Archive for the ‘politics’ category

Centrifugal discourse?

February 5, 2019

Generally I like to be informed about the opinions held by people and groups with whom I disagree. I may hold the views I hold, but I am interested to hear from those who think differently, and occasionally I change my mind.

So, I do not support or like Brexit. I think it is a stupid idea. I think it exposes the United Kingdom to huge economic risks, and perhaps more significantly, it will lower its standing in the world. But as in all things, I could be wrong, and so I like to listen to what Brexiteers are saying, and in that spirit I follow the Twitter accounts of various people and groups who think it’s all a great wheeze and who anticipate the sunlit uplands of the post-March departure of the UK from the European Union. One of these accounts is that of the lobby group ‘Leave Means Leave’. If you are not familiar with them you can find their Twitter feed here and their website here.

At first I just read lots tweets and opinion pieces and, while disagreeing, thought no more about them. They didn’t come across as persuasive to me because, in truth, they weren’t trying to persuade me. Leave Means Leave is not really dedicated to changing anyone’s mind, its key strategy is to make those already committed to Brexit really angry that it’s not happening quickly enough and that it may involve compromises. And if you’re tempted to follow them also, let me warn you that their Twitter strategy is one of non-stop buckshot sprayed across your screen. I might describe their relationship with the world of facts as, shall we say, edgy. In their world, Europe (not just the EU) is about to be shown as a busted flush, everywhere else is great, and the WTO (under whose ‘rules’ the UK should in their view trade) just brilliant.

Why am I going on about the good folks at Leave Means Leave? Well, I think they are fruitcakes, but that’s not the point. It is perfectly possible to advance persuasive arguments for Brexit (even if I mightn’t agree with them). But actually what’s going on here, and to be fair in a lot of other camps and arguments as well (sometimes including those pushing for remaining in the EU), is a drive not to persuade but to radicalise. In a lot of this discourse, the ‘middle ground’ is now the most despised terrain (here and elsewhere in the world), and those arguing for a balanced view are often the most vilified people. Looking at social media, I am often astonished at the bile thrown at those who raise polite questions or indicate mild scepticism about some idea or other cherished by committed ideologues of left or right.

And it’s not just social media. Watching the BBC TV’s Question Time exposes you to audience interventions delivered in expressions and tones of the raged fanatic. Debate is now about shouting and drowning out the other side, not persuading them. We are all the losers for that, and those who govern us will be pushed, more and more, to take unreasonable and dangerous decisions.

So, as some have suggested, is the centre ground dead? Are our politics destined to shift from an angry view on one radical side to an angry view on the other? The last time that happened some 90 years ago it didn’t end well. So, I would plead, let us pause and think. On all sides.

Going in deep

January 28, 2019

Depending on your personal wealth and investment habits, you may not have heard of the American magazine Investor’s Business Daily. I cannot comment intelligently on the reliability of its investment advice, but I might suggest that, based on the soundness of its political commentary, you might want to step carefully if inclined to follow its other recommendations. In 2009 the magazine suggested that if Stephen Hawking, suffering as he was from motor neurone disease, lived in the United Kingdom and were relying on the NHS, he ‘wouldn’t have a chance’ of getting treatment. Of course Hawking did live in the UK and was treated by the NHS.

This egregious nonsense may give you a hint as to where the magazine’s political sympathies lie. So it may not surprise you that, on an almost daily basis, Business Investor’s Daily right now is pushing the suggestion that Donald Trump’s presidency is being thwarted by ‘Deep State sabotage’. This sabotage is allegedly being carried out by various arms of government, including the FBI and the Justice Department, and indeed the CIA. In fact, the ‘Deep State’ has become a key feature of American rightwing conspiracy theorists. Whole books are now being published with breathless ‘revelations’ about a liberal elite running (or ruining) everyone’s lives – see for example the recent oeuvre The Deep State: How an Army of Bureaucrats Protected Barack Obama and Is Working to Destroy the Trump Agenda, by Jason Chaffetz.

But before you start some eye-rolling about what Americans are willing to believe, bear in mind that the Deep State has also shoved its way into British political discourse. Just a week or two ago Boris Johnson warned that a ‘deep state conspiracy’ was aiming to frustrate Brexit. This might not be so surprising, given Mr Johnson’s recently expressed admiration for Mr Trump. But he is not a lone voice in Britain either: last September Andrew Murray, an adviser to the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that the deep state was undermining efforts to secure a Labour government.

I am not really intending to suggest that there are no establishment forces within this or any society that might have their own inclinations as to what political direction is appropriate and be willing to act on those inclinations, though for all that I tend to believe that democratic processes keep these forces reasonably in check. My point here is that the ‘deep state’ concept is being used not to thwart a secret establishment, but to secure one. There is no better argument in favour of authoritarian action than the (usually uncorroborated) allegation that there are secret societies undermining government. Conspiracy theories are the enemies of democracy, not its defenders. Their fruits have not been freedom, indeed they prompted genocide in the 20th century.

