The best things I’ve read recently (30/11/16)

The ‘fears of old men’ edition

The Moral Weakness of Pope Benedict’s “Last Testament” by James Carroll (the New Yorker)

That there is something tragic in Benedict’s story does not mitigate its negative weight, but it is impossible to read “Last Testament” without feeling sorry for a man whose life has been so branded by fear. Of course, entering manhood when and where he did, he came by fear naturally, but he never shook it. He was not afraid for himself, perhaps—he seems a man of personal courage—but he was terrified for the institution he served and over which he came to preside. It was this fear that, across decades, sparked the peculiar ruthlessness of his ecclesiastical boundary protection. When, as Pope, Benedict presided over the great Eucharistic celebrations in St. Peter’s Square, he made it a point always to firmly place the sacred host on the outstretched tongues of the faithful—this despite the liturgical change of Vatican II that called for the host to be placed in the communicants’ cupped hands. When Seewald asks him why, Benedict explains that among “the many people on St. Peter’s Square” there were surely those who might, as he puts it, “pocket the Host” and take it away. For what, a papal souvenir? How far that seems from casting bread upon the waters, or from passing bread around a table at which misfits and trouble-makers are welcome, or, for that matter, from prizing the bread, as the Mass does, for its having been broken.

Donald Trump is now questioning the legitimacy of the election he won by Ezra Klein (Vox)

I’ve noticed a lot of people on Twitter seem to think Trump’s tweet is scary because it’s false, but the actually scary interpretation is that he believes it’s true, which he probably does. It seems likely that Trump got his “information” from conspiracy theorist site Infowars.com, or someone else retweeting or rewriting Infowars — a lot of weird things Trump says later prove to emerged in the pro-Trump, conspiracy theory-corners of the internet. The problem with Trump isn’t the lies he tells as much as it’s the information he chooses to believe.

The right must stop explaining away the crimes of Thomas Mair by Stephen Bush (the New Statesman)

Yesterday, the Mail ran an article asking “Did Neo-Nazi murder Jo over fear he’d lose council house he grew up in?” Mair, the paper claimed, suspected that the three-bedroom council house he’d lived alone in following the death of his parents “would be given to foreigners moving into his West Yorkshire town and believed the Labour MP would not help him”.

Again, the fear that the council house they grew up in will be taken away from them is not a novel one in my part of the world, and yet, at time of writing, no-one I went to school with has assassinated an MP. It’s worth noting, too, that the Mail’s pages have not exactly oozed sympathy for people facing eviction from council houses that are now too large for them – quite the opposite, in fact.

The Mail even goes so far as to suggest that Mair’s housing woes “may offer some clue as to what was behind the obsessive recluse’s decision to commit such an appalling crime”.  Just a small problem here: we’ve just come to the end of a two-week long trial which offered us “some clue” as to what was behind Mair’s act of terrorism.

And I don’t use words like “terrorism” or “white supremacist” lightly. Mair was tried and convicted as a terrorist, which is why the trial took place in London and not Yorkshire. During the trial, jurors heard that he perused white supremacist websites and magazines, and had an prolonged interest in “collaborators”, that is white people who defended the interests of minorities, particularly in the ending of apartheid in South Africa.

Tweet of the week (1)

Tweet of the week (2)

Video of the week

Why Luddism Protects Democracy

Two pieces of technology allow voters to cast their ballots reliably and securely. They are both hundreds of years old and begin with the letter ‘p’

The story goes that during the space race the Americans spent millions of dollars on pens that would work in zero gravity, whilst the Russians gave their astronauts pencils. This is actually an urban legend: both of the rival superpowers started out using pencils before concluding they were a fire hazard and switching to some form of specially designed pen. But true or not the merit that tale has been on my mind because I’ve been mulling the merits of the humble pencil.

The catalyst for this is Jill Stein. Having shown precious little interest in stopping Donald Trump before the election, the Green Party presidential candidate has raised large amounts of money to petition for recounts that aim to show that he did not in fact win a number of swing states. Which if nothing else prompted one of my favourite tweets of the entire election season:

The basis for Stein’s action seems to be the claim by some tech experts and election lawyers that in a number of swing states Clinton performed worse in counties that used electronic voting than those that stuck with physical ballots.

This notion is lent credence by the fact that during the election campaign someone – probably linked to the Russian intelligence services – was carrying out hacks designed to hurt the Clinton campaign. There is no reason to rule out the possibility they would have continued once polling day itself came around.

