This house recognises:
1) That all this bluster and bravado about a ‘no deal’ Brexit makes it abundantly clear that the Government has no plan and no strategy for what lies in store.
2) That no one who voted to leave the European Union did so on the understanding that the purported departure would be conducted under conditions of total chaos.
3) That those who argue for a no deal Brexit have no basis for their dishonest predictions of sunny uphills, tally ho and full steam ahead beyond a desire to cause maximum disruption to British society and the economy; that they hope to take advantage of the resultant catastrophe to satisfy their personal political ambitions.
This house proposes:
1) That a second referendum be held, during which the only slogans permitted to the pro-Brexit forces be the following:
‘WE DON’T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK WE’RE DOING’;
‘VOTE FOR TOTAL CHAOS’;
‘LET’S TAKE ALL THE BENEFITS WE GET FROM EU MEMBERSHIP AND FLUSH THEM DOWN THE FUCKING TOILET’.
(The latter to be postered on every form of transport in the country and also tattooed on Boris Johnson’s face and hands.)
2) That the Conservative Party be outlawed as a political organisation for a period of at least 50 years.
3) That anyone who expresses an view on continued EU membership without taking due account of the findings of experts be jailed.
4) That Nigel Farage be banned for the duration of the referendum campaign from inciting racial hatred and political violence; that he also be prohibited from appearing on ‘Question Time’ for a period of one (1) week.
5) That the name of our country be changed forthwith to ‘The United In The EU Kingdom Of Being In The EU #fuckbrexit #fuckmurdoch #fucktrump’.
Last month a couple in Turin, Italy, almost lost their 7-year-old daughter to tetanus. Questioned as to why they hadn’t had her vaccinated against the disease, they said that they were blameless; information they’d encountered in the media had convinced them it would do more harm than good.
I live in Italy, so I know it’s not the newspapers and TV that are at fault, but rather social media and the internet. One blog in particular has been called Europe’s main source of fake news: that of Beppe Grillo, stand-up comedian turned political leader. The movement he created (the ‘5 Star Movement’) now runs both Turin and Rome, and if there were a general election tomorrow would probably win the most parliamentary seats. It has mostly been built up online on the basis of a truly populist progamme, principally against corruption and the ‘casta’ (political establishment). Although it resembles the left-wing party Podemos in Spain, it’s by no means progressive, particularly in relation to immigration.
One of Grillo’s pet bugbears is ‘big pharma’, a euphemism for those transnational pharmaceutical companies which profit from the sale of vaccines. The fake link between the MMR vaccine and autism was first ‘discovered’ by then medical researcher (now disgraced former medical researcher and Trump cheerleader) Andrew Wakefield in 1998. ‘Anti-vaxx’ sentiment has been particularly influential in Italy, with compulsory immunisation programmes leading to large numbers of parents who have read online or been convinced by friends that vaccines cause disease withdrawing their children from school altogether. This presents a huge problem for society – not only are such parents putting their own offspring at risk of illness and death, they also jeopardise the ‘herd effect’ – when a certain percentage of a population has been vaccinated, the chain of infection is broken and the risk of any member of that group becoming infected is vastly reduced.
So far our 8-month-old daughter has had two sets of vaccinations, including tetanus, polio, and meningitus. We’re due to take her again on Dec 28th, but we’ve decided we just can’t go through with it this time. Why? Well, it’s very simple: we’ll be away on that date, visiting family in the UK for Christmas. We’re going to postpone her appointment until we get back the following week.
We’re not fucking stupid.
One thing that’s characterised this website throughout its nearly a year! of existence is a puppy-like loyalty to the newspaper The Guardian. I do read other news sources (including the BBC, the WaPo and various outlets in Italian, Spanish and, you know, Welsh), but my mainstay has always been the favoured journal of pinko bleeding heart libtard scum. Having read Nick Davies’ book on churnalism, I’m not an unquestioning reader of the Guardian’s coverage, but I do have a strong emotional attachment to it, to the extent that in our house we have not one but two subscriber-only Guardian-branded shopping bags. Within my world the phrase ‘I read it in the paper’ is always understood to refer to one publication, and it’s definitely not the Daily f*cking Telegraph.
