Author Archives: Tom Arms

Observations of an ex pat: Dealing with lies

All politicians lie. That is what we are told anyway. If they told the truth, it is argued,  they would never be elected.

The problem with that belief is that it undermines the very foundations of democracy. If you cannot believe your elected representatives than what is the point in elections? They become no more than expensive political theatre.

It certainly seems that the 21st century political arena is filled with more mendacity than previous years, and the instances of misinformation and disinformation appear to be multiplying. The question is: How to deal with the increasing number of lies before they damage our political institutions beyond repair.

Adam Price, leader of the Welsh Nationalist Party Plaid Cymru thinks he has the answer: Make intentional political lying a criminal offence. That is an interesting idea, but not the right answer.  Hit them where it really hurts–in their bank accounts– by extending the laws of libel to social media.

Winston Churchill is alleged to have said that “a lie travels halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” In today’s social media world of the internet, trolls, hacks, cyber attacks and 24/7 news, a lie can be orbiting the North Star before truth even thinks of climbing out from under the duvet.

The Internet is the greatest boon to freedom of speech since the Gutenberg press. Billions of people now have access to the greatest body of information at any time in history. But every action has a reaction and they are not always good. Even the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has recognised that his digital offspring is a mixed blessing.

There has been talk of regulating social media. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has been hauled before parliamentary committees on both sides of the Atlantic and told that he has to find a way of preventing his cash cow digital platform from becoming a vehicle for fake news. He has been told that he should employ tens of thousands of editors to plough through every posting – which run to the 1.62 billion accesses daily–and remove anything that smacks of lies and hate speech. On Twitter there are 500 million daily tweets. Their impact is multiplied by retweets and republication on traditional mainstream media.

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Observations of an ex pat: Whither NATO?

“The most successful military alliance in history” is one description. Another is “brain dead.” And a third is “obsolete.”

The fact is that all the above descriptions of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation are correct in varying degrees along with “guarantor of peace in Europe” and the “military heart of the Western Alliance.”

It is also true to say that the alliance is in crisis. To paraphrase Dean Acheson’s description of post-imperial Britain, NATO won the Cold War and has yet to find a new role in the world.

If one starts from the assumption that NATO is a force for good than it is essential that the alliance re-discover its role in the world. To do that it needs to re-evaluate the circumstances and values that led to its formation 70 years ago; examine how the world has stayed the same; how it has changed; and then change and adapt.

In 1949, the world was only four years out of a world war. America had emerged enormously wealthy, militarily powerful and armed with the world’s first true weapon of mass destruction. Its ideological enemy the Soviet Union had absorbed Eastern Europe and seemed poised to send its steamroller army across the rest of the devastated continent. It was four months away from detonating its first atomic bomb. Britain—which had been charged with the responsibility of protecting post war Europe—was broke and broken, and appealed to America to fill the vacuum. China was soon to “fall” to Mao’s communists and slip behind a bamboo curtain for 30 years. Former enemies Germany and Japan were as distrusted as the Soviet Union. There were only 59 members of the United Nations as most of the future 193-strong membership was still colonies.

NATO had a clear purpose: To protect the democracies of Western Europe from Soviet aggression so that they could recover from a devastating world war; preserve the shared values of economic and political liberalism; protect traditional markets and prevent a third world war. Lord Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, declared that the purpose of the alliance was to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.”

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Observations of an ex pat: The Laffer Curve

It is an economic model called the Laffer Curve and it reeks of common sense and good economic stewardship. It is also being studiously ignored by the Labour and Conservative parties in their headlong race to buy votes with expensive election promises.

The Laffer Curve is basically a bell-shaped curve which starts at zero on the left , rises to an optimum figure in the middle and then drops back down to zero on the far right. The zero on the left is the expected tax revenue that would be raised if the tax rate was zero, which is fairly self-explanatory—no taxes, no revenue.  Halfway up the left side of the curves means taxes are too low and revenue is insufficient.

The zero on the far-right may appear at first glance to be counter-intuitive.  The higher the price (taxes) the higher the revenue. But if we use the shop analogy the fallacy of that argument is exposed.  If a shop charges more money than the customer can afford than they just go elsewhere. In the case of taxes they vote with their feet and move to another country and refuse to invest in an economy which fails to give them a return with the result that the pool of money from which taxes are drawn shrinks.

The key is to find the happy median. This is the highest point on the Laffer Curve where the tax rate—like Goldilocks’s porridge—is neither too high nor too low but set just right so that it draws in the maximum tax revenues.

The Laffer Curve is named after American economist Arthur Laffer from the Chicago School of Economics. Professor Laffer did not invent the theory. But he did popularise it during the Ford, Reagan and Bush Senior Administrations. The theory actually has its antecedents in 14th century Tunisia; was popular in 19th century American economic planning and a cornerstone of the policies of US Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon during the Roaring Twenties.  Even John Maynard Keynes made some admiring references to it, but it was largely forgotten in the 30 years after World War II.

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Observations of an ex pat: Egos

Say what you like about Tricky Dicky Nixon. And you can say a lot. He was an egotistical, toilet-mouthed politician who abused the office of the presidency for his own personal political gain. He was also one smart cookie when it came to foreign policy.

His major saving grace, however, was that when faced with the inevitability of defeat, he resigned. For most of his five and a half years in office Nixon acted as if his personal interest and the national interest were one in the same. But in the end, he came to realise that the US constitution, the …

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Observations of an ex pat: Losing face

t is meant to be a Chinese thing. Face is very important. A western synonym might be a combination of pride and credibility. At any rate, it is important that a person not be seen to lose face; that they are not made to look foolish or stupid.

In addition, the person who is right has to be careful not to look too superior. They are all too conscious of the Western proverb: “There but by the grace of God…”

The West, on the other hand is an “I told you so society”. It loves to rub the noses of its politicians in their mistakes and failed promises. It positively drools at the prospects of adopting an air of righteous superiority.

