The Trump Administration – a Classic Case of Bait-and-Switch

Trump, given his personality, has surrounded himself for decades with sycophants who have fawned on his statements, however outrageous, however much they may twirl their fingers at their temples behind his back. Decades of talking nonsense is a hard habit to break, but how important is it that he continues to do so with the world hanging on his every word?

It seems Trump has been given his ‘toys’ to play with – Mexicans and the media. Not good for Mexicans undeniably, (though perhaps good for the media which now must return to investigative reporting rather than relying on briefs), but there it is. He’s got to have something to take his sledgehammer to while his supporters cheer him on, and why not Mexicans? The Republican party doesn’t worry too much about Mexicans, they’re hardly their natural constituency. Mexico itself is a different question, but they can stop things going too far.

Trump’s own appointees differ from him before they even get behind their desks in order to get through a vetting process run too rationally for them to acknowledge the President’s own statements as the ‘party line’. Increasingly, those reliant upon the official word on policy are ignoring what Trump says and turning to his aides as they go around smoothing any feathers he’s ruffled, particularly in the international arena. (The EU and NATO pretty much ignored the mouthings of the Commander in Chief and waited for assurances from the recent visit by the administration’s supposed lackeys, now essentially its leaders, which they duly received).

Trump has been reduced to a sideshow in his own Presidency. He doesn’t even seem to mind it happening. It can’t be he’s not noticed.

It seems to be a classic ‘bait-and-switch’. Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric is not reflected in the appointments he’s made. Behind Trump’s clown’s mask – what happened last night in Sweden, whether it rained on his parade, the lying MSM and, of course, the crowd-pleasing Mexican Dance – the Republicans have been given carte blanche on an establishment ticket. Sure, that’s a lot less damaging than what would happen were Trump to really go with the agenda he promised in many areas but, in others that may have been more progressive, Trump has doubled-back on himself. He, along with the Republican establishment and their friends, are making hay while the sun shines behind the circus tent. Much as Trump may hate to be contradicted in his role as President, he clearly realises that the Republican establishment is working hard to benefit him in his role of Commander in Chief of Trump Enterprises.

Trump’s supporters have yet to notice the absence of bread for the thrill of the circus, but the distraction can’t last forever. Sooner or later the basic, undeniable facts of dodgy dealings with China, with Russia, of the tightening grip of the financial industries on the nation’s wealth, of no jam today becoming no jam tomorrow will register. Donald Trump, the friend of Big Pharma, oil magnates and Goldman Sachs will be seen for what he is, but not before he’s enriched himself considerably and a great deal of damage has been done.

Welcome to the biggest con job in history.

Only a year ago, so many of us had so much hope for a bloke called Bernie now lost in the furore. The Democrats are now busy reformulating themselves. Here’s hoping they’ve learned their lesson and they rediscover Sanders, not Clinton, to ask how best to move forward.

Review: Colin McAdam – Fall

FallFall by Colin McAdam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fall needs getting into. At first, the voices of the two main protagonists seem to clash. Credulity is tested. They seem too polarised. Noel and Julius share a room in a boarding school. Noel is the analyst, highly intelligent, divorced from the human condition by his lack of empathy and his tendency to logical reductionism. Julius is the poet. He, too, is intelligent but his intelligence is oriented towards people. He is popular, mischievous, living in the moment, sensual, taking from life what it has to offer without analysis, simply being.

Such a dichotomy seems too convenient at first. With two narrators, unusual in any novel, the voices they present are too divergent with their initial introduction. We do not anticipate such a divergence. We expect a consistent narrator. But McAdam overcomes the impediment of familiarity with the medium by making his characters utterly believable, giving them both a depth in their narration that blurs the dichotomy, giving us something beyond mere polar opposites. Indeed, in their difference in approach we may see some commonality.

