The déjà vu election and its ramifications for France

In France, Emmanuel Macron has been re-elected. A nearly 15% swing was not in the end enough to bring Marine Le Pen to power.

In 2017, when the same two candidates faced off, the result was 66.1% to 33.9%. The preliminary results this time make it 58.5% to 41.5%. Macron’s vote is down around 2 million on last time and Le Pen’s up 2.5 million. This marks a slight swing towards Macron in the second round, as opinion polling had the two candidates on around 57.6% to 42.4% just after the first round.

Macron-Le Pen affilano le armi in vista del duello tv - Mondo - ANSA
The presidential election, same as the last one.

If we want to consider the trend here, in 2002, when her father Jean-Marie made it to the second round of voting, he received a mere 5.5 million votes, 17.8% of the turnout.

It’s the lowest turnout since 1969, indicating what some call voter apathy but is more probably a distaste for both candidates, especially among the nearly 8 million people who supported the far left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round.

Macron cannot serve three consecutive terms, and his party came into being in part to find a centrist candidate who could defeat Le Pen in 2017. The traditional parties of left and right were decimated at this election, with the Republican candidate coming behind even Zemmour, and the Socialist candidate barely scraping into the top ten.

The one-time heir apparent to Marine, her niece Marion Marechal, left politics in 2017 after a series of disputes with her aunt. Since then she has worked in education, but recently she offered her support to the even more far right candidate Eric Zemmour, who obtained 7% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.

Macron’s victory tonight therefore belies a further ratcheting of the hypernationalist vote in France, and forebodes some degree of future uncertainty. The election in 2027 is already likely to be extremely interesting. The challenge for the traditional parties is almost existential at this point, but one presumes with their funds and electoral machines they will bounce back. The question is how far how quickly.

En Marche must now find and promote an heir to Macron in a similar timeframe. And the National Rally will have to decide whether two-time loser Marine Le Pen should be backed again, or whether her niece can be lured back into the fold.

Talking Turkey about Hyperinflation

The British currency, the pound sterling, takes its name from the fact that, when it first issued, it was redeemable for a pound of silver. That was somewhen in the late 8th century Anglo-Saxon period.

If we do the maths, based on today’s silver spot price, that means that the pound today is worth approximately 1/210th of what it was worth nearly 13 centuries ago.By contrast, the French managed to devalue their currency by more in just 18 months during the early 1790s, as did Germany in less than a year during the Weimar period.

The worst affected ever were the poor Hungarians in the immediate post-war period in 1945. They suffered that level of devaluation in under 6 days at peak. Armenia, Zimbabwe and Argentina have experienced similar horrors.

Tour di 2 giorni in Cappadocia da Side
Beautiful country, beautiful people, ugly economic policies.

Why do I mention this? Because it still happens today. Last semester, in Turkey, I saw my wages collapse by more than half in two months. My colleagues there are still living through this. They suffer daily price hikes in fuel and food costs, with static wages. The Turkish people, like the Armenians, Zimbabweans, Argentinians, or the Hungarians, Germans and French of former times, have done nothing wrong. But they were the ones to suffer.

Hyperinflation is caused by only one thing – shitty governments implementing shitty policies. It destroys savings, commerce, and most importantly, lives. We don’t always think too much about Turkey in the West, but we should. Here is a country suffering a preposterously stupid government and massive devaluation of their economy, yet still accommodates 3.6 MILLION refugees.

It was a salutory lesson for me in macro-economics, and in human decency, to spend last semester in Turkey. My heart remains with them in their plight, and I hope to see them in better times soon. It is a beautiful nation with a beautiful people who deserve better.

A caveat: I am not, never have been and never will be an economist. But it doesn’t take a Harvard MBA to understand money.

The War on Abstraction

War on terror can mean devastating Middle Eastern countries on fabricated evidence, or simply comforting a child having a nightmare.

War on drugs could mean burning poor farmers crops in Colombia and Afghanistan, incarcerating ravers, introducing CBT counselling for people stranded for decades on SSRIs, or murdering addicts in the Philippines.

War on crime can mean targetting gangland bosses with tax legislation, incarcerating youth for minor offences, or overpolicing black neighbourhoods in America and Catholic ones in Belfast.

What we REALLY need is a war on policians using abstractions.

The next time a politician says he intends to tackle homelessness, we should make him play soccer with some rough sleepers. Ninety minutes of getting kicked about the pitch might not change much, but it would at least be less corrosive than whatever he actually intended to do.

