Victoria Jelinek


XIX: Why the British Don’t Like Trump

Ignorance is loudSomeone asked “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?”

Nate White, an articulate and witty writer from England, wrote this magnificent response:

“A few things spring to mind.

Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem.

For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed.

So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever.

I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.

And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.

Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront.

Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.

And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist.

Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that.

He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.

He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.

And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully.

That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.

There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
* Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
* You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss.

After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum.

God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.

He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart.

In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish:

‘My God… what… have… I… created?

If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.”

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December 18, 2018 VI – Brexit talk

“No amount of political freedom will satisfy the hungry masses.” Vladimir Lenin

Brexit SimplifiedI went to see Three Men in a Pub the other day in town. They’re three English men who create podcasts about current events that are aptly recorded in pubs. The topic for the evening was Brexit. It was held in an imitation of an Irish pub. Despite having lived in France for ten years, and knowing many of the expatriate community even by sight, as I looked around at the room, I didn’t recognize a single Brit present. There seemed to be none of the families who have homes here and children in local schools. Instead, the room was full of men who were drinking a lot of beer. There were four women, including me and the barmaid (who exclaimed loudly to a customer, “I don’t know what this is about! I don’t know a single thing about politics!” I thought to myself, “I wouldn’t be proudly broadcasting that these days love – it makes you look foolish. But, then again, perhaps, that was the point?”). Unfortunately, there was only one of the three men from the podcast, but he bravely outlined the argument against Brexit and the activism that he and his colleagues have been doing in response to the 2016 referendum. I’ll recount what he said, as well as recreate the environment in the pub as well as I can from the notes I scrawled over the course of the evening:

There is nothing grown or manufactured in the UK that can’t be made elsewhere more cheaply. Most folks don’t realize that Spain takes the UK’s garbage. The Welsh farmers who almost unanimously voted for Brexit don’t realize that Europe can find sheep elsewhere. Moreover, the tariff for Welsh lamb is currently 0%, but with a no trade deal, it will rise to 40%. Great Britain can’t feed itself. It’s possible that the UK could create 75% of the food needed to feed its population, but not the rest. 60% of Great Britain’s overall trade is with the EU. Currently, a single ship has 60k containers on it, and with the UK exiting the EU, each ship and each container on it will need to be checked by customs authorities in Europe. Meanwhile, there isn’t enough space to safely store the goods – particularly perishable goods, while the respective authorities check the shipments, nor are there finances to hire the man power to do this. As a matter of fact, Amazon (as in Jeff Bezos’s company) bought much of the warehouse space left in the UK over the last few years, and with the inability to export to Europe or elsewhere soon, the UK will need the space to store goods and Amazon will be right there to charge a fee for the service.

1.7 TRILLION dollars in trade agreements with 46 countries will be eliminated once the UK is out of the EU. To get back into these agreements, 45 of the countries have to say “Yes” to the UK, and Moldova has already said “No” to the UK joining. By leaving the EU, the UK is pulling out of 759 trade agreements – and by pulling out of these 759 trade agreements, those holding the agreements will sue the UK because they’ll want their money back for investment not realized. Recreating 759 trade agreements will be a “complete palaver.” The biggest hope is a trade deal with India or Paraguay in order to avert a 4% knock on GDP per year, which is “hilarious, given their respective situations.” The government and Leavers claim a trade deal with the USA is “in the works.” At this, the host rolled his eyes and then asked the crowd the likelihood that anything salient would come from that – at least anytime soon – given the man who’s currently in the White House. Leaver hopes that the commonwealth will agree to trade deals with the UK have “little promise” because the commonwealth is poor. In fact, putting all their wealth together, there are less financial possibilities in trade with all of them than through trade with a single country such as the UK, France, or Germany.

“Not everyone who voted to exit is racist, but everyone who’s slightly racist voted to Leave.” Moreover, a referendum is “advisory”– it shouldn’t be taken as legally binding. If a “regulatory election” had happened instead of a referendum, there would have been another election because of all the “irregularities.” For example, what is the source of all the money the Leave campaign had? What part did Cambridge Analytica play in propaganda efforts? There have been 45 years of peace throughout Europe and now this. Putin and Trump want to destabilize Europe and Europeans are falling for it. Already Poland, Hungary, Italy and France (of recent) have strong right-wing movements that want to see their respective countries pull out of the EU. Even so, the Remain campaign garnered 48% of the vote and they were “asleep,” with “shitty leaders,” providing “shitty information,” and there wasn’t a single leader that was popular, nor were any of the Remain activities organized. However, if a referendum was held now, “It’d be another story altogether,” because Brits are actually aware of what the consequences of leaving the EU are. According to the deal that Teresa May has recently negotiated, Brits may be able to stay and live in one country, even retire in that country, but they won’t be able to move to another country or do trade in another country without that country’s permission. The politicians are placating people rather than educating them about the facts.

