Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 18th July 2016.
Writing on social media last week about the Nice attack, the conservative commentator John McGuirk remarked that “at some point soon, people are going to say “you know, we tried the nice way. We tried tolerance. We tried being understanding. Maybe it’s time to give the crazy guy a shot at it.”
It’s hard to dispute the logic of his argument, given the rollercoaster of the last 12 months. From Trump to Brexit, we are witnessing what some are calling “post-truth” politics but what I prefer to term The Right To One’s Own Facts. The most disturbing aspect of the Brexit debate for me was the willingness of voters particularly but not exclusively on the leave side to casually dismiss facts which did not fit with their worldview.
But what should really alarm us is that there now seems to be substantial numbers of voters who choose to vote recklessly on the basis that “sure, it can’t get any worse, can it?” There are literally millions of people voting for Trumps, Farages and Erdogans. It can always get worse.
In 1979 the trades unions brought down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government because they thought he was too right-wing. Think they were still applauding themselves for that act after ten years of Mrs Thatcher? Reckless voters keep thinking that they can’t break the system, even when they pretend they want to.
But they do want to break it, some say. Why shouldn’t they? They’re disengaged. Except they’re not. They are completely engaged by other taxpayers through the state. It often provides their dole, their healthcare, their housing, their kids’ education, all funded by the taxes of voters whom they themselves seem to hold in contempt for being “an elite”.
The welfare state isn’t some form of natural fiscal phenomenon. It’s a decision by voters collectively to provide what is, in many instances, a form of nationalised charity. Sure, get insulted all you want at that definition, and talk about entitlements and rights, but bear in mind that whilst all of us, in every class, cannot avoid paying some tax, even if it is just VAT, some pay far more into the pot than they draw out, and others vice versa. You know where the poor are disengaged properly? Venezuela. When you can’t even find toilet paper on the supermarket shelves. Disengagement? That’s abandonment by the state, and it isn’t happening here.
The other awkward reality about reckless voters is their contribution to the rise of the hard anti-immigrant right in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. What do these countries all have in common? How about, in one study after another, they collectively have the highest standards of living as nations in the world, which actually means in human history. So what’s their gripe? How disengaged are they? Is their broadband speed letting them down? Not getting enough time to play Pokemon?
What unifies Trump voters, Brexit voters, far right and far left voters? For some it is simple racism. We seem to believe that racism is no longer possible, but is merely a symptom of some other underlying cause. But guess what? Some people just don’t like people who are a different colour or creed. It doesn’t matter why, we just have to ignore them because their opinions are irrational and listening to them about the direction of society is like listening to Jimmy Saville about child protection protocols.
But I would suggest that the racists are a minority, and the real motivating factor for many of these voters is the speed of change, and that’s a big problem. Yes, immigration transforms societies, but so does technology. The speed of transport has sped up immigration, but it has also sped up shipping times from the cheaper labour less employment rights factories of China and thus made off-shoring jobs much more viable. How do you stop that?
The Trumps and the Le Pens can stop immigration, and erect walls, both physically and tariff. But they can only alter the speed of change by actually withdrawing their respective countries from the globalized economy, which has all sorts of consequences from labour shortages to the price of food in the shops.
For me, the greatest reason why we should ignore reckless voters is their belief that complexity can be removed. That “take back control” or “just send them all home” is an actual solution. This is using a match to see if there is any petrol left in the drum stuff, and it must be opposed.
Of course, all that assumes that a majority of voters will vote in a non-reckless way, and that, in the age of Trump, is a hell of an assumption to make. Just look at the Erdogan of Turkey.
In 1932, in Germany, 52% of voters voted for either the Nazi party or the Communist party. Many of those same voters would have to wait for 17 years for another free election, and only after their country lay literally in ruins and under occupation.
It is very possible for voters in a democracy to vote to abolish themselves. Reckless voters have a right to be heard. But they don’t have a right to grab control of the wheel of the bus and take us all down with them. Nor are we obliged to let them.
Previously published in The Times Ireland Edition on 13th December 2015.
Last week, Preet Bharara, The US Attorney (Director of Public Prosecutions) for the southern district of New York sent out a tweet welcoming the conviction of a man named Dean Skelos. Skelos was New York State’s senate majority leader, and had been known as one of the “three men in a room” along with state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and governor Andrew Cuomo who actually ran the state of New York. Skelos was convicted of bribery and extortion charges, accused of trying to enrich his son. In November, state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was convicted on corruption charges too. Both men look like getting about 130 years each.
