Tuesday 28 March 2017

Trump and Brexit: farce or tragedy?

On Saturday, with the Trump administration in increasing turmoil, Leni and I marched in London to protest the looming disaster of Brexit. We returned home, like Paul Simon’s “one and one-half wandering Jews”, to “speculate who had been damaged the most”. This is a genuine question. Which of us has most to fear for our country, me or my American wife? Trump, Brexit, Brexit, Trump… the options confront each other with the kind of grim symmetry Samuel Becket would have understood.

Estragon (looking at what’s left of his carrot): Funny, the more you eat the worse it gets.
Vladimir: With me it’s just the opposite. I get used to the muck as I go along.

When Marx, echoing Hegel’s comment about history repeating itself, added: “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”, he was thinking of a period of a couple of generations. But if the US election was Brexit 2.0, we only had to wait a few months for America to get the farcical version of Britain’s tragedy, the version where the bumbling criminals trip over the furniture before exiting to howls of laughter, while Britain sinks into permanent decline.

All very well, you might be thinking, for me to make light of the Trump nightmare, but in the meantime what about the environment, what about global instability, what about the likelihood of a fascistic response to the next terrorist attack? Certainly the dangers are considerable and the time between now and Trump’s inevitable eviction from the White House promises to be very mean indeed, with sufferers including undocumented migrants, Muslim travellers, and anyone depending on the minimal safety net of Obamacare. But Trump will be evicted and, before that happens, there is at least furniture for the criminals to trip over, in the form of a written constitution.

In Britain, 52% of the 72% who voted, or 37% of the adult population, have been granted, more or less on a whim, the power to effect a huge constitutional change, undoing decades of carefully considered legislation, against almost all informed advice. Both a settled European minority living in Britain and UK citizens working or living in retirement across Europe face the threat of expulsion. The door is slammed against young Britons wanting to study or work on the European mainland. The Scottish are forced to choose between membership of the UK or the EU. Peace in Northern Ireland, which ended the 30-year misery of civil conflict, is recklessly endangered by new borders. Trade and investment between close neighbours, together with shared employment and environmental protections, are sabotaged for no coherent reason.

One of the most alarming comments I’ve seen from a Brexit voter was in a letter to the Forest of Dean Gazette. The correspondent was complaining of our slow progress towards fulfilling the dream of Brexit. She concluded: “Why can’t we just tighten our belts and get on with it?” I find this hair-raising because it reveals that the writer cannot be reached by appeals to enlightened self-interest or to self-interest of any kind. Even if we end up poorer, standing alone free from Polish plumbers is its own reward. 

Perhaps the writer’s appetite for belt-tightening is rooted in an irrational nostalgia for post-war austerity. But statistics reveal that, while older voters tended to go for Brexit, there was more enthusiasm for Europe among those old enough to actually remember the war. Like Churchill, who foresaw a united Europe, and like the generation of elder statesmen now sitting in semi-retirement in the House of Lords, they recognise the value of European cooperation.

The Republicans are setting themselves up for a well-deserved kicking in the 2018 mid-terms. Here in Britain, we won’t yet have begun to face the reality of our post-EU existence. If Trump survives his four years, barring full-scale war he’ll be out. We’ll still be scrabbling to fix up trade deals on any terms, tightening our belts and getting used to the muck as we go along.  

Sunday 26 March 2017

Meeting Assange in Liverpool

I’m in Liverpool on the day the House of Commons votes to deny the House of Commons a vote on the eventual Brexit deal. Across the Atlantic, the new administration is defending its second attempt at a Muslim ban, while evidence continues to build of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

In recent decades the area around the Liverpool docks has benefited from a huge influx of EU money. There’ll be no more where that comes from. Liverpool voted 58% to remain, but nationally the wall-builders prevailed. There’s a fresh wind blowing across the Mersey, but the sun is shining and the crowds are out to shop or eat, or to get a flavour of the city’s trading past among the red brick Victorian warehouses.

I wander into Tate Liverpool where My Bed, which was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1999, has drawn a crowd. Tracy Emin’s famously unmade bed with its adjacent clutter stands in the middle of a large gallery room with William Blake illustrations on the walls. A member of the Tate staff, an unpretentious scouser who obviously knows his stuff, is giving a talk that makes the best case I’ve heard for this celebrated piece of conceptual art, presenting it as an exploration, in the tradition of William Blake, of innocence and experience. He’s so good, I’m almost convinced.

Ten minutes’ walk from the Tate, in the historic rope manufacturing district of the city, sandwiched between long, narrow backstreets, I find the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology. FACT makes room for three Picturehouse cinema screens, a bar and a café, as well as its own galleries, all opening off a free-flowing atrium. The leafy café is flooded with sunlight and is clearly drawing the laptop crowd. FACT’s current exhibit, conceived when presidential victory was still no more than a twinkle in Trump’s eye, is startlingly topical. Called How much of this is fiction, its theme is the faking of news and the blurring of lines between truth and propaganda.

Documentary footage, created by US artist Ian Alan Paul, on the imagined EU Bird Migration Authority takes an unsettling look at the policing of human migrants. A Swiss-Austrian artist duo called UBERMORGAN provide a spoof promotional video featuring music actually used by prison guards and interrogators to break down detainees: chart-topping tracks from the “golden era of Torture Music”, featuring over sixty “sweet and painful torture hits” from Metallica to Britney Spears. It manages to be funny and horrifying at the same time. Three minutes of the Meow Mix song, which began life as an advertising jingle for cat food, would make me confess to anything.

