The Status Quo

Like everything else, Civilisation is in the throes of extreme societal upheaval. Of itself, this is not exactly an unknown condition. When we changed from hunter gathering to agriculture and urban living; when the Roman Empire fell; when the French Revolution signalled the beginning of the end of a settled order and the Industrial Revolution began, it must have caused each generation caught up in any one of these events to imagine that rational order was dead and gone. In each case the settled status quo was being torn up. The difference for us is that as our own status quo, the Industrial Age, is collapsing, everything is happening at a bewildering speed, beyond any previous experience, and this haste is combined with a complexity of issues that are demanding ever more urgent solutions. To add to those societal tremors, we must deal with a monstrous pandemic and the twin existential threats of climate change and loss of biodiversity, both caused by our intemperate, polluting selves. What we fondly imagine to be our continuing status quo, is already history.

Light and hope have only begun to seep through, largely because of President Biden’s wholehearted reversal of America’s policies and its effect of re-energising all of the likeminded states. In addition, our burgeoning youth, who luckily have such little respect for the certitudes and self-serving platitudes of the Industrial Age, are becoming very active. Perhaps we are beginning our move to safety.

The existential threats we must fix urgently. Although we really have no remaining need to defend the reality of those threats to our planet – the evidence is completely overwhelming – we must be prepared to suffer the arguments anyway, much as we have to tolerate flat earthers and evolution deniers. However, when the full import of the essential actions that must be taken to protect ourselves become apparent, the opposition to the necessary changes will turn feral.

That opposition will be driven mostly by those who are beneficiaries of the recent status quo, almost exclusively the wealthy. The most vociferous will include the fossil fuel companies and their shareholders, the mining and logging corporations, the financial houses. The corporations who put short term gain before public danger. The manufacturers who build in planned obsolescence. The fishing fleets. The list of such groups is legion. They will use their money and power to deny necessary action and try to obfuscate the reasons for such changes. The oil companies already boast that they will be carbon neutral in the near future but their calculations are so devious that they can achieve that target whilst increasing their levels of fossil fuel supplies. At the same time, they are vastly increasing their production of plastics. Their irrational, misleading, justifications have become a template for many others. More opposition will come from those wealthy individuals who need to own homes around the world and believe that their super yachts, private jets and Lamborghinis are essential for a decent life. After them are those of us who insist on fresh fruit and vegetables out of season. Who embrace a throwaway culture, think that doors and windows need to be made of teak and that new mahogany furniture is a sign of sophistication. It is this very large group that industry will try to persuade that the solution lies in our own hands and can be achieved by putting certain plastics in one bin, other kinds in another, (washed of course) and everything else in its proper place amongst a plethora of trash choices. Lobbyists and P.R. companies will be exhausted persuading us that our science is wrong and can be disregarded. Then there are other groups whom we might have supposed would be on the side of reason. Farmers, whose intrinsic love of the land and the animals they breed seems to become invisible when looked at through the prism of balance sheets. We cannot even depend on our major religions. Although their leaders often launch strongly worded, pious messages about the crises, unfortunately, their male driven obsession with gender and sex allows them to persuade their congregations to support any chancer willing to pay hypocritical lip service to those particular shibboleths. Far too many of those same churches are drifting into fundamentalism: the kind that suggests that the search for knowledge, even science itself, is not important. Why? Because everything humans need to know is already included in whichever ‘good book’ one believes in. None of these books mention climate, ecosystems or pollution.

Politics will of course be the real battlefield. Regretfully, they too are in chaos. The pace of change is so frenetic that fear of the future and the stress of trying to survive a present that changes every day and does not conform to the assumed givens of the familiar, result in a level of insecurity that gives charlatans their opportunity. They have taken that opportunity to persuade a great number of frightened people that the problems are mostly imaginary and are, in reality, just fairy-tale conspiracies spread by knavish liberals. The charlatan panacea is a populist one. A promise to lead us back to a safe, glorified past. The election of President Biden signalled the slow demise of those aforesaid charlatans. However, in allowing them to take centre stage we have, unfortunately, successfully mislaid our conservatives.

Their loss is a serious matter, even if a lot of liberals thank the Gods for their disappearance. But we need them! Liberals usually have a very clear idea of what they want the future to be, but like everyone else, they are not immune to following stars that lead to dead ends. They need criticism to hone their visions and turn them into realities. A tennis player does not improve their skill if their opponent is wading through six feet of water with only half a racket. Regrettably, for the moment, most of our conservatives in our most iconic democracies seem to have contracted a populist form of mad cow disease. They stagger incoherently from lie to lie, unable even to bellow properly (fortunately Frau Merkel is not infected). They put far too much faith in men who are incapable of love. We desperately need our sane conservatives back – the ones with their own hopes, visions and ideals. The ones who believe in truth.

Civilisation is described in many different ways, based on a kaleidoscope of special interests. As a non-expert, just an interested onlooker, it seems to me that the definition of the root of this very complex phenomenon is deceptively simple. That it is, in reality, a form of evolution but one driven not by genetics or the need to survive in particular niches but by the wholly unique gift of human intelligence. That it is simply the intelligent evolution of human society. Although it leaps ahead on occasion through the extraordinary minds of specific geniuses, it is a process that involves all human contributions, however small and unnoticed. It is on these, often tiny, insights that the geniuses build.

If, in our climb toward the end result of Civilisation, we fail to overcome the twin existential overhangs that we have placed in our own path, global warming and biodiversity loss, it will mean that we are not intelligent enough to survive. That we blindly accepted the norms of a status quo that failed us. We will then fade into nothingness as yet another unfit and unremembered species. The moon will shine on, regardless.

If, on the other hand, we perceive the threat quickly enough and survive it, we will continue on our upward path and eventually, and it may be a long delay, we will get to a calmer period when we can again refer to a status quo. It will be a very different model. It will not include our tribal divides between races, nationalities, genders, creeds or sexual orientation. Our differences will be cultural only. We will have broken the supposed marriage between money and work and rid ourselves of poverty, capital punishment, even guns and a vast number of our silly, but dogmatic, beliefs. The generation that reaches that stage will be quicker than we have been to realise that the past was a painful time to live. The endless fear for jobs will fade as we realise our much greater need for carers, educationalists, and experts of all sorts, and the insatiable need for people to complete the mother of all infrastructure programs: the cleansing of our home, the planet, and the recovery of our ecosystem.

The Irish Examiner, April 10 2021

Letters to the Editor: Big Tech and Anonymity

In my lifetime (a long one), I have never known a key industry to be allowed such freedom in terms of self-regulation, than what is happening in the tech corporations. There are hopeful signs that we are starting to catch up, but self-regulation remains a central concept.

The Big Tech industry generates three myths to disguise their greed and which bring into sharp focus the need to regulate the industry. The first of these is the right to free speech, by pretending that this is an absolute right. It is no such thing. It has always been trammelled by the need to balance competing rights: the right not to be slandered, to be free of hate speech, to a private life, to know the identity of your accuser, and many other rights. The second myth relates to privacy. The right to privacy is fundamental but, again, it can be restricted when necessary in a democratic society to pursue a legitimate aim. We all have social security numbers, passports, telephone numbers, and on and on. Records of all of these identifiers grant relatively easy access to the police if a crime is suspected.

The third myth is that of anonymity and this, of itself, is an existential threat to democratic societies. The first two are just distractions to hide the industry’s need for this one. Anonymity adds enormously to online traffic and thereby to profit. The term “anonymous free speech” is an oxymoron. It has no identifiable source, tells us nothing of vested interests, bias or motive. It smears unjustifiable pain, uncertainty and lies throughout our societies. It is unconscionable that this should be accepted to bolster the profits and power of Silicon Valley. 

Anonymity itself is not intrinsic to the Internet functioning. Every web enabled machine has at least two identifiable registration numbers: an I.P. (Internet Protocol), which provides an address and a MAC number, which identifies the exact machine. The industry has decided that these numbers must be secret, identities readily available to themselves only, except when it suits them to release the data to analytic companies. The social media corporations want to publish endless anonymous opinions, but without the responsibility mainstream media must bear, when they use an anonymous source.

