Posts Tagged ‘civil society’

Trump v Clinton second Presidential debate

We were very taken with this quick comment by the Wall Street Journal on the Presidential debate just gone: “marking as it did the nadir of the bitter partisanship and personal rancour that has steadily grown like weeds over the edifice of American government.”

Bitter partisanship and personal rancour that has steadily grown like weeds over the edifice of American government. Yes, indeed. Well said, that man.

American democracy has been in trouble for quite some time. Let’s just look from, say, the turn of the 1960s onwards.

The death of two Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, three tragic events driven by visceral hatred. The mental exhaustion of LBJ. The ascension of the criminal (and traitorous) Nixon. The standstill of Gerald Ford and the essentially neutered failure of Jimmy Carter – the latter a man who was too good to be in that role. The Reagan era, so terminally tainted by Iran-Contra and adventurism in Central America that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands. George H Bush who famously promised “No New Taxes” (and promptly despatched his friend and rival Bob Dole) only to turn round and increase taxes and produce a notably weak economic performance. (His evisceration of Dukakis was also the beginning of modern “hate” politics.) Then we had the economic and policy-wonk success of Bill Clinton hopelessly over-shadowed by his mangling of the truth and his appalling personal behaviour. Of George W Bush and his off-sider Dick Cheney only one thing needs to be said: 500,000 Iraqi dead, over oil, and the comprehensive attempt to confuse people into believing it was about something else. Oh, and, “The great Recession”, or “GFC”, depending on where you live in the world. And then, of course, Barrack Obama, who after raising the watchword “Hope” has delivered a stuttering economic revival but only at the expense of a massive increase in Federal debt, and who has presided uneasily over a fractious Congress and a series of foreign policy mis-steps.

It is a pretty sorry performance, overall, to be sure.

But even after that list is chewed over and considered and debated, this debate was, very possibly, the most unedifying spectacle in modern American political history.

trump-v-clinton

There was no nobility. There was no soaring vision. There was no wit. Precious little wisdom. No humility. There was just the contrasting styles of two deeply unpopular candidates knowing that they are buried up to their knees in mud in their trenches and there is no longer an opportunity for either of them to climb out.

There was no courtesy. No mutual respect. There was bullying. There was disturbing body language, especially from Trump, who prowled around behind Clinton in an aggressive and frankly disturbing manner. The bulk of the debate was taken up with discussions that should properly take place in front of a psychological counsellor, not a worldwide TV audience.

It was, frankly, embarrassing. It was ugly to watch. It was cringe-worthy.

In our view, Trump avoided a complete implosion, battered a too-meek Clinton in a way that will play well with his core supporters, but probably no one else. If he made one glaring mis-step it was in publicly disagreeing with his Vice-Presidential running mate on Syria, who he said he had not discussed the conflict with. That admission is truly bizarre, given how significant that conflict currently is.

Clinton appeared poised, and steely calm, and confident. But history may judge she could and should have gone for the jugular more effectively. Certainly Trump’s jibe that “she’d be in jail” under his Presidency hit home, and she was less than convincing on the ever-running emails saga.

As a friend opined to us, in all probability, not one Democrat-leaning voter would have moved towards Trump, not one Republican-leaning voter would have moved to Clinton, and anyone genuinely undecided probably became yet more depressed an unenthusiastic.

According to CNN’s poll of debate watchers (a poll they say tends to skew towards the Democrats because their supporters are more likely to watch), Clinton did well – but almost a quarter of the audience were expecting her to do better.

Who was the winner?
Clinton 57%, Trump 34%

How did Donald Trump perform?
Better than expected 63%, worse 21%

How did Hillary Clinton perform?
Better than expected 39%, worse 26%

(If that’s the case, by about Wednesday or Thursday Clinton will have a lock on the race with about a 6-7% lead, possibly as high as 10%, higher in the battleground states, lower in the centre and the South.)

But taking everything into account, “depressing is right”. This is, unquestionably, the most significant Presidential election in a generation. A titanic struggle of ideas should be going on. Yet this election may yet turn out to have one of the worst turnouts, too. As for America’s image overseas, it is being trashed. The “Great Democratic Experiment” is doing a very poor job of recommending itself to the world, just at the moment. How, for example, can liberal democracy recommend itself to, for example, parts of South America, large swathes of Africa, the Middle East – most pressingly – and large parts of Asia including obviously China – when this is how low it can sink.

America can – MUST – do better.

America, you’re not just letting yourselves down. You’re letting us down, too.

A few oddities – Trump was still sniffing audibly and often, two weeks later. Most curious.

