Elephants speak out against GOP: ‘We no longer wish to be associated with such a repugnant organization’

A representative of the elephant species has spoken out in the most strident terms against the US Republican Party, calling it an immediate threat to all life on the planet and to the human race in particular. He also asked that the GOP find another symbol to represent its brand.

‘It has long been a source of considerable embarrassment for the elephant community to be associated with the Republican Party’, said the spokeselephant at a press conference held in one of the larger rooms of the Washington offices of the WWF. ‘We were no supporters of Richard Nixon, and very few of us were in favor of George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. However, the spectacle of these last few months has, as we elephants like to say, taken the tusk’.

‘Not only have the nont exactly mammoth-brained sons of the Republican President boasted of hunting elephants and our fellow protected species’, he continued. ‘We have also had to suffer the indignity of becoming associated in the human mind with the most grave offenses against basic human and non-human morality. Without wanting to dwell on their actual enthusiasm for putting child sex abusers into positions of political responsibility, the venality demonstrated by Republican congressmen in serving the requirements of their superrich paymasters with regard to tax reform has been beyond scandalous. They have no concern whatsoever for the effects on your society or your economy’.

‘It’s also necessary to address the, if you’ll excuse the pun, elephant in the room. The Republican Party is an organisation which has, for the last few decades, dedicated itself to telling outright lies about the causes and consequences of environmental catastrophe, particularly with regard to the climate. Their greed and corruption is such that they ignore very real catastrophes and actively seeking to censor discussion of the topic, going so far as to ban the terms ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ from government documents’.

‘This issue is one very close to the hearts of all elephants, given that we are a species whose continued existence is threatened. We therefore request that the Republican Party cease forthwith to use our bodies as symbols of their organisation. We would also like to point out the irony of a species usually considered, in human terms, mute, having to raise these issues in the absence of an appropriate level of concern among humans with regard to their own future. We, as elephants, find the Republican Party odious and repugnant; you humans must heed the warning of your intellectual Noam Chomsky, who quite correctly called it the most dangerous organization on the planet today’.

The elephant said that he was aware that given the long association of the GOP with his species, it may not be easy to disassociate the two in the public mind. As a gesture of goodwill he deposited a pile of elephant dung on the stage, suggesting that it would make for a more apposite symbol of what the Republican Party stands for.

Republican Party Chairperson Ronna Romney McDaniel was unavailable to comment as we went to press. Her secretary explained that Ms McDaniel was busy meeting some oxygen industy lobbyists and then had a Sandy Hook-themed NRA Christmas party to attend.

The elephant species is around 55 million years old.

The ghost of Ayn Rand is haunting the streets of my hometown, wearing a hi-vis vest and carrying a chainsaw

I grew up in Sheffield in the 70s and 80s. Its cheap bus fares, theatres, museums and art galleries, its network of well-stocked libraries and its abundant green spaces made me into the person I am and gave me an abiding sense of respect for the value of public provision. I went to primary school in an area of the city called Greenhill, where they taught me how trees, by absorbing carbon dioxide and thus ensuring we have enough oxygen, help us to breathe.

I don’t live in Sheffield now, but all my family do, including my nieces, who all go to school in Hillsborough which they walk to and from along tree-lined streets. Those trees have attracted national attention recently because the local council is bowing to the demands of a private company and allowing a huge number of them to be cut down on the flimsiest and most selfish of pretexts. Although the trees represent £11.4 million in purported value*, there’s no way for Ferrovial (the transnational corporation which has, via its subsidiary Amey, bought up large parts of Sheffield City Council) to monetise it, and it costs to maintain them so they might as well chop them all down**.

Although some legal systems insist on granting them the same status as human beings, corporations don’t actually live and breathe. They do think, after a fashion, but they have only one obsessive thought: how to accumulate more wealth. They achieve this in large part by externalising their costs. PFI, the secretive and essentially deeply corrupt system of which Sheffield’s deal with Amey is part, has had a devastating impact on the wages and conditions of public servants. The rationale for the whole scheme is not just that the private sector is more efficient, but also that it grants access to global financial markets. Thus it represents not only a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, but also the exposure of essential public services to the whims and storms of the global market. Not quite by chance, it’s also accompanied by a lack of democratic transparency. Whether it be in Sheffield in relation to trees, or (my former London borough) Haringey with regard to housing, voters are not allowed to know what exactly has been agreed in their name.

