Johnson pushes legislation through Parliament reneging on an international treaty. Trump denies that climate change is causing the devastating fires on the US West coast. Putin, we assume, is subverting the coming US Presidential elections by clandestine ‘active measures’. The insidious influence of the events shaped by Putin, Trump and Johnson is that it accustoms us all to the unacceptable and the unexpected. It becomes the new norm.
Who, other than a few cybersecurity experts, realised five ago that the KGB/FSB had long since been planning for a post-communist on-line war on democracy? Who imagined that 51 of 53 Republican senators would vote not to admit administration documents or subpoena witnesses at the impeachment trial of a US President? Who predicted that the Northern Ireland Secretary, following in the footsteps of a Prime Minister who illegally prorogued Parliament, would casually admit in Parliament that the UK would breach international law and that on hearing this the Attorney-General would fail to resign?
We are now routinely served up with a farrago of lies by way of explanation for such events, we watch the story eventually fall out of the headlines, and move on to the next attack on our values and the rule of law. That’s how things work. You gradually lose touch with reality. As Gandhi allegedly said when asked what he thought about western civilisation: “I think it would be a good idea”.
You might, I suppose, complain about Trump and Johnson being lumped together. Of course as personalities they have their differences. Johnson does not have an unhealthy fascination with authoritarian leaders. Trump is not the product of Eton. But the way they both came to power has significant similarities: flawed rival candidates and a split opposition, showmanship laced with repeated punchy populist slogans, a concept of truth, if they have one, reduced to what they believe the electorate might like to hear at any particular time. For ‘red wall’ voters read ‘rust-belt’ voters. And in power also similarities: an unprecedented capacity for lying, putting their own interests over or equating them with those of the State, a systematic attack on the institutional fabric of their countries, beginning on this side of the Atlantic, with the civil service, the legal system and the BBC.
Johnson, surfing on his 80 seat majority when he is not hiding, is causing grave damage to Britain. But Trump, in charge of the most powerful nation in the world, is in a different class. We know about his repeated and telling refusal to condemn Putin’s actions, however egregious, his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, and from the nuclear treaty with Iran which had curtailed its nuclear weapons programme, his Israeli ‘peace plan’ which was a smokescreen for annexation of chunks of the West Bank. No less dangerous is what we don’t know, notably whether Putin has some leverage over Trump through the old KGB’s technique of kompromat. What we do know is that his erstwhile lawyer- fixer, Michael Cohen, was negotiating for a Trump Tower in Moscow at the very time Trump was claiming he had no financial dealings with Russia.
As the US Presidential election approaches, Putin’s attempt to undermine the democratic process in the USA, and his relationship with Trump, ought to be foremost in US voters’ minds. The hope once was that the report by FBI chief, Robert Mueller, published in April 2019, would decide the red-hot question whether the President of the United States had been coerced into relations with a foreign power contrary to his country’s interests. But the terms set for the Special Counsel’s report meant the scope of his investigation was strictly limited. Trump put enormous pressure on Mueller making it clear that any pursuit of his financial dealings crossed a red line, and the White House obstructed the investigation of his contacts with Russia. ‘Collusion’, widely suspected at the time, is not a legal term though Mueller found ample evidence of it amongst Trump’s close associates. In the words of Luke Harding’s* recently published Shadow State (Guardian Faber), this included ‘secret meetings, offers of dirt, encrypted messages, hints and whispers. The Russians comprehensively penetrated Trumpworld, we learned’. The Report could neither assuage nor vindicate the horrific security concerns this suggested since Mueller was required narrowly to prove co-ordination or conspiracy with State agents of a foreign power - and for that he could not find enough evidence.
Harding’s new book provides an in-depth explanation of why Mueller was fated to produce a report that pleased very few and solved nothing. Each of Shadow State’s twelve chapters provides a detailed snapshot of the Russian kleptocracy in action. Trump often uses the phrase ‘drain the swamp’ in his frequent attacks on US democratic institutions. Harding describes the inhabitants of a real swamp, the Russian State apparatus, the exponents of ‘active measures’ targeting the American voter, the intelligence agencies FSB and GRU and their ‘cut-outs’, oligarchs and organised crime, interacting with the seedy coterie around Trump, networking in murky financial and political waters for their mutual benefit. This book illuminates the counter-intelligence concerns which the Special Counsel felt obliged to sidestep.
