Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Fake Editor

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday  April 1 2017.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=20797

Sri Lankans are justifiably proud of their politicians’ corruption and nepotism. However, I have had spirited debates with some Sri Lankans who think such things only exist in Sri Lanka. I have argued that western politicians are even more corrupt but are usually more subtle about it.

Fake Editor

The shock announcement on March 17 by Evgeny Lebedev, (dubbed “two beards” by satirical magazine Private Eye) proprietor of the London Evening Standard that George Osborne was to become editor of the paper in May drew attention to many unsavoury features of British politics. Osborne, who was sacked as Chancellor of the Exchequer when Theresa May became prime minister, blithely announced that he would continue to sit as a member of parliament for the Tatton constituency in Cheshire.

Privilege

His salary at the Standard has not been disclosed. He will not be starving anyway. Since he ceased to be a minister he has declared almost £1 million in speaking fees in the Parliamentary Register of Members’ Interests. He has declined to answer those who ask whether he will give up his lucrative little jobs to avoid any suggestion of conflicts of interest. Osborne is paid £650,000 a year for one day’s work a week for fund manager BlackRock. He has earned £800,000 for 15 speaking engagements in the last year, collects a £120,000 a year stipend from a US thinktank and has a book deal on top of his £75,000 MP’s salary.

Private Eye has on its cover a Standard employee saying: “There’s no conflict of interest – he’s not interested in journalism”. Seriously though, as a member of the privy council, Osborne has privileged access to confidential briefings, conflicting with his obligation as a supposed journalist to publish information in the public interest. The Standard has a good reputation for its city coverage. Will that continue with a new editor who has been paid vast sums by the world’s largest asset manager. BlackRock is a major player in the pensions industry and has benefited from the policies of Osborne the chancellor. The money-laundering bank HSBC, in which BlackRock has more than £2 billion worth of shares, also benefitted from Osborne’s policies and received critical coverage from the Standard. Will this continue with Osborne as editor? The new editor will need to recuse himself from every financial story his paper covers.

Revolving Doors, Revolting People

The Eye has been running a long campaign to expose the inadequacies of Acoba (advisory committee on business appointments) the body which is supposed to regulate the revolving door between government and business. Acoba is supposed to assess any private paid roles taken by former ministers and civil servants in fields they previously regulated in government. The committee seems to approve every move it assesses. Osborne showed his contempt for the body by taking up his new job without waiting for a finding. He has previous on this because he did not consult Acoba before taking a post with Northern Powerhouse.

Contempt

Real journalists, particularly those working at the Standard, feel Osborne’s contempt for them. One said that Osborne’s confidence that he could edit the paper and be an MP “just shows the contempt he has for the newspaper, that he thinks being an editor is a part-time job, that’s the real scandal”. Osborne’s constituents might not be happy at the knowledge that he thinks representing them is a part-time job. Carla Flynn, editor of the Knutsford Guardian, Osborne’s constituency local paper, described the appointment as a “huge shock”. “Since he lost his position as chancellor, constituents thought they would be seeing more of their MP but this hasn’t been the case, and we’ve received an increasing number of letters questioning George’s commitment to Tatton.”

Senior hacks all over the UK are expressing their annoyance at Osborne’s appointment. Peter Preston, former editor of The Guardian thought it was ironic that this appointment should be made at a time of controversy over “fake news”. “George will pen a few words, front a few Lebedev cocktail parties and pocket a few hundred thousand pounds, burying the remains of a once glowing political career. The perfect PR symbol of our times: a fake newspaper editor”.

Marina Hyde was caustic. “Primarily, it is a thrill to see Osborne finally get his break in journalism, over two decades after failing to get on the Times graduate trainee scheme. Bless him for keeping on plugging away – it’s so easy to get discouraged by a setback like that.” She noted that Lebedev had said, “I am proud to have an editor of such substance.”

She asked What substance? Is it crystal meth?” There is footage of Osborne on YouTube which shows him in the House of Commons in a very peculiar state which looks like coming down after some drug induced experience.

Former prostitute and ex-drug user Natalie Rowe claims that Osborne  took cocaine with her in his early 20s, before he became an MP.

http://www.neonnettle.com/interviews/67-neon-nettle-chats-to-natalie-rowe-on-explosive-new-book

 

Marina Hyde continues: “One of the more questionable pleasures of the age has been to watch people who used to be journalists cocking up the country, and people who used to cock up the country becoming journalists. What fluidity there is between these two pursuits. In the former category, we have leave figureheads Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who got their start in journalism. In the latter category, we may now place newspaper editor George Osborne.” Another revolving door!

Austerity Is Not for Everyone

One of the reasons Osborne irritates people so much is that he has led a privileged and sybaritic existence while imposing austerity measures on the rest of the population. He was born in Paddington, London, and christened as Gideon Oliver Osborne. His father Sir Peter Osborne co-founded the firm of fabric and wallpaper designers Osborne & Little. He was educated at independent schools: Norland Place School, Colet Court and St Paul’s School and Magdalen College, Oxford.

At Oxford, Osborne was a member of the Bullingdon Club, noted for its wealthy members, grand banquets, boisterous rituals and destructive behaviour, such as the vandalising of restaurants and students’ rooms. Its ostentatious display of wealth attracts controversy, since many ex-members have moved up to high political posts, most notably former British Prime Minister David Cameron and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Tom Driberg described a typical Bullingdon outing: “Such a profusion of glass I never saw until the height of the Blitz. On such nights, any undergraduate who was believed to have ‘artistic’ talents was an automatic target.”

Failed Journalist

Having failed in his ambition to become a journalist, Osborne took advantage of personal contacts to get a job at the Conservative Research Department in 1994 and rose to high office without too much effort. Like many politicians, he has never done a proper job in his life and has no clue how normal people live, normal people who bear the brunt of his policies. David Cameron denied that his long friendship with Osborne was anything to do with him getting the job of chancellor: “He stayed in my shadow cabinet not because he is a friend, not because we are godfathers to each other’s children but because he is the right person to do the job. I know and he knows that if that was not the case he would not be there.”

Corruption

Osborne’s school and university contemporary, financier Nathaniel Rothschild, said in October 2008 that Osborne had tried to solicit a £50,000 donation from the Russian aluminium magnate Oleg Deripaska, which would have been a violation of the law against political donations by foreign citizens. In 2009 and 2012 Osborne was criticised for his expense claims, in particular for the claims for mortgage interest payments on his Cheshire properties.

What of the Future?

When Theresa May announced that there would be a general election on June 8, Osborne announced that he would cease to be an MP. Few doubt that he still has ambitions to be prime minister and the editorship will be a useful tool.  Osborne’s first edition will do little to quell rumours that he wants to use London’s freesheet as a platform for his own political agenda. Some see it as a vehicle for future political ambitions, should the Brexit strategy being pursued by the prime minister who sacked him as chancellor go wrong.

 

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Mind-Forged Manacles

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Thursday May 25 2017.

In every cry of every Man, 

In every Infants cry of fear, 

In every voice: in every ban, 

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 

 

William Blake

 

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=21718

 

Jim Morrison was a big fan of Blake – The Doors got their name from Blake. In Unhappy Girl

Morrison sings: You are locked in a prison/Of your own devise. Perhaps Morrison was also inspired by Richard Lovelace: Stone walls do not a prison make /Nor iron bars a cage. All three poets seem to me to be saying that we delude ourselves when we think that we are independent agents blessed with free will which enables us to make informed rational judgements. In reality, we are restricted from fulfilling our true potential by an accumulation of bad and good habits or addictions, futile daily rituals, false memories, gut feelings, tribal loyalties. We are our own jailers – although Lovelace was actually in a real prison with stone walls and iron bars when he wrote To Althea.