While all of this is true, it almost certainly doesn’t indicate fraud. When two journalists at FiveThirtyEight,  and , looked at the gap between Clinton’s vote in counties with different voting methods they found that the disparity was likely the result of demographics rather than manipulation. You would expect the counties that used electronic voting to lean Trump anyway as they were whiter and populated by fewer graduates. In addition, the states in question are all in the midwest and Trump seems to have gained ground across that region and not only in states like that still use paper ballots exclusively. In short, there does not appear to be a mystery for which the manipulation of electronic voting systems might be an explanation.

Whilst it may not have happened this time, the use of electronic voting machines leaves American elections vulnerable to fraud. As this video by the tech journalist Tom Scott illustrates, it is practically impossible to secure such machines.

This is not to say that an election conducted with paper ballots can never be fraudulently swayed. Being involved in British politics gave me direct experience of that. During the first election campaign I ever played a decent sized role in, my side spent a lot of time trying to work out if our Labour opponents were casting fraudulent postal votes. We believed – and the police appeared to agree – this had happened in the previous election. But there was no repeat. In the intervening period, a new law had been introduced requiring voters to include a signature and D.O.B on both their application to vote by post and a form that was posted back along with the ballot. This simple step proved sufficient to mostly end abuse of this voting method. And even at its height postal vote fraud in the UK – to my knowledge – only affected local elections. Even under a system lax enough to draw criticism from international democracy watchdogs, getting hold of enough physical ballot papers to influence a parliamentary election without getting caught proved too difficult for potential fraudsters. Imagine, therefore, how difficult it would be to manipulate an election in American states that have a population in the millions.

Once you dispense with physical ballots and record votes only as data, these logistical impediments to fraud fall away. As Scott says:

once you have electronic voting, it can take as much effort to change a million votes as it does one.

But the problem with electronic voting is not only that it makes fraud possible. It also makes it impossible to disprove fraud. You cannot do a recount because there is nothing to recount. The kind of exercise that Bialik and Arthur conducted depends on their being counties and states that don’t use electronic voting in order to compare with the places that do. And even then, the two authors are forced to admit:

It’s possible nonetheless that the election was hacked, in the sense that anything is possible. (And the best hackers are experts in erasing their tracks.) Maybe hackers knew which control variables we’d look at and manipulated the vote in a way that it would look like it was caused by race, education and population driving different voting preferences. Maybe hackers didn’t manipulate the share of votes in individual counties, but rather the turnout, increasing the number of votes in counties likely to favor one candidate or another.

In this context, there is no justification for the use of electronic voting. It may get you results faster but that’s not worth it if the result at the end may have been tampered with. Even if it hasn’t been then the possibility that it might have been is corrosive of trust in the democratic process and a threat to the peaceful transfer of power.

So please Americans go back to paper and pencils. Not only is that more secure but also more reliable. Maintaining a system based around some of the most common items in the world is easy compared to maintaining machines. If a pencil breaks, you do not need an engineer to fix it. If you run out of them, then someone with no training on their first day at work is quite capable of going to Staples and buying some replacements. And because pencils and paper cost next to nothing they can be replaced as and when needed. By contrast, buying new machines is expensive so many electoral authorities put it off. Do this long enough and you wind up in the situation of Pennsylvania which on November 8th 2016 was still using touch screens:

….from the ’80s made by…companies that don’t exist anymore.

That led to fears that even if the machines weren’t hacked they might simply make errors that resulted in them recording votes incorrectly.

In addition, there’s no need to teach voters how to use pencil and paper, hence there is less chance of ‘a hanging chad‘ style fiasco.

A number of states have wound up with the weird compromise of having voters cast their ballots using machines that then produce a paper copy of the ballot. Which – to borrow a phrase from Scott – makes the voting machine into nothing more than “the world’s most expensive pencil”.

If they wish to speed up the counting process, election authorities could always bring in machines to count ballots. This is less problematic than using them to record results because there remains a physical ballot paper that can be recounted by hand if there’s a question about the machine’s accuracy.

That exception aside Luddism is the best option when it comes to election. The ubiquity of pencils and paper speaks to their versatility. There is no need to invent any special technology to enable people to vote: a perfectly good tool for the job has been around for at least 500 years.

 

You might also be interested in:

I’ve written before about why I think the dangers of voter impersonation are dramatically overstated both in the US and the UK.

Can a non-Potter fan like me enjoy Fantastic Beasts?

