kenny hodgart


Leave a comment

How to keep calm when all around are shouting ‘fascist’?

This article can also be read at Asia Times

In Niall Ferguson’s new book, The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power, he addresses a dawning recognition that the utopia of free speech and tolerance we were promised the internet would bring about hasn’t quite materialized. “The conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries,” he argues, “already have unnerving parallels today, in the time of Facebook, Islamic State and Trumpworld.” In other words, the web has put a rocket under our culture wars and existing social divisions, making the public sphere a much more ornery, mistrustful place – one of rancor and bloody-mindedness.

If all one ever did was to read clever books – and ones not yet published, at that – about how the world is going to hell in a handcart, one’s sense of impending doom might simply impend too much. So I haven’t read it. But he’s probably right, isn’t he? The network technology of our age has plugged many of us into spurious, echo-chamber bubble-worlds containing only “people like us.” And some of these spurious worlds reflect pat, off-the-peg ways of understanding the real world that are enormously baneful: radical Islam; a reductive neo-Marxism that rejects everything pertaining to the status quo ante; equally reductive, counter-revolutionary movements that embrace or flirt with blood-and-soil nationalism. For many of those beholden to such explanations of the world, opposing views are an affront. Their battles and revolutions are in the here and now.

What of the rest of us, though? Blithely, resolutely, I neglect to “check my privileges” when I make the following assertion: that most people really don’t give a stuff about ideology. We may feel herded into thinking we ought to, because that is the dynamic on which our politics and news industry – the one hand-on-teat with the other – hinges. But we don’t really. We may feel motivated – in part, if we’re honest, by the narcissism of small differences – to vote one way or another. But deep down we’re not entirely sure what we think on a whole range of issues, even as we have no wish to stop others from saying what they do, earnestly, think. Or think they think. We’re interested in what works in practice, rather than in theory. Many of us even have friends who vote differently to ourselves. What we don’t have is memes on the internet about all of this.

Online, networks have emboldened all manner of outliers to find and raise up their voices. Collectively, their strength is boosted by a news media brought low by the democratizing – and profit-sapping – effects of the same technology. In short, the zealous, the shrill and the contentious are all given disproportionate amounts of oxygen by an industry that is in itself in a state of asphyxiation. The result is a surfeit of noxious politics and ideology in the public sphere.

So much for journalism’s ability to filter out the unimportant or offer a sense of proportion on any of this. Unfortunately, much of what passes for scholarship fails, similarly, to reckon with the silent ambivalence of zoon non-politikon in the age of Twitter fights in which everyone ends up calling everyone else a fascist.

It often seems that barely a month goes by these days without some new study emerging of how liberals and conservatives are possessed of different types of brain. The liberal bias of these studies is often pronounced: conservatives are found to be rigid, uncompromising bastards who hate ambiguity and live in constant fear of dying, whereas liberals are emotionally and intellectually dextrous, co-operative, creative and equable, and emit small beams of sunshine from their hindquarters as they go about their selfless lives. But the tendency to separate human thought into dueling theories, or worldviews, is persistent in intellectual spheres generally. Right or left; individualist or communitarian; authoritarian or libertarian; “anywhere” (culturally fluid and cosmopolitan) or “somewhere”(rooted and socially conservative); Edmund Burke or Thomas Payne; Keynes or Hayek: show me an exam question, and I will show you a binary formulation.

So, then, a protest. Can’t we be both and / or neither? Can’t we trust in markets and in the idea that there is such a thing as the common interest? Can’t we desire government that does useful things on our behalf and steers away from intervening on our freedoms? Can’t we have respect for tradition and believe in progress? Can’t we have a journalism that cuts through the noise and strives towards some idea of universalism instead of pandering to the squalid, zero-sum dynamics of identity politics and competing victimhoods, that does not concern itself with who has taken offense but is not afraid to give it to those who poison the well?

Thomas Hobbes was not a great believer in the idea of a natural moral order in the world. Humankind, as he saw it, would be liable to regress to a state of viciousness and avarice without the steadying hand of a coercive state. It’s a bleak view, but one which it seems to me today’s left and right attribute each to the other, in their different ways: the left caricatures the right’s view of human nature as a deification of selfishness; the right mocks the left’s statist impulses, in which it discerns a fundamental lack of trust in ordinary people to make their own decisions. Such levels of mutual mistrust, then, that each caucus believes the other lacks faith in humanity entirely.

