The Unbearable Brezhnevianess of Putin

April 2, 2022

Picture the following scenario: a leader of Russia has been in situ for circa two decades.  He is credited with leveraging higher oil prices into increased living standards for his people.  This leader has clamped down, stamping out any green shoots of dissent.  Critics of the regime are forced to go abroad or languish in the prison system.  Politics are ossified; this is presented as stability.  An American observer likens this leader’s regime to Tammany Hall and refers to the system he has built as “boss-ism” with the leader at the apex of the pyramid. 

America has been shaken by internal dissension after a Republican President left office under a cloud. A long-term conflict has ended in what has been perceived as a defeat. A recently elected Democrat President is viewed as somewhat weak.  It’s a time of high inflation.  This Russian leader thinks he and his ideology is winning.  At this moment, the Russian leader in question decides to institute regime change in a neighbour to make it more to his liking. What follows is a war that earns international opprobrium and begins an unwinnable conflict against a foe whose populace hates the Russians with a passion.

These events, which so well align to the present day, describes the position of the Soviet Union during the 1970s under the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev.

A Forgotten Time

The Brezhnev epoch may be the most under-studied episode in Russian history.  It’s relatively straightforward to get biographies of Lenin.  Works about Stalin exist in abundance.  Khrushchev was the subject of a magisterial biography by William Taubman.  Gorbachev is also well represented.  However, given that Brezhnev oversaw the USSR for 18 years, it seems odd that there is so little published about him.  The comparison of Brezhnev to Tammany Hall politicians came from the American writer John Dornberg in his 1974 tome.  Another prominent biography of the man in English (“Brezhnev: the Making of a Statesman”) wasn’t released until 2021.

Perhaps scholars are repelled by the man’s pomposity: he awarded himself the Hero of the Soviet Union medal four times.  He was similarly generous towards himself with awards of the Order of Lenin and the Order of the October Revolution. In total, he had 114 medals.

Perhaps he has been dismissed because he represented a time of ossification: few things symbolised this “set in aspic” quality better than the Lada car.  Based on the Fiat 124, which was first introduced in 1966, the Lada changed only marginally over time.  A 1980’s Muscovite was forced to drive a vehicle that belonged to two decades before.

Perhaps he also has been forgotten because of his policy failures: he set in train the war in Afghanistan, which shed the blood of Soviet youth for no good end.  It should have embedded a lesson in Russia’s collective consciousness: don’t invade a country full of people who hate you, no matter how small and less powerful they may seem.

Maybe he also has been memory-holed because he and his regime created a culture that led to catastrophes like the Chernobyl disaster: it was a nervous, fragile order that prioritised comfortable lies, such as about the safety of RBMK nuclear reactors, over difficult truths.  Yes, there were problems with the design of the reactor at Chernobyl, the targets of the Five-Year Plan were a nonsense, and falsehoods had become endemic.  Trying to untangle the lies, as Gorbachev did, was a contributing factor to the Soviet Union’s collapse.

And now Putin

If we look at Putin today, it’s not difficult to see how he has emulated Brezhnev, though this is likely unconscious on his part.  He too is afflicted with self-love to an unhealthy degree: witness his willingness to be pictured with his shirt off.  Under his reign, the pop group “Poyushchie vmeste” released a song called “A Man like Putin”, a shameless cult-of-personality work.

Putin let Russia ossify, perhaps on purpose.  For example, despite Russia having many fine scientific minds, he has not been able to leverage brainpower into wealth.  There is no Russian equivalent to IBM or Apple.  Its closest equivalent to Facebook, VK, was taken over by the state in December 2021 and its CEO was forced to step down.

Putin may regard creativity as dangerous: it says much that the recent wave of Russians that have left the country are likely among its most skilled.  The BBC reported on March 13 that some 200,000 have fled, including “tech industry professionals who can work remotely”.  Creativity, however, is the main means by which developed countries create growth.

Furthermore, the Ukraine invasion has shown up the comfortable lies that presently surround him: he believed that it would be a blitzkrieg and Ukraine, led by a “comedian” president would crumble.  However, Putin’s army was less strong than it appeared: it has been reported the Russian Army’s vehicles are not well maintained, conscripts were sent into battle without knowing why, the column outside Kyiv stalled, then was strafed, and punished by the superior technology given to the Ukrainians.  The “comedian” president turned out to be, as one Ukrainian social media video stated, an “Iron Joker”.

Look at Putin again: see him seated at his overly large tables, his face puffed out for reasons which can only be speculated (Botox? Steroids?), his fearful cabinet, hesitant and frightened to contradict him.  Like Brezhnev, Putin’s kingdom rests on brittle glass.  Like Brezhnev, he has miscalculated, and he may be suffering from a lack of accurate information. The supply of falsehoods may buy the advisors another day out of prison, but only prolongs the agony.

The End

Brezhnev’s term ended because his body failed him: by the end of the 1970’s, it was clear he had suffered a series of strokes.  According to the British historian Dominic Sandbrook, resuscitation equipment was kept with him to keep him going perhaps longer than he would have otherwise.

How will Putin fall?  There is speculation that he has Parkinson’s; however, this is mere conjecture.  Perhaps he will be “retired” in much the same way Khrushchev was in 1964: the Politburo in effect fired him, and Khrushchev was subsequently kept out of the public eye, dying in 1971. 

Perhaps Putin’s departure from office will be more dramatic; like Brezhnev, he has set in motion the same elements that eventually caused the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Perhaps the most vital presage of eventual ruin is the lack of truth: a well-informed regime would attack neither Afghanistan nor Ukraine, it would not prioritise lies.  Lies have a way of collapsing in a dramatic fashion, as they did at the end of the Soviet period.  It is merely a question of when they crumble, not if.

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The Age of Fetishist Disavowal

August 1, 2020

Every so often, I get emails from America which give me an insight into what is going on in the minds of Trump supporters. The latest in this series is entitled “Rowboat for You”.

The email’s title is based upon an old parable in which a someone trapped by a flood is passed by a series of rowboats. The protagonist refuses them, saying God will save him. He eventually drowns, and then in the afterlife asks God why He never came. God replies that He sent those rowboats, what did the man want?

