The sign said La Farga de Reynes, the Reynes Forge It was a small Catalan village on the French side of the border. We had just left two friends in the Musée d’Art Moderne in Cerêt, with its seventy odd pieces contributed by Picasso, and half of the exhibition rooms closed for repairs. Nothing much had changed since we visited four years previously and found half the museum shut. Now we were driving into the mountains, heading towards Amélie-les-Bains for a brief R & R from Culture. We planned to return and pick them up.
Rounding a bend, I saw the bridge ahead of us was hung with yellow bunting. Then I spotted them. “Look”, I said, “Gilets Jaunes”. We felt like those bird-watchers who spot a migrant yellow-hammer in a Suffolk field. There they were, as seen on TV, by the roadside in their high-viz yellow jackets just before the bridge, clustered around an old Citroen 2 CV sporting Catalan and French flags. And like any avid bird-watcher my mind immediately turned to getting a photograph to prove it.
We shouldn’t have been surprised. The Pyrénées-Orientales and industrialised areas of the coast going north towards Montpellier are the happy hunting grounds of Marine le Pen and her National Rally (the mutated National Front) Party. In the 2017 Presidential elections, she won 41% of the vote in Hérault, 45% in Aude and, moving to the mountains, 47% of the vote in Pyrénées-Orientales - which had the highest unemployment rate in France, 12.7%. The Mediterranean rim has a poor track record for year-round employment. These protesters were Gilets Jaunes 66 from the Perpignan sector who, on this beautiful morning, had left the coastal plain for higher things.
My mind quickly moved from getting a good photograph to a more travel-focused anxiety. What if they were preparing to block the road? We would be cut off from our friends. They would be stuck in Cerêt all day while we would be trapped in Amélie. Here was a new and creative holiday anxiety: easily a match for fear of striking French air traffic controllers grounding us, or railway workers shutting down the railways. I did a U-turn, tentatively approached the group of Gilets Jaunes, and stopped, causing a minor traffic jam. They directed us in a friendly fashion into a yard just off the road so we could talk.
“No”, they were not going to block the road. They seemed a little shocked that I thought they might. Would they mind us taking a photograph? They would be positively delighted if we took a photograph - several photographs. And so we have the whole group, a group with us in the middle, and another in front of the heroic Citroen CV which, it was proudly announced, had been to the Paris demonstrations . The CV had been signed by Parisian Gilets Jaunes just like on a football after the big match. It was a powerful symbol of French identity as well as Catalan protest.
The protesters’ slogans and the bunting were on the vague side. “On lâche rien” – Never give up. “Macron Démission” – Macron Resign. And “SOS Santé Publique, Urgence - SOS Public Health, Crisis/Urgent; Macron’s public health reform began in 2016. We got talking. I asked about their current “revendications”, demands, but the answers were on the short side. “Augmentation” seemed to be all that needed repeating, a code word for an increase in the hourly minimum wage for over 18s, the SMIC, (Salaire minime interprofessionel de croissance).
All the men and women in the group were in their late 50s, early 60s, working class, and having a jolly time waving to cars that honked as they passed. The Citroen formed a material and symbolic bond with past, more riotous shenanigans in Paris, like a giant papal medal linking a rural Catholic to the panting heart of Rome. They were having far too good a time to give up easily and, if an increase in the minimum wage was top of their personal list amongst the forty or so demands coming from the Movement, more power to their arms.
I have come to the conclusion that with the storming of the Bastille as the great seminal moment in French Republican history, protest, demos, and disruption, jolly or confrontational, went into the French bloodstream. Much of the French public seem to be comparatively at ease with them - even if they block the road for a while. Participants obviously enjoy them as a day out. Unlike the British middle class who march dutifully causing minimal damage, though often with witty banners, and climate change protesters with creative and daring forms of disruption.
With hopes for social justice in Britain draining away by the day as Boris Johnson climbs to the top of the greasy pole to become Prime Minister, and the country falls apart, we will need to borrow the Gilets Jaunes slogan: “On lâche rien”
“Never give up”.
Donald John Trump, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson and Nigel Paul Farage are the three political figures who garner the most public recognition in Britain today. They share and promote BREXIT’s underlying public anxiety about immigrants. This is their primary engagement with voters. Showmanship and outrageous - thus newsworthy - behaviour keeps all of them in the public eye. Each, in his own way, disports himself to great effect in the grubby, if crowded, grounds of Chateau Celebrity.