Adding to the melee, Brits aren’t willing to talk about religion or politics, so no one is talking with each other. A no-deal with the EU means no trade deals with anyone (a few angry, drunk men began muttering that this information is “absolutely fucking false”). The World Trade Organization provides “basic deals” only. In Geneva recently, regardless of whether there is a deal or not, he discovered there would be 12-18 months for the agricultural production in the UK to survive. (At this point, men starting interrupting and arguing with him, and with each other, whilst a fat, greying long-haired English man squished my leg against the bar where I was sitting with a bar stool that he was leaning on for support and didn’t hear my squeal due to his inebriation and his focus on the increased tension in the room. I pushed him physically aside and he didn’t notice).

Before the ‘one man in the pub’ could continue, several men started openly and aggressively arguing with him and with each other. Their arguments were along the lines that farmers in the UK would “Rise to the occasion” and create more agriculture “If needed…” they’d “certainly” rise to the challenge of needing to produce food and trade for the British people (ever wonder why it is that the English seem to be the only ones that say they’re “British?” The Irish and Scots don’t generally use this, opting, instead, to say they’re “Irish” or “Scottish” respectively). There were statements called out that the UK “loses” 140 million a year in subsidies to the EU, to which the speaker replied, “Excuse me sir, but the UK gains much more in subsidies annually…” but he was cut off by more grumbling proclamations straight out of the Leave campaign’s playbook. The “Q & A” that the speaker then proposed essentially involved questions and statements surrounding economic tourism: one man, a builder, worked in Spain, then Italy for another season, and now in France, what would happen to him? Another works as a van transfer driver and is “hoping for the best” regarding Brexit, that he can come out to France “every once in awhile to ski and work…maybe apply for a temporary visa…” (I smothered a chuckle at this, knowing how difficult it is to receive visas to work and live in a given country). The ‘conversation’ then became more unruly, fuelled by beer and testosterone. There were no questions and answers, just men vehemently asserting that the “cost” of being in Europe was much greater than leaving, that the “independence” that the UK will now have outside of the EU is much greater than the dependency they had while in it. (It was grimly amusing to me, too, because before each of these statements, the respective men would begin by saying, “I didn’t vote to leave…BUT…” and then accompanying the aforementioned statements, they argued about the need for an “independent parliament,” and “no more back breaking subsidies paid to Europe,” and less “problems” with the “threat of terrorism” by refugees). An Irish guy reiterated what the speaker had said about the trade options facing the UK after Brexit, then pontificated for a bit about its being “normal” in Ireland for this sort of “political nonsense.” The same men who had been openly snorting and sneering at the  information about what the trade deals meant for the UK, were acting as orators at this point and answering questions from the room put to the speaker, who was too polite to cut them off. A few men, always beginning their statements with “And I’m not for Brexit…” went on about how the referendum was “democratic” and that it was “a democratic process” that “needs to be respected.”

At this point, the speaker attempted to focus their contentiousness and get them back ‘on side,’ by saying something about being “banned” from the USA in an attempt to get the audience on board with a common enemy. Meanwhile, the folks around me began giving each other advice about how to stay in a European country, “Get a residence card right now…it’s good for ten years…” One member of the group said that if you apply for a French passport, you’re “automatically” allowed to stay while it’s being processed, to which another replied, “That would be good, ‘cause I don’t know which country I want to go to next.” Another group around me bragged that they still pay their taxes in the UK despite having lived in France for a few years, and that they’ll “just” go back to UK if they need anything just like they always do, and if necessary, they’ll work in the black. (I again wondered where all the Brit folks were who have homes, who have children here who go to school, who pay their taxes in France — sic, as I know that many Brits do not pay French income taxes. They will be effected more than these single men renting apartments if they have to leave, sell their homes, uproot their families, move their pets…).

