La-la-la-la-la-la Land

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I have been around for over half a century. I have lived through politically uncertain times. I have lived through politically unstable regimes. I have always felt fortunate not to have lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, as my parents did as young newlyweds, but I have in childhood and adulthood lived through times of war, pestilence, civil unrest, nuclear brinkmanship, unfavourable election results, betrayal, disappointment, fear, anger, riots, rebellions and a deep, deep sense of the futility of resistance. I’ve voted. I’ve demonstrated. I’ve boycotted. I’ve signed petitions. I’ve marched. I’ve woken up to seismic events that have felt fundamentally outside of my control and experienced powerlessness on an existential scale. With the years, I’ve grown used to lies and scandal and incompetence and greed from the political class, and some days I feel as if the hope has been knocked out of me for good. But I’ve never felt as anxious and depressed about the state of geopolitics as I do today. To stick my fingers in my ears and go “la-la-la-la-la-la” is a constant craving. And that’s not like me at all.

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I wake up every morning with what feels like a rock in my stomach, fearful to log on or turn on the TV. As it happens, this morning, nothing especially bad had happened overnight. President Trump’s National Security Adviser General (retired) Michael T. Flynn, who was forced to retire again after 24 days in the post, is now the subject of a damage limitation exercise designed to blame the leak that exposed his misdemeanours on staff of the outgoing Obama administration. Trump himself has remained uncharacteristically quiet on the issue, perhaps because it reflects so poorly on his choices, or the choices made on his behalf; while counsellor Kellyanne Conway continues to age at a rate of a year a day due to the existential stress of having to constantly lie her way out of a lie.

It’s not just Trump who causes anxiety, with his baby-like disposition and fundamental failure to join the dots between one CAPS LOCK promise/threat and its direct consequences, preferring instead to make a thumbs-up gesture and yell “FAKE NEWS!” at anything that does not please him; it’s the white supremacists he surrounds himself with: predominantly clueless about what it means to take public office and speak oaths but determined to “destroy the state” (Steve Bannon’s words, not mine) from within. I never did understand the Republican desire to be in government and then shrink the government, but I assumed it was a plan based on shrinking its regulatory authority and public spending while keeping the same number of snouts in the trough, except with less of the boring stuff to actually do. It is this boring stuff, I hope, that will eventually bring Trump down – ironically, from within.

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The fact that Trump won the presidency but lost the popular vote, just like his nearest antecedent George W. Bush, clearly niggles at him like a tiny woodpecker permanently poised on his ear and tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tapping away at his planet-sized ego. We have never before witnessed a man so ill-suited to presidential office. Criticising anyone about their appearance, or their dress sense, or the state of their face, would be cruel and shallow ordinarily. But, as with Bannon, he wears his dark soul on the outside. (Spicer, Conway, DeVos, Priebus, these are straw people by comparison.) Mocking Trump’s elaborate racetrack of hair, or his incompetently and incompletely applied spray-tan (with those goggle marks making his eyes seem ever more like two squashed figs), is childish, and boring. But when the man beneath that haircut and behind those figs is such a negative, uncontrollable and dangerous force, knowing that he has one of the worst haircuts in the world offers a tiny glimmer of respite from all the damage he may wreak in his first 100 days. (This honeymoon period ends in April. I can’t even imagine that far into the future.)

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He won 304 electoral votes, to Hillary Clinton’s 227, and that is a victory. That he mobilised the country’s disaffected is surely without argument. That he did so by not being “a politician”, and by being perceived, thanks to television and banner headlines, as a “successful businessman” (which was “just what this country needed”, we were told time and again by the braying, baseball-capped faithful) is also an empirical fact. In many ways, mainstream politics lost the 2016 US Election. The Democrats certainly lost it as much as the Republicans won it – not least because Trump wasn’t even popular among his own party and Tweeted his way directly to the heart of certain sections of the electorate. Everything about him that I hated while he yelled his way into pole position as the Republican candidate – altogether now: his misogyny, his xenophobia, his vanity, his crudity, his creepiness, his Addams family, his hand gestures – I hate about him still. But an unpredictability  seems to have replaced a predictability, and that’s terrifying. There seems, at present, nothing he can do to put off those he affected to represent, but who, in real life, he’d run down rather than speak to.

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I was terrified of George W. Bush, too. I knew him to be a dimwit, and a puppet, and unstatesmanlike, and he didn’t know anything about the wider world, which he had rarely visited. (Trump had certainly travelled further before becoming president, but mainly to inspect real estate that would clearly look classier with his name on.) Bush was the pliant, lazy mouthpiece for committed Neocons with far more interest in ideological politics and the New American Century – he did their bidding and went to play golf – and in many ways that was paradise compared to what we’ve ended up with now. It does not bear imagining what Trump would have done if Saudi terrorists had flown two planes into two large towers in New York in 2001.

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Actually, I wake up every morning with two large rocks in my stomach. The other has been there longer, since the result of the Brexit referendum. I admit I thought Remain had that one in the bag, and went to bed on the night of June 23 quietly confident that common sense would prevail. I was wrong. I had underestimated people’s hatred of “politicians” and “immigrants”. It’s been a living nightmare ever since, not because of the divisions it has exposed in our society, which were clearly already there, or the fact that I can only see this country turning into an unregulated tax haven with no standing whatsoever in the world and everything bankrolled by China, which is a bit embarrassing for all of us, but because it should never have taken place in the way that it did. A referendum about something as important as the future of the country should never have been winnable by either side by a margin of 1,269,501 votes. Surely – surely! – it should have hinged on a majority of something like 60% at least?

Talking of democracy. The petition calling for Trump to be blocked from enjoying the ego-fluffing privilege of a State Visit, continues to spiral upwards – as I type, it’s at 1,857,318 – but the Government has now stated that it will grant the State Visit, even though it is duty-bound by its own rules to “debate” the petition next week. The words “foregone” and “conclusion” can be joined together in this case. But it has been a simple pleasure to watch the numbers rattle upwards before our very eyes. And a little bit of fun is not much to ask in this dark age.

