Biden to the rescue – in a manner of speaking

More progressive and radical than anticipated, Biden’s address to the nation to mark his first 100 days in office last week may have been dull in delivery, but its impact cannot be understated. While political pundits are still sizing up what can actually be achieved from the president’s proposals, I’ve been thinking about what all of this means in more existential terms.

Despite not being legally or constitutionally meaningful, the first 100 days of a US presidency has become a symbolic marker. FDR was the first to attach significance to the 100-day anniversary as he was out to prove his worth for getting America out of the Great Depression. Unlike many of his predecessors, Biden finds himself in a similar position to FDR as the world deals with waves of a pandemic and its economic aftermath, along with the kaleidoscope of damage left in the wake of the Trump years.

Biden’s first 100 days have been busy with government taking a more active role, and due to the pandemic, which has killed over half a million in the US and left one out of five Americans out of a job, people obviously need that. In his address to the nation, he spoke about continuing in this vein, along with green energy and healthcare being controlled and financed to a greater extent by government. Going against the ethos of the past forty years from Republic and Democratic presidents alike, Biden noted that ‘trickle-down economics has never worked.’ He has proposed growing ‘the economy from the bottom up and the middle out’ by reforming corporate tax, which has long favoured the rich, and raising the minimum wage.

Reading the analyses these past few days and now the reports of Biden trying to sell his ideas to Republicans and their supporters, I’m left with a couple of thoughts. First, Biden is no longer the anyone-but-Trump president. He is starting to become a leader characterised by his own agenda.  With this I’ve already notice the change in public discourse. It’s not likely that Biden will be able to fulfil all of these promises, and there will be compromises and lost battles along the way. But by setting these humanitarian goals in a boring presidential language, Biden is changing what people are talking about and how they are talking about it. Trump promised that a wall would be built between the US and Mexico. That promise was not fulfilled, the wall never built, but for four years people talked about immigration and white supremacy – often aggressively, either following Trump’s rhetoric or vehemently ridiculing and mocking him.

This leads me to the second thought: I’m enjoying for the first time in some years the feeling of hope. I’m not alone in this – only last night I heard socio-political author Michael Lewis answering the question of what he thought of Biden’s presidency so far, and without hesitation he said ‘It gives me hope.’  Hope holds incredible powers. Emily Dickinson once said, ‘Hope is a thing with feathers,’ and like birds, hope can survive the harshest of conditions, navigate through the unknown and inspire us to keep living. As her words are better than mine, I close with the full poem:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

-Emily Dickinson

The US President flanked by two women congressional leaders.

Brexit Stories

When it comes to spy stories, I usually prefer films over novels, and when I occasionally make an exception, I dip into the worlds of John Le Carré. This time not because it was a spy story, but because it was a Brexit story. Le Carré’s last novel, Agent Running in the Field, was published in 2019, capturing that heady time period after the European Referendum of 2016 but before the withdrawal agreement was signed and enacted upon at the end of 2020.

In this spy caper, one of the main British characters declares, ‘It is my considered opinion, that for Britain and Europe, and for liberal democracy across the entire world as a whole, Britain’s departure from the European Union in the time of Donald Trump, and Britain’s consequent unqualified dependence on the United States in an era when the US is heading straight down the road to institutional racism and neo-fascism, is an unmitigated clusterfuck bar none.’ Familiar? Yes, it sounds as if paraphrased from the actual comments of many remainers, famous and not-so-famous, the banter in local pubs and in the many rallies and marches at the time. 

So, too are these gems from the mouths of British characters in Le Carré’s novel: ‘The British public is being marched over a cliff by a bunch of rich elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people.’ And, ‘I think Brexit is totally irrational, that it’s evidence of dismal statesmanship on our part, and lousy diplomatic performances. Things that were wrong with Europe could be changed from inside Europe.’

One of the Russian-born characters embodies the view from outside the UK when he says, ‘You walk out of Europe with your British noses stuck in the air. “We’re special. We’re British. We don’t need Europe. We won all our wars alone. No Americans, no Russians, no anyone. We’re supermen.” The great freedom-loving President Donald Trump is going to save your economic arses, I hear. You know what Trump is?’ ‘Tell me.’ ‘He’s Putin’s shithouse cleaner.” 

