Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 31.12.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

Government of Spain, the UK and the USA
  • As you'll all know, Spain has a written constitution, written in the late 1970s. Stimulated by the Catalan crisis, some think this is already unfit for purpose and needs early revision. Well, we'll see. Written constitutions – and more so specific articles – tend to become sacred cows. In contrast, the UK has no written constitution but relies on 'conventions'. (Incidentally, I well recall the first essay I had to write at university: Conventions presuppose the law). As it hapens, Tony Blair showed how easy it is for a British prime minister to ride roughshod over 'immutable' long-standing conventions with total impunity. And Donald Fart has now shown that this is true of the USA as well. As a Guardian columnist puts it: The first year of the Trump presidency has exposed two flaws in the US model. The first is that Trump has vividly demonstrated that much of what keeps a democracy intact is not enshrined in the written letter of a constitution, but resides instead in customs and conventions – norms – that are essential to civic wellbeing. Trump trampled all over those as a candidate – refusing to disclose his tax returns, for example – and has trampled over even more as president. Convention dictated that he had to divest himself of private business concerns on taking office, to prevent a conflict of interest – but in the absence of a law explicitly forcing him to do so, he did no such thing. The same goes for appointing unqualified relatives to senior jobs, sacking the director of the FBI with no legitimate cause, or endorsing an accused child molester for the US Senate. No law told him he couldn’t, so he did. More on this for US-watchers here.
  • One of the UK papers naturally features today a list of 20 places one just has to visit in 2018. No great surprise to see that Spain has a nomination among these – Los Picos de Europa. These come in at 6th and are described as: The perfect adventure playground of shark’s-teeth limestone peaks, stretching over a 250 sq mile(647 sq km) chunk of Asturias, Cantabria and Castilla y León. Where you can go canyoning, canoeing, mountain-biking, and even good old-fashioned walking, in the form of one of the great day hikes in Europe, the Garganta del Cares, which follows the course of a hydroelectric pipeline through some of the most dramatic scenery that will ever hit your eyes. The writer stresses that you can drive 12 miles(19km) north of the park boundaries to the Asturian coast for your sea-kayaking, paddle-boarding, or lounging-around-on-the-beach fix. I can vouch for all that.
The EU
  • There’s a growing sense that Brexit is an issue that’s manageable. The far bigger issue in the EU is that, if they try to come down too hard on Poland, existing cracks may come to a head in 2018, not because of migration, or even elections, but because of EU spending plans.
  • A couple of positive views:-
  1. There is nothing intrinsically extreme about being pro-Brexit. If there were, it is highly unlikely that 17.4 million people would have voted for it. The same applies, by the way, to the Remain position. Both sides contain extremists – Brexiteers who want to pull up the drawbridge on all foreigners; Remainers who despise Britishness – but neither is dominated by these. The divide, though often emotional, is not between maniacs and moderates, but between reasonable people who – often after much hesitation - have plumped for different visions of how our future is best assured.
  2. Every stage of the coming Brexit negotiations will look as if it is collapsing into chaos and recrimination – until five minutes to midnight when, in an incomprehensible (because largely unexplained) miraculous transmutation it will be resolved. Everybody engaged in the process will instantly switch from reciprocal insults and bloodcurdling threats to universal approbation and proclamations of mutual regard. This pattern will be repeated at least half a dozen times, always with the same formula – because economic reality must prevail over political vanity – but the ending will always come as a “surprise” to most of the media. On the first few occasions, the happy denouement will create euphoric relief in the country at large. Then everybody will get the hang of it and become bored.
The UK
  • In the above-cited list, I was pleased – if a tad surprised – to see Liverpool rank just behind Los Picos, at 7th. Don't all rush.
Social Media
  • The calls for something to be done are increasingly strident. If only if it's for imposing more taxes on the companies which 'publish' – though not in their opinion – the abuse which forms most of the internet. Below is an article from a dissenting voice.
  • Happy New Year to all and sundry.
Today's Cartoon


The internet is a jungle that can’t be tamed: Matthew Parris

It would be impossible to censor social media so we might as well embrace fake news and learn to ignore the insults

But what that impact will be, how society will respond to it, how it may change us and how it will (as it will) finally bed down in our culture is impossible to predict. How we end up regulating the internet is at this stage equally impossible to anticipate.

Pause, please, at that word “impossible”. It’s at the heart of this column’s argument. By “impossible” I don’t mean problematical: I mean impossible. Pointless, hopeless, a waste of time. We’re no more able to peer even a couple of decades into a future world’s relationship with the internet than in 1440 Johannes Gutenberg could have guessed how, how fast and how completely his printing press would shape the world to come. Did he know where his invention would lead? Of course not. Any contemporary speculation on the future impact of the printing press would have been futile. As futile as our guesses, now, about where the internet will take us.

But though our journey into the unknown must be facing backwards, precedent is useful. In the end, all we’re talking about is human communication. Based on the history of communications so far, there are two imperatives I hope this column might impress on you.

First is the need for scepticism whenever someone starts burbling about the “new situation” that social media and internet communication presents us with. Ask yourself what genuinely new ethical or legal dilemma we face and what genuinely new principle is involved. I’ve yet to see either.
So criminals and terrorists can communicate with greater ease using the internet? But all communication opens up opportunities for criminality. The easier the communication, the easier the conspiracy. The railways, the motor car, post and telegraphy, radio, the telephone, television, the mobile phone — each was greeted with the same anxieties, for each enlarged the scope not only for good but evil too. And we learnt this truth fast enough. So each was followed by tweaks in the law, in regulation and in policing, to enable society to monitor new theatres for the same old vices, and pursue and track down the wicked in new places. But the principles remained the same.

And now a new generation will do this too, as the internet develops. In cyberspace I (reluctantly) conclude that for serious crimes like child abuse or terrorism, greater use must be made of undercover sleuthing and the use of online agents provocateurs. Is the structure, calibre and culture of Britain’s numerous geographically based local constabularies capable of adapting to these needs? A new, national body, differently recruited and trained, with an IT-led culture of its own, may be needed. A prototype for such a body already exists but only covers child abuse. Similarly specialist treatment is given to online anti-terrorism work. Internet-centred policing should be brought beneath a single roof as we do with transport policing. A breed of officer who never expects to meet a criminal or experience a car chase may evolve.

Which leads me to the second imperative: never to forget that humans can evolve very fast to adapt to new circumstances. Neither you nor I nor even the present younger generation are looking at Twitter, Facebook or the swirl of new platforms for report and commentary in the way the next generation will.

It’s possible they will learn to dismiss trolling (or the pile-in where a flash-mob of vituperative critics sets upon a single individual) just as the first consumers of newspapers learnt, after an initial shock, to shrug at the coarsened politics and bare-knuckled attacks for which the public prints offered platforms. I certainly learnt quickly to take no notice of personal abuse in the online readers’ commentary beneath columns like this; just as I opted to discard venomous letters arriving in the post. I was stalked for ages by telephone and survived. I could equally survive being stalked online.

I believe the immediate response of my generation — that such things must somehow be stopped by “regulation” — is wrong: first because this is in practice impossible if we’re to maintain platforms on which people can express opinions; the sheer volume of cybertraffic makes mediating (censoring) social media impossible except after the horse has bolted. And second because, perversely, protecting people from nastiness makes them more vulnerable: it impairs the production of the ultimate antibody against abuse, which is learning to take no notice.

None of this is to deny the importance of law. We can prosecute those who incite illegal acts or racist behaviour; we can sue those who libel. We can prosecute those who conspire to pervert elections or referendums. There may well be scope for international action to force social media giants to disclose the identities of those who post potentially criminal or actionable material. But vulgar abuse? Bring it on. Let’s learn to treat it with contempt, not umbrage.

There’s a great truth to be learnt about an essentially open-access, unmediated social media platform, and it’s one the next generation may learn better than mine has. Cyberspace is not like a big, democratic newspaper. It’s a chaos, an infinite tip, much of it rubbish, much of it wrong. For the discerning there’s plenty that’s useful; but you must pick your way through oceans of nonsense, mountains of trivia and a good deal of poison. Unless this could be filtered, cleansed, pre-viewed and regulated — and it cannot — we make people more vulnerable, not less, by feeble attempts to render an inherently dangerous space safer for them.

So bring on the fake news; bring on the slosh of sentiment; bring on the wildfires of anger and accusation. They are windows into the interior worlds of other human beings. Let us learn to see what lives there and make our own judgments. Let us learn to navigate, as we do in the spoken word, in the printed word and in our own lives. Let us learn to discriminate.