Asian politicians will often give their opponents a way out—an honourable exit. Their Western counterparts, will hound, pester and plague their rivals to the bitter end.  Their aim is to strengthen their position with an adversarial political system that allows nothing less than the total humiliation of their foe.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches. The retention of face is more of a long game. It recognises that today’s enemy could be tomorrow’s ally. Forcing a loss of face is more a winner takes us all scenario.

The prize in the West is higher. But so is the price paid the loser, which is why they fight so hard to win, and if they can’t win they fight hard not to lose. When caught in a lie—or a mistake– they double down, fabricate, invent,  cover-up, issue counter-accusations, rant, rave… almost anything and everything short of an admission of  error or wrongdoing.

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Observations of an ex pat: Trump is right

Trump is right. He is wrong about most things and there is insufficient space to list them all in this article. But he is bang on the money when he says that the deal that Boris Johnson has negotiated with the EU makes a US-UK trade deal less likely—at least the “great deal” that the public have been promised by governments on both sides of the Atlantic.

Boris has dismissed Donald’s claims. His friend the president, he said, is “patently wrong.” The deal that he negotiated with Michel Barnier allows Britain to do trade deals with whomever they want. Well, yes and no, but in practical terms mainly no as far as the US is concerned.

The deal is in two parts, the withdrawal agreement which sets out the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union and is politically binding. That includes such things as the cost of the divorce bill and the rights of EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU.

The second half is the political declaration which is not legally binding and is meant to set down the parameters for a future UK-EU free trade agreement. Included in the political declaration is a clause which under Theresa May’s deal was in the legally binding withdrawal agreement. It says that that both sides will keep the same high standard on state aid, competition, social and employment standards, the environment, climate change and relevant tax matters.

It is this clause that bothers Trump. He does not like the EU restrictions which he regards as non-tariff barriers that can put a block on controversial American exports such as chlorinated chickens.

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Observations of an ex pat: Socialism vs Brexit

Boris Johnson made it clear. An election has been called to break the parliamentary deadlock on Brexit.  A “People v Parliament” poll.

Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, however, appears to have failed to hear properly. In his opening salvo of the campaign battle he hardly mentioned Brexit. Instead the dyed-in-the-wool far-left Socialist took the opportunity to declare a class war on the “Establishment Elite.”

Corbyn is attempting to flip the 2019 election agenda away from Brexit in much the same way as he did in 2017.  This is for several reasons: 1- his party is hopelessly split on Brexit; 2- Corbyn’s plans to deal with Brexit are an inconsistent mish-mash 3- he needs an electoral platform that will appeal to both Leave and Remain Brexit voters and, finally, 4- the chaotic state of British politics offers  Jeremy Corbyn the best chance he has of ushering in the Socialist workers’ paradise that he has dreamt about for his entire political career.

The current disreputable state of British politics creates opportunities for demagogic figures to tout their over-simplified sound bite solutions to complex issues. What could be more simple – or divisive–than a clarion call to class war.?

On the other extreme end of the political spectrum sits a prime minister who appears determined to replicate the 17th century battle between the executive and parliament.  After a series of civil wars and a Glorious Revolution that battle ended with the establishment of parliamentary sovereignty. The 2016 referendum was not the “will of the people”. It was a narrow victory for an ill-conceived exit from Europe without due regard to the consequences. The country remains hopelessly divided on the issue and the parliament which Boris Johnson disdainfully dismisses is a reflection of that division– as it should be.

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Observations of an ex pat: Trump the pushover

Donald Trump likes to portray himself as strong man. A hard, tough man who stands up to the rest of the world, tweets it like it is and puts America first. The evidential facts tell a different story.  Trump is increasingly becoming the puppet of anti-democratic strongmen such as Turkish President Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin who use the American president’s craving for acceptance to manipulate him for their own ends.

Trump grew up in the New York borough of Queens when it was the first stop for the latest generation of immigrants struggling to survive in the land of opportunity.  The denizens of Manhattan looked down on Queens and all who dwelt there. Trump was determined to show the descendants of the Vanderbilts and Astors.  He would make billions; marry super models; become a reality TV star; plaster his name in 40ft high letters across giant skyscrapers and, finally, become president of the United States.

He wasn’t a strong man. He was a failed businessman who suffered six bankruptcies and was shunned by the New York aristocracy he courted. His life has been one long struggle against a debilitating inferiority complex. And like so many second-raters who seek justification through the accumulation of power and money he has sought the advice, approval and company of those who are truly powerful and ruthless. Nowhere is this more evident than in Trump’s policy in Eastern Europe.

On 13 May Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban had a 45-minute meeting with Donald Trump in the Oval Office. A meeting at the White House is no small matter. It is a much sought after honour which implicitly bestows on the visitor the presidential seal of approval. His audience was opposed by Trump’s national security advisers but pushed by Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. The security advisers made it clear that Orban should be blocked because he has politicised the Hungarian judiciary; taken control of the media; changed the electoral system to favour his party, adopted a strong pro-Russian stand; is rabidly anti-immigrant and euro-sceptic.

The State Department, National Security Council and others thought that Orban’s basic values and actions conflicted with American values  and could send the wrong message to America’s traditional allies and Congress. But Orban’s values did not conflict with Trump’s. He was keen to meet a strong personality who could get things done. As David Cornstein, Trump’s  Ambassador to Budapest said: “I can tell you, knowing the president for a good 25 or 30 years, that he would love to have the power that Viktor Orban enjoys…..”

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Observations of an ex pat: Syrian hypotheticals

Politicians hate being asked hypothetical questions. Or so they say. Journalists don’t. They love speculating, flying kites and pontificating about the consequences of the actions of their political masters. I am a journalist and Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria offers a near limitless range of hypothetical consequences. So I will indulge myself with a few of them.

American military promises:  Gone, kaput, up in smoke. It is now confirmed that carefully negotiated alliances bound with the blood of allies can be wiped out with a single Trumptonian tweet. Bringing the boys home is more important than world peace. Japan and South Korea should be worried. President Trump has already moaned about the cost of keeping 73,000 troops In those countries and turned a blind eye to North Korea’s development of short range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. As for the security guarantees for Taiwan and the support for Hong Kong Protesters, the Chinese are rubbing their hands with glee—and possibly cleaning their gun barrels.

