Patriotism

‘Patriotism. For people who have nothing else to be proud of.’

I’m sure someone must have thought of this before me.

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Judge Kavanaugh

I mainly use this blog to comment on things and events I can claim to have some expertise in. American politics is just about one of those areas, having studied them, written about them and lived there for fairly long periods; but on American topics I usually defer to my far better-informed transatlantic friends. On the other hand, the present situation in America is obviously of some indirect relevance to people in other countries – direct if Trump ever starts a trade war – and the recent Kavanaugh hearing was a world event, televised in toto here in Britain, almost as a form of ghoulish entertainment.

My main question during that hearing was this. Why on earth did Judge Kavanaugh not admit to, and apologise for, at least some of the schoolboy indiscretions on his charge sheet? It is simply unbelievable that any boy could have passed through an élite American private school in the less enlightened 1980s without getting drunk quite a lot, occasionally behaving riotously, and making inappropriate advances to girls. Many adolescent boys, in the environment of that time and that society, do things they will be ashamed of afterwards. As it happens, and for what it’s worth, I believe that Kavanaugh’s ‘advances’ to Christine Blasey Ford must have gone further than merely ‘inappropriate’. But if he had denied that, but admitted some of the rest, his credibility would surely have been enhanced. And it’s possible that even if he had acknowledged the particular assault on Dr Ford, but had shown genuine contrition for it, he might have got away with that. Denying everything  however, and against the evidence of many of his contemporaries, stretches the bounds of believability to breaking point.

All of which means that he lied in any case, irrespective of the main charge, and not thirty years ago but only the other day; which is not a good character trait to take with you into the higher judiciary. As neither is the extreme political prejudice he displayed during his rants – which was clearly why the President fell in behind him after the hearing. They mirrored his own prejudices, and style. These are the main reasons – not the Ford affair; or even that unfortunate, nose-crinkling sniff – why he should certainly not become a Supreme Court justice.

People can be forgiven for youthful indiscretions. I know that I’m not the person I was at the age of 17. But obvious lying at a job interview can’t be excused. Unless, of course, you’re one of Trump’s men.

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The Tory Conference

It’s sickening to hear Tory ministers, at their Annual Conference, gleefully referring to ‘Labour anti-semitism’ when the charge has by now been pretty well debunked. It’s almost as bad as our new Foreign Secretary, Jeremy *unt, comparing the EU to the old Soviet Union: as if it’s holding us prisoner in the same brutal fashion (that’s what he was implying). But it illustrates the way in which the Right believes it merely has to mention certain key words, and the mud sticking to them, in order to strike negative chords with voters and turn them against Labour.

The Conference still has some way to go. If anyone’s following it on TV (and it’s painful to watch), look out for the following trigger-words: ‘communist’, ‘Militant’, ‘Marxist’, ‘anti-semite’ and so on; all I suspect taken from a list provided for speakers by the Conference organisers to pepper their speeches with, for maximum slanderous effect.

Of course Leftists do this too. The word ‘Fascist’, for example, is sometimes employed rather too loosely: although there are scores of respectable commentators now seriously if cautiously warning of the parallels between now and the 1930s. (I’m one of them: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/05/19/the-road-to-a-sort-of-fascism/.) But anti-semitism isn’t yet a weapon the Left has used against the Tories, although historically the latter deserve it far more; possibly because the charge has already been appropriated and copyrighted by the other side.

It has occurred to me that if Labour wanted a similar smear to employ against the Conservatives, paedophilia might be the one. Rumours of a Parliamentary paedophile ring have been bubbling away under the surface at Westminster for years now, kicked off by a file of alleged abuses which was submitted to the Home Office by Geoffrey Dickens, MP, in 1983, which however has been mysteriously ‘lost’ since that time: see https://theukdatabase.com/councillorspolitical-party-affiliated/westminster-scandal-114-secret-files-on-paedophile-cases-missing/. The evidence we have in that case is inconclusive, although no more so than the evidence of Labour anti-semitism. That wouldn’t prevent its being deployed, as a desperate strategy, by politicians as amoral and unprincipled as those using the anti-Jewish weapon against Labour. Kiddy-fiddling must trump anti-semitism. But Corbyn wouldn’t stoop to that. I like to think that this is one of the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

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Essay Mills

It’s good that these nefarious scams are being caught out.

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2018/09/27/universities-call-essay-mills-do-students-work-outlawed/

I first came across them about twenty years ago – when I was still in the university teaching business – from a notice pinned on my History Department notice board offering essay-writing services to students. The fees varied according to the grade required: so, a First-Class essay would cost £50, an upper-second £30, and so on. (I’m not sure of the exact sums.) At that time we were used to dealing with plagiarism, which was comparatively easy to spot even before search engines were devised for this purpose: students were stupid enough to cite books they couldn’t possibly have read, or you could tell from their writing style, and so on.  (I remember once pencilling ‘pompous’ in the margin of one essay, until it dawned on me that it had been copied from a book of one of my old supervisors, who was pompous.) But of course paying someone else to write original essays is harder to spot. It’s more akin to forgery.