This is most clear in the way we never get to see Fallon, the ‘Fall’ who gives her name to the book. She is Julius’s girlfriend, but Noel is no less interested in her. With both Julius and Noel seeing her as little more than a cipher for their own desires, Fall herself remains comparatively anonymous. We see through their eyes her actions, but they do not give us a sense of her personality. Both Julius in his sensuality and Noel in his idealisation give us an image of someone both of which may be correct in identifying an aspect – we know that Fall will have no less complex a persona than Noel and Julius themselves – but which never reveal the person behind those aspects. The holistic Fall never emerges from the page as seen through Noel’s and Julius’s eyes. Each sees what he projects.

Noel is not markedly jealous. Indeed, he has a good relationship with both of them. He simply waits for Fall to realise that she would be better with him than with Julius. For him, the outcome is logical. Inevitable. An intelligent girl will choose an intelligent boy in the end. He waits, and neither Julius nor Fall suspect the outcome he envisages.

In the end Noel forces the issue with, we assume, tragic results.

It’s difficult to do this work justice in a review. There are too many subtleties, too much to consider afterwards. For example, it is clear that from the point of view of the school in which they study, Noel is the ideal pupil. Julius would be seen as the maverick, the troublemaker, and yet the reality is the other way around. It is Noel who needs help, not Julius. As Noel and Julius project their ideals onto Fall and fail to see the individual in the round, so the school projects onto Noel and Julius its own ideals of academic attainment. Does McAdam intend us to think about this mirroring? It’s difficult to say. The strength of this work is that it is sufficiently revealing, sufficiently accurate that the complexity of personality and of life is presented with all its alleyways and darkened corners to explore. It is rare for a writer to be able to present such a level of complexity in his or her characters that ideas and implications may be drawn from the work the author very likely never intended to present.

My only criticism of the work is some of the hopping around timelines and the presence of a few other narrators along the way, both of which tend to complicate the story unnecessarily. However, I am to blame for not giving the work the time and attention it deserved, falling into the trap of seeing an easy read which, for all the complexity of character, Fall largely is. Nonetheless, this is a work worthy of a re-read, and I won’t make that mistake twice. For that, then, though perhaps a flaw, McAdam deserves only to lose a fraction of a star while I get a slap on the wrist.

A work to be taken slowly and thought about long after it’s been read.

Review: Upton Sinclair – The Jungle

The JungleThe Jungle by Upton Sinclair
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Jungle is remorseless. In studying the plight of a Lithuanian immigrant family working in the meat-packing industry in Chicago in the first decade of the 20th century, Sinclair exposes the abuse, corruption, and unhygienic practices of an industry in which the people were treated no better than the animals they slaughtered, expendable labour to be exhausted and thrown on the scrapheap given there were always others to take their place.

The novel starts brilliantly, taking us a little ahead in the narrative to the wedding feast of Jurgis Rudkus, the novel’s central protagonist, and Ona, his compatriot wife with whose family his own entered the country. A wedding feast is, of course, a joyous affair, and it is no different here, but the jollity seems somehow too edgy, too hysterical, too extreme. As the opening unfolds we discover why. The feast has cost the families far more than they can afford. Traditionally, costs are recouped courtesy of the wedding guests who chip in with gifts which cover not only the feast, but a little more besides to send the couple out into the world. However, it is not to be in this instance. The guests are desperate and impoverished. They can’t even pay their way, seeing the feast as a chance to eat and drink and be happy for a while, taking advantage of it rather than respecting it. This descent into the cynicism of desperation is one we are soon to see reflected in the development of the central characters; Sinclair is not sparing of the reality of impoverishment that leads its victims to abandon their ethics for the sake of survival. Moreover, with not so much as a half-day spared from work, Jurgis must return to the slaughterhouse hours after the feast closes for fear of losing his job. At this stage he is still convinced of his ability to keep the family afloat, so he will work harder; but he is soon to discover that working his hardest through all his waking hours – and many more when he needs to be asleep – can never be enough.

