The Battle For British Conservatism: Book Progress Update

Atlantis Books shop Oia Santorini Greece

A tedious race against time

As I mentioned last month, I am in the slow, tortuous process of writing a book on the challenges and future of British conservatism, based partly on my writings on this blog and augmented where appropriate with new material.

It turns out that writing a book is quite hard. Who knew? And yet a whole host of verifiable idiots seem to effortlessly churn the things out one after another; but then I suppose many of them have collaborators, researchers or ghostwriters. By contrast, my humble little book (much like this blog) remains very much a side-hustle, and one which necessarily takes third place to work and another significant ongoing project (details TBC) for the time being.

Right now I have a 30-page outline in Google Documents which is being sporadically worked on as I slowly transform terse bullet points, links to my past articles and stream-of-consciousness paragraphs into the final text. I hope to self-publish on Amazon and iBooks (or whatever else those young whippersnappers use, with their loud music and Pac-Man video games) by early in the new year, closer to Christmas if things progress smoothly. Maybe I’ll tweet it out in a 5000-tweet thread or broadcast it on SnapChat, who knows?

I can’t help but notice, as I set to work, that much of the UK political media has finally woken up to the fact that there might be something ideologically dysfunctional within the Tory Party, hence the sudden proliferation of “OMG the Tories have lost their way!” articles in all the prestige media and main political websites. Well done guys, it only took four years for you to catch up (ten years if we count Peter Hitchens as the pace-setter, which we probably should).

Joking aside, this is somewhat frustrating as I know full well that ideas first expounded on this blog (which I know is sometimes read by mainstream UK political journalists even if they almost never deign to link to me or re-tweet my stuff) will soon be appearing in rival books which have the backing of actual publishers and real distribution networks. And in a few short months, a bunch of self-satisfied hacks who only a few months ago could still be found praising the dismal, centrist Tory party to the rafters will be smugly sitting in television studios pontificating on how they were the first to recognise that something was wrong in Toryland. “Where did the Tories go wrong?” will likely be early 2018’s version of “So, Brexit happened” in terms of topical political book sub-genres ravenously pounced upon by the Westminster elite.

Therefore I find myself in a bit of a race to market against these guys, not because I will be remotely competing with them for critical acclaim or market share (I’ll celebrate if I end up selling fifty of the darn things and anybody outside my social circle pays the blindest bit of attention) but purely because I want the personal and intellectual satisfaction of getting my long-held ideas and warnings in print before the prestige media elite saunter along to claim insights first published on this blog as personal, original revelations of their own. Obviously there is a quality/speed trade-off at work, and I don’t want to release any old rubbish prematurely. But I also really, really don’t want to see Fraser Nelson’s Comprehensive Explanation Of The Conservative Dilemma staring down at me from a shelf in Waterstone’s before I have gone on the record myself. That would be significantly sub-optimal.

So I continue to work away on this project in the background. You may have noticed a new series on the blog called “The Battle For British Conservatism” (first article here), some of which will undoubtedly feed into the book (and which will hopefully feature some more interesting guest contributions), but other blog updates may be slightly more sparse for awhile as my energies are diverted.

In the meantime, it would be tremendously helpful to me if readers not already signed up for email updates could do so by signing up right underneath the Facebook sidebar on the right (if you’re reading on a smartphone or tablet then it may be waaaay at the bottom of the page). I will be using the blog’s hitherto-untapped mailing list to keep everyone updated on the book and offer a discount for readers – not that it will cost more than a London pint anyway.

In the meantime, if anyone sees Owen Bennett, Isabel Hardman or Tim Stanley hunched over a MacBook in Starbucks writing something vaguely similar, please give me a heads-up so I can stock up on Red Bull and pull the required all-nighters to beat them to the finish line.

Cheers!

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Harvey Weinstein Hypocrisy And The Westminster Cesspit

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

British journalists have reported and commented extensively on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, yet seem curiously unwilling to lift the lid on the seediness and sexual harassment which routinely takes place within their own industry

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (were you as stunned as I was?!) we have seen a range of responses from genuinely shocking and awful first-hand accounts of serious harassment and abuse to the now-obligatory collective guilt lectures delivered condescendingly to All Men.

But I am particularly interested in the response of journalists and commentators in Britain who took the time to report on a sexual harassment scandal unfolding in Hollywood while remaining curiously silent about a similar culture at work in their own industry.

I make no pretence of being a Westminster insider, but in my life on the far, far outer periphery I have attended a number of political functions, meetings, party conferences, boozy book launches and parties where very high profile journalists and moderately high profile politicians were present, and I have seen behaviour with my own eyes which would shame some of those who lent their voices to the chorus of condemnation of Harvey Weinstein and other serial alleged harassers. I have also heard disturbing personal accounts of inappropriate and unwanted advances by married men in the media, though having been relayed to me in confidence, these are not my stories to tell.

