For POTUS is an honourable man…

img_0335Friends, allies, citizens, lend me your ears;

I’m here to mourn Obama, not to praise him.

The evil that men do is oft repeated;

The good becomes a distant memory;

So is it with Obama. The noble POTUS

Hath said Barack was rubbish:

If it were so, it was a grievous fault,

And grievously hath Barack answer’d it.

Here, as POTUS has not banned free speech

(For POTUS is an honourable man;

So are they all, all honourable men–)

Come I to speak of Barack’s legacy.

He was our friend, faithful, fair and just:

But POTUS says he was appalling;

And POTUS is an honourable man.

Protecting the poor, the needy and the sick

Who lacked sufficient healthcare coverage:

Did this in Barack seem so awful?

When that the poor have cried, Obama wept:

(Should presidents be colder, more aloof?)

Yet POTUS says he was horrendous;

And POTUS is an honourable man.

He spoke of kindness, dignity and love,

Was diplomatic when he faced his foes,

Had huge approval ratings: was this bad?

Yet POTUS says he was disastrous;

And, sure, he is an honourable man.

I speak not to disprove what POTUS spoke,

But here I am to speak what I do know.

You all did love him once, not without cause:

What cause compels you then, to damn his work?

O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,

And men have lost their reason. Bear with me;

My heart has fled the White House with Obama,

And I must pause till it come back to me.

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“Who would not lie, when men are hanged for truth?”

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Is anyone else sick of Trump using the phrase “fake news”?

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It seems that he has declared war on the media, describing various news outlets as “the enemy of the people”; he is either unaware of the sorts of leaders who have used this sort of phrase in the past, or he is involved in a ruthless and Machiavellian scheme to seize power and deny any story that is not his own. I am usually more inclined to see ineptitude than conspiracy, but either way, this is a worrying development.

A free press is a necessary foundation for democracy. The media have an essential role to play in holding politicians to account, and to undermine that is to undermine democracy itself.

“Fake news” is a pretty big accusation to throw around. I gather that he intends it to mean wilfully misleading the public with untruths – i.e. deliberately lying in order to promote their own political agenda. I don’t deny that almost all media companies have an agenda. Media bias exists – and there are almost always ‘angles’ that are taken on stories. Does that make the content “fake”?

Media outlets sometimes mess up or mislead. They might take statements out of context, or use unreliable sources. They might allow their agenda to lead the story, rather than provide an angle on it. They might need to print retractions if they are proved wrong. They can be sued for getting it wrong. As a result, there are usually scrupulous processes that writers go through, in order to protect their reputations and their businesses.

Actual “fake news” does exist of course, in clickbait pieces and in deliberately misleading propaganda. But I don’t think that’s what Trump is talking about. For him, anything that contradicts the narrative he has constructed for himself is branded “fake”. And that is dangerous.

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Let’s examine how media bias works. The events themselves might be neutral, but the bias often shows itself in the language – the emotive adjectives used to describe events, for example. Bias can reveal itself in the references to expert opinions – who is selected to provide their point of view? Is that person a reliable and credible source? If there is a picture of them, has this been chosen to make them look sensible or silly? Opinions can be presented as facts – any teenager who has studied persuasive writing know how to do this. And bias can also reveal itself in what is selected as ‘newsworthy’ and what is not.

Let’s not confuse bias with political independence, though. News outlets might have to report inconvenient truths, or provide stories that are not flattering, and not particularly kind. As much as the President might not like this, it is actually their job.

Journalists are also required to fact-check politicians. And that is something that is apparently much more necessary right now, as, let’s face it, some of the most egregious and ridiculous examples of fake news seem to be coming directly from the White House press team, or from Trump’s Twitter account.

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Here’s an older example, but still a classic: Trump denied climate change- and then denied denying it. With such a deliberately flexible and inconsistent understanding of facts, is he really a competent ‘arbiter of truth’?

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What is the alternative? State-controlled media? Are we all looking forward to lots of stories about the emperor’s new clothes?