More than anything, let us learn who we can trust to separate fact from opinion and truth from lies. Let us get to know our sources and choose our guides. That is what a paper like this can try to offer: and why I am proud to write for The Times.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 30.12.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

  • Not many folk on the streets of Malasaña at 9.30 in the morning. Just me and the very efficient street cleaners essentially. But, anyway, here's a foto of a facade not a stone's throw away from my daughter's flat. If you look hard - or even not so hard - you'll see why it's famous. And it's not just for the masculine items:-

A one-time brothel, I believe. Which I might have featured before . . .
  • And here's another famous frontage, even closer to her flat:-

The EU
  • Here's the BBC's take on the coming year.
  • Fart, says, Ben Macintyre is the Greatest Showman reborn.  See below his amusing article comparing him with the infamous Barnum.
The English Language
  • While researching the answer to my own question - Why is English softer than both Celtic languages the Teutonic languages of the post-Roman invaders? - I came across this wonderful - and often hilarious - page of views on the languages of others. All done with good humour and civility. And in excellent English. I particularly liked this exchange between a Norwegian and a Dane:-
Norwegian: Danish sounds like drunk Norwegian.
Dane: Can confirm. That's the way it sounds to us also.

Nutters Corner
  • Ghanaian footballer Mohammed Anas earned a man-of-the- match award after a game between Free State Stars and Ajax Cape Town yesterday. He began his post-match interview with: “Firstly I appreciate my fans. And my wife. And my girlfriend." 
  • Reader Maria has commented on the craziness of English. So, she might appreciate this article as much as I did - on why it's so weird. Incidentally, it rather endorses my guess as to why English is not as harsh as German or Dutch. It's thanks to the common-sense Scandies of the 9th century.
Today's Cartoon
  • Blame my sister for this. The non-Catholic one, of course.


Trump is the Greatest Showman reborn: Ben Macintyre

Like the impresario P T Barnum, the president is a master manipulator who values entertainment over truth

The release of The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, has provoked an intense historical tussle in the US over whether Donald Trump is, or is not, the modern embodiment of Phineas Taylor Barnum: the Victorian theatrical impresario, sometime politician, fixer, circus owner, occasional bankrupt, real estate magnate and skilled manipulator of the news, much of it fake.

Salon website called Trump “the second coming of P T Barnum”. Samuel L Jackson described the president as “more P T Barnum than politician”. The Financial Times called him a “huckster-president in the Barnum mould”, whose “mix of deal-making nous and showbiz brazenness is one reason he won the election”. Trump’s family welcomes the comparison between the president and the most notorious showman in American history: “He is P T Barnum,” says his sister.

The similarities are striking. Both Trump and Barnum exhibit the skills of born salesmen, more concerned with profitable entertainment than strict truth. Barnum said that he did not care what people thought of him so long as they talked about him, a principle Trump lives by. Both men became more famous and popular with every fresh gust of notoriety.

Like Trump, Barnum poured his cash into gaudy architectural excess and built numerous monuments to himself, including a Moorish palace that he named Iranistan, a blingtastic multi-storey monstrosity with turrets.

Trump’s detractors claim he has sold America a fraud, based on Barnum’s apocryphal dictum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” But his supporters also welcome the comparison, pointing out that Trump, like Barnum, symbolises a part of the American Dream: the self-made, hard-driving extrovert, deploying entrepreneurial and theatrical gifts to appeal to the common man.

Like the Apple founder Steve Jobs and music impresario Jay-Z, Barnum and Trump melded hype, swagger and business acumen into myth, making them almost unstoppable, infuriating to contemporaries and, to many Europeans, incomprehensible.

Barnum’s obituary in The Times in 1891 described the showman as a “noteworthy and almost classical figure, typical of the age of transparent puffing through which the modern democracies are passing”.

Throughout his life he sold everything and anything: as a teenager he was hawking oysters, illustrated Bibles, ale and lottery tickets. Mostly he sold fantasy, including tincture of bear fat as a cure for baldness, and a plant that could turn black people white. One of his earliest human exhibits was Joice Heth, a black woman who claimed to have been George Washington’s nurse. This would have made her 161 years old. She was a sensation.

Then came the rope-dancers, midgets, albinos, Siamese twins, Jumbo the Elephant, and the famed Feejee Mermaid, which appeared to have a human head on the finned body of a fish, a masterpiece of taxidermy, fakery and false advertising. His American Museum offered hoaxes — which he called humbugs — alongside bona fide marvels. He imported the Swedish Nightingale, the singer Jenny Lind, who was greeted by 40,000 fans at New York docks and played to 93 packed houses with rapturous reviews (Barnum had more than two dozen journalists on his payroll).

He took his menagerie on a world tour: Queen Victoria was amused when 2ft-tall “General Tom Thumb” play-fought with one of her poodles.

Barnum wrote The Art of Money Getting; Trump brought out The Art of the Deal. Both men were brazen in their pursuit of profit and both books were bestsellers. Barnum was a product and reflection of his age, just as Trump reflects our own. In the words of the historian David McCullough, “Barnum was loud, brassy, full of bombast, vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked — the ultimate, delightful phoney from a delightfully phoney era”.

Barnum’s audiences were less interested in reality than spectacle. They were, as this newspaper’s obituary writer noted, “willingly deceived”. The same is true of many Trump supporters. The show is what matters, not its literal truth.

No one,” Barnum declared in his autobiography, “can say that he ever paid for admission to one of my exhibitions more than his admission was worth to him.” He was right: the lure of his shows lay not in whether they genuinely lived up to his extravagant claims but in their ability to draw audiences into a magical, half-real exhibition.

The same is partly true of Trump. Many in his audiences do not care whether his claims are strictly accurate or not, any more than Barnum’s spectators were concerned whether the Feejee mermaid was a hoax. They wanted to believe, and no amount of scoffing by the elite was going to shake that conviction.

The so-called Barnum effect has been coined to describe the psychological phenomenon in which people tend to believe positive depictions of their personality even when a description is so generalised it could apply to anyone. The technique is common in astrological predictions that are interpreted as “personal” by the reader when they are actually deliberately vague: “You are coping with insecurity this month . . .” and so on.

The effect, also known as the Forer effect, is said to have derived from Barnum’s observation, “We have something for everyone”, but it should not be confused with mere gullibility: we all tend to extract particular, individual relevance from the most sweeping and imprecise information, particularly when this reinforces our self-image.

Part of Trump’s success lies in the Barnum effect: millions of Americans hear his broad slogans about putting America First and believe the message is directly addressed to them. “It’s a Barnum and Bailey world,” sang Ella Fitzgerald. It still is, and no one knows that better than Donald Trump, the Greatest Showman in modern politics.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 29.12.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

Cataluña and Spain
  • There are some, of course, who think that Rajoy will benefit in the rest of Spain from the Catalan mess he helped create. Click here on this.
  • Spain is on course for more than 80m tourists this year, way up on last year's record figure. The concern, of course, is that some of these will go (back) elsewhere if and when terrorist concerns diminish.
  • Other visitors are rather less welcome, though Spain seems to handle the challenge very well.
  • One of the minor incivilities of the Spanish is that - unlike me! - they don't return café newspapers to the rack. Forcing one to ask for the paper resting beside a coffee cup on one of the tables. Still mildly irritating after 17 years, even though the response is invariably polite. Independentismo, I guess. Or selfishness, as we call it . . .
  • Rather more seriously, this is an article from El País on the thorny issue of 'historical memory'. There's a translation at the end of this post.

The EU
  • According to the author of the seond article at the end of this post, Germany is making Europe more unstable. Selfishness is not confined to the Spanish, it seems. As if anyone ever thought it was.

The UK
  • Two interesting sentences read in the past few days. Both jive with my beliefs:

- There is a bizarre Remainer myth that Leavers are obsessed with the Second World War and with recreating the British Empire that Churchill cherished. Yet no one who supports leaving the European Union thinks Brexit is an imperial or martial project.
- The bonds of class have weakened to the point where age is now a more reliable guide to voting behaviour and that is without even mentioning national identity, which has changed both Scottish and British politics beyond recognition.

The Spanish Language
  • I just checked on the RAE's definition of independentismo. The response:- La palabra Independentismo no está registrada en el Diccionario. La entrada que se muestra a continuación podría estar relacionada: independentismo[sic].  And the definition of the different(?) word applies only to countries or regions. I must have meant individualismo. Which the RAE defines as: Tendencia a pensar y obrar con independencia de los demás sin sujetarse a normas generales. Of course, it depends what country you're in as to what the normas generales are.


  • Liverpool will pay their new (Dutch) defender c. €200,000 a week. I guess it makes sense to someone.

