Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Nostalgia for Analog

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 23 2017.

The other afternoon, I was looking forward to a snooze under the fan as a respite from the intense pre-electrical storm inferno.  After a good lunch and a couple of cold beers, I settled down to read about David Sax’s new book The Revenge of Analog.

My snooze was not to be. My octogenarian neighbour had a visitor and the two buddies proceeded to set up a table and chairs in front of my house and crack open a few cans and enjoy the craic. This initially involved shouting at each other and over each other but soon developed into the kind of situation that Sax writes about. One codger started phoning up other friends and shouting over them through the ether. Then codger number two started phoning from his cell and shouting. This is the 21st century – two old codgers who think they are having a party but abandoning each other’s company for their cell phones.

Disconnection

This is not the most extreme example of digital disconnection and anomie. We have all been in restaurants where the entire company stares into smart phones without making eye-contact with those with whom they have arranged to meet. All new technologies drew criticism. Television was blamed for ending the old ceremonial tradition of a family sitting down together to enjoy a meal (the family dining table was also notoriously a venue for vicious fights – my old codger neighbours had a huge fight over lunch and one drove off in an almighty huff).These days I often see a family sitting down together at the dining table. Mummy has headphones on and is watching a movie on her laptop, while Daddy (also with headphones shutting out the real world) is surfing the net for conspiracy theories. Baby is watching cartoons on his I-pad.

Nodding Pigeons

In his review in the New York Review of Books of Sax’s book Bill McKibben writes: “Everyone I know seems a little ashamed of the compulsive phone-checking, but it is, circa 2017, our species-specific calling card, as surely as the bobbing head-thrust identifies the pigeon. No one much likes spending half the workday on e-mail, but that’s what work is for many of us.”

Sax reminds us that there was a Before- a time when we could relax and touch actual physical objects. Refuges are appearing in the 21t Century. As McKibben puts it Sax: “brings us tales of these analog refuges, crankily safe from the instantaneous and universal. Places where we can relax, and maybe even think, as opposed to click. Places where we can touch actual physical objects.”

Vinyl

The example which most speaks to me is the resurgence of interest in vinyl records. I have never been an early adapter of new technologies – not a Luddite, just cautious. I am still using a Sansui amplifier I bought in 1982 ans Monitor speakers I bought in 1998. I felt for a short time in 1973 that I would save a lot of space if I copied all my vinyl albums onto compact cassettes. Cassettes were fragile and not easy to love and now they have become obsolete. I’m glad I kept my vinyl.

Happenings

Again, when CDs came along, I took a while to be persuaded, although I actually bought a CD before I acquired a machine to play it on. The album in question was Happenings by the late great vibes player Bobby Hutcherson (who sadly left us on August 15, 2016) I bought the CD version in 1987. The analog album was originally recorded on February 6, 1966 by the legendary Rudy Van Gelder at his studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. The album features Dayan Jayatilleka’s friend Herbie Hancock on piano and box of rocks.

Happenings was originally issued in 1967 and transferred from analog to digital in 1987 by Ron McMaster at 24-bit resolution. The album was remastered in 2006. In 2017, it is available for streaming at a price of €4.66. The album is a good symbol of the whole situation. Hutcherson recorded for the Bluenote label which was celebrated for a particular quality of sonic experience with stylish substantial packaging including distinctive photography and design and informative sleeve notes. That bundle does not transfer to CD (my rheumy old eyes have trouble reading CD sleeve notes). The mono version of the vinyl edition from 1967 is being offered for sale on the internet for €78.

The first U.S.-recorded digital album of popular music was Bop ‘Til You Drop by Ry Cooder, released by Warner Bros. Records in 1979. The album was recorded in Los Angeles on a 32-track digital machine built by the 3M corporation. It is ironic that Cooder, who has been something of a custodian of roots music, should have been at the forefront of technological advance. I bought the album on vinyl at the time but later bought it on CD. The 180g vinyl pressing is much sought after today.

On Green Dolphin Street,  by jazz saxist Archie Shepp was America’s first RELEASED digitally-recorded commercial album in 1977.

CDs seemed very convenient at the time but I am glad that I did not go as far as friend who got rid of all his vinyl. I see the conveneience of being able to carry my entire record collection around with me on a smart phone or I-pod. However, there is a special pleasure in sorting through my vinyl albums. Sax: “Records are large and heavy; require money, effort, and taste to create and buy and play; and cry out to be thumbed over and examined. Because consumers spend money to acquire them, they gain a genuine sense of ownership over the music, which translates into pride.”

À la recherche du temps perdu

These physical objects have a personal history. My copy of Bob Dylan’s Before the Flood live album reminds me of the woman who drove me to HMV records to get the album on the day it was issued and got stopped by the police on the way back. I still have two albums from that same year of 1974 – Jesse Colin Young’s Lightshine and The Souther, Hillman, Furay Band – which she gave me as gifts and made me promise not to get rid of. Many albums bear the signatures and greetings of old friends. My jazz collection is particularly resonant because it reminds me of seeing giants like Charles Mingus, Dexter Gordon (Bobby Hutcherson got into jazz after listening to records at Dexter Gordon’s home) and Miles Davis perform live. With many of the albums I can recall the circumstances of their purchase and the shop they came from – Barry’s Record Rendezvous in Manchester, Ray’s Jazz Shop in Covent Garden, Mole Records at King’s Cross or Dobell’s on Charing Cross Road.

Not Codgers

There is a surprising  revival of vinyl which is not just about old codgers like me being nostalgic for our lost youth. New stuff is coming out on vinyl and young people are buying it. Revenues from vinyl sales in 2015 were higher than those of on-demand streaming services, such as YouTube, Vevo and Spotify’s free service, which only accounted for $385 million.

Guitar wizard Jack White achieved great success with the White Stripes. He has engaged in various projects since. He is a songwriter, artist, producer, guitarist and singer and owner of Third Man Records and Third Man Studios, and a board member of the Library of Congress’s National Recording Preservation Foundation, an organisation to which he donated $200,000. His album, Lazaretto, topped the charts around the world, selling 40,000 vinyl copies in one week in the US. White produced Neil Young’s album A Letter Home in a Voice–O–Graph, which looks like a telephone booth from the outside, and it was widely in use in the US from the 1940s to the 1960s.

 

White uses modern technology when it suits him, driving a state–of–the–art black Tesla Model S electric sports car. “Analog is the medium of all the kinds of music that I am really fond of,” comments White. “Form follows function. You have to ask yourself what you are trying to accomplish. What are you trying to make it sound like? When you are recording, and producing, you are aiming for something and if you want vibe, warmth, soulfulness, things like that, you will always be drawn back to analog”.

Classic Album Sundays

Colleen Murphy is a 48-year-old American who has lived has lived in Britain since 1999. At her home in Hackney, east London she has a room lined with 10,000 records, arranged alphabetically, by artist.  She DJs under the name Cosmo, produces and remixes music, and runs a vinyl‑only label called Bitches Brew.  Since 2010 she has been organising Classic Album Sundays; a small group would spend couple of hours eating, drinking and talking, and then listening to both sides of a vinyl album played on expensive equipment. Even sceptics admitted that familiar albums sounded completely different. Murphy argues that vinyl is about more than sound quality; it gives the opportunity of really listening to a whole record – often in company – rather being solitary behind headphones flipping from track to track. Attention, as well as social interaction, is something undermined in the digital world

Digital Failure

I rejoice in the opportunities that the digital world has brought me. I have established some warm online friendships with people I have never met. I have had the chance to interact with famous musicians, journalists, novelists and poets. I have also been viciously attacked by strangers taking advantage of anonymity.

I love YouTube but there is a point at which having all the music in the world turns a bit toxic. Spotify shows people choosing the same items over and over. As Bill McKibben puts it: “either we evolve quickly away from the social primates we have always been or else we will quietly suffer from the solipsism inherent in staring at ourselves reflected in a screen. It’s too jumpy; concentration, from which all that is worthwhile emerges, is the great loss.”

More about nostalgia, concentration and attention in future articles.

 

How Could They Tell?

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 16 2017

 


How Could They Tell?

 

Last week I wrote about speculation surrounding the death of the 29th president of the United States, Warren Gamaliel Harding. There was also speculation about the death of Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge. Dorothy Parker was reported to have said, on being told by Robert Benchley that Coolidge was dead, “How could they tell?” I heard a different version of that story. Peter Benchley, creator of Jaws and the grandson of the Algonquin wit Robert Benchley, (Robert sent a telegram to his editor at the New Yorker, Harold Ross, upon arriving in Venice for the first time. “Streets full of water. Please advise.”) was speaking on Ned Sherrin’s BBC Radio 4 programme Loose Ends. According to him, Robert Benchley said, “Coolidge is dead”; Parker said, “How can they tell?”; Benchley responded, “He had an erection”.

