Monday, 27 June 2016
There is an inherent risk in trying to evaluate any moment of historic import so soon after the fact. Only the passage of time will truly determine the full impact of the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union, but even at this early stage the sheer gravity of the situation is becoming clear: both institutions face a very real existential threat in the coming years.
The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has resigned. The Pound Sterling has fallen to its weakest value in thirty years in the largest single-day drop for decades. The markets have crashed, jobs are already being taken out of London, and the complete break up of one of the world's oldest and most historically significant nations, as well as the most successful supranational entity in all of human history, may be on the cards. This is just the first day after the vote.
Credit outlook downgrades, the Calais Jungle moving to the UK, the Leave campaign admitting it can't follow through on any of its promises? That's day two. The Shadow Cabinet resigning, protests all over the UK and calls for a constitutional crisis? Day three. Yes, it appears all the "scaremongering" predictions that Brexit voters were so keen to ignore are indeed coming to pass. Two days and the country is already in turmoil, unfortunately we're not done yet, not by a long shot. "Project Fear" is starting to look more like "Project Understatement of the Century". It's too late to go back and change that now, all we can do is look at what lies ahead.
The Fall of the European Union
When the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, what's going to happen? The EU needs the economic strength of the UK, and the UK needs access to the single market. The obvious mutually beneficial answer is to strike some kind of a sweetheart deal along the lines of the agreements that currently stand with Switzerland and Norway.
The danger the precedent that this would set in Europe. The UK is not alone in euroscepticism at the moment, and if they manage to withdraw and strike a deal that allows them to retain most of the benefits of membership without the commitment, then why in the world wouldn't the likes of the Netherlands or France try to do the same? A successful Brexit could start a domino effect that in all probability would result in the devolution of several of the EU's most developed nations, a setback from which the Union can not possibly recover. There is no easy answer to this. If the EU gives the UK what they want, the EU will face a serious existential threat. Yet if they make an example of them, the economic consequences for both entities could be dire which might plunge all of Europe into recession. The question is whether a balanced solution can be found.
But even if the EU doesn't completely unravel, which it could well do, the fact still remains that one of its core members has left. Europe is divided again for the first time in decades. Whatever happens from here on out, the dream of a united Europe, that so many have fought for through history, is broken.
The Fall of the United Kingdom
Already calls are being made for a second vote on Scottish Independence. Scotland voted emphatically to stay within the EU. That they are being forced to leave anyway by Westminster confirms all the worst fears of the Scottish Independence movement. I used to be a passionate advocate of Scotland remaining in the UK, but now even I would support their independence. It is not right that a whole nation of people should have so little right to self-determination that so consequential a result as leaving the EU can be forced upon them in spite of near unanimous opposition. This is the opportunity that Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have been waiting for, the single greatest chance Scotland will ever have for independence, they will certainly try to take it.
It's the same story with Northern Ireland, who voted resoundingly to stay in the EU, but now face having their will overridden by the English. The Irish situation is even more perilous since leaving the EU will necessitate a hard land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a move that is certain to provoke old tensions between the two. This is a major problem. Decades of work, of violence and suffering, a hard fought and hard won peace between the Unionists and Republicans, it could all be about to be undone by Brexit. Irish reunification talks are now set to reopen, paving the way for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join ROI in order to remain a part of the EU.
Might that even not be the end of it? What of Gibraltar, who voted 95% to stay in the EU? There has even been talk of London independence! After all, London essentially props up the rest of the UK with its huge amount of tax revenue, and now as thanks the rest of the UK has voted to trash London's economy, and are forcing that result upon them against the will of 75% of London voters. Why give away all that revenue to a country that clearly doesn't care about London's interests?
This vote has left the UK more divided than it has ever been, as whole regions find themselves being dragged out of the EU against their will. It looks increasingly inevitable that, at a minimum, both Northern Ireland and Scotland will seek independence referenda in the coming years. If this happens, Scotland will almost certainly vote to leave the UK, and it wouldn't surprise anyone if Northern Ireland followed suit. London meanwhile looks set to seek special status to allow separate ties with the EU.
I would simply ask the Brexit supporters this: if Scotland and Northern Ireland break away from your newly "independent" UK, effectively bringing an end to the Kingdom, was it all still worth it?
The End of the UK's economic Golden Age
Even putting aside the very real threat of geopolitical fracturing of the UK, what of the economy? Barely two days later and the markets are crashing, the currency is worthless, jobs are leaving, and our credit outlook has been downgraded. Is this all an overreaction, or is there more still to come?
Unfortunately this is rolling out exactly as predicted by the much maligned "experts". There is nothing irrational about it, the UK is a much less attractive prospect for investment than it was a few days ago, and that will have dire consequences for everyone in this country.
One of the lines most frequently used, ironically, by the Leave campaign, was that the UK is a rising power, a new economic juggernaut at the centre of global commerce. This is all true; London's, and by extension the UK's economic development in recent years has been astonishing, described as an economic Golden Age for the country. What they evidently failed to realise is that this enviable position is a direct result of the UK's unique position as the world's gateway to Europe. English language, stable, secure country, close cultural and political ties to America, and where American money flows, so flows they money from East Asia and the Middle East.
The UK had found itself in the perfect position to be one of the world's centres for business, but without European access that all goes away, along with the UK's new Golden Age. We had the opportunity to place ourselves at the centre of the global market for a generation to come, and now we've just pissed it away.
David Cameron's big gamble
The ridiculous thing? None of this had to happen. The man who called the referendum, David Cameron, didn't even want it to pass, and never for a moment believed that it would. This was a referendum called as an afterthought, a token gesture to a certain demographic.
Flash back to 2015 general election. David Cameron's Conservative party won an outright majority for the first time, having spent the previous five years in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. At the time this came as a huge shock. None of the polls predicted it, conventional wisdom held that a coalition was an inevitable outcome, with Ed Miliband slightly favoured to be the next Prime Minister.
So in a moment of desperation, faced with the prospect of losing power, or at best having to share power with the nationalist UKIP, David Cameron hatched a scheme, as legend has it while eating at the Chicago Pizza Kitchen at Logan Airport, to bring those nationalists (xenophobes) under the Conservative banner. That plan was the EU referendum. Cameron didn't believe in it, and he certainly didn't think there would be any appeal except to a small demographic. It was a low risk gimmick that promised to boost him a few seats in the next election.
In retrospect, this shortsighted, yet seemingly insignificant powerplay would prove to be the end of his career, and a blunder of historic proportions. There is something almost Shakespearean in the way that Cameron's blind power-lust has led to his own ruin. Barely a year later, he had lost the vote and lost his job. Even worse, he effectively wrote his own legacy. No matter what else he has done during his time as Prime Minister, he will be in the history books as the man who broke the European Union, and maybe the man who broke the United Kingdom, a nation that had survived centuries of conflict and change, two world wars, and now has been undone by a greedy, foolish man eating pizza. Think Neville Chamberlain has it rough in the history books? Just wait.
So what now?
This is the million dollar question. The UK doesn't officially withdraw from the EU until it invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, at which point it will have two years to negotiate its exit. The referendum is only advisory, it does not legally bind the country, so that responsibility will fall to Parliament.
Parliament's ratification is considered to be a formality. For a liberal democracy to reject the popular vote of a referendum would be simply unthinkable and lead to a serious constitutional crisis. Technically it is possible for the left wing parties and a small Tory rebellion to block Brexit, but the outcry would be considerable, and few MPs would be willing to go along with it, even those who want to remain the EU.
Still there are hurdles to cross before that Article gets invoked. First, the terms of Cameron's resignation, which states that he will remain in power until October, and only after that point will his successor move forward on leaving the EU. It shouldn't escape notice that previously Cameron had insisted he would pull the trigger instantly. His delaying tactic might just be one last Hail Mary designed to prevent Brexit. Just look at how the economy has struggled in just a few days; by the time October rolls around, the full catastrophic impact of Brexit will be felt, and public opinion might even be turning the other way. Who would be brave enough to go through with this when it's unpopular and tanking the economy?
