Red Aunt

That is my great aunt Margaret in the box. Put her in anything grander and she would have risen to give it away. The lugubrious onlookers are her friends and neighbors. The place is Simferopol in Crimea, her home for the previous 30 years. The date is July 6, 1965. She would have turned 77 that October. Margaret, or Margery as friends and family called her, was the daughter, granddaughter and niece of country vicars. She was raised in rectories around East Anglia, England’s stomach. From her mother she had the genes of an Anglo-Irish brewing and banking dynasty and the connections that went with them. How, from such a background, she ended up where she did I will relate in The Margery Book.

President Lear

He came into office determined to shake up the status quo and to do things differently. He asked some good questions. Is there a better way of dealing with the North Korean dynasty? If we had better relations with Russia, would we need NATO? What the hell are we still doing in Afghanistan and Iraq? Who’s the real threat in the Middle East? Is there really a two-state solution to Israel-Palestine? Why have we shipped so much of our productive capacity to China? But Trump had absolutely no idea of how to get anything done in a Washington that was bound to be deeply hostile, both to the man and to his agenda. Reality TV skills can get you elected. They don’t make you a statesman. Trump has essentially spent his presidency being manipulated by people, at home and abroad, with other agendas. He is a Lear-like figure. The time was, and more than ever is, ripe for a wholesale reappraisal of the world order and of how we set and manage global priorities. For good and evident reason, starting with his character, temperament and cognitive capacity, Trump is not the man for this moment. We’d be better of with a Nixon.

Let’s get metaphysical

There is a power greater than us. I do not know what it is, just that it is. Logos is as good a word as any for it. Without it we would not be. It pre-existed existence. All that is operates by its rules. Somehow under those rules the faculty of thought evolved in us. And we began to think: we can bend the rules, we can ignore them, we can make our own, we ourselves are the power. Thought makes possible wisdom but also unwisdom. And so, in our unwisdom, in our blind, hubristic refusal to play by the rules, we will put ourselves out of existence. Life will go on for whatever follows the rules. When I look at what we are doing to each other and the planet, I suspect that won’t be us. We think we can beat the logic of the universe.

There’s word for it

If your idea of fun is gunning the engine of your muscle car and laying down rubber in a quiet neighbourhood where everyone else is trying to get some sleep, there is a word for you.

If you like to shatter the silence and create tsunamis of wash with your power boat in utter disregard for anyone else trying to enjoy the river and its wildlife, there is a word for you.

If you foul the countryside with the packaging and cans that have contained the swill responsible for your edematous gut, there is a word for you.

If you think your right to own weapons of war and brandish them in public without let  or hindrance trumps the right of parents to send their children to school without worrying if they’re going to come home in body bags, there is a word for you.

If you insist on flying a flag representing a failed rebellion whose aim was to destroy your country and perpetuate the subjugation of a race, there is a word for you.

If you think the people to whom that flag represents a raised middle finger deserve the middle finger and should get over it, there is a word for you.

If you think it an unacceptable assault on your liberty to be asked to wear a mask lest you spread a  contagion that may cause fellow human beings to drown in their own pus, there is a word for you.

If you think freedom means doing whatever you damn well like regardless of how it affects the rest of your community, country or planet, yes, there is a word for you.

The word is arsehole. America is in the grip of arsehole culture, starting from the top. 

Bull Leaper

I often wonder about her, that girl we ran over on the way home from Troy. Is she still alive? She would be 70, give or take, a grandmother perhaps. Did she tell her children about that day? Did they ask about the scar on her forehead? I imagine it must still be there. The gash looked deep. Did she explain why she ran out into the middle of a lonely road that summer afternoon in 1967?

We were on holiday. Let’s go to Turkey, someone had said. We could take a tent. It wouldn’t be like camping in Norfolk. We would be warm and dry. As a boy scout, I did not rate my family as campers. Bloody amateurs, I called them. At 11, I had through emulation of my elders learnt to express myself robustly.  Mother purchased a tent big enough for the four of us. Up, it was a handsome enough pavilion; down, less so. It came in two burlap bags which we roped to the roof of the Morris 1100 along with folding lawn furniture and sleeping bags wrapped in plastic. The overall effect was of a family fleeing a dust bowl, or so I thought as I eyed the spiffier kit of everyone else. And so we set off, several hundredweight of bodies and impedimenta, packed like early astronauts into the valiant little car that was to haul us halfway to Samarkand. I have owned motorcycles with larger engines. First, though, we had to cross he channel. For that we flew. 