Trump claimed the moderators were biased against him. But by our estimation by halfway through the debate he had hogged at least 2/3rds of the available time, and we will see what the final figure looks like when someone works it out.

You may also like to read Dan Rather’s analysis of the debate on Facebook. He pretty much agrees with us.

Anyhow, the full WSJ article is below: we agree with it, and politely recommend it to you.

A Memorable, Riveting, Nasty Debate – but Will It Change the Direction of the Race?

This was one of the most memorable debates in history. It was perhaps the debate that American politics has been cultivating for a quarter of a century, marking as it did the nadir of the bitter partisanship and personal rancour that has steadily grown like weeds over the edifice of American government.

It featured two of the most disliked candidates in modern history taking lumps out of each other – with accusations of sexual assault and defending rape and repeated allegations of deceit and mendacity.

And yet, will it change the contours of the race after an astonishing few days?

The initial exchange of fire in the wake of the release of Mr. Trump’s crudely offensive remarks captured on videotape on Friday, followed by a moment in which Mr. Trump apparently threatened to try to put Mrs. Clinton in jail if he is elected (a threat that, as some have commented, looks like something close to an unprecedented authoritarian turn in American politics) were as electrifying as anything in a presidential debate.

Once that dust had settled, though, Mr. Trump succeeded, much better than he did in the first debate, in hitting Mrs Clinton on key policy issues of health care, immigration and foreign policy. He was sharper on his feet and had some of the most memorable lines of the night. His lampooning of her calling Abraham Lincoln in defence of her Wall Street speeches won spontaneous applause and laughter from many sides of the hall.

The two somehow managed to end with a kind word (just one really) for each other and the handshake that they had denied each other at the start.

But this was raw and angry politics as blood sport and served perhaps only to underscore even more how unappetising political debate has become.

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Jo

 

At Wellthisiswhatithink we have often bemoaned the brutalisation of politics. The way “anti politics” has become the new norm. A politics which is little more than cynicism, mistrust, name-calling and sloganising. It is seen most clearly and more than ever in the mindless forwarding of memes that brook no discussion, because no discussion is possible.

Those with an agenda to drive will accuse this blog of descending into vitriol on occasion. We reject that accusation. Politics is a serious matter, and you cannot “do” politics without disputation. Indeed, disputation – the contest of ideas – is the very core of freedom. And if we have, and it can be demonstrated, then we will recant and apologise.

But there is a difference – a gulf – between healthy disputation and hatred. And hatred has become the new normal, and relatively recently, too.

Whether it is in America, France, Denmark, Norway, the UK or Australia. Whether it is a discussion of guns, of racism, gay rights, of female emancipation, the European Union, or, most obviously, immigration, refugees and specifically Islam. The attitude that “you are with me, 100%, or you are evil and worthy of whatever abuse I choose to throw your way” has taken deep root. With the ascension of Trumpism, most obviously, we see how the inchoate mass rage generated by mindless sloganeering translates into political power, and then political violence. Democracy is a fragile flower, and it is wilting.

This article discussing Jo Cox’s assassination – for that is what it was – says it better than we can. We strongly recommend you read it. Because hatred is never funny. Hatred is never smart. Hatred is never right. Hatred is never appropriate.

Sure, “politics is a contact sport.” It doesn’t have to be murder.

http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/06/a-day-of-infamy/

In slightly better news, #ThankYourMP is trending in the UK. Many people simply saying thank you to their MP, whether or not they vote for them. Well done, whoever thought that up.

fear

 

One of the effects of events such as the hideous massacre of innocents in Orlando, Baghdad, Nice, and elsewhere, is the repeated assault on the mood and feelings of people who are only distantly connected to the actual event.

At times like this, it is all to easy for our imaginations, driven by empathy for those hurt, driven by our simple understanding of what they went through, driven by the awareness that that could have been us, to be completely overwhelmed by the horror.

The news is inescapable. Media coverage is wall-to-wall. It regularly beats in on all of us, even those who seek to shut it out by avoiding the endlessly repeated 24 hour newscasts. An intrusive internet headline here. A radio soundbite there. A comment from a co-worker. A cri de coeur from someone standing next to you in a queue for coffee.

The global psychic effect of the accumulated evil in the world makes us all more anxious. Makes us all more inclined to despair. Our feeling of helplessness grows unabated. Our inability to stop these events from happening induces real trauma. The world is suffering from a creeping case of mass PTSD.