It really is time to stop peddling this nonsense.

Citizens of somewhere

January 23, 2019

Not long ago a senior politician in the United Kingdom suggested that those who saw themselves as ‘citizens of the world’ were, in reality, ‘citizens of nowhere’. I tend to take the view that Brexit has encouraged, on all sides, contributions to debate that those making them may subsequently have regretted, so I don’t want this to be personal. But the ‘citizens of nowhere’ jibe does raise some questions which merit further  discussion.

After the Second World War the widespread nationalism of the 1930s was discredited, and there followed an era of internationalism, in which there was a growing emphasis on communities and on alliances that were more global in nature. The idea of seeing one’s own country as uniquely excellent and others as less admirable was against the spirit of the age, and this contributed to the collapse of colonialism and also undermined the US in its prosecution of the Vietnam war.

For me, and maybe for others of my generation of a liberal persuasion, the current trend to re-assert nationalist principles (even ones far less toxic than those of the 1930s) is perhaps the most depressing aspect of the Brexit and Trump and Orban era. It is not that I would condemn patriotism; but patriotism in its proper sense is about supporting the wider community in which we live and which supports us, and not about about elevating our nation above others.

It is difficult to pinpoint where this resurgence of nationalism started. In 2014 the Economist magazine traced it back to India and its political system. Others have looked back further to the 1990s and argued that nationalism has been a response to the economic effects of globalisation, which itself was a product of sorts of post-War internationalism. But it is clear that nationalist messages have started to resonate more widely with electorates in various countries. Some economists now link this trend with the risk of another global recession, as major countries toy with protectionist policies that support their leaders’ nationalist rhetoric.

Maybe I am just sad that my own set of values isn’t universally shared and that these values no longer, perhaps, attract majority support. Or maybe we really are losing something that secured social and economic progress for the post-War generations. In the end, I still hope we can be citizens of the world.

We’re learning to disrespect respect, and it’s not good.

December 11, 2018

Back in the 1980s I remember watching a political debate on television, in which two well-known politicians engaged in robust disagreement. Just a few hours later I was on a plane from the city in which they had been arguing, and found to my surprise that the same two politicians were sitting next to each other engaging in what was clearly very friendly banter. A good thing, or a bad thing? Were they, in a sort-of-private setting, subverting the integrity of their political disagreement by being friendly to each other? Or was this a sign of maturity and civilised human interaction?

Of course we can still sometimes see this sort of private bonhomie between political opponents, but not so often. Recently the UK Labour Party’s Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, suggested that he could never be friends with a member of the Conservative Party. What this kind of approach suggests is that politics is not so much about choices, but about ethics: whatever political frame of reference I hold is the only valid one, and therefore if you don’t agree with me, you are not so much wrong as evil.

Respect, baby, as Aretha Franklin might have said, is at the heart of civilisation. We lose it and we’re all on skids. Of course we should have principles and we should argue our case, but if we come to believe that our opponents are our enemies and are hateful evildoers, then we become incapable of persuading our entire society to believe in a cause, because we hold many of its members in contempt as enemies of the people. It’s what has characterised the Brexit debate, or Mr Trump’s America. Trust me, this isn’t the way to go. Don’t disrespect respect.

PS. If you’re sharpening your quill to tell me it was Otis Redding and not Aretha, save yourself the bother. I prefer her version, which is subtly different. Though I totally love Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, which by a happy coincidence is playing in the background as I write this.

Complex belonging

October 22, 2018

So here’s my dilemma. I was born in Germany – or more precisely, what was then West Germany, or then as it is nows the Federal Republic of Germany. My father’s family was at one point Polish, originally from the Kashubian region. Several of my ancestors were soldiers in various armies, latterly Prussian and German. I have French ancestors. As for me, I have lived in Germany, Ireland, Britain (England and Scotland). I have both Irish and German citizenship.

I read literature and poetry of Germany, England, Scotland, Ireland and France – and in translation of other countries. I am highly interested in European, British, Irish and American history – right now I am reading (again) about the American Civil War and its political, social and cultural implications.

Why should you be interested in any of this? Well, there’s no compelling reason why you should be. But a background like mine raises several questions relevant to current political and cultural debates. After an era in which multinational identities were celebrated, things are somewhat different now. Politicians in a number of countries are calling their voters to the flag, to identify emotionally with their country of residence and citizenship. The American  concept of ‘exceptionalism‘ is itself no longer particularly exceptional, as other countries also see themselves as occupying a special place in global affairs. Nationalism, if not of the 1930s variety, is back in vogue and is visibly affecting geopolitical developments.