Today's Cartoon



The forgetfulness that doesn't end: Gregorio Marañón and Bertrán de Lis

In Spain, historical memory is conspicuous by its absence. It is no longer oblivion but, as Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz would say, something worse - the denial of memory. And the historical memory that I now demand is not the memory of either of the two Spains that froze hearts, but a memory that integrates everyone's memory and illuminates our past so that our today and our tomorrow will be different.

The Law of Historical Memory is one of the least read and most cited texts of our legislation. In its statement of purposes, it invokes "the spirit of reconciliation and concord that guided the Transition", that spirit which gives meaning "to the most fertile constitutional coexistence model that we have ever enjoyed". It also states that the time has come for "Spanish democracy and the living generations to recover[?] forever all those who directly suffered the injustices and grievances inflicted on them, whether because of one or other political or ideological reason or because of religious beliefs." And, finally, it establishes that this Law must inspire public policies directed towards knowledge of our history.

I read, years ago, an article on the historical memory by the excellent writer Manuel Rivas, in which he wondered why historical memory awakens so much hostility on the Spanish Right, and claimed the democratic memory is identified with a search for the remains of those murdered by the Francoists. It reminded me of a recent article in which he almost reproduced that earlier one.

The author distinguishes between historical memory and literary memory, inclining towards the latter, because it encourages "the lived and the imagined". This subordination of the effort to discover the truth, which is the essence of the social science of History, in favour of what he describes as a "remembered present," is dangerous. In the words of another great writer, Rosa Montero, "To remember is to lie", because "memory is a conjurer, a magician expert in slight-of-hand". Nor is it defensible that the democratic memory be reduced to a search of those murdered by only one side.

I belong to the generation that produced the Transition, and I always active in democratic opposition to the dictatorship from progressive positions. Why does historical memory awaken hostility in a sector of the Spanish Right?

The democratic republic of 1931 was destroyed in 1934, when a part of the Spanish Left did not accept the result of the general elections and provoked a revolutionary coup d'état. In 1936, after the assassination of Calvo Sotelo, the military rebellion broke out, and the government renounced the monopoly of force by arming trade unions and political parties. This decision, which conflicted with the essence of the Rule of Law, had tragic consequences. From that moment, both fascists and their companions, like the socialists, communists and anarchists, committed thousands of murders, so many that today it is difficult to find a Spaniard on both sides who does not have in their family both someone who was murdered and also, although the oblivion here is understandable, murderers or accomplices of those crimes. These generalized massacres are complicated if we remember that the anarchists were not only killed by the fascists but also by the communists.

On my side, my maternal grandfather was 70 years old in 1936 when he was violently removed from his home by militiamen, in front of the terrified look of his young children, to be shot against the wall of the Aravaca cemetery. He belonged to a liberal family that, in the nineteenth century, had known exile, persecution and also shootings by absolutist governments. I have to thank my mother for not telling me about this event in detail, and avoiding any resentment on my part. When he died, already very old, I discovered among his papers the official list with the names of the murderers, and I decided to destroy it.

My paternal grandfather, one of the three founders of the Group at the Service of the Republic, when Calvo Sotelo died, wrote to his friend and Minister of Public Instruction, Marcelino Domingo, "The vile, the infamous murder of Calvo Sotelo by the Republic guards, of those who have not yet been convicted, by which the Government gives the impression of incredible leniency, shames us and infuriates those who fight against the monarchy. Spain is ashamed and outraged. This cannot be. All of us who were the past have to be against what's happening today. We are not the enemies of the regime, but are those who struggle to bring it about, not fascists, but the liberals of always, and that is why we speak like this now." Months later, after having been taken to the HQ of the secret police, which which he left in fear and without being able to say a word, the government of the Republic made it easier for him, together with Ramón Menéndez Pidal and their respective families, to leave Spain because it was not in a position to defend their lives. He remained in exile for six years and his assets were seized by the Franco government, which also stripped him of his university chair and his position in the Provincial Hospital.

The terrible period of the War was followed by almost four decades of dictatorship. As the poet wrote "time engenders decades . . . though that admirable unit of measurement, which Livy used to tell the story of Rome, seems disproportionate to describe the life of any of us." In effect, that period of time, which increasingly will seem to us, in historical terms, shorter, truncated the lives of many Spaniards.

Despite the time that has elapsed, it seems that we cannot talk about our assassinated and our assassins without an emotion that brings with it the temptation to forget the murdered and their murderers. Let's be who we are, one and the other. However, there is a real civic urgency for Spaniards today to finally assume the horrors of the civil war and the forty years of dictatorship without separating some victims from others, understanding what happens when hatred takes over our coexistence. That same hate which has reappeared in Catalonia dividing the Catalans with the same Cainite feelings that the Transition wanted to overcome.

The historical memory, when approached partially by the heirs of one of the two Spains, constitutes the biggest obstacle to the definitive implementation of Azaña's "Peace, mercy, forgiveness" - a forgetting that is not forgetfulness but reconciliation.

Gregorio Marañón is a member of the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.


Germany is making Europe more unstable

Should the biggest and richest country in Europe try to solve the continent’s problems? Germans shudder at the thought. Last time we tried leadership, it ended badly, they say, with a distinctive mix of self-righteousness and smugness.

In the postwar decades, West German politicians’ role was to be contrite, generous, obedient and patient. The United States led the West. West Germany ran western Europe jointly with France. Originality in foreign policy was discouraged. The main exception was “Ostpolitik”, eastern policy, in which West Germany used softly-softly tactics to weaken the Soviet grip on eastern Europe.

Yet all over the continent burning questions demand answers from decision-makers in Berlin. Regarding the leadership of Europe, France is weaker than Germany but more ambitious. President Emmanuel Macron wants to turn the eurozone into something like a country, with common economic and financial policies. France will accept German leadership in this but Germany has to shoulder the bill. Germany, still lacking a government since the September election, has no answer.

Germans revile Donald Trump’s administration but are unwilling to accept the consequences. Europe, bigger and richer than the US, should start taking care of its defence. But at what cost and at whose behest?

German politicians are unwilling to tell their voters that European security means dealing with the xenophobic kleptocracy in Russia, which instigates conflicts abroad to distract from stagnation and failure at home. Yet German public opinion loathes the idea of confrontation with the Kremlin, despite abundant evidence of attacks on the political system, including bribery, cyber-intrusions, espionage and subversion of both the far left and far right.

Also on the to-do list are a common European counter-terrorism strategy, which will mean slaying German sacred cows on how data is transmitted and stored, and a proper European strategy on migration. Germany also flinches from confronting authoritarianism in Poland and Hungary. It struggles to articulate a view on Brexit.

For now, the excuse is political deadlock. Coalition talks restart in January but serve only to highlight the vacuum at the heart of Europe. Angela Merkel, once invincible, is gravely weakened. Even if she manages to form a government she will be a lame-duck chancellor.

The German political elite has grasped part of the problem. Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister and a bigwig in the Social Democrats, likes to talk about how Donald Trump’s “America First” policies make the world a more dangerous place. What he and his liberal-minded counterparts fail to grasp is that they are pursuing a no less solipsistic approach. Whereas the American president drenches his foreign policy in bombast, politicians in Berlin pursue a “Germany First” policy but clothed in hypocrisy. When it comes to Russia, China or Iran, the German instinct is to put big trade deals first and allies second.

A striking example is the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline across the Baltic Sea, which will bring Russian gas to Germany, bypassing east European friends and allies such as Ukraine. The project is clearly political: the aim is to entrench Russia’s role as Germany’s main energy supplier. Yet German politicians insist that the project is a purely commercial one and angrily reproach critics for “politicising” the supposedly neutral business of international gas deliveries.

As Jamie Kirchick points out on the Politico website, what Germany is doing here is ruthlessly pursuing its national interest, cheap gas, while ignoring the wider European considerations of diversity in energy supplies. It is pursuing a nationalist, unilateralist policy, dressed up in the language of non-intervention.

German introspection, coupled with economic clout, is a dangerous combination. Failure to make a decision is itself a decision and can make matters worse. In short, Europe’s biggest country exports instability. East European countries are increasingly worried by German irresponsibility. Earlier this month I spent a week in Berlin with a dynamic Lithuanian delegation that is trying to wake up German opinion. Our most effective argument was not trans-Atlantic solidarity (a hard sell in the Trump era) but an appeal to German historical responsibility.

Yes, Germany feels guilty towards Russia because of the traumas of the Second World War. But Germany should surely accept even greater responsibilities towards the countries of eastern and central Europe, consigned to the meat-grinder by the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. It was in these countries, not Russia, that the Holocaust resulted and it was these formerly peaceful independent states that became the captive nations of the Soviet empire. It would be odd if Germany again conspired with the Kremlin to do down the countries in between, especially when they are now, in economic terms, vastly more important than Russia. Poland alone is double Russia’s size as a trade partner.

