Russia: Dissonance and Dissidence.

I’m not going to comment on the so-called “Russiagate” affair, since there is nothing to comment on. But there are two questions that are actually worth asking. First, how could a political class lose its mind so quickly and completely, and second, is this the end of the US party system as we know it?

The answer to the first is clear enough: it’s the phenomenon known to psychologists as Cognitive Dissonance, where people try to hold two conflicting truths in their mind at the same time, and this causes stress which has to be resolved by manipulating one or both of the truths. In this case, the truth that has to be manipulated is that Trump won the election. He can’t have done, therefore he didn’t, therefore somebody must have “interfered” with the elections.

The other truth, perhaps more interesting, comes from the overwhelming self-regard and arrogance of the Clinton camp, for whom the idea that they could actually lose did not seem real. This was not a mundane question of policies, strategies or turnouts, but an absolute belief in their own righteous nature, and an assumption that the universe would provide the result they anticipated, and that Clinton had been pursuing for decades. Clinton was leading a fragmented and argumentative set of single-issue identity cliques, whose dislike for each other was only exceeded by their self-righteousness and their desire for power. Those who disagreed were hunted down and destroyed if they were within the circle. If they were outside it, they were mocked and despised and treated as irrelevant. Well, we know what happened. But they don’t: the belief in their absolute entitlement to rule had come up against the brute reality of electoral loss. Something had to give, and it was obviously going to be reality.

That said, this may not have been a wise move even for a desperate political clique. Because there are signs that, having been used originally to explain away the unexplainable, the narrative has escaped the grasp of its authors, and is now being used to crush dissent all across the political spectrum. How long before it rebounds against the very people who started it?  (After all, if the Russians really wanted to damage the US political system, wouldn’t they start hares running just like this, and then stand back and watch as the system fell apart?)  Perhaps Hilary Clinton is a Russian agent. I mean, is there any proof she’s not?

 

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Fear and loathing (and other things) at the FBI

I don’t normally write about American politics, partly out of boredom, partly because the blogosphere is full of little else these days.

But my eye was caught yesterday by the release of a Top Secret memo on the surveillance of a Trump supporter in 2016, issued by a House of Representatives Committee which is supposed to oversee the intelligence community. Like most people who have worked in government, I know what  Top Secret document looks like, and this is nothing like a Top Secret document.

All it records is that the FBI applied to special secret court for permission to spy on a US citizen on the basis of allegations made in a dossier paid for by opponents of Trump, and supported by a Yahoo News story which ultimately turned out to be from the same source. This is pretty incompetent practice at the best of times, and worrying, if true, for anyone who still believed that the intelligence agencies in the US were under any kind of control at all. But why Top Secret – unless there was an actual operation to stop getting Trump elected? But that couldn’t possible be true, could it?

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?

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.

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.