Still Fighting

It’s easy to give up on politics and politicians. In a sense, that’s what has already happened. Around this time last year, many people in Britain, fed up with austerity measures and unemployment, decided not to engage in politics. They didn’t listen to cogent arguments or evidence. Instead they joined a movement of emotions and voted to leave the EU. Likewise, in America people, fed up with grid-locked legislation and the paralysis of their personal finances, also decided not to engage in politics. They either joined a similar movement of emotions or they didn’t vote at all. The result, as we all know, was Trump. I don’t mean to oversimplify these events – we all know that racism and sexism play their parts as well.

As a consequence of these electoral debacles, many people have been energised into political action. Online protests, petitions, marches, rallies and media-generated debates have erupted on a scale not experienced in my lifetime. But now the wind seems to be changing. Following the recent UK General Election, where a hard-Brexit government lost its majority, there is talk from politicians and in the media of a much toned-down Brexit, possibly keeping the UK in the single market and/or the customs union (among other things).

I went to a Pro-EU rally this past weekend, marking the one-year anniversary of the vote to leave the EU. It pains me to report that this rally was poorly attended.  Maybe some 300 people were there.  I wonder if this slight change in the air, this post-election awareness, has made people complacent. Do they believe that it will all work out for the best? That a hard Brexit or the economic downturn from any type of Brexit will never happen?  If they aren’t complacent in their thoughts, perhaps people were suffering from a bit of protest-march fatigue or were simply enjoying the beautiful weather that sunny Saturday afternoon.Cambridge 2nd march 1.jpg

As for me, I’m still in the fight. For those out there who don’t know me, on a personal level I don’t have much of a fighting spirit. I’ll argue to a point, but as soon as I realise that I’m overpowered or that my opposition is mentally/psychologically ill, I back off. I realise that there is no point wasting energy or keeping myself in a victim position. Of course, it’s easy to feel overpowered by political movements and governments. But then I remind myself that I’m empowered as a taxpayer and a voter and that participating in protests is a step out of the victim position. Wasting energy? I don’t think so. But I have to admit that it can be tiring. The opposition knows this too. I think it’s important that they (the Brexit and Trump supporters) do not wear us down.

 

Leadership – Part 1

The results of last week’s General Election in the UK leaving us with a hung parliament are in large part the result of a paucity of leadership in the main political parties. Jeremy Corbyn, though credited with running a good campaign, still did not get the most votes.  He has spurred divisions in his party and regularly vacillates on his and his party’s position on Brexit – the central issue of the election and Britain’s economic future. Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May have both blatantly placed party politics above the people they represent. Sturgeon’s threats of another Scottish referendum while Scotland is failing under the weight of its own economic and social problems are hardly inspiring. May tried to sell herself as leader of the nation in a muddled campaign that never addressed the welfare of the nation or how Brexit was going to be realised and implemented or what it would mean for individuals and their communities. The LibDem’s Tim Farron, who has done the right thing by stepping down, committed the classic error of not leading by example – he may have voted in favour of gay rights and reproductive rights for women, but doesn’t personally support these rights and actively supports a church that condemns them.

This has left me wondering about what makes a good leader. People often point to Churchill as an example of a great leader. He may have been a very good leader, taking his people through difficult times. But he was the man for the moment and one who got wrapped up in the cult of his own celebrity. Napolean’s leadership has left historians divided for centuries, and I won’t go into all of that here – note the title, this is a topic I’ll return to. My point here is that it’s hard to find a so-called great leader who wasn’t at the same time highly flawed as a leader.Leadership 1C

As I write this piece, news and analysis are unfolding about the causes of the Grenfell Tower fire. Among the analyses was this comment in this morning’s Guardian editorial:  ‘Leadership requires courage, imagination and empathy.’ The article goes on to point out how May has failed as a leader in the aftermath of the tragedy. This too is an example of the idea of good leadership being apparent by its absence.

One of the most important books that I’ve ever read and one that I dip into from time to time is John Heider’s The Tao of Leadership, an adaptation of Lao Tzu’s teachings. Though published in 1985, I first read it in the early 90s when I was in a miserable job situation which ended so nastily, it put my academic career on hold for years. I soon realised that this book’s true value is in being not so much about leadership, but being about living in harmony with others. It made me understand the failings of the leaders around me and to see myself as a leader in my own ways. In brief, leadership is a role that we all play at different points in our lives. It’s not exclusive to the manager, the director, the team leader – leadership is about service to others.