Many people find these three men morally repugnant. But evidently many others do not feel the same, are not deterred by their fellow citizens’ repugnance, and would like Trump/Johnson/Farage to wield political power. Fundamental to their political strategy is the blurring of the distinction between truth and falsehood. Trump is a pathological liar living in an Alice in Wonderland world. The Washington Post fact-checker clocked his 10,000th lie this April. I suspect he doesn’t really grasp the concept of truth. He manages an average of eight public lies a day. Alexander Boris de Pfellel Johnson is a more intermittent and casual liar, and more selective in his choice of lies, tactical rather than pathological in comparison. Stockbroker Nigel, man of the people with his Coutts bank account, proffers more Piffle than Pfellel in his interviews and speeches. But he has some very sinister friends and acquaintances, and keeps the source of his funds for his political work suspiciously obscure. Public support for them all continues.
Does lying matter? The 13th Century Dominican thinker, St. Thomas Aquinas, said that lying was making a false statement “at variance with his mind”. I am not sure that all Trump’s 10,000 utterances and tweets were “at variance with his mind”. He believes the last thing he says. Then again our three celebrities may well imagine the public don’t believe a word they say and don’t take them seriously, goes the argument. I doubt that. True, politics and entertainment blend into each other these days; politicians are duly entertaining us and many of the electorate enjoy the big game. But lying is a corrosive thing. The Catholic catechism – I confess not my bedside reading – says that lying “sows discord, destroys society, undermines trust and tears apart social relationships”. Not a bad description of Britain in June 2019. We laugh at our peril.
Most people would not go along with Aristotle and St. Augustine who took a very hard line on lying: lying is always wrong, no exceptions. A memorable Dominican priest, Father Finbar Synnott, who headed the South African Catholic Truth & Reconciliation Commission in the early 1970s, faithfully followed Augustine. At the peak of apartheid repression in the early 1980s, I used to stay in the Dominican Priory in Mayfair, Johannesburg – a confusing name for the British visitor as Mayfair was one of the poorest parts of town. The beat-up priory hid several young black activists on the run from the security police. When the phone rang everyone leapt across the room to take the call. I asked why and was told that, if Finbar picked up, he would feel obliged to tell the truth about the priory’s temporary residents, whoever was asking. His brother Dominicans were less Augustinian.
You became accustomed to ‘white lies’ in apartheid South Africa. The police must have known everyone was lying as the priory was shot up one night; and, rather unfairly in the morning, bullet holes were visible above Finbar’s bed. We concluded that sleeping soundly with a clear conscience had saved his life.
The lies that corrode British and US society are not ‘white lies’. They are profoundly injurious ones, a worrying aspect of our political culture’s decline. Trump, Johnson and Farage, deliberately or just instinctively, create a world of fake news, and in consequence an entire political generation is mistrusted; people do not know who or what to believe, or having made up their minds are unable to change them because contrary evidence is no longer evidence. An informed electorate, so important for democracy to work successfully becomes impossible. In other places and at other times this state of affairs has led to authoritarianism and the assassination of journalists committed to the truth. I find myself hesitating to say we are a very long way from there yet. Is not suggesting that our future Prime Minister might prorogue Parliament to thwart the will of Parliament a first move in the authoritarian playbook?
We just cannot take the continuation of a healthy democracy, the rule of law, and strong governing institutions for granted. We need to ask ourselves what it means about us and our societies that three men known for their lack of moral values and personal virtues attract the spotlight of celebrity, become leaders, and are given power over us. And once we have asked ourselves, and not liked the answer, we need to speak out and vote accordingly.
See The Article.com Lying Politicians will tear apart civilised western democracy
In last Sunday’s Observer the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, placed President Trump into the same category as the European populists who are “using the same divisive tropes of the fascists of the 20th century to garner support”. Was he right to do so? Well, yes. But Donald Trump is also part of the story of American fascism and the American Dream.
Not the American Dream as originally set forth: liberty, equality and justice ‘for all our citizens of every rank’ (my italics). Sarah Churchwell’s recent study Behold America: a History of America First and the American Dream, describes how this dream mutated over time firstly being reduced to a dream of opportunity, and finally to becoming a dream of the individualist pursuit of wealth.
Donald Trump’s slogan ‘America First’ has deep roots in American history. Sarah Churchwell traces its use from when it emerged in 1884 during trade wars with Britain – that certainly rings a bell - to the time when it mobilized voters in the 1916 Presidential campaign. It was thought so effective it was used by both candidates. According to Woodrow Wilson when he said America First, he did not mean beggar your neighbor but that the USA should taking the lead internationally. Wilson attempted to put his ideal into practice in the founding of the League of Nations. The League, intended by Wilson as a global body headed by the USA, was never ratified by Congress, and in the 1930s “America First”, acquiring some of its present meaning, became the popular expression of isolationism.