For me, this spy story was more interesting for its background than for its foreground. It presented a nostalgia of sorts. Not a rose-tinted view of the recent past, which was stressful in its 24/7 argumentative mode while trying to stop the march off the cliff. This nostalgia rests in a time when like-minded people were talking about how this referendum happened and the immediate impact of the results. These were stories told and opinions laid bare that are now well cemented into the past.

What are the stories we are living in now? Some one hundred days ago the transition period ended and Britain officially left the EU. The European Movement has produced a report organised around the personal narratives of ten people whose lives have been affected by Brexit. To no surprise, the mini stories come from a farmer, a small business owner, a fisherman, a professional musician, a teacher, a refugee and an EU citizen trying to gain their ‘settled status’ in the UK, along with a few stories that are less personal, but still poignant – a professor speaking about the recent violence in Northern Ireland and a climate activist and a human rights campaigner both mapping out the current struggles Britain faces going it alone.

I’ve been reading and watching similar stories in the British media, but not as leading stories – these are sometimes stuffed in the middle, reduced to a ‘human interest’ or regional status. Since the beginning of the year – the start of the official Brexit – the pandemic, the riots at the US Capitol, the start of the Biden years and other stories have butted the Brexit fallout from public discourse. This moratorium on Brexit talk has been helped in the UK by politicians of all stripes not willing to enter into this contentious topic again. 

I don’t know if I have the patience to wait for another popular writer of fiction, spy novelist or other, to write the truths of this time. 

Impeachment and theatre of the absurd

Referring to the US president’s second impeachment, a Republican congressman snapped at a reporter, ‘This is political theatre.’ He was walking away while speaking, ending the interview before it began. What he said was pithy and about all a defensive Republican in America can say these days.

But he might have a point. This impeachment can be seen as a type of theatre, an entertaining performance, since the Senate vote won’t take place until after the disgraced president leaves office in a week’s time – even if he has to be forced out kicking and screaming like a toddler. In this way, the actions of the Democrats in the House of Representatives might be seen as symbolic. That is fitting, after all, as the actions of the rioters who stormed the Capitol last week were largely symbolic. Did they really think they were going to stop the process of bringing in a new president? A playoff of symbols is a common feature of good theatre.  The congressman’s remark could have been a back-handed compliment.

The irony is that the Republican congressman is playing a part in the same theatrical performance that he himself scoffed at. His is the character that operates in a narrative resting comfortably in theatre of the absurd – an abstract world that rubs up against the real world and makes us question the purpose of human existence – the meaning of life. This congressman’s character is a minor one, akin to Boy in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Boy is a messenger, a character questioned by the two tramps, revealing more about their characters and their delusions. The ending of this impeachment play might not leave us with grand philosophical questions, but it is making many of us question the strength of our democracies.

Putting aside symbolism, another way still of looking at this act of impeachment is through the lens of criminal justice. Clear to anyone who has been following post-election news from America, the president has been inciting protests by claiming, despite the lack of any evidence, that the election was fraudulent. Moreover, the act of inciting violence can be found in the president’s tweets and in his comments outside the White House, from where he encouraged a ‘fight’ and spoke about bravery, while repeating the slogans of the election being ‘rigged’ and ‘stolen.’ If Tr**p were an ordinary citizen, he’d already be arrested and awaiting his trial on charges of terrorism and citing violence against the government. This impeachment is a theatrical performance that mirrors the judicial process that is not taking place, a cathartic type of theatre on par with the great works of classical Greek drama.

A final note – I deliberately haven’t referred to this congressman by name since other Republican politicians have been saying the exact same thing, reading the same lines from the same script.

Thoughts and Translations on the French Laïcité

I love a good mistranslation as much as the next person, but some mistranslations are not funny. Worse, they can be dangerous.

