2017: The Year of Lying Brazenly

For connoisseurs of 21st century dystopian humour, there is a bleakly  amusing clip doing the rounds showing Pete Hoekstra, the US Ambassador to the Netherlands, apparently being well and truly hoist by his petard.   Hoekstra is a diplomat appointed by Trump and forged very much in the template of his master.    Asked by a Dutch journalist whether he said that there were Muslim ‘no go areas’ in the Netherlands, Hoekstra denies that he said any such thing, and accuses the interview of spreading ‘fake news.’   Said interviewer then shows said ambassador a 2015 clip in which Hoekstra can be found saying exactly what he has just said he has not said.

When the interviewer shows Hoekstra the clip and asks him why he characterized it as as fake news, Trump’s man in the Netherlands immediately denies that he said it was fake news even though the interview that he is participating in clearly shows him saying exactly that.

This exchange tells us a number of things about the state we’re in.   The good news is that there are still good journalists who are prepared to hold lying politicians to account.  That might be grounds for optimism, were it not for the fact that Hoekstra doesn’t appear to care that his falsehoods have been exposed in full public view.

Hoekstra may be little more than his master’s lickspittle, but the contempt, arrogance and total indifference to truth or fact-based argument on display here are another indicator that 2017 has taken us into a new political territory, whose implications have yet to be fully absorbed.   ‘Post-truth’ politics didn’t begin with the election of Donald Trump.    Tony Blair and George Bush worked up one of the great political lies in modern history, and neither of them paid any serious price for it.

But Blair, Bush and their defenders have repeatedly denied that they were lying about WMDs and tried to make excuses for their catastrophic decision to invade Iraq.     In the Trump era excuses and apologies are not required.    We now have an American president can lie openly and brazenly on an almost daily basis without any consequences whatsoever:   a president who can ignore and reject photographs demonstrating that his inauguration was poorly-attended as ‘fake news’; who denies that he was in a ‘pussy-grabbing’ video in which he can be clearly seen and heard – and crucially, a president whose power base ignores and rejects whatever he ignores and rejects.

This isn’t some kind of American aberration.   David Davis has clearly lied through his teeth all year about the Brexit impact studies that turned out never to have been made.   Asked by the Brexit select committee early this month what had happened to these studies, Davis denied that they  had ever been carried out, even though he himself had said on various occasions that such studies did exist.

As early as November 2016, Davis’s department said that it was preparing impact studies ‘ on over fifty sectors of the economy.’   Yet Davis sat before the Brexit committee looking bored, smug and utterly indifferent to the discrepancy between what he had promised and what he was offering that was being presented to him by his shocked interlocutors.

There are various reasons why we have ended up like this.   Part of the explanation lies in the common decadence of British and American politics, which increasingly produces politicians without any intellectual grounding or moral compass,   who no longer feel any motivation even to go through the motions of telling the truth.    But the arrogance shown by Trump, Davis et al is also the product of a deeper cultural and political shift, in which political arguments have become so tribalised that truth no longer matters even to their supporters.

Trump and Davis know that the people who support them don’t care if they lie, and don’t care if they are found out, as long as their lies suit and reflect their common agenda.   So if Davis lies about Brexit, that’s fine, as long as his lies are seen to further the cause of Brexit.   When Trump lies about…anything, that’s ok too, as long as his lies rub salt in the wounds of ‘liberals’, ‘leftards’ or ‘the elite.’    And when Hoekstra is caught lying about Muslim ‘no go areas’ in which ‘cars and politicians are being burned’, that doesn’t matter either because there are many people who want to be believe that such things are true.

This is why the likes of Katie Hopkins have continued to claim that October’s car accident outside the Natural History Museum was a terrorist attack, even when it was absolutely clear that it wasn’t.   After all, if you believe that the media and political class are so cowed by Islam that they will actively cover up a major terrorist attack to avoid causing offense, then you will believe anything, and politicians like Trump, Davis and Hoekstra appeal to an audience who are prepared to believe whatever confirms their prejudices.

