Brexit: The road to victimism

The history of British engagement with Europe has oscillated  between tragedy and farce for the whole of my adult life: tragedy that Britain was not involved from the beginning, building a better and more sensible Europe than the one we have; farce in the domestic political “debate” on Europe, if debate is not too kind a word. But now we seem to have entered a new register entirely: that of the victim.

It’s unusual for politicians not to take credit for their successes, but that’s what’s happening here. The Brexiters, having got what they want, are now mortified by the complexity and devastation that are the likely results, and are starting, slowly but surely, to transition to a rhetoric which presents Britain as a victim of European manipulation, rather than the author of the problem itself. Don’t ask me how this can be justified logically, because it can’t, but it does have a certain twisted logic of its own if you are familiar with victim cultures.

In victim cultures, your country has suffered, helplessly, from the evil machinations of others. These might be other countries,  multinational corporations, the world financial system, or even small groups capable of letting off explosions. Pretty much every country in the world today considers itself wronged, humiliated, a victim of something or other, whether it’s because of today’s events, or because of a past hundreds of years ago. the competition, within and between states, is to be the biggest victim, because being a victim means never having to say you’re sorry. If you are familiar with Africa and the Middle east you will have seen this culture in its purest form.

That’s what’s going on now; The struggle is not to succeed with Brexit or to stop it; the struggle is to take ownership of the victim status that will be claimed as a result of the inevitable chaos. Who would ever have thought a political system could undergo a moral and ideological collapse as quickly as this?


Syria: The end of unrealpolitik

I have just finished reading Frédéric Pichon’s new book on Syria , Une guerre pour rien, which I bought, logically enough, in Beirut. Pichon comes out swinging against some of the inanities of western policy on Syria, but he coins a word I rather like to describe the general attitude of the West to crisis management for the last generation now: iréelpolitik. The politics of unreality, if you like, or in its English form “unrealpolitik”.

The term basically describes the self-deluding and ultimately disastrous approach to crisis resolution that the West (sometimes trading as “the International Community”) has pursued since Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s, the in the DRC, Afghanistan, numerous African conflicts, Iraq, Libya and now Syria. It’s the belief in the ease of liberal state building, the creation or encouragement of “moderate” political parties, the choice and defence of “pro-western” leaders and regimes, the rapid introduction of modern western social and economic theories, and not least the complete inability to understand the real causes and stakes in the conflicts. There’s more, of course but that will do for now.

But Syria does not seem to be turning out like that. The solution looks like being built around the re-establishment of the state, if not exactly as it was before. Western NGOs are not packing their bags to go and conduct security sector reform initiatives, western governments have not yet identified their preferred figure for Prime Minister, election consultants have not yet disembarked in Damascus, and the IMF, thankfully, is nowhere to be seen. Indeed, it’s quite likely that post-crisis Syria will be managed by the Russians, the Chinese the Turks and the Iranians, with the “International Community” watching in stunned disbelief from the sidelines.

So there’s still hope.

Brexit: Clowns to the Right of me…..

It’s common enough in politics to call your enemies or people you disagree with idiots, and it’s not always an exaggeration. But the staggering level of incompetence and insouciance displayed by the UK’s current government towards the Brexit negotiations actually puts us into entirely new territory for malevolent stupidity and a complete inability to see past the political advantage that might accrue this week.

Of course, as Harold Wilson famously said, a week is a long time in politics. Of course every major political actor will be calculating how to get out of the Brexit débacle with a whole skin. Of course there will be very few figures thoughtfully contemplating the consequences of their actions in a decade’s time, ready to sacrifice their political careers for the greater good if necessary. That’s politics, and the rules don’t change very much.

But the British people have, in general, been entitled to expect a minimum level of sheer competence from their politicians, even if they don’t agree with them. You don’t aspire to be Prime Minister if you lack even the most rudimentary political skills, any more than you expect to be a champion footballer if you have two left feet. But the general level of total uselessness on display in the present government is quite unprecedented. In earlier times, it would have been safe to say that the British government machine (once the envy of the world, remember?) was capable and efficient enough to deal with Ministers who were complete idiots – and there were quite a few. No longer: the machine has been vandalized and sabotaged to the point where it simply cannot cope any more.

At the moment, ordinary people don’t see this. The realization will dawn when things start to go seriously wrong, when imports don’t come, when exports don’t go, when planes don’t fly and holidays are cancelled, because the government has frittered away time when it should have been negotiating, striking political poses and stabbing each other in the back. Then, I think, the wrath of the British people will be terrible to behold.

It’s already clear that the Tory line will be “it’s all the fault of Brussels” and it’s true as well that Brussels has played its hand badly from a PR point of view. But governments are in the end responsible, and I don’t think that’s going to work as an excuse. If I were Theresa May I’d start running well befog 2019. Now would be a good time.