The European members of NATO have been under attack from Trump since before he entered the White House. He wants them to shoulder more of the worldwide defence burden and he certainly wants to cut back on the 60,000 American troops deployed in Europe (including Turkey). He has repeatedly told advisers that the rich EU should send an army to the Middle East. At the same time he undermines the European Union by supporting Brexit and slapping tariffs on EU products. But most important of all, he fails to recognise that the EU does NOT have an army. You cannot send into battle an army that does not exist.

Syria, is, however, likely to act as a spur to greater European integration, including more European military cooperation. ~This will probably increase the influence of France as the largest military EU power; weaken the influence of the United States; strengthen the position of Russia in Europe; possibly result in more nuclear weapons held by France and Britain and, as Europe is forced to rely more on its own defences, lead to a European foreign polic y more independent of the United States.

ISIS revived: One of the major jobs of the Syrian Kurds was to guard 12,000 imprisoned ISIS fighters and another 70,000 of their dependents. The troops that were on prison duty have now been pulled away to fight the invading Turks. As a result the ISIS prisoners are escaping. They will join the estimated 20,000 ISIS fighters who are at liberty but in hiding. Together they will doubtless exploit the chaos and the vacuum created by Trump’s decision.

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Observations of an ex pat: Ashamed

I am ashamed to be an American. That has not always been the case. For most of my life I have been very proud of my heritage.  And hopefully, I will be again.  America is responsible for much good. Its historic stand for democracy and human rights has been inspiring. Its modern achievements in science and technology are staggering,  as are American contributions to world culture, support for the rule of law and the can-do Horatio Alger pioneer spirit.

That is not to say they are no black spots in its historical record: Slavery and the Jim Crow laws; a genocidal war against Native Americans; an iffy war in Cuba and the Philippines; the McCarthy witch hunts; the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq to name but a few. But overall, the American contribution over the past 243 years has been overwhelmingly positive—until now.

The United States has turned isolationist and unilateralist. It has imposed extra-territorial laws on the world while refusing to accept the legality of other nation’s laws. It undermines alliances and regional groups which have maintained the peace for nearly 85 years. Its president praises populist dictators and near-dictators while attacking democratic allies; rides roughshod over the rule of law and forcibly separates families. American foreign policy has been reduced to an interminable string of outrageous blustering threats while its domestic debate is little more than lies suffused with personal insults.

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Observations of an ex pat: While we are divided

Russian President Vladimir Putin may not have actively colluded with Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential campaigns. He may not have plotted with the Brexiteers in the referendum vote of the same year. But he has certainly benefited from the results—BIG TIME

Those results are an erratic president dividing America and angering European allies.  On the other side of the Atlantic it is a Britain hopelessly split over membership of the EU. The turmoil in both countries is proof that even the darkest clouds contain a silver lining for someone somewhere. In this case the main beneficiary is Russia.

Russia is Britain and America’s main foreign adversary. It is in the interests of President Putin that the Anglo-Saxon world’s two main pillars are distracted by domestic divisions so that he is free to conduct an increasingly authoritarian and repressive domestic agenda and pursue foreign adventures abroad.

The end of the Cold War saw an initial change in Moscow’s attitude towards the EU and NATO. But Vladimir Putin has reversed that. He clearly wants to re-establish Russian hegemony over Eastern Europe. The EU and NATO block that ambition. A second Cold War looms if it is not already upon us. But Washington and London are too distracted to notice or do anything about it

Many in the Trump Administration argue that China is the bigger threat. But little is being done about the growing influence of the Eastern giant other than slapping a blanket of tariffs on Chinese goods which only rebounds on the US and world economy. In the meantime China continues to establish its hold on the South China Sea; develop its Belt/Road Initiative; suppress human rights, block the internet and gun down demonstrators in Hong Kong.

The two wannabe super powers are not the only problems. North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and the capacity to deliver them, despite President Trump’s “great relationship” with hereditary communist dictator Kim Jong-un. The American president wasn’t bothered by short-range missile tests—and tweeted accordingly. They couldn’t reach the American mainland. But this week Kim launched a missile from a submarine. This means he now has the capability to move the launch pads for his nuclear weapons to within easy range of American cities. There has been no response from a White House under congressional siege.

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Observations of an ex pat: Globalism

Lost this week in the blizzard of a British constitutional crisis and an American impeachment inquiry was President Donald Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly.

Compared to past addresses to the United Nations this one was subdued. His language was relatively temperate, measured and verged on statesmanlike.  It was a good speech—and all the more chilling for it.

If Donald Trump has a political philosophy other than his own person advancement it is what he terms patriotism– and others  fear as nationalism–versus internationalism and globalism. This is clear from his red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, flurry of tariffs and immigration policy

Trump told the annual autumn meeting of heads of government and state in New York: “The future does not belong to globalism. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.”

In his 35 minute speech he went on to applaud Brexit, Boris Johnson, attack China’s trade policies and socialism;  call for the complete isolation of Iran and Venezuela,  increased spending by NATO allies,  the reorganisation of the World Trade Organisation and refused support for any international organisation that supported abortions.  He finished up all of the above with the insistence that all actions had to be made within the context of competing national political structures.

The reason for Trump’s Darwinian approach is clear: America’s is the world’s only economic and military super power. According to the latest IMF figures, the US produces nearly a quarter (24.4 percent) of the world’s GDP.  Its national  gold reserves  ( in excess of 8000 metric tonnes) are greater than the next three largest gold reserves combined.

Trump extols the virtues of the nation state because doing so works to the advantage of America. The only way that smaller countries can compete against American power  is by organising themselves into trading blocs or pursuing a level playing field policed by international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation.  Trump does not believe in win/win or that a rising tide floats all ships. He a win/lose businessman letting loose torpedoes across the trading seas.