The seediness of Westminster politics is reasonably well known, but while political journalists are generally now willing to report on politicians when they come a cropper, most are understandably much less eager to lift the lid on their own sub-clique. Yet ultimately, journalism is no different from many other professions where people work, travel, eat, rest and play with the same group of colleagues in a high-pressure environment. Throw in the fact that politics and political journalism falls squarely into the “showbusiness for ugly people” category and is dominated by big beasts who grew up in a very different Fleet Street era and young people desperate to get a break, and a pulsating atmosphere of illicit romances, scandals and unwanted advances is all but guaranteed.

I have been to events where wine-sodden journalists said eyebrow-raisingly inappropriate things which made others feel uncomfortable, or in some cases made fumbling physical advances which had to be repeatedly warded off by the unfortunate recipient. Most of these incidents amounted to little more than general slovenliness and lechery, the kind of thing which reflect badly on a person but should not necessarily end a career or put somebody in court. But other times the behaviour I witnessed and heard about fell distinctly into the dodgy end of the grey zone.

And yet so far the only people from the political media world to have faced any kind of scrutiny in Britain are the writers Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss – both of whose cases were summarily tried in the fiery crucible of the Twitter and Facebook Star Chamber with no due process. As happened for so long in Hollywood pre-Weinstein, a couple of relatively minor fish in British political journalism are being made scapegoats so that the Big Fish can swim on unsated, undaunted and unchecked.

Much is being written about the bravery (or lack thereof) exhibited by certain individuals in Hollywood in their dealings with Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men accused of sexual harassment. And many of us probably feel rightful admiration for the brave few who first came forward at considerable personal risk, and shake our heads at the powerful A-listers who didn’t once think to risk anything to warn or protect others.

But I am curious about the household name journalists who behave nearly as badly at SW1 events or party conference hotel ballrooms yet go unreported and unpunished year after year. And I am particularly interested in their media peers, who know exactly what is going on and whether or not it fits a pattern of behaviour, and find all the time in the world to excoriate Harvey Weinstein while saying nothing about the atrocious behaviour that occurs right under their noses.

Tom Bradby, former ITV News political editor and current anchor of News at Ten wrote quite a stirring call-to-arms about an unpleasant “lads culture” at his old rugby club and various stag parties he later attended. Yet after all his years at the top of British political journalism he couldn’t think of any relevant anecdotes about his own peers and colleagues of sufficient concern to make it into the article? Perhaps not; Bradby may very well have purposefully avoided many of the booze-fuelled, bacchanalian evening events which make up the Westminster social calendar, and saw nothing. But I suspect that many others of equal seniority and profile to Bradby know exactly what goes on but give their own industry a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

As anyone who works in politics and answers truthfully will attest, Westminster can be a very seedy place. I understand that the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 saw some dispossessed Labour centrists indulge in behaviour which would have been considered scandalous at King Belshazzar’s feast. It seems likely that Theresa May’s bungled campaign and the trauma of election night this summer saw some similar desperation-fuelled behavioural lapses on the Right.

The two mini scandals du jour – Labour’s Clive Lewis getting a bit verbally carried away at a Momentum event in Brighton or Jared O’Mara having posted unsavoury comments on the internet fifteen years ago as a young man  – barely scratch the surface of what goes on. Indeed, these cases are almost decoys, relatively minor transgressions being seized upon so that the accused can be made scapegoats for the graver sins of a much larger group. One almost wonders whether the enthusiasm with which the UK political blogosphere, print and television media picked up these stories was a way of over-compensating for the profound silence about what takes place within their own camp.

But this seediness and sexual harassment within British politics and journalism will not be eradicated by offering up some scrawny, barely-known writer from Vice or a slightly bigger deal from GQ Magazine as a sacrifice to the Twitter gods. It will take a big fish to land a big fish – a heavyweight figure from a major publication or broadcaster must put their credibility on the line. The world of politics and journalism, like Hollywood, is a very hard industry to crack and those struggling to gain admittance from the outside risk everything by speaking out, even as they are the ones predominantly being preyed upon by grotesque, self-satisfied insiders.

One day – perhaps quite soon, given the rapidity with which Harvey Weinstein fell from grace – one of the big beasts of UK political journalism will be revealed for what they are. Somebody who everybody in the Westminster political/media world has been paying obsequious homage to for years will receive first one allegation of improper conduct, then another, and then a steady drip-drip of accusations until the sudden resignation, admission of “errors of judgment” and flight to celebrity rehab inevitably follow.

And when that happens, we will all be sitting here wondering how it was that so many people whose sole job it is to unearth and report stories of public interest – so many respected, well remunerated household names – somehow neglected to mention what was going on in their own back yard.

And what little scrap of credibility the Westminster media retains will be gone for good.

 

Harvey Weinstein - Meryl Streep

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The Best One Percent

In his brief remarks to the media, General John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump, momentarily made everybody else in Washington D.C. look small

Good speeches do not always have to be painstakingly crafted well in advance and written down or beamed onto a teleprompter. Neither do good speeches always require a grand event as their backdrop. Sometimes the most stirring speeches can be extemporaneous, or at least appear relatively spontaneous when delivered.