Modern corporations are by definition psychopathic, in that nothing else matters to them but short-term self-interest. The possessors of great wealth have not always been so single-minded in the attempt to turn everything of public utility into private wealth. Centuries ago, feudal landlords created country estates like Chatsworth by turning commonly farmed land into symbols and sites of their power and wealth, thus depriving peasants of access to food and forcing them to move into cities to get jobs in factories as wage labourers. They sculpted the landscapes of their estates to demonstrate their command over nature, but at least they kept most of the trees standing. In the case of Sheffield, some local nabobs donated their land to the city, making it into one of the greenest in Europe. Some notable figures also funded the construction museums and art galleries.

For previous generations of capitalists, acres of trees not only stood as signs of wealth. They could also be pulped and transformed into physical money. The American writer Thomas Pynchon’s ancestral family fortune was made and then lost in paper, described in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as ‘the wholesale slaughtering of trees’, ‘producing toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word’. Before that they were fur traders, ‘still for the living green against the dead white’.

Nowadays capitalism, if it can still be called that, has entered a new phase, not that of the dead white but rather the flat white of the service economy, serving principally the needs of corporations. About twenty years ago I spent a year working in a corporate environment, in the technical support area of a software giant in Dublin. At the time I thought that computers were somehow exciting – I hadn’t yet realised that I was essentially working with hyped-up stationery. One episode stands out as emblematic of such organisations and how they operate. The company in question had a new piece of utility software for a brand-new version of the Apple Mac tantalisingly close to readiness, but the end of quarter was closing in and the programmers weren’t going to make the deadline. That didn’t stop the company from selling thousands of packages of the new version at a software trade fair in France – the problem came when the purchasers arrived home and to their horreur – zut alors! – discovered that the box contained a note explaining that the actual software wasn’t quite ready yet, but do please accept this database accounting programme as a temporary replacement. I have rarely felt so relieved not to speak better French, because my francophone colleagues had to explain to several thousand really, really, really fucking angry customers that they would have to wait just zat leetle bit longer. The enraged Mac enthusiasts weren’t exactly mollified when, a couple of weeks later, the actual disc arrived and turned out to be full of bugs which (I forget the exact technical details) shat all over the insides of their beloved iMacs. In order to save time, the company had curtailed the testing stage. Fortunately, things ended well, as the share price of Symantec (which was the name of the company) rose at the end of the quarter, so everyone was happy, except the people who actually wanted the software. They’re probably still vert de rage two decades later.

Nowadays if you need some software – say, Microsoft Word – you can just download it, but while in the intervening years you could do so for free, Silicon Valley has found new ways to make its products pay. Such programmes are now available for a yearly rent. Tech firms are thus the cutting edge not just of technology but also of new forms of buying and owning and the legal architecture that underpins them. In the book ‘I Hate The Internet’ Jarett Kobek nails one major inspiration for the ideology that inspires such innovation:

Ayn Rand [is] probably the most influential writer of the last fifty years. She wrote books about how social welfare recipients were garbage who deserved to die in the gutter. She was well regarded by very rich people unwilling to accept that their fortunes were a combination of random chance and an innate ability to humiliate others. Ayn Rand’s books told very rich people that they were good, that their pursuit of wealth was moral and just. Many of these people ended up as CEOs or in high levels of American government. Ayn Rand was the billionnaire’s best friend.’

Jonathan Freedland calls this ‘the age of Ayn Rand***’. She is worshipped, and her adolescent take on neoliberalism advanced, by hugely influential figures including Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, Peter Thiel and Jimmy Wales in the US and Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan in the UK. The Rand cult is not the only source of such ideas – Thatcher and Reagan were devotees of Friedrich Hayek, whose doctrine, with its antiregulatory zeal, has come to dominate global politics over the last forty years – but it is an emblematic one.

Although the Little Red Book of the technocultural revolution, TED Talks, provides the comforting sense that corporate interests can be persuaded to act in the interests of humanity and the planet, with the innovative shift to a digital, virtual paper-free economy a symbol of this potential for environmental responsiblity, there’s nothing sustainable about an economic system which is wholly subservient to the ideology of self-interest. Such a form of capitalism is much more corrupt and infinitely more destructive than any prior phase. It dictates that everything that does not serve private interests has no value and must be destroyed.