The US president supports Brexit because it will weaken the trading position of both the UK and EU. EU is the world’s largest trading bloc and this gives its members increased negotiating power in any trade deals. This is disadvantageous to the US. The break-up of the EU reduces the negotiating power of its constituent parts and enables to American trade negotiators to dictate terms to each of the separate 28 members as well as the EU’s trading partners. America wins. Everyone else loses.

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Observations of an ex pat: Consequences

Sir Issac Newton was one smart cookie. And in my book his cleverest discovery-cum-pronouncement was Newton’s Third Law which is quite simply “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”

Sir Issac was writing from the viewpoint of a physicist. But the metaphysical philosophers were quick to apply the rules of the natural world to the philosophical and political realm, especially Newton’s contemporary John Locke who coined the phrase “unintended consequences.”

The ethics of consequentialism go back to 5th Century BC Chinese philosopher Mo Di. In the West, they were later picked up 100 years later by the Athenian Demosthenes. Basically both men argued that the consequences of one’s actions are the ultimate basis for political action and that the action should be based on the amount of good created by the consequence of that action.

Another way of putting it is that our political leaders have a responsibility to carefully examine every conceivable intended and unintended consequence of their thoughts, words and deeds before opening their mouths, despatching a tweet or issuing a military command.

Unfortunately there is scant evidence to indicate that most of today’s politicians are bothering to even consider the consequences of their actions beyond the publication of the next opinion poll, although sometimes their time horizon extends to the next election.

The two current best examples of consequential failure can be found in the Anglo-Saxon world on either side of the Atlantic. President Donald Trump is notorious for dashing off explosive tweets without giving a moment’s thoughts to the consequences. This week he has told the world that America is “locked and loaded” and that war against Iran is an option following the drone attack on Saudi oilfields. What are the possible consequences of such words—or ,if followed through—actions?

On the minus side a war with Iran would make the Afghanistan or Gulf War look like a walk in the park. There would be a probable retaliatory attack on Israel; total disruption of world oil supplies; possible Russian intervention on the side of Iran; a split with America’s allies in Europe and the possible break-up of NATO which would strengthen Russia’s position in Eastern Europe.

On the plus side, Trump will have shown that he is tough; that America’s Middle East allies can count on the US to come to their defence; an anti-American Jihadist-motivated Iran will, hopefully, be eliminated from the Middle East equation. The embarrassment of the 1979 US Embassy hostage crisis will finally be expunged. America, if it wins, will emerge as the supreme power in the Middle East able to dictate terms in the Arab-Israeli conflict and control the flow of oil.

It is now clear from David Cameron’s memoirs that he failed to think through the consequences of calling a referendum on continued British membership of the EU. He simply assumed that the vote would be remain. Assumptions are one of the most dangerous of political actions. Cameron failed to take into account the divisive nature of the debate and as a result his legacy and his country has been badly damaged.

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Observations of an expat: British constitutional crossroads

It has become a current cliché that the British constitution is at a crossroads verging on crisis. .

The catalyst is Brexit. But the blind do or die pursuit of this goal has moved the debate beyond membership of the EU to endanger the values that underpin the foundations of British political life.

The British constitutional rule book appears to be up for grabs from the rule of the law to the role of the monarch, the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and the integrity of ministers.

The unwritten British constitution is a combination of legal precedents established by an independent judiciary interlaced with parliamentary conventions that stretch back 804 years to the Magna Carta. Prior to 1215 the law was a haphazard matter. The king ruled by the principle of vis et voluntas or “force of will;” which basically meant that he did what he wanted when he wanted. In the case of King John this included rape and murder which explains why the barons revolted.

Magna Carta established that there was a law and that the monarch was subject to it. It also provided a fledgling parliament with the power of the purse to insure that the monarch obeyed the law. If he wanted money for wars or ermine he had to go a begging to parliament. And, if he misbehaved the purse strings could be tightened.

Of course, successive monarchs found clever ways around parliament—until Charles I. His free-spending ways coincided with the start of the Age of Enlightenment and a challenge by parliament to the principle of the divine right of kings. The result was the English civil wars and the removal of the king’s head when Charles tried to prorogue parliament. Ironically, Oliver Cromwell, the leader of the parliamentary army, also found it impossible to work with the legislature and ended up dismissing it.

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Observations of an ex pat: Bunkum history

History does NOT repeat itself. But that does not mean that there are no parallels between the past, the present and future or that we cannot learn from the lessons of the past.

At the moment Remain pundits are busy drawing comparisons between the dark days of 1930s with the current state of British and world politics. The populists and Brexiteers dismiss such suggestions as fear mongering and claim that the dark clouds on the horizon are actually the sunny uplands.

History is not an exact science. Political axioms cannot be tested in a sterile laboratory environment that allows historians to confidently pronounce that if “x” occurs “y” will result. There is a mathematical element to the study of the past, but it is based more on probabilities than scientific certainties. For instance, if you punch your neighbour in the nose, it is probable—but not certain—that they will punch you back.

The study of history – and its application to current events– involves an understanding not only of past events but a comprehensive knowledge of human nature and how it is likely to respond to similar events in the future.

In the 1930s there was no internet or social media. Air travel was still in its infancy. Oceans were crossed by ship .Television was in the prototype stage. Space was a totally unknown frontier and although the weapons of war were frightening, they were slings and arrows compared to today’s nuclear arsenals.

But there are still parallels likely to result in similar—but not exact—results.

The 1930s was the tail end of a long period of European imperial history and a strong belief in the nation state. It came just 20 years after a disastrous Great War involving 40 million casualties.  The peace that followed was judged by the loser as manifestly unjust. The world’s great economic power decided to withdraw from the world stage and crawl back into its outdated and traditional isolationism. At the same time its irresponsible economic policies created a Great Depression that spread across the globe.

Life became very complicated. Political and economic problems multiplied and had an impact on the daily lives of the butcher, baker and candlestick maker.  Faced with a confusingly complex world, populations turned towards populist leaders. Solutions are simple they were told. Kill the Jews. Hang the capitalists.  Then they tied their solutions to nationalism. Other groups should be killed, invaded and/or subjugated because the Aryans were a superior nation race.

