calm the result of decades of wolf-crying? Are they immune to the hysterical rhetoric coming from the North? Or are they fatalistic enough to believe that the apocalypse will come whatever they say or do?

If those closest to the potential conflict zone are maintaining a stiff upper lip, then the reaction of us Westerners seems almost comatose in comparison, despite efforts on the part of newspaper leader writers to persuade us otherwise.

Compare the situation to 2003, before the US and its allies, including my country, invaded Iraq. Mass demonstrations, demands to stop the war, dire warnings of casualties. Agonising over the existence or otherwise of a legal casus belli. And on the Iraqi side, as in 1991, blood-curdling, ornate rhetoric in classical Arabic.

Don’t we care about the million people who – according to China – might die in a conflict, nuclear or otherwise, between the US and North Korea? Or are we all lined up behind the mantra of national security, fearful that a deranged regime is developing weapons capable of destroying Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and satisfied that the US has every right to pre-empt that threat, as it did in Cuba in 1962?

We’ve been here before, and more recently than 1962. Perhaps the difference between today and the run-up to the Iraq war is that in 2003 there was no evidence that Saddam Hussein had nukes that could strike London, Paris or Frankfurt. Only the possibility that he had hidden his WMDs, and that at some stage he would retrieve them from his bunkers to threaten his neighbours again.

Back then, there was an argument that old age, or his own internal enemies, would eventually do for Saddam. And indeed John Nixon, the CIA operative who led the debriefing of Saddam after his capture, contends that Saddam was by that time semi-detached, more concerned with writing novels, and leaving the details of government to his henchmen.

Had not the Arab Spring intervened, it’s likely that the West would have left Muammar Gaddafi to moulder, especially as he had forsworn his WMDs.

In both cases, we took an active role in regime change, with tragic results that led many who survived the subsequent chaos in Iraq and Libya to look on the eras of Saddam and Gaddafi as golden ages.

Which brings us back to the equally (at least in our perception) loathsome dictator who is quite happy to build his missiles while a significant number of his people remain undernourished and frequently starving.

Aside from the potential toll in lives – and that’s a big aside, especially if the conflict turns nuclear – we have to consider the economic consequences of a second Korean war. We may think that the deaths of a million nameless Asians is sad, even horrific, but of little consequence to those of us who have never visited Korea or Japan.

But the potential economic shock should get our attention. South Korea’s economy is the thirteenth largest in the world. Japan’s is the third. Think of the disruption to supply chains that a conventional war – let alone a nuclear conflict – might cause. We have come to rely on our Samsung phones, our Toyota cars and all the components manufactured in both countries that are essential to the technology that keeps us ticking just about everywhere in the world.

Think also of the insecurity that would follow a nuclear detonation in anger. A taboo, once broken, is no longer a taboo. The unthinkable becomes thinkable. Soon enough those who have never sought nukes might think again.

This would not be a local war. In its consequences, it would be a global war, and perhaps a foretaste of worse to come. So you could argue that we should be more concerned than we appear to be.

Back to the subject of the failed missile test. What is its significance?

People who love theorising about dark dealings will no doubt come up with plenty of explanations. Speculation may well be focused on five possibilities:

  1. That is was a cock-up. The launch failed because launches sometimes do. That’s the purpose of a test – to see if something works.
  2. That the US or one of its proxies have hacked the missile program and caused the launch to abort.
  3. That the Chinese, fearful of the consequences of war on their doorstep, did the hacking, perhaps in concert with the US.
  4. That this was a face-saving exercise. Kim Jong Un knew that launch would fail, but managed to save face by going ahead with it, but calculating that there would be minimal US response.
  5. And lastly, that elements within the North Korean military, unbeknown to Kim, sabotaged the launch as an act of resistance to the regime, or in the certain knowledge that they would bear the brunt of any retaliatory strike.

Whatever lies behind the failed launch, the US flotilla draws ever closer to the Korean peninsula. Mike Pence is due in Seoul to consult with the South Korean government. Is a decision about to be made? Not surprisingly, we don’t have a clue. Whether Trump has a coherent plan is also questionable.

I don’t believe that even he, with his grown-up generals at his side, will start launching nukes at the drop of a hat unless Kim does so first. Instead, will the battle groups sit close to the mainland like dark avengers, armed and ready to pull the trigger in order to pile the psychological pressure on Kim, and perhaps to encourage his military to save their skins by acting against him? Or has Trump already decided to take the shot? Would such an act of war be legal, and would Trump care?

All I know – at least from my layman’s perspective – is that if, as many military analysts claim, North Korea is years away from being able to launch its missiles against America, there’s plenty of time and scope to use other means of bringing him down, be it by economic pressure, covert subversion, cyber-warfare or a combination of all three. Even if thus far diplomacy has proved to be futile, have we really exhausted all other options beyond blasting North Korea to smithereens and shattering the economies of the entire region?

Whatever transpires over the next few days, this is some game of poker.

What the world really needs is yet another lifestyle book

Is there no end to Scandinavian enterprise? They create a flourishing entertainment industry out of their seasonal affective disorder. They hook us Anglo-Saxons on subtitles, to the extent that these days we use them with English-language dramas whose dialogue is beyond normal hearing range.

Then they bombard us with “lifestyle books” about the joys of open fires, hot chocolate, cakes and candles, which our media pick up on despite the fact that the majority of our population work sixteen-hour days on zero-hour contracts and barely have the time and money to spend on anything cosier than a pack of stale muffins from Tesco.

