MADMEN

Well, it takes one to know one. Kim Jong-un referring to Donald Trump as ‘mentally deranged’ following the US President’s characteristically blustering speech at the United Nations this week was at least a diagnosis delivered by someone who recognised the signs. The war of words between Washington and Pyongyang has accelerated again, although on the same day that Iran’s response to Trump’s criticism of them was manifested as defiantly launching a ballistic missile, the American Air Force decided to fly bombers across the fringes of North Korea’s east coast – upping the testosterone ante somewhat. There’s a lot of muscle-flexing and macho posturing going on at the moment, and though the sanity of the guilty parties is regularly questioned, I think sanity is probably one of the first casualties of power, anyway.

The actions of leaders on the world stage are often engineered to provoke the biggest impact back home, and there are suspicions that one of the ways in which the organised crime dynasty ruling North Korea is retaining its grip on the country is by overstating its global significance. The people of North Korea – or at least those not breaking rocks for the thought crimes of their ancestors – are force-fed propaganda on a daily basis that tells them how important their country is; to the North Korean people, footage of Kim Jong-un viewing missile launches and surveying the troops convey the image of a great statesman leading a great nation; if he has the nerve to repeatedly stick two fingers up at America, Kim Jong-un must be the man the media proclaims him to be.

Twice in the last month, North Korea has flown missiles over Japan, but in the wake of Kim Jong-un’s reaction to Trump’s UN speech, his foreign minister said that one option open to the great dictator was ‘the strongest hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific’. Last time an atmospheric nuclear detonation took place on the planet was in 1980, carried out by China; China’s nuclear programme from the 60s onwards had been underestimated by the west just as North Korea’s has been, and Kim Jong-un could regard such a potentially devastating test as a means of proving he means business if Trump’s confrontational rhetoric is to be taken seriously. Needless to say, the damage to not only marine life, but to the environment as a whole in the Pacific should this happen is scary. Even scarier is the thought of an accident en route. A missile carrying a H-bomb accidentally plummeting down and landing on Japanese soil could have unthinkable ramifications.

A few weeks ago I bumped into an acquaintance of mine who told me she was going away for six months – to Japan. Her son lives there, having married a Japanese woman, and while I wished her well, I couldn’t help but think there might be some safer locations in the world to spend the next half-a-year. Going by current standards, though, not many. Mind you, the lady in question has been around long enough to have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, so I should imagine she’s used up her quota of sleepless nights. The fact she’ll be residing in the same geographical neck of the woods as the world’s incumbent Public Enemy Number One also probably won’t unduly bother her; the alternative was returning home to visit her elderly mother, but as she’s American, that prospect doesn’t sound too appetising either.

For all the endless foot-stamping, placard-waving protest of Trump’s most vocal critics, the fact they live in a country where they can criticise their President without looking forward to ending their days in a labour camp is worth remembering. The ridicule Dubya received during his tenure in the White House looks like gentle leg-pulling in comparison to the treatment meted out to the Donald, though those meting it out are still allowed to do so free from fear of being carted off and never seen again. Faced with persistent provocation from North Korea, Trump is naturally going to respond; but Trump being Trump means this response will inevitably be in the style of an NFL coach bigging up his team on the eve of the Superbowl. Trump gave his adoring supporters exactly what they asked for when he spoke at the UN, whereas those on the other side were understandably appalled by his ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ approach. Obama would have done things differently, but Obama hardly left the world a safer place than how he found it by doing things differently.

One positive move amidst the rather tense atmosphere has come from China – still the one country in a real position to cut North Korea down to size without resorting to nuclear options; in response to the latest UN sanctions, China has reduced the amount of oil it supplies to its troublesome trading partner and has also stopped buying North Korean textiles. The latter might not sound much, but many of the clothes that have a ‘Made in China’ label sown into them emanate from North Korea, and the ban could cost the country upwards of £350m a year. As for the oil, North Korea purchased almost 2.2 million barrels from China last year, so that will hurt it too.

Kim Jong-un has no qualms over murdering members of his own family to ensure he remains in power, so flouting international laws and the authority of the UN probably doesn’t cause him any existential angst. And, ironically, there are enough of Trump’s own countrymen who regard their President as a dangerous idiot to find themselves in agreement with the Asian Ro-land’s opinion of the Donald. As Ray Davies once said, it’s a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world.

© The Editor

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SONG OF THE SOUTH

When Belfast City Council voted to break with tradition in 2012 by reducing the flying of the Union Flag atop City Hall from 365 to 18 days a year, the more vociferous wing of the Unionist community greeted the announcement with violent protests. A couple of days ago, marking the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, bonfires were lit across Unionist strongholds of the province, many of which were decorated with photos of prominent Sinn Fein politicians. I only nod to our neighbours over the Irish Sea to make a roundabout point on how the issues that enflame passions on both sides of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland barely register on the mainland; they’re viewed by the rest of the UK (with the possible exception of Glasgow) as parochial concerns unique to Ulster and characteristic of a land with an extremely long memory.

Even with the high profile suddenly afforded the DUP in the wake of Theresa May’s golden handshake, the ‘street politics’ of Northern Ireland rarely attract outsiders to the barricades, something that can’t be said of another divided community from a region with a similarly turbulent history several thousand miles away – Virginia. The dramatic and ugly events that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia at the weekend didn’t have their source material in religious divisions, but race – the most contentious of all American issues that just won’t go away. Not even eight years of a black President could sort it.

Virginia was one of the four slave states from the ‘Upper South’ of the US that, along with Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina, joined the original seven Southern secessionist states in the Confederacy during the Civil War. Its history, now so bound-up with the Confederacy and its aftermath, predates that era considerably, with Virginia being the first English colony in the New World, established as far back as 1607. But it was also prominent among the 13 colonies that broke with British rule and has a claim as being the birthplace of the USA; it certainly was the birthplace of eight US Presidents, for one thing.