And into this latter category fall the remarks made yesterday by former Marine Corps general John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump. Kelly was seeking to defend his boss from accusations that the president had been dismissive bordering on callous when making a telephone call of commiserations to the wife of a fallen US soldier killed in an ambush in Niger, a call which was overheard by a Democratic congresswoman and reported to the media.

I make no comment about the individual circumstances of the case here, though many other media organisations have seen fit to voyeuristically pick over what should be an intensely private moment in order to extract political advantage from it. For those interested, the two opposing sides are effectively summarised here and here.

Far more inspirational than this tawdry back-and-forth, however, were the words of Chief of Staff John Kelly, who sought to end the unseemly debate by describing to the press corps in detail the process which takes place when a US service member is killed in action overseas. These remarks range from the very detailed and practical (describing exactly what happens to the body and where it is taken) to the profound, and are worth quoting at length.

Kelly begins:

Most Americans don’t know what happens when we lose one of soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, our Coast Guardsmen in combat. So let me tell you what happens:

Their buddies wrap them up in whatever passes as a shroud, puts them on a helicopter as a routine, and sends them home. Their first stop along the way is when they’re packed in ice, typically at the airhead. And then they’re flown to, usually, Europe where they’re then packed in ice again and flown to Dover Air Force Base, where Dover takes care of the remains, embalms them, meticulously dresses them in their uniform with the medals that they’ve earned, the emblems of their service, and then puts them on another airplane linked up with a casualty officer escort that takes them home.

A very, very good movie to watch, if you haven’t ever seen it, is “Taking Chance,” where this is done in a movie — HBO setting. Chance Phelps was killed under my command right next to me, and it’s worth seeing that if you’ve never seen it.

So that’s the process. While that’s happening, a casualty officer typically goes to the home very early in the morning and waits for the first lights to come on. And then he knocks on the door; typically a mom and dad will answer, a wife. And if there is a wife, this is happening in two different places; if the parents are divorced, three different places. And the casualty officer proceeds to break the heart of a family member and stays with that family until — well, for a long, long time, even after the internment. So that’s what happens.

This is made all the more poignant by the fact that John Kelly suffered the loss of his son – First Lieutenant Robert Kelly – in Afghanistan, and presumably experienced this same heart wrenching process, something invisible to most civilians in the age of an all-volunteer professional army.

The brief core of Kelly’s remarks then focus on the fine qualities of the men and women who serve in the US military, before defending the actions of his boss. First, the praise:

Who are these young men and women? They are the best 1 percent this country produces. Most of you, as Americans, don’t know them. Many of you don’t know anyone who knows any one of them. But they are the very best this country produces, and they volunteer to protect our country when there’s nothing in our country anymore that seems to suggest that selfless service to the nation is not only appropriate, but required. But that’s all right.

Goodness me, that’s powerful. Remember, this is a former Marine Corps general and the serving chief of staff to President Trump, and he is saying that the state of the country is such that America is no longer worthy of the sacrifice made by its men and women in uniform. Think on that for a moment.

And then comes the necessary defence of President Trump, in which Kelly references his own painful loss:

So he called four people the other day and expressed his condolences in the best way that he could. And he said to me, what do I say? I said to him, sir, there’s nothing you can do to lighten the burden on these families.

Well, let me tell you what I told him. Let me tell you what my best friend, Joe Dunford, told me — because he was my casualty officer. He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we’re at war. And when he died, in the four cases we’re talking about, Niger, and my son’s case in Afghanistan — when he died, he was surrounded by the best men on this Earth: his friends.

That’s what the President tried to say to four families the other day. I was stunned when I came to work yesterday morning, and broken-hearted at what I saw a member of Congress doing. A member of Congress who listened in on a phone call from the President of the United States to a young wife, and in his way tried to express that opinion — that he’s a brave man, a fallen hero, he knew what he was getting himself into because he enlisted. There’s no reason to enlist; he enlisted. And he was where he wanted to be, exactly where he wanted to be, with exactly the people he wanted to be with when his life was taken.

That was the message. That was the message that was transmitted.

This next section (which reminds one of Cicero’s exclamation O Tempora, O Mores!) is good too, because it is so obviously heartfelt coming from somebody from an older generation raised in a dignity culture:

It stuns me that a member of Congress would have listened in on that conversation. Absolutely stuns me. And I thought at least that was sacred. You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor. That’s obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life — the dignity of life — is sacred. That’s gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well.

Gold Star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought — the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.

Kelly ends with this scathing criticism of politicians such as the congresswoman who saw fit to leak details of President Trump’s telephone call to one of the families:

I’ll end with this: In October — April, rather, of 2015, I was still on active duty, and I went to the dedication of the new FBI field office in Miami. And it was dedicated to two men who were killed in a firefight in Miami against drug traffickers in 1986 — a guy by the name of Grogan and Duke. Grogan almost retired, 53 years old; Duke, I think less than a year on the job. Anyways, they got in a gunfight and they were killed. Three other FBI agents were there, were wounded, and now retired. So we go down — Jim Comey gave an absolutely brilliant memorial speech to those fallen men and to all of the men and women of the FBI who serve our country so well, and law enforcement so well.

