Truth and Reconciliation

Today Trump has become the first President in US history to be impeached twice. I don’t really understand the system as apparently if the Senate don’t agree he won’t actually face trial – the longer this goes on the more I realise I don’t know the US constitution at all – but either way he’s done for. The Republican Party would have to be mad to nominate him a second time even if he does decide to run in ’24 – but then sanity hasn’t exactly been a key feature of right-wing politics in recent years. Still we can but hope that last week’s riot/insurrection/coup attempt will be a wake-up call for many as to where this is heading.

I’ve been very impressed by what Gary Younge has to say on this topic. Gary is a Guardian journalist and although I’d read some of his articles I didn’t have a very clear idea of what he was like. But yesterday’s interview on the Owen Jones channel was illuminating; Gary is black British and he cut through the debates on Trump, the invasion of the Capitol and the BLM movement in a thoughtful and incisive manner. This is exactly the sort of debate we need right now; considered as well as engaged; not shying away from the difficulties but also refusing to demonise anyone on the other side. And here’s the key to moving forward which, as with everything else, is a difficult balancing act, a fine line to draw. It requires restraint without silence and compassion without collusion.

It’s difficult to end things. The ending of systems of injustice can cause a backlash even worse than the original injustice. Consider the French revolution or the ending of slavery which I mentioned in yesterday’s post about the Melville Monument. CS Lewis knew this too, though he only touches on it; in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader Caspian enforces the end of the slave trade in the Lone Islands after he and his companions are captured and sold as slaves. Afterwards the man he has installed as leader asks him to stay: ‘This ending of the slave trade will make a new world; war with Calormen is what I foresee.’ People do not give up their privileges without a fight, especially if those privileges will undermine the way they make a living. Credit goes to those who foresee this and try to effect some sort of reconciliation, as Mandela did after the ending of apartheid. Without that initiative South Africa would have become a bloodbath; it’s still a pretty violent place but it could have been so much worse. There are some indications that Biden will attempt a similar approach after inauguration, to reach out to former Trump supporters and try to heal divisions. The danger in this is that you weaken your own programme so it’s a difficult line to tread.

In my own small way I’ve been treading that line too on Facebook. As I mentioned before I don’t normally bother debating with people online, but here was a person I know and like in real life who seemed to have been sucked into the cult of Trumpism. So I began to debate with her, to point out that there is no evidence for the election being ‘stolen’ and that some of the so-called ‘news’ outlets she was quoting are not in fact news outlets. I probably got quite vehement at one point and this morning she posted something asking people to debate respectfully so as not to upset others. I have no idea whether that was in reference to my responses though it might have been, so I replied that I hoped my comments had not upset her, but I stopped short of apologising because it seemed to me that to debate this person was the right thing to do. It’s a fine line to tread, to assert your own position without abusing others, and sometimes people do get upset.

So spare a thought for Biden, who may not be the leader we want right now but who has the difficult job of running a deeply divided nation with an ex-president whose followers will stop at nothing to reinstate him. Reconciliation is good – but first comes truth. And before truth comes evidence. So let’s follow that.

Kirk out

The Times They Are A-Interestin’

Last night as we were watching the telly I turned suddenly to OH and said: ‘We’re living through history!’ That’s always true I suppose but right now there’s no denying we are in the midst of cataclysmic happenings. Brexit is the least of it. There’s the obvious dreaded lurgy paralysing the world and in the US the situation is on a knife-edge as we wait to see what will happen. Will Trump be impeached again? Will they be able to prise him from the White House before inauguration day like a thick cork blocking a champagne bottle? Will he face judgment for his alleged crimes? And on the day itself, what will happen? Will there be a peaceful transfer of power or will violent demonstrations wreck the day? Will the police be adequately prepared? I guess if last week’s insurrection achieved one thing it was as a wake-up call; if the authorities are not ready this time there’s no excuse for them.