We return to the families newly-entered into America, their optimism high, and watch as even the elderly and the children are forced out to work to make ends meet. A house they assume they have bought simply drains their resources for a while, money to go to the pocket of a rich landowner, before – as was always the intention – they are no longer able to keep up payments and they are evicted leaving the house empty for the next tenants to go through the same routine as other tenants had gone through it previously. None of their money is returned. The children sometimes have to be bullied into work. Family members begin to die, one by one. Jurgis loses both Ona and their child. Before that, Ona has been forced into sex with a manager if she is to keep her job, and Jurgis beats him up thus hastening his own decline by getting himself blacklisted. Still later he is to see that as a mistake, that Ona was right, that if her giving herself to the manager was what was needed in order to survive then what choice was there?

With his own family gone, Jurgis abandons Ona’s in the end with no hope of finding work in the city. This is the one period of relief in the entire book, a pastoral intrusion in which Jurgis wanders the countryside where labour is in short supply finding piece work, but it is seasonal. He is compelled to return to the city when winter sets in. I found this section of the book a little strange. Certainly Sinclair did his research well, but I was left wondering why it was all Chicago didn’t up-sticks and head out to the countryside for seasonal work. Those with jobs could not do so for fear of losing them, of course, but many were without them. Indeed, in the same situation I suspect it would have been better for most to head off into the hills, find a cave somewhere, and live off the land. It would have been good to hear why that didn’t tend to happen, and how it could be that people continued to queue for work in the grimness of the city rather than pack their bags and head out into an environment far more pleasant in which work was readily available.

Jurgis gets some relief still later when he becomes involved with the corruption itself, working for the politicians. He is well-paid, at least by previous standards, becoming debauched in his behaviour, sacrificing any ethics he may still have had without a second thought. Sinclair is not sparing with such a realistic view of the human condition. If Jurgis entered America as a man eager to work with the world with dignity, reduced to the need for survival in a world which will not work with him he is compelled to fight for that survival with the loss of his humanity. Treat people like rats, they act like rats, however decently they may have started out. Povery corrupts. However, this too falls through with another encounter with Ona’s erstwhile manager and another attack, one that is to see him no longer able to work in politics given the influence the manager has.

At this point it may have been better for the novel had Sinclair permitted this to be Jurgis’s final decline, and certainly that is what the reader is anticipating. Instead, we get something of a fairytale ending. To be sure it’s not so divorced from reality as to be rags-to-riches, but instead Jurgis – and we – are offered hope of a solution. Jurgis stumbles, mainly for shelter, into a public meeting. He doesn’t know what it is, and doesn’t care. But after a while he pays attention to the speaker, and his eyes are opened. It is a socialist meeting. Jurgis is transformed. He makes himself known to the organisers, who help him. Then, in the biggest mistake in the book, he stumbles fortuitously upon work that is reasonable in a hotel, the hotelier just happening to be a socialist well-known to Jurgis’s new friends. (It would have been better had they referred Jurgis to the hotelier directly. Leaving it to chance like this, Sinclair makes it all-too convenient and unrealistic). At the end, Jurgis attends a small gathering of socialists which is nothing more than a vehicle permitting Sinclair to expound upon the underlying tenets of the socialist cause, and the book closes with socialists making steady gains in the then-running elections.

It’s this ending for which Sinclair loses a star for an otherwise five-star book. I do not agree with his socialist solution, but even were I to do so the star would be lost anyway. It is a cumbersome finale, and left me feeling that the entire work was a vehicle for the closure and the evangelism Sinclair adopts. It is forgiveable insofar as there were no other solutions being touted at the time, and it was right that Sinclair should expose people to its possibilities, but I felt it was poorly handled. Though nowhere near as tedious, and nowhere near as preposterous, it reminded me of Ayn Rand’s long diatribe in Atlas Shrugged. Write a novel with a political theme or write a political tract, don’t mix them.

It’s rare I research a novel before reviewing it, but The Jungle clearly needs some background for full appreciation of the content. Sinclair knew his subject well, working in the Chicago meat packing industry incognito for several weeks. The novel had political repercussions, though as Sinclair remarked, “I aimed at the public’s heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach.” There was a public outcry, but not at the impoverishment so much as the quality of the food people now realised they were eating. Out of that came political initiatives that culminated with America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). As for the fate of socialism, that we know all-too well. It disappeared as the establishment, fearing an uprising, made concessions to the people sufficient for it to retain power overall, something the socialists never believed they would do adequately and perhaps with some justification. ‘Socialist’ in America was then to become a word abused to mean, in essence, ‘Anyone somewhat to the left of where I happen to be standing’.

