27 January, 2017

"Have you no sense of decency Sir?"

In my last blog I pondered what Abraham Lincoln might think as he looks down upon the new President Trump from the portrait that hangs on the White House wall. This idle musing of a week or so ago, however, has taken a rather more pointed concern in recent days.

On Friday, together with a large chunk of the world’s population, I watched eyes widen open and mouth agape at the bizarre, infantile and offensive spectacle that was the Presidential Inauguration Speech. I am no expert upon US conventions, protocol or the finer points of their constitution but the inappropriate and childish tirade the new President poured forth seemed reason enough for precluding him from the high office that he now holds. At the very least he was bringing the position of President into disrepute – a sufficient reason in many countries for immediate exclusion, or indeed worse. The spectacle was final proof of the great debasement of western politics and democracy that has taken place – most notably in the UK & the USA – in the past few years and months. There have been occasional moments of hope such as Obama – what Shelley in his epic philosophical poem about virtue and the growth of a good society, Queen Mab,  termed “the day stars of their age”.  But in truth, from Rumsfold to Blair or from Farage to Trump the arc of good government and democracy has been on a downward path. The global rise of demagogues and outright liars both in the US presidential race and the UK’s Brexit campaign and aftermath suggests that a system built on truth, consent and participation is now imploding.
Lyndon Johnson makes his great speech in 1965

As I watched I reflected upon some of the great Presidential addresses of the past – speeches which, by the force of their argument and their use of language, defined not only America but the rest of us and what we ought to be about – and in doing so became part of mankind’s shared history and mission – not just America’s.  Lincoln’s “A house divided against itself” speech when he accepted his party’s nomination for the office of President against a backdrop of secession and slavery ; Roosevelt’s 1st Inaugural Speech in the dark days of the depression when he told his nation “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”; Kennedy’s great Inauguration Speech of 1961 when he told Americans  “.......ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country” or Johnson’s magnificent “We shall overcome speech” to Congress  in 1965 all captured the hearts and minds of the world and gave mankind a higher vision of what the future could, should and must be. At a time when his country was in much turmoil with racial issues and the fallout from the Vietnam war Lyndon Johnson spoke eloquently and sincerely to Congress, the nation and the world. Following the race riots and the death of a young activist his speech was about racial equality – but also about so much more – namely what it was to be American and indeed what it is to be human:

“I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of Democracy. I urge every member of both parties, Americans of all religions and of all colours, from every section of this country, to join me in that cause.

At times, history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama. There, long suffering men and women peacefully protested the denial of their rights as Americans. Many of them were brutally assaulted. One good man--a man of God--was killed.

There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Selma. There is no cause for self-satisfaction in the long denial of equal rights of millions of Americans. But there is cause for hope and for faith in our Democracy in what is happening here tonight. For the cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government--the government of the greatest nation on earth. Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country--to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man. In our time we have come to live with the moments of great crises. Our lives have been marked with debate about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression.......There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. And we are met here tonight as Americans--not as Democrats or Republicans; we're met here as Americans to solve that problem. This was the first nation in the history of the world to be founded with a purpose........

........The great phrases of that purpose still sound in every American heart, North and South: "All men are created equal." "Government by consent of the governed." "Give me liberty or give me death." And those are not just clever words, and those are not just empty theories. In their name Americans have fought and died for two centuries and tonight around the world they stand there as guardians of our liberty risking their lives. Those words are promised to every citizen that he shall share in the dignity of man. This dignity cannot be found in a man's possessions. It cannot be found in his power or in his position. It really rests on his right to be treated as a man equal in opportunity to all others. It says that he shall share in freedom. He shall choose his leaders, educate his children, provide for his family according to his ability and his merits as a human being...........

....... This is the richest and the most powerful country which ever occupied this globe. The might of past empires is little compared to ours. But I do not want to be the President who built empires, or sought grandeur, or extended dominion. I want to be the President who educated young children to the wonders of their world. I want to be the President who helped to feed the hungry and to prepare them to be tax-payers instead of tax-eaters.

I want to be the President who helped the poor to find their own way and who protected the right of every citizen to vote in every election. I want to be the President who helped to end hatred among his fellow men, and who promoted love among the people of all races and all regions and all parties. I want to be the President who helped to end war among the brothers of this earth......”