Then there's the additional complication of a likely early general election, which Boris Johnson has indicated he would call upon being appointed leader of the Conservative party. If an opposition Government takes charge, who's to say they will stick with the result of a referendum they had nothing to do with? Going further, it's likely we will see EU policy take a central roll on manifestos, perhaps even opening the door to an opposition party taking power with a specific mandate to block Brexit.
So in other words no one knows. No one knows what party will be in charge, what platform they will have been elected on, and what the national conditions at the time will be. It's far from certain even that Brexit will happen. We are entering uncharted territory, and the country has perhaps years of crippling uncertainty to look forward to.
So once again, it is clearly problematic to try and evaluate a moment of historic import so soon after the fact. But David Cameron's unnecessary gamble has just broken the EU, and may yet break the UK, with referenda on Scotland and Northern Ireland sure to follow at a minimum.
The UK's new economic Golden Age appears to be dead in the water just as it was beginning, and will certainly lose its status as the centre of global commerce. Europe is divided once again. We are all entering a long period of sustained uncertainty, and no one knows what the political landscape of the country, or indeed the continent will look like once the dust has settled.
It will surely go down as one of history's legendary moments of over-confidence and folly. That's some legacy Mr. Cameron.
Tuesday, 14 June 2016
On the 23rd of June, the UK will vote on whether to remain a part of the European Union or to leave. It is being described as the political event of the decade, and some would argue this is the most important ballot for a generation of Britons. Now, with the polls on a knife-edge, I am pleased to announce that The Ephemeric proudly and without reserve endorses the Remain campaign.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of this whole referendum is the acknowledgement that such a thing would have been simply unimaginable just a few years ago.
Since the formation of the EU, Europe has seen an historically unprecedented era of peace, economic co-operation, and Human development. While the organisation's popularly may have intermittently wavered in the past, the support for our continued participation has not. But now suddenly the toxic cocktail of economic stagnation and the rise of a new wave of Islamic extremism in Europe has created a palpable atmosphere of anxiety and mistrust.
The stage has been set for the most significant revival of reactionary politics since the 1930s; a movement of xenophobes and luddites who thrive on their ability to take advantage of the fearful and vulnerable. Today they are popping up all over the world, Trump in America, Le Pen in France, and now in the Brexit movement at home.
The argument for staying in the EU
Reactionary policy is the political equivalent of trying to get out of a finger trap by pulling harder. For a lot of people it is the natural instinct in a bad situation, but only ends up making things worse. Throughout history it has never been a good idea, and it is no different now. Only the triggers change, in this case the fear of terrorism, economic migration, and eurozone instability. Without regard to the detail of any such issues, for Brexit proponents isolationism simply feels like a shield that will make it all go away. In reality history tells us that it will only exacerbate the situation.
On the other hand the argument for why the UK should remain in the EU is clear and well supported. Most pertinent is the economic benefit that the UK enjoys by being a part of the common market, bolstered by reduced regulation and boundaries to trade, and the completely free movement of workers between member states. This isn't controversial, there is near unanimity among economists that the UK stands to gain more by being a part of the EU. PwC forecasts that leaving the EU would result in years of fewer jobs and reduced household income. Far from scaremongering, this is a conservative estimate, the best case scenario in their forecast.
Now don't get me wrong, you should absolutely not be a sheep and follow what other people say, but even so, when one side (Remain) has Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Richard Branson, Warren Buffet, and a long list of nobel prize winners backing it, and the other (Leave) has Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and George Galloway... well that should really set off alarm bells. I hate to be that guy, but if that's the company you're keeping then maybe it's time to re-evaluate.
But don't just take the word of the nobel prize winners and economists for it, the transformation in the UK since joining the EU in the 1970s is readily apparent; from the sick-man of Europe to one of the world's greatest economic powerhouses, directly brought on by the country's new role as a global hub. London in particular has transformed into one of the world's absolutely premier cities, an icon of stability and western ideals, and the world's gateway into the European market. When investment from all over the world, the US, Asia, the Middle East, moves into Europe, it passes through the UK. This has made the British people among the wealthiest on Earth, and turned the country into the world's greatest soft power.
The Brexit campaigners would have you believe this to be some crazy coincidence, they want us to go backwards to the 1970s when Britain was a struggling alsoran; a domestic economy dependent on the chokehold of the unions and bosses, and an utter irrelevance on the world stage. They want the UK to give up it's current position as a global cornerstone of all industry, the envy of any nation in the world, and sell your future short by retreating into our own shell out of fear.
But there's far more than just the economic reason to stay in the EU. The fact is everyone benefits when we combine our knowledge and resources. This has always been the case throughout Human history in just about any area of development.
Europe leads the world in scientific output, greater than the US, greater than Asia, it is Europe that is driving our future. It's obvious why this is the case; increased collaboration, fewer firewalls between researchers, greater alignment in goals and training. Our scientific community is treated as one, rather than divided into several competing groups. The benefits are clear, this creates jobs in the UK and it moves our society forward.
Then there's the national security benefit of collaboration. The Brexit campaign wants to convince you that working together somehow makes us less safe, but the opposite is undoubtedly true. Intelligence sharing and co-ordination of security efforts has prevented atrocoties throughout the decades. Brexit would have us sever our ties with EU security agencies so that if someone they're concerned about enters our country, we simply won't know about it. Don't forget that the Paris attackers were all EU citizens, without cross border co-ordination we would have no way of telling them apart from any other EU citizen. Does that sound safer? I believe that when it comes to national security, ignorance is not bliss.
These are all very high level factors, but even on the personal, individual level there are benefits to EU membership that we all feel on a daily basis. The ability to travel through Europe without a visa is astonishingly taken for granted, to say nothing of the low cost of intra-European movement. Anyone tempted to vote Leave needs to take a moment to think about whether they really want a trip to France to be as expensive and as administratively difficult as a trip outside the continent.
People also always seem to forget just how much of our civil liberty comes from EU law. The Convention of Human Rights. Clean air, product safety, net neutrality, these are all things given to us by EU legislators, many of whom are Britons elected directly by us.
Even little things like cheap phone usage within Europe. On my plan I can do everything on my phone in Europe that I can do at home, for just £2 for 500mb, or 0.4p for each mb. If I visit America it's at least £6 per mb, I can't do a damn thing without it costing an arm and a leg, essentially rendering me disconnected from the world and lacking services that in this day and age are considered basic amenities. Why do you think there is such a differential in cost? Phone data isn't more expensive the farther it has to travel, it's all about the shared market, which has moved to ban roaming charges in any of its member states.
All of this can be summed up by a very simple idea, that people really are better off unified and working together than split up into antagonistic partisan factions. Whatever nation or culture or religion we come from we are all Human and we have far more in common than not. The course of Human progress has followed a clear trend throughout history, small tribes of people gradually unifying into larger settlements, into towns, cities, countries. No amount of reactionary politics or draconian extremism will reverse that trend.
The argument against staying in the EU
Now let's not delude ourselves into thinking that the EU does not have problems. The economic woes of the Eurozone, driven by the collapse of fringe economies like Greece, are well publicised. And then there are the security issues, particularly now with the recent wave of terrorism in Europe. The problem there is not so much the security in developed nations like France, it's that those nations share open land borders with far less developed countries, whose security capability is clearly not at the same level.
This is the key point of the EU's problems, it has expanded way too quickly. An economic and security unification of the most developed European countries makes perfect sense, but when you expand that unity to much poorer countries on the fringe of western society you essentially entrust your security to them, and you treat them as an economic equal to the more developed nations. This is clearly a nonsense. Don't get me wrong, ideally one day it would be great to have unity between all these different countries, but that clearly isn't feasible at the current stage of development. This is not a problem in concept, it's a problem in execution. It's movement in the right direction, but poorly judged timing.
The question before us then, is whether we over-correct for these mistakes and take a massive step backwards, or actually address these issues so that we can keep moving in the right direction. Clearly massive reform will be needed, temporary economic stratification or more centralised co-ordination of EU-wide security, but that effort will pale in comparison to the negative impact of Brexit, and ultimately leave us on the right side of history.
So the decision we have to make is clear. On the one hand we have the EU, an unprecedented union of nations that has placed the UK at the centre of the economic world, driven forward society from both a scientific and development perspective, and has tangible benefits in our personal lives in terms of free movement, access to information and services abroad, and such easy and affordable access that a trip to the beaches of Barcelona is barely more troublesome than a trip to the countryside.