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Observations of an ex pat: Intelligence insulted

I hate it when politicians insult my intelligence. When they speak and act in a manner which implies that the voting public are no more than gullible poll fodder it undermines their credibility and damages the democratic process.

Not that the current prime minister had much credibility to start with. Boris Johnson is infamous for his deceits, distortions, half-truths, vacillations and outright lies in pursuit of political ends which are clearly designed to serve only the interests of Boris Johnson.

His latest porky is the claim that proroguing parliament has nothing to do with the Brexit debate.  That is so obviously false. It is right up there with the NHS bus, floods of Turkish immigrants, dismissal of the Irish border as “not a problem”, having our cake and eating it too, and the assertion that the German car industry will be on its hands and knees grovelling for a deal.

The Johnson government claims that using the tactic of an early Queen’s Speech to prorogue parliament in the middle of the run-up to the No Deal deadline of 31 October is perfectly normal.  It will, says Johnson, have no impact on parliament’s ability to debate Brexit. “Nothing to do with Brexit,” says Michael Gove. “A bit boring actually,” claims Jacob Rees-Mogg.

More accurate was the comment from Father of the House Ken Clark: “I don’t know how they keep a straight face.”

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Observations of an Expat – the nuclear train

Remember decoupling? It was a common phrase during the Cold War (or should I say first Cold War?). The railway metaphor was used to describe Soviet efforts to exploit American isolationist tendencies to sever the defensive link between Europe and America, leaving Western Europe exposed to the Soviet nuclear arsenal.

The threat is back. It is back in Europe and has opened a new front in Asia. It is nuclear. It is political. It is economic and the current crop in Beijing, Moscow and Pyongyang are  much more adept at the task their predecessors.

The current debate centres on the latest generation of intermediate range (INF) nuclear-tipped missiles in Russia and North Korea. These missiles have a range of anywhere from 500 to 1500 miles which means that they are not a direct threat to the American mainland. They do, however, cast a huge nuclear shadow over America’s allies in Europe and Asia.

Why was the decoupling threat  treated so seriously by both sides of the Atlantic back in the 1970s and 1980s? Because it was believed to be important that if the Soviets attacked Western Europe with nuclear weapons the United States would respond with equivalent  force, and that the threat of such a response would deter the Soviets . But in order to insure an American response,  it needed to accept that its interests were inextricably linked to the defence of Europe. If American isolationists successfully argued that a Soviet attack could be confined to Europe, than might also argue that the US should refrain a strategic counter attack in order to avoid a doomsday scenario on US soil.

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Observations of an ex pat: China, Hong Kong and Confucius

We are all the prisoners of history. Our present and much of our future is determined by the sum of our past experiences, both individually and collectively.

Europe, for instance, is now a secular continent. But its laws, politics, philosophies and society have Judaeo-Christian foundations. On the other side of the Eurasian landmass, the structures of Communist China owe more to the 2,500-year-old teachings of Confucius than to Marx and Lenin. And, if you are searching for pointers on Hong Kong it is best to do so within the context of China’s long-standing religion-cum-philosophy.

In fact, Confucianism was China’s official state religion until the monarchy was overthrown in 1911.  It was ditched by Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek as part of a drive to westernisation. Confucianism was deemed to be too old and too Chinese to comply with the demands of modern western-dominated society which the Kuomintang believed China had to become to compete and survive.

Mao Zedong was even more anti-Confucius. Attacks on the old Chinese philosopher were one of the pillars of the Cultural Revolution. Confucianism argues that authority is derived from a powerful imperial individual. This was anathema to Mao who saw his power as coming from the mass of revolutionary Red Guards.

Since the death of Mao, successive Chinese governments have gradually moved towards Confucianism. Xi jinping is probably its strongest proponent in a hundred years. That is not to say he worships Confucius. Xi is a communist and communists are atheists (at least officially).  But he regularly quotes the philosopher, has set up hundreds of overseas centres which teach Confucianism; uses Confucianism as an alternative to Western values  and argues that Chinese history and culture is compatible with his appointment as president for life and  the all-embracing power of the Chinese Communist Party.

Western society is based on the rights of the individual.  Confucius said that Chinese society should be based on the duties of the individual. To protect individual rights, Western societies gradually moved towards systems of representative government. To insure that duties were fulfilled, China has always had a totalitarian system.  The masses, wrote Confucius, lacked the intellect to make decisions for themselves.  Everyone is not created equal and therefore only a few have the right to participate in government.

In pre-1911 China, the followers of Confucius were discouraged from asking questions or expressing opinions and the role of the merit-based civil service appointerde by the imperial court  was emphasised. Under Xi, freedom of speech is denied; opinions are kept to yourself and carefully trained party apparatchiks administer  government at all levels.

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Observations of an ex pat: Kashmiri powder keg

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi should consider the age-old truism “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Actually, to say that Kashmir isn’t broke would be putting an optimistic gloss on the Asian sub continent’s number one flashpoint. Since independence and partition in 1947, the mountainous region has been the cause of three wars and numerous border clashes which have threatened to escalate into full-blown conflicts.

Kashmir is a simmering political cauldron whose lid has largely been kept in place by two clauses in the Indian constitution which give the Muslim-dominated, but Indian-controlled region autonomy in all matters except foreign affairs, defence and communications.  Kashmir has its own flag and has passed laws favouring the property rights of the Muslim majority. Modi has revoked the constitutional clauses—articles 370 and 35A—and dropped big hints that he wants to develop Indian-administered Kashmir with imported Hindu settlers.

The result has been riots, demonstrations and the recall of the Pakistani ambassador to India. But that could only be the start. Both states are armed with about 150 nuclear weapons each and blinkered by a dangerous religious zeal. The conflict also has the potential to drag in China and possibly the US. China’s interest is its claim to a desolate and sparely-populated section of Kashmir.  The Chinese have also $46 billion investment in Pakistan to protect.

