Boris in Brussels

There are still a couple of weeks to go before the final result of the Conservative party leadership contest is due, but Boris Johnson already seems assured of victory. (I was going to add a qualifying statement like “barring some unexpected development”, but actually I can’t even imagine a scandal of sufficient gravity to derail him now).

No one, not even the man himself, seems particularly enthused by this state of affairs; it is as if the country has just accepted this latest humiliation as another inevitable stage of our long national decline. For all the candidates’ talk of going back to Brussels to get a better Brexit deal, it’s inconceivable that any of them actually believe such an outcome is possible, which means that, once he is ensconced in Number 10, Johnson will immediately be faced with a tricky choice between presiding over a catastrophic no-deal exit, or explaining to the electorate that his tough talk was mere bluster, and that he will have to accept the deal on the table, Irish backstop and all.

The support that Johnson has gathered across the parliamentary party seems to indicate that more moderate Tory MPs are banking on him following the latter course of action, presumably calculating that, like Nixon in China, he has a high enough standing among the Brexit true believers to sell the necessary compromise. This is questionable, to say the least; the hard right is poised to denounce any hint of concession as a betrayal, severely limiting Johnson’s room for manoeuvre, and there is no sign that the EU27 are in the mood to offer even cosmetic changes to the deal to help him out.

The no-deal option is no more straightforward; there is still just about a majority in the Commons determined to block it, and the talk of dismissing parliament, aired by some on the wilder fringes of the debate, would surely be too dictatorial, even for Johnson. A general election would be politically suicidal, so logic points towards Johnson taking a populist gamble and trying to secure a mandate in a second referendum. Logic hasn’t exactly been an infallible guide to events in this saga so far though…

There may be trouble ahead

So, after hanging on grimly to her premiership for what seems like forever, Theresa May has bid us a tearful adieu. The identity of our next Prime Minister, and with it the fate of the nation, and perhaps the continent, lies in the hands of around 300 Conservative MPs, who will choose two candidates to go forward to the final reckoning, at the end of which a victor will be anointed by the hundred thousand or so elderly oddballs who make up the Tory party membership. What could possibly go wrong?

Incassable

As I’ve noted previously, I’ve had some good times in Paris, so it was sad to watch fire ravage Notre Dame cathedral last night. Fortunately, the skill and courage of the Parisian sapeurs-pompiers ensured that the flames were extinguished before the whole structure collapsed, but it’s still going to take years, if not decades, to restore.

It’s tempting to see this event as some sort of metaphor for the fragility of seemingly eternal European institutions, but I suspect it may end up symbolising exactly the opposite; the ability of the EU to survive temporary conflagrations like Brexit. Whether the UK will be part of that future remains doubtful, though the chances of a remain outcome are certainly better than they were a few weeks ago, and seem likely to be further boosted by a good showing for pro-EU parties in the European elections next month.

As time passes, the fire at Notre Dame will become just a footnote in its centuries-long history; hopefully Brexit will fade into a similar obscurity.

Once more on Wikileaks

It’s nearly seven years since we last posted about Julian Assange and Wikileaks; our take at that time was that freedom of information was a good thing, but that promoting it didn’t give anyone a pass for sexual assault.

Now that Assange’s falling-out with the Ecuadorian government has brought the issue back into the news, should we reconsider our position? Since 2012 the waters have been significantly muddied by the role played by Wikileaks in the 2016 US election, but I see no reason to think differently; we would oppose his extradition to the US on hacking charges, but think he should answer the rape accusations in Sweden.

More broadly, I think the last decade has seen a change in the way that the ruling class tries to control information. Keeping secrets by throwing people like Assange (or Chelsea Manning, who is much more deserving of support) in jail seems old-fashioned; it’s more effective to undermine the whole concept of objective truth by flooding the internet with conspiracy theories, so that any real scandal that leaks out can be plausibly dismissed as fake news. Social media, which promised to democratise information flow, has instead concentrated control in the hand of a few secretive corporations, with links to government that we can only speculate about.

We’ve known since the days of Marx that workers’ control of the economic levers of society is a precondition for progressive change, but economics is not everything; Gramsci illuminated the importance of cultural hegemony in maintaining the dominance of capital. Today our culture is more than ever mediated through the control of information; transferring that control from the bourgeoisie to the masses is perhaps the most pressing task facing revolutionaries in this era. The lesson of the Wikileaks story is that such work is too important to be left to fallible individuals; it must be a collective, democratic enterprise.

Intergalactic perspective

I always feel that, in uncertain times like these, it’s helpful to step back and take a cosmic view, so I was interested to see the image from the Event Horizon telescope of the black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy, 55 million light years away. When one can actually see an object six billion times as massive as the sun, warping time and space with its unimaginable gravity, and spitting out particles heated to billions of degrees at nearly light speed, it’s hard to get too bothered about the petty squabbles of this insignificant planet.

