Unfortunately, what the Church of England thinks is everybody’s business

News and Politics

You might have heard by now the Islam is the fastest growing religion in Britain, more than likely from a source who would consider the mere existence of that faith a somewhat frightening prospect. What most of them won’t tell you, however, is the reason for Islam being the fastest growing religion in Britain is that it is, in fact, the only growing religion in Britain.

Christianity has always had a peculiar relationship with the United Kingdom. In the year 1625, a man named Charles claimed his divine right and ruled as King of England, Scotland and Ireland. Then, twenty-four years and one civil war later, Charles was led by armed guards from London’s St James Palace to Whitehall, which is where they chopped his head off. For the next ten years, Britain was led by a man who, ironically despite officially not being a monarch himself, attempted to turn the country into what could perhaps be described as a 17th-century Christian version of Islamic State.

Oliver Cromwell, a staunch puritan, presided over an experiment during which he attempted to transform Britain into a different kind of society. All theatres had their doors forced shut. Most pubs and inns also. Doing any kind of work on a Sunday landed peasants in the stocks. Most holidays were banned, as well as most sports. Cooking food for Christmas was banned, alongside any other form of entertainment. Women were forbidden from donning colourful dress. Their men had to wear black. None of these rules applied to Cromwell and his cronies, of course, which largely explains how he managed to stay in power longer than a single weekend.

But then the bastard died, and everyone had long had enough. Parliament invited the dead King’s son back, with greatly reduced powers. The theatres opened again. Many a piss-up was held. Everyone got back to merely pretending that Christmas is all about Jesus. And all of a sudden, Britain’s grand experiment with piousness was forever over.

Christians love to feel persecuted, and today’s Church of England often likes to claim that its beliefs and systems are under siege. As of 2014, fewer than 800,000 Britons can be bothered to turn up to Church on an average Sunday. Despite making as much money as the British wing of McDonald’s, it struggles to maintain its giant network of fragile buildings, many of them found in isolated rural communities. It’s bad enough that most people from Brighton to Inverness have little time for God these days, but now the “Gay Agenda” ™ is after them too.

When civil partnerships for homosexual couples were introduced in 2004, Labours then Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, was quick to assure the religious community that this wasn’t going to end in the gays being able to actually marry… Oh imagine the horror. Then, when equal marriage was introduced by the coalition in 2013, the Tories made it clear that the Church of England would not be forced to oversee such hideous a contract.

But how foolish would one need to be to ever trust a politician, amright? And now here goes Justine Greening, Britain’s lesbian Education Secretary, daring to proclaim in a Sky News interview that “It is important that the church in a way keeps up (with social progress) and is part of a modern country.” The Spectator’s Melanie McDonagh thinks that Greening ought to “Mind her own business,” and I imagine she would include most other people in that as well. Why should the government be telling Churches how to behave anyway? If Anglicans don’t like homosexuality, or at least don’t want much to do with it, why should it be anyone else’s business to tell them otherwise? Isn’t this just another instance of those pesky totalitarian liberals trying to crush good old powerless conservatism?

Well, there are two things spectacularly wrong with that argument. The first is that it immediately assumes that Britain’s Anglicans are all a bunch of homophobes, the same dumb logic Tim Farron tried to employ when explaining why he couldn’t remain both a faithful Christian and the leader of a socially liberal political party. The second is that McDonagh, as well as anyone else making her argument, seemingly brushes aside the fact that the Church of England is not some completely impartial institution with no effect on anyone else’s business.

Why not start with the fact that Britain doesn’t really have the kind of wall of separation between church and state as does its cousin across the pond. The Church of England is Britain’s official religious body, and, frankly, I’d rather not have our great nation be represented by utterly regressive beliefs and policies. That hardly has any real world impact, however, so fine. Whatever. What does matter, however, is how the state spends its people’s taxes. Despite having a budget surplus in the billions, the Church of England uses its privileged status to demand the taxpayer fund upkeep for its properties, which the taxpayer does, to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. It also uses far greater numbers of taxpayer money to spread its propaganda across England’s “Free Schools.” I assume it isn’t terribly controversial to expect a certain degree of accountability to come from any organisation that expects to be subsidised by the public.

Not only does the Church receive public money, however, but its Bishops also sit in our upper house of parliament. There are twenty-five of them in the Lords, in seats reserved specifically for members of the Church of England. Now sure, there’s also an argument to be made here about our shamefully outdated upper house, but the point stands. What these people, who can vote on legislation that affects everyone in the country, think is, in fact, the business of every single person in Britain.

So here’s the deal. If the Church of England and its advocates want everyone to keep their noses out of their holy business, then it must also apply the same principles upon itself. It has to revoke its privileged position as the official church of the British state. It must cease to demand both public money, including that which funds religious schools, and any other benefits that come with said position. Further, it must give up its seats in parliament and totally separate themselves from the workings and functions of the British government. It must resign to the same legal status as any other church operating in the United Kingdom, be that the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Scientology, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti monster. So that’s it, take it or stop complaining.

Do Labour Dare Hope? – Election Update

News and Politics

When the election was called, I made a number of predictions which now appear somewhat ill-judged. Foremost among these was an assumption that Labour’s vote share will likely decline before polling day. So far, the opposite has happened. While the Conservatives have been hugely bolstered by the near-total collapse of UKIP, Labour has also experienced a surge in the polls, seemingly at the expense of the Greens and more interestingly the Lib Dems and maybe also UKIP. A YouGov poll released today has the party on 38% (it’s highest since 2014) with the Conservatives down a few points to 43%. If this poll is not a freak outlier, as it still may very well be, then Labour have essentially closed within five points what was, when the election was called, a twenty point gap.

As much as I’d want this to be true, jubilation will have to wait until we get to see more polls, however, that being said, what is increasingly beyond doubt is that Labour has experienced a surge (the proportions of which are highly debatable) over the past few weeks.

The former Tory Leader, William Hague, once stated that his party has two modes: Panic and Complacency, and the latter I believe is now a significant factor behind recent developments. Personally, I don’t think that the Conservative Campaign is quite as bad as some say, largely because, just as in 2015, a significant part of it is invisible and focused on digital targeting, however, it is still pretty darn abysmal. It still shocks me that the same people behind Cameron’s 2015 surprise win are capable of running such a poor operation, although perhaps the spirit of complacency has gotten to their heads too.