On the other hand we have scary people doing scary things, who may or may not be able to do even more damage if we leave, and poorer people than us in other countries who require our financial assistance. These are problems to be sure, but to say that abandoning the progress of the past decades along with our modern ideals is an overreaction is putting it very mildly indeed, especially with no reason to believe that it will actually help. And that huge leap of logic comes with more difficult, regulated movement in Europe, extortionately expensive fees, taxes, and phone access, and less demand for British workers who will no longer have access to the shared market.
The fact is there is little, if any benefit to leaving the EU in the short or long term, and the only reason it's gaining such traction all of a sudden is because unscrupulous politicians are taking advantage of you, waving images of dangerous gunman and trying to fool you into believing that leaving the EU will make them go away. To reiterate, the Paris and Brussels attackers were EU citizens, they were not refugees, leaving the EU will do very little to keep them out unless we completely close our borders. This is the 21st Century, you can't just build a wall and shut yourself away from the rest of the World, and quite frankly you wouldn't really want to.
There is nothing new about this movement. There have always been politicians using wedge issues to drive people apart. It turns out it's a very effective way of gaining power; stoke people's fears irrationally to boiling point, then present yourself as the only man who can save them. I am asking you to be smart, to take a step back and see through these games. Don't fall into the same traps that have been tricking ordinary people for generations, rise above that and take self-determination back into your own hands.
As technology and globalisation has continued apace, and human ingenuity shows no sign of reaching a limit, it is increasingly the case that the biggest impediments to progress are the artificial barriers that we erect.
It is not the ultimate goal for us to be divided into squabbling factions, creating artificial hurdles to survival and prosperity. Unity is what has brought us the scientific marvels, the comfort and abundance of the modern age. In the short term, union with Europe has brought us peace, economic prominence, and scientific and social development that far exceeds what could have been achieved had we stayed closed off from the world. When people are unified they can rise above the conflicts that have mired our civilisation for millennia, and truly solve the fundamental problems.
For all its flaws, the EU is arguably the biggest step mankind has yet taken in that direction, and regardless of how the vote this month goes, there is no doubt that society will continue to progress. A Brexit will merely be a blip in history, the real question we face on the ballot is whether we want to be a part of the generation that said 'yes' and pushed society to take those next steps, or if we want to be consigned to the history books as a temporary setback, the fearful last dregs of a darker time.
Wednesday, 25 May 2016
There was no Premier League this year, look into the neuralizer below and forget this ever happened. While you're at it, forget Men in Black 2 and 3 ever happened.
Well that was... something. I like to pride myself on making pretty good predictions, yet somehow I missed out on Tottenham and Leicester City duking it out for the title. On the other hand I did predict a very poor season for Chelsea, though in retrospect I don't think I went far enough. There will be time later to dissect what went wrong there, for now I'm just going to go scream into this pillow.
Moving on, Leicester City deserve all the praise in the world for what surely has to be the greatest upset in sporting history, going from relegation candidates to Champions in a notoriously lopsided sport, becoming only the sixth team to win the title during the Premier League era. While the Thai-billionaire-backed club are perhaps not quite the penniless underdogs that the media like to pretend, there is certainly no diminishing the unbelievable work they have done this season in order to defy all expectations.
The big takeaway from this season is just how open and competitive the Premier League really is, and it's a testament to the League's policy on income distribution, and in this view a far healthier approach to take than the "super-club" route being taken in hopelessly one-sided leagues like Spain and Germany. With the insane amount of new TV money coming into the Premier League over the coming years, you can expect an even greater amount of competition, where even the bottom teams have the financial clout to match the biggest clubs elsewhere in Europe.
Now without further ado it is time to move on to the Ephemeric end of season awards, followed by our carefully selected Premier League team of the year.
The Ephemeric Premier League Awards 2016:
Winners: Leicester City - A perfect example of how to build a team. Leicester have spent plenty of money over the past few years, but focused on depth and squad development, rather than overpriced prima dona "stars". Money + well-rounded squad + calming managerial influence = success.
Relegated: Newcastle, Norwich, Aston Villa - The official Ephemeric prediction at the start of the year had Norwich going down, and Villa in serious danger, so not much surprise there. For Newcastle however it's been a bitterly disappointing season. I felt at the time that people weren't nearly pessimistic enough about Steve McClaren, but that given the improvements to their playing squad they should be fine. Incredibly I managed to overestimate McClaren, this is what happens when you let yourself listen to the idiot pundits too much.
Player of the Year: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City) - A star is born. After an impressive end to the previous season, Mahrez started the season with a bang and never looked back. In Leicester's stunning season, Mahrez has nevertheless managed to stand out, bagging a remarkable 17 goals and 11 assists.
U-21 Player of the Year: Dele Alli (Tottenham) - If not for the incredible story that is Leicester, we might have been talking about how massively improved Tottenham looked this season, or at least they did until their late season slump which allowed arch rivals Arsenal into 2nd. One of the highlights of this side has been the instant success of youngster Dele Alli, who in his debut season has become an integral part of the title challengers' midfield, and looks set to make his mark on the national side despite being only 20 years of age.
Best Goalkeeper: Petr Cech (Arsenal) - Still the best goalkeeper in the Premier League. With him between the sticks, Arsenal go from Champions League qualification hopefuls to genuine title challengers. Chelsea look on with red faces as they look to have weakened their own side while strengthening an arch rival for barely a pittance.
Manager of the Year: Claudio Ranieri (Leicester City) - Just rewards for the most likable manager in football. This website was (shockingly) one of the lone voices defending his appointment at the start of the season, and I'm glad to see him vindicate that statement. Still few would have imagined him having another shot at the Premier League title after leaving Chelsea some 13 years ago, his re-emergence and success will surely go down as one of the great comebacks in sporting history, and all the more sweet for him to have taken the title from his old employers Chelsea.
Top Scorer: Harry Kane (Tottenham) (25) - Another top season for the great English hope, effectively answering anyone who wondered whether the previous year had just been a flash in the pan.
Most Assists: Mesut Ozil (Arsenal) (19) - An impressive turnaround for a player who had largely been seen as a big-money flop for most of his first few years in England, this season Ozil came alive, with an astonishing assists total that ranks among the highest tallies in Premier League history.
Overachievers: Leicester City - Never has a prize been more deservedly awarded...
Underachievers: Chelsea - ... Until now.
Best signing of the season: N'Golo Kante (Leicester City) - A domineering debut from a player who will almost certainly be the talk of much transfer gossip this summer.
Worst signing of the season: Radamel Falcao (Chelsea) - A remarkable back-to-back champion of this most coveted of awards. Whoever thought this was a good option for the Champions' first two choice strikers should be fired, as should the pundits who agreed. Anyone with even half decent awareness of the game could have seen this one coming.
The Ephemeric Premier League Team of the Season 2016:
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech (Arsenal)
Right Back: Hector Bellerin (Arsenal)
Centrebacks: Toby Alderweireld (Tottenham) & Robert Huth (Leicester City)
Left Back: Christian Fuchs (Leicester City)
Right Mid: Riyad Mahrez (Leicester City)
Centre Mids: N'Golo Kante (Leicester City) & Mesut Ozil (Arsenal)
Left Mid: Dimitri Payet (West Ham)
Forwards: Jamie Vardy (Leicester City) & Harry Kane (Tottenham)
So there we have it, another season of Premier League football gone by. We'll see you again next season!
Thursday, 28 April 2016
The election for the new Mayor of London is coming up. Voters will decide who steps into the shoes of the outgoing Boris Johnson, with polls currently favouring Labour's Sadiq Khan narrowly ahead of the Tories' Zac Goldsmith. But as I examine the various candidates it's clear that one in particular stands out for this observer; The Ephemeric endorses Caroline Pidgeon of the Liberal Democrats.
The Outgoing Incumbent
Let's start with a few words on the outgoing Mayor, Boris Johnson. People give a lot of stick to my fellow Old Etonian, but it is undeniable that London has improved greatly under his watch.
