Archive for the ‘Political’ Category

Codename Edith

May 7, 2022

Edith Suschitzky merits only one mention in Ben MacIntyre’s masterful biography of double agent Kim Philby. ‘Philby’s introduction to Deutsch appears to have been arranged by Edith Tudor-Hart … Edith married an English doctor and fellow communist called Alexander Tudor-Hart, and moved to England in 1930, where she worked as a photographer and part-time talent-scout for the NKVD, under the remarkably unimaginative codename ‘Edith’. She had been under MI5 surveillance since 1931 but not, fatefully, on the day she led Philby to meet Deutsch in Regent’s Park.’

Philby learned communism at university. Just before he left Cambridge, he asked his supervisor, economist Maurice Dobb, ‘how best to devote my life to the Communist cause’ and Dobb put him in touch with a Paris agent of the Comintern named Louis Gibarti. Gibarti sent Philby to Vienna, where he fell in love with a Viennese communist named Litzi. Edith was one of her best friends, the daughter of a social democratic publisher. Then came the purge. ‘Prisoners march through silent streets as they are led towards the camps that will become their graves, Europe dithering in the months following Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss’s disbanding of parliament. Across the city of Vienna, a fire takes hold.’

Litzi’s name was on one of Dollfuss’s hit lists, so she married Philby and fled to London, and a little while later Edith Suschitzky led him to the meeting in the park that would make him a spy. We see little of Philby in this novel, and no great loss. He pops up now and again: at Cambridge (‘Trinity College appeared to bask beneath its own golden halo, those first weeks flying past, the clinking of champagne flutes along the banks of the River Cam’) in Spain (‘Taking a step on to the pavement, the dust scattering around his polished brogues and linen suit – the perfect attire for a bright young Times journalist poised to report the Civil War from Franco’s side’) and outwitting the local cops by throwing his wallet on the floor during interrogation. Oh, he’s such a card. Letters from Russia intersperse the narrative. In them he talks about the weather, his dacha in the countryside, his attempts at cultivating vegetables. Charlotte Philby, who is his grand daughter, wrote the letters based on Philby’s own correspondence: ‘Some sections are lifted verbatim; additional paragraphs I have invented based on his interviews, his autobiography, anecdotes, family folklore, and my imagination.’

Edith was the greater mystery. Growing up, she saw her father’s bookshop regularly trashed and raided by the nationalist right, yet he never fought back: ‘Edith’s father had felt himself stand taller. A self-proclaimed pacifist, he hadn’t lashed out.’ As a young woman she shouts at the old man: ‘You have dedicated your life to ideas and theories that you claim will change the world. But you’re a hypocrite! Just out there, beyond the bookshop, Europe is imploding, and you do nothing.’ As an activist she’ll do anything the Party asks of her, and defend its most shocking crimes. ‘So, my daughter doesn’t condemn it,’ says Edith’s mother in 1939, ‘a pact between the Nazis and the Soviet Union. And so you must condone it, this agreement between your leader and the same man who forced us from our homes, who stole our country – the men who are responsible for Papa’s death?’ 

To betray you must first belong, Philby tells her. Philby was a son of privilege whose life was a succession of exclusive clubs. Edith was an immigrant artist under constant state suspicion. Edith is interesting because she didn’t belong – her personal life was nowhere as linear as her doctrinaire views. After letting go of the dullard doctor she married, Edith had a succession of affairs with various dynamic Soviet agents. The real focus in life was her son – she loves Tommy more than anything in the world, but his condition and stalled development (likely PTSD from the Blitz) makes him a threat to himself and others. Edith takes the boy to a child psychiatrist who starts an affair with her, while the kid is packed off to a succession of remote residential homes. The dullard doctor signs off on a transfer to a brutal asylum without Edith’s knowledge or consent. The child psychiatrist drops her a line to say ‘I think you would like to know from me that I have remarried.’

The last third or so of the novel is a heartbreaking read as, twitchy and ageing, Edith deteriorates fast. At this stage the typewritten police reports that were always an occasional presence in the text begin to take it over – officialdom overwhelming humanity, like the Soviet years. She burns her negatives, suffers a nervous breakdown and is herself institutionalised. It’s at this point that Philby’s letters, always the most interesting aspect of his presence here, take on a poignancy. Under the careful insouciance of Philby’s style you could always make out self-doubt and isolation that crept in. (Macintyre writes ‘At times he sounded like a retired civil servant put out to grass (which, in a way, he was) harrumphing at the vulgarity of modern life… he grumbled about ‘the ghastly din of modern music’ and ‘hooligans inflamed by bourgeois rock music.’) ‘Is it wrong to say that I envied you your freedom?’ he writes to Edith. ‘You got to live your life exactly as you ought; you never had to play a part.’ 

Edith and Kim becomes a sad song, and a meditation on the psychology of betrayal. There is always doubt, and memory, even in the club of one or a mind dedicated to the cause. In his biography of Guy Burgess, Andrew Lownie writes about the house on Bentinck Street where Burgess used to crash sometimes – ‘it had a bomb shelter in the basement, there were always plenty of overnight visitors stranded by air raids or late night duties.’ In August 1940 Burgess wrote to a friend: ‘the bed problem when I sleep there in the basement is complex. Varied also are the names people murmur in their sleep.’

American Fortunes

May 2, 2022

(Spoiler alert for entire series of Ozark)

In Carl Hiaasen’s Lucky You there is a mob accountant called Bernard Squires. His ‘livelihood, and in all probability his very life, depended on his talent for assembling investment portfolios in which vast sums could plausibly disappear.’ He is in rural Florida to build a shopping mall on forest land – only the shopping centre is never meant to get built, it’s simply a vehicle to launder millions for the Tarbone crime family. Squires does everything right, but is ultimately beaten out of the land by the novel’s heroes, and ends up fleeing to South America.