In our desperation, we rail against those in power, unable to understand why the great and good cannot simply flick a switch and make it right. We call for strong leaders to make a difference. And those who would be those leaders shamelessly exploit the fear and distress to bolster their stocks.

And in bed late at night, when all around is quiet and we should be peaceful and calm, we lie awake, staring at the ceiling, the insistent thoughts pressing in on us, uninvited but impossible to ignore. What if it had been my daughter in that nightclub? What if my wife had turned that corner in Paris, or Istanbul? What if we had been in a bar in Bali? Or in a coffee shop in Sydney? Is anywhere safe? Are we ever safe? Please God, we just want to be safe.

This is very far from just a higher brain musing. Psychological studies show that a continual state of mild anxiety is extremely damaging for human beings. It affects our subconscious mind, and induces irrational decision-making. It can pre-dispose people to develop more serious mental disturbances. It may well give us cancer or heart disease. And it is, quite simply, just horrible to experience.

In response, most of us busy ourselves just getting on with life, bereft of any real alternatives to just forging on. Some – a vocal few – descend into activism against the perceived purveyors of the threat (in the world’s current state, Muslims) but most people recognise that the men of violence are a minority. A kind of ‘Dunkirk spirit’ takes hold. We “soldier on”, hoping against hope that we will one day see the end of such events, and fervently hoping we are never touched by one directly, as we weep for those who have been, and will be.

And yet despite our best efforts, there is that constant drumbeat of anxiety, whipped up by the ghastly marriage of the purveyors of terror and those who are duty bound to report it, not to mention the commentary of those politicians who seek to benefit from it. It is always there, just under the surface of our lives, threatening to bubble up and overwhelm our consciousness. Even the act of subordinating it makes us more tired and fearful.

There is only one answer. And it comes from everything we know about dealing effectively with clinical anxiety disorders.

It is to acknowledge, rationally, that we are all threatened, but in a minuscule manner. To cut the threat down to a realistic size in our minds. To deliberately and with determination confront the fears we inevitably feel, and assess them with calm and commonsense, and to assign them the relevance they truly have.

Despite the apparent ubiquity of terror in the world, the chances of being on a plane that is blown out of the sky are tens of thousands to one, no matter how the pictures of wreckage, flotsam and jetsam from those who have been attacked might impinge on our minds. It is perfectly, horrifyingly simple to imagine crashing to the ground, still awake, strapped to our chair, until colliding terminally with the dark black Ukrainian earth. Yet as we view these very mental pictures that distress us so much, we simply have to say to ourselves “but tens of thousands of planes take off and land safely every day, and airlines and governments employ highly sophisticated systems to keep us safer than ever”.

Despite the images that flood our television screens from Orlando, despite the 50 dead young people and the 50 others injured, despite the bloodied souls wandering crazed down the street looking for help, in the heart rending face of the victim’s relations and their incohate horror at their loss, the fact is that there are more than 300 million people in America, and the dead represent one hundred thousandth of the population. In a queue of the entire population, the chance of you being picked out by fate to be in that massacre was over 6 million to one.

The chances of being in that nightclub in Paris, or that restaurant, or on that island in Norway, was millions to one.

Are we completely safe? No, we are not. The dead and injured are real. But we have endured worse, time and again, and survived. My mother and father were of a generation that endured the Blitz, for example. Night after night, the Nazis raised hundred pound bombs onto defenceless civilian populations. Despite the horrific casualties, the majority of the population survived. They went about their business, day after day, determined not to be cowed. Death or injury was an ever-present possibility, but so was survival, laughter, family, friends, the daily round. Stoicism replaced expectation. This too shall pass.

We do not control our environment and no amount of wishing will ever make it so. A plane can land on your house. A tyre can blow out at the speed limit on the freeway. A drunken driver can plough into you as you wait for a bus. There will be storms, tempests, wars and rumours of wars. They are all simply part of life. Media vita in morte sumus.

Fear is a liarWe will all die, one day. In the meantime, the trick is to live our lives every day as unafraid as we possibly can. To seek joy in little things. A new flower. Birdsong. The smile of a friend. A joke shared. An unexpectedly delicious meal.

To see the best in those around us, and to be grateful for the support and love they give us so freely. We have to stare into the abyss of what could be, and then step away from the edge, content in the knowledge that it is far more likely that it won’t be. We will wake up tomorrow. The world will go on. And in the time that is granted to us, strive to be the best people we can be.

Yes, we must cry hot tears for those who were less lucky than ourselves. And we must work every day to remove the hate from our societies. Patiently, slowly, imaginatively, sincerely, day after wearysome day. There is no alternative. There is no magic cure. That is life.