After the barbarous death of history teacher Samuel Paty, French president Emanuel Macron supported the teacher’s right to teach students about freedom of speech using the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed. Among those to express their discontent with the French president were the international English-speaking press, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and the UK’s Financial Times. I’m not alone in thinking this has to do in part with the translation of French into English. In condemning terrorists, Macron spoke against ‘séparatisme islamiste’ in France which has been translated as an attack on ‘Islamists’, a negatively loaded word referring to extremist and violent supporters of Islam. What Macron meant would be more accurately translated as ‘Islamic separatism,’ which is seen as harmful to integration. To put this more into the French context, for decades debates about séparatismes religieux have been about the Catholic faith and the fact that Catholicism hasn’t been the country’s official religion since the laïcité was put into law in 1905. The laïcité is mainly about individual rights to freedom of speech and religion in a secular state, a government not run by any single religion.

As with many mistranslations, cultural differences are at play. In countries like America, discrimination of minority groups, such as Muslim people, puts the media and well-meaning left-wing thinkers on hyper-alert for anti-Muslim racism. I’m not saying racism against Muslims doesn’t exist in France – of course it does. However, according to a recent survey by the National Institute of Demographic Studies, most Muslims in France feel socially and culturally integrated. Other studies also support these findings. As someone with a second home in France, I don’t find this surprising.

Interesting too that it appears most of the Muslims who were angered by Macron’s speech linking terrorism and separatism, live outside of France in non-French speaking countries, where  the president’s words were translated into Arabic and Turkish. Since I don’t speak either Arabic or Turkish, I’ll step aside from this part of the debate. Plenty of polyglot scholars in the French media in recent weeks who have raised this issue of mistranslation are doing this work for me.

In fact, there has been so much published and podcasted about these misunderstandings of the laïcité and mistranslations in France, I wasn’t going to bother writing about it. That is, until a couple of nights ago when Channel 4 News (UK) ran a story about Muslims in France being discriminated against by new integration measures proposed as laws. A French speaker mentioned the laïcité, and it was translated into English as ‘secularism.’ While secularism is part of the principle of the laïcité, keeping church and state separate, the first definition of secularism is typically ‘indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations’ (Merriam-Webster English Dictionary) – which is not laïcité.  As much as I am a devotee of Channel 4, I think on this occasion their liberal slant (which I usually lap up) may have played a role in both the reporting and translation.

Whether these translations involve English, Arabic or other languages, given social sensitivities and political tensions, I do wonder the extent to which these mistranslations are triggered by some sort of unconscious bias. Seeing this in the Channel 4 report has made me wonder about my own.

Vignettes on Learning

From our present day tribulations – pandemic, climate change and the populism that has made both worse, along with creating a more unstable world – an underling theme emerges. In a word – education. Lack of education or deliberate blocks to education have played a role in creating these problems.

By education, I don’t mean only formal education, but also informal, those things that are systematically self-taught. At its most basic education is about the practice of learning in order to acquire knowledge and develop critical thinking skills. As conspiracy theories and bizarre twists of logic accumulate, knowledge and critical thinking appear to be in short supply.

*****

A friend asked me, ‘How was it going as a councillor?’ Like a lot of people, she was surprised that I even ran for the District Council. People see me as more of a political activist than a politician, more literature and language than government. I answered, ‘It’s okay. I’m learning things and I enjoy that.’

*****

Tara Westover’s brilliant autobiography Educated shows the power of learning and education. Growing up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho, Westover was home schooled in a limited way, a casual use of old textbooks and outside reading restricted to the Bible and the Book of Mormon.  She discovered that she had some musical talent and enjoyed performing in the local amateur drama group but knew that she wouldn’t be able to do anything with this talent without going to a college or university. One of her older brothers, a traitor to the family, had taught himself using SAT preparatory books and eventually ended up with a score sufficient enough for university. Tara followed suit, informally educating herself to pass the exam and start her formal education at Brigham Young University.

While this speaks to the power of informal education, it was formal education that proved to be life-changing. It not only exposed Westover to different ways of thinking outside of her family’s strict conservativism, oppression of women and paranoia about all government institutions, it also made her think differently at an emotional level. She realised that her dominating father was probably bipolar and that the physical and verbal abuse she had suffered at the hands of family members was wrong and reflected their sicknesses.  Being aware of her own learning, she describes reaching these insights: ‘I had begun to understand that we [she and her siblings] had lent our voices to a discourse whose sole purpose was to dehumanize and brutalize others—because nurturing that discourse was easier, because retaining power always feels like the way forward.’ 

