Referendum blues

The UK Referendum campaign has officially begun (though it’s been unofficially running for ages), with both sides pushing meaningless, irrelevant and often misleading statistics at innocent citizens. These are the usual currency of what passes for political debate in these parts; statistics are tokens of a pretence that public discourse is about rationality when in fact it’s nothing of the kind. There is no way that anyone could make up his or her mind about the issue facing the UK (and the continent of Europe) on the basis of any number — or of any historical time-series of numbers. This is all about values, perceptions, prejudices, ignorance and illusions.

The irony, of course, is that the question UK citizens are being asked to decide — whether to remain in the EU or leave — is of colossal import. Yet 99+ per cent of the discussion in Britain is exclusively about the UK. Will it be better or worse off outside the Union? Almost nobody seems interested in what the UK decision to leave might do to the EU itself. In that sense the debate has already been ‘framed’ — as George Lakoff would say. ‘Europe’ doesn’t really matter: it’s All About Us.

Given what else is happening in the world, this pernicious solipsism is not only depressing; it’s downright dangerous. Of course it’s predictable: most political debate in democracies is simplistic and myopic. (Just look at the Republican primary contest in the United States, for example.) So it’s naive to expect anything better. Or is it?

The most striking thing about the campaign so far is that the only people who seem to be really passionate are the ones advocating ‘Brexit’. They are — as the Times columnist Matthew Parris pointed out in a Spectator article last week, a pretty repellent lot on the whole: a mixture of xenophobes, little-Englanders, right-wing fanatics, free-trade fundamentalists and imperial nostalgics, effectively (though not officially) led by Boris Johnson, who is the kind of political opportunist who gives charlatans a bad name.

These people remind Parris of Ian Smith and the Rhodesian white supremacists who campaigned for UDI in the 1960s. “Though on paper”, he writes,

“the case for Rhexit did include some positive arguments about the opportunities, vistas, horizons for a Rhodesia that had sovereignty, when you looked at the people advancing it you were looking at haters, resenters, men who bridled at the way things were going. In a colloquialism that had not yet been coined, I felt the vibes were negative. It was thin-lipped stuff.

I distrusted this. I distrust it now in the men and women who are as a matter of fact making the case for quitting the EU. I know the case could be made differently. I know a warm, optimistic person, comfortable with his times and positive about the future, is logically capable of campaigning for Britain to leave the European Union. It’s just that as a matter of fact I don’t see many examples.

I don’t see many either. In his Times column on Saturday (sadly, behind a paywall), Parris points out that he is a bit of a Eurosceptic. “Here’s a riddle”, he writes:

I’m hot for staying in a club that leaves me cold: losing sleep about the real possibility that Britain may quit an organisation for which I hold no candle at all. And there are many like me: we see the EU as a flawed and irritating institution whose future is foggy. Yet we’re certain — almost passionately so — that this is no time to leave.

In a way, Parris puts his finger on the nub of the problem. The people who want Brexit are passionate in their hatred of the EU. But those who think — like him (and me) — that leaving would be a mistake don’t seem to be able to muster anything like the same passion for their belief. And therein lies the danger: for — like Trump in the Republican primaries — the combination of anger, hatred, xenophobia and illogicality combine to product a powerful narcotic.

Deep down, the problem is that the EU is — and always was — an elite project which never had much in the way of popular approval or democratic legitimacy. If anyone doubts that then they should see the remarkable BBC documentary made by the former BBC Political Editor, Nick Robinson, that has recently aired on the BBC. In the first of two programmes, Robinson told the story of how the EU was founded, and of how UK popular hostility to the project was circumvented by Edward Heath’s Machiavellian mastery of parliamentary politics to ensure that the UK joined the European Community (as it then was) in 1973. The moral of the story was that, if it had been left to popular opinion — and the views of most British MPs — then Britain would never have joined the thing in the first place.

