The UK election: Another fine mess you’ve got us into

poundsinkingThe English have a fine word for the political mess it finds itself in at the moment–kerfuffle, which is defined as “a commotion or fuss, especially one caused by conflicting views.” Boy, if there was ever a kerfuffle, we’re in one right now.

Theresa May and the Tories, who were expected to have a 100 seat majority even as late as the morning of the election by some polls, actually lost seats, and its Parliamentary majority. The result of this is the Tories can’t form a government on its own, unless it tries to form a minority government (which has happened before in postwar history, under Labour in the 1970s). Jeremy Corbyn, who, if you believed the press and even many Labour politicians (cue Tony Blair), was expected to lead the party to electoral disaster, didn’t. In fact, the reverse occurred. Labour received 40% of the vote (as compared with the Conservative’s 42%), its best showing in years. It’s the biggest Labour Parliamentary gain since Clement Atlee.

So there is a lot of crow to be eaten around now, or should be, anyway. We could start with the pollsters, who were generally calling for a solid Tory victory, with one two exceptions. The YouGov poll was the most notable outlier, with its outright prediction of a hung Parliament, which is exactly what we got. It was rejected outright by practically everyone when it was released prior to the election, however. So, like the last two major elections (the 2015 Parliamentary election, and the Brexit vote) the vast majority of pollsters got it completely wrong. Continue reading

What does it mean to be a “good ancestor”?

usa-2074What is a good parent? What is a good grandparent? These terms don’t mean what they used to.

I heard a comment a few weeks ago about someone who wanted to be thought of as a “good ancestor.” It has stuck with me, and I have been wrestling with what, if anything, is meant by the phrase. It’s a serious attempt to capture something that up to a decade or two ago would never have been in question. Up until recently, ancestors generally were good in the same way. They tried to make a career and livelihood for themselves that could be passed on to their children, or to equip their children with the tools necessary to survive and, hopefully, to prosper. My grandparents took this responsibility seriously—this is why some of them emigrated to America from Germany. And this sense of responsibility preceded them by generations, and was passed on to their children, who tried to, and sometimes even succeeded in, passing it on to my generation. Leaving the world a better place was a given.

But the world has changed. All of this took place in a world that seemed to have no limits—natural capital, if it was thought about at all, was thought to be inexhaustible. But we know now that this is not true. Not only is natural capital, the foundation of the global economic system, exhaustible, some parts of it (such as water) are being depleted at a more rapid rate than anyone could have anticipated. Continue reading

Unsolicited Museum Review—American Painting in the 1930s at the Royal Academy, and Paul Nash at the Tate.

As it turns out, lots of pictures does not a great, or even a good, show

What is one to do when you leave an art show that leaves you not just disappointed, but distressed at the missed opportunities that resulted from sheer curatorial laziness? Go to another show that embodies what curators are supposed to be doing—be edifying and, at times, electrifying. The new American art show at the Royal Academy—America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s—isn’t just a disappointment—it’s a bad show, in spite of having some great paintings. On the other hand, the Paul Nash show at the Tate is brilliant.

So what’s the difference? Let’s start with the Nash. Paul Nash was a British artist whose career spanned most of the first half of the 20th century. He is mainly known for his work as an Official War Artist (in both world wars, which must have been dispiriting), and also for his foray into surrealism in the inter-war period. The Tate show puts this into context, tracing his entire career. And the context is important. Continue reading

Wendell Berry goes global, sort of

The Essential Wendell BerryPaul Kingsnorth is a British writer, of both fiction and non-fiction. His fiction includes The Wake, nominated for the Booker a few years ago, which involved him creating a variant of Old English to tell the story. His non-fiction includes Real England, published more than ten years ago, but still topical in its description of the alienation even then afflicting England’s middle and working classes—much like the US. More recently, he has been involved in establishing a group, Dark Mountain, which describes itself as “a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself.” That’s a pretty good description of where many of us are these days.

We have been led to believe a raft of stories about ourselves that turn out to be, well, just not true. Capitalism will kill us, it’s pretty clear. Globalization has helped a number of countries pull themselves up, but it turns out to be more of a zero-sum game than predicted, and the environmental consequences of unbridled capitalism are rendering places actually unlivable now. The neoliberal project brought us two of the most undesirable US presidential candidates in history, and the morass of US politics shows every sign of deteriorating even further. Continue reading

Was Donald Trump a Boy Scout?

usa-995To be frank, I can’t find any evidence that he was, or he wasn’t. But if I had to guess, no, Donald Trump was not a Boy Scout. Growing up in the milieu he did, it’s not likely. Billionaires don’t usually send their sons off packing without a helicopter backup. But I suppose it’s possible. Let’s say he was. How good a scout was he? In fact, if he was, how good a job of internalizing what Scouts are supposed to embody has he done?