*****

When I was in my twenties, I read Indries Shah’s Learning How to Learn. This primer of Sufism explores learning as a way of developing psychological well-being, an openness to the education of life.  He also flipped this idea on its head to show that there is a reciprocal relationship here – psychological well-being, to which I add emotional intelligence, enables us to learn.

*****

During the first Covid lockdown, I decided to enrol in a MOOC (massive open online course) in a field outside of the humanities disciplines that have shaped my professional life. The course was about bees and the environment. And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, I did it in French. I soon discovered that the words I didn’t know in French were nearly the same in English, such as apidae and anemogame. My next MOOC was called Les Racines des Mots Scientifiques – in French, where I learned mostly Greek.

A Women’s Election

It was only a week ago when the world saw the first signs that we were all soon to be freed from the worst president in US history, and one whose rancorous presence has been ubiquitous in mainstream and social media over these past four years. The collective relief is still palatable, some of us describing a visceral experience of feeling lighter, the tensions in our bodies unravelling.

Post-election news coverage ranges far and wide in focus and bias. Stories on the pathetic behaviours of the current president to the speculation of what a Biden presidency will mean have been straddled alongside analyses of the voting tendency of each demographic. For all of that, I think not enough has been said about this election in terms of the role of women. As of 11 November (before all of the votes have been ratified) 53% of voters were women, the same as the 2016 presidential election. But the difference this time is that among these women voters 57% of them voted for Biden/Harris, or to phrase that another way – against Tr**p. In 2016, with a woman presidential candidate, the Democrats only managed 54% of the women’s vote. This difference is more significant still if one considers the higher voter turnout and that millions more women participated and voted against the misogynist-in-chief.

To emphasise this point, I quote from CNN’s Dean Obeidallah:

‘To me the biggest thanks go to the women of America. You gave us hope with the original Women’s March in 2017 the day after Trump’s inauguration. There’s clearly a straight line that runs from that march to the election of Kamala Harris as the first female vice president.’

Unfortunately, other members of the media have treated Harris’s win as a story for the fashion pages instead of the news analysis typically given to male politicians. The most notorious so far (and others will follow) came from the Daily Telegraph, who decided to give their Kamala Harris profile piece to the fashion editor.  Their Twitter headline of the resulting article says it all: “Why Kamala Harris is the modern beauty icon the world needs.”

Many have been outraged by this, rightly noting the sexist undertones. Yet, I don’t think it’s as straightforward as that. Those who criticise the fashion take on the new VP do so in part because they do not take fashion reporting, with a predominately female target audience, as seriously as they do other types of reporting. This point was drummed home this past week when I attended an online panel discussion hosted by the Society of Women Writers and Journalist. There, Helen Lewis, journalist and former deputy editor of The New Statesman, compared football journalism to fashion journalism. While both cover huge, profitable industries, football writing is regarded as ‘authentic’ and fashion writing as ‘frivolous.’

Helen Lewis

Even though the double standards in how women politicians are treated by the media are almost too obvious for discussion, most stories land into a fuzzy feminist zone. Example: The London Times had Kamala Harris in their Times2 section, which houses entertainment, health advice and my beloved puzzles. Their piece was about the white power suit being worn by powerful women. Fashion and politics collided and I found myself not being appalled as powerful women were being showcased. Perhaps such examples reflect the ambiguity liberal society has towards women in politics. That said, I’m still relishing the victory of last week.

Election Day 2020

With fears of election-day violence, America has joined corrupt and disreputable countries around the world. Thank you, Mr President – this is on your watch.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that this presidential election might be the most important one of our lifetimes. How so? I’ve narrowed this down to two reasons, both of which have been touted by political pundits, newspaper columnists and the like. This is my take in the context of the films and books that influence my thinking.

Reason 1 – democracy is at stake. Over the past four years, the world has watched a wannabe autocrat in the Whitehouse fight against the institutions of American governance and the freedom of the press. Among the many examples of this, what first comes to mind are Tr**p’s public criticisms of the FBI, the CIA and most recently and most alarmingly the Centers for Disease Control. Michael Lewis’s The Fifth Risk has been one of several books to expose of the Tr**p transition team and the way this president set up his antigovernmental administration, a  heady mix of inexperienced individuals and those with a grudge against certain branches of government.

