Backward into the future

From Gideon Lichfield of Quartz:

Yes, there have been far worse years in history. Yes, it’s in our (and the media’s) nature to give too much weight to bad, short-term news. Sure, you can take solace in the vast longer-term strides humanity has made, or in devil-may-care existential nihilism, or in hopeful bromides—the arc of the moral universe, yadda yadda. Choose your flavor of forced optimism, and indulge in it all you want. By any objective measure, this has still been an awful year.

It’s not just because of Aleppo, Nice, Brussels, Orlando, and other milestones in carnage. Nor because of the rise of Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Fillon, Duterte, and other merchants of hatred. Nor because free trade and movement are on the retreat. Nor even because a newly isolationist US, resurgent Russia, and aggressive China are about to take the world’s geopolitical balance and shake it like a snow-globe.

No: It’s also because this has been the year of post-truth, when the combined effects of polarizing social media, weakening traditional media, shameless politicians, and economic and political tribalism reached their logical destination. In countries whose systems of governance were premised on at least a veneer of reasoned debate about mutually agreed-on facts, the scope for such debate is shrinking fast. This is fundamental. Don’t like the way the world is going? Want to change it? How do you convince people if they won’t even hear you?

So yes; things are bad, and it’s foolish to pretend otherwise. But it’s equally foolish to wallow in despair.

Well, I agree with that last sentence anyway.

Lessons for liberals

Good Guardian column by Matthew d’Ancona. I particularly like this:

The lesson of 2016 is that you are in a fight, and you lost the first round. This is not the moment for vague “One Nation” rhetoric. It’s a time of political combat – whether you like it or not. Resist kneejerk reaction, but don’t be afraid to take sides. Define your red lines and patrol them assiduously. This is the biggest political scrap since the cold war: autocracy versus democratic institutions; liberalism versus traditionalism; wall-building versus openness. The alt-right, Ukip and Breitbart understand that. Do you?

Spot on.

So what brought the tech moguls to fawn on Trumplethinskin?

This morning’s Observer column:

On Wednesday, a curious spectacle could be observed in New York. A swarm of tech billionaires arrived in their private jets and were whisked to Trump Tower, the Louis XV pastiche that is the residence of Trumplethinskin, as the tech journalist Kara Swisher calls the president-elect.

The roll call of assembled tech moguls ran as follows: Satya Natella and Brad Smith (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Larry Page and Eric Schmidt (Alphabet, Google’s holding company), Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook), Tim Cook (Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla), Ginni Rometty (IBM), Safra Catz (Oracle), Chuck Robbins (Cisco), Alex Karp (Palantir) and Brian Krzanich (Intel).

Apart from their vast wealth and an aversion to paying tax, what linked these notables? Answer: a deep loathing of Trumplethinskin. Yet when he issued the summons to his preposterous “summit” they all came running. Why?

Read on


Most of those attending were tightlipped afterwards Kara Swisher extracted some impressions. She quoted one of the attendees as admitting that it was a bit of a humiliation.

“We definitely gave up a little stature now for possible benefit later,” said one source, noting that it was the price of being a public company with a tweet-happy new U.S. leader. “It’s better to be quiet now and speak up later if we have to, and save our powder.”

Which provides an interesting confirmation of the point I made in the column about the perceived power of a Trump tweet.

Brexit and Trump victories are not just about economics

From Project Syndicate

According to exit polls, Trump won 53% of white male college graduates, and 52% of white women (only 43% of the latter group supported Clinton); he won 47% of white Americans between the ages of 18 and 29, compared to 43% for Clinton; and he beat Clinton by 48% to 45% among white college graduates overall. These Trump supporters do not fit the stereotype at the center of the economic narrative.

Meanwhile, more than half of the 36% of Americans who earn less than $50,000 annually voted for Clinton, and of the remaining 64% of voters, 49% and 47% chose Trump and Clinton, respectively. Thus, the poor were more favorable toward Clinton, and the rich toward Trump. Contrary to the popular narrative, Trump does not owe his victory to people who are most anxious about falling off the economic ladder.

A similar story unfolded in the UK’s Brexit vote, where the “Leave” campaign asserted that the EU’s supposedly burdensome regulations and exorbitant membership fees are holding back the British economy. This hardly amounts to an agenda to fight economic inequality and exclusion, and it is revealing that rich businessmen wrote the largest checks to support Leave.

(Emphasis added). There’s no one single explanation for the two upheavals.

Will climate change data be safe under Trumplethinskin?

This is interesting — and scary:

Alarmed that decades of crucial climate measurements could vanish under a hostile Trump administration, scientists have begun a feverish attempt to copy reams of government data onto independent servers in hopes of safeguarding it from any political interference.

The efforts include a “guerrilla archiving” event in Toronto, where experts will copy irreplaceable public data, meetings at the University of Pennsylvania focused on how to download as much federal data as possible in the coming weeks, and a collaboration of scientists and database experts who are compiling an online site to harbor scientific information.

“Something that seemed a little paranoid to me before all of a sudden seems potentially realistic, or at least something you’d want to hedge against,” said Nick Santos, an environmental researcher at the University of California at Davis, who over the weekend began copying government climate data onto a nongovernment server, where it will remain available to the public. “Doing this can only be a good thing. Hopefully they leave everything in place. But if not, we’re planning for that.”

As the old joke goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. If I were a climate scientist I would share these concerns. After all, Trumplethinskin has appointed a climate-change denier as head of the EPA.

Hacking, disinformation and democracy

My take (in Prospect magazine) on Russian interference in the US election.

The CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in this year’s presidential election to help Donald Trump win. Speaking on Fox News the beneficiary of these alleged subterranean efforts retorted, “I think it’s ridiculous. I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it.” And his transition team issued a dismissive statement. “These are the same people,” it stated, “that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”

Ponder this for a moment. American intelligence agencies have concluded with “high confidence” that Russia acted covertly in the latter stages of the presidential campaign to harm Hillary Clinton’s chances and promote Trump’s. They based that conclusion, in part, on finding that the Russians hacked the Republican National Committee’s computer systems as well as the Democratic National Committee’s network, but did not release whatever information they gleaned from the Republican networks.

That, of course, doesn’t prove that the Russian intervention was decisive in enabling Trump’s victory (though, in the end, the verdict of the Electoral College depended on 80,000 votes). But in a way it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a foreign adversary intervened covertly but adroitly in an American presidential election; that the outcome was the victory of a candidate who seems less belligerent towards Russia than his predecessor; and that the new president is contemptuously dismissive of the analysis of the intelligence services that he is soon to lead…

Read on

Quote of the Day

“Islamophobia is the new anti-Semitism.”

BBC Newsnight journalist who did a report last night on the emergence of far-Right “Identarians’ in Europe.