Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Eternal vigilance

The United States Presidential debates seem to have confirmed two things.

The first is that Donald Trump is totally unsuitable to be the President of the United States. 

I mean, not just inappropriate for the job, but most likely utterly catastrophic. His contempt for the niceties of the US constitution was just the cherry on a particular odorous cup cake of crap. His demeanor- petulant, childish, and his opinions- ignorant and boorish, suggest that as President he would respond to the slightest provocation with over reactions that could lead to breakdown domestically and war internationally.

The second thing the debate confirmed is that he could still step into the oval office next January. Despite the fact that literally no business leaders back him, despite his failure to release his tax returns, and despite his insulting and patronizing comments about more or less anyone who is not Donald J Trump, this man could become the President of the United States.

Even though the chances still favour Mrs. Clinton, the fact that it is even remotely close changes everything. The fact is that even if Mr. Trump is defeated this time (Please Lord!), there remains a huge block of voters that is prepared to consider possibilities that should be unacceptable in any sensibly governed democratic state. This challenges the whole basis of the global international order. The United States has been a force for democratic will and the free society since at least the second world war. If the US can not be relied upon to defend freedom, no matter what the cost, then we genuinely risk a collapse of the Pax Americana and a descent into a nuclear armed instability that risks the entire planet.

In the event the Alt-Right and the other post truth politicians may not get their man this time, but the shock of what is happening underlines the urgent need to develop a new kind of politics that can balance the political interests of society without the emergence of irrational and dangerous demagoguery.  

The price of freedom was, and remains, eternal vigilance. In a world where Vladimir Putin is attempting to subvert Western democracy, we must now drastically increase our guard.

Electing Trump would be a disaster as great  as May 1940 for Western Democracy.   

Friday, September 23, 2016

Punishing the Conservatives

A Conservative government has caused the greatest political and economic disaster in 50 years. The Prime Minister responsible, David Cameron, has resigned. Theresa May's ministers are consistently suggesting that the vote to leave the European Union means the withdrawal from all EU mechanisms- the "Hard Brexit". The result will be the exit of the car industry from the UK and severe damage to the City of London.

It is totally irresponsible.

It will cost the country millions of jobs and billions of pounds. The Tories now own the Brexit fiasco.

Voters are noticing: some major shifts in local elections suggest that the Liberal Democrats may be recovering fast.

Just maybe the new Tory programme of back to fifties- imperial measures, grammar schools et al- may end up destroying the party that is proposing this drivel. Backward looking provincialism deserves nothing more than contempt.

I bloody hope so.

In other news.

Last night hundreds of children went to sleep alone and hungry in the Jungle at Calais- a humanitarian mess that the UK is responsible for. Last night the food banks were doing good business. Last night the NHS faced just another day of strain and pain. Last night millions of workers in the UK were facing renewed threats to their livelihood because of the Brexit fiasco. 

This morning the British right wing press: 80% supporting the Conservatives and funded by five off-shore billionaires, decided that the marriage split of two actors was the chief story their readers needed to know about.

Contemptible. Disgraceful. Outrageous.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Burns and the charms o' nature

I was interviewed yesterday on the subject of the poetry of Robert Burns by the Scottish Cultural Society in Tallinn. This is a good organisation that promotes a wide variety of things Scottish with a fervour that should embarrass even the most intransigent nationalist. Whether ceilidh dancing or singing the songs of Burns, or even kilt wearing, this small group constantly delight with their enthusiasm and passion for the subject of Scottish culture, broadly defined.

Since I was a teenager I have read the works of Burns and felt that he deserves a wider audience than the annual festival of the unco' guid that marks his birthday each year on January 25th. Like the Slovene poet, France Preseren, Burns speaks not just for some exclusive national feeling, but the universal themes of love, nature and politics. Yet whether the lovely pastoral of Westlin Winds or the epic song of brotherhood a Man's a Man it has seemed until recently that Burns was condemned to the shortbread tartanry that makes him seem more of a museum piece than of any modern relevance. In the end though, Burns is really a bit of a rock star and though Holy Willies Prayer and Tam O'Shanter were radically subversive at the time, it really is the songs that make Burns so accessible. Possibly my favourite (and certainly my Grandmother's favourite) is Ae Fond Kiss

The links will take you to some modern performances of these great songs. Enjoy!      

Monday, September 19, 2016

Fighting the Culture War

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the creation of a raft of new liberal and democratic states in 1989 and 1991, the argument about the values of the open society went into a kind of stasis. The debate was deemed by many to be closed, and the virtues of liberal democracy self-evidently triumphant.