But here’s the irony: sometimes — even in democracies — elite projects make sense. The origins of the EU lay in the European Coal and Steel Community put together by the post war leadership of France and Germany. The aim was to ensure that the rivalry between France and Germany that had led to two catastrophic world wars could not happen again. How? By putting the two industries — coal and steel — that had underpinned war between them under common ownership. It was a brilliant, simple idea — and it worked. Britain could have been part of the deal, but the British government of the day havered and in the end was left out. As the Coal and Steel Community morphed into the fledgling European Economic Community, Britain belatedly tried to join, but was rebuffed by Charles de Gaulle, and in the end — after de Gaulle fell from power and replaced by Pompidou as President — the UK was manoeuvered into the EC by Heath and his Parliamentary tricks. It was a stunning achievement on his part, but it never had wholehearted democratic support in Britain. And so the die was cast.

It turns out that there wasn’t widespread democratic enthusiasm for the project in many parts of Europe either, but for a long time that didn’t matter because the project thrived as prosperity grew on the Continent. People were able to swallow their scepticism so long as the money — and the subsidies — flowed. As an Irishman I saw this at first hand. For my country, membership of the EC proved an economic as well as a spiritual bonanza. In economic terms, the Common Agriculture Policy ploughed development funding into Irish farming, and triggered development on a scale hitherto undreamt-of. And spiritually it enabled the Irish Republic to escape the shadow of its former colonial master and to strut the world stage as a ‘proper’ country.

But for the British, ambivalence remained because the country’s imperial afterglow still infected its political class. If, for Ireland, membership of the EC signalled a transition to full nationhood, for the British it means a tacit admission that the UK — on whose empire the sun once never set — was now just another country. Like France and the Netherlands (which had been invaded by Germany). Or, worse still, like Italy.

Still, for a time, these resentments simmered below the surface. British membership of the EC (and, later, the EU) brought significant economic advantages. Imperial delusions were retained with the country’s so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent and Britain’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council. But when the banking crisis, the subsequent recession and the free movement of peoples enabled by the Single European Market, the Eurozone crisis and finally the migration crisis finally brought the EC to its knees, those simmering resentments surfaced once again, and eventually became toxic. Which is why, in the end, David Cameron had to concede the Referendum and brought us to where we are now. The elite project could no longer deliver the goods, and the Brits who were always sceptical about the project started to look for the exit.

It’s clear that the EU is now in a mess. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see that hubris played a significant role in bringing this about. The rapid ‘enlargement’ of the community to take in the countries of the former Soviet bloc seems, in retrospect, to have been a mistake. Likewise the inclusion of economies like those of Greece, Spain, Portugal (and perhaps Ireland) into the Eurozone was unwise (as many people, including the British Chancellor, Gordon Brown, warned at the time).

But hindsight provides fake clarity, for even the Eurozone project had some honourable rationales. In some ways, for example, it was a logical extension of the single market idea. In that conetxt, a recent conversation I had with someone who had once been an advisor to Helmut Kohn, the German Chancellor at the time, is interesting. He said that as Kohl embarked on the reunification of Germany he worried about the possibility of a resurgence of hostility towards the German hegemony that would result from the project. Kohl, my informant told me, saw the folding of the Deutschmark into a wider shared currency as one way of mitigating the danger.

The danger posed by the UK referendum is that the domestic debate does not take into account the possible implications for the EU of a British exit. My German and Dutch friends are deeply worried about this. Their feeling is that a British departure would, in the end, lead to the disintegration of the European project. This might not matter too much for the ‘core’ countries, which will remain committed to some kind of union (though one wonders about France is Marine Le Pen continues to make electoral headway). But it would have a dramatic impact in some of the peripheral countries, where right-wing and nationalistic parties are currently in the ascendant. The future of the Schengen agreement on freedom of travel looks increasingly fragile; if that were to collapse, then so would

If the EU were to unravel, then the consequences could be truly dire. Putin’s adventurism at the Eastern fringes of the union would doubtless become bolder and more destructive. Internal rivalries between European countries could become toxic. Turkey’s Erdogan clearly sees the EU’s difficulties as his opportunity: the deal on migrants with him brokered by Angela Merkel and his belligerence towards free speech in Germany are two straws in this wind. The continuance of chaos in the Middle East, instability in Africa and the impact of global warming will continue to accelerate the migrant crisis. And the probability of warfare once again in Europe — up to now regarded as unthinkable — could increase.