The renowned lawyer Clarence Darrow dryly summed up Coolidge: “The greatest man who ever came out of Plymouth Corner, Vermont!” Coolidge had a reputation for taciturnity although some of his remarks could be interpreted as quietly witty. In that, he reminds me somewhat of Clement Attlee, although their political philosophies were totally different – Attlee was a founder of the welfare state whereas Coolidge was a small-government conservative.

Weaned on a Pickle

Coolidge was commonly referred to as “Silent Cal”. A woman once said to him, said to him, “I made a bet today that I could get more than two words out of you.” He replied, “You lose.” Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society; when asked why he continued to attend so many of dinner parties, he replied, “Got to eat somewhere.” Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, loathed Coolidge: “When he wished he were elsewhere, he pursed his lips, folded his arms, and said nothing. He looked then precisely as though he had been weaned on a pickle”.

He did have a sense of humour, albeit a somewhat infantile one. He buzzed for his bodyguards and then hid under his desk as they frantically searched for him, presumably fearing him kidnapped.

“His ideal day,” HL Mencken wrote, “is one on which nothing whatever happens.” Walter Lippmann described Coolidge’s philosophy as “Puritanism de luxe, in which it is possible to praise all the classic virtues while continuing to enjoy all the modern conveniences.”

Irving Stone wrote in 1949: “Calvin Coolidge believed the least government was the best government; he aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained that desire”.

Coolidge has generally been regarded as something of a joke but some historians have tried hard to find something positive about this accidental, do-little president who rose without trace to the highest office in the USA. Some have suggested that he created his image deliberately as a campaign tactic. He himself gave some support to this theory telling Ethel Barrymore: “I think the American people want a solemn ass as a President and I think I will go along with them.” “The words of a President have an enormous weight,” he would later write, “and ought not to be used indiscriminately”.

Continuity

He was the first vice president to attend cabinet meetings although he kept a low profile in the administration. There has been no suggestion that he was personally corrupt as were many of Harding’s cabinet. Nevertheless, he kept most of them on because he believed that, having attained the presidency because of Harding’s death in office, he was morally obliged to retain his predecessor’s appointees and policies until he won an election in his own right. Many expected that he would not be on the ballot in 1924 but he was and won convincingly.

Coolidge strongly believed that the accused were entitled to a presumption of innocence. He felt that the Senate investigation of allegations relating to the Teapot Dome scandal would suffice although he did personally intervene in demanding the resignation of Attorney General Harry MDaugherty after he refused to cooperate with the congressional investigation. He was methodical in seeking detailed briefing on the wrongdoing with Harry A Slattery reviewing the facts with him, Harlan F Stone analysing the legal aspects for him and Senator William E Borah assessing and presenting the political factors.

Coolidge ensured continuity with most of Harding’s policies, including immigration restrictions. Just before the Republican Convention began, Coolidge signed into law the Revenue Act of 1924, which reduced the top marginal tax rate from 58% to 46%, as well as personal income tax rates across the board. He has often been derided for saying, “The business of America is business”. What he actually said was: “It is probable that a press which maintains an intimate touch with the business currents of the nation is likely to be more reliable than it would be if it were a stranger to these influences. After all, the chief business of the American people is business. They are profoundly concerned with buying, selling, investing and prospering in the world”.

Laissez Faire

Coolidge is admired by those who share his belief that that America and its business will prosper if the federal government does not interfere. Coolidge spoke in his inaugural address about lynching, child labour and low wages for women but did not attempt to solve these problems. One could not imagine a person less like Donald Trump than Coolidge. However, like Trump, he followed a “foxes in charge of the hen house”” approach to government departments. The Federal Trade Commission was given a new boss, William E Humphrey, who had constantly opposed its work. In 1925 the government received $677 million more than it spent but there were still drastic cuts. The Interior department saw its budget fall from $48 million in 1921 to $32 million in 1928.

 

Great Depression

Some claim that his do-nothing philosophy led to the Great Depression. Historian Robert Sobel points out “As Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge supported wages and hours legislation, opposed child labour, imposed economic controls during World War I, favoured safety measures in factories, and even worker representation on corporate boards. Did he support these measures while president? No, because in the 1920s, such matters were considered the responsibilities of state and local governments.”

Under Coolidge, the stock market swelled into an enormous bubble, inflated by borrowed money. Coolidge managed to get out of office before the bubble burst but that does not absolve him of blame. “Nero fiddled,” HL Mencken said, “but Coolidge only snored.” Hugh Brogan says of Coolidge: “As president, he thought it was his duty to mind the store while the republicans ran the country as they saw fit. He intervened in the economic process only to veto the proposals of more active men in Congress … He was almost equally supine in foreign affairs.”

Model for Reagan?

Another historian, David Greenberg, argues that Coolidge was a model for Reagan. Like Reagan, he cut taxes, drastically reduced federal programmes and refused to compromise with striking government workers. He avoided entanglement with the World Court and the League of Nations. Coolidge liked to take a nap in the afternoon. Greenberg claims that Coolidge mastered radio in the same way that Reagan mastered television. To compare Silent Cal with the Great Communicator seems a bit of a stretch. A contemporary claimed that Coolidge could be silent in five languages. “If you keep dead still,” he advised Herbert Hoover, his successor, regarding visitors to the White House, “they will run down in three or four minutes. If you even cough or smile they will start up all over again.”

Achievements

The best that can be said is that John Calvin Coolidge Jr restored public confidence in the White House after the scandals of Harding’s presidency; he was very popular when he left office after deciding not to run for a second term. He told Chief Justice Harlan Stone, “It’s a pretty good idea to get out when they still want you.” Claud M Feuss wrote in his 1940 biography of Coolidge: “He embodied the spirit and hopes of the middle class, could interpret their longings and express their opinions. That he did represent the genius of the average is the most convincing proof of his strength.”

Coolidge’s retirement was relatively short, as he died at the age of 60 in January 1933, less than two months before his immediate successor, Herbert Hoover, another member of the Harding administration, left office.

 

 

 

Was President Harding Murdered?

 

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 9 2017.

Rajiva Wijesinha made a kind comment on my article last week about Warren Harding and also gave me a heads-up about a novel which incorporates Harding’s death. The novel proved an entertaining read. It is Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold which is about the illusionist Charles Carter, admired by Houdini himself, who persuades the president to participate in an illusion at his San Francisco performance on August 2 1923 which seems to involve Harding being eaten by a lion. Two hours later Harding dies and Carter attracts the interest of the Secret Service.

 

 

Conspiracy Theories

There have been many bizarre theories about Harding’s death. Many conspiracy theories propose that world events are being controlled and manipulated by a secret society calling itself the Illuminati. Henry Makow PhD believes that Harding (and Franklin Roosevelt, John F Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and several other presidents) was murdered by the Illuminati because he was a Mason. The real-life Carter’s first theatrical appearance was at Pat Harris’s Masonic Temple in Baltimore at the age of ten, where he appeared as “Master Charles Carter the Original Boy Magician”.

Dr Hugo Pecos of The Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency (FVZA) has his own theory. On the night of August 1 1923, Franklin Prevost, Director of the FVZA office in San Francisco, was told by Assistant Attorney General Jess Smith that President Harding had been bitten by a vampire some time the previous evening. Smith told Prevost that a Norwegian sailor named Olaf Johans, had done it. Prevost entered the Presidential Suite and found Harding in a coma, with puncture wounds on his neck, his wife Florence at his bedside. The President was put out of his misery with a dose of cyanide.

Vampires and Gangsters

Prevost left San Francisco for Washington on September 12, 1924, but as he stepped off the train in St. Louis, two men with tommy guns shot him 12 times, and died a short time later at a nearby hospital. Eyewitness accounts of Prevost’s murderers matched descriptions of Al Capone hit men Scalise and Anselmi. Before police could question the two men, they were shot dead in a Chicago barbershop. Although Prevost’s file was gone, he left behind enough information in his San Francisco office to build a case against Jess Smith in the death of Harding. Smith killed himself (although the gun was found in his right hand, but the bullet wound was in his left temple). Dr Pecos speculates: “Is it possible that Warren Harding’s close friend and Assistant Attorney General Jess Smith arranged and helped carry out the murder of the President? The evidence is certainly compelling. Unfortunately, we will never know the truth”.