There were family members there. Some of the children that were there were three or four years old when their dads were killed on that street in Miami-Dade. Three of the men that survived the fight were there, and gave a rendition of how brave those men were and how they gave their lives.

And a congresswoman stood up, and in the long tradition of empty barrels making the most noise, stood up there and all of that and talked about how she was instrumental in getting the funding for that building, and how she took care of her constituents because she got the money, and she just called up President Obama, and on that phone call he gave the money — the $20 million — to build the building. And she sat down, and we were stunned. Stunned that she had done it. Even for someone that is that empty a barrel, we were stunned.

But, you know, none of us went to the press and criticized. None of us stood up and were appalled. We just said, okay, fine.

So I still hope, as you write your stories, and I appeal to America, that let’s not let this maybe last thing that’s held sacred in our society — a young man, young woman going out and giving his or her life for our country — let’s try to somehow keep that sacred. But it eroded a great deal yesterday by the selfish behavior of a member of Congress.

As a speech, this has pretty much everything. It might not have been the most stirring or poetic, but John Kelly is a blunt, military man and to have spoken in the cadence of John F Kennedy or Barack Obama would have been totally false and out of character. The authenticity of Kelly’s remarks derive from the seriousness of the subject, the dignified way in which a story of personal loss was mentioned (compared to the overt emotionalism of many contemporary speakers) and the workmanlike delivery.

What John Kelly did more than anything else was shame the people who had sought to cynically use a story based on the death of American soldiers for their own purposes – be it Democratic politicians looking for more character flaws in Trump, Republican politicians who sought to defend Trump or the media who saw a potentially juicy mini-scandal which would generate pageviews and ad revenue.

He shamed a group of neophytes and cynics, people who by and large did not serve in uniform themselves, but saw fit to pontificate on the protocol governing military rituals as though they were discussing any old arcane political dispute. Kelly effectively contrasts the quiet, selfless duty of American soldiers with the self-aggrandising behaviour of American politicians. And there can be few among the Washington DC political class, who measure their popularity by the number of their Twitter followers and see themselves as the centre of the universe, who did not come out of that press conference feeling at least slightly chastened.

This can also only be good for the career and reputation of John Kelly himself, who has faced scepticism that he would be able to rein in the excesses of the Trump administration and criticism for those occasions when that superhuman feat eluded him. By briefly lamenting that women are no longer honoured in today’s America (putting aside the fact that such 1950s-style honour was a double-edged sword), Kelly not-so-subtly denounced his own boss, whose record of behaviour towards women is not good. Criticising the politicisation of gold star families during the Democratic National Convention served the same purpose. Thus, Kelly successfully burnished his image as a man serving out of duty to his country and respect for the office of president rather than admiration for the individual who currently holds that office.

I struggle to think of a contemporary British political speech of similar power and worth. Does anybody recall any of the speeches given this party conference season, besides the slow-motion self-destruction of Theresa May? Has there been a British political speech in the last decade which made the heart beat a little faster or brought a lump to the throat?This is made even more depressing when one remembers that John Kelly is not even a politician – he is a retired general pressed into service to steady a wobbling first-year Trump administration.

Kelly’s remarks are a fine example of an effective speech, composed and well delivered under difficult circumstances, with a hostile media audience ready to throw hard-to-defend accusations against his equally hard-to-defend boss. Yet by the time he was done, John Kelly walked out of that briefing room ten feet taller while everyone else visibly shrank in moral stature.

That’s impressive. I would like to import just a fraction of that ability to Westminster.

 

UPDATE: 21 October

This report from the Washington Post suggests that John Kelly’s account of Representative Frederica Wilson’s speech at the newly-opened FBI building was not accurate. This in no way detracts from the power of the speech or even necessarily mean that Gen. Kelly’s righteous indignation was altogether misplaced, but the record should be corrected.

 

UPDATE: 22 October

Having sat back rather pleased with myself, thinking I might have written something vaguely original, I discovered today that Jonah Goldberg was simultaneously coming to the same conclusion in his G-file newsletter.

Goldberg sees in Kelly’s speech the same thing that I see – a dignified admonishment to President Trump as much as to the media or the Left:

The trends Kelly alludes to are real and lamentable, and they predate Donald Trump’s arrival on the national political scene. But it strikes me as indisputable that Trump personifies these trends, and if Kelly were not trying to do his job, he would acknowledge that.

Perhaps Kelly was criticizing the Gold Star Khan family in his remarks about the convention. But he could just as plausibly have had the president in mind. We need not rehearse all of the ways in which Donald Trump — who has bragged of his adultery and sexual assaults and who has insulted women’s looks — has less than an exemplary record of honoring the sanctity of women.

I understand that many Christian groups have convinced themselves that Trump is an instrument of God, but let us not delude ourselves that he is also a man of God.