London, even 10 years ago, had a very different feel to the city we currently live in; a sort of half-baked sense of identity and stagnation, rather than the dynamic, world class powerhouse we currently live in that's more on a par with New York during its golden era. The economy is at an all time peak, with new construction booming and previously derelict public space evolving into new shops, restaurants and social plaza. But in particular it's the small touches that impress; the increased green spaces and trees, the clever renovation and branding of certain districts like the "theatre district", the higher maintenance and beautification of buildings and streets, and the clear improvement to public transport during that time. Reduced crime, reduced air pollution, public bicycles. Current day London is a marvel of culture and amenity, and a nicer place to live than it ever used to be.
For all the criticism he may get in some quarters, there is no doubt in my mind that Boris has done a very fine job in city hall. But there has been a clear downside to all the investment he has brought to the city, prices going through the roof, and wages not following proportionately. In fairness to Boris, this is clearly a trend that has been going long before he took office, but without doubt the increasing unaffordability of London is one of the key issues that the next Mayor will have to deal with.
An Overview of the Candidates
The UK's political system has a number of advantages over its American counterpart, chief among them being the relatively healthy multi-party system which allows for greater political choice, and reduces the effect of petty partisanship and gridlock that so paralyses the American legislature.
That said, of the five major party candidates, two can be immediately dismissed. The Green and UKIP candidates are such single issue platforms that it beggars belief. Watching the recent Mayoral debate and seeing Peter Whittle try desperately to link every issue to immigration would have been hilarious if there wasn't such a depressingly large segment of the population that agrees with him. The less said of anti-Semite George Galloway the better.
The three candidates that remain, not in terms of probability of winning but in terms of suitability for the job, fall to the traditional big three parties, Labour's Sadiq Khan, Conservatives' Zac Goldsmith and the Liberal Democrats' Caroline Pidgeon.
Candidate 1: Zac Goldsmith - Conservative Party
On the surface, as someone who was fairly happy with Boris (at least until his recent turn into Brexit politics), it seems sensible to have a look at his party's successor and assume that he would bring more of the same. After all, here is another Old Etonian, a fairly young and charismatic guy.
Unfortunately, Zac is a bit of a twit. In contrast to Boris' fierce intellect and mastery of the issues, Zac bears the naive image of someone who has never set foot in the world outside his billionaire father's mansion, and has no understanding of the problems facing regular people.
There is a TV show, Parks and Recreation. Paul Rudd briefly plays a character who is a billionaire's son who runs for political office. This character is the nicest guy in the world, but childlike, naive and hopelessly oblivious to what life is like in the real world.
Listening to Zac's hilariously out of touch answers in the recent mayoral debate, I could easily have believed I was listening to Paul Rudd's character. My favourite was his solution to the housing crisis that regular people can't afford to live in London, his gleeful answer being to the effect of "they won't have to because they can just take Crossrail". Then there was his claim that there's no point having bus lanes because in 10 years everyone will have an electric car. It's not that his answers are callous or corrupt, it's that he clearly doesn't understand why they are ridiculous.
But there is a far bigger concern than this. As in all democracies there is a seedy side to conservative politics that, much to the credit of this great nation, has rarely found itself too prominent in our discourse (any Brits who complain to me about the hard right leanings of Thatcher or Major need to have a look at the lunacy of the American Republican party and count their lucky stars). However with the migrant crisis and immigration taking such increased significance in recent times, these regressive politics have reared their ugly head.
The absolute deal-breaker for Zac Goldsmith is his full fledged support for the Brexit movement. I'll write a full article closer to the referendum, but suffice it to say, the UK leaving the EU is the wrong decision for many reasons both ideological and practical. Boris Johnson and Goldsmith staking their careers on this position is pure insanity. They're both wrong, and the fact that they resort to such fear-mongering shows that they know they're wrong. I will never in good conscience support anyone with so backwards a worldview that they would support a Brexit movement that would have seemed unthinkable just a few years ago.
Candidate 2: Sadiq Khan - Labour Party
The polls' favourite at the moment, and in all likelihood the next Mayor of London. Sadiq is a better public speaker than Goldsmith, that much is clear, and he also has the benefit of running as an anti-incumbent. But Khan comes with more than his fair share of baggage and controversy.
Much of this is inherent in being a member of the current Labour Party. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is hardly popular outside his hardcore working class base, and his appointment takes the Labour Party on a hard left turn, a curious move for a party already considered too left leaning for most.
Paradoxically given my progressive persuasion, I have often found greater affinity with the British Conservative Party than Labour. In particular the relatively moderate pro-environment, technocratic David Cameron wing of the party. With the contrast of a Labour Party that frequently falls back onto outdated policies of populism and stagnation, and the lack of a consistently strong centre-left alternative, the Tories have often proven themselves the best fit for a modern centrist.
But this current Labour Party has far greater problems than even its own usual eccentricities. Corbyn has a history of controversy including anti-semitic remarks and sympathy with extremist movements such as the IRA. Add to this the recent anti-semitic scandal of former London Mayor Ken Livingstone and it begins to seem as if Labour has an endemic problem. So much so that Khan has been on the warpath about reforming racism within his own party, even as he fends off accusations of his own regarding alleged anti-semitism and stage-sharing with Islamic extremists (a somewhat thin accusation in fairness). This is not a strong position to be in, and it's a wonder that it hasn't hurt Khan more in the polls.
Ultimately left wing politicos like to fancy themselves as progressive and forward moving, but with Labour that simply isn't the case. Their extreme pro-union stance will only slow the advent of exciting new technologies that could transform life in London, with transport in particular a key battleground in recent years. Their fixation on maintaining this archaic notion of a "working class" that is becoming increasingly small and unnecessary in the modern technological world smacks of regression. As a person I like Khan more than Goldsmith, but neither's policies seem anything more than just the usual party base pandering.
Candidate 3: Caroline Pidgeon - Liberal Democrat Party
Which brings us to Caroline, leader of the London Liberal Democrats with years of experience in city hall.
The Liberal Democrats have carved themselves a niche as the centrist party, the party of second choice for most of Britain both Labour and Conservative. The trouble, as in America, is that People who would otherwise vote Lib Dem don't want to vote for a smaller third party only to see their least favourite party win. They'd rather vote for their second preferred option to make sure that the winner is at least tolerable. Thererin lies the problem with first past the post voting, it inherently leads to polarization and two main parties, one for the left, one for the right. This is why the Lib Dems pushed so hard for alternative voting, a measure that was unfortunately defeated, owing to a great deal of misinformation and a fairly poorly run campaign on their part.
But I am an idealist, I'm not going to vote for a candidate I don't believe in, and the Liberal Democrats' modern, moderate policy is exactly what the city needs, not an extreme shift in either direction, just sensible forward-thinking policy that empowers the people of London. Common sense policies like half price transport fares before 7:30 to reduce peak congestion, like additional childcare in today's world where increasingly both parents need to work full time, and like 1 hour bus passes so you no longer have to buy six fares just to get to work (it works so well in Europe, why don't we have this?).
As an example of the difference between the three parties I present to you: the housing crisis. Regular people can't afford to live in London anymore. Rents are out of control, and home ownership is just a fantasy. So how is each candidate proposing to fix the problem?
Sadiq Khan says the answer is more council housing. Those ugly, run-down, blights on your neighborhood that you carefully avoid on your walk are making a comeback. Labour thinks the answer is for the Government to own more of London's property and rent it out to people at low prices.
Zac Goldsmith says the answer is more professional landlord corporations. Big private companies that own all the property in London and then rent it out at, presumably, lower and more controlled prices than the current person-to-person free-for-all.
So the two main candidates' plans for housing in London is for big organisations to own all the property and kindly rent it to you for a monthly fee. Their plan is to consign a whole generation to perpetual renting. That fantasy of home ownership? Poof, it's gone.
Caroline Pidgeon is the only candidate whose platform seems to be about actually empowering the regular person, about helping people move out of renting and get onto that property ladder. Her policies include good, common sense measures like granting extra rights to certain long-term tenants should the owner decide to sell, and increased restrictions on investment from outside the EU. While Labour and Tory policies would make it harder for you to get out of the rental trap, Caroline's are designed to give that autonomy and social mobility back to you.