What exactly would our legislators do if the auto industries owned the roads, controlled and kept secret the allocation and ownership of car registration numbers and, to add insult to injury, allowed some owners to have blank plates and yet others whose numbers changed every time they started the engine. In reality, this is what the Big Tech industry is getting away with. Why is everyone faffing about and refusing to regulate them as we should? 

Very recently the execrable Porn Hub was forced to delete two thirds of their posts and to demand proof of identity for new ones. This action was forced on them, not by legislators or police; but by Visa and MasterCard. Is this to be the future of of legislation?

Brexit

When Brexit is mentioned nowadays (every two minutes), it is very difficult not to suffer a Laurel and Hardy moment – “fine mess you got me into”. It was, and is, one of the world’s greatest displays of incoherent magical thinking. It is, and will continue to be, an unmitigated disaster.

How on earth did things come to this? Although the choice of culprits is almost embarrassingly rich, the English media would seem to be the most obvious place to start. The British fourth estate has always leaned towards rabid conservatism, but since Murdoch started to take it over around 1970, it has become more and more like a tea party media. His stable of newspapers now includes the biggest selling rag, The Sun, the centuries old doyen, The London Times, and even The Sunday Times. The E.U. saved us from us – from a European version of Fox News by preventing Murdoch’s takeover of BskyB – but in the process, made a virulent enemy of him. The other conservative news outlets always ranged from appalling to quite good, but always with heavily biased opinion columns. Twenty or so years ago I had to be rescued from a hilarity attack in the local shop when I spotted a Daily Mail banner headline. It proclaimed that “EUROPE DESTROYS 1000 YEARS OF BRITISH HISTORY.” The story was that the E.U. Bureaucracy insisted that market traders in Britain display the weight of their sales in kilos and grams, as well as in their own imperial measure of pounds and ounces. The Mail does not do irony, so it didn’t occur to them that the British system was named, for the entirety of that 1000 years, the avoirdupois system. The most influential broadsheet, The Daily Telegraph, is good at news but its opinion pieces are positively medieval. When we lived in London in the 1970s, they were annoyed that Irish judges insisted on following Irish law concerning extradition and the Irish government refused to allow hot pursuit of the I.R.A. by British forces across our border. In response to this supposedly outrageous behaviour, they managed two editorials in the same month that suggested, in the first one, that Ireland should remember that Great Britain had the option of total warfare, and in the second, that they had the option of repatriating all Irish people from Britain. Ireland at the time had a navy comprising two fisheries protection vessels, an Air Force of three tiny unarmed training jets and a couple of helicopters. We also had a small army, much of it on regular loan to the U.N. At the same time Britain was a world power with its own nuclear weapons. To repatriate us wholesale would have required the mother of all bureaucratic exercises to identify us – including some of the paper’s own staff.

Needless to say, the Murdoch stable of newspapers, plus The Mail, The Express and The Telegraph have been spitting vitriol about the E.U., most of it untrue, for the last fifty years. Interestingly, Scotland and the North of Ireland voted against Brexit and those same newspapers do not have much penetration in these markets.

This media turned large numbers of voters toward ultra-nationalism: they did not like immigrants, hated Europe and, despite the evidence, continued to believe in the genetic superiority of Britons – well English anyway. Exactly like the Republican Party in America, this nationalism began to tear the Conservative Party asunder. Under this pressure and under a long succession of incompetent leaders, they ran faster and faster toward the zany right. The result was to leave them entirely bereft of competent ministers, diplomats, negotiators and leaders. This was not the ideal way to begin negotiating Brexit. They kept repeating, ad nauseum, their red lines and how easy these exit negotiations were going to be. The result of these repetitious inanities led them to appoint a whole series of Brexit ministers and negotiators who were risibly incompetent. The only target appeared to be “get Brexit done at any cost”. Unfortunately, whilst all this was progressing, the main opposition, the Labour Party, were so indecisive that they ended up on neither side.

The most depressing element is what they have inflicted upon their own youth. In essence, they have turned these two islands into a narrow internment camp for youthful Britons. Even in a fast-globalising world it is difficult to see how they can work anywhere else. The exceptions to these rules will themselves be aggravating: the very highly qualified will continue to be able to travel for work and those who are second or third generation immigrants can avail of a European passport (if Ireland had to count all passport holders in its census, we would be overpopulated). However, young musicians will not be able to cut their teeth in English music hungry venues in The E.U. Even the Erasmus program to allow students to do part of their degree in Europe is being ended, to be replaced by a pie-in-the-sky globalised daydream. The end result will be either a very angry, or very dull, young population.

Surprisingly, the biggest worry for the Irish in all of this is not the economy. God alone knows whether it will be our ruination or to our advantage (we have no inside information because even the Irish do not yet have a direct line to God). No, the most painful aspect of it all is being deprived of the dubious but enjoyable pleasure of schadenfreude. The “we told you so” superiority. Why? Because we all have dearly beloved British friends and relatives that it affects, both here and there. We are also deeply enamoured of English Literature (even the bits that are really Scottish or Welsh), and their science, arts, sports and tolerance. Many of us also deeply love the physical place itself. To take pleasure from the absurdities of Brexit would be a denial of part of our own emotional nature and the pain of our fellow tribes.

Luckily, there is a deep vein of ridiculousness inherent in the whole event that is ideal for the British sense of humour. The outrage engendered by the idea that the British might have to join the slower queue at passport controls in Europe. “Aliens! That can’t be us”. Truckers having their beloved ham sandwiches confiscated on arrival in Europe. The realisation that regaining their sovereign fishing waters means they no longer have a market for most of their catch. Even the embarrassment of having abused Brussels’ red tape for half a century only to now find that they do not have the skill to write their own. The deselection of the most talented Tory politicians by the tiny remnant of old fogeys who remain as voting members of the party. Added to this is a complete inability amongst Brexiters to understand the difference between being a member and not – “I have to get my dog vaccinated for rabies just to go to France. This is silly and cruel; our status and regulations are exactly the same”.

Speaking as just one European, I have no wish for my Union to deploy an entire division of bureaucrats to continually monitor which of their major and minor rules the British change. Such changes have nothing to do with our regulations. Nor should we be expected to negotiate every time we or they change rules. The recently appointed Brexit Czar, Lord Frost is, unfortunately, a type of conservative English leader with which we in Ireland have centuries of experience. No diplomatic or negotiation skills, no manners, just an arrogance that insists that the British position is always the correct one. I do not want to be too hard on him but – because of the example he sets – I am eagerly awaiting the elevation of Nigel Farage to the peerage.

Perhaps the most symptomatic story to describe the nature of the current government in London, is that of their intention to pass a bill in Parliament changing unilaterally the North of Ireland Protocol, an international agreement they had signed just a few weeks previously. Then the dratted Americans ruined it by electing an Irish American in place of Trump. An Irish American moreover with strong emotional ties to his ancestors’ home place. All change – “withdraw the Bill”. This deprived us of the pleasure of watching them explain to a bench of very senior British judges that although they knew the Bill was illegal, it was narrowly so. A senior cabinet minister had already, unbelievably, stated this position in the House of Commons. Better perhaps than common or garden perfidy and more amusing. They continue to blame European intransigence for difficulties caused by the protocol that they themselves negotiated and signed.

They are like an elderly swimmer, who was an Olympic swimmer in their youth, having to take the plunge in impossible circumstances because they had boasted that they would. Unable to admit that the water has become frigid, that they can see the storm coming, that they have not got the expected company and the lifeguard, their Trump card, has gone missing. All that is left to the rest of us is to bear stoically with the endless accusations that it is our fault and pray for them.

What have they already achieved? They are losing the trust of their allies because of their arrogant approach to treaties and agreements. They are ridding themselves of immigrants as fast as they can, forgetting the value and rich diversity they bring, and that they need a great number of them. They are reduced to boasting of trade deals that are just carbon copies of the ones they already had within Europe and doubling down on their mythical position as an influential world power at the same time as they reduce their aid programmes and increase their military spending. Supply lines are in chaos and although the City of London will not collapse, its influence is dribbling away. Even the signature issue of regaining their sovereign waters has been a disaster, with fishing communities deserting those same waters because they no longer have a market for the bulk of their catch.