The deep and broad appeal of the words America First and the allied theme of Americanism was that their meaning for the public could encompass traditional and honourable themes of patriotism as well as those of racial bigotry and the assertion of white supremacy. America First was more than compatible with the views and racial violence of the Klu Klux Klan. Donald Trump inherits and promotes this ambiguity.
Sadiq Khan is right in making the link between the USA and Europe. Toxic ideologies are no respecter of geographical distances especially in the internet era. In the US mix of the 1930s the Friends of New Germany were active. On 17 May 1934, beneath a swastika banner, 20,000 people attended a rally in Madison Square Gardens. This was the overt face of American fascism. But fascism’s true and abiding American expression was, and remains, the promotion of fascist values under the cover of super-patriotic American slogans. Today’s European populist Parties finesse their own politics in a comparable way with varying degrees of sophistication.
Was Trump aware of this dark heritage of American politics when he set out on the campaign trail? Perhaps some of his advisers such as Steve Bannon knew their Right-wing political history. It doesn’t really matter. Extreme right-wing ideas have a way of sticking around for ages like chewing gum under furniture. There are striking parallels with former US political figures such as Huey Long and Charles Lindberg who gained national prominence in the 1930s. The ideas behind America First and Americanism were there to be discovered or re-invented. Just as America First Inc. emerged in 1934 as a reaction to Roosevelt’s New Deal, so today’s Trump’s version of America First is a response to the Obama presidency reacting to the 2008 financial crash, an economic crisis comparable in gravity to the Great Crash of 1929. Trump could win a second term on the slogan.
There is a great danger that the effectiveness in electoral terms of Trump’s first term will be underestimated and liberals’ hopes of his disillusioned supporters seeing sense will turn out to be a form of denial. Until our political systems have answers to the human consequences of Rust Belts, the problems of inequality and to the challenge of integrating immigrant communities, and until they can also respond to those part of the mass media that provide echo-chambers for extreme right-wing thinking, fascist tropes will have traction. Does this make Trump smarter than we like to think? Perhaps. More important, it makes him more dangerous.
The Mayor of London is not being deliberately contentious. We have our own values in London and they need asserting in the face of a foreign visitor who apparently likes straight talk. It helps to set Donald Trump’s policies in an historical context, rather than simply dismissing him as some kind of a narcissistic sociopath who by some aberration accidently got into power. America, Britain and the world have encountered this cluster of ideas before, resisted them, and lived to see another day. The current President of the United States is indeed a throwback to a dark past. This doesn’t solve the problem but it is an important insight.
But insights are not enough. Trump promises to hold the dominant elites to account. That, in a divided society, is the source of his appeal both in the US and in Britain. The same elites must now examine themselves and recognize how much they have contributed to an outcome with which they so strongly disapprove.
See TheArticle 04/06/2019 "Donald Trump is flirting with fascism. The Mayor of London is right to stand up to him"
It was one of those humid days when you didn’t want to be in London on a train, even an over-ground from Stoke Newington to Liverpool Street station. The Bank holiday was over. It had not been particularly warm over the weekend and now cruelly the weather had turned hot just when you would be stuck in the office.
The train was pulling out of Cambridge Heath when a young man appeared, pale, thin and exhausted, and began moving down the carriage. The atmosphere in the carriage congealed with guilt and embarrassment. But you had to hand it to the beggar, he had a strong story. He was a “released prisoner”, “let down by the probation services”. He needed “£7 for a bed for the night” or he’d have to sleep “under the arches”. Who could tell if this was true?
A black Londoner sitting across the aisle, and in his early thirties, got out his wallet and gave the beggar a gleaming five-pound note. My wife, white haired and travelling on her Freedom Pass, said to the charitable giver – who turned out to have Nigerian origins and a 100% ordinary London accent: “How very kind and generous of you”. “Well”, he replied, “I’ve never forgotten being a child on Baker Street station with no money. I asked a lady for my fare and she gave me more than I asked for. You can’t tell about beggars, what they’ll do with the money. You just have to take the risk and give”. My wife answered: “When I came to live in London, I was so upset by the homeless people on the streets, as it’s often not helpful to give direct to the people who ask, I took out a standing order to a homeless charity”.
The solemn, frozen and embarrassed silence of the compartment had broken down. A middle-aged white man sitting opposite joined the conversation. He worked on Liverpool Street station. “A bit ago a man came to the girls on the information desk and asked for £3.75 to make up his train fare. One of them got out her hand-bag and gave him the money.” Two days later the man came back and re-paid her.” “You really don’t know, you can’t tell”, said the black Londoner in a reflective tone.
The train pulled into Liverpool Street station. Everyone stepped onto the concourse and went their different ways. “I do it for God”, said the black Londoner before he went through the barrier.
That’s London for you.