 

Behavioural Economics

 

The first article I published, on 31 October 2008, under the byline ‘Padraig Colman’ was on the subject of behavioural economics. Behavioural economics combines the insights of psychology with the rigour of economics, factoring human unpredictability into market analysis. Nine years on, behavioural economics is still being discussed but it has come to be considered somewhat sinister by some critics despite the efforts of proponents to portray it as a benign form of Libertarian Paternalism.

 

Michael Lewis recently published a book on the subject, which renewed the controversy. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds , describes the friendship and intellectual partnership of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the psychologists whose work provided the foundation for behavioural economics. Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow was a best-seller. The book summarizes research that Kahneman conducted over decades, often in collaboration with Tversky.

 

What Is Behavioural Economics?

 

Behavioural economics studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences for market prices, returns, and resource allocation.

 

Kahneman characterized the human mind as the interrelated operation of two systems of thought: System One, which is fast and automatic, including instincts, emotions, innate skills, as well as learned associations and skills; and System Two, which is slow and deliberative and allows us to correct for the errors made by System One.

In real life, economic behaviour does not fit in with the accepted norms of economic theory. In reality, homo economicus failed to pursue his own self-interest. Decisions were based on received wisdom or bizarre rules of thumb rather than logic. The key factors are inertia, overconfidence, and loss aversion. In their everyday existences, people tend to stick with what they are doing, even if trying something different would be easy as well as beneficial.

Kahneman and Tversky developed heuristics, or rules of thumb, to describe specific flaws in our intuitive thinking: the “endowment effect” (overvaluation of what we already have), “status quo bias” (an emotional preference for maintaining the status quo), and “loss aversion” (the tendency to attribute much more weight to potential losses than potential gains when assessing risk) are all related to an innate conservatism about what we feel we have already invested in. We find it hard to tune out information that should, strictly speaking, not be of high relevance to our judgment.

Behavioural economists have taught politicians and policy-makers that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market is not infallible. Their theories and experiments are of interest to politicians because of their relevance to decisions in the public sphere – whether to grant patients buying power in the health service, whether to compel individuals to save for their old age.

Rationalising the Irrational

The systematic errors that psychologists have identified make human irrationality predictable and people can be helped to avoid bad outcomes through “nudges”. Cass R Sunstein devised “choice architectures” or “nudges” that would work with the intuitive apparatus people have in order to guide their choices. For example, if people refuse through inertia to choose between retirement plans, government can help them by automatically enrolling them in the most beneficial plan with the option to withdraw.

Behavioural Economics and Government

 

Richard Thaler has built upon the work of Kahneman and Tversky in books such as Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness which he co-wrote with Cass Sunstein. Thaler wrote a column called Anomalies (sometimes in collaboration with Kahneman, the first psychologist to win the Nobel Prize for economics).

 

Governments have taken up these ideas. Thaler taught at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and was close to Austan Goolsbee, who was Obama’s economic advisor. Sunstein was for ten years a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago Law School (he is also the husband of Professor Samantha Power, who was Obama’s foreign policy adviser until she resigned after calling Hillary Clinton a ‘monster’). Sunstein oversaw the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House (Obama subsequently created a Social and Behavioural Sciences Team). Thaler was an advisor to David Cameron’s Behavioural, based in the Cabinet Office.

 

Nudge or Manipulation?

The Economist’s columnist, Bagehot, suspects that the theories of behavioural economists appeal to politicians because they provide a cover for a hands-off approach to problems they should be facing head-on. “Nasty behaviour—such as the propensity of some British teenagers to drink too much, get pregnant or stab each other—is often symptomatic of a deeper malaise: skewed values, social atomism, despair and so on.” Problems of this kind might require the smack of firm governance, rather than a gentle nudge, but the term “nanny state” has long been part of the dictionary of political abuse.

Sunstein’s Libertarian Paternalism might well be what philosopher Bernard Williams called “Government House utilitarianism” a moral philosophy underlying the practice of the British Empire that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use.

 

Hidden Persuaders

Heuristics have a relevance to business in the private sector for what they can reveal about consumer behaviour. Thaler has an investment company, Fuller and Thaler’s Asset Management Inc. whose mission statement says: “Investors make mental mistakes. Fuller and Thaler’s objective is to exploit them”. More sinister still, Frank Babetski, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence analyst has called Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow a “must read” for intelligence officers looking for ideas about control and coercion.

In 2007, and again in 2008, Kahneman gave a masterclass in “Thinking About Thinking” to, among others, Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), Evan Williams (Twitter), and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia). Psychologists helped to develop myPersonality, a Facebook application that allowed users to take psychometric tests and gathered six million test results and four million individual profiles. Scores on these tests could be combined with enormous amounts of data from the user’s Facebook environment. The architects of myPersonality claim that these tests, in conjunction with other data, permit the prediction of individual levels of well-being.

Facebook

Many people manacle themselves to Facebook. As well as possibly being the cause of them not using their time most productively, they are leaving themselves open to manipulation by those expert in the dark arts of behavioural economics.

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, writing in the Swiss publication Das Magazin, claimed that Cambridge Analytica (a data science firm created by a British company with deep ties to the British and American defence industries) had used psychological data culled from Facebook, combined with vast amounts of consumer information purchased from data-mining companies, to develop algorithms that were supposedly able to identify the psychological makeup of every voter in the American electorate. The company then developed political messages tailored to appeal to the emotions of each one.

As Sue Halpern wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Donald Trump is our first Facebook president. His team figured out how to use all the marketing tools of Facebook, as well as Google, the two biggest advertising platforms in the world, to successfully sell a candidate that the majority of Americans did not want.”

How about that for a nudge!

 

 

 

 

Orientalism and Sour Grapes

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 20 2017.

Last week, I wrote about the farrago of error that was Thomas Meaney’s article on Sri Lanka in the London Review of Books.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19109

Dayan Jayatilleka described Meaney’s article thus:  “The usual, wry well-written Orientalism, just like all the LRB pieces on SL through the years.” This prompted me to look at Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism.

Wilson, Keppel and Betty

 

Said published his book in 1978 and died in 2003, so he was not able to include in his bibliography a book published in 2016 by Alan Stafford. The book did not win the international acclaim of Said’s work but it did win The Bookseller’s annual Diagram prize for the year’s oddest title. Too Naked for the Nazis is a biography of Wilson, Keppel and Betty. Second place went to Dr Jonathan Allan’s Reading from Behind: A Cultural History of the Anus. Apparently, Hermann Göring was outraged by the sensuality of Betty Knox’s dancing. She went on to become a war correspondent and was the first to report Göring’s suicide.

I am old enough to have seen Wilson, Keppel and Betty perform live on more than one occasion. They represented Orientalism at its finest. The “sand dance” that formed the highlight of their act was a parody of postures from Egyptian tomb paintings, combined with references to Arabic costume. The act was usually performed to the Egyptian Ballet (1875), by Alexandre Luigini. I recall them dancing to In a Persian Garden.

 

What is Orientalism?

 

 

Edward Said redefined Orientalism to describe a pervasive Western tradition of prejudiced outsider-interpretations of the Eastern world, which was shaped by the cultural attitudes of European imperialism in the 18th and 19th centuries. This is a form of cultural imperialism. Oriental culture is an Other that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. This implies that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and thereby superior, whilst Oriental societies are inferior for being undeveloped, irrational, and inflexible. Said develops Antonio Gramsci’s of cultural hegemony, and Michel Foucault’s theorisation of discourse (the knowledge-and-power relation).

Said wrote, “The Orient is a stage on which the whole East is confined” in order to make the Eastern world “less fearsome to the West” so that Western nations and their empires could exploit underdeveloped countries, by the extraction of wealth and labour from one country to another country.