I mean, gosh, where to begin? Theresa May seemingly looked at her initially giant poll lead and assumed that she could start drowning puppies on live television and still win in a landslide. She must have thought that the British public hated Corbyn and adored her so much that (perhaps as Thatcher had done decades earlier) she could get away with a number of deeply unpopular, albeit allegedly necessary, policies.

First, there was fox hunting, which is still a really big deal for some reason (I mean, honestly, aren’t schools and hospitals a little more important than the welfare of some occasionally cute mammals that shit on the lawn and eat your garbage?). Hunting is still vehemently opposed by the overwhelming majority of the UK population, and those that do like it would have voted Conservative anyway. And then there was the ‘Dementia Tax,’ a plan to fund social care by forcing the elderly to sell away their homes, as well as the end to the pension triple lock. It really shows just how certain the Tories were of victory that they dared to attack the elderly (the one part of the population that is certain to vote).

Meanwhile, encouraged by her high approval ratings, Theresa May decided to run her campaign as if it were a Presidential run. Conservative branding was stripped from party literature in the North of the country, instead replaced with talk of “Theresa’s candidates” and “Theresa’s Team,” while actual policy substance was disregarded. Last year, another female politician tried a similar strategy against an anti-establishment outsider with solid, populist, messaging… It didn’t go well. Meanwhile, the lack of returns from the overwhelming focus on Brexit has shown what I’ve believed to be the case for a while – That Brexit is nowhere near as important of an issue to most people as pundits believe. Most Britons think that that battle has already been fought and now just want the government to get on with it, and therefore Labour’s strategy of largely ignoring the issue while focusing on domestic policy was probably the correct decision.

Speaking of Labour, and of policy – To seemingly everyone’s surprise, the party has been running a very good campaign. Messaging so far has been solid, and capable of penetrating into minds of those who don’t stay up at night thinking about politics. Popular policy pledges have been consistently repeated on radio and television, and they seem to be getting through. A recent YouGov survey has asked voters about what they perceived to be the main policies of the two parties. For Labour, the top two are scrapping tuition fees and increasing NHS funding. For the Conservatives, the ‘Dementia Tax’ and “Going ahead with Brexit.” While, in the wake of the Manchester attack, the Tories still lead on issues of defence and security, perhaps Labour’s message about cuts to police budgets under the current government may also have a positive effect. Corbyn himself has done a rather good job so far, and while most voters still really don’t like him, perhaps he’s a negative factor which increasing numbers of them are willing to overlook. So yeah, to my surprise, the Labour operation has managed to find within itself a healthy dose of competence.

And then we come to the Lib Dems, the one party who seemingly had little to lose and everything to gain from this election. Personally, I expected them to make modest gains, unlike some who apparently expected Tim Farron to become the Leader of the Opposition. However, even that seemed to have been too optimistic. To the surprise of most, including myself, who expected moderate Labour voters and some pro-remain Tories to defect to the Lib Dems, the opposite has happened. Former Lib Dem supporters who voted for the Tories in 2015 have barely moved, while considerable numbers of the party’s remaining backers have switched to Labour. Now there is even talk of Nick Clegg losing his seat in Sheffield.

UKIP’s collapse is a peculiar phenomenon, and I have a strange feeling that it may not necessarily be the godsend that the Tories expect. The predominant belief right now is that those seeking to predict individual constituency results should simply take at least half of the UKIP vote and give it to the Conservative candidate. I think that’s a huge oversimplification because it completely ignores regional context. UKIP’s 2015 vote can be largely split into two groups. Former Tories who were angry about the European Union, and former Labour and BNP voters who were angry about immigration. The former group, who largely reside in the South, are obviously going to go back to the Conservatives now that Brexit is dealt with. However, the latter group, who largely reside in the North, is a far more open question. Many of those people really do not like the Tories, and never did. They are the reason that Paul Nuttall feels obliged to bang on about the NHS, and it wouldn’t surprise me if they either stick with UKIP or maybe even go back to Labour. Therefore, the result would be Theresa May piling up extra votes where she doesn’t need them while Labour clings on to its heartlands.

Now for some caveats. While current polling trends are good for Labour, actual election results are not. The local elections on the 5th of May made for grim reading, however, that was before Labours apparent surge towards the end of the month. Secondly, there is also a danger of Labour piling up votes in safe seats, as YouGov’s regional polling might suggest. Go and ask Hillary Clinton about how an absurdly unrepresentative voting system can make irrelevant one’s national support. Thirdly, once polls start predicting a tighter race, Conservative fear tactics about a Corbyn-led government propped up by a “Coalition of Chaos”, a prospect most only recently thought impossible, will be far more effective. Fourth, polls almost always overestimate Labour’s support – that may very well be what we’re seeing now. Fifth, there are still two weeks to go, so expect CCHQ and their (plenty) allies in the media to go absolutely nuts.

Perhaps that Conservative landslide which we thought inevitable might not be such as foregone conclusion after all. If Theresa May comes away with a majority similar in scope to what she possesses now, don’t be surprised to see her ousted as leader of her party even before Jeremy Corbyn.

 

 

 

 

Candidate Zuckerburg is Terrifying

News and Politics

Zuck 2020?

Mark Zuckerberg is up to something and it’s creeping the hell out of me. I get it, he’s an interesting guy, so perhaps the social media titan’s new years resolution to meet people in all 50 of America’s states is nothing remotely nefarious. Then again, I’m hardly convinced. In late April, the Facebook CEO decided to pay a visit to a Trump-voting family in the crucial swing state of Ohio, a move which has pre-election canvassing written all over it.

And oh, would you look at that! Zuckerburg no longer considers himself an Athiest. Now, again, perhaps I’m reading far too much into this but… Godamn isn’t this all just so convenient. Being non-religious has long been and remains one of the greatest impediments to attaining elected office in the United States, so do forgive me for drawing doubt over the 33-year-old billionaire’s newfound faith.