There is always hope. The Brexiters may realise eventually that they are no longer a serious player on the world stage and that sovereignty is an old-fashioned word with very little real benefit. They might settle into Brexit – develop a simpler and better life, and become an exemplar of how to live properly in times of climate crisis. They might even find time to improve their cricket.

Big Tech and Anonymity 

Democratic societies are in trouble. Don’t just take my word for it, look at two of the world’s leading democracies; the U.S. and the U.K. In the U.S., seventy-four million voters chose to re-elect Donald Trump. This, notwithstanding the dire need of so many of those same millions to have a real champion to enter the fray on their behalf. Instead, they chose as their knight in shining armour a self-obsessed, humourless jester, mounted backwards on a gilded ass, gaze firmly fixed on a mythical past, with all of its hatred. Decency won the day, but barely.

In the U.K. they chose a slightly more affable and slightly less incompetent clown, but who came with his own Dark Lord, Dominic Cummings; a man so engrossed in persuading voters that their baser instincts were so all important, that his soul ended up in lost luggage somewhere. Together, they got Brexit done. An almost incomprehensible policy of searching for the supposed glories of the past, but the achievement of which required the abandonment of economic common sense and, far more importantly, discarding the future of culture and cooperation. Both of which are fundamental to the upward path of civilisation. As silly old fogeys, they deprived their youth of a large part of the adventure of life. The intent in both States seemed to be the annihilation of whichever of our Better Angels still persist.

Big Tech, whilst not the sole contributor to such democratic lunacy, plays a very large part in the current maelstrom of dysfunction. In my lifetime (a long one), I have never known a key industry to be allowed such freedom in terms of self-regulation, but that is what is happening in the tech corporations. There are hopeful signs that we are starting to catch up. In America, a number of State Prosecutors have resuscitated the antitrust laws, designed originally to break up the monolithic power of corporate cartels such as Standard Oil and AT&T. These laws have in effect been dormant since Reagan and Thatcher discovered that an eternally recognized vice could easily be changed into a virtue by the simple expedient of preaching that ‘Greed is Good’. Europe, on the other hand, is in the process of introducing very harsh penalties for allowing blatantly untrue, or damaging, information to be spread on social media sites.

This is progress, but still leaves self-regulation as a central concept. According to the Social Media purveyors, this regulation is driven by algorithms and moderators. Algorithms are currently being sold as artificial intelligence driven magic; they are no such thing. Just more programs, sometimes sophisticated, with the same rule as all programs — garbage in, garbage out. They are top secret, so we are not allowed to see what criteria they use in checking for disallowed content. We do not know what sort of worldview is applied to ideas of what is proper. In general, when we require judgement on ethics or morality, algorithms are as crude as a Stone Age axe and less fit for purpose. As for the moderators, they are staff members so it is like a professional football team insisting that one of their own employees must referee all of their matches. And in a sane world there should be no need to expose people to the trauma of such a job.

An example of how well this system works is to be found in the recent story of Pornhub, the largest porn site on the planet, who have, according to themselves, five hundred moderators, plus algorithms. Yet, at the behest of two finance houses, Visa and MasterCard, they have had to cut the bulk of their posts, all of which were probably illegal. Now new posts can only be submitted with clear photographic identification of the person posting. What exactly were their moderators doing before this happened? People who are deeply troubled by the posting of what they consider to be totally private photos or videos can request Pornhub to take down the offending material. Only for it to immediately pop up on the site again, posted by someone who had already downloaded the content. Their algorithms are so inept that they cannot prevent material being uploaded that they themselves had already agreed was unacceptable. Nor could they be bothered to fix the algorithms. If you were the victim of such trolling, no matter what actions you took, your torture would continue without end. The problem was largely solved by two credit card companies refusing to authorize payments to Pornhub. Why finance houses and not the police or legislators? In this case there was no outcry from the ‘free speech at any cost’ lobby. I wonder why?

The Big Tech industry fetishizes three things to disguise their greed. The first of these is the right to free speech, by constantly pretending that this is an unfettered right. It is no such thing. It has always been trammelled by the need to balance competing rights: the right not to be slandered, to be free of hate speech, to a private life, to know the identity of your accuser, the right to innocence before conviction and many, many other rights. Total, unrestricted free speech is just one more fairy-tale.

The second fetish they promote is privacy. The right to privacy is fundamental but, again, it can be restricted when necessary, in a democratic society to pursue a legitimate aim. None of us have the level of privacy that is being promoted. We all have social security and tax numbers of some sort, driving licenses, credit cards, passports, birth certificates, telephone numbers, and on and on. Records on all of these identifiers grant relatively easy access to the police if a crime is suspected. Most citizens in democracies have no concerns about the State having such ready access to the mundane aspects of their private lives. Very few are inflicted with the mental laziness necessary to think of the State as a giant conspiracy.

The third fetish is that of anonymity and this, of itself, is an existential threat to democratic societies. The first two fetishes are just distractions to hide the industry’s need for this one. Anonymity itself is not intrinsic to the Internet. Every web enabled machine has at least two identifiable registration numbers: an I.P. (Internet Protocol) which provides an address and a MAC number which identifies the exact machine. For their own greedy reasons, the industry has decided that these numbers must be secret, identities available to themselves only. Why? In general, they themselves know what you post and to whom. Why should they be the trusted archivists of all this private material? Why should the forces of law have to go cap in hand to internet service providers to ask for the identity of the source when investigating a seemingly valid complaint? Why should we trust social media sites to keep to themselves all of our private correspondence? By their own narrative, they have put their trust in little known companies like Cambridge Analytica and released to them, without any by your leave, enormous tranches of our private social media correspondence for supposed medical research, only for that trust to be betrayed. It was not unidentifiable content that they released – such content would not suffice for targeted political analytics. What they released was your sign-up information: email, postal address and contact lists. Unexpectedly and miraculously that betrayal of our privacy led to a typhoon-like increase in targeted political posts and an enormous increase in their own profits. The poor things suffered a very beneficial betrayal! Anonymity adds enormously to online traffic and thereby to profit.

Democratic societies are still too fragile to survive an anonymous assault from unknown players for whom evidence is just a nuisance – where facts have alternatives, sources and motives are unknown, and even the seeming purpose may not be the real one. If events like the storming of the congressional building in Washington continue to escalate, they will eventually be known as the anonymity disturbances, where the protagonists knew not who drove them to it, or why. We cannot survive too much more of the infantile and racist bile of Q-anon or the persistent propaganda of alien bots, nor trolling or abuse by unidentifiable sources.

We need to banish the belief that the industry itself is interested in any kind of regulation other than their own twisted form of self-regulation. What exactly would our legislators do if the auto industries owned the roads, controlled and kept secret the allocation and ownership of car registration numbers and, to add insult to injury, allowed some owners to have blank plates and yet others whose numbers changed every time they started the engine. Just because we have the intelligence to create such a system does not automatically mean we can use it. The postal service would never be allowed to introduce a service for delivering anonymous trolling letters or ransom letters for kidnap victims, nor gun makers to produce weapons where the rifling changed with each new magazine. In reality, this is what the Big Tech industry is getting away with.

Why should we be reading daily stories about what actions various Silicon Valley companies take about online groups like boogaloo (whose only motivation seems to be armed insurrection and killing police officers) or Q-anon (whose motives we do not know, but are evil) or even Trump himself (whose motives are deranged)? The actions they take are properly in the purview of legislators and the police and, most emphatically, not the responsibility of technology companies. It is their provision of anonymity to endless deranged zealots that allows them to purloin these responsibilities and, having done so, they will never take a decision to prevent improper usage unless the risk of no action is going to be detrimental to their profitability. It is egregiously wrong to allow them to have their own Department of Justice and their own judiciary.