This audience has been around for a long time, fed on a diet of poisonous allegations and conspiracies that goes beyond the current world of shock jocks, Infowars and Prison Planet etc to the ‘UN black helicopter’ conspiracies that circulated in the early Clinton era.   Social media have merely widened that audience and made it easier to reach it and compartmentalize it, and the results are plain to see.

There was once a time when Americans were taught to admire the young George Washington, who   supposedly admitted to cutting down a cherry tree on the grounds that ‘ I cannot tell a lie.’   A 21st century Washington would simply deny that a cherry tree had ever been chopped down or call it ‘fake news’, and his supporters would agree with everything he said even if someone showed them a chopped-down tree and an axe with his fingerprints on it.

These tendencies aren’t exclusive to the right, of course.   Leftists can think and act like this too, but the brazen dishonesty of Trump, Davis and Hoekstra is essentially a product of the tribalism of the right and the far-right.   And 2017 is the year in which this toxic sludge burst from the social media fringes into the mainstream,   to the point when the whole process of reasoned argument and fact-based discussion that makes democratic life possible is now at risk.

Because if lying no longer matters, then why should truth matter?   Why bother even trying to prove that something is true or false if people will simply ignore your arguments if they don’t like them?

And if you no longer believe that truth has a role to play in democratic politics, then you run the very real risk of transforming political life into the playground of bullies, demagogues, populists, Twitter hatemobs – and liars.

 

 

 

 

Waiting for the Barbarian

Anyone familiar with horror films will recognize the following scenario: a group of people are being terrorised by a monster/serial killer/alien.   They find a hiding place and fortify it. All their attention is focused on keeping the intruder out. Not until it is too late do they discover that the monster is already inside the building.

There is something of this trope in the response of the UK public to the political horror film starring the orange-haired beast known as Donald J. Trump.

Last week a poll revealed that 1 in 10 people would be willing to protest against a putative “working visit” from Donald Trump next year on a date that has yet to be determined. It is still not certain that this visit is even going to take place. Yet already the community networks that helped organise last February”s Stop Trump/Stand Up to Trump protests are bracing themselves for the occasion and putting dates into their diaries.

On one level this response is admirable. It”s a healthy sign that so many people are willing to disregard the grovelling decision by May and her hapless cronies to invite Trump anywhere near these shores. But we should not allow the beast in the White House to distract us from our own political monsters already in our midst. Because like Godot, Trump may not come. And as far as migrants in the UK are concerned, Trump is by no means the most pressing threat that this country faces right now.

My piece for Ceasefire Magazine.   You can read the rest here:

You can also check out the new 1 Day Without Us campaign video, which we have just launched this week.

 

 

Trump’s Christmas Message

This week the Trump non-presidency posted what may well go down in history as some of the weirdest photographs ever taken in the White House, featuring Melania Trump as the spirit of Christmas.   One of them shows the First Lady walking with a fixed grin through what looks alarmingly like a giant silver vagina, but turns out to be a corridor of Christmas trees.   In another she is standing on a marble floor surrounded by a little copse of snow-covered Chrismas trees in her white dress and heels, looking like the wicked witch of Narnia in search of a dancing partner.

But the most striking image  shows Melania standing on a red carpet in a white dress   and her arms by her side staring through a phalanx of ballerinas.   It’s an image that is   both surreal and also an inadvertent homage to the horror film genre, because Melania looks an awful lot like Sissy Spacek  with that stare and dress, and you can’t help wondering what might happen to those dancers if   a bucket of pig’s blood was thrown on her.

You certainly wouldn’t want to leave her alone with the baby Jesus for long.   As is often the case with Melania Trump, it’s difficult to know whether she is Rapunzel or Countess Dracula in this Mar-a-Lago winterval.   Is she reveling in her power or is she too a prisoner of the dystopian sci fi satire made flesh that we are all forced to inhabit?   Either way, these joylessly saccharine images are unlikely to win the ‘ War on Christmas’.   This is partly because this ‘war’ is a figment of Trump’s imagination, and also because nothing and no one can conceal the fact that the howling beast who inhabits the White House walls has nothing to do with the message of peace and brotherhood that Christ’s birth was intended to bring to the world.

