Whose White House?

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-10-21-01-amI’m glad I’m not an American voter. There’s a tendency as November 8 approaches to adopt a kiddie-pundit, adversarial and almost desperately black and white yes/no voting booth philosophy, so much so that the deeper arguments, the ones that really matter, get lost in a welter of junk media; baby food for the masses.
I suppose myself to be quite ‘liberal’, embracing a worldview based on notions of liberty and equality, more or less. Whereas classical liberalism emphasises the role of liberty, social liberalism majors on equality, so, for me classics trumps social libertarianism every day and twice on Sundays. Liberals generally support ideas such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality and international co-operation; fine and laudable precepts, loaded as they may be with politically slippery cautionary tales. However, in its modern form liberalism has contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards extreme relativism, which in turn has historically led to two types of nihilism. The first was a “brutal” nihilism as expressed in Nazi and Marxist regimes; Mao did not come to power in a vacuum. Leo Strauss wrote in ‘On Tyranny’ that these ideologies, both descendants of Enlightenment thought, tried to eradicate all traditions, history, ethics, and moral standards and on the resultant tabula rasa forcibly replace them with an iron fist under which nature and mankind were subjugated and conquered. The second type, a “gentler” nihilism as expressed in Western liberal democracies was a kind of value-free aimlessness and a hedonistic “permissive egalitarianism”, which everyone can see has penetrated to the core of  European and American thought. His view was that 20th century relativism, scientific pre-eminence, historical criticism and nihilism were thus all implicated in the deterioration of modern society, bringing us to a political impasse clearly demonstrated by the Clinton/Trump tickets of choice. Trump calls out the house divided in terms of the fear it generates and the notion of extreme regime change resonates with the masses. Clinton has Machiavellian tendencies and people don’t trust her.  I wonder whether societies are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. Whose White House will it be?

Desperate Times in the Jungle

The media has been full of it.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-10-39-02-amSpeculation has run high in the French media in recent days about the probability of violence as the Calais Jungle, home to between seven and ten thousand desperate people, all attempting by wild and ingenious means to cross Britain’s protective strip of water and find sanctuary there, is razed to the ground. Rather than be rounded up and herded on to a bus to God knows where, some have already melted away into the forest, jumping trains to  central Paris to hide amongst their own, preparing for another try later.

The exodus began. Riot police were on hand and as night fell last night, fires began to rage and battles followed. For us, we had hoped to insulate ourselves from possible disruption by sailing to Dunkerque instead of the shorter and more convenient Port of Calais, since running a gauntlet of migrants possibly with stone-throwing, was not a particularly tempting proposition. Leaving the boat, the road sweeps in a wide arc around the port of Calais, the lights of the Jungle burning like the fires of Hell. Without warning, we were aware of large numbers of young men on the hard shoulder of the highway, all marching determinedly, so numerous that some were spilling over into the inside lane. The road was dark. An obstacle loomed in the gloom – a large tree was blocking all three carriageways of the highway. I applied the brakes so hard that the wheels spun on the wet road before we lurched to a stop, a few metres away from its stripped trunk. We were surrounded by young men, faces hidden behind the ubiquitous shemagh and for a moment I was reminded of stone-throwing Palestinians in East Jerusalem. We locked the car, hazards blinking, and waited.

The men milled about, aimlessly. The objective seemed to be to allow the cars to pass while stopping the lorries where some might be able to climb aboard undetected – a forlorn, desperate hope indeed. Eventually, the tree trunk was pulled aside and we were given just enough room to squeeze past and be on our way – the stopping tactic seemed to work since enraged Belgian and Dutch lorry drivers were standing on their horns as the migrants surrounded them. We came to no harm;  we were not the target. The sheer futility of the manoeuvre left an echo in my memory. They had to have planned for a robust police presence arriving within minutes, so the trucks had to be stopped, boarded and on their way within a very short window of time. We did not see the police arrive, but assuredly they did and would almost certainly have taken trucks away to be searched.

I cannot imagine the despair these people feel. A busload of unaccompanied ‘children’, some with crows’ feet and a five o’clock shadow found its way to the UK yesterday, windows firmly curtained, lest the media attempt to guess their ages should any be rash enough to smile. Despite the fact that obviously adult men have cheated a child out of a place on the bus, I cannot help but feel a certain sympathy for them. Some, perhaps most are fleeing war zones. Inevitably,  because the Home Office seems both bumbling, incompetent and, truth be told, to have been spectacularly wrong-footed, there will be a few whose motives are less than peaceful. Hidden in the huddled masses, some will almost certainly have slipped through, waiting to plant devices of mass destruction and share the glorious reward of the shuhada. As usual, anarchists, busybodies and activists were on the scene in the Jungle last night, some, ashamedly, were British. They came prepared to disrupt the evacuation and simply get in the way. My fervent hope is that the French police were, let’s say, robustly determined to get the job done, in spite of for many, serious moral misgivings. The existence of these squalid shanty towns is a symptom of Europe’s failure to manage the refugee reception crisis, as well as the broader issue of  migration  and closing them does nothing for the underlying problem. In France, the process is driven by a wish to clean the place up, dispersal creating invisibility which can be managed politically far better than thousands in a Calais ghetto. One representative had the chutzpah to suggest on live TV last night that the French were behaving to the migrants as the Nazis behaved to the Jews. I hardly think that taking people to safety on a bus has quite the same resonant cadence as a trainload of cattle trucks disgorging a cargo of misery into the gas chambers.