If going around meeting working-class Americans while making himself more electable isn’t enough, last year Facebook found itself hit by a lawsuit after plans to amend its stock structure would have granted Zuckerburg far greater control of the company. That was last April. In December, unsealed court filings revealed that Zuckerberg and two board members had discussed the prospect of a political career while at the same time as retaining his position as founder and CEO. According to The Guardian, Marc Andreessen, the 45-year-old investor, texted him in March 2016 to say that the “Biggest issue” of the proposal was “How to define the gov’t service thing without freaking out shareholders.”

Ok, so, Mark Zuckerburg, the 33-year-old with a net worth of over 60 billion US dollars is potentially planning a political run while also remaining in control of a social media network which is used by over 50% of Americans every single day. Now, if that doesn’t immediately terrify you, please understand that Zuckerburg possesses the two most crucial resources for any wannabe US President: Money and data, and more than anyone else who’s ever even considered that position.

There’s already a reason why the vast majority of political advertising is on Facebook. Elections are becoming more and more about big data and no other network has anywhere near as many users and anywhere near as much information on those users than Zuckerburg’s does. Given enough cash, current political campaigns can already use the site to advertise to very specific types of people living in very specific places – For example, single 18-24-year-old female renters living in Cleveland, Ohio. However, just imagine the kind of targeting and manipulation that is possible if said campaign has access to the back door?

In 2012, Facebook successfully conducted a massive study in which it was able to change individual people’s emotions by manipulating the order of posts on their home page. By editing the traffic of information supplied to its users, the company was literally able to change the way they think – and that was five years ago. Now, Facebook has two billion users – an even more impressive figure when you consider the fact that it’s still blocked in China. Now, not only do 50% of Americans use the service every day but it now also constitutes their primary source of news. It is certainly no exaggeration to assume that such technology can be used to manipulate public opinion on a terrifying scale, whether it is to sell a product, spark a revolution, or get its CEO elected as the most powerful person on Earth.

The Tory Stealth Campaign 

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It is now a well-known meme in politically aware circles that the Conservative Party is running what appears to be the most boring and stage-managed campaign in all of British history. Theresa May, like Catherine the Great on her visit to Crimea, is currently being ferried around the country to speak to small crowds of Tory Party activists where she will deliver the same repetitive sound bytes for twenty minutes before being bundled back into her car and sped along to the next empty shed or car park or whatever.

Obviously, that’s quite easy to make fun of, just as easy as it is to mock the repetitive focus group-tested phrases which Lynton Crosby has ordered Conservative politicians to utter every other sentence (“Strong and stable/ coalition of chaos/ strengthen my hand…”). However, I feel like it should be worth reminding everyone that you (a politically savvy individual who browses Twitter, watches Newsnight and has already made their mind up) are not the target audience. Most people aren’t sad little nerds like us, instead, as Jim Messina likes to say, they only think about politics for approximately four minutes every week. According to YouGov, most of the British public still don’t even recognise the “Strong and stable” line, much less Labour’s “For the many, not the few,” so don’t expect to stop hearing it anytime soon.

As for hiding away from voters, well, that’s probably the future. For your candidate to actually show up to a rally and meet “Real” people might be very noble, but it’s terrifically inefficient. I mean, what’s the profit? How many people can you actually fit in a half-empty car park, and how many of them are undecided voters as opposed to committed party loyalists? How many working mothers will take the time out of their day to stand in the cold and listen to a speech by some posh twat from Sussex?

On the other hand, think about the dangers. “Real” people are unpredictable. They might even walk up to your guy or gal and ask them a super awkward question or shout about how their husband had to wait seven hours in the A&E. Nah, it’s clearly much safer to prepare snippets of focus-tested propaganda and target it at where undecided voters actually hang out (Music Radio, Ten O’clock News, Facebook, Papers etc).

Emmanuel & Brigitte

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So France has itself a new President, one whom I actually rather like. Macron is like a Liberal Donald Trump – in the sense that he’s a long-time member of his nation’s respective elite who’s somehow managed to win an election on the premise of being a maverick outsider.

Anyway, one rather curious aspect of Macron’s campaign was the public fascination, both within France and beyond, to the fact that he’s married to his former school teacher, Brigitte, a woman 24 his senior. Basically, anyone with an axe to grind against both Macron and the “Evil Globalist Liberal Establishment” he apparently represents has used the fact to smear the new French President as really really weird, while also claiming that he’d get on his knees before the 62-year-old Merkel.

Now, look, I’m usually the kind of person to roll my eyes when people go on about sexism and Western political discourse but, well, come on. Let’s imagine for a moment that it was Emmanuel who was 24 years older than his wife. Would anyone care? No, of course, they wouldn’t. As a society, we’ve long ago come to accept that anyone from Tom Cruise to Rupert Murdock to some sweaty Russian Oligarch can happily marry a woman born over two decades before them. But oh! What’s this? A young, good looking politician I don’t like has a significantly older partner? Well… Then he must be gay, or perhaps is having an affair with his thirty-something step-daughter. No, honestly, shove it.

Can Labour Avoid Total Catastrophe? – Electoral Predictions For June

News and Politics

As I wrote on this blog yesterday, the snap election on June 8th will end with Theresa May securing a very comfortable majority, which should be rather obvious to everybody. The only question is exactly how large will that majority be? I mentioned some historical parallels the other day, so perhaps that’s not the worse place to start. In 1983, the last time when Labour was both in opposition and this far behind in the polls, it ended up with 209 seats – pretty bad, but only approximately 30 less than what the party commands now. However, the electoral map today looks significantly worse for Jeremy Corbyn than it did for Michael Foot.

What Do The Numbers Say?

So, the current polling average has the Conservatives on 42% and Labour on 26%. According to a traditional “Swingometer,” if the vote was held today, that would translate into a Conservative majority of 94, having taken 41 seats from Labour and one from the SNP, as you can see in the graph below.

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The Numbers Are Misleading

Well, sort of anyway. Firstly, I have a slight suspicion that the current polling is somewhat exaggerating Labour support. Why? Well, because it usually does, and, as I will explain later, it is highly likely that Conservative support will increase as the campaign properly begins. Under first past the post, even small swings can bring substantial changes to the map. For example, if (instead of 42/26) the Conservatives manage to win 44% to Labour’s 24%, their majority increases to 130.