And the media has had it worse. On top of frequent references to the media as ‘fake’ and ‘public enemies,’ let’s not forget the many instances of reporters being targeted and arrested while trying to report on demonstrations. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Netflix has recently produced The Chicago Seven, about the kangaroo trial of seven anti-war protesters during the Democratic National Convention in 1968. From aggressive policing to an openly racist and bias judicial system, echoes of Tr**p’s treatment of the media resound.

Reason 2 – the planet is at stake. Not only has the 45th president of the US started the process of pulling America out of the Paris Climate Accord, he’s a supporter of the fossil fuel industry, a climate change denier and has reversed over one hundred acts of legislation by the EPA during Obama’s presidency. A couple of good books I’ve read recently that cover this president’s treatment of the environment include Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine and David Wallace-Well’s The Uninhabitable Earth.

There is perhaps a third reason why this is such an important election. But I’ve changed my mind a few times about the real importance of this. Okay, here goes. America’s reputation is at stake. As I would like to see a more balanced world, with a more equitable distribution of wealth, the US doesn’t need to keep its position as an economic superpower. I would be even happier still if it were not a military superpower. Despite these misgivings, I’d like to see America retain some of its influence in the world as a source for good. (Hard to imagine at times, I know. Sorry if I sound like Jimmy Stewart in Mr Smith Goes to Washington.) Voting Tr**p back into office is at the very least condoning criminality at the highest level of government. With all of the noise and distractions to come from this Whitehouse, it’s easy to forget that Tr**p was impeached by The House of Representatives for trying to bribe a foreign government. Even Tr**p’s lawyers admitted that this is what he did, but argued to the Senate that this was not an impeachable offence. There is also the matter of Tr**p’s tax records, the cases of fraud against his businesses and the allegations of sexual harassment and abuse.  A Tr**p win tonight (or tomorrow, depending on your time zone) tells the rest of the world that America wants to be represented by a man clearly unfit for the job, in addition to of course his being a vulgarian, a defender of white supremacists, an habitual liar… I’ll stop myself there – you’ve heard it all before.

I’ve realised that I’ve only made reference to non-fiction books and a film based on true events. Let’s not forget the importance of fiction and poetry at times like this. I’ll close with a quote within a quote from Emily Nemens, the editor of the Paris Review, commenting yesterday on election eve: ‘As Manuel Puig put it, “I like to re-create reality in order to understand it better.” May we all understand the world a bit better once this week is through.’

Surviving Political Conventions

While it would be a stretch to say I found the US Democratic convention inspiring,  what is more important is that I – and millions of others – found the Republican convention laughable and ludicrous in its touting of flagrant falsehoods and scientifically improbable promises.

It’s easy to assume that this divide in style between these two political conventions has been brought on by the character of Tr**p, but there has long been some of this distinction between the two parties. Robert Reich, recently wrote in The Guardian: ‘The Democratic party is basically a governing party, organized around developing and implementing public policies. The Republican party has become an attack party, organized around developing and implementing political vitriol. Democrats legislate. Republicans fulminate.’

While I agree with this, the Democrats’ convention replaced a lot of their typical policy speak with some battle talk. This time the Democrats appeared to have followed the advice of Churchill who once said, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ While I hesitate to call the coronavirus pandemic a ‘good’ crisis, it’s a crisis, which has laid bare the failures of populist-led governments across the world. Many of the speakers at the Democrats’ convention highlighted Tr**p’s disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Other crises where brought into the mix, reminding people that this president pulled America out of the Paris Climate agreement and continues to create division through racist immigration policies and support of institutional racism in America’s police forces. True, these points against the Tr**p Party (formerly the Republican Party) have been said countless times before but often embedded in the jokey monologues of Steven Colbert, Seth Meyers and the like or in the sarcasm of news columnists both sides of the Atlantic. It was refreshing to hear these criticisms in measured tones without the laughs (these are serious issues after all) from Democratic politicians and dignitaries, one after the other, showing signs of unity. I was also pleased – and like many breathed a sigh of relief – when it was all over and Joe Biden had not committed any lapsus linguae.

