China, colonial guilt, david frum, DNA, henry VIII, hidden agenda, history, indigenous, justice, kevin spacey, lgbt, me too, michael wolfe, mig-maw, sex, spirit, state department, thomas more, times up, two, ursula johnson
This was certainly the winter of my discontent: flu that turned to pneumonia and had me feeling like the Death of Chatterton for over a month. But the year stretching out behind it – and now surrounding it – seems so much more dispiriting. I cannot recall a time when North Americans, indeed westerners in general, seemed more despairing about their present and its future. In America, the fabric of governance is in tatters, every move of even the least significant pawn so partisan in nature that you cannot trust its intent. The media seem reluctant to inform us that, say, the FBI-Russian-Collusion probe is largely a Democrat operation; and no wonder – the moment you find this out the whole venture seems suspect. Similarly with Trump’s alleged achievements: when it’s only Republicans braying about them – and nothing seems certain in the White House anymore anyway – you tend to cease listening. Election promises or threats are still on Trump’s to do list, continually edged downwards and periodically restored to seem like urgent preoccupations. Everyone knows that such promises are what you say to get elected, not usually anything you think of as important. But there is too little attention paid to what Trump clearly does regard as important, and with which he can be said to have achieved some considerable success – if you’re prepared to accept that his hidden agenda does not remotely resemble his stated agenda. Steve Bannon may have become Sloppy Steve and no longer work in the White House, but the reason for these slights and his ouster is not what it’s said to be. As the Michael Wolf tell-all-but-say-nothing blab about the administration makes abundantly clear – when nothing else in the tome is at all clear – is that Bannon is a master strategist, the Machiavelli behind Trump’s disobedient Prince, the only man who knows where all the skeletons are hidden and how the century’s greatest political coup was accomplished. They still talk every day of course, and it’s anyone’s guess to what extent Bannon still remains helmsman. But he was too great a media distraction, even though you scarcely heard of him after the election, and too easy a target for a media in desperate search, as always, for someone to blame. A nexus of unpalatable influences converge in Bannon, who can be said to be their conduit into the Oval Office – particularly that of Mercer, the shadowy billionaire hedge funder whose avowed intent is to dismantle the institutions of US governance, reduce the administration to a parochial think-tank, and turn back the clock to around 1918 – no welfare, no feminism, no civil rights , no LGBTQ, and no impediments to the carpetbaggers, fiduciary pirates, and sundry other predators out to fleece the country and to own it more completely, with less hurdles to jump, than they already do. Mercer, a Trump eminence grise, has been unguardedly open about his wish-thinking in the past, so we know some of the strategy and tactics that appeal to him. You put men in charge of departments they are known to scorn and believe worthless. You fire key figures in departments, men who may be relatively unknown but are utterly vital to their departments, and you do not replace them. You stack the judiciary with reliable men, men who will do what they’re told to do and not what their conscience dictates. And you whittle away at everything until the dross is gone. For power lies off the radar, in under-secretaries and assistants to the mighty. He who controls the judiciary truly holds the reins and can shape the future. Figureheads come and go, but the real power remains. If you look at the more seemingly boring things Trump has done, fiddling with this department and that department, you will be forced to conclude that the Bannon-Mercer strategy has been rather successfully implemented. You have a climate-change-denier running the EPA, for example, and you have a Secretary of State committed to reducing staff at the State Department by up to fifty percent (the numbers can’t be trusted anymore), with many of those let go important section heads whose sections will effectively cease to exist without them. This is the Trump agenda and it is moving along quite nicely out of the media glare, and never tweeted about, for the tweets are a smokescreen few journalists seem willing to fully comprehend, taking the bait every morning like fish-time in the penguin cage. These are the real reasons for American despair.