Orientalism and Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has been cursed with many “prejudiced outsider-interpretations”. Starting in 2009, I used to write a monthly column on Sri Lanka for Diplo, the blog of the prestigious monthly Le Monde diplomatique. The articles were appreciated by Wendy Kristianasen, the editor of the English-language edition, and for a while she pressed me to send more copy. Most comments on these pieces were along the lines of “professional” and “unbiased”, and one reader in Canada compared me to a famous Canadian journalist. Not everyone was happy. One reader called me a government lackey and another called me a regurgitator of terrorist propaganda. I received an e-mail addressing me as “you crazed Irish monkey, you IRA fugitive. You should be in a zoo or an asylum”.

 

Diplo turned  nasty when Wendy asked for my opinion on a piece about Sri Lanka by a Frenchman called Cédric Gouverneur. “It will be rather a statement of the obvious for you, but it is a good way to get the wider world interested in the country and its complex politics.” My response was that it was unhelpful to get the wider world interested if the wider world gets interested in a distorted picture. Her response was : “I think, for what it’s worth, that the West knows very little about Sri Lanka, particularly outside of the UK. …Most ordinary people simply know that there was a long, difficult conflict. That’s all. Whereas what goes on in Iraq, Afghanistan, and particularly Israel, is widely reported on, in every detail, and closely followed. Every ordinary person has an opinion on those subjects, and may even feel him/herself to be an armchair expert.”

 

Cédric Gouverneur wrote about Sri Lanka back in 2004: “Many observers would wager that the LTTE will evolve mid-term, influenced by the Tamil diaspora (accustomed to Western democracy after 20 years of exile) and their own pragmatic leaders, who are increasingly political and less warlike.” So much for that armchair expert! That ludicrous prophesy did not stop Le Monde diplomatique giving him another shot at analysing Sri Lanka in 2010.

As well as many highly debatable judgements gleaned after interviews with LTTE supporters the article was riddled with factual inaccuracies. There many serious howlers in the historical timeline headed “Thirty years of civil war”. I will not bore you with all of them. The thirty years begins with 1815 (surely something wrong with the arithmetic!). “The British finish colonising the island, previously divided into three kingdoms – two Sinhalese, one Tamil”. The most egregious error is “December 2009. Rival candidates President Rajapaksa and the former chief of staff, Sarath Fonseka, dispute the election results”. How could they dispute the results in December 2009 of an election which did not take place until January 2010?

Ms Kristianasen was not pleased when I drew her attention to these flaws. She said “I must ask you to commit yourself to responsible journalism”. This schoolmarmish rapping of knuckles was particularly galling because she was not paying me and was passing my articles on to others who were not paying me. One article appeared in the New York Times who did not pay me, ask my permission or even notify me that they were going to publish. Monsieur Gouverneur sent me an angry and abusive e-mail after Wendy forwarded to him my e-mail to her without my permission.

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/triumphalism-and-foreign-commentators/

Way Down Yonder

Way back in 2010, Joshua M Schoop, after spending a full three months in Sri Lanka , decided to tell us  -in an article in the magazine Groundview (published by CHA – Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies)- where we were going wrong. “The destitution and ineptitude in Mannar Town and the surrounding area is visible to anyone”. “Natives are suffering immensely from the impacts of the war”. Does anyone use the word “natives” anymore? “In progressive nations, this is where a government would come in to assist.” Josh conceded the government has built new roads which helped the local economy but the roads were“helpful for military operations”. Was the army not doing useful work de-mining and rebuilding? What have the Romans ever done for us?

 

Josh was studying for a Masters in International Development at Tulane. It was very Orientalist for someone from Louisiana to be superior about Sri Lanka. Following the American civil war, Louisiana, was under martial law. Before the civil war, Louisiana’s wealth depended on slavery. White Democrats blocked black voter-registration and institutionalised racial discrimination. 47% of Louisiana’s population in 1900 was African-American – 652,013 black citizens. By 1910, there were only 730 black voters. White Democrats had established one-party rule which they maintained long into the 20th century. Today, Louisiana has poverty, crime and health indicators, particularly for blacks, equivalent to third- world nations. The average life-span of an African-American in New Orleans is nearly as low as in North Korea. Louisiana’s poverty rate is 19.2%; more than 26% of the state’s children live in poverty. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Use of food stamps jumped 13 % in 2008 to nearly 9.8 million U.S. households, led by Louisiana. Louisiana’s murder rate has been the highest in the US for 21 consecutive years. Louisiana’s incarceration rate has been the highest of any state for the last 20 years; it retains the death penalty.

Sour Grapes

Cédric Gouverneur thought I was annoyed because he was in the print edition of Le Monde diplomatique and I wasn’t. Damn right! The chaps at LRB probably think that I am suffering from sour grapes because I have submitted articles to them that they have thought were not up to their impeccable standards. Too true! They have rejected my articles but are quite happy to publish articles that are crawling with errors. I forgive them. I will continue reading and enjoying and being stimulated by LRB. I just hope that the next time they deign to look at Sri Lanka they will ask me -or Jonathan Spencer.

 

 

More on Orientalism and Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 27 2017.

 

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19829

 

In previous articles, I have noted that much of what is written by foreigners about Sri Lanka conforms to Edward Said’s concept of Orientalism. Said wrote in that book about “middle-brow journalists, all of them re-cycling the same unverifiable fictions and vast generalizations so as to stir up ‘America’ against the foreign devil.” Said’s book contains many telling phrases: “Orientalism has not allowed ideas to violate its profound serenity.”

Fantasies of Virtue

 

In an article in The Atlantic dated 1 July 2009 entitled To Catch a Tiger, Robert D Kaplan acknowledged the success of the Sri Lankan government in defeating the Tamil Tigers. Kaplan asks if the US can learn from Sri Lanka’s success but answers: “These are methods the U.S. should never use.” That is outrageous. The methods Sri Lanka used to defend itself from brutal terrorists within its sovereign boundaries seem benign compared to what the US has done to achieve and maintain world dominance.

 

The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons. They dropped atomic bombs on civilians. 90,000 (this is the low estimate) died immediately at Hiroshima. The estimate for Nagasaki is 20,000. During the Vietnam War, up to 5 million civilians (including citizens of Laos and Cambodia) lost their lives. Obama killed wedding guests by remote control. Trump drops huge bombs on caves.

 

America is today an imperial power with military bases instead of colonies. George Orwell commented in 1943, “It is difficult to go anywhere in London without having the feeling that Britain is now Occupied Territory.” Citizens of many nations today get that same feeling. Those populations hosting US bases are expected to be grateful that the bases are contributing to democracy and freedom, but instead feel exploited because the bases are used to control trade, resources, local supplies of cheap labour, and the political, economic, and social life of host countries. They also force them to support American imperialism, including foreign wars, despite harmful fallout to local populations.

There are 38 U.S. military facilities on Okinawa. They account for 78 percent of the bases in Japan and use up 30 percent of the land mass of the island. The U.S. military bases on Okinawa also cover over 40 percent of the arable soil, once some of the best agricultural land in Japan.

Figures up to 1998, show that since 1972, 4,905 crimes were committed against Japanese people by U.S. military personnel, their dependents and U.S. civilian contractors and employees. More than ten percent of these crimes involved serious crimes of murder, robbery or rape. In most cases, the Japanese authorities were not allowed to arrest or question the alleged perpetrators.

Perfect Fright

On a somewhat lighter note we have Peter Grimsdale’s unexciting “thriller” Perfect Night which illustrates Said’s comment: “The mind of the Oriental, on the other hand, like his picturesque streets, is eminently wanting in symmetry. His reasoning is of the most slipshod description.” Said quotes V G Kiernan’ phrase “Europe’s collective day-dream of the Orient.”