Another thing that was abundantly clear after last week’s insurgence was the difference in the way black and white protestors are treated. Commentator after commentator – including Biden himself – pointed out the gulf between the violent, heavy-handed police response to the BLM protests – which were a protest, not an insurrection – and the tepid reaction to the armed, mostly white mob which descended on the Capitol. And it happened that when I turned to OH and said ‘We’re living through history’ we were watching a programme on BBC Scotland about that very topic. Scotland, Slavery and Statues dealt with the controversy over the Melville Monument in Edinburgh to one Henry Dundas. Dundas was an aristocrat who made a great deal of money from businesses using slave labour and who is placed atop the largest monument in the capital, a sort of Scottish Nelson’s column.

Melville Monument, Edinburgh - Wikipedia

But nowhere on the plaque was his connection to slavery mentioned; neither was the clause he inserted into Wilberforce’s Anti-Slavery Bill which slowed the progress of abolition and arguably resulted in thousands more losing their liberty and lives. Campaigners had been trying for years to get the plaque changed but met with resistance from the council and from a campaign by the Dundas family maintaining that he was essentially a pragmatist and an abolitionist at heart, and that the clause he inserted saved the bill rather than undermining it. The programme interviewed campaigners and historians on both sides and the longer it went on the more complex the arguments became and the harder it seemed to get at the truth. Enter – or rather, exit – George Floyd (RIP) and the BLM movement. This was a turning-point: once the statue of Edward Colston had been toppled the Melville Monument looked to be next in the firing-line. Edinburgh Council did a complete volte-face, produced a new plaque mentioning Dundas’s part in the slave trade and despite the family’s protests, said that was the end of the story.

I may come back to this complex narrative in another post because arguments that history is being ‘altered’ (as though it were already perfect) need to be dealt with more substantially.

After all that we were in need of some comedy so finished the second series of the highly amusing Staged. I’ll probably come back to this at some point too.

Interesting times…

Happy Wednesday.

Kirk out

Lockdown Lite

It cannot have escaped your attention, if you’ve even so much as poked your nose out of doors, that this lockdown is much busier than the last. In March you could walk down the middle of main roads; no-one was about, nearly all shops were shut and the schools were eerily silent. This time there’s a lot more traffic on the roads, more shops are open and we know that many more children are in schools because the government have said it’s OK to send them if you need to. Nurseries are still open and don’t even get me started on football: why is that still happening?

As Jon so astutely pointed out (see comment on previous post) money is at the bottom of it. I sympathise with a great many people over this; it’s one thing to suspend your livelihood for three months but quite another to build it up over the summer only to have to shut down again over the winter. And we’ve still no idea when the end will come; this thing could go on for eighteen months or longer. It could be years before it’s gone – if it ever does go.

I don’t mean to be gloomy. But if we learn one thing from the pandemic surely it has to be that money is not the most important thing in life.

These are strange times; we’re all getting used to a new normal but surely by now the risks are clear, so the idea that wearing a mask or social distancing is an infringement on individual liberty ought not to be given credence. Wearing a seat belt in a car or a helmet on a motorbike is also an infringement on our liberties: I don’t like doing either of these things but I do them, not only because it’s the law but because I see that it’s necessary: if I come off my bike without a helmet or crash the car with no seatbelt on, chances are I’ll die. But Covid isn’t just about me, it’s about all those with whom I come into contact. You might argue that you can put yourself in danger, but putting others in danger is not your decision to make. Not to mention that you’ll be putting the NHS under an even greater strain.

The trouble with where we are now is that we have a government that is not trusted by the majority of the people and which doesn’t lead by example. Dominic Cummings did huge damage to public compliance and Johnson’s refusal to sack him compounded that damage. And now, as millions stay in lockdown, there’s a question over whether he should have been cycling seven miles from home. OK he could have been on a long bike ride but the thing about being a leader who sets the rules is that you not only have to do the right thing but also to be seen to do the right thing – and this is something Johnson utterly fails to grasp. It’s a bit late to start invoking public spiritedness when you’re in a government which espouses libertarian values and awards massive public contracts to its cronies just because it can, not to mention a government which has dithered and delayed to such an extent that people no longer know what the rules actually are.

