New year, old problems

So, here we are in 2021, and it doesn’t seem that different from 2020; Donald Trump has kept on being cartoonishly villainous, and Boris Johnson is still cartoonishly incompetent.

At least our American cousins can look forward to some relief at the end of the month, since, apart from some grandstanding for the benefit of QAnon diehards, the GOP seems to have resigned itself to the reality of a Biden administration. They are probably fairly confident of picking up at least one of the two Senate seats on offer in the Georgia runoff election tomorrow, which would give them the majority needed to block any part of the Democrats’ programme they consider too progressive. It’s not hard to imagine the existence of a significant block of Republican voters who didn’t want to back Trump, but who will turn out to make sure Joe doesn’t have everything his own way, but it’s also possible that Biden supporters will be energised by winning in November, and will show up in sufficient numbers to carry the day. The early polling figures give some support to the latter scenario, so I’ll stick my neck out with our first prediction of the year; Democrats to sweep both contests.

Over here, alas, there is no immediate prospect of a change of government, so we seem fated to continue enduring the combined effects of Covid and Brexit for the foreseeable future, unameliorated by the ineffectual efforts of what passes for our national leadership. At least the frontline health services do seem a bit more on top of things, so I guess we’ll survive, but we’re going to have to draw deep on our famed reserves of British resilience to see this through.

2020: The year in review – Part 2: Blogging

It would be somewhat of an understatement to say that 2020 was an eventful year; certainly there has been no shortage of topics to blog about, and we managed to keep up a fairly steady stream of posts throughout the year.

Most of our pieces focused on politics. We obviously couldn’t avoid touching on the effects of the coronavirus pandemic (once we finally noticed how serious it was), but the bulk of our commentary concerned the two areas we had identified as important back in January; the US Presidential election, and the Brexit endgame.

The result in the US was not quite as good as we had hoped – our prediction of a President Sanders was a little over-optimistic – but nowhere near as bad as we feared during the summer, as the threat of a Trump coup turned out to be nothing more than empty rhetoric. Whether the election of Joe Biden represents a return to some sort of normality, or just a pause in the downward spiral, remains to be seen.

Over here, the Brexit saga dragged on through countless missed deadlines, before culminating in a last-minute deal that promises to be merely semi-ruinous, rather than a complete disaster. There is a chance that, now the political heat has been taken out of the issue, the country will be able to start quietly rebuilding relations with our continental neighbours, but that was what we hoped for after the election last year, so I expect that this story has a few more unhappy chapters still to come.

We actually wrote surprisingly little specifically about the pandemic, considering that it is probably the most globally significant event since WWII. I think that this is mainly because I am aware that my personal experience of the lockdown has been far from typical. My job has changed a bit, my social life has been slightly less active, and I haven’t had a proper holiday, but apart from that it’s been more or less business as usual. I’ve managed to avoid contracting Covid-19, at least as far as I know, and nobody of my acquaintance has died, or even been particularly unwell with it. If anything I’m better off than I was last year; with the pubs and cinemas closed I’ve been exercising more, and I’ve been getting paid extra while having less to spend the money on, so I’m in pretty good shape, physically and financially, a fortunate position when half the country is facing a bleak winter of enforced idleness and financial precarity. In any case, the true significance of events like these often takes a while to become fully apparent, so it feels like it’s a bit soon to comment. We may have more reflections on all this, particularly the social and psychological effects, in the months ahead.

In between all that excitement we also found time for a bit of cultural commentary, and a couple of obituaries. We even gave a rare mention to Second Life, though only in the context of comparing it unfavourably to Animal Crossing. Despite otherwise completely ignoring virtual worlds in a year when, arguably, they have been more relevant than at any time in the last decade, I did keep my connection to SL alive by renewing my premium membership. This now costs a not-inconsiderable $99, so I’m hoping that 2021 will be the year that Linden Labs finally produce a mobile app that will let me get back on to the grid.

Anyway, on to the statistics; here are our top ten posts of 2020 by traffic:

  1. The Linden Principle
  2. There is no land beyond the Volga
  3. Second Life demographics – a brief review
  4. Watching the Okhrana
  5. Thoughts on La Peste in the time of Covid-19
  6. Six hundred
  7. Furry traversing
  8. One further message to my friends in the US of A
  9. Lost Christmas
  10. Get well Boris

The good news is that, after years of coasting on our past glories, over half of the top posts were published in the last 12 months, perhaps indicating that we are engaging more with a new audience. Less encouraging is that the most popular piece, by some distance, is one from 2010, which owes its hits to people searching for something else entirely, specifically the Linden Method, a rather costly repackaging of standard anxiety-management techniques. I could probably monetise this confusion by directing visitors to my own website, and overcharging them for some proprietary self-help therapy, but that seems a little unethical.

