According to Sir Richard Shirreff, a recently-retired British general, there’s a fair chance that next year we will be involved in a nuclear war sparked by Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions in the Baltic. If we are not involved, we will still be caught in the economic blast that such an event would trigger. That would be the best case. The worst would be that our membership of NATO would oblige us to join in the nuke tossing.
So what are the vast majority of us who are not generals, politicians and geopolitical analysts to make of this dire warning?
Well, I suppose we could buy his novel, in which the dire scenario he envisages unfolds. That, presumably, is the reason for all his recent interviews. Though if a nuclear war breaks out, the general would be unlikely to be around to enjoy his newly-enriched retirement.
Sir Richard is wrong, for one simple reason. The dynamics that have prevented nuclear war between the superpowers (if Russia can still be given that accolade) for the past seventy years have not changed. Those who launch such a war will not benefit from its conclusion.
That’s not to say that there isn’t still a high risk of a nuclear exchange being triggered by a computer error leading to one side concluding that it’s under attack when actually it isn’t. And a regional nuclear war surely becomes more likely as current non-proliferation protocols continue to be broken by the like of North Korea.
But is Vladimir Putin mad enough to risk his nukes in an exchange with NATO? He might be, but it takes more than one madman to start a war. Even though Putin seems to have concentrated more power into his own hands than was ever vested in a Soviet leader, he still depends on his supporters and on the chain of command. All of those who have ridden on the back of Putin’s rise to power would find themselves destroyed, if not physically, then financially. It would only take one sane intervention, even if it’s motivated by instincts of self-preservation, to break the escalation chain before the big bang.
This happened during the Cuba crisis in 1962, and more recently in 1983, when a Soviet commander used his own judgement to stop the response sequence in its tracks after an alert based on a computer error. For those of you who are keen on might-have-beens, you could do worse than to read David E Hoffman’s The Dead Hand – The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race, which I reviewed here a couple of years back.
Whatever safeguards exist today to prevent an accidental war, Mutually Assured Destruction still applies. No matter that the US, Russia and probably China possess tactical nukes that can take out something smaller than a city – a ship or a tank battalion for example – any nuclear exchange would light a fuse that would be hard to extinguish.
So I for one will continue to live my life in the knowledge that tomorrow I could be knocked down by a bus, killed in a car crash or choked to death by a fish bone. And that any of those outcomes would be far more likely than to end up as a bunch of disassociated molecules in a mushroom cloud.
Should the general be right, sadly he would be unlikely to be in a position to tell us that he told us so.
Last week I put my heart and soul into trying to persuade America to step away from Donald Trump. Obviously Trump isn’t going anywhere – at least, not yet – so I’m done with pretty please.
It’s time to say a few words about America’s leading airline. Notice that I didn’t say favourite. British Airways adopted that accolade for themselves, and, in a singularly un-British act of immodesty, applied it to the world. They never were and probably never will be the world’s favourite. But at least they’re trying. Which, sadly, is more than can be said about American Airlines.
Usually, when I fly to America, I travel with BA. I’m the proud owner of a frequent flyer card that lets me use the business check-in even when I’m in economy. I also get to enjoy the bacon rolls and fresh fruit for breakfast in their Galleries lounge. Just occasionally I might get an upgrade without paying a fortune in air miles for it. And best of all, I get to use Heathrow’s wonderful Terminal Five, which is only a few minutes away from home and has seriously got its act together after its initial teething problems.
Unfortunately, not all routes to the USA are operated by BA. Some are the exclusive preserve of American, BA’s OneWorld partner. “Exclusive preserve” is obviously a phrase beloved of Mr Trump, who would like to turn his country into one. Anyway, more of him later.
So yesterday, I was obliged to fly out of Terminal Three, which is where American has its perch. I showed up at the AA Premium check-in, an enclave to the side of the terminal that is reserved for First and Business passengers. I kind of assumed that my BA card would allow me to check in there. It was packed. There were two people serving around twenty high-status passengers, and each passenger was taking at least five minutes to get their boarding cards. When you fly to America, you get asked all sort of questions, such as why are you flying? Business, pleasure, nefarious activity? Where are you staying? Your grandfather’s inside leg measurement?
So I did the math. Twenty divided by two times five equals a wait of at least fifty minutes. I checked with the guy standing beside the line and discovered that my card didn’t enable me to check in there anyway. He suggested I join the economy line. To hell with that, I thought, and toddled off to the “Priority” line just inside the main terminal. There I found a line with ten people and two check-in agents. And twenty minutes later I was done, wondering at AA’s strange world, in which those who are First will be last. Then I saw the seething masses up at economy in a snaking line that wouldn’t have been out of place in Ellis Island circa 1910. And then I thanked the deity of aviation, or rather my wife, who is so good at sorting these things, for my little silver card.