Running away is never an option for Marty Byrde, the wealth manager in Ozark. Marty is very good at his job – if, for Gale Boetticher, the magic was in the lab, for Marty that magic is in the balance sheets. Cartel representatives come to his firm in Chicago and hire him to launder their drug money. The cartel is impressed with Marty because – out of the hundred-odd wealth managers its representatives interviewed for the role – Marty was the only one who had the balls to point out that their current financial advisor is ripping them off. All goes well for ten years, until the cartel discovers that Marty’s business partner is also skimming, and that Marty – distracted by his wife Wendy’s affair – has missed this. Marty has to watch his business partner and contractors gunned down in front of him, and only wins his own life by offering a radical new proposition – relocate to rural Missouri and launder more money far from federal eyes. The enforcer agrees to give Marty a second chance, and he uproots himself to Ozark. 

Ozark is a show about class, not crime. This is illustrated to high comedy in the early episodes. Marty arrives in Osage Beach offering tons of money to buy up small businesses, and is surprised when the locals get suspicious and ask questions. For all Marty’s business brain, he doesn’t anticipate that Missourians might actually know what money laundering is – or that he might be blundering into established operations. At least in the beginning, Marty is a white collar Yankee who underestimates the South. Once the family has settled in, and learned to fit in to some extent, we can see the dividing lines. Rich northern families visit every year to enjoy the lakes. Marty’s fifteen year old daughter Charlotte sleeps with one of the rich boys. When he blanks her, Charlotte realises that she is now on the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon: to the elites stopping in from Manhattan or Long Beach she is no longer someone to be taken seriously, just a local girl to fool about with. (A New York hipster declines to take part in local hustler Ruth Langmore’s drug operation because, he says, he came from a place like Ozark and doesn’t want to go back there.)

Getting the Byrdes back across the line is the ambition of Wendy Byrde, Marty’s errant wife. A brilliant political campaigner, who was forced out by the Democrat machine in Chicago, Wendy sees in Ozark her last and best chance. While Marty launders the Byrde money, Wendy launders the Byrde reputation. She uses her long-dormant networking skills to buy up much of the Missourian elite and to build a Byrde family foundation, her goal to establish the foundation as a Chicago philanthropic machine that has outgrown the cartel. Her and Marty’s conflicting business aims, and their increasingly volatile marriage, dominate much of the storyline and there are lethal consequences for anyone caught in their crossfire. Wendy’s threats, her manipulations, her willingness to take life and even sacrifice her own brother to the cartel, all of it makes her a terrifying criminal operator in her own right. But it’s rare to find pure evil in the Ozarks. When Wendy’s father comes to the lakes (to find his ‘missing’ son) he ends up trying to take Charlotte and the son Jonah into his guardianship. Outwardly an upright Christian man, Ruth gets him drunk and makes him tell her who he really is: a mean drunk who hits his children. Ruth concludes that, as bad as the Byrde parents are, their kids are safer with them. 

‘When Ozark first appeared,’ writes Barbara Ellen, ‘it was dismissed by some as a mere Breaking Bad rehash. Give over. Ozark is its own beast: a chilling, slow-churning opera of frayed loyalties, burnt bridges and familial decay.’ Marty Byrde is fascinating because he’s not Walter White. Walt dragged his wife and kids into the gutter with him but for the Byrdes, money laundering is very much a family affair, the kids know what their dad does, there is no conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. And while Walter became desensitised to violence scarily quickly, Marty seeks a diplomatic solution to all problems. ‘We’re here to do a deal, not kill people.’ That is Marty.

Of course, in a criminal environment with cartel hitmen and local mafias, the diplomatic solution isn’t always on offer. ‘You keep trying to please everyone,’ says the Byrdes’ tenant Buddy Small, identifying the problem. But Marty has a temper, kept carefully in check. The only backstory we get for him is in series three when, languishing in a cartel dungeon, he remembers his childhood. In this bleak flashback Marty’s father is dying in hospital. Told to leave the room, Marty wanders about and finds a games machine. He watches the machine for a while and figures out that the game is rigged. The injustice of it all motivates Marty to rig the game in his favour, and it also gives him a furious temper, which he mostly keeps under careful control. But under the escalating tensions of the last series, Marty finally loses his cool. When a man cuts him up in traffic, Marty beats the motorist to a bloody pulp.

For all its nuance and style, Breaking Bad had a kind of homespun morality to it. With tragic exceptions, the characters get what they deserve. Breaking Bad is like a desert town, where the sun’s shining bright and you can see everything up ahead. Ozark is more like a trek through a forest at night, with the ground slippery underfoot and the air full of strange creatures hooting and swinging and brushing against you. It’s a murky world a long way away from the primary colours of Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque.

Ozark is the scarier show because of its indifference and amorality, the sense that anything could happen. When cartel boss Omar Navarro tries to retire from the business and wind up his criminal organisation, the FBI won’t let him because it wants the drug money from seized trucks. In an agreement of outstanding cynicism, the feds and Byrdes arrange for the cartel to stay in business – providing the authorities get a cut from border crossings. ‘It ain’t illegal, it’s the feds doing it,’ Ruth crows. In the end, legal and illegal interests form a monopoly that guarantees money and status for those fortunate enough to be part of the magic circle. 

And bad luck if you’re not. Ruth Langmore was Marty’s first lieutenant in his Ozark operation, a small time criminal from the local bad element. Marty recognises her brilliant mind, gives her a job and responsibilities and encourages her to excel… but ultimately, when she has finally outlived her usefulness, Marty chooses not to protect her. Ruth leads a stalled life, propelled forward by her talents and drive but held back by her family history: not smart enough to get out of Ozark, she reflects, but smart enough to know what she’s missing. In the final episode she sees the ghosts of her murdered family hanging out in the trailer park – a criminal family destroyed by more sophisticated criminals. By then Ruth has an inheritance and a business in her name and an expunged record – ‘first clean Langmore in five generations’ – but the machine was never going to let her get away with it. As they say: once a Langmore.

Tony Soprano, justifying the American-Italian mafia, tells Dr Melfi that ‘when the Americans opened the floodgates, let all us Italians in, the Conaughtys, the Rockefellers, they didn’t do that out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because they needed us… and those fucks, the JP Morgans, they were crooks and killers too, but that was business. The American way.’ The private detective in Ozark tells Wendy Byrde that ‘You want to become the Kochs, the Kennedys, whatever kind of royalty you think you are? The world doesn’t work like that.’

‘Since when?’ Wendy snaps back.

Why Conservatives Aren’t Funny

February 16, 2022

Have you heard about the right wing comedy revival? Well, there’s big news: they have thought of a second joke.