America’s position is more ambivalent. It needs Pakistani support the fight in Afghanistan, but is angry at what President Trump has called Pakistan’s  “lies and deceit” in combating the Taliban. At the same time, Trump and Modi enjoy close personal relations through a shared right-wing populist approach to political issues.

The problems started with partition. Kashmir has three religious populations: Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist. The overwhelming majority of the inhabitants are Muslim. But at the time of partition it was ruled by a Hindu Rajah. As the sub-continent edged inexorably towards partition, Irregular troops from Pakistan moved into Kashmir to claim the entire country. The Hindu Rajah, Hari Singh, appealed for help to the Congress Party in India who dispatched troops to the region.

The result was a stand-off; A UN-mediated ceasefire and the division of Kashmir which left Pakistan in control of the under-developed provinces of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Kashmir which are 100 percent Muslim and India in control of the more prosperous Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir  provinces which are 66 percent Muslim with the balance made of up Hindus and Buddhists.

The UN ceasefire agreement included a clause for a referendum over the decision of who governs the whole of Kashmir. The Indians failed tocomply with this part of the agreement as their part of Kashmir was 66 percenty Muslm.  Instead they came up with the compromise of autonomy in the form of constitutional clauses 370 and 35A. The Muslims in Indian-administered  Kashmir were generally satisfied  with this. They were not as zealous as their co-religionists in Pakistan and were happy to remain part of India as long as they were allowed control of domestic affairs.

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Observations of an ex pat: Sorry

To the Young People of Briton,

I am so sorry.  I really cannot apologise enough for landing you with a far-right, anti-EU government led by a delusional buffoon who appears to have abandoned reality in favour of policies which have more in common with blind religious faith than practical politics.

You may kindly respond: “It’s ok. You did what you could. It’s not your fault.” Thank you. That is very kind. But my generation (the baby boomers) collectively failed to do enough. If we had we would not be in the mess we are in today.  Furthermore, we would not be landing you – our children, grandchildren and future generations—with decades of debt coupled with a security and political mess.

Let’s just look at a few mathematical facts which our new prime minister whose single mindedness to ignore is matched only by his determination to exit the EU on 31 October regardless of the cost to the nation. Theresa May’s Brexit deal was bad enough. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research estimated that it would cost £100 billion a year, or £2,000 per British resident.

Still, her deal was nothing compared to Boris’s threatened No Deal. The respected UK Trade Policy Observatory has warned that the government is likely to have to cough up an extra £100 billion just to compensate businesses affected  by No Deal Brexit. This is before any account is taken of an anticipated fall in the value of the pound, increased holiday costs, damage to drug supplies and the NHS, drop in foreign trade investment, transport snarl-ups, increased tariffs, the end of EU regional grants and research money, inflation, security cooperation  cost of trade negotiations and the vital need for political and economic stability amongst our continental neighbours.

The Office of Budget Responsibility has already warned that the British economy is slowing down as foreign investors reluctantly accept that No Deal is now the most likely scenario. In fact, the OBR are predicting that if No Deal goes ahead the economy will shrink by two percent a year for the foreseeable future.

So what is our new prime minister’s response? Well, to start with he dismisses these expert reports as essentially fake news. Then he announces that instead of trying to adjust government spending to accommodate his political ambitions, he will increase it.

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Observations of an ex pat: The special relationship

One of my barometers for the health of the Special Relationship is a weekly broadcast I do for American talk stations. The host is Trumptonian Lockwood Phillips who also happens to be an old schoolmate. I am referred to as the Looney London Liberal by the vast majority of my 500,000 listeners who are staunch Trump supporters. They are just the sort of people I want to reach.

The purpose of the hour-long show is to provide a European assessment of American politics and to analyse events in Europe that should be of interest to American audiences. Normally the discussion between Lockwood and myself is reasonably civilised, although it occasionally slips into the gutter. Not so this week. It went straight to the gutter and stayed there. We were both shouting: “you’re wrong” or “you don’t know what you are talking about”several times, possibly more by me than Lockwood.

The cause of this plunge in civility was Ambassador Kim Darroch’s leaked confidential emails in which he described the Trump Administration as “inept” and “dysfunctional”. Actually the real cause of my anger was President Trump’s reaction in branding Ambassador Darroch as “pompous” and “widely disliked” and said that the White House would refuse to work with him during the six months before the ambassador’s retirement.

I know Kim Darroch. He is not pompous and he is widely liked and respected. So chalk that part of the tweet up as another presidential lie. But more importantly, why can’t the president keep his mouth shut? Why does he feel obligated to respond to every criticism? What drives him to escalate every political conflict into a personal attack?  Why can’t he perform the statesman’s role of taking it on the chin and uttering the words: “No comment?” Or at least avoid personal insults.

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Observations of an ex pat: Netanyahu – opportunity or setback?

Netanyahu has won a fifth term as prime minister of Israel.  On the face of it this is terrible news. Benjamin Netanyahu (“King Bibi” to his supporters) is a right-wing, ultra-nationalist, militarist populist who is the biggest single obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Or is he? And if he is, is that good or bad?

Modern history has shown that the most obstinate political leaders are sometimes the best ones to achieve the required breakthrough compromise.  Richard Nixon’s history as a hardline anti-communist meant that he was the only one who could open the door to Mao’s China. A similar move by a Democrat liberal would have been attacked as a “sell-out”

 It required compromise by hardliners Anwar Sadat and Menahem Begin to end decades of war between Egypt and Israel.  In Northern Ireland tough men Ian Paisley and IRA leader Martin McGuinness were the only two who could have struck a workable compromise.

While Netanyahu has been beavering away at the hustings, Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, and his former lawyer Jason Greenblatt have spent two years hammering out a Middle East peace proposal. The plan is wrapped in the tightest of secrecy cloaks. The only ones who know the details are Kushner, Greenblatt, US Ambassador to Israeli David Friedman and Kushner and Grenblatt’s aide Avi Berkowitz.  President Trump is regularly briefed on the broad brush, but his twittering fingers are kept away from the details.