Jess Smith

Differing Doctors

The facts of Harding’s death are difficult to establish and it is no wonder that wild speculation began almost immediately after his demise. At 7:20 p.m. on the evening of August 2, 1923, in the presidential of San Francisco’s Palace Hotel Harding’s wife, Florence, was reading the Saturday Evening Post to him. An article about himself seemed to please him because he said, “That’s good, go on.” He shuddered and dropped dead onto his bed.

Rumours about the cause of death began to circulate almost immediately. Some speculated that Harding committed suicide because of emerging corruption scandals. Some believed that his cronies murdered him to stop him revealing their crimes. Some believed Florence, “The Duchess”, poisoned him because she was sick of his infidelities. “It’s a good thing I’m not a woman. I would always be pregnant. I can’t say no,” Harding told reporters when he was president.

Gaston Means

The story of Florence poisoning the president was started by a chancer called Gaston Means. In his book, The Strange Death of President Harding (1930), Means alleged that Harding had been consciously complicit in all of the major scandals of his administration. He insinuated that the President had been murdered by his wife with the help of their personal physician, Charles E Sawyer. Mae Dixon Thacker confessed that not only had she ghost-written the book for Means but also that Means had stolen her share of the profits. Means died in Leavenworth after being sentenced to 15 years for grand larceny after swindling Washington socialite Evalyn Walsh McLean (owner of the Hope Diamond) in connection with the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh. McLean was great friend of Florence Harding and her husband, Ned McLean, owner of the Washington Post, procured women for Warren Harding.

McLeans with Dog

Who was actually with Harding at the time of death remains unknown. The official cause of death was given as a stroke but that seems to have been Sawyer’s unqualified opinion. The other, better-trained, doctors thought it was a heart attack. Florence’s favourite astrologer Madame Marcia had predicted in 1920 that Harding would not survive his first term – he would die “by sudden, violent and peculiar death by poison.”

Madame Marcia

 

Cover Up?

Florence did behave suspiciously. She refused to allow an autopsy. Within an hour of his death, Harding was embalmed, rouged, powdered, dressed, and in his coffin. By morning, he was on a train to Washington. Florence had several dozen long wood boxes of presidential correspondence transported to the Friendship estate of Evalyn Walsh McLean where they were burnt.

Glen David Gold describes this well: “And so it went, all conspirators great and small realizing that the only man with a conscience was no longer about to spill the beans. The Duchess went back to her duties and when she was finished with her fires. She left the White House with blisters on her hands, never to return”. Gold seems to adhere to the view that Harding was basically decent if weak and was betrayed by his corrupt cronies: Jess Smith, Albert Fall, Harry Daugherty and Charles R Forbes. Forbes had been appointed head of the Veterans Bureau at Florence’s insistence and had milked it for his own financial profit. This was a blow to Florence because the care of World War I veterans was her signature policy issue. Warren had choked and shaken Forbes against the wall of the Red Room – but permitted him to flee to Europe. Forbes was prosecuted and convicted of conspiracy to defraud the US Government, fined $10,000, and sentenced to two years. He was put in prison on March 21, 1926 and  served one year, eight months and six days at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary. He died at the Walter Reed military hospital in Washington DC at the age of 74 on April 10, 1952.

Charles R Forbes

Early in Harding’s political career, a trust fund was set up to rent in perpetuity thirty thousand square feet at Paddock’s Storage House which abutted the waste disposal incinerator in Marion, Ohio. When federal investigators got a subpoena to enter the unit it was empty. There had been four thousand boxes ten feet long, each tightly packed with documents. When the National Archives called for documents relating to Warren G Harding, they received two boxes.

Quack

Charles Sawyer was clearly a charlatan but the Hardings trusted him. The president appointed him as a Brigadier General in the US Army and the chairman of the Federal Hospitalization Board. Dr Sawyer was dosing the president with purgatives, laxatives and injections of heart stimulants, including arsenic. I wonder if my Sri Lankan readers will note, as I do, a distinct resemblance to that illustrious writer, sage and scourge Emil van der Poorten?

Harding was only 57 but clearly was not in good shape. He took little exercise and engaged in twice-weekly marathon poker sessions fuelled by whiskey, cigars and roast beef sandwiches. He was often short of breath and complained of indigestion which was probably in truth angina. He had not fully recovered from a bout of influenza before going on a physically demanding tour. During his last trip to the west on the Voyage of Understanding his lips were often blue. These are all signs of heart disease. Sawyer maintained that Harding was suffering from ptomaine poisoning after eating crabs doused heavily in butter. He prescribed purgatives which provoked a cardiac arrest.

Harding probably was killed but by Sawyer’s negligence rather than because of any cunning plan of Florence’s. Sawyer died in Florence’s presence in September 1924. Florence herself died of renal failure in November of the same year.

 

 

Warren G Harding

 

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday March 2 2017.

 

Warren Gamaliel Harding was always considered the worst of all the American presidents. In a 1948 poll of historians conducted by Harvard’s Arthur M Schlesinger, Harding ranked last among the 29 presidents considered. That was before Trump came along. Harding had a great deal less scope to do harm than Trump has – nuclear weapons were not operational in the 1920s (although Ernest Rutherford was at the time fiddling with atoms at my alma mater the University of Manchester). Harding was the 29th President of the United States, serving from March 4, 1921 until his death in 1923.

As with Trump, it was a surprise when Harding achieved the highest office in the land. He started out as a newspaperman but had a great deal more political experience than Trump. One of his backers said that his biggest asset was that he looked like a president. The press considered his wife Florence, known as “The Duchess”, as the power behind him.  She was born Florence Mabel Kling (I am reminded that when James Joyce’s father learnt that his son had taken up with Nora Barnacle, he remarked “she’ll stick to him anyway”). One cartoonist depicted the couple as “the Chief Executive and Mr Harding”.

Not Quite the Helpless Idiot

In his 1968 biography of Harding, The Available Man, Andrew Sinclair wrote: “He started with nothing, and through working, stalling, bluffing, withholding payments, borrowing back wages, boasting, and manipulating, he turned a dying rag into a powerful small-town newspaper. Much of his success had to do with his good looks, affability, enthusiasm, and persistence, but he was also lucky. As Machiavelli once pointed out, cleverness will take a man far, but he cannot do without good fortune.” Harding’s sudden death shocked America and he was deeply mourned. He was called a man of peace in many European newspapers. In his review of Sinclair’s biography, political scientist Richard Hofstadter wrote: “Sinclair’s main point is that Harding could not have been quite the helpless idiot we take him for, and I think he argues it with some success.”  It was only after his death that the full extent of the scandals emerged. We know about Trump’s scandals while he still breathes.

Another Accidental President

In 1899, Harding was elected to the Ohio State Senate. He began his senate term as a political unknown; he ended them one of the most popular figures in the Ohio Republican Party. He always appeared calm and displayed humility (unlike Trump), characteristics that endeared him to fellow Republicans even as he passed them in his political rise. After four years, he successfully ran for lieutenant governor. He was defeated in the gubernatorial election in 1910, but was elected to the US Senate in 1914.  As a senator, he was respected by both Republicans and Progressives. Harding ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 1920, but he was considered to have small chance of success. Following deadlock when none of the leading candidates could achieve a majority, party professionals meeting in a “smoke-filled room” in a local hotel engineered the nomination of Harding on the tenth ballot.

For most of the presidential campaign he stayed in Marion, Ohio. Nevertheless, he won a landslide victory and became the first sitting senator to be elected president. For the first time in American history, election results were made available to the public by radio. Following the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, in 1920, women voted in a federal election for the first time. Unlike Trump, Harding won a convincing majority of the popular vote – 60.3%.

Former Treasury Secretary William G McAdoo described a typical Harding speech as “an army of pompous phrases moving over the landscape in search of an idea. Sometimes these meandering words actually capture a straggling thought and bear it triumphantly, a prisoner in their midst, until it died of servitude and over work.” HL Mencken wrote, “it reminds me of a string of wet sponges, it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a kind of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm … of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is balder and dash.”

Making America Normal

During his campaign, Harding added a new word to the English language – normalcy. Like Trump, he promised to return America to a better time. “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.”

Unfortunately, that kind of tranquillity is not what the Harding administration is remembered for. He drastically cut immigration and appointed his cronies to cabinet positions. Just as we see Obama’s legacy being dismantled today, Harding brought to an end the reform era of Roosevelt and Wilson. Unlike Trump, Harding seemed aware of his deficiencies. “I am not fit for this office and should never have been here”.