The concept of ‘seven generation stewardship’ urges humanity to weigh all its decisions with an eye to the needs of people in 150 or so years. Instead, here in the UK, we have continual bursts of shock doctrine austerity wrecking the life chances of our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children ad infinitum: no libraries, no galleries, no social or economic security, no public transport, no trees. Our Government barely seems to think more than a day or two ahead, or to the next Daily Mail front page. According to this ultra-short-term, grab-what-you-can ideology, trees resemble people, indeed entire populations: they’re too expensive to maintain. Permanent austerity is therefore a response to environmental collapse, one which represents the priorities of elites far more articulately than any number of photos of David Cameron with huskies. It is a war against not only the very notion of public provision, but human existence itself.

Sheffield owes its development to the industrial revolution,  and the industrial revolution owes a lot to Sheffield. Its confluence of rivers and hills created boundless energy. A visit to Shepherd’s Wheel, Forge Dam or the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet convinces you that such forces can be sustainable on a small scale, but once the wheel started turning the momentum was unstoppable. We created forces of which we quickly lost control. The driving force of capital accumulation demands acceleration far beyond anything the planet, our bodies and our mind can contain. Trees fall for the same reason our children can’t keep their eyes off our iPads. It’s a vapid conceit to kid ourselves that this mode of interacting with the world is more sustainable: it is produced and promoted by the same dynamic as that turning the Arctic into an oil field. We can have ipads and smartphones like the one I’m using to write this (made of plastic derived from oil and hand-manufactured by slaves in China); but no trees. We can have the internet, but we must in return wave goodbye to a stable climate. This is the faustian pact of unrestrained capitalist development. Culture, from music to books to art galleries, survives only as a medium for advertising and other forms of corporate promotion. All that is solid melts into air, and we end up paying for oxygen. As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Accumulation: This is Moses and the Prophets!’ – ones worshipped by politicians such as Michael Gove, who called the felling of trees in Sheffield ‘bonkers’ but who will search in vain for ways to stop it. Successive governments, at the service of private interests to whom his ideological devotion is total, have sacrificed democracy to corporate power. Despite Gove’s sentimental pretences, that ‘bank holiday from cynicism’ in the words of Oscar Wilde, he has no more respect for trees than he does for experts. This is a man who tried to abolish the teaching of climate change in schools. For those of his persuasion nothing, not even the planet, can stand in the way of the market. The fact that it is fixed in favour of corporations is by-the-by. Roberto Saviano was right to call the UK the most corrupt country in the world. He, a veteran of exposing the mafia at very great personal risk, knows la materia: globalised, financialised corruption covered up by legal omertà. Unlike those who stand in the way of organised crime in Palermo or Acapulco, the heroic protectors/protestors of Sheffield’s trees are threatened not with death (although the forces they are combatting are not averse to using violence) but with jail and/or destitution.

This is not a conspiracy theory. No single human being or secret committee is in charge of the global market. Abstract forces are increasingly convinced that they can keep growing only if they can dispense with human beings. They believe that they can survive without the physical world. Their barely human servants, from Gove down to the austerity-bound councillors who voted for privatisation, are just doing their bidding. Increasingly computers have become self-aware, making decisions for us without our even knowing it, unerringly following the guidelines programmed into them. Capitalism is thus an out-of-control driverless juggernaut,crashing down the street at full pelt, uprooting and destroying everything in its path, from democracy itself to ancient oaks and elms. There is no utility software which can resolve its malfunctions.

*I understand why desperate campaigners come up with such figures; personally I think that framing the issue in such terms is a mistake. Doing so capitulates to the priorities of the other side.

**I am by no means an expert on the tree issue, these people are.

***Or, to give her her full name, Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand

Britain First is a terrorist organisation

Although definitions of terrorism vary and often conflict, you’d be hard-pressed to find any that didn’t contain the notion of political violence combined with the threat of further political violence. Just before the Brexit referendum, a member of the British parliament, Jo Cox MP,  was shot and stabbed to death by a political activist. We know he was a political activist because he had been photographed campaigning with the group Britain First, and it was the name of that organisation that he shouted as he murdered her. In court he shouted slogans calling her a traitor.

Of course, there are no documents proving that Thomas Mair was a formal member of Britain First. In much the same way, there doesn’t seem to be such as thing as an Isis membership card. Both organisations seem to recruit principally via the Internet, where affiliations are notoriously fickle and rarely formalised. Mair’s proximity to the leadership of Britain First is much more remarkable than that of any number of European-grown Islamic terrorists is to the leading figures in Isis. No media outlet automatically absolves Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi when one of his distant disciples ploughs a truck into pedestrians in Catalonia or shoots up a Parisean theatre. Much like both Isis and the EDL, Britain First is an online operation spilling onto the streets. Those who create its violently hateful propaganda are responsible when someone responds to their exhortations to murder ‘traitors’.