Conservatives aren’t funny. We don’t know why. Maybe they are too smart, so their jokes go over our heads. Maybe they have all been cancelled. Conservatives were certainly funny once – literature is full of great satirists like H L Mencken and Saki. But whatever the reason, modern conservativism falls short. The political right isn’t funny, and the death of P J O’Rourke has left it unfunnier still.

In popular culture he represented something very twentieth century Republican, the world of after-dinner remarks and country-club speeches and things jotted on napkins, his books typically found in hotels and B&Bs and in the homes of people who don’t, typically, read for pleasure – between the volumes of Len Deighton and Golfing Nightmares.

But O’Rourke represented something else, as well – the last of a certain kind of Republican, the kind of Republican who was flexible on detail and secure in their beliefs, the kind of Republican that could handle losing a free election, the kind of Republican that could laugh at themselves. 

One critic – I can’t find who – described O’Rourke as ‘a prose comedian’. That is PJ, and it always struck me how careful his prose was for such a supposedly light writer. The many fantastic lines – ‘Hilary, mind your own business. Bill, keep your hands to yourself’, ‘No one has ever had a sexual fantasy about anyone dressed as a liberal’, ‘We’re against gun control. You can shoot us’ – only really make sense in the context of the articles. With PJ there was always a second joke, then a third, and then more.

I also respect PJ because he never followed his fellow conservatives down the road of ruin that led to the Trump administration. He was relaxed about immigration and, in 2016, endorsed Hillary Clinton: ‘Hillary is wrong about everything. She is to politics and statecraft what Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition were to Galileo. She thinks the sun revolves around herself. But Trump Earth™ is flat. We’ll sail over the edge. Here be monsters.’ It’s hardly a glowing recommendation but if the establishment Republicans had the balls to do likewise, we might have been spared the whole circus. 

If much of PJ’s stuff was about life in general – cars, hunting, family, dogs, etc – that was because he had a life beyond politics, because he had lived. As a young man he threw himself into the counterculture and as a journalist he travelled to what Christopher Hitchens called ‘dangerous and difficult places’ for many years. I think all this experience gave him a sense of perspective other conservatives lack.

To revisit the old joke with which I began this piece. Modern conservatives aren’t funny. Satirists on Spiked, Andrew Doyle, Unherd – they’re not funny. They have too much invested in the culture war, too much to lose, and it shows. Their stuff is embittered and overwrought, and it fails as polemic and as humour. 

The article that most resonates with me was a piece PJ wrote about his childhood – ‘Why I’m Not Afraid of the Dark’: 

My father had died when I was nine, and my mother, a kindly but not very sensible woman, had remarried to a drunken oaf. He was a pestering, bullying sort of man whose favorite subject of derision was my fondness for books.

Young PJ confronted his fear of the darkness when his home environment became so nasty and fraught (‘my stepfather was bellowing threats and the dog was barking and the television was blaring in the background of it all — a scene I still envision whenever I hear the phrase ‘hell on earth”) that he physically had to leave the house, if only to sit for a while in a local park:

I decided darkness must symbolize something more general for me. Evil, I decided. That’s why I imagined monsters in the dark. Monsters are evil because they do evil things, which is what makes them monstrous. But I recognized that as circular reasoning. No, I had to consider what evil really was. Evil was harm and destruction. Murdering people, that was evil, or burning their houses down. These were the sorts of things evil forces might do, the kind of forces that darkness symbolized for me. Such forces might rage into a home like my own and murder one of my sisters or both of my sisters or even my mother and tear the house to pieces, breaking it into little bits and then blowing the ruins to smithereens with nitroglycerin and setting fire to what was left, and then take my stepfather and break both his arms and slice off his feet and poke his eyes out with red-hot staves, disembowel him, skin him alive. And then they’d attack the rest of the neighborhood and the police force and the school and burn and bomb and steal and break everything in that part of Ohio, from the filthy oil refineries on the east side of town all the way to the moldy, boring cottage we rented every summer at the lake. And who knew what such evil forces might do after that? I didn’t. But I sat on the swing set considering suggestions for a very long time. And I have never been afraid of the dark since.

Update: O’Rourke’s friend and colleague Matt Labash has a marvellous long tribute.

Everyday Gnosticism

July 28, 2021

Another day, another thinkpiece about conspiracy theories. This one is an extract from a book by John V Petrocelli, published at Lithub. Petrocelli begins with NBA player Kyrie Irving’s startling claims in a 2017 podcast:

This is not even a conspiracy theory. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat. The Earth is flat… What I’ve been taught is that the Earth is round. But if you really think about it … There is no concrete information except for the information that they’re giving us. They’re particularly putting you in the direction of what to believe and what not to believe. The truth is right there, you just got to go searching for it.

Petrocelli seems to suggest that trying to argue Irving out of his beliefs won’t work:

If someone believes that it is more likely that thousands of scientists, worldwide, are colluding in a conspiracy to hide the true shape of the Earth, then explaining otherwise won’t get you very far. Despite the public criticism Kyrie received for his flat-Earth theory, he stood firm and remained unconvinced, saying in 2018, ‘I don’t know. I really don’t,’ and added that people should ‘do [their] own research for what [they] want to believe in’ because ‘our educational system is flawed.’ It is one thing to suggest people do their research and another thing to make claims about things one clearly knows nothing about—but something tells me Kyrie hasn’t really cared to look at genuine research evidence.

I’ve written about this stuff before. But since then, I have been reading Daemon Voices by the phenomenal Philip Pullman. Daemon Voices is a book of essays, collected over two decades, but with a striking consistency in their themes of faith, scepticism and the imagination.

Something I had not come across, until I read this collection, was Gnosticism. Pullman explains it like this:

To sum it up briefly and crudely, the Gnostic myth says that this world – the material universe we live in – was created not by a good God but by an evil Demiurge, who made it as a kind of prison for the sparks of divinity that had fallen, or been stolen, from the inconceivably distant true God who was their true source… It’s the duty of the Gnostics, the knowing ones, to try and escape from this world, out of the clutches of the Demiurge and his angelic archons, and find a way back to that original and unknown and far-off God.