Later I came across another type of commercial cheating, with a company based in Michigan offering for sale notes of my lectures taken and sold to them by a spy in my class at Yale. I drew attention to this with the Yale authorities, who I think put an end to it there; and I later published an article on it in the Guardian, which is still on the web: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2000/mar/07/highereducation.internet.

The root cause of this seems to be the reduction of university education to a market commodity; and, behind that, the idea that its first purpose is to assess and grade students. I remember objecting to this many years ago – far too early for my articles on it to have found their way on to the internet – arguing that examinations and classification at the very least distracted from and at worst could distort genuine ‘education’, and suggesting that employers who relied on them should instead set their own exams, suited to the kind of employment they were offering. (Some of course – Law, the Civil Service – do.) As a university teacher I often found that there was a gulf, even an incompatibility, between teaching students to question, learn and understand, which was our real purpose, and coaching them to pass exams. I would rather they weren’t assessed at all.  Another benefit of that would be to deter students who only came to university in order to get good jobs afterwards.

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The Next Swedish PM

Sweden now has its period of post-election political horse-trading, in order to form a new government out of its plethora of leading parties. Yesterday the sitting prime minister, the decent, working-class Stefan Löfven, lost a vote of confidence in Parliament and so had to resign. Kajsa tells me that a favourite candidate to take over is Annie Lööf of the extreme free market-liberal ‘Centre’ Party. Four years ago I wrote a piece on her for the LRB Blog, which was taken up by a Stockholm tabloid, and which I think is maybe worth re-posting here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/02/04/bernard-porter/14630/. – She may have moved on since then. Kajsa tells me she’s refused to bring the extreme Right-wing ‘Sweden Democrat’ party into any coalition under her. That must be a mercy.

I’ve been off this site recently because I’m working hard on a review of a provocative new book about Sweden: Kajsa Norman’s Sweden’s Dark Soul, due out in November. My piece will be in the Literary Review‘s Christmas issue. I may see if they mind my putting it up here before then. (Or would they notice anyway? Porter’s Pensées is hardly MSM.)

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British Colonialism in Amiens

British nationalists (i.e. Brexiters) often forget – or are ignorant of – the essentially ‘European’ identity of Britain from way back. I may pen a piece sometime on Continental immigration into Britain, and the ‘foreign’ origins of many, if not most, of our most distinguished citizens, from Queenie downwards, and from the day the Jutes (or whoever) footed it across Doggerland to eastern England, up to the present day. (I’ve written a book about one group of them – 19th-century political refugees.) That was enabled for most of this period by the absence of any laws prohibiting their ingress, which was unusual for Europe as a whole, and was in fact one of Britain’s proudest national characteristics at the time. Incomers were not even expected to have passports. ‘Freedom of movement’ was rarely challenged until the very late 19th century, and even then only in a few very local instances, mainly with reference to Jews fleeing from persecution in the East.

This liberalism also of course affected the egress, of Britons moving abroad. Most of the historical work on this has focussed on the colonies and America, where the great majority went. But a sizeable number also migrated to Continental Europe, and even set up little ‘colonies’ there. Because this category of emigration has generally been neglected by scholars in the past, I decided to contribute a paper on it to a conference on ‘colonialism’ in Amiens last week; which I may post on this blog if the conference proceedings are not published more formally. Diplomacy aside, Britain and the ‘Continong’ have always been intimately intertwined.

On the last day of the Conference we were taken to visit the Villers-Brettoneux Commonwealth cemetery and war memorial nearby. This year marks the centenary of the last big battle of World War I, which took place there. It was very moving; and a reminder of the extent and depth of Britain’s relationship with Europe in the past. You can’t get more involved in a country – more of a ‘colonist’ or ‘settler’ – than to be buried there.

Quite honestly, I wouldn’t mind being buried – or my ashes scattered – in Amiens. The cathedral is one of France’s greatest, which is saying a great deal, and the ‘water gardens’ a delight. I’ve often wished I was French. But apparently they don’t like us very much. Probably for the same reasons that don’t like us very much; especially with our present bunch of xenophobic idiots in charge.

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Swedish Election – Guardian

I’ve just sent this to the Guardian. They probably won’t print it.*

‘I was looking in today’s leading article for a mention of the Vänster (Left) party. It’s one of the minor parties in Sweden, granted, with only 28 seats in the new parliament, but that marked an increase of 7% in their vote. This contrasts with the fortunes of the conventional main parties: the Social Democrats (minus 12%) and the (Conservative) Moderaten (minus 14%); but mirrors the greater successes of the right-wing Centre Party (+9%), the Christian Democrats (+7) and, yes, the Sweden Democrats (+13%). All of which bears out Jon Henley’s argument in your same issue, that the major trend here is the squeezing of centre and ‘establishment’ parties all over Europe by so-called ‘extremes’.

