Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Ceylon Today

A Tale of Two Armies Part One

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 31, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/part-one-a-tale-of-two-armies-the-uk-army-s-capacity-for-cognitive-dissonance

The British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance.

The Sri Lankan armed forces won a remarkable victory over the LTTE in 2009 ending 30 years of suffering for Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim alike. The “international community” did its best to prevent this victory at the time. The Sri Lankan Army has never invaded another country, although Sri Lanka has often been occupied by western powers. The army that won its famous victory served a democratically elected government of a sovereign independent nation which was trying to re-establish control of its legitimate jurisdiction against the brutal and criminal efforts of an evil terrorist organisation.

In a speech in Chicago in April 1999, Tony Blair proposed a “doctrine of the international community”, criteria for deciding when to go to war to protect another country’s own inhabitants. My Irish compatriot, Samantha Power (who is now back in the US government) developed the doctrine of R2P, Responsibility to Protect. In 2003, the UK army invaded Iraq. The enterprise did not turn out well. Despite their own part in invading and attempting to occupy foreign states, the UK is still, twelve years after the SLA comprehensively and convincingly trounced the Tamil Tigers, calling into question the manner of that victory. To add insult to injury, they are also telling the present-day Sri Lankan government, which has a resounding mandate from free and fair elections, how to conduct its business, i.e.to reduce its use of the military which has been an essential part of its Covid strategy. The UK is part of the UNHRC claque that has the galle face to tell the Sri Lankan government how it should use the military today.

A recently published book shed a harsh light on the shortcomings of the British military. The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam was published by Scribe on February 11, 2021. Akam takes 704 pages to destroy the reputation and credibility of the British Army. Akam conducted 260 interviews covering a wide range of military ranks. He also spoke to soldiers’ families, journalists, Iraqis and sex workers from a bordello near Fallingbostel in Germany.

Peace and War

Akam writes that peace is not good for armies. They can ossify and become obsessed with matters that are trivial and incidental to their real purpose.” It is not just that they go a bit soft or out of practice: “As with all armies in peacetime, form and function have blurred”. Ways of doing things become archaic and no longer quite suited to the real world of violence.

Violence is a major theme in Akam’s book. There are structural and systemic factors which promote violence. One might argue that it is a soldier’s job to be violent; he is paid to kill people and his government gives him permission to do so, although this is not allowed for Sri Lankan soldiers.  However, armies are also supposed to be disciplined.

Akam describes the Black Watch on R&R. “Alcohol is pivotal to the existence of the regiment, and to the army as a whole, in particular in Germany. It has been this way for a long time, but it still sits very awkwardly with the institution’s notion of itself as thoroughly professional and speaks to the British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance. The army has managed to distil an already problematic British — and in this case explicitly Scottish — turbodrinking culture into a wildly dysfunctional spirit that treats alcohol not as an ancillary to any social situation but rather as its own entity: alcohol is something to do, not to drink.” There are orgiastic scenes at a German brothel called the Pink House. “The atmosphere is mad, a collective release.” The Germans are sympathetic. “Poor boys. Our heroes”. One worker, Nadine, sees one soldier bend over another. Blood spurts. “She realises, with horror, that the man has bitten a section of his compatriot’s nose clean away. They summon an ambulance.” Akam comments: “endless boozing only works as preparation for war when there is no real war that needs to be attended to.”

Theories of Counterinsurgency

According to Akam, the British army’s primary objective was to impress the Americans. Unfortunately, they were also condescending to the Americans, holding the deluded belief that their experience in Northern Ireland made them experts in counterinsurgency, particularly in urban settings. Remember Bloody Sunday when the Paras killed 13 unarmed civilians in Derry. Forty-nine years on, only one man, Soldier F, remains the sole individual facing court and there is a public campaign supporting him.

In Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal came in and spoke about counterinsurgency, “courageous restraint”, winning the hearts and minds of the local population (as General Westmoreland said in Vietnam, “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”.) — COIN, in military jargon. Because of the tiny numbers of troops, and outposts in remote areas that could survive only through lavish use of airpower, the consent of the local people would be helpful. McChrystal continued in the background to run the kind of kill-or-capture operations he had led in Iraq, with problematic results. In Rolling Stone magazine, Michael Hastings described McChrystal’s staff as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs”.

The confusion on the ground about the correct approach was exemplified by the different behaviour of two groups of the Royal Marines. 42 Commando (pronounced as Four-Two Commando) is a subordinate unit within the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade, the principal Commando formation, under the Operational Command of Fleet Commander.45 Commando Royal Marines (pronounced “four-five commando”) is a battalion sized unit of the British Royal Marines.

Members of 42 Commando, ‘J’ Company in particular, had become victim to “otherisation” or “dehumanisation” — a key factor that history has proven time and again will, left unchecked, lead to atrocities. By contrast, 45 Commando tried to prepare itself to wage a campaign in line with courageous restraint. The philosophy was that “kinetic action” resulted in Afghan funerals which generate brothers and cousins bent on revenge. 45 Commando saw an 86 per cent reduction in the number of violent actions in the south compared to the previous deployment.

 A senior development officer with experience of Afghanistan remarked, that when considering Muslim countries, “lots of soldiers talk about what is culturally unacceptable. What is culturally unacceptable is dropping 5,000lb bombs on their towns and raiding their houses, pulling wives and daughters out of bed. Same as in Britain, really.”  Patrick Cockburn notes, “Four years after the British arrived in Sangin, a local farmer was quoted as saying ‘the Taliban do not even have a bakery that they can give bread, but still most people support the Taliban – that’s because people are sick of night raids and being treated badly by the foreigners’ “.

The aggressive approach that 42 Commando was encouraged to take by its officers was dramatically out of kilter with the conduct of the rest of the brigade. “They did not want to do finessed counter-insurgency. They wanted to go toe-to-toe with the Taliban, to be aggressive, to see who blinked first”. In 2011, one of two insurgents was seriously injured by gunfire from an Apache helicopter sent to provide air support, and the marines from 42 Commando found him in a field. Sergeant Alexander Blackman, from Taunton, Somerset, shot him and killed him. His action was recorded on a helmet camera. Blackman received a life sentence for murder in 2013. This was reduced to manslaughter after a high-profile campaign, and he was released in 2017. Blackman was left to carry sole responsibility for his actions, as if he were a single bad apple.

In this video many people excuse Blackman by saying we can never understand the trauma affecting soldiers in the situation in which he found himself. His wife seems a decent and intelligent person. Can the UK government not extend the same empathy to the Sri Lankan soldiers who were fighting to save their own country? Blackman was in a foreign country where he was not welcome. So many Sri Lankan soldiers died or lost limbs. Do they not count?

 

On March 23, 2021, the House of Commons passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill by 345 votes to 260. This law is designed to prevent British soldiers accused of war crimes being brought to justice. In June, an independent British investigator looking into allegations of misconduct by British troops in Iraq said that all but one of thousands of complaints – which ranged from rape and torture to mock executions and other atrocities – had been dropped.

More about this next week.

A Vintage Friendship by Cathy Hopkins

Cathy Hopkins’s latest novel was published in paperback by Harper Collins on March 18 2021.

This review appeared in Ceylon Today on March 25 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/a-vintage-friendship

 

That awkward moment when you think you’re someone’s close friend, and … you’re not.