It would be comforting to think that Trump supporters got to read this book. They really do need to be aware of the kind of waters in which their President has been swimming before they let anger at the ‘Washington elite’ overwhelm their decency. And all those former Labour voters who supported Johnson and want to give him the benefit of the doubt, should look at Trump to see what happens when you become accustomed to the unacceptable.
*Luke Harding is an award winning investigative journalist who was Guardian correspondent in Moscow from 2007 until 2011 when he was deported.
See TheArticle 16/09/2020 'We have become accustomed to the unacceptable'
Citizen journalism gained respect through its reporting from war –zones. Portland, Oregon, with its liberal democratic ethos, is no war zone however much President Trump, posing as the upholder of law and order, makes it out to be one. Nor is this State about to conduct a fraudulent Presidential election. Others may be. Here is a recent letter from a woman friend living in Portland.
“I have become used to all those old white men surrounding Trump, but what irritates me is the blonde bimbos, all with the same figure and long blonde hair who are put up there as Press Secretaries, to answer questions, which of course is totally pointless because they just repeat the same old official lies from the White House. The misinformation about postal votes and the United State Postal Service (USPS) is a case in point.
At the moment, there is much justified outrage about what is happening with the postal service (USPS), which has trundled along well enough for many decades. About four months ago (May), the Board of the USPS, all put there by Trump, appointed a new Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy, a businessman best known for being a very large Republican donor to Trump's campaign with alleged conflict of interests from shares in a postal transport contractor. DeJoy promptly set about degrading the service by doing the following: banning overtime so mail carriers could no longer go out to deal with mail that was not able to be taken on the first round, and removing some of the large sorting machines in post offices. And he started to remove some of the blue mail boxes on the street where people drop their outgoing mail, which soon got noticed in rural States such as Montana and Maine. The reasons for all this destructive action are not mysterious; Trump hates vote by mail and almost every day spouts about how it creates voter fraud. It is predicted that many more voters in many States will want to vote by mail in November and of course if you can screw it up in any way possible, he will do so. Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate Minority Leader, remarked that "Trump is trying to kneecap the USPS". I think it’s true.
Three weeks ago there was such an outcry that DeJoy has now backed down and stated in writing that no more changes will be made until after the election. On the other hand a lot of damage has already been done, both in processing capability and in the mind of the public. There is no commitment to put any of the sorting machines back in place. The House Democrats have now begun an investigation into Dejoy’s financial and fundraising dealings.
The big concern at the moment is best expressed by the title of an opinion piece in the New York Times, written by David Brooks. David Brooks used to be the paper's conservative commentator and is now usually referred to as a RINO - Republican in Name Only. Anyway his op-ed piece has the heading "What Will You Do if Trump Doesn't Leave ?" This is not just some wild left wing fantasy, but based upon the facts observed in other elections this year and previously. I will do my best to explain, though it is quite complicated.
This year, because of Covid-19, many, many States will have a large percentage of mail-in voters who do not want to go to the polls in person. Some states (Oregon, Washington and Colorado, and others) have been doing this for years, have a well-developed process and essentially deal with mail-in ballots quite rapidly, so that results can be declared the same night after the polls close or soon thereafter. In Oregon, which I know best, ballots are sent out to all registered voters with a quite large voter information brochure filled with candidate statements, several weeks before the election date. The voter fills in the ballot like a multiple choice test and sends it back. The election office routinely checks the voter rolls, the signature on the ballot and doubtless other items; this routine processing and checking can all be completed before election day and after the polls close, ballots are put through a scanner and votes are counted, but not until after polls close.
