Better Together?

Under the leadership of one of the most credible contemporary political voices, and with just historical context, it’s no surprise to see the SNP stirring for another crack of the independence whip. More so, one might say, being faced as they are with a predominantly English vote to leave the EU.

It speaks volumes about the enduring Celtic enmity—with the Anglo-Saxon invader—that Scotland’s mourning of ‘ever closer union’ with Germanic tribes on the continental mainland gives reason for its ever greater disunion with the Germanic tribes closest to home.

In a fervour to distance ourselves from English nationalists, it would be easy for me and many of my English comrades to brother-up with Scottish nationalists in an act of Anglo-bashing empathy. Particularly, that is, for those of us that take no pride in the Edwards’ perversely celebrated obsession with using every manner of innovation in politics, economics and violence to bring independent Celtic kingdoms to the English monarchic heel. Or for those of us that are embarrassed by the muted tones in which Anglo-centric histories of Imperial Britain whisper of its Scottish economic, intellectual and cultural backbone.

But, in an increasingly fragile global system, with new, powerful state actors—already in conflict over territory, resources, and influence—I find it hard to parse the grammar of Scottish secessionist ambitions.

There’s also the inevitably nationalist premise of the project. As a general historical observation: whatever is said in mainstream media, rumour, and pub talk about the nihilism of Islamic terrorism, there’s been no greater force for bigotry, intolerance, and militaristic arrogance than nationalism. There has been no greater scourge of human solidarity than the cesspit of ideas that have festered under its banner. Even the most infamous religious wars in medieval Europe were largely using pontifical doctrine as a proxy for nationalism.

Those aggravating for ever-greater fragmentation of the most socio-culturally liberal bloc in the contemporary world—be it the UK dissolving its union with Europe, or Scotland dissolving its union with the UK—may ultimately celebrate their self-determination in increasingly inaudible cheers. The progressive decline of our collective cultural, political and economic relevance—however ardently dismissed by the nationalists as hyperbolic guff—is inevitable. That includes the diminishment of the Enlightenment values of logic and equity — the genesis of many of humanity’s most sane aspirations, and a particularly poignant reference in a discussion about Scotland.

However shrill it may sound on the lips of an Englishman, surely we’re Better Together.

Who poisoned Kim Jong Nam?

Do we even need to ask?

North Korea is the world’s leading pariah state, discredited and despised for the savagery and ineptitude of its unhinged leaders, their social and economic incompetence, their cartoon-like bellicose outbursts, and their insatiable appetite for impoverishing their charge with their ‘military first’ fiscal profligacy. It’s the world’s most odious dynastic dictatorship, hovering over its deranged worshipful masses — a population either beaten into stupefied adulation of their masters by thought control and fear; the victims of some mass experiment in stage hypnotism; or, otherwise, themselves no better than their leaders.

At least, that’s the prevailing narrative now embedded in western consciousness.

And that narrative frames public policy at home, editorial policy in mainstream media of both colours, and the mindset of their readers. I’ve read reader comments in the Financial Times, without qualifying any distinction between government and people, that North Korea is, simply, ‘an affront to humanity’ that should not be tolerated. And unlike the victims of other flavours of xenophobia and exceptionalism, the North Koreans are almost entirely without a champion. In the West, government, press, and people find themselves in a rare condition of alignment: the only solution, it appears, is: The Final Solution.

And it disgusts me.

Let’s not forget how often we hear about ‘the hermit state’ — the government tour guides prohibiting journalists’ visibility of ordinary people’s ordinary lives. Yet we mysteriously hear about Kim’s administration feeding dogs to their people, and about Kim feeding his administration to the dogs. It apparently doesn’t warrant an explanation as to how journalists access intimate secrets about events surrounding the North Korean ruling cabal, yet can’t get access to mundane information about the mundane lives of ordinary people.