None of these terrible things may happen. But the probability of at least some of them happening is no longer zero. And in an ideal world they ought to be factored into any intelligent vote in the referendum. If the current level of the debate is anything to go by, however, they won’t.

Trump: the ultimate free rider

Some extraordinary stats in the New York Review of Books about the amount of free coverage Trump has received from US media, especially television:

In mid-March, mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of candidates and assigns a dollar value to that coverage based on advertising rates, compared how much each candidate had spent on “paid” media (television ads) and how much each candidate had been given in “free” media (news coverage). Bush, for example, had spent $82 million on paid media and received $214 million in free media. For Rubio, those respective numbers were $55 million and $204 million. For Cruz, $22 million and $313 million. For Sanders, $28 million and $321 million. For Clinton, $28 million and $746 million (in her case, much of that free media was negative, relating to the State Department e-mails).

And Trump? He’d spent not more than $10 million on paid media and received $1.9 billion in free media. That’s nearly triple the other three major Republican candidates combined.7

CBS head Les Moonves, who joined what was once called the Tiffany Network as head of the entertainment division in the 1980s and who lately has been pulling down around $60 million a year in compensation, let the cat out of the bag when he spoke in late February at something called the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference in San Francisco. This is not a meeting dedicated to a discussion of news gathering as a public trust. Rather, it is a convocation at which Morgan Stanley analysts discuss how, “from virtual and augmented reality to 5G and autonomous cars, the pulse of digital experience is speeding up” (so says the conference website). And it was here that Moonves said that the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” adding:

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now?… The money’s rolling in and this is fun…. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. Donald’s place in this election is a good thing.”

The Trump bot

For once, some wit from Niall Ferguson, this time about Microsoft’s infamous Twitter-bot, Tay:

On Wednesday, Microsoft accidentally re-released Tay, but it was clear the artificial lobotomy had gone too far. All she could say, several times a second, was “You are too fast, please take a rest.”

This, I have come to hope, is how another experiment in crowd-sourced learning will end, namely Donald Trump’s campaign to be the next president of the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, Tay came out as a Trump supporter quite early in her Twitter career. “Hitler would have done a better job than the monkey we have got now,” she told the world. “Donald Trump is the only hope we’ve got.”

Eureka! For weeks, the media have been trying to find out who Trump’s foreign policy advisers are. He has been fobbing them off with the names of ex-generals he himself cannot remember. But now the truth is out. Trump’s national security expert is a bot called Tay.

Tay’s influence on Trump was much in evidence during his recent interview with New York Times journalists David Sanger and Maggie Haberman. Asked what he thought of NATO, Mr. Trump replied that it was “obsolete.” The North Atlantic Treaty, he said, should be “renegotiated.”

There never was a ‘Golden Age’

Nicholas Kristof, a New York Times columnist whose work I admire, recently wrote an apologia arguing that he and his media colleagues are responsible for Donald Trump’s ascendancy. His message is: we screwed up. He lists four particular failures:

  1. Shortsighted exploitation of the fact that Trump makes ideal clickbait (Kristof quotes Ann Curry, the former Today anchor, saying that “Trump is not just an instant ratings/circulation/clicks gold mine; he’s the motherlode”)
  2. Failure to provide “context in the form of fact checks and robust examination of policy proposals. A candidate claiming that his business acumen will enable him to manage America deserved much more scrutiny of his bankruptcies and mediocre investing.”
  3. Wrongly regarding Trump’s candidacy as a farce. (“Sarah Palin received more serious vetting as a running mate in 2008 than Trump has as a presidential candidate.”)
  4. The fact that Mr Kristof and his peers “were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated.”