Potternism

There was for a time (it is always only for a time) a funny meme which skewered the ubiquity of Harry Potter references among a certain cohort of society, sometimes identified generationally as millennials, other times identified by political affiliation, as liberals. (Neither of these identifications in truth map very well, incidentally.)

The meme responded to such referencing by demanding that the referencer “READ ANOTHER BOOK.” It’s funny, or at least it was way back when, not because it suggested that referencers had only read Harry Potter and nothing else. In terms of quotation and convoluted metaphors and linkages, both the Collected Shakespeare and the Bible have generated many single-book citers in their time.

No, it’s funny because, unlike Shakespeare or the Bible, the limited remit of a children’s book series about a schoolboy wizard has to undergo often significant semantic stretching to accommodate some of the parallels that were suggested. It’s never ideal to explain jokes, so let me illustrate:

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Generally these parallels are political. And in fairness, the Potterverse is not without its own politicking, from the formal politics of the Ministry of Magic, the geopolitics of ‘Fantastic Beasts…’, and the fascist implications of Voldemort rule, to personal politics like Dumbledore’s closeted queerness or the construction of non-nuclear families. The books at times were very long. They’re not entirely without content, even political content.

But the parallels became so common, so ubiquitous on social media, and also to be honest, at times so risible, that even the esteemed Washington Post felt obliged to add its weight to the ‘read another book’ school of thought.

It was perhaps inevitable, given that the graduate student essay has now become almost as common a mode of expression for some of the Harry Potter generation as a half-thought out tweet, that eventually this mode of analysing world events through the prism of Harry Potter fandom would emerge.

It has not disappointed, I would argue. The one that led me down this particular line of pondering was entitled “Wizards First: The Muggle and Mudblood Crisis Reflecting the Rohingya Crisis”. I may not be alone in questioning the taste, if not the sincerity, of such an extended parallel. It comes from a sub-genre of Potter-political academic analysis of which the exemplary is surely “Voldemort Politics“.

But it’s not just misplaced political analogies. The Potterverse can be applied to almost anything else. From here to Potternity, in fact. Hence we also have such wide-ranging, free-wheeling extended comparatives as “Home Depot, Hogwarts & Excess Deaths at the CDC“, “Hogwarts House Rules & the Cathedral Choir of Mexico City”, “Can Muggles be Autistic?“, “Vipers, Muggles, and The Evolution of Jazz“, “Sequence Rule Compliance: Separating the Wizards from the Muggles“, “How Muggles fix broken arms?“, and my personal favourite, “Deauville Doomsday and Voldemort in Ireland“, which of course relates Voldemort to the Irish banking crisis of 2007.

And this is before you get to even the outer fringes of where Harry Potter references might actually be deemed attenuated but possibly okay, such as “Fibonacci in Hogwarts?“, or “Hogwarts torts“, or “Surveillance in Hogwarts: Dumbledore’s Balancing Act Between Managerialism and Anarchism“. (Which itself is the penumbra to the bullseye, literary criticism about the books themselves and their associated cultural artefacts and societal impact.)

In short, this is such a prevalent mode of cultural analysis, that I am somewhat surprised that Potter as Critical Lens does not yet have a name. In which spirit of helpfulness, I propose – Potternism.

Are we living in an Alternative History?

It’s a compelling idea. So many outlier events, both the scary Black Swan-type that N.N. Taleb writes about as well as the simply unlikely, seem to be regular occurences all of a sudden.

Whether it’s Donald Trump’s election as US President, the Brexit referendum, a global Coronavirus pandemic, or even just Leicester City somehow winning the English Premier League football title a few years ago, the world seems to have taken a turn into the unpredictable, the unstable, and the frankly bizarre.

And if we are in a uchronic timeline, is there any way back? We probably aren’t going to be able to reverse time, but perhaps we can leverage the idea of alt-history to understand and manipulate our own reality going forward.

This is something I suggest in my latest article for the always excellent Sci-Phi Journal.

Double Vision Politics

A week on from the US Presidential election of 2020, and with still much controversy and confusion involved, though a consensus among the media and global leaders that Joe Biden of the Democrats is the President-Elect, I think it might be opportune to give my 2c on the matter.

A succinct metaphor which has been suggested from time to time relating in particular to American politics, and its divisive two-party system, is “one screen, two movies.” The metaphor works because it proposes the idea that there is a set of events, what we might call reality, upon which two separate narratives are projected.