I have written on my Telly Addict blog about the healing power of Pointless. It may seem trite to regard a daytime quiz show as an antidote to the apocalyptic uncertainty of modern times in the year 2017, but it’s the daily equivalent of a La La Land, and not just Hollywood escapism, but a way to celebrate geniality and general knowledge and fair play, and – hey why not? – the best of being British. Or the best of living in Britain, whatever your background.

I guess part of me must believe that we’ll get through this, whether it’s four years, eight years, or a number somewhere between one and eight, depending on how close to impeachment or a CIA black op Trump sails. Otherwise, I’d be under my duvet right now, rocking back and forth and singing the la-la-la-la song. I’m not. I’m up, and out, and thinking about work and domestic issues and family and films, and tonight’s Pointless. It’s hard to feel proud to be British in 2017, especially with our own conservatives wooing the babyman and doing things with their hands that they would never ordinarily do. Trump has turned our representatives (and sadly, to him, Farage is one) into glad-handing Richard Hammonds to his Jeremy Clarkson, desperate to gain his approval by laughing at his off-colour, racist jokes.

It’s nice to think that the actors and filmmakers who make speeches at awards ceremonies represent us, but they don’t. They represent what the disaffected have been advised to regard as “the metropolitan elite”, which I gather is anyone who lives in a town and reads past the headline in a newspaper. It’s not good enough to exist in a bubble, or an echo chamber – you have to keep an eye on these craven, self-serving, nuance-resistant, unconstitutional monsters; watch Fox News, read Trump’s childlike Tweets, investigate the backstories of his lieutenants; challenge, gainsay, make a withering placard and prove that satire is not dead: MAKE AMERICA SAFE AGAIN; KEEP YOUR TINY HANDS OFF OUR RIGHTS; WE SHALL OVERCOMB; MIKE PENCE LIKES NICKELBACK; GRAB ME BY MY PUSSY I DARE YOU!

They don’t wear white hoods, but they speak directly to those that do, or would do if it weren’t for “snowflake” political correctness. David Bowie got out before all this shit happened. In his name we must overcome. And that starts with getting out of bed in the morning.

 

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Would he lie to you?

Some late news just in. There was no cast iron reason for this country to defy the United Nations and invade Iraq on 20 March 2003, shoulder to shoulder ie. behind the United States, and alongside Australia and Poland. (In that initial phase, the USA sent 130,000 troops, the UK 28,000, Australia 2,000, and Poland 194.)  The Iraq Inquiry, better known as the Chilcot Report, revealed to the world the following things that I and millions of others personally knew in our bones in May 2003, and which were basically confirmed by subsequent events: that Saddam Hussein did not pose an “urgent threat” to British interests, that flaky intelligence regarding weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was presented with “too much certainty” while its legal justification was “far from satisfactory”, that peaceful alternatives to war had not been fully explored, and that in invading Iraq the UK and the USA had “undermined the authority” of the UN. In short, the whole shit-show ought not to have happened.

Have we who believed Hans Blix and doubted the earnest words of Tony Blair wasted the last 14 years of our lives waiting to find out what we suspected all along? If so, we should be grateful that we had lives to waste; not everybody sucked into the conflict was so lucky. The families of the victims at Hillsborough (many of whom will have also opposed the war) will know this feeling: a combination of relief and fury after so many years being officially dismissed and discounted. No matter what the Dorian Grey painting of Tony Blair says, during those 14 years the world has unarguably become ever more dangerous and less secure, and thousands upon thousands of lives have been lost in the wars waged in the name of “stabilising” a region we – I hate to use that word, but it’s worth rubbing it in – we destabilised. The invasion may not have happened “in our name”, but I remain a citizen of the country that did it. An increasingly ashamed citizen. Many of today’s monsters were forged in the aftermath of the invasion, which, like a post-Brexit economy, nobody had properly planned for. So, rather than go over the coals one more time, or the Chilcot Report in mind-numbing detail, can we just consider the lies?

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Historians often cite Watergate as a watershed moment when the public “lost faith” in its elected politicians. Certainly, the grotesque televised image of Richard Nixon declaiming in 1973, “I am not a crook” provided a pivot for this apparent awakening (a moment echoed by Bill Clinton’s similarly perjurious public address in 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”). But not only was Nixon not the first dishonest politician, he was not the first dishonest president. They’re all at it. Because power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and, to quote Everything But The Girl, little Hitlers grow up into big Hitlers. The business of running a country, whether it’s as small as Iceland, or as vast as Russia, involves compromise. I guess it has to, like any relationship. In government or junta, commercial and civic interests must be served at the same time. An electorate, or a non-electorate, must be kept onside, for fear of deselection, or coup.

Sometimes, decisions made in the secret corridors of power have life or death consequences. Most of us, let’s be honest, couldn’t handle that. Indeed, the old truism that the very worst kind of people to be politicians are the people who want to be politicians resounds still. Running a country is an insane fantasy that most of us rehearse over breakfast (“If I was in charge … I’d making voting compulsory/ban mobiles in schools/put registration plates on bicycles/remove charity status from public schools/give automatic custodial sentences to internet trolls etc.”). We are currently going through a leadership election that will put someone else in charge of our country, at least one of whom will have been tied to a Leave campaign based on lies or assertions with no basis in fact. Whether she – and it is likely to be a she – is up to the job is only something we can discover by letting her do it. We came dangerously close to having Boris Johnson imposed upon us as our leader, thanks to the boneless leadership of David Cameron. The former is a man priapic on adulation who thought leading a country was his birthright; the latter seemed to treat the job as a sort of wheeze and couldn’t wait to put it behind him. Both are dangerous. Both went to the same schools. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, someone who was in the Bullingdon Club always gets in, right?