Other posts I was quite pleased with this year:

Of all of this year’s output, I think our Camus review was probably my favourite.

The US and the UK still provide the bulk of our traffic, but we did see a big jump in visitors from China this year. Our posts were read in a total of 49 countries, from American Samoa to Zimbabwe; the top ten were:

  1. United States
  2. United Kingdom
  3. China
  4. Germany
  5. Canada
  6. France
  7. India
  8. Australia
  9. Japan
  10. Brazil

So, 2020, with all its challenges, has come and gone, and we’re still here, which feels like some sort of triumph. 2021? Bring it on, we say…

2020: The year in review – Part 1: Culture

2020 has, for obvious reasons, been the sort of year when I might have expected to have had plenty of time to watch all the movies and read all the books that I had been meaning to catch up on for ages. Sadly, that has not been the case, partly due my work schedule actually being busier than it has been for a long while, but mostly because any downtime I did have was spent trying to keep up with the latest news, then attempting to distract myself from the latest news with undemanding entertainment.

That said, the year wasn’t a complete wash-out, culture-wise; the complete list is on our Tumblr, and here are the highlights:

Film – Towards the end of 2019 I got back into the habit of going to see a movie on the big screen most weeks, and I kept this going into 2020, alternating between the multiplex and the arthouse, right up until the cinemas were shut down. Of the mainstream films I saw, my favourite was probably Parasite, though The Lighthouse and Little Women get honourable mentions. I did sign up for a Netflix subscription after lockdown kicked in, but I haven’t really made much use of it; my pick from that service would be Uncut Gems. My personal Oscar for 2020 goes to an independent movie screened during our local film festival; Jesus Shows You the Way to the Highway, a delightfully surreal Spanish-Estonian-Ethiopian-Latvian-Romanian co-production, concerning secret agents trapped in a VR dystopia, featuring Batman, ninjas, Joe Stalin, the titular Saviour, 8-bit computer graphics, and much more. If if wasn’t for the evidence of its existence on the internet, I might suspect that I had just dreamt it.

Books – I got through shockingly few full-length books this year; my reading time was consumed by keeping up with political developments, and trying to stay on top of the professional updates I needed to do my job effectively. I didn’t manage much recent fiction, but I did finally complete Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, roughly 30 years after my first reading of Swann’s Way, and started on another classic series, Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, by revisiting Justine, which I had first read when I was 15 (though I didn’t really appreciate the work’s psychosexual depth at that tender age). In the current circumstances I could hardly avoid returning to the plague-haunted Oran, vividly described by Camus in La Peste, and my literary travels also took me to pre-revolutionary China, in the collected works of Lu Xun. In non-fiction, I explored cosmology and quantum theory with Dan Hooper and Sean Carroll, and the origins of consciousness with Daniel Dennett. My favourite book of the year was another old one; Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice, an unsettlingly phantasmagoric evocation of impermanence, loss, and gendered violence, set amid a world succumbing to a creeping environmental catastrophe – just the kind of cheery tale we need in times like these.

Music – I may not have had the cognitive bandwidth to fully engage with serious literature and cinema in the last 12 months, but I did listen to a lot of new music; here’s a fairly arbitrary top ten:

  • If You’re Dreaming – Anna Burch
  • Devotion – Margaret Glaspy
  • Song For Our Daughter – Laura Marling
  • Jetstream Pony – Jetstream Pony
  • The Black Hole Understands – Cloud Nothings
  • The Making Of You – Snowgoose
  • Ballet Of Apes – Brigid Dawson & The Mothers Network
  • Consummation – Katie Von Schleicher
  • It Will Come Easier – Emma Kupa
  • Honeymoon – Beach Bunny

I didn’t see much live music this year; I did have tickets for a few shows, but most of them ended up being cancelled. Of those that did go ahead, I enjoyed a recital of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, and a very rare trip to the opera house, to see a revival of John Adams‘ Nixon in China.

Television – For the first time in more years than I care to remember I followed a TV series in its entirety; Mrs. America, an examination of the political struggles in the 70s around gender and race, which gave a human face to the history underlying today’s culture wars. I have a few other shows bookmarked on Netflix; we’ll see if I ever get round to watching them.

Last December I resolved to spend more time on cultural pursuits, and less time obsessing over the news. I guess, with the year we’ve had, I can be forgiven for falling a little short of that goal. We’ll cover some of what distracted me in our next post.

Festive half-cheer

At last, something to be vaguely happy about, at the tail-end of a year that hasn’t given much cause for optimism; Boris Johnson has finally managed to get a trade agreement with the EU over the line, with over a week to spare.