With this in mind, I close on a quote from Heider which PM May and other political leaders could benefit from:

The wise leader is like water. Consider water: water cleanses and refreshes all creatures without distinction and without judgment; water freely and fearlessly goes deep beneath the surface of things; water is fluid and responsive; water follows the law freely. Consider the leader: the leader works in any setting without complaint, with any person or issue that comes on the floor; the leader acts so that all will benefit and serves well regardless of the rate of pay; the leader speaks simply and honestly and intervenes in order to shed light and create harmony. From watching the movements of water, the leader has learned that in action, timing is everything. Like water, the leader is yielding. Because the leader does not push, the group does not resent or resist.’

Leadership 1B

Tautology is Tautology

PM Theresa May does like her tautologies. First it was ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and now ‘Enough is enough.’ In semantics such expressions are treated as p →p. In pragmatics, where context comes in, it’s p →p ~>p (that is, saying p →p implies something greater than just p). But I can’t say this is the case with May’s use of this rhetorical device.

‘Brexit means Brexit’ was rightly criticised by many as being weak and uninformative as the public didn’t (and still don’t) know what Brexit means. In the months following this confusing declaration, the May government has hinted at a Brexit that would take the UK out of the single market altogether – the one thing that most of the country, including a portion who voted to leave the EU, don’t want. What else does Brexit mean? Leaving the EU will affect a large range of statutes and issues, which still haven’t been addressed by Theresa May. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ has become a blanket  to hide either the indecision and incompetence of those working on the Brexit project or to hide plans that would be unpopular with the electorate. Time will tell.

When I first heard May spouting out ‘Enough is enough’ in the aftermath of the latest terrorist attack to besiege the UK, I had a personal recollection of the last time I heard someone say that to me. It was actually in an email, so I hadn’t heard it, but I had heard the writer’s voice in my head. Without going into the unpleasant details of the long email thread, I was being attacked by someone with emotional and learning disabilities, who – being a relative – I felt obliged to respond to. My efforts to defend myself and clear the air were met with even more hostility and false accusations. My emails became shorter and shorter, saying that I wasn’t going to engage in this type of communication. And then it came – ‘Enough is enough!’ I was being scolded. The person who had scolded me had run out of things to say when she saw that I wasn’t sparring with her. I fear that Theresa May has reduced herself to this. Like my reaction to the relative scolding me, I find it amusing and a sign of weakness.

Have tautologies ever worked? First of all, I should say that I’m thinking of tautologies in the strictest sense. I’m excluding expressions such as Yogi Berra’s infamous ‘This is like déjà vu all over again.’ I would call that a redundant expression used by an inept speaker. For some, Hamlet’s  ‘I’m reading words, words, words’ is also a tautology – for me, it’s repetition that effectively avoids and mocks Polonius.  Yogi Berra is not saying ‘déjà vu is déjà vu’ and Hamlet is not saying ‘words mean words.’ With that aside, here are a couple of notable examples of tautologies that do work.  Sometimes I find myself saying  ‘It is what it is,’ perhaps much to others’ annoyance.  For me, it’s a polite way of saying that you can’t change the situation so stop trying.

And finally, there is ‘love is love.’ It was just about to become worn out, having been  the name of a Culture Club song and appearing on cheery posters, etc, when it was rescued by LGBT activists. This soft approach reminds those who are against gay rights that it all boils down to love. What kind of monster would be against that or argue with that? Of course, the monsters still exist, but the vast majority of people have come to accept gay rights. This has proved itself a meaningful and worthwhile tautology.

Patriarchy and Harari

In Y.N. Harari’s book Sapiens, the bestselling author addresses the question ‘What’s so good about men?’ That is, why is patriarchy the dominant form of political and social rule across the world and existing in societies that had no previous contact with one another?Sapiens

In answering this, he rightly points to the flaws in the three leading theories on patriarchy.  The most common theory, that men have more physical power than women, is criticised by noting that women are ‘generally more resistant to hunger, disease and fatigue than men,’ and history has shown us that those with more physical power tend to do more of the manual labour and that social and political power don’t require physical strength. The theory that men have come to dominate women because they are biologically more aggressive is also debunked by considering the fact that wars aren’t won by aggression alone. Many of the great world leaders, such as Julius Caesar, have been successful because of their ‘mildness and clemency.’ Here Harari also points out that if stereotypes are anything to go by, women are deemed to be better ‘manipulators and appeasers’ than men which you would think would make them more powerful in society. The other explanation that Harari mentions is the idea that over time male genes have become more ambitious and competitive while female genes have developed to become more submissive and dependent in order for her to raise children. It’s easy to punch holes in this one as certainly women could be dependent on other women, just borrowing men for their seeds. And there’s the fact that many aspects of raising children can be shared with men.