The speaker again gained control of the room. He said that the UK is an aging population and without immigrants, there aren’t the youth necessary to work and pay taxes. That there are 180k vacancies in the NHS right now, so the NHS will have to rely on ex-commonwealth countries, where corruption and credibility is an issue, “especially with medicine,” to provide doctors and nurses. The same applies with teachers – there are a “raff of vacancies” throughout the UK for teachers, and, again, “We’ll have to rely on ex-commonwealth countries to fill these posts.” (I then couldn’t hear the speaker because the people next to me were discussing what they had for dinner. A woman in their party complained that if she had known she’d be “forced” to listen to “political talk” then she would have stayed at home and watched telly. On the other side of me, there was a ‘discussion’ between men about their various misinformed ideas about what it “really” means for trade, as opposed to what the speaker had said, and how to “dodge” being expelled from the country). A man received ‘the floor’ from the speaker and said that he’s not a Brexiter, “of course,” but he has issues with an EU army, EU regulations, and the lack of a representative in the EU parliament, but he enjoys being in the EU “because we can be.” (He also enjoyed speaking into the microphone a lot during the Q & A. I didn’t hear what the speaker’s response to these erroneous assertions were because the barmaid was laughing very loudly at something a man had said to her). Another guy took the microphone and was talking about patriotism, a “duty” to country and “identity,” to which the speaker responded blandly that we all feel an affinity to our “home country.”

The speaker then took the opportunity to say that the buildings, spaces, parks, etc. in his hometown of Liverpool have all been regenerated and renovated thanks to EU money. To this a man called out that the “Beatles yellow submarine money” (Festival Park) was sponsored by the UK parliament, and not the EU “by the way!” The speaker then talked about a 1947 agreement made by the UK to take refugees, and the fact that the UK did help start war in Syria in the first place. Now, there are no refugees ‘streaming’ into the UK, as the propaganda will have you believe, but there is rising racism. He told us about how he had travelled to Syria and spoke with refugees who are teachers, accountants, lawyers, doctors, and who just want to stay home but it’s too dangerous. (Behind me the men talked about how all the ‘Paki’s’ can just go home. How this guy-the speaker- is a “tosser” because he thinks he knows everything but he hasn’t even mentioned the war in Yemen).

I decided it was time to leave. I supported something different happening in my village. I tried a local beer that was okay and I don’t generally like beer. I have material for a ‘background flavour’ piece on a hot topic that I’ll write up for my blog. And, I see first-hand the men and women who supported Brexit, because these are a micro example of them – a lot of very strong opinions, doggedly held onto in order to support overall constructs of reality, and despite their constructions lack of factual fortification. They’re not concerned with an overall picture of global events, or political and social foresight into how it effects societies as a whole – they’re concerned with how it affects them individually. A problem that we increasingly observe throughout the world, as we see the rise in nationalism and right wing fervour in many countries, and despite these same elements claiming to be collectively oriented. I find myself feeling that it’s an affront that these ‘secret’ Brexiters are in France profiting from the country. I comfort myself that hopefully France is gaining some income from them, even if it’s just their bar bills at pseudo English pubs.

Having spent 13 years in England, and another two years in Scotland, I familiarized myself with pub culture in Great Britain (and then some). My opinion is that one only begins to know a Brit after spending a half-decade or more in their company. Hence the popularity of their pubs and the amount of alcohol they generally consume. I believe it’s in a pub that the very stratified society fractures, the politeness, the ‘chin up’ stoicism dissolves and, in my opinion, it’s where the greatest sense of humour in the world is on display. While this evening at the “Brexit debate,” provided me with further evidence of my assumption that it’s in a pub that the English relax and become more equitable, it did not support my belief that it’s also where their humour shines. Perhaps it’s as Ricky Gervais notes in his stand up show Humanity: “Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean that you’re right about the political opinions you hold; offense is about feelings and feelings are personal. Politics isn’t.” Or it shouldn’t be. But what Brexit has revealed is that there are very deeply entrenched feelings in the UK about what it means to be British and also historic feelings of suspicion towards Europe that are embedded into that identity.

***Just saw this article in The Guardian newspaper today about Brexit & ski resort jobs (though I DO believe there’s a two year transition period after March 2019, so nothing really changes till 2021?):

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/dec/18/brexit-thousands-ski-resort-jobs-at-risk?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other



December 10, 2018 II – The Yellow Vest Movement

“I have tried to lift France out of the mud. But she will return to her errors and vomitings. I cannot prevent the French from being French.” Charles de Gaulle

Macron as a traitor on the vestI once said to a French doctor during a visit to her office that I’m so grateful for the French healthcare system. Like England, where I had lived for thirteen years, there is universal healthcare. Unlike England, one must be a resident of France, pay your taxes, and while the state covers 70% of your healthcare (100% for your children), you must have private insurance to cover the rest. A visit to a general practitioner will cost you about 23 euros and to a specialist, about 60 euros (of which 70% will be returned to you). Similar to the USA, and unlike England, in France you can choose your general practitioner and they will refer you to specialists of your choice. Moreover, the French have effectively integrated methods based on medicine, or ‘hard’ science, with non- traditional methods, such as physiotherapy, acupuncture, and nutritionists.