Yet somehow, in the furore about Trump’s retweeting of three fake videos posted by one of the group’s leaders, the terrorist angle hasn’t been mentioned. This is odd, given the irony that in supposedly making a statement against terrorism, Trump was promoting it. He won’t face any action by Twitter, as he is their number one star player. Given that Twitter more or less did the decent thing by removing and decredentialing other far-right hate preachers a couple of weeks ago, a concerted campaign to get Britain First removed from the platform might succeed, and would cause huge embarrassment to Trump – or, given that he seems immune to such emotions, his cause.

It’s also important to expose Nigel Farage’s links with BF. Although he has now denounced them as neofascists, Golding et al were very open in the past about their connections, even boasting in this video of attacking anti-UKIP protestors on his behalf. Anyone who was unfamiliar with Britain First but who still finds Farage’s shtick amusing also needs to be reminded that in the wake of the referendum he boasted that it had been won ‘without a shot being fired’. We don’t need to delve into his apparent family history in the National Front to see that his disassociation from the explicitly nazi movement is disingenuous at best. If Trump hadn’t come across Britain First before, it’s no thanks to Nigel Farage, who surely has Golding and Fransen among his email contacts, along with Robert Mercer and Julian Assange. In any game of Six Degrees of Separation starting from any figure in the international fascist movement, Farage’s name won’t take too long to crop up. His comment about the referendum was an implicit statement of allegiance with a terrorist organisation which murdered an elected MP in order to stop her campaigning to help people fleeing war. The name of that terrorist organisation is Britain First.

My days in a far-right troll cult

aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.jpgIn Sheffield as of 1987 anyone walking through the shopping precinct in the centre of town ran a gauntlet of left-wing newspaper sellers. The 14-year-old me often generally managed to avoid handing over 30p or so of my hard-earned paper round money for Socialist Worker, but on occasion I found myself buttonholed by some garrulous and well-presented young people pushing a publication called ‘The Next Step’. None of them appeared to be local, and they were, by comparison with their competitors, refreshingly unconcerned with whatever workers’ struggles were going on in South Yorkshire at the time. I didn’t get the ideological distinctions between the Revolutionary Communist Party, as they were called, and the Socialist Workers, but I suspect that the way they responded whenever I asked about such things – they were more than happy to slag off their rivals on the left – appealed to my disaffected sensibilities and inchoate contrarian instincts. I started going to meetings at which they pressed a copy of Lenin’s ‘What is to be done’ on me, and also made me shell out for a copy of a book called ‘Moral Panics’, which I did read and found splenetically entertaining if sometimes puzzling at the level of basic logical argumentation.

Although I had trouble keeping up with their sometimes contradictory-seeming political arguments, they were at least friendly, relatively unpatronising and certainly socially useful. They took me to the Leadmill to see a band who later turned out to be Deacon Blue, and got me properly drunk, all the time shouting in my ear about stuff I really didn’t know much about. I do remember that one of my new comrades, taking issue with a stranger’s St George’s badge, began shouting at him about Northern Ireland and started a dancefloor ruckus. We also took a trip to London to the gay pride carnival, or as it was at the time, demo, where I had a distinctly Life of Brian moment upon seeing a banner from the Revolutionary Communist Group. I asked the natural question, only to be told that they were ‘wankers’. Then the general election came around, and we suddenly stopped being the RCP and turned instead into something called the Red Front, under which monicker we went banging on doors in search of people to disagree with. Our campaign ended with 277 votes, which was considered a victory as at least it was more than the possibly dead bloke from some basically defunct version of the Communist Party had received. Eventually other aspects of teenagehood took over and, despite some tugging on their part (I think I still owe them £1.75 for the Lenin book, which they were keen to get hold of), I succeeded in drifting away.

From then on I kept an occasional eye on what they were up to but maintained my distance. I remember joining all my fellow delegates in turning my back as an RCP member spoke up at NUS conference, but I don’t remember why. Although I was living in Ireland at the time, I was vaguely aware that they were ubiquitous in the UK in the mid-1990s, standing on street corners looking slick and pushing subscriptions to their magazine Living Marxism. It had entertaining covers and contained articles written from a consistently libertarian standpoint, with elaborate arguments that would sort of persuade you that whatever you had thought about (to choose a not-entirely-random example) the environment was wrong, but with an uncanny feeling that you were the victim of some sort of trick or part of a game that wasn’t actually all that much fun to play. After it became clear that they were prepared to perpetrate full-on atrocity denial in order to promote their wilfully exasperating view of the world, it was very hard for anyone to take anything they said seriously. Few would have expected them to continue to deepen their influence in British life, but it seems they are far more determined and cunning than anyone might have thought.