It does feel, now, like the tendency to believe the worst of others on account of views they hold, or express, is widespread. If Hobbes saw the world as a nasty, cut-throat place, then – as Niall Ferguson may be understood to intimate – growing numbers seem bent on proving him right.

Advertisements


Leave a comment

A toast to Xi’s crackdown on boozing

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

Donald Trump apparently once jeopardised a business deal with a group of Hong Kong billionaires by declining to indulge in a drinking contest with them.

According to the unwritten ordinances of contemporary punditry, this preamble should lead – like all Trump-related preambles – into some veiled, or even unveiled, disparagement of his lack of deportment, his racism, and most crucially his hair.

Not today, though. No sir. Even a stopped clock tells the right time every 12 hours and I’m with Trump on his tee-totalism. The man is mad, bad and dangerous enough without getting on the El Dorado. But look: as arguments for abstinence go, the prodigious drinking that attends a large part of both state and commercial activity in these latitudes is hard to beat.

Therein also lies the reason why President Xi Jinping ought to be given some credit for his campaign against the mainland’s drinking classes. Last month (June) brought a win in his efforts to curb what might properly be described as Russian levels of boozing in public life as cadres in Anhui province were told that, with the exception of events involving foreign affairs, or held to attract investment, there would be no more drinking at official dinners – otherwise known as “the office”.

The ban, designed to combat an ingrained culture of “working at the drinking table” according to Xinhua, came in the wake of an investigation into several deaths in the province among functionaries who had been too assiduous in their gan bei toasts and succumbed to alcohol poisoning. It also followed Xi’s move, shortly after assuming office in 2012, to place restrictions on alcohol at military functions. The practice of lower-ranking officers in the People’s Liberation Army endlessly toasting their superiors was held to be causing widespread liver disease and elevated blood pressure, not to mention chronic badger breath, among the officer class at large.

It’s my suspicion that listening to Party orders of business in Anhui province is not something that can easily be endured sober. It would be wrong to make light of this matter, though. Where politics and drink intersect it is customary to refer to Winston Churchill, and if there is one point about drinking on which Britain’s “Greatest Briton” is clear, it is that no-one but he could achieve what he managed on the drinking regimen to which he was devoted. “I have been brought up and trained to have the utmost contempt for people who get drunk,” said the man who liked to drink almost as much as he liked being at war.

The reality is that many who drink to excess in public life are tragic, second-rate characters, and it seems to me the archetype here is Boris Yeltsin, a Falstaffian figure who revelled in representing a tradition of alcoholism bridging Russia’s new era of capitalist autocracy with its Communist and Tsarist ones. As Bill Clinton tells it, he (Yeltsin) once got so bladdered on a visit to Washington that he was found roaming Pennsylvania Avenue, outside the White House, dressed only in his underpants and attempting to hail a taxi. He wanted to get pizza, see. As an adjunct to that, he was completely incompetent, sold off the state’s prize assets to gangsters and started two wars in Chechnya.

In the mainland, where in certain contexts it’s considered bad form to refuse a drink, there’s something of that buffoonish macho spirit of recklessness in the alcoholic brinksmanship of the baijou dinner. As one civil servant in the Anhui city of Ma’anshan told the China Daily: “Many Chinese believe they can judge a person’s quality through observing the attitude and style of one’s drinking.”

It may be that Xi Jinping’s main concern is to see that his country’s officials do not dilute what the writer Yuan Weishi called their “wolf’s milk” – Yuan’s phrase to describe nationalistic indoctrination – with headier brews. Yet while the President’s crackdown on corruption means a little transparency here and there without significantly changing how things work, clearer heads in government as a result of reforming the country’s drinking culture might actually result in actions that make life better for people.


Leave a comment

Saying women are more ethical than men does not make it so

This article can also be read at SCMP.COM

“Women are not only stronger… they’re more ethical,” said the fashion designer Donatella Versace in a recent interview, adding: “the future belongs to women.”

I have been reminded of these comments over the past few days, by the fall from grace of Brazil’s female president, Dilma Rousseff.

Rousseff is being impeached, having failed to dispel links to a scandal involving kickbacks from Petrobras, the state-owned oil conglomerate, while she was the country’s energy minister. In that fate, she is rather less fortunate than Cristina Kirchner, who was president of neighbouring Argentina until last December: Kirchner managed two full terms, despite numerous claims of corruption, misuse of public funds and falsification of public statistics against her administration.