These were important men. For many years, in New York state politics, these were The Men. Between them, they controlled the New York state legislature and a state budget of $150 billion dollars, nearly three times the national budget of Ireland. What was interesting was that the US attorney saw fit to publicise widely his role in putting these men behind bars. Political showboating? Almost certainly. The office of New York’s US Attorney has already proven to be a political launching pad for one Rudolph W. Giuliani, who’s jailing of dodgy Wall Street types won him a lot of votes with ordinary working people who wanted to see that the law applied to the mucky-mucks as well.
Does Attorney Bharara have ambitions for elected office? Who knows. But if he does, it’s not unreasonable for him to think that going after corrupt politicians might win him votes.
It’s a good job he’s not running in Ireland.
Watching the RTE Investigates report into our home-grown breed, you see the differences. First of all, it’s not the Garda or Department of Justice hunting these guys down. It’s a television station. If you google “FBI public corruption”, you get the page of the FBI that deals specifically with it, and lists out all the recent public officials convicted in recent months of corruption. In the US, if you’re a councilman or a state senator, there’s always the chance when some guy offers you a brown envelope that he’s actually an FBI agent wearing a wire.
Think Irish councillors have ever worried that the Gardai were out to get them? Put “public corruption” into the search engine on the Garda website. You get the following “You Searched for ‘corruption’ filtered by ‘all’ Pages returned ’0′ results.”
The truth is that there is no one in the Irish state, unlike in the US, who gets up in the morning and says “today I’m going to nail some corrupt so-and-so to a cross.” As with so many things in Ireland, it’s nobody’s job. Why not?
Why doesn’t Garda Commissioner O’Sullivan announce that she is setting up a dedicated unit to pursue and actively attempt to bribe Irish public officials, as the FBI (and RTE) do? Who’ll stop her? The minister? The Taoiseach? As it happens, they probably don’t have the power to stop her. But more importantly, they wouldn’t have the stones. Yeah, all across the country county councillors would be up in arms, talking about their “good names” being dragged into disrepute by the mere existence of such a unit, but so what? Would it be the worst thing in the world if every grasping sticky-fingered “what’s in it for me?” councillor had just the lightest film of sweat on their brow every time he sat down with a developer? Or when he picked up his phone?
By the way, on that note, why haven’t RTE named the councillors who refused to meet them because they felt it was inappropriate? The fact that there are councillors who actually aren’t on the make is as big a story as those who are.
Of course, it’s unlikely the Garda will take such dramatic action. The organisation is notoriously reactive. After all, according to last week’s Garda Inspectorate report they seem to be only getting around to the fact that there’s a thing called “the internet”. The one thing that would make the Garda take corruption seriously is the one thing that made the late Telecom Eireann and Dublin Bus up their game: competition. If the government outsourced the pursuit of corruption to, say, a private security company or legal firm which got paid by the number of its privately investigated cases the DPP felt able to bring to trial, then suddenly the Garda might sit up. Now there’s an idea as to how to spend Atlantic Philanthropies money.
That’s the unwritten truth we all avoid: the Garda don’t take corruption seriously because the Irish people don’t, and they work for them. Voters, as a general rule, don’t see dismissing corrupt politicians as being their job. In fact, it’s even worse. A politician who spends his time trying to clean up politics is almost seen as a time waster not doing proper local graft work. There’s also the reality, which the commissioner will be well aware of, that the Irish people are far more likely to dismiss a politician who fights corruption than one actually being corrupt. Just ask Pat O’Malley (remember him?), Joe Higgins, Jim Mitchell or Dick Spring.
Fighting corruption in Ireland is going to be like bringing in divorce, equality for women or decriminalising gay rights. One of those issues where the majority of people either have no interest or are mildly opposed to it, but is pushed by a tiny well-organised, dedicated group. Then one day you reach a tipping point and it becomes the cultural norm, and everybody wonders why we didn’t always do it this way? It’s be the tiny Social Democrats or Renua or a plucky independent who forces the big parties to finally take action. That’s the Irish way.
The 7th May 2017 is the final date in a 12 month perfect storm of political events that threaten western stability and indeed democracy like none since the 1970s. Between now and that date, the second round of the French presidential election, we will face three major events that have the potential to upend key stability factors in our society.
The first is Brexit. As it happens, British withdrawal from the European Union itself can be managed. The European Community existed before the UK joined, and can function without it. The big fear, however, is that Brexit might trigger a domino effect of populist forces declaring exit from the EU as the Deux Ex Machina that solves all modern anxieties. Even then, it can be contained, provided that Italy, France or Germany don’t leave, with smaller countries leaving just becoming de facto non-voting satellite states of the EU.