Arabian Street Artists in collaboration with filmmakers Field of Vision, provide an inside look at the prank that embarrassed the producers of the Showtime series Homeland. The artists, who were employed to embellish a set representing a Syrian refugee camp with Arabic graffiti, wrote messages such as ‘Homeland is racist’ and ‘This is not my homeland’. Presumably the artists were the only people involved in filming the episode who could read Arabic, because no one noticed until it aired in October 2015. And then a lot of people did.

Last summer, shortly after the nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida, a website, ShareTheSafety.org was launched purporting to advertise an initiative by the National Rifle Association. Customers were promised that “for each handgun purchased, one will be donated to an at-risk American citizen in the urban center of their choice”. Though this offer was a work of fiction, the actual policies of the NRA are sufficiently mad that a lot of people were taken in. The website and the press conference at which The Yes Men, who were behind the satirical project, posed as NRA spokesmen to defend the scheme on philanthropic grounds, is the subject of Share the Safety, 2016.

I end my visit to FACT in Julian Assange’s office in the Ecuadorian Embassy. It stands in the foyer, part of an installation called Delivery for Mr Assange, 2013 by !Medengruppe Bitnik. The brochure informs me that the room, with all its clutter, has been “meticulously constructed entirely from memory” after several visits by the artists. Something about it holds my attention, though it has less identifiable political content than almost anything else in the exhibit. There’s the accumulated equipment you’d expect from an IT geek, though a lot of the laptops piled in a plastic tub on the floor and the mobile phones lined up along the mantelpiece look surprisingly antique. There’s a white shirt hanging on a coat stand and a pair of Chelsea boots by the door. The books suggest that Assange’s reading is eclectic, but he seems to have a special fondness for TC Boyle.

The room has the effect on me that Emin’s bed apparently has on some people. I am aware of an unwelcome intimacy. Being inside this room I’m drawn inside the mind of the absent occupant. My interest is uncomfortably voyeuristic. But the room has a stronger hold on me than the bed, perhaps because Assange has had an impact on the world that more than matches his self-regard.  

There’s an interesting tension between this room and the rest of the exhibition. Assange is an asylum seeker. This place is part prison cell, part sanctuary. He’s also a political activist. But the political purpose of his activism has become increasingly enigmatic. Is he a utopian cyber-anarchist, championing the rights of the individuals to know the secrets of the power elite whatever the consequences, or a self-publicist whose grip on reality has been weakened by his strange incarceration? As a participant in the US election, was he duped by the Putin-Trump alliance or has he been a mole of the pseudo-populist right all along?

Perhaps it isn’t Assange’s fault that, out of all Britain’s recognisable politicians, it was the xenophobe and Trump toady Nigel Farage who recently dropped in for a chat. After all, everyone knows where Assange lives and he’s always at home.  But something must have made it worth Farage’s while to be seen keeping such dangerous company. The meaning of his reconstructed room seems as dynamically mutable as Assange’s identity. 

I leave FACT with a fresh perspective on contemporary events. Physically it’s easy to miss. As a tourist destination, its location can’t rival the Tate’s, overlooking the water of the old Albert Dock. But closer to the heart of the city, it has a vibrancy that makes the detour worthwhile. 

Friday 17 March 2017

Language and the presidency

I ended my last piece with a promise not to waste any more words on the self-publicist and arch-troll Milo Yiannopoulos (see below). I break that promise only to note that Simon & Schuster have cancelled their contract to publish his book after he was caught on video joking about clerical abuse and dismissing the significance of sexual consent. Perhaps the publishers were grateful that he provided them with an excuse to change their mind.

When I made that promise I was intending to take a break from the American carnage that is the Trump administration. I thought I might write about the contrasting stylistic choices made by various translators of Anna Karenina. But I find myself in Los Angeles and the news presses in on me. Tolstoy will have to wait.

A growing movement calling for Californian independence, though extremely unlikely to lead to anything, is symbolic of the strength of feeling here, where people voted against Trump in overwhelming numbers. As I learned today from a sociology professor at the University of California, more than half of the university’s quarter of a million students are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Most people in this diverse and dynamic state know that immigration is a good thing and reject Trump’s xenophobic vision.    

The phrase “American carnage” comes from the President’s inaugural address. It was striking partly because we don’t expect such a stark indictment of a country from its own leader, but also because it sounds incongruously like the title of a slasher movie, a thrash metal band or a televised wrestling competition. It was verbally jarring in the context of a formal speech to the nation.

It points to a striking feature of the current political scene. America is undergoing a kind of linguistic revolution. From the beginning of his campaign, Trump’s most plausible promise was that people would be liberated to speak as offensively as they please. He is doing his best, of course, to shut down criticism directed at him: his chief strategist has said that on political matters the press should “keep its mouth shut” and a top White House aide has announced that the powers of the President “will not be questioned”. But inciting hatred against the weak is to be encouraged. Trump continues to model this freedom at every opportunity.

In speech, he is crude, repetitive and often incoherent. And yet no American President has ever put such stock in the power of language to construct reality. And because of his position, the consequences of one of his tweets or casual asides can be enormous. I am reminded of Auden’s poem, Epitaph on a Tyrant:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, 
And when he cried the little children died in the streets. 

Previously published in the Bangladesh Daily Star