As Pullman says, this idea puts believers at the very heart of its story. You are important and special, you are a spark of divinity in a fake world. Pullman saw – writing in 2002 – the shades of Gnostic myth in mainstream conspiracy – ‘at the popular end we have The X-Files and The Matrix and the Truman Show, which are all pure Gnosticism.’ Since then of course the Matrix ‘red pill’ concept has been adopted by the more malign reaches of conspiracy theorising – QAnon, anti vaxxers, incels, antisemites – but you can also see how good people like Kyrie Irving can drift toward the harmless moonbattery of flat earthers.

Pullman goes on to say this:

This notion that the world we know with our senses is a crude and imperfect copy of something much better somewhere else is one of the most striking and powerful inventions of the human mind. It’s also one of the most perverse and pernicious…. it encourages us to disbelieve the evidence of our senses, and allows us to suspect everything of being false. It leads to a state of mind that’s hostile to experience. It encourages us to see a toad lurking beneath every flower, and if we can’t see one, it’s because the toads now are extra cunning and have learned to become invisible. It’s a state of mind that leads to a hatred of the physical world.

And that is a terrible thing, because we are nowhere without ‘the physical world, this world, of food and drink and sex and music and laughter’.

I’m sure the Gnostic myth is very well known, but it was new to me, and I think it gives more insight than much science writing into susceptibility to conspiracism. For myths are more powerful than truths.

Notes on a Scandal

June 29, 2021

Until then, hypocrisy had had its moments, in politics, in religion, in commerce; it had played its part in innumerable social interactions; and it had starred in many Victorian novels, and so on… Looking back, hypocrisy might have smiled at its earlier reticence, for it soon grew accustomed to the commanding heights.

– Martin Amis, Koba the Dread

What follows is some observations, not necessarily coherent or insightful, about the Hancock affair

I know I’m late with this but it’s the kind of story that just runs on forever. Yet it’s a surprise that we are surprised. The authoritarian populist ideology on which this government is based doesn’t see the hypocrisy in the whole thing. They are democrats, as long as people elect ‘strong leaders’. The ‘strong leaders’ can do pretty much what they want while the rest of us work the fields. Scandals that erupt around the lords and ladies don’t ‘cut through’, and even if they did – it wouldn’t matter. As I’ve said before – rules are for the smallfolk to follow. Lockdowns are for the little people.

I totally get the reaction of some people who say that adultery is wrong and not morally neutral. Adultery breaks up families, causes emotional harm and social discohesion. So there is an argument for saying ‘If his wife can’t trust him, who can trust him?’ I get that. Still, you can’t prosecute Hancock for adultery and most people wouldn’t think we should be able to. These are moral judgements, not legal ones.

Until COVID-19. The pandemic has blurred the lines between legal and moral judgements. Under lockdown if you meet up with more than six people, sit in a pub without ordering a ‘substantial meal’, enter a shop without a mask, sing in a choir, hug someone (I am generalising because the rules over the last year or so have been complex and subject to arbitrary change) … you are seen as breaking the law, and worse, you are literally endangering lives. The confusion between COVID-19 laws and public health guidance makes it more difficult, and accompanying official law/guidance is the personal judgements people have made about what endangers public health – complaints about people spitting in the street, children blowing bubbles, rowdy people on trains, people sitting in beer gardens, the list is endless. I keep coming back to that essay by Regina Rini, written at the beginning of the pandemic: ‘We cease thinking about victims as persons, but instead as vectors of disease.’ Being a person in a time of COVID-19 is not easy.

Things are more relaxed now than they were in spring 2020 or winter 20-21 and indeed it’s becoming difficult to remember what the atmosphere was like in those scary febrile days. The fear, misanthropy, conformity, judgmentalism was stark. Dominic Cummings became the lightning rod for all this last year, although he wasn’t seen as a hypocrite (Cummings, probably wrongly, was characterised as laissez-faire on the virus). Until the Barnard Castle story broke, support for the government had been near uniform. There was a sense that he had broken if not the letter of the law but the spirit of the lockdown. Matt Hancock is a different person to Cummings – he was the government’s foremost public health bore and lockdown zealot who slammed SAGE advisor Neil Ferguson when the professor was himself exposed in May 2020.

When was the last time ministers screwing around became big news? You have to go back to the 1990s. Matt Hancock is big news now because the pandemic has litigated how and when people can interact with each other. Interactions can spread the virus. And what has grabbed people’s intention about the story is not the possible breach of law (or is it guidance?) the fact that Hancock’s relationship with Coladangelo (at least in some form) predated her employment for him, not the implications for public integrity or details about the COVID-19 stimulus money train. People are watching because of the kiss, the thrill and the secret of adultery, and they have a good reason to watch because what Hancock and Coladangelo did was against ‘the rules’. And we are going to have to live with this virus for a while yet. So pretty much everything about a politician’s private life is now open season.

What gets me is the fretting that people won’t ‘respect the rules’ because of Hancock’s example. Again the idea that the public’s actions can be so influenced by one disgraced minister, to the degree that it could increase COVID-19 rates. Again the idea of us as peasants watching intently the great game of thrones. Don’t get me wrong. Politicians are public servants, they are worthy of respect until they lose it. But they are not role models and people don’t think of them as role models.

People get the government they deserve. It’s said that the various political misdeeds exposed in the newspapers fail to ‘cut through’ because ordinary people are not interested in them. If you want to keep voting for a bunch of grasping, thieving, pompous bores, snobs and petty tyrants that’s fine. If hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue then it’s a backhanded compliment with the joke very much on the rest of us. Democracy depends on an informed citizen population. We have had eleven years to get to know this lot, and I think we have given them a fair hearing.

The Barbour County Registrars

May 10, 2021

The last time I voted was in 2019. It was a simple thing. There are polling stations right near my home. You didn’t even need to take the poll card. You can do it around full time work, and the school run. You just walked into the booth and did it. 

If there’s something to be patriotic about in British politics it’s the ease of our voting system. Once we got rid of the property-owning qualifications, and the ban on women’s participation, voting became a simple process that gives (mostly) clear and decisive results. Liberals like me might not always like the outcomes, like the Leave vote in 2016, but at least you know what the results are. Sure, some of us might periodically argue for something like AV or proportional representation, but this never comes to anything and there’s something about the declamatory thump of first-past-the-post. 