The second is a Trump victory. As it happens, such a result would almost certainly result in the Republican party rushing to be forgiven by him in the hope of sharing in the patronage and spoils. But is it impossible for a man with an ego like Trump to decide that he is in fact above party politics and to appoint some popular Democrats to office too? That coupled with the very real difficulties of implementing the more extreme of his policies could trigger a sharp backlash in his hard-core base. Or mass rioting amongst Hispanics if he tries to implement them. Don’t forget, Hispanic-American citizens have the right to bear arms too. The sheer unpredictability of a Trump presidency, never a good thing when the control of nuclear weapons is involved, is a serious worry for us all.
The third and final is the possibility of Marine Le Pen becoming President of France. As with The Donald, “right thinking” people keep saying that it can’t or won’t happen. But we live in dangerous times, and the Le Pen plan, based on withdrawal from the euro and protectionism for French business, as well as mass deportation, would almost certainly destroy the European Union. There can be no EU with France and Germany in step.
Another excellent public discussion from the 92nd Street Y in New York. An interesting warts-and-all discussion with historian Michael Beschloss and writer Jeff Greenfield about what JFK would and wouldn’t have done if he’d survived Dallas. Some pretty cogent arguments as to why it wouldn’t all have been good.
It will surprise some to hear it, but if I were an American I don’t think I’d be against gun ownership. Guns are part of the American tradition, and they’re not going away anytime soon. We Europeans struggle to understand one fundamental point that doesn’t exist here or in the rest of the industrialised west, and it’s this: a huge number of Americans believe that other Americans will try to murder them. Imagine living in a society where fear permeates to that level. It’s akin, say, to life under the Soviets, where ordinary citizens feared the KGB appearing in the dead of night at your home. Only in the US, it’s been privatized. It’s not the state, it’s other citizens.
We struggle to grasp that. We’re naïve because our children don’t have lockdown drills but, you know, just go to school. We can’t buy child-sized flak jackets easily. Just go onto the NRA’s excellent website and watch their videos. The worried father, who loves his family, fears for their safety and wants to protect them. What’s more decent than that? We can’t understand that. Not the desire to protect family, but his fear. He lives in one of those countries, like Colombia or Brazil or Pakistan, where life is cheap. We just can’t understand that, and that’s why we roll our eyes when we watch the video. His brain actually works differently from ours, and you can’t blame him. Your brain would work differently if you lived in a country where you believed your fellow citizens are trying to murder you on a daily basis. Yes, we do have gun crime and tiger kidnapping and home invasions, but even with all those there is not a single serious Irish politician who advocates US gun policies.
The response of the NRA is always the same: President Obama is “politicising” gun shootings, as if he was blaming a typhoon or an earthquake on the Republicans. They then follow it up with a call for more guns. Always. In short, the logical NRA outcome is that every person over 18 years old (I assume: even they don’t want to arm children, right?) should be armed all the time and permitted to bring whatever weapons wherever they want. It’s an interesting concept, in that it would address the NRA argument that unarmed people can’t defend themselves. If the entire adult population is armed, it almost certainly would reduce the number of people killed by some lone nut. But it would also increase the number of emotional episodes that turn into gun incidents. Funnily enough, I’ve never seen the NRA apply the “more guns” argument to 9/11. Have I missed that? You know, the NRA suggesting that if every passenger on a plane was carrying a gun, planes would be safer from hijackers. They don’t seem to make that argument.
Still, as a lobbying organisation, you have to give it to the NRA. They are the masters. They have actually managed to create a political environment where the government even trying to gather data on gun crime has been politicised. What’s incredible is that they have created a scenario where the right to own weapons, up to the moment you go on a killing spree, is regarded as sacrosanct, whereas the right to not be shot is regarded as an aspiration that is nice, but come on, we have to be pragmatic about these things.
It is true, guns don’t kill people. People do. So at least exercise care in who you give them to. Yes, gun owners should be required to pass a psychological evaluation. Start there: at least we’ll get the entertainment of watching the NRA having to defend why crazy people should be given automatic weapons. Of course, the NRA would probably steer the debate towards “what’s crazy?”. Are people who think Donald Trump is 100% right about everything crazy? People who think President Obama is not an American, or is a Muslim? What about people who think the Holocaust didn’t happen? Or that the world is secretly run by Jews? That’ll be a fun day out.
A well-known right wing Irish commentator recently pointed out that the only thing that’ll really work will be to actually confiscate guns, and that’ll start a near civil war. As indeed the abolition of slavery actually did, and the abolition of segregation nearly did. But is there anyone who really thinks America is not a better country today for having endured both those massively disruptive periods?
There’s a lot of loose revisionist talk about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Phrases like “war crime” get thrown around, and of course the fact that the horror of atomic warfare is something pretty much every nation today regards as the near-ultimate extreme act.
In today’s climate, having witnessed the outcome and suffering of the citizens of those cities, it’s easy to ask how could any decent human being use these awful weapons on a fellow human being?