The fact that announcement of the deal was delayed until late in the afternoon of Christmas Eve may suggest that closer scrutiny will reveal it to be something less that the unimpeachable triumph that Johnson is presenting it as, but, such were the low expectations generated by the government’s shambolic approach to the negotiations, anything short of an actual outbreak of war seems like a positive development.

Relief at avoiding disaster is tinged with the sadness of knowing that we now stand unequivocally outside of Europe, with all the narrowing of our cultural outlook that that implies. If one were trying to be positive, one might observe that European integration has, since the war, been an essentially organic process, driven by economics more than ideology, which suggests that all the links which are currently being torn asunder will eventually regenerate. We may have to spend some dark years in the wilderness before then though.

Lost Christmas

Just when it seemed like humanity was finally getting on top of the whole Covid thing, and we could to go back to worrying full-time about Brexit, the virus has apparently mutated into a new super-infectious strain, precipitating a fresh surge in cases, and prompting Boris Johnson to reintroduce a lockdown, effectively cancelling Christmas for much of the population.

This isn’t actually going to have much practical effect for me, since I had no plans to do anything over the festive season other than sit in the house watching TV in a state of semi-intoxication, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the sense of gloom that has swept the nation since the news broke. Restrictions that were just about bearable during the summer seem especially grim in the darkness of midwinter. We have little to look forward to, and a lot to be apprehensive about, not least the aforementioned Brexit, which promises to plunge the country into a fresh crisis in less than a fortnight. The government’s shambolic handling of the pandemic, with the U-turn over Yuletide only the latest blunder, does little to inspire confidence.

One can just about cut Johnson a little slack on his response to Covid; it is after all the sort of once-in-a-century challenge that might have tested any leader, though it’s not hard to see how his administration could have done better. The Brexit debacle is unforgivable however; an entirely self-inflicted wound that even a semi-competent premier should have avoided. Both issues highlight Johnson’s essential weakness; having attained his position by deploying populist rhetoric, he now finds himself unable to make decisions that might prove unpopular, particularly anything that reminds his supporters that a course of action he commended to them will inevitably involve unpleasant consequences.

The irony is that, had he shown more decisiveness, Johnson could have exploited these extraordinary circumstances to entrench the Tories in power for a generation, in the way that his predecessor Margaret Thatcher used the economic turmoil of the 1980s to unravel the post-war social compact, and tip the class struggle decisively in favour of capital. As it stands though, barely a year after his triumphal entry into Downing Street, Johnson’s authority has all but completely ebbed away, and his downfall in the next 12 months is not unimaginable.

Johnson’s departure might be a welcome outcome, but it’s not clear whether, given the opportunity to choose a new course, the country will go for the Biden option of comforting centrism, or double down on the nationalist extremism. Sadly, there isn’t much indication that the population is ready to take a turn towards progressive radicalism, though perhaps collective solutions will become more popular as people observe the inability of the free market to respond to the Covid emergency.

Any sort of happy ending may seem a long way off, but it’s the winter solstice tomorrow, and after that the days will be getting longer, reminding us that, however cold and dark it is now, spring and summer will always come around.

[We haven’t had a musical link for ages, so here’s a suitably seasonal one, if you’ll excuse the pun.]

Cold winds blowing

My interest in US politics has waned a bit, now that Trump’s attempted coup has turned out to be less March on Rome, more Beer Hall Putsch, so we must, reluctantly, turn our attention back towards developments on this side of the Atlantic.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak was in the Commons today, to give an update on the perilous state of the county’s finances; apparently things have not been this bad since the Great Frost of 1709. His response, at a time when the economy has all but ground to a halt, due to the government’s inept handling of the coronavirus pandemic, is to freeze the pay of most public sector workers, despite the fact that they are just about the only people confident enough to spend any money at the moment, as unemployment is set to rise to a ten-year high. Even with this penny-pinching, the National Debt is projected to increase at a rate not seen outside wartime, and GDP is unlikely to recover before 2022.

If this was not reason enough for pessimism, then a glance at the progress, or lack thereof, towards a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU would surely convince even the most Panglossian observer that the country is doomed. It is still possible that Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose unfitness for the office becomes clearer every day, will abandon all the commitments he made to the right wing of his party when he stood for leader, and sign up to a relatively sensible agreement, but it shows how far we have fallen as a nation that the best-case scenario for our future depends on the utter untrustworthiness of the head of government.