Naturally, the government wants to make voting more complicated

Voter ID is a bad idea that never dies. There are many constitutional innovations I would import from the United States. Voter ID isn’t one of them. I remember coverage of Georgians waiting five hours on a dusty road to vote in the 2020 election. Having lost that one, the Republicans have redoubled legislative efforts to make voting more complicated still. Voting rights have a controversial history in that country, as in ours. Robert Caro, in his Master of the Senate, detailed the bureaucratic hurdles that faced Black electors in just one Alabama county of 1957:

The Barbour County registrars used a less sophisticated technique. They asked more reasonable questions – the names of local, state, and national officials – but if an applicant missed even one question, he would not be given the application that had to be filled out before he could receive a certificate, and somehow, even if a black applicant felt sure he had answered every question correctly, often the registrars would say there was one he had missed, although they would refuse to tell him which it was. Margaret Frost had already experienced this technique, for she had tried to register before – in January of 1957 – and forty years later, when she was an elderly woman, she could still remember how, after she had answered several questions, the Board’s chairman, William (Beel) Stokes, had told her she had missed one, adding, ‘You all go home and study a little more,’ and she could still remember how carefully blank the faces of Stokes and his two colleagues had been, the amusement showing only in their eyes.

As staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Centre, Caren Short, told the Guardian: ‘The real reason these laws are passed is to suppress the vote, and that is in fact what happens.’

ID is increasingly crucial to citizenship. The Windrush scandal in 2018 saw thousands of people lose their jobs, their bank accounts, even get deported, in essence because they could not provide reams of documentation going back many years.

Of course I am confident this is not the rationale here. When ministers get up to defend the proposal they will not say ‘We do not want certain people to vote.’ They will say it’s no different from showing your driver’s licence to get a mortgage, they will say they want to stop electoral fraud, they will make reasonable arguments (although perhaps with a hint of amusement in their eyes?) 

But we have already tried voter ID in this country, albeit on a local basis. In spring 2019 more than 800 people were turned away from polling stations in a small trial – and, considering the margins of victory for local politicians, that 800 can make quite a difference. Far from protecting the integrity of voting systems, the Tory plans potentially make local government even less accountable and more corrupt than it is at present. In all the bluster about Hartlepool and the Great Realignment of British politics, few pundits noted that the turnout last week was just 42.3%. Why didn’t the other 60-odd% vote? Why does the government want to make it harder for them to do so?

I don’t want to make a political attack here. I can absolutely imagine Labour governments bringing this stupid idea back to life.

But if the Great Realignment means anything, it is that the Conservatives are now the party of clipboard-wielding busybodies. You need two forms of ID to get a job (or keep one), you need two forms of ID to rent or buy somewhere, you will need papers to get into the pub and now you will need photo ID to get into the voting booth. ‘Active state’? You may keep it. 

Something Something Richard Hofstadter

December 23, 2020

Everyone talks about conspiracy theories at the moment, but they talk about conspiracy theories in old ways. This is Sarah Churchwell, writing after the US election:

In 1964 the historian Richard Hofstadter identified what he called the ‘paranoid style in American politics’, a perspective that shaped the stories Americans too often told themselves. Paranoia offers a master trope for interpreting ‘the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ in American political narratives, from 18th-century Illuminati paranoia to the Papist conspiracies of 19th-century nativism, to the enduring anti-communist hysterias of the 20th century. Hofstadter predicted that paranoid energies would periodically be released in America when ‘historical catastrophes or frustrations’ exacerbated the religious traditions and social structures that fostered those energies, catalysing them into ‘mass movements or political parties’.

And this is Oliver Kamm, also from November, writing about the ‘Great Reset’ COVID-19 conspiracy theory:

The historian Richard Hofstadter identified this strain of thinking in American public life in a classic essay titled ‘The Paranoid Style in American Politics’ in 1964. He showed that the fevered allegations of McCarthyism, which were then a recent aberration in US politics, had a historical lineage. American society, he said, ‘has served again and again as an arena for uncommonly angry minds’.

Going back a few years, here is science writer Martin Robbins, with a long essay covering Trump, the Jeremy Corbyn movement and UKIP.

Like many UKIP supporters, Corbyn occupies an anti-political ground where the traditional distinctions between left and right are less meaningful. Corbyn and his UKIP counterpart are both natural Eurosceptics, both insular and protectionist when it comes to Britain’s place in the world, both weirdly sympathetic to Putin, both aligned with the left behind working class and suspicious of political, economic or intellectual elites (Corbyn rejects scientific consensus on everything from alternative medicine to nuclear power). Both have adopted – and been adopted by – what Richard Hofstadter called ‘the paranoid style’ in his famous 1964 essay: ‘a sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’.

Much has happened in politics since 1964. Hofstadter’s paranoid style was realised ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process.’ Hofstadter wrote that ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.’ It is this picture of conspiracy theorists that has dated the most, because the impression is of unhappy, highly-strung people kept out of the conversation. Robbins says: ‘we should ask about the circumstances and decisions that created such a large group of the frustrated and ignored in the first place.’

What has changed? That today’s conspiracists walk the halls of power. Viktor Orbán parlayed the Soros myth into national leadership. Trump ruled America for four years. (Hofstadter in his day saw a successful conspiracist in ‘Tail-Gunner’ Joe McCarthy.) Your crazy uncle at the Christmas dinner table might not become prime minister any time soon. But he can set up a YouTube channel, get subscribers, leverage that into regular appearances as a ‘British expert’ on Sputnik or Press TV. Conspiracists want money. They want power. Mona Charen remembered taking National Review cruises in the 1990s where the conservative elites mingled and networked. Conspiracy theories proliferated. ‘Once, during the Clinton administration, people at my dinner table were repeating the story that Hillary had killed Vince Foster,’ Charen writes. And she noticed something else:

These people were not hard up. They hadn’t been displaced from their union jobs by outsourcing. The ladies wore designer dresses and the men sported pinky diamonds. In 2020, people earning more than $100,000 voted for Trump over Biden by 11 points, whereas Biden earned the support of those earning less than $50,000 by 15 points.

