Saturday 26 December 2015

How dangerous is Trump?

I'm useless at reading the mood of the American public. Wherever the pulse of the US voter is, my finger is nowhere near it. But it turns out I’m not alone – no one saw Trump coming.

Who are these potential Republican voters who are keeping him at the top of the opinion polls? Why would Christians like him, or tea-party types? Rick Santorum has a 25-year marriage, 7 children by the same wife, and solid conservative positions on all the issues that have apparently been stirring up the Republican base since Reagan first mobilized the ‘moral majority’. The libertarian Rand Paul plans to curtail the power of the government, promising to reduce America’s military commitments abroad and its prison population at home, while cutting taxes and welfare. But in the polls they’re both nowhere, along with a dozen others.

The fact that I personally don’t like Trump is, of course, entirely beside the point. I didn’t like George W Bush either, but I can see why he got conservative voters excited with his cowboy boots and cheeky Texan grin and his recovered-alcoholic born-again credentials. Why don’t those same voters see Trump as a sleazy rootless urbanite who shouts Big Government every time he opens his big mouth promising to fix something?

Of course, what Trump would actually do, if by some weird mischance he found himself elected President, is anybody’s guess. Most candidates trade in vague aspirations and make promises they would never be able to fulfil. But they generally attach themselves to some value system – theological or economic – or at least stitch together some unlikely rags-to-riches story to affirm their belief in the American Dream. Trump doesn’t seem to do any of this.

It makes you suspect that for a lot of Republican voters the traditional ideological issues have just been flags of convenience all along. Trump’s rivals earnestly flourish their Bibles and their copies of the American Constitution and the public isn’t buying because Trump is giving them permission to let their ids off the leash. Meanwhile, the serious money men, who think of themselves as the Republican establishment and don't care a jot about constitutional or ethical issues, just want a president who can be relied on to cut taxes, reduce regulations and keep America and the world open for business. Trump can’t be relied on to do anything except promote Trump.

Of course poll numbers are not delegates. Trump knows how to draw a crowd, offering a potent mixture of jokes and outrage with the occasional opportunity to rough up a heckler – all these delights without being required to think. And when asked, in the casual way of opinion polls, which of this long list of candidates they’d most like see in the White House, a lot of people probably just opt for the name they recognize. Winning caucuses and primaries is a different matter. And even if Trump pulls it off and gets to be the nominee, current polling suggests that he's alienated too many voters to beat either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Hillary accuses him of being a recruiting tool for jihadis, but it’s hard to believe that Trump's bombast does more damage to relations with the Islamic world than bombing raids and drone strikes. Even so, he shouldn't be dismissed as a joke. To American Muslims he’s doing actual harm, having appointed himself cheerleader-in chief for hate crime. He’s also lowered the level of public discourse to the point where discriminatory policies are being given serious airtime.

And if his campaign implodes before the Republican convention, there’s a seemingly more plausible candidate poised to gather up his supporters. Ted Cruz as President – now that's a really scary thought. I can't imagine why anyone would vote for him. But what do I know?

Tuesday 15 December 2015

Why are we still talking about this?

When I was a child ‘correct’ was for sums and spelling. In novels, people who upheld old-fashioned standards of social behaviour were sometimes called ‘correct’. At some point in the 70s some people on the Left started scrutinising each other’s language for deviations from a new kind of correctness.

In the 1950s Nancy Mitford had popularised the class distinction (first defined by the linguist Alan Ross) between U and non-U vocabulary. Now we had PC versus non-PC, a whole new way to make people feel bad about the way they spoke. The phrase was always going to be a hostage to fortune. There’s something joyless about enforcing correctness – it feels like a narrow achievement.

It wasn’t aimed at the grosser forms of verbal abuse – governments were passing laws against sexual harassment and incitement to racial hatred – and it didn’t touch circles not already inclined to watch their language. As the American sociologist and cultural commentator Todd Gitlin put it, the Left ‘marched on the English Department while the Right took Washington’.

