Sunday 23 August, 2020

Quote of the Day

”To the ordinary working man, the sort you would meet in any pub on Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter hours and nobody bossing you about.”

  • George Orwell

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Pete Seeger: Where have all the flowers gone?


It’s magical sometimes when — as happens here — an artist in a live concert embarks on a well-known and much-loved song and the audience joins in.

I’ve been to a few concerts where this happened. The most vivid memory I have is of a concert given by the Irish folk group Altan. They come from a small village in Co Donegal, but even after they became world-famous they used to come back home once a year to give a concert for the locals. I was lucky to go to one of these events on a glorious Summer evening in an hotel just outside the village of Glencolumbkille. The connection between the band and the audience was positively visceral. Everybody knew everybody else. Half-way through, Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, the lead singer and co-founder of the group, embarked on Green Grow the Rushes-oh. Here’s a sample from a studio recording…


After a few bars, the next time she came to the chorus, Mairéad went quiet, and the audience, without missing a beat, kept it going, softly, with the odd bit of harmony. It was an electrifying moment that I will never forget.

Thanks to Janet Cobb for suggesting Pete Seeger.

All hail the California court that put the brakes on Uber and co

This morning’s Observer column:

Last Monday, the superior court of California handed down a landmark judgment that looks like taking the wind out of the sails of at least some parts of the “gig economy”. The case was brought by the attorney general of the state of California, together with the city attorneys of Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, on the basis that the ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft have “misclassified their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees” in violation of a Californian law that took effect in January. This statute is intended to ensure that all workers who meet its criteria receive the basic rights and protections guaranteed to employees under California law.

The companies opposed this idea, for the understandable (but of course unstated) reason that complying with the law would blow their business models to smithereens. In submissions concealed under three coats of prime legal verbiage, they sought to have the hearing delayed until after the November presidential election, complained that the attorneys general should not have lumped them together (they are, after all, commercial rivals) and that judgment should be deferred until all the other cases concerning them in the US and elsewhere should be decided. Guardian Today: the headlines, the analysis, the debate – sent direct to you Read more

Judge Ethan Schulman was not impressed by these arguments…

Read on

Reflections on the Democratic National Convention…

On Thursday I blogged about Obama’s speech, and on Friday I wrote about Kamala Harris. I think she was a shrewd choice of running-mate for lots of reasons, but her record of being close to the Silicon Valley crowd bothered me because I think it’s important that a Biden administration should tackle the problems for democracy posed by these unaccountable tech giants. On the other hand, as Obama warned, there is a bigger problem looming than tech monopoly — the future of democracy itself in the US, and that should, er, trump all other concerns just now. What matters most is that Trump should not get a second term.

Looking back on the week, and the convention, I’ve been reading lots of commentary. A few things stood out…

Russell Berman is right about Obama’s speech: he’s switched from hope to fear as the motivating factor:

As Obama railed against the “cynicism” that he said Trump was relying on to win, and then as he recalled the sacrifices of those who were spit on and beaten as they fought for the right to vote, he seemed almost on the verge of tears. It didn’t seem like an act. If the former president hadn’t previously seen the need to tear into Trump for the sake of the country, what are Democrats to make of the fact that now, apparently, he does? Obama, suddenly a gray-haired father figure to his party, no longer sounded merely disappointed—he seemed frightened.

Spot on. Obama was no longer in his customary ‘professorial’ mode: he sees a second Trump term as an existential threat to democracy in America. And he’s right.