Once conspiracy theorists do become successful, the conspiracies are used to maintain power. Peter Pomerantsev writes in This Is Not Propaganda that

In a world where even the most authoritarian regimes struggle to impose censorship, one has to surround audiences with so much cynicism about anybody’s motives, persuade them that behind every seemingly benign motivation is a nefarious, if impossible-to-prove, plot, that they lose faith in the possibility of an alternative, a tactic a renowned Russian media analyst called Vasily Gatov calls ‘white jamming’.

There is a subgenre of articles that advise us ‘how to talk to conspiracy theorists’ as if you are looking at people with Asperger’s or learning difficulties who have to be carefully coaxed into engagement with reality. ‘Recognise that everyone has had their lives turned upside down, and is seeking explanations,’ says fact checker Claire Wardle in a recent BBC feature. ‘Conspiracy theories tend to be simple, powerful stories that explain the world. Reality is complex and messy, which is harder for our brains to process.’ The piece also tells us to ‘Remember that people often believe conspiracy theories because deep down, they’re worried or anxious. Try to understand those feelings – particularly in a year like the one we’ve just had.’

David Aaronovitch, in his 2009 study Voodoo Histories, realised that ‘The imagined model of an ignorant priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious or superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the artists, the managers, the journalists and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.’ How then do you talk to someone who is professional, solvent, sound of mind, but is deeply into conspiracy theories for their own reasons? Hofstadter’s ‘paranoid style’ arises ‘when the representatives of a particular social interest — perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands — are shut out of the political process’ – well, they’re not shut out now. ‘This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals… and since these goals are not even remotely attainable…’ Not remotely attainable? Seriously?

Writers who have actually studied modern authoritarianism know that it has adapted well to the digital age and that old certainties no longer apply. Anne Applebaum, in Twilight of Democracy, wrote that ‘Some enjoy chaos, or seek to promote chaos, as a prelude to imposing a new kind of order.’ The National Review cruisers who support Trump and Brexit, Aaronovitch’s professors and intellectuals – they aren’t going to be stuck in burning cities or starving in lorry queues. Psychologist Jovan Byford in that BBC feature says that ‘Conspiracy theories instil in believers a sense of superiority. It’s an important generator of self-esteem.’ To quote Charen again: ‘A theme that unified these conspiracy-minded people was a sense of superiority—not inferiority. They felt that they had access to the hidden truth that the deluded masses didn’t understand.’

Chaos is good – as long as it happens to others. Smash the world and there’s a chance you’ll get to rule over the ruins. This is, of course, the point of Trump’s ‘Stop the Steal’ movement. His challenges to the 2020 election have been thrown out of every court in the land, but that’s not the point – the point is to create a ‘stab in the back’ myth and delegitimise Biden, in preparation for a 2024 run either by Trump himself or one of his proxies. A cognitive neuroscientist told Five Thirty-Eight that ‘I think the current situation is going to be much, much worse than birtherism in terms of people believing it, and believing it for the long run.’

Conspiracy theorists know what they are doing. They have changed. Our arguments against them need to change too.

Art Versus Illusions

November 24, 2020

The idea of poets going off to war is always counterintuitive, and of all poets the least warlike must have been E E Cummings. From an early age he possessed endless sympathy. In childhood (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) the sight of cattle led to the abattoir left a huge impact on him: ‘And gradually I realise they’re going ‘to the slaughterhouse’, are being driven to their deaths: I stand hushed, almost unbreathing, feeling the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world.’ As an old man living on the family farm, he hated having to kill the porcupines that would strip his precious Porter apple trees. If only the porcupines could compromise by just eating the apples, he wrote, and not shredding the tree, it would save him from this evil duty (‘I inspected my victim:no,he was not dead;but terribly wounded,unable even to move’… ‘So far as I’m concerned,porcupines could eat apples forever’.)

Cummings enlisted as an ambulance man and left for Europe in April, 1917. He volunteered with numerous Harvard friends but became closest to a man named W Slater Brown. The twosome were near inseparable and carried their artistic temperaments into the warzone. J Alison Rosenblitt writes that ‘Cummings disliked the ‘typical’ and boorish Americans with whom he was posted, and he and Brown socialised mostly with the French… and they spent a portion of their free time at a cafe favoured by French soldiers, the poilus, where they traded gossip and songs.’ One time the French soldiers asked the two Americans to sing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’; although they only knew the chorus, Cummings simply made up the verses, and they rhymed. When the two men were thrown into military prison in Noyon, they were able to communicate by whistling Petrushka – ‘one of the avant-garde ballets which he and Brown had seen together in Paris… He returned the whistle, and then so did Brown, and so on for half an hour. It was an efficient signal.’ At times the book feels like the war diaries of Frasier and Niles Crane. 

Oh, what a lovely war, then? Not at all. For all the laughter and gallivanting around in Paris (Rosenblitt does her best to rescue Cummings’s formative lover, Marie Louise Lallemand, from the condescension of previous biographers) this story of Cummings and Brown is a bleak story in a bleak part of history. The Blackadder view of WW1 as a pointless slaughter is simplification. And yet. In 1916, Rosenblitt writes, ‘The German offensive at Verdun and the French counterattack lasted from February to November. The Germans sustained casualties of over 300,000 and cost the Allies the same. Meanwhile, on the British section of the front, the offensive at the Somme in the summer of 1916 led to more than 400,000 British casualties and more than 200,000 German casualties.’ 900,000 lives. 

With the war at a deadly stalemate, authorities on both sides focused on civilian and military attitudes. If only soldiers had the right kind of fighting spirit, the belief went, all would be well. Rosenblitt writes that ‘insistence on the importance of morale became all the more attractive as a means of denying the new realities of artillery firepower and clinging to the belief that victory came out of – and therefore also proved – the moral superiority of a nation.’ In this context, Brown’s anarchic spirit proved critical. He was more impulsive and headstrong than Cummings and his letters home, in which he wrote of French atrocities in a wry and detached tone (‘The priest then pulled out 18 ears which he had in his pocket and proved it…. This incident only proves to what a state of bravery and self sacrifice war leads men’) led to his arrest. The unit commander saw an opportunity to get rid of two subversives for the price of one and implicated Cummings as well, so both Americans were packed off to the military prison complex. 