Back to the visit with the doctor and my compliment to the French healthcare system. She, in turn, was grateful for my appreciation. She told me that on an average visit, about a half-hour in duration per patient, she earns 10euros, with the rest being reimbursed or going to fund the collective ‘mechanisms.’ She didn’t have a problem with this, telling me she wanted to be a doctor to help people and she is. However, she said it’s frustrating because the French patients are never satisfied with the system. For example, when the Carte Vitale* machine doesn’t work and she must consequently give the patient a brown form+, they complain about having to cover the expense of an envelope and stamp in order to send the form and get reimbursed for their visit.

My point? While the French argue that they are collectively oriented, in general, they are not. They do not seem to care that their participation is necessary to maintain the heavily subsidized welfare state – public schools, universities, extracurricular activities++, school lunches+++, CAF** and housing subsidies, healthcare, retirement, etc. To sustain these services means paying a modest fee for them, as well as paying taxes, in order to support the whole system and the vulnerable within society. Many here begrudge paying anything even as they feel it’s their right to receive these benefits, which they complain are too little, and many people actively work to undermine the system. While a large part of me appreciates the French cynicism, and I agree that the super rich seem to avoid all fees, the average French knee-jerk cynicism also frustrates me. Having originated from a country where the cost of an emergency medical service without good health coverage could mean that you and your family lose your home due to the expense of it, or you have to take two mortgages out to fund your child’s university education, I’m grateful for the services in France. So, I consequently pay my taxes and all fees without question, even as I’m lucky that I do not use most of the services on offer. This does not mean that I don’t see that it is ‘apples and oranges’ to compare France – a noble, socialist state – with USA – a staunchly Capitalist one – and the subsequent services available in each.

However, France, like the rest of the world, is polluted due to fossil fuel consumption, deforestation, consumerism and waste. Where I live, many children have chronic coughs that the doctor’s dismiss with a sad shrug, saying “C’est comme ca…” On higher particle days, the kids aren’t allowed outside to play. Originating from France is the Paris Agreement, a global agreement to collectively reduce carbon emissions. In response to this, Macron’s administration put a nominal tax (literally a few cents) on diesel and petrol in an effort to curb its use. Many in France are very poor, earning an average income as teachers and police officers, of 1200euros per month. In rural areas of France, driving is necessary and these extra pennies mean a lot. However, in France, there is a 10,000-euro rebate when you convert your existing diesel car to an electric or hybrid car. Most don’t know this, and when they do, they argue that the cost of electric and hybrid cars is still too expensive. That’s true when you’re earning 1200 euros a month and have a family, even with CAF and governmental subsidies, but it’s a substantial offer. Arguably, all new technology is the bastion of the middle class and the rich, but as with all new technology, it will become more affordable, and we must begin the process somewhere of conserving our environment and our collective existence. Perhaps Macron’s administration should have begun with taxing the manufactures of the vehicles, yes, but there is an argument that by doing this, these manufacturers would withdraw a lot of manufacturing from France, which would also create a problem with a loss of jobs and income. Perhaps France should have built efficient public transit that uses clean energy that the people could use in order to discourage the use of their cars? But where would the money come from? Perhaps the taxes should have been placed on the fossil fuel companies, and the EU should enforce this collectively?

But I encourage people to ask themselves several questions: Is it not suspicious that many involved in the Yellow Vest movement are from middle class families? Is it not suspicious that at the same time that the Yellow Vest’s are claiming to be for the everyman, they are destroying the property of those working and having businesses? Is it not suspicious that what began as a protest about the increase on the cost of diesel and petrol, is now about wages, taxes, housing, retirement benefits, cost of living, etc.? Is it not suspicious that the average person involved with this movement is calling for the ‘head’ of Macron, a “banker,” rather than also seeing him as the Classicist, a man who spent more time studying the Humanities – literature, history, economics, philosophy? Also, a man they voted for. Is it not suspicious that the Yellow Vests have thus far refused to speak to the prime minister unless the meeting is filmed? Is it not suspicious that by reducing the speed limit on the highways, thereby limiting nasty emissions that prompt climate change, which the government has done, is not adhered to by the people themselves? Isn’t the nasty transport of goods by trucks perpetuated by our ordering goods online in order to avoid paying more for these same products?