I wondered earlier in this piece whether this was just inept or Machiavellian, and for me, the jury is still out. If it is a long-game plot to undermine the media and secure unquestioned power, then it is essential that journalists keep doing their job. If it is incompetence instead, well, Trump is being very optimistic indeed in starting his 2020 campaign. He is bringing his party into disrepute, and if that’s the case, I suspect he won’t be permitted to continue for long.

So Mr Prez, if you are reading this (as if!), instead of complaining about the media, just do your job. If you feel you are being treated unfairly, let your actions speak for themselves. Close scrutiny comes with the job, I’m afraid. You may as well make peace with that now.

When news sources fact-check you and reveal that you are telling untruths, do not claim that you have “alternative facts” because that’s not a thing. Just admit your mistake. Thank the press for keeping you honest. Engage with journalists. You are all trying to make an honest living, right?

A word to the media: look, I know you want to deal with these accusations head-on, but you run the risk of falling into a Bannon-trap. Don’t let these unsubstantiated allegations get in the way of you doing your job. This may well be sleight of hand – drawing your attention to one battle, to distract you from the greater war. Bannon is probably trying to pick a fight with you. Don’t fall for it.

And a word to the public: if you are concerned about whether something is “fake news” or not, there’s a handy guide below.

Peace and love x

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Britney & Eugene: A barely-veiled allegorical love story for our times

Theirs was a marriage that had lasted for more than 40 years. But Britney was getting bored…

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There was little doubt that marriage had been good for Britney. It had brought her support and stability in some dark times, and had definitely protected her household staff’s working conditions and pay. But that’s not to say that the marriage was perfect; oh no. The little quirks and foibles that had seemed so adorably eccentric in the early days had been grating for a while now. It all came down to a few unfortunate details…

Firstly, Eugene was pretty dull. There was no great passion here; he wasn’t one for the Big Romantic Gesture. There were no fervent declarations of affection, no outpourings of devotion, no special presents to celebrate their anniversary.

And Eugene was a little too particular. He only approved of certain types of lightbulbs. He had entire rulebooks for the proper size, shape and weight of groceries. He ironed his underwear. He had very strict stipulations about how Britney lived her life. He wasn’t controlling per se, but he had high expectations, and showed his disapproval by peering over his rimless glasses with a familiar look of disdain that she had come to find grating.

He had a very big family. They were all very nice, but Britney often got annoyed when, on returning from work, she found her living room full of strangers. Eugene didn’t like it when she called them that – they were her extended family now too. But as they sat around the dinner table in the evening, chattering away in a language Britney didn’t understand (she was no good at learning languages so never bothered to try), she felt isolated and resentful, and Eugene had caught her rolling her eyes at them on more than one occasion.

“You were unspeakably rude tonight”, he said to her, as they were brushing their teeth with toothpaste that was on Eugene’s ‘approved’ list.

“Is it so wrong to want my house to myself?”

“I didn’t see you complaining when my cousins were building the extension, fixing the plumbing and washing the car. Or when my aunt checked that dodgy mole for you. Or when second cousin Bob represented you in court. Oh no, you just got grumpy when you had to sit at the same table as them.”

Britney did what she usually did when they were arguing and she knew she couldn’t win: she walked away and decided to sleep in the spare room. As she lay there, quietly seething, an idea started to take hold of her.

Eugene would always remember the exact moment it happened. It was a quiet June morning, and as dawn broke, his phone beeped. In disbelief, he read the message twice.She was leaving him. He sighed heavily. So be it. Part of him was a bit relieved, to be honest. She wasn’t the easiest person to  live with.

Britney was on top of the world. What a brilliant idea it was! She would be independent again; she would be the boss of her life again; she wasn’t restricted to buying items from the approved list anymore! She thanked her lucky stars that she had always kept a separate bank account- that would surely make it easier…

She knew once she filed the divorce papers there would be no going back, so she moved into a caravan in the garden and starting preparing for a legal battle. She took photocopies of the documents in Eugene’s ‘household’ folder (which was alphabetised and colour-coded, naturally) and started studying. It had been over 40 years since she had had to look after herself, and she had forgotten how time-consuming and incredibly dull it was. She called the utility companies, the insurers and the credit card companies, only to find out that without Eugene’s ‘friends and family’ discount, everything was going to cost her more than she had expected. When she went shopping, she realised that if an item wasn’t on Eugene’s approved list, it actually looked pretty shady. She didn’t fancy using ‘Crusty Bake’ sun tan lotion, or ‘Look Cute but Fry your Eyes’ sunglasses. Hoping no-one would see her, she bought herself ‘approved’ toiletries, vowing to hide the receipts and cover the labels when she got home. But the cashier was a friend of Eugene – and said that as she was leaving Eugene, she couldn’t use her loyalty card points there anymore.