David Frum has a new book too, TRUMPOCRACY, a speculative foray into the presidency – although Frum would never admit to speculating. He always seems to have an eye for which side his bread is buttered on, this determining where his loyalties lie any given year. His consistency is at best punctuated, but he does seem to have concluded there’s no butter for him on Trump’s slice, a conclusion that, as he tells it, leads inexorably to the end of his once-loved Republican Party and America’s destruction. He hadn’t reached this conclusion even months after the election and inauguration, so you must assume that something has happened to change his changeable mind. As editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Frum must have some solid channels to the more influential people in Congress, where the word is that a movement exists to found a new party – the taint of Trump regarded as an indelible Republican stain, impervious to rehabilitation. Frum is always engaging, bright and perceptive, yet his books invariably contain the screech of axes being ground somewhere in the background. Here he makes interesting points about the consequences of a fractured or irrelevant party – it will leave Trump more powerful than ever – but his attempt to leave the reader concluding that obviously a new party is needed veers the argument away from fruitful territory and into trackless bush, where some wise old shaman keeps asking you if a new party is really going to solve the old dilemma. Despair from left and right, thick and fast, and no one keeping an eye on the real damage done daily.
Up here in the Great White North we are fomenting our own modest despair with two opposition parties that seem to have forgotten they’re supposed to have a purpose beyond the knee-jerk opposition to whatever the governing Liberals do or don’t do. At best a Grade 10 debating society in a querulous, unruly part of town, Parliament increasingly resembles proceedings of the Lilliputian senate, or whatever it was, regarding which end of a boiled egg ought to be cracked open. No one ventures to speak the truth: it actually doesn’t matter which end you crack. Everyone merely looks to see which side they should be on, and then argues for it vehemently, as if they care passionately. Our Conservatives have a good idea of where they must always stand – less taxes, more ethics, blah-blah – which leaves the New Democrats (so au courant and edgy they elected a turbaned Sikh as leader) in the only position requiring some deep thought and ingenuity to come up with objections to the Liberals that the Tories haven’t or couldn’t raise themselves. We’re still waiting for one of these bombshells to explode in Ottawa. In truth, all three parties brandish policies that are remarkably similar, since the most pressing problems all have similar and manifestly obvious solutions – usually money. With surprising persistence the Liberals have forged ahead with a plan to right every wrong since Contact, and if you only listen to the CBC you would get the impression that Indigenous issues, gender equality, LGBTQ-Two-Spirit (and whatever else) rights, and so on were the only problems we face. So far towards guilt and fairness has the pendulum swung that you fear for the backlash when it comes, as it most certainly will. For this policy has ignored the very people who Trump identified as his base in the US, the blue-collar working Canadians who regard themselves, perhaps wrongly, as this country’s founders. Just as the US Democrats began to shun their own base, the unions and proletariat, preferring to cobble together a second hierarchy of achievers, experts, lawyers and economists – a caste who all believe the same things and dominate public discourse – so the Liberals here have similarly formed a central corpus of new-money elites who pretend concern for the working class but in reality applaud entrepreneurship, innovation, and the championing of banner concerns, like the Indigenous, that no one in the opposition parties dares to criticize for fear of politically incorrect exile and banishment. Once the First Nations realized someone was actually listening, their complaints came thick and fast, the more easily soluble ones acted on with a haste amounting to folly, but many of the others getting tangled up in related problems that spawn committee after committee – because no one can admit they may prove insoluble. Far easier to take down the statue of Cornwallis, founder of Halifax, at the request of Mig-Maw representatives who pointed out that Cornwallis, beside his more laudable achievements, was also a racist bastard intent on exterminating the Indigenous, who he regarded as not human, as the Jesuit missionaries did (you have to be baptized to be human, apparently). Renaissance intellectual and statesman Thomas More – author of UTOPIA – believed that people who said the Communion host was just a piece of bread and not the body of Christ ought to be tortured and burned alive. It is unlikely that anyone now thinks he was right about this, yet statues of him still stand in London and portraits hang in museums, not to celebrate his rectitude but to acknowledge that, as Chancellor of England under Henry VIII, and a prominent man of his time, his role in history can never be denied. If you don’t like the past – and anyone studying it can hardly find our ancestors a heartwarming spectacle – you don’t have to; but you can’t