The greatest contradictions are on the German left, which decries imperialism and other wickedness but seems not to notice that a real-life empire in its eastern neighbourhood is busily re-establishing a hegemonic grip on former colonies. If any western country treated its former imperial subjects the way Russia treats Ukraine, then progressive Germans would be up in arms. Similarly, German liberal opinion ought to detest the way in which the Putin regime promotes gay-bashing, sectarian and ethno-nationalist causes, both inside Russia and abroad.

A new Ostpolitik, stressing solidarity and responsibility, is urgently needed. But for too many Germans, bashing the distant evils of Trump’s America is so much easier.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 28.12.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

  • The police sent to Cataluña in October are being pulled out. I'm betting Presdient Rajoy classifies this as a 'return to normality' and a victory for his hard-nosed atttitude of the last 10 years. Others won't.
  • The coastal region of Cataluña now forms Tabarnia. With 'constitutionalists' in the clear majority, it might well demand self-governance from a future Catalan republic and declare itself independent. And why not? Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Passport to Pimlico again?
  • A Pontevera city and a Pontevedra provincial court have pronounced that it's OK - at least in certain circumstances - for a parent to read the whatsapp messages of a child. Even if the other parent objects to this. I wonder if this will be endorsed at the regional and national level. If not, what is the significance of it? Does what happens in Galicia have any impact on parents elsewhere? Is it a regional free-for-all until the national Supreme Court decides a case?
The EU & Brexit
  • Opines Richard North this morning: Probably, decades will have to pass before the dust settles and we can get a sense of where we are going. Seems about right to me.
The Spanish Language
  • Coincidently, I was recently trying to find the castellano equivalent of the phrase I used above - Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Anyone know? Maria??
Social Media
  • See the relevant article at the end of this post, on the issue of the polarisation it contributes to.
  • Possibly the best news of the year is that deaths on the region's roads this year are down 28 (37% ) on last year's total. Which itself was way down on 2015's number.
  • Our infamously expensive AP-9 motorway crosses a bridge above the Rande Straits - a place made famous by a 1702 naval battle. Said bridge has just been widened by having an exta lane attached to each side. A ver . . . 

  • The Voz de Galicia this morning say this is the first widening of a puente atirado in the world. I thought this meant a suspension bridge but it turns out to be a stay cable bridge. Click here for the difference. Anyway, it all put me in mind of a trip to New Zealand years ago, when I was told that the Auckland harbour bridge (a box truss type) had had a new lane attached to each side. As this had been done by a Japanese company, the bridge had become known as the 'Nippon clip-on'. I thought this was hilarious but no one I've mentioned it to since then has ever thought so.
  • It's a mad, mad world. Not to mention greedy. For proof, click here to see just how far the global flood of liquidity has befuddled the minds of speculators and turned them into knee-jerk betting automatons. The author concludes: This phenomenon happens only during the very late stages of a bubble. But going back over the last three bubbles and crashes, to 1987, I have never seen anything this crazy. This is truly awe-inspiring.
Today's Cartoon

Social media again . . . 


Obama’s right: hashtags can’t change the world: David Aaronovitch

So the amiable Harry wisely decided that it was Barack’s call and let him riff for half an hour on this and that, touching on themes such as “the young”, “social media” and “doing good things”. It was not a hard gig: the man only had to open his mouth to remind listeners that we had gone if not from Hyperion to a satyr, then at least from someone who managed not to gratuitously insult a new nation or another people every morning before breakfast to someone who does.

But naturally, though the word Trump was never used and its embodiment never mentioned (Harry can’t do that, can he?), his reality haunted the discussion. There was, I think, a hidden theme running like invisible lettering through the candy: how can we not let this happen again? Whatever it was that caused all this, how can we do better next time?

Barack, now a sage in his fifties, scratched his grey head. In the olden days, he said, we in America had three TV stations. True, you had conservatives and liberals (Yank for right and left) but “everybody had a common set of facts. People could agree on a baseline of reality.” But today, with the internet, “people can have a different reality. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.” The result was a “Balkanisation” of society in which it was harder and harder to find common ground.

All-encompassing but still vaguely mystical, the internet is a useful scapegoat for the ills of modern society. But in fact the polarisation so often ascribed to the web was well under way before Mark Zuckerberg hit puberty and exists even where social media is unimportant. I remember in the summer of 2004 I went to Colorado to look for clues in the run-up to the Bush-Kerry election. In downtown Denver they have one of the most delightful bookshops in the world, the Tattered Cover. On either side of the till I noticed a different pile of books. On one side the books all had titles and sub-titles like Selling America: How the Clintons Destroyed the Union and on the other Bane of the Nation: How the Bush Dynasty Betrayed the People. Research by The New York Times established that just about no one who bought and read a book on one side would also buy and read one on the other.

Or take Alabama 2017. A few weeks ago Judge Roy Moore stood in and very narrowly lost a Senate by-election in that staunch Republican state. Though he was a Republican the party itself thought he was too extreme, he faced credible accusations of making sexual advances to underage girls and he refused so much as to debate with his Democratic rival. He went down by just 20,000 votes in 1.3 million.

Alabama has seven congressional districts. Remarkably, had the same voters cast ballots for the same parties in a congressional election, the Republicans would have won six of them. How is that possible? Simple, they’re gerrymandered. One district, the 7th, has been so constructed as to include a third of all the black voters in the state. On a map it looks like an octopus, sending tentacles way out from its body so as to take in distant black suburbs. The result is to create one ultra-safe Democratic seat and six pretty damn safe Republican ones.

That’s a disgrace, of course. You wonder how our American cousins allow it (and they’ll probably retort with something about Prince Harry). But think about the consequences. The six Republicans have very little need to worry about the problems or the wishes of the 30 per cent of inhabitants of Alabama who are black. And Terri Sewell, the one Democrat, would be suicidal to spend a moment thinking of how to create a coalition with white voters. It’s Northern Ireland before 1968.

And more of America is becoming like this and has been for decades. People move to the place where folk are like them and not like those others. All of it without much help from the internet or social media. Indeed you could argue that, for the young at least, social media offers the possibility of looking beyond their immediate circumstances.

The other thing is that polarisation is, for some quite powerful people, a useful political tool. It was once a tactic, now elevated to a strategy. Take the Reesmoggrification of the ruling classes. In the last couple of years the domestic political scene has reverberated to the squeaks and rumbles of public schoolboys, educated at significant expense by parents specifically to spare them even the most minimal contact with the great unwashed, brazenly allying themselves with those same people. Thus do politicians and scribblers formerly of Eton and the like ride out under the banner of the proles to do battle with the metropolitan elite.

Now, I might feel better for writing that paragraph, but what the former president went on to say to the prince yesterday was that to improve things you have to find common ground between people, and to do that they have to encounter each other. Nor could that just be done online, because “raising a hashtag itself is not a way of bringing about change”. People have to meet. Ideas have to be exchanged. Even where it’s sometimes true, resorting to calling someone else a name has to be resisted.

This week I interviewed an American academic who had left California to study Trump voters. The traditional American working class, she said, were being culturally insulted in a way few other groups were, and they resented it. Like? Like Homer Simpson, she replied. Imagine looking at him and knowing he’s supposed to be a guy like you.

In some countries (but by no means all), demographics favour the more liberal, more tolerant and more “sophisticated” (Obama’s word) and we could let the most natural of natural wastages do the work. We can wait for the Homers to die, but that would be wrong of us. Better to try harder to live together.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 27.12.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