In those days, if you wanted to save time, you could put your car on a Bristol Superfreighter that would take you and it, in separate cabins,  from Lydd in Kent to Ostend in Belgium. When the cabin attendant came round with the duty free, my parents would normally have purchased the maximum allowance of Kents, their brand of smoke. But something came over them.  This, they decided, was the moment to free themselves for nicotine’s chains. For my father, it made a sort of sense. For him, writing and lighting up were inseparable. He had been doing them in tandem since well before the Associated Press hired him as a cub reporter in Cairo in 1942. On the job, he was a two to three pack a day man. You could tell by the serried ranks of burn marks along the edge of his desk.  A month now stretched before us in which he would not have to bash out a syllable, though the Olivetti came with us just in case.  For mother giving up would be easier, she said. She had never really liked smoking, had only taken up the habit because the men in her life had all smoked and she took pleasure in its flirtatious and post-coital rituals. The man lighting two cigarettes simultaneously and transferring one to the woman’s lips, before and after. To admit that she was as hooked as any other smoker did not mesh with her story of herself. The coming journey would test its veracity.

We Barbers liked to travel flexibly. We were not ones to let planning and booking interfere with the thrill of not knowing where we would be that night, or the arguments to be had on the way. We established a routine soon enough though.  Each morning we would consult the map and decide upon a route that would get us a few hundred miles closer to Istanbul, home of the one booking we did have.  After lunch we would start consulting the Baedeker of camp sites mother had been provident enough to acquire, paying particular attention to its hieroglyphs which, once you had located the Rosetta Stone in the appendix, let you know what amenities to expect at each site. Would there be be showers? Did they work? Would one be sitting on or squatting over porcelain? Was the porcelain likely to be clean? Would there be porcelain? And, most important, what would the night’s stay cost?

Decisions were seldom simple or consensual.  We each had different needs and wants and ways of expressing them. Bear in mind that the drivers were in nicotine withdrawal and the driving, mostly on two-lane roads, took stamina. Even though we occupied the lower quintiles when it came to capacity for speed, there was much overtaking to be done nonetheless, generally on winding roads and blind hills, mostly of buses and lumbering pantechnicons. Ours was an English car so the steering wheel was on the curb, or wrong, side, leaving the driver to what guess what might be coming the other way. The onus was therefore on the occupant of the front passenger seat to make the call. If the co-pilot was dozing or there was a difference of opinion, the driver might throw the car into the line of fire in an exploratory lunge, yanking it back if need be.  Then, if the decision was go, the real drama would begin as the driver double de-clutched into second, we held our breaths and the engine screamed like a rabbit in the claws of a hawk. The excitement was draining. Come dusk, there was not a lot of energy left for the putting up of tents. There would be a row which would end with three of us stomping off in different directions with no tent to sulk in. At least until Charles erected it.  By then we were past sulking. To be continued

Grotesque Old Party

Below is a letter I was going to send to a Republican friend whose defense of his party I can no longer stomach. Trump, as one of his few Republican critics, Rick Wilson, has written, kills everything he touches. Perhaps this friendship is dead, too. I hope not. But, by God, I have really had enough of the GOP.

The current convulsion is directly attributable to the party you cling to so desperately, the values it now espouses, the interests it has whored itself out to, the hatred it stokes, the bigotry it condones and encourages, all in its desperation to stay viable in an age when it has lost touch with the majority of this country. Your party demonstrated its bankruptcy beyond any question when it nominated Trump in 2016 and continues to do so as it worships at the altar of this grotesque parody of a president. Your party has no vision of a better future. It is a defender of the past, and not what’s good about the past, but those aspects of which this country should be most ashamed. Your party is a party of people who proudly fly the flag of slavery. Your party is the party that blocks any attempt to civilize this country’s monstrous health system while giving away trillions to the wealthiest. Your party wants to poison our water and our air. Your party is the party of social Darwinism. Your party does the bidding of the 0.1 per cent and plays on the fears and resentments of those whose lives the 0.1 per cent have poisoned, to make them believe it is their friend and protector. Your party waves around the Bible but is utterly blind to what is in it. In worshipping Trump, your party commits sacrilege. And now, on your party’s watch, the republic hangs in the balance.

If I was young and black and living in Chicago’s south side and I looked at the cards I’d been dealt and saw a society that didn’t want me, a society that flew the slavery flag in my face, a society that chose as its president a man who brayed for the innocent blood of young men like me in New York, who denied that the one black man like me this country made president was actually an American, a society in which law and order did not apply to white men, in and out or uniform, when they shot at me or threw me on the ground and squeezed the life out of me, by God, it wouldn’t take much to get me looting and burning. Not because I wanted stuff. To strike back. To say fuck you and your law and order.