Why is everyone faffing about and refusing to regulate society as we should? The social media corporations want to publish endless opinions, but without the responsibility other publishers must bear. They know the identity of those who post but keep those identities to themselves, except when it suits them to release the data to analytic companies. They keep their algorithms secret and they decide who to remove from their platforms without an official judge in sight. They alone know what everyone posts; a fact that of itself is not safe. We get a sense of the arrogance involved when Mr. Zuckerberg tells Congress that they do not understand how Silicon Valley works. Most legislators, and the rest of us, barely know our Ram from our Rom, but we also have a very scant understanding of electricity, aerodynamics, automobiles and a thousand other things that we use constantly. The detail of how these things work is of interest to the engineers and enthusiasts involved. All the rest of need to know is what such technologies do for us, not how. Mystique is just another human way of exaggerating one’s own importance.

The industry escapes proper legislation by raising endless misplaced concerns about free speech, privacy and, their nest egg, anonymity. To release ourselves from a great number of modern ills – alien interference in our elections, cyber criminality of many different sorts and mountains of very suspect, evidence free, source free conspiracy theories and endless other nonsense – all we need to do is legislate the industry in the same way as we do with all other industries. To wit, include I.P. and MAC numbers with all posts. Add a country code as an extra. This will have zero effect on the vast majority of users in the same way as your motor registration does not impinge on your privacy, at least until you do something wrong. Admittedly, it will reduce profits for the principal shareholders involved. Such legislation would grant us another benefit; it would bring about the demise of two abominations in a free society, TOR and VPNs (Virtual Private Networks) and greatly reduce the illicit use of the Dark Web.

Anonymity is at the very core of the social media purveyors’ business plans. It vastly increases profits and at the same time, grants them powers that rightly belong to the forces of law and order. The term “anonymous free speech” is an oxymoron. It has no identifiable source, tells us nothing of vested interests, bias or motive and diminishes our real heroes of free speech: Gandhi, King, Mandela, Navalny and many lesser-known brave hearted people who accepted the costs of free speech, often fatal, and still spoke out. It smears unjustifiable pain, uncertainty and lies throughout our societies. It is unconscionable that this should be accepted to bolster the profits and power of Silicon Valley.

Publishing opinion in a democracy denies any right to anonymity. When mainstream media print or broadcast material from an anonymous source, the legal responsibility for the validity of the story is automatically assumed by the journalist and the media organization involved. Woe betide them if they get it wrong. Social media companies accept no such responsibility. In fact, anonymity is an enormous part of their business plan. There must be a million academic papers published on the advantageous and negative effects of social media but most seem unaware of the unnecessary harm caused by anonymity. We refer glibly to our own time as the post truth era, disregarding entirely the unavoidable reality that without a constant search for truth, our species is reduced to a gang of oddballs howling meaninglessly in the wind. The very core of civilisation is our un-requiting search for truth and understanding.

The Ogre Has Gone

Yes! Gone. Not gone into hiding for a while: just gone, not to reappear until sometime in the future, when politics invents a completely new, ridiculous, trauma for us. If it ever does. Millions of words are being wasted on fears of his own elderly self’s reappearance, or as a hologram or even in the guise of one of his children or enablers. No! Did I not tell you already that both he and his movement are already fading history?

The reasons for such an uncompromising opinion are really quite simple. In truth he, and his magic, are irreplaceable and if he tries his own comeback, the party will stymie him. They have already suffered one term of his pretend Republicanism and know that they will not survive another. To know what the majority of them really think of him all we have to do is look at what the individuals involved said about him before he won the 2016 nomination. They still pay homage, but only in the wishful thought of keeping his base on their side. But without his power, without his pulpit and without his bullying presence, most of them are capable of walking the fine line needed to betray him whilst imitating diehard loyalists.

There are some residual concerns but most of them are not serious:

  1. His base will remain active. A goodly part of it consists of a zany collection of opposing insanities: anti-Semites versus Netanyahu supporters, rank conspiracy theorists versus greedy business people, anti-immigrant supporters versus anti-immigrant immigrants, Christians versus tolerance, vitriolic day dreams versus reality. Trump’s formula for holding such a disparate group together was simple but effective: two contradictory lies every five minutes, knowing that disciples would only hear the one they wanted to hear. That was his genius. Can you think of anyone else who would have the bloated, boastful persona to carry off such twisted theatre and cement such a contradictory base together?
  2. He will stay around and regain power in 2024 and maybe even start his own television channel. My hat! He doesn’t have the necessary energy for the first and, if we forget his legal and financial problems, a television scheme would cost money and dedication. And where would he get philosophising liars of sufficient stature to anchor it for him? The only possible ones are already in safe, overpaid work and unlikely to risk that to take a job with a loser, not exactly well known for his business acumen, or his loyalty. Anyway, he will be too busy working on his presidential library!

The vexed question of whether the Biden Administration will, for the sake of healing divisions, grant a pardon to ex-President Trump is, for the moment, unanswerable. There is, however, one bone of certainty to gnaw on; that it would be wholly improper and destructive to grant a pardon to a politician who intended to have a continued participation, of any form, in politics.

The why of Trumpism raises some truly serious questions. Yes, we can blame part of it on the usual suspects: racism, super nationalism, genderism and the rest, but we are perhaps missing the one difficulty that is most likely to cause this chaos to reappear in the future: an unwillingness on everybody’s part to accept unvarnished truth — that the dignity of work is being purloined by commercial interests and no one is planning the absolutely necessary replacement.

The world laughed while he was busy getting elected. Why then did he succeed? Perhaps because the opposition, all of them, forgot that it is people who elect Presidents, not money. You have to wonder how many people belonging to the blue-collar section of society voted for him because they knew, yes knew, that the entire system had failed them. The hope being that he would destroy that failed system. He only managed half the destruction necessary. He really needed another four years. We didn’t, but he did.

The failure of the system is due to the inability of almost everybody, including politicians and economists, to recognise that we are right in the midst of the greatest upheaval in our history since the advent of democracy, and that today, change happens at lightning speed. We are losing the need for mundane, commercial labor and no pious words from leaders will bring it back, irrespective of tax cuts. Yes, the big plants may come back but filled with robotics, not people. Self-drive trucks and app responsive driverless automobiles will fill our highways and the ever more visible, existential threat of climate change will purge our need for grossly silly consumption. We are like blind sheep wandering into an abattoir but we cannot see what is going on.

We cannot keep pretending that the gig economy, zero-hour contracts, or having tens of millions of ordinary people involved in low paid, insecure labour – such as in fast food joints, supermarkets, or soul destroying, machine like drudgery, found in the warehouses of corporations like Amazon – can restore the necessary dignity. At best, all of this is a temporary leaf covering for a tree that produces sour fruit. The educated middle class have been brought into the twenty-first century, but unless we begin to explain to the wider population how we intend to include them in the benefits resulting from the earth-shattering changes taking place, they will continue, rightly, to challenge the system. Perhaps the solutions are not being mentioned because they seem too radical but there is no moderate option. The times, they are a-changing, and the wealthy have shown no inhibitions about using radical solutions to increase their own wealth.

The common fear at the moment, among liberal journalists anyway, is that the Democratic Party is divided. At odds with itself. Does that mean that the monolithic Republican Party is the ideal? Where all criticism of the leadership, however daft, is verboten. Such leader worship belongs in tyrannies, not democracies. The other assumption being made, perhaps true, is that Joe Biden, when he becomes President, will work as hard as President Obama did at cross aisle cooperation. But the Republican Party today, is not the one he was used to in his own senatorial days. Less than a handful are brave enough to openly accept reason, whatever they might think personally.

The Republican Party itself has far more serious problems. Since the Reagan years they have steadily become more mean spirited. Reagan, then Nixon, then Chaney and the neoconservatives followed by the Disneyland climax of King Trump (climax is perhaps the wrong word to use with regard to this particular President). Despite their open contempt for democracy shown by indecent shenanigans with gerrymandering, voter and vote suppression, their interference with the U.S. Mail, and the Electoral College advantages in their favour, they were unable to get a sitting President re-elected. Then they doubled down with a childish refusal to accept the result. They too are finished. Ordinary, decent conservatives will have to find another way to push their own beliefs. We should all hope that this will be possible.

We, the middle class, were responsible for all the chaos of the last four years. With our educational advantages we were able to adjust to the mind-bending changes taking place but did not pay attention to the obvious, to the dangers, to the ordinary Jack and Jill whom we pushed down the hill, into the rapacious jaws of financiers, tech moguls and libertarians. Our leaders, our regulators, even our economists, seem oblivious to the obvious; that for the last twenty years we have not just been tweaking the edges of twentieth century life. It is time to catch up and start to explain the hopes that can be realized in this new world. We need the pain eased and the light of the future to be more visible to all.