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Observations of an ex pat: Three cheers for Slovakia

Three cheers for the voters of Slovakia. And a 21-gun salute for Zuzana Caputova, the new Slovak president and heroine of Western liberalism (or is it hero in this new gender-free pc world).

Liberals—and everyone else—should cheer because Caputova—in stark contrast to just about every political campaign fought by anyone anywhere in the world—completely eschewed the populist rhetoric, character assassinations, name-calling, intimidatory chants, lies, xenophobia, racism, intolerance  and personal attacks that are debasing democratic political systems everywhere.  Instead of appealing to phobias and exclusivity, Caputova ran a campaign urging tolerance and inclusiveness.

Slovakia has been good example of the depths to which democracy is capable of sinking.  The ruling Smer Party has strong links to the country’s wartime fascist past. Co-founder Jan Slota has stated that the country’s minority Roma problem could be solved with a “long whip in a short room.”

Robert Fico former Prime Minister— and still the power behind the throne— has said: “Slovakia will not accept one single Muslim”. Fico was forced to resign a year ago after the murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak who was on the verge of publishing a story about  links between Fico’s staff and the mafia.  Fico’s one redeeming quality is his dislike of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban whom he has branded as a dangerous ultra-nationalist; although this attack should be seen in the context of a general Slovakian prejudice against Hungarians.

45-year-old Caputova emerged from this political morass in 2013 when she led a campaign against a toxic landfill outside her hometown. In 2017 and 2018 she helped to organise anti-government protests following the murder of Kuciak.  Despite her activities, Caputova was a surprise entry in the presidential race and started the campaign at the bottom of the opinion polls.

Her election slogan was “stand up to evil” and her quiet, carefully reasoned arguments that stuck to the facts and avoided personalities, struck a chord with the Slovak electorate. It was also a welcome and refreshing change from the typical populist rhetoric of her Smer opponent Maros Sefcovic.

In her acceptance speech, Caputova said that her victory showed the” importance of humanism, solidarity and truth”. She added : “I am happy not just for the result, but mainly because I have proven that it is possible not to succumb to populism, to tell the truth, to raise interest without aggressive vocabulary.”

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Observations of an ex pat: The Northern Irish Tail Wagging the British Lion

The British government, the Brexit process and parliament are being held to ransom by ten MPs who represent a narrow sectarian community who since the 17th century have used every dirty trick imaginable to cling to their precarious political perch in Northern Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) could care less about the rest of Britain. In fact, they don’t even consider the majority of the Northern Ireland electorate, who voted to remain in the EU.

Every political decision that they make is judged through the prism of the Protestant Ascendancy and political separation from Catholic Southern Ireland.  That is best achieved through the tightest possible links with mainland Britain on the other side of the Irish Sea.  The EU—and specifically Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement—threatens those links.

The tale is an old one. The English have been in and out of Ireland since Norman times, but in the 17th century the battle for dominance in Ireland was injected with an incurable religious virus.  England broke with Rome and Ireland remained steadfastly loyal to the Vatican. Protestant England now had a God-given right to conquer Ireland and the Catholic Irish didn’t help by supporting anyone who opposed the Protestant cause in England and Scotland. After a series of successive military victories, the English concluded that the best way to maintain political power in their troublesome Catholic neighbour was to kick Catholics off their land and give it to Protestant settlers.

Fast forward to the twentieth century. The Catholic Irish have persuaded London to let them break from Great Britain and establish the Irish Free State—except for the Protestant-dominated Ulster Plantation. The Protestant majority in the six counties arm themselves and threaten a civil war if they are broken away from the United Kingdom .  Westminster responds by splitting the country—two thirds becomes the Irish Free State and the northern third remains in the United Kingdom.

Posted in Op-eds | 13 Comments

Observations of an ex pat: Frightened of fear

The Beatles sang: “All you need is love”, and young girls delicately placed flowers in the barrels of the guns of National Guardsmen. For a brief period in the 1960’s and 1970s we thought that love would emerge as the world’s overpowering human emotion.  That the words of Franklin Roosevelt—“all we have to fear is fear itself”– would pass into historical redundancy. And that Senator McCarthy’s commies under the bed witch hunt was an uncharacteristic historical blip.

Sorry, it was not to be. Fear is once again the overriding political emotion which is driving the thinking of the electorate and being ruthlessly exploited by the politicians.  In Britain, fear of immigrants, sovereignty and a loss of national identity drove people to vote for Brexit. Conversely, it is a fear of financial loss and political influence which is driving the Remain camp to continue opposing Brexit.  The country is hopelessly divided because both sides are terrified of the consequences of losing the argument.

In the United States Trump supporters are frightened of “invading” Mexicans who will take their jobs, destroy their identity, rape their women, force them to smoke, swallow and inject drugs and murder them in their beds.  The “invaders” from Mexico and Central America are frightened because they are being murdered in their beds, and on the streets, by gangs fighting each other for control of the lucrative drug trade into America.

Trump supporters are also scared of the Chinese, globalism, socialism, liberalism and the growing power of their own government. Opponents of Donald Trump are frightened of Trump. Almost everyone except Trump is frightened of climate change.

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Observations of an ex pat: A sad tale

Once upon a time there was a venerated institution in the not so distant land of Great Britain called parliament. In fact, it was called “The Mother of Parliaments” as countries around the world emulated its structures and system of representative democratic government.

Parliament became the legal and political platform on which the largest empire in the history of the world was built. Its members were respected and their opinions were sought in world councils.

But times change. The empire sank below the waves.  If Britain was going to continue to prosper and retain political power than it needed to increase its voice by joining it with others—the European Union.

This made sense to many Brits, but not all.  Some thought in terms of pragmatic economies of scale. Others felt with hearts which yearned for an imperial past and bridled at the thought of being told the size of their beer mugs by Brussels Eurocrats.

In a 1975 referendum “the metropolitan elite” (as they were later called) won the argument and Britain joined the Common Market.  Thus began one of the most prosperous and stable phases of British history. Then Europe began to change. Other members wanted political as well as economic union and the Common Market morphed into the European Union with the reluctant agreement of successive British governments.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 44 Comments

Observations of an ex pat: The heartland

The Heartland Theory and its corollary discipline of geopolitics was all the rage in the twentieth century.