And that really sums up this election. The inevitable shift to the extremes that comes with our political system has turned the two main parties into caricatures, breaking every policy down into "power to the unions, or power to big corporations?". Caroline Pidgeon and the Liberal Democrat Party is the only candidate making common sense proposals to give power to the individual, and that's why I'm endorsing her for London Mayor.
Wednesday, 20 April 2016
Directed by Vicky Featherstone
Written by Alistair McDowall
Starring Jessica Raine, James Harkness, Ria Zmitrowicz, Darrell D'Silva, Rudi Dharmalingam
Theatre Royal Court
One of the big revelations when you read enough reviews of theatre is that most reviewers are really just making it up as they go along. I am constantly amazed to read professional reviews, including some of the major publications, where the author has clearly missed entire plot points, or drawn a ludicrous conclusion based on some obvious agenda. One of the great things about theatre is, of course, how open it is to interpretation, but it's hard to escape the whiff of sycophancy; journalists attempting to sound like they understood the play by parroting whatever the groupthink of the theatre-going class happened to be.
X, the new play from the Royal Court Theatre, has presented a particularly pronounced example of this phenomenon. Every single review has a completely different interpretation of what the play is about, so much so that people can't even seem to agree on basic story points such as setting, characters or even on what planet the story is set. Part of this is legitimate interpretation of the production, but a great deal is because these people write with such intentional vagueness that for all we know they might not even have seen the play. This form of arch hackery is altogether strangely in keeping with the style of X itself.
Let's start from the beginning. X is the newest play from 28 year old wunderkind Alistair McDowall, often described as the great white hope of British theatre scribes, and a writer with a reputation for ambitious, abstract storytelling.
X ostensibly tells the story of a group of people stranded in a research base on Pluto. Contact has been lost with Earth and things are starting to get nervy. Time is being distorted as the inhabitants begin to lose context with reality, and there's a hint of some ghostly goings on. By intermission you'll be under the impression that you're watching a fairly unremarkable, but perfectly enjoyable horror story. But McDowall is not the type to give you something so simple.
Then the second act goes completely off the deep end as characters, relationships and the passage of time shift and interchange freely with seemingly no consistency or significance. All narrative flow is abandoned. One scene even goes so far as to be 10 minutes of two characters shouting the letter "x" at each other back and forth non stop. One might make the case that this hearkens back to a key scene in the first act where one character uses bird calls as an allusion to associative memory; the fundamental maintenance of an emotional connection to particular memories in order to retain the significance and relationship between them. As the story continues, the exact opposite happens, memories fade, significance of people and events vanishes.
One might add to this the context that is heavily implied during the production, that life on Earth has seemingly come to an end. Essentially we are watching the last memories of human existence fade away in this claustrophobic box. It is surely no coincidence then that Pluto is chosen as the setting, given its connections in mythology to the underworld, the "tomb" of mankind in this case.
The problem is, I've spent four paragraphs talking about the meaning behind X, almost none of which is more than hinted at on-stage. There's nothing wrong with subtext and metaphor, but in this case the audience is going well above and beyond the call of duty in order to divine some hidden significance from the script.
In a well written play, the plot and themes should complement one another. Plot with no underlying themes is superficial, themes with no plot to hold it all together is pretentious. This is the latter. The plot here is razor thin. The characterisation is so poor, with so little depth, and such messy story telling, that it's impossible for the audience to ever develop a connection with the characters and therefore engage with the plot in the way that is an absolute requirement for a play that necessitates such hard work from the audience.
The story simply is not at all compelling, the themes not especially novel or fleshed out, and never comes together in any kind of satisfying way. You sit there waiting for something to happen, for some thematic conclusion that will bring the deeper significance of the author's intent together with what you're actually watching unfold, but this never comes. X very much has the feeling of the author having a half-baked shower-thought, and quickly cobbling together some semblance of a story to serve as a vehicle to express that thought.
It's not all negative. The set design is excellent, featuring prominently a single huge black window that dominates the set, feeling oppressive and deeply unsettling. The stage itself is tilted askew, having the combined effect of creating a discombobulated, unsettled world, and of creating a black border in the corners around the set, further adding to the sense of isolation and being trapped.
In addition the first act is entirely enjoyable, a creepy throw-back to the era of classy sci-fi circa 1970. The problem is entirely with the second act; at a time when the script should be tying the themes and plot together into a satisfying and illuminating denouement, it simply doesn't bother, and leaves you to pick up the pieces.
There's a scene in the first act where two characters discuss listening to white noise in order to find some meaning amidst the chaos. This seems to be the approach of the second act: to completely disintegrate the story and characters into abstraction, with the view that the audience will form some significance or justification that the author himself hasn't. It's the sort of pretentious contrivance that might sound compelling when described to an artistic director over a boozy lunch at the Botanist, but frankly it's cliché. The absence of meaning doesn't itself bear some inherent meaning, and if that's what passes for thought provoking at the Royal Court, one hopes they'll try a bit harder next time.
Monday, 18 April 2016
Producers Anthony Gonzalez, Justin Meldal-Johnsen
There's a crossroads that an artist comes to when they make it big. They can stick with what worked and run the risk of stagnating or, worse, drawing unfavourable comparisons with the work that made them famous, or they can go in a different direction to show their artistic depth.
It may seem strange to say this about French group M83, essentially these days a solo vehicle for maestro Anthony Gonzalez, who have after all been around for a good 15 years now. But for all the kudos and critical praise they received over that time, 2011's album Hurry Up, We're Dreaming undeniably took them to a new level. Rightly so, it was a masterpiece and one of the best albums in many years, but crucially it was a huge critical and commercial success, putting M83 and Gonzalez on the big stage for the first time. Now Gonzalez is doing film scores for Tom Cruise films, and appears to be the producer of vogue for such big names as Daft Punk, Haim and The Killers.
M83 has always had plenty of fans, but with this new-found fame, Junk is almost certainly the most widely anticipated M83 album yet. Faced with such pressure, Gonzalez has decided to take things in a bit of a different direction.
The sound of M83 has always been heavy on nostalgia, very much influenced by the synth and distortion of late 1970s/1980s. Even Hurry Up, We're Dreaming will have been frequently described during reviews as "John Hughes infused" or sounding like something out of The Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles. But while Gonzalez wears his influences on his sleeve, M83's music has always had a sound that's very much distinct as their own. It's modern music with a nostalgic twist. With Junk Gonzalez mines those same sources, but with an altogether less subtle, full-fat approach.
While previous M83 work can be described as some immaculate quasi-orchestral arrangements with a nostalgic flavour, the aptly named Junk dives head-first into the cheesiest, tackiest neon crevices of Gonzalez's childhood. This explains the intentionally tasteless album cover; awful fonts and colours, with what looks like some kind of happy meal toy. The entire premise of Junk appears to be celebrate the guilty pleasures of childhood.
Gonzalez himself has described the album as being an "organised mess", an eclectic collection of songs that shouldn't work, but somehow do. To paraphrase this in plainer English, the intention appears to have been to create an album that you enjoy in spite of itself, a collection of guilty pleasures. This is a very good way to describe the album as it happens, music emulating the kind of trashy pop we'd probably prefer to forget ever existed, except so finely crafted, so expertly produced, that you end up loving it as much as you hate it. The end result is something a bit like if Anthony Bourdain tried to cook a Big Mac.
The best example of this is probably lead single Do it, Try it, which is such a daft, ridiculous song, but undeniably catchy. Sometimes this approach comes off beautifully, for example with Walkway Blues, which is something of a masterclass in how to do cheesy power-pop well, sounding a bit like what we can only really describe as a techno Elton John.
There are even moments of classic M83, including the wonderful Solitude, which sounds like a James Bond theme song that never was, and notably the achingly bittersweet album closing track Sunday Night 1987.
But if the intention is to sidestep following up from Hurry Up, We're Dreaming's michelin starred brilliance by saying "hey let's be honest sometimes we really just want McDonalds", the truth is it doesn't quite work. The introspective tracks are just too saccharine, and the upbeat songs too over the top, and then there's the elevator music instrumental tracks. It's a "mess" that gets just a little bit too out of hand.
At the end of the day, junk food, no matter how well done, is still junk food. The experience of listening to this album is a bit like going to one of those hipster bars that tries to look like a filthy dive, "ironically". That said, this album is just as addictive as junk food, we can't seem to turn it off! So by no means a masterpiece, but quite enjoyable.