Crony Corruption

Harding appointed a number of friends and acquaintances to federal positions and many of this “Ohio Gang” proved to be corrupt. Teapot Dome was an oil reserve in Wyoming which was one of three set aside for the use of the Navy in the event of a national emergency. The Interior Department announced in July 1921 that Edward Doheny had been awarded a lease to drill along the edges of naval reserve Elk Hills in California. Wyoming Senator John Kendrick had heard from constituents that Teapot Dome had also been leased, but no announcement had been made. The Interior Department refused to provide documentation, so Kendrick secured the passage of a Senate resolution compelling disclosure. The department declared that there had been no competitive bidding because military preparedness was involved and Harry Sinclair’s Mammoth Oil Company was to build oil tanks for the Navy as part of the deal. Some conservationists, pushed for a full investigation into Interior Secretary Albert Fall and his activities. Hearings into Teapot Dome began in October 1923, after Harding’s death. Investigators found that Fall and a relative had received a total of about $400,000 from Doheny and Sinclair. Fall was convicted in 1929 for accepting bribes and, in 1931, the first US cabinet member to be imprisoned for crimes committed while in office.

Harding’s Sex Life

Harding’s first affair, after he had been married to Florence for three years, was with Florence’s best friend from childhood and resulted in the birth of a daughter. He also had an extramarital affair with Carrie Fulton Phillips of Marion, another close friend of Florence, which lasted about fifteen years until 1920. A cache of 106 letters written to her by Harding was discovered in 1964. The president referred to his penis as “Jerry”.  “Wish I could take you to Mount Jerry. Wonderful spot. Not in the geographies but a heavenly place, and I have seen some passing views there and revelled in them. Gee! How I wish you might be along. You could be such a dandy companion”. He referred to her private parts as Mrs Pouterson.

A third mistress was his Senate aide, Grace Cross, who went around Washington talking about a birthmark on the president’s back in an unsuccessful attempt to get blackmail money.

The allegations of another mistress, Nan Britton, who like Harding was from Marion, Ohio, long remained unproved. Britton was a campaign volunteer who started having sex with Harding when he was 51 and she was 22. In 1927, Britton published a book alleging that her child Elizabeth Ann Blaesing had been fathered by Harding.

Britton claimed that she and the president copulated in a White House closet, with Secret Service agents posted to ward off intruders. In 2015, DNA comparisons indicated that Harding was Elizabeth’s father.

There were numerous other women. Rosa Hoyle was said to have conceived his illegitimate son.

Augusta Cole’s pregnancy was terminated. Harding’s crony, Washington Post  owner Ned McClean, procured for him a Post employee known as Miss Allicott and former chorus girls Maize Hollywood and Blossom Jones. There were also many New York women, including one who committed suicide when he would not marry her.

Harding died of a cerebral haemorrhage caused by heart disease in San Francisco while on a western speaking tour – or did he? More about Harding’s mysterious demise next week.

China and Sri Lanka Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 23 2017.

http://epaper.ceylontoday.lk/TodayEpaper.php?id=2017-02-23

Colman's Column3

It was very entertaining to watch the new Sri Lankan government putting on its big-boy pants to pick a fight with China and then realizing how deep in the doo-doo they were. Eran Wickramaratne, Deputy Minister of State Enterprise Development, tried to put a brave face on the ensuing grovel: “The issue is many of the Chinese contractors were overpaid, for lots of projects. We have been in discussions with them, and almost all of them have been restarted, some under new terms.”

 

Cunning Plan

 

The cunning plan was to turn debts into “investments” and pretend Sri Lanka was doing China a favour. International Trade and Development Strategies Minister Malik Samarawickrama said that Sri Lanka is eager to “reduce the current debt by inviting Chinese companies, Chinese investors, to look at some of the enterprises in Sri Lanka, the state-owned enterprises, with a view to taking at least part of that equity over.” Wickremesinghe himself said in Beijing that Sri Lanka had been “talking with some companies and also the government of China about the possibility of some infrastructure projects becoming public-private partnerships, in which part of the debt will become equity held by the Chinese companies’’.

 

Former ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka commented: “Having spurned and insulted China — as External Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera did in his media conference in Beijing itself — Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s administration now wants China to subsidize Colombo’s ‘pivot’ to the US and India in their joint and separate efforts to compete with and contain China!”
Won’t Get Fooled

 

The Chinese may be endlessly patient and forgiving and they do want to keep a stake in Sri Lanka. However, they are not stupid and they smelt a rat. Zhuang Rui, deputy dean of the Institute of International Economy at the University of International Business and Economics, said that Sri Lanka’s request was, “a kind of move to repudiate a debt”. A commentary in the Global Times warned: “It would be meaningless if China only swaps some bad debts for nonperforming assets in Sri Lanka’s enterprises. The two countries may need to set up mechanisms to ensure China has sufficient bargaining power in negotiations with Sri Lanka to obtain high quality assets’’.

Hu Weijia wrote in Global Times: “As for China, the country not only needs to act prudently to protect its interests from Sri Lanka’s debt woes, but also should treat the economic ties between the two countries from strategic and long-term perspectives…China may need to invest more in local industries which could create stable jobs for local communities to promote regional economic prosperity and social stability, ensuring that the country becomes more capable of repaying the loans offered by China.”

The government in April 2016 did manage to secure some Chinese investment.  Minister of International Trade Malik Samarawickrema announced that Chinese investors were keen on investing in Mattala Airport, Hambantota Economic and Industrial zone and the government was accelerating the implementation of ongoing Chinese projects valued at US$ 6 billion including the Economic Zone, and a ship repair project.  New infrastructure projects discussed included the extension of the Southern Highway, Kandy and Ratnapura Expressways, and potable and waste water projects.

Port City Project

According to former Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, India had warned the Rajapaksa government not to go ahead with the $1.4 billion Chinese-funded Colombo Port City Project, because it would be a security threat to India. The construction of the Port City on 450 acres of land reclaimed from the sea adjoining Colombo Harbour began during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term. The project would have been the biggest single foreign investment in Sri Lanka and would add 233 hectares (575 acres) of real estate in the congested capital. The original project plan included roads, water, electricity, shopping malls, water sports facilities and marinas, a mini golf course, hotels and apartments.

 

President Sirisena suspended the plan shortly after taking power in January 2015, on the grounds that it would adversely affect the environment. A Chinese firm engaged in the project sought $125 million in compensation for delays caused by the new government. Dayan Jayatilleka commented: “The Port City Project was opened by China’s President himself. So the manner in which some elements of Sri Lanka’s new administration and the overarching National Executive Council have behaved has been profoundly insulting to China. This is no way to treat our country’s best friend!” Diplomatic sources said that China had been willing to build many more port Cities around Sri Lanka. “They were agreeable to construct as many as 28 such cities if only we had asked.”

 

The government did a U-turn and recommended that the project be resumed.  Chinese foreign ministry official Xiao Qian told reporters after a meeting between Wickremesinghe and China’s Premier Li Keqiang that both sides agreed to “speed up” the project.

Conclusion

 

 

Sri Lanka’s former ambassador to the PRC, Nihal Rodrigo, prefers to focus on the “rivalry” rather than the “conflict” between China and India: “Sri Lanka is also anxious to ensure that the ‘rivalry’, often also misunderstanding, even confusion twixt India and China, does not adversely impact on national interests of Sri Lanka and China and India.”

Nihal Rodrigo writes: “The naval traditions of what is now popularized by the Chinese as the Silk Road of the Seas extend deep into the past. Now it is very much adapted to be a vital integral part of contemporary Chinese economic, political and cultural policies. Zhen He is said to have been also engaged deeply in SL’s domestic, political, defence and other aspects at the time when SL consisted of three political entities: Kotte, Jaffna and Kandy.”

Beijing needs Sri Lanka because of its geographical location close to the sea lanes that carry supplies essential to the Chinese economy. However, China is unlikely to try to challenge the US and India directly in the Indian Ocean. Jabin T Jacobs, Assistant Director at the Delhi-based Institute of Chinese Studies, believes that China’s strategy is smarter than just establishing a military base in Sri Lanka. China, he says, “is cultivating influence not by overt military presence but by encouraging people-to-people contacts, offering scholarships, sponsoring conference trips, and boosting Chinese tourism in India’s neighboring countries. This softly, softly, approach is more effective and far more difficult for India to counter.”

Dayan Jayatilleka has been criticized in the past for pushing Sri Lanka towards India. Now he believes the government is making a mistake by disrespecting China: “The current Colombo model is one in which China is the preponderant financial contributor but is relegated to a subordinate role and status in the political, diplomatic and strategic spheres. China builds the economic foundation and is accommodated in the basement, while the US and India own the building and occupy the penthouse apartments.”