There will be a reckoning for this government but in the meantime stay safe out there and if you need someone to talk to be aware that I always respond to comments. Failing that, chat to someone on Facebook, phone a friend or call the Samaritans. Don’t suffer in silence.

Kirk out

Mind the Gap

Anyone who’s ever lived in London prior to 2012 will probably hear those words in the same voice that echoes in my mind, which is this one:

I didn’t know until I started looking into it that there’s a genuinely lovely story behind this Mind the Gap message, and a reason why since 2012 the voice saying it is different on Embankment from that on other Northern Line stations. It’s this: the messages were originally recorded by a man called Oswald Laurence, a RADA graduate, but he died in 2007 and in 2012 the voices were changed to digital ones (why? Just because they could, I guess – the old ones were clear enough but hey, that’s progress) – then one night in 2012 the staff at Embankment station were approached by a woman in a state of distress asking what had happened to the voice. They must have thought she was psychotic at first but to their credit they listened as she explained that the Mind the Gap voice belonged to her husband and that she’d often lingered on the platform to hear him speak just one more time. The staff explained that the recordings had been changed, and you might think that would have been that, but no; they tracked down a copy of the original recording for her and not only that, they switched back to it on Embankment station. So if you travel on the Northern line be sure to listen out for Oswald still telling us to mind that gap. Here’s the Guardian story from 2019.

That phrase has become iconic, particularly in London where it’s used to refer to all kinds of gaps. There’s the gap between rich and poor, the gap between knowledge and understanding and the gap I was going to talk about, between echo chambers.

I think it’s high time there was an overhaul of Facebook and Twitter; the fact that they foment controversy like a cook stirring an evil broth, the fact that they encourage the manufacture of outrage; and worst of all, the fact that they have allowed powerful people to spread disinformation and fake news unchecked. True, they can’t monitor every story put on their sites but when someone in a position of such power and influence uses that influence to manufacture a false scenario they should do something about it. Mainstream news media, though more responsible in checking stories (mostly) are not blameless in this regard; they encourage adversarial debate and try to provoke interviewees into saying something controversial which then becomes the headline.

The gap between world views can sometimes be staggering. I’ve recently been debating with someone I know in real life (I wouldn’t bother otherwise, but I know and like this person) who has totally bought into Trump’s narrative. They’re a Christian who believes Trump was sent by God and part of that narrative is not particularly how virtuous Trump is (that’d be hard but I’m sure they’d give it a go) but the supposed evils of the Democrats, whom they accuse of all manner of vile practices (Communism’s the least of it) and have now decided that Mark Zuckerberg is a Marxist for suspending Trump’s account. I pointed out that if that were so Facebook would be owned by its employees and Zuckerberg would earn about £30,000 a year. Wouldn’t that be nice? (Just for the record, I’m a socialist not a communist, but if people are going to use words like Marxist they should know what they mean. Otherwise everyone is going about being Humpty-Dumpty and words have no meaning any more.)

The gap is vast and it’s getting wider. Trump’s supporters are now fragmented but the more extreme among them are developing an ever-stronger martyr complex and preparing for armed attacks on inauguration day. Warnings have been issued and I certainly hope they take them more seriously than they did last Wednesday. I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with people who don’t accept facts. There’s no common ground for debate at all.

Mind the gap, indeed, especially the gap between the ears.

Kirk out

Stay Home, Knit, Cook, Protect Free Speech…

As a friend of mine commented yesterday during a zoom chat, it’s like the ‘fifties in here. As we spoke I was knitting my latest project, a purple jumper, and after the call I was about to leap into the kitchen and begin preparing a pan of curry for the freezer and a pizza for dinner. Not that I’m generally a domestic goddess, you understand (though I do too much cleaning for my liking, something about which I frequently moan) but at the moment what else is there to do? Once you’ve had a zoom chat and been for a walk there’s nowhere else to go but the kitchen or the internet, and the internet is, let’s face it, a hazardous place. It’s where most fires start.