It’s easy enough to guess. All you have to do is look at what all Boy Scouts have always had to remember–the 12 laws of scouting, as they’re called. Every scout has to remember them, and try to live accordingly. And you know what? We probably do remember all of them. What Scouting was always about, as Paul Fussell reminded us in the 1970s in his still-magnificent review of The Boy Scout Handbook, is service. And that’s embodied in the 12 rules. So how does Trump stack up? Let’s see, a Scout is: Continue reading

Donald Trump’s very odd cabinet choices

Donald TrumpWell, so far it’s been a race to the bottom of a barrel with an ever-receding bottom. This is not completely unexpected–Trump had been pretty clear throughout the campaign about certain things he was unhappy about–environmental regulation, for example, or diversity, and things he was in favor of, like fossil fuels, in which he must have a sizable investment. So many of these choices are as bad as you would expect.

Except for one interesting fact–they’re so much worse than you might expect. Let’s see, a maniacal charter school advocate for education, perhaps no surprise there, but charter schools are starting to get rejected around the country–Massachusetts, for example (although I would never regard Massachusetts as indicative of what’s going on in the US, I should make clear). Elaine Chao for Transportation. A bunch of Wall Street guys for the economy. So much for draining the swamp.  Continue reading

Chelsea Clinton and Ivanka Trump

Keeping up with the Presidential kids

Some presidential offspring are okay. Some less so. But if Trump wins, god help us.

Watching Chelsea Clinton make a fool of herself every time she makes a campaign appearance—well, probably not every time, just the ones I hear about, the ones where she, you know, makes a fool of herself—started me wondering about presidential offspring. I liked Chelsea for a while there—she seemed to be setting out on her own. But she now seems back in the firm grasp of the Clinton machine, and she doesn’t have a chance—perhaps she never did.

Anyway, what about the other presidential offspring (and their parents) of my lifetime? Well, let’s see: Continue reading

What would “winning” the Climate Wars look like?

If our climate challenge is a world war, it’s one without an ending—or one where the ending won’t be clear for a century or two.

1940-s-british-empire-military-poster-a3-reprint-10656-pekm156x236ekmBill McKibben, who, as Vox points out, is the closest thing the climate movement has as a spokesman these days, can usually be relied on for some stimulating discourse. While he did not invent the concept (that distinction goes to the fine folks over at Carbon Tracker), he was the prime mover behind popularizing the Stranded Carbon issue. This has led to a vocal, and surprisingly successful (compared to expectations), divestment from fossil fuel companies campaign. So his recent suggestion—exhortation, really—that we need to deal with Climate Change as a World War was guaranteed to generate some responses, and indeed it has.

McKibben is looking for something large here—a grand global effort to deal with the causes and impacts of Climate Change. He’s got a point, a very large one—Climate Change is still not being dealt with, either politically or economically, as the large planetary threat that it is. So he wants a “War on Climate Change.” And he generally seems to understand what this may mean in terms of societal implications. Continue reading

How to prepare for a Donald Trump presidency without inducing apoplexy

rum_make_america_great_again-_4513393379There are lots of reasons to bemoan the choices in this year’s Presidential elections. The weaknesses of both candidates are manifest and telling, and have resulted in the largest collective moan from the voting public in decades. Moreover, the country is now faced with the prospect of Donald Trump being elected to the US Presidency. This has induced a collective panic unlike I have seen since, well, the prospect of Ronald Reagan becoming President. (Corey Robin has an excellent piece on the institutional amnesia of today’s commentators.) It’s interesting how people seem to have forgotten how genuinely awful the Reagan Presidency actually was—it’s all taken on some hazy glow, largely as the result of a still-supine media. But it initiated and validated the general meanness of the modern Republican Party, which has now reached extreme proportions, but the ground rules of which were initially laid out by Reagan and his Southern California car dealer and real estate buddies. Yes, yes, I’ve seen all the comparisons of Trump and Nixon, but Nixon wasn’t necessarily an awful President, although he was an awful person. Reagan was a genuinely awful President, and the county has been impoverished, both literally and culturally, by his legacy. Continue reading

Chilcot is out, and it’s devastating

photo-op-0011 So, after seven years and lots of pounds, the Chilcot report on “lessons to be learned” from Iraq has finally been published. It tells us nothing we didn’t already know, frankly, and takes away the rationale for the ongoing denial we have continued to see among Blairites over the years, although god knows they’re still trying. I could write a long post on this. Or I could just let The Independent summarize in seven sentences,which they have done, and which admirably seems to sum up the entire enterprise. Continue reading

Mr. Cameron’s Brexit nightmare

t143872Brexit could be a model for what nations should do if the political leadership was there. But it isn’t.

