Friday 29 June 2018

I hear the echo of jackboots

England go through! Yeah!

Germany go home! Yeah again!

Brexit will be great! Er, excuse me?

Don’t you hate it when what eleven men do with a spherical object on a patch of grass suddenly gets translated into some mystically powerful symbol of the State of the World?

By all means, celebrate the achievements of an England football team that aren’t a total disgrace. For me personally, it’s less than life-changing, but hey, if it makes you happy, be my guest.

But please, spare me the guff about Britain holding its head high in Europe again, or showing who’s boss, or Engerland all the way. Sport is never a metaphor for lasting political success, as a certain German leader discovered to his cost after the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

The truth is that Europe is in deep trouble. So if the World Cup had anything to do with reality, this year’s tournament would be won by a non-European team. My own preference would be Mexico, just to piss off Donald Trump, who thinks it’s where the ‘animals’ who ‘infest’ the United States come from.

As for Brexit, our EU neighbours have given up worrying. Their attitude can now be accurately, if brutally, summed up as: ‘Tell us when you’ve managed to work out what you want, and then we’ll tell you why you can’t have it.’

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the countries of western Europe linked up with the United States and Canada to form something called The West. They were united by a shared belief in liberal democracy and capitalism, and a perceived need to protect themselves against expansionist Soviet communism.

Most importantly, they believed that they were both stronger and safer when they cooperated with each other than when they confronted each other. That’s what NATO was all about – ‘an attack on one is an attack on all’ – it was also, in a strictly European context, what the EU was all about.

No longer – and not only because of Brexit. European leaders of the stature of Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand and Vaclav Havel have long gone. Now, Angela Merkel, the last leader worthy of the name on the European stage, is so politically weakened that she may soon be gone as well. Emmanuel Macron is all that’s left, but he sometimes seems to think he’s the reincarnation of Napoleon Bonaparte, which I find somewhat worrying.

The post-war consensus – that the nations of the Western world must work together for the benefit of all instead of going to war for the benefit of none – has been shredded. When Donald Trump promises ‘America First’, we know that what he means is ‘And the rest of the world, allies included, nowhere.’

Mr Trump is a salesman, first and last. His over-riding aim is to screw anyone with whom he does business, because it’s the only way he knows how to ensure that he’s not getting screwed himself. The notion of a ‘fair deal’ has no place in his thinking. I must always win, because otherwise I will always lose.

Look at his record: Paris climate deal? Ripped up. Iran nuclear deal? Ditto. G7 summit? Trashed. Trade war with allies Canada and the EU? Bring it on.

The NATO summit is next, followed closely by a summit in Helsinki with President Putin. No prizes for guessing which will produce the warmer words.

Wherever you look, the autocrats, xenophobes and extreme nationalists are on the march. In Germany, Angela Merkel is under threat from anti-immigration voices both inside and outside her coalition. In Hungary and Poland, governments have no hesitation in pandering to the basest of anti-foreigner sentiment. In Italy, one of the EU’s biggest economies, the most powerful voice in the newly-formed government is that of Matteo Salvini, the loud-mouth leader of the formerly separatist (Northern) League.

And worst of all, in the United States, which twice in the last century came to Europe’s rescue to save it from itself, the man in the Oval Office cares for nothing except his own self-image as the strongest leader of the strongest nation in the world.

Perhaps it is because he knows that in reality he is anything but strong that he so enjoys basking in the reflected glory of other self-styled ‘strong leaders’. He values the friendship of Xi Jinping of China, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey – even the ‘rocket man’ of North Korea, Kim Jong-Un – far more than that of the US’s traditional allies. How does he describe Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel? Weak, weak, weak.

In Trumpworld, democrats (and Democrats, come to that) are by definition weak and ineffectual. Only autocrats are worthy of respect. Trump’s latest bright idea is to rip up the rule of law and deport allegedly illegal immigrants without even a semblance of due process. After all, even before he was elected, he was whipping up his supporters into a frenzy of hysteria just at the thought of jailing his opponent, Hillary Clinton. (‘Lock her up, lock her up.’)

For eighteen months, ever since Trump took office, commentators have shied away from describing him as a Fascist. Now, perhaps, it is time to stop pretending. In Washington, and in a worrying number of European capitals as well, the echo of jackboots can be heard ever more loudly.