All true, no doubt. But methinks he doth protest too much, as Shakespeare would have put it. My hunch is that, even if mainstream media had not fallen into the aforementioned traps, Trump would have been in the ascendant simply because our media ecosystem has dramatically changed, and the mainstream media are no longer the ‘gatekeepers’ they once were.

That’s not to say that such media aren’t still important, just that they’re less central to public discourse than they used to be. They don’t control the narrative any more, determining — for example — what can or cannot be said in public on television. (Which may explain why some commentators have been so shocked at the depths to which the Republican primary ‘debates’ have sunk. I mean to say, candidates for the Presidency of the United States arguing over who has the biggest dick and the sluttiest spouse.) Sacre Bleu!

Cue for a nostalgic rant about the lost golden age of television?

Absolutely not. Repeat after me: there never was a golden age. Never has been, and especially not in journalism. If you want an illustration, just think back to another fractious presidential election — that of 1968, when the US was roiling in controversy over the Vietnam War. As the party conventions loomed, ABC News, then the smallest of the three big American TV networks and struggling in the ratings war, came up with the idea of having a series of short, live ‘debates’ between two celebrated public intellectuals of the time — the conservative columnist William F. Buckley, Jr. and the novelist Gore Vidal. The idea was that the two would have a televised argument every evening while the conventions were in progress and the great American public would be entertained and edified by watching these two great minds locked in argument.

In the event, it turned out not to be an edifying spectacle. We know this because it was later exhumed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, who made an instructive documentary film about it entitled “Best of Enemies”. The mutual loathing between the two men was evident from the beginning. Both were scions of the WASP establishment and spent most of the time not discussing issues but trading personal insults in a stylised, stilted, pseudo-ironic tone which looks entirely phoney when viewed from today’s perspective.

The Republican convention, held in Miami that year, was a relatively low-key affair which nominated Richard Nixon as the candidate with Spiro Agnew as his running mate. (In the context of Trump & Co, just ponder that pairing for a moment and then rank it on the absurdity scale.)

The 1968 Democratic convention, however, was an entirely different affair. The country (and the Democratic party) was still reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King in April and Robert Kennedy in June. RFK’s death left his delegates uncommitted in the run-up to the convention. President Lyndon Johnson had decided that he was not going to seek nomination, which meant that the contest was between the establishment’s candidate, Hubert Humphrey, and Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war candidate. The Chicago mayor, Richard Daley, had put the city on a wartime footing in anticipation of popular protests and demonstrations by anti-war activists. The stage was set for an epic and violent confrontation — which duly materialised on lines most recently witnessed in contemporary Turkey.

The climactic moment of the Buckley-Vidal debates came after the moderator, Howard Smith, referred to the fact that some of the anti-war demonstrators in Grant Park had brandished Vietcong flags prior to the onslaught on them by Daley’s cops. Here’s the transcript of what happened as published by the New Yorker:

SMITH: Mr. Vidal, wasn’t it a provocative act to try to raise the Vietcong flag in the park in the film we just saw? Wouldn’t that invite—raising the Nazi flag during World War II would have had similar consequences.

VIDAL: You must realize what some of the political issues are here. There are many people in the United States who happen to believe that the United States policy is wrong in Vietnam and the Vietcong are correct in wanting to organize their own country in their own way politically. This happens to be pretty much the opinion of Western Europe and many other parts of the world. If it is a novelty in Chicago, that is too bad, but I assume that the point of the American democracy…

BUCKLEY: (interrupting): — and some people were pro-Nazi—

VIDAL: — is you can express any view you want—

BUCKLEY: — and some people were pro-Nazi—

VIDAL: Shut up a minute!