Must Listen :
Sunday Night 1987
Wednesday, 13 April 2016
Directed by The Coen Brothers
Written by The Coen Brothers
Produced by The Coen Brothers
Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, Jonah Hill, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton
Studio Universal Pictures
Running time 106 minutes
Everybody knows the Coen Brothers. The celebrated writer/director duo have 15 Academy Award nominations between them, winning two of them for Fargo and No Country for Old Men. The critics love them, the awards love them, and the audience loves them. Their name has become synonymous with high quality cinema.
In truth though, their comedies can be a bit hit or miss, as anyone who saw Burn After Reading will attest. That particular film is not the only, but probably the best example of the brothers' flawed approach to comedy, a grab bag of amusing bits hamstrung together with only the weakest of narrative threads.
Hail, Caesar! is a film which on first glance appears very much in the same vein, albeit executed with far greater skill. The jokes are funny enough, occasionally side-splittingly so, but the whole thing is just so lightweight.
In brief, Hail, Caesar! revolves around a film studio during the golden age of Hollywood of the 1950s. One of the actors, George Clooney goes missing, and studio fixer Josh Brolin tries to find him. There are various additional plot threads involving other actors and movie productions which only lightly relate to the central story.
We spent the whole movie expecting something more to happen, waiting for the plot to take off, but it never really did. Instead one can't help but leave the cinema feeling as though they have just watched some immaculately produced sketch comedy, a series of disparate but undeniably witty scenes which never really add up to anything greater. In the most extreme examples, there are whole scenes and character threads which honestly contribute nothing to the overall plot of the film.
Fortunately there are two things in particular that make Hail, Caesar! well worth your time. The first is the brilliant production. This movie looks and sounds pitch perfect, in particular during the all too brief segments showing the films within a film, which have been lovingly and impressively crafted to look for all the world like actual films from the 1950s. We see everything from an old fashioned western, to a musical, a Roman blockbuster, and classier prestige pictures. Some of the clips we see look like such perfect recreations of the production style of this era that it's truly uncanny, and they're a joy to watch.
The second is the phenomenal all-star cast, which includes Clooney and Brolin as mentioned, but also Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and most impressively relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich who manages to carry one of the larger roles in the film without looking out of place against such illustrious colleagues.
But the smaller roles too are a veritable parade of "oh hey it's that guy!" moments, including the recognizable faces of Wayne Knight of Seinfeld, Dolph Lundgren, Allison Pill, Patrick Fischler, David Krumholtz, Michael Gambon, and many others. But the pick of the bunch is Robert Picardo of Star Trek: Voyager recognition who briefly steals the film during his one scene as a rabbi consulting on a film about the crucifixion. At every level, in every role, the casting is absolutely perfect.
So ultimately Hail, Caesar! is definitely worth watching, even though it fails to deliver the level of product that one might have hoped from such a dizzying array of talent. It's a grab-bag of pretty damn funny, if only lightly connected scenes, featuring some brilliantly produced moments of Hollywood nostalgia and great performances throughout.
Friday, 8 April 2016
Genre Experimental art-rock/jazz fusion
Producers David Bowie, Tony Visconti
If David Bowie's final album reminds us of one thing, it's that Bowie was a true artist, right until the end. Throughout his career, Bowie was known for mixing and switching different genres and styles, and with what would prove to be his last album he has produced possibly his most experimental and creatively adventurous work.
Blackstar is a fairly short album at around 40 minutes long, and yet it's hard to classify such is the combination of disparate influences and the ever shifting texture of the music. It tries everything from wild, acidic jazztronica to folk, rap (a first from Bowie) and industrial dance. It also sees Bowie adopt his first new persona in decades, this time with the decidedly creepy blind prophet.
Blackstar is an album that is best summarized by its first two singles, Blackstar and Lazarus. The former is a 10 minute long odyssey through amorphous musical movements, dense and cryptic lyrics, and a brilliant yet baffling music video that would feel more appropriately recognized with a BAFTA than a Grammy. The latter is a rather more radio friendly, yet equally evocative requiem that fits neatly with what we've come to expect from Bowie.
One has to admire the fact that even at his age Bowie continued to experiment and push into new territory. After the excellent but relatively safe rock album The Next Day it would have been easy to assume that in his later years he had settled into a plateau of nostalgia and convention (albeit conventions that he had created some 50 years earlier), but this new album makes a clear statement that this is not the case.
The trouble is that, as with much of the work he produced in the 1990s, his more experimental tracks really don't always hold together musically. Perhaps it says something about the greater trend in music as a whole that music these past 20 years really hasn't changed that much, but there doesn't seem to be as much room in music for someone to push the envelope as Bowie spent his career doing.
As a result, Blackstar is utterly fascinating as an artistic work, but how many of these songs are you really going to listen to more than once or twice? The avant-garde tracks on offer here vary wildly, from the amelodic and incohesive Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) to the marvelously zany 'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore. When it works its quite brilliant, but for the most part it's hit or miss. Meanwhile those looking for something a bit more conventional won't find much here other than Lazarus, but would do well to check out Bowie's beautiful send off I Can't Give Everything Away, in which Bowie wonderfully samples his earlier track from the album Low, A New Career in a New Town, the context of which adds a lovely twist to his last ever song in hindsight.
While the music is inconsistent, the artistic merit of this album is without parallel, even more so in the wake of Bowie's death. Launched before Bowie's illness had been revealed, fans and critics spent weeks picking through the lyrics and symbolism in these tracks. Theories abound that the title track was about ISIS, or the cult of celebrity, or other such intellectually complex ideas, and these analyses all contain merit.
But the album's meaning changed completely on the day Bowie died (exactly as predicted in the lyrics to the title track come to think of it). Suddenly people went back and each song contained an entirely new meaning, sounded entirely different. How all this subtext was hidden in these tracks, only to suddenly become clear in an instant of revelation is quite the accomplishment. It was like an entirely new album being released.
This was quite intentional, one album, two completely different contexts in the blink of an eye. David Bowie managed to turn his own death into a form of artistic expression, a feat which is frankly awe inspiring.
For this reason at least, Blackstar will go down as a very memorable moment in a legendary career. Blackstar is a fine piece of art, a fascinating work that requires listening to at least once, even if the songs themselves are unlikely to receive much play-time on our iPods.
Must Listen :
I Can't Give Everything Away
'Tis a Pity She Was a Whore
Tuesday, 5 April 2016
The nomination process for the 2016 Presidential elections is now well underway. Last week we took a look at the Democratic Primary and made a key endorsement. Now it is time to turn our attention to Republican side of the contest. Initially the plan was to do an overview of the candidates, analyse their strengths and weaknesses, and then in the spirit of fairness make an endorsement in much the same way as we did for the Democratic Primary. Unfortunately, after much consideration the Ephemeric is unable to make an endorsement at this time. Here's why.
Introducting Donald J Trump
Of course, this piece is going to be about one person in particular. Whether you like him or not, Donald Trump has undeniably turned his campaign into a pop culture phenomenon in a way that few politicians ever have. Everyone is talking about him. Trump memes have infiltrated internet culture all over the world. Recently on watching a technology live stream from Sweden, a joke was made in the format of "Make [blank] great again!". It's everywhere.
But when you get over the humour in the situation the fact remains, this is really happening, one of America's two main political parties is really on the verge of making Donald Trump their representative in the next election.
This is, after all, a man who has gone on record stating that women should be punished for having abortions, that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, and who wants to build a wall between America and its neighbouring countries (and responded to criticism from the former President of Mexico with the petulant "that wall just got ten feet higher!"). This is a man who has openly condoned violence at his rallies, repeatedly insulted numerous women in politics and the media based on their physical appearance, and mocked physically handicapped people for "looking funny". This man has talked about his penis in Presidential debates because he felt sensitive (and weirdly obsessed) about the size of his hands, attacked his opponent for having an "uglier" wife than him, and debates his opponents by giving them nicknames like "little Marco" and "Lyin' Ted" as a substitute for policy arguments. He's attacked Hillary Clinton for not being able to "satisfy her husband", accused news anchor Megyn Kelly from having "blood coming out of her wherever", and reassured those critical of his tone on race issues by asserting that he's confident that "at least some Mexicans" are not rapists and criminals.