You think I exaggerate? Trump likes to describe journalists as ‘enemies of the people’ – and just a couple of days ago, Milo Yiannopoulos, former senior editor at Breitbart News, once run by Trump’s ex-chief strategist, Steve Bannon, revealed that he has decided from now on to use the same response to all journalists’ questions: ‘I can’t wait for the vigilante squads to start gunning journalists down on sight.’ (He says it’s a joke. Of course.)

At the time of writing, by the way, there is no evidence to suggest that the fatal shooting of five people yesterday at the offices of a newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland, was in any way related to such remarks.

But the atmosphere is dangerous and ugly. Words have power, and Trump’s words are almost always ugly. Anger is rising, and there is surely no challenge more urgent than to confront the threat head on. In 1939, it took a world war; this time, we must find a better way.

To update only slightly the words of the anti-Nazi Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller: ‘First they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out, because I was not an immigrant … Then they came for the journalists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a journalist …’

Friday 22 June 2018

A stain on the modern world

This is the story of two youngsters who were sent, unaccompanied, by their parents to seek refuge in a foreign land.

One of them, a 20-year-old male, was arrested a few months after his arrival and locked up in a prison camp. The other, an 18-year-old female, found work with family friends. Her mother, who had to stay behind in their home country after being refused entry into the UK, was later murdered by a government death squad.

The two youngsters were refugees. If they had stayed in the country of their birth, they would almost certainly have been killed. I am glad that they managed to get out, even though millions more didn't.

Why do I tell their story now? First, because we have supposedly just been marking World Refugee Day, although you could be forgiven for having missed it. Refugees aren't exactly flavour of the month these days.

And second, because those two youngsters were my parents, who escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939.  They both later joined the British army and served in a top-secret military intelligence unit, which is where they met.

Let us not, however, mythologise the past. Whatever you may have heard, refugees have rarely been welcomed with open arms. In the years before the Second World War, an estimated 70,000 Jewish refugees were granted asylum in the UK -- but another 500,000 who applied for entry were unsuccessful. Among them was my grandmother.

Now fast forward to today. President Trump believes migrants from Mexico and central America are 'infesting' the US. His choice of words is chilling, given that 'infesting', as you don't need me to tell you, is something normally associated with vermin.

During the presidential election campaign, he said of Mexican migrants: 'They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.' (And then, as an afterthought, as if he had shocked even himself by the violence of his rhetoric, he added: 'Some, I assume, are good people.')
Honduras and El Salvador, from which many of the migrants have come, just happen to be the two countries with the highest murder rates in the world. If you or I were parents there, we too would be prepared to risk everything to find a place of safety for our children. Yes, even if it meant crossing a border illegally and risking arrest.

But that doesn't matter to Mr Trump. Compassion is as foreign to his psyche as it is to the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has just introduced legislation to criminalise any individual or group that offers to help asylum-seekers, or to the populist Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, who has refused to allow ships carrying desperate migrants from north Africa to dock at Italian ports and has called for 'a mass cleansing, street by street, piazza by piazza' of Italy's Roma population.

And while we're pointing fingers, let us not forget the horror that is the Yarl's Wood immigrant detention centre in Bedfordshire, where more than four hundred people are being held in conditions described by the Green party MP Caroline Lucas after a recent visit as 'psychological torture'. Those who live in glass houses ...

Of course, I'm sympathetic to refugees and asylum-seekers. With my background, how could I not be? But what I find hard to understand is why hostility towards refugees and other migrants still seems to be so widespread.

Did refugees cause the global financial crisis a decade ago? Was it refugees who slashed public services, closed libraries and under-funded the NHS? Of course it wasn't.

According to the UN, there are now more refugees than at any time since the end of the Second World War. Why? Because more are fleeing from conflicts -- including those in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan -- and from what the 1951 UN Refugee Convention calls 'a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.' Millions more are fleeing from grinding poverty, in part as a result of climate change, and the fear of violence at the hands of drugs cartels.

No one suggests that all countries should throw open their borders willy-nilly to all who wish to enter. But surely the richest countries in the world have a clear moral duty to devise a fair, humane system for offering sanctuary to those who are in fear for their lives.

If Hungary, for example, refuses point blank even to consider any EU proposal to take in refugees, perhaps Mr Orbán could be reminded that belonging to the European Union involves responsibilities as well as benefits. Perhaps he has forgotten that when Hungary joined the EU in 2004, it signed up to the so-called 'Copenhagen criteria': to preserve a democratic system of government, to guarantee human rights and a functioning market economy, and to accept the obligations of EU membership.

