Reflections on the Bowling Green Massacre

As some readers of this blog will know, for the last four months I’ve been heavily involved in the One Day Without Us campaign,  which came to an end last Monday.  For much of this time my normal life has been on hold and pretty much everything has revolved around the campaign.  This has meant that I haven’t had time for a lot of things, including blogging.  This is a pity, because a lot of things have happened since the campaign first started last October that I would like to have written about. Take the Bowling Green Massacre, which Donald Trump’s disturbingly spooky amanuensis Kellyanne Conway referred to on Feb 2 as a justification for her boss’s ‘Muslim ban.’ Now some of you might argue that I needn’t regret not commenting on something that never happened, and that there isn’t that anyone can say about a non-existent massacre except that the person who referred to it is either a liar or an idiot.

Nevertheless I can’t help thinking that the Bowling Green massacre is more significant than it might appear, and that it represents a new cultural/political threshold.   It isn’t just the fact that Donald Trump and his entourage are liars and fantasists.  That isn’t entirely the novelty it seems to be.  When we talk about our supposedly new era of ‘post-truth’ politics we forget that it wasn’t that long ago when George Bush – aided and abetted by our own prime minister – ignited a war on the basis of ‘smoking guns’ that never existed in order to prevent imminent attacks that were never going to happen and that he and his entourage knew were never going to happen.

So we shouldn’t get too nostalgic for some imaginary good old days when presidents and their counsellors told the truth and the statements they made were submitted to careful rigorous scrutiny.    Nevertheless the Bowling Green massacre is a sign of different times, or perhaps it’s a symptom of a disease that’s simply got worse and worse over the last sixteen years.

After all, even Bush and Blair had to ‘prove’ their case to the public – even if the proof was mostly fabricated, imagined and invented.   But now Trump and his team can tell the most bare-faced idiotic lies repeatedly – virtually on a daily basis – and refer to things that have never happened,  without the need to prove anything or come up with evidence or defend themselves and apologise when they are caught out.

We are in new territory when Trump can say that the White House Mall was packed, even when photographs show that it wasn’t; when Kellyanne Conway can describe his lies as ‘alternative facts’ as if there were some other kind of facts that are as valid as the actual facts; when she can refer to a massacre that never happened and her boss can refer to what happened last night in Sweden even when nothing happened last night in Sweden.

It’s tempting to conclude that these people are merely passing idiots who can be safely laughed at, but that would be a little too comforting.  Trump might not be an intellectual giant but he knows his base.  His lies are not aimed at people who think and assess things carefully before deciding whether they agree or disagree with them.  They are aimed at people who agree with him whatever he says.

Most importantly they are aimed at people who feel the same kind of feelings that he feels; who believe that even if the Bowling Green massacre didn’t happen, it could have happened; that something must have happened in Sweden and that anyone who says otherwise or says anything the president doesn’t like is merely ‘covering up’ or disseminating ‘fake news.’

In this sense, we have entered new territory. The conspiratorial far-right fringe has gone mainstream and emotions are more powerful than thoughts – as long as they are the feelings of rage, hatred, fear, self-pitying victimhood, resentment and bitterness that Trump played upon during his campaign and which brought him to power.

These are the emotions that he continues to reach for every time he lies.  Politically speaking, these are dangerous emotions to play with.  In his great 1995 essay on ‘Ur-Fascism‘ Umberto Ecco lists ‘irrationalism’ as one of the recurring intellectual characteristics of fascism.

For Ecco, irrationalism is characterised by ‘ the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.  Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.’This is the world of the Bowling Green massacre, and this is the audience that Trump’s lies are aimed at – people who are averse to critical thinking and regard the whole concept of critical analysis as some kind of elite liberal project.   That doesn’t mean that Trumpism is fascism – yet – but his unlikely rise to power suggests that we have entered a cultural and political environment in which some kind of 21st century fascism is possible.