I was a nerdy British nine year old when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published. I, therefore, really ought to have been a big fan of the series. All my friends were (and mostly still are). Yet for some reason I never got into them.  I did eventually read the Philosopher’s Stone in a rush before seeing the film. I thought both were alright but neither gripped me enough to induce me to spend further time reading or watching them. Perhaps my love for Star Trek and Star Wars was too all consuming for me to have room for another franchise in my heart.

So I came to Fantastic Beasts if not cold then at least rather chilled. I could probably have named most of the central characters but I had essentially no awareness of the wider history of the magical universe that books two through seven presumably sketch out. Which is significant because this new installment is a prequel and takes place within that backstory.

There were times when I felt that meant I wasn’t getting as much from Fantastic Beasts as I could. Various moments – including the big and rather obvious reveal at the end – lacked the impact they might have had. The same went for Easter Eggs – particularly taking the opportunity to name characters – which may excite fans but for me just broke the flow. Perhaps most significantly, I wasn’t familiar with the tone and it took me twenty minutes or so to click into it.

Despite that the tone was probably the thing I liked most about it. It alternates rather a lot. On the one hand, there is the story the title implies: the whimsical tale of heroes rounding up magical creatures. On the other, there are the elements of the film centring on the villains. These are not only dark but remarkably so. They contain allusions to terrorism, segregation, the Red Scare, the rise of fascism and child abuse.  There has been some criticism that the film doesn’t really gel these two halves and therefore winds up suffering from ‘tonal whiplash’. That’s true but unfair. The bleaker scenes have all the more impact for being placed amongst generally lighter moments. A genuinely creepy execution scene particularly stands out.

I also liked how a more British sensibility was preserved despite the setting being transferred to New York. It was not only the presence of a magical item that’s smaller on the inside than the outside that made me think of Dr Who!

If I have a gripe it’s that the CGI looks, well, very CGI. The visuals are not without their merits: 1920s New York is wonderfully evoked. However, when magic is supposedly bending reality it is a bit too obvious that a computer is really doing it. This problem is highlighted by the fact that Fantastic Beasts comes out soon after Doctor Strange. Marvel’s latest offering realised its magical world with great panache and was genuinely awe inspiring. When you’ve seen it showing people rebuilding structures with magic, the same thing happening in Fantastic Beasts seems rather humdrum.

But that is to quibble. Fantastic Beasts may not be essential viewing for non-Potter fans but we can still enjoy it. The film makes liberal use of the Potterverses mythology but does not assume your familiarity with it. Besides reminders of previous instalments, Fantastic Beasts also delivers plenty of warmth, humour alongside some nicely nasty creepiness. I will definitely be looking out for the sequel.

 

The best podcasts I’ve heard recently (26/11/2016)

 

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The week’s most interesting development in podcast land has been the arrival of Undone. The conceit is revisiting news stories and controversies of yesteryear to see how they developed once they stopped being the focus of media attention.

Which is interesting but the real selling point are the production values. It comes from Gimlet Media who specialise in doing what they call “high quality narrative podcasts”. Which is advertising speak for ‘our podcasts sound like something that could have been broadcast by the BBC or PBS.’ Don’t get me wrong: I like the fact that many podcasts aren’t like that. The ‘stick some smart and articulate people in a room with a microphone for an hour and lightly edit it’ format has lowered the medium’s barrier to entry substantially, and allowed listeners to eavesdrop on some fascinating conversations. However, given the way that the media as a whole appears to be drifting away from reporting towards opinion, I like hearing journalists doing the opposite: going out and interviewing the people involved in a story and giving precedence to those voices rather their own.

I’ve heard two episodes so far. The first on the battle that broke out between academia and Native Americans, when the oldest skeleton ever discovered in North America appeared to have ‘Caucasoid’ features. The other was on the Deacons for a Defence and Justice, a group pursuing civil rights in Louisiana that rejected Martin Luther King’s insistence on non-violence yet stayed within the movement he created and indeed was called upon by him for assistance.

Moving from PBS-like shows to PBS itself, “>Planet Money had a strange yet entertaining episode that felt like two episodes mushed together.  It nominal subject was the awarding of this year’s nobel prize for economics. But as it was awarded for a rather technical development in contract theory, the presenters themselves admit they are struggling to find a hook. So they wind up blending that with an interview with More or Less‘s Tim Harford about his new book on how forcing yourself to deal with unpredictable situations can foster creativity. In this case, that means the Planet Money team using a pack of cards devised by Brian Eno to help bands try new things to force themselves to create a new episode idea. It’s at once mad but brilliant.