Like the rest of the states in the South, Virginia had a segregationist policy in place until the civil rights movement of the 1960s gradually led to a repeal of the remaining Jim Crow laws; but its past, like many of its neighbours’ pasts, continues to attract the attention of those for whom integration remains a greater threat to making America great again than the hardware in Kim Jong Un’s toy-box.

Recent attempts to reduce the high visibility of the Confederate Flag in the Southern states have gone hand-in-hand with a concerted programme to remove statues of, and monuments to, Confederate heroes from public places; and these efforts at erasing a history that sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of modern America have served to ignite the ire of white Southern natives proud of their inheritance, as well as white supremacists from different parts of the country who exploit the situation to promote their cause. When Washington belatedly addressed the iniquities and inequality of the South in the 60s by outlawing its segregationist traditions, the white population claimed the rest of the US didn’t understand the South and there’s probably a grain of truth in that. The South was seen as something of an embarrassment that contradicted America’s international reputation as the Land of the Free; the South was a place where the past remained present.

The ongoing contemporary operation to change the perception of the South, not only for outsiders but also for those who live there, has been characterised by the official removal of ‘negative’ symbols relating to its past; though whereas the pulling down of statues during an uprising or revolution tends to come from the emancipated population itself, the policy of removing them that has been taking place across the South of late is a decision of federal government. Many have viewed this decision as symptomatic of rewriting American history, a rewrite that fails to acknowledge aspects of it that don’t complement the image America likes to project of itself. There are also concerns that by erasing the visible legacy of the Confederacy, future generations are being presented with a lopsided story of their country, one without warts and all, and one depriving them of a history they could learn from.

Plans to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, Confederate Civil War general, in Charlottesville led to the town being invaded on Saturday by a ‘Unite the Right’ march, bringing in angry white men from all over America for a rally that was destined to be met with a counter-rally. Whatever valid points had a right to be made didn’t stand a chance of being heard; both sides were infiltrated by those whose intentions were obvious from the start, many of whom had little or nothing to do with the part of the country they headed for.

The relatively liberal college town of Charlottesville was hijacked by opposing sides looking for a battlefield. The far-from spotless ‘Black Lives Matter’ crowd were accompanied by the masked men from ‘antifa’ – an abbreviation of ‘anti-fascist’ – who have a reputation as violent left-wing anarchists; they were the group responsible for the trouble that occurred in Washington on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Those under the Alt-Right banner included neo-Nazis as well as that old mainstay always up for a fight, the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK are almost to the South what the Orangemen are to Ulster, though for all their shared pseudo-Masonic ritualism and shameful record of gerrymandering, the Orangemen are a long way from the Klan when it comes to provoking and stoking hatred in the most sinister manner.

What was already a predictable and unedifying clash on Saturday plumbed especially appalling depths when one lunatic ironically took a leaf out of the Jihadi manual and drove a car directly at protestors; his efforts were responsible for 19 injuries and one death. The white supremacists, who view President Trump as ‘their man’, were gratified that the Donald seemed reluctant to attribute blame for events to them, though the majority of the Alt Right (to whom Trump owes a great debt) probably regard the extremists who descended upon Charlottesville with the same abhorrence as the left views the ‘antifa’. It would certainly suit the narrative of the moment to lump together anyone who questions or challenges the anti-Trump consensus into one hate-fuelled, racist mob; but unfortunately, it’s not quite so…erm…black and white.

© The Editor

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BACK (STABBING) IN THE USA

All too often, that celebrated US sitcom known as ‘The Trump Presidency’ hits heights worthy of a script penned by Larry David. With the disappointing departure of wacky White House Spokesman Sean Spicer, it seemed the loss of such a colourful cast-member risked the show never being the same again; lo and behold, however, the Donald hired his replacement on the same day, and Anthony Scaramucci has quickly settled into Spicer’s shoes by proving to be instantly popular with viewers. Mr Scaramucci made an immediate impact in a classic episode that saw him interviewed by Emily Maitlis, and has also maintained the tradition of washing dirty linen in public by launching a personal attack on White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus – with hilarious, as they say, consequences.

Beyond the fourth wall, the serious business of running the USA hasn’t been quite so side-splitting. Over on Capitol Hill last night, it was drama rather than comedy that dominated proceedings as the Senate debated the President’s repeal of ‘Obamacare’. This was the third attempt to repeal the healthcare act of Trump’s predecessor, and the third failure. The bill became known as the ‘Skinny’ repeal, due to it being a scaled-down version of a total repeal that it was reckoned all Senate Republicans could agree to. Had the bill succeeded, it would still have left an estimated 16 million Americans losing their health insurance within a decade as well as a 20% increase in insurance premiums for those fortunate enough to keep it.

What made the defeat an especially bitter pill for the Trump administration to swallow is that three prominent Republican Senators – Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and former Presidential candidate John McCain – voted against the bill and contributed significantly to its defeat in the process; the latter member of the trio was apparently badgered by Vice President Mike Pence for the best part of 20 minutes in a desperate attempt to get the veteran Republican to vote according to the President’s wishes, before taking his place alongside a group of enthusiastic Democrats as the bill was voted down by the tantalisingly tight margin of 51 votes to 49. Trump’s response was to claim all three Republican turncoats ‘let America down’; but for McCain in particular it was an opportunity for revenge.

During his run for the Presidency in 2008, much was made of John McCain’s Vietnam War record. After being shot down on a bombing raid over Hanoi in 1967, McCain was a Prisoner of War for six years and suffered appalling torture at the hands of his captors that has left him with lifelong physical disabilities, most famously the fact he cannot raise his hands fully above his head. McCain entered politics a decade after his return from Vietnam, but has long had something of a reputation as a ‘maverick’, not always prone to toeing the party line. His run for the Presidency in 2008 saw him lose to Barack Obama, though his cause probably wasn’t helped by the selection of the execrable Sarah Palin as his running-mate. Nevertheless, he has remained one of the most recognisable and respected Washington veterans – not that this counted for much where Donald Trump was concerned.