Secondly, it would be wrong to take these calculations as absolute gospel, even if the projected national swing is correct. That is because some constituencies are likely to see a higher than average swing due to issues such as Brexit. According to the graph above, the Liberal Democrats will only gain one seat (Cambridge from Labour). That is almost certainly untrue, as the party will likely gain a number of pro-remain seats from the Conservatives, as the latter’s election chief has warned. Furthermore, a majority of those happen to be former Lib Dem seats anyway, making their comeback there more likely. Another example could be Labour seats where many people are employed in nuclear power or the defence industry, as such voters will be much more susceptible to anti-Corbyn messaging due to the Labour leader’s previous views on energy and the military. Such local concerns are not represented in national polling.

What Is Likely To Change Between Now and June?

Glad you asked. First and foremost, Labour’s support will likely decline. Since Corbyn was elected leader, his ardent supporters have wasted no time complaining about unfair media coverage. Well, over the next few months they will discover what a Conservative Party media machine really looks like. Tory operatives will dig up everything unsavoury the man has ever said or done and hand it to their friends in the press. Every comment he ever made about the IRA. Every newspaper he ever worked for that condoned terrorism. Every penny he ever took from the “wrong” people. Everything which contributes to an image of Corbyn being simultaneously dangerous and incompetent. They will destroy him, just as they did with Milliband and Kinnock, only this time their people will have far more material to work with.

Speaking of “their people,” Lynton Crosby has already been hired to help lead the campaign. That’s the 60-year-old Australian who engineered Cameron’s surprise victory in 2015. Some of his tactics have certainly come under staunch criticism, but the man knows how to run an election campaign. They’ll wake up at 5 AM every day for six weeks and their machine will be devastatingly effective. Tory HQ has also hired the same pollsters as last time round, also known as “The only people in Britain who weren’t surprised by David Cameron’s majority.” Simply put, as far as talent is concerned, Labour isn’t even close. They weren’t close in 2015, and now most of the party has accepted their face and is only worried about the internal battles to follow.

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Get ready for an updated version.

 

Tory Apathy 

Now for some counterbalance, I suppose. In 2015, the Conservatives owed their much-renowned victory to a terrifically effective fear factor. Third party voters and apathetic Tories alike were driven to the polls by the feeling that a Labour government propped up by the SNP was a very real possibility. Much of Crosby’s messaging initiative was focused on precisely this.

This time, however, few people in Britain actually believe that Jeremy Corbyn can become Prime Minister, and that’s a problem. If Labour manages to do a decent job of mobilising its voters, then the potential apathy on the other side might ensure that they lose by a significantly smaller margin than most expect. Combine that with moderately sized Lib Dem comeback, and May’s projected supermajority might not be quite as super after all.

Why Now

That’s what a lot of people, myself included, were undoubtedly wondering as May went back on her approximately 7 million promises not to hold an election before 2020. I suppose the reason she finally couldn’t resist is that it’s unlikely to get any better from here for the Conservatives. By 2020, Corbyn might have resigned and been replaced with someone at least half-competent, while the realities of leaving the European Union without a proper trade deal might begin to set in. This is her best chance to get a huge majority while likely reducing the opposition to its lowest number of seats since before the Second World War. Temptation is a potentially irresistible force.

My Pointless Prediction Then…

All things considered, and while it will be much easier to tell closer to the date, my own feeling is that May will take somewhere between 40 and 50 seats from Labour while the Lib Dems make moderate gains from both Labour and the Conservatives. The SNP will probably hold on to almost every seat in Scotland despite one or two loses to Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives. UKIP will get nowhere. Brexit was the worst thing that ever happened to them.

Quick Thoughts On The Early Election

News and Politics

For obvious reasons, since Theresa May became Prime Minister last summer, all sorts of people began comparing Britain’s second female PM to Margaret Thatcher. However, among the more politically astute, some comparisons were made with Gordon Brown, Labour’s own last (perhaps ever) resident in Number 10. Neither May nor Brown obtained their posts through an election, neither within the country or even within their respective parties. Both became Prime Minster at a time of great national uncertainty, be that Brexit or the 2008 financial crisis. Both long contemplated on whether to call an early election. Brown kept hinting at one but eventually chickened out, while May kept saying that an election wasn’t necessary until she asked the commons to give her one after all. However, this is largely where the comparison ends, because while Brown got booted out and replaced by the coalition government, May’s electoral fortunes will be far closer to that of Mrs Thatcher.

Few are in any doubt about what is going to happen on the night of the 8th June. Just as in 1983, The Conservatives will all but certainly achieve an overwhelming parliamentary majority at the expense of a bitterly divided and farcically led Labour Party. The Thatcher comparison in that sense is thoroughly uncanny. Therefore, this election will be all about what happens afterwards. That said, there are some details which might give us a hint as to what could be in store for the long term, especially concerning a potential political realignment. How many remain voters can the Liberal Democrats snatch from Labour and the Conservatives? Despite inevitably losing huge amounts of swing voters to the Tories, how will Labour’s electoral coalition hold up? The party’s support is currently split between overwhelmingly pro-remain metropolitans and it’s traditional working class base, of whom a considerable amount back Brexit. Will that balance change? And if yes, how? As for UKIP, forget about it. UKIP is over.

Of course, May’s reasoning for calling the vote is largely nonsense. In her initial announcement, she accused all the opposition parties of playing politics, while in reality, her decision to hold the election in the first place is the among the biggest examples of “playing politics” there could be. Those complaining that the snap election will waste valuable Brexit negotiating time are also largely kidding themselves. Those negotiations won’t really start until the end of September anyway – because this little thing called “Democracy” exists on the continent as well, and talks are currently rather fruitless until the French and the Germans figure out who will end up governing them throughout that process.

