Monday, July 4, 2016

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

Melancholy times.
I have never, ever believed that in making political choices we are choosing between the good and the bad; between the sunny upland future promised in political propaganda and the very Hell that is presented as its alternative.
 When we cast our votes in a general election, we are always choosing between the competent and the less competent, between the mediocre and the sub-mediocre, between the bad and the worse. In voting, I hope my preferred candidates will implement at least some of the policies they have promised, but I am more concerned with warding off the bad rather than trying to bring on the desirable. I am not acting under the illusion that my preferred party will achieve the Millennium. Six months back, in a posting on Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, I quoted four lines from C. Day Lewis’s “Where Are The War Poets?”, expressing a British view of the Second World War: “It is the logic of our times,/ no subject for immortal verse - / that we who lived by honest dreams / defend the bad against the worse.
That is how I, and I hope other thinking voters, approach any election.
But there are times when the choice is so extreme and bizarre that it requires special comment.
As I write this editorial, it seems clear that Hillary Clinton will be the official Democrat candidate in America’s forthcoming presidential elections, and Donald Trump will be the official Republican candidate. I am fully aware that extremists (e.g. Barry Goldwater) have previously run for the office of American president; and that complete incompetents (e.g. Warren Harding) have previously held it. But I am finding it hard to think of any two opposing candidates, in recent times, more risible than these two and less fit for such high office.
Hillary Clinton was, as Secretary of State, as hawkish as any Republicans who preceded her. She has an unenviable track record of being economic with the truth (like her silly – and easily disproven – claim to have landed in Bosnia under sniper fire in the 1990s). She is very clearly Wall Street’s Baby, with uncomfortably close links to billionaire lobbyists. Slogans notwithstanding, she is as determined to continue on the destructive neo-liberal course as all presidents (Democrat and Republican) in the last three decades. Some of her stated ideas on social engineering border on the fanatical. And I haven’t even entered into the muddy personal business of her destroying other women to protect her husband’s wayward penis.
Of course there are those who argue that her being the First Woman President would have great symbolic value, like Barack Obama’s being the First Black President. As a principle, I’m in no way opposed to a woman holding America’s supreme executive power, if only because the experience of having a woman as president will smartly educate people in the fact that a woman at the top will not usher in an era of humane, caring-sharing-holistic values, but will essentially be business as usual. (America is way behind other countries in mooting a woman as boss – but while you ponder that fact, please ask yourself how much the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, Helen Clark or Angela Merkel have made the world a better place…)
I am heartened to find a number of feminist ideologues saying in effect: “It would be good to have a woman as president. But what a pity that it has to be this woman.”  
In any other year, Hillary Clinton would be a candidate to oppose.
Unfortunately, standing against her is a man who almost makes her look good.
The “policies” of Donald Trump (if they can be honoured with that word) are so extreme, demagogic, crude and aggressive that I still reel at the thought that he has become the official candidate of a major political party. Before you click in with your stereotypes (mainly fostered by late-night American satire shows) on what the Republican Party is, please remember that there was a time when it appealed to the mainstream, supported the welfare state and proposed mature candidates capable of nuanced thought. It has apparently lost all of these things and degenerated into what Noam Chomsky has called an “insurgency”. Donald Trump is a walking parody of all America’s worst impulses – blind worship of excessive wealth, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, a populism which plays politics like a game show and a sense that an aggressive foreign policy will ensure American primacy. He is the 21st century equivalent of the 19th century “Know Nothing” Party.
I think hard about this unpalatable choice being put to a functioning democracy, and I come up with an obvious comparison.
The last democratic presidential election to be held in Weimar Germany was in 1932. The incumbent candidate was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, was born in 1847 so was nearly 85 in 1932. He had already been president for seven years. He was an arch-conservative, in bad health, reactionary, militarist, well past it and verging on senility. In any other year he would have been a dead duck as presidential candidate.
The problem was, the opposing candidate was Adolf Hitler.
Most centrist and centre-left Germans didn’t want Hindenburg and they didn’t want the Communists’ candidate Ernst Thalmann either. But to keep Hitler out, they had no choice but to vote for the reactionary, near-senile Hindenburg. The result (in the run-off election of 10 April 1932) was that Hindenburg won with 53% of the vote, Hitler was kept out of office as he had won only 36.8% of the vote, and Thalmann trailed with a mere 10.2%. [To give you the figures in terms of number of votes: Hindenburg 19,359,983; Hitler 13,418,547; Thalmann 3,706,759]. In later years, some Germans could console themselves with the thought that Hitler had never been voted into office. Unfortunately, this particular story had a bad ending. The following year, unwise conservative politicians weaselled Hitler into a coalition government; senile old Hindenburg died; Hitler abolished the office of president and made himself sole Fuhrer, and the nightmare happened anyway.
Even so, the election of 1932 showed centrist and centre-left voters (as well as many real conservatives, of course) choosing the very bad to ward off the even worse.
This is the choice that the United States now faces. Clinton and Trump make for a Hindenburg-Hitler election. I recall that in the 1990s, left-wing French voters chose to vote for the conservative Jacques Chirac in order to head off the xenophobic extremism of the Le Pen movement, which then had some political traction. But they registered their distaste by holding their noses while casting their votes.
So here’s my advice to American voters – hold your nose, try not to vomit, and vote for Clinton.

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All readers of this blog are most welcome to attend the launch of Nicholas Reid’s second collection of poetry, Mirror World.

It is being launched at the Gus Fisher Gallery – top of Shortland Street, Auckland – on the evening of Thursday 14 July.

Be there for drink and nibbles at 6pm with the formal part of the launch at 6:30.

Dr Iain Sharp will act as MC and a good time will be had by all.

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