During the embryonic stages of his efforts to gain the Republican nomination for 2016, Trump mocked McCain’s record in Vietnam by saying he preferred ‘heroes who weren’t captured’. It should be noted that, though of an eligible age, Trump himself conveniently avoided the Vietnam draft like one of his White House predecessors, Dubya; he also didn’t enlist as a volunteer or consider joining the Reserve Officer Training Corps; as a student, he obtained four deferments and was given a further medical deferment when threatened with the draft in 1968 on the grounds of ‘heel spurs’, which was nice.

A man such as McCain, with over thirty years in politics, will have developed an extremely thick skin by now, but a crass comment along the lines of the one Trump made was bound to rankle; last night, he had the chance to give the President the finger and he took it. Trump’s avowed intention to get rid of Obamacare now seemingly stands in tatters, largely thanks to a man whose recent diagnosis with a serious brain tumour means he really doesn’t have anything to lose. That he returned to active politics just a couple of weeks after brain surgery shows he’s quite a tough cookie.

Ironically, McCain had spoken out against Obamacare and the need for it to be replaced during his re-election campaign in 2016, though by the time he came to cast a decisive vote yesterday evening, his opposition to the proposals on the table appeared to stem more from his disapproval of the clandestine manner in which the bill was prepared. McCain made a speech a couple of days before last night’s vote calling for a ‘return to regular order’ when it comes to lawmaking, so it was perhaps no surprise that – coupled with the urge to get one over the President – McCain should side with Democrats at the eleventh hour.

The ‘Skinny’ repeal compromise was regarded as the only version Republicans might be able to get through Congress; its defeat means there are no other prospective bills on the cards to repeal Obamacare; despite this, Trump tweeted in the aftermath of the vote ‘As I said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode, then deal.’ At the same time, one of Trump’s early rivals for last year’s Republican nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, declared ‘Mark my words, this journey is not yet done.’ It probably won’t be in the long-term, but for now it is; and the Republicans have one of their own to thank for it.

© The Editor

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DIG FOR VICTORY

Trump and Russia – it’s the gift that keeps giving and one that continues to give hope to those who couldn’t accept the Donald’s victory last November. Fake news issues aside, the problem with the constant insinuations and rumours that have bedevilled the Trump presidency ever since before the inauguration is that they simply won’t go away; even if there has yet to be any absolute and indisputable proof that Russia played its part in Trump’s triumph, small scraps are being constantly thrown up as teasing trailers for the Big Reveal. How long do we have to wait for it, though? Shouldn’t we have had it by now?

There are too many with a vested interest in Trump’s removal from office to let the Russia connection slip off the radar, and their constant carping in media circles makes it hard to sometimes see the wood for the trees. How deep does Russian involvement in Trump’s victory go, and was there any real involvement at all? Some of us just want the facts, but there are so many conflicting elements at the heart of this ongoing story that it’s often difficult to decide what genuine crimes have been committed and what angles are being promoted merely to undermine the current administration at the White House.

President Trump’s son Donald Jr meeting a Russian lawyer during the Presidential Election campaign and being promised ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton was something daddy’s boy decided to confirm to the media this week as a pre-emptive strike against the New York Times. Even if Trump Jr claims the meeting was ‘a wasted 20 minutes’ and excavated no desired dirt, the release of emails confirming the heir to the Trump fortune did indeed meet with a certain Natalia Veselnitskaya during the campaign in the hope of gaining an advantage over his father’s opponent can be viewed as further proof that the Kremlin had an influence on the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election – or not. Ms Veselnitskaya apparently carries no weight whatsoever in Russian government circles.

Those of us who remember the ‘hanging chads’ debacle of 2000 will know by now that long-running sagas arising from contentious Presidential Elections are nothing new, and the allegations surrounding Russia and Trump are the latest in a series of awkward associations that perhaps stretch as far back as JFK’s Mafia connections in 1960. Unless definite evidence emerges one way or the other, the rumours will linger as long as people are interested enough to pursue them, and Trump has so many enemies in America that the interests of those who are desperately seeking any advantage they can gain over the Donald will naturally receive excessive media coverage, whether rooted in genuine fact or not.

The President has unsurprisingly leapt to his son’s defence this week via the medium that Trump Senior depends upon as a means of sidestepping what he perceives as a perennially hostile press – Twitter; he regards coverage of Trump Junior’s confession as ‘the great witch-hunt in political history’. At the same time, the Kremlin has denied the lawyer who had dealings with Trump’s son had any damaging info on Clinton, while the lawyer herself also claims she wasn’t in possession of the kind of goods that could have been useful to the Trump campaign, despite the fact that she met the President Elect’s son at Trump Tower in June 2016.

It goes without saying that any kind of dirt on one’s political opponent can be regarded as an advantage during a campaign, so if Trump’s son thought he had the likelihood of receiving any last year he’d have been foolish to spurn the opportunity; but Hillary Clinton had such an impressive back catalogue of accessible dirt already available in the public arena that one cannot but wonder why Team Trump had to enter into any association with Russian representatives to add to that back catalogue. One can only assume naivety played its part, perhaps; after all, this was one of the most inexperienced teams in terms of public office ever to run for the White House. Then again, that’s assuming there was any collusion between Trump and Russia in 2016, and the jury remains out on it.

2016’s no-holds-barred campaign was characterised by dirt-digging; yes, dirt is an integral element of political campaigning, but both sides dug deeper for it in 2016 than had ever been seen before. The bizarre line-up of women pushed forward who claimed to have been sexually preyed upon by either Trump or Mr Clinton was just one ugly aspect of the campaign that marked it out as uniquely amoral. But a foreign government allegedly intervening in a US Presidential Election is a new development; lest we forget, it’s a tactic usually reserved for the US itself, certainly where numerous South American countries have been concerned over the decades.

Trump claims he asked Putin if Russia had intervened when the pair met in person for the first time during last week’s G20 summit; naturally, Vlad denied the allegations, and the President appears satisfied with that denial. He also claims he had no idea his son met the Russian lawyer until a few days ago, though added he wouldn’t have objected had he known at the time. It must be endlessly frustrating for Trump’s opponents that they just can’t get hold of what they really want; maybe they never will because it simply isn’t out there. But I’ve no doubt they’ll keep digging.