Dunkirk: They don’t make them like that any more.

I remember being mildly amused at the reception given to Stephen Spielberg’s 1998 blockbuster Saving Private Ryan, where critics fell over each other to praise the “realism” of the opening scenes. How, I wondered, could they tell? Had they been there? Had they served in the military at some point? In fact, Spielberg does seem to have made an attempt to portray the landings reasonably realistically, but that’s not the issue. “Realism” in this context means that those scenes coincided exactly with the common perception of war at the time (large scale senseless massacres) which critics who had never handled anything more lethal than a cooking knife had grown up with, and so expected. And as any literary critic will tell you, “realism” is one of the most artificial of all artistic modes.

Watching Dunkirk, or rather Dunkerque, in a cinema in France (where the film has been well received) made me understand why even the critics who praised the film extravagantly had trouble with its lack of “realism”. Not enough soldiers, not enough aircraft, too much emphasis on the “little boats” and so forth. This is fair enough (and partly reflects Nolan’s conscious decision not to use CGI effects) but ignores the fact that the film is a symbolic treatment of a myth. the symbolism is centered around the elements (earth, water, air and fire) and starts with earth (the sandbag barricade) and ends with fire (the destruction of the aircraft, not coincidentally a Spitfire). It moves, obviously, and cyclically, through these four elements, all in their own way dangerous and treacherous. (Here we recall that the name of the boat featured in the film is the Moonfleet, the name of a popular novel about smuggling and shipwreck which I read at school in the 1960s).

In some mundane ways, you could argue that the film is realistic enough: death is random and omnipresent, people are frightened, selfish, cold and soaked to the skin, pilots worry about how much fuel they have left. But the film works best if we understand that it is cast in a mode that we have little experience of today: the heroic. By heroic, I don’t mean Brad Pitt gunning down fifty terrorists with a single machine-gun burst. I mean the attitude of heroism, of ordinary people rising to extraordinary heights, and doing what has to be done. Hardly any of the British characters in the film fire a shot, apart from the pilots, all three of whom eventually fall from the air onto the elements of water and earth, accompanied each time by fire. Many of the characters (including the nurses who die in the hospital ship) are civilians. Mark Rylance, as the weekend sailor, calm and assured, taking his unarmed boat where it’s most needed, is a mythical figure of everyday heroism, probably unimaginable in today’s society drenched in cynicism and consumerism, and the kind of man that probably every boy born in the 1950s would have wanted as a father. Indeed, in its stoicism and quiet heroism, as well as its lack of special effects, the film is partly a homage to the black and white films of the 1950s on which I grew up.

In a whole lot of ways, they don’t make them like that any more.

France: Apocalypse in about a month.

With only three weeks to go before the first round of the French Presidential election, the media are in full politics-as-horse-race frenzy. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s in, who’s out, which grinning face will give the victory speech after the second round, and that’s pretty much it.

Lost in all this is the terrible, lamentable, really not very good, performance of the two major parties. Hamon (Socialist of a sort) and Fillon (official candidate of the Right) can barely muster thirty per cent of the vote between them. Can you imagine it, what has become of the two major parties of one of the most powerful nations in the world? Think Labour and the Conservatives, or Republicans and Democrats, with thirty per cent of the votes between them.

Now of course these are not the parliamentary elections: they come a few weeks later, and the party machines should be capable of turning out a higher vote. But we’re looking here not just at a rough patch politically, but at the end of an entire political system. It’s going to get a lot rougher between now and May, and even rougher thereafter. This is big news, probably the end of the Fifth Republic as we know it, and the media and the political class have no idea how short a time the current system has to live.


My franglais is not efficient

You may have seen that Paris is bidding for the Olympic Games again, this time for 2024. You may also have seen that they’ve chosen a slogan in English – franglais, really. It’s Made for Sharing.

Think about that for a minute. Does it mean anything? Did whoever made it up think it meant anything? Cities aren’t “made” for a purpose, after all, any more than the Olympic Games are. Is the assumption that all of the visitors return home with a small piece of Paris? For the benighted who don’t speak English, there’s also a slogan in French, Venez, Partarger, which does at least mean something. A decent English translation would be “come and join in” or “come and share the experience”

Joking (mostly) aside, this is important because it reflects a much wider problem in France, and especially among French elites who are going through one of their periodic obsessions with copying other countries – in this case the Anglo-Saxon ones. This extends to the wholesale, and often clumsy, importation of English words into French political and media discourse, as well as into advertising. The problem is that the French aren’t actually very good at foreign languages. They are not as bad as the British (and certainly they are more willing to try) but they still aren’t that good. The standard of English teaching in France is, well, variable, and you very rarely encounter the kind of fluency in English, even among the well educated that you find in Germany or the Netherlands. Few large organisations have specialist translators. This doesn’t prevent the widespread and often inelegant use of English as a status symbol by a certain category of aspirational French individual, often with hideous results, or the clumsy and misleading presentation of the world’s favourite tourist destination in information for visitors. Ironically, this is even having an effect on English itself, where the language of Shakespeare is turning in a globish pseudo-language. For example, the confusion between translating efficace as “efficient” (i.e. cost-effective) and “effective” was lost many years ago: “this medicine is efficient” anybody? Most non-native English speakers have now totally confused the two.