I understand that many in France voted for Macron as opposition to the Front National, and that many view him as unforgivably arrogant (an irony, given that the French are stereotyped as arrogant). I also understand that people are frustrated and poor. That there is abhorrent global economic inequality. I agree with the suspicion that corporations and a superrich class of people are dictating global politics and laws, perpetually squeezing public services and the working class for their own increased profits and the perpetuation of their lavish lifestyles. I respect to some extent that my compatriots are noting this and protesting. However, the Yellow Vests are a fragmented and violent movement that is being manipulated into a frenzy by the same powers the participants are protesting. Macron is not the enemy. Nor are foreigners or refugees. Big business and tax evaders are the enemies. Macron is pro European, actively building bridges between member states, which is important because a united Europe is much stronger than a divided one, despite the rhetoric that cynically opposes the union and capitalizes on people’s fears and anger by creating scapegoats. While he may have been a banker briefly, he’s a truly cultured man and that means he understands context and the long game. He’s a man who has benefitted France as its president by increasing the profile of France through his efforts and his charisma, making it once again a power to be reckoned with (which happily coincided with the World Cup 2018 win). He has openly criticized Trump, rising xenophobia, and nationalism disguised as patriotism. He is actively arguing the need for climate action, even as arguably it is not nearly enough. These are great things socially and practically. He has served as the opposition to rising ignorance. His presidency has increased tourism to France and consequently bolstered the economy, and it has brought France back to the forefront of negotiating tables throughout the world. And now he is being undermined in these efforts, which will not benefit France or the European Union collectively. Is it not suspicious that this undermining occurs after the USA has officially dismissed climate change and Brexit has destablized the EU?

Yes, there is much more to be done about economic inequality, strife, and the environment. There is credence to the argument that letting even ‘little things’ go is a ‘slippery slope’ to creating an individualistic, capitalistic society like the USA. Yes, Macron is from the privileged class, and there is rising and unforgiveable economic inequality, but wouldn’t it be more helpful to stop condoning those culprits activities? Focus one’s efforts? Demand that companies such as Amazon and Google, for example, pay their fair share of taxes to operate in Europe. Demand that the taxes on the super rich in France (and the rest of the EU) are enforced. Demand that campaign financing is absolutely transparent so that there is not a conflict of interests. Tax the hell out of fossil fuel companies throughout Europe. Pay your own taxes so that your kids can continue to have benefits when they need them. Stop buying products online and support local businesses rather than these same ‘dark forces.’ Stop buying services or products from international companies that are contributing to economic inequality by creating monopolies and not paying their fair share in the societies they operate in. Stop driving so much. Stop eating so much beef, and buy it locally when you do eat it in order to undermine the big business agriculture has become. Use the subsidies and loans available to convert your homes to clean energy and your cars to clean energy.

I hope that Macron is able to face down the agitation and keep a steady hand on the tiller of the country. We shall see what he says tonight when he makes an address after the fourth weekend of riots in Paris. As it is, the Rassemblement National (Marine Le Pen’s party, the National Rally, as they have rebranded themselves since their defeat to Macron) is on par with Macron’s En Marche to represent France in the European elections in May. May the gods help us all and may reason and concerted effort prevail.

*A Carte Vitale is given to residents who pay their taxes or need special assistance. It is swiped through a machine at a doctor’s office so that reimbursement to the patient is immediate.

+A brown form is a sheet that is dated and signed by the doctor that the patient must fill in with their name and health number, and then send to the state’s Assurance Maladie (Health Insurance) for reimbursement.

**CAF supports childcare on a sliding scale, from 20c an hour up to 4euros an hour for baby and children’s day care and after school support. They also provide subsidies for families to take holidays around France each year. They also enable a mother to take three years off when their child is born, by giving her a monthly allowance. They also give a family a one-time fee upon the birth of a child that ranges in size, to a monthly stipend for each child to a certain age. The assistance the CAF provides is seemingly endless.

++Extracurricular activities in my village include taking the kids regularly to do a week of alpine skiing with instructors, as well as Nordic skiing, swimming lessons, museum visits, all subsidized by the commune.

+++School lunches for the elementary school children are three course events – salad, meal, cheese or desert – that are usually locally sourced and bio. And, thanks to Nicholas Hulot’s response to a petition, they are now serving a vegetarian meal once a week in order to ‘put the subject on the table’ about the correlation between meat eating and climate change.