© The Editor

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NEIGHBOURS FROM HELL

The ominous spectre of a totalitarian regime transplanted to a western setting was a regular feature of dystopian post-war fiction for decades, covering everything from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ through to television dramas like ‘1990’ (produced by BBC2 in 1977). The worst development for a democratic society was perceived to be adopting the Eastern Bloc model, though it proved to be a fruitful source of material for dramatists. Watching any new broadcasts from North Korea in 2017 – especially in the last couple of days – one cannot help but shiver at the way in which they appropriate all the clichés from futuristic fiction produced in the late twentieth century and come across as especially toe-curling. Then the viewer remembers that, for North Korean viewers, this is actually the real deal; this is what they see whenever they switch their TV sets on.

The news that North Korea’s latest foray into punching above its limited weight has been manifested as the launching of an intercontinental ballistic missile a couple of days ago has added further layers to increasing tensions in the Far East, arguably the world’s most prescient powder-keg whilst the planet’s eyes remain focused on the Middle East. Yes, the pre-inauguration promises of The Donald to ‘deal’ with the issue of North Korea reflected an awareness of the problem the tiny rogue nation poses to world peace; but it’s probably true to say so much attention has been devoted to instability in Middle Eastern hotspots ever since the 2003 invasion of Iraq that Kim Jong-un and his bizarre regime has been allowed to progress to nuclear power status largely unimpeded.

Trump expects China to pull its finger out and lay the law down to North Korea in a way that complements its long-time role as one of the country’s few allies; but, to be fair China’s real investment in North Korea expired several years ago. Kim Jong-un’s kingdom today largely exists on its own terms, without recourse to Beijing. China has too much money and good will invested in western powers (as well as Africa) to fall back on old alliances with archaic Stalinist states that have outlived their usefulness. Prior to Nixon’s groundbreaking approaches to Maoist China in the early 70s, Peking’s isolation from Moscow had forced it to forge allegiances behind the Bamboo Curtain; today, this no longer applies. It has friends in far higher places. In many respects, North Korea is viewed by China as an embarrassing throwback to old-school Communism that has little relevance to its own free-market interpretation of Marxism.

Since the distant days of Mao and Nixon, China has healed its rifts with Russia, and the Kremlin has exploited American fears of a nuclear arsenal that could reach as far from Pyongyang to Alaska by urging both sides to stop flexing their military muscles. The implicit accusation is that both sides are as bad as each other, and with such an unpredictable character as Trump in the White House, Russia could have a point. Then again, how is the US supposed to react when one of its own states is within the sights of Kim Jong-un’s toys? When an even closer nuclear arsenal was spotted on Cuba in 1962, America’s response could have had cataclysmic consequences for the world had not Kennedy successfully called Khrushchev’s bluff. The thought of Donald Trump being placed in a similar situation is not one guaranteed to ease sleepless nights.

The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that ‘it is perfectly clear to Russia and China that any attempts to justify the use of force by referring to the UN Security Council resolutions are unacceptable, and will lead to unpredictable consequences in this region which borders both the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China’. Yes, at times, North Korea, with its endless military parades and penchant for showing off its big missiles, is reminiscent of a man constantly stressing how hard he is without actually putting his money where his mouth is; but being able to distinguish between the reality of its threat and the propaganda is difficult when few outsiders can gain access to it.

Fifteen years on from being bracketed along with Iran and Iraq as ‘The Axis of Evil’, North Korea remains a stubborn sore on the planet’s backside, led by a man even more unhinged than his late father. The phrase itself was credited to George W Bush’s speechwriter David Frum, and it reeks of old world order certainties, whereby ‘rogue states’ were headed by unelected dictators redefined as cartoon Bond villains; they ruled over specific landmasses with clearly defined borders that could be found on maps of the world. It’s no coincidence that ‘Axis of Evil’ sounds like a team of Marvel super-villains that can only be defeated by the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. Such terms simplify antiquated concepts of evil and make them palatable to a western audience raised on Good Vs Evil battles in black & white terms via the movies and the inherited memories of the Second World War, when we knew who our friends and enemies were.

It was telling that Dubya reserved his ire for Iraq above the other two members of the club, extending the simplicity of his language to describe the ‘Axis’ by assuming the problem of Iraq could be solved simply by invading the country and removing Saddam Hussein from power. Ironically, the consequences of Dubya’s intervention there have probably served to dilute his monochrome vision of evil so that what we have today is the likes of ISIS – a fluid, multi-headed, stateless organisation that may view itself as a state even if it’s no more a state as we would recognise it than Israel was before 1948. At least we can still understand North Korea. It adheres to the traditional template.

President Trump said today ‘something will have to be done’ about North Korea in response to its ‘very bad behaviour’; what that ‘something’ is remains to be seen, though America’s recent record when dealing with small, insignificant Asian countries that stand up to it isn’t exactly a blueprint for success. As the Sun said a few years back in one of its occasionally inspired front-page headlines, how do you solve a problem like Korea? It would appear nobody yet has the answer.

© The Editor

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THE AGE OF ANXIETY

In many respects, last week’s inconclusive General Election result was the perfect outcome for our indecisive times. Nobody seems to know what’s going on and what little we do know hardly fills the heart with joy. TV politicos and leader writers are frothing at the mouth because it’s undoubtedly dramatic, and chaos always makes for a far more gripping story than stability – strong or otherwise. But for many beyond the bubble, it’s the latest in a seemingly never-ending sequence of unsettling events imbued with uncertainty. A sweeping generalisation, perhaps, but mankind’s instinctive solace in dependable routine – as deep-rooted in its instinct as that of the animal kingdom – is in a permanent state of flux due to circumstances we appear to have no control over.

The surprising result of last year’s EU Referendum provoked just as much champagne cork popping as it did despondent despair; the election of Donald Trump as US President had a similar impact. At the same time, the ongoing efforts of Remainers to delay the implementation of Brexit or to even overturn the outcome altogether has led to renewed paranoia and panic on the other side that the euphoria of the Leave success will be cancelled out by the vested interests of higher powers; equally, the persistent attempts to impeach Trump by his many enemies more or less from the moment he was sworn-in on the steps of the Capitol Building has served to strengthen the vicious divisions his entrance into the presidential race sparked off in the first place.