This long and rather tediously written screed suggests that Trump is the “rowboat” in this instance. It suggests that he is the only life preserver which will help America float against the tide of radical leftism which will destroy the country. I had difficulty picturing Biden in a Che Guevara pose, but nevertheless, this was the stance the author of this email was taking. Biden, and those around him, represent a fundamental threat to America’s way of life and its “Judeo-Christian Values”. This election, apparently, is America’s last chance to save itself. I have heard this before: I heard it in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004, and so on. Substitute “Bill Clinton” or “Barack Obama” for “Biden” and it reads much the same.

The author initially admits that Trump makes him cringe. He confesses that Trump often says daft things. However, he also states that Trump is a “fighter” and a “patriot”. It then goes on to denounce the virtue of niceness, saying that Romney, Paul Ryan, et al were “nice” and “gentlemanly” and it didn’t get them anywhere. It even suggests that God isn’t always nice, look at World War 2. We needed “vicious SOBs” like George Patton to win it, apparently. Indeed, Trump is not just a “rowboat”, he is a “battleship”.

I am certain that this email circulated to a mainly white, middle class and definitely male audience. I am sure that many were nodding their heads in agreement with the text. They say to themselves: why, life isn’t nice. Trump is coarse, but he represents my values. We need to take the lifeboat and give him a second term; maybe the Democrats will wake up and become Republicans. Make America Great Again, despite it being brought low by the man in charge and his party.

This more than delusional email is perhaps the most egregious recent example of what’s called “Fetishist Disavowal” – a state which be summarised by saying, “I know very well but”. I know very well that Trump is crude and awful and a dreadful human being and not an avatar of Christian values, but he is the rowboat. Or battleship. He will protect my way of life, they say to themselves.

As this example suggests, Fetishist Disavowal is a cop out, an excuse. Previous political examples include Brexit. Many MPs know the truth, it will hurt the economy, damage Britain’s prospects and its standing in the world. I know very well, but….I have to do what Nigel Farage says because Brexit supporters might vote against me. Or worse.

The release from the coronavirus lockdown is another example. We know very well that a premature ending of lockdown will kill people, but….we have to re-open the economy. Or we have to send children back to school. Or these people would die anyway due to co-morbidities. Anything, just so we don’t actually have to look at the fact that an economy that can’t adjust to a global pandemic and allow lives to be saved is one that is deeply flawed.

The failure to tackle climate change is also another example. We know very well that climate change is the biggest issue facing the planet, but…we don’t want to increase unemployment. We don’t want to face into the costs of decarbonising the economy. We don’t want stop eating meat. We would rather be deluded than have a future.

If there is a commonality between all these examples, it is its reliance on conspiracy theorists, reality deniers, and keyboard warriors with Caps Lock firmly stuck in the “On” position to spread them. More perniciously and significantly, it offers a reason not to do what is right.

Yes, the more intellectually stunted may not know very well; but there is a significant portion which does know better. However, there is always that “but”. It is a very big “but” indeed: it allows the strictest of fundamentalist Christians to justify to themselves voting for a serial adulterer who had an affair with a porn star, or grants them excuses for continuing to destroy God’s good Earth.

Trump is not some sort of “battleship” or “rowboat”. He is not a patriot; as his current and former wives can attest, his only loyalty is to himself. Everything else is secondary. He is also not some sort of fighter just because he is rude to journalists. When he was called to serve his country, he developed bone spurs. He cannot withstand the tiniest pinpricks to his ego; he lashes out at anyone who dares suggest that he is doing anything other than winning or is anything less than superb. He even went so far as to denounce Fox News for questioning him recently, and expressed his sadness that Roger Ailes, a serial sex abuser, was no longer running the channel.

Trump’s Cabinet, full of intellectual pygmies unable to do anything other than flatter and abase themselves, is testament to his weakness. The author of the email should know this. It would not take much examination to see it. He may know very well, but….

I am not suggesting enthusiasm for Joe Biden is warranted. I’ve stated this election is a choice between “Argh” and “Meh”. Having said that, it is also a decision about whether or not we want to continue to indulge in fetishist disavowal. We know very well but…can we not linger in dreams longer, in which science is unimportant, and reality can’t touch us? The problem is, the dawn always comes, and with it, reality. We can either face into it, or be crushed by it once we can hide from it no longer.

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Val or Tammy

June 13, 2020

I used to work in political communications; I was a volunteer. I wrote articles, campaigns, press releases, even an MP’s Maiden Speech. I took a step back from that in recent years, but nevertheless, I am still keenly interested in it. I have stood for the Labour Party as a candidate; by and large, I support the Democrats in America. The frustration both parties have given me is similar to watching a beloved relative consistently having accidents because they weren’t watching where they were going.

I was frustrated with the Labour campaign in 2019, because there were too many policy pronouncements for the voters to absorb. It contrasted poorly with the simplicity of the Tory message of “Get Brexit Done”. The Tory message was a lie, of course, but it was memorable. The Tories tapped into the country’s boredom and frustration with the Brexit process. It worked. Certainly, reality has proven to be far more messy, but that’s a worry that the Conservatives can postpone until 2024.

From afar, I see the Democrats standing on the end of the proverbial rake in the yard and getting whacked in the face by the handle. The ads from the Democrats so far are far less effective than those put out by never-Trump Republicans like those at the Lincoln Project. The Lincoln Project has been scoring direct hits, showing Trump’s alignment to symbols of the racist Confederacy, and how far he is from the ideal President. Some ads contrast Trump to Lincoln and General Mattis: Trump looks like a self-involved, incoherent psychopath in comparison. I fully expect the Lincoln Project to keep drawing blood. But where are the Democrats?

I suggest that Biden needs to be more the President than the President is. There have been some signs of this: the serious speeches, the calls for unity, even standing at a podium with American flags, all suggest that he is a return to respectability and sanity. However, he will need to step this up; in my opinion, he should assemble a “Shadow Cabinet”, appoint people who will be ready to take charge from the moment he becomes President. These appointments could become an opportunity for him to contrast positively to the inept advisors around Trump.

There is one choice that Biden must make soon: he has to pick a running mate. Indications presently are that he will pick Senator Kamala Harris of California. I believe this could be an unforced error.