Grimsdale’s  narrator Nick Roker(who surely must be the hunky babe-magnet that Grimsdale would like to be) first arrives in Sri Lanka to be met by the beautiful Tamil, Anita Jeyarajah. Her job is to educate him about the country but this irritates him. In this he could be the epitome of many western journalists. “Over the next two days she delivered a continuous monologue on the marvels of the island and her faith in the peace process as we criss-crossed Colombo by tuk-tuk. After the sixth meeting, I called a halt. I grabbed her clipboard and drew a line through all the other appointments. ‘No more old farts. I can’t make a film about peacemakers if I can’t see the war’ “.

Do you see how representative this is? Like many western journalists, he is not interested in the positive aspects of Sri Lanka that enthuse a Sri Lankan. He wants the glamour of war, not boring peace. Incidentally, Roker’s previous experience was making holiday programmes. This nicely underlines the link between the fantasy world of tourism and the delusions of “serious” journalism”.

Here is Said on travel guides: “many writers of travel books or guidebooks compose them in order to say that a country is like this, or better, that it is colourful, expensive, interesting, and so forth. The idea in either case is that people, places, and experiences can always be described by a book, so much so that the book (or text) acquires a greater authority, and use, even than the actuality it describes.”

Grimsdale presents an “actuality” that is full of misconceptions and factual errors about Sri Lanka. I understand that HRF Keating wrote most of his Inspector Ghote books, with the aid of a Bombay street map and telephone directories, without actually visiting India. I do not doubt that Grimsdale did visit Sri Lanka, but it is not the Sri Lanka I know. He might have benefited had he consulted a street map and a telephone directory.

Perfect Night is just fiction, just entertainment. I have no objection to a writer trying to make a few bob writing about Sri Lanka. I am concerned about the infantilising nature of delusion generally in the media, both in fiction and “reportage”. It gives me a queasy feeling when real and tragic events are served up as entertainment and little effort is made to get beyond simplistic stereotypes or to bother with accuracy. In his acknowledgements Grimsdale thanks Chantal Krishnadasan and Shirani Sabaratnam for vetting “all the Sri Lankan and Tamil material”. They have failed you badly Mr Grimsdale.

Here are some examples of Grimsdale’s faux Sri Lanka:

  • There are references to the “British Consulate” in Colombo. Was it not the High Commission in 1995? It was when my father-in-law was working there alongside Anton Balasingham in the 60s. It is the High commission today.
  • A boatman charges 50 rupees to take Nick and the journalist Greer (Marie Colvin? Frances Harrison?) out to a cruiser almost in open sea. Nick was “in too much of a hurry to haggle”. Some foreigners are notoriously stingy in their transactions with “the locals” but in 1995 50 rupees was worth half a British pound.
  • There is a reference to the “Northern Territory”. Isn’t that in Australia?
  • Dr Sivalingam smokes a “bindi”. In Indian restaurants bindi  is “lady’s finger” or okra. An odd choice of smoking material but I have seen people trying to get high smoking bananas! Bidis are smoked by Tamil estate labourers but it is unlikely that a Tamil doctor would smoke them.
  • There is a photographic business whose address is “Witjerwarra Chemist. 310 Galle Road Colombo 7.” Galle Road is very long but none of it goes near Colombo 7. According to Arjuna’s Street Guide the postal address is Colombo 3.I have never encountered a Sri Lankan called Witjerwarra.
  • Greer and Nick are having dinner and wine at a hotel populated by cliché annoying European tourists (you know, not adventurous types like our hero or our author).  A small girl appears at table the selling ball points. I have encountered this on the trekking trails of Nepal but not in a Colombo hotel catering to Europeans.
  • Greer has what seems to be meant a harrowing journey from the hill country to Colombo because her “driver was detained at a roadblock near Kandy”. Would that have been harrowing even in 1995?
  • I always sense that a writer is hovering between ignorance and condescension about the land of Johnny Foreigner when I read references to “tuk-tuks”and “the locals”.

There’s more of this kind of stuff but I don’t want to bore you. The general effect is the familiar one of parachute dilettantes exploiting our country for local colour for their own fantasies. Tamil terrorism is not seriously addressed. It is just a sideshow. People are dropping like flies (pardon the cliché) all around Nick but neither the Tigers nor the GOSL seem to be to blame –  I can’t tell you why they are dying.

Final Word

I leave the final word with Edward Said: “Knowledge no longer requires application to reality; knowledge is what gets passed on silently, without comment, from one text to another. Ideas are propagated and disseminated anonymously, they are repeated without attribution; they have literally become idées reçues: what matters is that they are there, to be repeated.”

Thomas Meaney on Sri Lanka

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 13 2017 under the title “Crawling with Errors”.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=19109

I recently moved closer to the fleshpots of Colombo after spending nearly fifteen years enduring the privations of life in a remote location in Uva province. I have written about that life in Uva province here:

https://staionarytraveller.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/living-in-uva/

The move meant that I have got rather behind with my reading and have only just got around to reading the issue of the London Review of Books dated February 2 2017. That issue contains an article on Sri Lanka by one Thomas Meaney. Because of my tardiness, two people have already beaten me to the punch and taken Mr Meaney to task for errors in his essay. Michael Roberts and Jonathan Spencer are both academic anthropologists with a knowledge of Sri Lanka that is deep and wide.

Thomas Mallory Meaney

 

Others have challenged Mr Meaney’s contention that the country passively gave itself up to foreign conquerors and was in 1948 handed independence on a plate without having to fight for it. Nobody died, he claimed. We Irish (and I suspect Mr Meaney has Irish antecedents) have long memories and are likely to bring up the massacres of Cromwell at the slightest excuse. Uva Province still bears the scars of what happened in 1818. In retribution for an uprising, the entire able bodied male population above the age of 18 was killed and homes throughout the region were also destroyed. The British also destroyed the irrigation systems, poisoned the wells, killed all cattle and other domesticated animals, and burnt all cultivated fields

I have seen a copy of Mr Meaney’s CV and am confident that he is a very knowledgeable young man. However, leaving false modesty aside, I do not think that Thomas Meaney knows as much as I do about Sri Lanka.  Nevertheless, the prestigious organ has allowed him over 7,000 words to inform readers about the country I have chosen as my home. Unfortunately, he makes many egregious errors.

I am not concerned so much about value judgements like this one: “The Rajapaksa years now look like the most ignominious period in the country’s post-independence history.” Mr Meaney is, of course, entitled to hold that opinion. I was myself (as I wrote in these pages https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/partisan-people-and-fissiparous-parties/) happy that Rajapaksa was ousted, but I do not think that history will judge MR as harshly as Mr Meaney contends. After all, he ended 30 years of fear and improved the infrastructure of the country beyond recognition. Sri Lanka also made it into the “high” category of the Human Development Index during Rajapaksa’s rule. It is ten years since I last left Sri Lanka and I have experienced the warp and woof of daily life here. I certainly felt a huge improvement in the quality of life in Sri Lanka even in the backwater in which we lived. I listen to ordinary people like a couple who sell vegetables on Badulla market. We have known them for 13 years; they used to be prosperous but now they are desperate; they wish Rajapaksa had not been ousted. Meaney writes dismissively about Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s transforming of “Colombo into a city of antiseptic beauty” but many of the affluent are worried about the effluent that is returning to the city because of the laxity of the current government. Many are nostalgic about Gota’s can-do spirit.

Rather than disputing Mr Meaney’s judgements, I am more concerned about factual errors that any decent copy-editor should have spotted and questioned with the author. Jonathan Spencer drew some of these to the attention of the LRB in a letter and the editors allowed Meaney a response. He was oddly offhand: “I thank Jonathan Spencer for clearing up errors for which I have only myself to blame. But some of his objections are unnecessary.” Who else could be to blame for his errors? What is that “but” doing there?