It is interesting to speculate on how Sinclair may have reacted to that development. (Perhaps I should research that, he lived until 1968 after all, but I won’t). Perhaps he felt the social democracy that began to arise in the wake of the first world war, which was consolidated in the wake of the second, went far enough. Certainly the Jurgis’s would have been few and far between in the wake of social reforms. Meanwhile, the socialist revolutions in China and Russia started out with the best of intentions but came to nought, merely shifting the reins of power from one elite to another which promptly showed itself to be all-too human in abusing that power. If nothing else that should have proved that the industrialists were not a race apart, merely exemplars of the human condition overall. Where power is concentrated, corruption follows.

However, that doesn’t mean The Jungle can be regarded as merely a historical document, an interesting text on a period past and no longer relevant. The reversal of social democratic principles since the 1980s may not have reactivated the Chicago The Jungle describes, but they are leading us back in that direction. The social reforms which were implemented are falling out of favour with those for whom capitalism unbridled offers the lure of greater wealth. The New Capitalists of the financial industries and banks have no need of a customer base and merely resent paying their taxes for social safety nets they themselves do not need. The world is drifting back towards that of The Jungle. As it does so, the work takes on an alarming relevance in revealing what happens when social provision is absent. Those arguing the case for social provision with those who fail to learn anything from history could do worse than recommend The Jungle. It may not hit such readers in the heart, but it may well hit them in the stomach.

The Fallacy of the ‘Top-Down’ Argument

One thing I have noticed that tends to stymie political debate, particularly in the USA, (this a hot topic now thanks to Trump, Clinton, Sanders, and Cruz, as great a name for a firm of dodgy solicitors as I’ve seen of late), is the use of ‘top-down’ arguments. In the course of discussion on LinkedIn today, one gentleman came up with (at least) three perfect illustrations in just a few posts. What lurks below is an adaptation of my rebuttal

Small government
Your small government on principle argument is top-down. When you find people disagreeing with it, you assume a false opposition – big government on principle. However, I have never, ever heard even one person advocate big government on principle. Why would they? To what purpose? The people who argue against you in this are arguing bottom-up. The opposite to your small government on principle argument is actually not small government on principle. Arguing from bottom-up, we would say “Government where government is appropriate,” and no more.

Your people opposed to capitalism idea is, once again, top-down. You have a conception of capitalism that believes it to function optimally under certain conditions. Consequently, if people talk about other conditions they are anti-capitalism. In reality we’re all of us capitalists in our conception, but have different views of the machinery of capitalism. We would like to see the volume turned up somewhat here, the colour purple tuned down somewhat there, with maybe the odd extra button stuck on the side and the odd lever dismantled. It’s still capitalism. If Sanders got in and made changes tomorrow, it wouldn’t stop being a capitalist system. It wouldn’t even be a strange capitalist system. People would wake up of a morning most mornings and it would be business as usual. It certainly wouldn’t move into an entirely different paradigm to become an altogether ‘non-capitalist’ system.

What is America?
With the nation as a whole, again you’re working top-down. America is this, Europe is that, and never the twain shall meet. Because America is somehow ‘different’, economic policies that work in Europe won’t function in America. But why not? History? Geography? What’s the supposed impediment that means the USA can’t be somewhat different? The top-down approach here rules out options to no purpose. You see something absolute, a premise rooted in reality to which all proposals must conform in order to be even rational. But why should it be some underlying premise of reality? In the end, what America boils down to is a society of some 300m+ people trying to get on with their lives as best and harmoniously as they can. If a majority decides that the best way to do that is move towards a European model, why not? There is no quintessential ‘America’ to which they must be subservient and to which they must adhere in order for it to still be ‘America’. ‘America’ is what its citizenry wants it to be, here, now, today, for themselves and for their children, not some historical inevitability.