But life is there to be lived, without constant fear. And the day that we allow the fear to overwhelm us, we hand victory to the murderers.

Lee Iacocca

Lee Iacocca - Henry Ford simply didn't "like him" - that was enough.

Lido Anthony “Lee” Iacocca was famously head of both Ford and then Chrysler after he was fired by Henry Ford II – grandson of the founder of the company – despite being probably the most successful Ford executive of all time – with the simple words “I just don’t like you.”

At the time, the move shocked the automotive world and the world of commerce generally. It was widely seen as a foolish move by Ford. But I have a great deal of sympathy with the decision.

Life is just too short to spend time working with people you “just don’t like”.

At the heart of such antipathy always lays other factors – unspoken perhaps – such as incompatibility on personal, ethical or business values, lack of trust, lack of mutual respect, and so on. The stress that results from accommodating such deeply felt emotions is rarely, if ever, worth the effort, for either protagonist.

I have have left jobs, and resigned business rather than keep working on it, no matter how lucrative the position or contract, because of an essential loss of confidence in the key players. Not capriciously – I am no tantrum-throwing diva – but thoughtfully, having weighed my deeper feelings against all other factors. And I have never once regretted the decision.

In today’s caucus vote, Kevin Rudd finally discovered, crunchingly, what it is like when “people just don’t like you”.

Despite opinion polls showing he would be more likely to defeat the Liberals at the next election, and that he was hugely more popular with the general public than Prime Minister Gillard, he was not just defeated, he was roundly and thoroughly rejected. In the end, despite the Rudd camp’s spin, Gillard won the ballot 71 votes to 31.

In the news coverage of the last three days, cabinet minister after cabinet minister lined up to tell us, in excruciating and exhaustive detail, why Kevin Rudd was just one small step up from the anti-Christ. Either explicitly or by implication they branded him as dysfunctional, domineering, rude, non-consulting, mercurial, and borderline egomaniacal. As somebody has already tweeted to me, it’s a shame the Oscars don’t have a statuette for best soap opera, because The Public Murder of Kevin Rudd (Part Two) would have won hands down.

Rudd tears

Politicians love to be loved. It's a big mistake to forget that in a party-based system the love you need most is not the public's, but your colleagues'. The same is true in business. And families. If we can't keep the affection of those closest to us, then what everyone else thinks won't save us. Rudd is seen here after the leadership "coup" in 2010.

You can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. Perhaps.

It’s no doubt a hard lesson for Rudd to learn, because by all accounts he’s been avoiding learning it for his whole career. He was apparently widely disliked when he was an effective senior civil servant in Queensland. In a business not noted for shrinking violets, he was labelled as a pushy, self-aggrandising little oik long before the Labor caucus grudgingly turned to him as their best hope to overturn John Howard in ’07. They tolerated him, biting down on their bile. Then as soon as they thought things were going wrong they dumped him so fast, and so hard, that the public were shocked. But if the public had known how much they didn’t like him in the first place it would have come as no surprise at all.

Of course, admitting that would have been to admit that they had wrought a huge con on the Australian public at the election, so that wasn’t on.

As a result the public was left confused and resentful.

But Rudd should have been left in no doubt what he’d done wrong. Labor caucus members certainly knew. Instead, if we are to believe his public utterances, he chose to re-make reality in his head, (and so did his advisors), and interpret his overturning by Gillard as merely the result of factional brawling and the ambitions of so-called faceless men, and the perfidy of his deputy.

My old Mum would have said “there’s none so blind as those who will not see.”

(Incidentally, in retrospect, the 2007 election, which was then and is still now often widely referred to as a triumph for Rudd’s campaigning skills, would probably have been won by a drover’s dog with a Labor rosette – the punters were simply sick of Howard’s smug little face. But that’s a different discussion.)

This is the lesson. It’s not how smart you are. It’s how likeable you are.

Likeability

Likeability ... it's always there, shadowing us, and it determines our success.

The short story is that there comes a point at which you can’t keep alienating the people near you and then expect them to support you, no matter how competent you may be, (and no one denies that Rudd has talents), because when push comes to shove if we’re going to put our trust in someone it has to be someone, at gut level, that we like.

A Columbia University study by Melinda Tamkins shows that success in the workplace is guaranteed not by what or whom you know but by your popularity.

In her study, Tamkins found that, “popular workers were seen as trustworthy, motivated, serious, decisive and hardworking and were recommended for fast-track promotion and generous pay increases.