 

I have often written in these pages about the deleterious effects of the internet and smart phones on traditional notions of friendship. We have all been at social gatherings of friends or family where everyone is tapping away and staring at a screen rather than making eye contact and actually talking to each other. On the other hand, social media can be useful in maintaining friendships and re-establishing contact with people from long ago and far away.  Reading Cathy Hopkins’s latest novel, I had that Carole King song going through my mind.

Oh, but you’re so far away.

Doesn’t anybody stay in one place anymore?

It would be so fine to see your face at my door.

Doesn’t help to know you’re so far away.

 

“Friends. They can heal but also hurt. Some can build you up, support you and help you face the world, others can also bring you down and leave you wondering what happened.”

 

A Vintage Friendship begins in 1972 when four friends – Sara, Ally, Jo and Mitch – are 18 years old and finishing their education at a Catholic convent school in Manchester, England. Sara was off to Exeter University to study social sciences, Ally to Oxford to read English, Jo was off to college in Brighton. Mitch was contemplating studying dance but had not got her application in on time so was facing a gap year.

 

Fast forward to “the present day” and things had not turned out quite as the friends had expected. Sara had a successful career in TV but had hit that age barrier. “For years, I’d been the face of Calcot morning TV, my face on posters, social media, even buses. ‘Face on the back of a bus, not like the back of the bus.” She had lost her husband to her ‘best friend’ and her grown-up son was far away in the US. “An elderly man kept staring at me. When he stood up to get off, he leant over. ‘Didn’t you used to be Sara Meyers?’ he asked. ‘I did,’ I replied.”  “The taxi went on to Notting Hill and into a cobbled mews where I had lived for the past ten years. Home. No lights on. No dog, cat or partner waiting. My choice. No regrets.” The world thinks Sara is 58 but her agent knows she is 64.

Jo’s children were not far enough away – they, and their partners and offspring, were always there, draining her energy and her bank balance. Her husband had been a disappointment but had the decency to die. “He wore away at my self-esteem and he drained any joy from my life, like a Dyson vacuum on supersuck.” Jo had to bear all the burdens when Doug was alive, so it is a little easier without him in the way. However, her stressful life has made her obese and she has a heart attack which brings on an out-of-body experience.

 

Ally also had a good career as a literary agent but was now having to cope with the sudden loss of her beloved husband, Michael.

 

Nobody knows where Mitch – Michelle Blake is.

 

The main thrust of the plot is the three old friends getting together after many years apart and using tools such as social media to try to find Mitch. Sara loses her TV spot because she is considered too old but bounces back with the recognition that vintage people are a significant market with lots of leisure and money to spare. A new producer offers Sara a new programme -“TV Gold “ – aimed at senior citizens: “All I can tell you is we want something upbeat, an angle to draw in our more mature viewers, something relevant to that time of life”. They toss around ideas. “Bus Pass to Love Island, for the over-sixties”. “Love Island for older folk who like their food. We could call it Love Handle Island.” “Strictly Come Hobbling for people who’ve had knee and hip replacements.” “Medicate, Resuscitate or Pull the Plug?’

 

They decide to build the programme around searching for long-lost friends and to explore ideas about what friendship is. They encounter a group of ladies who call themselves The Bonnets of Bath. They live close to each other but in separate houses so that they can support each other without getting in the way or irritating. They adopt false names, dress up in silly costumes, have wild parties and generally behave nothing like elderly people should do. Katie of The Bonnets says, ‘And it’s good to have a clear-out of friends every now and then, like you do with your wardrobe.” “’Those who bring you down with sarcasm or cutting comments, who are judgmental or moaners and your heart sinks when they get in touch,’ said Jenny, ‘let them go’.”

 

The series is a success and Sara follows up with a book called The Rules of Friendship which is a compilation of the aperçus on the subject of friendship of the Bonnets and others who appear in the TV series and in the novel. “Listen as well as talk, especially if your friend is going through a rough patch. Snoring is optional but not advised, nor is checking your mobile whilst they’re baring their soul.” “True friends are genuinely glad about your successes and don’t measure them against their own and feel envious. Jealousy can kill friendship”.  This is the Buddhist concept of muditha. “Don’t engage with bullies, don’t try to win their approval, most of them are cowards anyway. Don’t stoop to their level. Be yourself and proud of it. It’s never too late to change.”

 

Cathy Hopkins should be to Manchester what Ann Tyler is to Baltimore. She has written 70 novels which can be found listed here. https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/cathy-hopkins/383843/  She wrote a number of books for young adults in the series Mates and Dates and Zodiac Girls. She is now aiming at older readers. I do not mean to be disparaging when I say that the genre name “chick-lit for seniors” crept unbidden to my mind. She writes with an easy-flowing style which carries the reader along wanting to know what will happen next. I do not want to spoil the plot for potential readers in this review. There is a good deal of wit and I laughed out loud on many occasions. Once, around page 378, I could not stop the tears flowing. The light style and the humour and sentiment do not detract from the underlying seriousness of her work. I have read this book twice and enjoyed it even more the second time because it has depth. I have enjoyed several of her recent novels because she has a way of dealing lightly with heavy subjects like aging, bereavement, grief, loneliness, death and, of course, friendship. Cathy Hopkins’s books are available in paperback from Amazon and several of them are available on Kindle.

 

A Vintage Friendship is published by Harper Collins

 

http://cathyhopkins.com/biography/

 

https://www.amazon.com/s?k=cathy+hopkins&crid=AE8TEUW4Z515&sprefix=cathy+hopkins%2Caps%2C410&ref=nb_sb_ss_ts-doa-p_1_13

 

 

Nostalgia and Melancholy

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 12, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/nostalgia-and-melancholy

 

More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.

I have been reading yet another book about the internet and social media. This one was a little different, quirky and fragmentary, perhaps because the author is a philosopher and a poet. Maël Renouard has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, of which he is a graduate. The book is called Fragments Of An Infinite Memory: My Life With The Internet

Among other things, M Renouard served as a speechwriter for François Fillon when he was prime minister. Spell-check suggests “felon” as the correct spelling, which is quite apt as in 2020, Fillon was convicted of fraud and misuse of funds, and sentenced to five years in prison (three of them suspended). Only this week, Fillon’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was sentenced to three years for corruption.

This fairly short book is divided into eleven chapters, in which the author offers vignettes which show how sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people organise their lives and store their memories. Smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have to be sent to a lab for processing costing money and time and also inhibited one in what one chose to photograph. The internet allows people who have the inclination to display their genitals to the world to do so from the comfort of their own home rather than going to a cold park in a dirty old raincoat.

Self-Exhibition

The internet is a repository for knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self but you can choose your self. Some people have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. Renouard describes how even dead people can continue to live on social media.

Renouard writes, “Social networks have already created the experience of a new moral landscape, in which self-exhibition has become the norm and therefore cannot be blamed in itself. This change of atmosphere is so universal that we aren’t necessarily aware of it, or else we very quickly forget it. Judgment has not been abolished, but it rests on other nuances.”

Nostalgia

Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain),  and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Sometimes nostalgia is thought of as a good thing, at other times a bad thing. For centuries nostalgia was considered a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal medical condition. In 1985, the psychotherapist Roderick Peters concluded that nostalgia “persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances”.  The modern view is that nostalgia can be a positive emotion that many people experience often, improving mood, increasing social connectedness, enhancing positive self-regard, and providing existential meaning. Nostalgia has also been associated with learning and memory consolidation. On the other hand, too much wallowing in the past, can lead to a chronic disposition or personality trait of “nostalgia proneness.” It is one thing to respect one’s own past and to delight in sharing fond memories, but it is not healthy to strongly desire to be in the past (it cannot happen) and to despise the present.