The 24/7 howl of protest emanating from social media, itself a medium apt for the here and now in its deceptive illusion of community and friends that rarely (if ever) meet in person, is the cry of those powerless to do anything else to make their grievances heard. I suppose Twitter or Facebook could have been just as fitting a forum for the silent majority during past crises that remain in living memory for some – in 1940 or 1962, for example – but its presence today in societies that have seen their traditional structures and certainties whittled away by economic and global forces seems as predetermined as Brexit and the Donald. Even from a distance that can still only be measured by months, it already appears evident that 2016’s two seismic political earthquakes – the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election – could only end one way.

The central premise of the contemporary narrative is Project Fear. Whether in the hands of Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, ISIS or home-grown Jihadists, Project Fear has enough visible entrails leading back to its origins to fill a ten-hour Adam Curtis series, yet few care about the cause; the effect is what worries most. Footage of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal or the carnage suicide bombers and machete-wielding white van men leave in their wake sits alongside Trump’s undoing of hard-fought legislation designed to extend the lifespan of the planet or Theresa May’s desperate desire to cling onto power by doing deals with bigoted Ulstermen, presenting a resounding ‘f**k you’ to those who can do little to prevent further destabilising of their world other than scrawl graffiti on a wall or wave a placard or simply wait for the light relief of a commercial break.

Yes, the false idyll of advertising has always sold the same unattainable dreams; after all, in 1965, Bob Dylan sang ‘Advertising signs that con/you into thinking that you’re the one/that can do what’s never been done/you can win what’s never been won’. More than half-a-century on, however, in an era of rising prices, static wages, food banks and empty houses too expensive to live in, they somehow seem more insulting and more frustrating than they ever did before because those dreams feel more unattainable than they ever did before. Every blinding white smile or smug motorist to grace our billboards and TV or Smartphone screens is spewing a sack-full of salt into our open wounds and then employing a scrubbing-brush to rub it in.

But, like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ or ‘The Voice’, this is supposed to be our aspirational alternative to doom ‘n’ gloom; and watching some hapless wannabe being told that their future is the pound shop check-out till rather than Glastonbury after all gives us the opportunity to laugh in unison at the deluded fool who reached for the stars and landed in the gutter. We can ridicule the little man because the big man is too detached from our reality to strike a blow on target.

A report that appeared on FB last week claimed couples were considering not having children because ‘the world is so f**ked-up’; I thought of when my own parents were born, in the middle of the Second World War, and came to the conclusion that seemed a poor excuse for neglecting to sire offspring when there are so many blatantly sounder reasons for not doing so. Yes, the babies born during WWII largely arrived thanks to randy servicemen making the most of a 48-hour pass or restless wives enjoying a one-night stand with a GI, but I’m pretty sure the belief that the world was f**ked-up carried more weight back then than it does now. Then again, maybe they had something we don’t.

Perhaps the crucial element during the war was the recognition of a greater good that required the setting aside of minor gripes and divisions in order that it could be fought for. In the years following 1945, many who were there spoke of those times with a nostalgic glow that often seemed baffling to those born long after it was all over; but it’s possible the genuine sense of community arising from everyone working together for the same admirable objective – rather than the superficial virtual community of social media, which is an online asylum for the angry, lonely and confused – opened a brief portal into a different and more desirable model for society that sealed up thereafter.

At the moment, the world has the same sudden disorientation of a child whose parents have just separated; the past is a comfort blanket while the present is scary and the future is too frightening to contemplate. It won’t last; these periods never do. But living through it can be a bloody hard slog.

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MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE STATES…

There was an abundance of memorable moments during the Watergate scandal, but none managed to condense as much drama into such a short space of time as the so-called ‘Saturday Night Massacre’, which occurred on October 20 1973. The reputation of Nixon’s administration had suffered additional embarrassment ten days earlier with the resignation of Vice President Spiro Agnew whilst he faced charges of tax evasion unrelated to Watergate; but when the President ordered the Attorney General Eliot Richardson to fire Archibald Cox, the man Richardson had appointed as an independent special prosecutor to investigate the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic Party offices in Washington’s Watergate building, the Attorney General refused to do so.

As part of his investigations, Cox had issued a subpoena to Nixon that ordered the surrender of taped conversations between the President and his aides recorded in the Oval Office; Nixon had refused in recognition of the threat Cox posed to his story of events. By ordering his Attorney General to dismiss Cox, the President assumed the problem would be solved; he hadn’t anticipated Eliot Richardson would refuse the order and then resign in protest. Nixon’s response was to demand Richardson’s deputy William Ruckelshaus do the deed instead; Ruckelshaus also refused and resigned.

Desperate to save face, Nixon initially claimed Ruckelshaus had been sacked and turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork to fire Cox; Bork did so after being sworn-in as acting Attorney General, though the whole unedifying affair served to finally turn public opinion against Nixon. An NBC poll a week after the Saturday Night Massacre showed a plurality of Americans supported the impeachment of the President for the first time, even though it took another nine months before the House Judiciary Committee approved its first article of impeachment; and Nixon resigned before the process could even begin.

What an excitable US TV news presenter referred to as the biggest constitutional crisis in the history of the nation as the Saturday Night Massacre unfolded has had echoes in the past couple of eventful weeks in Washington. The main difference between 2017 and 1973 is that Nixon’s credibility began to disintegrate when he had already served one full term in office and had retained power on the back of a landslide victory. As for the Donald, it’s only four months since he took the oath of office for the first time and there seems to have been enough constitutional crises to make Richard Nixon’s spell as President seem like an uneventful and rather dull period of American history.