However, I’m increasingly aware, in this age of filter bubbles, that I should seek to broaden my ideological horizons by varying my media diet, to push through the algorithmic fences that limit and direct our online movements*. News coverage biases aside, there’s obviously a risk of being exposed to the party line if I only read whatever George Monbiot, Aditya Chakrabortty, Suzanne Moore, and Owen Jones think of the world. James Ball, in his book ‘Post Truth’, lists reading a wider range of news sites as one means of resisting the tide of bullshit news. He also argues that newspapers themselves should seek to represent a range of political viewpoints. To be fair, The Guardian has made some efforts in this direction, employing columnists such as Matthew Norman, Simon Jenkins, Max Hastings, and for one brief period in the mid-2000s, Nick Griffin**. It’s important to challenge readers’ preconceptions from time to time. Maybe, since he’s no longer at the Guardian, Seamus Milne now writes a weekly column for the Daily Express. I wouldn’t bet my Guardian shopping bags on it though.
The obvious counterpart to the Guardian is the Daily Mail. If you can get past the almost always hateful front page it does have some stories which are both entertaining and reassuring if you happen to share its splenetic worldview. However, even though I live in Rome I simply cannot take the risk of being seen by a compatriot looking at the Daily Mail website on my phone. Maybe it’s merely my own projection, but I would actively sneer at such a person. Then there’s The Times, which does have lots of quality journalism and thoughtful columnists such as Caitlin Moran and Matthew Parris. The problem there is the paywall: I’m not paying Rupert Murdoch a fucking penny***. So, further to the right, without dropping down a level to the Dailies Express or Star, we have the Torygraph. Although I don’t have any Telegraph-reading friends, in my family history there was one: Duncan, my favourite uncle, who was extremely affable, fittingly avuncular and profoundly Conservative. He would not have been seen dead with a copy of the Guardian – indeed, he still hasn’t been in the five or so years since he passed on. While he was alive his relationship with the Telegraph mirrored mine with the Guardian. This letter gives a flavour not just of his character, but also that of a lot of Telegraph readers: slightly blimpish but jocular with it. The perfect audience for Boris Johnson’s ultimately ruinous shtick, essentially.
My uncle lived all his life in the provinces; you very rarely see people in London reading The Telegraph (and even fewer in Rome, oddly enough****). It’s the favoured newspaper of Tims-nice-but-dims and white-haired colonels living in Surrey. When I picture the archetypal reader it’s Jim Bergerac’s friend Charlie Hungerford that springs to mind: an image of blustering pomposity unmatched by intellectual brilliance. I once knew a journalist who told me that during her training she’d learnt that regardless of its range of vocabulary, the level of argumentative sophistication of Telegraph articles is equivalent to that of The Sun. But these are ultimately prejudices, ones I want to, if not overcome, subject to rigorous reexamination.
However, there’s an immediate problem, viz: if I even think about that c*ntrarian Toby Young my blood starts to simmer. Plus, whenever there’s a Telegraph journalist on ‘Question Time’ you can pretty much guarantee that he or she will agree with at least 80% of whatever verbal effluence Farage comes out with. The Telegraph provides a platform for people who it’s very, very hard not to regard as mere trolls. Its chief political commentator is Charles Moore, whose climate denial makes it very hard to take seriously anything he writes on other topics. In addition, the Brexit vote almost certainly wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column spreading outright lies about the EU. Then there’s episodes like this, not to mention the tone of snobbery endemic to the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, the Telegraph does also employ proper journalists, experienced fact-finders who assiduously follow professional guidelines to render the truth with accuracy and fairness, even though it’s presented in the form of articles whose editorial bias occasionally makes people who care about others want to vomit with rage :-P.
Another reason for becoming a Telegraph reader***** is that in contrast to the Guardian’s Comment is Free pages, pretty much all of whose content I’m primed to agree with, it would surely be more useful for me to engage with those with opposing views (insofar as I have to comment in discussing newspaper articles online. Obviously I don’t.) However, as it happens there’s no shortage of right-winger commenters on CIF, in particular following articles written by women or those that dare to mention racism and/or climate change. Ideally, online debates on newspaper articles would be a meeting of minds and a serious engagement across the lines of political affiliation which would put our ideas and assumptions to the test; in reality, the internet doesn’t work like that, regardless of the masthead. At this point, anyone commenting below the line can be regarded as a troll unless they specifically prove otherwise.