Twitter has now suspended Donald Trump’s account on the basis that he is likely to use it to incite rebellion. This seems to me a reasonable act – some would say it’s four years too late – but others complain about giant companies censoring free speech. This is something we have yet to get to grips with in our society; the borders of free speech. I’ve blogged about this before but it’s particularly relevant at the moment, so let’s have another go and let’s begin with Voltaire. Voltaire famously said that – actually no, he didn’t, a woman called Evelyn Beatrice Hall said as a summary of Voltaire’s approach, ‘I disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.’ It’s easy to see how this became misattributed to Voltaire but could also be yet another example of women being written out of history as Mo Mowlem has been. But I digress.

We need to be able to disagree. If I am offended by what you say, that does not give me the right to censor or ‘no platform’ you on that basis alone. Rowan Atkinson has, not for the first time, spoken out against so-called ‘cancel culture’ where people are ‘no-platformed’ for expressing views others find offensive. The most obvious example of late is the furore over JK Rowling’s remarks on transgender women. I’ll come back to this in a bit.

There is a serious point here and that is to draw the distinction between hate speech and opinions we strongly disagree with or find offensive. There is some overlap between these categories of course, but we have laws against inciting hatred and prejudice; we also have laws against inciting riots. I’m not sure how the law stands in the US but on that basis I agree with Twitter’s suspension of Trump’s account. It’s clear that we should not give a platform to fascists or those who are likely to foment hatred for any group in society, but it’s not always clear where to draw the line.

J K Rowling last year made some comments on the transgender debate. I’m not going to repeat them – you can find them quoted here and decide for yourself – but in my view they do not constitute hate speech. She is questioning a particular narrative and bemoaning the effects of that narrative on ‘cis’ women and the fact that we now have to redefine ourselves. Some people found this offensive. They are entitled to do so, but I don’t consider her remarks to be hate speech. She did not say that trans women should be harmed in any way or prejudiced against; she was not calling for their elimination or marginalisation. She was commenting on the effect of a particular narrative on ‘cis’ women – here is a piece explaining her reasons.

Here’s the thing. I don’t consider her comments a particularly helpful contribution to the debate. I would not have expressed myself in that way. But even so I defend her right to say it. The problem is that debate is now so polarised that if you’re not wholeheartedly on one side; if you express doubts about a particular narrative, you are held by default to be on the opposing side. This is not helpful. It does not help us to arrive at an understanding of the issues and results in even more prejudice since those who ask questions are automatically deemed transphobic and cast into the outer darkness.

Those on the libertarian right are fond of invoking free speech to defend racists and xenophobes. There is a distinction between free speech and hate speech; between words which merely offend and those which harm, and it’s important that we find it. I have turned off the TV a thousand times because of transgender stories which I find upsetting, but never would I seek to have those stories censored; it’s just that right now I feel part of a cohort of straight partners whose voices are not being heard.

While we’re on the subject of Harry Potter there’s an interesting discussion here. My answer to the question posed on radio 4 by a trans person, ‘Can I still read Harry Potter?’ is that if reading the novels upsets you by association then feel free not to read them. But do not seek to censor other people’s reading.

I look forward to your comments on this difficult topic and if anyone’s struggling with being the straight partner of a gay or trans person, here’s a support group which may help.

Kirk out

Monday Greens

I’ve been learning some new words today, the first of which popped up in today’s Friday poem by Annie Freud (I can’t find a link to the poem but here’s the author) and the word is Mondegreen. OH will probably pop up in the comments and say I already knew this from a conversation years ago but if so I have forgotten it. As you probably already know, mondegreen defines a misheard song lyric which is better or at least funnier than the original: examples include ‘scuse me while I kiss this guy’, ‘just a bit of stockwater tea’ and ‘there’s a bathroom on the right’(from Purple Haze, Evita and Bad Moon Rising respectively.)