The dismissal of FBI Director James Comey on May 9 certainly revived memories of the Saturday Night Massacre for those either old enough to remember it or those who have read about it since. Comey’s termination came in the wake of the FBI investigation into the Hillary Clinton email affair as well as the organisation’s conviction that Russia interfered in Trump’s election campaign. Subsequent revelations that Trump had shared classified information with the Russian Ambassador and Russian Foreign Minister during a recent visit to the White House have done little to dispel the lingering belief of Russian involvement in the Donald’s rise to power. Comey has claimed the President asked him to cease investigations into the short-lived National Security Adviser Michael T Flynn’s Russian connections, something Trump has naturally refuted.

Lyndon Johnson’s opinion of the FBI’s fearsome first Director J Edgar Hoover, that it was ‘better have him inside the tent pissing out than have him outside pissing in’, suggests simply sacking James Comey might not be the end of the affair for Trump. Despite the President’s intervention in Syria not exactly easing US relations with the Kremlin, the Russian issue won’t go away. The appointment of a special counsel in the shape of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to continue the investigation hasn’t necessarily met with Trump’s approval, with the President referring to the ongoing efforts to establish a direct connection between him and Russia as a witch-hunt. Mind you, Trump’s tiresome whinging about the media and how everyone is against him is only unprecedented on his side of the Atlantic; he’s more than matched over here by the most frothing-at-the-mouth Corbynistas and their incurable persecution complex.

Trump has already taken his ‘You’re fired’ catchphrase from ‘The Apprentice’ into his Presidency, sacking the likes of acting Attorney General Sally Yates for disputing his executive order to bar citizens of certain specified Muslim countries from entering the US; he also demoted and replaced acting Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Daniel Ragsdale the same day he dismissed Yates. No explanation for this dismissal was given, though mere coincidence in what was labelled by some as the ‘Monday Night Massacre’ seems unlikely. In this context, his firing of James Comey makes perfect sense. Trump still sees himself as the head of a company and everyone else as his employees. Anybody challenging his authority has to go.

Watergate was a slow burner of a scandal that unravelled at a sedate pace worthy of a weighty novel; it confirmed suspicions of Nixon that his most committed critics had harboured for a long time and cast a cynical shadow across Washington that has never really gone away. What’s happening now isn’t quite the same. In contrast with Richard Nixon’s unattainable ambition to be loved, Donald Trump couldn’t care less; Nixon’s downfall had all the elements of a Greek Tragedy, whereas Trump entered the political arena looking for a fight and now he’s got one. As long as Russian rumours continue to circulate and talk of invoking the 25th Amendment if impeachment fails giving his opponents hope, the Donald’s capacity to govern is entirely in his own hands. We shall see.

© The Editor

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STRIKE ZONE

Well, after all the endless gossip of a mutual admiration society between The Donald and Vlad, not to mention persistent accusations of Russian interference in last year’s US Presidential Election – both of which have been recycled by Trump’s opponents at home for months – one wonders what Mr Putin’s opinion of the President is now. American-led coalition airstrikes against Jihadists in Syria have been an under-reported element of the Syrian Civil War since 2014, but the deliberate targeting of one of Assad’s airfields by US missiles in the early hours of this morning is the first time the Americans have attacked government forces. Where this leaves opinion on western involvement in the Syrian conflict, not to mention US-Russian relations, is probably too early to speculate; but it’s fair to say the Kremlin isn’t happy.

Russia has called the American strike that struck Shayrat airbase at 1.40 GMT ‘an act of aggression against a sovereign nation’ – unlike annexing Crimea, then? All the doom-laden predictions that Moscow would be pulling the strings of a puppet President in the White House appear a tad premature now. The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: ‘Instead of the previously touted idea of a joint fight against the main enemy – the Islamic State – the Trump Administration has shown that it will carry out a fierce battle against the lawful government of Syria’. Russia has also suspended a joint air safety agreement between it and the US in Syria as a result.

It would seem the appalling nature of events in Khan Shiekhoun on Tuesday has prompted a change to American foreign policy re Syria, certainly where Trump is concerned. From the off, he has repeatedly stressed domestic issues were at the top of his agenda, and his suspected softness towards Putin suggested he’d steer clear of Syria. But a President with such a swaggering personality and combative approach to governance was clearly presented with the kind of challenge to flex his muscles on the world stage that he couldn’t resist.

Not that this familiar Trump persona was the one on display in the press conference he gave following confirmation of the attack. Unusually – though not unexpectedly, considering the circumstances – subdued, the President didn’t mince his words and seemed to suggest America was acting on behalf of all nations who attributed the nerve gas bombing to Assad. Most nations were rightly appalled by what happened in Khan Shiekhoun, but even when Trump called on ‘all civilised nations’ to contribute towards ending the conflict, everybody knew only one would be prepared to react to Tuesday’s incident with force.

Caution has characterised the western powers’ attitude towards Syria, as though everyone was holding their tongues, waiting for America to make the first move; Obama preferred the sneaky drone game, essentially military involvement through the back door, but his successor has now stated his case in a far more decisive manner. If today’s target was indeed the same airbase from which Tuesday’s chemical attack was launched, then Trump has certainly laid down the gauntlet. What next, though? Rather worryingly, a Oklahoma Senator who praised the President’s actions hinted the attack should herald the rebuilding of the US military after Obama’s budget cuts in order that America can achieve ‘peace through strength’, the old Republican call-to-arms catchphrase.

In 2017, Vietnam is now probably too distant a memory for many to recall with the shudder it provoked for decades, but the shadow of Iraq is still a potent influence on the Commander in Chief’s decision when it comes to where US forces are deployed today. I doubt Trump would want to commit ‘boots-on-the-ground’ in Syria any more than his predecessor wanted to, but airstrikes don’t send body-bags back to American airfields. Launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two US Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean is a shrewder option when there remains such reluctance to send in the troops.

Every western country that dispatched soldiers to Iraq has subsequently shied away from repeating the same mistake in Syria, though some would argue this has enabled Assad (with the invaluable assistance of Russia) to continue getting away with murder. There was a proposal put forward two or three years back, particularly where British recruits to the fight against Assad were concerned, that the situation was comparable to the Spanish Civil War, when the International Brigades recruited multinational volunteers to the anti-fascist cause as many western powers preferred inactive neutrality. Perhaps the memory of the First World War was still strong in the minds of western leaders back then, just as Iraq is today.