It’s time to don the surgical gloves and get a forensic feel for the innards of this exotic creature, the Daily Telegraph website. As it happens, I’ve just received a handy email drawing my attention to the publication’s star columnists. When I click through to the site, however, I’m faced with an obstacle: much of what they write is only available to ‘Premium’ subscribers. I don’t have a problem with paying for online content – the Guardian will be forced to introduce something similar one day – but that particular word I find off-putting, designed to appeal to elitist values that I don’t subscribe to. There’s an echo of ‘How to spend it’, as though quality reporting and incisive commentary is a luxury. It turns out that unless I’m a paid-up subscriber I also can’t comment. But this is a club in whose leather-bound armchairs I don’t think I’d be very welcome to recline.
On the front page, however, I immediately feel more comfortable. There’s some bad news about Brexit, which is as it should be, and a report on George Sanders’ Booker Prize win. I really should get round to reading that novel, I think. I’m already starting to relax and feel that I’m simply reading a newspaper, rather than creeping through a rat-filled gas-reeking enemy trench. The Sanders article does have a particular angle which if I was feeling vexatious I could choose to regard as Typically Telegraph, the idea being that the Booker’s opening up to non-British and Commonwealth writers was misjudged. I could choose to get annoyed about this but on reflection its a fair point, and one I’ve come across elsewhere. There’s far more promising trigger material in an article by someone called Zoe Strimpel: an attack on the #MeToo meme, whereby women who’ve suffered sexual harrassment out themselves on social media. With its dismissive tone, references to “dated” 70s-style feminism, I soon find that the finger is starting to tighten. The whole piece seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d expect to find in The Daily Telegraph website, or maybe it would, except I can’t read the whole piece because I’m not a subscriber. Oh well. I click instead on (part of ) an article by Michael Deacon, who I’ve come across on Twitter, where he’s constently thoughtful and smart. On the Telegraph site he’s literally smart, with an colourful oversized tie and a sardonic expression which is also present in his writing – it has the wry tone of a parliamentary sketch writer. The piece is enjoyable (he’s having a go at David Davis), but it’s also Premium, so it also stops halfway through. I can take out a trial subscription, easily cancellable if I decide that the Barclay Brothers are to be trusted. At this point I think about all the things I could be doing in life rather than signing up for the Daily Telegraph website, but then remind myself that (at the risk of sounding as pompous as a Telegraph leader writer) understanding what other people think is probably one of the top three most important things in life. I decide that I will give it a week: no Guardian for seven days, just a steady diet of p̶o̶m̶p̶o̶u̶s̶,̶ ̶b̶i̶g̶o̶t̶e̶d̶ ̶h̶o̶r̶s̶e̶s̶h̶i̶t̶ news and commentary from an unfamiliar source. Hopefully the experiment will serve to both broaden and refine my view of the world; if, on the other hand, I suddenly start sporting a bow tie, declare Brexit to be the best thing since the slave trade and proclaim Jacob Rees-Mogg to be the saviour of Western civilisation, you’ll know something’s gone horribly wrong.
*A clear example of, in the words of Thomas Pynchon, ‘unshaped freedom being rationalized into movement only in straight lines and at right angles and a progressive reduction of choices, until the final turn through the final gate that leads to the killing floor’ (Against the Day, 2006, p11).
**An example of fake history.
***Why are there far fewer pubs in the UK than there used to be? The reasons are manifold and well-understood: housing market pressures; the smoking ban; changing demographics; cheap supermarket booze; and, perhaps most importantly, the greed of Rupert Murdoch. Recently, in a conversation about Cardiff’s disappearing drinking establishments, a taxi driver told me about a place he used to pick the staff up from. It was on the verge of shutting down, according to the duty manager, because the owners couldn’t keep up the payments on the Sky Sports package. The pub was paying, I shit you absolutely not, £600 a week. In case you’re too shocked to think, I’ve done the maths for you: that’s more than £30,000 a year. The effects of Murdoch’s social impoverishment of British society are akin to the damage that his Zimbabwean counterpart has done to his country’s economy.
****You may be able to buy a paper copy of the Telegraph from Roman newspaper kiosks, it’s never occurred to me to enquire. There’s always ‘Il Giornale’.
*****Apart, that is, from the cricket coverage.
In 2009 the Italian newspaper La Repubblica started to publish a daily set of ten questions to then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The questions related to numerous allegations of corruption and Berlusconi’s evasive and inconsistent responses to them. The questions were never answered.