The psychologist Kyrstine Batcho writes. “To the extent that old photos make us feel good, nostalgic reminders of our past can increase our attachment to our devices.” Amy Bucher, a design expert and author of Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change writes, “Leveraging personal memories fulfils both parts of the equation for tech companies. People have an investment in seeing their memories now, but that feeling of longing can drive them to continue to interact with Apple or Facebook so that they refresh the supply of memories.”  

Melancholy

Renouard discovers a great deal of nostalgia on the internet, nostalgia that has morphed into melancholy. In one of the vignettes in the book, he ploughs through a number of music postings on YouTube and compiles a series of comments from viewers. This amounts to a bizarre and quite depressing collage of extreme misery, worthy of illustration by Gustave Doré or Henry Fuseli.

“When , in the dead of night we go searching on YouTube for the music of ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, we find that we have joined a community of lonely individuals leaving the trace of an intense, ambiguous feeling, born of a reunion with time past that can take place only because these moments have been utterly lost…The internet shows that recollection has charted the path of technology -infinite distancing and preservation – and melancholy is the future of emotion.”

Stammering Greatness

“Funes the Memorious” is a story, by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, of one Ireneo Funes, who, after falling off his horse and receiving a bad head injury, acquired the amazing talent—or curse—of remembering absolutely everything.  Funes is incapable of real understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal “a certain stammering greatness”. Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him”. There is a term for this condition: “hyperthymestic syndrome”.

Renouard writes: “With the internet—which fulfills to a supreme degree the externalization of memory first initiated by writing—we might get the feeling that we have simultaneously become capable of forgetting nothing and incapable of remembering anything at all.”

Exhaustion

Kyrstine Batcho warns: “The more we rely upon our devices to store, organise, and retrieve greater portions of our lives, the more likely it is that the devices become extensions of ourselves. Many people are already very stressed if they are separated from their tech. We feel as if we need to have our device near us at all times.”

I will let Renouard have the last word. “A day will therefore arrive when everything has been said, when it will no longer be possible to say anything that hasn’t already been said. Then, by virtue of the correspondence between deeds and words, no event will be able to take place that hasn’t already occurred as well. The world will have exhausted its stock of events. It will end and begin again.”

Alien Worlds and Nebulous Publics

 

Onward and outward. When I was eight years old, I had a set of gadgets inspired by the Dan Dare strip in the Eagle comic. I remember being disappointed that, despite what the buttons on the dials said, I could not communicate with Mars or have a chat with the Mekon. When I graduated to 45 rpm singles, I used to let the stylus run on at the end of the song and imagine I could hear the Coasters or the Drifters chatting in the studio.

My first “computer’ was an Amstrad PCW word processor purchased in 1993. This gadget made Alan Sugar a power in the land. He founded his company in 1968 and went on to be chairman of Tottenham Hotspur. Trump equivalent on the UK version of The Apprentice, a baron and the 95th richest person in the UK. Amstrads were very popular in the UK because they were very cheap. They were very clunky and not compatible with any other gadget. I had an atavistic longing for a computer to perform some kind of magic, linking me to alien worlds. The Amstrad was never going to do that for me, and I swapped it for a proper PC. This had very little memory power, but I could extend outwards a little bit through obsessive purchasing of CD Roms. Eventually, this proved frustrating and it was not until 1999 that I managed to connect with the internet. I could see great potential in this but was frustrated by the crippling slowness and expense of dial-up connections. Only connect.

Everything is so much more efficient in 2021 but am I happy? Is the outwardness I craved such a good thing?  Jacob Silverman is not happy. Silverman writes: “Our experiences become not about our own fulfillment, the fulfillment of those we’re with, or even about sharing; rather, they become about ego, demonstrating status, seeming cool or smart or well-informed. Perhaps there’s an inevitable hollowing out of interiority, of the quietness of your thoughts, as reading becomes directed outward, from a period of private contemplation to a strategic act meant to satisfy some nebulous public.”

Jacob Silverman

Silverman writes: “The smartphone is the Swiss Army knife of social-media culture. It’s also the ultimate site of social retreat.” Silverman is a frequent contributor to Slate, the Atlantic and other publications and in his first book, Terms of Service, he looks in depth at digital culture. We have all seen what he describes, dinner parties where no one is talking to or even looking at their companions because they are locked in a pod looking at their screens. No-one can live in the now. The digital behemoths are profiting from this, but they could not do so without our compliance. “They condition us to always expect something else, some outside message that is more important than whatever we might be doing then. When the phone lights up, it must be dealt with immediately, if only to banish the alert from the screen.”

Trade in the currency of attention

Linda Stone writes: Continuous partial attention “is motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. Another way of saying this is that we want to connect and be connected. We want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities, activities, and contacts, in any given moment. To be busy, to be connected, is to be alive, to be recognized, and to matter.”

Yes, We Can, and We Will

Silverman writes: “…our whole world, and all of our sensations and thoughts within it, will be transcribed. Not because it is right or good, but because we can, and because this information, they promise, will be useful. In this temple, anything is worth sacrificing on the altars of efficiency and productivity.” It is difficult to understand how this will be useful to me as an individual. It has proved to have little benefit to homeland security. It makes a lot of money for Facebook and Google through data mining, but it is of little benefit to me.

Some people seem to be suffering from some kind of mental illness on social media. They devote a lot of time and energy, almost a career’s worth, to “crafting permanent online identities that allow us to see and be seen.” This has a tendency to undermine the real identity of minnows such as myself who are tempted to strut about upon an ephemeral stage posing in a fake character. “I share, therefore I am—more interesting, more sociable, more desirable, more myself” than myself.

Nathan Jurgenson describes social-media users as developing “a ‘Facebook Eye’: our brains always looking for moments where the ephemeral blur of lived experience might best be translated into a Facebook post; one that will draw the most comments and ‘likes.’” Christopher Lasch noted as long ago as 1991 that ordinary people now face “an escalating cycle of self-consciousness—a sense of the self as a performer under the constant scrutiny of friends and strangers.”

“Memoir has become the genre of first resort for many writers” says Silverman. That’s OK with me. I have always wanted to be a writer and I used to assume that it would be short stories and novels, or, at one time, TV plays when there were such things. These days, I find it much more satisfying writing non-fiction and this will often be about myself. No-one else might be interested but they would not be interested in a novel in which I laboured to construct a plot.

Lunch Mob

I once had a FB friend whom I will call Bloggs (to protect the guilty). Not a single Bloggs meal went unpublicized. I found this amusing, but I thought it a little creepier when he started saying some nasty things about his teenage son on FB. I gently chided him about this and mildly suggested that he might be giving disproportionate importance to Facebook in his life. He unfriended me and blocked me and set his many followers and admirers to hound me.

Silverman notes the “general online tendency toward disinhibition”. Social media allow the ability to speak freely without fear of consequence. “The social web is suffused with an incessant enthusiasm, constant liking, and a culture of mutual admiration in part because those are the possibilities offered to us.” For me, X’s lunch mob became a lynch mob. “These networks, particularly Facebook, have a banality problem. The cultural premium now placed on recording and broadcasting one’s life and accomplishments means that Facebook timelines are suffused with what seem to be insignificant, trite postings about meals, workouts, non-accomplishments, the weather, recent purchases, funny ads, the milestones of people three degrees removed from you.” Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil when describing the Eichmann trial. “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.” Now we have the evil of banality.