The obsession with the slavish imitation of others, is, of course, a symptom of the lack of confidence in their own country, its culture and its language, which is now pretty much universal among French elites. Indeed these elites, independent of their political views, share a sense of embarrassment at being French, and some go so far as to criticise those who take pride in their history and culture as racists or xenophobes. So when Presidential contender Emmanuel Macron asserted recently that there was “no French culture” no one was surprised, and nobody important was offended. Macron, the symbol of the French elite’s aching desire to be un-French, speaks (bad) English at every opportunity and seems proud to do so.

So as World History replaces French History in schools, and the language of Moliere is increasingly replaced by the language of Trump, you have to wonder where, if anywhere, this is all going to end. Would a President Macron make Franglais the official language of the country? Until recently that would have seemed a joke. Now I’m not so sure.

Is America a failure of marketing?

If there’s a single dominant theme of advanced western societies today, it’s popular anger. This anger, often incoherent, often poorly focused, is mostly directed against what people see as “the system” or “the elites” who they feel have betrayed and abandoned them. So pervasive has this discourse become that even the most elite of establishment politicians feel obliged to position themselves against “the system”; the latest and least credible being Emmanuel Macron, a serious candidate for the French Presidency who is a millionaire former merchant banker. What’s going on here?

First, we need to distinguish between popular anger and elite anger. We’ve seen a lot of elite anger recently, in the reaction to the Brexit vote, in the wider challenges to the current European financial and economic system and, perhaps most of all, in the reaction to Donald Trump’s election.Elite anger is a form of narcissism, a childlike scream of rage and disappointment that the elites can no longer have what they want so easily, that people are calling them unpleasant names, or, in the case of the US, that the toys they have played with for a generation are being taken away. In a society that prizes feelings above facts, and demands nor simply protection from bad things but even from hearing about bad things, all this is perhaps not surprising.

But I’m not really concerned with that here, except for one interesting point. Clinton supporters have been busy finding someone to blame for her recent catastrophic defeat, and I don’t know (or frankly, care) enough about American politics to act as some kind of adjudicator. But I was struck by how many times it’s been suggested that the problem was with “the message”, or that “people didn’t understand.” In other words, what we have here is  failure of marketing. If the marketing had been better, people would have “understood” and Clinton would have won.

Of course politicians in every country worry about the “message” and why it is or isn’t getting through. But it’s especially important in the US, because the US is the home and origin of Public Relations, and indeed PR is probably the only industry in which the US has consistently been a world leader.  It was also the first society to be built, deliberately and methodically, on public relations rather than on real political and economic structures  Consider the phrase “The American Dream”, which is a bit shop-soiled now, but still in use. What’s a dream? A dream is something that by definition is not real. So tens of millions of immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were sold a dream, rather than a reality. The reality was that most of them would have had a better life if they had stayed where they were.

The politics of the deliberately manufactured dream has been the dominant mode in the US ever since. The present is great but you don’t realise it. The future will always be wonderful when it eventually arrives. If you don’t see that it’s because you are too stupid to understand. This works for a while, reinforced by a powerful and sophisticated propaganda machine, in ways first spelt out by the journalist Walter Lippman in the 1920s. But the problem with PR, of course, is that in the end it’s not real, and there’s a limit to how far and for how long you can persuade people that black is white and up is down. It would be easier if elites were hypocritically and deliberately lying, but the problem is that they have employed and manipulated these dreams for so long, they have started to believe them. They no longer think they are lying.

But ordinary people think they are. The anger that we’re seeing is not about finding someone to “blame” for the apparent inability of so much of the population to understand  the wonderful benefits of globalization.  It’s the anger of people who realise that they have been systematically lied to over a long period of time, and that the lying is still going on. It’s the anger of people who realise that, behind the PR there actually is nothing. We’re in Wizard of Oz territory here, where everything is smoke and mirrors and there is nothing behind the curtain.

So what’s a poor, misunderstood elite to do when people have finally realised that PR and the world are two different things, and get angry? Search me. There’s nothing else, after all, but dreams to use as weapons. If I were them I’d start running now.