Although it may have made sense for the Rajapaksa government to seek help from China, contracts were too often granted without going through a normal tendering process. Economist Deshal de Mel accepts the current and future governments will also need China. He writes: “It is up to Sri Lanka to prudently take advantage of the economic opportunities that may arise out of China’s interests in the region, whilst being mindful of China’s strategic and security interests….Working within such a transparent, rules-based framework would enable Sri Lanka to benefit through partnership with China, but also ensure that India and the US are not threatened by its legitimate developmental objectives.”

 

 

China and Sri Lanka Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 16 2017

http://epaper.ceylontoday.lk/TodayEpaper.php?id=2017-02-16

 

Colman's Column3

CBK

On April 21-27, 1996, President Kumaratunga made a state visit to China at the invitation of then Chinese President Jiang Zeming. Two agreements were signed to enhance economic cooperation. On August 30 2005, Kumaratunga began a five-day state visit to China at the invitation of then Chinese President Hu Jintao. The two countries signed eight agreements on cultural, economic, financial and tourism cooperation. However, she turned away from China (accounting for only 18%) as a supplier of weapons for the war against the LTTE.

CBK’s recent statements on China aroused the wrath of Dayan Jayatilleka (former Sri Lankan ambassador to Geneva, Paris and UNESCO) for her “shameful description of the Nelum Pokuna as a “commode” (“kakkussi pochchiya”). The building was a gift from China and modelled on the magnificent Lotus Pond of King Parakramabahu’s Polonnaruwa. A greater contrast with the conduct of Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who never forgot China’s generosity in gifting the BMICH, cannot be imagined”.

Harim Pieris, a former advisor of Kumaratunga recently recommended that Sri Lanka be to India as Hong Kong is to China, overlooking the fact that Hong Kong is a part of, and belongs to China while Sri Lanka does not belong to India.

War and Reconstruction

 

During the war against the LTTE, Sri Lanka’s traditional arms suppliers imposed restrictions. GOSL had to look elsewhere and China was willing to help. The Chinese arms supplier, Norinco, maintained  a  weapons dump in Colombo.

Following the defeat of the LTTE, the Rajapaksa regime chose to focus on rapid economic revival and development of infrastructure. Most western countries wanted accountability and reconciliation addressed first and imposed conditions on whatever financial assistance they might provide. The US reneged on its commitment to provide $500 million from the Millennium Development Account for road development. There was reluctance among the major Western countries resisted Sri Lanka’s approach to the IMF for a standby loan of $1.5 billion.

GOSL turned to the source that most Western countries themselves, including the US and the EU, rely on for funding. China was not bothered by fripperies like human rights and won contracts for substantial post-war development projects in Sri Lanka’s North and South with ongoing and projects concluded estimated at more than US$ 6.1 billion. The Rajapaksa Doctrine – give the North to India to develop and give the South to China – backfired because India felt slighted that Sri Lanka was giving more projects to China because Chinese companies were bringing the funds.

 

Critics saw Sri Lanka being in danger of becoming a Chinese colony and India was alarmed at China’s military presence in the island. India insisted on opening a consulate in Hambantota, an area which rarely sees an Indian citizen. The suspicion was that the consulate’s real purpose was to spy on the Chinese. Western governments punished Rajapaksa for his alliance with China. The first phase of the Hambantota Port project was inaugurated on August 15 2010. On the same day, the EU rescinded Sri Lanka’s GSP plus facility.

 

Rajapaksa is today critical of the current government’s subservience to China. He contends that by giving 80 percent stake in Hambantota port to a state-owned Chinese company, and making the deal valid for 99 years, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime has handed over a huge national economic and strategic asset to a foreign company.

 

Trade

Sri Lanka has been trading with China for centuries and China is still an important partner. However, there is a trade imbalance. Sri Lankan exports to China are worth less than USD$  million – coconut coir, rubber, tea, apparel, and gems and jewellery while Sri Lankan imports from China now exceed USD$ 3 billion – machinery, fabrics, apparel accessories, cotton and fertilizer. China was  Sri Lanka’s third largest trading partner in 2012, accounting for  17.1% of Sri Lankan imports (the second largest import source after India, which accounts for 19%. Exports to China amounted to 2.3% of Sri Lankan overall exports, making it the fifth largest export destination after the US, the EU, India and Russia. In May 2013, Sri Lanka proposed an FTA, to which China agreed. Sri Lanka does more trade with India than China but India is not happy about cheap Chinese consumer durables undermining its own markets.

 

Loans

Currently Sri Lanka is $8 billion in debt to China. The Rajapaksa government argued that it needed to get on with infrastructure development without delay and the Chinese were prepared to step up and help quickly without conditions. Donor agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank provide soft loans at interest rates ranging from 0.25 %, 2% or 3%. However, these agencies stipulated strict conditions and made irritating demands about human rights. The Rajapaksa government argued that long term borrowing from China at interest rates ranging from 2-3% and 6-7% was the only option available to implement post-war development projects. Total estimated construction cost of Phase 1 of the Hambantota Port project was US $361 million, 85% of which was funded by the Exim Bank of China.

Finance Ministry sources during the Rajapaksa years claimed that financial help provided by China fell into three categories: free cash, interest-free loans and concessionary loans. The first two came from China’s state finances while concessionary loans are provided by the Export-Import Bank of China (Exim Bank). Sri Lanka received several soft loans from China at an interest rate of 2-3% with maturity terms of 20 years, with five years expandable on condition, and 2-5 years grace period. The total now owing suggests that most Chinese help did not come in the form of outright grants but as loans at commercial rates from China’s Exim Bank.  Rajapaksa’s Deputy Economic Development Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said, “While the HSBC, for example, was offering loans with 9% interest rates, China has been offering loans for very low rates, such as 1% or even 0.5%”.

Governments that succeed the Rajapaksa regime will be saddled with these debts. In defence of the regime’s borrowing strategy one should look at the experience of Argentina. China has never pushed a debtor to bankruptcy but those who relied on commercial borrowings from the West, such as Argentina, have had a different experience. Sri Lanka has had a good record of meeting its obligations to its creditors.

RW and China

The Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, tried to undo the damage done to Sri Lanka/China relations during the election campaigns of 2015. The effort to oust Mahinda Rajapaksa seemed to require criticism of all the projects he had undertaken. The accusation that these projects were grandiose follies involving massive corruption also entailed painting the Chinese government as corrupt and with dishonourable intentions towards Sri Lanka. The opposition to Rajapaksa described the Hambantota Port as a future Chinese naval base intended to contribute to the PRC’s string of pearls geostrategy to achieve regional hegemony over India. Mattala Airport was, they accused, built with Chinese aid as a future Chinese military air base.

 

Once in power, the Wickremasinghe/Sirisena government had to pay out for some of the promises they had given to the electorate and this made the country’s financial situation worse. Inevitably they had to grovel to China. During his April visit to China, the prime minister reiterated Sri Lanka’s endorsement of Beijing’s Maritime Silk Road strategy. He issued a statement saying: “Projects such as the Hambantota Port and the Puttalam Coal Power Plant Project have become icons for the two countries’ cooperation in infrastructure construction”. Mahinda Rajapaksa was quoted as saying that he stood vindicated by the Government’s recent actions.

 

 

 

 

China and Sri Lanka Part One

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday February 9 2017.

 

Colman's Column3

China and Sri Lanka Part One

By

Padraig Colman

Donald Trump seems to be determined to annoy as many people as he can. He has made a good start on antagonising China.  The appointment of Peter Navarro, who has forged a career out of condemning China, to the newly- created National Trade Council does not bode well.  Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California, Irvine, published a book called: Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action.

navarro

This seems like a good time to examine Sri Lanka’s relationship with the PCR (People’s Republic of China). February 7 was the 60th anniversary of full diplomatic relations between this island nation  and China.

Ancient History

Professor KM de Silva, in his monumental History of Sri Lanka, describes how this island punched above its weight in ancient times. Sri Lanka, despite its diminutive size, belonged to the big league along with the ancient hydraulic civilisations such as China.

prof-k-m-de-silva

The economic potential of the Anuradhapura region was increased by proximity to the Mahaweli River. Mahasena’s Minneriya tank, plus many smaller tanks and irrigation systems built between the fourth and ninth centuries, helped sustain a considerable local population as well as producing a substantial agricultural surplus for export. The port of Gokanna (Trincomalee) played a part in the development of commercial relations with China and South-East Asia which enhanced the economic potential of the region.