The near future is going to be storm ravaged; in reality and in politics. In politics anyway, the tempest heralds a brighter future. One that will help us greatly in our delayed battle against the real, existential tempests. We have made a good start. The ogre has gone. Yes! Gone!  Did I mention that before?

The American Constitution for Laypeople

Why should a layperson write about a legal document? Because it is an important one, and while nearly all opinions that concern the law are penned by people with legal training, the American Constitution concerns all of us. It sets the rules by which all the laws that constrain the daily lives of Americans are deemed to be valid or not and, in so doing, it influences the legal philosophy of the rest of the world. It is important that ordinary citizens understand its most egregious flaws. Lawyers will find all the minor ones.

In any library of civilisation, the American Constitution and Bill of Rights will perforce have an honoured place. It changed the world in the same year (1789) as that other life changing event, The French Revolution, was beginning. With beautiful serendipity it brought together, as its authors, an extraordinary group of political and intellectual giants. As it, slowly, permeated the world’s consciousness, legions of idealists must have been electrified, even by the first three words of its preamble: “We the People”. It spoke to the very hearts and souls of humans of a newly imagined free existence. Getting the thirteen States, then involved, to ratify the final version would have required almost superhuman political skill and diplomacy. Through the centuries, its voice, the Supreme Court, has provided us with many titans of legal thought and expression. In general, it has served its nation, and other nations, well.

But! But! Regretfully there are a lot of Buts! The first being that it was written more than two hundred and forty years ago in a world that is now almost unimaginable. A world that was generally ruled by the caprice of Kings, Queens and Emperors. Slavery was perceived to be a normal part of life along with anti-Semitism, wars and ubiquitous life-threatening diseases. In reality, it was the life that Hobbes described as nasty, brutish and short. Although the Constitution exploded as the first open attempt to put the people in control of their own society and was deemed extraordinarily radical for its time, it was, and is, a captive of its own period’s norms. Married women and children were but chattels, trapped within the total power of their husbands, with no vote, no protection, no property and no means of appeal. Slavery was accepted and the slaves who escaped to a non-slave State had to be returned to their so-called owners. The original owners of the land (referred to in the document itself as ‘Indians’) were just an aside, and men who did not own property had no hand in the electoral process. Some of its period related flaws still ensnare us today with misguided attempts to ensure a wealthy, white Christian control of everything.

It’s antiquity alone leads to some undesirable results. Even the fact that the abolishment of slavery, the rights of women and children, and the rights of people of any colour other than White were added as an afterthought creates a disturbing suspicion of the order and validity of the moral values within it.

Some of its more contentious clauses deserve our scrutiny.

The First Amendment includes in its text that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…or of abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’ (emphasis added). This prohibition is one of the most important, and most prized, provisions in the entire document. But free speech can become criminal when, for example, it is used to incite hatred or Revolution or it is slanderous. Prohibiting laws toward an establishment of religion does not mean freedom to set up a religion that requires for example, human sacrifice. This is covered by the criminal laws. In the same way, the right to freedom of speech should not protect the freedom of anonymous speech which is capable of causing grievous damage to the rights of other individuals: their right to privacy, to dignity, to their good name, to their very safety. If such damage is caused by anonymous free speech, there is no recourse for the victim. Such anonymous free speech is, at best, an act of abject cowardliness.

The Second Amendment, in particular, is somewhat obtuse because of age and poor drafting. It states that ‘A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed’. Modern rulings on this right seem to wilfully ignore the Militia section of this amendment, although it is the stated purpose of the right to bear arms. The meaning and rules of such a Militia are clearly laid out in Section 8 of the Constitution itself. This Section empowers Congress to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions. It reserved to the States the authority of appointing the officers and the training of the Militia ‘according to the discipline prescribed by Congress’ (emphasis added). This Militia bears no resemblance whatsoever to present day individual louts wandering the streets carrying assault rifles as a macho extension of their supposed sexual prowess. There is no invasion threatened today that can be dealt with by citizens with private guns and, as gun owners are the only ones currently threatening and leading insurrections, perhaps they exist to put themselves down? Leaving aside the arcane language of the Amendment, it is glaringly obvious that the private ownership of guns in the twenty-first century has no relationship to the concept of liberty.

Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment ends with the words… ‘Nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (emphasis added). How then is it not criminal to forcibly separate refugee children from their parents without even a pretence of due process?

There is no longer a belief, nor a wisp of embarrassment, that the most gifted and learned judges should be appointed to the Supreme Court to interpret the law as best and as honestly as they can. Now they are blatantly chosen on their previous record on issues that favour one side, or the other, of the partisan divide. Some of them then spend their time developing the most convoluted reasoning to come to their desired result. Others pore over the words of the Founders, even to the extent of checking the meaning of relevant words in the eighteenth century (an attitude which elevates the Founders to the level of Prophets writing a Gospel to be valid for eternity). Missing entirely is any understanding of the intensely political nature of the entire constitutional venture. The initial draft may have been written idealistically but, to achieve its essential purpose of creating the Union, the paramount need was to persuade all thirteen states then existing to ratify the document. To achieve this all delegates, including the drafters, were obliged to swallow some bitter pills (including the Electoral College and two Senators per State). To justify this, they would have needed local benefits for their own states, political pork if you like, to assuage their own constituents. The initial Bill of Rights probably included much of this need.

For a democracy like America to be at peace with itself, respect for law is an essential ingredient. In effect, this means that, even when a decision is arrived at that some do not agree with, it can be reluctantly accepted if the decision is made on a good faith determination of the law and not on any extraneous dogma. That respect is faltering because of vile partisan squabbling for control through law. The modern Court has shown a cavalier attitude to the spirit of the Constitution itself. In striking down part of the Voting Rights Act they were fully aware that the rogue states involved would wield their new found freedom to disenfranchise many of their own black voters. In the famous case about a baker’s refusal to make a cake celebrating gay marriage, they did not take the opportunity to rule on anti-discrimination protections under the Constitution but sent a message that the Court was in favour of religious bigotry. In the Citizens United case, they released a veritable torrent of money into the political system (where it does not belong) on the spurious grounds that Corporations have the same rights as individuals. There are too many such rulings for honest people to feel at ease.

The Republican Party, particularly during the Trump era, has set out, openly, to pack all courts with conservative judges, seeing this as a way to control society when the Presidency is no longer in their hands. Given the makeup of American society this is a very high-risk strategy, not so much for them as for the very rule of law. However, the idea of having a very conservative Court ruling a moderately liberal society is but a pipe dream. The combined power of the Presidency, Congress and the People, would be far too great. It is most unlikely that any Court would even make the attempt.

The Constitution, despite the reverence we all hold it in, is out of date. Perhaps the pithiest explanation of this was Lori Lightfoot, the mayor of Chicago, pointing out that as a gay, black woman, she was not even a person in the original document. Tradition and admiration are no substitute for decent, clear law. So, write a new one. It would be worthwhile, even if extremely challenging but enormously cathartic. Is it beyond its time? – yes. Is it possible – yes, but only if America is still a can-do society? A large part, including the most revered sections on freedom of speech, religion and universal suffrage, can be retained. The remaining issues would be the most contentious but, arguing them openly in Citizens’ conventions would enable a far better focus on the future and, counter intuitively, allow the Republican Party to reset their decent conservative values after the nightmare of the past few years. Increased clarity about the spirit of and intentions behind the new provisions would also challenge members of the judiciary who have been blatantly using their interpretative powers to progress their own ideological positions. A new American Constitution could be as electrifying for the world as the old one was in its heyday.

 

The World Today as Viewed Through a Lens in 2120

Dateline: November 2120

Note: The authors, Sienna Mboya and Amélie Paralogos are both great grandchildren of Frank and Rosemarie Kennan, the originators of this blog based on their Library of Civilisation.

An enormous amount of history has been written about the decade starting in 2020 but, in our opinion, not nearly enough attention has been given to that single momentous year and those immediately preceding it. This post is an attempt to redress that gap in the study of the origins of our own Brave New World.

