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.

 

 

Hillary Clinton: Your Feminist Solutions

There’s a certain kind of feminism that gives feminism a bad name.  Like Jess Phillips’s ludicrous but headline-grabbing allegation that Jeremy Corbyn was guilty of ‘low-level misogyny’.  Or the way the media rallied round Laura Kuenssberg to depict those who accused her of an anti-Corbyn and pro-Tory bias of sexism.

In the first case, an ambitious MP and an opponent of Corbyn used a phony feminist argument in order to a) attack Jeremy Corbyn and the ‘misogynist’ left and b) get her name in the papers – in the knowledge that there are sections of the media that will always respond eagerly to anyone who suggests that a leftist leader of the Labour Party is guilty of discriminatory practices.

In the second case, accusations of sexism were used to discredit legitimate criticism of Kuenssberg’s snide editorialising.  We can expect to hear a great deal more of this kind of feminism over the next few months, now that the Democratic Party machine has completed its work and elected Hillary Rodham Clinton as the presidential nominee.

It goes without saying that Clinton’s critics on the right will be accused of sexism.  In the case of many Donald Trump’s supporters, such accusations may well be correct – some of the time.   But criticize Clinton from the left- or even refuse to get behind her – and you are likely to find yourself painted with the same brush by Clinton’s supporters.

Yesterday The Guardian‘s Polly Toynbee served up a taste of things to come, in a piece calling on the left to ‘ put aside its sneers and pray that this strong woman will get to rule the world.’

Toynbee might find this odd, but there are some of us who don’t actually want anyone to ‘rule the world’,  regardless of whether it’s a ‘strong woman’ or a strong man. Toynbee has looked closely into our hearts however, and seen real darkness.   She knows that in an era where ‘insurgency and novelty trumps experience’, left-of-centre opposition to a woman who ‘ all her life…has fought the feminist cause, for abortion and for equal rights, fearlessly’ can only be motivated by sexism.

‘ If you are naturally left of centre, especially if you are a woman, yet you find you instinctively dislike her, ask yourself why, ‘ she writes.   The answer, she insists,  lies in the fact that a ‘wall of noise from hostile men warps many women’s perceptions too’, to the point when ‘ if women of the left do break into the bastions of power, the sisters often view them as sell-outs to the establishment, as if permanent outsiderdom and victimhood is the only true mark of feminism.’

Yeah, the sisters will do that, won’t they?  As in thrall as they are to that ‘wall of noise.’ And naturally, being Toynbee, she can’t help following up this patronizing dismissal by noticing that this disorder  is ‘ a wider disease of the left among Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn supporters too. To win is to lose.’

Meanwhile, beyond that nihilistic sexist fantasyland:

‘Outside, the world looks on aghast at any possibility America could choose a racist, sexist brute over a feminist with a long track record of standing up for the right causes. For the young, she’s been around all their lives, not new enough to be exciting. Yet the prospect of a strong woman leading the world should be a beacon of hope to women everywhere.’

Call me a sexist if you will, but I don’t like Clinton at all, and it has nothing to do with her gender. I don’t like her because I regard her as the worst kind of machine politician, who advances by networking with the rich and powerful whilst pretending to represent the poor and the powerless.   I don’t like her because she is a Wall Street shill, like her slick husband,  who rakes in millions giving speeches to the likes of Goldman Sachs while promising to take on bankers, and doesn’t even have the guts to publish transcripts of her speeches in case their damage her progressive credentials.

I don’t like her because she has been one of the most recklessly hawkish and warmongering politicians in a country that already abounds with them, who has promised to pursue an aggressive and militarist strategy as president.  Clinton’s feminist supporters are entitled to think differently, but I don’t see a woman who laughingly says ‘we came, we saw, he died’ in response to Gadaffi’s sodomisation with a knife as a ‘beacon of hope’ the most inspirational role model for young girls.

I don’t like Clinton because she lies consistently,  about big things and small things, whether misremembering a sniper attack in Bosnia or lying about her emails.  Of course male politicians do the same thing, but I don’t like them either.  I don’t like Clinton’s belligerent and uncritical support of Israel.   As Shania Twain once sang, that don’t impress me much.   And despite the endless talk of her ‘experience’ and ‘competence’, I find her track record of supporting strategically incoherent and criminally destructive wars and regime changes without any regard for the consequences either before or after them just a little bit alarming.