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There is talk of a “disconnect” between people and politics. It’s why the inarticulate bully Donald Trump is presumptive Republican nominee when the commentariat dismissed him as a joke. It’s why the mild-mannered Jeremy Corbyn won a mandate from members of the Labour party in the vacuum after Ed Milliband and has since struggled to keep the Teflon-hearted Blarites within the PLP onside. And it’s why the Leave campaign’s parish magazines the Express and Mail were so effective in the peddling of myths. The balance of power now rests in the limbo between what politicians think they know about what ordinary voters know, and what ordinary voters know they know. It’s why we are one piece of paperwork away from leaving the EU after 43 years of growth and that racism has reared its ugly head again in a way not seen since the 70s – a decade which, by the way, wasn’t as good as the music, films or sitcoms made in it. Whether people are racists or simply voters struggling to replace the old certainties like jobs, security and community that have been taken away by successive administrations in hock to the free market and the City, they clearly don’t feel represented. Nor, by the way, do I. (My politics pretty much align with Corbyn’s, a man seemingly too Labour to be allowed to lead the Labour party.)

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“Protest vote” is a catch-all phrase, simultaneously stirring and active, and negative and self-isolating. It can mean something passionate and personal: voting for an independent candidate, let’s say, in a local election, or voting Green, as I have done, even though there appears statistically to be no way the candidate can get in. But voting Leave in a zero-sum referendum to show the politicians that you no longer have faith in them is a protest only in theory; in actual fact, it is a vote for uncertainty. A malignant symptom of the current democratic malaise, it led the 51.9%  to opt to leave the EU because they had genuine, concrete reasons for wanting to “take back control” from Europe, the promise they were made by politicians who could barely agree between themselves whether they were pro-Europe or not. I feel sad that many people, with good reason, believed that to “take back control” meant some kind of meaningful independence. The crushing irony is that in “taking back control” from those fabled Brussels bureaucrats, Leave voters “gave control” to the right wing of the Tory party, a party that despises the jobless and the poor, and is dismantling the very state that might look after them.

We’re so jaded we expect lies to be told in election campaigns. And yet, we swallow the lies. That the Tories care about “hardworking families”? That £350m of “our cash” (Johnson, Gove and the rest were clever to make it sound like bureaucrats were picking our pockets) would be given to the NHS? By a party that seeks to privatise the NHS? More lies. That Saddam Hussein could get a chemical weapon to the UK in 45 minutes?

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Here’s the irony. Tony Blair, who was unfortunate to be given a surname that contains the letters L, I, A and R, seems to think he has been cleared by Chilcot of actually, literally telling a lie to us, while Alistair Campbell is smug about being cleared of “sexing up” the intelligence dossier, but in buttering up the electorate, and Parliament, for war, they implicitly lied from the moment Blair told Bush he was “with him, whatever” in the 28 July, 2002 memo. Thereafter, war was not an option, it was a foregone conclusion, and any speech or comment that Blair made after that date which did not reveal the deal he’d made is in my eyes rendered a lie.

Here’s the killing joke: I think he’s telling the truth when he says that, given the choice, he would invade Iraq all over again.

Honestly.

 

 

Whatever | August 2008

Whatever | US Election ’08
Barack Obama is redrawing the map of US politics. Can you imagine any of our lot doing the same?

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I did a double-take the Chuckle Brothers would have been proud of in the first week of June, when I glimpsed the front-page headline of The London Paper, one of our great capital’s three appalling free newspapers. It read: AMERICA’S FIRST BLACK PRESIDENT. Already? I know the run-up to the US Presidential Elections drags on for years, but as a keen student of primaries and caucuses, I found it hard to believe that I’d missed the Big One. On closer inspection, the announcement turned out to have a weedy question mark on the end. (Can a query actually be a newspaper headline? FIRST MAN ON MOON? SHEEP SUCCESSFULLY CLONED? MADDY STILL MISSING?)

Never mind the tantalising possibility of Barack Obama becoming the first black president, it’s thrilling enough that the Kenyan goat-herder’s son is the first black presidential candidate. This is, after all, a country where some folk still proudly fly the Confederate flag and consider lynching to have been just a bit of fun. Even if he loses to the ancient John McCain, tautological “liberal republican” and Vietnam war hero, Obama has made history. (Not something you could say about Kerry or Dukakis or Mondale or any of the other great losing Democrats of our time.) It’s a mug’s game for foreigners to get too caught up in the faraway pomp and tickertape of American politics, for when the time comes on November 4, we’ll be the ones turning up at the church hall and asking why we don’t actually get a vote.

Since the outcome affects the lives of, hmmm, let me see, oh yes, everybody in the world, wouldn’t it be fairer if we all received a postal ballot? After all, even as a two-horse race it’s going to be a hundred times more exciting than the general election that waits around the corner for us in two years’ time. A black man versus a white man. A young man versus an old man. Hawaii versus Panama. African blood versus Scots-Irish and a dash of English. A man who opposes the war in Iraq versus one who declared in 2003 that it would be “one of the best things that’s happened to America in a long time.” (Still, I like his oven chips.)

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Barring a major upset, such as a gormless coup in the Court of Gordon Brown by any number of Millibands, or Liberal leader Nick Clegg admitting an affair with the other Cheeky Girl, our next national polling day will be untroubled by Sky One’s Gladiators: a 57-year old white Scot against a 42-year-old white Englishman and 41-year-old white Englishman. (Add two years to their ages if that’s how long it takes for the Scot to stabilise the economy using all his powers and all his skills.) The Scot thinks we would all be better off with ID cards. The Englishman doesn’t, or at least says he doesn’t. The other Englishman doesn’t, but won’t get in so it’s hypothetical. One of them claims to have enjoyed The Jam when he was at Eton (“I don’t see why the left should be the only ones to listen to protest songs”). One of them claimed to like Arctic Monkeys (they would “really wake you up in the morning”, he told New Woman, but the Number Ten rebuttal unit later repositioned the Chancellor’s statement as hypothetical, although he had heard Arctic Monkeys). One of them claims to like Johnny Cash, although when discussing him on Radio Four’s Music Group programme, he got the name of Folsom Prison and Walk The Line wrong.

