Lockdown in Paradise

This may seem insensitive or even cruel to those who are suffering grievously from the virus and its social effects – lockdowns, social distancing, ‘bubbles’ – but I have to say that I’m rather enjoying it all.

On the ‘social distancing’ thing, I’ve never been a very social person, especially since I became rather deaf, which makes certain kinds of socialising almost impossible: for example, in noisy pubs. I prefer small group meetings, just two or three ideally; and don’t mind my own company, poor company as it is, most of the time. A lockdown enables one to spurn company without offending anyone, and to stay in one spot without the inconvenience of air, rail or road travel, or even walking. There one can immerse oneself in one’s own black thoughts – and mine are pretty black just now, what with Brexit and this appalling government – without the risk of depressing others, or having to ‘fake’ cheerfulness in order to protect them. If you’re in England, and unwelcome guests arrive, I understand that you can summon the police to evict them if they make up more than six. Or is it eight? I don’t know, as I’m not in England currently. But it sounds a great service.

Indeed, I’m hugely privileged in having an idyllic bolthole of my own to quarantine myself in. I also have continuous company of my own choosing, my beloved Kajsa, who shares my ‘bubble’ with me; we own the ‘sommarhus’ jointly, on an island – almost the definition of ‘isolation’! – in the Stockholm Archipelago. We’ve just installed ‘winter water’ – insulated pipes which won’t freeze – so we can spend the coming winter here for as long as the pandemic lasts. (It’s pretty virulent in the city. Whose fault that is I don’t know. ‘Socialist’ Sweden’s unexpectedly liberal approach to things like face masks, which you hardly see, is widely blamed; but I’m no expert.)

And the whole experience has scarcely affected our life- and leisure-style at all. We’re both Zooming like crazy: me with family, societies and friends, and Kajsa with her teaching and politicking. We have a shop on the island that provides all essentials, including fresh turkey (or we may downsize to a chicken), and incorporates a post office that takes in parcels (brought by boat) from home and abroad. I’m impressed by how many shops and other suppliers have adapted to the lockdowns by upping their delivery arrangements; not only Amazon – which it’s difficult to avoid just now – but also the ‘Little Britain’ shop in the city (for Xmas puds, crackers, mince pies, goose fat and rum butter: we got that order today); a wonderful master chef called Lena actually on the island, who makes most of our Swedish meals; and, back in Blighty, the ‘British Corner Shop Ltd.’ in Bristol, which specialises in sending English grub to homesick ex-pats everywhere. My order was ‘packed with love by Saffron’. Isn’t that nice?

Fortunately the Swedish and British Christmas dinners don’t clash: we’ll have Lena’s on Julaften and my roast on Juldagen. I’m also expecting a delivery – a surprise present for Kajsa (she’ll never guess it) – from the British Museum shop, and another from ‘Radical Teatowels’, which should be winging its way here soon. The kids are also sending things over, and I to them. We really are well set up here. If we need more warmth, all we have to do is chop down a tree. Most of them are firs, which means we have Christmas trees all around the house, so there’s no need to bring one in. Booze comes by boat from Systembolaget, including my new favourite lakrits vodka from Finland. The only thing I’ll miss will be the British Christmas TV Specials; but I imagine someone can teach me how to ‘stream’ them (is that the word?) on my computer. 

I’m sure all this has been made even better for us old anti-social grumps by the pandemic. Shops, especially, have adapted to the situation enterprisingly by doing more of their business on the internet and by post. I’m sure it wasn’t like this last year. Delivery services of all kinds must have profited greatly; albeit at a possible cost to the health of their delivery drivers, who form the front line troops between us and the disease. And we, the lucky ones, who don’t need to go out in public – or even out of our beds – can have the laziest Christmas ever. 

Could this carry on after the virus has been tamed? For me that’s quite an attractive prospect. But I’m reminded of the fat woman in EM Forster’s short Sci-Fi novel The Machine Stops (1909), who lives in much the same way; until….  Well, if you haven’t yet read it, get it for Christmas. It might be cautionary.

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A Brexit Metaphor

You’ll have seen this before. But it’s my favourite. Thank God for our eccentric aristos!!