Privacy is Yesterday’s Capitalism

By the 1960s, the rise of a propertied middle class meant that privacy suited capitalism. Money could be made out of building walls to give people private space. Tim Wu: “…what we’re learning is that the symbiosis between capitalism and privacy was maybe just a phase, a four-hundred-year fad. For capitalism is an adaptive creature, a perfect chameleon; it has no disabling convictions but seeks only profit. If privacy pays, great, but if totalizing control pays more, then so be it.”

In her monumental book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that something transformational happened in the early twenty-first century in the relationship between capitalism, privacy, and human autonomy. A new form of power has been forged which does not depend on coercion or terror. We have chosen to give up our freedom by buying voluntarily into “ownership of the means of behavioral modification.”

What to Do?

I suspect that for all his wise words, Jacob Silverman might be more enslaved to social media than I am. I had to be forced screaming to use a smart phone and an iPad. I have no intention of ever using Twitter or WhatsApp. I don’t have a clue how Instagram is supposed to work. I had a little bit of a Facebook addiction at one time but controlled that by drastically culling my friends list and only connecting at set times. I try to avoid fights and curb my sarcasm and pedantry. This is what Silverman advises: “Leave your phone at home. Go for a walk with your friend or your lover. Go into the woods . . . Swim in a pond where nobody can see you. Try to actually enjoy privacy sometimes. Get away from the Internet and have a life that’s independent of that kind of shit.”

What Have We Done?

This article was published in Ceylon Today on December 3 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/where-are-we-what-have-we-done

Where are we? Why are we?  What are we doing here and why are we doing it? What on earth have we done!

Fighting with Phantoms

A reader wrote to the Guardian’s agony aunt Mariella Frostrup: “Everyone seems to be frazzled and ready to fight. I feel it myself. I have three teenage daughters and all they seem to do is sit on their phones and flounce around the house dropping dirty underwear as they go. If I ask them to get off their phones, they treat me like I’m violating their human rights. 

They also complain about being exhausted all the time when all they have to do is attend school and maintain their social lives.” Mariella responded: “The internet helps by offering a multitude of ways to be antagonistic and aggressive without having to leave the kitchen table… All of us seething, surfing and fabricating into the small hours, conjuring fantasy worlds as we edit our existence. I’m not taking any moral high ground. I can only boast occasional glimmers of self-awareness, as I scroll enviously though strangers’ holiday snaps while my husband gently snores”.

I have found many people to fight with on social media. There is a certain je ne sais quoi when the adrenaline starts pumping but it is not a good way to live, to be fighting with strangers with funny names on the ether. Take a look at the comments threads on Colombo Telegraph and get a vision of what hell might be like. Phantasms with no real names or genders or working parts or life histories biting one’s ankles into eternity.

Frazzled by Fantasy

It is even worse when real-life friends get caught up in the trollism and become fictional characters of the blogosphere.

One can even have a look at what the real-life neighbours are posting on Facebook and see the delusions they are embracing. Some people have long lists of “friends” but when one looks closely at them one wonders how these elderly men got to know these gorgeous young women in Latin America or Thailand.  I once played an interesting game -reporting fake Facebook accounts. You will all have seen them. Attractive ‘young women’ in provocative poses which fall short of nudity (FB does not like nudity). They have bizarre names (Tina Tix Tracey, Michala Motyl, Jessy Trejo) and improbable CVs. Many of them have persuaded sad old gits to ‘friend’ them and the sad old gits tell the ‘girls’ how beautiful they are. Oh dear, how sad, never mind. Social media has taken the concept of an imaginary girl friend to another level.

In reality, the accounts are probably set up by pockmarked hairy ugly men with halitosis and armpit odour who are looking for ways to mine data from said old gits so they can rob them. I am a sad old git, but I don’t fall for this when they contact me. I report them.  Sometimes, FB responds to my reports by saying that I have identified a fake account and they have removed it. 

FB suggestions 

FB kept suggesting that I make a friend of ‘Owen Lynda Skye’.  I am afraid that I cannot reveal in a family newspaper what carnal delights ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ offered me. It was rather gynaecological. ‘Her’ English was not perfect, but it was easy enough to get the crude gist. I reported this several times and was told the account had been removed but it kept cropping up. It was obviously a fake account designed to get foolish old men like mygoodself excited enough to give away their personal details so that a scammer can take advantage. 

Authenticity

When I reported ‘Owen Lynda Skye’ again, I got a lengthy standard response which did not address the issues but came to this conclusion: “We’ve looked over the profile you reported, and it doesn’t go against any of our specific Community Standards”. I looked at the community standards and read this: “We want to make sure the content people are seeing on Facebook is authentic. We believe that authenticity creates a better environment for sharing, and that’s why we don’t want people using Facebook to misrepresent who they are or what they’re doing”.

They do not explain why they object to innocent pictures of naked women but are OK with obvious pornography.

No Going Back

Social media can be very helpful. In times of lockdown people are able to keep in touch with friends and family. I left the country of my birth in 1998, but I am able to keep in touch with people I have known from the age of five. 

The downside is that the perceptions, the very synapses of a generation have been disrupted. Can we ever go back? Perhaps Joe Biden can reverse the deleterious effects of the orangeutan who has been laying waste to the orangery of the White House for four years. Can anything reverse the inexorable rise of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon?

Have the brains of humans been irreparably altered for the worst by these new giants? 

Mark Manson wrote in the Guardian: “This is life now: one constant, never-ending stream of non sequiturs and self-referential garbage that passes in through our eyes and out of our brains at the speed of a touchscreen.”

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman was an American author and media theorist who eschewed technology, including personal computers. Postman is best known for twenty books about technology and education, including Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman argued that by expressing ideas through visual imagery, television reduces politics, news, history, and other serious topics to entertainment. He worried that culture would decline if the people became an audience and their public business a “vaudeville act.” I have not watched TV on a regular basis since 1997.

I watch it occasionally on visits to the UK and am appalled by its banality and condescension.   Postman argued that television was destroying the “serious and rational public conversation” that was sustained for centuries by the printing press. Postman wrote: “When a technology becomes mythic, it is always dangerous because it is then accepted as it is, and is therefore not easily susceptible to modification or control.” Since Postman — who died in 2003 — wrote those words, technology has rendered the world altogether different. How quickly it became unimaginable to think of being without a smartphone. Postman wrote technology’s “capacity for good or evil rests entirely on human awareness of what it does to us and for us”. 

When I sit in a restaurant and see a total absence of eye-contact, when I sit in a family home and see every single person tapping away on a smartphone I despair. Will we ever be able to return from this loss of affect?

Goose Is Cooked

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 1 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/goose-is-cooked

There has been much bluster from Boris Johnson about an ‘oven-ready deal’ for the UK to leave the EU. There was much anxiety that there would be no deal at all or that it would be a Christmas turkey. In the end, a deal was struck on Christmas Eve and there was much relief and a fatigued kind of feeling that it might have been worse. Repent at leisure. It could be that the UK’s goose is well and truly cooked not just oven-ready.