Their less-liked colleagues were perceived as arrogant, conniving and manipulative. Pay rises and promotions were ruled out regardless of their academic background or professional qualifications.” Ouch.

The Gallup organization has conducted a personality factor poll prior to every presidential election since 1960. Only one of three factors – issues, party affiliation, and likeability – has been a consistent prognosticator of the final election result.  Of course, the factor is likeability. (Note that Obama is effortlessly more likeable than any of the Republican candidates still standing, except perhaps Ron Paul, who is widely considered mildly nuts.)

Think none of this affects you because you’re not in business or politics? Nu-uh.

Doctors give more time to patients they like and less to those they don’t. According to a 1984 University of California study, there were significant differences in treatment, depending on the characteristics of the patient: the combination of likeable and competent was significant.  Patients perceived as likeable and competent would be encouraged significantly more often to telephone and to return more frequently for follow-up than would the patients who were either unlikable and competent or likeable and incompetent. The staff would educate the likeable patients significantly more often than they would the unlikable patients.”

In a survey of twenty-five hospital doctors initiated by Roy Meadow, a pediatrician at St. James’s University Hospital in Leeds, England, researchers studied what happens when both likeable and unlikable parents bring in children. Considering what you’ve already learned about likeability, it’s not surprising that children with likeable parents received better health care and were more likely to receive follow-up appointments.

I’m guessing the same can be said of schools.

Sooner or later, history shows us that the vast majority of disliked people come a cropper. Being liked is simply a pre-requisite for success, in all spheres of life. I am sure we can all think of contrary examples where fear, for example, was enough to keep the troops in check, but I am obviously speaking in broad brushtrokes here. In a future article, I will rehearse some of the components of likeability, because the good news is that they are skills that can be learned, not innate abilities.

We don’t just have to be grinning, amiable idiots all the time.

Readers will note that I isolate likeability as the key survival factor: I do not say “being agreed with”. We can disagree with people and still like them. In fact, the opposite is true: good governance, in business and politics, demands that we disagree with people when we genuinely perceive risk in their opinion or behaviour.

But the Labor caucus didn’t just disagree with Kevin Rudd – in fact, ironically, many of them may have agreed with his essential analysis, which is that Gillard cannot beat Tony Abbott – although in my view, the jury is still out on that, as I have lived long enough to know that if a week is a long time in politics then 18 months is a lifetime and a half. No, it was about much more than whether they agreed or disagreed with him.

These people, who take their opinions from having actually met the guy – worked with him, dined with him, drunk with him, walked with him, sat in cars with him – unfiltered through spin doctors and media appearances – actually loathed him so much that they would rather struggle on with the Government’s current level of performance than return to the smiling Milky Bar Kid, even if the cost was their own seat in Parliament.

Now that’s disliking someone.

A public suicide. Messy, sad, and ugly.

I never thought Kevin Rudd was ever going to beat Julia Gillard today – that was the genius of the Gillard camp in forcing his hand and bringing the spill on, by letting a rumour getting about that he was about to be sacked anyway – but it was almost as if, in the last few days, Rudd was intent on some sort of phyrric suicidal exit on his own terms.

He was determined to face down those who didn’t like him, by virtually ignoring them and appealing over their heads to the public. “Ring your local MP and tell him or her you want me back” he said (I paraphrase) instead of simply picking up the phone and calling the MPs concerned and having a good chat.

He was never going to get enough votes – he must have known that in advance, surely? – but he could have perhaps reserved his place in Labor history and even partially rehabilitated himself if he had gone down the road of “Mea culpa, I stuffed it up last time, how can I do it right for you this time?” and actually meant it.

Instead, by pressing the flesh in shopping malls and working the ever-hungry meeja for all it was worth, Rudd merely confirmed Labor MPs suspicions. He didn’t really think he’d made any mistakes at all, despite a few mealy-mouthed mumblings to that effect on TV. And he also he left an abiding impression: “this bloke doesn’t like me, need me, respect me, or want me. Righty ho, he can have that back, in spades. I’m voting for Gillard, even if that does mean I am a turkey voting for Christmas.”

As a serious political force in Australia, Rudd is now finished. There will be no Lazarus rising, not even Lazarus twitching. I expect to see him foisted on the international community in some major role – or at some serious policy wonk think tank – as soon as he can pull the levers of his impeccable overseas contacts, especially in America and China. The ALP will ease his way, glad to see the back of someone that they never really believed was one of their own. As Paul Keating once remarked, “He’s Labor, but not tribal Labor.” In the end, that’s what killed him: he just never really wanted to be one of the tribe, or was prepared to work at it, and they hated him for it.