Britney was facing an expensive future. Her lawyers were still drafting the divorce papers, so she told them to type more slowly while she concocted a plan.

It was pretty straightforward – she needed another rich husband. So she downloaded Tinder. She used a few candid snaps from the good old days, trying to gloss over her fading complexion. She was still a catch, right? Out of sheer desperation, she swiped right on anyone and everyone, as long as they were rich and powerful. Let’s face it, Eugene had never really been a looker, and they had lived in mediocre contentment for decades…

The lawyers were typing as slowly as they could, but Eugene was getting impatient and suspicious. Britney had to make her choice quickly- but the matches she had had so far weren’t that auspicious. She had ruled out the sweat-shop owner, and the guy who looked a bit like a serial-killer, whose pictures were of him in various butch scenarios with his top off. There was a terrifying child-man whose pictures were either posters declaring how awesome he was, or staged shots of him playing with weapons of mass destruction. That left one.

Marcus was definitely an odd one. She had shown his pictures and his messages to her friends, and none of them were convinced, but she thought there was something weirdly charismatic about him. She thought she could get past the fake-tan and the questionable comments. (She was pretty sure it was just banter, though her friends kept comparing him to Hitler.) What was that on his head though? A dead ferret? Maybe he just needed a bit of a make-over. She didn’t really mind a fixer-upper.

So she set up a date. It seemed to go well – he declared how much he liked her to the whole world. He even held her hand in public. (Eugene didn’t really like public displays of affection.) She thought – “sod it”, and filed the papers.

Eugene’s legal team hammered hers in court. She lost far more than she had anticipated; it was a nightmare. She left court weeping, and fled to Marcus’s house. “There there,” he said. “I’ll look after you.” She was filled with gratitude. It was all going to be all right.

On the day of their wedding, Eugene watched the ceremony on television. There was something iffy about that new man of hers, and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

Britney was having a wonderful day. She was free of Eugene and his boring rules. She had a rich new husband who had promised her the world. She was wearing lipstick again! Everyone around her was sure she looked 40 years younger. It was a return to her prime, she was certain of it.

When the guests had gone, Britney and Marcus went to their honeymoon suite, and Marcus poured them each a glass of bubbly. “A toast”, he said. Britney smiled and raised her glass expectantly. “To us,” she said. Marcus laughed. “That’s not quite what I had in mind”, he said. A predatory look was in his eyes. Britney suddenly felt a shiver of fear.

“The thing is”, said Marcus, “you seem to think that we are equal partners in this marriage. I don’t know if it’s funny or sad.”

Britney had a sick feeling in her stomach.

“Here’s how this marriage is going to work,” he continued. “You will do exactly what I say, and exactly what I want, or-”

The silence was loaded. Britney’s mouth was dry, and she could barely muster the courage to speak.

“Or what?”

He smiled and then any humour fell from his face as he whispered, “Or I will destroy you.”

With that, he left the room, locking the door behind him. She was a prisoner. As she fell to the floor weeping, she thought of poor, boring Eugene. He might iron his underwear, but he would never have hurt her.

What had she done?

 

 

 

“Ye are many – they are few.”

There are plenty of intelligent, reasonable and compassionate people in the world whose political opinions differ from mine, and who I enjoy a bit of political banter with from time to time. We can have grown-up intellectual discussions about what’s going on in the world without resorting to trolling and abusing each other. So when I say that this week’s post is about uniting against a common foe, you understand that I don’t mean you.

Our common foe: bullies.

I took a trip this week. I went on a little journey out of my social media echo chamber, to see what was being said by people on the ‘other side’. As predicted, there was a lot that I didn’t agree with. That’s fine – I was on their turf; it was to be expected. But a lot of it really wasn’t pretty.