Jonathan Spencer has carried out fieldwork in Sri Lanka since the early 1980s, concentrating at first on rural change and local politics, but writing more recently on ethnic conflict, political violence and political non-violence. His current research looks at the fraught boundary between the religious and the political in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Professor Spencer had pointed out that Mr Meaney’s claim that the British “converted Ceylon’s inhabitants on a much larger scale than the Portuguese and Dutch had” was nonsense because there were four times as many Catholics as Protestants in the population in 1948. Spencer also said that it was plain wrong to describe SWRD Bandaranaike as a member of the ‘burgher class’ when he was a man from the highest caste in Sinhala society. Spencer also questions Meaney’s account of the JVP uprising: “The ‘fifty thousand youths’ who ‘descended on Colombo’ in 1971 are new to me, and I imagine to all other scholars of modern Sri Lankan politics.”

 

There are many more ludicrous errors. Mr Meaney says that Mahinda Rajapaksa was from Matara. According to Wikipedia, he was born in Weeraketiya in the southern rural district of Hambantota. In his opening paragraph Meaney writes: “Solomon Ridgeway Bandaranaike, the anti-colonial head of state who took power in 1956…” Later he writes that “Bandaranaike’s wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, became head of the SLFP and the world’s first female elected head of state…. “  In fact,  both Bandaranaikes held the office of prime minister. The head of state was Queen Elizabeth II. Also in the first paragraph, Meaney writes: “After independence in 1948, Ceylon alone among the former colonies not only retained but promoted the monarchy”. Did no-one at LRB notice the contradiction?

More confusion about office here: “Prabhakaran participated in the assassination of the governor of Jaffna”.  On 25 April 1978, the LTTE issued an open letter, which was published in the Virakesari, claiming responsibility for the assassination of eleven people including Alfred Thangarajah Duraiappah in 1975. Duraiappah was the mayor of Jaffna (elected by the people) and a member of parliament (elected by the people), not the governor. Jaffna does not have a governor. The Northern Province has a governor who is appointed, not elected. Prabhakaran, of course, was never elected by anybody. Another avoidable blunder was getting the Army Commander’s name wrong. Meaney calls him “Sarnath” Fonseka instead of Sarath.

As Michael Roberts writes: “Thomas Meaney speaks with a certainty that brooks no doubt: ‘At the Nanthikadal lagoon, in the far north-east, Prabhakaran was captured and killed. Photos of his execution and a gruesome video were widely disseminated.’ Since no documentation is deployed in these types of powerful media outlets, we have no means of checking Meaney’s conclusions.” After citing the views of David Blacker who had served in the Sri Lankan Army, Roberts comments: “Alas, the Western world is dominated by journalists and intellectuals who have no experience in jungle warfare (or any form of warfare).” Roberts uses Blacker’s expertise to quash DBS Jeyaraj’s contention that the LTTE leader shot himself and questions the view that he was captured and summarily executed. HL Mahindapala wrote: “Nobody knows who fired the fatal bullet. It seems to be a gun shot fired within a range of about 10 metres.” Roberts surmises: most soldiers will tell you: more often than not, one sprays a round at vague figures of the enemy way in front of you. … a frontline soldier has the luxury of identifying an officer or X and Y to target only on a few occasions”. I have no way of knowing how Prabhakaran died, but then, neither does Mr Meaney.

 

I am disappointed that LRB has seen fit to publish this error-strewn essay rather than giving the job of reviewing books on Sri Lanka to people who have knowledge and expertise in the subject. I am sure that Michael Roberts or Jonathan Spencer would have made a better fist of it. There is insufficient space here to deal with all the dubious statements in the article. I may return to the subject later. Malinda Seneviratne commented: “there seems to be an over-indulgence in off-the-cuff remarks.” As political scientist and former ambassador Dr Dayan Jayatilleka wrote to me: “The usual, wry well-written Orientalism, just like all the LRB pieces on SL through the years. You can’t really pick at this ball of wool, can you?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ungoogling

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday May 18 2017.

According to this link

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=21262

“4142 readers have read this article !”

See also

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/identity-crisis-part-1/

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2016/10/07/identity-crisis-part-two/

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2016/10/13/identity-crisis-part-three/

Google Docs Phished

On May 3, I read the news that G-Mail accounts were being hacked by means of a malicious email containing what appeared to be a link to a Google Doc file. This leads to a legitimate Google.com page asking you to authorize “Google Docs” to access to your Gmail account. Christopher Boyd, malware intelligence analyst at Malwarebytes, said, “There’s a very clever phishing scam going around at the moment – originally thought to be targeting journalists given the sheer number of them mentioning it on their Twitter feeds, it’s also been slinging its way across unrelated mailboxes – from orgs to schools / campuses,” Boyd thought it remiss of Google not to think of preventing non-Google people from calling their apps “Google Docs”.

Ransomware

On May 13, there was news that computers all over the world were being attacked by malware known as Ransomware. This is software that locks a computer and demands payment before allowing access again. Eleven out of fourteen NHS Trusts in Scotland were disrupted. Screenshots shared online purportedly from NHS staff, show a programme demanding $300 (£230) in Bitcoin that looks similar to ransomware known as WannaCryptor or WCry. The US government NSA (National Security Agency) is widely believed to have developed the hacking tool that was leaked online in April and used as a catalyst for the ransomware attack.

Not Lost in Limassol

These attacks make my own experience of hacking seem trivial but I suffered a great deal of inconvenience and embarrassment. As I reported in this column, one of my Sri Lankan editors messaged me on Facebook on 24 July 2016 to inform me that my G-Mail account had been hacked. I was soon receiving messages from friends and bank managers asking if I was OK. The hacker was sending messages to countless people in my G-Mail contacts list saying that he was me and was stranded in Limassol, Cyprus and in urgent need of funds. I soon discovered that he was doing the same from my other account.

My hacker used my G-Mail accounts to gather personal information about me from my correspondence. He managed to convince my lawyer (who has known me in real life for 13 years) that he was me because he could quote things about my business dealings with her. He also got hold of her phone number. He was also using a photocopy of my passport to convince people that he was me.

I tried to report to Google what had happened but was unsuccessful. My hacker changed the passwords of my accounts and effectively prevented me from using them. I could not use the normal authentication procedure because he replaced my phone number with one of his own. He then went on to hi-jack my Facebook account and proceeded to send begging messages to my Facebook friends. The last message I heard about was on September 26 2016.

Fishbird

I refrained from contacting the hacker directly but some of my friends chastised him and he sent threatening messages back to them. Using the name “Spitfire” he sent this message: “Maybe you should just mind your business because your email might be next.PS: tell your friend that this is what happens when he tries to recover the email i already hacked into. If he tries recovering it with any other email then he looses that one too!” I set up an e-mail account with mail.com and he immediately sent me a message: “Signing himself as “Fishbird” he wrote: “I am sorry for all the problems i have caused you this past few days. However, i want you to know the follwing (sic): I don’t know you nor have any particular personal motivation for taking over your mailbox other than looking for little money to survive on. I am willing to hand you all i have taken from you if you will help me with very little money to enable me settle my school bills. I know i have wronged you but please i need your help. I will let you know how to prevent future hacks as creating new emails is not the best line of action.”

I gave up trying to recover my accounts and put the matter behind me. I was moved to take it up again in February when I started receiving irate messages from a Sri Lankan who demanded that I return the 100,000 rupees that he had sent me when I was stranded in Limassol. I explained that I had never asked him for money and had never received any. I suggested that he report the matter to the police. He suggested that we discuss the matter on the telephone. When I said that did not intend to do that, the flood of e-mails suddenly ceased.