I don’t want my politicians to be cool. I don’t even want them to be interesting. I certainly don’t want them admitting to “no more than 30” sexual partners in GQ. I want them to be passionate advocates and belligerent ideologues with their own hairstyles and unconventional tastes, ready with an unscripted riposte and a gift for oratory, rather than kids enrolled at the London Oratory. While I accept that only an American could get away with land-of-our-fathers schmaltz like, “Hope is the bedrock of this nation … in this moment, in this election, we are ready to believe again,” but I wouldn’t mind hearing a few words from Cameron or Brown that might unite a few more people than some delegates in braces at the Confederation of British Industry.

It’s amazing how quickly you become blasé about seismic socio-ethnic shifts in mainstream politics though, isn’t it? I’m bored of the idea of a black US president already. I demand a gay atheist. An unmarried Muslim. Someone who’s had more than 30 partners. Come on, it’s time for change.

Published in Word magazine, August 2008

Orange is not the only suit

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Guantánamo Bay is a prison. They might call it a “detention camp”, or a “facility”, but it’s a prison, in Cuba, where people are held, and have been held since January 2002, during the panic after 9/11. It exists outside of US legal jurisdiction. The plan, under “war president” George W. Bush, was for it to operate outside of the tiresome Geneva Conventions, which held until 2006, when the Supreme Court ruined everything by conceding rights to certain protections under Article 3 (which offers “persons not taking active part in hostilities” immunity from various “outrages upon personal dignity” and “judicial guarantees … recognized as indispensable by civilised peoples”).

Amnesty International named Guantánamo a “gulag.” In January 2009, President Barack Obama promised to shut the ghoulish, lawless place down “within the year.” Historians will note that this promise was not fulfilled. Admittedly, this is mainly because a Republican congress blocked it, as it has successfully blocked anything approaching a commonsense debate or ruling since Obama was sworn in.

At a press conference in Washington this week, surely politically engorged by now in his second term, Obama said it was “not sustainable” to keep Guantánamo open. Never mind that it’s an international embarrassment, an insult to all of our freedoms, and a permanent stain on the United States’ standing in the world, that’s not enough of a sell. He had to resort to scare tactics (which is ironic, considering how much fear of fear itself lies at the heart of Guantánamo’s “open for business” status), warning that the gulag’s continued existence was a “recruitment tool” for extremists. So its effect on extremists who are not in the prison is the best reason for releasing those largely unconvicted, uncharged prisoners who are in it.

There are around 160 detainees still inside, rocking the orange jumpsuit of 21st century iconography. Many are now on hunger strike and of those 100 or so, 21 are being force fed. The main effort there currently is to keep its inmates alive. After ten years of institutionalised, unpoliced torture and outrages upon human dignity, it seems like small beer that the prisoners’ protest began over allegations that guards mistreated Qur’ans, rather than human beings, although torture comes in many and various forms, including psychological, emotional, religious and material.

Never mind that the so-called “terror suspects”  have not been charged with anything, half of them have been cleared for release. (Only five – five – have gone to trial.) So why are they all still there? It is an outrage. Obama has once again promised to shut it down. Why should we believe him? (And I speak as a non-American who totally bought into the “HOPE” he peddled in 2008.) “I am going to get my team to review everything that is currently being done in Guantánamo,” he said in that press conference, which is a bit like someone you’ve complained to on the phone telling you they will “escalate the issue” and give you a “ticket number”. There’s not much he can promise, I guess, other than to act “administratively” (the government is an administration), but how about acting “physically”? Just going down there and opening the gates, with a few helicopters waiting?

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You may same I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. “I don’t want these individuals to die,” Obama said. Good. Guards are said to have attempted to “break the resolve” of the hunger strikers by moving them to single cells, for ease of monitoring. So they’re in solitary? That’s nice. Some of them have been there for the full 11 years, while the world turned without them, and their families started to forget what they looked like.

The Boston “terror attack” – a horrible tragedy whose attendant local and national panic led to some uneasy flag-waving triumphalism when one of the alleged perpetrators was dead, the other unable to speak in hospital – has put “terror suspects” back in the spotlight. But nobody’s rounding up Chechnyan immigrants and sending them in hoods to Cuba past the big sign reading, “You are now leaving US legal jurisdiction, have a nice stay!” So some progress has been made since the dark, dismal days of Bush.

But still Obama will need to win congressional support In order to close Guantánamo and release its inmates. He may not be able to pull it off, but if he doesn’t, it will be a stain on his presidency too. It’s easy for Americans, he said, to “demagogue the issue.” He’s an eloquent, persuasive president, liberal on the whole if not in totality, but if he can’t condemn this unsafe building, who the hell ever will?

According to the Guardian, which penned a stirring leader on the subject today (“An Indelible Stain”), the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said, “The president can order the secretary of defense to start certifying for transfer detainees who have been cleared, which is more than half the Guantánamo population.” The video of the press conference is here. I say: get to it.

Reprieve, the charity that makes this kind of thing its calling, provides an excellent Guantánamo timeline here.

Double history

On Thursday 30 October, 2008, just five prehistoric days before America elected its first black president, BBC’s Question Time came live from Washington DC, something of a coup and a justifiable use of the licence fee. “Welcome to our normal viewers,” snuffled David Dimbleby from behind his standard-issue Corporation poppy. “But also to people around the world, who are going to be watching this on BBC World News – great to have you with us.”

A great advert for the Beeb. The panel was impressive: Elizabeth Edwards, Obama adviser and wife of Senator John Edwards; Christopher Nixon Cox, John McCain exec and grandson of Richard Nixon; Simon Schama, fidgety expat historian; Pulitzer-winning Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune for civil-rights ballast; and leopardskin-jacketed Republican strategist Cheri Jakobus (“it’s a lovely name,” cooed Dimbleby). A lively discourse ensued for the next hour. Unfortunately, on this particular night in history, Question Time was in the wrong place at the wrong time and heatedly debating the wrong two men.

The two men who made Question Time look woefully off the scent that Thursday night, four years ago, were not a great advert for the BBC. Dimbleby’s “normal viewers” were less interested in the US Presidential race on 30 October than they were in “Sachsgate”, a little local difficulty involving Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross that had reached the point of national seizure on that very day.