A Note from the Capital

Madding crowd at the changing of the Guard.

Madding crowd at the changing of the Guard.

The man who is tired of London, it has been alleged, is tired of life itself. Unlike myself, Samuel Johnson was a boundless optimist, seeing a rather dirty glass three quarters full instead of grimly empty. London seems to be in a permanently heaving state,  the ebb and flow of huge numbers of  breathless, wide-eyed tourists, endlessly craning their necks or waving selfie sticks about to catch a glimpse of the impressive gates of the Palace or taking pictures of the ducks in St James’ Park. Away from the Babel of languages – I counted at least seven in one minute on a bridge in the park – it has its charms for the vagabond, the bystander, the permanent inhabitant of some cranny or nook, far from the madding crowd. Always so much better to share the experience – my daughter in this case, who, blessedly, is also my friend. So many places to walk where the advantages of being street smart kept you alive have now been overtaken by what we once called the ‘quality’ or, perhaps, the ‘gentry’, with disposable incomes allowing the rental of tiny but chic little flats for thousands of pounds a month, and the purchase of Audis or BMWs and expensive shoes from the West End. Islington is so very chic these days, metamorphosing into a slightly blurred and certainly more muffled Brooklyn, watering holes and gastropubs with wooden floors, rough china and superb food. Similarly Clapham and Balham, once only rather drab bus destinations and little else have acquired chic, expensive pavement cafés and restaurants for the young and well-heeled to hang out as only millennials can.

It was interesting- in a strange, memory-rich kind of way to be back – slipping gently into left hand driving and remembering to look left first, but I slipped English moorings a long time ago and the whisperings of auld lang syne are neither insistent nor particularly nostalgic. Brexit will cement Britishness – that curious state of mind which only the British seem to possess, the kind of mindset that distrusts French cheese and enjoys warm ale with the determination to drink a lot of it at high speed. Later today, as the white cliffs disappear into the mist, and the snub silhouette of Cap Gris Nez pokes over the horizon, I shall probably breathe a slight but distinct sigh of relief.

Poor Democracy

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-5-47-26-pmAfter Brexit and new revelations about the moral turpitude, masquerading as ‘locker room banter’ of Donald Trump, I found a strange, all-pervasive anxiety beginning to overshadow me. Politics is a dirty, Machiavellian game, also highly complex, the rules keep changing and referenda and sometimes elections are the blunt little tools we all use to try to get the best for everyone. If the Brexit vote were recast today, it would almost certainly have turned out differently.  Activists and flag-wavers latch on to a very few easy-to-follow policy mantras which seem black and white, then agitate, push, protest and intimidate, whichever is required, to subjugate the weak or push the undecided out of the way in order to achieve their aims. Such anxiety as I found myself facing about the consequences of political ignorance is not new. In the long history of thoughtful people, not necessarily intellectuals, worrying about democracy and its failings, two basic fears surface. The first is that democracy will mean rule by the poor, who will use their collective power and numerical superiority to steal from the rich. During Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the houses of the middle classes were raided and their toilets smashed, since possession of such an item was considered too superior, too bourgeois, so secondly, democracy is rule by the ignorant, who will use their power to do foolish things. Both these worries go back at least as far as Plato. The ancient Greeks understood that democracy meant letting the have-nots get their claws into the haves. For Aristotle, that’s what the word meant: it was rule by the poor (the demos) over the wealthy. But if class conflict came with the territory, the deeper fear was what the masses might do out of sheer foolishness.screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-5-46-55-pm

For Plato, democracy suffered from the basic defect of putting decision-making in the hands of people who were not competent to decide. Politics was a skill – and most people were clueless. Worse, that made them prey for liars, snake oil merchants and demagogues who would promise them the moon and mostly get away with it. Democracy was fertile ground for fantasists with a taste for power. If you tell the people that black is white, and the people believe you, then who’s going to tell them that they’re wrong?

These fears never really evaporate. They resurface at times of political crisis. As long ago as the 1920s the argument was made, unblushingly, that modern citizens simply lacked the mental capacity to process the information needed for intelligent decision-making, thus were incapable of selecting appropriate leadership.

The polarization of America may not just rest on ethnic or gender lines but on education and critical thinking. Donald Trump has said he loves uneducated people. I wonder why.