In a recent article in the Financial Times, celebrity North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee is presented to readers as a channel providing unique insight into the inner world of her forebears. Readers come away with all of their prior assumptions unblemished. Not having visited North Korea for 20 years, and now replete with the full English of Gangnam-style cosmetic surgery procedures, I had to ask myself: Is Miss Lee a refugee from the most terrifying dungeon of humanity, or is she little different from any other émigré who’s made an arduous journey from a dead-end existence to a better life? And to help benchmark the distance of that socio-economic journey, how many Syrian refugees are presently queuing at Harley Street cosmetic surgery consultation rooms? What would Brexit voters make of it if they were?

The entire choreography of the anti-North Korean theatre, and all of its actors, combine to weave a narrative that differs from North Korean-style propaganda only in its sophistication. It frustrates me sufficiently that I’m prepared to risk being rude to Hyeonseo Lee to emphasise the point. During my lifetime, the dynastic dictatorship of the United Arab Emirates has sanctioned courts to sentence adulterous women to death by stoning, but the West is queuing to go do business with Dubai, or to go on holiday there — including HM Government, UK. Why? Because standards of living are better in UAE than North Korea? Might that not at least partly be attributable to more than fifty years of economic and diplomatic punishment of North Korea by the world’s superpower, which has proven as effective as it was designed to be?

Maybe Kim Jong Nam was murdered by the agents of Jong Un’s self-preservation programme. It seems perfectly possible. Maybe he was murdered by creditors after decades of propping up a gambling addiction in his adopted home of Macau, casino island of the East. That seems possible, too. Or, perhaps, it might transpire that he wasn’t poisoned by a Vietnamese woman wielding a rag — much like his uncle turned out not to have been fed to the dogs, after all. It’s hard to know, for those of us who are fans of Twelve Angry Men.

Most of the world east of the Mediterranean is as mystified by the West’s double standards  on prejudice as the West is of popular North Korean support for the eccentric Kims. Why is their ruling family a laughing stock by dint of its three-generation dynasty alone, while a fifteen- to twenty-generation dynastic heritage alone is a badge of pride for ours? The Enlightenment might have won the West the modern race for living standards, but—doubtless to the chagrin of its pioneers—not for morality, nor for truth.

Joe Biden’s teeth

Joe Biden’s teeth used to fascinate me. I recall watching Joe sweep into the theatre at Centre College, Danville, for the Vice Presidential debate leading up to the 2012 election, and actually laughing out loud at his coruscating smile. A real-life emoticon.

😀

When his easy smile breaks into that pearly grin, it’s like sticking magnesium ribbon into a Bunsen burner.

Arriving home too pissed to sleep, ‘Joe Biden’s teeth’ was a staple Google search to kill some time whilst waiting for my bedroom to knock off the Ferris wheel act. I quickly discovered the domain name had been registered. I can’t honestly say it’s worth a visit, but it’s worth knowing it’s there:

http://www.joebidensteeth.com

Now, only five years on, I’m looking at my own teeth languishing in their pyrrhic victory against my three favourite drugs: red wine, espresso, and English tea. Everyone told me to expect, with age, that my fascination with late nights and alcohol would wither and wane. I ultimately realised they were confusing the effects of age with the effects of having children and, in doing so, failed to mention stained teeth. But, far worse, nobody mentioned that by 2017 it would be normal to look like Joe.

A Google search for ‘why do English have…’ always used to autocomplete with ‘yellow teeth’ — a suggestion that barely ranks in the top five now that, increasingly, they don’t. Instagram’s cultural reach has normalised American values in Britain. While I’ve been busy sneering at the obsession with cosmetic surgery abroad, a bustling population of homegrown vain selfie-philes have been queuing for clinical help to emulate Kendall Jenner’s pout. The Donald’s phosphorescent teeth Trump old Joe’s, and yet it’s only the tangerine skin that gets a mention.

Well, I’ve a dental appointment when I get back to the UK, and—you guessed it—I’m going to gingerly open dialogue on how to wrest my teeth back from the clutches of my vices. It seems I’m too proud to embrace the symptoms, although I’m not proud to admit the remedy. I promise to be sufficiently subtle that you’ll barely notice the difference. No Bidenator iPhone flash smile. No magnesium ribbon flare. Just back where I was in 2012. That’s all. I’ve explored the possibility of claiming that it’s ‘for me’, but I just can’t pull that guff off. It’ll be for vanity. That means it’s for you lot. So I thought you ought to know. 

