5 December 2016

Making them great again - There is a horrible circularity to events in the old world

Fidel has got out before liberal democracy finally collapses. Not, of course, that anyone could accuse him of being a liberal democrat. The death of one of the most extreme and, one might think, successful proponents of the Left reminds us of the demons of that end of the political spectrum that succeeded the tyrants of the Right. Now just look where we are going again all over Europe and with the clowns about to take over the circus in the United States of America. There is a horrible circularity to what is happening in the old world. In the US, new ground is being broken but it is all part of the same picture in a world that has globalized since the last turn of the wheel.

Why, o why is the quiet voice of moderation and the centre always overwhelmed by strident extremes? Too boring? Moderation doesn't make the trains go on time, the health and education systems work and doesn't really reach the disaffected and poor at all? Democracy has never made up its mind about anything? We all know by now that one-sized democracy definitely doesn't fit all. We, in the so-called liberal West, have tried to cram whole populations and, often, by force, whole populations of other countries as well under too small an umbrella marked liberal democracy. Too many people have been left out to drown in the rain or burn under the sun. Moderate politicians all look the same, act the same and appear, here at least in recent years, to be members of a club that merely casts the crumbs from its table to its subordinates at home and to subaltern states abroad.

Hindsight, as always, gives a clear view of the problem. It doesn't make the solution look any better or any more likely to be successful than any other excuses for extremist rule of one sort or another throughout history. As the screen fades to black at the end of Apocalypse Now, we hear Marlon Brando speak Kurtz's dying words, "The horror, the horror." A lot of us have woken up on several occasions this year with those words on our lips, a majority of Americans most lately on the morning of November 9 after the night before. American Cubans celebrating the death of their nemesis even as their former countrymen at home plunge into formal mourning for the hardly impossible death of a 90-year figurehead, may also be wondering what horrors are now to be visited on them in a melting-pot country where a xenophobic racist has been handed the keys to the kingdom and the means of destroying everything within and without.

So, what to do? Panic? In this country last week, we heard the depressing prescriptions of the half-time economic forecast, the autumn statement. For 30 years or so, under various titles, this has been a little reminder of our lack of cash before the Christmas spend, just in case we forgot how bad it was in the spring budget. We have shot ourselves, as I must have said interminably in this column since the Brexit referendum result in June, in both feet. It isn't looking good from any point of view and now the Americans with whom we share that mythical special relationship have elected a president who puts them well outside the pale even if Donald Trump wants one of our favourite nightmares, Nigel Farage, with whom he shares so many delightful opinions, to be the United Kingdom's ambassador in Washington.

If press reaction, or, let's hope, overreaction, is anything to go by, the next four years are going to be dark times for the US and, because of America, even darker times for the rest of the world. Fuelled by many of Trump's comments on the campaign trail over the last 18 months, there has been a long list of dire predictions made by the media over the state of the world under a Trump presidency. The US will become isolationist once again, as it was from 1920 to 1938; the US, led by Trump, will not show restraint in the use of nuclear weapons; the US will return to the 1950s and 1960s when issues of race caused the widest rift in the country since the Civil War. Well, perhaps that is all part of making the US great again. We should panic.

We understand here that Narendra Modi is busy making India great. Great again possibly, but that's a bit of a tricky one unless you are a fan of colonial and imperial ideas of greatness. Would it be reasonable to say that the remarkable subcontinent has been very great in parts at varying stages of its long and often illustrious history? That a whole cohesive India should have every expectation of becoming great in the near future is entirely reasonable but divisive leadership is no more the way to bring the dream to reality there than it is in the US. One may applaud attacks on corruption, however frankly infuriating the decision to ban high-value rupee notes overnight from the point of view of us foreigners, who save the odd thousand for a rainy day and a taxi at an Indian airport. I can't help thinking, nevertheless, of the small traders, musicians, artisans who have never gone near banks and have saved their small caches of 500-rupee notes under their mattresses. Life savings gone. That is worth a panic whether or not the country is going to be great any time soon.

As we know all over again, it was Fidel Castro who last brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. Since then there have been many instances, pointed at by historians and politicians alike, where nuclear war could have happened. One mistake by either of the superpowers and the world we know would have ended. This threat of Armageddon has theoretically been enhanced every year since the first bombs were used in 1945, not because of the leaders, Left or Right, in charge of countries at the time but because of the lack of control over nuclear arms. During the Cold War, countries, excluding a few wise neutrals like India, were usually in the US or the Soviet camps. This meant maverick attacks without 'big brother's' approval were unlikely. Now there are no such safeguards. North Korea, we assume, is the wildest of the wild cards, happily following the leader and ignoring big brother next door in Beijing, but all these men - let's face it, they are mostly men and, like her or hate her, Hillary would have been safer - are chucking their depleted testosterone around. Wow. Panic.

Let's all push the reset button like Modi did on money and just ban the bomb. Déjà vuanyone? Well, the North Koreans wouldn't listen anyway and, seriously, are the threats more threatening than ever before? I don't know. As extraordinary countries, cultures, civilizations and histories like that of Syria are utterly destroyed, the ancient cities of Yemen become ruins filled with starving ghosts, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan - where the government of Nawaz Sharif would rather build great roads than preserve the greater past, as he proposes to create a new history for his country - we have to keep going, like it or not. The young still hope for the best as they put their heads down and make the best of what they have and work out what they can do with it. We all have to do our best to preserve what we have: the natural world around us that we are all busy unthinkingly destroying, our written, spoken and built history, culture and many civilizations. They are the anchors, or perhaps the lifelines, that pull us back to moderation and that wishy-washy unseductive but o so safe, liberal democracy, in whatever form it evolves to fit an available space the next time one appears. And it will, eventually, unless someone panics and presses the wrong button.

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