Trump has been learning some new words too. True, they don’t include the much-needed words ‘sorry’ or ‘concede’ but they are significant nonetheless. Late, inadequate, self-serving as it was, in his latest video he condemned the riots he himself incited without claiming responsibility for them, and acknowledged that there would be a peaceful transition without actually admitting defeat. Well, it’s not great but it’s something and hopefully now his supporters will stand down to allow that peaceful transition. Whatever his motives – and I imagine the threat to invoke article 25 and remove him from office will have concentrated his mind wonderfully – he has moved out of the way, at least for now. He seemed to signal that he would come back in 2024 but we’ll see. I think he’s dished himself but I may yet be proved wrong.

Another new word I’ve learnt today is apocalypse. Well I did already know this word of course but what I didn’t realise was that it doesn’t mean disaster so much as a massive upheaval, one which leads to a revelation. To put it in the words of Elizabeth Bishop:

The art of losing isn’t hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

So there are my new words for today. And on this auspicious Friday I invite you to practise the art of losing… Trump!


Kirk out

PS Oh, and I nearly forgot – I’ve had a short story accepted by those wonderful people at Stand magazine. It’ll be out later in the year.

From Your Own Correspondent

Wow. It cannot have escaped your notice that last night our time there was a riot/mob invasion/attempted coup, call it what you will, where an angry crowd stormed the Capitol Building and managed to enter and occupy it for several hours. This invasion was directly incited by Trump who earlier in the day had made speeches telling his supporters at a rally to head up to Capitol Hill and make their feelings known. And they duly obliged; hundreds of his cult followers, ready to die (or preferably kill) for their cause and believing implicitly in his false narrative, did exactly as he told them and stormed the building, climbing walls and smashing windows, causing congressmen and -women to hide in their offices with gas masks on and refusing to leave. They were eventually ousted and over 50 arrests were made, though only four people died, a woman who was shot and later died in hospital, and three who are described as having medical problems, as yet unspecified. Biden appeared on TV at around nine o’clock our time having changed his planned speech to one of condemnation and calling on Trump to go on live TV ‘now’ and tell the mob to disperse. He said exactly the right things, though as ever with the same deadpan delivery which leaves you yearning for just a smidgen of passion.

Well, Trump did eventually appear, not on TV which presumably he no longer trusts but on social media, to call on the mob to go home – though in the process he repeated his false claims of fraud and victory and told the mob ‘we love you,’ something it’s hard to imagine him saying to any other crowd of protestors. And eventually Congress regained control and were able, at three in the morning, to certify Joe Biden as the next president of the US.

We picked up on events around 8 pm having had a message on Facebook, and were glued to the news until bedtime. In fact I couldn’t sleep; I kept wanting to turn my phone on and see what had happened, though I knew this was a very bad idea. It was one of those moments when almost anything could happen; a turning-point in history.

Several things stand out from the way this insurrection was dealt with. First, that politician after politician, both in the US and elsewhere, spoke out in condemnation of the mob and practically all of them laid the blame firmly at Trump’s door. They stood up for the constitution and the rule of law and that is a good thing. But what was going on with the police? Anyone could have seen this coming after the rallies in the afternoon, but the police were either negligent and unprepared or else complicit. It’s hard to know which. And it’s glaringly obvious now, if it wasn’t before, that the police deal differently with black and white protesters. If this had been a BLM protest we would now have many more corpses and hundreds more arrests but at times the police seemed to just stand by and let it happen.

I may be wrong but I think Trump has now finally dished himself. After this, no republican will touch him with a barge pole; he has brought his party and his office into disrepute and may yet be removed from office before his time. He will go down as the worst president in US history and should he be so foolish as to come back in 2024 he will get nowhere. Biden’s problem now is to deal with Trump’s sizeable cult following and to try somehow to bring together a nation ravaged by coronavirus, racism and division.

Here’s how the Washington Post covered it, and here’s the Guardian’s response.

Kirk out

Runoff, Anyone?