2020 did not start as a year that was going to be any different to the three preceding years. For those years, the world was already in chaos. It was known universally that we faced two existential threats: human induced climate change and loss of biodiversity. Despite the understanding that there was very little time left for the hope of redressing these twin catastrophes, many of those who could take action denied the very existence of both. In the years immediately preceding 2020 the world was also immersed in two, unrecognised, seemingly alternate universes. The first of these was an intense fixation on an economic society: this was a condition that had been building since the Industrial Revolution. This caused a slow, but accelerating, drift away from a society that tried to alleviate the difficulties faced by everyday members, into one that more or less adored mammon. The apparent purpose of humanity was to produce and consume. Anything that interfered with that ideal, such as unions, believers in social justice, and climate realists, were seen as disloyal to progress. The media, conservative and liberal, gave immense amounts of space over to business and the stock market. The whole dystopian reality was probably best summed up by Margaret Thatcher from her perch as Prime Minister of Great Britain when she happily proclaimed that “greed is good”. At times, it seemed that society consisted entirely of Chambers of Commerce.

The second imagined alternate universe related to the more modern development of social media. It was one of the world’s greatest achievements but, in its early years, those who were its masters seemed totally unaware of the destructive forces that it made available to the most unscrupulous of humans. Dialectics and algorithms allowed such gangsters to access, and crudely analyse, the vast troves of personal information available about each individual on a plethora of social media. They then bent the stories that chosen targets were receiving, to exaggerate whatever particular hatred or superstition they suffered from. It seems almost inconceivable from our vantage point a hundred years later that people, including experts, thought that the information on their social media accounts was secure from prying eyes and misuse. Nor does it seem to have crossed anyone’s mind that the democratic ideal of free speech did not include the abomination of anonymous free speech. What happened was that the practitioners of dialectics were able to identify the various extreme constituencies within their own democracies and drown their ability to think by swamping them with persuasive lies, conspiracy theories and biased beliefs that matched each individual’s faulty knowledge or logic. Using such doubtful strategies they could create a winning election strategy. This reversed the aged pattern of democracy so that instead of electing leaders, we gave power to people without any leadership skills who then had to spend all of their time kowtowing to some element of their astonishingly disparate followers. In effect this led to mob rule: an evil that was firmly believed to belong to the distant past. Chaos ensued. In order to maintain the electoral cohesion of such a ragtag group, vis, Alt- Right, racists, misogynists, sexists, fundamental Christians, Ayn Rand disciples, QAnon unfortunates and a thousand other zany creeds, logic had to be abandoned and a whole series of two word, non-answers had to be invented, such as “Fake News”, “Deep State” and “Liberal Lies”. Entire political systems became farcical pantomimes with assorted Queens of Hearts in the lead roles.

The clowns seemed to be varied in their approach to power but they all held the underlying idea, on almost every level, that the past was superior to the present. Trump in America was blunt with his slogan to make America Great Again, without of course, specifying when that Great America existed exactly. Both Russia and Britain hankered after their times of empire. Modi and Erdogan and some Mideastern leaders pined for a true religious Theocracy, while Netanyahu wanted to possess a Biblical geographic state but with no votes for the indigenous population. Bolsonaro and others just wanted to imitate Trump. Europe had its own clowns but they were hampered in their ambitions because the very people who had voted them into office were totally opposed to leaving the European Union with its insistence on rule of law. It was in the midst of this cacophony of unreason that the 2020 pandemic landed and brought with it an unimaginable collection of fears, both real and fanciful. The fear of death or illness, of economic ruin, of social anarchy and of God’s wrath. For nearly two years it did bring carnage, both in bereavement and in mental health. The curtailment of ordinary life, and the sadness this brought with it, were so all encompassing that it was many years before those who had suffered through it could recognise that it had also brought with it an extraordinary, and timely, acceleration in human civilisation. The first pillar of these aforementioned alternate universes to collapse was signalled by the dethronement of Trump – we chose the word carefully. As the scandals hidden by his power and his collection of lackeys began to surface, Congress had to provide extra car parks for whistleblowers trying, belatedly, to rescue their reputations. Only William Barr was unrepentant as he had the surety of knowing that he had been doing God’s will. Whilst America was convulsed with the knowledge that so many of them had been taken as gullible innocents, other related events were playing out across the globe. Nobody had truly understood the influence that tin pot dictators could wield on the simple basis of being a friend of, and having access to, the American President. With his fall, the world breathed a sigh of relief and everything changed. Putin fell within two years as he became anathema to everyday Americans (although there is a valid argument that his collapse was as much to do with the loss of oil and gas revenues as renewables became the norm). In Britain the leader Cummings, a virus like creature, was finished when the technology corporations took a look at our new world and decided that the damage done by operating a major part of their business in a low regulated, off-shore, money laundering island, would have far too great a negative impact on their reputations. With the collapse of that mirage, Cummings had to go
(for the pedants, we are aware that the constitutional leader was Johnson, but this was in name only. In reality he was more an incompetent court jester).

The stormy ending of crude populism in much of the world allowed the smooth advance of the more important social change. The pandemic had allowed, even forced, a great number of the world’s population to examine their societies and their own place in them. The great majority realised that a civilisation that exalted the profit motive above all other ambitions, wishes, moralities and futures, was not taking care of ordinary citizens. This led to what we now call the enlightened Enlightenment. Amongst other achievements this saved our planet, increased our love of science, culture, justice, education and empathy. When the pandemic struck, the first thing that these ordinary people realised was that populist leaders were so totally bereft of ideas for combating the virus that they imitated King Canute in telling the tide to stop coming in or, as an alternative, trying to foist the blame onto some enemy or other. Interspersed were miracle cures and statistics that scientists had never heard of. It was a time of sadness and madness but, nonetheless, it led ineluctably to the most momentous change in human society since the invention of agriculture.

Suffering in lockdown, people had time to consider the return to a normal life that they were expected to ardently wish for. The inferior healthcare, housing, and education that their poverty made inevitable, the stress from long commutes and substandard child care and all of this combined with the ubiquitous and truly farcical disparity in wealth. Even more importantly, from our point of view in their future, they had time to look at the overall system of society with opened eyes. What they saw was that it was not designed to improve the general good but was specifically designed to help those already riding some pig’s back. Dreaming of their children’s future, and experiencing the early wrath of climate change, they began to understand the glutinous appetites of the commercial community. Most of the entities involved are now forgotten, but with a few exceptions: the brutal hypocrisy of the extractive industries, feeding vulture like on an already wounded earth; the great engineering companies, Boeing and Volkswagen, who eschewed their skills for the sake of a few more dollars; and the enormous pharmaceutical conglomerate of The Sacklers for whom a great fortune doing good was not enough, so they became drug dealers. At the
same time, too many farmers were stealing the rhythm of their land and their stock for no motive other than economic gain.

It was fifty years into the last century before those who had lived through that fateful year of 2020 grasped that, despite their suffering, they were honoured to have experienced one of the most fateful years of human history. Without that year we would probably not be here to write this essay. More importantly, without the events of that cataclysmic year, we would not now be optimistic about our ongoing battle against climate degradation. 2020 will always be remembered as the year of birth of our new Renaissance and of our new Enlightenment.

Christianity

Don’t shy away because this blog is about religion, and specifically about Christianity. If you are a Christian be assured that it will not be an attack on your spirituality. I have enough curiosity left to become agitated when good scientists, even some great ones, discard some of their valuable time trying to prove or disprove the unprovable, to wit, the existence of God. Presumably it is religious dogma that drives them to such windmill chasing but a belief in God is a valid and reasonable position. Very few Christians believe that our solar system is earth centric or that the earth is six or seven thousand years old.

So, imagining ourselves to be devout Christians, we believe certain truths to be the basis of our faith: that Christ was the Son of God; that he became human and died a dreadful death to redeem us; that he resurrected on the third day after death; and that while he was alive he preached a message telling us how to live a decent life so that we could be assured of being saved.