I do of course accept obligations of loyalty. The country where I live and work provides me with a variety of benefits and protections, and I owe it a duty of support. The countries that issue my passports have a justifiable expectation that I will show some allegiance. But I also see myself as a member of humanity, not entitled to look away when people in other countries are in need, and certainly motivated to know about other nations and cultures.

It is still my belief that the world has gained immeasurably from the retreat from nationalism after World War 2. It was never a total retreat, but still a defining aspect of later 20th century thinking. But in our current era of conspiracy theories we are now told that this was only ever the preference of political, social and economic elites, who employed it to abuse their power.

Nationalists are right in this sense – that human progress still requires a sense of belonging. Losing that produces dysfunctional and unstable societies. But losing a global outlook carries with it the risk of a return to the tensions and suspicions, and indeed the quest for grandeur and superiority, that wrought such destruction in the last century. That is a risk we should not take.

The era of aggressive obsessions

July 31, 2018

Those of us – and I know this includes me – who spend too much time on certain social media platforms come to witness one thing very quickly: that we live in an age of irate obsession. This hit me very starkly on my most recent holiday, which was in South Carolina. The state is historical and very beautiful, and Charleston in particular is one of my very favourite cities in all the world; I may publish some photos from there presently.

But South Carolina is also the reddest of red states in the US. ‘Red’ in America does not have the same connotation that it has in Europe. It refers to the colour of the Republican Party. The Democrats are blue, and so, to take an example, Massachusetts is a ‘blue state’.

Back to the red South Carolina. The state has voted Republican in 13 of the last 14 national elections. In 2016 Donald Trump got 1,155,389 votes here, compared with Hillary Clinton’s 855,373. But while that was a solid majority for the current US President, Clinton’s share still came to over 40 per cent of the vote.

But within these camps, the tone is becoming more and more divisive. Like elsewhere in the US, success within a political division now increasingly depends on aspiring politicians moving as far away from the centre as possible. Just before I arrived there, a long-standing South Carolina Republican Congressman, Mark Sanford, lost the local primary election to an enthusiastic Trump supporter; he had not been wholly obsequious to his President, and so he found that political moderation did not pay. In neighbouring Georgia there is a Republican candidate for Governor who boasts that he owns a truck so he can personally round up illegal immigrants, and he has been running a television advertisement ‘in which he points a double-barreled shotgun at a teenage boy asking to go on a date with one of his daughters.’

It’s not all on one side: in New York the long term Congressman Joe Crowley has just been ousted by the self-proclaimed socialist, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She is young, inspiring, charismatic – but certainly not seeking out the political centre.

Of course this centrifugal political tendency is not just in evidence in America, though the rhetoric there is particularly stark. It’s all over us everywhere, including the UK (where it’s all mostly about people aiming abuse at those who disagree with them about Brexit) and much of Europe. In fact, just not being on the high-volume off-centre edge of the spectrum itself qualifies you for abuse right now, as the ‘centrist dad’ epithet illustrates.

Is this all a product of the social media era? Have we all become locked into our echo chambers in which we can only compete with others by out-shouting their tirades of anger? Is this the inevitable grade inflation of indignation and outrage in which there are only totally right and abominably wrong opinions, with nothing in between? Is this the era in which obsession has moved from stamp collecting into politics (and everything else) while also acquiring the garments of visceral anger, often over nothing much in particular? And has this been transferred into our lives more generally, so that we can only ever either adore or despise people?

In America I watched some of the news networks, and watched how everyone was really only articulate when expressing hatred of someone or something. Surely, surely there must be some way of extracting ourselves from this madness.

The academy in politics?

May 29, 2018

I first developed a strong interest in politics in my mid-teens. At the time I was in a German secondary school, and the then West German Economics Minister was Professor Karl Schiller. Schiller was an academic economist of some distinction, and he became a key figure, first of the CDU-SPD ‘grand coalition’ under Chancellor Kurt-Georg Kiesinger, and then of the SPD-FDP coalition government of Willy Brandt. He was known for policies that he summarised with the slogan ‘as much competition as possible, as much planning as necessary.’

Right now, as various professors are considered for the job of Prime Minister of Italy, it is maybe apposite to reflect on the role of academics in career politics. There have been a few politicians who, when their political careers looked to be over, easily settled into academic life: Larry Summers and Roy Jenkins are examples. Some have travelled in the opposite direction, but not many: apart from Karl Schiller, good examples would be Ireland’s last three Presidents: Mary Robinson, Mary McAleese and Michael D. Higgins. But they are the exception rather than the rule. Is this because universities are seen as hothouses for theory rather than operational action? Or is it the case that, as one commentator has suggested, ‘many very clever people would make very bad politicians.’

The role of academics as political advisers is widely accepted, but not so much their capacity for political leadership. In a world that is becoming hugely complex in economic, social and technological contexts, would academic politicians have the capacity for a better, or worse, understanding of these complexities? Or should the academy stay away from this sort of thing altogether?