Looking at it through today’s lens gives a false perspective. Look at it from Harry Truman’s point of view. Four years of war, and a military staff telling you that you have two choices: you can send hundreds of thousands of US troops to invade Japan, or you can use a wonder weapon of such power that it could end the war in days.
There are counter arguments: some say that the atomic bomb was dropped as a sign to Russia not to invade Japan. That’s plausible as a partial reason, but even if it were true, it raises an issue. If Russia had invaded Japan, when would the Russians have pulled out? About the same time they pulled out of East Germany? The US occupation ended in 1952 leaving Japan a stable democracy.
The other argument is that Japan was looking to surrender anyway. Again, there is some credence to this. But they wanted a guarantee that the Emperor would not be executed. If Germany had looked for the same for Hitler, would the allies have agreed? Here were the Japanese government willing to sacrifice their own civilian population in street fighting to save one man? The ending of the Living God status of the emperor was vital to making Japan a democracy, and that meant he had to be held accountable. As it happened, the emperor wasn’t executed in the end.
Another argument made is that the US should have detonated the weapon somewhere harmlessly but visible to the Japanese, perhaps even inviting the Japanese to witness it. But people forget how unreliable the first atomic bombs were. Supposing it hadn’t exploded? Secondly, grotesque as it sounds, the sheer horror of the two bombed cities was the message in itself. Think we’d regard atomic weaponry with the same horror we do today without the bombings?
Harry Truman made the best choice available to him. Today, we would not think of using an atomic bomb to end a conventional war, but that’s after decades of learning of the aftermath of the Japanese attack. But at the time, as president of a country that had already sent thousands of its sons to their deaths to defeat Nazism and the Empire of Japan, it is hard to see how Truman could have done anything else.
Every US presidential cycle we hear the same thing: that this election will be THE most expensive in terms of campaign fundraising. This then triggers huge debates about the influence of big money on elections. So, here’s a thought. Rather than constantly try to devise ways of policing it, which will be circumvented, how about you change the law and let candidates actually hand out cash to voters?
Think about it for a minute. Would it be corrupting? Possibly, but no more so than how that money affects politics now. The difference would be that the ordinary voter could actually benefit from the vast money. The voters know all about the enormous amounts of money being raised, and with the web could actually take advantage of it. Individual voters could auction off their votes, knowing full well how much other voters were being offered.
True, some swing voters in key primary states or swing general election states would make much more money as their votes would matter more, but wouldn’t that only force other states to start offering proportional voting in order to allow their voters benefit from the bonanza?
But that’s not the good part: the good part is that the secret ballot would remain, so it would be the candidates who would be on tenterhooks hoping that the voters kept their promise to vote for them. After the elections you’d see downtrodden candidates who had handed out hundreds of millions of campaign funds bitching about how they’d been screwed by the lying voters. Come on, don’t tell me that wouldn’t be fun!
The weapon, later identified as a 10 mega-ton former Soviet warhead, detonated just as the new Knesset began proceedings. In a flash, Israel’s administrative capital, political leadership and just under three quarters of a million Israelis died, along with hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank.
The news was greeted in different ways. In the US, the president was rushed to the emergency national airborne command post, whilst the vice president and others were sent to the alternate national command centre in Mount Weather. US forces were ordered to def con 2.
In Cairo, Damascus, Tehran and Riyadh, spontaneous crowds gathered in grotesque displays of euphoria.
President Obama, aware of not wanting to impinge on the personal suffering of American families who are not yet suffering from losing friends and/or loved ones in a mass shooting that hasn’t happened yet, has issued a statement condemning the as yet not occurred gun attack.
“Today, as we listen to news coming from wherever it will be that this awful thing happens, our prayers are with the families of people who will soon be senselessly gunned down by someone with a legally held firearm.”
The National Rifle Association has condemned the President for making remarks about a hypothetical mass killing involving yet another weapon being used by a person who really shouldn’t be allowed own a mobile phone, never mind a firearm comparable to those used by most other countries military forces.
“We expect this sort of liberal scaremongering from this President, going around stirring up anti-gun feeling on the ridiculous basis of an event that has not even happened and will statistically not happen in exactly the format that he’s talking about. Why, he didn’t even have the guts to predict where such an event might happen, how many people might die, and what sort of firearm was used!”
When asked about the fact that the NRA actually has established media procedure to deal with mass shootings, the spokesperson pointed out that plenty of people enjoy wargaming, and that if NRA employees just happen to enjoy such a social event, that’s their business.
“But the idea that the NRA prepares for mass shootings in the belief that it is a near certainty that they will happen under our current gun laws is outrageous,” the spokesman said, before jumping under a table when a nearby car backfired, and screaming “Lockdown Alpha! Lockdown Alpha!”