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.’

Reflections on Senghor

This is not in honour of Black History Month, which, like Women’s History Month, we wouldn’t need if the rest of the year weren’t full of White Men’s History months.

I’ve recently discovered the Senegalese poet, scholar and statesman, Léopold Sédar Senghor, who was Senegal’s first president (1960-80) following French colonial rule.

It’s hard to sum up a poet’s style, but what draws me to Senghor’s oeuvre are the rhythms of this work and his metaphors with quirky comparisons. From his ‘Femme Noire’ (translated from French):

Black woman, obscure woman           

Oil that no breath ruffles, calm oil on the flanks of the athlete, on the flanks of the princes of Mali

Gazelle with celestial ties, the beads are stars on the night of your skin.

A more straightforward piece of his writing, which I’m told is learned by every French schoolchild, needs to be read in full (translated from French):

Poème à mon frère blanc

When I was born, I was black;

When I grew up, I was black;

When I’m in the sun, I’m black;

When I’m sick, I’m black;

When I die, I’ll be black…

While you white man,

When you were born, you were pink;

When you grew up, you were white;

When you’re in the sun, you’re red;

When you’re cold, you’re blue;

When you’re scared, you’re green;

When you’re sick, you’re yellow;

When you die, you will be grey…

So, of the two of us,

Who is the man of colour??

Feel free to consider this blog entry as a contributor to Black History Month if you must, but my original intention was to provide an antidote to the bombastic and inarticulate language of the current US president and the current UK prime minister. This is the point when I hark back on a time when some national leaders possessed intellectual curiosity and lyrical expression.

Boyd’s Any Human Heart

Again, I’m a bit late coming to a modern classic, which is odd as I’ve enjoyed so many of William Boyd’s novels (such as A Good Man in Africa and Armadillo)  and essays about literature, and I had the pleasure of hearing him give a talk about his writing. I should have been up on this years ago.

Forgive me if you’re already familiar with this story – it was, after all, made into a miniseries for Channel 4 in the UK and won a few Emmys when it appeared in the US in 2010. In the original book, the story is told through the journals of Logan Mountstuart, following his life as a chronicler of the twentieth century Anglo-European and American experience.  As an avid journal writer, I could identify with the use of journals to not only record one’s life, but to better understand oneself. Logan writes, ‘We keep a journal to entrap that collection of selves that forms us, the individual human being.’ Humorous in their raw honesty about sexuality and human weaknesses, these journal entries reflect the eclectic prose style of Logan, who is a reviewer of art and a war correspondent along with being an author of fiction and non-fiction.

With some degree of notoriety, Logan finds himself hobnobbing with Ian Fleming, Hemingway, Picasso, Evelyn Waugh and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. This latter encounter grows into a friendship of sorts during the war when Logan finds himself working for the UK intelligence services. For those of you who enjoy unsolved murders, Boyd gives us another interpretation of the famous murder of Sir Harry Oakes in Nassau in 1943 when the Duke of Windsor was governor there. Boyd wrote for The Guardian about his fascination with this true-life mystery and the poetic license taken when embedding it into his novel.

This book also presents an acute self-awareness that lifts this story away from being merely about its espionage plotlines and celebrity characters. For this reader, the most poignant of Logan’s realisations occurs later in life, acknowledging what he brought on himself, such as failed relationships, mixed into a life of happenstance. From my teenage years well through to my twenties I believed that I was responsible for all that happened to me. Bad things that happened were my own fault as I had somehow ‘projected’ them. Realising the roles played by society (especially for women) and twists of fate (with no obvious cause or agent), I have expunged this warped new-age thinking from my life. My conclusions are now similar to Logan Mountstuart’s – life is a mélange of what we bring to it and what is thrown at us – good or bad.

Even though I came to Any Human Heart rather late, its ideas, in their universality, still apply. A sign of a worthwhile read.

European Language Day

Yesterday marked the seventeenth year of European Language Day, first started by the EU and the Council of Europe to promote language diversity across the continent. There are some 200 languages spoken in Europe. If this figure seems a bit high, it’s because it includes some 60 regional and minority languages, such as Manx (the Celtic language spoken on the Isle of Man),  Aragonese (a Romance language spoken in the Pyrenees region of Spain) and Maltese (a Semitic language based on Sicilian Arabic).

I’ve been studying foreign languages since I was about seven and fortunate to be placed in French classes in my primary school – a state school no less. Classes only met once a week, and I can’t say that I learned much as we mostly played games and sang folk and Christmas songs. Yet, there were things that I absorbed then which I still draw from today, retaining the original childhood context like a backdrop to a stage. In addition to French, over the years, I’ve studied Italian (naturally) and Spanish and have dipped into Danish, Korean and Arabic. Much to my shame, I can’t say that I’m fluent in any of these languages, being more of a theoretical English language linguist than a polyglot.