Belated Response from Google

I reported this latest development to CERT (Computer Emergency Readiness Team | Co-ordination Center) and they managed to get someone at Google to communicate with me directly. That was another frustrating experience, but, cutting a long story short, I was able to recover my G-Mail accounts. I replied to an e-mail sent by a real-life friend last July. After I had sent it, I realised that it looked as though it was sent by one Avraham Yitzchok Geisler – someone I had never heard of before. My contact at CERT warned me to check my settings as the hackers would have altered them to suit themselves.

On checking the settings for one account, I found that the default country was Nigeria and the signatures were Frank Barry, Atthulla Edirisinghe and Thanja Peiris. On checking the settings for my second G-Mail account I found the default country was Sri Lanka and the signatures were Avraham Yitzchok Geisler, Atthula Edirisinghe, Ray Guinan, and a couple of names in Hebrew, who appeared to be Nadiv and Adi Caspi who, according to Facebook, live in Tel Aviv. It looks to me that the original hacker was Atthula Ederesinghe who passed on my details to people in Israel and possibly Ireland. They have been using my accounts to send messages to people I have never heard of. Looking at my G-Mail accounts was a distasteful experience and I cannot bring myself to use them again. It feels like some rancid dosser has been sleeping in my sheets.

Repair

At the time of the hacking I was using a laptop at home because my desktop PC was being repaired. The technicians in the shop would have been able to access my G-Mail accounts without knowing my passwords because my browser remembered the passwords. My mobile phone number was stuck to the PC so they could contact me. I went to the shop and told them what had happened. They denied that they were at fault. I recently telephoned the owner to ask if he knew Atthula Edersinghe. He phoned me back to say that that it might be the name of a trainee he employed at one time. When I pursued the matter by e-mail he responded: “I felt very sorry and frustrated hearing this incident and I am strongly deny this was  not done by any of my technicians because we have good reputation in our area nearly 17 years of computer service and repairing. And also I advice  you to complain regarding this incident to the Sri Lanka police Cyber Criminal Section so they will be able to find from where your email hacked. And also I don’t know who is Attula Ederesinghe.”

Motive

I often wonder why people do this kind of hack. Only one person has claimed to have sent money to my hacker. Experts estimate that the ransomware hack, despite its large scale, could only have netted about $20,000 for the hackers. Is the motive sheer malice?

Google seems to have reached that point that Microsoft reached a long time ago. It wants to get involved in everything in the world but refuses to respond to the evil effects it itself allows or causes. It has reached a state of near monopoly power which enables it to alienate people who use its products. We are not seen as customers because we do not pay anything. We are a resource that can be treated with impunity. I am disengaging myself from Google starting with G-Mail.

Tired and Emotional

A short version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 6 2017

 

The other day, I was reading HLD Mahindapala’s blog about the last days of Prabhakaran, I was surprised to read this: “In a desperate bid K. Pathmanathan, the arms procurer appointed as Prabhakaran’s sole representative abroad, contacted Western journalists to send messages to George Brown, British Prime Minister, and President Obama.” George Brown died at the age of 70 in 1985.Brown did serve as British foreign secretary (with embarrassing results) from 1966 to 1968. The British foreign secretary in 2009 was David Miliband.

One of the advantages I find from reaching my advanced age is that historians are publishing books about events that I remember because I lived through them. The doyen of post-war British history writers is Peter Hennessy (Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield). He was born the year after me so lived through the same events. Like me, he grew up in an Irish Catholic family. Like me, he was educated at a grammar school in Gloucester. I wonder if I met him when I was playing for the Rugby team of my school, Sir Thomas Rich’s (founded 1666), against the team of his school, Marling (founded 1887). I remember playing rugby at Marling School. The most vivid recollection of the event is being served tea and sandwiches by a team of gorgeous girls. The picture Hennessy paints of the time of my growing up in a series of books Never Again: Britain 1945–51 (1992), Having it so good : Britain in the fifties (2006) and Establishment and Meritocracy (2014)rings true for me.

David Kynaston has ploughed the same furrow. He was born in 1951; like me and Peter Hennessy, he lived through the period he was writing about. He published Austerity Britain, 1945–1951 In 2007 and it was highly praised, named “Book of the Decade” by The Sunday Times. I have it in the form of two volumes entitled A World to Build 1945-48 and Smoke in the Valley 1948-51. I found Kynaston’s work hugely enjoyable and generally reliable, although my confidence wobbled a little when he referred to boxer Randolph Turpin as Dick Turpin. I recall listening to Turpin’s fights on the radio (commentary by Eamonn Andrews, inter-round analysis from W Barrington Dalby) with my father. Kynaston intends to chronicle the history of Great from the end of World War II to the ascension of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

Dominic Sandbrook is engaged in an exhaustive survey of the period I have lived through. In 2005, Sandbrook published Never Had It So Good, a history of Britain from the Suez Crisis to The Beatles, 1956–63.  The sequel, White Heat, covering the years 1964–70 and the rise and fall of Harold Wilson’s Labour government, was published in August 2006. Sandbrook continued the history of post-war Britain with State of Emergency (2010), covering the period 1970–1974, and Seasons in the Sun, which took the story up to the election of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1979. He has said that a fifth volume, covering the period 1979–1984 and provisionally titled Who Dares Wins, may follow. Sandbrook’s books have won high praise but I am less enthusiastic. To my mind, he does not write as well as Hennessy and Kynaston and is prone to errors (one example is referring to the comedy duo Mike and Bernie Winters as “Frank and Bernie Winters”). He often uses the horrible phrase “bored of”, which I first noticed in 1994. Sandbrook was born in 1974 (but has less hair than me) and often displays a tin ear for the period he is writing about. It really does not matter if more people liked Englebert Humperdinck than liked The Beatles but he keeps going on about it. There is little original thought in his books as his intention is to gather together what other people have written. He has been accused of plagiarism (by Michael C Moynihan, cultural news editor for The Daily Beast/Newsweek and the managing editor of Vice magazine – the man who exposed the plagiarism of Jonah Lehrer. He suggested that Sandbrook was shielded from criticism by his social connections, saying: “There is an element of protection. Media buddies who go to the same dinner parties and all the rest of it.” Sandbrook rejected the allegations and maintained that he “footnoted his sources, and if popular history books sometimes sound familiar that is because there are only so many ways to say things.)” Despite my doubts, Sandbrook has compiled a fascinating catalogue of George Brown stories.

George Brown

 

When he was Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, George Brown’s drunken antics caused great amusement to an electorate depressed by poor economic news. This story is probably apocryphal but I wish it were not. Brown attended a function somewhere in South America, having already laid a substantial alcohol foundation at a previous function. He is said to have made a bee-line for a gorgeously crimson-clad figure. George said: “Excuse me, but may I have the pleasure of this dance?” The recipient of Brown’s amorous intentions demurred and gave three reasons: “The first, Mr Brown, is that you’ve had too much to drink. The second is that this is not, as you suppose, a waltz that the orchestra is playing but the Peruvian national anthem, for which you should be standing to attention. And the third reason why we may not dance, Mr Brown, is that I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima.”

Once, when he was presented to Princess Margaret at a reception, he knelt on the floor to kiss her hand only to find himself unable to get up again. In the words of his biographer, Peter Paterson, Brown was “accident-prone, outspoken to an extent rare among modern politicians, intensely patriotic, hardworking, even harder drinking, quick as a Gascon to take offence”. He was as swift to apologise for any offence given: he probably wrote more letters of apology than any politician in history”.

Emotional and Tired

Paterson called his biography Tired and Emotional. Private Eye has for many decades used the phrase “tired and emotional” as a euphemism for hopelessly inebriated. I often heard Brown’s slurred tones on the BBC Radio programme Any Questions. He would begin drinking whisky at lunchtime, and top up throughout the day, so he was usually drunk by the time he appeared in the Commons in the evening. “He started two gins ahead of everybody else,” one of his friends later recalled. “He’d go mad, suddenly berserk, on a couple of glasses of wine …Alcohol, no matter how small the amount, used to change him, change his personality so that he became very aggressive.”