After all of this debating, Harari disappoints by simply saying that ‘we have no good answer.’ He goes on to acknowledge how women’s roles in Western society in particular have changed dramatically over the last century and claims to find it ‘bewildering’ that patriarchy continues.Women vote

This surprised me given his lengthy section on the Industrial Revolution. Certainly that has had an impact on women’s rights and roles. He seems to avoid the obvious, that the physical power theory held sway for some centuries, but that as our lives became less physically demanding, the playing field between men and women has levelled more. Leaving us with ‘why patriarchy still exists at all?’ What Harari fails to consider in this context (though he talks about it elsewhere) is the power of religious and social institutions, well established before the Industrial Revolution, that have put into place the ideas of male supremacy. Conservatism is a powerful tool . We’ve seen this play out over the past year in Britain and America, where people voted in favour of a time gone by. Women’s equality is another victim of this establishmentarian and illiberal thinking. Nothing ‘bewildering’ about these points.

‘The Will of the People’?

Since the Brexit vote, the phrase ‘the will of the people’ has been used not only by Brexiters, but more alarmingly by some of those who voted to remain in the EU. These people clearly have problems with basic maths. Only 37% of the electorate voted for the UK to leave the EU. Hardly the will of the people. If we looked to those who bothered to vote on 23rd June, then we can say that 54% of those voters were in favour of leaving the EU. A majority, yes, but still, not deserving of the nomenclature ‘the people.’ Moreover, this vote was on a simple in/out referendum. There are people who voted to leave the EU on the promise that the UK would remain in the single market. Others voted to leave on the promise of increased funding for our beleaguered National Health Service. Given the government’s insistence on a hard Brexit and the admissions that the NHS will not benefit from this process, the strength of the 54% vote is diminishing. It is less and less about ‘the people.’

So, why would anyone who voted to remain start using the phrase ‘the will of the people’? Those who immediately come to mind are Conservative politicians. At the parliamentary level, they’re standing behind their leaders, afraid perhaps to break ranks or just nurturing their own careers. But when this ‘will of the people’ phrase came up last night at a Mayoral Hustings in Ely, that was a more perplexing matter. The mayoral position covers Cambridgeshire, including Peterborough. Both Cambridge and Ely voted to remain, while Peterborough and the surrounding areas (Fenland) voted to leave. Yet, a few of the participants, including James Palmer, a Conservative Councillor, and the moderator, used the phrase ‘the will of the people’ as if it was the reason to support Brexit. No one else on stage objected to it or felt that it needed to be qualified.  Part of this could have been due to the limited time allocated to speakers. But I’m concerned that part of this shyness or perhaps compliance with such phrasing had to do with fear.ELy Cathedral hustings

Many of those who voted Brexit haven’t stopped campaigning. They’re all over the internet. Some are bullying. Their lapdogs are the tabloid press, whose barks persist and protect this angry mob. They can be scary. The normalising of the phrase ‘the will of the people’ by those who supported remaining in Europe for me is just another sign that the bullies have won. I remind myself and have perhaps said too often for those around me that Brexiters won the vote on the day, they haven’t won the argument.

Grey Wednesday

Some people are calling today ‘Black Wednesday’ as it’s the day Britain officially notifies Brussels of its intent to leave the EU. I was one of those people. But then, at an Ely for Europe meeting last week, when I suggested marking the day by wearing black, I was met with opposition. Nearly everyone else at our long pub table wanted to be positive about this. For them it was the start of the battle, a sense that at last things are happening. A valid point, but I still don’t see it as a cause for celebration. Nor am I convinced that there aren’t black days and months ahead.
After considering the matter, I’m settling for a grey Wednesday. I’m not saying that I feel neuLondon March 2017.jpgtral about this – somewhere between joyful white and mournful black. I’m using grey in the sense of unclear and murky. The extent to which we can retain useful ties to the EU are unknown and untested. Likewise, Britain’s relationship to the rest of the world, especially in the age of Trump and Putin, are beyond speculation. Most important of all, grey represents the storm cloud over Britain, a country left divided and angry over this referendum.

In my echo chamber

If I’ve learned one thing from the Brexit vote and the ascent of Trump, it’s that inside social media I live in my own echo chamber. Both events took me by surprise. While the mainstream media showed support from all sides in these contests, in Facebook and Twitter, I was seeing overwhelming support for remaining in the EU and strong arguments and jokes against Trump – though divided between supporting Saunders and Clinton.