Finally, coming back to Labour, the question on everyone’s minds is what happens to the party’s leadership after it inevitably gets thrashed in June. Well, my personal prediction is that Corbyn will attempt to hang on until Party Conference in September. The hope is that his supporters can pass the so-called “McDonnell Amendment” (lowering the number of MPs one needs to qualify for a leadership election) and then have Corbyn safely step down while anointing a successor. The other internal battle that is bound to occur pretty soon is over mandatory reselection of MPs in time for the general election. After failing to get a single Corbynite candidate selected for any of the recent by-elections, Labour’s left will be keen to replace many of their opponents in safe seats, giving themselves another alternative to cling on to the leadership should the McDonnell Amendment fail at conference. The chances of the party’s NEC actually approving such a measure, however, remains very slim.

Those are my initial thoughts anyway, I’ll probably write more as the campaign begins. Should be fun.

 

On The Road Through Vegetables, Deserts and Lies: The Presidential Election in California

News and Politics, Travel

The following piece of writing was written as part of my A2 Creative Writing Coursework Unit. If you happen to be an exams officer who’s stumbled upon this blog through a plagiarism detector – yes, I wrote this. 

Prologue

West Sussex, Wednesday, 9 November

No way man. He’ll take Virginia 10/10

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     We’ll see

I just saw Virginia

Peter

I just took 8 shots of vodka

If Trump wins all three I’m taking another 8

And if he wins overall I’m drinking 8 shots of lighter fluid

It’s 2:19am in England and my friend and I are staying up to watch the US election. The main contention right now seems to be the state of Virginia, which he is fairly certain will go to Donald Trump. I’m not convinced. Not all the votes have yet been counted, and although Trump is leading by several points, the traditionally Democratic Northern counties are still waiting to report. Sure enough, within the next hour his lead narrows, and by 4am Hillary Clinton has won the state by a margin of 5%. However, as everyone would soon realise, it wouldn’t be enough.

A few hours later, my 16 year old sister texts me from California. “This is so crazy. People in my school are wearing black tomorrow as a form of protest and honouring America’s funeral”. Later that night, thousands of protesters will block highways across the state. In New York, thousands more will march down 5th Avenue towards Trump Tower, furious at the fact that, even though their candidate would end up polling well over 2 million more votes, The White House would end up in the hands of someone very different. As I scrolled through my Twitter feed, reading paranoid cries proclaiming the end of Western civilization, I couldn’t help but mull over the fact that it was certainly entertaining, that is, in the same way that our sheer morbid curiosity has us watching slow-motion car crashes from the perspective of some Russian dash cam.

This was the election when everyone was suddenly concerned about the phenomenon of so-called “fake news”, when debate audiences shouted down fact checkers. An election fought between a serial liar and a man who seemed to posses a scorching contempt for truth itself. Neither of the two sides will ever admit this, but their candidates were just as dishonest as each other. Clinton lied until there was no one left to lie to, while Trump managed to find himself on opposite ends of every major policy position. “I hate the concept of guns,” were once the words of a man endorsed by the National Rifle Association. A man who shuffled between fierce opposition to the Affordable Care Act and support for universal healthcare. A man who was such a devout Christian that he couldn’t cite a single bible verse, and such a strong believer in traditional marriage that he’s had three of them.

In the aftermath, his supporters continued to chant “Drain The Swamp,” a slogan meant to signify cleaning Washington of corruption and special interests, while Trump filled his transition team with a vast array of swamp creatures. Instead of draining the swamp, he seemed to be building a brand new one right next to it. Soon, in a moment so surreal it would leave Picasso envious, the clearly out of his depth President-elect found himself shaking hands with Barack Obama. “I have great respect” was what Trump then said about the man he previously claimed was “the founder of ISIS.” Otto Von Bismarck once said that “People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.” Over one hundred years after his death, the Prussian’s wise words certainly ring true.

 

Clinton Country

Los Angeles, Monday, 24 October

If there’s one thing Americans definitely take seriously, it’s Halloween. In a tale not unlike that of Christmas, it’s a holiday that has gradually evolved into the perfect expression of American capitalism. That is, to paraphrase Neil Degrasse Tyson, a Pagan holiday turned Christian holiday turned shopping holiday, it has long left behind its traditional religious roots in favour of selling children and adults alike on an array of terribly overpriced costumes. If you’re a kid, then it’s a holiday where you walk around and harass your neighbours for free sweets. If you’re an adult, Halloween is both an excuse to get drunk as well as a time to pay society back for all the free candy you got when you were a kid.

It’s about a week before Halloween and as I’m walking around our neighbourhood while still recovering from jet lag, it’s clear that the locals have prepared. Everything is covered in pumpkins and synthetic spider webs. Props and decorations are in front of almost every house, from skeletons to zombies and vampires, while a family down the road has even erected an entire graveyard. One of our neighbours, a funny young guy with a passion for surfing, has drawn Donald Trump’s face on a pumpkin and displayed it proudly on his lawn. Every so often, someone from their house comes out and whacks this poor little Trumpkin with a baseball bat. Attitudes like that aren’t uncommon in Los Angeles, for this is firmly Clinton Country.

Simply walking around most of LA’s suburbs is enough to realise who’s winning here. Lawn signs and placards declaring support for the Clinton campaign are everywhere and after a few hours I’m still yet to find a single one advertising for the other side. In fact, I’ve seen more people publicly endorsing Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s unsuccessful primary opponent, than the official Republican nominee. It’s as if the entire mighty Trump movement has gone underground, and there’s nothing more to blame than America’s ancient two party system.

Most democracies have changed quite a lot over the past two hundred years; universal suffrage was expanded, women won the right to vote and more proportional voting methods and electoral systems became widespread. That is, unless you happen to live in The United States. Sure, universal suffrage for white men was introduced in 1856, for black men in 1870 (although voter suppression of African Americans continued for decades after) and finally for women in 1920. However, the electoral system by which Americans elect their President, or rather don’t, has remained unchanged since its very inception.

Votes in US Presidential elections are given to states, not people. Each state is given a number of votes depending on its population, and whichever candidate wins a state, no matter the majority, he or she receives all of that state’s electoral college votes. Out of the 538 total votes, 270 are needed to win.