  • Google Translation turned la progresiva norirlandización de Cataluña into the progressive North-Russianization of Catalonia. Beyond me. Anyone got a theory?
  • Europe's oldest language – Basque(Euskara) – is being revived, it's reported here. This – hard-to-learn language - remains a mystery. It has no known origin or relation to any other language, an anomaly that has stumped linguistic experts for ages.
  • The Wall St Journal – not his favourite reading – tells us that President Fart has spent almost a third of his first year in office at one of his own properties. Says the paper: He spent nearly 40 days at his golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, and another 40 days at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort where he is enjoying a ten-day Christmas break.
The UK
  • For some time now, the most favoured dog in Pontevedra has been the French bulldog - a creature which ranks behind only the pug in my list of detestable small canines. Now I read that this is true of the UK as well. This is despite the fact that these flat-faced breeds often have serious health problems and are likely to visit huge vets' bills on their owners, when the poor dogs give up on trying to breathe. Insane.
  • But the UK – or England, at least – might display even greater signs of madness, this columnist suggests. My thanks to my Santiago friend, Dutch Peter 1, for this.
Nutters Corner
  • This speaks for itself. 
Social Media
  • Who could disagree with this recommendation from a UK columnist?: Over the next 12 months, internet giants like Facebook and Google should start taking responsibility for the menace they have unleashed on society. Maybe they could start by giving a chunk of their vast profits to tackle cyber-bullying and online abuse.
The English Language
  • In the article on the Basque language above, the caption to one foto says: Franco forbid the use of Euskara. Is 'forbid' the US alternative for the British past tense 'forbade'? As in spit/spit instead of spit/spat. Inter alia. Or is it just a typing mistake?
  • Entering or leaving major cities by train usually means passing through a drab, industrial hinterland. Not so with Santiago de Compostela, I noticed on Sunday last. I got to wondering whether this is because, in truth, SdC doesn't have much by way of industry. On this, the Encyclopedia Brittanica says: Among its chief economic activities are the manufacture of furniture, electronic machinery, and food products. Artistic industries include silverwork and wood engraving. Banking, tourism, construction, and telecommunications are also major sources of income. And Wiki tells us that: Santiago's economy - although still heavily dependent on public administration, cultural tourism, industry, and higher education - is becoming increasingly diversified. New industries such as timber transformation, the automotive industry, and telecommunications and electronics have been established. But nothing by way of heavy industry, it would seem. Like Vigo's huge car manufacturing plant, for example.
  • In 2007, a chap called Sutton published a well-received book called: The No Asshole Rule. He's now followed this up with The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal With People Who Treat You Like Dirt  and he claims that 2017 was The Year of the Asshole, when we reached 'peak assholity'. He gives 3 reasons for this:- growing income inequality, which encourages bosses to be more aggressive and think they can get away with it; the heedless rush of modern life, where civility and consideration for co-workers too often go by the board; and – you've guessed it - social media, where trolls often use anonymity to behave badly. For a 4th factor, you'll have to read the Guardian article here. Need I add that Sutton sees Fart as “2017’s elephant asshole in the room”. I particularly like his observation that Fart and the North Korean president are “two men in search of a single brain”. Entertaining stuff.
Today's Cartoon

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 26.12.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain. 

If you've arrived here because of an interest in Galicia or Pontevedra, see my web page here.

This post is heavy on articles, for those lucky souls who have a holiday today and have the time, if not the inclinaiton, to read them . . . 

Cataluña & Spain
  • Both the Spanish king and President Rajoy are said to have adopted a more conciliatory tone but you'll have to look hard for it in the latter case. Needless to say, Sr R is playing down the significance of the result and declining in any way to acknowledge his part in the downfall of the PP party in Cataluña. And, largely because of a fear that Ciudadanos will consume many of its centre ground voters, he's running scared of an early general election. Guaranteed Xmas indigestion, then.
  • Again giving him his due, Rajoy has said: "I will make an effort to maintain a dialogue with whatever government emerges from these elections, but I will also make an effort to ensure the law is obeyed. But this is a very bare bone. Again, the only thing that fits is a Madrid-sanctioned proper referendum in several months' time. Better late than never, perhaps.
The EU
  • There are 2 articles below on the significance of the Catalan developments for the EU. One is by Spengler and the other is by David Goodman, who are the same person in fact. Some readers might recall my citation(s) previously of his book: How Civilisations Die; And Why Islam is Dying too. An excellent read.
  • I've decided to cite this article on Fart's supporters here, rather than in my first choice - Nutters Corner. Probably right, on balance.
  • Below there's a superb review of the USA over the last 30 plus years by a BBC commentator. Long but well worth a read.
The UK
  • Brexit: The optimistic view: Project fear was wrong about Brexit, as it revealed the UK will bounce back to overtake the French economy in 2020. The World Economic League Table revealed that Britain has recovered from an initial economic blip after the vote to leave and now looks set to maintain its position in the rankings and even improve by 2020. Time will tell, as it always does. All depends on the quality of their Key Assumptions in a volatile situation. They might be right.
Social Media
  • I touched on this yesterday. Right on cue comes this article from The Guardian, on the qestion of who will do Google's and Facebook's dirty work.
  • F Scott Fitzgerald, penning Tender is the Night in the 1930s, wrote this on p. 2: In his last year in New Haven, someone had referred to him as 'lucky Dick' – the name lingered in his head. 'Lucky Dick, you big stiff,' he would whisper to himself. I guess this is the origin of the claim that the Americans don't do irony . . . .
Today's Cartoon


Catalan elections: the ghosts that won’t go away: Nationalism is an idea whose time has come, gone, and come back again: Spengler

Yesterday’s election victory for Catalan separatists, including humiliating losses for the ruling center-right Partido Popular, denotes yet another setback for the grand project of European unification and a challenge for a continent divided between a strong north and a lagging south. The Catalan separatists won a thin majority in the regional parliament, leaving them precisely where they were before the Oct. 1 referendum on secession from Spain – with a small plurality in favor of breaking away and a large minority determined to stay. The election result, though, has dire implications for Partido Popular leader Manuel Rajoy’s minority government, and for European cohesion in general.

Nationalism is a ghost that refuses to be exorcised. As Annette Prosinger wrote in a front-page commentary in the conservative German daily Die Welt. “This election was in reality a referendum on the independence movement. The result will astonish all of those who bet on the disenchantment of the Separatists. The magic is more tenacious than people thought: It has overcome everything: The drop in tourism and economic investment, the flight of enterprise from Catalonia, and the rejection that the independence movement received from the EC. The supporters of the independence movement were not unsettled by the fact that none of the glorious promises of Carlos Puigedemont and his group came true, and that prospering Catalonia has become a crisis region.”

The term “disenchantment” (in German, Entzauberung) is deeply fraught in the German language: it was the watchword of the Romantic movement that incubated European nationalism during the 19th century, calling for the “re-enchantment” of a world left disenchanted by the Enlightenment.

To say that Europe faces a crisis of identity is a vast understatement. With total fertility rates below 1.4 births per woman in Germany, Italy, Spain and all of Eastern Europe, the nations of Europe are at a demographic turning point past which their cultures may become so diluted as to defy any future attempts at reconstruction. The Catalans speak their own language despite centuries of Spanish attempts to suppress it; the first Bible translation printed in Spain was in Catalan – not Spanish – in the year 1478, and the Inquisition burned every extant copy. They are the most productive and outward-looking Spanish region, and their capital Barcelona is one of the world’s great global cities, but a majority of Catalans will accept economic hardship in order to restore their identity.

Catalan aspirations reverberate in Germany, where the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) emerged as a right-wing protest party first in opposition to Berlin’s beneficence to Southern Europe, and emphatically in protest against Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2016 decision to accept 1.2 million Muslim migrants. In a Youtube video, AfD leader Nikolaus Fest defended Catalan nationalism in the clipped accent of his native Hamburg.

The AfD’s enthusiastic view of developments in Catalonia has no direct bearing on policy; despite its 12% showing in Germany’s September elections, it remains a leper party that none of its larger peers will countenance. But the AfD has accomplished in Germany what the Catalans have accomplished in Spain: it drew sufficient votes away from Merkel’s Christian Democrats to prevent Merkel from forming a majority government. Spain already has a majority government under the Partido Popular, which lost 8 of its 11 seats in the Catalan regional parliament yesterday. The nationalists remain a minority in Western Europe, but a big enough minority to paralyze the pre-existing political configuration.

In Austria, the right-wing, anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party has become the first “ultra-right” (that is, nationalist-populist) party to enter a European government.

Nationalism meanwhile has become a governing movement in most of Eastern Europe. Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovenia are in open revolt against the European Commission, which demanded that every European nation accept a quota of migrants. In the name of protecting their respective cultures against large-scale Muslim migration, the Eastern European governments formed the so-called Visegrad Group to oppose European policy and now face sanctions.

The revolt against European integration has spilled into foreign policy. Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Bosnia-Herzegovina broke with European protocol and abstained from this week’s UN General Assembly vote against the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israel, which embodies the oldest and most successful nationalism in the world, has become an improbable source of inspiration to the Eastern Europeans, whose Jewish populations were mostly exterminated during the Second World War.

When bond traders got to their desks in Europe this morning, the first hot potato they dumped was not the debt of the Spanish state, but rather Italian bonds. Italy has twice the outstanding public debt of Spain (at $2.3 trillion), and remains the most vulnerable among European debtors. The European Central Bank’s so-called quantitative easing program expanded the bank’s balance sheet to 38% of European GDP. Its purchases of Italian debt will have financed the whole Italian budget deficit at artificially low interest rates between 2014 and 2019. The quantitative easing program will be phased out during 2018 –sooner rather than later if German desires prevail – and Italy will have to find a way to get its state finances under control.