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Chaos Theory

Everyone seems to be saying that Boris Johnson is doing a shocking job, and predicting that nearly all of us in Britain will lose as a result of Brexit. All I’m reading on the internet is ridicule of ‘BoJo’ and his team, which must surely be getting through to them? Unless, that is, I’m only getting messages that pander to my anti-Brexit prejudice. As I understand it that’s perfectly possible, because of the way these computer geniuses (or robots) edit and distribute the news that comes to us. In which case there will be a whole other half of the British population who will be getting entirely contrary messages, leading them to believe that Boris is right and that a negotiated or even a ‘no deal’ Brexit can put us firmly on the road to a glorious future of ‘sovereignty’ and ultimately the ‘greatness’ we abandoned by allowing ourselves to be seduced by the sirens of Brussels, and deprived of our proud blue passports. Well, maybe so; although as an educated citizen I know that the colour of our passports had little to do with the EU (we could always have stuck with blue if we’d wanted), and – much more importantly – I know as a historian that ‘sovereignty’ is a good deal more complicated than the Brexiters like to pretend. In short, even ‘sovereign’ nations need to make alliances with other countries, and if Britain’s isn’t with the EU, it will have to be with somebody else. This will hit the Little Englanders eventually, probably as they’re chewing on their chlorinated chicken courtesy of Uncle Sam. By then it will be too late.

This will be the likely impact of the present crisis on the majority of people in Britain, after the more immediate repercussions – lorry jams on the approaches to Dover, shortages of medicines and of certain foods, higher duties and so higher prices, loss of freedom of travel by Brits (as well as for those pesky foreigners ‘coming over ‘ere and doing our plumbing and picking our fruit’: https://www.facebook.com/veryBrexitproblems/videos/1044077395979528), airport delays, jobs going as employers flee across the channel, and all the rest of the material effects of Brexit, have been sorted out. Those material effects could last for ages; even the Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg has predicted a wait of fifty years (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/shortcuts/2018/jul/24/two-50-or-100-years-when-do-leavers-think-brexit-will-pay-off). Accompanying them will probably be a deepening of the popular xenophobia that partly fuelled the Brexit movement; culminating in the death of the sort of Britain – tolerant, internationalist, multicultural – that the liberals amongst us had always taken patriotic pride in, and aspired towards if never quite achieved. By that time the UK may well have been reduced to an English – possibly even a southern English – rump, with its other nations and regions hiving off, back into the arms of the EU; heralding the final destruction of the ‘old country’, brought about by Brexit, its foolish followers, and its more knowing and cunning leaders. 

If this spells crisis for the country generally, it also creates problems, at the very least, for a small portion of its population: thinking people, that is; ‘intellectuals’ if you like, for whom Brexit – as it is currently turning out – must undermine many of their fondest assumptions. The first is that great events must have reasons,if only they could discover them, and (in the case of historians) trace them back. 

On the surface, Brexit appears utterly unreasonable. It wasn’t meant to happen. Very few people put the EU at the front of their thinking before 2016, and wanted Britain out. It was only when they were asked to vote on it that they gave it any thought at all, with their votes then mainly motivated by grievances of other kinds, which they used their votes – ones that would directly affect the outcome, for a change – to express their displeasure about. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/.) Right-wing press propaganda – especially Boris Johnson’s lying despatches from Brussels about ‘bendy bananas’ and the like – played a part in this. The result of the referendum was significantly influenced by new propaganda techniques (Cambridge Analytica), and foreign interference. 

Even then the vote was not supposed to be decisive, but only ‘advisory’; except that the Prime Minister of the time, David Cameron, the first of arguably the three worst premiers Britain has had in her history, had promised voters otherwise. No-one in that referendum was told or was allowed to specify what he or she was voting for. It could well have been for Britain’s remaining in the common market but exiting the other parts of the EU’s structure. That was the wise and very practical suggestion of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, but it was turned down, partly because of the personal monstering that Corbyn was subjected to at the hands of the – tax-dodging billionaire-owned – right-wing press; which also cost Labour the next General Election, in December 2019. In the meantime the facile and lying but apparently personable Boris Johnson had taken over the reins of the Government party, and kicked most of the experienced and reasonable Conservative MPs out. That left him with only relative new boys to form a government with, whose only qualification was their loyalty to Brexit and to Johnson, and whose incompetence (and indeed corruption) was soon revealed by their abject response to the Coronavirus pandemic that hit them – and all of us – in January 2020. 