After a pleasant hour with bacon rolls and raisin swirls, I boarded the plane. That was when I received the first and only smile from a member of the cabin crew in the whole flight.
Now one of the things you notice in many of the established airlines in the West, BA included, is the relative, shall we say, maturity, of the crew. This is fine on one level, because in an emergency you don’t want to be in the hands of a flock of twentysomethings running around like headless chickens. On the other hand, you don’t want your exit blocked by a sumo wrestler. Yes, that’s an exaggeration, and I’m not suggesting that all the crew were a tad large. But several of them were not small. And most probably not exactly fleet of foot.
Which again is fine. I know several ladies of a certain age who would make excellent cabin crew. They’re motherly, jolly, sometimes a little rotund, caring and excellent communicators. Rather like the average BA crew member.
Not this lot. It grieves me to say this, but I’ve rarely encountered a more stone-faced bunch of attendants on any light – admitting at this stage that I’ve never flown with Aeroflot. From the evidence before me, I would say that American Airlines has a serious staff morale problem.
Fundamentally, these ladies (there were no men to be seen – presumably they were hiding behind their female colleagues) didn’t appear to enjoy what they did, and made no effort to disguise the fact. We, the passengers, were clearly an inconvenience. And they seemed to have been trained in the Trump school of monosyllabics. As witness this conversation, which took place more than once after a strenuous effort to establish eye contact with the owner of a passing trolley:
Her: “Any drinks?”
Me: “Yes please, coffee.”
Her: “Milk and sugar?”
Me: “Yes please.”
(Coffee duly deposited)
Me: “Thank you.”
Her: “Uh huh.”
The final acknowledgement of my thanks was delivered with that characteristic upward inflection that sounds like a question but comes over as a sneer. And that was that. No smile, no conversational grace notes. No grace. And it wasn’t as if they were exceptionally busy. The flight was two-thirds full.
As for the aircraft, it must have been more than twenty years old. A Boeing 767 with overhead video screens, showing apologies for movies that everyone around me watched with vacant expressions.
The seats, on the other hand, seemed relatively new. They were different to those I’ve encountered on AA before. And yes, you guessed it, different doesn’t mean better. It means smaller. Time was when a redeeming feature of an American Airways flight was that even in economy, the seat pitch and width easily accommodated those with a more ample frame and longer legs than the average human. Sadly, not any more.
The food was OK, though miles behind BA’s offerings and light years behind the kind of stuff you get on the newer airlines like Emirates and Qatar. I did enjoy the mid-flight chocolate ice cream, even though it came frozen close to absolute zero, and took a good twenty minutes to consume. In its initial form it would have made a very effective offensive weapon.
No matter. The flight arrived on time. I managed to avoid all but snippets of the in-flight movies – a ghastly rom-com and a cheesy pre-teen kung fu love story – by sleeping through much of the journey.
As I stepped out of the aircraft past the grunting cabin crew, I reflected on the experience. Was I being unkind? After all, it was a bit of a miracle that American was still around after its bankruptcy. And who was I to complain when coming to a country that has always regarded air travel as akin to travelling on a bus?
But then I remembered that one of many things America has taught the world is the art of customer service. While it’s true that in a restaurant the cheery demeanour you usually encounter is specifically engineered to extract the maximum tip, it’s still more pleasant to be greeted by service with a smile rather than a scowl.
Of course, cabin crew on airlines don’t get tips. But neither do hotel receptionists and shop assistants, and they still manage to put on a good show. Like the cheery assistant in North Carolina who once asked me “whereabouts in England is Paris?”.
And finally it occurred to me. The answer to a number of problems.
Should Donald Trump fall at the final hurdle, perhaps he should expend his titanic energy on an equally worthy project. A project almost as tough as running America. He should spend his billions on buying American Airlines.
No doubt he would rename it TrumpAir. But a resurgent airline rebuilt in his image would surely be a wonder to behold.
No Mexicans running around the cabin imposing a mile-high experience on unwilling passengers. No expulsion of people speaking strange languages to their relatives in Baghdad before take-off. No need for cabin crew to have to tell the difference between written Arabic and an algebraic formula. No flights to and from South America, China and the Middle East. In fact, no Mexicans, Chinese and Muslims allowed on Trumpair flights in the first place, so no need for those tedious interrogations at check-in.
The cabin crew could wear their surliness as a badge of honour. Every so often, The Donald – like Richard Branson on steroids – could appear on one of his flights (emerging from Seat 1A, naturally) and progress down the aisle to rapturous applause from the exclusively Caucasian passengers heading for one of his resorts. Wearing latex gloves, of course, and accompanied by his uniformed posse of sky marshals armed with chocolate ice cream grenades.