And those who ask what might happen if Donald Trump had his ‘ finger on the nuclear button’ should remember that  Clinton once boasted that America could ‘totally obliterate Iran‘ and has promised to take military action if Iran develops nuclear weapons.    Some may see this kind of talk as an expression of female empowerment,  but I would have been no less appalled if a man had said the same thing.  .

I could go on, but I might bore you.   So I’ll conclude with this.   In the end my hostility to Clinton isn’t about Clinton.  I just think it’s a testament of massive political failure that the US presidential race should be fought between the two most hated contenders in American history at such a critical political moment.  I think its a grotesque travesty that millions of Americans are now forced to choose between Trump and Clinton, because the Democratic Party machine chose to support the Clinton dynasty and ignore one of the most inspirational grassroots campaign in recent memory.

And I resent the fact that feminism is being instrumentalised to silence criticism of a corrupt and self-serving status quo and glorify a candidate who doesn’t deserve glorification, and who, as far as foreign policy is concerned, is no less dangerous than Trump himself.

And contrary to what Toynbee and others say, there are many other people – both men and women – who feel the same.   And we are not sitting in caves chewing on mammoth bones and looking for new ways to express our hatred of women – we are simply tired of lesser evilism in a world that is crying out for something better, and will not get it, either from Donald Trump or Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Donald Trump: American Fascist?

Just so you know, I’m not a fan of  Donald Trump.  I despise his racism and xenophobia, his brutal sexism, his shallowness, vacuousness, and egomania, his cultish ‘I can fix everything because I am Trump’ policy prescriptions.  I’m repelled by his sociopathic encouragement of the violence that so often accompanies his rallies, and the more I see of him the more repelled I feel.

That said, I don’t regard a Trump victory as the end of civilization as we know it, and I can’t help feeling feeling that some of Trump’s critics are somewhat overdoing it in their attempts to present him as the harbinger of some new American fascism.

These critics cover a wide spectrum, from Clintonite liberals to neocon supporters of the Bush wars and members of the same Washington elite that Trump has attacked with such cunning and ferocity. In the first category there is Bill Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who described Trump, in March as a ’21st century American fascist’ and ‘ a profound danger to America and the world.’  Now Robert Kagan, co-founder of the Project for the  New American Century (PNAC), who wrote an article for the Washington Post that has been getting a lot of traction entitled ‘ This is how fascism comes to America,’ which warns:

‘ This is is how fascism comes to America, not with jackboots and salutes (although there have been salutes, and a whiff of violence) but with a television huckster, a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, and with an entire national political party — out of ambition or blind party loyalty, or simply out of fear — falling into line behind him.’

And Hillary Clinton has suggested that Trump is a laughable and incompetent clown whose ideas are ‘dangerously incoherent’ and a threat to American security.  I find a lot of this overblown.  I agree that Trump is a danger to America and the world, but  I also thought Reagan was a danger to the world, when he unleashed a series of vicious covert wars, financed the Contras and brutal fanatics like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

I thought the Bush/Cheney gang were a danger to the world when they took advantage of the 9/11 atrocities to declare a new era of total war against the ‘axis of evil’ and unleashed a swathe of destruction that the Middle East has yet to emerge from.   Kagan was an outspoken and influential supporter of these wars, and still is, like his mate Bill Kristol, who has also become one of Trump’s critics.

And as for  ‘Crooked Hillary’ – as Trump rightly calls her, well she is not one to give lectures on the dangers of incoherence in foreign policy, having leapt gleefully on board every single war that the US has fought since the end of the Cold War, with barely a thought for their consequences.

This record does not suggest that Clinton would be any more competent, or any less reckless, than Trump would be.   She has never reflected, never repented, never wavered from her shrill and blinkered hawkishness, and that is why people like Kristol and Kagan now see her as their preferred candidate.

As for fascism, ok, Trump has some elements that we have historically associated with fascism.  There is the cult of the strong leader, the racism and xenophobia, the violence that accompanies his meetings.  But frankly folks, fascism is a little bit more than that, and some of the qualities that Reich, Kagan and others see as defining features of Trump fascism have also been part of movements, trends and politicians that have not been fascist.