This is all very well but we have fifty different States, many with a track record of voter suppression, and each one has different rules, not to mention the fact that many of them have very little experience in handling mail-in ballots. In Oregon the ballot must be received by the election office before polls close at 8 pm. on election day. In some States, it is the postmark on the ballot envelope that counts, not the date received; others require a voter to specifically request an absentee ballot and by a certain date. In some states the election office is not even permitted to check ballots received versus voter rolls until after polls close on election day, so in those States the process has not even started. Obviously, this problem could be solved very simply by instructing the 'novice' states to follow a process used by the expert ones, but that is not about to happen. To me, it seems crazy that we have a federal election without federal rules, but that is the way things are.
Why does all this matter? The implication is that some States may take days, if not weeks, to finish processing mail-in ballots. And that might not matter except for the fact that Trump has been ranting about non-existent voter fraud to the extent that Republican voters are more likely to vote in person than Democrats. Hence, the mail-in ballots according to estimates might contain 75% Democrat votes and 25% Republican. So, if you think through what might happen in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and North Carolina, the initial vote tallies based on numbers at the polling stations might show Trump with a significant lead, which diminishes day by day as the mail-in votes are counted. This so-called blue lag has actually been documented in some previous elections this year. You can imagine for yourself the type of things that Trump might say on Twitter if the initial poll counts show that he has won certain States, but in reality those States are just slow or incompetent in counting. So that is why David Brooks and a lot of other rational people in this country are concerned about election-day totals.
But time to get back to my laundry”.
See also TheArticle 11/09/2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed alarming things about our geo-politics, government and society including the danger of accepting inequality as capitalism’s collateral damage, how incompetent and unaccountable governments cost lives, and how bad we are at making timely coherent global responses to global problems. A virus has returned us to the original Greek meaning of the word ‘apocalypse’ as the revelation of things hidden rather than the spectre of protected bunkers stocked with water, food, and shot guns in American back gardens.
Abruptly we have become aware that ‘going forward’ we may not be going forward anymore. The message of How Everything Can Collapse by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens* is that we must discuss calmly the possibility that the Anthropocene, the current geological period created by human beings, is currently set to end in collapse, possibly by the 22nd century. And collapse is ‘when water, food, housing, clothes cannot be supplied to majorities by services under legal supervision’. The book piles up the evidence for this assertion.**
How should we respond to such a threat? Survivalist or Denier, the authors insist, should not be the only two positions. Nor, in the midst of a global pandemic can this book be easily dismissed as catastrophist doom-mongering. COVID-19 has taught us what exponential growth in something bad looks like. And so ‘collapsologie’, emerging in France as a discipline with its own insightful experts, gives pause for thought. They can’t all be cranks.
Servigne and Stevens argue that we face worldwide several interlinked ‘systemic instabilities’ notably in bio-diversity, the environment, energy, climate change, economics and geo-politics. They believe that the earth reached the limits of its human ‘carrying-capacity’ in the 1990s and in a number of instances crossed crucial boundaries destabilising or destroying systems that keep us alive and well. Amongst the examples they cite are the thawing of the Siberian and Canadian permafrost, a possible sixth mass distinction of animal species, and the 20th century’s ten-fold increase in energy consumption and its 27 fold increase in industrial metals extraction. How many of today’s fishermen - and BREXIT negotiators - realise that for the same time spent at sea they are catching 6% of what their forefathers in sailing boats caught 120 years ago? We seem to be reaching simultaneously several limits and ‘tipping points’ that precipitate us into dangerous, interacting, irreversible processes.
Our predicament is psychological, political and ideological. Our brains are not geared up to deal effectively with long-term threats. They are protectively designed for immediate fear, fight, flight responses; flight when a sabre-toothed tiger comes into the cave or a terrorist into the shopping mall. Denial is an ingrained defence mechanism but if we can’t believe in the possibility of collapse before it happens we can’t prevent it. We saw this at the beginning of the pandemic when, despite clear warnings, stocks of protective equipment, PPE, proved to be inadequate.
Governments' lack of competence and accountability compound the danger. Wealth acts as a buffer from most misfortune. Personally wealthy political elites don’t feel collapse early enough to react in a timely fashion. Look at Trump and Bolsonaro’s track record on the pandemic and climate change. In authoritarian regimes such as China the reflex is to hide unpalatable truths.