So it’s no good simply ridiculing Trump, Conway or the other liars in his team.  Nor is it enough to simply call them liars.   To counter them requires more than facts or arguments. It requires politicians and political movements capable of arousing and appealing to different emotions and beliefs, based around a different notion of the common good than the malignant and sinister dystopia that is unfolding in front of our eyes.

So far the ‘left’ – in the broadest sense of the word – has failed to do this.   And that is one reason why it is being persistently defeated by demagogues and frauds like Trump who are able to fly with no moral or intellectual compass,  and have no compunction about referring to massacres that never happened because they know that their intended audience doesn’t actually care if they did or not.

2016: The Year of Living Fearfully

There was a time – it seems many years ago now – when governments in the Western world told their populations that things were getting better, and that they were helping them to get better.   In those days voters by and large believed them, and made their political choices from amongst a cluster of political parties who they were familiar with and who mostly sounded and looked the same.

Voters may not have liked or trusted politicians individually but they recognized the parameters they were operating in.  They knew that they were right-of-centre or left-of-centre or somewhere in between. Anything further out than that and the majority of voters would usually say no.

For some time now these assumptions have been crumbling in different countries and at different speeds.  It’s difficult to put a particular date on when this disintegration started.  Some might trace it to the 2008/09 financial crisis and the grotesque fraud known as ‘austerity’ which followed.

But you could go further back, to the rampant ‘end of history’ arrogance that provided accompanied the shift towards globalisation at the end of the Cold War; when a capitalism that believed itself to be victorious and unchallenged believed that it could do anything it wanted; when even liberal governments adopted conservative nostrums and regarded the whole notion of an enabling state as a historical anachronism.

Or perhaps we could see the origins of our current predicament in the Reagan/Thatcher years, when the exaltation of ‘the market’ and the glorification of wealth came to trump (pardon the pun) any other social considerations.

Whatever the timetable,  2016 will go down in history as a watershed year when the old political establishment that had largely accepted this consensus was rejected by an  unprecedented electoral insurgency that was dominated by the right and extreme right. This was the year in which millions of people in the UK voted for perhaps the greatest  assembly of snake oil salesmen in the history of British politics, largely on the basis of post-imperial fantasies and pipe-dreams.

Given the positions taken by Tony Blair and George Bush over Iraq – to name but two examples – we can all take the notion of ‘post-truth politics’ with more than a pinch of salt.   Lying didn’t begin in 2016, after all.  But what is alarming about 2016 was the fact that politicians could lie through their teeth, and people would often know or sense that they were lying, and they would still vote for them if only because they weren’t the liars they were used to.

This was a year when emotion and magical thinking triumphed over rationality, common sense and even material self-interest; when millionaires and billionaires presented themselves as the voice of the common people and anti-establishment rebels; when millions of people voted for giant walls, imaginary jobs, ‘control’ and other things that were difficult if not impossible to achieve, and which the ‘rebels’ who were offering them never really intended to achieve.

It was also a year in which you could be a racist, sexist, misogynist braggart and people were still prepared to make you president of the United States; when voters in the UK opted to leave the European Union largely because of ‘concerns’ about immigration that were steeped in misinformation, and xenophobic and racist assumptions that Leave politicians cynically manipulated and played on.

All this should be deeply alarming to anyone on the left/liberal spectrum who doesn’t believe that these developments were some kind anti-establishment rebellion or a revolt against neoliberalism.  Revolts they may have been, but electoral insurgencies against the ‘establishment’ don’t necessarily benefit the left and may in fact contribute to its destruction – or at the very least, its irrelevance.

Many factors contributed to making 2016 such a weirdly morbid and demoralising political year, but its consequences are now glaringly clear to anyone who wants to look: that the Western world is now in the throes of a reactionary nativist/hyper-nationalist ‘counter-revolution’ with a distinctly rank odour of white privilege and white supremacism wafting into the mainstream from its fringes.

To point this out doesn’t mean that all the voters who voted for the grotesque political monster that is Donald Trump were racists, bigots or white supremacists, but millions of voters were prepared to ignore the racist and bigoted sentiments that Trump mobilised so brazenly,  because they didn’t care about them or because other things mattered to them more.