Four years on, and the BBC is going through another, worse crisis, also zealously fanned by a right-wing, axe-grinding press but one whose story extends well beyond the walls of Television Centre (or, in the case of Sachsgate, Broadcasting House). Meanwhile, America decides once again. In November 2008, the electorate made history when Barack Obama took battleground states Pennsylvania and Ohio, rewarding those of us who’d stayed up for the Portillo Moment; in that moment, the “retard cowboy fella”, as Sachsgate co-architect Brand had labelled George W. Bush in September as Hollywood-hungry host of the MTV Video Music Awards, was all but forgotten. Never mind that Bush would still be in office for 70 more days; his epoch was so over. Oliver Stone rush-released biopic W., in which Bush is seen in a dream sequence waiting to catch a ball in an empty stadium. Meanwhile, a quarter of a million Obama supporters filled Grant Park in Chicago to roar their approval.

Despite sweaty pre-election Democrat palms about the Bradley Effect (after the black candidate for California governor in 1982 who was ahead in the polls but denied in the booths), Americans who claimed they would vote for a black man did just that. A change came not just to America: Jesse Jackson, another previously unsuccessful black Democratic candidate, cried tears that were mopped all around the world.

This time round, with Obama fighting for his political life in the face of malleable private-equity action figure Mitt Romney – and the real face of post-Tea Party Republicanism Paul Ryan – the US Presidential race is said to be neck-and-neck, with the usual “swing states” holding all the cards – Ohio, again, Florida, again etc. In 2008, I stayed up for Ohio, as I was at the CNN Election Night Party in Central London, surrounded by other politicos, and one or two select celebrities. (You may read my account of that night here.) Weirdly, the party ended at 3am, before the election had been called, which I felt was a massive swiz. I watched them call it from a friend’s sofa, on my own. I shan’t be staying up into the early hours this time, as, uniquely, I am four years older, and I need my sleep. History, or not, will be made without me.

Being the first black American President to be re-elected for a second term does not have the same epic ring of history to it. But that’s surely what the sensible are hoping for? In four years, he’s managed to frighten those on the right with his universal healthcare plan and support for abortion rights and gay marriage, while disappointing those on the left with his failure to do much about anything else, including blowing up Guantanamo Bay. That this policy deadlock is largely down to the intransigence of a Republican House makes no difference to those who demand action. Obama killed bin Laden, personally, of course, a fact that counterintuitively endears him to the head-on-a-spike right, and confuses the left. (I witnessed a fairly heated debate between two comedians on Twitter the other day – Mitch Benn and Andrew O’Neill – about whether or not Obama was a “war criminal”, and whether or not voting for him at all was some kind of betrayal of left-wing values.)

But the real issue of this election, the most expensive and vicious ever, is surely Voter-ID. If you’re not abreast of this issue – and it’s been all over The Daily Show – it’s the way in which an apparently “non-partisan” group, True The Vote (“by citizens, for citizens”) has been pushing for legislature in various states to attach photo ID to one’s right to walk into a polling booth, which not only puts those without a driving licence at an immediate disadvantage (ie. the old, the poor, the unemployed – Democrat voters, maybe?), but also puts the disadvantaged at a further disadvantage, with households containing many occupants (the poor, again? students? immigrants?), targeted as potential voter-fraud cases. Read all about it in this superb, clear New Yorker article from a couple of weeks ago. For me, this is the 2012 Election in essence: dirty tricks by the Republicans.

Commentators – including, well, me, in Word magazine – said that the “real star” of the 2008 Election was David Axelrod. As Obama’s right-hand strategist, not only did he help create the “change” umbrella, he masterminded the first ever internet donor base, mostly under-30s, who contributed small amounts and formed a – gulp! – socialist utopia of engaged young Americans, each with a genuine stake in their chosen leader. Whether this truly recast the way US politics is done remains to be seen, but when, in 2008, Paxman was called upon to gauge the opinion of Dizzee Rascal (“I don’t think he could have done it without hip-hop”), Marshall McLuhan loomed large.

In a rare case of hype being matched by hope, Obama’s victory was regarded as a poultice for all global ills, from the economy to Iraq. He was even credited with boosting Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympics, which – hypothetically, as it transpired – earmarked Grant Park as a venue for the archery. (Chicago was knocked out in the first round.) The 2008 Beijing Olympics had provided welcome uplift that summer, with choreographed spectacle from the director of Chinese epics Hero and The House Of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou, whose opening and closing ceremonies seemed designed to remind the world that America is not the only superpower – and that the Chinese Communist Party has a knack of inspiring mass synchronisation.

London’s very own Olympics did it their way this summer, and proved that ideas were as important as money and multitudes. Mitt Romney chose our capital for his first official stop-off in what the Huffington Post described as “a three-nation tour carefully crafted to highlight his diplomatic strengths and personal Olympic experience”. He delivered a world-class gaffe when he criticised his hosts for not being “ready.” (I might have said the same thing at the time, but I’m not a diplomat, and I live in London.) Had we got our first glimpse of the next President of the United States? I hope not.

In 2008, the year in which Professor Brian Cox became famous on television for his ability to explain the Large Hadron Collider to the dim, we found ourselves living on a planet where things could only get better, and many of us put our hope in a black man (or “a black”, as Tory Pauline Neville-Jones rather colonially called him on the post-election Question Time, back in Britain). Can we have him back, please?

For some reason, I’m not allowed to vote. In this, I am not alone, thanks to True The Vote, which may well have clinched it for Romney, a man whose Mormonism might ordinarily disqualify him from being a good ol’ Republican nominee, if not for the fact that his competition – Santorum, Perry, Cain, Gingrich, Bachmann – were so lacking in Presidential authority. I sincerely hope that, as I sleep tonight, the swing states swing the right way. I Tweeted a handy link to the New Yorker voter-ID story earlier, and an American expat took umbrage with me for typing, “If the US Election goes the wrong way, at least you’ll be able to say you know why”; he/she responded, “Define ‘wrong way’. Surely whatever we voters choose is the correct way.” Idealism in action. Naturally, if you are a Republican, or more crucially the kind of prevaricating floating voter that actually decides Elections, Romney might be the “right way.” If so, I wish you good luck in that county if he wins. But I warn you not to be poor. I warn you not to be old. And I warn you not to be a multi-millionaire.