Carry on trading

A positive aspect of the deal is that there will be no tariffs on goods exported and imported between the UK and the EU. This should allow the UK and the EU to carry on trading much as they do now. This should limit price increases and prevent stocks of goods in shops from running out. Tariff-free and quota-free access to one of the world’s biggest markets goes beyond the EU’s deals with Canada or Japan. Chris Johns in the Irish Times explains what a Canada-style deal means: “The relationship between the US and Canada offers a template for what will happen next: A dominant power that periodically delivers an economic kicking to its smaller neighbour. “

There will be mutual recognition of trusted trader programmes. This means UK producers will have to comply with both UK and EU standards. However, there will be more red tape, which is bound to mean delays and extra costs. According to the Cold Chain Federation, The UK’s food chain could well be “slower, more complex and more expensive for months if not years”. 

It will make it much harder for Britain to sell services to EU countries, where they once had an advantage. The financial industry, lawyers, architects, consultants and others – was largely left out of the 1,246-page deal, despite the sector accounting for 80 per cent of British economic activity. Britain sells $40 billion of financial services to the European Union each year, profiting from an integrated market that makes it easier in some cases to sell services from one member country to another than it is to sell services from one American State to another. That will end.

Restricted freedom of movement

UK nationals no longer have the freedom to work, study, start a business or live in the EU. Visas will be required for stays over 90 days. Coordination of some social security benefits such as old-age pensions and healthcare will make it easier to work abroad and not lose any pre-existing buildup of contributions to national insurance. UK citizens wishing to travel to Europe should have at least six months left on their passport before they travel. From 2022, they will have to pay for a visa-waiver scheme to visit many EU countries. The European Commission says the choice to end free movement “inevitably means that business travel between the EU and the UK will no longer be as easy as it currently is”. People are advised to check with the member state they are travelling to.

There will be no more automatic recognition for doctors, nurses, architects, dentists, pharmacists, vets, engineers. 

They will now have to seek recognition in each member state in which they wish to practise. A framework is being drawn up to facilitate some form of mutual recognition in the future. It may well be that each UK qualification body will have to negotiate a bilateral agreement with its counterpart in each respective EU member state.

Britain’s thriving TV and video-on-demand service providers will no longer be able to offer pan-European services to European viewers unless they relocate part of their business to an EU member state.

Exile from useful institutions

Britain will no longer be a member of the European Investment Bank, which lent billions to depressed regions of the UK. Inward investment, which boomed under EU membership, and which has already fallen by four fifths since the referendum, will remain depressed. The UK will also be out of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, crucial to the fight against climate change and essential to the economics of wind farms and new nuclear power stations. The UK loses all automatic access to EU databases.

The UK will no longer be part of the European Arrest Warrant system. Nor will the UK be a full member of Europol or Eurojust. There will be “continued cooperation between the UK, Europol and Eurojust” with “strong cooperation between national Police and judicial authorities”.

Cost of chaos

I used to write regular monthly columns on Europe for two Sri Lankan business magazines. Reading those articles now, I can see that most of them were critical of aspects of the EU. A rational case could have been made for the UK leaving the EU, although it would have made more sense to stay in and reform it, while having a say on the rules.

Chris Johns again: “The British voted for Brexit but whatever they thought they were asking for, this was not it… Before the referendum, few people in the UK had strong views about Europe. Most now just want Brexit to disappear.” Get Brexit done. It will never be done. I doubt if anyone voted in the 2016 referendum for the years of expensive chaos that ensued from the decision to leave or for the deal that will surely bring more years of expensive chaos. According to the think tank the Institute for Government (IfG) the UK Government committed to spend £6.3 billion on Brexit preparations up to April 2020. That is the equivalent of buying two brand new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, or the money being spent on extending the Thameslink railway in the south-east of England.

Bloomberg Economics analysed how much the decision to leave the EU cost the economy. Bloomberg economist Dan Hanson said, “As the UK comes to terms with its new trading relationship with the EU and grapples with the productivity challenge that has hindered growth since the financial crisis, the annual cost of Brexit is likely to keep increasing,” Economists believe that, as a result of this, the British economy is still three per cent smaller than it would have been if the UK had voted to remain in the EU in 2016 – even with the slowdown of the global rate of growth taken into account. 

Meanwhile, business investments have been held back by Brexit uncertainty, they said, with the annual rate of economic growth halving to one per cent. 

An analysis by UK in a Changing Europe, a research organisation funded by the UK Government, estimated that Brexit’s ultimate economic cost to the UK would be larger than that of COVID-19. The UK economy contracted 20 per cent between April and June because of COVID-19. Some forecasters expect the UK economy to recover rapidly now that a vaccine is available, but they predict that less trade and immigration because of Brexit will have deep and prolonged effects. The UK Government’s own estimate suggests a trade deal like the one agreed to this week would leave the country’s output five per cent lower in 15 years than if Brexit hadn’t happened.

The money spent on Brexit would have helped the NHS to cope better with the pandemic. The UK goes into 2021 suffering from the incompetence of its government’s handling of COVID-19. The economy is shattered because of the virus and now there is Brexit to cope with as well. Martin Kettle commented in the Guardian about the circus leading up to the deal: “For probably the first time in human history, these have been trade negotiations that aim to take the trading partners further apart, not closer together.”

Who voted for this?

The breakup of the United Kingdom gets closer. SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford described the deal as a “disaster for Scotland”. He said the agreement was an “unforgiveable act of economic vandalism and gross stupidity”.

Did anyone vote to make their lives worse? As Tom Kibasi, founder of The Institute for Public Policy Research, wrote: “People voted not to terminate our economic cooperation but to put it on a new and different political basis, with sovereignty more explicitly and firmly rooted in Westminster rather than pooled in Brussels. Instead, Britain will have the same trading arrangements as far and distant countries.”

Many people have expressed relief that the annus horribilis of 2020 is over. It is doubtful if 2021 will be an annus mirabilis. 

Ireland’s Shame

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 29 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/ireland-s-shame

There was a little flurry of ephemeral controversy when it was reported that the newly ensconced President Biden had removed a bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. Biden knows his Irish history (his roots are in County Mayo and County Louth) and is unlikely to share an Englishman’s regard for Churchill. My father was born in County Cork but served in the British army on D-Day. The last thing he smelt was rotting corpses on the Normandy beaches. Despite taking the King’s shilling, he was a patriotic Irishman and often reminded me that it was Churchill as home secretary who sent the Black and Tans into Ireland. I recently re-watched Ken Loach’s powerful film about the Irish fight for independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. We see the Tans pulling out fingernails with pliers, beating a 17-year-old boy to death in front of his mother for saying his name in Irish, homes being burnt to the ground. This is what Churchill is remembered for in Ireland.

No Freedom in the Free State

Unfortunately, brutality continued after the British left. Many of the rebels dreamed of a new society guaranteeing equality and justice. It did not happen. Idealism became intransigence, brother turned against brother in a futile and bloody civil war. The fledgling state created a dark place in the process of trying to prove its respectability. The Catholic church consolidated its power; the Irish Free State lost freedom and became a totalitarian and repressive society. Writer Sean O’Faolain described Ireland in the 1930s as “a dreary Eden”. It was far from paradise for most people and it was particularly harsh for unmarried mothers.

Two men who made sure that Ireland was not free. John Charles McQuaid and Eamon de Valera. De Valera was prime minister and later president of Ireland. McQuaid was the Catholic Primate of Ireland and Archbishop of Dublin between December 1940 and January 1972. He was known for the unusual amount of influence he had over successive governments. In 1937 a new Irish Constitution was adopted which acknowledged the “special position” of the Catholic Church “as the guardian of the Faith professed by the great majority of the citizens.” From early 1937 de Valera was bombarded with letters daily – sometimes twice a day – from McQuaid.