It is also worth pointing out the media’s evident latent, automatic animosity toward any member of the Trump administration, merited or not. When it was shown that John Kelly misreported the content of Rep. Wilson’s speech at the opening of the FBI Academy, nearly all the media ran with a headline about Kelly being wrong, or even lying. They neglected to point out that the video evidence actually also underlined the truth of what Kelly was trying to say – that on the occasion of the dedication of a building to the memory of slain law enforcement officers, the politician present chose to make the occasion about herself.

 

John Kelly - White House chief of staff - press briefing - Donald Trump call to military families

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The Abnormalization Of President Trump

Abnormalization of Donald Trump

Donald Trump is not the first US president to ride roughshod over the Constitution or flout the checks and balances on executive power – and an honest media with any credibility would acknowledge as much

In highlighting the latest craven example of oversensitive American university students and administrations rescinding invitations to prominent conservative-leaning speakers, the Washington Post reports:

Once reserved for cheesy senior photos at campus landmarks, college commencement exercises have graduated into something different six months after Donald Trump was elected president: a battleground for protesting conservative policies and the people who promote them.

This is incredibly disingenuous. The trend of academic institutions and strident students refusing to tolerate the presence of anybody whose opinions diverge from the current leftist, social justice orthodoxy has been on the ascendance for well over a decade now, has accelerated rapidly in the last five years and has been widely commented on, written about and discussed – not least on this blog.

And yet here the Washington Post seeks to present the “student snowflake” syndrome as a new development which only now is rearing its head “six months after Donald Trump was elected president”. This comes perilously close to excusing the rising tide of illiberalism as merely a symptom or reaction against Trump’s unexpected victory, when in actual fact anybody with a functioning brain knows that Donald Trump’s victory was largely the symptom or reaction against the illiberal, intolerant Control Left.

But we are now witnessing a trend of articles and Op-Eds such as this, all seeking to portray every last one of Donald Trump’s actions as US president as being extreme and unprecedented in recent history. On foreign policy, domestic policy, constitutional matters and social issues, critics of Donald Trump (including the prestige Washington media) often seek to portray Trump as far more extreme than he has thus far shown himself to be, at least as far as policy initiatives and executive actions are concerned.

None of this is to support Donald Trump or excuse the atrocious start he has made to his presidency, which has been characterised by one largely self-inflicted political wound after another. Rather, the point is that by falsely pretending that every time Donald Trump breathes he is gravely wounding the Republic in ways unmatched by any previous president, Trump’s critics and the media inadvertently excuse serious failings in US policy and of past US administrations which deserve to be studied, criticised and rectified rather than merely glossed over.

Nicole Hemmer picked up on some of these areas as part of an article in Politico Magazine:

Many journalists covering the White House have lapsed into a practice of “Trump exceptionalism,” a tendency to assume each move the administration makes is new and nefarious. This assumption comes from a well-meaning place—a worry that they will be complicit in normalizing dangerous behavior in an American leader. But there are real risks, too.

First, it leads to quick-trigger panic over events that are normal. Take the reaction to the administration’s dismissal of 46 U.S. attorneys. Journalists framed it as a purge, and the panic escalated when one of those attorneys, Preet Bharara, refused to resign and was subsequently fired. But the dismissal of U.S. attorneys has been standard practice since the 1990s. The novel behavior here was Bharara’s. There’s a cost to getting this wrong: Cry wolf too many times, and readers are less likely to listen when the real dangers appear.

But perhaps the more important consequence of Trump exceptionalism is that it encourages journalists to overlook continuities. Trump is an abnormal president, unprecedented in many ways. But he is not sui generis. His anti-Muslim policies, hard-line anti-immigration stance, even his economic populism and free-trade skepticism all have long histories—even within mainstream conservatism. His nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was as straightforwardly Republican as it gets.

One can quibble over the wording and focus of Hemmer’s argument – hysterically and disingenuously talking about Trump being “anti-immigration” when he has expressed no clear reservations whatsoever about legal immigration, for example. But her basic point is correct – inexperienced and superficial DC journalists have been too eager to cram every piece of news into their “Trump is unprecedented” narrative, whether each individual action happens to fit the mould or not.

When it comes to the Trump administration’s recent overtures to more authoritarian regimes (including Saudi Arabia and Turkey’s dictator-in-gestation Recep Tayyip Erdoğan), Glenn Greenwald does a far better job counting the ways that US support for morally questionable allies is far from unprecedented:

Since at least the end of World War II, supporting the world’s worst despots has been a central plank of U.S. foreign policy, arguably its defining attribute. The list of U.S.-supported tyrants is too long to count, but the strategic rationale has been consistent: In a world where anti-American sentiment is prevalent, democracy often produces leaders who impede rather than serve U.S. interests.

Imposing or propping up dictators subservient to the U.S. has long been, and continues to be, the preferred means for U.S. policymakers to ensure that those inconvenient popular beliefs are suppressed. None of this is remotely controversial or even debatable. U.S. support for tyrants has largely been conducted out in the open, and has been expressly defended and affirmed for decades by the most mainstream and influential U.S. policy experts and media outlets.