We can see this happening in America, and indeed in quite a few other places, if we choose to look. Partly this is a product of binary thinking, our (often false) predeliction arising from having hemispheric brains that there are two things to choose from in any scenario. There is black and white, up and down, left and right. But there is also brown, yellow, blue, green, opaque or transparent. There is sideways. There is in short always perpendicular options to the binary. There is, in short, nuance.

But let us return to ‘one screen, two movies.’ What happens if you try to watch BOTH movies at once, in real time? Or even simply flick back and forth between the two, like a magic eye picture? It’s obviously disorientating. A bigot Nazi righteously thrown out of office becomes an isolated victim of mass electoral fraud. A fifty year career political veteran becomes a senile old coot with a druggie son who’s been compromised by China. And so on. In short, there is such distance between the narratives that they almost cannot be comprehended simultaneously.

Critically, it seems almost impossible to reconcile them. There is no possible Hegelian synthesis here. These perspectives are oil and water, all the more unmixable for being all the more fundamentally rooted in a sense of tribal identities. The wailing despair which greeted Trump’s election four years ago, a gutteral howl from genteel middle-aged women captured on camera, is matched only by the outcry of relief and triumphalism of Biden’s supporters, a cohort who only a few years back were meming about how he was the dumbass idiot foil to a wise and weary Barack Obama.

Once practised a little, it becomes a parlour game of whimsy. Pick any topic and try to guess at the polarised views. Immigration controls are either a racist rejection of non-white humanity, or else a belated attempt to shore up jobs for Americans. Transgender storytime in libraries is an act of education and acceptance or a sign of enforced degeneracy and an attempt to destroy families and identity. And so on. But it goes beyond whimsical games of course. These viewpoints are not reconcilable and no amount of calls for unity will make them so.

The biggest tragedy is that there is no attempt at empathy from either side to the other. Both feel under fundamental attack from friends, neighbours, even family. This is tearing natural human relationships apart, inside and outside America. People don’t want to watch two movies on one screen. They can’t tolerate the cognitive dissonance. Instead, they are forced to demonise those who are watching the other movie.

One wonders therefore how it will end. Half the US electorate will feel inevitably disenfranchised no matter what, as has been the case for Trump’s entire term of office. America is, of course, an empire in slow decline and has been for quite some time. But, not unlike the bankrupcy of Mike in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, empires tend to fail very slowly, then all at once. And the power vacuum a collapsed America would create is highly concerning. No wonder Russia and China look on with interest.

I of course am no expert on the matter, having only a couple of years as a political correspondent for an Irish newspaper, and a lifetime’s passion for the sport of elections, to fuel my speculations. But if journalism taught me anything, it taught me the importance of being able to speak to people you do not agree with, to be able to genuinely listen to them and what they think and why they might think it, no matter how bizarre or repellant or even threatening it may seem. However, I am tiring too of watching two movies. The double vision is not conducive to clarity. For the next while, I will instead focus my attention on just one thing, and as a literary critic and academic scholar…

Dystopia seems like a good choice.

Ten Grand

I was on the BBC this morning discussing, inter alia, the UK government’s decision to implement fines of up to £10,000 for people who fail to quarantine themselves when directed to do so.

It seemed to me that this is yet another example of the government attempting to be seen to be doing something while doing nothing at all. The overwhelmed police, already disgruntled from being told to check how far and for how long people had been walking or jogging last spring now find themselves ordered to snoop on whether people are conscientiously staying at home or not. They don’t have the manpower to solve the vast majority of muggings and burglaries, so how are they expected to achieve this?

Apparently the government want the public to start grassing up their neighbours. This is an intriguing suggestion predicated on a number of unlikelies, including: a) the idea that people know their neighbours; b) that they know where their neighbours have been holidaying or whether they received a message to quarantine; and c) their desire to grass up their neighbours.

Of those three, only the last seems remotely likely, and I still feel that most people are either disinclined or disinterested in reporting their neighbours’ activities. Furthermore, who spends their time twitching the curtains to monitor the rest of the street? Most of us have our own lives to live.

Anyhow, this kind of pointless nonsense is why the UK has suffered one of the worst COVID infection rates in the world. The government are too busy doing stupid shit badly to bother even attempting to do the right things (testing being the main one).

There’s more here, including what put me right out of my comfort zone this morning, if you’re interested. Archived programme available for the next month or so. UK listeners only, alas.