So go on, my friend, defend your wretched party by citing the statistics of mayhem. Justify the deployment of the American killing machine to “dominate” the “battlespace”. Stick by a party that defends a semi-literate would-be dictator who tear-gases peaceful protestors for a photo op. Stick by a party that needs to unleash America’s worst angels, its id, to stay in power. Stick by a party that needs help from America’s enemies to win.

Valkyrie moment?

Polls have Bernie Sanders winning the early heats for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination which kick off in Iowa next week. If he’s to be the nominee, we had better hope the Senate removes Donald Trump from office ahead of the general election. There’s little chance America’s voters will do the job if the alternative is a hectoring old lefty.

Sure, the Democratic candidate will get the most votes, as she did last time, but with the Trump lies-fear-and-hate machine at full throttle it is hard to see a self-declared socialist putting together a majority where it counts, in the electoral college. 

The Democrat Trump fears most is former vice president Joe Biden. But Biden could yet become the Democratic version of the Republicans’ Jeb Bush in 2016 — the establishment favourite blown out of the water when MAGA-hatted primary voters staged a revolt. Sanders would be the Democrats’ Trump, the outsider who eats the party. And even if doesn’t win the nomination, there are enough fanatics in his camp to spoil things for whoever does.

Trump may have got himself impeached for demanding help against Biden from Ukraine’s Wolodymyr Zelensky, but assuming he survives his Senate trial he will still have achieved his objective: terminally slime Biden as a veteran Washington swamp creature who, at minimum, turned a blind eye while his son raked in fifty grand a month from a dodgy Ukrainian gas company.

Beyond the coastal metropoles and the Twittersphere, America has not been paying much attention to the trial. Minds are as much made up outside the Senate chamber as they are inside. For the Democratic tribe, Trump is an existential threat to the constitution. For the Republican tribe, the president is the target of a coup attempt.

Trump’s defense strategy has been less about refuting the charges than about getting a rise out of his enemies, helped by a legal team of you-couldn’t-make-this-up awfulness. 

There’s Ken Starr, the prurient Inspector Javert set on by Republicans to destroy Bill Clinton. There’s Alan Dershowitz, the lawyer and TV talking head you call if you’re rich, famous and guilty as sin. His clients have included OJ Simpson, Eurotrash inheritance-hunter Claus von Bulow and Jeffrey Epstein. There’s Jay Sekulow, founder of a non-profit which pays him and his family millions raised in grotesquely cynical appeals to working class evangelicals. 

And let’s not forget Pam Bondi, who, as Florida attorney general, turned a blind eye to Trump’s fraudulent university after receiving an illegal donation from his fraudulent foundation. She’s now on  a $115 000-month retainer lobbying for Qatar.

Of course, good help is increasingly hard to find if you’re Trump. Who of any quality, having seen him axe and humiliate grown-up after grown-up, would want to work for him? Only, it would seem, shameless sycophants like Rex Tillerson’s Foggy Bottom successor Mike Pompeo, a thug no other president of either party would ever have dreamt of naming the country’s top diplomat.

Which brings us to John Bolton, a weird choice to replace HR McMaster as national security adviser in 2018 given the gulf between his ultrahawkish neoconservative views and Trump’s autocrat-infatuated isolationism. Naturally, he didn’t last either. 

Bolton has a reputation as a ninja inside knife fighter. Guessing how a draft of his smoking gun memoir, The Room Where it Happened, found its way from White House reviewers to the New York Times, is the Washington parlour game du jour. If someone was trying to blow a hole through the claim of executive privilege behind which Trump has been cowering, this was a clever way to do it

Have we reached a Valkyrie moment for the Trump regime, with Bolton as Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planting a book in the bunker instead of a bomb? Pray that this attempt is more successful.

Don’t make Zuck a censor

Facebook is taking flak for refusing to police the political ads it sells for truthfulness. That’s absurd. And how effective are those ads, anyway?

I’m no fan of the platform. It’s aesthetically unpleasing. More importantly, it has had a lot to do with the destruction of local newspapers. And I’m leery of what David Courtwright has called “limbic capitalism” that preys on our propensity to addiction. 

No question, Mark Zuckerberg is a limbic capitalist. He aims to hook us on our screens to that he can tap into our particulars like a cyber vampire and sell them to anyone who wants to manipulate us. Of course, we have only ourselves to blame for letting him get his teeth into our necks. Facebook is free for a reason, but also optional.