Sri Lanka’s strategic position on the sea route between China and the west meant that from the early days of the Christian era there would have been trade between the island and China which would have been bolstered by religious affinity. However, up until the eleventh century the cohesion that comes from strong diplomatic and political ties was lacking.

The Buddhist connection helped to forge links between the two countries. There is evidence that Sinhalese nuns went to China in the fifth century and helped in the ordination of women there. In 411 AD, the famous Chinese Buddhist traveller Fa Hsien visited the island and stayed for two years.

fa-hsien

However, contacts with Chinese Buddhism were occasional and tenuous.

During the Polonnaruva Kingdom, Sri Lanka was a vital link in the great trade routes between east and west. The unity imposed on the Muslim world by the Caliphs and the peace imposed on China during the T’ang and Sung dynasties allowed trade between China and the Persian Gulf to flourish. Sri Lanka’s geographical position helped it to benefit from this.

In the early fifteenth century, under the Ming dynasty, seven powerful fleets from China visited the ports of the Indian Ocean demanding tribute and obedience to the Chinese Emperor. The Muslim explorer Zheng He (often known as Cheng-ho) was a Hui court eunuch and fleet admiral during the early Ming dynasty. On Zheng He’s, first visit to Sri Lanka in 1405, his objective was to take back the tooth relic from Kandy. In 1284, Kublai Khan had sent a similarly unsuccessful mission for the same purpose. Zheng went back to China disappointed but also aggrieved and he returned five years later to capture the Sinhalese king, Vira Alakesvara, his queen and several notables and took them as prisoners to China. The king was eventually released but his humiliation meant that he could not recover his throne. In 1411, the Chinese emperor sent a nominee to the Sinhalese throne but he was swiftly eliminated by Parakramabahu who began a reign of 55 years.

Relations with Communist China

Fast forward to the Communist Revolution – Ceylon was among the first countries to recognize the   PRC. Ceylon and the People’s Republic of China accorded each other diplomatic recognition in January 1950.

In 1952, Dudley Senanayake had just formed a new government when Ceylon faced a world shortage of rice.

dudley

The country entered independence saddled with a colonial plantation economy which was susceptible to fluctuations in world conditions. The country faced a foreign exchange crisis in 1952 caused by a dramatic fall in export prices after the end of the Korean War and the price of natural rubber declined by 36%. The Rubber-Rice Pact of 1952 further consolidated a cordial relationship with China. The agreement gave the newly-independent Ceylon a large market for its rubber in China, and China supplied China with low-cost rice. This agreement was entered into at a time when China was victim of trade embargoes which cut off imports of strategic materials including rubber.

After SWRD Bandaranaike became prime minister in April 1956, the two countries established full diplomatic relations on 7th February 1957 and set up embassies. A number of bi-lateral agreements strengthened political, economic, trade and cultural bonds. Ceylon/Sri Lanka supported the PRC’s “One China” policy, which Trump is now undermining, and efforts to give the UN’s China seat to the PRC. The USA did not establish diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1979; Japan in 1972; UK in 1972 and France in 1964.

z_p-08-bandaranaike-4

Mao Zedong died on September 9 1976. September 18, the day of Mao’s last rites in Peking, was also declared a day of national mourning and a public holiday in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government declared an eight-day period of mourning to coincide with observances in China. A condolence book was opened by the Chinese embassy.

Mrs Bandaranaike and China

 

mrs-b

The premiership of Sirimavo Bandaranaike further consolidated the gratitude of the PRC towards Sri Lanka. Her commitment to the Non-Aligned Movement provided the country with a great deal of international support and respect. She said: “Underlying the policy of non-alignment is the belief that independent nations, although small and militarily weak, have a positive role to play in the world today. This attitude is completely different from that of washing our hands of these matters, which was perhaps the idea behind the classical theory of neutralism. That was non-involvement — remaining in splendid isolation.”

The world’s first woman prime minister fully understood the importance for Sri Lanka of good relations with both India and China. She had close personal friendships in both countries and was distressed when the Sino-Indian war broke out in 1962. The Chinese Government were feeling somewhat victimised and expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries were functioning as judges rather than mediators. Mrs Bandaranaike’s mediation efforts were helped by her husband’s and her own history of support for the PRC and her close personal friendship with Chou En-lai.

Sirimavo Bandaranaike paid her first official visit to China in 1962, and made further visits in 1972 and 1977. China was isolated at this time and did not regain its UN seat until 1971. The Chinese government appreciated Mrs Bandaranaike’s visits and she forged close personal connections with the Chinese leadership. At her request, relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka from China on loan.

Chinese aid, which was on more favourable terms than aid from other countries, started during Mrs Bandaranaike’s premiership. She personally supervised the plans and construction of the BMICH (Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall). Built between 1970 and 1973, the convention center was a gift from the PRC in memory of her husband SRWD Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Ceylon from 1956 to 1959.

 

JR and China

Although he led Sri Lanka into a closer relationship with the west, President JR Jayewardene visited China in May 1984. During JR’s rule the USA was Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier and China accounted for only 30%. In the 80s, India strongly objected to Sri Lanka’s evolving relationship with the US, Pakistan, China, as well as Israel. The former Indian Foreign Secretary, JN Dixit, cited JR’s foreign policy as the primary reason for Indian military intervention in Sri Lanka in 1987.

jr-jayawardene

Premadasa

ranasinghe-premadasa-1

Premadasa was president of Sri Lanka at the time of India’s disastrous military intervention in 1987. India’s actions, the imposition of the Indo-Sri Lankan Accord and the 13th Amendment and the forced merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces as well as the invasion by the Indian Peace-Keeping Force, drove Premadasa towards China. As prime minister, he had visited China in 1979 and received a warm welcome. By the late 1980s China had become Sri Lanka’s main arms supplier, accounting for 58% of all weapons imports, providing warplanes, artillery and tanks. Premadasa invited a senior Chinese political leader to his party-political events and China played a big part in his economic policy.

Easy Lies the Head

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Friday February 3 2017.

Colman's Column3

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2016 is post-truth – an adjective defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

trumpface

Sissela Bok

Sissela Bok is a very brainy person who is the child of two Nobel laureates and the wife of a president of Harvard who inspired the hatred of Richard Nixon. When I was the victim of some particularly egregious lies, I was inspired to re-read her wonderful book Lying: Moral Choice in Private and Public Life. The book was published in 1978 and is still in print and available on Kindle. Everyone should read it.

bok

Bok argues that everyone benefits enormously by living in a world in which a great deal of trust exists – a world in which the practice of truth-telling is the norm. All the important things you want to do in life are made possible by pervasive trust. In a world without trust one would have to waste a lot of time and psychic energy finding out first-hand the truth about the simplest matters.

Lies and Lying Liars

Donald Trump is certainly not the first politician to have told lies. Ronald Reagan said he did not know about the Iran-Contra deal. Bill Clinton said he did not have sex with that woman. Novelist George V Higgins wrote in 1974 about Richard Nixon: “He became a virtuoso of deception, a wizard as a manipulator of reality and facts, and of the nation’s trust.” George W Bush, like Nixon, used smears and lies to become president. The other day, I watched Robert Redford playing the role of CBS anchorman Dan Rather in the movie Truth. Rather was ousted by CBS for allegedly presenting forged evidence on revelations in 2004 about Bush’s National Guard years. Bush, the coward, was running against war hero Senator John Kerry, but the Republicans discredited Kerry’s greatest asset to compensate for Bush’s liability. Witnesses remember Bush drunk and never going near the National Guard while Kerry was being decorated for bravery in Vietnam. CBS wanted Bush to win and branded one of its own as a liar for exposing the truth.

The Office of Strategic Influence (OSI) was created in 2001 to lie overseas for the US, but after an outcry, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld quickly announced its closure. However, he was not telling the truth when he said the US government had stopped lying. The OSI’s duties were taken over by the Information Operations Task Force

Euphemisms

There is a long history of politicians using euphemisms for telling porky pies. Churchill used the phrase “terminological inexactitude”. Alan Clark wrote in his diaries about being “economical with the actualité. Simon Hoggart did not find Clark convincing: “There’s quite a bit in the diaries which appears just a tiny bit fantastical – not in the Jeffrey Archer sense of being outright lies, but a sort of tweaking of the facts.” Journalists have been having a good deal of fun with Sean Spicer’s ludicrous attempts to inflate the size of the audience at Trump’s inauguration. Kellyanne Conway tried to explain Spicer’s lies as “alternative facts”. This was reminiscent of Nixon’s press spokesman Ron Zeigler announcing, “All previous statements are inoperative”. Trump himself used the phrase “truthful hyperbole,” a term coined by his ghost-writer.