I will begin by stating that I like Senator Harris. I think she has a highly engaging personality and has strong credentials. However, she is from California; this is a state that Biden has in his column anyway. Furthermore, “California” is likely to be a millstone hung around the neck of any candidate who is going to the Midwest. With Pence in tow, Trump has someone from that area to counter.

Given this, I believe that Biden has two potential choices: Rep. Val Demings of Florida and Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois.

Senator Duckworth was in the Army Reserve; she served as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War. She had two of her legs blown off when her helicopter was hit by a rocket propelled grenade fired by Iraqi insurgents. When she retired from the Illinois National Guard in 2014, she had the rank of lieutenant colonel. Her education credentials are impressive: she has a PhD in Human Services from Capella University which she earned in 2015. Among other things, she was honoured by the Daughters of the American Revolution; her father’s lineage goes all the way back to that time.

It would be incredibly difficult for Trump and Pence to take the line of “duty, honour, country” with Lt. Col. Duckworth as the VP. Pence would look like a shadow of a patriot compared to Duckworth’s sacrifice, he doesn’t nearly have her credentials. It’s highly likely she would make mincemeat out of him on the debate stage. It would be a move to wrap the Democratic ticket in the Star Spangled Banner. One of the few institutions that inspires any trust any longer is the military; Duckworth has served, Trump and Pence did not. Who knows what it is like to sacrifice for the country? Furthermore, Duckworth is Midwestern and thus the “coastal elite” label in her case makes no sense.

An alternative candidate, who apparently is already being vetted, is Rep. Val Demings of Florida. Rep. Demings has not been in Congress for long: she only began there in 2017. Prior to this, she was the Police Chief of Orlando, Florida. She has served in the police for 27 years. It is this service which may very well be suited to our present day. If there is someone whom Biden could tap immediately to oversee police reform, it would be her. She could put forward detailed policy proposals; these would be far more informed by practical experience than anything Trump and Pence have to offer. Again, I believe she would make mincemeat of Pence, particularly when discussing the current issues that trouble the nation. Furthermore, Demings is from Florida: while this is also Trump’s present home state, Demings may stimulate more Floridians to come out and vote Democratic.

Again, suggesting these two candidates is no slight on any others. Stacey Abrams did the near impossible in Georgia. Kamala Harris is engaging, bright and has a great future in politics. Both should be included in a Biden Administration; perhaps both should be offered positions in a Biden “Shadow Cabinet”.

However, campaigns are like prolonged conflicts; you try to bring to bear your strengths against your opponents weaknesses. Trump’s main weakness is simple: he is a phony. He has hugged the flag but has never sacrificed for it. He appeals to patriotism but has never done anything that doesn’t indicate love for himself first. He says “America First” but the biggest gainers from his malign reign have been America’s enemies. Biden can use the talents within his party to highlight that Trump is a fake in every respect. I hope for the sake of the world that he does so.

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The Era of Missed Opportunities

June 1, 2020

It could have been very simple.  Boris Johnson could have sacked Dominic Cummings as soon as he had evidence that his special advisor had broken lockdown rules.  Johnson would have strengthened his authority by the move: he could have come out to brief the press, stared at the camera, and looked straight down the lens with a clear gaze.  He could have said, “The rules apply to everyone, no matter what their role is within this government.  It is clear that Mr. Cummings broke the spirit if not the letter of those rules, therefore there is no place for him here.  I have relieved him of his duties with immediate effect.”

The tabloids would have cheered.  The Daily Mail, no doubt, would have run a headline calling him the “Iron Prime Minister”.  The Daily Express would have used the adjective “steely” in relation to him and praised his fairness and resolve.  The Daily Telegraph would have made up some editorial praising the return of strong, authoritative government.  The Times would have also run some piece on the refreshing change that the coronavirus had wrought in Johnson, suggesting that he had risen to the role which he had sought for so long.

Of course, nothing of the kind occurred. Our government is the most simultaneously fearful and privileged since Louis XVI worried about the sans-culottes busting down the door of his palace.  Dominic Cummings’ behaviour echoes Louis XIV: “L’etat c’est moi”.  Let the sans-culottes sit on a Tube train wearing a thin mask or crouch in a Lewisham bedsit.  He would not be denied his trip to his father’s Durham estate, nor be prevented from taking his wife to a beauty spot for her birthday. 

It could have been simple in America too.  The Governor of Minnesota, the Mayor of Minneapolis, could have reacted instantly to the murder of George Floyd by the police.  They could have reassured the public that this isn’t right and would be put right immediately.  They could have sacked the 4 officers involved in the incident at speed.  President Trump could have stayed out of it; lest his voice add to the din.  Has these officials been more responsive and responsible, perhaps the wildfires of reaction to police brutality would not have burned as ferociously.

It could also have been straightforward in India too.  Rather than allow members of his party blame Muslims for the pandemic, Prime Minister Modi could have said that the coronavirus has highlighted that no matter one’s faith, we are all equal in the eyes of God, and we are just as susceptible to nature’s wrath as each other.  Such rhetoric could have united his fragmented country and strengthened his government.

China too is guilty of making things more complicated than they should have done.  The authorities have shown some level of repentance by making the doctor who initially raised the alarm about the coronavirus something of a public martyr and a hero of the state.  But what mechanisms are now in place to ensure that such a hero is never maltreated again?  And what is the point of cracking down on Hong Kong now?  Populists in America and elsewhere are looking to blame China for the coronavirus: tightening the screw on students demanding freedom only pours more petrol on the flames.

Brazil is now experiencing the depths of the pandemic.  Rather than supposedly prioritise the economy over effectively dealing with the coronavirus, President Bolsonaro could have realised that the health of the people and the health of the economy are linked.  He could have demanded a quick lockdown like New Zealand did, and spared his people the death and turmoil that they are presently experiencing.

In short, this is an era of missed opportunities.  These nations all provide potent examples.  In addition, we as individuals are apparently not learning the lessons proffered by the pandemic.  We should have come to the realisation that humanity is frail and vulnerable.  One virus can knock our global trading system flat.  One virus can wreck public finances.  One virus can force us to isolate from those we love.  One virus can alter our destiny in the blink of an eye.  Does this make us more cautious?  It doesn’t appear to have done so, if the crowds on beaches are anything to judge by.