The demonisation of refugees -- and of migrants in general -- is a stain on the modern world. For President Trump, targeting them is a cheap, cynical ploy to energise his core supporters. The same goes for Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Matteo Salvini in Italy and populist demagogues everywhere. What could be easier than stirring up hatred of foreigners?

Even in once-liberal Sweden, growing support for the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats party now means that they could well end up holding the balance of power after elections later this year. All in all, it is a deeply depressing picture.

Friday 15 June 2018

North Korea: what happens when Trump realises he's been conned?

I have some good news and some bad news.

The good news is that for the time being, Donald Trump is no longer threatening ‘fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen’ against North Korea.

The bad news is those four little words: ‘for the time being’. Because Mr Trump is, well, what’s the best way to describe him? Mercurial? Inconsistent? Known for, just occasionally, changing his mind from one minute to the next?

The North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has gone from ‘rocket man on a suicide mission’, leading a regime that is ‘depraved’ and ‘twisted’, to ‘a very smart guy … a great negotiator’.

The US president clearly suffers from the delusion that his cascade of puerile insults late last year terrified the North Koreans to the negotiating table. (He said as much at his rambling, often incoherent post-summit press conference: ‘Without the rhetoric, it would not have happened.’) The truth is that Kim promised nothing significant that had not been promised before, most notably by his father in 1994, and then again in 2000, 2005 and 2007.

Ah, says Mr Trump, this time it’s different. This Kim is different to his father and grandfather, who ruled before him. Or maybe he isn’t.

Here’s my favourite post-summit Trump quote: ‘Honestly, I think he’s going to do these things. I may be wrong. I may stand before you in six months and say “Hey, I was wrong.” I don’t know that I’ll ever admit that -- I’ll find some kind of excuse.’

You want more? How about this? ‘All I can say is they want to make a deal. That’s what I do. My whole life has been deals. I have done great at it. That’s what I do. I know when somebody wants to deal and I know when somebody doesn’t. A lot of politicians don’t. That’s not their thing. This could have been done a long time ago. I know for a fact. I feel very strongly. My instinct or ability or talent, they want to make it a deal. It is a great thing for the world.’

I doubt that Mr Trump will recognise the name Jang Song-thaek. He was Kim’s uncle, and he was executed in 2013 on Kim’s orders after being accused of plotting a coup. The US president probably doesn’t know who Kim Jong-nam was either – he was Kim’s estranged half-brother, who was assassinated in a poison attack at Kuala Lumpur airport early last year.

A United Nations commission of inquiry concluded in 2014 that Kim’s regime is guilty of crimes including ‘extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.’

To which Mr Trump responds: ‘Hey, when you take over a country, tough country, with tough people, and you take it over from your father, I don’t care who you are, what you are, how much of an advantage you have – if you can do that at 27 years old, that’s one in 10,000 could do that …’

And when it was suggested to him that Kim had done ‘some really bad things’, he shrugged it off: ‘So have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.’

As recently as last February, in his State of the Union address, Mr Trump referred to the ‘depraved nature’ of the Kim Jong Un regime and said: ‘No regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea.’ But hey, who expects consistency from the Trump White House?

According to Amnesty International, in its most recent report on North Korea: ‘Systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations continued as up to 120,000 people remained in detention … and were subjected to forced labour as well as torture and other ill-treatment. Some of the violations amounted to crimes against humanity … Many of those living in the camps had not been convicted of any internationally recognised criminal offence; they were detained arbitrarily for being related to individuals deemed threatening to the state, or for “guilt-by-association”.’

The man responsible for presiding over this horrific system is now Mr Trump’s new best friend. So much easier to do business with, it seems, than the uppity Justin Trudeau of Canada, whom the US president delighted in insulting (‘weak and dishonest’) just hours before hobnobbing with the murderous dictator of Pyongyang.

So aren’t I even a little bit pleased that Mr Trump is now schmoozing with him instead of threatening to bomb him and his country to smithereens?

Of course I am. But I still dread what might happen when he realises he’s been conned. His record does not suggest that he’s a man who handles disappointment well.

By the way, the final episode of my Future of English series was broadcast this week. You can hear it or download it, and find all previous episodes, by clicking here.