Lyndon Johnson had taken over the Presidency in terrible times following the assassination of Kennedy and he knew his duty and his role; his country needed his firm but healing words and his strong leadership to give direction - and he rose to the occasion. His majestic and humbling words might never be bettered but are just one of many examples of great leadership and great speeches all of which have had a number of things in common: they bring people together, heal divisions, raise spirits, make clear the direction in which the nation – indeed mankind - needs to go and put forward a scenario that everyone can and must be part of; but above all they set out plainly the ideals upon which the nation rests and what all must subscribe to if they are to be a part of that nation and that mission.

But the arc of great leadership and high ideals now spirals on a downward trajectory. The past year or so of campaigning in the USA for the presidency or the UK for Brexit have been filled not with high ideals, soaring rhetoric and glorious missions for mankind but with division, bitterness and unpleasantness. The divisive nature of Trump’s  campaign, the lack of basic decencies, the misogyny xenophobia and racism implicit in his tweets and speeches all bundled up with a willingness to disregard truth or hard facts when they dared to raise their heads have been worrying in the extreme – and especially so when the shallowness of his arguments are so obvious.

I suppose that many, like me, hoped that all that was simply the less pleasant side of the campaign trail; all would be well, many reasoned, when the battle was over and the nomination won. How wrong we were. Since he became President elect the tirade has continued apace, and has been added to by the inclusion of gross nepotism and conflict with senior elements of US government such as the security services. The final nail in the coffin was Friday’s Inauguration Speech. It could not get any worse I told myself as I switched off my TV late Friday afternoon – but within 24 hours I knew it had.

When, over the weekend, I read and watched a Trump spokeswoman happily tell a TV reporter that Trump and his team were using “alternative facts” to dispute the indisputable  and factually provable  audience figures there were only two conclusions to glean. Firstly, that Trump and those advising him are totally unfit for public office – if they were then they would never have become involved in this irrelevant issue – it’s only reason was, it seems, to satisfy Trump’s ego that his audience was bigger than anyone else’s. Clearly, in Trumpland size matters just as it does on the school playground where I have seen very children have similar arguments to that which Trump embroiled himself in this week over the size of the Inauguration audience. The place of the "my brother's bigger than your brother" or "I can pee higher up the wall than you can" dispute is something that children grow out of at an early age - clearly Trump has not done so which says much about the man.  And secondly, it proves conclusively that we now are in an age where truth and facts are totally meaningless – and that is very worrying indeed. That we have people at the very top of any government who deal in “alternative facts” rather than truth is not tolerable. When a society has reached that point then all the alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear for if facts cannot be sacred then nothing can. Facts and truths are the very coinage of life – without them everything else falls apart.
Two demagogues:Trump at his Inauguration & Bane from The Dark Knight Rises
Two fakes: Fake Hollywood fiction and a fake President with fake tan, fake hair,
fake words, fake promises, fake human.

But to get back to Trump’s Inauguration Speech!  Worse was yet to come. It was in a state of total disbelief and, I confess, no little anger, that I read that chunks of his speech had been plagiarised from  Hollywood blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises where an evil demagogue  seizes control of the fictional American City of Gotham and wins public support by criticising just about everyone and everybody – but especially politicians. Trump, one will remember, was keen to tell American voters that he was going to “Drain the Swamp” that he perceives Washington to be so, for example, in his Inauguration Speech he said: 'Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration or another ... we are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you – the people.' So far so good – but this (and other examples) are a straight lift from the Batman film. In The Dark Knight Rises Bane, the evil demagogue tells Gotham citizens that 'We take Gotham from the corrupt! The rich! The oppressors of generations who have kept you down with myths of opportunity, and we give it back to you – the people.' 

Is this the intellectual level of the most powerful man in the world – that the best he can do is plagiarise cheap Hollywood drivel when he makes a speech which will be scrutinised and analysed throughout the world? Is this the best that his advisors can do?

This week, Philip Roth the 83-year-old author was asked by the New Yorker whether his 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, in which a fictional Charles Lindbergh assumes the presidency, had foreshadowed Trump. "No", said Roth, and made the point that Lindbergh, for all his fascist sympathies, was a genuine hero, rather that someone like Trump who is, according to Roth “ignorant of government, of history, of science, of philosophy, of art, incapable of expressing or recognising subtlety or nuance, destitute of all decency, and wielding a vocabulary of 77 words that is better called Jerkish than English”.