We should also take this opportunity to look at the damage we have wrought on our planet.  Because of lockdown, the skies in some cities are clearer than they have been for a very long time.  In this all too brief pause in humanity’s attempt at ecological suicide, wild animals have retaken territory, we can hear birdsong which was once drowned out by traffic.  The canals of Venice have cleared and the swans have returned.  The air we breathe is purer and our carbon emissions have temporarily collapsed; even the dreams many of us have experienced are more vivid than they were before, perhaps it is a by-product of sleeping in silence.

However, we are on a quest to return to “normal”; lest we forget, the “normal” we seek was no paradise.  We apparently were so busy with “business as usual” that the stillness that thought requires couldn’t find us.  Perhaps that’s the most dangerous element of this period, at least from the perspective of those in power.  There is time for us to think; there is time to contemplate the depths of incompetence of those in power.

Whether we are ready for it or not, lockdown is ending.  Some schoolchildren in the United Kingdom returned to class today.  Car dealerships have re-opened: should we wish to spew more pollution into the atmosphere, the tools to do so are available for purchase or lease.  Soon stores which have previously been classed as “non-essential” will re-open, making available things that we didn’t apparently need all that much.  The din of modern life will resume, increasing in volume until it drowns out thought again. Once more the birdsong which has been the feature of lockdown mornings will be drowned out by honking horns and traffic congestion.

If we are fortunate, however, we will be forever changed by what we’ve experienced these past few months. The blatant incompetence of the authorities should be crystal clear by now.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll demand and get change.

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Talking About White Privilege

May 25, 2020

Before I begin this piece, I will add a disclaimer. I am a white person in my late 40’s. I have grown up in a white neighbourhood. There were people from a broad variety of backgrounds in my school, but these tended to be the exception rather than the rule. Although I lived in big metro areas, specifically, just outside New York City and inside London, my experience of these places was cosseted by my upbringing.

When I mention “white privilege”, no doubt, a lot of people who have a similar background to me will be tempted to say, “What privilege? Life is hard!” When one looks at some of the poorer locales in the West, this privilege can seem like not much of a benefit. There are places where the majority of residents are just as white as I am and are wracked with misery and unemployment, domestic violence, and despair . When I talk about “white privilege” and “white supremacy”, it is not to minimise the suffering that occurs there.

White privilege manifests itself in the strength of headwinds which blow back against the individual. For example, a young white man recently did the following experiment: he went out running. He was carrying a television set. No one stopped him. Furthermore, he claimed people waved to him and smiled. Ahmaud Aubery, an African American man, went jogging without a television under his arm: he was shot and killed by a retired police officer and his son. It took a great deal of pressure on Georgia’s state government for the case to be treated as a homicide. Therein we see the privilege: the assumption made by passersby was that the white jogger had a legitimate reason to be running with a television; Mr. Aubery was assumed to be up to no good. This prejudice was reflected in the authorities’ inaction. Expand this premise out and you can see why there have been so many cases of African Americans dying in police custody.

Other headwinds are economic. One effect of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s time in office was to expand home ownership. Agencies were set up to facilitate mortgage lending. However some areas were deemed too risky; this practice was known as “red lining”. Red lining directly disadvantaged African American communities. Without home ownership, it was much more difficult for minority communities to build up wealth. Sub-prime mortgages eventually appeared: but these were granted on the assumption that those who took them out would pay higher rates of interest. When this premise collapsed after 2007, so did the financial markets.

Another headwind is cultural. I live in Britain; I speak with an American accent. The most I can expect is to be teased about not pronouncing “battery” or “aluminium” correctly. If an African American speaks in their accent in the United States, they can often expect to be told to “speak proper English”, as if the way they speak is something to be eliminated.

None of this is to say that the life of every white person is particularly blessed. The son of a coal miner in the wilds of West Virginia may find it difficult to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their school may be of limited value. They may find that good paying jobs aren’t available. Nevertheless, the headwinds they face into are generally less: they can go for a run and not fear that they may get shot and that the perpetrator won’t be prosecuted. They can see a police officer and not worry about being misinterpreted. They can apply for jobs and not wonder if they ought to use a different name to get to the top of the pile of resumes.

White privilege continues white supremacy; we would like to think it’s a relic of the past. For example, Léon Rom, pictured at the beginning of this article, was a colonial official in what was once known as the Belgian Congo. The Belgian Congo was a result of perhaps the most egregious exercise in white supremacy, the so-called “Scramble for Africa”, which occurred in the late 19th century. European powers decided to divide up an entire continent without consulting anyone who lived there. Belgium, thanks to the diplomatic manoeuvres of King Leopold II, managed to get a giant slice of central Africa: he looted the so-called “Congo Free State” for rubber and ivory, which was collected with slave labour. Leopold regarded this as the natural order of things; he went so far as to regard himself as the Congo’s “proprietor”. Rom was one of the many agents Leopold sent to gather the loot. In his spare time, Rom collected butterflies; he painted. In some respects, he was cultured. However, he also kept severed heads of Africans in his garden as a warning. He wrote a book about African customs which was racist, pompous, and dismissive. He saw nothing wrong with this. He saw this as the natural order of things.

Rom has been by and large forgotten, except as a possible model for Kurtz in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. We’d like to think we’re beyond this; we’re embarrassed by racist caricatures and want to be politically correct. The average Belgian sees their life as hard and doesn’t look up and notice that many of the grand edifices in Brussels and Antwerp were paid for out of the slavery and misery of others. The double L symbol of Leopold II still adorns public buildings; the magnificent palace Leopold built at Laeken still stands, the Belgian Royal Family lives there. 60 years after Belgians quit the Congo, the Belgians benefit from white privilege though they may not know it. We all do: some people may be reading this via a mobile phone. Many of the rare earths and materials used in its construction come from the Congo, and those who gather them are paid a pittance. Not to do so would ensure their starvation. This is not much different to the system that Leopold II put in place. We should be conscious of these facts, and begin the hard task of removing white supremacy and privilege; until then, we are collectively no more civilised than Rom was, specifically, only on the surface.