I imagine when British Prime Minister David Cameron secured an agreement with European political leaders last winter on immigration and other issues relating to continued UK membership in the European Union, he thought he had dealt with this. He seemed pretty confident at the time that this would persuade British voters with concerns about immigration and EU membership in general that their concerns had been addressed. Now, even though I dislike Cameron and his politics, I used to think that he had pretty good political instincts—he has led the Conservatives to two election victories, after all, the past one giving him a majority in Parliament. I was wrong—Cameron’s political instincts appear to be as muddled as the Republican leadership in the US who thought that Trump would fold after every outlandish statement. It turns out that this is the year of outlandish. This is not Mr. Gumpy’s Outing. Continue reading

A way of being in the world

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ravilliousWhat are we writing about when we’re “Nature Writing?”

This question is prompted by thoughts from the excellent three-day little festival in South London, the Balham Literary Festival, titled A Way of Being in the World. What a great title, because it leaves open any number of possibilities. The fact that it’s mostly nature and landscape writers involved is telling, though. There is no question there has been a resurgence in “Nature Writing” over the past decade or so here in the UK—the books just keep coming out. And we keep reading them. One of the running themes of the discussions after each session, and even in some of them, is why is this happening. There are presumably many reasons, but the basic one is that people feel the need to read about nature and landscape, and writers feel the need to be writing about it. So what we had here was an outrageously good line-up of writers who have done exactly that.  Continue reading

The joys of binge-watching

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For the past year I have had some health issues that have taken me out of active circulation—nothing life-threatening, but certainly life changing during the period, and for a little while yet. One of these was a broken bone in my foot that had me sitting in front of the television for a solid six weeks, leg up on the hassock and (for the moment) out of the boot thing they give you these days. The other stuff doesn’t need details, but it also involved being relatively immobile for long periods. Plus the interesting effects of some of what they put you on these days for various things. For someone with no real health issues since I got mono the summer I was 20 and some back stuff in my 30s, this came as something of a surprise. Continue reading

Politics: Democrats vs Republicans

Ralph Nader did not make George Bush president

It’s time to try to kill a certain meme that’s already going around, and which we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the coming months–that people voting for Ralph Nader in the 2000 election cost Al Gore the Presidency and handed it to George Bush. This will undoubtedly be used, as subtly as a mace, to guilt Bernie supporters to vote for Hillary. But the notion that what happened in Florida in 2000 provides a precedent for what people should do this year is fallacious, and here’s why. Continue reading

Politics: Democrats vs Republicans

Election 2016: defining discourse down, again

I noted in a Facebook post the other day that the current political environment is reminding me of the early 2000s and the run-up to the Iraq invasion. I still believe this, and further thought has only deepened my concern. People seem to be losing their bearings, and since it’s happening to people I have often respected in the past, this is a bit disorienting. But it seems as if battle lines, once again, are being drawn, and I’m happy with neither the situation that’s developing, nor with the likely outcomes.

What concerned me then, and what concerns me now, is the extremes to which political alignment can go—what Eric Hoffer would have called the True Believer effect. This is hardly new, but it is still surprising when it occurs in unexpected places. Back then, it was clear that following 9/11, a number of people I respected and enjoyed reading had lost their bearings—or at least I thought they had. So I suddenly found myself on the opposite side of a major policy debate with people like Christopher Hitchens. I always had enjoyed reading Hitchens—he was thoughtful, a lively and elegant writer, and funny as hell much of the time. Best of all, he was almost always on the same side, and he made my arguments much better than I ever could, and the points on which we differed were trivial. Iraq changed that, and I thought changed him as well. Yes, he lived in DC, and was part of the intelligentsia there, in spite of being British to the core. But other intelligentsia (James Fallows, Michael Kinsley, and notably Paul Krugman) didn’t go down the same road, although there were a whole lot who did. And I thought it changed Hitchins—his intolerance levels rose, as did his condescension and outrage against those who didn’t share his commitment. So his books departed, sadly, from my library. Continue reading

What was Maria Sharapova thinking?

s-l225Tennis star’s positive doping test comes as a real shock.