erase it. Facts are facts, and always will be – until Steve Bannon becomes Czar. I suggested to the Mayor of Halifax that one of the many fine Mig-Maw artists – like Ursula Johnson – be commissioned to create a work around or near the Cornwallis statue to elucidate his darker side, like the bounty he set on dead Indians, so that visitors will be apprised of the whole story. Apparently Ursula Johnson herself also favoured this solution. But no. The issue became something other than what it was about, a test of wills and a flexing of newly-acquired muscle, so the statue came down and will presumably be gathering dust in some government warehouse into the next millennium, while history smarts, and those forgotten Canadians who prize their history – or what little they know of it – feel snubbed, pushed to the back of the line in favour of the politically correct darlings, people they view as parasites expecting eternal compensation for grievances stretching into the mists of time. This will not end well, and it is highly inadvisable for any government to overlook one disaffected group for another. This sudden righting of old wrongs smacks of a guilt that may be felt keenly by liberal elites, but is not such a pressing issue for those whose awareness of current events is sketchy and sporadic, yet who nonetheless, rightly or wrongly, regard themselves as the builders of this modern nation. No one should say the Indigenous have no grievances. But no one should ignore the grievances building in other quarters for entirely different – but not dismissible – reasons, grievances that a Trump could and would use as the foundation of his base and a time when the pendulum will swing so far back in the other direction it will be hard to believe it was ever anywhere else. Division in society is no way to protect the frail thing we call democracy, which is still the exception in this troubled, directionless world.
Concomitant with all this is the Me Too or Time’s Up tyranny, in which an allegation, even one reporting an event decades ago, with no recourse to the Law or law enforcement, is deemed sufficient to destroy a career and deprive someone of their livelihood. This is not good for the world either. If someone is accused of theft or fraud it will go to the law before any judgement is made, as will virtually every other felony or misdemeanor. Even pedophiles are granted a day in court – but not the suspect of sexual impropriety, or, more troublingly, the prominent member of society thus suspected (and usually in the entertainment business, which we seem to regard as the only real prominence that exists). I agree with the brilliant Cambridge classicist, Margaret Beard – author of WOMEN AND POWER – who says that these men should be publically shamed, obliged to confess the error of their ways, and promise never to do it again. In most cases, that’s surely enough, no? You go up to Kevin Spacey’s hotel room and he makes a pass at you – what did you expect? – and twenty years later you decide this flaw in judgement should warrant destroying his career and probably ruining the rest of his life, not to mention robbing the world of a fine actor? Huh? Am I missing something? The victim seems to be more deserving of punishment for thinking one trifle warrants Armageddon. You think of the mobs eagerly attending burnings and guillotinings, and you are forced to concede that public opinion counts for very little. The whole business also overlooks the fact that men and women may be equal in the eyes of the law, but they are still very different. It’s physiology and anthropology. A man can father two or more children a day if he wishes; a woman has one shot and then it’s a year or more out of action. This reflects something deep in the DNA, which hasn’t ever really changed and, whether we like it ot not, tells us our only real purpose here as animals is to reproduce. Our tragic flaw is the mind which persuades us we can aspire to higher goals, yet the mind’s vehicle is a body that knows nothing more than sex and food. The dichotomy can be blamed for all our woes as a species; and it ought to be taken into account when unwanted advances or comments come up. The peacock struts about with his jewelled tail feathers waving at all the hens. The man feels compelled to further his vestigial mission to spread the seed at every opportunity. Our nature may well be changing, but it will be thousands of years before anyone will be able to determine that for certain. In the meantime, history will remain history, and men will be governed for much of their lives by animal instincts seemingly beyond conscious control, and, let’s face it, not viewed as repellant by all women. The suppression of reality is not good for the world, which changes at its own pace. You don’t go to China for a trade deal and dictate all the politically correct changes the Chinese will have to make to get that deal. They famously dislike any interference in their internal affairs, just as Henry VIII would have been outraged if the Emperor of China told him to stop racking, flaying and boiling his subjects alive. Change comes little by little. We shall have to see if the current male wariness around women can override the boiling reptile instinct to hump – and then be equal again.
I shall leave the midden of Europe and the trembling of Britain until a later date – or never. My very best for the coming year.
Paul William Roberts