 



Matrices
July 13, 2018, 11:48 pm
Filed under: From the Soap Box | Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Trump baby balloonOkay, granted I’ve spent the last hour-and-a-half on Twitter so I have a grim perspective as I write this at 90 words per minute. After midnight no less. However, as I have now read several gushing tweets by Americans thanking the English for their massive “support” of the USA due the anti-Trump protest in Central London (prompted by Trump’s state visit), I have several questions:

Doesn’t thanking the English for practicing civic action against a global pariah seem to lack a sense of irony? I mean, isn’t this kind of narcissism (lite) part of what bred the climate that allowed Trump to get into the White House in the first place? Did the English protest out of a sense of empathy for the plight of America and half of its citizens or because he is damaging global principles and alliances developed over the last century in order to avert war? Could they have protested because Trump and his administration pose a global threat to their own survival? Or, perhaps they protested ‘cause America influences culture, economics, values and practices everywhere, and they don’t want this US administration’s practices of bigotry, racism, xenophobia and avarice spreading?

I mean, if one considers all the pieces of Trump’s actions, such as cozying up with the likes of Duterte, Putin, Kim Jong-un (and implicitly supporting Assad) while being disrespectful of Merkel or May, pulling the USA out of the Paris Agreement, denigrating NATO, denigrating women, imposing trade tariffs on US imports, threatening trade deals, banning citizens of seven countries, and undermining journalism, don’t all these things have an impact on the rest of the world?  Of course it does, or there wouldn’t have been the massive protest in London. That said, why didn’t the Belgians protest a few days ago? Though there was the World Cup…but then, are the Finnish protesting, too? Let us hope so, particularly as it’s where Trump is meeting Putin. Though they have repeatedly been occupied by Russia throughout history, even threatened by Russia if they joined NATO, so they may be worried about making Putin angry…in which case, England certainly did represent Europe’s general view that Trump is a numpty.

I’m not raising these questions because I believe there isn’t empathy by many abroad for the citizens of the USA who are truly suffering due to the destructive nature of Trump and his administration. Nor do I deny that it’s encouraging for many good Americans* to see their own opinions and feelings echoed by those seemingly outside of the situation (very important in this age of ‘gas lighting’). I write this because I wonder if it isn’t more productive to view Trump in the context of the implications of his behavior and his actions for everyone everywhere. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be more beneficial if we all started viewing political, social and economic actions throughout the globe outside the boundaries of our own personal, cultural, or geographical perspective and began, instead, to see the connections, connect-the-dots style? Or at least try to. Isn’t context important? Isn’t it the basis of reasonable assessment of any situation? Particularly given the growing ‘interconnectedness’ of the world’s populace…

digital-dollar-sign

*Addendum: I lived in London for 13 years. Until Brexit, I considered it my adopted home and have been grateful to the city that educated me formally and personally.  Now, I have lived away from the USA for 20 years continuously. However, I have never been so saddened or embarrassed (to this degree) by America till now, and the protest in London does give one a sense of affirmation, all the more important ’cause it’s a noble and respected city. And I do hope that there is a massive protest in Paris against Trump’s planned visit in November…this, too, would mean a lot both to thoughtful Americans and it would go a long way, too, to saying “no” to all that Trump personifies…



Emma by Jane Austen

emma_jane_austen_book_coverOn a long list of my favorite authors and beloved books, Jane Austen is always prominently featured. I think she’s hilarious and subversive. I’d even argue she’s a feminist. Other readers have obviously found Emma irresistible because the book has continuously been in print since 1816 (it helps, however, that it’s mandatory reading for most secondary schools in the English-speaking world).

My favorite Austen book is without-a-doubt Persuasion, even as I truly appreciate Northanger Abby. Nonetheless, this is a brief review of Emma, which I have just re-read, so while it’s fresh I thought to write a note encouraging readers to read this novel if they haven’t already.

Emma is a special work. Along with Pride and Prejudice it’s frequently adapted for film and television. Austen wrote this book shortly before she would die and by this time, she was at the height of her authorial skills. While the deceptively simple plot of Emma is similar to Austen’s other novels – a cycle of wrong-headedness, misunderstandings, remorse, penitence, and, finally, self-realization (inclusive of a romantic pairing of ‘equals’) – this work is richer in its twists-and-turns even as it maintains narrative control. Moreover, the themes of status and marriage are still relevant. As is the ‘moral’ of the book, which is that self-knowledge is elusive, and vanity a source of pain. What appeals to me most about Austen’s work in general is that they are all acute studies of humanity: “the happiest delineation of its varieties,” prompted by “the most thorough knowledge of human nature.” Her ability to create compelling and universal characters is awe-inspiring. Sly and subtle observations, humorous quips and asides, and we’re chuckling at the foibles and frustrations of humankind. Moreover, the omniscient narrator, which Austen had perfected by the time she wrote Emma, means the reader is privy to the innermost thoughts of our heroine as she finds her way through the narrative. And this heroine is complex and difficult. Austen famously wrote to a friend that in Emma she had created “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s true. There are times when I find Emma’s character repugnant – snobbish, rude, obstinate, foolish and thoughtless – but then I find patience and kindness for her. She is young after all, and she doesn’t mean to be hurtful. In the end, I find my own best nature in my judgement of Emma, which parallels the heroine’s own journey, and makes for a richer literary experience.