Politic vs. Faith
With this top-down approach you are pursuing political argument in a way more suited to religion. If you are a Christian, then you know God exists. You may not be able to prove it, but knowing He exists with an absolute certainty borne out of personal experience it makes perfect sense to dismiss arguments which go against that as somehow fallacious. Top-down applies. In much the same way, as a non-Christian, I know the chair I am sitting on exists. If someone came at me with some clever-clever argument to prove that the chair does not exist I’d know there was something wrong with the argument and I could safely approach it top-down in an effort to identify the fallacy with the chair’s existence my basic premise. But you can’t take that approach with politics. Top-down doesn’t work. You can’t work with a set conclusion and then agree or disagree with arguments on the basis of whether they conform with it. All it does is lead to misapprehension of others beliefs and attitudes, and an inability to consider potentially viable options. American healthcare is a good example. It should be about balancing optimal health for the maximum number with optimal expenditure. You can’t formulate an argument out of ‘We can’t do that because it’s not capitalism’ or ‘We can’t do that because it’s not small government’ or ‘We can’t do that because it’s not America’. It just doesn’t work. That is not to say your belief that socialised healthcare is wrong is in any way falsified. It is to say that the evidence against it cannot be formulated top-down if the argument is to be successful.

Review: Mark Twain – The Curious Republic of Gondour and Other Whimsical Sketches

The Curious Republic of Gondour and Other Whimsical SketchesThe Curious Republic of Gondour and Other Whimsical Sketches by Mark Twain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Either it took me a while to get into this small collection of essays, or the first two were rubbish. Still, I got there in the end.

Strangely, at least to the best of my memory, this was to be my first encounter with Twain. The third piece switched me on, a somewhat ill-tempered attack on the folly of some individuals who had not realised an earlier item he had written was a joke. On the basis of that I concluded I was going to like Twain’s writing provided it was written when he was in a rotten mood, but other more amiable pieces had their way with me in what turned out to be an occasional five-star read.

Twain and I are well separated both in space and in time, so some of the humour based upon culture left me cold. That culture gap was made doubly-clear with the gaff concerning Knights of my Realm being called ‘Sir Smith’ and the like instead of ‘Sir John’ etc. Occasional essays that may have been better handled also popped up, good ideas gone wrong I suspect with the hurry of a too-urgent deadline. For the most part, though, this was a nice work to dip into and back out of again, which I thus ruined by reading in a couple of greedy gulps. Don’t do it, people, bad for the digestion.

Twain’s humour tends to be topical – or was at the time – though he’s not averse to spinning out of some topical nugget some whimsical train of thought which leaves reality’s track in search of new lands. Certainly here, though, his best work is when someone had annoyed the hell out of him. If only his editor had had the professionalism to employ someone to prod him with a sharp stick from time to time, I suspect this would have been a five-star collection.

Sadly that is an opportunity now lost to history.

Review: Neil Gaiman – American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The underlying premise of American Gods is that deities were imported into the USA by immigrants through the centuries, but were weakened for inattention. Their descent into quasi-humanity sees them opposed by new American gods, those of technology. A great battle is to be fought between the two factions, the new gods to eradicate the old for once and for all while the old are to fight for the preservation of what little is left for them – their lingering existence.

Enter Shadow, tough guy, enlisted by Wednesday, (a god whose identity is evident from his chosen name). We see what ensues from Shadow’s perspective both as an observer and, later, very much as a participant. Indeed, Shadow’s role is to become pivotal.

The underlying theme has echoes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, but Gaiman isn’t in this for laughs. Quite what he’s in it for I’m still none too sure having reached the end of the work, nor do I feel as if I’ve lost something along the way that may have revealed Gaiman’s authorial intent. But so much for the premise. What of how it is presented?