Although Berlusconi has been compared to Trump in terms of his populist appeal, his explicit corruption, his gaffes, vanity, sexual venalities and ongoing hairline issues, he was a much more astute and wily operator than Trump. Berlusconi was malevolent and arrogant, but not stupid or mad; Trump appears to present a perfect shitstorm of evil intentions and mental and emotional instability, together with profound and wilfull ignorance of the world, his role in it and how he is regarded by all thinking people.
If Trump were to be posed a similar set of questions in relation to his own crimes and the lies he tells to disguise them, he would struggle to understand the questions. His limited vocabulary, inability to concentrate and lack of attention to detail don’t appear to allow him to deal with matters of any complexity or depth, and his stupidity is such that he appears to have very little awareness of how his staggering dishonesty is apparent to all, for all that he is given a free pass by his supporters*. He is, to an extent, aided and abetted by those sections of the media which have sought to normalise his presidency, treating him as a legitimate holder of the office and – partly thanks to the understandable need of media organisations to maintain cordial relations with and thus access to the White House – rarely holding him to account for the outright lies that he espouses. Nonetheless, many have speculated about what might happen if he were to be truly put on the spot. I therefore present these questions – none of which, I feel with some certainty, he would be able to answer in a meaningful way – in an attempt to plumb the depths of his ignorance, for it is within that dark, dismal chasm that we now all dwell.
1. What is the capital city of Iran?
2. Which country is your present wife from?
3. What are the opening words to the US Constitution?
4. Can you name 3 presidents before Kennedy and give their terms of office?
5. What does the term ‘balance of payments’ mean?
6. What is the name of your predecessor’s autobiography?
7. When did you last see your grandchildren?
8. What is the current population of the United States?
9. When did Kim Jong Il die?
10. What is the address of the White House?
11. Why was the American Civil War fought?
12. Can you name any one of the four soldiers who died in Niger two weeks ago?
13. What is ‘Leaves of Grass’?
14. Who composed the national anthem?
15. Can you name three leading US newspaper columnists?
16. Can you describe how climate change is supposed to work?
17. What is the name of the current Prime Minister of Canada?
18. What is the name of the athlete who inspired the #takeaknee movement?
19. What does the word ‘nuclear’ mean?
20. What is the territorial status of Puerto Rico?
21. What do you remember of the Oath of Office?
*Of course there will always be a hard lump of supporters who will never abandom him, maybe best thought of less as deplorables and more as unflushables.
Although the title ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ was apparently randomly chosen, given that the show depicts the tribulations of a rich, white, straight man in a world where, to coin a phrase, Others’ Feelings Matter, perhaps an alternative title – one more in keeping with the world in 2017 – could be ‘Check Your Privilege’. While I’ve long been a huge fan of the programme, it’s sometimes felt like a guilty pleasure as I’ve noticed that it’s much more popular with male friends than with female ones. Similarly, ‘Larry David”s enjoyment of life is often constrained by the need to exhibit respect towards people different from himself. I was looking forward to the new series but judging from the response in The Guardian, from Limmy, and from a friend who’s somehow seen the first episodes (I’ve only seen assorted clips*), enthusiasm for the show is waning.
As a bluntly-spoken New Yorker living in California (not to mention something of a schlemiel), Larry constantly triggers fault lines among people who appear primed to take offence. In each episode he either gets stitched up or manages to stitch himself up as the bit of social fabric he has (often inadvertently) torn up tangles itself around his ankles. Adam Kotsko’s essay ‘Awkwardness’ addresses programmes such as ‘Curb’ and The Office’. He argues that although their protagonists are mostly affable and largely well-intentioned, such shows demonstrate that the process of adjusting to a post-1960s world ostensibly built on mutual respect is inherently problematic, and therefore, in an exaggerated form, excellent material for comedy. They show that the imposition of rules around language and etiquette leads to constant clashes, given that such rules are mostly unstated and thus can appear arbitrary and unfair. The fact that Larry David and Michael Scott seem to be emotionally stunted, often sociopathically reckless, selfish, egotistical, and grudgeful does not render them monsters. Rather, their fallibility represents our own vulnerabilities. This is a complex, messy world and we all behave or seem to behave like assholes from time to time. As Phil Harrison puts it, ‘there’s an exquisite agony about the finest episodes that stem from the suspicion that everything happening to Larry could probably happen to you on a particularly bad day’. Their plight is a universal one.