Also on economic theory but seemingly a long way from Planet Money, the Vietnamese themed Loa reports on Marxist-Leninist education in the country. All university students are apparently required to take modules in the subject even if they intend to major in quintessentially capitalist fields like banking.

Right that’s it for my inaugural round up of the week’s best podcasting. If you hear anything that you think should be included in future editions, please do let me know.

The best things I’ve read recently (19/11/2016)

Men’s day comes to parliament with hilarious results, China’s selective refugee policy and some worrying rumours about Dr Who

Men of the Commons leave Men’s Day debate to the women by John Crace (the Guardian)

Conservative Paul Beresford was also keen to stand up for men, though he began by insisting he was a feminist because he had a wife and daughters. “Men tend to find themselves at the very top or the very bottom of the ladder,” he observed, a point rather contradicted by his own mediocrity. “We’re encouraging women to be scientists and company directors, so we must do more to help men be hairdressers and tea ladies,” he went on to say, before adding: “I think of the male suicide rate every time I hold the door open for a lady.” As non sequiturs go, that takes some beating.

The upper Han: who is Chinese? (the Economist)

China’s Han-centred worldview extends to refugees. In a series of conflicts since 2009 between ethnic militias and government forces in Myanmar the Chinese government has consistently done more to help the thousands escaping into China from Kokang in Myanmar, where 90% of the population is Han, than it has to aid those leaving Kachin, who are not Han. Non-Chinese seem just as beguiled by the purity of Han China as the government in Beijing. Governments and NGOs never suggest that China take refugees from trouble spots elsewhere in the world. The only large influx China has accepted since 1949 were also Han: some 300,000 Vietnamese fled across the border in 1978-79, fearing persecution for being “Chinese”. China has almost completely closed its doors to any others. Aside from the group from Vietnam, China has only 583 refugees on its books. The country has more billionaires.

Doctor Who Casting Rumors Have Us Scratching Our Heads by Kyle Anderson (Nerdist)

According to The Mirror‘s source:

“BBC management wants a return to the format from the David Tennant era, when you had a dashing male lead and young female companion.

“Merchandising has dropped off sharply in recent years and there is a strong desire to boost the show’s popularity among kids.”

Now, I have a lot of opinions about this, and most of them are to call this utter hogwash. Want some bullet points? Great!

  • The show hasn’t been on for a full calendar year. You want to wonder why merchandising has dropped? Maybe because there’s no show to get people excited about new adventures and new monsters to turn into toys.
  • I haven’t seen nearly the amount of toys and merchandise surrounding the Capaldi era as I did with the deluge surrounding Matt Smith.
  • Also, Matt Smith’s tenure culminated in the 50th Anniversary, when global interest in the show was at an all time high.
  • Pearl Mackie hasn’t even fucking been on the show yet! How can you already say they she’s not going to connect with kids if all of we’ve seen of her is a two minute teaser?
  • The idea of a “return to the format from the David Tennant-era” is incredibly short-sighted and regressive. If there’s one thing the show doesn’t need, it’s a formula that has become so passe.
  • Whether or not Capaldi (who is 58) will vacate the role following series 10, the one thing the BBC absolutely cannot do is have more of the same regarding casting choices. There badly needs to be a shakeup in terms of who plays the Doctor–i.e., not a white guy–and while the source doesn’t say “white” regarding the dashing Tennant-esque Doctor, it shows a clear desire not to think outside the box one iota. When HASN’T there been a dashing Doctor and a young female companion?

Podcast(s) of the week

There are two this week. Ezra Klein’s interview with Ron Brownstein about the psephology of Trump’s victory is fascinating and definitely worth your time. So is the World in Words on the young Arabs in Dubai who speak English better than what is supposedly their mother tongue.

Video of the week

Tweet of the week

He understood the darkness: on Leonard Cohen and depression

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Author: Rama. Distributed under Creative Commons. Please follow hyperlink for more details

Depression is a very common illness yet very few people can convey what it is like. We just lost one of them.

Going to bed no longer frightens me. These days, I basically take that for granted. But when it first came about – after two years of not being true – it was the sweetest relief. The issue was not that I was afraid of the dark, nor was it that I was in physical pain. My tormentors were my own thoughts. During my waking hours they could sometimes be chased away with distractions. But when it came time to rest, I could no longer dodge their attacks. I just had to lie there and endure a beating from my own brain.