 

A Life on the Right of the Left

 

Brown’s antecedents were in County Cork. He  was born in poor circumstances at Flat 22, I Block, Peabody Buildings, Duke Street, Lambeth, in his maternal grandmother’s flat built by the Peabody Trust, a housing charity. Soon after his birth, his family left and moved to the Peabody Trust block at Peabody Square, Blackfriars Road, Southwark, near Waterloo station. His father, also called George Brown, had worked as a grocer’s packer, lorry driver and served in World War I as a chauffeur to senior  British Army officers. He did not go to university but left school at 15.

 

Early Promise

 

Brown ran as a moderate candidate for the Chairmanship of the Labour League of Youth but at the Labour Party conference in 1937 he was defeated by Ted Willis, a left-wing candidate later known as the television creator of Dixon of Dock Green. In 1963, Brown had a drunken argument with actor Eli Wallach on American TV after the JFK assassination when Brown made a fool of himself by claiming a close friendship with Kennedy which never existed. Brown taunted Wallach for not knowing who Ted Willis was.

Member of Parliament

At the 1945 general election Brown won Belper with a majority of nearly 9,000. Brown was generally popular within the Parliamentary Labour Party. He briefly worked as PPS for Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton from April 1947. Brown launched an unsuccessful plot to have Clement Attlee replaced as Prime Minister by Ernest Bevin, although without consulting Bevin.

Attlee knew about Brown’s plot but appointed him as Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Agriculture and Fisheries as he thought it would be best to keep him busy. In April 1951, Brown was Minister of Works.

Opposition

When Labour lost the 1951 general election, Brown found himself forced to rely on an inadequate parliamentary salary. In 1953 he was hired as a consultant by the Mirror Group newspapers, enabling him to stay in politics. His natural campaigning ability became prominent, but also his tendency to be rude to those with whom he had disagreements.

After Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in January 1963 Brown made his challenge for the party leadership. At the first Shadow Cabinet meeting after Gaitskell’s death, Brown and his leadership rival Harold Wilson agreed to a clean fight. Wilson, who was accused by the right of undermining party unity, then informed the press that each agreed to serve under the other, which countered his reputation for plotting; Brown repudiated any such agreement, laying himself open to that accusation.

Serving under Wilson

Brown was given a new ministry to promote growth and national resurgence. However, the Department of Economic Affairs proved a disaster. The failure of the National Plan was a severe blow to Brown’s prestige and blamed its collapse on the machinations of Callaghan and his Treasury officials, whose deflationary emphasis destroyed his hopes for growth. Many historians, like Brown, have blamed Harold Wilson for encouraging two different departments to run “diametrically opposed policies”.

British foreign policy after August 1966 was complicated by the fact that George Brown was Foreign Secretary. In 1968, he publicly insulted the wife of the British ambassador to France, Sir Patrick Reilly, at a dinner party at the French embassy in London, and later ended the ambassador’s career over personal differences. At a Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ conference, Brown was observed by Barbara Castle “rolling around sozzled” and complaining about his new job. Effectively Wilson had to take over foreign policy.

There is no reliable count of the number of times Brown resigned. He finally left government in 1968. He lost his seat in parliament in 1970 and accepted  a peerage in the same year. He resigned from the Labour Party in 1976 and joined the Social Democrats in 1981.  He died at the age of 70 in 1985.

Character

Roy Jenkins:” Brown was certainly not a tepid character. He had great qualities both of intellect and personality, although they were balanced by appalling faults. He drank too much, particularly for his not very strong head…. And he confounded the trouble by being also capable of violent switches of mood, even when sober. On the big issues, he was almost invariably right and pursued his conviction with persistent courage.”

Brown always resented the Oxbridge-educated intellectuals like Jenkins who dominated the Labour Party in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1957, Richard Crossman was punched by Brown in a House of Commons corridor but the diminutive Brown found himself on the floor with the burly Crossman sitting on top of him.

Brown’s resentments and begrudgeries led to his self-destructive feud with Harold Wilson, who had won one of the most brilliant Oxford Firsts in the 20th Century and defeated Brown in the 1963 leadership election after the death of Hugh Gaitskell. Tony Crosland might have been the kind of intellectual that Brown resented but Crosland preferred Brown to Harold Wilson referring to the contest between the two men for the Labour leadership as a choice between a crook and a drunk.

Although the formidable Barbara Castle thought him “emotion- intoxicated, not drunk”, she also recorded that when she had gone through a division lobby with him he had unbuttoned the back of her blouse and “grinned like a schoolboy”. Even one of his political patrons, the former Chancellor Hugh Dalton, thought that Brown was ‘very awkward, vain, sensitive and fundamentally self-seeking and unfaithful’.

Brown regularly spoke on Capital Radio about having given up alcohol always had a stiff whisky before going on air. He had two convictions for drunken driving. Brown once boasted that “Many members of parliament drink and womanise – now, I’ve never womanised. On 24 December 1982, after 45 years of marriage, Brown walked out on his long-suffering wife, Sophie, with whom he had two daughters, and set up home with his personal secretary Margaret “Maggie” Haimes, who was half his age. They had a daughter.

 

 

 

Martin McGuinness RIP

A short version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 30 2017.

The world watched in horror as Khalid Masood drove a car into tourists and innocent bystanders at Westminster on March 24, 2017. At the funeral of Martin McGuinness on March 23 Gerry Adams described McGuinness, who died on March 21, as a “freedom fighter” rather than a terrorist. There has always been much talk by the Provisional IRA of “the armed struggle”. Unfortunately, freedom fighting and armed struggle is usually not in brutal reality about facing up to the army of the enemy but about killing defenceless women and children as Khalid Masood did. The Reverend Harold Good OBE also spoke at McGuinness’s funeral.  “Our paths crossed many times and often he trod the path that came to our home and that is where you make friendship as you share your own fireside.”

Good by Name, Good by Nature

I first met the Reverend Harold Good (former President of the Methodist Union) in 1982 when I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC). Harold was a distinguished and effective member of SSAC and impressed me as someone who was good by nature as well as by name. Thirty-five years later we still communicate and Harold is a regular reader of this column. The two most detailed accounts of the complex dealings that took the Northern Ireland peace process to the Good Friday Agreement are by former Irish Times correspondent Deaglán de Bréadún, (The Far Side of History) and Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell (Great Hatred, Little Room). Harold has always refused to discuss his role but both books mention him and it is a matter of recorded history that it was Harold who made the formal announcement that the Provisional IRA had decommissioned their arms, effectively saying the war was over.

2008 Peace Award & Annual Lecture – Harold Good & Alec Reid

Harold has strong credentials as a man of peace so I was somewhat surprised at his response when I asked him what he thought of Martin McGuinness standing for election as the president of the Republic of Ireland. “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike president.” He also said that he was proud to call McGuinness his friend. Edward Daly, the Bishop of Derry, once said of the teetotal, non-smoking McGuinness: “He is an exemplary man, honest and upright. My only quarrel is the legitimacy and morality of using violence for political purposes.”

Crimes

Are these respected Christian churchmen talking about the same man who committed or organised many appalling atrocities? Some still regard him primarily as a key figure in the terrorist group that killed almost 1,800 people. McGuinness was the IRA’s chief of staff from 1979 to 1982 and ran the paramilitary movement when Lord Mountbatten and 18 British soldiers were killed on the same day. He was accused of approving proxy bombings, such as the murder of army cook Patsy Gillespie. Hostages were forced to drive car bombs, ­detonated before they could escape. This seems even worse than the suicide bombing tactics of the Tigers. Benedict Kiely depicts this vividly in his novel Proxopera.