European Language Day is one of these awareness days which is about encouraging people to study European languages and to celebrate the diversity of languages and cultures across Europe. At first glance, this appears innocuous – and perhaps it was five years ago. But with Brexit and the rise of populism, xenophobic rhetoric has been empowered and multiculturalism and world citizenship have been relegated to being little more than liberal snowflake ideas.

Having said this, I’m encouraged by today’s vote in Switzerland to retain free movement between their country and the EU. A welcomed nationalists’ defeat.

I’m also hopeful that interest in foreign languages, and therefore other cultures, will not succumb to populist trends thanks to the Corona Virus. This pandemic has been a boon to language learning apps, such as Duolingo, Babel and my personal favourite Memrise. Although the way governments, as in the UK and the US, have handle the pandemic has sharpened the divide between rich and poor and between competing countries, the lockdown pastime of language learning could in its own subtle ways lead us towards more unity and cultural tolerance.

On that positive note – and arguably a snowdrift of wokeness – bonne soirée, buona serata…

Divine Decadence

Every five years or so, I watch it again. I never seem to tire of it. Each viewing is like the pencil scratching on a door frame that indicate a child growing.

When Cabaret first came out, I was a ten-year-old, self-proclaimed connoisseur of 40s and 50s movie musicals. In those days, I liked Cabaret for its burlesque sketches and music, inspired by the rhythms of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. I was old enough to understand bisexuality and I knew about World War II, though perhaps both in superficial ways. Those plotlines were distractions from the cabaret performances. I so wanted to be in an adult world where people could sing and dance in a Bob Fosse style with slouched shoulders.

A few years later, this became a film about open sexuality and debauchery, the lifeblood of any teenager. I had discovered David Bowie and glam rock. Women having sex with men who are just friends and men having sex with each other were exciting and liberating after the constraints of a Disney childhood. Though set in the 30s, Cabaret’s sexual triangle of Sally, Brian and Max, seemed of the moment. As for the pop-rock of my teens, Cabaret may not have been of that musical genre, but Sally Bowles’ green-painted finger nails, men in make-up and cross-dressing fitted well into that milieu. The film, like my daydreams and aspirations, was in the words of Sally, ‘divine decadence.’

As an older teen starting university, I came across Christopher Isherwood’s 1939 novel Goodbye to Berlin. In both novel and film Sally is flamboyant and self-absorbed. But in the novel she’s British and doesn’t have a very good singing voice – certainly, no Liza Minnelli – nor does she have a sexual relationship with Brian, who is only interested in men. The first adaptation of the original novel was actually a stage play version in 1951, I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, followed by the stage musical in 1966 called Cabaret, written by Joe Masteroff. I could understand an obligation to a musical-loving audience to have more than a mediocre voice leading the story. But somewhere between the stage play and the musical, Brian was given a bout of heterosexuality. My beloved musical, the main form of my childhood entertainment, had let me down. Unlike theatre and pop culture, the musical was still promoting the world of boy-meets-girl. I had to reconcile myself with the novel and the film being two different sources of pleasure – something I would do the rest of my life with any film adaptation.

At university I encountered my first arthouse film and those became my new cinematic addiction. With its montages juxtaposing violence with musical glee, its tableau-like pan shots and subtle moments of foreshadowing, Cabaret in my reckoning was a film d’auteur that went mainstream. I still feel that way today, even if the awe of discovery has evaporated.

While I grew up in the anti-establishment 60s, critical of the US government and the Vietnam War, the Second World War was still regarded as an indisputable holy war – bad guys and good guys clearly delineated. In the Kit Kat Club, the world isn’t so black and white. The Nazis, Hitler and the Jews are all equally the butt of jokes. Younger, I saw this as part of the amusement of the film, but by my early thirties, Cabaret, full of political and social contradictions and nuance became a revisionist history.  

In mid-life, I find myself watching Cabaret with a sense of nostalgia for the 1970s. Though it was set in the 1930s, I saw it through the lens of the 1970s – a film that could include a woman having an abortion without being about the moral rights or wrongs of abortion. During the 1980s, the US went backwards. With President Reagan and The Moral Majority, abortion rights became highly politicized and still are today. That ten-year-old staring at the large screen in the 70s naively thought she was living in a society that was becoming more liberal with time.

After so many viewings, I don’t need to watch the film to think about it. Today, I’m thinking about one of the most iconic scenes of the film. Travelling by car, Max and Brian stop for a drink at a traditional biergarten. A young man in Nazi uniform starts singing ‘tomorrow belongs to me.’ Soon he is joined by the other beer garden patrons, except for one old man. The young people sing robustly, full of enthusiasm. To a modern film audience, knowing about the war that follows, this scene is poignant and chilling.

It’s hard to watch Cabaret today without thinking about the rise of the far right in countries like the US and Britain. I see myself like the old man in the beer garden, bewildered and out of sorts with it all.