The thing about having depression is that it’s really hard to convey to anyone who’s not experienced the condition what it’s like. The underlying mechanics of the condition are poorly understood and the chains of causality that connects them to its symptoms are remote. Hence science does little to help. And relating depression to the things we all go through tends just to add to confusion. Not because it’s different but because it’s so similar. We all get sad and tired, so it seems almost silly to suggest that being sad and tired can destroy your life.

When my attempts to explain my illness would fall flat, I’d often wish I could just get out my phone, open up Spotify and play them some Leonard Cohen. If you’ve heard any of his songs, that won’t necessarily come as surprise. He could dramatise misery like a master, hence his songs are exactly the kind of thing that in ordinary language we call ‘depressing’. But it’s more than that. He wasn’t just writing sad songs. He was writing about a specific kind of sadness I recognised.

In a very deep interview with David Remnick, published in last month’s New Yorker, Cohen explains that:

I’ve dealt with depression ever since my adolescence…Moving into some periods, which were debilitating, when I found it hard to get off the couch, to periods when I was fully operative but the background noise of anguish still prevailed.

This comes through in his work. Sometimes his sadness is anchored to specific cause like a breakup or bereavement but more often it is free-floating and amorphous. And it blends, amplifies and is amplified by other emotions like desolation, jealousy and regret.

And it wasn’t just a general sense. While Cohen’s lyrics are notoriously cryptic, they contain very specific images that communicate the reality of depression with staggering clarity. An early song begins with the line:

Well I stepped into an avalanche,
it covered up my soul;

It is common for people with depression to talk about feeling like they are being ‘buried’. It captures a sense of being trapped and suffocated. But it could be mistaken for a calming process. The ground is quiet. It is where we lay bodies to rest. The image of an avalanche adds a sense of violence. You are simultaneously being interred and tossed about with such force that your lungs may explode.

[Note: Yes, avalanches causing lungs to explode is a(n alarmingly) real thing.]

However, the song that I really identified with was the Darkness from his 2012 album Old Ideas. That date is significant for my personal story because it meant its release coincided with my own period of depression.

In the first stanza we get a look at what Cohen had been dealing with during the composition of the album:

I caught the darkness
It was drinking from your cup
I caught the darkness
Drinking from your cup
I said is this contagious?
You said just drink it up

I take this to be addressed to his former manager, Kelley Lynch, who stole millions of dollars from Cohen embroiling him in a long and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to recover it. She would eventually go to jail for harassing Cohen and his family.

Thereafter things move from being autobiographical to universal.

I got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too

What I recognised in this is a sense of how remorselessly corrosive depression can be. Like the xenomorph from Alien’s acidic blood it wrecks everything it touches – memories, loves, achievements – and when it’s gone through one it hits the next one and starts doing it all over again. Thus it can rapidly hollow out you and your life.

I used to love the rainbow
And I used to love the view
Another early morning, I’d pretend that it was you
But I caught the darkness baby
And I got it worse than you

The darkness alienates you from your work, your passions and the people around you. That in turn pulls you further into the darkness and allows it to do further damage. Things that once brought you joy – like ‘rainbows’ and ‘views’ – come to seem like they don’t matter. You would previously have turned to them to restore your happiness but they no longer have that effect. Hence you wind up,  stuck there, in the darkness.

Lest this all seems a bit, well, depressing, let me add a coda. In his profile of Cohen, Remnick concludes that he did eventually escape his depression. The mammoth tour he was forced to embark on in order to rebuild his finances after Lynch’s theft seems to have become a moment of valediction. And while mortality seems to have been the theme of both Cohen’s interview with Remnick and his most recent album both point to an admirable acceptance:

For some odd reason,” he went on, “I have all my marbles, so far. I have many resources, some cultivated on a personal level, but circumstantial, too: my daughter and her children live downstairs, and my son lives two blocks down the street. So I am extremely blessed. I have an assistant who is devoted and skillful. I have a friend like Bob and another friend or two who make my life very rich. So in a certain sense I’ve never had it better. . . . At a certain point, if you still have your marbles and are not faced with serious financial challenges, you have a chance to put your house in order. It’s a cliché, but it’s underestimated as an analgesic on all levels. Putting your house in order, if you can do it, is one of the most comforting activities, and the benefits of it are incalculable.