The descriptions of prison life at La Ferté-Macé are horrible even for a Great War history. The guards had been kept out of the war because of physical or mental invalidies; feeling the stigma of not fighting in hyper-patriotic France, they took out their feelings of inadequacies on the prisoners. Cummings recalled a guard, notorious for petty sadism, jumping out at a queue of female prisoners, on the daily slop-out: ‘And I saw once a little girl eleven years old scream in terror and drop her pail of slops,spilling most of it on her feet;and seize it in a clutch of frail child’s fingers,and stagger,sobbing and shaking,past the Fiend… never in my life before had I wanted to kill to thoroughly extinguish and to entirely murder.’

Cummings felt protective of this girl – ‘the helplessness of a pity which is for some whole world’ – but he was not a sentimentalist or a coward. He and Brown bore their imprisonment with fortitude, and seem to have been respected by other inmates. What impressed me also about Cummings was his practicality. After his own release from prison, he immediately set about securing the release of Brown, who had been moved on to a jail in Précigné. By this point Brown’s family in America had kicked off; relatives wrote to the State Department, enlisted the help of lawyers and senators, but Brown’s relatives did not find out the whole story of the case and their letters were muddled. Cummings – at this point an ex convict in Paris – went straight to the secretary of the US embassy in Paris, a man named Wiley, and argued that Brown’s subversive offences were on account of his youth and temperament and should be forgiven. It worked: Brown too was released. Cummings succeeded where the lawyers and senators had failed, because he knew the right person to go to, and what representations to make. Rosenblitt writes: ‘If it had not been for Cummings and Mr Wiley, Brown would clearly have remained in prison until the end of the war and could have died there.’

‘Still others did not find out until after the fighting had ceased that what they had taken for reality was illusion,’ Cummings wrote in his 1927 essay ‘Armistice’. He goes back to this: ‘war calls upon most human beings to sacrifice their happiness in exchange for the most temporary of illusions.’ Illusions. That’s what comes up so often in this history, this tangle of generals and diplomats and bureaucrats that the poets blundered into – the desire of authorities to shape public perception of the war, and strength of feeling about it. Rosenblitt makes the case for Cummings as a populist poet. It is his commitment to plain truth as well as beauty that makes him one.

The Language of Birds

November 17, 2020

Modern fantasy has a certain offputting feel. Even George R R Martin’s very accomplished Game of Thrones novels have their moments of false wisdom, pretentious solemnity and arrant silliness. S E Lister‘s Augury at first seems like more of the same. Her world is set on a city at the base of a mountain. On the mountain is the temple of the Augurs, where anyone can go for advice and comfort. One day, the Augur prophesies a cataclysm – flood and fire – that will wash the city away. She tells everybody to run. And the authorities in the city don’t like this at all. 

What makes Augury a fine novel is not just Lister’s atmospherics – you can smell the roasting meat, hear the strange voices, feel under your feet the cold stones of her city – but the strong, subtle plot that gets moving from almost the very first page. At the Emperor’s feast a steward named Lennes, the house accountant, a dull and unimaginative man, suddenly takes it upon himself to repeat the Augur’s prophecy in dramatic tones that grab the whole evening – ‘Then there came from the mouth a starred lizard, a salamander. Its eyes were coal and its breath was fire. The lizard crawled from the mouth and down the mountain towards the city. Its body was aflame, and it carried the flames into the city. The voice said to me, What is decaying must burn.‘ Lennes’s sudden mystical outburst does not go down well with the high priest Athraxus, who in a brutal scene plunges his fist into the steward’s mouth and pulls out a chunk of his teeth. 

Grand Viziers are always complete and utter bastards, Terry Pratchett wrote, and high priests tend to get put into the same category. Athraxus is head of the Dark Temple, a faith quite unlike the gentle wisdom of the Augur. Whereas anyone can go to the Augur’s priestesses, for help, the Dark Temple calls to the city’s one per cent, its aristocrats and magistrates and wealthy merchants, who learn the Temple’s secrets in proportion to the amount of money they give in offering, a Scientology sliding scale of revelation. Lister says – in one of her eerie interludes of straight narration – that ‘your story is not your own. Your story is ours to portion out as we please, to be sold back to you at a price.’ Athraxus himself is a fearsome villain who has the Augur captured and tortured, and sets the machinery of the state against her temple. But for all his fury the person he hates most is his own son, the fair-minded dreamer Myloxenes. ‘Thank the gods your mother has bedded so many,’ he shouts. ‘I comfort myself that you could be a bastard.’ 

Against Athraxus and his dark priests a small resistance movement forms: teenage priestesses Saba and Aemilia, the villain’s son Mylo and Antonus, the emperor’s brother. Antonus’s story is particularly poignant because he was originally meant to be the emperor, rather than his brother Laonatus – until a house fire of dubious origin that has left him limping ever since. Laonatus himself is the ideal figurehead for a Grand Vizier type like Athraxus: he’s a lazy degenerate fool who ‘worries about the dim corners of knowledge; about the mysterious migratory destinations of sacred birds; the pages in his father’s annals where records have been poorly kept, the nature and habits of the giant-men who are said to live in the arid country far over the mountains. Just as his bedside lamp is burning dry, Laonatus will rise and upend some dusty case of charts, then call for more lamps so that he can spend the small hours examining them… His chamber-slaves and closest attendants must learn all kinds of unblinking patience.’ Athraxus runs rings round him, gets his okay on all kinds of atrocities, but Antonus is more level headed and would have been a more resolute and better ruler.

The real insight here is not into the lives of great men but the experience of women in fantasy. Saba and Aemilia, like so many other priestesses, are at the Augur’s temple because they have nowhere else to go: without the Augur and the protective space she provides for women they would have been forced into prostitution. Antonus’s wife Junia was ‘ruined’ – raped – and given to Antonus as a gesture of magnanimity from his imperial brother. How she accepts this fate, even flourishes within it, is one of the strongest storylines in this work. It’s no wonder midwives in Lister’s world greet the delivery of girl babies as a curse. Even the Emperor’s wives, Mandane and Cassandane, have been turned into glorified brood-mares. But the courage of Junia, the priestesses, Hestia the wise fool and the Augur herself hold out hope that whatever comes after the coming catastrophe, won’t be so patriarchal. 