Trump isn’t the first world leader to fail to get this message.   Hitler was also a big fan of Christmas:

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And he liked Santa too:

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I know I’m probably being a bit of a killjoy posting such images, or maybe even going over the top a little, when all the White House wants us to do is think of tinsel and reindeer.   But that isn’t the only Christmas message that’s come out of the White House this week.   Because Trump has now retweeted none other than our own Britain First – a fascist would-be paramilitary organisation that specialises in anti-Muslim hate speech, whose name was quoted by the man who shot Jo Cox to death.

Even our PM, who up to now would have swum naked through a lake of cold sick to get a trade deal from the US, has  said that Trump was ‘wrong’ to do this, without going too deeply into what his ‘wrongness’ consists of.   May has too few friends to risk cancelling the state visit on which the British diet of chlorinated chickens depends.   But even what she did say was too much for Trump, who tweeted back contemptuously that May shouldn’t be focusing on him, but on the ‘ destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism Radicalism that is taking place within the United Kingdom.’

Let’s just pause here and take stock of this.   The president of the United States retweeted anti-Muslim videos from a fringe fascist organisation – videos that don’t even depict what they purport to depict.   When accused of retweeting videos from said fringe fascist organisation, Trump ignored the fact that most of the videos were fake and told Theresa May off for saying that he was ‘wrong’ to retweet them and criticized her instead.

All that is bad enough, but I fear that its badness hasn’t been fully-digested. Because some commentators, our own government amongst them, continue to imagine that Trump ‘crossed a line’ or ‘went too far’ as if these retweets were some kind of gaffe that can be rectified.    But Trump’s retweets and his response to the criticism he received make it clear he hasn’t crossed a line.   On the contrary, he is moving very firmly along the tajectory that was established during his campaign, when he first reached into the fascistic underbelly of the GOP and US society: he is deliberately bringing fascism and racism back into the mainstream of American politics and pushing American society further towards the far-right.

He knows what he’s doing, and his closest supporters know it too. This is what the Bannon project is all about.   It’s what sexy/cool provocateurs and fake cultural insurrectionists like Milo Yiannopoulos are all about.   As the brilliant Buzzfeed investigation    into the Bannon/Yiannopoulos nexus recently showed, these people are conduits seeking to open up new channels through which far-right and even openly Nazi politics can re-enter the political mainstream and break down the barriers to such progress.

When Trump dubs calls CNN ‘fake news’ and tells the most jaw-dropping lies without even the slightest remorse or concern about whether he’s found out, it isn’t just because he is a narcissistic sociopath: he is deliberately shattering the intellectual context that makes evidence-based argument or rational discussion possible.

In Trumpland, there are no ideas that have to be respected, only feelings and instincts that don’t change when confronted with facts that contradict them.   Trump knows that his base has no interest in facts or truth and will love him as long as he sticks it to the ‘liberals’ or ‘lefttards’.   He knows that he can rely on the support of the intellectually and morally debased Republican Party, many of whose representatives either care only about their career or would not mind taking off their suits and putting on a paramilitary uniform should the opportunity arise.

They certainly don’t have to wear uniforms now, because 21st century fascists don’t do that until they are absolutely certain that they can get away with it.   Until then, they are content to allow their poisonous ideas to percolate,   until what once seemed abnormal and unacceptable becomes a new normal.   This is a long haul task, but Trump has powerful helpers: reactionary millionaires and Domininionist billionaires; Fox News, Breitbart, bullying shock jocks and many other fora that understand his game perfectly and have the same lack of scruples.

So Trump’s inadvertent tribute to the self-styled ‘Warrior for Christ’ Jayda Franzen isn’t just because he is a lazy, ignorant buffoon who can’t even be bothered to check a source – it’s exactly on a par with his tributes to the Nazis in Virginian and his praise for the Confederacy.   He is promoting her because he agrees with her, and because he wants to poison our politics as he’s already poisoned his own country.   Admittedly that isn’t too difficult to achieve in the toxic world of Brexitland,   and Trump has lots of willing   helpers swimming in the same dank waters.