It cannot be anything but worrying that Americans are happy to elect as their leader a man who is not cognizant of the underpinnings of his culture, unable to use language with discrimination and indeed has not managed to grasp basic vocabulary and syntax. As I read Roth's comments I reflected with dark humour the oft repeated joke, the punchline of which is: "It would be a good idea if American's learned a second language - preferably English". Reading and listening to the great language of Johnson, Kennedy, Lincoln and the rest gives the lie to this joke but sadly, Trump also gives it some credibility and especially so when one considers that millions of Americans who voted for Trump seem uncaring, maybe even unknowing, of this surfeit of ignorance displayed by their new leader. It is even more worrying that the man, himself, appears not to care. Language is the one characteristic that separates us from the animal kingdom; it defines us as humans. That Trump, as Roth suggest, is unable to use language appropriate for an adult human suggests that he is unfit for this, the highest of mankind's offices. As I listened and watched this week I thought back to my years in the classroom – this man displays all the characteristics that one might expect of a child or young adult who one would term functionally illiterate. An unfortunate young person such as this would almost certainly not pass an English exam aimed at the norm for their age range and would probably have literacy levels at or below those expected of an 11-year-old. They could probably understand short straightforward texts on familiar topics and maybe obtain simple information from everyday sources. They might be able to construct a simple written argument or narrative but reading/writing information from unfamiliar sources, or on unfamiliar topics, or comprehending/explaining writing from the mature adult realm would almost certainly be beyond them. This is what Roth described - it is Trump; his language – vocabulary, syntax and structure – and the complexity of his argument is childlike. He is linguistically and conceptually a child in a man’s body.

In many respects I pity him to have these limitations, but to find that he is now the most powerful man in the world and cannot utilise appropriate language and conceptual skills is worrying indeed. Yet, it seems there are millions of American voters who think this is alright and doesn’t matter, and who are taken in by, who support and think that Trump speaks words of wisdom.  We are truly in a nightmare scenario.
The Lincoln Memorial - the 272 great words based upon
Pericles' Funeral Oration carved for the world to ponder

All politicians, writers, speakers, leaders and the rest will refer to great words and ideas of the past to bolster their own thoughts and words. They might quote Shakespeare or Steinbeck, Goethe or  Ghandi, Kennedy or King, Roosevelt or Rousseau  and there is nothing wrong with this. In  November 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg  President Abraham Lincoln gave what is known as “The Gettysburg Address”. It is short – only some 272 words and took Lincoln only 3 or 4 minutes to deliver it but its impact at the time and since was electric.  Only a year or so later, after Lincoln’s assassination, Senator Charles Sumner in his eulogy on the slain president, called the Gettysburg Address a "monumental act,"  saying Lincoln was mistaken that "the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." The Senator went on, "The world noted at once what he said and will never cease to remember it.” Sumner was not wrong – few, even today would dispute it to be perhaps the greatest speech ever made:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

But it wasn’t all his own work. Lincoln had laboured long to put together the address but implicit in it is a link with the Ancient World – Greece and the Athenian democracy. The Gettysburg Address is soundly based around the great Funeral Oration given by the Athenian leader Pericles at the end of the first year of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) as part of the annual public funeral for the war dead. Pericles’ Funeral Oration has been the basis many such speeches over the years. Lincoln used the ideas, the structure and the style to suit his needs for the Gettysburg Address and whilst not lifting the words of Pericles certainly followed the ancient Athenian’s overall plan.

And it is this fact that brings Trump’s awful Inauguration Speech into full perspective. He did not try to make his speech special, statesmanlike, carefully crafted and nuanced, the result of many hours of labour looking at and considering the great words of the past that might have helped. He just gave the same tired tirade: low ideals and low thoughts where there should have been high ideals and great thoughts; invective and bitterness where there should have been dignity and humility. Speeches are important and have always been so. In his eulogy Senator Sumner commented that the Gettysburg Address was a "....monumental act......The battle itself was less important than the speech." Again the Senator was not wrong – a century and a half later its words still ring across the years. I am not American but I’m pretty sure that I could have a good stab at reciting the speech without prompts such is its power. And this is true of all such speeches: they give a society and shared identity, a shared mission, a shared pride, a shared goal and an ideal to work towards as a society. They become part of the psyche and mindset of both individual and nation. Lincoln knew this, as did Johnson, Luther King, Churchill, Pericles, Kennedy, Obama, Washington, Roosevelt – and a thousand other great leaders. Speeches, and the words they use, the ideas and ideals they present and how they present them are the building blocks of political and social unity and change. Speeches are not just diatribes, they are carefully crafted, measured, each word considered and weighed carefully for meaning, nuance, implication and they do not just appear. They are considered and an important part of that consideration is their context and the history behind them so that the great ideas and thoughts of the world and of history are implicit in them and the ideas and words of other great men and women of the ages are used to support the argument and give the speech its integrity.