Assuming all of this to be true, such events are beyond any phenomena that we know of, leaving even Big Bang and Quantum Mechanics as minor puzzles. By its very nature such an event cannot have a human history. But that supposed history is one of the reasons that we Christians are told to study, learn and obey the Old Testament. Yet, when Jesus came to redeem us, at such a terrible cost to himself, we already had the teachings of the Bible and by themselves they were patently not enough to save us.

The second reason justifying the study of the Old Testament is because of the royal descent of Jesus. Mary, His mother, is identified as a direct descendant of King David, the great Jewish King of Israel. However, Mary arrived some two thousand years after David (80 plus generations) and, as you know, your direct ancestors double each generation i.e. two parents, four grandparents and so on. This means that everybody in the Middle East, in Mary’s time, was a direct descendant of David many times over. The most extraordinary example of this misunderstanding of simple arithmetic came from the Bishop of Paris when, during the internment of Napoleon on Elba, he managed to include in his sermon to the aristocratic congregation in Notre Dame the immortal sentence that ‘Not only was Jesus Christ the Son of God but, equally, He came from an excellent family’.

The third, highly suspect, reason offered for such studies of the Old Testament is the use of the oxymoron of Judeo — Christian Civilisation, which manages to suggest that both histories are somewhat superior and joined at the hip. This has the advantage of allowing us to support the current irascible government in Israel whilst conveniently forgetting our extraordinarily horrendous treatment of Jews during the entire Christian Era.

As there does not seem to be a valid reason why we as Christians should be paying so much attention to the Old Testament, the suspicion must be that it is for the purpose of control. As a testament it is as exciting as a violent thriller. Blood and gore in abundance, a chosen people, famine, plague and fire heaped upon nations, concubines, lions, people turned into pillars of salt, and overseeing it all, a wrathful God shouting from the heavens. Much more colorful than the gentle stories and admonitions of the Saviour of the New Testament. There is even evidence that the suspicion of control is valid. When William Tyndall, in Henry VIII’s time, was rash enough to translate the New Testament into English he was hung and burnt for having the gall to make Christ’s message available to those who had no Latin. Reducing control of His message was, indubitably, a Capital crime!

When I was a young Catholic, and an altar boy to boot, we had religious instruction six days a week and then Mass on Sundays with further lessons. Added to this were Rosaries, Novenas, Benedictions, parades and Holy Days. It seemed as though the world was fueled by religion. Our Christian Doctrine classes were heavily weighted in favor of the Old Testament, particularly the Ten Commandments and even the study of these was hopelessly biased in favor of the Fifth, ‘Thou Shalt Not Kill’ and the Sixth, ‘Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery’.

The Fifth was not much trouble, although we were taught which minor variations of it, such as intentionally causing injury, were a sin. Most of our studies relating to it were Jesuitical excuses for just wars. This was despite the fact that most wars were driven by imperialism, brute nationalism, racism or just greed. They never did explain how, despite the clarity of the Commandment, legal executions were acceptable. In my (innocent) childhood neither abortion, prostitutes nor child abuse were believed to exist in Ireland, and so were not included in any discussion.

The Sixth however was the bane of our lives. Entire libraries could have been filled with the innumerable ways it could be broken: improper thoughts, lecherous behavior, unapproved company of the opposite sex, masturbation and on and on and on. Anything could be included under the heading of an ‘Occasion of Sin’.

In those teenage years of living with tyrannical hormones, confession was difficult. I used to confess my love for Doris Day. That seemed to meet the requirements of each confessor although that particular love was as pure as a mountain spring. Mostly though, it avoided the need to list the occasions of sin that dogged every minute of life; from the girl three doors down, to the salacious curves of some highly improper trees!

I once had the privilege of listening to a well known actor describing her experience of confession as an Irish schoolgirl. Her most chillingly funny story went something like this:
“Bless me father for I have sinned”.
“What do you want to confess, my child?”
“I was courting father”
Any damage done”.
“Yes father “.
“Above or below the waist”.
“Ooh, above only father”
He gave her penance and absolution but then instead of closing the privacy flap, he leaned forward to the grill and whispered to her, “tell your father I’ll be over for bridge later”.

The New Testament does not really worry about such childish issues, so it is easy to see why the Old Testament was needed for control. Jesus himself reduced all rules to just two Great Commandments, the essence of which can be expressed as: Love the Lord thy God and love thy neighbour. It remains difficult to believe that they were actual commandments, they seem much more like advice.

The first of these commandments is somewhat difficult but it can be interpreted as Jesus simply advising us that a God exists. He did not specify a Jewish, Christian or any other particular God; He just said thy God. That can be read in many different, positive ways. For a nonbeliever it is perfectly rational to accept it as advice to put your soul, your love and honesty into your passion, whether that passion is science or the humanities, from your love of your own garden to the global environment or the entire cosmos itself.

The second can be recognised as the perfect guide to the path of our civilisation. He did not say love thy white, black, female, male, Samaritan or Jewish, rich or poor neighbour. You cannot love your neighbour by treating them unfairly, killing them for a little more power or land or failing to recognise their individual gender or sexual orientation. Nor can you deny them the medical attention they need nor the quality of education they ought to have just because they have no money. Your neighbour is the entirety of humankind, good or bad. Love in this context is not to be taken as our current understanding of human romance, but instead as a lack of hatred and at least an attempt to understand your neighbour’s history and difficulties. Finally, your best effort to forgive. Seemingly simple, it is excruciatingly difficult to follow such advice, yet the right thing to do. It means that as a conservative Christian you may detest the act of abortion but must empathise with the person who performs it. Alternatively, if you are a liberal, you may loathe the deeds of a Trump or a Johnson and even those who, despite knowing exactly what both of them are, continue to enable them for their own nefarious purpose, but you must still empathise with all of them. Ah well! He never said it would be easy.

The Christian faith is similar to all other creeds in that it is divided into thousands of different sects, each one insisting that their particular view of it all is the one true faith. Too often the separations are driven by the Old Testament. But for Christians, it is completely illogical to rely on pre-Christian texts to support that faith, however interesting and wise those texts are. Instead Christians should concentrate on the gentle and loving message of the New Testament. Put energy and truth into your passion and love thy neighbour! Give it socks while you’re at it!

Malign Influence

I am not normally tempted to write about current politics; they are too immediate, too transient and I am too passionate about them. But the two life threatening crises facing us at the moment, Covid 19 and climate change, qualify, especially when combined as civilisational events and should not be neglected. There is a third crisis - the widespread abandonment of truth and expertise - which exacerbates the difficulties in the search for solutions to the first two. This blog is in reality an aide memoire for grandchildren to see how some of us were thinking whilst living through them.

The world is changing before our very eyes and no matter how much we hope and pretend otherwise it will never again be the one that we imagined as normal, just a few short months ago. This change does not mean that we will lose the joys that are the essence of our humanity: our kissing and hugging of loved ones, our love of company, our celebrations, and young people gathering in large numbers for whatever reason to express their very joie de vivre. We are clever enough and passionate enough to find a response that will allow all of that to return. Because of the growing acceptance that climate change and pollution are existential threats we are, with the necessary will, capable of reversing even those threats. What will collapse however is the overconfident path that our elites have laid out for the twenty first century, namely eternal economic growth, reduced taxes, obscene consumption and wealth disparity. In our present dire circumstances the fault lines in such self serving plans are wholly destructive. With the pandemic itself, those who want to return to the status quo ante come replete with incredibly comprehensive plans to achieve their ambitions but forget, as always, that the devil is in the detail. How do we deal with those politicians and their enablers who failed us when they were most needed? How do we put the ever more obvious and odious genie of inequality back in its bottle and what will we dream up to assuage the millions who have had the time to realise that their lives before lockdown were a puny substitute for their real hopes? How many will be shocked when it becomes obvious that they are being exploited as pack animals and that those who exploit them have no intention of voluntarily sharing even a scrap of the world’s wealth with them?