The ideological problem is economism, the politics of economic growth, ‘it’s the economy stupid’. All governments promise rising standards of living. And the developing world needs growth. It’s the big economies that are the concern. 7% annual growth in China – surely less now – should it resume and continue means that economic activity with all the global supply chains, energy use, soil depletion, carbon emissions attendant on it, would double every ten years and increase 32 times in fifty years. We await the first politician in power anywhere to admit publically that economic growth is part of our predicament.
I would like BBC’s Radio 4 ‘More or Less’ to investigate the statistics in How Everything Can Collapse but even if they proved only 20% accurate they would be shocking. But however accurate the statistics on which predictions are based the future impact of inter-connections between different factors is unknowable. In 2006 economists simulated the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic to determine what might be its contemporary impact on the global economy. They concluded an overall 12.6% drop in global GDP. The Spanish Flu epidemic lasted a little over two years. The World Bank’s recent estimate for COVID’s impact just in 2020 was 5.2%. Remember the world population was only 1.8 billion in 1918 and perhaps a third was infected by Spanish Flu. Assuming that 3% of those infected would die, the economists’ predicted 142 million pandemic deaths today. In 2008, the head of Exxon Mobil’s global emergency team, John Lay, estimated that in the event of a similar pandemic “if we can make people feel safe about coming to work, we’ll have about 25% staff absences”. Actual current levels of home working make the predicted level of absences look far too low. In short, on past performance, such predictions prove too inaccurate to justify fear that we are doomed or relief that we will dodge the bullet.
Sevigne and Stevens are clearly right that the school of business-as-usual is now obsolete. COVID has put paid to it. Yet, do world leaders really realise that we face more than a combined health and economic emergency and do they understand the magnitude of the change now necessary? These French authors are also right that the conjuncture of very dangerous interconnected and systemic man-made processes is a threat which we do not want to face. Governments in denial have responded to them inadequately or badly. Remember how successful the ‘Project Fear’ taunt proved.
We none of us know what’s round the corner. The implied inevitability of How Everything Can Collapse does not credit the possibility of the emergence of an unexpected remedy, change in governments’ leadership, a drop in population, how one catastrophe can slow the approach of another in the way COVID caused drastic reduction in polluting air-travel. We can’t though rely on muddling through and good luck. Sevigne and Stevens try to open up a conversation that avoids the extremes of apocalypse panic and a blind belief in progress. Please God they succeed.
This is not a book for bedtime reading. Nor is it a requiem for humankind. And, it should carry a warning that readers may need an injection of Dad’s Army or Father Ted after they put it down.
*Polity Press Translation from the original Comment tout peut s’effondrer Editions de Seuil, 2015
** But see https://en.unesco.org/courier/2018-2/Stop-catastrophist-discourse for a criticism of the way the book uses its evidence.
“What tale shall serve me here among
Mine angry and defrauded young.”
Rudyard Kipling: “A Dead Statesman” 1919
For the next twelve months controlling the spread of COVID-19 will depend on sustaining major changes in people’s behaviour. The level of necessary compliance can only come from widespread trust and respect for the judgement and integrity of government ministers.
In my part of coastal Suffolk COVID-19 etiquette is impeccable. Everyone is well-behaved. This is not just because the population is retired and elderly with good reason to keep to the two - metres rule. Younger holidaymakers, laden with wind-breaks, picnics, mini-surf boards, buckets and spades, step into the road or the fields, to keep their distance. A polite ‘thank-you’ is the norm for the first to take avoiding action.
All accommodation close to the coast has been booked here. Camp-sites filled. Camper- vans spilling overnight into car parks. I estimate that there are three times more people enjoying Suffolk North Sea beaches than in former years. The demography is interesting. Couples with two children, one dog are the most common. The vast majority of visitors are in family groups, some bubbled or extended, like the large Muslim group from Walthamstow I met three weeks ago, first time out of London for five months, and a breakfasting group from West Sussex who had arrived at 5am to watch the sunrise.