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/proxopera-by-benedict-kiely-the-most-humane-literary-response-to-the-troubles-1.2212651

“Terrorists” or “freedom fighters” often use their capacity to intimidate to engage in similar activities to organised crime. In this respect, the provisional IRA were similar to the Tamil Tigers. While they were purportedly striving to reunite the six counties of Northern Ireland with the 26 counties of the Republic of Ireland, the Provisional IRA were also building up a criminal empire. While this might have begun as a means of financing the republican struggle, crime seemed to become an end in itself. The profits of crime might have been a reason for prolonging the conflict. The IRA established links with organized crime in the same areas of the Costa del Sol where many of Dublin’s top “ordinary” criminals, the “Murphia”, lived. The Murphia became the wholesale middlemen and women who supplied parts of the UK drugs markets after developing links with their British counterparts.

https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2012/02/13/terrorism-business-politics-and-ordinary-decent-criminals/

A Life

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness, the second of seven children, was born into a Catholic family in the Catholic Bogside area of Derry on May 23, 1950. he grew up in a city where the minority Protestants controlled the council, its housing and most of the jobs. After leaving a Christian Brothers’ technical college at 15, he was turned down for a job as a car mechanic because he was a Catholic, and became a butcher’s assistant. In 1968 he became a violent activist, after seeing images of Gerry Fitt, the Catholic MP for West Belfast, drenched in blood as the RUC baton-charged a civil rights march. The IRA was re-arming, and by the end of 1970 McGuinness had joined the newly formed Provisional IRA.

Within months he was deputy commander of the IRA’s Derry Brigade. More than 100 people died in political violence in Derry between 1971 and 1973, and McGuinness later justified his role in it by saying “a little boy from the Catholic Bogside was no more culpable than a little black boy from Soweto”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wk9qyStTNQ8

Change

At only 22, McGuinness was part of a seven-man delegation sent in July 1972 to a secret London meeting with Home Secretary William Whitelaw. He was Sinn Féin’s chief negotiator with John Major’s government in 1995 and with Tony Blair’s from 1997. As Jonathan Powell puts it: “He played a crucial role, risking his life in doing so, to bring about peace in Northern Ireland. And in those negotiations, he was always warm and friendly.” Powell believes that McGuinness’s role after the peace agreement was even more important: “Even more remarkably than making peace, McGuinness made peace work in Northern Ireland as deputy first minister, sharing power with his sworn enemy, the Unionist firebrand, Ian Paisley.” Kyle Paisley, son of the Reverend Iain Paisley, tweeted: “Look back with pleasure on the remarkable year he and my father… spent in office together and the great good they did together …Will never forget his ongoing care for my father in his ill health.”

Blame

I was a Catholic teenager in the 1960s surrounded by Protestants. Luckily for me I was in Gloucester rather than Derry. I did not feel discriminated against in any way. In fact, I felt a little bit exotic. At Sir Thomas Rich’s Grammar School I was excused attendance at prayers but never singled out as inferior. My teachers took great interest in cultivating my talents. If I had been in Derry how would I have reacted to the frustrations of being a second-class citizen with avenues of opportunity blocked off by prejudice and gerrymandering? Would I have taken to violence? I do not think that I would, but who am I to judge Martin McGuinness for doing so?

McGuinness’s only conviction for terrorist activity was for possession of weapons and explosives in the Republic of Ireland’s Special Criminal Court in 1973.

One former senior security source said: “As chief of staff of the organisation for a long period of time he was responsible for its strategic direction and the tempo of its operational activities, so he clearly bore a lot of responsibility for what happened on his watch.” Several well-placed security sources agree that Martin McGuinness would have had advanced knowledge of virtually every Provisional IRA attack in  Derry after he was appointed chief of staff. “The bottom line is that nothing happened in Derry without Martin knowing about it …if he didn’t object, the attack went ahead. If he objected, it didn’t. It was that simple, he had a veto.”

Norman Tebbitt, whose wife was severely disabled by the Brighton bombing said: “”The world is now a sweeter and cleaner place. He was a coward. The reason he suddenly became a man of peace, was that he was desperately afraid that he was going to be arrested and charged with a number of murders.”

Brighton bomb victim Norman Tebbit lifted from the ruins of the Grand Hotel (Britain’s Trade and Industry Minister)1984. The bomb caused extensive damage and two deaths. 

A former senior security source said that over the years McGuinness had transformed from one its most militant leaders to a restraining influence. There have been claims that he was in fact a spy working for the British.

http://www.indymedia.ie/article/74119

 

My Facebook friend Ann Travers is in no mood to join in the praise for McGuinness. “It’s a shame that even when he knew he was gravely ill, Mr McGuinness couldn’t have taken the opportunity to reach out to those people — even by dictating letters — to help them get the information that they need. Now he’s brought it to the grave with him.”

Colin Parry whose 12-year-old son, Tim, was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993 said he first met McGuinness in 2002 when he came to Warrington as Northern Ireland Minister for Education. “I don’t forgive Martin, I don’t forgive the IRA, neither does my wife and neither do my children,” he told the BBC. “Setting aside forgiveness, I found Martin McGuinness an easy man to talk to and a man I found sincere in his desire for peace and maintaining the Peace Process at any cost. “He deserves great credit for his most recent life.”

http://www.independent.ie/irish-news/victims-of-ira-violence-react-to-the-death-of-martin-mcguinness-35550917.html

Mairia Cahill, who was raped by an IRA man, writes: “Forgive me for pointing out, when people say he moved away from his past, that he was still in the very recent past deploying some nimble footwork to make it look like he was somewhat sympathetic to the victim, while still covering for the IRA. Old habits die hard.” She recalls the terrifying look of cold anger in McGuinness’s eyes when she called him Art Garfunkel.

Marty Maggs and Sri Lanka

McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. McGuinness criticized the EU for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said, “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” He may have meant well, but he was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. McGuinness told Sri Lanka: “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”. In Sri Lanka, there was a military victory over brutal terrorists who steadfastly refused to compromise or accommodate. If Sri Lanka had followed McGuinness’s advice, we would still be suffering from the atrocities of the LTTE. Iain Paisley Jr has often visited Sri Lanka and said in the  House of Commons: “In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland.”

Constructive ambiguity

The nationalists in Northern Ireland could say that their struggle had entered a new non-violent phase in which progress would be made towards a united Ireland by developing cross-border All-Ireland institutions and co-operating within the EU. Loyalists could claim that they had preserved their membership of the UK. The constitution of the Irish Republic was amended to give up its territorial claim to Northern Ireland. David Trimble lost the leadership of the UUP and mainstream parties like the UUP and John Hume’s SDLP lost influence to Paisley’s DUP and Gerry Adams’s Sinn Féin. A bizarre aspect was that the indefatigable naysayer Paisley became a jovial buddy of McGuinness, who also learnt to smile a lot. They became known as the Chuckle Brothers.

 

After McGuinness

Many high-profile political figures attended the funeral. The Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, Irish President Michael D Higgins, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire and former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond, Alistair Campbell. John Hume, the former leader of the Social Democratic Labour Party whose health was broken by his efforts for peace and who is rarely seen in public these days was there. Folk singer Christy Moore sang the final song – the Time has Come – at the graveside.

Arlene Foster, leader of the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party was applauded in the Catholic church of St Columba and she shook hands with Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill.

Bill Clinton was there and in his address said McGuinness “expanded the definition of ‘us’ and shrank the definition of ‘them’”.

Khalid Masood lived in a hate-filled world of them and us. Theresa May rejected rejected Masood’s world view but Brexit means the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Sinn Féin has been presented with an opportunity to campaign for a united Ireland within the EU. They may do so peacefully. There are others who are still ready to resort to violence.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

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