It was also revealed in the negotiations that went on afterwards with the EU to try to come to some kind of trade arrangement, to at least partly save the day. Johnson himself is almost ludicrously poor at diplomacy, as had been revealed during a mercifully brief earlier spell as Foreign Secretary, and apparently – we’re told anonymously – spent most of his crucial last-minute talks with the European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, cracking public school anti-French jokes. While all this was going on the British public had swung significantly away from its original pro-Brexit opinion, to favour a return to the EU, if that had been possible. (That may have been as a result of elderly Brexiteers dying off and being replaced by higher-educated younger people, who had always been predominantly pro-EU.) In other words, the vote in 2016 is unlikely to have reflected the ‘people’s will’ in 2020. But by now that was too late; and in view of the violence continually threatened by Right-wing zealots a U-turn at this point might have been dangerous in any case. So here we are: hoist by a petard skilfully fashioned by clever Rightists and wielded by angry populists, with no visible means of escape. 

The point I’m making here is that chance, conspiracy and sheer idiocy appear to have played a far greater part in this whole story than has been usual in Britain’s history, which makes it difficult to analyse rationally, in the way we ‘intellectuals’ like to do. Of course there are perfectly rational aspects to it: the self-interest of the finance capitalists who helped fund Brexit, for example (afraid for the security of their tax havens, directly threatened by the EU); the unfitness-for-purpose of the the British electoral system; the understandable – if irrelevant – grievances of the people; the real mis-steps of the EU; the continuing influence of old-fashioned institutions like Eton College; the power of propaganda; perhaps the self-destruction of late-stage capitalism that Marxists would understand as a ‘rational’ – indeed a ‘natural’ – cause’.… 

All these can be isolated and analysed intellectually. But it’s the mix of them all that makes the whole event appear more ‘accidental’, stupid and confusingly messy than we’re used to, and so difficult to understand – and, more to the point, to combat – as a whole. It’s a bit like suddenly realising that the ‘laws’ of Physics don’t work everywhere; that there are universes where gravity goes up instead of down, for example (a poor one, I realise!), or that time can be bent. Or that everything is really chaos. That’s how the political world is beginning to appear to me now. So why even try to analyse it? And in which case: what’s the point of my job?

Perhaps quantum theory or post-modernism could provide the answers. But I’m too old, and too conventionally rational, to want any truck with that.

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Weather Report

Stockholm hasn’t seen the sun for a month – even during the short hours of so-called ‘daylight’. It’s grey, wet and muddy outside, worse even than an English winter, especially here in the sticks. But when the snow comes it will be better – lighter, for a start – and snow brings a different kind of cold. 

In the meantime we have our little wooden hut to snuggle up in (below), right through Christmas, in order to avoid the virus; with a traditional Swedish Xmas meal on Julafton, and a proper British one on the day itself, courtesy of me (the cook) and deliveries from the ‘Little Britain’ shop in Gamla Stan (https://www.facebook.com/littlebritainshop/). The usual family pleasantries will have to be exchanged via Zoom. 

What a blessing that is! How on earth did the Vikings get through their winters without it? Probably sitting around open fires telling each other sagas (‘here’s one you won’t have heard’), and dreaming (the men) about the Anglo-Saxon maidens they planned to ravish in the summer. Zoom is not really an adequate substitute for that.

Serious blogging should resume shortly. It will mainly be Covid and Brexit, I’m afraid. And about what we (the British half of me, that is) can possibly do to remove the worst and most auto-destructive government in modern British history.

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Letter from Lithuania, Again

A repost from 2 years ago. It still resonates.