Well, well. Moving on: Gillard will get a small bounce from her success today – in the last few days voters will have re-connected with her, grudgingly, with her guts, determination, refusal to get flustered, and inner steel.

All smiles - Gillard leaves the caucus meeting.

All smiles - Gillard leaves the caucus meeting. But what of tomorrow?

These are qualities we value in a Prime Minister, and Gillard, despite other failings, has them. But she now needs to learn Rudd’s lesson. She is widely disliked – mistrusted – and this time by the public. And they will be meeting in their very own caucus before too long. Many of Rudd’s criticisms of her will have rung true with people, even as they admire the way she stood up for herself. She has a tiny window of opportunity – which will start closing immediately – to radically re-make her government.

For example, she won’t – but she should – build on her new-found image of decisiveness by removing Wayne Swann as Treasurer, because although he is her ally and he is also technically competent he inspires no confidence whatsoever in the public in the second most important office in the land.

A dramatic, bold move would be to promote Swann’s mate Stephen Smith to Treasury – his quiet, serious demeanour goes over well and he has proven himself a highly effective Minister – and move Swann to Foreign Affairs, where he will still be in the inner circle, and can’t really do much damage, and where he already has good contacts to build on. Refresh, renew, revive. Show imagination. Show leadership.

Gillard

Can Gillard be saved from herself?

And most of all, she should employ new speechwriters, and professional speaking consultants, to utterly transform her dreadful, whining, monotonic delivery of both formal speeches and her performances in the Parliament.

It is always hard for pollies to hear this, (I speak from experience), but the public has long since gone past their gentle amusement at how staggeringly irritating her delivery is, to reach a point of genuine annoyance. Quite apart from any policy disagreements or trust issues, her flat, nasal tones, distractingly repetitive and unhelpful hand movements, lack of light and shade, and holier than thou seriousness make her genuinely disliked.

When the usual answer to the question “Would you have this person round for a beer and a sausage?” is derisive laughter, then you’re in real trouble. When you’re a politician, it’s terminal.

Frankly, I worry about the state of our public discourse in general. Because it’s not as though the other side are much better.

The widespread opinion amongst those I speak to – including Liberal supporters – is that Abbot is an unpleasant little blow-hard, transparently seizing any opportunity to personally denigrate the leaders of the Labor Party and to talk the country down. That this is a common mis-conception of the role of the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is no excuse for the policy vacuum that the Coalition currently offers, and the apparent vacuum in the heads of most of its leaders. As I have said before, if Gillard does anything right at all in the next six months, expect to see Abbott replaced with Malcolm Turnbull, quick smart.

And the final wash up?

The ultimate question, I suppose, is this: in a country full of well-educated, intelligent, hard-working, charismatic people, why are we led by such donkeys? And when will we demand better of our leaders, rather than just grumble ineffectively about them? What is it that we are doing wrong, if, as I firmly believe, we get the politicians we deserve?

On May 17, 2007, when he was all of 83 years old, Iacocca published a book called Where Have All the Leaders Gone?, co-written with Catherine Whitney. An article with the same title, and same two co-authors, has recently been published. As we leave the circus of the last week behind us, there are wise words in it for all Australians to consider today. In the book, talking about the quality of Government in America at all levels, Iacocca wrote:

“Am I the only guy in this country who’s fed up with what’s happening? Where the hell is our outrage? We should be screaming bloody murder. We’ve got a gang of clueless bozos steering our ship of state right over a cliff, we’ve got corporate gangsters stealing us blind, and we can’t even clean up after a hurricane much less build a hybrid car. But instead of getting mad, everyone sits around and nods their heads when the politicians say, “Stay the course.” Stay the course? You’ve got to be kidding. This is America, not the damned Titanic. I’ll give you a sound bite: Throw the bums out!”
Mechanic Michael Allison faces 75 years in jail for recording police

Mechanic Michael Allison faces 75 years in jail for recording police - this is his story

This story has just been brought to my attention in a different arena, and it shocked me. I think it will shock you.

I fear that in all those countries who regularly laud themselves for being “free”,  there is an extremely worrying trend to erode the rights of the individual, and to boost the powers of the state.

When I was growing up, in the UK, my Mum used to say to me “the best thing about this country, Stephen, is that your Dad fought for the right for you to say whatever you like, and we have free speech here as a result”.

That simple thought – that so long as one was not being defamatory or merely insulting, one was permitted to speak one’s mind openly and fearlessly on any topic – has guided my life ever since.