According to Reich:

‘ Fascists glorified national power and greatness, fanning xenophobia and war. Trump’s entire foreign policy consists of asserting American power against other nations….In pursuit of their nationalistic aims, the fascists disregarded international law. Trump is the same. He recently proposed using torture against terrorists, and punishing their families, both in clear violation of international law.’

Reich shouldn’t have to look far back in history to find American governments that have glorified national power and greatness, asserted American power against other nations in pursuit of nationalistic aims, disregarded international law or proposed using torture against terrorists.

All these things were part and parcel of the wars carried out by the Bush administration, and to a lesser extent by Obama, in the name of post- 9/11 American ‘exceptionalism’. According to Robert Kagan, ‘ What he [Trump] offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and machismo, a boasting disrespect for the niceties of the democratic culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence.’

The restoration of this ‘aura of crude and machismo’ was precisely the point of the Bush administration’s unhinged militarism, and it received the full support of Kagan and others who hailed the Bush/Cheney wars as a return to Reaganite ‘moral clarity.’   Those critics who condemn Trump’s hollow obsession with  American ‘greatness’ as a mark of incipient fascism forget how deeply ingrained this notion has been in American politics for many years.

Where the British political establishment can’t let go of the idea that it has not been great for some time, the American elite – and to some extent the American population itself – cannot stand to see its ‘greatness’ evaporating, and continues to see American military might as the guarantor of American ‘greatness.’  In this, Trump is no different from his predecessors.   Consider these extracts from Trump’s ‘America first’ speech:

‘The world is most peaceful and most prosperous when America is strongest.’

And:

‘ And always – always, always, we must make, and we have to look at it from every angle, and we have no choice, we must make America respected again.  We must make America truly wealthy again.  And we must – we have to and we will make America great again.’

And finally:

‘ We will develop, build and purchase the best equipment known to mankind.  Our military dominance must be unquestioned, and I mean unquestioned, by anybody and everybody.’ 

These goals would fit perfectly well within the Project for the New American Century’s vainglorious and maniacal vision of American ‘preeminence’ and ‘preponderance’ in Rebuilding America’s Defenses.  In her speech this week attacking Trump, Clinton painted the election as a choice between “two very different visions.”

‘One that’s angry, afraid and based on the idea that America is fundamentally weak and in decline. The other is hopeful, generous and confident in the knowledge that America is great, just like we always have been.’

So Trump thinks America is weak and wants to make it great again.  And ‘Crooked Hillary’ just thinks America is already great and wants to keep it that way.  Where Trump differs from Clinton, and from the PNAC militarists like Kristol and Kagan, is in his rejection of the ‘false song of globalisation’, and the neoimperial regime change experiments that Bush and his supporters embarked on with exactly the same arrogance and insouciance that they now condemn in Trump.

That arrogance brutally unraveled in Iraq, and this is worth bearing in mind when we are invited to see Trump as a unique danger to America and the world.   Trump has said a lot of things on his campaign, in the course of his slick and ruthless destruction of his really quite pathetic opponents.  He has said a lot of things because it isn’t clear what he actually thinks, or what he would actually do if he was elected, once he works out what he actually thinks.

But whatever he wants to do, he will be subject to constraints that will prevent him from enacting some of his wilder schemes.   The main constraint is reality itself – and the limitations that the world imposes on American power.   Despite Trump’s vainglorious posturing,  he would be no more able to escape reality than his predecessors.   And the reality is that America is no longer ‘great’ in the sense that it once believed, and its military power cannot change that.

That doesn’t mean I don’t think that Trump is dangerous.  On the contrary, I think he would be a disaster, but I also think that Hillary Clinton would be disastrous.  Presenting Trump as an ‘American fascist’ tends to obscure the dangers that are already present in a country with too much military power, and which takes its ‘exceptionalism’ for granted, and which has drifted over to the dark side for a long time now.

So let’s condemn and oppose Trump by all means,  but let’s not present him as a freakish aberration that sprang from nowhere, or as some inexplicably nihilistic antithesis of respectable, common sense ‘normal’ politics. And let’s not call him a fascist just to circle the wagons around the lesser evil, because his conception of American power is not very different from many politicians before him, and he has more in common with many of his critics than he does with Hitler or Mussolini.