‘It follows from this that the answer to right-wing extremism both in Britain and in Sweden may not necessarily be to try to bolster the ‘Centre’, but instead to persuade voters that the Corbynite programme for Labour is not really that ‘extreme’. It’s similar, in fact, to the Vänster’s, as Left Swedish friends have been pointing out to me. In neither case would it have been considered ‘extreme’ in the 1950s and ’60s. If it can be seen to answer the real problems which underlay the Brexit vote in 2016, it could pull the carpet from under our equivalent of the Sverigedemokraterna – the austerian, xenophobic ‘hard’ Brexiteers – far more effectively than trying to prod the Lib-Dems into life again.’

*PS. They did.

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Sweden Veers Right (a Bit)

So, the results are in (the Swedish election), and the sky hasn’t fallen in. Sverigedemokraterna are up on last time, but not by as much as widely predicted a couple of months ago; and so are the Vänster (Left). The SDs are the third largest party, not the first or second, as was also predicted. The centre ‘Establishment’ parties have suffered the most. This repeats a pattern seen all over the ‘Western’ world, which means that it’s part of a global, not a narrowly Swedish trend. (You’ll know what I attribute it to: late-stage capitalism. Not immigration. That’s just a scapegoat.) So the Swedes shouldn’t blame (or congratulate) themselves. After all, 83% of voters rejected the SDs. For the moment, the last domino (see my previous post) still stands.

Which is not to say that we Lefties can relax. The ‘global trend’ is producing a European and USA-wide politics which is rejecting the old conventional Middle, and resorting to more radical ways. One of the proffered solutions to this, certainly in Britain, is to seek to revive the Middle, by ‘detoxifying’ both the Left and the Right (Corbyn and Johnson) so that they can come together; re-inventing the centrist Liberal Democrats, or even forming a brand-new party – headed by a non-politician, perhaps. There’s much Westminster chatter along these lines. A more likely alternative is that one of the ‘extremist’ parties, through popular persuasion, garners enough supporters and voters to see the other extreme, and the Centre, off. In that event they might come to be seen as not so extreme. (Corbyn, after all, is only trying to revive the British national post-war consensus. He wouldn’t have been seen as ‘extreme’ then. Could the same be said of Bernie – simply going back to the ‘New Deal’?) That’s what one really excellent piece by Professor Chantal Mouffe in today’s Guardian seems to be suggesting: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/10/populists-rise-progressives-radical-right. The Labour Party under Corbyn has begun this process, though it still has a battle on its hands against unregenerate Blairites, the billionaire-owned Press, and the subvert efforts of the Israeli state.

In Sweden the next stage is the formation of a working government, out of five or six parties none of which can form a natural coalition to make a majority. But Sweden has worked through this sort of problem before. Its present government, after all, is a minority coalition, which has worked pretty well. I’m sure it can do it again. I hope Löfven stays on as PM. He seems a good bloke, and is still head of the largest party. We’ll see in the next few weeks.

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Sweden: The Last Domino

Today is the day of the Swedish general election. Usually Swedish elections pass pretty unnoticed in the British press, but this one is arousing unprecedented interest there due to the rise of the extreme right-wing, anti-immigration, Nazi-origin Sweden Democrat party (Sverigedemokraterna, or SD), currently standing at around 20% in the polls.

The internet is on fire with dire warnings. One contributor to a ‘British Expats in Sweden’ site I follow has just posted this:

I am making contingency plans. Everything goes on a pallet at work, then I just up and leave with the same suitcase, laptop and the clothes I stood up in back in December 2013. Once back in England, I shall pursue every politician until every last Scandinavian has been ejected from the UK. It’s my experience that Swedes (and I am generalising) when they are angry about something are more dangerous than 1930’s Germans. I would not put anything past them. Take some advice from Q from James Bond … “Always have an escape plan”.

Or is that a joke? – On the other hand there are those mocking the ‘scaremongers’. Don’t worry, they say, Sweden is a civilized democracy; you’ll be OK.

Some of you seem to be describing Sweden as some Middle-Eastern totalitarian society if the SDs are to gain power. Well, Sweden is NOT that. and regardless of the outcome, Brits are and always will be welcome in Sweden. So please people, calm down, wind in those necks and let Sweden do what it needs to do.