This is an awful way to run an election in any modern democracy, with the most obvious problem being that someone can easily win the Presidency without getting the most votes from actual people. This has happened before, most recently in 2000 when George W Bush received 500,000 fewer votes than Al Gore but still won due getting just 500 more in Florida. Furthermore, the fact that each state gets 3 votes before the rest are distributed according to population means that smaller states get disproportionately more, and bigger states disproportionately less, than they logically should. As a result, it is mathematically possible to become the President of The United States with only 22% of the popular vote, a scenario that, while extremely unlikely, is so ludicrously indefensible that its very existence is enough reason alone to push for electoral reform.

The only reason that such a result has never yet happened, however, is another strike against the Electoral College. As most states tend to lean heavily in one direction or the other, votes in some places happen to be worth far more than in others. If you’re unfortunate enough to be a Democratic supporter in Texas or South Carolina, you might as well stay home. This is also why the Republicans aren’t putting in much effort in the suburbs of Los Angeles. According to Nate Silver, one of America’s top polling analysts, Trump’s chances of winning California currently stand lower than 0.1%, which is why neither of the two candidates have even visited the state since the primaries.

Walking back home, I can’t help but gawk at a particularly enthusiastic household, even by the aforementioned Trumpkin standards. Several Clinton signs are displayed on the walls, on the lawn and on the tree in the front garden. By the doorway stands a lifesize cardboard cutout of the Democratic nominee herself, holding a sign which reads “Vote!” To her immediate right, an equally large cutout of a smiling Barack Obama with a sign proclaiming “I’m with her,” a slogan used heavily by the Clinton campaign to emphasise her female credentials. Finally, from the roof hangs what appears to be a piñata, a piñata dressed as Donald Trump. Presumably, come Halloween, the members of this household will smash it apart and devour whatever contents lie inside. It reminds me of that time when mining villages in South Yorkshire celebrated Margaret Thatcher’s funeral by hanging and burning effigies of the former British Prime Minister. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about getting people involved in politics, but surely everything has its limits.

 

Farmers For Trump!

Central Valley, Near Bakersfield, Friday, 28 October

We decide to take a trip to San Francisco, about a six hour drive from Los Angeles along Interstate 5, a journey which can say a lot about the current political situation in America. After finally escaping the infamous LA traffic, the highway initially leads through the San Emigdio Mountains, separating the LA and Kern Counties. Emerging on the other side of the mountain range feels like entering a completely different reality, as the bustling metropolitan landscape of the second largest city in North America gives way to the sparsity of the Central Valley.

100 km wide and 720 km long, the valley appears to be a living oxymoron. Suffering from what is now a five year drought, the landscape at first appears barren, devoid of much life or vegetation. However, what soon follows is thousands upon thousands of acres of farmland, stretching as far as the eye can see. It’s a spectacle that can make even the world’s greatest pessimist revel in admiration, for despite the worst drought in recorded history, this valley accounts for over half of the vegetables, fruits and nuts grown in the United States of America. It is an achievement only made possible by an extensive system of synthetic reservoirs and canals – a true feat of modern engineering. However, there is also cause for great tension here.

Despite being a concern some of us might only think applicable in either the developing world or dystopian fiction, water is a huge issue in California, so much so that wasting it is now considered a criminal offense. Anyone hoping to maintain a garden in Palmdale or Los Angeles will find themselves combating ever tightening regulations, while fines for acting carelessly with this ever so important resource amount to hundreds of dollars per person. Yet many campaigners want to tighten the laws further, a truly alarming prospect to the 450,000 people currently employed by California’s 46 billion dollar agricultural sector.

To many of them, these efforts are nothing but an ill advised attempt by the state’s ever growing metropolitan elite to indulge in ‘ignorant farmer bashing.’ Quite understandably, they aren’t prepared to stand aside and let their livelihoods be destroyed by millennial environmentalist campaigners sitting on MacBooks and sipping Starbucks coffee. Many of them are prepared to vote to prevent this from ever happening. While cruising along  Interstate 5, we make a stop for petrol. Getting out of the car, I am immediately greeted by two signs fixed to the side of a rusty detached freight container. On the left, We Need Water & Jobs NOT Jim Costa, a reference to the local Democratic congressman who has accused farmers of pumping groundwater at unsustainable rates, and on the right, VOTE TO MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

When Hillary Clinton was filmed at a fundraiser back in September saying that “half” of Trump’s supporters could be put in what she called “The Basket of Deplorables,” it was easily one of the greatest own goals of this entire campaign. As she happily labelled millions of people as “Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic, you name it,” she not only broke what is often considered to be rule one of political campaigning (say whatever you want about your opponent, but never, ever, attack the electorate), but also helped to advance an already established view of herself as someone who couldn’t care less about ordinary people. Soon enough, Trump supporters had completely appropriated the term for their own ends, as “Deplorable” t-shirts were being sold at rallies all over the country.

Logically speaking, there was certainly truth in what Clinton said. After receiving endorsements from familiar names such as the Ku Klux Klan, I am willing to wager that just about every single xenophobe and white nationalist in America is voting for Donald Trump. However, most of those people don’t live in the kind of places that matter in US elections. Should every single confederate flag waving lunatic living out of a trailer park in South Carolina come out and vote for Trump in November, that wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference as far as the electoral college is concerned.

Instead, this election will be decided not by the deplorable but by the disenfranchised, and those people are turning out for Trump in droves. Certainly there has to be a better reason than mere prejudice behind every Farmers For Trump! billboard that we drive by on our way to San Francisco. These people aren’t racists or xenophobes, they employ thousands of immigrants. Their farms are only running thanks to the Mexicans, Jamaicans and Guatemalans that work on them, approximately a third for less than the minimum wage. So why then? Why is a New York billionaire who grew up in Manhattan and lives in mansion in Palm Beach so fervently supported by farmers in rural California?

Despite what you may hear from the other side, it’s not racism, and neither is it stupidity. It is because while Hillary Clinton has focused on maximizing support among the metropolitan elite of San Francisco and Los Angeles, Trump has been very clear about which side he represents in California’s ongoing water war. “There is no drought.” he told a Fresno audience during the primaries back in May. “We’re going to solve your water problem… If I win, believe me, we’re going to start opening up the water so that you can have your farmers survive.”