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Popular History

We’re getting through The Crown, one (old) episode an evening. Last night’s was the one about the Profumo scandal: its inclusion justified, no doubt, by Prince Philip’s association with Stephen Ward. (Otherwise what did it have to do with ‘The Crown’?) According to this version, Anthony Blunt persuaded MI5 to keep his treachery quiet by threatening to reveal pictures of Philip drawn by Ward. That must be it. It was also a way of completing the series’ deeply unflattering picture of Macmillan, for dramatic effect.

In fact that’s what the whole of The Crown has been about: using incidents in the lives of the royal family to make dramas out of – one per episode. The continuity is very thin; and spoiled last night by the re-casting of all the main characters – Dr Who-like – in order to keep up with their ageing. In this episode that was rather crudely signalled by the early scene in which the ‘new’ Queen remarks on her image on a new set of postage stamps. Well, it had to be done, I suppose, with a story spanning 90 years; and both the actresses (actors?) playing Elizabeth have got her peculiar enunciation off to a T.

Of course to a serious historian it must appear all wrong: seeing public lives portrayed in self-contained episodes, the history of Britain presented only through public lives, and the most dramatic moments in those lives at that; most of the dialogue obviously made up, and some of it rather unconvincingly (if only because it’s too good); and key characters almost entirely left out because – we assume – they’re not colourful enough (Attlee): all this quite apart from questions relating to its factual accuracy, or otherwise. This may be OK as drama. In fact Kajsa and I are thoroughly enjoying it, although Kajsa was (rightly) shocked by the Gordonstoun episode. And it’s by no means an unusual way of presenting ‘history’. Look at Shakespeare! 

But it does get you wondering about where non-historians get their history from. Ronald Reagan is said to have got his from Hollywood movies. I wonder if Boris got his from films and TV? He appears not to have studied any history later than the ancient Romans at school. (I’ve written to Eton asking about their syllabus, but they’ve not replied. Probably wise.) These can illuminate aspects of history, ‘bring them alive’, as they say; but ideally they should not comprise the whole sum of people’s historical knowledge. 

That of course is where we ‘serious’ historians come in: to leaven the personal dramas with the deeper but more boring context that alone can make sense of that knowledge. Macmillan is not fairly or adequately portrayed as a foppish and cuckolded aristo (as it happens he wasn’t an echt aristocrat at all); or Clem Attlee as the nonentity he was made to appear by contrast with Churchill. It’s these men’s wider relationship with the country, the world and the grand tides of history that explains their ‘place’ in that history, which may be more important in the cases of the bores or the fops than of the eccentrics. But TV viewers clearly prefer personalities and drama: as don’t we all? Which is why The Crown gets immeasurably more viewers than my books get readers. (No hard feelings on that account!)

And it probably explains Boris Johnson’s romantic but very false view of his country’s history, and of his own hoped-for place in it. We are governed by a patina of myths, overlying and obscuring the – I would say – material imperatives lying underneath. There’s probably no way of getting away from this. I think I’ve always known that.

(Incidentally: I’m waiting nervously to see if my own encounter with Her Maj – https://bernardjporter.com/2020/12/01/the-crown/ – will be covered. I’m hoping to be played by George Clooney.)

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Fine piece by Zoe Williams in today’s Guardian. Here’s the peroration.

‘I didn’t realise how patriotic I was until after the referendum: I knew I cared about my compatriots, and therefore jobs, freedom of movement, food prices. But I didn’t realise how much I cared about the United Kingdom, about the Union, about peace within it and the historical scars that built that peace, about our international standing, about our universities, constitution, landscape, rule of law. I just didn’t realise how precious it all was. Brexit is a process of disintegration, and opposing it was, it transpires, meaningless and unreal. Those abstracted arguments had a nihilistic fervour that it simply wasn’t possible to match, and we drained the life out of ourselves in the attempt.’

And the full article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/07/realities-brexit-respect-for-the-system?

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A Prediction

Historians, if they are wise, don’t make predictions because they know how unpredictable the past has often been. Despite this I’m going to make one now, and a very vulnerable one, because it could be disproved in the next day or two. 