It emerged from the morass of nationalism to dominate diplomatic thinking right through the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union it sunk slowly over the political horizon as nationalism was gradually replaced by globalism governed by an internationally agreed set of laws enforced by a largely – but not completely– altruistic United States.

A Victorian geographer called Halford Mackinder was responsible for the Heartland Theory. He unveiled it in 1904 at a packed meeting of the Royal Geographical Society. He argued that advances in railways in other land transport meant that British-dominated sea power would be replaced by land power.  And that whomever controlled the territory from Eastern Europe to China would control the “heartland” of Eurasia. Furthermore that whomever controlled the heartland controlled what Mackinder called “the world island”which encompassed all of Europe, Asia and Africa; and whomever controlled the world island controlled the world.

In the 1920s’s Mackinder’s ideas were picked up by the German geopolitical academic Karl Haushofer who became an adviser to Adolf Hitler. Hitler and Haushofer fell out over Hitler’s racial policies, but the heartland theory became the blueprint for German expansion. During the Cold War the Americans adopted it to justify the policy of containing the Soviet Union which it thought was pursuing the Heartland dream in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and China.

The collapse of the Soviet Union rendered the Heartland Theory redundant—for a time. It has been revived again by developments in the two Eurasian giants China and Russia.   China’s Belt/Road initiative could have been taken straight out of Mackinder’s book. Its railway links from Shanghai to London and its heavy investment in Africa can easily be viewed as a pre-emptive bid to gain control of the “world island” of Europe, Asia and Africa.

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Observations of an ex pat: Tunnel lights

ou can just make it out. It is still dim and indistinct in the swirling political mists. But there appears to be a light at the end of the long Brexit tunnel.

Hopefully, it is not the oncoming No-deal train, but rather a Remain engine pulling a long line of carriages waiting to be boarded.

If it is the latter than a great deal more work still needs to be done before a People’s Vote is agreed. Then more work to secure a Remain result  and then, finally, an ongoing effort—to win  continued support in Britain—and other countries—for the European Union.

So first of all, how to reach the initial goal of the People’s Vote and what to put on the ballot paper. Rule number one: Don’t trust Corbyn. He is still fighting the class wars of the seventies and is hoping for a chaotic political vacuum which he can fill with his Marxist-Leninist platform.  Brexit train crash spells opportunity for the Labour leader.

The ballot paper should duplicate the binary choice of the 2016 referendum. Voters should be given a choice to revoke Article 50 and remain in the European Union or to accept whatever deal the government has negotiated at the time of the People’s Vote. A third option with an alternative vote system would take too long to negotiate and confuse the voters.

The campaign will be tough—for both camps. Over the past two and a half years positions have become increasingly entrenched. The pool of floating voters that canvassers normally target has shrunk as voters have fallen off the fence into one camp or the other.  A person’s stand on Brexit has become an identity badge and to swap it for another involves huge loss of face.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 28 Comments

Observations of an ex pat: Afghanistan on the brink?

Afghanistan is in serious danger of a major outbreak of peace. Or is it?

Certainly the signs are that the US is about to announce an historic deal with their foes the Taliban. The basic bones are that the US and NATO-led forces will withdraw. In return the Taliban will promise to never again allow Afghanistan to become a terrorist base.

Withdrawal from the 17-year-long  $1 trillion Afghan war has been one of the key goals of President Trump. It was also a political target of President Obama. The problem is how to exit without leaving behind a vacuum of the kind that led to the rise in the 1990s of the Taliban and their Al Qaeeda guests.

The question has been exercising the minds of a succession of American diplomats since on-off negotiations started with the Taliban in 2011. During the Obama Administration these contacts controversially resulted in the release of five Taliban terrorists from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sergeant Robert Bergdahl.

The talks were held in the Qatari capital Doha where the Taliban set up a semi-official embassy paid for by the Qatari government. After the prisoner exchange the talks slipped into limbo with only the occasional diplomatic chat as the Taliban refused to deal with the Afghan government whom they called “American puppets. ” Neither would they talk seriously with the US without a date for the withdrawal of troops.

Then in November it was announced that American and Taliban negotiators were once again having serious discussions in Doha. The man heading up the American team appears tailor-made for the job. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad was born and raised in Afghanistan and educated in America. His posts have included ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged and | 1 Comment

Observations of an ex pat: The Elite

In the Middle Ages the Catholic Church called them heretics. They were excommunicated or burned at the stake.

Hitler branded them Jews or Jew lovers and sent them to labour camps or to the gas chambers. During the Cold War era they were derided  as the intelligentsia. In the Soviet Union they were pulled out of their positions as teachers, journalists  and scientists and despatched to Siberian Gulags. In China they were given a little Red Book and sent to “re-education camps”. In Cambodia they were murdered.

Why? Because these people sought answers by asking questions.  They challenged the accepted wisdom peddled by ideologues and entrenched interests.  They fought against false facts and simplistic prejudice-based solutions which used the time-honoured scapegoat method as a solution to social problems.

Nowadays such people are dismissed as “the elite”. They tend to live in cities because urban areas are the perfect incubators for the exchange of ideas and information. So, they are called the “urban elite” or “metropolitan elite”. Their opinions are dismissed even though they have devoted years of their life to study and travel and learned the value of working with different nations, races and cultures. They base their decisions on facts backed up by science, logic and mathematical proofs.

The problem is that this intellectual –“elitist”—approach to life’s problems is increasingly banging up against the brick wall of the “gut instinct” coupled with a deep-seated faith, strong prejudice and a growing fear of identity loss.  The result is a tendency of a growing number of people to dismiss the opinions of the expert elite because they clash with their “feelings”. As leading Brexiteer and Britain’s current Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, said during the Brexit campaign: “Experts? The public are sick of experts.”

Posted in Op-eds | Tagged | 27 Comments
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