It is not solely a person of colour issue; Muslims face into similar prejudices. They are excluded from identification with the wider life of the nation. Change, when it occurs, is often because the pressure of injustice is too much for any society to bear. I submit this is what led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Otherwise, it happens slowly: one relationship at a time, one friendship at a time, one disaster at a time which forces society to cohere more closely. Hopefully the coronavirus situation, as terrible as it is, will show us that we are all human and vulnerable. The fact that minorities have been dis-proportionally hit by the coronavirus demands answers. But even if the barriers are eroded, they are unlikely to magically disappear.

It’s in everyone’s interests for white privilege to end. It’s very clear that people like me, older white males, haven’t done a particularly good job of running things. The economy’s rules, much of which are epitomised by the swaggering machismo of (mainly white, male) business channel commentators, is not delivering better outcomes for all. Meanwhile, generally speaking, the countries which have responded most effectively to the coronavirus have one thing in common: they’re not led by white men. It should disgust and repulse any person with a conscience that the colour of one’s skin or one’s creed could provide an instant assumption about what that person is like, their depths, their inner qualities. Yet this prejudice floats above society, like a storm about to break, with the occasional lightning flashes and thunder roaring. “Civilisation” as presently constituted, is in a state of gradual collapse; the Earth roils at what a terrible job we’re doing. The seas are full of plastic, the skies thick with carbon, the coral reefs bleach, species upon species die. We need change, and quickly: perhaps the way forward would be to understand that no one person, no one category of people, has a monopoly on truth, nor a right to civilisation. It is the inheritance of all humanity, to develop and improve.

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Up from Lockdown

May 19, 2020

I’m still in lockdown. This is because I’m living with someone who is in a vulnerable category, and another person who has a letter saying they are are “shielded”. The letter goes so far as to say that they cannot leave the house.

So, if I venture out, I have to put on a pair of latex gloves and a surgical mask to cover my face. Upon my return, I have to dump all my clothes into the washing machine and take a shower. I’ve never been cleaner; that said, my skin could be used to sand down the hull of a rusty tugboat.

If the world outside is at a distance, at least I am able to access it via the internet. My parents and I call each other via FaceTime twice a day. Because they are based in New York, we share notes on which country is the most insane. My father will cite the people who are burning 5G towers in the United Kingdom; in response, I ask if the President still wants people to inject themselves with bleach. My father will talk about Boris Johnson, I can reply with talk about Trump taking hydroxychloroquine despite having no symptoms and the Governor of Georgia, Brian Kemp, who seems to think tattoo parlours provide an essential service. We concur that it’s crazy for people to hold beach parties and raves. No matter how bad the United Kingdom and United States seem, however, my parents and I agree that Brazil is by far the worst. President Bolsonaro does not appear to be particularly concerned about the coronavirus and indeed wants people to go out to protect the economy. The street gangs in Brazil’s notorious favela neighbourhoods are more responsible than he: they have apparently been trying to get people to stay at home. Their grasp of economics is superior to the President’s: he has yet to realise that dead people generate no revenue.

Additionally, my parents and I discuss things we would like to do. Yes, it would be great if one day we could have Christmas in New York again. But we know that the airports are empty, and only essential travel is being permitted. Quarantine rules will likely come into effect in the United Kingdom shortly. In my mind’s eye, I can see a lonely traveler wheeling a single case through the emptiness of Heathrow Terminal 5. Will this ever be back to normal? Perhaps. But perhaps it has been diminished for years to come. The virus did not come to Europe via the Silk Road, like the Black Death, rather it was likely the connection from Wuhan to Beijing to Rome to London that did it.

For the moment, all my family gatherings have become virtual. My sister attempted to hold an event from her apartment in Boston: so many friends and relatives attended that it nearly caused the Skype call to collapse. We couldn’t all see each other, which was a shame. Nevertheless, it happened. I can foresee how we will have a Christmas this way: virtual meals broadcast via mobile phone and laptop, showing a roast turkey in one location, roast beef in another. Perhaps there will be carols via Zoom.

Lockdown has been educational. I have become an expert spelunker into the depths of streaming services. I found a documentary from 2018 entitled “Flint Town”; this series followed the Flint, Michigan police on their patrols and highlighted the struggles of both the cops and their city. I couldn’t help but think that if Flint was full of white, middle class people that it would not have been permitted to degenerate into such chaos, nor allowed to suffer from water supplies suffused with lead.

At the time the documentary was made, there were only 98 police officers covering a city of over 100,000 people. The residents rightly stated that community policing, which is probably necessary for progress to be made, was impossible with such tiny numbers. The cop is “the man in the car”. The election of Trump as President occurred while the film was made: the police officers themselves were divided on whether or not he would improve matters. Some appreciated his apparently “pro-police” stance. I think we can say with certainty that things haven’t improved for the police and people of Flint since 2016. But will they come out in droves for Biden? I suggest that this may hold the key to Michigan, and to the Presidential election. Seldom has a documentary from the past seemed more consequential for the current day.

I have improved my online shopping skills during the lockdown. I found that eBay has a lot of bargains for staples like laundry detergent. I suspect what happens is that a supplier or a store gets overstocked, and then has to get rid of the excess; this excess may have become particularly excessive during the lockdown. Not only is it cheap, shopping this way beats having to don washing up gloves and a mask to pop into the corner store. The delivery people are probably sick of me by now.

I’ve found that baking and jam making are a good way to relieve stress. I’ve made jam out of fruit that had sat in the fridge as a tribute to virtue, and was about to rot. The result has been a bright, brilliant orange clementine jam that is better than many marmalades. I’ve found clementine and ginger can make a superior Madeira cake. Dark chocolate which has sat at the back of a cupboard can be recycled into chocolate chunk cookies. Nothing need go to waste.

I’ve also rediscovered the virtues of clothes that smell of a spring afternoon. I’ve found comfort in a bed I freshly made with sheets that hung in the warm May sunshine. I feel a sense of accomplishment from the sink being empty and the floors being cleaned. Yes, this time is frustrating; I am aware that I am clinging onto minuscule joys until such time as the world re-opens. But I’ve survived the virus itself; I will survive this. One day, I will get up from lockdown. This time will be a strange memory. That will be a relief.