The Muslim ban

There’s little more heartening than public assembly in protest for the common good. Given the broader US-led foreign policy agenda in the Middle East, however, I find it odd that it should be a moratorium on US immigration from a peculiarly conceived selection of countries that unifies public ire.

Essentially, drone strikes indiscriminately killing villagers in Yemen—to help the most sinister dictatorship in the region maintain control of petroleum shipping lanes—is fine. Clinton and Kerry, under Obama, who established and executed that policy, collectively preserve their status as sane advocates for the liberal order. But leaving people stuck at Terminal 5 unable to start their new jobs at Harvard crosses the line of common decency.

It goes without saying that I’d rather see a US that adopts neither of those policy planks. But the idea that the border rules are a more draconian measure than extrajudicial murder by remote control serves above all to underline the disconnect between populations east and west of the Mediterranean.

At the very least, let me assert that Donald Trump’s Muslim ban will be little more than a footnote in the Arab world’s treatise against a century of injustices inflicted upon them by successive western superpowers.

The Obama farewell speech

Fascinating contrast between the Obama farewell speech and the Trump press conference this week. The crude, crass, ineloquent retorts versus the pensive, reflective, thought-provoking oratory, rich with penetrating social analysis, evocative cultural insight, commitment to the future with gallant optimism and, above all, the pride of fatherhood. Metropolitan Americans were already looking upon Obama with nostalgic pride.

But while they were joined by middle class audiences across the northern hemisphere in shedding a tear during his marital tributes, the Obama Administration was busy executing the largest build-up of military materiel on the Polish-Russian border in a generation — one of the most dangerous acts of diplomatic brinkmanship of his presidency.

George W. Bush has a de facto monopoly on bellicosity in the public consciousness. But Obama’s foreign policy record differs only very marginally. The start of his presidency saw a significant escalation of military activity in Afghanistan, went on to oversee the invasion of Libya, and drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen have been a defining foreign policy tool throughout his tenure. That is: extrajudicial assassinations in civilian-populated areas away from war zones, by remote control, to prosecute a geo-political agenda.

Doesn’t that sound a bit like something Isis would come up with?

The diplomatic record isn’t much different to Bush’s, either: endlessly blocking an otherwise unanimous international community of nations’ efforts to end (a) the Cuba embargo and (b) illegal Israeli settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories. The closest the Obama Administration has got to formally aligning with international norms is to wait until the final trimester of his term, and abstain from GA/Security Council votes on both. Abstention. Hardly the tool of the maverick pioneer for social justice that Californian celebrities sat teary-eyed in thrall of on Tuesday. The much-welcome Cuban thaw (begun only in Obama’s final term, once no more electoral victories in Florida needed to be won) amounts to the equal treatment of Cuba by the world’s superpower to roughly the same degree that Jim Crow granted equal status to African Americans.

Many will focus on the differences between the Trump and Obama addresses. Personally, I’m more preoccupied by the similarities: the obsession, of both, with style over substance. Trump’s no-nonsense attitude to policy, whilst framing no policy whatsoever. Obama’s deep connect with the American people, having spent eight years flawlessly upholding a remote establishment that remains—at home and abroad—morally ambiguous at its best, and outright Machiavellian at its worst.

The populists of today might revere the warrior kings of the past, covered in glory for their power and ambition. Those revelling in Obama’s Shakespearian valedictory address might revere the parliamentarians of the past — the establishment elites that are still mistaken as proxies for the proletariat. Magna Carta and the Provisions of Oxford were clashes of the titans, absent any champion for the rights of the many. It’s folly that the 2016 US election was mistaken by any as something different.

The Ludlow Hotel, NYC

Whilst working quietly in this attractively Bernard Nevill-esque lounge—with its eclectic selection of low leather chairs, cowhide stools and timber floors strewn with patchwork rugs—I’ve never overheard so much chatter about ‘what God was telling me’. If I was a local evangelist, I’d have put my celestial mobile on Do Not Disturb by now.

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