The first report of the registrar general of the Irish Free State highlighted the appalling excess mortality of children born to unmarried mothers. A Department of Justice memorandum in 1930 said that “many unfortunate mothers are denied the shelter of their own families” and many women were subjected to  abuse, poverty, incest and alcoholism.

Bon Secours

I wrote in these pages back in June 2014 about a mass grave being found in Tuam in County Galway.

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2014/06/13/mass-grave/

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2014/06/18/the-disappeared-call-for-international-investigation/

The Congregation of the Sisters of Bon Secours is a Roman Catholic religious congregation for nursing whose stated object is to care for patients from all socio-economic groups. The congregation’s motto is “Good Help to Those in Need.” The congregation’s foundress, Josephine Potel, was born in 1799 in the small rural village of Becordel, France. In 1861, Ireland – which was still suffering the consequences of the Potato Famine – became the Sisters’ first foreign foundation. The Bon Secours Sisters ran the St. Mary’s Mother and Baby Home in Tuam. The home hit the international headlines following allegations that the bodies of up to 800 children were dumped in a septic tank.

Investigation

The Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation submitted its final report to the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration & Youth on 30 October 2020. The report was published on 12 January 2021. The Commission investigated 18 institutions and the report is 3,000 pages long. Some 56,000 unmarried mothers and 57,000 children passed through the homes during the period examined by the commission, 1920-98. 25,000 more women and a larger number of children were likely to have been in homes that were not examined by the commission.

In all, 15 per cent of the approximately 57,000 children who were in the 18 institutions investigated by the Commission died during their time there. Nine thousand children died in Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes between 1922 and 1998. 75.19 per cent of all babies admitted to or born in the home at Bessborough in Cork in 1943 died in infancy. The highest mortality rate of all of the homes was in the Sean Ross Home (1931 – 1969) at Roscrea, Co Tipperary where 1,090 infants out of 6,079 died – 79 per cent of them between 1932 and 1947.  “Sean Ross had a much higher incidence of mortality from major infectious diseases, such as diphtheria and typhoid, than any other mother and baby home.” The report attributed this to “the transfer of mothers to the local fever hospital, where they worked as unpaid nurses, and their return to Sean Ross, where they appear to have transmitted infection to their child.” The Commission said “no publicity was given to the fact that in some years during the 1930s and 1940s over 40 per cent of ‘illegitimate’ children were dying before their first birthday” in the homes.  

 “The high level of infant mortality in the Tuam Children’s Home did not feature at meetings of Galway County Council, though Tuam was under the control of the local authority and it held its meetings in the Children’s Home.” There were “many references” to the Tuam Home in meetings of the council but “none refer to the health or mortality of the children”. Between 1921 and 1961 (when it closed), 978 children died in the Tuam Home, 80 per cent under one year, 67 per cent between one and six months. Three-quarters died in the 1930s and 1940s, with 1943 to 1947 the worst years.

The report finds no single reason for the excessive infant mortality. Most of the mothers “were poor” and “their diet during pregnancy would have lacked essential nutrients, and this may have been exacerbated by efforts to conceal the pregnancy.” It was also the case the “many women were admitted in the final weeks of pregnancy, some arrived following the birth of their child.” In the homes “overcrowding probably contributed to excess infant mortality.” The “large size of most of the homes, the large infant nurseries, with cots crammed together – sometimes only one foot apart – served to spread infection. There was an absence of infection control; a failure to isolate mothers and children who were being admitted, until they were proven not to carry an infectious disease.”

The Taoiseach, in making his apology suggested that the scandal was a product of a country dead and gone, an oppressive theocracy nothing like today’s secular and liberal nation. The report is not just critical of the institutions themselves but of Irish society. Historian Diarmaid Ferriter asks: “Who engineered and promoted the culture that made ‘immediate families’ act so uncharitably? Surely there are clues in the vitriol that emanated from the altar. The violence of the language used about these women was remarkable in its unvarnished hatred. “

I can recall the coercive power of the church in the 1950s. As Fintan O’Toole puts it: “This culture of fear fused the physical and the spiritual, the social and the religious, into a single, overwhelming system of domination. Authority was so absolute because it operated seamlessly in the soul and in the world.” There was no escape.

Archbishop McQuaid was typical of the brutal bully boys of the church.  A report found that his handling of sex abuse complaints in his diocese was “aimed at the avoidance of scandal and showed no concern for the welfare of children”. In his biography of the archbishop, John Cooney relates a number of stories that suggest that Dr. McQuaid had an unhealthy interest in children. When asked in 1965 if the Irish Catholic Church was obsessed with sex, he responded: “No. There is probably a saner attitude to sex in this country than almost anywhere else. Family life is stable, women are respected, and vocations are esteemed.”

Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 3

A shorter version of this article was published in Ceylon Today on November 26 2020

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/democracy-in-the-land-of-the-free-3

Tamil Influencers

Like any sensible person, I was overjoyed that the Biden/Harris ticket won the 2020 election convincingly enough for anyone apart from Republicans. I am conscious however that the consequences might not be entirely good for Sri Lanka. Trump, in one of his many hissy fits, pulled the US out of the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council). It is likely that Biden, who has taken a long-term interest in human rights, will bring the US back into the Council. The so-called “national unity government” that was elected  in Sri Lanka in 2015, sold itself out to the UNHRC and shot itself in the foot with Resolution 30/1, which was co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan  government and unanimously adopted by HRC members in October 2015.

Biden’s vice-president and possible successor as president is of Tamil origin. David Jeyaraj has exploded the rumour going around that Kamala Harris’s mother was from a Sri Lankan family. However, Harris’s chief of staff, Rohini Kosoglu, is of Sri Lankan Tamil origin and the Biden White House may be willing to listen to the grievances of the Tamil diaspora.

American Exceptionalism

There is an American website called Persuasion which aims to give a rational explanation of what is happening in world politics. The site carried a piece on how populist leaders were taking advantage of the Covid 19 pandemic. This is what they said about Sri Lanka:The more politically savvy leaders have used the pandemic to further entrench themselves in power. For example, the Sri Lankan president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, called early parliamentary elections, then postponed them due to the health crisis, enabling him to rule without a legislature for five months. When the voting was eventually held, the government’s tight control over campaign activity and the media helped ensure victory for the political party of the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, allowing the two to establish a firm grip on both the executive and legislative branches.” This is not the situation as I see it from the viewpoint of someone actually living in Sri Lanka.

In 2008, John McCain made a dignified concession speech which was for me somewhat marred by the fact that he was promoting the virtues of Sarah Palin and driveled on about American democracy being the envy of the world. Obama has been spouting similar nonsense. Biden has been coming out with the same old guff. Joe Biden said: “Democracy is sometimes messy; it sometimes requires a little patience as well but that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.” Let us look more closely at what Americans delude themselves is enviable.

A Beacon in a Dark World?

The United States is a nation founded on land-grabbing, ethnic cleansing, genocide and slavery. George Washington was a slaughterer of indigenous people as well as a slaveowner.

Those Mount Rushmore icons, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were both Virginia slaveholders. At the time of George Washington’s death, the Mount Vernon estate’s enslaved population consisted of 317 people.  