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History Rhymes

May 6, 2020

After coming to power in 1933, the Nazis worked hard to sell eugenics to the masses. A particularly nasty example of these “re-education” efforts is a film entitled “Dasein ohne Leben” (“Existence without life”), which was released in 1939. It argued that the mentally ill should be killed. Furthermore it suggested that if the mentally ill were clear about their own state of mind, they would want it this way.

A recent column which appeared in the Daily Telegraph newspaper made me jump because much of the same vocabulary was deployed. It suggested that in lockdown, we are “existing” but questioned whether we are “living”.

At first glance, it may seem a stretch to suggest that there is a connection between these two items. However, dig beneath the surface and there is something altogether disquieting; the underlying concepts have similarities. There are implications for the coronavirus policies which may be followed in the near future.

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, there was a thought in the UK government that we ought to let the virus “run its course” in pursuit of “herd immunity”. Never mind that the herd immunity concept is generally used in situations where there is a vaccine: the idea being that if enough people are vaccinated, that a particular disease, such as smallpox or polio, can be effectively wiped out. Furthermore, it’s not altogether clear that having had coronavirus bestows a particular immunity, nor is it obvious how long such an immunity would last. Meanwhile, the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, or a compromised immune system, would be left to fend for themselves and indeed, many would die. Prior to contracting the virus himself, Prime Minister Johnson suggested on national television that perhaps we should “take it on the chin”.

These are “survival of the fittest” policies that echo what many of the Nazis thought; Hitler was so committed to “social Darwinism” that he would set his acolytes in competition with each other in order to see who was the strongest, and he believed the strongest would inevitably prevail.

Just because these ideas are presented in English by men in Savile Row suits, doesn’t make them any more palatable. This flirtation with “herd immunity” has left the UK in a dire position. It is clear that Britain has the highest number of fatalities in Europe; per head of population, only Spain is losing people at a faster rate. Even Johnson has had to admit that it is a source of “bitter regret” that the epidemic is not yet under control in care homes. Yet we are talking about opening up rather than ensuring that we have sufficient testing and protective measures before we consider any loosening of current rules.

Furthermore, there appears to be a co-ordinated attack in train on the author of the lockdown policy, Professor Neil Ferguson. He was incredibly foolish to allow his lover to visit him in contravention of social distancing rules. It gave the press an opportunity to paint him as a hypocrite, and furthermore, opened the door to the following query: “if he’s wrong about this, what else is he wrong about?” Sure enough, the Daily Telegraph did follow it up with a piece in this vein.

Given the present mood, it is likely that Britain will be “re-opened” before it is ready. The countries which have been able to re-open so far have either got a more rigorous and prevalent testing regime, such as Germany and South Korea, or took much more assertive action much earlier in the crisis, such as New Zealand did. The United Kingdom is a laggard.

In the United States, it is much the same. President Trump would like to end the pandemic in order to bolster his fading chances of re-election, and it appears he is trying to wish the virus away. He first talked about winding down the task force managing the pandemic, then reversed course. He said he has left managing opening up to the governors, but then encouraged anti-lockdown protestors in Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota. Nearly every last anti-lockdown protest which has appeared on the news has shown ardent Trump supporters making these demands. Social Darwinism made an appearance there too: the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas suggested the old should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the country’s good, specifically, so the economy can get going again. Meanwhile, veterans die in care homes. Minorities are disproportionately affected, due to the conditions created by poverty and years of neglect as a result of racism and harsh government policies.

The sum total of what is happening in Britain and America paints an alarming picture. History doesn’t necessarily repeat, but it can often rhyme. The most repellent ideas of the 1930’s, namely that some not only should perish, but would want to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the nation, are bubbling up again, hopefully unconsciously. We are told that we are “existing” in lockdown, not “living”. We are spoon-fed propaganda that the scientists who are using reason and evidence to create our policies are hypocrites and not to be trusted. We are being softened up for the pandemic to continue and not to think about it too much.

Hopefully, this will backfire. I know someone who died due to Covid-19. I was ill with it, as were my parents. It is not a disease to be trifled with. My father, who is of an entirely different political disposition to myself, is upset that the vulnerable have not been better protected. If the pandemic spreads and we all become acquainted with someone who suffered or indeed died, will we be so tolerant of this nonsense? Or will we turf out the politicians who sold us this phony cure for what ails us? I would rather that it backfired before we found out: certainly, many voices have raised the alarm. However it seems many in the media are happy to spoon fed the current narrative for the time being; it should bother us that they can readily consume such a terrible diet.

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In Lockdown

April 19, 2020

In these days of lockdown, perhaps the most liberating moments occur on days when the sun is shining. I put the laundry on to wash, it finishes, the machine beeps loudly, and I take the wet clothes out to the washing line. I peg out the t-shirts and pyjama bottoms, I raise up the pole that supports the line, so the laundry catches the breeze. On a good day, the garments float and flutter on a warm wind.

Otherwise, there is not much to be said for this time. As I sit here in my study, Chabrier’s piano music echoes out from my stereo. I am one of the lucky ones: although I’m still in recovery mode, I’ve survived the coronavirus. I may be one of the fortunate ones who will have an immunity in future. I have sufficient space to be alone. I have enough books and music to see me through the next three weeks and well beyond. Yes, there are challenges, there are things to do, and I’m confronted with the daily struggle of trying to keep everything hygienic. Nevertheless, I feel blessed. I can still revel in the sunshine and warm spring breezes; my cats run out the back door and into the sunlight ahead of me. Life continues. Not everyone I know, or rather, known, has been so lucky.

The current lockdown has been so complete that I’ve sometimes caught myself thinking that it’s a foreign country beyond my doorstep. We will not always be like this, I know. There is a world beyond the front door. Nevertheless, when I first stepped out to take my dog for a brief walk, it was clear the country had changed. There were people walking down the same village lanes as I was, but as we approached, we each did a polite “veer”, ensuring that we were 2 metres apart when we passed. We smiled at each other and wished each other a “good afternoon”. My corner store’s opening hours were truncated. The patrons and staff wore masks. The queue at the checkout had people standing apart to maintain safe distance.