Everyone knows that there’s a drought in California; simply going outside is usually enough evidence to prove it, however, most people also know that Donald Trump isn’t particularly clever. They might question his reasoning, but they certainly don’t doubt his intentions, and while a few hundred thousand agricultural workers in the Central Valley will not swing this election, their story is replicated everywhere across the country.

 

Designed In California

San Francisco, Saturday, 29 October

After six hours on the road, and one night spent at a motel somewhere along the way, we finally get to San Francisco. As we drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, the city in front of us is covered in a thick fog. For many of Donald Trump’s supporters, it serves as a perfect representation of everything that is wrong with contemporary America, both in cultural terms as well as economic. Culturally, it is viewed as a place that has been completely overrun by out of touch quasi-liberal fruitcakes. Economically, it represents a growing shift in Western countries, a shift away from manufacturing and towards Research and Development.

To the south of the San Francisco Bay Area, around the city of San Jose, lies Silicon Valley: the home of Apple, Google, AMD and dozens of other multinational corporations. It is only due to this massive sprawl of local startups and global tech giants that California can now proudly call itself the world’s fifth largest economy, having recently overtaken both France and the United Kingdom. On the surface, this might seem like an incredible achievement, but not one that is appreciated by everyone across America. For many of those living in post industrial Northern states, their support for Donald Trump stems as much from their opposition to Silicon Valley as it does from their opposition to Wall Street. Since Western economies have shifted from industry to R&D, it is those working in manufacturing jobs that have been left behind.

America is a big place, and one would be wrong to assume that everyone who lives there happens to share in the same values and priorities as they do. What excites and energises a farmer living on the outskirts of Bakersfield is likely quite different than a Santa Monica Liberal Arts graduate. Now imagine you’re a poor, thirty something, blue collar worker from South East Michigan. You’ve recently lost your job because the car factory that you used to work in has packed up shop and relocated overseas. Let’s also say that you have a wife who is a teacher at the local elementary school and gets paid a pittance, and two small kids that need to be clothed and fed.

Up comes the election, and two very different candidates are fighting for your vote. One of them is a massively corrupt political insider that lobbied and voted for all the familiar sounding trade deals. You know, the trade deals that have sent your beloved car factory to Calcutta and yourself to the job seekers’ queue. The other candidate is a massively corrupt sexist asshole that wants to tear up that goddam trade deal. In a normal election, you would probably have concluded that your best chance to get that job back is voting for the Democrat. However, this isn’t any normal election. If you want to understand a crucial part of Trump’s appeal, just read the smallprint on the back of your iPhone – “Designed in California. Assembled in China,” It could very well have been his campaign slogan.

There may even be an argument to the effect that, had the Democrats run a typical establishment candidate with a relatively clean record, they might have at least won the moral argument. But what chance of that is there now? For the past few months, the Clinton campaign has been running ads showing Donald Trump saying a plethora of naughty words. Earlier in October, recordings surfaced in which the Republican nominee essentially admitted to groping women. The media exploded with condemnation; some said that the election was practically over, that we might as well hold hands, sing kumbaya and embrace her majesty Mrs Clinton.

However, most of those voting for Trump don’t see him as the ultimate arbiter of morality, and it’s pretty hard to claim that moral high ground when your past is as reprehensible as that of Hillary Clinton. Trump may have used his billionaire status to force himself on unsuspecting women, however, Clinton also just happened to be complicit in the harassment of a number of women who’ve accused her husband of sexual assault. Now, whether groping is a more heinous offense than harassing rape survivors is up to you to decide, but surely neither can claim to be a moral authority intent on telling others how to behave.

Corruption and lies are the two things which, above all, have come to characterise the rise of Hillary Clinton. It certainly doesn’t help that she’s married to a man who, to paraphrase US lawyer David Schippers, lied to a criminal grand jury, lied to the people, lied to his aides, lied to The Congress and kept on lying until there was no one left to lie to. For the Clintons, lying has all but become an impulse, an instinctive reflex used to extend their political survival. Many American voters still remember Mrs Clinton’s story of “landing under sniper fire” and having to run to her vehicle during a visit to Bosnia in 1996. A tremendous PR disaster soon ensued when it emerged that the entire episode had been wholly manufactured. In truth, the then First Lady spent several minutes on the tarmac with a large Bosnian greeting ceremony, footage of which emerged not long afterwards.

One might assume that, following such a humiliating incident, Hillary Clinton might be encouraged to pursue a slightly more transparent approach, but to no avail. Near the end of the summer, speculation began to emerge that the Democratic nominee might be suffering from poor health, but the Clinton campaign vigorously swept aside any such speculation. In the end, this secrecy merely culminated in yet another PR disaster, when during a 9/11 remembrance event in New York City, the kind of event where every political bone in your body should be screaming “don’t make news,” Clinton was filmed collapsing while being escorted away by her secret service detail. As her campaign soon revealed, turns out Clinton had pneumonia, not exactly something most people would deeply care about. However, the damage was already done, and it was two sided. Clinton’s fervent secrecy not only helped to present her as an untrustworthy individual, but also created a vacuum in which conspiracy theories far more exciting than mere pneumonia could spread.

 

Epilogue

Santa Monica, Wednesday, 21 December

“He’s just a fucking idiot, if you’ll excuse my French.”

“Oh no, it’s fine.”

“Just a massive fucking idiot.”

After an offhand comment on my part, the Uber driver started talking about Donald Trump. Back in California for Christmas, things have seemingly returned to normal. The Halloween decorations and presidential piñatas are gone, almost as if the prophesied end of the world hadn’t even happened.

“You know, I think his children will soon disown him,” he continued.

“Oh yeah? Which ones?”

“Well… I think Ivanka.”

“She definitely seems to be smarter than him.”

“But, you know, I think generally what we’re seeing is a good thing. The country, I mean, it feels like it’s going to go back to the people. You know? Like back to the principles it was founded on.”

Well, he clearly wasn’t a terribly big fan of Trump, yet somehow there was cause for optimism. Although the argument that Trump won because of “the people” is slightly countered by the fact that he got almost three million fewer votes, the cause for optimism isn’t necessarily unfounded. Sure, the next leader of the free world is a massively insecure man-child whose Twitter account has a good chance of causing international incidents, but perhaps his ascent to power represents something greater than any one single US President.