Politically, Italy is in no position to do so. Italy remains the sick man of Europe, with an economy that is still 6% smaller than it was before the global financial crisis of 2008. Italy also is the focal point of Europe’s immigration problem, which has shifted from the Balkan route to Germany to the sea route across the Mediterranean. Italian popular hostility to immigration is far stronger than in Germany or Austria, and anti-migrant populist parties are likely to make gains in Italy’s national elections (which might be held as early as March). Despite scandals and convictions for tax fraud and other offenses, Italy’s populist billionaire Silvio Berlusconi appears back in national politics.

That is why Catalonia’s elections are bad tidings for Europe this Christmas Eve.


Europe is the loser in the Catalan elections: Pressure from the voting minorities that want to tear it apart could paralyze the European project: David P. Goldman

Spanish bond yields widened just 4 basis points after last night’s election result from Catalonia; Italy also widened 4 bps, and Portugal by 9 bps. The Spanish stock market was down 1.3% led by banks (with Caixabank and Sabadall down by 3.45% and 3% respectively, the penalty for having Catalan headquarters). Santander was down 1.7% as of 6:00 am.

There is a Catalan story here and a European story, as the Portugal and Italy bonds warn us. Nothing has been accomplished for Catalan independence as such: The Catalans have a pro-independence majority after Dec 21 as they did before Oct 1, but can’t do anything with it except make noise. They have demonstrated that there is a thin majority for secession but also a very big minority for staying.

Except in the UK, there is no European majority for a rupture in existing national or treaty arrangements, but the minorities are big enough to paralyze the European project (preventing the formation of a government in Germany, for example, or making a shambles of European immigration policy).

Europe has been lifting on a bubble of QE in the meantime, and the end of QE is going to put further strains on the patchwork that kept things in place during the financial crisis a few years ago.

We are entering a very different sort of political environment where the money will be made by a widening of fault lines.


The time when America stopped being great: Nick Bryant, BBC News, New York

A year ago Donald Trump produced the biggest political upset in modern-day America, but were there historical clues that pointed to his unexpected victory? 

Flying into Los Angeles, a descent that takes you from the desert, over the mountains, to the outer suburbs dotted with swimming pools shaped like kidneys, always brings on a near narcotic surge of nostalgia.

This was the flight path I followed more than 30 years ago, as I fulfilled a boyhood dream to make my first trip to the United States. America had always fired my imagination, both as a place and as an idea. So as I entered the immigration hall, under the winsome smile of America's movie star president, it was hardly a case of love at first sight. 

My infatuation had started long before, with Westerns, cop shows, superhero comic strips, and movies such as West Side Story and Grease. Gotham exerted more of a pull than London. My 16-year-old self could quote more presidents than prime ministers. Like so many new arrivals, like so many of my compatriots, I felt an instant sense of belonging, a fealty borne of familiarity.

Eighties America lived up to its billing, from the multi-lane freeways to the cavernous fridges, from the drive-in movie theatres to the drive-through burger joints. I loved the bigness, the boldness, the brashness. Coming from a country where too many people were reconciled to their fate from too early an age, the animating force of the American Dream was not just seductive but unshackling. 

Upward mobility was not a given amongst my schoolmates. The absence of resentment was also striking: the belief success was something to emulate rather than envy. The sight of a Cadillac induced different feelings than the sight of a Rolls Royce. 

It was 1984. Los Angeles was hosting the Olympics. The Soviet boycott meant US athletes dominated the medals table more so than usual. McDonald's had a scratch-card promotion, planned presumably before Eastern bloc countries decided to keep their distance, offering Big Macs, Cokes and fries if Americans won gold, silver or bronze in selected events. So for weeks I feasted on free fast food, a calorific accompaniment to chants of "USA! USA!" 

This was the summertime of American resurgence. After the long national nightmare of Vietnam, Watergate and the Iranian hostage crisis, the country demonstrated its capacity for renewal. 1984, far from being the dystopian hell presaged by George Orwell, was a time of celebration and optimism. Uncle Sam - back then, nobody gave much thought to the country being given a male personification - seemed happy again in his own skin.

For millions, it really was "Morning Again in America", the slogan of Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign. In that year's presidential election, he buried his Democratic opponent Walter Mondale in a landslide, winning 49 out of 50 states and 58.8% of the popular vote. 

The United States could hardly be described as politically harmonious. There was the usual divided government. Republicans retained control of the Senate, but the Democrats kept their stranglehold on the House of Representatives. Reagan's sunniness was sullied by the launch of his 1980 campaign with a call for "states' rights", which sounded to many like a dog-whistle for denial of civil rights.

His chosen venue was Philadelphia, but not the city of brotherly love, the cradle of the Declaration of Independence, but rather Philadelphia, Mississippi, a rural backwater close to where three civil rights workers had been murdered by white supremacists in 1964. Reagan, like Nixon, pursued the southern strategy, which exploited white fears about black advance. 

Still, the anthem of the hour was Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA and politics was not nearly as polarised as it is today. Even though the Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill reviled Reagan's trickle-down economics - he called him a "cheerleader for selfishness" and "Herbert Hoover with a smile" - these two Irish-Americans found common ground as they sought to act in the national interest. 

Both understood the Founding Fathers had hard-wired compromise into the governmental system, and that Washington, with its checks and balances, was unworkable without give and take. They worked together on tax reform and safeguarding Social Security.

The country was in the ascendant. Not so paranoid as it was in the 1950s, not so restive as it was in the 1960s, and nowhere near as demoralised as it had been in the 1970s.

History is never neat or linear. Decades do not automatically have personalities, but it is possible to divide the period since 1984 into two distinct phases. The final 16 years of the 20th Century was a time of American hegemony. The first 16 years of the 21st Century has proven to be a period of dysfunction, discontent, disillusionment and decline. The America of today in many ways reflects the dissonance between the two. 


In those twilight years of the last millennium, America enjoyed something akin to the dominance achieved at the Los Angeles Olympics. Just two years after Reagan demanded that Gorbachev tear down the Berlin Wall, that concrete and ideological barricade was gone. The United States won the Cold War. In the New World Order that emerged afterwards, it became the sole superpower in a unipolar world. 

The speed at which US-led forces won the first Gulf War in 1991 helped slay the ghosts of Vietnam. With a reformist leader, Boris Yeltsin, installed in the Kremlin, there was an expectation Russia would embrace democratic reform. Even after Tiananmen Square, there was a hope that China might follow suit, as it moved towards a more market-based economy. 

This was the thrust of Francis Fukuyama's thesis in his landmark 1989 essay, The End of History, which spoke of "the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government".

For all the forecasts Japan would become the world's largest economy, America refused to cede its financial and commercial dominance. Instead of Sony ruling the corporate world, Silicon Valley became the new high-tech workshop of business.

Bill Clinton's boast of building a bridge to the 21st Century rang true, although it was emergent tech giants such as Microsoft, Apple and Google that were the true architects and engineers. Thirty years after planting the Stars and Stripes on the Sea of Tranquillity, America not only dominated outer space but cyberspace too.

This phase of US dominance could never be described as untroubled. The Los Angeles riots in 1992, sparked by the beating of Rodney King and the acquittal of the police officers charged with his assault, highlighted deep racial divisions. 

In Washington, Bill Clinton's impeachment exhibited the hyper-partisanship that was changing the tenor of Washington life. In the age of 24/7 cable news, politics was starting to double as soap opera. 

Yet as we approached 31 December 1999, the assertion that the 20th Century had been The American Century was an axiom. I was in the capital as Bill Clinton presided over the midnight celebrations on the National Mall, and as the fireworks skipped from the Lincoln Memorial down the Reflecting Pool to illuminate the Washington monument, the mighty obelisk looked like a giant exclamation mark or a massive number one. 

Shattered confidence

The national story changed dramatically and unexpectedly soon after. While doomsday predictions of a Y2K bug failed to materialise, it nonetheless felt as if the United States had been infected with a virus. 2000 saw the dot-com bubble explode. In November, the disputed presidential election between George W Bush and Al Gore badly damaged the reputation of US democracy. 

Why, a Zimbabwean diplomat even suggested Africa send international observers to oversee the Florida recount. Beyond America's borders came harbingers of trouble. In Russia, 31 December 1999, as those fireworks were being primed, Vladimir Putin took over from Boris Yeltsin.

The year 2001 brought the horror of September 11th, an event more traumatic than Pearl Harbor. Post-9/11 America became less welcoming and more suspicious. The Bush administration's "war on terror" - open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq - drained the country of blood and treasure. 

The collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, and the Great Recession that followed, arguably had a more lasting impact on the American psyche than the destruction of the Twin Towers. Just as 9/11 had undermined confidence in the country's national security, the financial collapse shattered confidence in its economic security. 

With parents no longer certain their children would come to enjoy more abundant lives than they did, the American Dream felt like a chimera. The American compact, the bargain that if you worked hard and played by the rules your family would succeed, was no longer assumed. Between 2000 and 2011, the overall net wealth of US households fell. By 2014, the richest 1% of Americans had accrued more wealth than the bottom 90%. 

To many in the watching world, and most of the 69 million Americans who voted for him, the election of the country's first black president again demonstrated America's capacity for regeneration. 
"Yes we can."
"The audacity of hope".  

Although his presidency did much to rescue the economy, he couldn't repair a fractured country. The creation of a post-partisan nation, which Obama outlined in his breakthrough speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, proved just as illusory as the emergence of a post-racial society, which he always knew was beyond him. 

During the Obama years, Washington descended into a level of dysfunction unprecedented in post-war America. 

"My number one priority is making sure President Obama's a one-term president," declared then-Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell, summing up the obstructionist mood of his Republican colleagues. It led to a crisis of governance, including the shutdown of 2013 and the repeated battles over raising the debt ceiling. The political map of America, rather than taking on a more purple hue, came to be rendered in deeper shades of red and blue.

Beyond Capitol Hill, there was a whitelash to the first black president, seen in the rise of the Birther movement and in elements of the Tea Party movement. On the right, movement conservatives challenged establishment Republicans. On the left, identity politics displaced a more class-oriented politics as union influence waned. Both parties seemed to vacate the middle ground, relying instead on maximising support from their respective bases - African-Americans, evangelicals, the LGBT community, gun-owners - to win elections.

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama continued to talk about moving towards a more perfect union. But reality made a mockery of these lofty words. Sandy Hook. Orlando. The spate of police shootings. The gang-related mayhem in his adopted home of Chicago. The mess in Washington. The opioid crisis. The health indices even pointed to a sick nation, in which the death rate was rising. By 2016, life expectancy fell for the first time since 1993.

This was the backdrop against which the 2016 election was fought, one of the most dispiriting campaigns in US political history. A battle between the two most unpopular major party candidates since polling began, ended with a victor who had higher negative ratings than his opponent and in the end, three million fewer votes. 

Just as I had been on the National Mall to ring in the new millennium in 2000, I was there again on 20 January 2017, for Donald Trump's inaugural celebrations. They included some Reagan-era flourishes. At the eve of the inauguration concert, Lee Greenwood reprised his Reaganite anthem God Bless the USA, albeit with a frailer voice. 

There were chants of "USA, USA," a staple of the billionaire's campaign rallies - usually triggered by his riff on building a wall along the Mexican border. There was also an 80s vibe about the telegenic first family, who looked fresh from a set of a primetime soap, like Dynasty or Falcon Crest. 

The spectacle brought to mind what Norman Mailer once said of Reagan, that the 40th president understood "the President of the United States was the leading soap opera figure in the great American drama, and one had better possess star value". Trump understood this, and it explained much of his success, even if his star power came from reality TV rather than Hollywood B-movies.

Yet Trump is not Reagan. His politics of grievance, and the fist-shaking anger it fed off, struck a different tone than the Gipper's more positive pitch. It played on a shared sense of personal and national victimhood that would have been alien to Reagan. 

In the space of just three decades, then, the United States had gone from "It's morning in America again" to something much darker: "American Carnage", the most memorable phrase from Trump's inaugural address.

A hangover

It is tempting to see Trump's victory this time last year as an aberration. A historical mishap. The election all came down, after all, to just 77,744 votes in three key states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. But when you consider the boom-to-bust cycle of the period between 1984 and 2016, the Trump phenomenon doesn't look so accidental.

In many ways Trump's unexpected victory marked the culmination of a large number of trends in US politics, society and culture, many of which are rooted in that end-of-century period of American dominion. 

Consider how the fall of the Berlin Wall changed Washington, and how it ushered in an era of destructive and negative politics. In the post-war years, bipartisanship was routine, partly because of a shared determination to defeat communism. America's two-party system, adversarial though it was, benefited from the existence of a shared enemy. To pass laws, President Eisenhower regularly worked with Democratic chieftains such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson. 

Reforms such as the 1958 National Defense Education Act, which improved science teaching in response to the launch of Sputnik, were framed precisely with defeating communism in mind.

Much of the impetus to pass landmark civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s came from the propaganda gift Jim Crow laws handed to the Soviet Union, especially as Moscow sought to expand its sphere of influence among newly decolonised African nations. 

Patriotic bipartisanship frayed and ripped after the end of the Cold War. It was in the 1990s the then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole started to use the filibuster more aggressively as a blocking device. Government shutdowns became politically weaponised.

In the 1994 congressional mid-terms, the Republican revolution brought a wave of fierce partisans to Washington, with an ideological aversion to government and thus little investment in making it work. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the first Republican to occupy the post in 40 years, personified the kind of abrasive partisan that came to the fore on Capitol Hill.

Grudging bipartisanship was still possible, as Clinton and Gingrich demonstrated over welfare and criminal justice reform in the mid-1990s. But this period witnessed the acidification of DC politics. 
The gerrymandering of the House of Representatives encouraged strict partisanship, because the threat to most lawmakers came from within their own parties. Moderates or pragmatists who strayed from the partisan path were punished with a primary challenge from more doctrinaire rivals. 

By the 112th Congress in 2011-2012, there was no Democrat in the House more conservative than a Republican and no Republican more liberal than a Democrat. This was new. In the post-war years, there had been considerable ideological overlap between liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. In this more polarised climate, bipartisanship became a dirty word. One leading conservative thinker and anti-tax campaigner, Grover Norquist, likened it to date rape. 

Would Congress have impeached Bill Clinton, ostensibly for having an affair with an intern, had America still been waging the Cold War? I sense not - it would have been seen, in those more serious times, as a frivolous distraction. When Congress moved towards impeaching Richard Nixon it did so because Watergate and its cover-up truly rose to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours. 

Clinton's impeachment signalled the emergence of another new political trend: the delegitimisation of sitting presidents. And both parties played the game. The Democrats cast George W Bush as illegitimate because Al Gore won the popular vote and the Supreme Court controversially ruled in the Republican's favour during the Florida recount. 

The Birther movement, led by Donald Trump, tried to delegitimise Barack Obama with specious and racist claims that he was not born in Hawaii. Most recently, the Democrats have cast aspersions on Trump's victory, partly because he lost the popular vote and partly because they allege he achieved a Kremlin-assisted victory.

Over this period, the political discourse also became shriller. Rush Limbaugh, after getting his first radio show in 1984, rose to become the king of the right-wing shock jocks. Fox News was launched in 1996, the same year as MSNBC, which became its progressive counterpoint. The internet quickened the metabolism of the news industry and became the home for the kind of hateful commentary traditional news outlets rarely published. 

Maybe the Jerry Springerisation of political news coverage can be traced to the moment the Drudge Report first published the name Monica Lewinsky, "scooping" Newsweek which hesitated before publishing such an explosive story. The success of the Drudge Report demonstrated how new outlets, which didn't share the same news values as the mainstream media, could establish brands literally overnight. This lesson was doubtless learnt by Andrew Breitbart, an editor at Drudge who founded the right-wing website Breitbart News. 

The internet and social media, trumpeted initially as the ultimate tool for bringing people together, actually became a forum for cynicism, division and various outlandish conspiracy theories. America became more atomised. 

As Robert D Putnam identified in his 1995 seminal essay, Bowling Alone, lower participation rates in organisations such as unions, parent teacher associations, the Boy Scouts and women's clubs had reduced person to person contacts and civil interaction.

Economically, this period saw the continuation of what's been called the "Great Divergence" which produced stark inequalities in wealth and income. Between 1979 and 2007, household income in the top 1% grew by 275% compared to just 18% growth in the bottom fifth of households. 

The Clinton-era was a period of financial deregulation, including the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the landmark reform passed during the depression, as well as legislation exempting credit default swaps from regulation. 

Disruptive technologies changed the workplace and upended the labour market. Automation, more so than globalisation, was the big jobs killer during this phase. Between 1990 and 2007, machines killed off up to 670,000 US manufacturing jobs alone.

The Rust Belt rebellion that propelled Trump to the White House has been described as a revolt against robots, not that his supporters viewed it that way. Encouraged by the billionaire, many blamed increased foreign competition and the influx of foreign workers. 

The opioid crisis can be traced back to the early 1990s with the over-prescription of powerful painkillers. Between 1991 and 2011, painkiller prescriptions tripled. 