Until such time as there is a vaccine, I suspect this is what any lifting of the lockdown will look like. I can imagine anything that means people have to stand closer than 2 metres won’t be permitted: restaurants will lose capacity, concerts and sporting events won’t be allowed. Movie theatres will remain shut, perhaps forever, if they continue to lose money. I suspect masks will become as much a necessity as an umbrella when it rains. I have little doubt that there will be many “fashion” masks made. The catwalks will feature models wearing ones with Chanel and Vuitton logos as they walk, stop, and turn.

Will we be without a vaccine by Christmas? The holidays are always a home centred affair, but perhaps the confinement of the elderly due to their vulnerability to the virus will make it more sparse. No doubt some people will consume alcohol with gusto: in my mind’s eye, I see a middle aged father, a blue face mask askew, and an empty bottle of Irish cream on a table next to him, snoring amidst the glow of Christmas tree lights and the fading scent of roast turkey.

We will adapt, we will survive, we will go on. The government will likely have to step up, albeit hesitantly, for all those who have been economically deprived, lest indifference provokes unrest. It’s bad enough that many have lost their jobs, but to see tax money going to the likes of Richard Branson is a step too far. Even the tabloids cannot ignore their readership to that extent. The help may be faulty, inadequate, but we will stumble along. Labour will surge in the polls, I believe, as the government’s inadequacies and failings become clear. If the British government knows what is good for it, it will delay the next stage of Brexit indefinitely.

I believe supermarkets will be emptier. Online shopping, online working will become even more prevalent. Someone will have to say the obvious: if this is how we are going to be from now on, we need Fibre to the Premises throughout the country to ensure that broadband can cope with our new lifestyles. Perhaps the money dedicated to the new high speed rail – a dubious investment at best – will be diverted to this end. After all, we will be travelling less.

Some airlines may go bust. Certainly, some cruise companies will. Airports will be full of temperature scanners, to ensure that travellers arriving from abroad don’t carry the virus. 14 day quarantine orders for anyone arriving from a constantly updated list of countries will become normal. All the while, the mask will be an ever more present feature of our public spaces.

In this atmosphere, it could very well be that Trump will not be re-elected as President. No one, apart from his most extreme supporters, will be able to say that they are better off than they were four years ago. The governors that have most closely aligned themselves to Trump are the ones who are presiding over the most uncontained outbreaks of the coronavirus; this may be noticed. Biden could very well play the “return to normalcy” card, promising to deliver evidence-based policy; this will have an appeal in contrast to the ineffectiveness and harm of populism. In Britain, it may be that Boris Johnson is booted from office: it is clear some of the press has turned on him, in favour of his rival and colleague Michael Gove. The public may begin to look at the world prior to 2016 with a certain sense of nostalgia: they weren’t necessarily the “Good Old Days”, but at least one could meet one’s friends in a park on a bright Spring afternoon.

I think the moments of freedom from fear and tension will come mainly from being in one’s house, the only familiar country we will be able to maintain. The moments of comfort may come when the sunshine glows and from simple things like seeing the clothes flutter on the clothesline. It surely will come from being with family, and seeing our pets sit in the shade. Beyond the doorstep, it is now a different country and world. The only place where normality may continue to reign is home, at least until that brilliant day, which may never come, when we can say that the coronavirus has been defeated.

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The Near Aftermath

March 24, 2020

The coronavirus gave me the worst illness I have ever experienced. I’ve had chills and fever that were so severe that I couldn’t shift out of bed. I was still shivering even with the electric blanket on the highest setting. The virus does its evil work by bogging down the immune system, forcing the body to devote all its resources to fighting it, this manifests itself in high fevers and extreme fatigue. The body may need food but it has little capacity for consuming it: I have lost 5 kilos in the space of a week. Though I’m better than I was, even now, doing simple things like emptying the dishwasher or hanging laundry out on the line, exhaust me. I have a chair positioned next to a fireplace where I gather my thoughts after I’ve done something. I sit there for twenty, thirty minutes at a time. After this, I pull myself together and carry on.

I am lucky. The worst, it would seem, is over. Each day the struggles are a little less difficult. Coffee and food have started to taste better; the odd metallic taste they previously possessed is fading. I was able to cook for myself, which seems like an achievement. I am definitely on the path to recovery.

Given how awful this illness has been, I become horrified and angry when I see people who aren’t taking the virus seriously. There are British vacationers in Benidorm who seem to think that their holiday matters more than preventing the virus spreading. Via social media, I’ve seen college students on Spring Break in Florida acting as if the disease can not touch them; thank goodness the Governor of that state recently shut down the beaches and the marinas. My parents in America informed me that until the Governor of New York clamped down on the operation of clubs, bars, and restaurants, people were still going out as per normal in Manhattan. I’d warn all of those who are being so nonchalant, if you had this, you would trade every day in the sun, every fancy dinner, every midnight stroll on the beach you ever had to get rid of it.

Anyone with a weak immune system can easily break under the pressure of this disease: hence, I believe, we are seeing the spike up in deaths in Italy and Spain, and the preponderance of casualties among the old. In the United States and the United Kingdom, it’s highly likely the worst is yet to come.

Yet, the measures just announced by the UK government indicate that asking people to be good citizens and stay at home simply hasn’t been enough. There is still this odd perception that it is like the flu; we’ve all had the flu, it’s treatable, so what, get on with life. It does make one wonder how much serious it has to get for the message to land. Yet, fools create social media memes about licking public toilet seats. Other miscreants keep their pub chains open, making clear profits matter more than their customers. I have said to my parents: please just stay home, as it takes only one idiot, getting too close, only once for them to catch this illness. Normally sociable and active people, they have listened to me. They’re staying at home.

When the here and now is so awful, it seems almost unbearable to think about what tomorrow may bring. As the fevers die away and my strength returns, I am starting to look at that future; it is bleak. We are going to have to fundamentally rethink the economy.