An education #1: The Supreme Court

Here’s the deal. Two thoughts have conflated. One occurred while watching the excellent final of Euro 2012 last night, before and after which we were invited to look back upon what has been a memorable tournament. It was at this point, as if to illustrate the deficiencies of my non-footballing brain, that I realised that I can’t even remember the scores, or the goal-scorers, from most of the matches I have watched over the last three weeks. This is not just my 47-year-old mind going, as I can remember the names of actors from way down the cast of films that I shouldn’t even remember. It’s just that my brain isn’t tuned to football the way serious football fans’ brains are. (When I sat down to watch this one, after my traditional two-year sabbatical, I seriously couldn’t remember off the top of my head who’d won the 2010 World Cup, or Euro 2008. Both are imprinted there now, but ask me in a year’s time.)

The other thought was this: with the sad closure of Word magazine, a couple of people looking down the barrel of a dystopia with less printed words in have asked if a subscription to the New Yorker (one of a number of influences on Word in its prenatal stage) might help ease the pain. I have been a subscriber to the New Yorker since March 2005, when Stuart Maconie thoughtfully bought me a year’s subscription as a 40th birthday present. Once it started arriving on my mat once a week, I became quickly hooked. I can’t imagine a world without it. (It’s particularly handy at Presidential Election time, but not just, as I sincerely believe that to be disinterested in US politics is to be disinterested in global politics. And if anyone’s going to report from the frontline of American life, I’d prefer it to be a bunch of die-hard liberals.)

Anyway, it’s a struggle most weeks to get through the whole magazine. (I recycle mine by passing them on to a friend at Radio Times, who, when she’s done with them, passes them on again – I rarely give an issue up to this value-added cycle within a week of receiving it.) As such, I’m always in intellectual arrears. There’s enough brain food in a single issue to last a month. This means serious reading, and serious staying power. If you don’t know already, the pieces in the New Yorker are long. And detailed. To put them into context, the cover story I wrote about the Stone Roses for a recent issue of Word, which by definition will have been about the longest story in the issue, was 4,000 words. The double-page spread I write for Radio Times most weeks comes in at around 800. The New Yorker doesn’t have a cover story (it doesn’t even tell you what’s inside the issue on the cover), but its longest pieces can be more like 12,000 words. That’s a tenth of Where Did It All Go Right?

The New Yorker article I’m about to disseminate is about 5,000 words.

So, in order to counter the erosion of my memory, and to perhaps pass on some interesting information from a magazine that is jam-packed full of information (its fact-checking culture is legendary), I have decided to run an occasional series on this blog of articles about articles I have read.

This one, by Jill Lepore, was tucked away at the back of the Jun 18 issue (cover image above), and entitled, with typical elan and economy, Benched. It’s about the Supreme Court and was written before this august and powerful institution voted for “Obamacare” and surprised everybody. (I can’t wait to read this week’s New Yorker and its editors’ thoughts on what might be a turning point for Obama’s re-election chances.)

Essentially a history of the Supreme Court of the United States, forged in New York (then the nation’s capital; still the nation’s capital according to the New Yorker!) in 1789 when George Washington appointed six Supreme Court Justices, Lepore’s end-point is, clearly, the Affordable Care Act and whether or not today’s bench of nine decide that it violates the Constitution or not, vis-a-vis “commerce.” (Can the government constitutionally force its citizens to take out health insurance? Spoiler alert: yes it can.)

As Lepore states early on, “under the Constitution, the power of the Supreme Court is quite limited.” Its executive branch “holds the sword”, the legislative branch “the purse”, and the judiciary, neither; “no direction either of the strength or of the wealth of the society”. It’s tough for us Limeys to understand the Supreme Court, as we don’t have one, but if there’s one subject that comes up more frequently in the New Yorker than baseball and/or whatever Malcolm Gladwell is thinking about, it’s the Supreme Court, so it’s as well to do some homework, which is what this feature turned out to be, and why I ploughed through all 5,000 words of it.

I discovered that, under George Washington, the Justices of the Supreme Court were expected to “ride circuit” (one of those great phrases that make reading this magazine such a thrill), in other words, they were expected to judge ordinary cases as well as supreme ones, as it were. But this was scrapped. It’s basic stuff to American history students, but I now know that in 1800, the capital moved to Washington, D.C., and the following year president John Adams (Paul Giamatti) was the first to live in the White House, while Congress met at the Capitol. His Chief Justice ensured that all the Justices rented rooms at the same boarding house, “so that they could at least have someplace to talk together, unobserved.”

Under Adams, the 1801 Judiciary Act reduced the number of Supreme Court Justices to five. I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch when this was engorged to the present nine. Under Jefferson, the Supreme Court was granted the right to decide whether laws passed by Congress are constitutional. (“This was such an astonishing thing to do that the Court didn’t declare another federal law unconstitutional for fifty-four years.”) Article I, Section 8, of the Constitution: “Congress shall have power … to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes.” During the New Deal in the 1930s, the “power to regulate commerce,” along with the definition of “commerce” itself, became the chief means by which Congress passed legislation “protecting people against an unbridled market.” (In 1964, the commerce clause formed part of the basis for the Civil Rights Act.) As you can guess, the solid Democrat base of the New Yorker means that the Supreme Court’s power to fiddle with commerce – that “unbridled market” which gives Republicans such an under-the-desk hard-on – is taken on trust as a good thing. To the right, it’s bad.