This is a man who lies pathologically. The widely respected Pulitzer prize winning Politifact rates 78% of his public statements as at least mostly false (compared to 65% for Ted Cruz and 28% for Hillary Clinton). His lies are numerous and diverse, ranging from denying statements that are present for the whole world to see on his website or in previous interviews, to his ever shifting excuses for the criminal conduct of his campaign manager, completely made up statistics, doctored videos claiming to show, among other things, immigrants pouring over the border from Mexico (footage actually from Africa), and Muslim Americans cheering 9/11 (never actually happened). Indeed one could spend all day going over the many things Trump has said and done which are outrageously and demonstrably untrue, but instead I'll just leave you with a partial list.
On the issues, Trump has gone from a moderate pro-choice New York Democrat to a supposedly hardcore conservative. He has talked about ending the department of education and rolling back Federal Government provided healthcare, only to seconds later state unequivocally that healthcare and education are among the most important services the Federal Government provides. He has proposed a trade war with China, advocated committing war crimes by bombing civilian centres in the Middle East, and proposes outright banning any use of the term "climate change" in America. From one sentence to the next he calls for interventionism, then isolationism, big Government, then small Government, liberalism then conservatism. His comments throughout his campaign have been incoherent and inconsistent at best, delusional and dangerous at worst. He either has a complete lack of understanding of the meaning of what he suggests, or he simply doesn't care and sees policy as merely a soundbyte to win votes.
It's an embarrassment for America, but in particular for his party. So much so that the normally lock-step party unity is dangerously close to shattering, to the point where prominent establishment Republicans won't commit to supporting Trump should he win the nomination. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus cut a hilarious and pathetically tragic figure before the recent debates as he attempted to grit his teeth and put on a show of cheerful unity in order to gin up enthusiasm ahead of a Trump win. He has become a laughing stock, along with every other Republican official who has held their tongue on this farce.
The point we're trying to make here is simply, how is he winning his primary? The Republican Party has its problems, but surely they have a few credible politicians left? He has said more than enough completely outrageous, insane, and frankly offensive things to disqualify anyone else from the Presidency, and carries himself with a demeanour that's more 6 year old child than Presidential, and yet he has been handily leading his party's primary from the start.
So just what the hell is going on?
How did Trump dominate the GOP?
The short answer is that this is simply the inevitable culmination of years of Republican Party policy. The Trump movement that has overrun the party and threatens its very existence is a monster of their own making.
But let's wind things back a little bit, to 2009 after the election of Barack Obama. The administration of George W Bush had gone out in scandal, considered by some to be among the very worst in American history. His controversies were numerous, and he left office with record low approval ratings in the 20s, and a whole new generation of Americans rallied against him and his party in a way not seen for decades. The Republican Party could have taken this moment to re-evaluate, to learn from their mistakes and reign in the party's excess and what many people viewed as a flirtation with extremism, but instead they doubled down, and went deep into denial.
In the eyes of a public they had already alienated, Republicans doubled down on religion and anti-intellectualism, they doubled down on class warfare and intolerance, they abused the powers of Congress to reach unprecedented levels of administrative obstruction. They did all of this with the explicit and frequently stated intention of damaging the Obama Presidency as much as possible, not even bothering with the pretense of acting in the interests of the country. Partisan politics taken to a whole new extreme. The clear conceit being that if Obama's Presidency failed, it would make their own maligned administration look good by comparison.
The crux is that in their mad attempt at self-vindication, they have forced themselves into increasingly extreme and indefensible positions. They have willingly ceded the middle ground to Obama's Democrats by necessity so they can continue to attack everything he does, and the more reasonable his position, the further they have to shift out to the extreme. Anyone will tell you that this is unthinkably shortsighted politics. The apparent intention was to fire up the most fanatical, and therefore most likely to vote, fringes of their own party with a view to short-term success, but there has been seemingly no thought given to re-establishing themselves in the long-term.
Thus by its own volition the Republican Party has become dependent for survival on the rage of fanatics. The party has veered so far to the right that traditionally Republican policies (like Obamacare), conservative judges (Merrick Garland), and any Republican who even so much as touches the Obama administration (Jon Hunstman) are now considered far too liberal for the party. Even qualified, reasonable politicians like Mitt Romney were forced to take indefensibly fringe positions in the primary in order to get nominated.
What used to be the party of moderate fiscal conservatives like Reagan and Romney is now the party of Jim Crow and David Duke. If you don't believe that, just have a look at the Jim Crow-like voter discrimination policies being prioritised by Republicans all over the country, and just look at how Trump refuses to criticize KKK leader Duke, because he knows all too well that the racist vote is a big part of his voter base.
The pyschology of a Trump voter
But don't fool yourself into thinking that these voters are all just racist or homophobic, those are simply examples of something far more fundamental about the nature of fanaticism.
Now bear with us as we talk science for a moment, but there exists a strange phenomenon, one that has been illustrated time and time again by independent studies. When someone is proven wrong, rather than altering ones beliefs to incorporate the new information, the tendency in human nature is to do the opposite, to hold onto those false beliefs with even greater conviction. It's called the backfire effect, and the more extreme and deeply held the belief, the bigger the effect. The psychology here is simple; people are insecure by nature, their worldviews form a part of their self-identity, and when that identity is challenged they fight back. The problem is that the deeper one entrenches one's self, the more complex the mass of ever increasing schema becomes. This is essentially the textbook definition of how fanaticism develops. This whole movement is pure partisanship.
So ultimately these voters are all unified by a single thing: a worldview that is out of step with mainstream reality (whether it is archaic bigoted notions, or merely a strong adherence to the conservative values that were so spectacularly repudiated by the voters) combined with an overpowering need for self-validation in the face of a world that no longer makes sense to them.
This is exactly what we have seen with the Republican party these past eight years, a single-minded obsession with self-vindication. So it is no surprise that their new direction would find them kinship with these desperate fringe personalities. It should be clear now that, by the very nature of fanaticism, the deeper the Republican party dug itself, the more and more extreme its fringe elements would become. This has led directly to the problems they have today.
Why the Republican Party created Frankenstein's Monster
Simply put, these voters are easily manipulated. Why bother going to the effort of crafting technically detailed policy, trying to pull off the difficult feat of appealing to multiple voting blocs, when you can get a whole lot of people to vote by simply appealing to fear? Why deny yourself the financial support of sleazy lobbyists whose interests might be at odds with the voters, when you can simply talk about "scary Muslims" and then not even have to risk revealing such unpopular policy to the distracted public?
In the Republican Party's apparent shortsightedness and cynicism they have spent eight years dredging the lowest common denominator for the sake of short-term gain. Now those extremists are all the party has left, so it is absolutely no surprise to see them take over completely.
Back in 2009 The Ephemeric saw this trend developing, and predicted it would bring about the demise of the Republican Party, a claim which at the time was ridiculed by some of our readers, but now appears eerily prescient. A split has been developing for years between the mainstream Republicans and this fervent fringe movement. Mainstream Republicans have been tolerating the fringe in so far as they can manipulate and take advantage of them, and the fringe has been sticking with a party they really disdain, because their politicians have been saying hateful bigoted things on the sly with a wink and a nudge.
The inmates take over the asylum
Here's the difference with Trump. When you're a relatively credible mainstream Republican, you want to stoke these fires without explicitly appearing to be extremist yourself, hence why you use code words like "religious freedom" when you actually mean not allowing homosexuals to marry, or talk about "birth certificates" when you really mean "hey look at that black guy" (ever wonder why Obama's opponents were so obsessed with his middle name?). You have to be deft enough not to appear too crazy to the mainstream electorate, while still letting the extreme fringe know you've got their back.
Trump doesn't do that. He has gone full-steam into crazy town, saying things that the Republican Party already knows this fringe base wants to hear, but that no sane Republican would ever be willing to say explicitly for fear of alienating the more moderate voters they need in order to win a general election. Why would he do this in spite of the conventional wisdom to which all his peers adhere? Partly it's shortsightedness, Trump has been winging this entire primary, so it's entirely in character that he would focus on crossing this initial hurdle before worrying about the general. But partly it's this: Donald Trump thinks the voters are idiots.