Thus, ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ was never a resentful diatribe against political correctness per se, but rather an intelligent satire. It is not demanding that the edifice of post-60s respect for other identities be blown up. There are limits on individual honesty and the satisfaction of our impulses, and sometimes our encounters with those limits are awkward and lead to more hurt feelings. That doesn’t imply we should all join the NRA and look up the quickest route to Charlottesville. Or, as the article puts it, ‘Maybe the world has changed without telling Larry David. Maybe Larry now simply feels too much like a rich, straight white man lumbering around shoving his demented, free-ranging privilege and entitlement in everyone’s face?’.
The extent to which curmudgeonly white men are no longer on the back foot is once again demonstrated, with unerring and dispiriting predictability, in the comments following Phil Harrison’s article. Their tone is largely resentful and humourless, anti-intellectual and personally spiteful, expressing fury against the media itself and the individual journalist as though the free press has no right to cover culture. Some of the commenters seem to regard the piece as an example of #fakenews.
The fact that the article calls the new series ‘catchphrase and slapstick’ put me in mind of a stage show I saw recently about the life of Benny Hill. Although I found it trite and distasteful, the rest of the audience, people mostly in their 60s and 70s, lapped it up. Tastes in comedy change very quickly, especially from generation to generation. The funny bone changes shape in tune with changing social mores. Butts of jokes turn out to have their own perspectives, to want to explain their own actions and maybe make their own jokes. Although Larry David is the same age as Donald Trump, he’s certainly no fan and his show is – or has been so far – much too sophisticated for your average deplorable. Nonetheless, there is something of Trump’s appeal in David’s comedy. (Plus his indiscrimate targetting of Muslims/Arabs/Iranians may explain why Steve Bannon apparently finds it so entertaining.) Thus in 2017 his particular shtick doesn’t make us laugh as it did five or ten years ago. As someone else who used to be amusing and is now little more than a source of embarrassment once sang, it’s too near the bone and it’s too close to home. Tl;dr: Crotchety old white men are not as charming as they used to be.
*Anyone unhappy that I’ve written this without watching the whole new series is welcome to track down somewhere I can stream it in Italy.
The renowned architectural critic Ian Nairn recorded in his 1961 essay about Marylebone that at the heart of the district, one he called ‘terribly civilised’, stood the Listener magazine. The fact that the area is now prominently home to Monocle seems to exemplify a shift. Although I’ve never lived in that part of London, I was a sort of blow-in, in that I worked from late 2009 to early 2015 in a language school on Manchester Street, one which bravely hung onto to a very marketable location for some years but has recently been forced out by rents in the region of £100,000 a year.
It’s customary to think of Marylebone as well-heeled and genteel. It certainly has a character, albeit not one that I particularly identify with. In any case that character may be getting killed off, written out of the script. Chiltern Street is the centre of the gentility, with its reliably expensive wedding dress outlets, woodwind shops and hunting gear outlets, seemingly straight out of Jeeves and Wooster. It’s deeply Old Tory: patrician, leisurely, all tweed and creased leather. By contrast, the advent of Monocle with its neoliberal hipsters seems like a Viz parody of the ‘globalist’ worldview. (A typical cover of the magazine proclaims that ‘style has returned’ to wherever has been most crippled by austerity. It’s easily parodiable.) There’s also a bit of a walking joke striding around, in the form of Jeremy Clarkson, who seems to have a liking for an absurd gentrified pub called Gunmaker’s, one which is so salubrious it’s like an upper class person’s idea of a British local, bedecked in pristine union jacks and selling high-faluting sausage rolls and £8 scotch eggs from the Ginger Pig across the square .
International money is buying into that image – or possibly buying it up. The anodyne ‘luxury’ new flats may be a sign that local Tory sympathisers are being priced out by people who don’t exist and therefore don’t vote. Significantly, the owner of our school was a personal friend of Jeremy Hunt, someone heavily invested in education-as-online-transaction, and David Cameron was seen trying to endear himself to the neoliberal gentry in the Chiltern Firehouse (maybe he was also a regular customer at the Ginger Pig…). The greasy spoon cafe Blandford’s went suddenly upmarket, in competition with the Nordic Bakery and various other healthier outlets catering to European eating habits. Then there are the chains which, rather as Karl Marx – whose daughter stood as a local election candidate – predicted, increasingly dominate: Pizza Express, Sandro, six or seven branches of Eat crowding each other out. In my time there restaurants and shops came and went in the space of a few months, due to the hurricane-like pressures of retail rents.