These include not just the marginal crypto-fascist freakshow that is Britain First, which he has now transformed into a national brand.   Trump’s British co-enablers are way more mainstream than that.   They include Katie Hopkins,   Farage, Arron Banks, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the Daily Mail and Rupert Murdoch, all of whom have used anti-Muslim hatred as the acceptable face of racism and a kind of intellectual Trojan horse to insinuate far-right narratives back into the mainstream – just as Trump did yesterday.

All of them, like Franzen and David Duke, can look to the white supremacist fascist enabler in the White House who is clearly dreaming of a white Christmas everyday, and the sooner we recognize Trump for what he is and treat him accordingly, the better chance we have of stopping him – and them.

 

 

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The Intensification of Calamities: Catalonia’s Unlikely Cheerleaders

Of all forms of war, the ancient Greeks recognized that civil war was the worst and most destructive form of human conflict.   This is because civil war shatters the bonds that hold societies together, tearing families, neighborhoods and communities apart, unleashing hatreds, divisions and conflicts that can only be resolved, not through negotiation, compromise or a peace treaty, but through the complete and utter destruction and defeat of one side by the other.

We have seen this again and again throughout history, most recently in the former Yugoslavia, Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.   Spain knows this as much as any country in Europe;its politics have been haunted by the memory of the civil war even during the democratic transition.

As a result of its unilateral declaration of independence, the Catalan parliament has now ushered in a dangerous new phase in its ongoing confrontation with the Spanish state, in which civil conflict is a very real possibility.    It isn’t only that the Catalan parliament doesn’t have a clear mandate to take such a drastic and far-reaching decision; the nationalist movement simply does not have the ability to transform this decision into political reality.   It has taken a reckless political gamble and   picked a fight that it cannot win, and which poses a direct threat to the lives and well-being of millions of people in Catalonia and in Spain.

This does not mean that the Spanish state is in the right.   Rajoy and his awful government could hardly have acted worse than they have.   The police repression of the October 1 referendum was an abomination that deserves only universal condemnation.    It was also confirmation that Rajoy has a political tin ear to make even Theresa May look like a visionary stateswoman    But state repression and the imposition of direct rule cannot in themselves justify the extraordinarily reckless decision taken by the Catalan parliament – a parliament from which 53 MPs who represent more than half the voting population of Catalonia were missing.

Such a decision not only disregards the persistent polls suggesting that half the population of Catalonia do not want independence: it also shows a startling and shocking indifference to the potentially catastrophic consequences that are already beginning to unfold.   If there was ever a crisis that needed compromise, deescalation, dialogue and conflict-prevention it is this one,   yet there is no sign of any of this from the Spanish government or their Catalan opponents, each of whom seem determined to make the situation worse.

And they aren’t the only ones.   Beyond Catalonia, certain sections of the left and the European ‘alt-right’ are now falling over themselves to support the Catalan separatist movement, who seem equally indifferent to its consequences.    Right wing politicians have condemned Spain’s repression of the Catalan movement.    In the UK, Counterfire, Tariq Ali, Julian Assange and Lindsey German are calling for progressives to support the ‘Catalan Republic’.   Lindsay German has praised the Catalans for ‘laying Franco’s ghost’ – when it would be more accurate to say that the Catalan movement is in danger of digging up Franco’s corpse and bringing it back to life.   In a mindnumbingly irresponsible  Facebook post, Tariq Ali has even called on the Catalans to form popular militias to defend their new republic.

Such breathtaking idiocy cannot be explained by a concern for Catalan human rights and civil liberties.   You can very easily oppose Spanish cops who beat up elderly women for voting without cheerleading a process that is leading inexorably towards a far bloodier confrontation.   But that does not mean that you have to uncritically accept everything that the Catalan nationalists say about themselves.