Of course, in Facebook my ‘friends’ are mostly my former students and colleagues, fellow writers and a few friends who really are friends, in the sense of the word before Facebook. It is no surprise that educated and liberal would define this select group. On top of that, my Facebook interactions have been infiltrated by Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms, sending me postings from people and organisations which are not my friends, but are clearly like-minded – but sadly, not always accurate – I’ve stopped waiting for the ‘child-rape’ charges to be pressed against Trump.

Twitter is another matter. I started my Twitter account when I was still working in academia fulltime and used it as a way of furthering my own research. As a writer, I also follow other writers, certain publishing houses and publications, etc. In other words, I’ve been following loads of people I don’t know personally. Yet, many of these strangers were touting the same views as I was when it came to the Brexit and Trump. We retweet and like each other’s tweets. It could be argued that these people were indirectly hand-picked because they were likely to share the same views – after all, they’re academics or in creative fields.

Since the Brexit vote, in order to keep sane and to participate in the fight against a hard Brexit, I have deliberately started following political organisations, e.g. the Lib-Dems and Open Britain, for the latest news and information on protest marches and petitions. Hence, reinforcing the walls of my online echo chamber.

Offline, while my choice of friends keeps me contently among the like-minded, I also find myself in situations with people who are my political polar-opposites. In Nice, for instance, the expat community sometimes has me face-to-face with regular readers of The Daily Telegraph, which openly backed Brexit. Such encounters challenge me to show up prepared with statistics and references. I do my best, though probably to little or no effect.

At least with Trump’s win my online and offline worlds are not so different. I have not had to come face-to-face with any Trump supporter – I don’t know what I would say to one if I did. It would be like confronting someone who has joined a cult – they have chosen to believe the unbelievable and they are clearly nurturing a need that places them beyond reason.

Yet, my offline world – and my online world outside of social media – with news programmes and newspapers, keep me informed about what others are thinking – the polemics of the debates. The walls of my echo chamber might be strong, but they do have windows.

Women’s March – Nice

In truth, the march had been cancelled. Following the terrorist’s attack in Nice only some seven months ago, the city had decided not to give a permit to the women’s march yesterday. Some of us didn’t know about this. Others knew and were defiant. Unfortunately, others stayed at home or went to marches in Marseille or Montepelier. In the end we had about 100 protesters, mostly from America and Britain, but also from France, Holland, Turkey and South Africa. That was enough to gather around the statue of Apollo, take photos of each other and send them to Twitter and Facebook before heading out to march along the Promenade des Anglais up to the Negresco and then back on the other side of the street to return to Place Massena. This was naturally followed by political banter in nearby brasseries and cafes.

This march may have been on a small scale, but as it was linked in ideology and spirit to marches around the world, especially the one in Washington, it was a big deal. The women I spoke to felt it necessary to be there. When someone as devisive and aggressive to the world and insulting and hateful towards women as Donald Trump emerges, the only choice is to fight back. I hope I never lose my own sense of connectedness to the world and willingness to fight when confronted – even from miles away – by such a menace.

On the eve of the Trump era

Let’s be honest. None of us knows exactly what’s going to happen once Donald Trump becomes president. As he’s never held public office, there’s nothing to go on. We don’t know if he can manage governmental institutions, though his management of his businesses and of his transistion team are far from exemplary. We also don’t know what underlies his thinking. His dealings with international relations even as a president-elect show his propensity to offend American allies while praising those who have been hostile toward the US. He chose to run on the Republican ticket, but on social issues, he’s not touting family values like a Republican, and his proposal to fund infrastructure comes straight out of the Democratic tradition of public spending. While some of his ideology may have surfaced with his cabinet picks of businessmen, climate-change deniers and army generals, if their confirmation hearings are anything to go by, their views are often at odds with Trump’s campaign proposals and promises.

The only thing that remains consistent and visible for all to see has been Trump’s character. He is bombastic, thin-skinned and untruthful. He has expressed opinions that are clearly racist, misogynistic and against freedom of the press. Whatever his policies may turn out to be, he has already embarrassed America by coming this far.

I’m writinblackg this now perhaps as a place-marker, noting my own awareness of a time before the Trump era started. America has been far from perfect in my lifetime, and my decision many years ago to emigrate from her shores is one that I’ve never regretted. But now, I fear the country that is so internationally influencial is at the beginning of its own Dark Age and might take the rest of us along with her. While some of my Facebook friends are changing their profile pictures tomorrow to one of the departing president and his family, I have chosen a picture of darkness to represent the many things we don’t know about this new presidency and darkness for what we do know about this new president.