It would be a tragedy if Daunt Books (on Marylebone High Street) fell prey to such forces. It’s one of London’s best bookshops, with its friendly and erudite staff. Although its selection of literature and poetry is almost beyond equal, it’s not the kind of place that has a section on critical theory or hosts talks by Ian Sinclair. It’s a long way from Hackney, more Alan de Button than Jeanette Winterson. The atmosphere is like Stanford’s, with its slightly late-19th century travel section. The fact that it is just up the road from the typically overstocked Oxfam and round the corner from the reliably excellent library is some indication of the local quality of life.
An emblematic loss which my time in Marylebone bore witness to was the demise of the Tudor Rose. It combined the worst pub menu outside Scholar’s Pub in Rome with the kind of clientele who even Jeffrey Bernard might have turned his nose up at, including a landlord whose own alcohol consumption may have been the only thing keeping the place in business (not much of a business plan, it turned out, especially if you are also fond of the old gee-gees). It’s been replaced by the kind of place which is probably lovely if you can afford it. Although my colleagues insisted that Marylebone counts as central London, it always felt to me more like the west, peopled mostly by sloanes who rarely went east of Tottenham Court Road. The closure of a place like the Tudor Rose definitely moved it a few more inches in the direction of the setting sun.
There was a sense of an uneasy coalition between old and new money. This LRB article details how the values of Theresa May are not the same as those of the neoliberal ‘globalists’. What the impact of Brexit will be on London no one can say. Britain will be more ‘open for business’ than ever before, which is another way of saying that everything of value will be for sale to all comers. As it happens, most of the time I spent working there I was living in Haringey, whose council is currently doing all it can to get rid of its human population and replace it with notional numbers on distant computer screens, or at least happy smiling computer-generated white people on vandal-proof billboards. Cycling back and forth between Haringey and Marylebone probably balanced out my life expectancy: in 2011-2013 there was a two-year difference between the two. Although that may have been levelled off by the fact that as I hit Euston Road, I passed through the area with the highest level of air pollution in the country. At least, thanks to Brexit, London’s contravention of EU clean air regulations won’t be a problem for very much longer. Anyone who thinks that bodes well for the local quality of life may well find that they’re whistling, or rather coughing, in the wind.
The release next month of a new version of ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ may be, as we’ll see, timely, but I doubt the movie will have the same impact on me as the star-studded original did when I half-saw it while hiding behind the sofa at the age of eight or so. I found the film so upsetting because it’s a multiple murder mystery – the plot shows that the victim was such an abhorrent bastard that pretty much everyone he came into contact with had more than enough motive to stick a dagger deep into his guts. But how, you might ask, does that make the movie timely? Well…
Robert Reich yesterday posted the transcript of a conversation he had with an old friend, a Republican former member of Congress. His friend bemoaned the situation that so many Republicans find themselves in: on the one hand, they’re pretty much all fully aware that Donald “President” Trump is out of control and beyond all reason, a perfect human shitstorm of insanity, stupidity and evil who could, on a momentary whim in response to the merest slight his befogged brain might perceive via ‘Fox & Friends’, unleash a planetary catastrophe of unprecendented proportions – or, even worse, damage the mid-term prospects of the Republican Party. The bind that the poor Republicans find themselves is that although they are aware of all the above, and would – in at some least some noble cases – prefer the human race to survive, they also really, really want to give themselves a huge tax cut, and so are disinclined to disembark from the Trump Train for the time being. You can imagine their frustration. (Not for nothing did Noam Chomsky call the GOP the most dangerous organisation on the planet.) Then there are individual Republicans who have been betrayed and/or publicly humiliated, some of whom happen to combine a history of violence with proximity to their tormentor: former soldier John McCain (who’s going to die soon anyway); John Kelly, who has been wearing an army uniform and carrying a loaded weapon since the age of 3; erstwhile oil baron/mass-murderer Rex Tillerson; and Ayn Rand-worshipping psychopath Paul Ryan. All of whom happen to be firm believers in the primacy of the 2nd Amendment and thus subscribers to the notion that political violence can be both righteous and redemptive. The list of those insulted by Trump also includes: the entire populations of Mexico, Qatar, Iran, North Korea and Puerto Rico; pretty much all NFL and most NBA players; 800,000 DACA recipients and their friends and relatives; the families of the four soldiers killed in Niger last week; the entire surviving US military and anyone who respects the Stars and Stripes; all journalists and everyone with regard for the freedom of the press and the First Amendment; anyone who might need healthcare and/or isn’t a white supremacist; all those of us who care about our children; every single human being who doesn’t want to die in a nuclear holocaust; anyone who doesn’t share his profound contempt for the entire human species; Rosie O’Donnell; all women who are not Rosie O’Donnell, plus, obviously, Rosie O’Donnell again; Russell Brand; and, why the hell not, just for good measure, me.
