November 11th 2016
"If Liberals are so f***ing smart, how come they lose so god-damn always?" - Will McAvoy, The Newsroom
Those words, spoken by a Republican character but written by a firm Democrat (Aaron Sorkin) feel very pertinent at the moment. Three times in the last year and a half the liberals, for want of a better word, have unexpectedly lost a democratic vote: the 2015 general election; the EU referendum; and the recent US presidential election. If, as the man says (and the stats indicate, if university education can be taken as a proxy), liberals are so smart, how come they keep on losing?
In the first of those three elections I was on the other side: a Conservative voter who rejoiced in victory. In the second I straddled the fence for a long time before coming down on the side of Remain. But this time I'm firmly on their side. I may not like Hillary much, but Donald Trump is fundamentally unfit for office: a misogynist, a braggart, a seemingly pathological liar, and, if not actually racist, then certainly an inciter of racism. And if that were not enough, his policy platform - including a blithe promise, made in his acceptance speech, to double growth - is dust. So, how did the other side - my side - lose?
The short answer is that I don't know; I have no expertise whatsoever on American politics, and if you came here expecting a detailed analysis on voting patterns in Idaho then I'm afraid you'll be disappointed. The long answer is most of the rest of this blog post. Let's start with how liberals - a word I'll keep using here, as shorthand for each respective losing side - react to democratic defeat. And it ain't pretty.
Forgive me, but the reaction on social media after some of these defeats has been extraordinary, almost as if people were competing with each other to see who could be the most hysterical. After the EU referendum, Libby Purves noted, some responded "as if nobody ever had a foreign friend before Directive 2004/38/EC"; people proclaimed themselves citizens of the EU first and foremost, waving flags in the street (where on earth did they find EU flags?) and planning hasty exits to Ireland. All this for a "vote against a 43-year-old administrative arrangement."
With Donald Trump, I admit, it is not the same: he truly is awful. But I'm not sure who benefits from another tweeted comparison to Hitler; just because a strong reaction is appropriate doesn't mean an overreaction is impossible.
A word of hope: it is said that politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose. Trump's campaign may have been a series of dirty limericks, but he has not yet started governing.
2. Believing the worst of their opponents
Another quote from a Republican character written by Aaron Sorkin, this time Ainsley Hayes in The West Wing: "I find this administration smug and patronising, and under the impression that those who disagree with them are less than they are, and with colder hearts."
I have written before about the tendency of the Left to assume that their opponents' motives are the worst that could be conjectured: a vote for the Tories was a vote against the poor; a vote for Leave was a vote for xenophobia; a vote for Trump was a vote for racism. Yes, there are racist voters among Trump's polling numbers, and sexists too. But you won't know why people voted for him unless you ask them; unfortunately, particularly for those of us in the UK, it is difficult to find Trump voters among our social interactions, but I suggest that we try.
3. Blaming everyone else
Following Labour's failure to win the 2015 general election under Ed Miliband, they published Margaret Beckett's 'Learning the Lessons from Defeat Taskforce Report'. I have read it but apparently you can't - it is now marked as private - so you'll have to take my word for it when I say that it comprehensively failed in its analysis of the defeat. Essentially, the blame for the Tories' election victory was put at the feet of... the Tories. Miliband and his party were just too good for this world, and were misled by the polls (fair enough), but there seemed to be few actual lessons learned.
This seems to be an ongoing theme, where genuine questions about how defeat happened and how it could be avoided in future are bypassed in favour of blaming the media, the system, the opponents or the voters.
4. Trying to subvert democracy
This is a relatively new one, I think, and it's ugly. After each of the three democratic defeats, there have been protest marches against the results: an anti-Tory march in 2015, a pro-EU march earlier this year and anti-Trump protests today. There are suggestions that the Leave vote should be blocked in parliament, and even that US electoral college representatives should ignore the people and cast their votes for Hillary. Trump was rightly derided when he suggested that he would accept the result of the vote, but only if he won; I did not expect this to become a template for his opponents. Imagine if this worked. Imagine if the government of the day were decided by the loudest voices in the street. Imagine what that would say to the world.
Not everyone has reacted in these ways, of course: I speak largely in generalisations, and it has been encouraging to see some people - including, today, my brother - trying to engage with their counterparts and understand the other side of the argument: Aaron Sorkin, whom I've quoted twice, has always been good at that (although the magnitude of Trump's failings have led even him to pen this letter). Let me see what I can add.