And I have tried to imbue it in my daughter, in my turn.

HMS Clare, 1941

One of the destroyers my Dad shipped on, the somewhat wobbly HMS Clare, in 1941

Mum lost her husband aged 46, a kindly but broken man, worn out by six years fighting the Nazis on tin-pot, turn-turtle lend-lease destroyers. (Those on board these ships (a valuable gift from the Americans at the start of the war) were more worried that they were always about to capsize than they were going to get a torpedo up their collective arses.) She was no great intellectual, but when she contemplated his sacrifice, which must have hurt her so badly, she drew comfort from the fact that “We can say what we like here, because of what your Dad did”. I used to try and talk to her about his sacrifice, and hers, but she would always brush it off, with an embarrassed wave of the hand. “It was just what we had to do, Stephen. We had no choice.” And she would say no more.

This essential freedom, paid for with the blood of millions, is so much a component of my social and intellectual DNA that I fear my world would crumble if it was seriously challenged. I would, without a backward glance, head for the barricades to defend my right to say anything I damn well please, so long as it adheres to the basic rules of civilised democratic behaviour.

That’s why I have so much admiration for the stand taken by this man in Illinois. This story goes directly to just such simple, core democratic freedoms as the right to free speech. How can recording the actions of police in public be a felony offence, equivalent to rape or murder? Especially when the police are specifically permitted, by the same laws, to record citizens? It’s just so ridiculous it beggars belief. The story, still running, is covered in this 14 minute (or so) You Tube video. It’s a long time, 14 minutes, in our time-poor world, but I think everyone who values our freedom really should watch it.

 

Although I suspect, watching him being interviewed, that Michael might be one of those annoyingly vexatious people who invariably clog up public policymaking and government, I am nevertheless in awe of his personal courage. I hope someone makes a Hollywood movie of his fight, which I trust will ultimately be successful, as that would reach more people than a thousand speeches or learned academic papers. And I trust Illinois, and America as a whole, is thoroughly embarrassed by his plight. Because whether or not he is, essentially, the type of character that causes officialdom to roll its collective eyes at his nuisance factor, the fact is that our democracy needs such nuisances to stay healthy and meaningful.

Whether it is this man’s fight to oppose this ludicrous statute (that is on the books in 12 states in America), or the rendition of subsequently-proven-to-be-innocent citizens to third world countries for torture – or to Guantanamo Bay – or the more swingeing statutes of the Patriot Act or its equivalent in the UK, Australia and elsewhere, or, indeed, the now blanket CCTV coverage of our streets, I believe I see evidence for a creeping disregard for our personal liberty in the West that is gathering pace. And fast.

There are what appear to be serious, intelligent people in Illinois defending this law. Look at the prevarication of the public officials. Can you see shame on their faces? I can. But I also see a determination to protect their turf at all costs,  instead of responding, as they should have, with a cheery “Hell, yes, what were we thinking?” and an apology. I note, also, that the state legislature failed to overturn the law.

Look: I think that police in modern society do a difficult and thankless job, and in general they deserve our wholehearted respect. But if they are operating within the law, as they must, then they should have no fear whatsoever of being recorded, whether in audio or video.

I mean, what is the difference between what this man did and jurisdictions insisting that police interviews are now recorded? It makes good sense in a police station, to protect the interests and bona fides of both the accused and the police, but not on the streets? Huh? What’s with that?

On this, as so many other issues, like climate change and casual violence on the streets, we seem to be suffering from what biologist David Suzuki called “Boiling Frog” syndrome.

Drop a live frog in to a beaker of boiling water and it will struggle to get out. But put it in a beaker of cold water and raise the temperature in steady one degree increases, and it will not, just sitting there as it gets sicker and sicker from the rising heat, until it becomes unconscious, and eventually dies.

I think our beakers are being heated up, in oh-so-many ways, and we are just sitting still and taking it. And it scares me.

Aux barricades, mes camarades.

Elsewhere on the worldwide web I am engaged in a fascinating debate on the recent riots in the UK, why they occured, and what to do about them. This series of comments from Paul Manzotti bears repeating, I think.

London riots

The recent British rioting - symptom of a deeper malaise than mere greed?

Seriously, people, the riots cost us £200 million. The bank bailout (cost) £1.5 trillion, a significant amount of which seems to have been used to line their own pockets, and they haven’t had to change one iota.