Speaking of me, this is what I wrote last November:
The US Republican Party is now faced with the conundrum of managing a situation which is to all intents and purposes impossible. There may already be whispers in the arras that he could be forcibly removed…few rational people living or dead would be all that opposed to a good old-fashioned off-stage poisoning or stabbing. Or possibly an air crash? I sincerely hope that 1) there are still some Republican leaders out there who still have some measure of faith in the values they profess and the integrity to implement them and 2) that they have left no options off the table.
It’s also worth noting that at the end of the film, Monsieur Poirot (played by Albert Finney) gracefully declines to arrest the twelve people responsible for ridding the world of such a repugnant beast, declaring (with a knowing look to the camera) that he has the ‘honneur to retire from the case’ – after all, the victim had been ‘deservedly murdered’. I hope that whoever dons the pince-nez and the twirly moustache in the 2017 version is able to deliver such lines with similar panache and make its implicit message of blithe impunity clear to all those with the means to respond accordingly. As for the motive, everyone who’s not catastrophically deluded and/or criminally complicit has more than enough of those. As with that other ‘elderly, malevolent American’ ‘Samuel Ratchett’, no sane human being would mourn the more-than-timely death of Donald Trump.
This is the opening paragraph from the book ‘Post-Truth: How bullshit conquered the world’ by James Ball:
The US government stockpiled 30,000 guillotines, stored in internment camps – including one in Alaska large enough for two million people – ready to wipe out Second Amendment supporters at a rate of three million an hour. Trump supporters at a New York victory rally chanted, ‘We hate Muslims, we have blacks, we want our great country back’. Denzel Washington endorsed Donald Trump – and Trump actually won the popular vote in the US election, despite the mainstream media telling you otherwise.
I’m sure you can see the item in that list that ‘triggered‘ me. Within seconds I was already drafting an outraged response to shout into the ether. Even though I knew full well that I was reading a book about fake news, I dearly wanted the report in question to be true. As the Italian phrase has it, ‘Se non è vero, è ben trovato’, or as they say in Jamaica, ‘If it not go so, it go near so’. I dismissed those stories that conflicted with my worldview immediately. It took concentrated reflection – System 2 thinking – to realise that the headline which had raised my hackles must also have been false, and then some more mental work to understand that many faced with the same set of headlines would have had the exact opposite reaction, would have found the fake news story about guillotines similarly compelling – and, in a way, comforting.
This blog is not a fake news outlet. Everything on this site makes a claim on the truth; I’m not Paul Horner or Beppe Grillo. Satirical articles are clearly labelled as such. Although satire aspires to be (as Picasso said of art) ‘the lie that tells the truth’, I’m aware that the kind I feel compelled to write sometimes cleaves too close to the truth. Headlines such as ‘NRA condemns mass murderer: ‘Poor guy, must have had a bad day or something’, ‘Mail editor Paul Dacre to be knighted at long last’ and ’21 facts that PROVE Donald Trump is NOT racist’ are designed to mislead, and I’ve come to accept that any such misinterpretations and any accusations of spreading ‘fake news’ are, to an extent, my responsibility. After all, 59% of shared articles are not read by the person liking or reposting them. Anyone writing online should be aware of how their ‘content’ contributes to the deluge of bullshit. This site doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but among millions of others that are deliberately misleading.