25 years later that "end of history" seems at best more nuanced. At worst, the closed authoritarian model seems to have made a spectacular come-back.

This blog references Cicero, and in previous posts I have explained why. I have feared for a long time that the values and virtues of democracy are being eroded from within and without. The fact is that mass societies can be manipulated and subverted. Vladimir Putin spends billions of dollars on propaganda, and while much of this is to persuade Russians not to challenge his regime, equally his purpose has been to undermine confidence in the states of Europe and North America that he deems to be his enemies. He is achieving a remarkable success in promoting closed, right-wing models of society. His admirers are a rogues gallery of anti-democrats: Marine Le Pen, Diane James, Geert WildersDonald Trump, the Vlaams Belang in Belgium and many members of the Cinque Stelle in Italy.

The weakness that this subversion is demonstrating should give all of us some pause for thought. The fact is that both our media and our education system have already let us down severely. 80% of the UK print media is in the hands of foreign or off-shore ownership, with an extreme right-wing agenda. On my recent visit to London, I was staggered how many people read the Mail and the Express- two newspapers who seem to have given up on the truth altogether. The fact is that in a world of post truth politics, our general education level seems simply too low to challenge the false narratives that the biased and self-serving media is promoting.

When people ask me why Estonia is so much more successful than, say, Russia. I generally reply by pointing out that Estonian culture so strongly promotes education. It is a history of Lutheran respect for education, combined with strongly rooted values of hard work, discipline and openness. It is next to impossible to beat a bright kid with a good work ethic. Yet even in Estonia, I see signs of a culture being assailed. The astonishing growth in graffiti in recent months is one example, the rise of EKRE- an unpleasant and intolerant right-wing nationalist party- is another. Of course both are still much weaker than in the UK, but the fact that they even exist in Estonia is reflective of possible problems ahead.

In the end, across Europe and North America, the heartland of the West, it is our values, our culture and way of doing things that is being challenged. Some of this is the subversion of openness by the enemies of the open society, but we must also admit that we have made too many mistakes. The promotion of the Bush-Blair war agenda, against strong internal resistance was, in retrospect, the beginning of a crisis of confidence in democracy. Cynical politics has created a cynical society. Amoral decisions have contributed to a climate of moral indifference which is highly corrosive of the open society. The result has been the growth of an alienated and angry electorate. The result has included the economic, political and moral mistake of the Brexit referendum result.

As we contemplate the challenge of Putin, and indeed the coming challenge of Brexit, it seems to me that we will need more and more to renew our national political cultures. The cheerless and backward-looking managerialism on offer from Theresa May already looks dated, and such values as she offers- a return to the 1950s- are hardly robust enough to meet the demands of the new century. Although Taavi R├Áivas, the Estonian Prime Minister, offers a younger face, he remains the captive of older figures, and Estonia too needs to renew its political culture. The party-list electoral system is too closed for the increasingly open society that Estonia wishes to be, and the three ring circus of the current presidential election has shown just how locked-out the voters are from the process. 

In both countries a voice that reiterates the values and virtues of openness is much needed. The complications of a tolerant and free society must be explained, and that is difficult enough in thoughtful and educated Estonia, never mind the shrill and poisoned atmosphere of British politics. However, if we do not renew our culture and reinforce our values, I fear that all the gains of the global society could be rolled back and the locust years will be upon us. It is not just a question of economics, it is a question of ethics and morality. It is a question of good and bad. 

Cicero lived at the time of the death of the Roman Republic. The Republic had existed for 500 years in turbulent vigour. Cicero was instrumental in defeating the first conspiracy against the Republic- the Cataline conspiracy- but though he knew the Republic needed reform, he could not provide the leadership to thwart Caesar's coup d'etat. Within a very few years Rome was the prisoner of its Emperors and the power of the Republic was broken. Cicero, and his ally Cato had failed and the decadence and corruption of the Empire lingered in place of the vigour of the Republic. 

Is that to be the fate of the West?  In the end we could fail and with the failure of the global society a smaller, weaker, more violent world could come. Instead of creating a more open and integrated planet we could fall back on the failures of the past, possibly not excluding war and the eventual use of nuclear weapons.

Thus it is not for small stakes that we must fight. The renewal of our values in a world where virtually limitless data or information is free, but knowledge and understanding just as difficult as it ever was cannot be easy. Yet now- in a world of surveillance, both overt and covert-  we need to set the limits of power more than ever. It comes down to renewing our philosophy and living rigidly to our values. We must not let political compromise become moral weakness. Whether the challenge comes from Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping or our own media-political complex, we have to understand the scale of the problem- and the terrible price, if we fail. In the new cultural war, we cannot afford to fail.