Just as the average male North Korean expresses his admiration of Kim Jong Un by sporting The Leader’s distinctive short-back-and-sides with soaring bouffant, the TrumpAir staff could stand out from the crowd with orange make-up and comb-overs that wouldn’t look out of place on a stadium roof designed by Zara Hadid.
The in-flight entertainment would consist of the entire back-catalogue of The Apprentice, all the super-hero movies and endless re-runs of American Sniper. And before landing, a video of The Donald would appear, asking the passengers to vote on which member of the cabin crew they would like to fire.
Oh, and I almost forgot. A wall between business and economy, and electronic slots on the back of very seat.
Thus Trump’s disappointed followers would at least have a Donald experience now and again without the rest of us having to put up with him.
TrumpAir would also do us a great service by taking care of the fearful and the ignorant. Then, perhaps, a person who can tell the difference between Arabic and algebra could – without fear of being chucked off the flight – let the nervous person sitting next to them know that actually algebra is derived from an Arabic word.
They might also be able to point out that the algorithm – without which our IPads, the aircraft’s flight management system, the internet and virtually every other modern convenience on which our world depends – was named after a ninth century mathematician by the name of Al-Khwarizmi. Who happened to be an Arab and a Muslim.
Well, perhaps that would be too much to hope for. But giving the great man’s admirers their very own airline would surely be a start.
In fact, why wait for the elections? Shareholders of American Airlines, do the right thing, and sell out to The Donald before it’s too late. Give him something else to do before he brings America down, and you with it.
The trouble with -isms is that they are dangerous tools in the hands of accusers. Dangerous because for the politician, the demagogue or the anonymous name-caller in the social media, there are no gradients. You’re either a racist or you’re not.
The same goes for hatred. It’s a definitive term. You don’t vaguely hate or mildly hate. You hate. Or you loathe. You might hate very much, but you don’t hate very little.
Which is a problem, because anybody who is honest with themselves will admit that there is in fact a spectrum.
Let’s take an -ism. Anti-Semitism. Do you hate “the Jews” so much that you would harm a Jew whom you meet in the street? Or would you personally do nothing, but approve the actions of other people who harm Jews? Or vote for a political party or leader committed to harming them? Would you deliberately avoid employing someone you knew was Jewish? Would you avoid their company, or find an excuse for not allowing them to become a member of your golf club or flower-arranging circle?
Would you avoid shopping in a store on the grounds that it’s obviously owned by a Jew? At a party or among like-minded people in a pub, would you blame the Jews for many of the problems in the country and the world beyond. And if you knew that anti-Semitism was so socially unacceptable that you were afraid to air your views, would you use the word Zionist instead of Jew, even though in your mind the two words were interchangeable?
Or would you do none of the above, but nurse a prejudice – without knowing where it comes from – that leads you only to seek opinions similar to yours?
Now substitute Muslim for Jew, and ask the same questions of yourself. And in the context of the last question, would you substitute the word Islamist, or extremist, for Muslim?What about blacks, whites, Asians, non-believers, Tories, Trots, fox-hunters, animal testers, smokers, cyclists, frackers, gypsies, gays, immigrants, Arsenal fans or fat people?
The sad reality is that anybody who has no prejudice – mild or strong – against any person or group of people is either brain dead, or lives in a cave separated from the rest of humanity.
But -isms don’t allow for shades of opinion or belief. You’re either an -ist or you aren’t. What is why they’re such powerful tools in the hands of demagogues.
Let’s now look at hatred. In the real world, are there grades of hatred?
Prejudice may not be the same as hatred, as I hope I’ve demonstrated. But in the hands of skilled politicians and demagogues, it can be fertile ground for breeding full-blown loathing. So let’s think about these words in the hands of politicians, or more specifically, at what I call The Three Statements of Hatred.
Here’s how it works. Consider these statements:
- I hate Jewish people because they have no loyalty to anyone but themselves
- I hate people in Israel who attack innocent Palestinians
- I hate Binyamin Netanyhu, because he’s a Zionist
Which of them is anti-Semitic? This theoretical hatred ranges from carpet bombing to precision-guided. Most people I know would regard only the first statement as being 100% anti-Semitic. The second statement could be anti-Semitic because there is an assumption born of prejudice that some Israelis kill innocent people. The third statement could be anti-Semitic if the person making it equates Zionism with anti-Semitism, or it could be political if the person sees Zionism as a political movement.
Complicated, right? Now it’s the turn of Muslims:
- I hate Muslims because they want to turn the world into a Caliphate
- I hate Muslims who mutilate women
- I hate Abubakr Al-Baghdadi of ISIS because he’s a murderous fiend
- I hate black people because they’re lazy scroungers
- I hate black people who rape women
- I hate Robert Mugabe because he’s a tyrant who has ruined his country
- I hate immigrants because they are taking our jobs
- I hate immigrants who don’t integrate into our society
- I hate Sadiq Khan (Labour candidate for London Mayor) because he’s a covert Islamist
Each of these statements is subject to the same range of underlying attitudes, ranging from outright, blanket condemnation of an ethnic group, a race or a social group to specific, targeted disapproval.