An economy runs on the premise that people have needs and wants. One person sells, another buys, based on those requirements. The consumer society has been predicated on the notion that wants are just as important as needs. Blue jeans are just as easy to get as food or water. This has created a level of employment that wouldn’t otherwise exist: people have work making and selling blue jeans, when strictly speaking, that activity isn’t necessary to human survival.

The coronavirus has forced us to cut back to bare necessities. The “wants” part of the economy, from books, to blue jeans, to berry flavoured lip balm has fallen away. Indeed, all but the most basic of shops are now closed. How this is going to work? How will employment be maintained? I don’t believe there is a good answer to this question. Furthermore, much of the economy is social: going to restaurants, cinemas, on holiday and so on. What happens when you can no longer be social, or at least, have to severely restrict it? What if we have to wait until 2021 for a vaccine or treatment which will unshackle us from this virus? Will there be much of an economy left by that time?

Furthermore, what will be the long term effects on people’s behaviour? I have little doubt that when an effective vaccine is released around the world, the event will be celebrated with fireworks and music. It will be recalled as a moment of liberation from fear. Nevertheless, habits will likely have changed by then. What will be the permanent effects?

I have never experienced an event like this in my lifetime. The closest was September 11th, when I was in the United Kingdom and my mother was in New York; neither my father and I could reach her for several hours. A global event had hit me personally; behaviour and societal norms changed too. The impact and import of the coronavirus has been even more profound. I’ve been sick; I’m still not well, though I have been able to stand in the sun for a little while. I will go to sleep tonight in reasonable certainty that tomorrow morning will come for me and I will feel more healed then than I do now. Thousands all over the globe are not nearly as fortunate as I am; families are mourning, there will still be many more who will grieve before we turn the corner. After much pain and many oceans of tears, we will get up from this, but what will we have learned?

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The View from My Sickbed

March 16, 2020

The NHS believes I have the coronavirus. The pleasant GP on the other end of the phone ran through my symptoms while I lay in bed. She told me that there is no testing at this point in time. The focus, she said, is on treatment, not testing. Just rest, take paracetamol, drink plenty of liquids, stay away from everyone else, and hope for the best. When the UK government says that things are under control, I don’t believe them: after all, how can you know if you’re not measuring? Would my diagnosis feature in the statistics that the government is compiling? Somehow, I doubt it.

I am on the 4th day of this illness. It is one of the most unpleasant sicknesses I’ve ever had. I’ve had consistent fevers, only ameliorated by paracetamol induced gaps of lesser temperatures. The fever dreams are particularly odd. Over the weekend, I had a dream that my cat Thomas and I had washed up on a distant shore, the waves lapping over us as we lay on the sand. The hot sun beat down on us both. Flotsam and jetsam, brought up from the deep, I woke up before the dream could unfold any further.

As this indicates, the nights are particularly terrible. There has been an occasional panic in my stomach that something is dreadfully wrong. I thought it might be something with my heart. My hands have become very cold: I have had to switch up my electric blanket to the highest setting. I have all the temperature regulating abilities of a lizard. All I can do is take another paracetamol and use the brief gap it grants to fall asleep.

The mornings are not much better. As I sit here and type this, a low, dull headache throbs behind my eyes. Nevertheless, I’ve had to be responsible, sit at the keyboard, and cancel appointments for the next two weeks. “Sorry,” I say, “I’ve been diagnosed as having the coronavirus.” The recipient may get my missive or they may not. Either way, I will push through, finish writing, and go back to bed. When the recipient picks up the message, no doubt they will say, “Oh of course”. No one wants to be around someone with this. Cancel the appointment? Absolutely.

Often, daylight hurts. The curtains are drawn in my bedroom. Fortunately, I can watch television. Reading is more difficult. I have an audio book, a biography of Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the Spanish Communists, which I’m dipping in and out of. The problem is keeping track of all the acronyms and the various committees: no wonder the Left lost the Spanish Civil War, the comrades were bogged down by bureaucratic infighting. They should have focused on keeping the fascists at bay. This is about as elevated as my thinking gets at the moment. I look through the narrow portal to the world that Twitter affords to see what outrages are being committed by nonsensical populist governments. I also listen to the BBC World Service. Last night, I was lying in bed when I heard Trump talk about how happy he was the Federal Reserve cut interest rates. Given his joy, you would think an interest rate cut was a cure for the coronavirus. In fairness to the World Service, they had on a professor after Trump’s statement who said what most people already know, that the President doesn’t understand monetary policy and it’s unlikely to be the cure-all he thinks it is. Maybe his ignorance has finally caught up with him.

The fever returns. I go back to sleep. The time comes for another paracetamol; I awake, take it, and drink some water. Any trek to the bathroom feels ponderous and long. A week ago I was running over 2 miles on a treadmill; now I can’t climb the stairs without needing a rest. Similarly, going to the lavatory is a matter of one foot in front of another. When the hour is late, midnight, one am, two am, it feels like I’m absolutely alone. I am not, however: I reach out and there is my cat Thomas sleeping at my feet. Nevertheless, I have to worry about him getting this too: a dog with a compromised immune system in Hong Kong apparently caught it from their human. If indeed Thomas gets it from me, what chance does he have? But he wouldn’t be anywhere but with me: I know if I shut the door, I’d hear his insistent paw clawing the door. Indeed, he has not left my side since I became ill.

The dawn comes again. I should be feeling better. The thermometer tells me that I’m still feverish. How much longer, I wonder. There is no help from the NHS: they have no medicines, they have no advice except what I’ve heard already. Nature will take its course. Theoretically, I’m developing an immunity, which is what the government thinks is going to serve us best in the long run. I’m not sure we should be so cavalier about such an unknown and novel virus. Evolution is a powerful force and it’s difficult to know how this virus will change and adapt. It could become more lethal. Already there are reports that some people have caught it more than once.

As I fight the fever and feel aches ripple through my body, I think that I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy. I have no idea how long it will take for the illness to loosen its grip. The thermometer indicates it won’t be today. Tomorrow? Wednesday? Who knows.

I am lucky. I’m relatively healthy. As awful as this is, I will get through it. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be frail and have the weight of this sickness land on you. I will wake up one morning and it will be gone. But I will remember those who succumbed, and I will blame those who decided that it wasn’t important to measure what was going on.

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Me And My Blog

Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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