Don’t worry, be happy

Today is International Day of Happiness, so I’ve been trying to think positive thoughts all day, and mostly succeeding. In times of national crisis like this there is definitely something to be said for forgetting about the big picture and just living in the moment. Despite all my angst over the political situation, my life is mostly very agreeable, and will probably continue to be so in all the ways that really matter, whatever happens. I’ll try to hold on to that thought over the next week…

Web of reaction

I’m sure I wasn’t alone last week in struggling to believe the news from New Zealand; no matter how many atrocities one hears about there is always shock at the latest one, especially when it occurs in just about the last place one might expect. I guess there have been a lot of stories in recent years extolling NZ as a haven from the turmoil of the world, which might attract the demographic that is anticipating an apocalyptic race war, but still, it is unsettling to learn that even a seemingly peaceful backwater like Christchurch apparently has a thriving white-supremacist scene.

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the internet, and social media in particular, was being hailed as an unstoppable force for progress, but now, as nazis live-stream massacres and shadowy corporations undermine liberal democracy, the consensus has shifted to view online culture as a menace to civilisation. As ever with these things, the truth will be somewhere in between, though the alt-right do seem to be weaponising the web more effectively than we leftists at the moment.

The Bear necessities

In the midst of all the political gloom, my spirits were lifted this week by the charming story of 3 year old Casey Hathaway, who wandered away from his great-grandmother’s garden in rural North Carolina and disappeared in the nearby woods. Two days of freezing weather later he was found, only a little the worse for wear, and reported that he had been looked after by a friendly bear.

Of course, experts on ursine behaviour have poured cold water on the idea that a bear would act in such a way, suggesting that young Casey’s furry companion was but a figment of his imagination. The idea that benign natural guardians are out there in the dark forests, ready to look after us when civilisation finally collapses, is one I find enormously comforting though, so I think I’ll go on believing…

Irresolute

I’m not a huge believer in New Year resolutions; experience has taught me that, once you get past about 30, making a serious change to your life takes more effort than simply deciding to do it, and being too ambitious just sets you up for disappointing failure.

However this time last year I did resolve to alter my behaviour, albeit in a fairly trivial way, by giving up looking at Facebook, which had been consuming an inordinate amount of my time for very little reward. I’m pleased to report that I was entirely successful in this endeavour, having maintained my abstinence for the last 12 months. I didn’t take the obvious precaution of deleting the app from my phone, figuring that maintaining some temptation would make the achievement more satisfying, though I have got rid of it today, just in case complacency undermined my forbearance. In celebration I’m allowing myself this one post to crow about it, but I promise that I’ll never mention it again.

Buoyed by this minor act of self-improvement, I’ve been trying to think of a resolution for this year. Unfortunately, very few of my remaining shortcomings, which are legion, lend themselves to so straightforward an answer.

It’s a well-recognised psychological maxim that the best way to stop unwanted behaviour is to substitute some more positive action, but that tends to work best for circumscribed habits like smoking, rather than more nebulous problems like “being a slacker”. I’m leaning towards a target of doing more writing, but I’m sure that my subconscious is making up excuses for my failure already. I guess that I could see how my blogging productivity holds up over the next few weeks before deciding whether to start working on a novel.

2018: The Year in Review – Part 1: Culture

Time for our annual run through my cultural highlights of the year – as usual everything is on our Tumblr.

Music – buying records has become my main cultural pursuit over the last few years; I’m fortunate enough to have the resources to purchase anything that catches my fancy, and, since nothing is more than a click away these days, I do get a lot. That said, the stuff I actually end up listening to regularly doesn’t tend to vary that much. Here, in no particular order, are my top ten albums of the year:

  • Floating Features – La Luz
  • Wide Awake! – Parquet Courts
  • Goners – Laura Gibson
  • Quit the Curse – Anna Burch
  • Future Me Hates Me – The Beths
  • Paycheck – Pip Blom
  • Fall into the Sun – Swearin’
  • Possible Dust Clouds – Kristin Hersh
  • Clean – Soccer Mommy
  • The Lookout – Laura Veirs

I kept up a fairly regular rhythm of gig-going; my favourite show was Parquet Courts, though La Luz and The Beths were a lot of fun too.

Film – I had a pile of DVDs I wanted to watch this year, but didn’t get around to; I don’t seem to have the time, or perhaps the attention span, to sit through a whole movie very often these days. Of the few I did see, The Love Witch was my favourite. My few cinema trips were mostly social affairs – I saw The Greatest Showman, and Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, neither of which I would have chosen to go to alone, but both of which I enjoyed unironically. Far and away the best film I saw all year though was one I did go to see of my own volition – Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

Books – I’ve been reading a lot about existential philosophy in the last half of the year, no doubt because I’m getting older, and struggling more with the absurdity of life. Mostly it’s been articles in places like the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but also The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus, and de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. It’s not an area that I was unfamiliar with, though I hadn’t read much of the original material before, but it does seem a lot more relevant now than it did when I was in my 20s. My fiction highlights were completing my annual volume of Proust, The Sweet Cheat Gone (only one more to go for the set), belatedly catching up with Shark and Phone, the sequels to my favourite book of 2013, Will Self’s Umbrella, and taking a rare dive into poetry with one of the Booker Prize nominees, The Long Take, by Robin Robertson. My favourite read of the year though was more existentialism; Simone de Beauvoir’s 1954 novel The Mandarins. Although the questions debated by the characters in the book may seem to be dated – there’s a lot about the Soviet Union – the underlying message, of the responsibility we have to engage in political activity to at least try to change the world, couldn’t be more relevant in today’s troubled times.

Next up: The Year in Blogging.