You can see it plainly in the language he uses, simplistic, childlike words and phrases. Instead of describing specific policy, it's just "really really good, really terrific". All nuance is gone, instead everything is defined by either "winning" or "losing". We apparently need to "win at trade" and "win at immigration" whatever the fuck that even means. Rather than specify criticisms against his opponents, they're just "losers", or he gives them childish nicknames. The reason he has taken so easily to internet memes is because that's literally his entire campaign, childish slogans and catchphrases, "we don't win anymore!", "make America great again!".
The Trump Coalition
And therein lies the heart of the Trump coalition. It's not just a case of bigots hearing bigoted things and giving him their support. His base comes from a wide variety of emotionally insecure fringe voters who are desperately seeking self-validation. These voters stand for absolutely nothing. They don't care that Trump talks about healthcare proposals that sound identical to Obamacare, they don't care that he criticizes Republican pillars like Bush or the Iraq War, and they sure as hell don't care about the obvious contradictions in Trump's few policy positions. In their extreme partisanship these people seek only one thing: validation. They just want to win. Trump is right to focus so heavily on that word, because that's the number one selling point to them.
These down and out people just want to win the election to vindicate their views, their intellect, and their whole worldview that has been so fundamentally challenged in recent years. This is why they are so obsessed with Trump's braggadocio catchphrases, his name calling (Trump fans have taken to calling his detractors "Cucks", a slang term for someone whose wife is cheating on them), his fixation on winners and losers. The entire subtext of the Trump campaign is "don't be a loser, back me and everyone will know you're a winner!" It's the same basic psychology that we've already discussed ad nauseam, and Trump is only too happy to appeal to this baser instinct.
And yet the Republican Party still tries to convince itself that their policies and the "mainstream" appeal of conservatism are the reasons behind the enthusiasm of their voters. They are wrong, this Trumpism is radically different to anything they have ever seen. Trump is a salesman first and foremost, his entire brand is based on the notion that he's a winner and if you buy what he's selling then you can be a winner too. The Republican Party is selling the same old snake oil to voters whose motivations it has gravely misinterpreted, Donald Trump is selling validation to an audience that badly craves it.
Ultimately what's happening right now is something that people have been predicting for years. The Republican Party in its desperation has been digging itself into a hole of crazy, and now they've completely lost control of the movement. They spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars stoking fear and anger thinking it would somehow lead to permanent resurgence. It hasn't, and now they face a very real existential threat.
As it stands, it is almost impossible for anyone other than Trump to win the nomination before the convention. Even if the party establishment gets its way and it comes down to a contested convention, that gives them the impossible choice of backing Trump, or overturning the democratic process by selecting someone nobody voted for, a move which would likely split the party permanently. And if Trump does get the nomination, then there's the question of whether to support him, and in his victory essentially hand over the soul of the party to Trumpism, potentially dooming the conservative movement for a generation.
It's a cruel twist of fate that in order to save the conservative movement, they might have to give up this election. Let Trump get the nomination, and then let him lose in order to nip this Trumpist movement in the bud before it begins. But the cruelest thing of all is that whatever happens, they can have no one to blame but themselves.
Saturday, 19 March 2016
With the nomination process for the 2016 Presidential elections now well underway, the time has come for The Ephemeric to turn its attention to the matter at hand, beginning with a look at the Primary for the Democratic Party. So let's get this out of the way: The Ephemeric endorses Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party's nomination for President.
First, let no one deny the unexpected success of opponent Bernie Sanders. An outsider and registered Independent, who proudly describes himself by that most anathema of political terms in America, "socialist", few would have expected Bernie to mount a serious challenge. But the Senator from Vermont has defied all expectation, and in doing so has reframed what would otherwise have been a largely symbolic coronation of Clinton into a genuine debate over the progressive values of the Democratic Party.
And let's be clear, we love Bernie. There is no other politician in America so consistent in principle with the integrity to actually stand by his words. When Mitch McConnell filibusters a bill on the Senate floor he puffs up his chest, and then just goes home two minutes later, then there's Bernie who sticks to his guns and stands on that floor talking nine hours straight for the benefit of his constituents.
Sanders is a gentleman and a committed champion for progress, but most importantly he's drawn attention to one of the crucial issues of our times, the out of control increase of income inequality. The situation is bad, normal people can barely afford to live in major cities, property ownership is a pipe dream unless you were lucky enough to inherit some, and the "bare minimum" for employees is increasingly to work for longer hours for less pay and be grateful for it. The system is broken and without urgent attention will descend further into outright exploitation.
So why have we endorsed Hillary Clinton, only to spend the last three paragraphs singing the praises of her opponent? The fact is that being an advocate for a single issue doesn't negate the other factors in choosing the best person for President of the United States. Case and point, Sanders' longstanding support of gun availability and draconian proposals to tax reform.
Hillary Clinton is very much an Obama Democrat, finding herself aligned with his brand of reasonable, realistic policy backed by empirical data and expert analysis. She recognises the need for economic reform, but at the same time appreciates the inherent risk to growth that comes with regulation and uncertainty. It's a complex issue requiring nuanced action, and that's what Hillary brings to the table. Bernie Sanders is too single-minded, and too black and white in his worldview. He frames the debate in a populist mind, a conspiracy of the "wealthy elites" that can easily be scapegoated as a cause for all our problems. This isn't the real world, it's simplistic and misguided at best, manipulative and disingenuous at worst. I have no doubt that he believes his cause is just, but his puffed up language comes off as a cheap way to garner support.
Then there is the matter of experience. Between her time in the White House as First Lady, her time in Congress as the Senator for New York, and her time on the world stage as the Secretary of State, Hillary enters this campaign as probably the most experienced candidate for President in the history of the Republic, with a broad array of skills and knowledge. It's an easy transition for a woman already familiar with the latest briefings, a distinct advantage going into an election.
The fact is that experience counts. Even Obama, who has generally been a good President (a more full analysis to come closer to the end of his term) proved as much with his naïveté in trying to work across the aisle with Republicans in good faith during his first two years, only to find out the hard way that there is more than just ideology preventing the Republicans from compromising.
Add to this the general importance of this election, with progress in the nation being perennially held back by the politics of partisan obstruction, and 2 or 3 Supreme Court positions likely to be filled by the next President. A good sweep for one side in this election could shape the ideology of the country for decades.
With this being the case, it's all the more important that we select a President who represents the moderate core of the American people, not just the loudest minority of one of its wings. And that really is the crux of my biggest issue in this Primary. Bernie's campaign is targeting the extreme base to rile them up with an "us vs them" narrative, built around a fictional bogeyman, on the cynical notion that the party that wins in November will not be the one that wins independents, but the one that gets their fanatical base to turn out the most. For lack of a better comparison, his campaign is being run like a Republican campaign. He's basically trying to generate the left wing equivalent of the Tea Party, targeting the angry and irrational. It's this classic Republican strategy to smother all available information to give the public the impression that whatever you say is generally accepted consensus. If every single comment and news article you see supports a falsehood, you'll be more likely to believe it regardless of fact. In summary: fake it 'til you make it. It was wrong when Republicans did it, and it's wrong when Sanders' campaign does it.
Now again to be clear, Bernie Sanders is a good man, but his campaign staff and most vocal supporters are too often being shitty and dishonest, and you only need to venture online to Reddit or other message boards to see the fervent, ignorant propaganda storm that is being generated in his name. It should also be a red flag to all progressives to see his campaign forming a bizarre alliance with the extreme right wing media like Breitbart, Newsmax and The Washington Times to flood the internet with anti-Hillary material. Rest assured, if those Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell boosting gutter trash are the ones working for him, he's not the candidate for you.
But this decision is ultimately about Hillary. Targeting the extreme fringe of the party will only serve to drive the parties even further apart. Hillary's campaign is focused on what is real, what is true, her policy is sound and it appeals to the regular, mostly centrist American citizen. It continues eight years of successful and relatively popular policy of the current President and puts our country in the hands of an extremely capable leader going forward during challenging times. As far as this Primary is concerned, there's only one woman for the job.