 

 



Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell

indexAn English friend of mine loaned me this “must read” book because she had so thoroughly enjoyed it and wanted me to share in the experience. Indeed, Queen of the Desert: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell by Georgina Howell is fascinating because Bell is a strong female character and the Middle East remains relevant.

The book begins with Bell’s birth in 1868 to industrialists in the North of England. Outspoken and quick-witted, she became a historian, a linguist, an “Arabist,” an archaeologist, a mountaineer, an author, and a photographer. After many explorations into the Arabian deserts and a passion for Arabian culture, she became one of the architects for an independent kingdom in Iraq, helping to put its first king, Faisal, safely onto the throne in 1921.

Queen of the Desert is superbly researched and includes Bell’s own writing, both published and unpublished. However, while I admired Bell’s courage and persistence, I was not particularly intrigued by her personal story. Even as she was a woman in a man’s world who achieved things most women wouldn’t dream of, she was the daughter of an extremely privileged family with immense resources at her disposal. Instead, I found the information about the history and politics of the region captivating. The insight into the historical meddling from foreign countries, the social protocols of the desert, the diverse sects that abound throughout the Middle East, and their respective perceptions of the world as well as their feudal wars, are, in my opinion, the most engrossing aspects of this book. The information gained from reading Queen of the Desert also made me realize that the challenges that existed at the turn of the 20th century in the Middle East still exist today.

 



Open Letter to the English regarding “Brexit”
June 14, 2016, 11:17 am
Filed under: From the Soap Box | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

imagesMy love affair with England began in 1990. I was an undergraduate student in London. I loved the particular energy of the city. The diversity of shoes on display in shop windows and on people’s feet. The apartments over ground floor shops. The double-decker red buses. The black cabs. The deep, smelly, hole-in-the-wall pubs. The trains. The humor – which is everywhere – from the people you meet casually or in passing, to radio and TV broadcasts, to one’s friends. The literature. Oh, the great literature. The libraries. The music. The history. The architecture. The pride. The Indian food. The bacon sandwiches and brown sauce. The pastoral countryside. The rivers. In fact, returning to the USA, I moved to New York City because it was the closest approximation of London that I could find in America. In the years since, I have repeatedly returned to London to live – for graduate school and, later, for work. It’s the only place I’ve lived – of several – which I continually and almost religiously, return to. Livings as I do now in an unnatural habitat for me (and at the risk of sounding dramatic) my regular visits to London are the lifeline that sustains me. Without that vibrant, majestic, complicated, dirty city and my community of friends – honed over 25 years through school and work – I would be bereft.

That said, for the first time my beloved adopted country precariously sits in my heart and mind due to its likely vote to exit Europe. This makes me terribly sad, troubled and confused. Over the course of the last month or so, in London and with the English expatriates who populate the region I currently live and work in, I have been surprised to hear that they mostly favour an exit. Their reasoning? That it’s “better for England.” When I ask exactly how it’s “better for England,” their arguments are thin, though impassioned – “It’s not right that England is ruled by unelected foreign officials!” It’s been “co-opted” by people they can’t see and who are not English. Ultimately, however, it comes down to this: “We are full and can’t accept anymore.” To paraphrase a dear friend who is truly English, the motivation to exit doesn’t seem to be just from fear (tribal basics of ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’ – see Social Psychology), but from the very real difficulty in getting a GP appointment. From meeting droves of Polish and Asian people waiting in the doctor’s surgery, who are often waiting for translators for their appointment, which is an additional burden on the NHS. The desire to exit is because locals find that their kids are unable to get school places. The parents chat in a multitude of languages in the playground, which promotes fear in the English-speaking parents that their kids are being held back ‘cause they have twenty-four languages in a middle-class white school in Surrey, for example. It’s folks seeing foreign food aisles in supermarkets. British folks looking for a builder and struggling to find one that isn’t Polish, or having carers who can’t speak to them because they’re foreigners without the ability to talk competently in English. It’s black cab drivers that are losing work ‘cause there are flocks of mini cabs being driven by foreigners offering cheaper rates. It’s the fear that unwanted hordes of migrants and refugees will be granted citizenship in France or Germany and then move to England with their fresh passports. The thing is, England needs these workers. Without them, who will do the work that the average English man doesn’t want to do, certainly for a lower wage?