The foreign policy guru most beloved and respected in Washington, Henry Kissinger, built his career on embracing and propping up the most savage tyrants because of their obeisance to U.S. objectives. Among the statesman’s highlights, as Greg Grandin documented, he “pumped up Pakistan’s ISI, and encouraged it to use political Islam to destabilize Afghanistan”; “began the U.S.’s arms-for-petrodollars dependency with Saudi Arabia and pre-revolutionary Iran”; and “supported coups and death squads throughout Latin America.” Kissinger congratulated Argentina’s military junta for its mass killings and aggressively enabled the genocide carried out by one of the 20th century’s worst monsters, the Indonesian dictator and close U.S. ally Suharto.

Nor is Trump’s foreign policy behaviour a particular departure from more recent US administrations:

U.S. devotion to the world’s worst dictators did not end, or even recede, upon the end of the Cold War. Both the Bush and Obama administrations continually armed, funded, supported, and praised the world’s worst dictators.

In 2009, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton actually said of the murderous Egyptian dictator supported by the U.S.: “I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family.” When Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew that country’s first elected government, Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, hailed him for “restoring democracy,” and as Sisi became more brutal and repressive, the Obama administration lavished him with more weapons and money. The U.S. government did the same for the human-rights abusing dictators in Bahrain.

And of course this is to say nothing of Saudi Arabia.

It is bad enough having a US president who seems to suffer from self-delusions. That the Washington media and commentariat are engaging in fantastical delusions of their own is doubly dangerous for American democracy and policy.

To read the combined output of the American media, one would be forgiven for thinking that the George W. Bush administration never sanctioned the illegal torture of prisoners through dubious legal memos, and that the Obama administration never once decided to blast American citizens off the face of the earth with drone strikes, maintaining a “kill list” of US citizens who could be zapped without any due process.

No, apparently all of these sins are now forgiven – to the extent that the servile, sycophantic Washington media bothered to hold past administrations or senior officials accountable for their actions in the first place, generally preferring to party and intermarry with the political elite rather than be remotely adversarial.

In fact, the harsh truth is this: the only reason that Trump administration officials are being dragged over the coals for their own skirting of the Constitution and departures from US diplomatic and international norms are that Donald Trump has refused to cozy up to the Washington media class in the manner typical to all previous presidents, and so has failed to build up the traditional reserves of goodwill which would otherwise lead to effective immunity from scrutiny or criticism of himself and his administration.

This is a real and pressing problem, because every instance when the mainstream US media freaks out and acts as though Donald Trump is breaking new ground in authoritarianism by simply behaving in the same way as his predecessors only serves to drive a wedge between those media outlets and Trump-sympathising voters who already widely distrust the mainstream media – often with good reason.

Trump supporters need to be legitimately informed of occasions when the US president is acting in an unprecedentedly negative way, and examples of such behaviour – like the firing of FBI director James Comey for an ever-changing kaleidoscope of official reasons – are already rapidly mounting up. But their impact is massively diluted when Trump supporters have legitimate reason to believe that the media, angry at their rude treatment by the White House, is deliberately whipping every story into a major scandal, regardless of individual merit.

And the same goes for the rest of us, too. It does dissenting Republicans, Democrats and independents no favours when their every prejudice about Donald Trump is endlessly reconfirmed by an hysterical media which was only too happy to overlook some of the same faults, vices and mistakes in his predecessors of both parties. This behaviour by the media is not new, but the partisan debasement of political journalism has certainly sunk to new lows since Donald Trump took office.

A strong, almost irrefutable argument can be made that Donald Trump has brought the US presidency to an historical nadir through his personal coarseness, egotism, vengefulness and sheer inability to get to grips with public policy. The degree to which Trump’s political radar – so astute in helping him triumph over the establishment in the Republican primaries and general election – has now deserted him as he seeks to manipulate the levers of power in Washington D.C. is remarkable, if somewhat predictable.

Last week, a journalist was arrested in Washington D.C. for questioning Donald Trump’s Health & Human Services secretary, Tom Price, supposedly too aggressively. The alarming story was widely covered in American media at the time, but it has not driven the news cycle to nearly the same extent as other events which have ultimately proved to be little more than Donald Trump following the precedent set by previous administrations.

Why? Because too many in the media are ready and eager to go to DEFCON 1 every time that Trump opens his mouth, rather than cross-checking to see whether the latest presidential pronouncement or action is genuinely unprecedented or merely a more coarsely-worded rehash of something which would have gone unreported during the Clinton, Bush or Obama years.

Those of us with an active interest in the US media repairing and retaining its credibility in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency should demand better from journalists, pundits and TV talking heads who currently paint every decision made by the Trump White House as an unprecedented step down the road to dictatorship.

The prestige media pretending to its audience that Donald Trump’s upcoming meetings with authoritarian dictators like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are somehow unprecedented in American history is every bit as “fake news” as the ludicrous stories on the fringe Right about President Obama operating a paedophile ring out of the White House – only the prestige media’s lies and distortions are ultimately far more damaging, being read and believed by people with real power and influence in American society.

