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It’s election day

A battered, faded and slightly wonky UK goes to the polls today, with the incumbent party dogged by scandal and ‘rotted through with individually minor corruptions, increasingly detached from the nation it governed, seemingly on the verge of final collapse’. Even The Sun, never shy about regurgitating Conservative talking points, couldn’t bring itself to back them.

As we tune in this evening to watch the results, we’ll witness the peculiarly British spectacle of election winners surrounded by defeated novelty candidates in outlandish costumes, only one of which will be called Jacob Rees-Mogg.

We also have to listen to a lot of blowhards making outlandish claims about the result. In the aftermath of the 2019 election, Donald Trump promised ‘a massive new Trade Deal’ between the UK and USA but couldn’t deliver it; Sir Ed Davey called the end of Nicola Sturgeon’s 2019 campaign ‘not very dignified’, before he spent most of the 2024 campaign deliberately falling in lakes; and the received wisdom among most political commentators on election night was that the Tory ’80-strong majority could be big enough to repel Labour’s next advance in five years’. Ho hum.

But not all of the commentary is nonsense. In the aftermath of the 2019 election, The Guardian’s view was that ‘Mr Johnson has won a great victory. But his problems are only just beginning.’

We couldn’t know at the time how salient that observation was. One suspects that the same will be true for tomorrow’s occupant of 10 Downing Street.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , , .

Surrendering a mug

I was tickled this week when I noticed that Donald Trump’s supporters were selling merchandise with his mugshot on it, with the text “never surrender”. The juxtaposition of a photograph of someone taken as part of the process of surrendering with an exhortation never to do so was simply too much.

But then I came to understand that the Trump campaign itself was selling this merchandise… and it became a lot less amusing.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

They cried wolf

Yesterday, I felt sad as I read Tom Nichols’s response to the indictment of Donald Trump in The Atlantic Daily, particularly the following parts.

The rest of us, as a nation but also as individuals, can no longer indulge the pretense that Trump is just another Republican candidate, that supporting Donald Trump is just another political choice, and that agreeing with Trump’s attacks on our democracy is just a difference of opinion.

We can no longer merely roll our eyes when an annoying uncle rhapsodizes about stolen elections. We should not gently ask our parents if perhaps we might change the channel from Fox during dinner. We are not obligated to gingerly change the subject when an old friend goes on about “Demonrats” or the dire national-security implications around Hunter Biden’s genitalia. Enough of all this; we can love our friends and our family and our neighbors without accepting their terms of debate. To support Trump is to support sedition and violence, and we must be willing to speak this truth not only to power but to our fellow citizens.

Every American citizen who cares about the Constitution should affirm, without hesitation, that any form of association with Trump is reprehensible, that each of us will draw moral conclusions about anyone who continues to support him, and that these conclusions will guide both our political and our personal choices.

This is painful advice to give and to follow. No one, including me, wants to lose friends or chill valued relationships over so small a man as Trump. But our democracy is about to go into legal and electoral battle for its own survival. If we don’t speak up—to one another, as well as to the media and to our elected officials—and Trump defeats us all by regaining power and making a mockery of American democracy, then we’ll all have lost a lot more than a few friendships.

Firstly, how can it possibly be that one of the tied favourites to win the next US Presidential election can be someone involved in a conspiracy which contemplated deploying the American military against its own people? How the hell did we end up here? How did the US elect someone like that in the first place? Why isn’t the idea of re-electing that person unthinkable? What does this mean for the future of the USA? What does this mean for the future of democracy?

Secondly, should we really be worried? Democracy and the constitution passed the stiff test posed by Donald Trump the last time; ought we not to be confident that the same tactics will fail a second time? Should we really be that threatened by someone contemplating something awful, but deciding not to do it? Isn’t the outcome more important than the contemplation? Is Trump really a threat to democracy, or is he just a very naughty boy?