According to James Ball’s taxonomy of potentially dodgy sites, this blog falls into the category of ‘extremely partisan’: it mostly tells people what they want to hear. Nonetheless, unlike operations such as Breibart and The Canary it makes no pretence to be a news site. I found it amusing that when my post about Trump snapping went viral people were arriving at my site by googling ‘Is Internet Coincidence reliable?’. That particular post triggered people’s sensibilities at just the right moment, and probably fed illusions that Trump’s reign would be over before we knew it, a momentary bad dream. The act that such an assumption has been revealed to be bullshit doesn’t, I think, mean that my argument was bullshit, but it does indicate a lack of political acuity, as further evidenced by headlines such as ‘A prediction: Trump will tweet in favour of Catalan independence‘ and ‘I’ve put money on it: Rees-Mogg will be the Tories’ answer to Corbynism’. At the end of the day, Brian, this is not a very reliable source of information. Thank God it’s just a blog.
In any case, the principal currency of the internet is not information per se. Google and Facebook aren’t, contrary to the boast of the former, ‘organising’ but rather editing what we find according to a set of ambiguous but consistently amoral and manipulative criteria. The real dollars don’t lie in accurate detail, but in headlines and pictures which may be misleading but do connect with that sweet spot between outrage and pleasure. Breitbart understands this very well – although by no means all of its stories are outright fakes, the posts that get shared the most are the blatantly dishonest ones, instantly transmissible as memes – and once the lie has been embedded into an emotionally arresting image, the information it contains cannot be countered by rational argument and fact-checking. The internet thus resembles a playschool, decorated in colourful images with clear, simple messages, a place where everything has a familiar and reassuring meaning. Everything we see on social media tells us: these people feel the same as I do. As for encountering other perspectives, we are slowly realising that the conversational model has little to do with dialogue and much more to do with either reinforcement or confrontation. No one changes their mind because of an internet debate, a meme, or a piece of satire. In fact, there is abundant evidence shows that the online sharing of opinions reinforces and possibly even polarises entrenched points of view. One word I haven’t noticed in the articles and books I’ve read about online identities is tribal, but it seems to me that the affirmation of belonging to a particular group fulfills that atavistic need.
So why write satire, or why for that matter produce any internet content at all? Principally, if I’m honest, to cheer myself up. It’s satisfying to feel that I’m part of a tribe, that I have a few twigs to throw on the campfire. It consummates a basic human need for belonging. It’s gratifying to see that people like and share something I’ve created, to the point, inevitably, of becoming, as John Kelly said of Trump’s relationship with Twitter, a ‘habit’. I use my device, as I think most people do, to some extent, as a source of emotional support provided by devices. Posting online is one way of feeling that I exist and that my existence matters. Thus I can relate to Trump’s apparent need to feel triggered. To paraphrase Sherry Turckle, I post, therefore I am. This is not, I recognise, a healthy or a mature condition, but neither is it a rare one. The internet is in its adolescence, so it’s inevitable, if not exactly natural, that so much of it resembles ‘Lord of the Flies’. Hopefully phenomena such as 4chan and characters such as Milo are symptoms of a development which is not permanently stunted. That’s not to blame the state of affairs on the young: neither I nor Donald Trump, to choose two random examples, are ‘digital natives’.
As it happens, over the last few months I’ve become a keen student of the process of human physical, emotional and intellectual development. Like my first experience of university, this often involves manic bursts of impromptu studying at very irregular hours. For example, when she was between four and five months old, our baby daughter, who had previously slept, well, like a baby should, developed trouble getting to sleep and staying there. In desperation, responding to advice we’d obtained, oddly enough, online, we tried ‘controlled crying’: letting her cry herself to sleep in her cot, with our reassuring interventions taking place at longer and longer intervals. The method is controversial – some believe that babies should never be allowed to cry, ever*. The most cunning element of the plan was the deployment of two fluffy characters called Bunnywunny and Bunnywunnywunny. With their help she was almost immediately able to sleep for ten or so uninterrupted hours. BW and BWW were examples of comfort or security objects, or as Douglas Winnicott called them, ‘transitional objects‘, which teach infants to rely less on their parents and to start developing emotional independence and their own sense of ego/self. Since then, whenever she wakes up at night, they are the first thing she grabs for. Feeling comforted by their presence, she immediately falls back to sleep.
Some of this should ring a bell, unless that is you’ve got your brain turned to silent or vibrate. Freud argued that the primary function of dreams is to allow us to go on sleeping. As we transition towards a reality which for so many will resemble a living nightmare, it seems to me that the role of our devices is to provide us with emotional comfort, and to enable us to control our waking dreams.
*These seem to be the same people who don’t believe in protecting children from disease.