The ‘un-elected foreign officials’ making laws are in Belgium. They’re an amalgamation of Europeans, including the English. Moreover, it’s a miniscule fraction of the laws in England that have their origin in Europe. And likely less so with the recent concessions Cameron has received. On top of that, the laws that have been enacted in England from Europe are about the environment – housing is built to an environmental standard and there are incentives to make one’s homes more environmentally sustainable. The waterways of England have been greatly cleaned up and are protected by EU laws regarding dumping and waste. The EU protects workers rights in an environment of vicious capitalism. For example, the right to ask for overtime pay if your employer requires that you work more than 48 hours a week is protected by an EU law. And if you’re into vicious capitalism (or simply growth and invention), the EU allows English companies to trade and expand more easily, thereby creating jobs and revenue for the country. The EU protects human rights laws –the ability to have a safe place to live subsidized by the state for example. The lack of wars and infighting between countries within the EU has ceased since the 1950’s, when the EU was just a good idea – one that took decades to create and enact and which has consequently ensured peace between the nations of Europe since the (that’s only just over 60 years of peace!). What about the sharing of information? If England secedes, there will not be the same level of cooperation between countries to find a given ‘bad guy’ (and there are already problems given language and bureaucratic realities). Freedom of movement for the English and their children is a product of the EU. The ability to buy houses in warmer countries outside the UK. The ability to work and live out your retirement on the continent with protection for health and welfare as you age, are products of the EU. Low airfares to/from the continent for holidays are a product of the EU. Protection during your package holiday such as travel insurance and charlatan deals are a product of the EU. The ability to buy loads of wine and cheese ‘cheaply’ with a mere crossing of the channel is the result of the EU. The hordes being held on distant shores are the product of the EU – without the EU, the reception will be in Dover, not Calais. Lack of roaming charges on mobile phones is a EU invention (and hasn’t even gone into effect yet). If England exits, it will be the end to the welfare state most English people know. Certainly those under fifty years of age. And one still won’t get a school place or go to a GP appointment without incident or have more material possibilities outside the EU because it’s lack of good management and long term planning that are the problem as well as inequitable distribution of wealth.

I do understand those desiring a frustrated exit from the EU, even as I disagree. I, too, worry about practical and material possibilities for my child in the future. I worry about the influx of migrants – the Trojan horse theory that there will be ‘bad ones’ mixed in with the ‘good ones’ simply seeking a safe haven for their families has entered my construct of reality, too. I am troubled by the prospective entry of Turkey into the EU. I appreciate the country, its beauty, history and music, but it’s not a culture that shares the same values as other European nations – which includes England – about gender roles, education, religion, marriage, work, freedom of speech, and penalties to criminal offenders. Why then would they be a part of the EU? Well, that’s a larger argument about global tactics, side deals, and corruption. The Brexiters are right to complain about the EU’s endless hassles, choices, and its bureaucratic administration, but one does not change things from without. One changes them from within.

Referring to the primal fear in England that the country is losing its national identity, it begs the following questions: despite being a country of immigrants, when you think of Americans, do they not share a common identity in your mind? (For better or for worse). In an increasingly global world, where increased knowledge of other cultures – namely languages – is a practical benefit, why would one want to eliminate that exposure for your children? (Also, look at the neuroscience regarding bilingual abilities and the positive effect on a child’s brain). Does it make sense to break the bonds with your neighbours in such troubled times?

In my opinion, the finest qualities of the English are their language, their humour, their resourceful stoicism, and their generosity. Would not the best way to ‘fight’ the feeling of losing one’s identity be to uphold these values despite the seemingly fierce opposition to them? Figure out ways to teach foreigners the native language and bring ‘em over to the English POV. Find the ways to solve the real problems of mismanagement, poor bureaucratic processes, and lack of material possibilities and wealth (starting with the NHS, the Inland Revenue, namely tax evaders, and foreign home ownership would be a good start). Dearest England, despite your fears and frustration, act in solidarity for what is essentially a good idea for everyone, including you. The European Union is a positive force, not a negative one. Personally, I fear that I’m going to lose friends over this vote…I might find it hard to look those opposed to the EU in the eye because to me a vote to exit is on par with a vote for Trump (who supports Brexit btw) — it’s yielding to the lowest common denominator in each of us.

A few resources for information on Brexit:

http://www.theguardian.com/global/video/2016/may/31/eu-referendum-brexit-for-non-brits-video-explainer?CMP=share_btn_link

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/comment/what-would-brexit-mean-for-travellers/

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-32810887