Thirdly, isn’t it depressing that the ‘threat to democracy’ that Nichols cites has become such a common refrain? Not from Nichols, not even really from The Atlantic, but from—well—everywhere? The New York Times has used the phrase 590 times. The Times of London has used it 155 times. Even the bloody Financial Times has used it 216 times. Some of these uses are legitimate references others are not. Even as long ago as 2006, the transfer of ownership of ITV was called a “threat to democracy”—it wasn’t one. There’s no space left to amp up the rhetoric. Rage sells, and anger drives online engagement. The media hit peak rage too soon. The papers have cried ‘wolf’ once too often. And it means that if and when there’s a real threat to democracy, the rage and anger and language is just the same as when the threat was little more than tepid air. We need the reasonable voices, the ones willing to say “there’s nothing to see here”, “this isn’t a crisis”, and “it’s more complicated than that”—but they’re drowned out, because calm rationality is boring.

Fourthly, does the failure of journalism explain the failure of democracy? Can democracy survive without reliable information? Or in an environment where reliable information is drowned out by hysterics? And is there any route to improving any of this in the current environment? Or are we in a complete spiral of doom?

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, , , .

Maybe someday you’ll have the ocean

It was Luke O’Neil’s Hell World that first drew my attention to a particular section of a speech recently given by Donald Trump in Las Vegas:

And remember, Florida’s easier than other places. You have the ocean and you have the sun. There’s something about that that works. But, you have the sun, too, but you don’t have the ocean. I can tell. You definitely don’t have the ocean. Maybe someday you’ll have the ocean, you never know.

I haven’t heard how Trump delivered the line, but like O’Neil, I think there’s something appallingly poetic about “maybe someday you’ll have the ocean”.

The phrase carries a sense of wistfulness and longing, offering the promise of something near-impossible. It feels hopeful and oddly aspirational, almost like a rallying cry issued by a general facing impossible odds.

Yet, beneath the surface, this line alludes to climate change—a scenario entailing incalculable human suffering, inevitable societal collapse, and the almost certain demise of the majority of the people he’s addressing.

In its dreadful, chilling brevity, the phrase encapsulates so much about our times. It is a horrifyingly poignant—yet perhaps entirely unintentional—reflection of the modern world.

It is one for the ages.

The image at the top of this post was generated by Midjourney.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

31 things I learned in July 2020

1: I knew a little about Milton Glaser, but I didn’t know how prolific he was.

2: Priority postboxes, for return of completed home swabs for COVID-19, have appeared as if overnight. Or at least, stickers which designate existing post boxes which are already emptied later in the day as “priority post boxes”.


3: Finland’s air force stopped using a swastika in its logo three and a half years ago, and no-one really noticed until now.

4: “These trying months have shown us a government and a prime minister of unique incompetence, deceitful and panicky, often inattentive to essential business (remember those five Cobra meetings that Johnson bunked), and incapable of pursuing a steady policy for more than five minutes. Yet when we emerge from the epidemic, we will be faced with the same government and the same prime minister and the same government demanding more powers, more central control.”

5: I’ve read quite a lot about Concorde over the years and the one parked up in Manchester is still on my “to visit” list. I’ve never read anything that got quite as closely into the financial side of the project as this 2002 article by Francis Spufford which I dredged up today.

6: In one of life’s stranger coincidences, after a few years of using Android phones, I bought my first iPhone since the 4S today—then realised that it is ten years to the day after I wrote about switching to the iPhone the first time round.

7: A mobile phone game can be a surprisingly powerful emotional experience.

8: Goats have rectangular pupils.

9: Someone wasn’t allowed on my bus today because they weren’t wearing a face covering: so I’ve learned that the rules are now being enforced.

10: “Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Hart regards it as a historical tragedy that the early church evolved into an institution of secular power and social domination, too often reinforced by an elaborate mythology of perdition based on the scantest scriptural hints and metaphors. The fear of damnation can serve as a potent means of social control.”

11: Torontonians are without their water fountains during the current heatwave.

12: I learned only recently that it is expected behaviour—and, in some cases, a school rule—for children to make their own way to school from around the age of five in Switzerland. The Swiss government’s response to a five year old being fined last year for travelling on a bus without a ticket is heartwarming sensible: to make public transport free for young children, with the side-effect of further cementing this approach to school transport.

13: Commercial analogue radio is to continue for a further decade (at least).