There are lots of landmark rulings cited along the way – Lochner v. New York in 1905, where the Court “voided a state law establishing that bakers could work no longer than ten hours a day, six days a week”, on the grounds that the law violated a “liberty of contract” (cue: sound of employers rubbing their hands in glee); U.S. v. Lopez, in which it was decreed that gun ownership is not commerce, “because it is in no sense an economic activity”; U.S. v. Morrison, in which parts of the federal Violence Against Women Act were judged unconstitutional; and one that is enshrined in US lore: Dred Scott v. Sandford (“Dred Scott”), which in 1857 voided the Missouri Compromise by arguing that Congress could not prohibit slavery in the territories, and effectively put slaves and their descendents outside of the constitution.

Lepore’s thesis, neatly woven through this chunky history, is simply that the Court is getting more political. Under game-changing arch-Federalist Chief Justice John Marshall’s 35 years in office – that’s six administrations from Adams to Jackson 1801-35 – we learn that the Court struck down only one act of Congress; by comparison, in the seven years since John G. Roberts, Jr. (a Bush appointee) took the job in 2005, the Court has struck down “a sizable number of federal laws, including one reforming the funding of political campaigns.” She describes it as “the most conservative court in modern times”, its rulings under Roberts pleasing the right 60% of the time, according to figures, which is way up basically.

We go back to the early American colonists, “who inherited from England a tradition in which the courts, like the legislature, were extensions of the crown.” Over here, a “defiant Parliament had been challenging the royal prerogative, demanding that judicial appointments be made not ‘at the king’s pleasure’ but ‘during good behavior.'” (This phrase “good behaviour”, which means, effectively, for life, recurs.) The Justices are chosen by the President and confirmed by the Senate, and it’s a gig for life. But who judges the judges?

Since it successfully rubbed out a “labor” law protecting the health of employees in favour of the employer, the aforementioned “Lochner” (known by just the one name) is said to have become “likely the most disreputable case in modern constitutional discourse.” (From where I’m sitting the American right are all for the individual, as long as that individual is an employer, not an employee.) In 1906, legal scholars rounded on it, one of them writing, “Putting courts into politics, and compelling judges to become politicians … has almost destroyed the traditional respect for the Bench.”

As ever with a New Yorker piece, you learn some things off the bat, and you have to do a bit of further reading to understand others. It’s casually referred to, but I had no idea what Theodore Roosevelt’s “Bull Moose campaign” was, for instance. So I checked. It was the nickname of a political party (the Progressive Party) he set up in 1912 after a Republican split, and after he’d been shot but claimed to be as fit as a bull moose. The building that still houses the Court across from the Capitol had its cornerstone laid on October 13, 1932, by Herbert Hoover and marble was shipped in from Spain, Italy, and Africa. Three weeks later, Franklin Roosevelt was elected in an actual landslide and those battles between Congress and the New Deal began. Exciting trivia: by June of 1933, less than 100 days after his inauguration, FDR had proposed 15 legislative elements and each had been made law, passed by the Court, whose four-out-of-nine conservative Justices were known as the Four Horsemen. During the passing of the 16th, one of the horsemen is said to have burst out, “The Constitution is gone!” (“a comment so unseemly that it was stricken from the record”).

The Supreme Court’s new building opened for business in 1935, described in the press as “a classical icebox decorated for some surreal reason by an insane upholsterer.” In the following 18 months, the newly-housed Justices struck down more than a dozen laws. “Congress kept passing them; the Court kept striking them down, generally 5-4. At one point, FDR’s Solicitor General fainted, right there in the courtroom.” You’ve got to love the way the best New Yorker writers humanise otherwise husk-dry material. It’s a detail like the fainting Solicitor General that could help you remember the trouble FDR had in the mid-30s.

Lepore sums up beautifully. “The Supreme Court has been deliberating in a temple of marble for three-quarters of a century. In March, it heard oral arguments about the Affordable Care Act. No one rode there in a horse and buggy.” She goes on, “The separation of law from politics for which the Revolution was fought has proved elusive. That’s not surprising – no such separation being wholly possible – but some years have been better than others. One of the worst was 2000, when the Court determined the outcome of a disputed Presidential election.”

I started reading the New Yorker in 2005, when Bush was into the second term of that “disputed” election. His presidency gave the magazine’s liberals something to push against. They do not, though, let Obama off the hook, and a 9,500-word piece by Ryan Lizza in the same issue about what the President might do if re-elected (again, written before the Supreme Court judgement went Obamacare’s way) is, although hopeful, honestly argued and superbly contextual. But that’s enough learning for one day.

The full, six-page Supreme Court piece is available online. So have a read. The 12-page Obama re-election piece also happens to be online, in full. (They aren’t always, so this is a bit of luck.) The New Yorker is available in full, digitally, to subscribers and as an iPad edition. It’s almost 90 years old, but it moves with the times. However, with such a lot of words to read, I couldn’t possibly read it offscreen. I need my paper copy. And long may it abide.

Hoover-building

In any other year, I suspect Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar would be all over the award nominations, with Leonardo DiCaprio a strong contender for best actor. As it is, it seems to have been barged out of the way, outclassed by the competition. (The film notched up one nomination at the Globes, for Leo, and has two at the imminent Screen Actors’ Guild awards, one for Leo – where he finds himself up against the expected Clooney, Pitt and Dujardin – the other for his excellent co-star Armie Hammer – who will presumably fall to Plummer or Branagh.) There’s no need for us to cry into our hankies. Clint Eastwood only has to make a film these days to earn an automatic place in the shortlists, and that can be tiresome and predictable. But the reviews for J. Edgar have also been lukewarm. Peter Bradshaw all but took it apart in the Guardian.

I went to see it yesterday with expectations lowered. And it turned out to be rather good. I have a keen interest in 20th century American history, and in US politics in general, and enjoyed seeing 40 years replayed, albeit rather more selectively and thus in more detail, than the comparable time frame covered by The Iron Lady. J. Edgar Hoover ran the Federal Bureau of Investigation from its inception at the Justice Dept in 1935 to his death in 1972, although the film, written by Dustin Lance Black, begins in 1919, when the up-and-coming 24-year-old Hoover was put in charge of a new bureau charged with weeding out radicals. This became his calling.