In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson wrote: “all men are created equal”. Thomas Jefferson enslaved over 600 human beings throughout the course of his life. 400 people were enslaved at Monticello; the other 200 people were held in bondage on Jefferson’s other properties. The Virginia abolitionist Moncure Conway, noting Jefferson’s enduring reputation as a would-be emancipator, remarked scornfully, “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.” What Jefferson set out clearly was that he was making a four percent profit every year on the birth of black children. He used child labour in his nail factory and allowed slaves to be beaten.

Sally Hemings was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha. When Martha died, Jefferson took Sally as his concubine and she bore him six children. When the “relationship” began Sally Hemings was 14 and Jefferson was a 44-year-old widower. This was what we call today  statutory rape.  There was no possibility of consent. The man Americans revere for writing the Declaration of Independence raped a minor. For a female slave to refuse a master’s sexual advances was illegal. Hemings remained enslaved in Jefferson’s house until his death. He lied about it. He once tried to bribe a hostile reporter.

American politicians continue to live under a hypocritical delusion. Gary Younge in the New Statesman expresses the hypocrisy of American exceptionalism better than I can.  “America was a slave state for more than 200 hundred years; an apartheid state for a century and has only been a non-racial democracy for less than six decades. Most of the country couldn’t vote during the Civil War. Black people were not legally protected to vote during Pearl Harbor or the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Post Trump America

An editorial in Le Monde said that “Trumpism” was a “lasting heritage of American politics,” not an accident or brief “interlude.”

Here in Sri Lanka, we are accustomed to candidates saying the executive presidency is the root of all our problems and must be abolished. Once elected they forget all about it. There are calls in the US to abolish the Electoral College but once the current presidential election is over that will be  forgotten.

Democrats are vaguely aware of how Republicans are shafting them by disenfranchising Black people and gerrymandering boundaries. In his 2012 acceptance speech, Obama thanked the voters who waited for hours in long queues to vote for him. In a throwaway line he said, “By the way, we have to fix that.” He didn’t. In October 2020, eight years on, Obama tweeted. “Nobody should have to wait 11 hours to vote, but we’re all grateful that you—and all those in line with you—stuck it out.” Outrage dissipates to   amnesia, and the chance for reform is lost but American politicians continue to preach to the rest of the world.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, director of political studies at the Niskanen Center, writes:In 2020, it became evident that sizeable numbers of working-class voters of all races found something appealing in Trump’s indictment of a status quo that is heavily tilted in favor of politically connected insiders. But while the growing economy during Trump’s term benefited the working class, he had no interest in advancing policies that would make his populism anything more than rhetoric and invective… the Republican Party has it within its power to either destroy the country or come up with solutions to the problems that threaten us all. Ultimately the long-term health of the American political system depends on having two reality-based parties.

Will we see any real change?

Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 2

A shorter version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on November 19 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/democracy-in-the-land-of-the-free-1

According to Gallup, 61 percent of Americans favor the Electoral College’s abolition. It is unlikely that it will be abolished because Republicans strongly support the status quo. 

Note that four out of ten Republicans believe that Trump won the election. Republicans’ sweeping claims about voter fraud are specifically targeted at delegitimizing Black voters and cancelling their votes. They have focused their baseless claims of voting fraud on majority-Black cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, where support from Black voters helped Biden convincingly win the presidency.

Republican Party Invincible in Decline

A big problem with US democracy is the Republican Party. At one point in the presidential ‘debate’, Trump taunted Biden with the snark, “You were in power for eight years. Why didn’t you do something then?” Biden mumbled that whatever Obama tried to do was blocked by a Republican Congress. When Biden is back in the White House, he is likely to have similar difficulties getting any legislation through a, narrowly, Republican senate.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has already promised to block Biden appointees he does not like. The former national security adviser Susan Rice is tipped to be named Secretary of State.

Not if Mitch can help it. The voting rights activist Stacey Abrams will be blocked from taking a cabinet position. McConnell promised to veto the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. “If I’m still the majority leader of the Senate,” he said, “think of me as the ‘Grim Reaper’. None of that stuff is going to pass – none of it.”

When Republicans faced a sweeping Democratic landslide in the 2008 election, their response was not to work with Obama and congressional Democrats, but to implement a strategy they crafted on the night of the inauguration, January 20, 2009, before Obama had been in office for a day: oppose everything he wants, block whatever you can, delegitimize what you can’t, demonize the president and use every tactic, from the debt ceiling to the filibuster, to destroy any policies that might be favored by the country and result in a positive response for Obama and his legislators.

The Undead

Jonathan V Last wrote in the New Republic: “A political party that includes a significant bloc of voters so deeply estranged from reality cannot be anything other than a source of mischief—and worse.” Last claims that  Republican politics are devoted not to policies and ideologies, but to grievances and combativeness.

By rights, the GOP should have been dead and buried long ago. Were it not for the Electoral College, Democrats would have occupied the White House for the past 20 years. In 2013, the Republican Party, then chaired by Reince Priebus, issued what was widely called an “autopsy” report on itself. 

Republican senator Lindsey Graham stated: “The demographics race we’re losing badly. We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” For years the Republican Party has been in terminal decline but like a malignant zombie the undead monster continues to stifle the polity. The Republican Party is a minority party, or what political scientists call a ‘counter-majoritarian’ party.

Also, in the New Republic, Matt ford wrote: “But the Republican Party is now going beyond the scope of soothing the president’s psychic wounds and toward seeking mass disenfranchisement on a scale unseen in American elections since the end of Jim Crow. Those who supported this effort or merely stood by while it happened should never be forgiven for their role in it. Of them, Lindsey Graham is uniquely beyond absolution.”

Ron Brownstein writes in The Atlantic: “Republicans believe they have a better chance of maintaining power by suppressing the diverse new generations entering the electorate than by courting them.” Democrats “more thoroughly represent the nation’s accelerating diversity”. According to Jay Rosen in the New York Review of Books, the Republican Party has to rely on fictions: “The beliefs and priorities that hold it together are opposed by most Americans, who on a deeper level do not want to be what the GOP increasingly stands for.”

Rigging the System

The Republican Project is to manufacture durable white majorities through the purging of voter rolls and the adoption of strict voter ID laws, restriction of immigration and deportation of immigrants who would probably have voted Democrat.

Voter fraud is very rare in the US but Republicans have made a big issue of it in order to make it more difficult for Democratically-inclined voters to cast a ballot. In the 2016 election there were four documented cases of voter impersonation; a 2017 academic study put the upper limit for incidents of double voting in the election of 2012 at 0.02 per cent. A 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that strict photo ID laws could reduce voter turnout by 2-3 percentage points.

In Atlanta, the number of polling stations has been cut by almost ten per cent even as the voter rolls have grown by almost two million. The cuts to voter access and the growth in voter population have mostly taken place in the same areas, disproportionately affecting the black, brown, young and poor. The metro Atlanta area, for example, has almost half of the state’s active voters but just over a third of the polling places.

Gerrymandering

Elbridge Gerry was the fifth vice president of the USA and died in 1814. Gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish an unfair political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries. The original gerrymander was a strange shape that wound around Boston and was portrayed by cartoonists as a salamander.

As race is one of the most accurate predictors of voting habits, when gerrymandering takes place the constituencies are carved up with the express intention of putting as many black voters in one district as possible and leaving them thinly dispersed elsewhere.

In 2012 Republicans received 46 per cent of the popular vote in Wisconsin state elections but received 60 per cent of the seats in the state assembly. Nationwide that year, Democrats got 1.4 million more votes in House races. Republicans won 33 more seats.