And Dave Winer had this sobering reflection:

Racism and misogyny are on the ballot this year. Even white men can now feel the effects. I think that’s what the last twelve years in the US have been about. Here’s the story. George W. Bush was so awful, we needed an antidote, and we liked Obama. We liked how sassy he was, and smart, and how well he spoke, his confidence and ambition. The whole package. It was his moment. Trump is the reaction because there were a lot of Americans who felt tremendous fear and resentment in having a young sassy (they’d probably say uppity) black man as president, no matter that he brought the economy back from the wreck that the Repubs left us. Remember how they drove it into a ditch. #

So in 2016 it was Trump vs HRC. But before that it was Sanders vs HRC. That’s where I, a white man, learned how men keep women down. In the debates I was so angry that Sanders interrupted and screamed over HRC, his arms waved into her space. She had to take it. Could she respond in kind? No way. Not sure what the women’s equivalent of uppity is, but it’s a real thing. And because she was my candidate, I felt it, felt it in a way I had never felt it before. I was enraged by it. But it seems most people couldn’t even see it. #

The people who hated that a black man was president sure as hell weren’t going to follow him with a woman president. No matter that she’s smart as a whip, would have been a great president, and look who she was running against. What a slap in the face for women as equals — that so many people chose a huckster, buffoon, Putin surrogate, man-child, tax evader, draft dodger, rich kid, criminal, instead of HRC. It really says something.#

This morning while getting ready to write it hit me. The last four years have been a symbolic lynching of Barack Obama. Anyone who still approves of Trump, if they have a mind, must be driven by rage, the kind of rage that results in a young confident black man being strung up on a tree. They’re willing to let a virus decimate the country in order to express their rage. Anyone who votes for Trump this time, imho, should lose the right to call themselves an American.

In today’s Observer, Edward Helmore spotted something really interesting in Biden’s speech — his adoption of a few lines from Seamus Heaney, specifically from The Cure at Troy, Seamus Heaney’s free translation of Sophocles’s Philoctetes.

History says,
Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.

Helmore’s piece consulted Roy Foster, who is currently writing a book about Heaney (and who has written a magisterial two-volume biography of W.B. Yeats).

“Biden apparently is a reader of poetry, and read Yeats and Heaney to improve his stutter,” Foster said. “He has spoken about his admiration for Irish poetry. So he was coming from a background of literacy. Coming up against a functionally illiterate president, it is quite a contrast.”

Sophocles’ play, first performed in 409BC, is about how a bitter division was overcome between the archer Philoctetes, left on Lemnos with a festering wound – a snake bite – and Odysseus, who needed his help in the Trojan War. Heaney’s 1991 translation speaks directly to Northern Ireland – his birthplace – and its conflicts.

“Heaney altered the weight of the play to place great emphasis on Neoptolemus, the go-between figure, an honourable, decent man, so the play is in many ways about negotiation,” Foster said. The former senator has quoted it at least five times before, including at the tail end of his nomination campaign, when he again turned to Heaney’s “longed-for tidal wave of justice”.

Biden was deliberately using it as a reconciliatory metaphor, Foster said, adding: “America is an immensely divided society at the moment. So for him to use it as what – for some Americans – will be an arcane poetic tag is an interesting, highly literate and culturally ambitious approach. It was unexpected from him.”

One interesting thing is that Trump seemed unable to respond to this literary reference. Presumably he has no idea who Heaney was, never mind Sophocles.

Summer books #12

Humankind: a Hopeful History by Rutger Bregman,

If ever there were a book for the pandemic, then this is it. The paradox it addresses is how a pervasive conviction that people are intrinsically selfish, vindictive and untrustworthy can be squared with the fact that in most situations of crisis humans behave sensibly, cooperatively and often generously. Why is it that we assume that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies provides a perceptive and accurate insight into human nature, when the evidence — even in a real-life case of schoolboys marooned on a desert island — says exactly the opposite? This is the “veneer theory” of human nature: the view that civilised behaviour is just a thin veneer which when shattered by events reveals a dark underside. Rutger argues that this cognitive dissonance can be — and often is — viciously circular. If we expect people to be evil, then we will treat them accordingly, and things spiral downwards from there.

I’m only part-way through the book, but am finding it immensely readable and stimulating. The work it most reminds me of is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, which similarly challenged another pervasive (and erroneous) conviction. My personal experience of local responses to the Coronovirus pandemic has corroborated Rutger’s argument. Most people I know have behaved calmly, generously and supportively. Sure, there have been incidents of panic-buying (remember the toilet-paper shortage), irresponsible partying, etc. But on the whole the crisis seems to confirm an optimistic view of human nature.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!