As I've said, I am far from an expert on American politics, and - although I think all four points I've raised above apply both sides of the Atlantic, and help to explain the defeat - much of what I've picked up from the UK simply doesn't translate to the US political scene. For example, in this country it is almost always the case that the more central party wins the election: in my lifetime the Conservative party have largely been good at understanding this, responding to electoral defeat by coming back towards the centre. The Labour party have typically reacted differently, believing that the way to the people's hearts lies towards the left, hence Jeremy Corbyn. The only leader who led them towards the centre ground has been denounced ever since for the heresy of his victory.
As I say, in America things seem to work differently, and in order to win the nomination candidates find themselves reaching towards the far wings of their parties, the Republicans even more so than the Democrats. Whereas UK political battles are typically fought over the centre ground, the stampede in the USA is to the flanks (if I may confuse my military metaphors horrendously); anything approaching common ground is deemed a betrayal. The result, therefore, is that the USA is about as polarised as a country can be, with 60m+ voting for Hillary and 60m+ voting for Trump. While there are certainly millions of people in this country who would never dream of voting Conservative - and similarly for Labour - it is not yet as tribal or definitive as it seems to be in the USA. Say what you like about Obama, but he hasn't exactly brought the country together.
For all that, the Democrats didn't help themselves by nominating Hillary Clinton. I will not attempt an in-depth analysis of her character, politics or history of scandals (although, to counterbalance my reference to Trump's pathological lying, it would be remiss of me not to highlight her own troubled relationship with the truth - e.g. her misspeaking in 2008); enough to say that she was wildly unpopular in the country, and that this must have been known by the people nominating her. Whatever her merits - and they are many - it is difficult to imagine a candidate more likely to be voted against - unless it's the hard-left socialist Bernie Sanders.
Another way in which US politics differs from ours is the nastiness of the campaigns. These may have reached a nadir this year, but even so it has long been commonplace for negative advertising to predominate, and you need only read what Hillary said about Barack Obama when they were running against each other in 2008 to know that it happens on both sides. So, while Trump's denouncements of Hillary (and his Republican rivals) have been ugly, I think that they sound uglier to our ears than to those on the other side of the Atlantic.
So much for character, what about policy? Well, where Trump has stated definitive policy, it has mostly sounded like madness to us. Growing up with the NHS, the polemics against Obamacare sound absurd; similarly the wall on the border with Mexico is impossible to take seriously, and the ban on all Muslims entering the country seems unhinged (will there be an option for religious conversion at check-in?). But in the insular parts of America, where the only Muslims you know are the ones who blow themselves up on TV, it's easy to see how that last idea might gain traction.
And then, of course, there's abortion. Never a political issue in this country, the pro-life / pro-choice debate (although the positions are far more often shouted than debated) is a key one in America. And while Trump's views on women are horrific, so too - to millions of Americans and, indeed, to me - are Hillary's views on abortion. When the question is raised how a Christian can vote for someone who talks and acts like Trump (a professed Christian himself; I will never definitively say that another person is not a believer if he claims to be, as we are all sinners), abortion is often the first point raised. It is one of the reasons that, essentially, it was evangelical voters who won it for Trump: a recent poll puts them at 45:31 for him.
For large parts of America, to be a Christian is to be right wing. My brother (to take a smaller sample size) has repeatedly said that the gospel message is left wing. It has never been unusual for Christian subsets to believe that theirs is the only true way of following God. Personally, I think it is clear that the Bible is neither right wing nor left wing, and that it is impossible to believe it is unless you fundamentally misunderstand either politics or the gospel (and, for what it's worth, I'm confident that my brother does not misunderstand the gospel). I blush to raise points so obvious, but the Bible has nothing to say on fiscal or monetary policy, on public ownership vs. privatisation, on defence spending, on the size of government, or on any number of other areas where the right and left disagree. Neither wing has a monopoly on moral virtue - or, indeed, on hatefulness (just talk to Momentum).
I think it is also true - though perhaps less clear - that it is not always easy to translate the 'Christian' behaviour of an individual to that of a government. Let me give an example. Jesus once told a rich young man to sell all he had and give to the poor; to over-simplify horribly, you could say that, were I to give all I had to the poor, I would be behaving in a 'Christian' way. However, I am also treasurer of my church. If I were to take all the money that people had donated, and give it to the poor - thereby meaning that we could no longer pay salaries, or keep the lights on - before asking for more donations, I would not be a good steward of that money. It is difficult to see how the situation would be improved, or the behaviour become more 'Christian', if the donators were in fact compelled to provide the money through a system of taxation.