The same in the UK.  It’s rather pointless – and tedious – to have to refute the Leave argument that ‘not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist or a xenophobe.’ Obviously not, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the Leave vote would have triumphed without the barrage of dog whistle messages about immigration that accompanied the campaign.

These alarming and disturbing tendencies are not likely to abate anytime soon, and further shocks may follow in the coming year, so it is incumbent upon us to face up to them and not take refuge in ‘the revolution is just around the corner’ or ‘first the liberals then us’ utopianism – or is it just opportunism?

One of the main reasons why the right triumphed in 2016 is because it was able to mobilise fears and anxieties that the old political order has not bothered to address or has not known how to address.   For some years now fear has become the dominant political emotion of the 21st century, which politicians of various persuasions have sought to mobilise.   The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has coined the term ‘liquid fear’ to describe the anxieties that he believes underpin the current ‘crisis of humanity’ in the Western world.

For Bauman, the crisis is driven by a ‘tangible feeling of anxiety that has only vague contours but is still acutely present everywhere.’  These fears are manifold.  Fear of terrorism – often translated into fear of Muslims or simply fear of ‘the Other’.   Fear of immigrants and refugees. Fear of war, violence and political instability.  Fear of open borders.

Today, as Adam Curtis has often pointed out, politicians have largely abandoned the notion of a better future, and like to present themselves as managers of risk, preventing the bad from becoming even worse and promising to  ‘keep you safe’ even when their decisions are clearly not making anyone safe.

On the contrary we live in an age of persistent and constant insecurity, which our rulers often seem determined to encourage.  Whether we are beneficiaries or victims of globalisation, we all inhabit an economic system that is inherently unstable, chaotic and prone to shocks and tremors such as the 2008 crisis, that can capsize the futures of millions of people in an instant.

Having largely abandoned the notion of an enabling state, governments and political and financial institutions from the IMF to the EU have adopted and accepted policies that appear to be intent on reducing more and more people to a state of permanent insecurity and precariousness.  Since 2008 austerity has pushed more and more people – except the rich and powerful – towards a common precipice where they are told that they will have to work longer, for less, or try and find some tenuous foothold in an economy based on ‘flexibility’ while the struts and safety nets that still pay lip service to the common good are systematically pared back and dismantled.

In these circumstances, no one should be surprised that millions of people have rejected what they see as the politicians who have presided over these developments – or at least been unable to prevent them.

The tragedy is that they have chosen politicians who are unlikely to bring them anything better and are more likely to make things even worse.  There are many things that will have to happen to turn back the nativist tide, but one of them must surely be to reduce the fear and insecurity that has led so many people to turn to the pseudo-solutions offered by this dangerous new generation of chancers, demagogues and charlatans.

This shouldn’t mean emollient talk of ‘hope’ – let alone fantasy revolutions and utopias. Utopia is not a solution to the dystopian present that is now unfolding before our eyes. To my mind the left needs to think outside the usual channels if it is not to vanish into irrelevance.   We need practical and viable polices and solutions; a new notion of the common good; broader coalitions, alliances and discussions that do not simply involve the left talking to itself.

This doesn’t mean aping the right.  You don’t have to fight reaction by becoming reactionary yourselves.  You don’t right racism and anti-immigrant scapegoating by pandering to it.

Nationally, and internationally, the crises and problems that confront us in the 21st century require collective solutions, not walls and even harder borders – whether mental or physical.

Trump, Farage, Johnson and so many of the ‘populists’ who have made 2016 such a grim year are offering a kind of certainty and security.  They won’t succeed, even on their own terms, because they are liars, frauds and demagogues, and because their ‘solutions’ are unrealisable.

But already they have made the world a nastier and more evil place.  ‘Their world is crumbling, ours is being built, ‘ crowed the Front National in celebration of Trump’s victory in November.

That is one possibility, and you would have to be naive and cynical to discount it.   To prevent this outcome, it must surely be our task in 2017 to combat the forces they have helped unleash,  and reduce the toxic political emotions that are leading us towards a disaster that we may not recover from.