Epoch changes are, luckily, not that common, but they all have things in common. The French Revolution happened because of the relentless and blind arrogance of the nobility based on the risible idea of genetic superiority. Our own epochal change will be driven by a natural catastrophe highlighting the incredible arrogance of many of those with more money than most. A quarter of a century after the Revolution, with Napoleon defeated, the Ancient Regime imagined that things could revert immediately to the order in place before the Revolution. They did not realise, even then, that the system that had been replaced was one bereft of decency and, most definitely, not one that ordinary people would allow to be resuscitated. Despite the enormous trauma inflicted on humans by the current pandemic, our elites, including most of our politicians, expect a speedy return to the supposedly normal - a normal that was also bereft of decency.

The two changes of epoch that we are most familiar with are both World Wars. The first driven by rampant nationalism and feelings of superiority on all sides. Does that sound familiar? The principal effects, besides the appalling carnage, were a reduction in the belief of the wisdom of ruling classes and the refusal of women to placidly return to their male ordained ‘proper’ roles.

The second War has even more lessons for our present dilemma. It was again driven by nationalism, though this time with the added evil of rabid antisemitism. Most pertinent to our current situation is that the prime instigator was, in many ways, quite insane and to facilitate his complete grasp of power required a new outrageous level of propaganda: lies and falsehoods in simple language.

Roosevelt and Churchill led the Democratic World during the War and both were intelligent and relatively sane and effective. So, what sort of team do we have to lead us out of our own interesting times?. An extraordinary one by any standards. Even limiting it to the players who think of themselves as democrats we have: Putin, Bolsonaro, Modi, Obrador, Erdogan, Orban, Johnson and others, all led by their inimitable captain, Donald Trump (he is not chosen for his skill but because he has more money and power). Look closely at them and you will undoubtedly decide that the world is in good hands! Is it any wonder that in fiction clowns are often portrayed as fundamentally evil.

For Trump to create his own bananarama world he must have a united band of loyal supporters, usually referred to as his base. His particular base is a quite outlandish coalition of disparate and contradictory elements. The majority consists of ordinary decent people who know that they are left out of all the loops of a fast changing world and who, in general, think that Civilisation is moving backwards; that all decency is failing. They support Trump in the hope that he is so different that he may return the country to what they think it used to be, never comprehending that, except for their vote, he has no interest whatsoever in them or their problems. His promise to them of clearing the swamp is not helping when his method is to transform it into a fetid cesspit. The rest of his band are a peculiarly zany coalition consisting of racists, chauvinists, jingoistic nationalists, gun cowards, anti-vaxers, extreme libertarians, the greedy and, perhaps most surprisingly, fundamentalist Christians who have distilled the entire message of Christ into the stopping of all abortion.

Holding such a coalition together is a Herculean task and brings us the third, mostly unrecognised pandemic: the scourge of lies and untruth. A democratic society cannot function if the level of this mind bending disease is permitted at its current levels. It grants equality between untruth, gossip, rumor, superstition and slander to truth, facts, evidence, informed opinion and even Science. That grant of equality renders every opinion more or less meaningless. There is an unscrupulous malign influence deeply involved in this purposeful evil. In America it is Fox News. The rest of the right wing echo chamber are not nearly so damaging. They do what they do, quite properly, because of their openly stated beliefs, but Fox disseminates untruth and falsehoods while claiming to be an unbiased news station. It labels itself with logos such as ‘We Report You Decide’, - ‘Most Watched Most Trusted’,. ‘- Fair And Balanced’, - and their most recent ‘Real News Real Honest Opinion’. With that one they encapsulate their method of taking their own most egregious fault, false witness, and, with bladder bursting gall, foist it on all of the normal media: Fake News. Goebbels would have been proud of them. The effect is to ensure that nothing can get through to Trump loyalists — however despicable or incompetent his acts or however much evidence there is of his dishonor, — it can be dismissed as Fake News. It is extraordinary that the public face of the corporation - the television anchors — can, night after night, preen themselves with deep sincerity but never realise that pimping for untruth is even more unsavory than regular pimping.

If you think that exaggerates the power of the Murdock empire then take a look at English politics where, because he dislikes the E-U’s interference in his corporate ambitions, he has set out to destroy the entire European concept. To achieve this he employs his overarching control of the print media in England and has, for decades, used that power to drip feed poisonous nationalism, racism, xenophobia and lies about immigrants, refugees and Europe itself into the English political consciousness. The end result has been to get a perfectly sane race (albeit somewhat arrogant because of a supposedly glorious history) to vote to secede from the European Union. He has bravely led this bold, flag waving charge, forward to the past. Brexit, as it is called, has no known advantage for Britain, neither social, cultural, economic nor scientific. It is telling that the two parts of the British Union, where Murdock’s writ does not run so overwhelmingly, voted decisively against Brexit. Ironically, this was not the outcome he or those who currently pass as conservatives in England wanted. Both assumed that when an entity as large and influential as Britain left others would follow suit. The opposite has happened; Europe’s union has actually become stronger whilst the British one has weakened.

Covid 19 and climate change are world changing events which we need to solve very quickly, but which also present an opportunity for positive and transformative changes to society. However, this is only possible if we address the third crisis: the abandonment of truth and expertise in the protection of powerful interests.

Democracy cannot function properly if reality is constantly ripped asunder by falsehoods, superstition and propaganda. Untruth is anathema to any successful Democracy. In three of our major democracies, America, England and Australia, the Murdoch empire, News Corp - including Fox - is the leading protagonist of making truth malleable. We must weaken its power to mislead and perhaps the only way to do this is to publicise relentlessly the names of their advertisers. This would allow the general public to decide what they, as individuals, can do to help.

Even though there is general consensus about what we are trying to do to overcome Covid 19, the barriers raised to our success come from the usual sources; those who ignore all expertise and insist that it is nothing more than a minor issue or, alternatively, that it is already over. Nor should we forget those who are more brutal, but perhaps more honest, who would persuade us that lives sacrificed are unimportant compared to reopening the economy! When the pandemic is controlled we will have moved to a very different societal normal. Because of the exigencies of the current crisis too much of the nature of our existing order is being highlighted to those who are neglected by that order. They will not accept the old norms whoever tells them that they must. If you cannot yet sense the coming storm, adjust your antenna. We know what despots do in such circumstances, but in a democracy, to avoid chaos or even violence, we need truth more than anything else. It is time to stop accepting anything less.

No fine words will reduce the status of the climate change crisis as an existential threat for life on earth. Yet those who continue to dismiss that threat as minor are truly a malignant influence, driven by blind greed to ignore and lie about the horrible danger to the world, even to the lives of their own children and grandchildren.

The challenges facing us are enormous and immediate. How we respond will be admired, or roundly damned, by our immediate successors.

The Irish Examiner, May 9 2020

Letters to the Editor: What is stopping us removing the insecurity of those living in rented homes?

It would appear that the only group that must be protected from all financial pain during this emergency are domestic landlords. Admittedly the government has decreed that there will be no evictions or rent increases on a temporary basis. Really! How radical a solution is that?

The government then adds enormously to the social welfare bill, not to help people survive, but solely to enable them to pay their rents. Nor is there any mention of increasing the tax rate on such income for the duration of the crisis.

Lack of meaningful action seems to be predicated on the constitutional right to private property, but that Article 43 right is not untrammeled. The final two clauses of that Article 43 make it absolutely clear that the right is subservient to the needs of social justice and the exigencies of the common good.

The 1982 Supreme Court decision, (very narrow one in scope) was supposedly rectified by a series of Acts that would appear to have been written by a landlords’ lobby group.

These Acts have created a situation whereby the tenants of a family home can be evicted for all of the usual valid reasons, plus the following reasons: If the property is needed to house one of the landlords immediate family - adding privilege to privilege - to reclaim the house for refurbishment or development, and most insidiously of all, if the market price of the freehold property is 20% above its value with sitting tenants.

This would infer that our society no longer believes in the sanctity of the family home if it is rented rather than mortgaged. Add short term leases and a shortage of supply to create the perfect storm of insecurity. Rental homes are no longer homes: just another form of business assets.

Most landlords are as decent as the rest of us try to be but we know from our history the incalculable damage that a few self-obsessed and greedy ones can cause. Do we really believe that evicted tenants should catch the boat to America or England?

Whatever great plans our new government might have for housing, they could make a flying start by ridding us of the gross insecurity of those living in rented homes; or is there a problem, other than political will, that prevents such action?

Frank Kennan, Roundwood House.