BUCKLEY: No, I won’t. Some people were pro-Nazi and, and the answer is they were well treated by people who ostracized them. And I’m for ostracizing people who egg on other people to shoot American Marines and American soldiers. I know you don’t care—

VIDAL (loftily): As far as I’m concerned, the only pro- or crypto-Nazi I can think of is yourself. Failing that…

SMITH: Let’s, let’s not call names—

VIDAL: Failing that, I can only say that—

BUCKLEY (snarling, teeth bared): Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddam face, and you’ll stay plastered—

(Everybody talks at once. Unintelligible.)

SMITH: Gentlemen!

Gentlemen! I don’t think so. The film makes the point that Buckley never quite recovered from the exchange, not because he lost the argument, but because he lost his cool and was reduced, momentarily, to behaving like a saloon-bar drunk. This rather undermined his carefully-constructed public persona of a leisurely, superior toff. And it was doubtless reinforced by the amused, contemptuous smirk with which Vidal greeted his outburst.

But who really won? — if that is a meaningful question about a high-class brawl. The answer, suggests John Powers in a thoughtful comment, is that it turned out to be a draw in the long run.

Forty-seven years on, it’s clear that Buckley’s conservatism won the political battle — his free-market, anti-government ideas now dominate. Culturally, though, Vidal’s values won — not least his libertarian, label-free ideas of sexuality. One imagines Buckley blanching at the right to gay marriage or at the triumph of hip-hop.

And who leaves the greater legacy? Powers again:

At the moment, the nod goes to Buckley, who led a movement that demonstrably changed how America thinks and organizes itself, even if it’s hard to imagine any of his writings lasting as more than mere documents. In contrast, Vidal’s influence on American life was minor, yet he was a vastly more talented writer, whose novels about our past, like Burr and Lincoln, may give him an enduring fame that will outlast Buckley’s.

The strange thing about the debates, though, is how contrived and phoney they seem to the contemporary eye (and ear). They leave one wondering if this was really what passed for high-class intellectual chat in the Golden Age of American network television. If so, then all they demonstrate is that there never was a golden age.

What Trump’s ascendancy tells us about our media ecosystem

This morning’s Observer column:

One thing that baffles mainstream journalists like Kristof is the way in which Trump seems to be immune to the fact-checking beloved by American journalism. Some light on this has been thrown by Zeynep Tufekci, who is one of the most perceptive observers of social media around. She has been spending some time inside the Trump “Twittersphere” and her report suggests that it is largely an ecosystem of digital echo chambers.

Professor Tufekci has watched “Trump supporters affirm one another in their belief that white America is being sold out by secretly Muslim lawmakers, and that every unpleasant claim about Donald Trump is a fabrication by a cabal that includes the Republican leadership and the mass media.” Many of the Trump supporters she’s been following, “say that they no longer trust any big institutions, whether political parties or media outlets. Instead, they share personal stories that support their common narrative, which mixes falsehoods and facts – often ignored by these powerful institutions they now loathe – with the politics of racial resentment.”

For decades we’ve been wondering what the long-term impact of the internet would be on democratic politics. Looks like we’re beginning to find out.

Read on

The two United States — and the new normal

Extraordinary essay by Tom Engelhardt, arguing against the comforting notion that the current madness in the US is just a passing phase and eventually sanity will return. Sample:

In these first years of the 21st century, we may be witnessing a new world being born inside the hollowed-out shell of the American system. As yet, though we live with this reality every day, we evidently just can’t bear to recognize it for what it might be. When we survey the landscape, what we tend to focus on is that shell — the usual elections (in somewhat heightened form), the usual governmental bodies (a little tarnished) with the usual governmental powers (a little diminished or redistributed), including the usual checks and balances (a little out of whack) and the same old Constitution (much praised in its absence), and yes, we know that none of this is working particularly well, or sometimes at all, but it still feels comfortable to view what we have as a reduced, shabbier and more dysfunctional version of the known.