 

 

Óscar Martínez: A History of Violence

Many years ago, in 1993 I visited the bombed out ruins of the town of Aguacayo,  the former ‘capital’ of the FMLN-held liberated zone in Guazapa Province during much of  El Salvador’s 12-year civil war.  It was just only one year after the guerrillas had disarmed in  the town  as a result of the implementation of the Chapultepec Peace Accords that brought the war to an end.  Even in peacetime, El Salvador was a rough place.   The country was plagued with criminal violence and awash with weaponry left over from the war, some of which were used to rob banks in commando-style raids.   There were bands of former guerrillas and members of the armed forces operating in parts of rural El Salvador.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the government-sponsored death squads were gone, and the army had been put on a leash, but violent death was still alarmingly common.  As I was walking through the countrysdie towards Aguacayo, I met a campesino who told me that a schoolteacher had just been shot on the same path a few days beforehand.  When I asked him why, he simply replied ‘porque sí’ – for the hell of it.

There were a lot of people being killed ‘porque sí’ in post-war El Salvador, and their numbers have continued to soar in the ensuing years.  Today an average of twenty-three people are murdered in El Salvador every day – 80 out of every 100,000 inhabitants in a tiny country with a population of 6.34 million.  Much of this staggering epidemic of violence is due to the prevalence of El Salvador’s huge gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha, Barrio 18 and Mirada Lokotes 13, some of which were established in the United States during the war.

The interventions of Mexican drug gangs like Los Zetas, has added to the lethal mix, generating levels of violence and insecurity that make Europe’s ongoing terrorist emergency seem like a sideshow by comparison.  A similar cocktail of poverty, institutionalised corruption, gangs or ‘maras’ and the savage ‘primitive accumulation’ of the narcotrafficantes has ravaged other Central American countries, particularly Guatemala and Honduras.  These are societies supposedly at peace, with a per capita murder rate that blurs the distinctions between peace and war.

No one has described Central America’s tragic predicament more eloquently than the brilliant young Salvadoran journalist Óscar Martínez.   A contributor to the El Faro website, Martínez is a gifted storyteller and a remarkably courageous and intrepid investigative reporter.  His first book The Beast (Verso 2013) was a blistering masterpiece of investigative journalism which chronicled the desperate journeys undertaken by Central American migrants to reach the United States, using the Mexican train that migrants rightly call ‘ La Bestia‘ – the beast.

To tell the stories of these men and women, Martínez rode the trains with them, and walked with them through remote country backroads where migrants are routinely raped and murdered.  He visited country brothels and migrant safe houses and spoke to trafficked women and former migrant slaves.  Martínez described this bleak and terrifying world with skill, grace and humanity.

Now he has brought his formidable talents to bear in a new book which looks at the societies these migrants have tried to escape from.   A History of Violence:  Living and Dying in Central America (Verso 2016) is not an easy or comfortable book to read, and it is not intended to be give comfort.   With his customary forensic rigor, Martínez shines a light on the ongoing calamity unfolding in the region the United States likes to think of as its ‘backyard.’

Martínez ignores nothing and noone.  He speaks to bent and decent cops, to lawyers and soldiers, to narcos, gangsters and contract killers, to male and female gang members, to migrants and the  ‘coyotes’ or guides who help them reach their destinations.  He visits El Salvador’s brutal dystopian prisons, narcotowns in Guatemala’s remote Petén jungle, and the scenes of crimes and massacres.

None of this is macho danger zone posturing.  It is not intended to be salacious, sensational or entertaining.    Martínez has not gone to these places to brag or talk about himself, but to tell the stories of the men and women he meets.   His writing reminds me of Jason Stearns’s superb account of the wars in the Congo Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, in its ability to connect even the most horrendous individual stories with the wider political and socioeconomic context that makes them possible, and even logical.