I don’t know how these things went in America, but in Britain, by the 1980s, with Thatcher in power and Murdoch buying up the press, political correctness was regularly being mocked in the tabloids with tales of the ‘looney left’. Apparently the Inner London Education Authority had forbidden teachers to speak of blackboards. ‘Chalkboard’ was the preferred PC usage. Was this true? Who knows?

Political correctness was always a redundant concept. Its territory was already covered by three other categories: accuracy, politeness, and euphemism. All the satirical jokes came under the third heading – calling short people ‘vertically challenged’, for example. As for accuracy and politeness, they’re timeless values that need no apology, though they probably demand more conscious effort in inclusive, multicultural times.

Having been taken over by the Right as a stick to beat lefties with, PC was long ago rendered meaningless by misapplication and overuse. Any perceived infringement on individual liberty, from the arrest of a householder for shooting a burglar to the EU’s legendary ruling against curvy bananas, might be condemned in The Daily Mail or The Sun as ‘political correctness gone mad’ (as if those papers recognised any sane kind).

Forty years on, you’d think the concept would have burnt itself out. Who would have imagined that it could form the basis of a whole US presidential campaign? Overthrowing political correctness has become Trump’s only coherent promise to the nation. Vote for me, he seems to say, and you too will be free to spread slanderous generalisations about Mexicans, make up statistics about black crime, insult women for not being attractive enough, impersonate disabled people, and finally come out of the closet about hating Muslims.

Speaking in Donald Trump’s support last week, Republican Senator Steve King said that ‘political correctness has people walking on eggshells’. How squeamish they must be about causing offence, these Trump supporters, and how they must long to be liberated from the anxiety of hurting other people’s feelings. A vote for Trump means never having to say you’re sorry.

Tuesday 8 December 2015

Undergraduate poem comes to light

In 1811, Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford for writing a pamphlet promoting atheism. This wasn’t his first offence. A few months earlier, a seditious poem of his had been published anonymously with the title On the Existing State of Things. For two centuries, all copies were thought to have been destroyed. Now one has been acquired by the Bodleian Library.

A newly discovered poem by Shelley is literary news. A few commentators have also been excited by the way its radicalism resonates in our own times. A reference to a victim of imperial expansion, who

… in the blushing face of day
His wife, his child, sees sternly torn away; 
Yet dares not to revenge, while war’s dread roar
Floats, in long echoing, on the blood-stain’ed shore 

spoke to some of Syrian refugees and, specifically, of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach. Such images haunt us, and it doesn’t take much to bring them to mind. 

When it comes to human suffering, there’s no question that 18-year-old Shelley’s heart was in the right place. He was in favour of 'peace, love, and concord' and opposed to tyranny. None of this is surprising. More interesting are the ways in which the poem fails.

Written in heroic couplets, it harks back to the style that dominated English poetry in the 18th century. The more brilliant exponents of the form shaped it into a perfect vehicle for satirical argument. Alexander Pope’s couplets are crafted so that every word counts and the music of metre and rhyme seem effortless. In his Essay on Man he describes humankind as 

Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

What in Pope’s hands seem easy, other notable writers failed to achieve. Samuel Johnson, celebrated for his prose more than for his verse, began his poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes (based on Juvenal’s Tenth Satire) like this: 

Let Observation with extensive view
Survey Mankind from China to Peru.

Coleridge would later expose the emptiness of this couplet, by rewriting it: 'Let observation with extensive observation observe mankind extensively.'

With his friend Wordsworth, Coleridge was engaged in revolutionising poetry, writing about the lives of ordinary people in accessible language and using verse forms drawn from oral tradition. It’s puzzling, then, to see Shelley, a young radical of the next generation, reaching back to a form fashionable in the previous century to make his radical statement, and importing with it a lofty tone and a weakness for abstraction.

Nothing here suggests that its author would go on to produce a poem such as Ozymandias, which says more in 14 lines about the destruction of tyranny than On the Existing State of Things manages in 172. And it does nothing to stave off a time when Percy Bysshe might be referred to as 'husband of the visionary novelist, Mary Shelley'.