One bright spot amid the gloom is that it does look like we might have a functional covid-19 vaccine before too long, promising a return to some sort of normality. Of course that will depend on the government managing to distribute it efficiently, which, in light of their failure to control the pandemic thus far, is not a given. I might feel more confident if I thought the job would be entrusted to the relatively dependable public health system, but, since the Tories are ideologically committed to the idea of the free market, and even more committed to enriching their friends, there’s a good chance it will be handed over to the same private contractors who fumbled the contact tracing program, and have gouged huge sums from the public purse for the supply of PPE.

Still, we must remain positive. Only three months of winter to survive before the springtime…

Life after Trump

It’s been more than a week now since it became clear that Joe Biden was President-elect, but there’s still no sign of the pro-Trump revolution, unless you count the scattered demonstrations in Washington at the weekend. For all their angry rhetoric on the internet, the Proud Boys and their ilk are mostly smart enough to know that there is a big difference between walking around your neighbourhood with a gun, trying to look tough, and actual armed insurrection, while the bulk of Trump’s electoral supporters were never on board with all the QAnon craziness, just willing to put up with him because they were worried that Biden would depress real-estate values by integrating their suburb. They may not be happy at the outcome, but they don’t see the need to burn everything down, especially since the Republicans look almost certain to hold on to control of the Senate, and with it the power to frustrate any progressive legislation that Joe might have in mind.

So where does this leave Trump himself? There are signs that the reality of the situation is beginning to intrude upon his consciousness, so I expect his main priority between now and January will be to make sure he and his immediate circle are well insulated against any consequences resulting from their activities over the last four years, probably by making good use of the Presidential pardoning powers.

The hard core of Trump true believers may take some more time to adjust, but, like all sects who are forced to experience a Great Disappointment, they will eventually adapt their beliefs, and find some other prophet to follow.

What’s harder to predict is if the capture of executive power by a fringe figure like Trump will come to be seen as an aberration, or whether we’ll find ourselves in the same situation come 2024. A lot will depend on how effectively the left organises between now and then, and how well we counter the Trumpian narrative of hate and division with a collective vision of peace and justice.

Savour the moment

After the trauma of 2016, I’m naturally relieved that, this time around, there has been a relatively happy ending. Further analysis, and with it inevitable disappointment, can wait until tomorrow…

Biden time

After a couple of days of anxiety, it looks like Joe is going to eventually make it over the line, with Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania all seeming set to turn blue in the next 24 hours or so. Trump may try some legal manoeuvres, but it’s hard to see even the most partisan Supreme Court Justices invalidating an entire election over clearly fantastic claims of fraud.

This is good news for progressives of course, but any celebration has to be tempered by recognition of how close it was. Nearly 70 million Americans voted for Trump, and while I guess most of them are somewhat more moderate than he is, they were still prepared to live with the quasi-fascism as long as they thought he would look after their economic interests. Further down the ticket, more conventionally respectable Republicans actually did quite well, retaining control of the Senate and rolling back some of the Democrat majority in the House. Even if Biden was the wild leftist of Trumpian propaganda, rather than the cautious moderate of reality, he wouldn’t be proclaiming a socialist republic any time soon.

So, there are going to be plenty more battles to fight over the next four years. That’s a worry for another day though; for now we should just enjoy the victory, and hope that the radicalisation, and organisation, that made it possible are a sign of better things to come.

Waiting for Trump to go

I was going to go to bed early last night, as I was pretty sure there wasn’t going to be any clear idea of who was ahead in the Presidential race for days at least, but I couldn’t resist waiting up until Florida was called, on the off-chance that Biden might take the state, and thus allow me to sleep soundly, knowing that Trump had no path to victory.

As it was, Trump won the Sunshine State fairly comfortably, and I didn’t have a particularly restful night. I’ve calmed down a bit as the day has gone on, and the advantage has seemed to swing towards Biden, but it’s still much closer than I would like. The results from Wisconsin, Georgia, and Michigan might be in tonight, but Pennsylvania and Nevada could be tomorrow, and North Carolina accepts late postal votes until next week, so it’s unlikely that we’ll know for sure who’s won for some time yet.

What’s interesting is that, despite all Trump’s bluster, and his shout-outs to the far-right, his promised army of vigilantes failed to show up to suppress the Democratic vote. Similarly, his attempt to claim victory before the votes are counted has failed to gain any support, and it’s not clear what legal avenues he would have to dispute the result. Now that the threat of losing the Senate seems to receding, and with the Supreme Court already packed with conservatives, the Republicans hierarchy may be thinking that Trump has outlived his usefulness, resigning themselves to a Biden administration and turning their thoughts towards 2024. That does look like a more sensible long-term plan, for both the GOP and US capitalism, than continuing to tie their fortunes to an unstable would-be dictator.