I grant you, being completely and utterly bent is something for which Latin American politicians are renowned. And sure enough, most of Rousseff’s political opponents, including the male ones waiting to supplant her regime, also stand accused of offences: perjury, money laundering, misappropriating dosh, forging documents, you name it. Politics in Brazil sounds like a barrel of laughs, unless you’re one of the governed. But, anyway, the point is this: the route to advancing equality of the sexes taken by women like Rousseff appears to be equality of venality. What happened to being more ethical? Eh, Donatella?

In the US, however vile and unpleasant Hillary Clinton’s opponents on the right, she knows better than to campaign on an ethics ticket. Firstly, she is a Clinton. And secondly, it seems improbable that she has ever held a position on any issue that hasn’t been tradeable for votes. Nevertheless, a two-fold pitch of being a woman and, by way of corollary, not Donald Trump, should be enough to put her in the White House. If that sounds like an oversimplification, it’s one that’s backed up by the polls: electing America’s first female president is the top reason given for backing the otherwise unloved Hillary in 2016.

The notion that women are a pacifying force in public life, that they are more collaborative and compassionate than men, who all want to be Julius Caesar, was perpetuated in the U.S. by the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Plenty of evidence contradicts that thesis, however. In a meta-analysis of  studies involving more than 12 million people, researchers at Iowa State University found an almost 80 per cent overlap between men and women on more than 75 per cent of psychological characteristics. In everything from morality to risk-taking, intelligence, personality traits, leadership style and satisfaction with life, they discovered men and women are just about the same.

The problem here for men arises in deciding which of these competing narratives is less likely to rouse feminists to anger. On the one hand, while they may encourage us to question what we think of as male characteristics, what moron among us would dare to deny any aspect of what women decide constitutes womanhood? On the other hand, it is probably as reckless, if not more, to state a belief in differences between the genders – unless one is willing to go the way of the gelded sycophant and admit that women are just better all-round at being human in the 21st century. That may well be the case but, Jesus, get some spine lads.

Back to actual politics, and women in it, though. For every Catherine the Great, Russia’s enlightened despot, and every Cory Aquino, who was regarded in the Philippines as a national treasure, I will show you a Wu Zetain and a Gloria Arroyo. Wu, who ruled China for 15 years from 690 AD, is thought to have strangled her own daughter in order to frame a rival. Arroyo, who left office in 2010, remains under hospital arrest in Manila, charged with plundering state coffers.

In Britain, opinion is still divided on Margaret Thatcher, but compassion and collaboration are not words unhesitatingly thrown her way. When she died, the singer Morrissey called her “A barbaric terror without an atom of humanity.” Another conservative, Angela Merkel, fares rather better in her country’s affections, but her approach to diplomacy has been described as “Kissingerian”, for which read cunning as a rat.

On the left, Indira Ghandi was a ruthless political operator who went to war with Pakistan and ruled India by decree during a two-year state of emergency. Julia Gillard’s backdoor grab for power in Australia would have impressed Machiavelli. And, seemingly quiescent over the persecution of the Rohingya Muslims, even Myanmar’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning Aung San Suu Kyi has let her halo slip since her release from house arrest in 2010.

None of this is to argue against having more female politicians. According to the United Nations, the percentage of women in politics globally has almost doubled in the past two decades, but it’s still only at 22 per cent. Some places are going at the issue with less zeal than others. Lots of countries now have some kind of gender quota system in place, though. And where I come from, the government in the devolved Scottish parliament has a completely gender-balanced cabinet, in addition to its three main parties all having female leaders.

It is rare nowadays that we get to say Scotland represents the future of anything. In this instance, though, it does. Personally, I think anyone who wants a career in politics should be put in chains, but the quotas? I’m all for them. In the west, women are doing better in education than men and they’re starting businesses at a higher rate too. Online, social media networks are culturally feminised spaces. Why shouldn’t public life fall in line? More quotas, I say. Women-only shortlists. Ban men from standing for election. Ban them from leaving the house. Just don’t tell me women are going to run the world differently.