I guess I kinda sorta feel bad for Maria Sharapova. She has been a pleasure to watch on the court for a number of years now—eleven, I think—ever since first showing up and taking Wimbledon at age 17. Since then, she’s had injuries, as tall athletes tend to, that have sidelined her from time to time—and in the past couple of years she’s been completely stymied by Serena Williams. Still, she’s played consistently high level tennis for most of her career, and won her share, almost, of grand slams.

So today’s acknowledgement that she failed a drug test at the Australian Open, and is being “suspended” by tennis authorities, did come as a shock. While a gritty competitor, she has tried to maintain a positive public persona, which has largely worked, since she’s been the world’s highest paid female athlete for several years now. Now, though, sponsors are now dropping her like a hot potato. So you have to wonder who dropped the ball here.

Continue reading

The Swift-boating of Bernie Sanders

The Clinton camp breaks out the Karl Rove Playbook.

John-Lewis-Bernie-Sanders.jpgSo my man Bernie did fine in New Hampshire, and now the gloves have come off. I assume he knew what would be coming along, because the rest of us did. This always raises the question of why the Clinton people were asleep at the wheel in the first place, and what this means about her potential presidency, but no one wants to talk about this. What we have instead is a systematic attack on Bernie’s “Bernie-ness,” basically questioning his authenticity and liberal street cred. Since it seems to be his authenticity that has attracted a substantial amount of his following, this has the potential to be a big deal. And it’s straight out of the Karl Rove playbook. At least it shows the Clinton people are capable of learning from experience from time to time. Not often, but maybe just often enough. Continue reading

More trade disasters ahead

In our last discussion of the dangers posed by the current round of free trade deals under consideration in the US, Europe and Asia a while back, we noted (as have others) the potential of these deals to undermine domestic legislation if that legislation negatively affects the potential profitability of a company. Both NAFTA and the World Trade Organization (WTO) have this sort of mechanism, wherein a company affected by domestic legislation can appeal to the WTO to be compensated for the potential financial impact, or ask for fines against the country found guilty of trade agreement violations. This mechanism of trade agreements is clearly financial blackmail, designed by multinational corporations (mostly American, but a fair number of European and Asian companies as well) to prevent domestic legislation covering stuff like pesky environmental regulations, or recurring European attempts to ban beef hormones. This sounds very bizarre, of course—who in their right mind would tolerate this? But the US does, as do all signatories to the agreements that created the WTO and NAFTA. As we have just been reminded. Continue reading

The Geezer Party: where the hell are the young Democrats?

The Democratic Party needs more attractive candidates—and they need young ones, to match the youth of the GOP.

So the Democratic nominating process this year has three candidates if one includes Martin O’Malley, whose chance of the nomination is not yet a negative number, but may as well be. O’Malley is 54, which makes him a spring chicken compared with the rest of the Democratic field. Chafee dropped out, not that anyone noticed he was in, and he’s 63. Jim Webb is 70, and he’s gone too. Biden does not appear to be a candidate at this point, but he’s 74. The main combatants at this point, Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, are 69 and 75, respectively.

On the other side, the ten thousand candidates vying for the Republican nomination are all over the place—Bush is 63, Kasich is 64, Fiorina is 62, and Trump is 70. Other 60+ candidates are (or were) Huckabee, Carson, Perry , Graham and Huckabee. But then there’s the other contingent—Jindal (gone) is 45, Walker (also gone) is 49. Of the remaining bunch, Cruz is 46, Rubio 45, Paul 54, Christie 54, and Santorum 58. Continue reading

Flint is a sad metaphor for something

australia-water-stampIf one were looking for an apt metaphor to reflect the state of modern America, which would you choose: the surprising success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, or the deliberate poisoning of the entire city of Flint Michigan? I’d opt for the latter. Yes, the Trump candidacy is perhaps a milestone of something or other in recent politics, but America has always had political hucksters, and some of them have done quite well. This is a country that at one point had an important “Know-Nothing” political party in the 1840s and 1850s (a central plank of which was fierce opposition to immigration, interestingly enough.) So while the sakes might be higher these days—Mr Trump looks like he has a real shot at the Republican Presidential nomination, and a surprising number of voters appear to be uninformed, or misinformed, about lots of stuff—I would still argue that this is one of the swings in American politics that one sees from time to time.

Flint is another story entirely. Continue reading