The difference between the first statements and the second is the use of two words: “because”, which allows condemnation for a generic reason, and “who”, which targets behaviour that might not necessarily characterise the whole group. The third statement reverts to “because”, either on the basis that the subject’s behaviour is objectionable, or because he or she is deemed to symbolise the characteristics of the group in Statement 1 or the sub-group in Statement 2.
The likes of Donald Trump rarely use Statement 1. In fact, they rarely use the words “I hate”. But they do use Statements 2 and 3, because they know that they will reach those who use Statement 1 in everyday life. In other words, by criticising individuals and subsets of larger groups, they appeal to those who have prejudices that could be described as anti-Semitic, racist, Islamophobic or fascist. All the while they retain the ability to deny that they are racist or anti-Semitic, while appealing to people that actually are.
Now remove the words “I hate”, “because”, and “who” from the statements and we get, in the case of the last set:
- Immigrants are taking our jobs
- Immigrants don’t integrate into our society
- Sadiq Kahn is a covert Islamist
And voila! We have a set of assertions that are highly likely to send a message that we should therefore hate immigrants, and Sadiq Kahn in particular. Meat and drink for Nigel Farage, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, who leave it to their listeners to draw the final conclusion.
Even if they qualify these statements with “who” and “because”, in the minds of their audiences, the qualifiers disappear.
Thus, Donald Trump’s statement about Mexican immigrants,
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best [sic]. They’re sending people that have lots of problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
becomes, in the minds of his followers:
“Mexicans are drug dealers, criminals and rapists”
What of Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, who has been suspended by the Labour Party for alleged anti-Semitic remarks? In this transcript of a BBC interview, he’s talking about Naz Shah, the Labour MP also suspended from the party because of her allegedly anti-semitic tweets from 2014:
“She’s a deep critic of Israel and its policies. Her remarks were over-the-top but she’s not anti-Semitic. I’ve been in the Labour party for 47 years; I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic. I’ve heard a lot of criticism of the state of Israel and its abuse of Palestinians but I’ve never heard anyone say anything anti-Semitic.
“It’s completely over the top but it’s not antisemitism. Let’s remember when Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism – this before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.
“The simple fact in all of this is that Naz made these comments at a time when there was another brutal Israeli attack on the Palestinians; and there’s one stark fact that virtually no one in the British media ever reports, in almost all these conflicts the death toll is usually between 60 and 100 Palestinians killed for every Israeli. Now, any other country doing that would be accused of war crimes but it’s like we have a double standard about the policies of the Israeli government.
His logic seems to run thus:
– There has never been any anti-Semitism in the Labour Party
– Hitler supported Zionism, therefore Zionism must be bad
– Naz Shah made offensive comments in reaction to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians
– Criticism of Zionism is not the same as anti-Semitism
– Therefore Naz is not anti-Semitic just because she’s opposed Zionism
– And what’s more, Zionists are war criminals, just like the Nazis
Based on his words alone, Livingstone can’t be accused of being anti-Semitic, never mind an apologist of Hitler. What you can say is that he was extremely dumb to quote an historical “fact” that is not only of questionable accuracy, but is also a non-sequitur. He shows himself to be a man who is quite prepared to use dodgy history – the idea that Hitler wasn’t mad in 1932 but went mad afterwards is quite ludicrous to anyone who has read Mein Kampf – to fit his political world view. Like his party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, he is a man who sticks to his principles. Like many politicians, he chooses only the facts that support those principles. But on this occasion he chose badly.
His approach is very different from that of Donald Trump. Trump, in my estimation, is an opportunist totally focused on personal electoral success. He sensed a groundswell of discontent, and is prepared to say anything necessary to tap it. If it increased his chances of election, he would happily reverse his position on just about any issue. And if elected, he wouldn’t feel bound by any of his campaign promises.
So it seems to me that the true demagogue of the two is Donald Trump. He uses the Three Statements progression, whereas Livingstone is merely guilty of a clumsy framing of long-held convictions.
Either way, it’s clearly the season for wonky inductive reasoning on both sides of the Atlantic. It will be interesting to see Trump explain away his wilder campaign statements if he’s nominated for the presidency. On the European side I look forward to hearing Jeremy Corbyn declare victory in the upcoming council elections, and the Brexiteers claiming that black is white in the referendum debate.
Whoever ends up as winners and losers, the art of reasoned argument is dying. Nowadays, it seems, you can only get widespread attention if you employ the tactics of the shock-jock. And if disapproval breeds prejudice, and prejudice is repeated enough to become respectable, then it’s only a short step to the Three Statements of Hatred. And from there, all manner of destructive possibilities lie.