Not all parallels with the Spanish Civil War stand up to scrutiny, but I suppose one could say that in that conflict, Nazi Germany effectively played the Russia to Franco’s Assad, with the Luftwaffe’s role in the bombing of Guernica a barbaric test-run for the horrors to come. However, what did follow in the same year the Spanish Civil War ended is hardly the most optimistic comparison one can make with what might follow Syria. We can only hope history’s habit of repeating itself takes a break for once.

© The Editor

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28 DAYS LATER

trumpOn paper, it’s already beginning to resemble a bizarre social experiment – replace the time-honoured tradition of a country being run by career politicians schooled in years of public office and hand over the reins of power to a man whose sole working experience has been within the field of big business and entertainment. Light the blue-touch paper, stand at a safe distance and watch the fireworks.

It won’t be until next Monday that Donald Trump marks just one month as resident of the White House, yet so much has been crammed into the last four strange weeks that it feels much longer. Just this week has seen the first resignation from his administration – his National Security Adviser, Mike Flynn, over allegations of uncomfortably close associations with the Russian Ambassador to the US; the FBI are currently investigating Flynn and perceiving his relationship with Sergey Kislyak as part of the ongoing suspicions over the Kremlin’s involvement in the Trump Presidency.

Trump has already set himself against the judiciary following the ramifications and legal challenges to his 90-day ban on visitors from seven selected Islamic countries, not to mention invoking the ire of those who were opposed to his Presidency from day one. Ordinarily, Americans will display inbred respect towards their President, whichever side of the political divide he stands on; all of this has been turned on its head by Trump; displaying that inbred respect in 2017 is the aberration, not the norm. Every policy so far announced has been a red rag to the liberal bull, yet every policy also appears to have reinforced the majority of his campaign promises – something most imagined would be quietly swept under the carpet once he took the oath of office. Even that bloody wall has been threatened. This isn’t what usually happens when people are elected.

Then again, under normal circumstances, when people are elected they’ve usually become so skilled in the art of saying one thing when in opposition and then doing another when in government that the public are accustomed to being let down. Lest we forget, however, these are not normal circumstances. Donald Trump is not a normal politician. In fact, I’d question whether or not he’d even find that job description as applicable to him, despite the lofty position he now finds himself in.

Previously, outsider was a term political observers had used to describe the likes of Jimmy Carter or Margaret Thatcher. In the case of Carter, he was a State Governor barely known outside of that State, but a country decimated by the fallout of Watergate turned to him as a break with the established Washington elite that had let the nation down; in the case of Thatcher, she may have had prior government experience, but she too was seen as a break with the recent past of continuous industrial turmoil that had characterised the British 70s; and, of course, she was a woman. Both were outsiders, albeit outsiders on the inside. The same could be said of Barack Obama, who was at least a State Senator before running for President. Trump has never been on the inside and that was his genuine outsider’s sales pitch; it worked.

Disillusionment with the old order has been gathering speed for the last decade, with the 2008 economic meltdown cited by many as the moment when the public realised things were not going to get better and the powers-that-be had no interest in making any country great again. The ground had been laid for a figure like Trump to come along a long time before he actually emerged as a candidate, yet a media machine in bed with those powers-that-be was not going to benefit from them being deposed; therefore, Trump’s campaign was understandably mocked and ridiculed from day one – an eventuality he himself aided and abetted with his behaviour. Even some of us not belonging to that media machine couldn’t really foresee Trump actually going all the way because it was such a dramatic severance of the world order as we had always known it that it seemed impossible to imagine that kind of surreal scenario. But it happened.

I often doubt the sanity of those who hanker after the highest office in the land, whether President or Prime Minister; we can all cite examples of past Presidents or PMs who were either chronically stupid or criminally devious – or both; the aphrodisiac of power has always eluded me, but there’s no doubt it serves as an irresistible element for the men or women in public office who crave it like a drug. That in itself suggests to me symptoms of mental disorder and potential demagoguery, so amateur diagnoses of Trump’s state of mind shouldn’t be restricted to him alone; they should be applied across the board.

Former Labour Foreign Secretary and founding member of the SDP, Dr David Owen combined his medical knowledge with his political experience by covering the subject in a couple of books, ‘The Hubris Syndrome: Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power’ and ‘In Sickness and In Power: Illness in Heads of Government during the last 100 Years’; and I reckon the connections are entirely relevant. You’d have to be mad to want to run a country, and I guess that’s why so many world leaders are.

As for the Donald, what happens next is anyone’s guess. 2020 seems a hell of a long way off at the moment and right now it’s difficult to picture him reaching the end of four years, let alone contemplating a second term. But for all the wishful thinking by the left of impeachment, we shouldn’t forget his Vice President Mike Pence. Trump may be an outsider, but he’s chosen to surround himself with some Republican stalwarts whose narrow minds make Trump’s stated vision of America seem radically liberal. Many may not be comfortable with the thought of Trump’s finger hovering above the button, but the prospect of President Pence is considerably more concerning; Pence is an insider, the kind of establishment figure Trump was supposed to be a break with. So, be careful what you wish for, you Twitter Oswald’s.

© The Editor

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LESS HOMAGE, ALBION

avengersBack in 2011, David Cameron’s desperation to be Barack Obama’s Bezzy Mate was a predictable move from an unpopular Prime Minister in relation to a popular President, serving burgers in the back garden of No.10 in the hope that some of Obama’s movie star sheen would rub off on him. By contrast, Theresa May’s quick-off-the-mark dash to get to Donald Trump before any other world leader made sense in the context of an uncertain post-Brexit future, though both actions tell a familiar story where the Special Relationship is concerned. With the odd rare exception, the wartime scenario of the gum-chewing GIs that swept a generation of British girls off their feet seems to have been the blueprint for summit meetings between UK PMs and US Presidents ever since. Culturally, the same pattern has been replicated in recent years, though it hasn’t always been the case.