There are two things that need to be said about that.  Firstly, the writer – on the same Facebook thread – seems to be only concerned with his own situation as a foreigner there, rather than with the repercussions of an SD success on the Swedes. Isn’t that a bit self-centred? Imagine someone saying that to a Brit about Germany in the 1930s: ‘don’t worry, youll be alright.’ – Secondly: he’s very wrong about Sweden being fundamentally different from other liberal countries in this regard. Many of the nations that fell to fascism in the 1930s had been comparatively liberal before then. As was the USA before Trump; or, if you like, Britain before UKIP. Liberal and democratic regimes can easily flip. Those of us who know our pre-War history can spot the parallels between then and now. Always keeping a suitcase packed may be a tad alarmist; but ignoring the warning signs is the height of irresponsibility.

It’s not only the Sweden Democrats who want to destroy Swedish liberalism. Right-wing Americans, of course, always have. Sweden undermines their whole premise of government: that it’s only the unfettered free market, harsh punishment and the Christian religion that make a country prosperous and virtuous. Sweden’s general contentment despite having none of these advantages is difficult for them to swallow. For years American Rightists have been trying to persuade their compatriots that despite appearances Sweden is really a very sick and tyrannical place, as evidenced in its Nordic Noir detective novels (mostly, incidentally, written by socialists, now dead, who would turn in their graves if they knew their work was being taken in this way); illustrated in several of Donald Trump’s public and libellous outbursts about Sweden – for example https://bernardjporter.com/2017/02/24/rinkeby/; and analysed in a recent New York Times op-ed (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/06/opinion/how-the-far-right-conquered-sweden.html), and in several books, one of which – Kajsa Norman’s Sweden’s Dark Soul. The Unravelling of a Utopia, due out at the end of next month – has just fallen through my letter-box for me to review. In Sweden some are starting to lay the blame for all this hostile propaganda on the activities of Russian hackers and trolls (are those the right words?) on the internet – with one of Russia’s foreign policy aims, of course, being to undermine democracy wherever it’s found. The Social Democratic middle way – which describes Corbyn’s position in Britain too – is coming under enormous threat from every direction. Sweden’s collapse, as the last liberal domino standing (I thank John Field for that metaphor), would be the greatest prize.

Or perhaps Sweden’s Dark Soul will persuade me otherwise. I haven’t read it yet. In the meantime, I’m posting this now in order to get it out before the results of the Swedish election are announced in a few hours. They may give us a clue.

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Boris Rows Back?

A lot of Brits are now turning against Brexit, in the light of recent revelations about the ‘dirty tricks’ employed by the Leave camp during the Referendum, the inclarity of the choice that was being offered to us by the Brexiteers then, and the bleaker future now being authoritatively predicted for us for when the separation is finally achieved. It would seem reasonable, therefore, to grant us a ‘rethink’ – a new vote on the actual terms of the eventual Brexit treaty – before the die is finally cast.

The main obstacle to this seems to be the argument of finality  that the Brexit side is currently plugging: that we’ve made our decision, which expressed the ‘will of the people’, finally, it is implied; and which to seek to overturn – however much the ‘will of the people’ may have changed in the meantime – would be an ‘undemocratic’ endeavour. That’s the line that Ukippers and the rabid Right-wing press are pushing right now, in order to prevent a second vote; and would doubtless continue to argue if a second vote went against them. The political passions that have been aroused, or more likely brought to the surface (see https://bernardjporter.com/2016/06/16/is-it-really-about-the-eu/), by this gruesome contest augur an uncomfortable future for the country, whatever the eventual outcome; even amounting, in some estimations, to virtual – though hopefully relatively bloodless – civil war.

That’s the reason why so many ‘Remainers’ are reluctant to argue for a re-run: fear of the attacks that would be launched on them by the press barons and others on the Right – ‘treason’ would be the least of the former’s charges – stifling rational debate and appealing to the very real and in many ways justified resentment of the poor and neglected – the ever-feared ‘great unwashed’ – against ‘the Establishment’.

One solution to this problem might be if one or more of the pro-Brexit Establishment reneged. This is why I was struck and mildly encouraged by this recent report in a London paper: https://www.thelondoneconomic.com/news/boris-johnson-deeply-regrets-going-down-brexit-route-close-sources%EF%BB%BF-reveal/07/09/. It looks very much like tittle-tattle, and so not to be trusted; but if Boris is  having a re-think, and trying to extricate himself from the Brexit morass, wouldn’t it be good if he came out publicly as having changed his mind on the whole issue? His career hasn’t been much damaged by volte-faces  in the past. It might even serve his prime ministerial ambitions, to be seen as a wise leader. (His hero Churchill was inconsistent, too.) It could be presented to him as the patriotic  thing to do. And it would surely be more likely to bring over a lot of present Leavers to the Remain side, bearing in mind the influence he seems to have had on them during the (first) referendum, than anything the Establishment Remainers could do. That might be Remain’s only hope.

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