This doesn’t mean that Martínez is a detached observer.   In his introduction he asks the question ‘ What can I propose to bring an end to these terrifying stories? ‘ before answering that ‘ Journalism only has one method of boring into reality, and it is the same method that the sea uses against the coast: the constant lapping of the waves, whether they are gentle or turbulent.’

Martínez suggests that his readers are an essential part of this process:

‘My proposal is that you know what is going on.  Because I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution.   I believe, sticking with the metaphor of the sea and the rock, that knowing is what moves the waves.  You can be the waves. ‘

And to North American readers in particular, he has this reminder:

This book isn’t about Martians.  It doesn’t chronicle the tragic life stories of distant, faraway people living in the wilderness, without the Internet, eating nothing but millet.  It doesn’t discuss people you will never see up close or see only on the television.  This book is about the lives of people who cut your lawn and serve you coffee every morning.  It tells the stories of the people who cut your lawn and fix your plumbing.  These lives are very similar to the lives of about 6 million people living in your midst.  It tells the story of the more than 1,000 human beings who every day leave the three northern Central American countries to try to enter, without permission, the United States and other countries of the North.’

Last but not least, Martínez points out that ‘the broken puppet that we are as a region was mostly armed by American politicians’.  As a consequence:

‘ Our society is a cauldron of oppressive military governance, the result of a failed peace process.  We’re living with government corruption and incompetent politicians.  We are living with violence, with death always close at hand: in a traffic accident, a soccer brawl, or in defense of our families.  We are ignorant of peace.  We haven’t had the chance to get to know it.’

No one who reads this terrifying book can remain ignorant of these consequences, and the conclusions that Martínez has drawn from it are not only relevant to Central America.   Martínez takes as an epigraph a quotation from the martyrd Archbishop Óscar Romero, that ‘ Violence will keep changing in name, but violence will always remain as long as there’s no change at the root, from where all these horrible things are sprouting.’

That observation applies to many parts of the world, and the search for solutions begins with a willingness to acknowledge the kind of world we have, rather than the one we think we have.   All of which is one more reason to read this tragic but essential book from one of the most courageous and brilliant reporters working in the world today.

Boris Johnson’s Big Day Out

Politically speaking, schadenfreude tends to be a consolatory emotion, whose pleasures are generally ephemeral and often sharpened by defeat.   Even so the humiliation of Boris John last week was worth the price of admission.     I’m referring, of course, to the car crash press conference in which Johnson appeared alongside John Kerry and found himself subject to some very sharp and hostile questioning that he clearly didn’t anticipate.

boris-johnson-john-kerry.jpg

The questions included gems like the following:

‘You’ve accused the current U.S. president, Barack Obama, of harboring a part-Kenyan’s ‘ancestral dislike for the British empire’ while claiming, I think, untruthfully at the time that he didn’t want a Churchill bust in the White House. You’ve described a possible future U.S. president, Hillary Clinton, as someone with “dyed-blonde hair and pouty lips, and steely blue stare, like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital.’ You’ve also likened her to Lady Macbeth. Do you take these comments back or do you want to take them with you to your new job as some sort of indicator of the type of diplomacy you will practice?’

And this:

‘You have an unusually long history of wild exaggerations and, frankly, outright lies that, I think, few foreign secretaries have prior to this job. And, I’m wondering, how Mr. Kerry and others should believe what you say considering this very, very long history? ‘     

Such interrogations don’t appear to be common amongst the US press corps when referring to their own politicians, let alone representatives of Her Majesty’s government, and Johnson hasn’t experienced many of them from British journalists either.   For some mysterious  reason, most journalists who interview Johnson seem to break out into smiles and giggles in his presence, as though some quaint and endlessly amusing and endearing toddler had just come bouncing into the room wearing a ‘where the wild things are’ playsuit.

It’s weird and – to me at least – inexplicable how often this has happened, and how rarely Johnson has ever been called out for anything he’s ever said or done.  Admittedly it’s not easy dealing with a politician like this, who doesn’t seem to care what he actually says beyond its immediate usefulness to him.  When Alex Salmond called him out for drawing dishonest and inaccurate conclusions from a paper that he’d never read, Johnson just tossed his blonde tousled locks and grinned sheepishly.