A blatant lie is a “now-disavowed claim.” Intelligence is “discredited,” “dubious,” “disputed,” “tainted,” “flawed,” “suspect,” “questionable,” and “faulty”. Many people caught in an untruth bleat: “My remarks were taken out of context”. We are told about “misstatements,” “false pretences,” and “an assertion not approved by the CIA.” We read of “deficiencies,” “distortions,” “questions about pre-war intelligence”.

There were many euphemisms for lying during the GW Bush era. Senator Carl Levin stopped short of accusing Bush of lying about Iraq: “The key question is whether administration officials made a conscious and a very troubling decision to create a false impression about the gravity and imminence of the threat that Iraq posed to America.” Senator Chuck Hagel referred to one of Bush’s lies as “another example of a very serious inconsistency.” Senator Jay Rockefeller said that Bush’s statements were “potentially misleading”.  Al Gore spoke of a “a systematic effort to manipulate facts.” Senator John Edwards talked about the “myths perpetrated by the Bush administration.” One of Bush’s aides said that the president “is not a fact checker.”

Saddam Hussein and Scott Ritter were not so mealy-mouthed. Saddam said, “What will the liars Bush and Blair tell their people and mankind, what will the chorus of liars that backed them say, and what will they tell the world after they wove a scenario of lies against Iraq’s people and leadership?” Former UN weapons inspector Ritter said, “The entire case the Bush administration made against Iraq is a lie.”

Trump’s Lies – a Selection

Truth and Trump have long been strangers. A lot has been made of the fact that Trump won the election by appealing to white working class males who felt disempowered while Hillary Clinton ignored them in favour of harpyish rabid feminism. The Vox journalist David Roberts did a word-frequency analysis on Clinton’s campaign speeches and concluded that she mostly talked about workers, jobs, education and the economy. She mentioned jobs almost 600 times, racism, women’s rights and abortion a few dozen times each.

Maria Konnikova wrote on Politico: “The sheer frequency, spontaneity and seeming irrelevance of his lies have no precedent. Nixon, Reagan and Clinton were protecting their reputations; Trump seems to lie for the pure joy of it. A whopping 70 percent of Trump’s statements that PolitiFact checked during the campaign were false, while only 4 percent were completely true, and 11 percent mostly true.” KONNIKOVA

He lied about the weather at his own inauguration. He lied about releasing his tax returns. He lied about making Mexico pay for his wall. He lied about losing the popular vote and about the election being rigged. He lied about opposing the invasion of Iraq. The more Trump frets about his legitimacy, the more he lies. The more he lies, the less legitimate he appears. Trump relies on the illusory truth effect -the tendency to believe information to be correct after repeated exposure.

 

There is a method in Trump’s Twitter madness. He posts his tweets to divert attention from the real news. For example, his reaction to the polite protest to the vice president by the cast of Hamilton succeeded in making people forget about the settlement of the Trump University lawsuit.

 

Relativity and Truth

Forgive me for quoting American philosopher Richard Rorty yet again. “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.” This seems to be how Trump operates. The doctrine that there can be no absolute truth seems to have sprung from the discovery that scientists can err and that cultural factors inevitably colour our perceptions. Other philosophers such as Mary Midgley combat this post-modernist relativism, maintaining that without a concept of absolute truth, “how, then, could we describe the world?”

midgquote

 

midg

Truth Matters

In his bestselling little book On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt defines lies as statements that are not germane to the enterprise of describing reality, promises unconnected with an intention to fulfil. All jurisdictions punish perjury, because justice cannot be done unless all parties adhere to the truth. The absolute language of the oath has a pragmatic purpose. Professor Bernard Williams writes about the two virtues, accuracy (doing everything we can to make our beliefs sensitive to the truth) and sincerity (expressing what one really believes without deception).

bernardw

Williams sees any person lied to as a victim of an abuse of power who has been put in a powerless position that results in resentment and rage. Trump’s lies have dire consequences.

 

Trump Triumphant Part Three

 

Colman's Column3

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 26 2017.

trumpfinger

What does the Trump presidency portend? We are looking at four years of an administration with a meagre mandate that seems likely to threaten the long-term health of our planet as well as the security, health, and safety of many Americans. Polly Toynbee met Trump in 1988 and was chilled then: “He’s sharp as a gold-plated razor-blade.” “Just wait and see what kind of deregulation, anti-working rights, anti-environmental, anti-product safety and food contamination rules he will impose”. As Keith Gessen put it, the new government looks like: “a small right-wing criminal class within the larger corrupt American political class, a mixture of white supremacists, ‘law and order’ fascists, and shutters-down of the George Washington Bridge.” Cornel West wrote: “We are witnessing the postmodern version of the full-scale gangsterization of the world.”

cornell-west

What Is To Be Done?

In spite of calls to accept the reality of Trump’s presidency and stop being sore losers, it is legitimate to think about how he can be prevented from negating all the gains that have been made in the past eight years and beyond. His platform was resentment, rage and bigotry so we cannot expect him to bring healing and compromise. A number of writers have considered means whereby Trump’s plans can be challenged.

David Cole teaches constitutional law, national security, and criminal justice at Georgetown University Law Centre and recently became the National Legal Director of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). Cole wrote: “But if we now and for the next four years insist that he honour our most fundamental constitutional values, including equality, human dignity, fair process, privacy, and the rule of law, if we organize and advocate in defence of those principles, he can and will be contained.”

david-cole

Cole recalls how the abuse of power by GW Bush and Dick Cheney was countered by Americans who did not sit back and accept that the executive was above the law. In his recent book, Engines of Liberty: The Power of Citizen Activists to Make Constitutional Law, Cole described how people protested, filed lawsuits, wrote human rights reports, lobbied foreign audiences and governments to bring pressure to bear on the US, leaked classified documents, and broadly condemned the administration’s actions as violations of fundamental constitutional and human rights. The academy, the press, and the international community all joined in the condemnation. When Bush left office in 2009, he had released more than five hundred of the detainees from Guantanamo, emptied the CIA’s secret prisons, halted the CIA interrogation programme and extraordinary renditions, and placed the NSA’s surveillance me under judicial supervision.

Nixon claimed that if the president did it it was legal. George Packer in the New Yorker reminds us that, within months of re-electing Nixon by the largest margin in history, Americans “began to gather around the consensus that their President was a crook who had to go”. The press pursued the story and the courts ruled impartially. Congress investigated in a bipartisan manner. Officials fought the infection from inside and the Washington Post’s key source, “Deep Throat” turned out to be the deputy director of the FBI.

Elite Failure

 

Hilary Mantel put it nicely: “For decades, the nice and the good have been talking to each other, chitchat in every forum going, ignoring what stews beneath: envy, anger, lust. On both sides of the ocean, the bien-pensants put their fingers in their ears and smiled and bowed at one another, like nodding dogs or painted puppets.”

 

That does not mean that we deserve him. Mantel wrote: “Mr Trump has promised a world where white men and rich men run the world their way, greed fuelled by undaunted ignorance. He must make good on his promises, for his supporters will soon be hungry. He, the ambulant id, must nurse his own offspring, and feel their teeth.”

 

Obama understands Trump’s appeal to “The middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.” Minorities are not “just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness…when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment our Founders promised.” People are already feeling nostalgic for Obama. He bequeaths to his successor an economy that is growing steadily, with large numbers of jobs being created on a regular basis, and living standards edging up. The size of the budget deficit, the level of consumer confidence, and the leverage ratios in the financial system, are also looking better.

 

Civil Society

 

Civil society needs to fight the plan to destroy the welfare and regulatory state. The battle can be waged on local, regional, and national fronts by civil society. Civil society comprises innumerable local groups, charities and associations that mediate between the individual, the government, and the market, and whose goal is promoting the common good. There are organizations working against Trump’s ugly agenda and protesters can donate their time and money.

 

ACLU executive director, Anthony D Romero, issued a statement on Trump’s election. “One thing is certain: we will be eternally vigilant every single day of your presidency and when you leave the Oval Office, we will do the same with your successor”.

romero

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a non-profit that combats hate, intolerance and discrimination through educational programs and litigation, and has played a significant role in monitoring the increase in hate crimes across the US following Trump’s election. OneAmerica, is an organization formed after 9/11 to respond to increased reports of hate crimes targeting Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians. Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is a civil liberties group that defends and empowers American Muslims. Muslim Advocates works for freedom and justice for Americans of all faiths, helps strengthen Muslim charities, and works to counter hate. The Coalition on Homelessness works to advance solutions and works for legislation to help combat homelessness. The Anti-Defamation League, the Sierra Club are also worth joining and donating to.