In short, Donald Trump is providing enough fresh new worrying material for us all. There is no need for the media to add to the drama by inventing more.

 

Donald Trump speaks to reporters

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At The White House Correspondents’ Dinner, The Political Media Circle-Jerk Proceeded Minus Donald Trump

White House Correspondents Dinner - First Amendment - Washington Political Media

At the annual Washington D.C. bash, the political media class were more concerned by the lack of Hollywood celebrities to ogle than the fact that half the country holds them in contempt, feels deliberately misunderstood and distrusts nearly everything that they have to say

The Washington Post reported today on the fact that brave members of the Washington D.C. political media class somehow managed to soldier on and enjoy themselves at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner and associated glitzy after-parties despite President Trump’s cruel boycott of the event (Trump decided to hold another one of his dubious rally-style events in Pennsylvania).

Without a single hint of self-awareness, the Post reports:

His voters sent him to Washington to break stuff, and this weekend Donald Trump tried to break the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association. As with some of his business ventures, he was not wholly successful.

“They’re trapped at the dinner,” the president boomed at a rally in Harrisburg, Pa., celebrating his first 100 days in office. “Which will be very, very boring.”

Instead, it was just fine. It happened. There’s an inertia to these Washington traditions, and a determination to soldier on in the face of — whatever it is we’re facing. Everyone survived this weekend without the president, or without the crush of Hollywood celebrities who for years had been decorating the dinner in ever-increasing density, until now.

It was a bit like an off-year high school reunion: diminished numbers and fewer crazy stories but still no shortage of hors d’oeuvres and dancing and gossip. Everyone settled for sightings of Michael Steele and Debbie Dingell instead of Jon Hamm or a Kardashian. In past years, virtually the entire cast of “Modern Family” would come to the dinner; this year, United Talent Agency only secured the kid who plays Luke.

Well, now we can all sleep easy in our beds. Despite the president of the United States refusing to perform the traditional routine of being self-deprecating and massaging the egos of the people supposed to hold him to account, the Washington press corps somehow managed to rescue the evening and enjoy themselves. Despite being deprived of the opportunity to rub shoulders with Hollywood royalty, the assembled journalists and media executives still managed to mingle, network and slap each other on the backs for a job well done serving the interests of American democracy.

Aren’t you relieved? I know that I am.

More:

Was it only a year ago that Barack Obama dropped the mic, literally, at his final correspondents’ dinner, as if to put an exclamation point on eight years of media savvy and pop-culture propaganda? He knew his role in this circus. It was Obama’s yearly chance to inspire a meme, rib a rival, come off as folksy royalty, remind the public that the media was not the enemy. His cool factor iced out the haters, smudged away red lines, papered over unkept promises. Afterward, the French ambassador’s mansion would swell with swells — both conservatives and liberals, all buddy-buddy in private, united by the daytime charade they pulled off together on TV.

As yes, good old Obama knew his place, knew his role in the “circus” – to dance like a performing seal in an attempt to make the self-satisfied hacks chuckle. Sure, Obama was more successful than most – thanks to a largely uninquisitive media he managed to maintain the “cool factor” right to the end of his presidency – but he stayed firmly within the tramlines of what was expected of him.

And what was that role? What has it traditionally been for administration after administration? Nothing more than making the media class look noble for one evening a year when they spend the other 364 making themselves look tawdry and partisan. Fudging important ideological questions and reducing them to laughing points. Papering over “unkept promises” as the trivialities that they are to the Washington political class – little frauds perpetrated on the American voters, some of whom are naive enough to expect political promises to be kept.

But the Washington Post is certainly in no mood to dwell on the accumulated failure of prestige American news outlets to hold leaders to account or properly represent the range of interests and opinion in the country. After all, the Post are enjoying a bumper season of increased subscriptions and web traffic thanks to the Trump presidency, drunk not on $25 cocktails but on their own sense of nobility (as evidenced by their hilariously overwrought “Democracy Dies In Darkness” motto).

Indeed, the Washington Post seems most anxious for us to know that this year’s event was a dud because Trump might have attended, not because he ultimately chose not to do so:

The guest list suffered not because Trump sent his regrets but, more likely, because of the chance he might attend; he remains dauntingly unpopular with the New York and Hollywood A-list that he had long aspired to join. The pre-dinner receptions, hosted by outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, were staid and perfunctory, absent the usual angling for a sighting of a “Game of Thrones” star.

Apparently at no point has it occurred to the Post or other such outlets whether the presence of Hollywood celebrities at a political media event might actually be a bad thing rather than something to be celebrated and missed in its absence. It is merely taken for granted that the presence of numerous multimillionaires from the entertainment industry is some kind of sign that the health of American political journalism and culture is in fine fettle.

The focus of the stripped-down event was on defending free speech and celebrating the importance of a free press guaranteed under the First Amendment, something which we can certainly all applaud but which rarely merited such prime-time coverage when the Obama industry was, say, prosecuting whistleblowers with uncommon zeal. Has Trump made numerous troubling statements with regard to freedom of the press, libel laws and freedom of speech and association in general? Absolutely.  But it is telling that much of the media is happy to trumpet the issue now, when it costs them little reputationally or financially, but maintained a pained silence under a more popular “liberal” president.