Given their relatively rapid en masse shift away from the left, there’s been a ongoing mystery of why they do what they do, particularly since (through their website Spiked) they started selling their contrarian punditry to corporations and the right-wing media. From my own experiences and from having followed their development through articles such as thisthis and this, I suspect they are a bit of a sect, but one in which the personal bonds override and yet (if we consider their commitment to the politics of self-interest) determine their collective ideological stance. The members of the core group, largely unchanged for the last thirty of so years, have managed to cave out steady careers in the media, with a shared ideological bent seemingly determined by the desire not just to provoke but to (as we now understand it) troll. Their contrarianism far surpasses anything I might have identified with as a teenager, and at times their adolescent desire to scandaliser la bourgeoisie would put even Marilyn Manson to shame.

The LRB piece linked to above refers to this teenage aspect, the way their rhetorical insistence that everyone ‘act like grown-ups’ seems to betray an adolescent mindset. (It also mentions that Frank Furedi’s dependence on newspaper articles for his source material suggests that his reputation as a serious academic is not entirely deserved.) They continue to have a fixation on the young, with their successive front projects such as the Manifesto Club, the East London Science School and WorldWrite (of which our erstwhile election candidate is now director) aimed directly at teenagers. Now that schools are up for grabs by anyone with enough cash, regardless of their ideological proclivities, they seem to be enjoying more direct access to young minds. The prominence of Brendan O’Neill as a steadfastly obnoxious commentator for my new-not-favourite newspaper The Telegraph has (re)alerted many to the dangers of their project, which now seems to dovetail with certain aspects of a hard-right agenda*, particularly outright climate denial and the abuse of the notion of ‘free speech’ to legitimate hate speech. This site has also written this week of the insidious influence they also seem to enjoy in sections of the BBC. (This excellent Tumblr blog Twitter feed is also extremely informative on such matters, with an very useful primer to countering their bullshit available here.) Of course, it’s something of a provocative exaggeration to call the Spiked/LM/RCP crowd a far-right troll cult, just as it’s completely absurd to call the #metoo phenomenon a ‘moral panic’ and a ‘modern day Salem’ or claim that misplaced hysteria over climate change caused the Grenfell fire. But from my experiences as an impressionable young person subjected to their influence, combined with the fact that their current agenda is so close to that of the global far-right as to make very little meaningful difference, this is not a group of people who should be allowed anywhere near schools.

*To the extent that he now seems to be styling himself after Mike Cernovich. O’Neill’s entire Facebook profile is well worth a chuckle. Who on earth, apart from those with an uncontrollable need to publicise themselves, keeps their Facebook account public?!

The left should stop hoping that the right will play by the rules

The next Prime Minister of Italy may well be Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time premier and tycoon who is in many ways the prototype for Donald Trump. Although Berlusconi was banned from elected office for life in 2015, he is currently appealing to the European Court of Human Rights on a technicality. He is being represented by the same British law firm which includes Amal Clooney. After all, everyone has the same human rights, even if (as in the case of Berlusconi) they’ve been convicted of tax fraud, wiretapping political rivals and paying for sex with underage prostitutes, and are planning on forming a government with the political descendents of Mussolini.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the US are falling over themselves to condemn Senator Al Franken for the incident in which he groped a colleague in 2006. A few weeks ago condemnation of Harvey Weistein was universal. No one claimed he had been set up or that the charges were ‘fake news’. On social media many progressives are proud that they condemn all wrongdoers, no matter which side of the political divide they line up on. They are waiting in vain for the right to reciprocate and/or congratulate them.

The abstract principle that everyone has the same right before the law and must enjoy the same access to justice is a fine one. Similarly, it is of course essential that those who have done wrong must be brought to justice and the hypocrisy of those who only pay lip service to universal principles when it suits their political agenda exposed. It is noble of liberals and the left to stand up for such principles.

However, there’s clearly a problem: the right is neither grateful nor impressed. If Berlusconi is successful, he will pay off his lawyers, bribe his way back into power and set about ripping the constitution and the rule of law to shreds. (Italy’s recognition of the European Court of Human Rights may well be at stake.) In much the same manner, no Republican in the US will turn round and thank Democrats for preserving the human rights of all Americans by berating itself for ‘allowing’ some of its leading figures to get away with abusing women. The idea that the right-wing will suddenly learn a valuable lesson about hypocrisy and renew its commitment to democratic values is morbidly mistaken.