America seemed intoxicated by its own post-Cold War success. Then came the hangover of the past 16 years.

Trump's America

Over the past few months, I've followed that same westward flight path to California on a number of occasions, and found myself asking what would an impressionable 16-year-old make of America now. Would she share my adolescent sense of wonder, or would she peer out over the Pacific at twilight and wonder if the sun was setting on America itself? 

What would she make of the gun violence, brought into grotesque relief again by the Las Vegas massacre? Multiple shootings are not new, of course. Just days before I arrived in the States in 1984, a gunman had walked into a McDonalds in a suburb of San Diego and shot dead 21 people. It was then the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history. 

What's different between now and then, however, is the regularity of these massacres, and how the repetitiveness of the killings has normalised them. What was striking about Las Vegas was themuted nationwide response to a gunman killing 58 people and injuring hundreds more.
Once-shocking massacres no longer arouse intense emotions for those unconnected to the killings. A month on, and it is almost as if it didn't happen.

What would she make of race relations? Back in 1984, black athletes such as Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses and Michael Jordan were unifying figures as they helped reap that Olympic golden harvest. Now some of America's leading black athletes are vilified by their president for taking a knee to protest, a right enshrined in the First Amendment. These athletes now find themselves combatants in the country's endless culture wars. 

What would she make of the confluence of gun violence and race, evident in the spate of police shootings of unarmed black men and in the online auction where the weapon that killed Trayvon Martin fetched more than $100,000? 

Charlottesville, with its torch-wielding and hate-spewing neo-Nazis, was another low point. So, too, were the president's remarks afterwards, when he described the crowd as including some "very fine people" and implied a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racist protesters. 
I was at the news conference in Trump Tower that day. An African-American cameraman next to me yelled out "What message does this send to our children?" The question went unanswered, but concerned parents ask it everyday about Donald Trump's behaviour.

What about the monuments debate? The last civil war veteran died in 1959, but the conflict rumbles on in various guises and upon various proxy battlefields, as America continues to grapple with the original sin of slavery.

But what if she landed in the American heartland, rather than flying over it? Coastal separateness can sometimes be exaggerated, but it would be a very different experience than Los Angeles. In the Rust Belt, stretches of riverway are crowded again with coal barges, and local business leaders believe in the Trump Bump because they see it in their order books and balance sheets. 

In the Coal Belt, there's been delight at the rescinding of Obama's Clean Power Plan. In the Bible Belt, evangelicals behold Trump as a fellow victim of sneering liberal elites. In the Sun Belt, close to the Mexican border, there's wide support for his crackdown on illegal immigration.

In many football stadiums, she would hear the chorus of boos from fans who agree with the president that the take-the-knee protests denigrate the flag. In bars, union branches and American Legion halls, you'll find many who applaud Donald Trump for "telling like it is", refusing to be bound by norms of presidential behaviour or political correctness.

There are pointers of national success elsewhere. The New York Stock Exchange is still reaching record highs. Business confidence is on the up. Unemployment is at a 16-year low. Of the 62 million people who voted for Trump, a large number continue to regard him more as a national saviour than a national embarrassment. 

In many red states, "Make America Great Again" echoes just as strongly as it did 12 months ago. Trump has a historically low approval rating of just 35%, but it's 78% among Republicans.

In the international realm, its plausible foreign adversaries fear the United States more under Trump than Obama, and foreign allies no longer take the country for granted. The so-called Islamic State has been driven from Raqqa. Twenty-five Nato allies have pledged to increase defence spending. Beijing, under pressure from Washington, appears to be exerting more economic leverage over Pyongyang.

However, America First increasingly means America alone, most notably on the Paris climate change accord and the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump has also Twitter-shamed longstanding allies, such as Germany and Australia, and infuriated its closest friend Britain, with rash tweets about crime rates and terror attacks. 

His labelling of foes such as Kim Jong Un as Little Rocket Man seems juvenile and self-diminishing. It hardly reaches the Reagan standard of "tear down this wall". Indeed, with North Korea, there's the widespread fear that Trump's tweet tirades could spark a nuclear confrontation. 

Few countries look anymore to Trump's America as a global exemplar, the "city upon a hill" Reagan spoke of in his farewell address to the nation. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel is routinely described as the leader of the free world, the moniker bestowed on the US president since the days of FDR. 

The Economist, which trolls Trump almost weekly, has described Chinese President Xi Jinping as the most powerful man in the world. American exceptionalism is now commonly viewed as a negative construct. "Only in America" is a term of derision.

Ronald Reagan used to talk of the 11th commandment - No Republican should speak ill of another Republican. So it is worth noting that some of Trump's most caustic and thoughtful critics have come from within his own party. Senator Jeff Flake called him "a danger to democracy". 

Bob Corker described the White House as an "adult day care centre". John McCain, a frequent critic, has railed against "spurious, half-baked nationalism". George W Bush sounded the alarm about bigotry being emboldened and of how politics "seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication", without specifically naming the current president.

Trump's determination to be an anti-president has arguably had a vandalising effect on the office of the presidency, and to civil society more broadly. Artists have boycotted the White House reception held ahead of the annual Kennedy Center Awards, a red letter night in the country's cultural calendar. 
The Golden State Warriors were disinvited from appearing at the White House after their championship win because of the take-the-knee protest. It's new for these kinds of commemorations to become contested. 

Trump has even politicised one of the commander-in-chief's most solemn acts, offering condolences to the families of the fallen. It led to an indecorous row with a war widow. Small wonder long time Washington watchers, on both the right and left, consider this the nastiest and most graceless presidency of the modern era. 

The corollary is the historical stock of his predecessors is rising. When the five living former presidents appeared together in Texas earlier this month they were greeted like a group of superheroes donning their capes for one final mission. It speaks of these unreal times that George W Bush is spoken of fondly, even wistfully, by long-time liberal foes. 

Trump's claim he could be just as presidential as Abraham Lincoln is one of the more comical boasts to come from the White House. Then there are the falsehoods, the "alternative facts" and attacks on the "fake media" - his label for news organisations such as the New York Times and Washington Post, whose reporting has rarely been better. Recently he has even threatened to revoke the licences of networks whose news divisions have published critical stories. To some it has shades of 1984, but Orwell's version.

As for Morning in America, it has a new connotation - checking Trump's Twitter for pre-dawn tweets. The president commonly starts the day by lashing out at opponents or mercilessly mocking them. The new normal, it is often called. But it seems more apt to call it the new abnormal. 

There is an extent to which America is politics-proof and president-proof. However bad things got in Washington, my sense has long been that the US would be rescued by its other vital centres of power. New York, its financial and cultural capital. San Francisco, its tech hub. Boston, its academic first city. Hollywood, its entertainment centre. 

But Los Angeles is reeling from the Harvey Weinstein revelations, the Uber scandal has shone a harsh light on corporate ethics in the tech sector and the Wells Fargo affair has once again shown Wall Street in a dismal light. 

US universities dominate global rankings, but its top colleges could hardly be described as engines of intergenerational mobility. A study by the New York Times of 38 colleges, including Yale, Princeton and Dartmouth, showed that students from the top 1% income bracket occupied more places than the students from the bottom 60%. Of this year's intake at Harvard, almost a third were the sons and daughters of alumni.

Automation will also continue to be a jobs killer. One study this year predicted that nearly 40% of US jobs will be lost to computers and machines over the next 15 years. Spending time in the Rust Belt valleys around Pittsburgh last year I was struck by how many taxi and Uber drivers used to work in the steel industry. Now America's one-time Steel City is a centre of excellence for robotics and where Uber is road testing its driverless cars.

There's still truth in the adage that America is always going to hell, but it never quite gets there. But how that is being tested. Presently, it feels more like a continent than a country, with shared land occupied by warring tribes. Not a failing state but not a united states. 

As I've travelled this country, I struggle to identify where Americans will find common political ground. Not in the guns debate. Not in the abortion debate. Not in the healthcare debate. Not even in the singing of the national anthem at American football games. Even a cataclysmic event on the scale of 9/11 failed to unify the country. 

If anything it sowed the seeds of further division, especially over immigration. Some Americans agree with Donald Trump that arrivals from mainly Muslim countries need to be blocked. Others see that as an American anathema.

When I made my first journey to the US all those years ago I witnessed a coming together. Those Olympic celebrations were in some ways an orgy of nationalism, but there was also a commonality of spirit and purpose. From Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue performed on 84 grand pianos to a polyglot team of athletes bedecked with medals. 

From the pilot who flew around the LA Coliseum in a jet pack to the customers who left McDonald's with free Big Macs. There was reason for rejoicing. The present was golden. America felt like America again.

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