Take Gerry Anderson. ‘Stingray’, ‘Thunderbirds’ and ‘Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons’ may well be the notable Supermarionation series that spring to mind whenever the name of Gerry Anderson is evoked, but how many of you remember ‘The Secret Service’?

‘The Secret Service’ was commonly regarded as Gerry Anderson’s first flop. It was the last series he made with puppets in the 1960s and was only seen on Southern and ATV back in the days when ITV was a collection of competing regional broadcasters that often went their own obstinate ways when it came to scheduling. If you don’t know much, or anything, about this near-forgotten series, ‘The Secret Service’ was a bizarre mix of puppetry and live action; the close-ups are puppets whereas the long shots, including a character stepping out of a car and walking up to a door, are all live action. The master of gobbledygook, Professor Stanley Unwin, plays himself as a country vicar who also happens to be a secret agent – yes, that’s right! It was the 60s, after all.

‘The Secret Service’ taps into that strange, brief period in the 60s when a very English eccentricity was given a kitsch Technicolor makeover and was actually chic for a while. It’s also there in ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Prisoner’ as well as hit records of the era, from Syd Barrett’s Psychedelic nursery rhymes on the first Pink Floyd LP to the story of Grocer Jack in Keith West’s ‘Excerpt from a Teenage Opera’ – quirky, whimsical, nostalgic and childlike. It was even reflected in British comics produced during this period, with surreal characters of the calibre of Robot Archie, Adam Eterno, and The Spyder, all of whom illuminated drizzly childhood Saturday afternoons as they appeared in the pages of ‘Lion’ and ‘Valiant’. A decade ago, when some of these characters were revived in the comic miniseries and graphic novel, ‘Albion’, penned by Alan Moore’s daughter Leah, she made a valid point justifying their resurrection.

‘The British sensibility from those times has been imprisoned’, she said when ‘Albion’ was published in 2006. ‘The anarchic silliness and weirdness of the comics was just part of the way we saw the world back then. Sadly, we’ve lost that, along with some of our civil liberties.’

Speaking at a moment when Tony Blair was still extending his insidious reach into so many facets of British society, on one hand Leah Moore’s statement expresses a subliminal longing for an irretrievable Golden Age – a common thread in English art and literature stretching all the way back to ‘Paradise Lost’ and even evident in the soothingly melancholic Oliver Postgate series such as ‘Noggin the Nog’ and ‘Bagpuss’; but in reviving comic characters she was probably too young to recall from her own childhood, she demonstrated a refreshing awareness of a once singularly English identity within home-grown pop culture that has been gradually eroded by an unstoppable tidal wave of American cultural colonialism. It has to be said, however, that we have been complicit in this.

In the immediate post-war era, the juvenile crime-wave that saw young men who had been raised in the absence of fathers imitating stars of US gangster flicks like Cagney, Bogart, Raft and Robinson was portrayed on-screen in ‘The Blue Lamp’, the movie that introduced Sgt Dixon to popular culture; it also set the scene for one of the great miscarriages of justice in British legal history, the hanging of Derek Bentley after his pal Christopher Craig shot dead a policeman in an early example of ‘Gun Crime’. After the gangsters came Marlon Brando, James Dean, Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll as well as every iconic American television series from ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Star Trek’ to ‘Batman’ and ‘Starsky and Hutch’ – all entertaining, all worthwhile in their own right. They competed for our attention along with The Beatles, Monty Python, James Bond and Doctor Who; we were still capable of holding our own.

Over the past twenty-five to thirty years, though, we seem to have conceded defeat. Yes, there have been small-scale and determined revivals, whether the self-conscious Englishness of Britpop or even the short-lived vogue for cock-er-nee gangster movies shot by Guy Richie; but the subtle and stealthy immersion of purely American cultural traditions into the British way of life, especially for anyone born after around 1980, has been steady and consistent.

Okay, so McDonald’s is an obvious conquering invader; but what of high-school proms or sleep-overs or baby showers? None of these have any connection to this country other than their persistent appearance in the US movies that constituted video rental shop viewing in the 80s and 90s and the US TV shows that have filled-up the schedules of 24-hour television since the same period. So pervasive have they become in the lives of anyone under 35 that many cannot imagine Britain without them. This is equally applicable to the dolt whose call to the emergency services resulted in him dialling 911 as it is to the sudden pronunciation of the letter ‘a’ in ‘patriotism’ switching from lower case to upper case.

All Hallows Eve is a classic example; as a festival, it predates any American element and yet one could imagine it was invented by the US sometime in the 80s, almost in the same way Christmas has been refashioned by Disney and Coca-Cola, whereby rosy-cheeked Santa Claus has usurped the druid-like spectre of Pagan Father Christmas. I was exposed to ‘trick or treat’ as a kid in a memorable ‘Charlie Brown’ cartoon, where poor Linus sits out all night in the pumpkin patch, awaiting the arrival of the Great Pumpkin; but nothing of that kind happened here on Halloween then. Lo and behold, by the time I’d progressed from ‘Peanuts’ to subtitled French movies on BBC2 in the hope (usually realised) of seeing some naked mademoiselle, the younger residents of the street had suddenly taken up trick or treat as an annual tradition.

I’m not necessarily advocating a Morris Dancing tournament to replace the OTT Americanisation of Halloween as it’s been here for the last quarter-of-a-century, but there are enough weird and wonderful native traditions without importing another cynical retail shindig to these shores. Mind you, Brits seem so permanently in awe of anything American (as long as it’s not Donald Trump) that this has even extended to a UK TV series such as ‘Peaky Blinders’, which owes so much to HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ that it borders on embarrassing.

With some of the best non-Scandinavian TV shows I’ve seen in recent years emanating from the States, I’m not opposed to US culture at all; but I do resent the way in which it has served to obliterate so much of what once made us so distinctive from our old colony. As far as the Special Relationship stands, Britain seems to have become the nation equivalent of a 1970s TOTP covers LP. Do we still possess the ability to stem the tide or have we surrendered as shamefully as Theresa May?

© The Editor

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