More than anything else, American elections are traditionally won on the backs of gigantic piles of cash, yet rather paradoxically, Trump, the single wealthiest individual to ever enter the Oval Office, might have just ended that trend. The Clinton campaign outspent its rival roughly two to one, just like Obama had outspent Romney and John McCain and just like Bush did in his campaign against Gore and then Kerry. The pattern seems to be clear. Want to be the leader of the free world? No problem, just fork over more money than the other guy or gal. Except this time that didn’t work.

Maybe that’s the silver lining this time around. Whoever was going to win this election, the White House would have ended up in the hands of a corrupt and lying narcissist. While a victory for Clinton would have also been one for America’s political establishment, Trump’s assent to power was nothing short of a political revolution. Proof, if you will, that the American people can still eject from power those that they feel have screwed them.

Perhaps Trump is merely a rough stepping stone towards a country whose rulers once again fear the wrath of their electorate, and not the other way around. It is also, undeniably, a personal triumph of incredible proportions. When, in June 2015, Donald J Trump descended down an elevator to the sounds of cheers from “supporters” who were paid $50 a head to be there, everyone either dismissed or laughed at him. I’m not sure what Mahatma Gandhi, the legendary leader of India’s independence movement, would have thought of Trump, but his words have ended up as prophecy: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, and then you win.”

 

Meanwhile in the USA

News and Politics

As I’m sure you’ve heard by now, two days ago, at around 14:40 on Wednesday 22nd March, a 52-year-old man by the name of Khalid Masood drove a grey Hyundai Tucson onto the South side of Westminster Bridge. After running over a series of pedestrians, Masood crashed his SUV into the railings outside the Palace of Westminster. He then got out and sprinted through the gates into New Palace Yard, where he was shot after stabbing 48-year-old PC Keith Palmer. Four civilians who were hit on the bridge later died in hospital.

Attacks by Islamic radicals have become a depressingly regular occurrence in Europe’s cities. That being said, I’ve walked across that bridge well over a dozen times. A relative of someone very close to me happened to do so minutes before the attacker struck, so this one happens to hit rather close to home. Yet for many others, terrorism will continue to become increasingly normalised, and so to will be the usual responses.

Here’s a tip – You can find it within yourself to acknowledge that the religion of Islam has quite a bit to do with terrorism while also recognising the fact that the vast majority of British Muslims totally deplore such acts. Yet, in another indication of how polarised the world of politics has become, many seem all too keen to rush to extreme conclusions: one side proclaiming that Islam is wholly peace and the other that it only promotes violence. In truth, they’re both right – to a certain extent. As with the Bible, the Koran is a farcical collection of ridiculous contradictions, so much so that it could probably be used to advocate almost anything. There’s a reason why the Medieval European kingdoms found the Bible such a useful tool for controlling their populations, and why the Catholic Church fought tooth and nail against efforts to translate the text from Latin into the common languages. Because, in the words of Isaac Asimov, “Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”

Anyway. There was another response to Wednesday’s attack, one that came from across the Atlantic and one which I seek to address here. As Fox News ran segments absurdly claiming that London was defeatist and demoralised (we survived the Blitz and the IRA and can certainly handle a lone maniac armed with an SUV and a knife), figure after figure on the American right, including Britain’s own biggest national embarrassment, Nigel Farage, lined up to claim that the attack showed:

  1. That Europe’s policies on immigration and security have failed.
  2. That Donald Trump is right about his travel ban.

Now, while the response from London’s police and other emergency services has been nothing short of exemplary, and while there’s certainly valid criticisms to be made about some aspects of our immigration policy, neither I nor anyone else on this continent will be taking any lectures from the American right about keeping our people safe. If you’re one of those individuals, pay attention, because I’m going to tell you a story.

At around 12:30 on Wednesday 22nd March, the same day as the Westminster attack, officers of the Rothschild Police Department were called to a shooting incident at the Marathon Savings Bank in Northern Wisconsin. When they arrived, they found that two people had already been shot and that the suspect had fled the scene. More shots were soon reported at around 13:10 and again at 13:30 when it became apparent that the shooter had barricaded himself in a nearby apartment complex. At just before 14:30, a heavily armed SWAT team arrived and began evacuating the residents, while a standoff with the gunman began. The situation drew to a close as, at roughly 16:55, more gunshots were heard and the suspect was brought into custody. Overall, three civilians and a police officer were killed. The event barely made its way into the national press.

A few days earlier, on the 19th March, a shooting occurred at a concert in Louisville, Kentucky. One student was killed and five others were injured. The incident was only reported on the local news and the gunman is yet to be found. The day before that, on the 18th of March, a 23-year-old man walked into a home near central Detroit and proceeded to shoot and kill three people. Two others were injured before the shooter was brought into police custody and the event only found itself mentioned on local news channels. CNN was too busy reporting on a terrorist incident in Paris (where only the attacker was killed).

On the 10th of March, three people were shot dead in New Orleans and two in Chicago. Heard about that? No, of course not. Between the 4th and the 7th of March, 16 were injured and one was killed in incidents spanning Topeka, Columbus, Sacramento and again Chicago. On the 3rd, 9 were injured in shootings between Riverside and Philidelphia, and 6 in Cincinnati the day before. I could go on, but I think you get my point. So far in 2017, 2599 Americans have been shot and killed by other Americans, while (since 9/11) an average of one per year is killed by foreign-born jihadists.

There are no reliable statistics concerning the amount of times that US Police discharge their weapons, but what we do know is that they had to shoot and kill over a thousand people in 2016 alone. Meanwhile, in a number that will surely make you proud to be British, police in England and Wales discharged their weapons on a total of 7 incidents in 2015 and 2016 combined, while the country at large has somehow managed a total of six consecutive years without a single mass shooting (hmmm, I do wonder why?).

So, if you’re a member of the American right who happens to have made it this far, I’ll give you this simple ultimatum – Sort out your own country’s insane gun violence problem before lecturing Europeans about security. And if you still refuse to do so – here’s your kind invitation to go fuck yourself.