Right now all over the world the right is abandoning its commitment not just to the rule of law, constitutional precepts and human rights, but to the very notion of a shared reality. There is no fact or value that they will not deny whenever it is expedient to do so. Whether this takes the form of Michael Gove in the UK decrying the work of experts, politicians in the US rejecting out of hand careful research documenting the pedophilia of a Republican senatorial candidate and the overwhelming evidence of regular sexual abuse by the President, or right-wing pundits from Fox News to the Telegraph openly lying about climate science to protect corporate interests, the savage nihilism of the new global right-wing movement is beyond anything we have encountered in the age of democracy – with a couple of notable exceptions.

That doesn’t mean that the right will not, drawing upon seemingly inexhaustible reserves of cynicism, use the tools of democracy, including the media and the courts, to suit their purposes. At this moment they are busy weaponising every element of our civilisation to attack liberal values and entrench their power. That includes not just the notion of women’s rights in order to purge opposition politicians and liberal celebrities, but also movies, computer games, children’s cartoon characters and other cultural icons, from Ghostbusters to Gamergate and Pepe the frog to pizza and cow’s milk. Their commitment to literally building up their armories is no accident – what we are witnessing is the equivalent of a psychopath grabbing everything he can as a tool to beat his victim to death. (The most powerful weapon nowadays is, of course, the Internet.) That means they will happily employ the notion of free speech and the discourse of human rights when and where it suits them. No Republican or fascist will ever insist that those rights also be granted to their political opponents, and they will never turn such weapons on themselves.

This does not mean that we abandon our commitment to honouring universal values. Rather it’s a question of priorities. Just as the right to free speech does not mean that everyone can demand access to mass and social media audiences, liberals and the left must not prioritise causes established and exploited by the far-right. With the very real threat of fascism bashing down the door of democracy, this is not the time for human rights lawyers to be defending budding autocrats like Berlusconi, and in much the same way, while it’s right and necessary to condemn the Louis CKs and Harvey Weinsteins and Al Frankens of this world and disown anyone who casts aspersions on their victims, the left must not spend so long howling in the desert at its own hypocrisies that it lets the real enemy off the hook. Democrats did not facilitate abuse by those men in the same way as the Republicans are for Moore and Trump.

In the meantime, while doing all they can to expose and annihilate the far-right agenda, US progressives would do well to study Italy’s dismal history of vapid and hapless post-Berlusconi governments to learn an instructive lesson in how mere neoliberalism managerialism, committed to no values beyond GDP growth targets, inevitably leads back to yet more right-wing populism – or something even worse.

(Based around a conversation with @ChiaraLiguori.)

As long as Trump plays ignorant, his supporters will too

The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan came up with the concept of the ‘subject-supposed-to-know’, an impersonal and intangible entity which carries knowledge on our behalf. As I understand it, this relates to the conscience. When we feel morally guilty, what authority is it that knows we have done something wrong? For many, the answer is an omniscient god. Lacan’s insight is that we all in a sense believe in God whether we like it or not.

This raises two questions for me. In a heavily mediated society where even our most intimate thoughts and gestures are mediated back to us even while we think and act, could a mediating institution play such a role? Or perhaps a political tyrant, as George Orwell posited? Social media could well come to embody the two, in that so many of our experiences are thought of in terms of their value, evaluated as potential cultural capital, and also because the affordances it offers to directly repressive regimes are boundless.

The other thing that concerns me ( in fact I now see that the idea actually came from Slavoj Žižek) is what we can call the subject-supposed-not-to-know. For example, most of us have grown up in the light of terrifying facts regarding the climate which, were we to take them seriously, would compel us to transform every aspect of our lives*. Instead, we deal with the question as we do with death, pretending it’s not real and dealing with each instance of it as though it were occasional and incidental, with no implications for how we ourselves should think and act. There is clearly some sort of (as Lacan calls it) ‘Big Other’ that embodies and excuses our lack of awareness, an authority which, unlike us, is truly ignorant of the problem. Here we can see that these tools are particularly useful for understanding the role of mass and social media in our lives.