I have become side-tracked, sorry, but I wanted to get that off my chest. If nothing else, it might serve to give an insight into the views of people who disagree with you.
Back to Trump. I say once more, he is not fit to be president. But no one ever won an election by telling the other side that they were idiots, and there is no hope for the future of America (or, indeed, the UK) if we don't reach out and try to understand those whose views and votes are different to ours. "Now it is time for America to bind the wounds of division", as the president-elect said, in a surprisingly conciliatory speech.
So, two requests. Firstly, if you can, please find a Trump-voter and ask them why. Secondly, pray. That works, whichever side you're on.
November 27th 2016
Black Friday? Black WHYday, more like!
I have spent much of the last week chuntering about Black Friday, as I have done annually for each of the last few years. It is an utter absurdity. I'm not particularly complaining about the gradual Americanisation (Americanization?) of our culture, or about materialism - more on that later - or even about the fact that people are now pretending that Black Friday is a tradition here of many years' standing, depsite the fact that none of us had ever heard of it until about six years ago. No, my main gripe is that Black Friday makes absolutely no sense whatsoever in a country that doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving.
You see (quick and possibly inaccurate history lesson here, for anyone whose head is still spinning from Black Friday being dumped on an unsuspecting Britain at around the same time that we were sending One Direction back in the opposite, er, direction), Thanksgiving is always on a Thursday. It is a public holiday in the USA. Rather than take the Thursday off and then pop back into work on the Friday, a lot of Americans would take the Friday off too and make a long weekend of it. Since they were off work, they headed down to the shops - the mall, as I believe they like to call it - to buy some stuff. This was the day that many shops turned profitable for the year, or, if you will, went into the black. Black Friday. Bosh. (I learned much of this from the TV series Chuck, which I recommend in passing). Anyway, the point is, it happened organically.
Now, I don't celebrate Thanksgiving. You don't celebrate Thanksgiving. I was in work on Thursday - and Friday - and my thoughts hardly ever turned to turkey on either of those days; why on earth would I commemorate the day after Thanksgiving if I didn't give two figs about the day itself? (I'm also a little hazy about what exactly our American friends are giving thanks for. Something to do with pilgrims, I'm pretty sure, and yams, and possibly all the friendly land-sharing they did with the Native Americans... I wonder how that turned out). The whole Black Friday thing is like having Boxing Day Sales in a country that doesn't pay any attention to Christmas. It's like celebrating Christmas Eve but not the big day itself; or marking Hallowe'en without celebrating... actually, bad example.
It's not even that I'm against buying stuff. I did, in fact, buy something in a 'Black Friday Sale' (although I'm not sure how much the price was affected by the day). It's not like I'm boycotting anything. I just think it's unaccountably crazy that we have this day in our calendars.
I made mention of this on Facebook - without all the rambling, above, which comes as a blog exclusive - and a couple of people commented that Black Friday is also a pretty ridiculous day in America; all that materialism coming just a day after giving thanks for what people already have. I am sure a long a thoughtful blog could be written about the dangers of materialism, but this ain't gonna be it, because I think it might verge on the hypocritical if I wrote it: I have taken great joy in material 'things', from my first Wolves shirt, to my Beatles LPs, to Pluggy. Sure, I'm not obsessed with getting the latest cars, technology or fashion, but that's really mostly because I'm just not interested in those things - it is not the product of any moral restraint.
Also, I think there's a danger in distinguishing between the material and the non-material (immaterial?) in this way; while there is a moral danger in desiring expensive items - hence the commandment about not coveting your neighbour's possessions - false idols don't have to have a price tag on them. They don't even have to be, in and of themselves, bad things: coveting a fulfilling job, a close group of friends, or marriage; there is as much danger in these things - much more, for me, over the years - as there is in coveting a 50-inch TV or a $1,000 coat.
So, if I did Thanksgiving, I think that's what I'd try to learn. Give thanks to God for what you have got, rather than focusing on what you haven't. Especially if the things you haven't got are not being sold on Amazon the next day.
|what was I listening to?
Lifesong - Casting Crowns
|what was I reading?
Firefly: A Celebration - Joss Whedon et al
|what was I watching?
Digging for Fire