And now some bright Swede is seeking to clean up by publishing The Little Book of Lagom, following on from the best-selling Danish Little Book of Hygge.

Lagom, apparently, is based on the principles of simplicity, lack of clutter and nothing to excess.

If you read the breathless prose in Vogue telling us that 2017 will be all about Lagom, you would think that nobody had stumbled upon such principles before. It’s probably true, though, that nobody had thought to write a little book about them. The cynic in me thinks that these books are probably “little” because their content is so breathtakingly vacuous that most of us would fall asleep from boredom by chapter 3.

Yep, we all know that Hygge and Lagom are just lifestyle scams, designed to persuade us to buy stuff we don’t need – such as cushions, scented candles and silly sweaters – or not to buy stuff we do need – such as furniture that doesn’t turn us into orthopaedic wrecks, or décor that doesn’t bear forever the stains from accidents with chocolate fondue. Given that we’re more likely to buy unnecessary stuff than not, our addiction to faux lifestyles is what keeps IKEA in business.

Yesterday’s London Times quoted the PR puff for one of the forthcoming Lagom books, which suggested that the Vikings were early adopters of the concept by providing just enough mead at their parties to ensure that everyone had a sip.

A sip? Do me a favour! Do we have any evidence that the Vikings would be satisfied with a sip of mead when celebrating the destruction of half of England? I doubt it. If so, then presumably they were pretty moderate in their other habits. Pillage limited to a cart-load per warrior. No more than three rapes a day. Enslavement of the local population limited to a thousand a month. Unkind, I know. Perhaps I’m just not up to date with the current wisdom about those temperate, peace-loving folk.

Of course I love our Nordic neighbours and their dark dramas. They’re as diverse as we are in the United Kingdom, and just as quirky in their own various ways.

But I see no reason why the Danes and the Swedes should make a fortune showing other countries how to live without a bit of competition from their British cousins. After all, we have a rich tapestry of lifestyles which we have exported to the world without writing cute little books about them. And my goodness we need the money these days.

So it’s time we got into the little book business.

How about The Little Book of Decline, for example? The concept of Decline is all about graceful degradation. Flea-ridden gundogs lounging around in crumbling country houses. Aristocrats in their patched-up corduroys enjoying draughty evenings huddled around wood fires under the baleful gaze of more prosperous ancestors. Decline is about accepting that each generation will be poorer than the one before. It’s about making the best of what remains after everything else has been sold to the Chinese.

And then we have The Little Book of Brexit, one of our lively urban lifestyles. This is the concept of having your cake and eating it. Jolly gatherings of ladies who lunch on asparagus harvested by gangs of Lithuanians living in huts around the fields of Norfolk. Cuticles spruced up by Vietnamese girls working on minimum wages in the local nail bar. The offspring looked after by Romanian au pairs or maids from the Philippines. Joyous conversations inspired by the Daily Mail about all the immigrants who will be sent home when Brexit comes to pass.

If they’re a bit passé, perhaps The Little Book of Silence might appeal. A lifestyle entirely lived inside your head. Streets full of people wearing headphones, staring at the pavement, oblivious to large automobiles about to mow them down. Houses full of children engrossed in their tablets, while mothers and fathers wordlessly use their phones to enter online competitions. The art of self-sufficiency through non-communication. No need for complex language – The Silent express themselves through emoticons, grunts and minimalist body language. The perfect way to navigate a society full of linguistic, cultural and physical potholes.

You might also think that our soulmates across the Atlantic would be full of bright little lifestyle books. Except that Americans don’t do little – at least not any more. Everything has to be large, like the Mother Of All Bombs that Donald Trump has just dropped on a bunch of unsuspecting ISIS troglodytes in Afghanistan. Big walls, big lies and big therapy bills. So watch out for The Big Book of Yuge any time soon. Very Nordic-sounding.

(Oops, there I go again. Every time I post, I promise myself that I will get through to the end without a disparaging reference to the dreaded Trump, but somehow I never manage it.)

Leaving the great attention-grabber aside, I think it’s time I wrote my own lifestyle book. I’ll call it The Little Book of Acceptance. It will be based on the idea that worrying about lifestyles is a waste of time. That watching other people’s lifestyles is voyeurism. And that accepting your own uncool habits and preferences is the key to happiness. Anything else is fool’s gold.

For those of us in our declining years, what can be more tedious than working ourselves into a frenzy in order to meet the expectations of fashion magazines, lifestyle-conscious acquaintances and the authors of silly little books?

Better surely to buy your socks from Marks and Spencer and your cholesterol from Waitrose, to avoid pine furniture like the plague, and to collapse every night into your comfortable sofa in front of a fifty-inch TV watching endless American crime shows and the hygge-free adventures of Scandinavian psychopaths, while your arteries fur and your brain fills up with sticky plaque.

Mind you, these books make great Christmas gifts, especially if you don’t particularly care for the recipient. Which is probably why they all end up in the charity shops shortly after New Year.

No doubt I shall be rewarded for my cynicism. At some stage in my dotage I fully expect to receive for Christmas A Little Book of Dementia which will tell me how to live a happy life as my mind turns to mush. That one will never end up in the charity shop, because I’ll be reading it anew every day.

Enough. Not funny. Stop now.

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