As a result we’re about to have another financial disaster, only this time we can’t do anything about it, because the governments have no money left to bail themselves out, because we gave it all to the banks. Meanwhile, there is an estimated £11.5 trillion squirrelled away in tax havens by a group of people who don’t seem to have the moral fibre to ask themselves the questions “How much more money do I need? Maybe I should try contributing to society a bit?”. And yet the nation is getting its knickers in a twist about the section of society that has tried to join in with getting money for nothing. Get a sense of perspective. Yes, we have a rotten society, but maybe, instead of looking at the bottom tiers of it and try to work out what’s gone wrong, maybe we should look at the upper echelons first? You know, the ones with the money and power to actually *do* something about it.

I have a lot of sympathy with Paul’s point, without in the least seeking to excuse the disgraceful behaviour of the British rioters. (And neither does he, incidentally.) It is easy to rant and rage against the criminality of what went on – right up to allegations of senseless manslaughter and murder – but we need, urgently, to understand and explain the rioting, so that we can learn the lessons.

(It’s the same problem with extremist Islamic violence against the west. Condemning it just isn’t enough. Sloganeering – “these people are evil” – may be emotionally satisfying, but it’s ultimately unhelpful. We need to look at the causes of the hatred, or it will be never ending.)

It has seemed to me for a long time that increasingly much of America and Europe in particular have become hard, brutalised societies, where old-fashioned concepts such as mutual inter-dependence and civic duty have become little more than amusing and slightly embarrassing cliches in a world dumbed down to the consumption of seemingly perpetual reality TV elimination shows, the goings on of uber-rich sports “stars” or other celebs and their charmless entourages, and grasping business owners paid obscene sums of money, largely regardless of their company’s actual performance.

The powerful in today’s society are the inheritors of the selfish, nihilistic nonsense talked by people like Margaret Thatcher (not that she was uniquely stupid, just more successfully so) when she opined “There is no such thing as society”, and we are all now reaping the whirlwind which that type of thinking inevitably leads us to.

It is hardly surprising, is it, that with no stake in this brave new world, and no apparent way to get a leg up to participate, some people resort to mindless thuggery and larceny? But the problem surely runs deeper.

For decades we have avoided imposing any moral expectations on people’s behaviour, mesmerised by the “Turn on, and tune out” principles of the 1960s. But those principles – which I embraced as enthusiastically as anyone else – grew up as a spontaneous revolution against a boring and stultifying conformity, and they have proven inadequate as a blueprint for mankind’s future.

But instead of embracing the best of the what was proposed by the flower power generation – nothing wrong with a bit more love in the world, just watch Woodstock and weep for the lost innocence – the Friendmanites, neo-cons and assorted political nasties reacted too far the other way, demolishing as quaint and outdated widely cherished and long-held principles of social inclusion and communal responsibility, (once shared by all sides of politics), and replacing them with a dog-eat-dog version of capitalism that harks back not to the intellectual traditions of Adam Smith and Disraeli – as claimed – but to a lawless free for all of medieval robber barons and cowed populations.

Concepts of corporate responsibility were swept away and replaced with a hunger for profit at any price. And internationally, it became morally acceptable to wage wars of dubious legality with apparent disregard for the human suffering inflicted on those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end of the West’s sophisticated armory of weaponry.

After all, if it’s OK for those in charge of us to write off the slaughter of 200,000 Iraqi civilians as merely unfortunate “collateral damage”, then what does nicking a pair of Nikes really matter? You know, like really? It’s all the same, innit?

As a result of this loss of focus, the West looks more and more like a construct that has lost its way, and it is rapidly being supplanted by the economic aggression of the command economies of the East. As a TV commentator remarked the other day, we may be the generation that witnesses the “end of the West”.

A long bow to draw from a week of soon-quelled and essentially avariciuous rioting? Well, perhaps. And humankind is yet to work out the perfect balance of any society.Perhaps it’s nothing more than a little local difficulty.

But I think not.

And I also think the future will be dark, indeed, if we end up losing, through inattention or lack of willpower, all the things the West successfully exported to the world for four hundred years or more – yes, patchily, it is true – things like innovation, industry, exploration, the rule of law, the concept of civil service, proportionate international behaviour, domestic democratic freedoms, and not to mentionpersonal civility and responsibility – and replace them with societies made up of obedient worker drones, kept in check by the doling out of material wealth in tightly-controlled countries run by ever more powerful elites.

As Paul said, if we’re going to fix this, we have to shine a bright and unblinking light on the whole of Western society, and, we probably need to start from scratch to get back to what we once took for granted.

Sadly, I won’t be holding my breath waiting for our leaders to show the intestinal fortitude to begin, let alone sustain, the process.

That’s just what I think. Comments?