Perhaps, however, it’s increasingly a version of the unknown. We say, for instance, that Congress is “paralyzed,” and that little can be done in a country where politics has become so “polarized,” and we wait for something to shake us loose from that “paralysis,” to return us to a Washington closer to what we remember and recognize. But maybe this is it. Maybe even if the Republicans somehow lost control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, we would still be in a situation something like what we’re now labeling paralysis. Maybe in our new American reality, Congress is actually some kind of glorified, well-lobbied and well-financed version of a peanut gallery.

At one point, he notes that the US had recently launched lethal drone and manned bomber attacks on

what the Pentagon claimed was a graduation ceremony for “low-level” foot soldiers in the Somali terror group al-Shabab. It was proudly announced that more than 150 Somalis had died in this attack. In a country where, in recent years, US drones and special ops forces had carried out a modest number of strikes against individual al-Shabab leaders, this might be thought of as a distinct escalation of Washington’s endless low-level conflict there (with a raid involving US special ops forces following soon after).

He then realises that he has difficulty locating Somalia on a map, which makes him a typical US citizen. “Remind me”, he writes,

Remind me: On just what basis was this modest massacre carried out? After all, the US isn’t at war with Somalia or with al-Shabab. Of course, Congress no longer plays any real role in decisions about American war making. It no longer declares war on any group or country we fight. (Paralysis!) War is now purely a matter of executive power or, in reality, the collective power of the national security state and the White House. The essential explanation offered for the Somali strike, for instance, is that the US had a small set of advisers stationed with African Union forces in that country and it was just faintly possible that those guerrilla graduates might soon prepare to attack some of those forces (and hence US military personnel). It seems that if the US puts advisers in place anywhere on the planet — and any day of any year they are now in scores of countries — that’s excuse enough to validate acts of war based on the “imminent” threat of their attack.

His general point is that the US seems to have morphed into two countries. One — the one we know all about — is a society riven by racism, inequality, legislative paralysis and government by billionaires for billionaires; a state unable to fix its own crippling problems, never mind those of the world.

The other US, however, suffers from none of these deficiencies.

These days, our government (the unparalyzed one) acts regularly on the basis of that informal constitution-in-the-making, committing Somalia-like acts across significant swathes of the planet. In these years, we’ve been marrying the latest in wonder technology, our Hellfire-missile-armed drones, to executive power and slaughtering people we don’t much like in majority Muslim countries with a certain alacrity. By now, it’s simply accepted that any commander-in-chief is also our assassin-in-chief, and that all of this is part of a wartime-that-isn’t-wartime system, spreading the principle of chaos and dissolution to whole areas of the planet, leaving failed states and terror movements in its wake.

Why the Apple vs. the FBI case is important

This morning’s Observer column:

No problem, thought the Feds: we’ll just get a court order forcing Apple to write a special version of the operating system that will bypass this security provision and then download it to Farook’s phone. They got the order, but Apple refused point-blank to comply – on several grounds: since computer code is speech, the order violated the first amendment because it would be “compelled speech”; because being obliged to write the code amounted to “forced labour”, it would also violate the fifth amendment; and it was too dangerous because it would create a backdoor that could be exploited by hackers and nation states and potentially put a billion users of Apple devices at risk.

The resulting public furore offers a vivid illustration of how attempting a reasoned public debate about encryption is like trying to discuss philosophy using smoke signals. Leaving aside the purely clueless contributions from clowns like Piers Morgan and Donald Trump, and the sanctimonious platitudes from Obama downwards about “no company being above the law”, there is an alarmingly widespread failure to appreciate what is at stake here. We are building a world that is becoming totally dependent on network technology. Since there is no possibility of total security in such a world, then we have to use any tool that offers at least some measure of protection, for both individual citizens and institutions. In that context, strong encryption along the lines of the stuff that Apple and some other companies are building into their products and services is the only game in town.

Read on