14: There’s a feeling of change in the air. Yesterday, I felt hopeful that covid-19 may be bringing to an end this brief era of populism: it seemed plausible that the crisis might sweep away the bombast of Trump, Johnson and Bolsanaro in favour of quieter competence. In the UK, witness the poll rating of Sunak and Starmer as examples of senior politicians who can both think and communicate clearly. Today, The New Yorker’s historical review had reminded me that things are rarely so straightforward: things can get worse as well as better.

15: “Andrew Lloyd Webber has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Donald Trump” sounds like the setup for a particularly corny joke, but it turns out that it’s the news these days.

16: We’re at a curious point in the Government’s response to covid-19. The official advice on gov.uk remains “stay at home as much as possible” yet the Government is running a major advertising campaign to convince everyone to do exactly the opposite, presumably for economic reasons.

17: One of the scariest charts I’ve seen in relation to covid-19 in the UK so far:

18: “When the inquiry does begin, the primary target for the Johnson government’s ire is already clear: PHE. One health service official predicted it would be ‘toast’ after the inquiry. One minister says: ‘We haven’t blamed Public Health England — yet.’”

19: “When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 per cent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.”

20: “Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, delivered its message to the assembly. He spoke perkily, as if everything in his country was under control. In fact Britain is the country which, given its relative wealth and long warning time, has failed most grievously to protect its people against the first onslaught of the virus. Its failure lay primarily in its neglect of the low-tech, low-cost, labour-intensive public health methods and community mobilisation that successfully prevented disease in low-income countries: universal lockdowns, self-isolation, masking, quarantine and tracing – by people, not apps – of all those whom sick people have been in contact with. Yet in his short video message Hancock was speaking the old language of Americans and Europeans, coming up with a tech solution – in this case, a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist – to the world’s problems. ‘I’m proud that the UK is leading this work,’ he said, ‘that we’re the biggest donor to the global effort to find a vaccine, and that UK research efforts are leading the way.’ Hancock’s wasn’t the only speech at the assembly to prompt the thought that before there can be solidarity, a little humility would help.”

21: This Psyche documentary following actors at The National Theatre in the hour before they go on stage is fascinating.

22: I learned more about the history of Nespresso. I am a heavy Nespresso drinker. I do at least make sure all of my pods are recycled.

23: “Answering emails is hard, and no matter how fancy your email app, that email isn’t going to write itself. There’s no tool smart enough to cure human stupidity, so maybe we should stop looking for it.”

24: Victorian Britain’s relationship with the seaside was complicated.

25: I think I use singular “they” without really thinking about it: it’s not a point of grammar I can get worked up about. I hadn’t previously clocked this common usage: “How do you complete the following sentence: ‘Everyone misplaces ____ keys’? There is no way to do so that is both uncontroversially grammatical and generally liked. Most people, even those who as a rule don’t like it, will be pulled towards the singular ‘they’: ‘Everyone misplaces their keys.’ The problem with ‘their’ is that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. ‘Their’ is fine on the first count, because ‘everyone’ is genderless, but fails on the second, since ‘everyone’ is grammatically speaking singular, and ‘they’ is plural.”

26: Meditation is probably associated with a lower prevalence of cardiovascular risks (at least according to this one limited study). All of my psychiatrist friends meditate themselves and tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread, in much the same was as endocrinologists tend to talk about Vitamin D supplementation. I wonder what public health people are reputed to bang on about?

27: Satire may have finally been killed off. “Boris Johnson has today unveiled plans to curb junk food promotional deals as part of a new government obesity strategy triggered by the pandemic” just seven days before the start of “a government subsidy to offer people 50% off meals in fast food restaurants.”

28: From Walter Isaacson’s outstanding biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I have learned that Leonardo described the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve in 1510, but it didn’t start to gain mainstream currency among cardiologists until Bellhouse’s work confirmed the description in the 1960s.

29: The decline of the landline is changing literary fiction.

30: The teasmade has been reinvented. It doesn’t look like the one my grandparents used to have beside their bed: the new version is much uglier.

31: Unorthodox was a great miniseries.

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