More:

The dinner itself featured a dutiful pep talk by Watergate legends Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

“Mr. President, the media is not fake news,” Woodward said from the dais, and the media elite applauded.

“CNN and MSNBC are fake news,” Trump said in Pennsylvania, and some of the 97 percent who say they’d still vote for him applauded.

Two worlds, talking past each other, from 100 miles apart. The latest prime-time iteration of POTUS vs. Beltway.

Only it isn’t just POTUS vs Beltway. It is half of America versus the Beltway news outlets and punditocracy. The cosseted Washington media class is so busy being angry at Donald Trump for his bombastic insults and threats that they remain largely unable to look beyond the president to see the many Americans who may not agree with Trump but who share his hatred of the people who filter and report the news.

As this blog has previously discussed, the mainstream American news media is indeed not “fake news” inasmuch as the likes of CNN or the New York Times do not routinely print sensationalist and patently false accounts of fabricated events designed to excite partisan zealots. But they have other far more insidious and effective methods of shaping the narrative through their editorial stances and very deliberate use of language.

As I wrote last year:

Fake news can incorporate false facts, but also correct facts which have been deliberately misinterpreted or spun. And far more insidious than any one fake news story, no matter how egregious, is the way in which language is often used to subtly change public perceptions over time – note how we now speak about “undocumented” rather than “illegal ” immigrants, a change adopted by nearly all of the mainstream media in America, and now in Britain too.

When the media is secretly complicit in ideologically-driven agendas, trust in the more reputable media is rightly weakened. But this leaves people more vulnerable to peddlers of deliberately fake news, as they search for alternatives. The obvious answer is for mainstream prestige outlets to rediscover their integrity and stop forcing readers away with ideologically skewed coverage, but they will not desist, and so they fuel the exodus of readers away to the fringes of the internet, a place where the more outrageous a story sounds, the more people will read it.

But there they all sat, facing a stage emblazoned with the words “Celebrating the First Amendment” and no doubt feeling inordinately pleased with themselves for the stellar work they believe they are doing in standing up to the Trumpian dystopia, unaware or more likely just unconcerned by just how hated and distrusted they are throughout vast swathes of their own country.

The New York Times had an interesting feature article today looking at the upcoming final round of the French presidential election between centrist empty-suit Emmanuel “status quo” Macron and depressing protectionism advocate Marine Le Pen. The piece focuses on the struggling northern town of Calais, a place I know quite well through many visits during my adolescence, and is actually quite fair in its examination of the erosion of the town’s biggest industry in the face of global competition and the lack of political answers

For a piece of New York Times journalism, it is pretty good – especially compared to their godawful “Will London Fall?” hitpiece on Britain and their generally hysterical and uncomprehending coverage of Brexit.

The only problem? The New York Times has to send reporters on expeditions into towns like Calais in order to talk to the locals and get to know their concerns, just as American reporters descended with newfound intensity on Trumpland after the US presidential election trying to figure out what went wrong, and just as shellshocked London political journalists stumbled shellshocked beyond the great metropolis in a bid to understand what Middle England was thinking.

The New York Times article’s author, Liz Alderman, is naturally based at the newspaper’s Paris bureau. Unless she makes a conscious effort, nearly every human interaction she makes will be likely with somebody who intends to vote for Macron in the second round. This is not to impugn Alderman’s work or journalistic ethics – the Calais piece proves that she does seek out contrary opinions in the unloved regions of France when required. But when the majority of your professional and social life is spent among people who hold one set of values, the occasional field trip to the other side of the tracks cannot make up for deep-rooted understanding of – and empathy with – the more pro-globalism, pro-EU, pro-market side.

And so it is in Washington D.C. The people who gather each year for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner (and then grumble about how they no longer get to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars thanks to the big bully in the White House) may make the occasional foray into Trumpland if the needs of a story require it. But the vast, vast majority do not live the lives of Trump supporters, nor live among them, nor count such people among their friends or family. And you simply cannot report fairly, accurately or honestly about people whom you have to interview to get any kind of sense of who they are or what their hopes, dreams and fears may be.

The White House Correspondents’ Association clearly does not care. They have calculated that they can prosper just fine by continuing to swagger around like noble seekers of truth, bellowing about free speech and holding President Trump to “account” (while furiously ignoring just how much their lust for TV ratings and pageviews fuelled his rise in the first place). But should one of the tuxedoed dinner attendees ever stop to wonder how Donald Trump is able to effortlessly turn a crowd of people against the media at a campaign rally, this is the reason.

Trump’s non-attendance was the perfect excuse to cancel a sleazy and tawdry annual event which should have been axed many years ago, if only the bipartisan ruling class had any self-awareness or a care for how they appeared to the rest of the country.

But even now they party on, while America burns.

 

Chris Matthews - Al Sharpton - MSNBC

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