This is a novel about religion, and faith, and habits of faith and thought. Laonatus, Athraxus and the ruling elite take as gospel that their city, as corrupt and dysfunctional as it is, will simply go on forever – they are the classic Atlantis men in the Brecht poem, bellowing for their slaves even as the waves roar in. Athraxus’s temple has forced out the household and kitchen gods – the little deities of lares and pennates that were lost in the great march toward monotheism – but once the great catastrophe really does hit the city he seems completely unmoored, a man without a country and a failed magician. Saba and Aemilia have learned to grasp the future through animal entrails and the patterns of birds as they arc across the sky. For good or bad, people are wired up to see patterns in things, codes in the sky, the meaning of life. As Lister says: ‘We all of us dream in the dark.’

12,000 Rules for Life

November 13, 2020

It’s said that 2020 is the year of the plague. On a banal level it’s just the year of new rules. We are all used to rules on a local level, rules are a huge part of our culture, rules of manners, rules of service, rules of procedure. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a large organisation will be familiar with The Rules. You will deal with frontline workers who have no discretion but to follow The Rules. Getting stuff done relies on negotiating your way up to a ‘decision maker’ who will be one of the rare people who can disregard or bend The Rules. Benefit agencies are the worst for this but the same problems come up everywhere. 

It’s an everyday experience that can nearly break a person. There are famous Englishmen who became so sick of small rules that they fled the country altogether: Christopher Hitchens wrote in his autobiography that ‘Life in Britain had seemed like one long antechamber to a room that had too many barriers to entry’, and left for America in the early 1980s; around the same time, John Cleese had an American guest bellowing in Fawlty Towers that ‘What the hell’s wrong with this country, you can’t get a drink until three, can’t eat after nine… goddamnit, is the war still on?’ The rules that so infuriated the US visitor in the 1970s were just as inflexible ten years later. Matthew Collin, in his classic social history Altered States, tells us that on New Year’s Eve, 1989, the end of the decade, the year of the Fall of the Wall, the hour of last orders in English pubs was half past ten, no later. Small wonder Collins’s generation took to the fields.

We have come a long way since 1989 but some things remain the same. Politics remains, in large part, an argument over who gets to make the rules and what rules get applied to different groups. Even Brexit, which was supposed to be a revolt against supranational rules and regulations, has been yet another rule generating exercise. Whether we leave with a deal or not (and we are approaching midnight with still nothing on the table) individuals and businesses are being advised to ‘get ready’ for the fun new rules that will make buying, trading and travelling around much more complicated. Revolt in England 2016 was about the freedom to follow new rules. 

Then, of course, came the coronavirus pandemic. There has been much criticism of the government’s handling of this deadly disease. I would say that HMG’s big weakness was to plan our COVID-19 strategy in terms of rules. The pandemic had been foreseen, forewarned, war-gamed: the state could have locked in a decent test and trace system before the virus even hit our shores. Other countries – poorer and less developed than the UK – locked testing in fast, and kept far more of their citizens alive, but oh no, for the UK government that sort of thing’s just too difficult. It had to be about The Rules. So the government introduced a whole new set of virus rules, and then, when people complained that the new rules did not go far enough, imposed a national lockdown.

Don’t get me wrong. A lot of the coronavirus rules are common-sensisms that we can all do. I’m fine with hand washing and social distancing, I’m fine with masks (although many people, forgotten by the rule makers, have respiratory or anxiety issues that make mask wearing problematic). I even accept there are good arguments for national lockdowns, my arguments against them are really just about spreading awareness of the nasty unforeseen social consequences that lockdowns cause.

My point is that HMG got carried away with The Rules. We had a summer lull during which the government could have finally sorted out a test and trace system that worked, but no, again, that’s too difficult. Again it had to be about The Rules, albeit in a new form. HMG lifted national lockdown but introduced a whole new set of rules depending on what area of the country you lived in, including a 1989-style curfew at ten o’clock. The optics of closing down Manchester but keeping Westminster open were not great (how inept do you have to be, politically, to make Andy Burnham look good?) and the public health benefits of these rules were not immediately apparent so public compliance, strong for months by this point, weakened. Meanwhile the virus toll rose. The thing about HMG, they’re great at making new rules for people, it’s just results they can’t do

And of course public confidence was lost long before that, with the Cummings affair. Everyone says Cummings acted improperly, Cummings and HMG said he didn’t. Who was right is not the issue. Plenty of people broke lockdown for the sake of family commitments. Cummings was crucial because he illustrated the problem of the rule makers, a problem that causes, among the rulebound English, periodic eruptions of fury. More revealing was a story that hit a few weeks later, when more of the Vote Leave clique were revealed to have broken lockdown rules at a barbecue on the Isle of Wight. Among the guests was deputy Spectator editor Freddy Gray. He told the Guardian that

You’ve busted me. I did invite Bob over to discuss the app – since we had had a falling out over the article I had written. I did not, however, tell him that it would be a massive rave in the garden involving children flagrantly eating barbecue food, champagne and a baby being flung around.

Bob didn’t stay long. I apologised for having caused him distress with my app article and he said no hard feelings. We talked about a follow-up piece on how the app was performing, as I moved on to white wine. Bob didn’t drink – though I believe he may have eaten one or possibly two sausages.

It’s worth quoting Gray, in his clubbable irony, for what he doesn’t say: lockdowns are for the little people. Rules are for the smallfolk to follow. The incident also illustrates why, although they believe strongly in The Rules, elites aren’t crazy about actual laws, which are always written down and which apply to everyone. That’s why Tories talk forever about repealing the Human Rights Act. That’s why the Home Office is constantly going on about ‘activist lawyers’ preventing it from deporting our way into prosperity. 

I’m a middle class liberal and my people are fond of The Rules. We are wary of rule-breakers in politics because we remember that the hard right weaponised that kind of transgressiveness to tear up working conditions, health and safety laws, food standards, and E&D protections. But again, politics has moved on, the 2016 populist rule-breakers have taken rule-making further than we PC liberals ever dreamed of. It’s time for liberals to rediscover our cynicism and hostility towards authority.

To paraphrase the Roman Tacitus, ‘The more corrupt the state, the more numerous The Rules!’