This is it. Boris will come back with a ‘deal’ with the EU. It won’t be a very good one, but it will be presented in the Tory press as a triumph of statesmanship. They’ve already prepared the ground for this by painting the Europeans as vicious obstructionists, with whom any agreement, however feeble, can be presented as a diplomatic triumph. Boris needs that; diplomacy has always been his weakest suit – viz. his time as Foreign Secretary – which needs, therefore, to be strengthened. The dutiful ExpressMail and Telegraph can help him here. Neville Chamberlain’s ‘piece of paper’ comes to mind.

Or not; in which case, of course, the nasty Europeans can be blamed. Let’s see, over the next couple of days (or so).

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The Crown

We’re catching up with The Crownvia (I think) Netflix. I’d avoided it up till now, because I have virtually no interest in the British Royal Family, or in any royalty at all after Olaf I of Norway (see https://bernardjporter.com/2020/10/13/kung-olaf/), and am bored and irritated by our popular press’s unhealthy obsession with it. I was also rather put off the royals by my mother’s near worship of the Queen Mother (Queen Mary?). When my mother died I found dozens of pictures of her (the Queen Mum) cut from the Daily Mail, religiously preserved because she (my Mum) thought they were valuable. That was although she’d got rid of all my early Eagle comics, from the very first issue, which – had she known it – would have fetched a small fortune today. She also embarrassed me when Queenie visited my school and Mum broke through a cordon and ran into the street to tap at the window of her car as she departed. All my friends knew whose mother she was. Imagine!

But people kept telling me how good The Crown  was, so we started watching it. It’s now filling our long Nordic nights. We’re up to Suez, so with lots more to come. And I must admit I’m thoroughly taken by it. Not as history – I found lots to quarrel with there – but as sheer soap opera. For those who haven’t seen it – and there can’t be many of you – it’s not really about ‘the Crown’, but about the personal lives of those who live in its shadow. Marriages, divorces and ‘affairs’ make up most of it (so far). The acting is superb, as is the dialogue. I wonder how much of that was the Royals’ themselves, and how much is down to the series’ scriptwriters? A lot of it must be embarrassing for the surviving Royals and their hangers-on to watch, and even potentially libellous. It’s certainly not particularly ‘respectful’ of them. Philip comes out of it as rather stupid and ‘blokeish’. But that’s hardly a surprise. Macmillan isn’t as impressive as I remember him; and Attlee is ignored almost completely. But on the whole the writers have made a good – or at least a watchable – job of all the ‘great and the good’ (a.k.a. ‘nobs’) of those pre-Beatles years.

The Queen comes over wonderfully; which I’m happy with, as I’m a bit of an admirer of hers. (She’s the only one.) I fell for her after meeting – being ‘presented to’ – her at a Historians’ function many years ago. I’d drunk several glasses of dry sherry before she reached our group, which I didn’t think mattered as she wouldn’t be capable of any intelligent conversation with me. (‘They’re all inbred.’) She asked me what I worked on, and I told her in simple words that I thought she’d understand; only to be taken aback by a very insightful supplementary question she put to me. I think it was about British-American relations. So I shook the alcoholic fuzz from my head, or tried to, and treated her to a long lecture on the subject. You can see how fascinated she was from this official photo. (Actually, everyone says she doesn’t photograph well.) I’m the second from the left, in Professor Donald Read’s (literal) shadow. I’ve kept that picture hidden from nearly everyone since then. Even Kajsa was only allowed to see it after we’d been together for ten years. Now I reckon it can cause me no more embarrassment.

OK, soap opera. But isn’t that what the Royal Family basically is?  Eastenders with sparkly hats.

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The End of Days

It is  beginning to look a bit like the ‘End of Days’, isn’t it? – if not for humanity generally – though you never know: Covid-19 might turn out to be the agent of the next ‘Great Extinction’ – then for the British and American ‘ways of life’, the Republican and Democratic parties in the USA, the Conservative and Labour Parties in the UK, truth, decency and honour in both our countries, and late-stage capitalism. And it’s extraordinarily difficult to know what to do about it.