The other pressing instance of the subject-supposed-not-to-know is directly related to this: supporters of Donald Trump. In a way unerringly similar to that of a cult leader, Trump acts out their ignorance and thus allows them to continue with a kind of hysterical blindness. This is true not just of the climate, but also of his own behaviour. If we want to understand why they are so resistent to acknowledging his failings while so ready to blame others, this provides an answer. As long as he pretends that the allegations (including admissions he has himself made in the past) don’t exist, it’s as if they’re not real. He is aided in this by partisan media outlets and social media platforms which facilitate tunnel vision/amplify our blind spots and enable wilfull ignorance of that which their participants do not want to acknowledge. Trump’ s supporters embody an increasingly prevalent condition which affects us all, just in a more extreme form: they and we are effectively, as José Saramago pointed out, blind.

*The now-ubiquitous term ‘triggered’ (as in provoked) actually describes an effect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. What else is this trauma which we’re so keen to avoid addressing that we displace our fear and stress onto substitute targets, eg race?

The world’s most infantile cult

Trump’s tweets about ‘making friends’ with Kim Jong Un, complete with exclamation marks more befitting an eight-year-old, confirm once again a level of naivety about world affairs which most people, judging his role and the background to such statements, will regard as both terrifying and contemptible. But his online supporters (presuming there are some who are not automated) seem to lap it up, insisting that his appeals for everyone to get along be taken at face value. Their insistence that the most superficial aspects of world affairs – reports of personal conversations between individual world leaders – are the only defining ones also explains their (faux?)-naif response to his statement about Putin’s ‘response’ to his (apparently pretend) questions about election meddling. For one thing, the theme of lying is too adult to acknowledge; for another, they appear to be too deeply embedded inside a particular worldview to truly care about what’s true or false, or, as Reza Aslan wrote last week, ‘Trump has been spectacularly successful at getting his supporters to believe his blandishments rather than their own eyes’.

It’s common to see Trump supporters on social media extol love and friendship, and denounce the ‘hatred’ and ‘negativity’ of his opponents. I’ve written before about the sentimentality of tyrants. With his gold bath fittings, made-up golf trophies and puerile insistence that such tokens of his success – his toys – be explicitly acknowledged and admired, Trump resembles a more insecure version of the man who will inevitably, in the next few days, become his new BDF (Best Dictator Friend): Rodrigo Duterte of (as it’s correctly spelt) the Philippines, who combines unmitigated brutality and obscene outbursts with teen-like melodrama, especially when it comes to karaoke. There is a long history of autocrats seeing their subjects and counterparts in a mawkish light; there’s also a Michael Jackson element to both Trump’s worldview (and that of his immediate family members) and his appeal, which it’s fair to suspect may suggest similar predilections. Maybe some Trump supporters think that Roy Moore, like the King of Pop, just wanted to play innocently with those children, and would react just as nonchlantly if it were revealed that their hero does too.

I’ve long contended that such naivety is a symptom of a retreat to a less complex and frightening world in the face of the changing climate. The infantile depiction of the world of Fox News and the bogeyman worldview of Infowars are cases in point. There are a number of factors that account for the success of such propaganda. For me, such a retreat to a world of fairy tales is a response to our inability to discuss the environmental consequences of our way of life responsibly. If you can deny the facts of global warming, you can (be persuaded to) deny anything. Once confronted, acolytes of the new right habitually deny everything we try to use to counter them: reason, the experiences of others, universally-agreed upon historical fact, intellectual and scientific authority, even what they themselves have just said. This last is telling: owning one’s own statements and the logical consequences thereof is a habit one acquires as one matures. Instead, faced with truly incontrovertible evidence that their argument is based on false premises, both children and self-declared supporters of Trump repeatedly try to shift the blame by changing the subject, and when that doesn’t work resort to insults. I find most of the time that I have no response but to plead with such people to grow up.

Trump supporters and their equivalents elsewhere may perceive and behave in accordance with a cartoon version of reality, but it’s not a innocent or harmless one. It encompasses the cruelties of children: spitefulness and bullying, including racism of the most puerile kind. Read, for example, this exchange between two adult Trump supporters as reported by Kyle Griffin. Then there are phenomena like the trans bathroom controversy and the building of a wall to keep out outsiders. It is not a world defined by and for adults.

Social media exacerbates this. It’s a playground in which it’s extremely easy to discard the standards of reasonable debate. Bullies and political manipulators were much quick to recognise and mobilise its radical potential than defenders of progressive values. I suspect that as fascism takes hold across the planet, meaningful resistence will not be centred on social media in its current form.