And he leaves behind an incredible body of work. If you have not heard his songs before, I cannot recommend them highly enough. I am aware that I may have made them sound foreboding, and yes they are phenomenally dark and weird and unsettling, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but they are also staggeringly beautiful and sprinkled with mischievous humour. Above all they are unique and powerful. Cohen has influenced myriad songwriters yet there was still only cryptic prophet quite like Leonard Cohen. Rest in Peace.

 

You might also be interested in

A few weeks ago, I made a case for Cohen winning the Nobel Prize instead of Dylan.

I’ve previously grappled with the difficulty of expressing what it is like to have depression in a post on comics that try to do just that.

America: a lament

 

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Let me start by saying this: today has been a wretched day. I’m going to try and get more specific and rational in a moment, but before I do it’s only fair to acknowledge the emotional place I am writing from. This post is not about informing, persuading or educating you. It is about making me feel better. When something bad happens I often find writing about it helpful. Reality may be chaotic and unknowably complex but if I can grab hold of it for long enough to examine it and knit an argument from it, then I feel like I am back in control even if only on the page. I could, for example, feel the gut punch of the Brexit vote and yet still stand up and craft a plan for what should happen next.

But the enormity of what has happened, the range and power of the shockwave it will create leaves me unable to produce anything that coherent. Too much has changed and too little is stable for me to feel I have a purchase on it. And that uncertainty is distressing.

After Brexit, I felt like I’d lost my country. After Trump’s victory, I feel like I’ve lost my world. I used to assume that, broadly speaking and with exceptions, the world would get more prosperous, safer and more co-operative. Even horrifying events like 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, seemed like setbacks rather than fundamental reversals. Trump’s victory seems more devastating than that.

The most powerful man on earth is a racist, misogynistic, conspiracy theorist, who has admitted to assaulting women, lacks any respect for the rule of law, has dodgy finances, holds some ‘maverick’ views, possesses little understanding of the issues with which he must grapple and most damningly seems to have no compunction about telling blatant lies.

That seems to speak to America and the West more generally having given up on making the world better and instead now just want to lock it out. We have gone to a dark place of hatred and suspicion, and I don’t know if we even want to get out of it.

If this was happening anywhere else it would not be so devastating. Even when grim events hit my own country, like the upsurge in hate crimes that followed Brexit, we could at least see them as our problem rather than something universal. Of course, it wasn’t happening in isolation. Nativism, populism and authoritarianism are on the rise more or less everywhere, and Brexit actually seemed to be a milder form of that tendency. Nonetheless, Putin, Erdogan, Duterte, Orban and the like still seemed to be a nasty sideshow so long as there was an American president willing to use his country’s enormous power to counterbalance them. Now one of their number is headed for the Oval Office and they suddenly seem to run the world.

I move in circles where to degenerate America and its power is fashionable. Even the American’s do it.  The US and its hegemony was a menace to freedom, the story went, it used its incredible power to get rid of those who got in it – and its corporations – way. It overthrew awkward but democratically elected leaders like Chile’s Salvador Allende and Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, it missteped all over weaker countries like Vietnam and Iraq, and even made the rest of us sign up to its stupid copyright laws just because Disney can afford a tonne of lobbyists.

That is a reasonable story but it is only partial. It sees America’s imperfect espousal of democratic values as equivalent to other actors rejecting them outright. That’s an especially grievous error because while America is not alone in having these values, no other country backs them up so forcefully. America sometimes act like a bully because its strong and it’s that strength that guarantees freedom in many parts of the world. When Putin eyes the Baltic States, when Xi wonders about bringing Taiwan to heel and when Kim Jong-Un fantasies about the reunification of the Korean peninsula, a voice says “DON’T YOU DARE!” and it has an American accent.

Trendy lefty anti-Americanism has never given America enough credit for this. It has looked at America’s huge defence spending and seen a monstrosity, not a burden it bears for the sake of the global stability in which it wishes to share. Yes, this was self-interested, it made it easier for America to trade and reduced the risk of them being caught up in any instability. But that was also in the rest of the world’s interest too: it made it easier for us to trade and stopped us getting caught up in instability. 

Now Trump, knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, doesn’t appreciate this. Which ironically may be what finally gets people like me to see the merit of an America that tries to control the international order. The alternative may not be liberty but that order breaking down, and a return to a world of more naked geopolitics in which Russian or Chinese wolves can eat Ukrainian or Vietnamese lambs. But I fear it’s too late now. We will probably never get a chance to be grateful for that America, for it is likely gone, replaced by something meaner, nastier and smaller.