The most likely outcome – short of extinction – is the rise of a new sort of fascism, such as we’re seeing the seeds of today, in the authoritarianism implicit in Trump’s thankfully short-lived term as American President – but which will persist, surely, among his ‘robbed’ and vengeful followers; in various right-wing regimes around the world, from Hungary to Israel; and even – to descend to the example closest to me – here in Britain: where the Labour Party now appears to be putting ‘authority’ before ‘democracy’, by forbidding the discussion, even, of certain crucial issues in its constituency meetings. (See https://bernardjporter.com/2020/08/17/8636/.) Members have already been expelled for raising these questions; and the deputy leader of the party, Angela Rayner, has just been heard threatening to summarily suspend ‘many thousands’ more if they attempt to debate the issue of – for example – the possible exaggeration of the extent of anti-semitism in the party, as I’ve done. (See https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/angela-rayner-says-labour-suspend-23088719; and this blog, infra.) Hence my own departure, jumping before I’m pushed. Stay, and fight from within, I was told; but I don’t feel I should remain in a party that denies freedom of speech. Is that self-indulgent of me?

The relevance of this rather parochial (and indeed personal) issue to the ‘End of Days’ scenario is that democratic socialism is the only – or at any rate the best – way I can see of preventing the catastrophe that looms; so that if Labour no longer represents democratic socialism, of the kind promoted by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell in the last two General Elections, I can see little real hope for us in Britain. It’s obvious that a stronger State and a better-funded NHS – the great achievement of democratic socialism in Britain – would have coped with the coronavirus pandemic better than the present laissez-faire  government’s reliance on its chums in the private sector. It’s also clear to me that greater social equality would have helped soothe the resentments that provoked the populist Brexit vote in 2016, whose disastrous repercussions are a main cause of much of our non-Covid-related distress today. In short, what we really, really want (cue the Spice Girls here) is a return to the path the country seemed to be following from 1945 through to the 1970s, under Attlee, Wilson and – yes – the social Tory Harold Macmillan, before the monster Thatcher (or, I would say, the special interests and large historical forces pushing her) slammed on the brakes and undid it all. That path was the basis of Corbyn’s and McDonnell’s platform, the one that had served us pretty well and had at least given us hope before the witch came on to the scene; which of course was one of the things going against it in 2019 – making it appear reactionary, and so playing to the negative propaganda of the right-wing press; in an election in any case dominated by extraneous issues, like Europe, immigration and Corbyn’s supposed ‘anti-semitism’. 

The 2019 election result may have put an end to all chances of a return to the pre-1970s consensus, and to the taxation and social spending regime that had rescued Britain from economic ruin after the Second World War, and could conceivably rescue her from the similar situation that Covid-plus-Brexit might inflict on her in the next few months and years. I could imagine Corbyn returning us to the 1960s, and to proper social democracy – or trying to, at any rate; I find it difficult to see Starmer taking on the vested interests that have dragged us away from that since the ’60s, and putting in train the social revolution that alone will rescue us from Covid, the effects of Brexit, and the danger of authoritarianism. When Corbyn was first elected Labour leader I welcomed it for the traditional Labour philosophy he represented, while always being aware of the personal baggage he carried with him, which the Press was bound to seize on in order to bring him down. My hope at that time was that he would remain leader for enough time to reform its policies, and then give way to someone who would follow the same path, but ‘charismatically’ enough to please the Press:  https://bernardjporter.com/2016/07/12/keep-corbyn-for-now/. I had in mind Emily Thornberry; or a return of Ed Milliband; or even Hilary Benn – if he’d been anything like his Dad. Unfortunately that didn’t work, and in the light of subsequent events it’s hard to see how it could have done. I also hoped – though without any great confidence – that, if he were fairly presented, Jeremy might come to appeal to more people in time, as he does to me, and did to the hundreds of thousands of much younger people he inspired and politicised before the 2019 election.

Can Starmer, with his relative respectability, the support of the Jewish community, and the ‘authority’ granted to him after recent events, turn radical enough to carry out the second part of my plan if returned to power, and implement Corbyn’s agenda? I still think that social democracy, of the kind we aspired to in the 1960s, is the only way out of the current ‘End of Days’ situation. If Keir can get us back on to that track, I might forgive him his assault on our ‘freedom of speech’. But the fact that I would need to says a great deal about our deeply depressing times.

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