David Daley argues in Ratf**ked: The True Story Behind the Secret Plan to Steal America’s Democracy, that, at a low point in their political fortunes, the Republicans discovered redmap, the Redistricting Majority Project. redmap was funded by a group called the Republican State Leadership Committee, which included large corporate donors such as Philip Morris and the Koch brothers. The aim of the project was to seize control of vulnerable statehouses in purple states in the 2010 elections and use the redistricting process to the advantage of the Republican Party.

REDMAP

REDMAP targeted state legislative races for the express purpose of controlling redistricting, REDMAP funded negative ads in lower-profile state legislative races. They peddled quite appalling lies to get their candidates elected. This helped to give Republicans control of 10 of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts in 2010. 

They then used software like Maptitude to devise districts favorable to the Republican party. Democratic voters were clustered into a handful of districts and boundaries of the rest were redrawn to ensure Republican majorities.

A 2018 report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that “Michigan’s maps are beyond the threshold for what is considered gerrymandering.” Ari Berman wrote for the Washington Post on similar trends in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. One district in Pennsylvania was nicknamed “Donald Duck Kicking Goofy”. It spanned five counties and 26 municipalities, and at one of its narrowest points ran through the parking lot of a seafood restaurant in the town of King of Prussia.

Supreme Court

Trump pushed the Republican-held Senate to confirm Amy Coney Barrett as Supreme Court justice, which created a 6-3 conservative majority. Republican senators immediately opposed Obama nominee Merrick Garland to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

The system, which is supposed to be about checks and balances, grants an unrepresentative Senate the ability to install justices to lifelong posts. Biden can expect the Supreme Court to limit any ambitious plans he has. There is also an army of right-wing judges at appeals courts and district courts around the country, packed in due to Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell’s success at blocking President Obama from filling seats. Those judges will oppose Biden in areas from environmental protection to human rights and voting rights, while protecting corporations and the gun lobby. 

More next week on the foundation of US democracy

Democracy in the Land of the Free Part 1

This article was published in Ceylon Today on November 12 2020

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/democracy-in-the-land-of-the-free

I was moved to tears watching John McCain’s concession speech of 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency. Such dignity compared with Trump’s mean-spirited crassness! However, McCain lost me when he went on about American democracy being the envy of the world. Biden has been coming out with the same old guff. Joe Biden said: “Democracy is sometimes messy; it sometimes requires a little patience as well but that patience has been rewarded now for more than 240 years with a system of governance that’s been the envy of the world.” Let us look more closely at what Americans delude themselves is enviable.

Simpler Democracy in Sri Lanka

The November 2019 election in Sri Lanka to choose a president was fairly straightforward. There were 35 contenders but it was essentially a fight between two main candidates. The people were choosing between those two and 52.25% voted for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He thus became president because a majority of the electorate voted for him. Simple.

Because of the Electoral College, among other factors, it is not so simple in the USA. In 2016, nearly three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump. You may have noticed that Trump became president and is now determined to stay on even though it is clear that  five million more people voted for Joe Biden than for Trump. In the nationwide popular vote, Biden has more votes than any other presidential candidate in US history and over five million more than Trump.

The Electoral College

In Sri Lanka the people vote directly to choose their president. In that beacon of democracy called the USA, the people do not directly choose their president. The US president is not chosen by the 233.7 million eligible registered voters. The president is chosen by the 538 individuals who make up a strange institution called the Electoral College. The electorate is voting for people called electors. People in all 50 states vote in November and those decisions are conveyed to the electors. The electors meet in mid-December to cast the official ballot for president.

Each state is allotted a fixed number of votes in the Electoral College, based roughly on the size of its population. Electors are generally chosen by the party but each state determines for itself how it chooses electors. Whoever wins the popular vote in a state also wins all of that state’s electoral votes – with two exceptions being Maine and Nebraska, which divide up their electoral votes partly on the basis of who wins the popular vote.

Each state must have at least one representative and there can only be 435 members of the House of Representatives. Because of the way those available seats are divided up, certain states have fewer representatives per person than in other states. For example, each of the 53 representatives in the House from California represents roughly 746,415 people. In Wyoming, that number drops to 577,737 for their one representative.

There is no Constitutional provision or federal law that requires electors to vote according to the results of the popular vote in their states but throughout the nation’s history, more than 99 % of electors have voted as pledged. A Republican governor could go rogue and submit his state’s votes for Trump. Or a Democratic governor could do the same for Biden regardless of the actual result. The Republican-controlled Florida legislature considered submitting its own electors in 2000 before the Supreme Court ended the contest between Bush and Gore. The Electoral College distorts US politics, encouraging presidential campaigns to concentrate their efforts in a few states that are not representative of the country as a whole. The Eurovision Song Contest voting system seems much more rational.

George Mason of Virginia was one of three delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 who refused to sign the Constitution. He said, “It would be as unnatural to refer the choice of a proper candidate for chief Magistrate to the people, as it would be to refer a trial of colours to a blind man.” Founding Father Alexander Hamilton wrote: “A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated [tasks].” In 1787, the Founding Fathers worried that the people might elect a demagogue and set up the Electoral College to prevent this. In 2016, a demagogue with 3m fewer votes than the losing candidate became president thanks to the Electoral College. Trump had an advantage in states with smaller populations and an advantage in the Electoral College. The system of checks and balances was not built to hinder someone like Trump.  

In its first major failure, the Electoral College produced a tie between Thomas Jefferson and  Aaron Burr (who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel in 1804 and was charged with reason in 1807).

Aaron Burr

There have been five presidential elections in which the successful presidential candidate did not win a majority of the popular vote. In 1824, Andrew Jackson polled 152,901 popular votes to John Quincy Adams’s 114,023; in 1876, there was no question that Democrat Samuel J. Tilden outpolled Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the popular vote, with Tilden winning 4,288,546 votes and Hayes winning 4,034,311. Hayes was known for the rest of his career as “His Fraudulency”; in the 1888 election, incumbent president Democrat  Grover Cleveland received 90,596 more votes than his challenger Benjamin Harrison but  only won 168 Electoral College votes to Harrison’s 233; in 2000, Democrat Al Gore received 48.38% of the popular vote (50,999,897) compared to George W Bush’s 47.87% (50,456,002).

Three Fifths of a Man

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention from the slaveholding south had their own reasons for not wanting the president to be directly elected by the people. There were roughly equal number of people living in the north and the south; however, one-third of those living in the South were slaves. There was no way they were going to be given the vote but the south would be at a disadvantage if they were not counted. The population number would determine a state’s number of seats in the House of Representatives and how much it would pay in taxes. The compromise proposed by delegate James Wilson was three out of every five slaves would be counted as people, giving the southern states a third more seats in Congress and a third more electoral votes than if slaves had been ignored, but fewer than if slaves and free people had been counted equally.

The compromise gave the slaveholder Thomas Jefferson an advantage over his opponent, the incumbent president and abolitionist John Adams. To quote Yale Law’s Akhil Reed Amar, the third president “metaphorically rode into the executive mansion on the backs of slaves.” 

Under the Electoral College, black votes are submerged. Five of the six states whose populations are 25 percent or more black have been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections, even though that goes against normal black voting patterns. Three of those states have not voted for a Democrat in more than four decades. 

There are other ways in which the US system is rigged against democracy. More on that next week.

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