Leave a comment

Ugly populism is not an argument against democracy

This post can also be read at SCMP.COM

The beacon light on the shining city on the hill is guttering. The barbarians are at the gate and the fox is in the henhouse. The worm, you may be assured, has scoffed the apple. Ladies and gents, American democracy is being exposed for a sham by an absurd buffoon who looks like a character from the funny papers. The mot du jour is dysfunctionality, and dysfunctionality is afflicting all known institutions grievously – but some (political parties, the electoral process) more than others. With the rise of Donald Trump, we have reached the inevitable end-point of politics’ showbusiness vajazzling. America’s Got Talent but it’s being offered a preening, pelt-haired Tony Soprano instead and if it’s repulsed it’s also enamoured.

I offer my apologies. Words along these lines are in over-supply right now – as likely to be voiced by disbelieving American conservatives as by liberals, by people with a dog in the fight as by despairing onlookers in other parts of the world. It’s almost as though Trump’s detractors have begun to echo and amplify the nihilism of his message. Millions of Americans, it is understood, have lost faith: in government, in political parties, in big business, in the media. Trump exploits this loss of faith to build a following. Trump-watchers respond that this following is further proof of the loss of faith, and of the dysfunctionality of the system – of the parties’ inertia, of a debased campaign financing model, of the remaking of politics as a reality gameshow. Others look at his followers and blame the situation on their stupidity and susceptibility. Either way, if you believe many parts of the commentariat, it’s democracy itself that is kaput.

This is a negative message for Americans to consume. For folks in places around the world where democracy does not exist it is all the more depressing. Indeed, the only people likely to take any solace from it are those who consider democracy a virus anyway. People like the Chinese Communist Party and its friends. Look, they might say of the world’s most hubristic polity – democracy is a mass of contradictions that offers only the illusion of freedom. Institutions are at the mercy of big money, Congress is gridlocked, mob violence attends public rallies and demagoguery is cutting through. In such an analysis, radical populist movements – whether in America or in Hong Kong, where we have a growing “localist” faction that’s driven in part by anger at the city’s “mainlandisation” and a failure to address blue-collar concerns – are warnings against disrupting the corporatist status quo.

There’s little doubt that Trump is garnering support not only for the populism of his message but also for his abandonment of the normal rules of civility – those are for the establishment “schmucks” on all sides who’ve propagated a system of top-down technocracy. Flat-footing his opponents by being provocative and boorish has played well with large constituencies of voters who are tired of party automatons. Other candidates gotta serve somebody – big pharma, Wall Street; The Donald’s personal wealth allows him to make a virtue of serving only himself. His anti-establishment credentials thus defined, he has eschewed consistency. Who knows what a Trump presidency might have in store for the world? His instincts seem not only protectionist but isolationist. He thinks America gets a raw deal as the world’s policeman. On the other hand, he wants to “rebuild” its military, and he wants to “beat” China, Mexico, Russia and Iran. If there’s a unifying message, it might be that the rest of the world can go to hell.

Trump also believes in torture, mass deportations and banning certain monotheistic types not of a Judaeo-Christian persuasion. The man most likely to gain the Republican Party presidential nomination is an authoritarian oaf. Does this invalidate democracy? No, it does not. Not in any real sense. Authoritarian thugs can be voted in; in democracies they can also be voted out. Meanwhile, the United States Constitution enshrines checks on the executive branch of government. That hoariest of Winston Churchill quotes serves: “Democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In a more pragmatic sense, a Trump candidacy, while representing a nadir, may actually be good for the GOP: it may cause it to fracture, but the healing process would surely return it to a more centrist, consensus-building course. Already, the Trump enema has convinced some conservative thinkers that what’s required is to develop more policies that appeal to working people. Moreover, if – as pollsters anticipate – Hillary Clinton wins a two-way race against Trump in November, she could end up with a uniquely bi-partisan mandate.

To those who despair, or gloat, at the state of U.S. democracy, however, one need only point out one abiding characteristic of it to sustain a more romantic view. If millions of Americans have “lost faith” in politics, then millions of others do not appear at all cynical about the enterprise (and it’s true that both Trump and his leftist counterpart in the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders, have brought entirely new groups of voters into the process). A passion for voting and elections has been a feature of American civil society since at least the 1830s, when the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville exclaimed on it in his classic book Democracy in America. A little further back, Aristotle defined man as a political animal (zoon politikon) with an innate need to debate questions of justice and the common good. Sometimes this gives rise to expressions of humanity’s uglier nature. But no, democracy itself is not the virus.