Sunday, 16 April 2017

Nationalism: that meme that preys on every country's weakness

Thinking about the ugly fate which might genuinely soon befall Europe, should Marine Le Pen win the French presidency - lately made more possible by the recent surge for Jean-Luc Melenchon, raising the spectre of a far-left/far-right runoff from next week's vote - I set to thinking about what makes the current renaissance of populism/nationalism so potent.

Richard Dawkins invented the neologism "meme" to mean the cultural equivalent of a gene, an idea that embeds and propagates itself in a society, which could be either positive or pathological. Religion (if you are atheist, like Dawkins) is one. Nationalism, I would argue, is also one and usually pathological.

Whither nationalism? Yes, a recent economic depression over much of the world has helped, as it did in the early 1930s. Easy answers from charlatans are always attractive. But ultimately, what is it all about? 

Why, about looking for the historic weakness in each country's psyche, which is gently stroked by the nationalist. Just as party-populist Jeremy Corbyn has tickled his party's sensitive tummy about being a "real" socialist (not a "pretend" socialist like those nasty new Labour figures who, you know, actually won elections and did stuff), each grouping or country has a weakness, preyed on by the unscrupulous.

For the English, of course, the fantasy that they can recreate their glory days. No longer, of course, their imperialist past - only the neo-Nazis can lack self-awareness to that degree. No, now it is simply that it, a medium-sized world economy, can cut the same figure outside the EU as it formerly did inside. For the Scots, it is that a nation of nine million souls can do something similar, outside Britain while inside the EU (good luck with that). The Catalans, that they can really count for something in the world outside of Spain. And so on.

But it is a general phenomenon: Americans, seeing that they no longer have a global economic hegemony thanks to China, are panic-stricken and fall back on the snake-oil answers of "making America great again" peddled by Trump. The French's weakness is that they have never really managed to integrate their North African neighbours or actually face up to the fact that their statist scleroticism is hopelessly out of date. The Germans that they feel they have been just going round being too nice to everyone during the postwar period. The central Europeans who have never quite got used to foreigners (and Jews in particular, in some countries such as Hungary). And the Russians, whose leader's harking back to the good old days of being a true superpower and identifying convenient bogeymen, for him to protect them against, has gone down a storm. In each case, the nationalist leader feeds the weakness, the particular self-indulgence of the nation. 

There is only one way out of this descending spiral: the nous, and the balls, to stand up and call this irrational self-indulgence out for what it is. We shall see, in each country separately, whether this can be done. The signs are currently not good.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Labour and anti-Semitism: can’t get the stink off

“Can’t get the stink off/He’s been hanging round for days”, wrote Thom Yorke in 1993. “You do it to yourself, you do/And that’s what really hurts”. Lines that could have been written for Labour’s troubled, Stockholm-syndrome relationship with one man. A man who is still hanging round a party which somehow cannot seem to shake him off, either.

Last Tuesday, Ken Livingstone was, essentially, let off. A man who for years has ridden perilously close to anti-Semitism in his behaviour – we shouldn’t forget the “concentration camp guard” incident with a Jewish journalist in 2005 – finally crossed the line a year ago when he decided to argue that Hitler was a Zionist.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The Centre Left goes to…Dallas

It’s been over a decade since my last trip to the States. I used to go at least once a year or so but…young kids, you don’t do long-haul very often (and the experience of 26 hours to Australia with a one year-old in a cot vomiting, well, I was a bit more sensible after that).

Imagine now the shock of the change: to start with, 11 years means a jump from the era of Bush to the era of Trump. And the last time was cosmopolitan, liberal New York, not Republican heartland Texas, where Trump won clearly (although, interestingly with a significantly smaller margin than Romney did four years previously). It’s a bit different out here.

I am surely not the first to observe that Texas is big. Texans, relative to us skinny Europeans at least, are big. Everything is big.

On the way from the airport I see a great number of houses, and my first thought is that they are multi-flat blocks. But thinking about it, they may well have been individual homes. That bigness again. The cars. Everything is far apart, spaced out in a sprawling landscape of greenery, dotted with malls. No-one walks.

And then there is Fox News. I watch it one morning at breakfast-time. The headline: “Illegal Immigrant Killed My Son”. Cue interview with tearful mother. The clear implication being that you couldn’t really expect much more of an immigrant but that she or he be a murderer. We have to stop these “illegals” – it has become a noun, rather than an adjective. It is dog-whistle politics, but one where the racism is not latent, but blatant.

It is theatre, it is perhaps highly effective in influencing some people but it is not broadcast news, not in any form that we would recognise. This is Trump’s 24-hour propaganda channel, where he is never criticised, not once.

One honestly wonders what the difference is between this and Putin’s sycophantic, puppet news stations, so beautifully exemplified by the truth-twisting, English-speaking Russia Today that you can catch on European satellite TV.

Today the news items on all channels cover former the desire of Trump’s former National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, to testify (against Trump, we presume, in the small matter of his team’s links to Putin’s regime) in return for immunity. These kind of shenanigans do not exactly represent politics-as-usual, especially not a mere 70 days into an administration which has notched up during that time not one political success.

This is not the America I know and love. But it is surely a temporary aberration, it must be. This fine country cannot long sustain the incompetence, corruption and downright treachery of its current administration.

As I fly home, I am reminded – thanks to Pablo Larrain’s rather well-made film, which is showing on the plane – of Dallas’ accidental, tragic place in America’s story; the site of the most famous assassination in post-war history.

In the film, Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy asks exhaustively about Lincoln’s funeral, concerned to ensure her husband is presented and remembered as a great man. 

One wonders who, exactly, will think of the vain, corrupt and ridiculous Trump at the end of his term as a “great man”.
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