For well-over the first half of the work there was something of a film noir atmosphere as American Gods seemed set to fail my otherworldy test. Some works of fantasy and science fiction seem to have their otherworldliness as an add-on to a story which would have worked equally well with the main protagonists being realistic, functioning in a realistic environment, and for over half the novel this may have been a tale of two rival gangs sufficiently powerful to have a national reach. Wednesday roams the country trying to enlist other gods for the battle ahead with varying degrees of success, but though the story wanders strange realms from time to time given the underlying premise there’s nothing there that makes that wandering essential. Moreover, though there is action aplenty, there’s little real development in the plot. An enjoyable read, yes – Gaiman is a good writer – but still, reading was becoming a bit of a slog by half-way with the story seeming to get pretty-much nowhere.

Some way into the second half of the work the pace begins to accelerate and hits a nice tempo, but not for long. The pace continues to accelerate until it ends in something of a rush leaving me regretting Gaiman hadn’t pruned the first half of the novel to give himself more breathing space for the final third. It’s here the otherworldliness justifies itself, here that the plot truly develops, and here that some of the more fetching ideas are to be found only to be hurried over as if Gaiman wanted to get it all over with. I gather from his acknowledgements at the end that he wasn’t hitting deadlines, so perhaps that would explain it. The pace drops back to a reasonable level at the end for an extended coda as Gaiman ties up the loose ends, and here we have some of the best writing in the book as a consequence.

Bemusing throughout is Gaiman’s selectivity. We seem to have many religions represented here, but some notable absences – namely the Judaic religions. I had expected Jesus, or perhaps Moses to pop up somewhere to play some crucial role, but these more powerful aspects of thriving religions were notable in their absence. Perhaps the antics of these lesser gods is beneath them, but certainly I’d have liked a little more expansion on that, and perhaps a nod in their direction. American gods in the absence of reference to Christianity in particular is too glaring an absence. True, the Judaic religions would have been difficult to fit into the narrative as it stands, but by not doing so Gaiman rather undermines the premise of the work.

Nonetheless, Gaiman is a good writer and that is the work’s saving grace, and American Gods is readable for that if for little else.

Review: Andy McNab – Crisis Four

Crisis FourCrisis Four by Andy McNab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After Remote Control, the first of McNab’s ‘Nick Stone’ novels, I wasted little time getting hold of the second. Crisis Four gets marked down a star on a technicality – the plot didn’t quite ring true in Stone being given his assignment in the first place, let alone the ease with which he accomplished the first part of it – and, indeed, much of the plot at the end rather depended upon him being the wrong person for the job. Still, I found it as much a pleasure to read as the first for all that.

In the first novel, our special operative Stone was saddled with a seven-year old girl throughout and, I must confess, I was rather pleased to see the back of her in this one. I find something somehow unfair about a seven-year old being dragged through violent and dangerous situations, even if she is fictional and has to be for the sake of the story. Then there’s the idea of good plans not coming together because she needs to go to the toilet that intrudes upon the action with too homely a tone. Once I could stand, but a second of the same I’d have probably been yelling ‘Shoot her and have done with it, damn it!’

However, the absence of Kelly is not the only marked difference between this novel and the last. That had action throughout. This takes a while to get going, but while we wait McNab really shows his chops as a writer and an expert in the craft of special operations. There are many ‘Don’t try this at home’ tips which would look good in any anarchist’s cook book, but also views of American life through the eyes of an Englishman that have immense veracity. McNab could probably try his hand at pretty-much anything and come up with a decent novel. He has an eye for things and can provide detail, even irrelevant detail, without it dragging. That’s quite a knack.

The action, when it comes, is of the sort where you can find yourself putting the book down and getting a cup of coffee just to take a break from it. McNab is an intelligent writer not above writing thrillers, and the genre benefits from that. Yeah, I know, his background, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have written historical fiction about the Napoleonic wars, does it? Indeed, he almost certainly could were he so inclined and it would be worth reading. (Yes, ashamed as I am to confess it given it doesn’t fit with the image, darlings, I am becoming something of a fan).

The plot, and I can say little without spoilers. However, if you’re familiar with Nick Stone from the first novel, it’s the same bloke. If you’re not, check the first novel before this one. They stand alone just fine, but the first novel provides a useful introduction.