The Suffolk coast is a different world from the South Coast with its Costa Brava-style occupancy, packed burnt-nose to nose, a few under sun-shades. If TV news shots illustrating how no-one is paying attention to government Covid advice tell the full story, the crowds on beaches like Bournemouth, Poole and westward consist mostly of 18-25 year olds with fewer vulnerable elderly. Mind you, Frith’s painting Life at the Seaside shows Ramsgate sands in the nineteenth century only a little less congested and with mixed ages, though considerably more clothed.
Dunwich, the mediaeval town ‘hidden beneath the sea’, inundated as currents and river changed course, has a special charm; its beach at 10 am on a sunny Summer’s day has, surprisingly, a touch of Seurat’s La Grande Jatte about it. The picture couldn’t be more different, the Seine not the sea, trees not pebbles, with a few huts for winding-gear, no-one elegantly dressed, but there is something similar about the light, the spaced placing of groups of people, the sense of leisure and time slowed, away from the urban bustle. Dunwich beach also has its fishermen, spaced according to fishing etiquette, further than COVID-distances, sitting meditatively in small encampments, rods pointing skywards, line just visible above your head. And plenty of toddlers captivated by hard-wired beach rituals: run down to the water’s edge, waves crash, spray, screams compulsory, scuttle back up the beach, repeat with bucket, collect water, pour into hole, repeat. Did Neanderthals do the same? Probably.
North of Southwold, this region’s best known beach, is Covehithe within weekend range of journalists from north London who, some time ago, began writing articles calling Covehithe something like “Suffolk’s Best Kept Secret” - which means it no longer is. The once quiet, little-known and secluded shore, reached by a path through high bracken and fields, then along crumbling cliffs, now is busy. All along the narrow path passing recesses have been cut into the surrounding vegetation for those who are ‘shielding’ and for well-behaved visitors. In the past, you could imagine the beach as the location for the final scene in Planet of the Apes when Charlton Heston spots the charred head and torch of the Statue of Liberty emerging from the sand. Now it’s dotted with picnickers, sunbathers and swimmers.
At Covehithe you can still see marsh harriers cruising ready to grab baby sand martins sticking their heads out of their cliff holes, watching for their parents coming back with food. Or over the sea but close to the shore on quiet stretches, hovering terns hunting, dropping like stones, beaks first, to snatch out fish. A lone, anti-social, seal patrols this beach, black doggy head appearing as it surfaces to take a look at Homo Sapiens. In the early Autumn, long skeins of Canada geese practise slipstreaming low above the waves. Covehithe blissfully banishes Covid from the mind. Welcome back to the comforting old normal.
I am not working for Suffolk Coastal Tourist Information, or auditioning for a Nature Notes column, nor is my purpose to attract visitors, but simply to emphasise that advice on preventing the spread of COVID must take age and location into account. The contrast between the behaviour of visitors to this stretch of the Suffolk coast and behaviour in London, Birmingham and on the South Coast is striking. A short while ago, over one weekend, West Midland police had to shut down over eighty illegal gatherings (many of them ‘raves’) and I’m told by Londoners holidaying in Scotland that they were struck by how many people wore face-masks. Why these differences?
On the face of it, the main rule-breakers are young adults who are now recognised as major carriers of infection. They voted overwhelmingly against BREXIT, only to be ignored, were more activist about climate change, only to be patronised, and, in big cities and towns, see no chance of ever moving in to their own homes. COVID has brutally disrupted their lives and, along with BREXIT, will curtail their job opportunities. On the whole in the early weeks of lockdown they complied. The turning point came when Boris Johnson failed to sack Dominic Cummings for breaching government guidelines. Many young people decided ‘to hell with it’. If they are to be persuaded to keep the rules once more, they will need to trust government. In Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has retained that vital trust; infection rates, similar to Northern Ireland’s, are 377 per 100,000 against England’s 518.
The generation gap, reflected in national voting behaviour, is becoming a serious issue. At the last election fewer than 25% of 18-25 year olds voted Conservative against 56% of the over 55s. Voluntary compliance with COVID prevention from the young remains critical. If the Johnson government fails to retrieve respect and public trust it will cost more lives. There are no signs Johnson and Cummings understand this.
See TheArticle 27/08/2020