He, Lord Cromwell

Of the Hilary Mantel trilogy, the first book is still my favourite, but now only by a whisker, having just finished The Mirror and the Light.  Of course, Wolf Hall has the advantage of being the first, the freshness of introducing the world of the text. Some might object to my ranking of these books, something film critics do all the time when faced with sequels, but it’s worth pointing out that the first film in a series is often the best received – notable exceptions including Godfather 2 and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Thinking about all three books in this way is useful from a writer’s perspective. While all three were immensely satisfying to read, I was less taken by the second book, Bring up the Bodies, mainly because I found it a bit soapy. Its main story was the demise of Anne Boleyn, her affairs – real and created by others. This second novel covers the shortest period of time of the trilogy, the king’s 3-year marriage to Boleyn, and was still a hefty tome. The pacing may have suffered. Wolf Hall takes us from Thomas Cromwell’s childhood through his stint as a soldier and working for Cardinal Wolsey up to his time as counsel to Henry VIII to the end of the king’s first marriage. The Mirror and the Light starts in the immediate aftermath of Anne’s beheading and continues through his brief marriages to Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves. Over these four years, we follow Cromwell’s illustrious career expanding with ever new and important titles, while dealing with the lingering presence of the beheaded queen, the fraught interval between the king’s marriages, the religious revolts across the country and the rising clashes with the pope and other powers in Europe. This final novel also gives the impression of covering a greater time span in its references to persons and events from the earlier books.

Like the first two instalments, The Mirror and the Light uses the same dry sense of humour that comes out in the observations of the ridiculous self-serving characters and the system of aristocracy and the caustic wit of Thomas Cromwell. The anti-hero’s wry sense of irony and gift with language comes out not only when he speaks, but also in his internal dialogue (mostly free indirect thought, for you literary stylisticians).

On the topic of language, this is the highlight of reading anything by Mantel. While there are many quotable gems from The Mirror and the Light, I’ll share with you a couple of examples.

‘But the law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction that will help us move past atrocious acts and face our future. It seems there is no mercy in this world, but a kind of haphazard justice: men pay for crimes, but not necessarily their own.’

On a lighter note, one of the chapters opens with this:

‘”My lord?” a boy says. “A gravedigger is here.” He looks up from his papers. “Tell him to come back for me in ten years.’” 

If this were a film review, I’ve just given you some clips, coming attractions that don’t give anything away. Staying with the analogy, let’s talk awards and prizes. Although The Mirror and the Light is well-deserving of a Booker Prize, Mantel already has her Bookers for the first two of the trilogy. Like Oscars, sometimes, it’s not about bestowing prizes on the best, but allowing others to win. 

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.

Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight

Having read The English Patient many years ago, I approached Ondaatje’s Warlight with an expectation of escapism, but not in the sense of escaping to mysterious places or futuristic backdrops. Quite the opposite. Warlight is set during the second world war and in the decade or so following it, periods of time much exploited by writers. Living in England, I’ve seen so many war films, series and documentaries on British television, it seems to be one of my remembered past lives. With this familiarity, I was gripped in the world of home front secret services and their accomplices drawn from some of the seedier elements of society.

This comfortable escapism also came about as it is set mostly in Suffolk, a county which shares part of its border with Cambridgeshire, where I live, and extends on to the North Sea coast. The villages and the coastline even today hold a feeling of remoteness embedded in the past. During the war, this coastal area was under constant fear of attack by the Germans, and while they were being secretly patrol by residents, the road signs had been removed in order to confuse any invading forces. I cannot imagine the sense of solidarity it must have brought to the local population, a shared purpose which the UK, even in the time of Covid-19 is lacking. While neighbours and friends are helping each other, the constant controversy over the easing and re-establishing of lockdown and the inconsistent messaging have stripped away any national unity. Perhaps Britain in the time of Warlight has filled a void for this reader.

The narrator in this story, Nathaniel, was 14-years old at the time his parents left him and his sister so that they could continue their work for the British government in Singapore. It is through his perspective that we experience these years and the emotions of being left in the care of their domestic servant and his group of criminal associates. Their activities appear to be in one line of work, but Nathaniel discovers later they were something else altogether, involving the defence of the home front. When his mother reappears, he is on the verge of becoming a young man and she is unwilling to reveal what she was doing for the government or the circumstances surrounding her now estranged husband. With some difficulty and amateur detective work, Nathaniel puts together some of the pieces of his mother’s life with what he has learned about the other characters.

Ondaatje gives his narrator the means to reflect on his ability to create these stories. He explains to the reader, ‘I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth. In retrospect the grains of sand had always been there.’

A great deal has been written in linguistics about how we create and present stories, both fictional and real. Reading this book, I was reminded of these constructs and the power of stories in our personal lives. They are not just about communicating ideas or entertaining a listener or reader. As Nathaniel explains, ‘We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken.’ For a casual summer read, this was escapism, but for this linguist, Warlight proved to be much more.

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.