Children often begin to distinguish themselves from their parents by forming gangs. Some join cults. I think it’s essential to take seriously the notion that Trump’s base is a cult. Thus in trying to turn the tide – and, Canute-like or not, we have no choice – we need to turn to the wisdom of deprogrammers and those who know how to counsel individuals caught up in the cult mindset. Trump (etc) supporters behave and argue like children, because that is the mentality particular to their cult. The critical question is: given that their childish retreat into a more reassuring world is partly a symptom and result of our own failure to begin to address very real problems which, Trump or no Trump, threaten our continued existence, what do we have to offer them which is better than the comfort blanket they are so attached to? How do we engage with them without getting drawn into a cartoon-level battle of good versus evil? Should we even treat them as adults, or as children? I have no idea whatsoever. I think it’s time to read up on how cults work.

You think Youtube’s bad? Wait til you see Russia Today’s kids channel

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What a jape!

I saw the best minds of my and other generations destroyed by Youtube videos, friends sending me 3am emails furiously denouncing the conspiracy by the powerful to sell us the idea that the climate is changing, kept awake by the conviction that the Twin Towers were a mere hologram, or convinced that Isis is an illusion created by the CIA.

Having just sent some thoughts along those lines to a friend who had also read this essay detailing how soon and how easily our offspring are, thanks to Google, being entranced by and drawn into a world which is infinitely crueller and more absurd than our own, I was startled to see that the very first comment on the piece included a link to another article centred on the very same poem I had (in my glib manner) just quoted.

Such serendipitous connections are, of course, infinitely abundant on Youtube, which plays a particular role not just in the lives of very young children but also, as another friend recently pointed out, in the growth of the alt-right. As the writer says, and as that semi-regular succession of emails from newly- (and, mercifully, usually briefly-) converted conspiracist friends confirms, the role of the platform in the spread of political propaganda is terrifying to the point of nausea. In a not unrelated phenonmenon, it’s a salutary and unsettling experience to see how our baby daughter’s face lights up when it meets the screen of our phones. Like all sensible parents we had decided that we would keep the whole world of digital screen technology a dirty secret from her for as long as humanly possible; anyone who sets out with this intention soon finds that given the preponderance of Whatsapp calls, Skype and so on combined with our evident dependence on it for our own purposes, the talismanic qualities of the device are impossible to disguise. One creeping influence is indeed Youtube, with its immediate and infinite access to hours of nursery rhymes. We are allowing her to be led right into the jaws of the monster that will seize her imagination and attention as soon as it gets a chance.

The article describes how the word salad titles of the billions of videos aimed at infants (typical example: Wrong Heads Disney Wrong Ears Wrong Legs Kids Learn Colors Finger Family 2017 Nursery Rhymes) right from the moment they can tap on the device are an indication that they are produced not by conscious humans but by algorithims set to maximise views and thereby income. Perhaps the non-syntactical way in which such mechanisms operate resembles or is a part of the same phenomenon as Trump’s seemingly incoherent appeals. Such messages, although ostensibly nonsensical, bypass our rational brain and go straight for the limbic system, triggering our deepest and least conscious fears and desires. If we combine what we know about Youtube on a political level and the formative effects it has on very young brains, it starts to make any dystopian fantasy such as The Matrix or Brave New World almost quaint and comforting. Even leaving aside the horrors of Twitter (which at last now with 280 characters stands a chance of becoming more thoughtful and respectful) Youtube is becoming the 24-hour two-minute hate, opium-of-the-masses and soma all in one.

More disturbing still are some of the reflections contained in this must-must-must read account of how the Brexit and Trump nightmares came about, which includes several points of crossover with the previous article. The head of Russia Today once said that

“It is important to have a channel that people get used to, and then, when needed, you show them what you need to show. In some sense, not having our own foreign broadcasting is the same as not having a ministry of defense. When there is no war, it looks like we don’t need it. However, when there is a war, it is critical.”

Evern worse than finding out that a friend has been spending dozens of hours puffing away contentedly on the crackpipe of Youtube conspiracy nonsense is discovering that they are being exposed to the pseudo-radical manipulations of RT (often in the form of Youtube clips). I know that within a couple of years our daughter will start clamouring for access to the likes of Nickelodeon and Cbeebies (along with, it should go without saying, Youtube); if Putin and his cronies ever hit on the idea of creating a version of Russia Today for children, we really are screwed.

Motion for a second f*cking referendum

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’.

Why I’ve switched from the Guardian to the Telegraph

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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 discuss 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).


**A clear 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 pub 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. They were 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.

Read the sequel here.