It is precisely because the Zuckerberg I’ve watched testifying before Congress looks to have undergone a lobotomy of the soul that I would not want to assign him, his creatures or algorithms the task of deciding between the acceptability or otherwise of political speech. 

Put it out there and let us be the judge. That’s what the Founders had in mind. They did not confine protection of speech to the true kind. This would a pretty monosyllabic republic had they done so.

Of course, the Founders never imagined politicians targeting lies with the accuracy made possible by Facebook. But when has matching sales pitch to audience not been an essential element of vote-getting. And it is not as though we can’t see what candidates are feeding their discrete audiences.

On Tuesday, for example, the Trump campaign, deluged its marks with invitations to take what it called “The Democrat Corruption Accountability Survey” featuring 10 questions along the lines of “Do you believe Joe Biden’s corruption in Ukraine should disqualify him from being president?” 

To share your answer with Trump you had also to share your postal code and email. That would presumably discourage those who saw the premise of the survey for what it was — a lie — from hitting submit. But it would also reap a harvest of usefully idiotic contacts for the campaign.

Another Facebook ad blitz the same day featured pictures of worried looking puppies and kittens. Thanks to Trump, their lives supposedly were about to improve. Caption: “Enough is enough. Cruelty to animals is now a federal crime thanks to President Trump! Add your name to show you stand with President Trump against abuse in the United States TODAY”.

Trump did sign a bipartisan animal cruelty bill last year but to call the notorious germophobe an an animal lover is a stretch, especially when Don Jr. is out potting rare Mongolian sheep for sport. But as long as it’s done transparently, I’ll defend Trump’s right to misrepresent himself on Facebook, if not with my life at least in my penultimate Business Day column..

Want to see who’s advertising how and what they’re spending? Visit the Facebook ads library and type in Trump or any other candidate’s name. It’s not the easiest dashboard to navigate but it does tell you in which states each iteration of an ad is being seen and how many eyeballs it has flashed past. 

What it does not do, presumably quite deliberately, is provide enough information to let you easily correlate ads with voting results. For that you would need a much more granular picture of the demographic target criteria selected for each ad.

Why would Facebook be coy with such data? Perhaps because it would reveal too much about whether Facebook ads are really the political game changer Zuckerberg adviser Andrew Bosworth boasted they were in a “leaked” December 30 memo to colleagues. It wasn’t Russia or Cambridge Analytica’s “garbage” that got Trump elected in 2016, he said. It was Facebook and “the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen.”

That’s an ad salesman speaking in a year when election spending will shatter records.

Bad dream

Seeing as how Eskom can no longer meet SA’s electricity needs, it must be some consolation that days are longer at Christmastime in the southern hemisphere. Up here, it is the darkest season. Darkening it further is the thought that this time next year we could be getting ready for Donald Trump’s second inauguration.

Here’s how it happened:

The impeachment fizzled. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saw to it that the trial was quick.  Following Trump’s acquittal, Republicans stuck resolutely to their talking points. It was the Democrats, not Trump, who had abused power. They had plotted coup against a president whose legitimacy they never accepted. 

This message was amplified by Fox, Breitbart and the rest of Trump’s propaganda network and would be his mantra throughout the campaign. He bragged that the failed impeachment was proof  not only of his innocence but of his courage. The deep state had come at him when he tried to break its grip, and he had faced it down. 

By the time the president’s personal lawyer Rudolf Giuliani was indicted on charges related to his quest for dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden in Ukraine, America had moved on. Trump disowned Giuliani and said he had been freelancing.

Biden stayed smeared and it soon became apparent that his path to the Democratic nomination would not be as easy as the polls had suggested. Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar came out of nowhere to take second place in Iowa, putting the sensible centre in play. Bernie Sanders established himself over Elizabeth Warren as the standard bearer of the left with a win in New Hampshire. 

Biden regained his footing in South Carolina but with Klobuchar catching fire and splitting the centrist vote, Sanders started racking up delegates as the primaries ground on. Biden survived, but it was anything but a happy and united convention that gave him the nomination. The left went off to its tent in a huff. For many others, there was bitter disappointment that a woman was not at the top of the ticket. 

It is unclear what role if any Russian active measures played but they were probably superfluous as Representatives Ilhan Omar and Alexandra Occasio-Cortez, among others, generated a steady flow of soundbites for the Trumpist outrage machine.

