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Wednesday, 16 November 2016

It's the end of the world (again).

Originally founded in the nineteenth century as the Bible Study Movement, the Jehova’s Witnesses have about 8 million members spread across more than 200 countries. Followers refer to their beliefs as ‘the truth’ and some limit their social interaction with outsiders, because they consider secular society to be under the influence of Satan. In the early part of the twentieth century, they gained some notoriety through making predictions about the end of the world, a habit they appear to have kicked in recent years. At some point, someone within the organisation must have realised that, once people have been marched up the hill a few times to prepare for the rapture, they might start to get a bit sceptical when that rapture doesn’t arrive. Maybe the head of Armegeddon Projection at Jehova House had a quiet word with the resident soothsayers: 

"Look ... perhaps we need to start reigning in this whole ‘end-of-the-world-is-nigh’ stuff because … well … how can I put it … we’re starting to look a bit … you know … stupid.”

Some of the folk who are not just upset but absolutely distraught about the American election result could perhaps take a leaf out of that book. It’s difficult to make a case for any election result being a 'disaster' when elections are designed to reflect the will of the people who have voted. That is not to suggest that losing sides should just shut up and take their medicine, because anger and protest is entirely legitimate. I’m all in favour of arguing, but it looks like ‘arguing’ is not what some people on the losing side really want to do; it seems like they think peddling lurid doomsday fantasies to the impressionable is much more fun.  

I'm old enough to remember Ronald Reagan being elected President of the United States. In the run-up to that election in 1980, I was a frightened young person because people I admired and respected – musicians, writers, commentators- were saying that he was going to be a disaster, not just for America, but for the world. How could an actor possibly be running for president? According to those in the know, this sinister idiot was likely to start World War III. One of my favourite authors -JG Ballard- even wrote a pseudo-psychological exploration (in short story form) of Reagan’s subliminal appeal in order to illustrate that he wasn’t an ordinary human; he was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, sent to earth to bring about the end of days. In his preface to the 1990 edition of The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard wrote: 

"Reagan used the smooth, teleprompter-perfect tones of the TV auto-salesman to project a political message that was absolutely the reverse of bland and reassuring. A complete discontinuity existed between Reagan's manner and body language, on the one hand, and his scarily simplistic far-right message on the other … he was the first politician to exploit the fact that his TV audience would not be listening too closely, if at all, to what he was saying, and indeed might well assume from his manner and presentation that he was saying the exact opposite of the words actually emerging from his mouth.”

Much as I love Ballard’s work, I can see now that there are many things wrong with that analysis. But back when Reagan was running for office, this kind of guff worked a treat on people like me. We were genuinely frightened and really, really believed that this ‘right-wing extremist’ was determined to wage a holy war against the Soviet Union. He was clearly the Antichrist and, on the night he was elected, it felt like we were all doomed. Of course, we were wrong. Not only is Reagan now regarded as a significant and popular two-term president, but it is clear that his political abilities made World War III far less likely to happen than it had been at any time since 1945. If you don’t believe me, just read some of the stuff that dissidents in the former Soviet Union have written about his presidency, about how his willingness to lead and his clarity of vision impacted upon the corrupt regime in Moscow. Of course, when he described the Soviet Union as ‘an evil empire’, he appalled all respectable commentators in the west; the cognoscenti railed against his hawkish vulgarity, believing him to be an irresponsible buffoon pushing the planet towards a global conflagration. But his crime was merely to articulate what some folk already knew, but were unable -or unwilling- to admit.  

During the recent American election campaign, the mainstream media had some special stuff saved up for Mr Trump (some of it foolishly provided by the man himself), but then again, they’ve always got special stuff saved up for Republican candidates. Over the years, we’ve been warned that various candidates were ‘hard right extremists’ and determined to start wars, destroy the lives of poor folk and roll back civil rights. You may recall the treatment meted out in 2008 to Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin for daring to be the ‘wrong’ sort of woman in politics. The c-word was ‘reclaimed’ by groups of feminists protesting against her candidature; these protests included circulating pictures of themselves holding up placards saying ‘SARAH PALIN IS A CUNT’; so much for progressive feminism. During this latest campaign, we were told that Donald Trump’s misogyny was a major issue. His pathetic frat-boy ‘pussy grabbing’ comments made him unfit for office and yet, somehow, John F. Kennedy remains a poster boy for the liberal left, a man whose misdemeanours took place on an industrial scale. If Trump’s sexual behaviour is akin to a low-budget, shot-on-video daytime soap opera on cable TV, Kennedy’s was a multi-million dollar 3-D Hollywood blockbuster with a cast of thousands. And let’s not forget the sequel they made in the 1990s with Bill Clinton, another serial philander who got a free pass from the left.

One of the difficulties with British media coverage of American elections is that it is generally so skewed that it takes some generosity to even acknowledge it as journalism. On the morning after ‘the night of the Donald’, the tone of BBC radio’s coverage was appropriate to what we have come to expect from news reports about natural disasters or terrorist atrocities. A politics lecturer from a northern university was asked to comment on the scale of the ‘tragedy’. The woman could hardly speak; you’d have thought that her entire family had just been beheaded by ISIS. She was, of course, entitled to be upset, entitled to her views; but she was on national radio, selected by supposedly impartial hosts as a voice of authority. From this position, she had chosen to signal her ‘overwhelming grief’ about an election result. How good a lecturer must she be? I’ll bet her students get a really balanced perspective on the political issues of the day. 

This, in a nutshell, is the biggest problem on what might be called the ‘closed’ liberal left. Its worldview has become so myopically self-absorbed, so utterly complacent, that many of its self-righteous adherents can no longer conceive that other people might look at the available evidence and come to conclusions which don’t coincide with theirs. They are unable to accept that the person across the street (or across the pond) has other thoughts, other life experiences and values, other influences, other ways of looking at the world. Like those Jehova’s Witnesses who limit social interaction with non-believers, members of the closed left believe that they own the moral high ground; they see racists, Nazis, homophobes and monsters at every turn and they use those terms, not to debate with the opposition, but to shame that opposition into silence. A charitable interpretation of this behaviour might attribute it to political bias, passion or wilful ignorance; a less charitable interpretation might note the disturbing absence of empathy. The most closed and dangerous minds are those which consider themselves virtuous and, when we deny the right to intellectual diversity, we are ignoring the piled-up corpses of history. Intellectual diversity (the most important diversity of all) doesn’t involve calling people monsters or trivialising the concept of what a ‘monster’ really is; it doesn’t involve co-opting victims of genuine oppression and political terror to bolster your currently fashionable prejudices. If Reagan, Palin or Trump are monsters, what words do we have left to describe Stalin, Mao or Hitler?

From what I've seen, the President elect doesn’t appear to have anything like the wit, charm or political nous of Ronald Reagan, but maybe he’ll grow into the job. The more I read about him, the more I think that my initial impressions were probably superficial, based largely upon scraps gathered from invariably hostile sources. I’m open to the possibility that, for all of his character faults (and he may have quite a collection of those), he might yet turn out to be a president of substance; we have no choice but to wait and see. I doubt I’d have voted for him, but I can accept that the American electorate had very good reasons for rejecting the ‘business as usual’ option. 

Their country will get on with it, because most people have no desire, or inclination, to march up that hill again, like those zealous Witnesses praying for Armageddon.  

We've been there. Seen it. Done that.

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