Because most of his private files were destroyed before the Nixon administration could seize them on his death, much of his story remains speculative, especially the infamous bit about him wearing women’s clothing – something of an own goal for a man whose reputation was built upon the old-fashioned Republican tenets of God-fearing moralism and family values. He never married, and lived with his mother (here played by Judi Dench, whose American accent occasionally wobbles but whose presence is suitably dominant), and Black’s screenplay, while never lurid, makes Hoover out to be quite the repressed “radical and subversive” himself.

His previous film was the excellent Milk, and there are similarities here, in that both are biopics of sexually unconventional political figures – albeit one out, the other closeted – told using the device of the character dictating the story of his own life for posterity. Harvey Milk is seen relaying his memoir into a cassette recorder as if certain of his own looming assassination; Hoover dictates, and embroiders, his to a series of agents at a typewriter, driven to do so by the ill-health of old age. It’s a well-worn framing device, and means both stories are told in flashback, but it helps to arrange the material in a clear and chronological fashion, which is particularly useful if you’re not familiar with the facts. (I knew little about Milk; I know plenty about Hoover.)

What seems to bother a number of critics is the way some aspects of Hoover’s career and character are foregrounded, while others are skipped over. This is built into any biopic lasting shorter than, say, eight hours. The Iron Lady got round it by providing only the most shallow soundbites to ratchet up the career highlights. J. Edgar does so by making the Lindbergh kidnapping and eventual, forensic-driven outcome its central drama, a turning point in Federal law, and in the reputation of the FBI, and thus of Hoover. I found it persuasively staged, and if it meant that less screen time could be devoted to, say, his witch hunts against the likes of Sean Seberg or Charlie Chaplin, or his failure to address the Mafia, well, something had to go. (There is a single scene with Bobby Kennedy, which touches on organised crime, one of the Attorney General’s pet subjects, but its central purpose is really to show that Hoover had to blackmail to keep his job with more moderate administrations.)

There’s no shying away from the fact that Hoover was a poisonous, bigoted hypocrite, but I found Black’s treatment of his career-long platonic love affair with his number two, the energetic and loyal Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, last seen playing both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, and very good indeed here) actually rather sweet. Hoover is a mess of contradictions and repressed feelings, and would rather physically fight Tolson over challenges to his heterosexuality than kiss him, but as the two men age – call the makeup department! – their dotage brings with it a dignified acceptance that they are soul-mates even if they cannot be lovers. In the later scene where DiCaprio takes the top off Hammer’s boiled egg – the latter debilitated by a stroke – you are touched by the carefully controlled affection Hoover is prepared to exhibit in private.

This is not the same, I don’t think, as “humanising” Thatcher by showing her all forgetful and lonely in The Iron Lady. For a start, Hoover’s been dead since 1972, and his brand of red-hunting paranoia has been broadly replaced, while sexual honesty even in America has moved in apace (not least thanks to activists like Harvey Milk in the 1970s, and like Dustin Lance Black in the noughties and beyond). Because Clint Eastwood is a known Republican, it’s somewhat surprising that he would wish to make a biopic about a repressed homosexual who is shown, at one point, sniggering over the wording of a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to an apparent lesbian lover, but Eastwood has actually made a film about old age, too. When DiCaprio and Hammer are trussed up in half a ton of latex for the Little Britain years – DiCaprio comes off better as an old geezer than Hammer – you really sense that the 80-year-old Eastwood identifies with them. There is a single kiss planted on Tolson’s head by Hoover that almost put a tear in my eye. This does not mean I forgive the man for hounding Martin Luther King and holding successive Presidents to ransom by foul means.

One of the main reasons I have stopped going to America since Bush is that I do not wish to add my fingerprints to the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover set that in motion. His legacy is substantial. Anchored by an excellent, well-modulated turn by the Peter Pan of Hollywood, who finally carries some physical weight here, J. Edgar does a decent, if unshowy job of putting Hoover’s place in political history into some kind of personal perspective. And by kind of blaming him on his mother. LGBT activists worried that Eastwood might “de-gay” Black’s story, but he hasn’t, any more than he “de-Japanesed” Letters From Iwo Jima. Maybe he’s just getting a bit liberal in his old age. Something that never happened to Thatcher.

More soul-mates: a quick mention for Crazy, Stupid, Love, which I caught on DVD, and completes the set of Ryan Gosling’s Films of 2011, along with Drive, Blue Valentine and The Ides Of March. I thought I’d like it the least, but I didn’t, it’s actually my third favourite of those four films. This is a romantic comedy with a truly offputting title that conceals a significant dose of actual drama from writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose first film behind the megaphone was gay true story I Love You Phillip Morris, which in truly professional style, I’ve only seen bits of, on telly, so cannot comment upon in an meaningful way.

The man in Sight & Sound accused the plot of Crazy, Stupid, Love of being “mechanical”, and it is, in that it seems to tell a number of random stories about love – the crazy kind and the stupid kind – which turn out to be interlinked in clever ways. But two of these links were complete surprises to me. I didn’t see either of them coming. So something must be going right. Gosling is the bar shark, whose pickup rate with available women is around 100%. But the star of the film is recent divorcee Steve Carell, whom Gosling takes under his wing and retrains in the art of seduction. Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Marisa Tomei round out the high-class cast, but it’s good to see Carell dialling down the gurning a bit, and he shows signs of being a decent serious actor here, among all the coincidences and occasional broad, comedic strokes. There’s a scene where one character makes a speech at a public event which was one conventional, forced set-up too many, and some of the minor characters – particularly Emma Stone’s dopey boyfriend – were too much like cutouts compared to the warm-blooded leads, but overall, this was a well-written, offbeat drama.

There’s a running gag in J. Edgar – yes, a gag – about Hoover’s paranoia not about Communist plots, but about his waistline. Two characters refer to his extra bulk as “solid weight.” You expect a historical biopic to carry solid weight, but less so a romantic comedy with a terrible title. Crazy, Stupid, Love bucks that expectation. Give it a spin.