Personally I respect the principle of self-determination, in Catalonia and elsewhere.   I recognize that there are legitimate historical and cultural reasons why millions of Catalans would seek to be an independent nation.   I admire the passion, skill and commitment that the Catalans have brought to their cause.

At the same time I don’t accept the victim narratives that have been refloated again and again over the last few years. I do not believe that Catalans are any more ‘oppressed’ than millions of Spaniards who have also been victims of austerity.   In the last forty years Catalonia has become one of the richest regions in Spain.   It has wide powers of autonomy and self-government.   Its capital city is one of the most popular in the the world.

All this has been achieved through negotiation and cooperation within the framework of the post-Francoist democratic state.   Does this mean that Catalans do not have the right   to seek independence? Of course not,  because every coherent nation-in-waiting has the right to choose the form of government it wants.   But the balance of forces within Spain is such that Catalonia cannot become an independent republic without a negotiated process that involves the consent of the Spanish population.

Anything else has the potential to unleash civil conflict and the reawakening of the most chauvinistic, reactionary and dangerous forms of Spanish nationalism that have caused such havoc in the past.   And in a world that is saturated with violence, extremism and the potential for even worse conflicts,   the principle of self-determination needs to be weighed not only in terms of the desirability of independence, but in terms its wider potential consequences, and that is the main reason why I think that last week’s unilateral declaration of independence is a catastrophic mistake

Yet as we saw during the Brexit referendum, there is a certain breed of leftist that cannot distinguish between the bad and the worse, and which actively seeks to turn a bad situation into a calamity – particularly if it has anything to do with the European Union.   Thus Ali, like Paul Mason and many others, blamed the EU for Spain’s treatment of the Catalans, and attributed Rajoy’s authoritarianism to a sinister alliance between ‘Berlin’ and ‘Madrid’ that supposedly echoes the Hitler/Franco alliance during the Spanish Civil War – as though the Spanish government is acting under Angela Merkel’s tutelage.

It here, in is this absolute and unrelenting loathing of the European Union, that the right and left really find a kind of common ground in their newfound love affair with Catalanism.   On the British left, the most enthusiastic supporters of Catalan independence tend to be the same individuals and organisations that supported ‘Lexit’.    At the other end of the pro-independence spectrum we find politicians like Nigel Farage, a demagogue who lies as easily as he breathes, reveling in the fact that Catalonia represents a   greater threat to the European Union than Brexit.   For Mr Toad, Catalonia is ‘Juncker’s worst nightmare’   and promises to make ‘Brexit look like a Sunday afternoon picnic.’

Farage clearly can’t wait to see that happen.   So when he talks about Catalan ‘human rights’ or criticizes the ‘monstrous’ way ‘the international community have ganged up and tried to crush’ the Catalans, we need to take such indignation with a very large handful of salt.   No one heard much from Farage when the Spanish police were shooting indignados with rubber bullets in 2011, and no one would expect him to, because like his hero Steve Bannon,   Farage is an ethno-nationalist who would strut around in a fascist uniform as soon as history gave him the opportunity, and only cares about human rights when they suit his ‘anti-globalist’ agenda.

For Farage, Gert Wilders et al, the crisis in Catalonia is another stick with which to beat the EU, regardless of the fact that Catalan nationalists want to join the European Union, and that is the beginning and end of their support.   The Lexit pro-Catalan left has the same aspiration, albeit   for different reasons.   It sees the Catalan crisis as another crack in the European wall and another crisis that it can use to its own advantage and perhaps bring about the ‘decisive rupture’ that will bring down neo-liberalism, etc, etc.

The result is a grotesque spectacle, in which both sets of cheerleaders – supposedly at opposite ends of the political spectrum – are applauding the   independence movement because they hope it will pave the way for their respective ethno-nationalist or ‘socialist’ utopias.

Neither side seems concerned if the ongoing confrontation results in civil conflict within Catalonia, the collapse of Spanish democracy, or even a new civil war.   And such is their obsessive loathing of the EU that you can’t help sensing that there are many among them who really wouldn’t mind if it did.