Because after all, why should Johnson have to actually read something that he’s inaccurately quoting, and  it was awfully unfair and perhaps a little celtic and presbyterian of Sammers to come on all truthy and facty in what was just a bit of knockabout fun – using false arguments to advance his career whilst pretending to stand up to the European ‘dictatorship.’

Johnson clearly feels entitled to do things like this.  He sees himself as a national treasure and expects the nation to think the same, and too often -unfortunately for us – he’s been right..  The single exception was Eddie Maier’s velvety ‘ you’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you’ interrogation, but even then, accused of lying and trying to get someone beaten up, Johnson just grinned it out

Perhaps this cheekie chappie thing only works in England, because it clearly didn’t work for Johnson last week.  He looked and sounded shifty.  He exuded incompetence, self-regard, dishonesty, pretentiousness and bluster in equal measure.  One minute he was telling his audience:

“We can spend an awfully long time going over lots of stuff that I’ve written over the last 30 years … All of which, in my view, have been taken out of context, through what alchemy I do not know – somehow misconstrued that it would really take me too long to engage in a full global itinerary of apology to all concerned. “

Yep, it’s weird that suggesting that Barack Obama’s opposition to Brexit was due to some ancestral racial resentment of the British Empire can be ‘misconstrued’, isn’t it?  I don’t understand it at all.  But Johnson stuck with this line, declaring

“There is a rich thesaurus of things that I have said that have, one way or the other, I don’t know how, that has been misconstrued. Most people, when they read these things in their proper context, can see what was intended, and indeed virtually everyone I have met in this job understands that very well, particularly on the international scene.’

I suspect a lot of people on the ‘international scene’ are still struggling to understand how the hell someone like Johnson ever got appointed to his position.   Because that ‘rich thesaurus’ of lies, exaggerations and distortions does go back quite a way, to his stint in Brussels back in the early 90s, when his former colleague Martin Fletcher accused him of making up stories to pander to Tory Party xenophobes.

Even more pathetic than Johnson’s attempts to convince the assembled journalists that his remarks had been ‘misconstrued’ was his painfully inept stumbling towards the gravitas normally associated with the position of foreign secretary.   Even Philip Hammond managed to look the part – sort of. But Johnson doesn’t and can’t.   After all,   you probably don’t want a man who has accused the current president of Turkey of having sex with goats to be giving the British position on the Turkish coup and its aftermath, and the fact that Johnson confused Turkey with Egypt on two occasions during the press conference didn’t make it any better.

As he sternly reminded his audience:

‘We have very serious issues before us today we have an unfolding humanitarian crisis in Syria that is getting worse. We have a crisis in Yemen that is intractable and a burgeoning crisis on Egypt, and those are to my mind far more important than any obiter dicta you may have disinterred from 30 years of journalism.

Johnson is right about one thing: the world does have some very serious issues before it. But his press conference only revealed why he is so utterly and unforgiveably the wrong man to deal with them.   It’s not only that he’s a ‘post-truth’ politician for whom words are only ever ‘obiter dicta’ – remarks in passing, designed – in his mind at least – to be said and then forgotten.   It isn’t only that he’s a self-aggrandising clown with no moral compass, who will say anything to anyone in order to rise higher.

The problem with Johnson is this: removed from the protective embrace of a British audience that sees him as some kind of real person as opposed to robotic politicians we are used to, he is painfully and glaringly inadequate, incompetent and out of his depth.

That’s what Johnson looked like last week, and you can’t help feeling that a part of him knew it.   That’s why his public humiliation was much more than schadenfreude – it was the moment when one of the most disreputable frauds in British politics was revealed to the world to be… a disreputable fraud.   As Johnson might say ‘Mendacem memorem esse oportet’ – A liar needs a good memory.

He clearly doesn’t have one – or thinks he needs one. But last week, perhaps for the first time, he has discovered that other people do.  Let’s hope that it isn’t the last time.