Speaking of language, the Tr**p Party convention produced more than its share of linguistic wonders. Here are just a couple of my favourites. Senator Tim Scott warned that Biden and Harris will turn America into a ‘socialist utopia.’ Clearly the senator doesn’t understand that utopias are good things. Coming from the Greek ou, meaning not, and topos, meaning place, utopia literally means ‘no place’ and by extension, thanks to Sir Thomas More who might be spinning in his sepulchre, means ‘an ideal place.’

In the final speech of the convention, the tweeter in chief accepted his party’s nomination by saying, ‘I profoundly accept this nomination.’ His speech writers must have known that Tr**p, the self-described ‘stable genius,’ could not humbly accept anything. Other high collocates for the word accept, include graciously and gladly, neither of which suits the fiery tongue of this presidential vulgarian. Having thrown out these other words, I imagine the speech writers going for a presidentially serious tone and following a thesaurus thread from serious to deep, ending up at profound. At least they had the grammatical wherewithal to add an –ly to make profound an adverb even if the resulting phrase – like this president – makes little sense.

Time for UBI and re-examining humanity

In some ways, it’s already happening. Governments struggling with mounting unemployment and near economic collapse are giving money out – no strings attached. This is one of the underlying principles of Universal Basic Income (UBI). Thanks to Covid-19, with needs on such a large scale, governments have realised that it is more cost efficient to give money to companies and individuals rather than means testing or trying to facilitate how the money is spent.

Yes, dear follower, I have written about this before. That was an introduction to UBI (for me as much as anyone). A lot has happened since that blog. In America, UBI has been gaining ground thanks to Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid. In the UK, the coronavirus lockdown has Britain’s Conservative government acting like socialists by doling out public aid. But in Britain, few people (George Monbiot among them, on Twitter) are seeing this massive government assistance programme as being akin to UBI. Is it that a pandemic has happened to people by no fault of their own, whereas unemployment and poverty is somehow deserved and a different – and unacceptable – form of government aid?

I’ve been reading Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There, which is loaded with examples of UBI principles being applied successfully in communities going back to the 1970s as a way to eradicate poverty. These examples support Bregman’s attacks on common presumptions about poverty and individuals in need. Time and time again, these case studies show that giving poor people (including the homeless) money to do with as they please results in their using the money to feed, clothe and shelter themselves. And this is accomplished at a fraction of the cost of government welfare and unemployment programmes.

These points are as much social as they are economic and typical of writing on UBI. What I particularly enjoyed about Bregman’s book is that he looks at the bigger picture and asks why we humans place such importance on work. To state the obvious for a second, work is important because it’s linked to money – which is why women’s unpaid work, such as raising children and caring for the elderly, is not valued as work. This is a worn argument. Bregman goes a step further, pointing out that certain types of work are valued because they are ‘productive.’ Anyone who has taken up art, music or creative writing has had to fend off hints of being lazy and accusations of not doing anything really productive. I wish now that when I was in my teens and early 20s I had Bregman’s ideas at hand. He explains, “Productivity is for robots. Humans excel at wasting time, experimenting, playing, creating, and exploring.” If the pandemic lockdown has shown us anything, it is the human capacity to experiment and create when given the time.

Bregman’s book came out a few years ago. Since then we have seen more worrying signs of the damage brought on by climate change at the same time that the world is confronted with a deadly virus that has pushed millions into unemployment. This might be the opportunity to not only implement UBI, but to also create jobs in green energies and readjust our thinking about what it means to be human.

Unfriending in the time of Tr**p

For the first time in my Facebook life, I’ve unfriended someone because of their politics. I didn’t do this easily. I tolerated this old school friend’s comments about Democrat Congresswomen Maxine Waters and Nancy Pelosi as being ‘unhinged’ after they rightly (in my opinion) attacked Tr**p on several counts. Of course, the current US president is far from ‘unhinged’ – a ‘stable genius,’ to use his own words. In this case, my tolerance was enabled by my enjoyment of irony.

I also overlooked this now former friend’s lambasting ‘crazy liberals’ for wanting to knock down a statue of Abraham Lincoln. I agreed – that does sound crazy, and it would have been if it were true. In that case, I forgave my old classmate for being misinformed and posting this falsehood on Facebook in error. Mistakes happen.