 

Democrats

Some Democratic politicians are doing what they can to sustain civilised values in a Trump world. Anthony Rendon, the speaker of the California State Assembly intends to protect undocumented immigrants. “We are telling the next Administration and Congress: if you want to get to them, you have to go through us”.

Jerry Brown, California’s governor, vowed to fight any efforts by the incoming Administration to roll back efforts to tackle climate change. “We’ve got the scientists, we’ve got the lawyers, and we’re ready to fight …  If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.” Other Democrat-dominated states, such as Massachusetts and New York, are taking a lead from Republican-run states, such as Oklahoma and Texas, which have challenged many of President Obama’s initiatives in court, such as his effort to use the Clean Air Act to reduce CO2 emissions.

jerry-brown

Contact Congress

John Cassidy of the New Yorker still thinks it worthwhile for Americans to put pressure on elected politicians. With a Republican House and Senate one might have little faith in the legislature. However, elected officials do listen to their constituents, especially when they get in touch with them personally in large numbers, so Americans should tell their lawmakers to stand up to Trump. It will be up to legislators in both parties not to cut deals that target the weak, encroach upon civil rights, or enrich the Trumps. “The public will need to be vigilant and involved across a broad range of policy areas.”

Impeachment

Professor Allan Lichtman was one of the few professional forecasters to predict a win for Trump. He has also predicted that Trump will be impeached  by a Republican Congress that would prefer Mike Pence – “an absolutely down-the-line, conservative, controllable Republican. And I’m quite certain Trump will give someone grounds for impeachment, either by doing something that endangers national security or because it helps his pocketbook”. New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “the guy will probably resign or be impeached within a year. The future is closer than you think”.

Trump Triumphant Part Two

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday January 19 2017.

Colman's Column3

A friend commented on one of my previous articles to the effect that people who were dismayed at Trump’s success in the presidential election should grow up and “accept ballot results like mature adults”. It is not immature to be alarmed at the prospect of the radical changes Trump is likely to make with a very meagre mandate. My friend wrote: “Looking at the swathes of communities in the US destroyed by globalisation, deregulation, and neo-liberal economics generally, there is plenty of evidence to support his view” that the liberal elites have destroyed America. My friend notes the irony that ‘blame’ for Trump’s rise has already fallen on the working class white male. “The US political commentators are middle class and insufferably smug”.

1803311-morlock1

Substantial numbers of people indeed feel marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and a liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism. One can sympathise with them but their resentments are toxic and Trump is not going to help them. The Morlocks have risen against the Eloi.

eloimorlocks1_468x5951

Where’s the Mandate?

hair

Trump won fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. Trump tweeted that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of illegal ballots cast. Trump is a sore winner. He got about forty-six per cent of the popular vote; he carried several states by less than one per cent, and Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2.7 million votes. Just a switch of 40,000 votes in three states would have altered the outcome. His Electoral College margin was relatively modest and he had the lowest approval ratings of any president-elect. Obama entered 2009 with a 68 percent favourable rating. Today, Trump’s favourable rating stands at 43 percent. That rating will go down when he takes office.  68 percent describe the president-elect as “hard to like,” and less than half of Americans are confident in Trump’s ability to handle an international crisis.

 

Sore Losers

I do not believe that I am insufferably smug but I am alarmed at what Trump’s presidency might mean, not just for the US but the world. In a previous article, I quoted what the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” It is not elitist to want to retain the gains that were made; it is not PC to mourn the loss of civility that Trump embodies.

rorty

All of his cabinet appointees are climate change sceptics whose claims that the scientific evidence is inconclusive are plainly ludicrous. The world is warming and they know it. We cannot afford to waste another four years debating whether the world is warming. This man with no political experience and no popular majority is appointing people to his cabinet who will make radical changes that will adversely affect the lives of the very people who voted for him in the vain expectation that he would fulfil his promises to improve their lot. Why should people not protest? Trump’s real ruling-class hostility toward the working class was demonstrated by his vile attack on Chuck Jones, a union leader in Indiana who had dared to criticize him. Jones said he began receiving death threats following Trump’s tweetstorm.

Stephen Bannon

bannon_lede

 

We cannot expect Trump to be able or willing to spend much time on thinking about running the country. That will be too boring for him. He has appointed as “chief strategist” Steve Bannon, former executive of conservative news site Breitbart, who has been called racist, anti-Semitic and a white nationalist. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said of Bannon’s appointment: “There must be no sugar-coating the reality that a white nationalist has been named chief strategist for the Trump administration.”

Michael Flynn

flynn

Nixon was notorious for barking outrageous orders when angry or drunk. His aides knew his moods well enough to ignore those orders and he expected them to be ignored. One might like to console oneself that an incompetent or mentally challenged president might be restrained by the common sense and caution of his team.  Trump has said: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” Donald Trump will have his finger on the nuclear button.  On November 18, 2016, Trump announced that Michael Flynn would serve as National Security Advisor. The national-security adviser is the person the President turns to when he thinks he might want to do some bombing. A retired army lieutenant general, Flynn previously ran the Defense Intelligence Agency but lost his job after two years because of clashes with officials.

Flynn took an active part in Trump’s campaign and revealed himself as hot-headed conspiracy theorist with a crush on Vladimir Putin and a loathing of President Obama. Flynn has regularly appeared on Russian state-owned television station RT, and once attended a gala hosted by the channel, sitting next to Putin.

flynntrump

It was something of a shock to see a retired three-star general comparing Hillary Clinton to the al-Qaeda militants he faced in Afghanistan and Iraq, and calling for her to be imprisoned. He has called President Obama a “liar,” declared the US justice system “corrupt” and insisted that he was pushed out of his assignment as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of his views on radical Islam.

Putin

Trump is the first incoming American president to have declared, in language noted in Moscow and Beijing, that his commitment to Nato and the security pacts with Japan and South Korea is ambiguous.

Trump’s resistance to claims that Russia used hacking to interfere in the presidential election prompted Joe Biden to tell him to grow up. Trump’s confidence in WikiLeaks has angered intelligence analysts, who think Julian Assange is hostile to the US and a tool of Putin. The Russian government used Internet trolls and RT  to amplify negative reports on Clinton and US democracy. “Who actually is the benefactor of someone who is about to become Commander-in-Chief trashing the intelligence community?” Senator Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, demanded. She answered her own question: “Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, and ISIS.”

Veteran investigative economist and journalist Jim Henry has revealed that for three decades, Trump has profited from his connections to Russian oligarchs, whose own fortunes depend on their fealty to Putin.

jim-henry

When Trump suffered a string of six successive bankruptcies, how did he keep bouncing back? Since the late 1990s, Trump was greatly assisted by access to abundant new sources of global finance and he spent decades cultivating senior relationships of all kinds with Russia and the FSU. He has an extensive network of unsavoury global underground connections. The illicit outflows from Russia and oil-rich FSU members like Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan provided Trump with the kind of undiscriminating investors that he needed. These outflows arrived at just the right time to fund several of Trump’s post-2000 high-risk real estate and casino ventures—most of which failed.

Recent evidence provided by John McCain indicates that the Kremlin has been cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years, with the aim of encouraging splits and divisions in western alliances. One report claims that Trump and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including information on his Democratic and other political rivals.

The former Democratic Senate leader, Harry Reid, has lambasted FBI chief James Comey for publicising investigations into Hillary Clinton’s private server, while allegedly sitting on “explosive” material on Trump’s ties to Russia.

 

Next week – what is to be done?

 

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal Co-Creator

Spreading resources for potential living.

Explore the Beauty of Sri Lanka

Nature in Digital Eye - A small effort to capture the scenic beauty of Sri Lanka ....

joemcgann

In this day and age...

Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Dr Liz Davies

Emeritus Reader in Child Protection

Astha Gupta

Travel is poetry. Poetry is travel.

Skeptical Raptor

Stalking pseudoscience in the internet jungle

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

DHH Literary Agency

The latest news from the team at DHH Literary Agency

thebluemoment.com

A blog about music by Richard Williams

Numéro Cinq

A warm place on a cruel web

United States Hypocrisy

A critical analysis of the American empire's high-minded rhetoric, and the ways in which it continually fails to square with reality.

Website of Kate Armstrong

I wrote 'The Storyteller' (Holland House, 2016). I'm writing my next novel.

The Broken Elbow

A View of the World from New York and Belfast (Public PGP Key: 210D6F47)

The lovely wibbly wobbly old lady

Views on life, the universe and everything...from a middle aged perspective