Some of it was fairly predictable. Some of it – not so much.

Some of it was quite well written. Some of it – not so much.

I think what surprised me the most was the use of the phrase ‘liberal elite’, which has apparently become a fashionable insult. Its use puzzles me; it doesn’t really hold up as an insult, and it has been deployed rather disingenuously by far-right politicians in their (sadly successful) attempts at capturing the mood of the moment.

Which part of it is meant to be insulting? A liberal person is progressive, left-leaning, open-minded, tolerant, in favour of equality, compassionate, probably inclined to pacifism… As far as labels go, I’m happy with that. But let’s face it, one doesn’t need to identify as ‘liberal’ to be anti-violence and compassionate… Liberals aren’t the exclusive owners of these qualities, and it’s not helpful to set up liberal/conservative as a pair of binary opposites, where we use nice sounding adjectives for one and mean sounding adjectives for the other… That’s not ‘grown-up’ politics.

Is the ‘elite’ part insulting then? To describe someone as elite suggests that they are powerful, privileged, and rich. Again, not really seeing the insult. And this part makes even less sense. There are elites on both sides of the political spectrum; to present Brexit and Trump in terms of working class revolutions against ‘the elites’ is a grotesque misrepresentation of the facts. A presentation of alternative facts, if you will. (Sorry- cheap shot.) The Trumps couldn’t be more elite if they tried! And Brexit shifts power from EU elites to British elites. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

No, the problem comes from the collocation ‘liberal elite’ itself, for it is meant to conjure up images of two things: smugness and weakness. ‘Snowflake’ emphasises this weakness. And ‘libtard’ is a blend that’s meant to undermine the intellectual capital of this group, suggesting its political foolishness and (apparently) easily exploitable vulnerability.

It’s all very ‘playground’, isn’t it? This sort of behaviour is what we all saw from the domineering and obnoxious kids in school, who picked on the smart kids. They were told then, “don’t bully nerds- you might need them to hire you one day”. They have been waiting to get their own back, and now is their moment. When Gove infamously declared that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, he was signalling this shift in attitudes. They perceive this ‘liberal elite’ as condescending know-it-alls who have been scolding them for years, while crying sad little tears of stupid empathy, tying the public up in ‘red tape’ and generally being interfering busybodies. They think that this excuses targeting liberal people online and saying hurtful, hateful things to them.

According to some tweets I had the misfortune to come across this week, ‘liberal elites’ are “brainwashed morons, who need to accept that their liberal ideology is going to be eradicated”. Sorry to disappoint you, but no, it won’t be. Not while we are here to defend it. We might need to take some time to think about where we ‘went wrong’, but we aren’t going anywhere…

We won’t stop being compassionate, or tolerant. We will defend the people you attack. We won’t be led into hate, and we won’t support attacks on fundamental human rights.

We will call you out on your alternative facts. We’ll stick up for science, for research and for actual facts. We won’t let you disparage the qualifications that we worked for.

We can win arguments with words. We make excellent placards. And we are not afraid to wave them.

The more you bully, threaten and mock, the more we will keep going.

And after a while, I suspect we will start to see something that my lovely, brilliant sister calls ‘Negative Unity’. This is where people find common ground despite their many differences, by uniting against a common foe. The grown-ups of the world – the ones who can have very different political ideas and discuss them in a civilised manner without resorting to name-calling and threats – will start to see past the binary oppositions that we thought divided us. We will recognise that we all want to do what’s best and what’s right – we just have different ways of going about it.

We will unite against the bullies.

So let’s keep it civilised and polite. Let’s be emphatic, yes, but never cruel, personal or offensive. Let’s focus on the real enemies here.

Bullies are cowards. They lash out at others to hide their own shortcomings. They think of nothing but themselves. Sometimes, they hide behind pictures of eggs, and fake names. Sometimes, they are in plain sight and are even elected to office, but even then, they cannot stand up to a united opposition. So rise like lions, my friends, whether you are liberals or conservatives, elites or ordinaries; rise like lions.

Peace and love x

Rise like lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number –

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you –

Ye are many – they are few.