What finally tipped me over the polite Facebook friendship line was my friend’s commentary on Tr**p’s 4th of July ceremony at Mt Rushmore. During his speech, Tr**p announced, ‘I am here as your President to proclaim, before the country and before the world, this monument will never be desecrated,’ even though there is no movement intent on desecrating the mountain sculpture. America’s most infamous president slid his way down more slippery slope arguments with, ‘Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children.’ But that wasn’t enough. This orange president added, ‘In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.’ (These are just some highlights – the full speech can be found at the US government website)

On Facebook, my high school friend posted a photo Tr**p at Rushmore with the caption that it was a ‘great speech,’ the president’s ‘best speech ever’ and advised his friends to ignore what they’ve been hearing in the ‘lying left media.’ Saying that this was a great speech, if I’m generous, is a matter of opinion. Advising people that reports on this speech are lies because most of them questioned the veracity and reasoning behind the president’s bizarre comments is simply wrong. In democracies, reporters scrutinise the comments and proclamations of their leaders. I welcome the media outlets that are constantly fact-checking the current US president.

Back to Facebook. After a Tr**p supporter agreed with my friend about the Mt Rushmore speech, the friend replied, ‘Yeah, Trump loves America. Obama hated America.’ Even though it is hard to imagine that Tr**p loves anyone or anything aside from himself, I don’t doubt that in his own way this US president – or any president, including Obama – loves his country.

It was clear that this ‘friend’ was actively engaging in propaganda. I kick myself as I should have seen this with his posting about the Lincoln statue. That was no mistake. I was being taken for a fool. I went to my list of friends, found this old school friend and I clicked on ‘unfriend.’

I can only hope that others reacted the way that I did or at the very least have seen these postings for what they are. I’m reminded of a famous Mark Twain comment: ‘It’s easier to fool people than convince them that they have been fooled.’

Of course, the person I should really unfriend is Mark Zuckerberg. While I don’t literally follow him on Facebook, using his platform does make me a friend of sorts. As plenty of pundits have pointed out, Facebook’s practices could help Tr**p to get re-elected. After all, Facebook sold its algorithms to political campaigns helping to get Trump elected the first time and played a part in the outcome of the UK referendum on the EU. In a recent article on Facebook, investigative journalist supremo Carole Cadwalladr explains how Facebook is dangerous for democracy. After suggesting that if Facebook were a country, it would be like North Korea, Cadwalladr clarifies, ‘Zuckerberg is not Kim Jong-un. He’s much, much more powerful.’

Facebook 2
Carole Cadwalladr

Another Guardian writer, Rashad Robinson notes that not only did Facebook contribute to Tr**p’s election victory in 2016, ‘in 2020, Facebook’s indulgent and laissez-faire policies have already enabled hateful harassment, rampant misinformation and disinformation, and the suppression of Black organizers.’ After investigating Facebook’s content policies, Robinson concludes that ‘the rules are often so vague as to even allow for someone as clumsy as Trump to weave right through them.’

Having said of all this, I don’t see myself leaving Facebook. Not yet. This powerful form of communication is the only way I can participate in certain writers’ groups and in groups dedicated to political and social activism and (ironically) understanding. During this Covid-19 lockdown, Facebook has provided a forum for people in my town of Ely to share vital information and to help out their neighbours. It also enables me to keep in touch with friends, relatives, former colleagues and students across the world – people who don’t use email or write letters. Quitting Facebook would be akin to saying that I’m no longer going to allow any post to come through my letterbox. Even though the internet has reduced the amount of post I get, it still comes in and I still need to deal with at least some of it. Like the post I receive, a lot of what is on Facebook can be ignored.

By unfriending my Tr**p supporting old school friend, I’ve taken it a step further. I’m not only ignoring what is being sent, I’m telling the postal courier to not bother delivering anything from this person to my door. This act of defiance might seem small against the colossus that is Mark Zuckerberg’s empire, but it is satisfying. Moreover, it reduces my traffic on Facebook. I know that I’m not the only one doing this when confronted by these right-wing propagandists. And that too, I find gratifying.