Phew. That is all one can say, and to hope for better things here as across the pond the Democrats gain a toehold on power in the Senate. I don’t pretend to understand the ins and outs of US politics but it appears that a president is hamstrung without a majority of their party in the Senate – much like the leader of a minority government here. There were two Senate seats up for grabs in yesterday’s vote: one has been taken by a black pastor of the church where Martin Luther King once preached and the other is too close to call. If they win the other the casting vote will lie with Vice-President Kamala Harris, meaning that Biden can now count on getting most of his legislative programme through.

It comes to something when we celebrate with near-euphoria the victory of a man who is, despite what his opponents may say, nowhere near being a socialist. He’s basically a centrist and on the whole no threat to the establishment which in the US is basically big business plus religion. My feeling is that Trump has now thoroughly dished himself and may be dragging his entire party down with him by his refusal to accept the inevitable and his childish and ungracious twitter-tantrums insisting that he won all along. A phone call at the weekend of which a transcript is publicly available records him asking election officials to ‘find’ 11,700 votes. It’s pathetic. Had he been a little more restrained and accepted defeat graciously he might have paved the way for a comeback in 2024. But it’s my belief that after this, no-one will touch him with a barge pole and that his antics may have contributed to the historic turnout and the ‘flipping’ of the state of Georgia.

What does all this mean for us here? Hard to say. The tide is now turning against Johnson; with no Brexit to distract people his dismal record on the pandemic is now becoming clear. People are looking at other European countries and realising that he’s basically fluffed it. There will be a reckoning and when that happens the Tories will pretty smartly get rid of him. Who will replace him is anyone’s guess: Rishi Sunak is more personable but lacks experience and only the clinically insane would suggest Priti Patel. I have nothing whatever against an Asian Prime Minister, it’s just that Patel is the vilest person ever to disgrace the office of Home Secretary. But with no election due for another four years it’s hard to see how there could be a change of government any day soon.

Stay safe out there. Or in there.

Kirk out

Hancock’s Half-Empty

The other day I watched a fascinating documentary on the life of John le Mesurier, ‘It’s All Been Rather Lovely.’ There was a lot about his working life; the Carry-ons and Dad’s Army and a look at a Dennis Potter play which showed that he had great undeveloped potential as a straight actor – but what was truly fascinating was his private life. In those days very little was known about the private lives of stars; without social media or paparazzi or the gossipy magazines there was very little outlet for it and people in general tended to keep themselves to themselves. It was normal for that generation not to talk about their feelings or their relationships; my own parents, for example, never confided in us about what was going on in their marriage, even long after we were grown up. But John seems to have been a very special person in that he was private without being buttoned-up and just about the most tolerant, forgiving person you could imagine. His first wife was an alcoholic so they divorced and then he married Hattie Jacques. She was the love of his life and they had many happy years together – but then she fell in love with another man and not content with seeing him on the side, moved him into the marital home. Poor John. Eventually he moved out, divorced Hattie and then married his third wife Joan, who is still alive. But then Joan fell in love with John’s best friend who happened to be Tony Hancock. Hancock is not known for his positive outlook on life and was not a pleasant person to be in love with; he was unfaithful and violent and Joan ended up turning to the one person who would understand, John himself. She acknowledged in the film that she had behaved unforgivably but throughout this period John acted with grace, understanding and forgiveness. Judging by this film, he was a prince among men and thoroughly deserved the happiness that in the end he had with Joan. It’s heartbreaking but also a lovely thing to watch in an age where people come out on social media wishing their exes all kinds of dire retribution and heaping scorn on those who have wronged them – and for that, I honour him.

RIP John, we never knew you.

And here’s the programme. I’ve also started watching Traces, a new series based on a Val McDermid story in which people are generally nice and friendly to each other. I do like a good crime series to follow and this one makes me long for Scotland even more.

Pining for the lochs…

Kirk out

A Message of Heartfelt Gratitude

This is going to be a rather cryptic post as it’s addressed to the person who put an envelope through our door some time last night or this morning. I was completely choked when I saw what was in it, and I just want to say from the bottom of my heart, thank you. You know who you are – although I don’t.

That’s all for now. More later, including some possibly exciting news…

Kirk out