Trump was in his element, thrilling MAGA-hatted crowds with his preposterous braggadocio and whipping up 40-minutes hates — not just the two-minute variety of 1984 fame — against the Democrats and the “faceless bureaucrats who conspire with them to deny the people’s will.”

Off the campaign trail Trump seemed at unusual pains to play the statesman, racking up what looked like legitimate accomplishments. Inspired by the success of Britain’s Boris Johnson, he stole the Democrats’ clothes and unveiled a serious effort to replace Obamacare with something better, as he’d promised in 2016.  

Then there was the trade deal with China. He was given credit for brokering a peace between Russia and Ukraine. Victory was declared in Afghanistan. The Taliban complied with the terms of a ceasefire, and US troops came home. North Korea launched no missiles. Some suspected this was all good to be true. It was as if America’s adversaries were eager to help Trump win a second term.

Biden, meanwhile, floundered. He never escaped the question of why, as President Obama’s point man on Ukraine, he had not objected to his son serving on the board of a dodgy Ukrainian energy company. As the campaign wore on, his 77 years told. He grew increasingly testy and gaffe prone. Having served in the Senate since 1973, he was an easy target for Trump to brand as a swamp creature. And so on election night, we watched a replay of 2016 and wondered whether we should emigrate to Canada.

Please let this be nothing more than a bad dream.

Fatter margins, thinner AGOA

US clothing brands and retailers are lobbying Congress to rip the heart out of the African Growth and Opportunity Act next year.  African beneficiaries need to push back more aggressively than they have heretofore.

Of course, the lobbyists don’t describe what they are trying to achieve quite so bluntly. All they are proposing, they say, is “modernisation” of the US Generalised System of Preferences (GSP). They concede that Africa might get hurt in the process which is why they have thoughtfully included safeguards to mitigate the risk of that happening. Their solicitousness begs skepticism.

GSP has lately been drawn to SA’s attention  by the International Intellectual Property Alliance.   The Washington-based trade association has prevailed on President Trump to threaten SA’s AGOA privileges as a means of extracting concessions on copyright policy. 

A number of advanced economies have GSP programmes that offer the less developed duty-free market access on a non-reciprocal basis to help them become more developed. The US variant sets a range of eligibility conditions such as the one the IIPA is using to squeeze SA.

AGOA is simply US GSP on steroids, created as an extra boost for qualified GSP recipients in sub-Saharan Africa. It offers duty-free treatment for a much larger range of products, in particular, and most valuably,  clothing and textiles excluded by statute from ordinary GSP. The idea is to support Africa’s industrialisation by encouraging apparel companies to invest in and source from the continent.

Congress must renew the GSP programme by the end of 2020. As part of the renewal US importers want to extend AGOA’s textile and clothing benefits to any GSP country that wants them. That would include countries like Pakistan, Indonesia and Cambodia that already have a significant share of the American market.

Those three countries alone accounted for $8.5 billion worth of US apparel imports last year without preferential treatment. AGOA countries, with preferences, managed $1.2 billion, led by Kenya ($391 million) and Lesotho ($320 million). All told, non-African GSP countries supplied 21 percent of US imports in 2018, AGOA countries 1.4 per cent.

AGOA apparel benefits for everyone mean AGOA apparel benefits for noone and Africa would be back to square one. The comparative advantage that has been driving increased investment in and sourcing from East Africa, in particular, evaporates.  Sewing machines and the jobs that go with them are easily moved.

The proponents of GSP “modernisation” say it will help them diversify their supply chains away from China, by far the largest US import source at $28 billion last year, but now facing punitive duties as Trump wages his trade war.

That’s a lot of production looking for a new home.  But why do countries that are already major exporters at normal rates of duty need extra incentives to attract it? Why not let Africa reap the benefit as the act intended? And not just Africa, but US neighbours and free trade agreement partners in Central America and the Caribbean whose textiles and clothing also receive preferential access in part to stem illegal migration.

The lobbyists say GSP countries won’t receive the new preferences automatically. They’ll have to petition and satisfy the programme’s conditions, including intellectual property protection and labour standards. One can be fairly certain their applications will be rubber stamped as soon as the lobbyists have collected their fees.

As for those safeguards mentioned earlier, it is proposed that product lines only be made eligible for expanded duty free treatment if AGOA countries are the source of 10 percent or more of US imports. In other words, importers will have every reason to structure purchases so as to cap imports from Africa. Potential investors will know that.

As much as they try to pretty it up, the interests pushing for textiles and apparel to be included in GSP have only one object in mind and that is fatter margins.