For that hour or so on last Friday Donald Trump was the centre of virtually the whole world’s attention; madman, immature child, linguistically challenged, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic though he is, the world, to coin a phrase, was his oyster. He has the money to ensure the best resources and advice available to support him in composing, constructing and making a speech that would raise his profile and standing in a divided country and world. He could and should have produced something that would quieten the division and the anxiety that he has generated; he could and should have produced something that his nation and people across the world would have said “Hey, there’s something more to this guy – something worth listening to"; he could have and should have produced something that gave all that heard and saw him something to work towards, some higher ideal and ambition. That is what leadership is about and is what leaders and speech writers do.

But, he did none of these things. He did not, as Johnson and others have done rise to the occasion.  On a day when he was speaking to the whole world and the whole world was listening this functionally illiterate, misogynistic, xenophobic, racist, oaf like, pedlar of “alternative facts” who suffers from delusions of grandeur and a grossly immature desire for approval by being thought the biggest and the best rejected great and lasting ideals and principles, sidelined justice, worthiness, right and wrong, and chose a rant befitting a child having a temper tantrum or some spittle spraying fascist demagogue. And he wrapped it all up not with Pericles, Lincoln, Shakespeare, Descartes, Washington, Steinbeck, King or any other of the high watermarks of mankind's thinking but with lifts from a Batman movie.

How far have we declined when this is the best we can do: Pericles to Batman in the blink of an eye. In the age of Tweets, alternative facts, post truths, Facebook, Batman and the rest we appear to be bumping along the bottom of Trump’s much hated swamp. Is this what the modern western electorate wants and is influenced by? Is this what it means to not only have an electorate of Homer Simpson clones but to also have Homer Simpson leaders? If so, it is a terrifying prospect for, surely, society and western democracy are in terminal decline. As I have watched Trump and his awful advisors, reminiscent of some cheap mafia mob, I have so often wondered what the great presidential spirits 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. might be thinking as they survey the unfolding scene. I cannot believe that they are impressed.  
"Have you no decency Sir?": The quiet man Joe Welch (Left) puts down the
tyrannical Joe McCarthy.

And as I watched the Inauguration performance – one could not dignify it by calling a ceremony - last Friday some other words, also from America’s great history came into my mind. As Trump’s scowling face, snarling lips, fake tan and fake hair filled my screen and his fake, mindless words and incoherent ramblings drummed like a verbal machine gun into my mind I thought back to one of the greatest put downs in American (indeed all) history – that of lawyer Joe Welch to Senator Joe McCarthy during the infamous McCarthy hearings in the early 1950s. After being subjected to McCarthy’s non-stop, threatening questioning Welch quietly turned and said “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness...You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, Sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” Those few quiet words sounded the death knell of the infamous period of McCarthyism in the USA. McCarthy never recovered - his bluster and invective squashed by the quiet and effective use of carefully chosen words.

So, Mr Trump, is there no low to which you will not descend, is there no lie that you will not tell, is there no unpleasantness that you will not be party to? Have you have not done enough damage? "Have you no sense of decency, Sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"

15 January, 2017

Political chaos and the decay of language.

Prime Minister's Question Time at Westminster
On  Wednesday lunchtime, as I munched my sandwich, I watched the mockery that is ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time’ from what was once referred to as the mother of parliaments at Westminster. Today, the House of Commons at Westminster is a pale shadow of its former self – it is largely filled with well meaning second-raters and political chancers. Each week I start with good intentions but rapidly lose faith and turn off the TV in disgust. This event is supposed to hold the Prime Minister and through him or her, the government, to account with searching questions requiring definitive answers. It does neither of these things. The questions posed by the government’s own supporters are sycophantic in the extreme and reduce the whole show to a shambling self congratulatory exercise whilst those posed by the current opposition are totally inept - usually too general or lacking focus or, worse still, worded in such a way that they are easily deflected and made a mockery of by the PM.  The main protagonists are the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Theresa May, the PM, is unwilling or, I suspect, unable to produce anything other than shallow sound bites (“Brexit means Brexit”, “We want a society where all can share”..........) whilst Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition, appears totally incapable of framing a question in such a  way it puts the PM on the rack. In simple terms, if either of these two were lawyers I would not engage them to defend me should I find myself before a judge – their adversarial and rhetorical skills are sadly lacking. What we do see is two people (and so too their respective followers) who are almost unable to grasp the complexities of modern government and politics and who have little cohesive or logical thought to guide their public utterances. Well meaning they might be; effective they are not.
Across the despatch box - Theresa May & Jeremy Corbyn: political lightweights
The quality of debate, speeches, questioning and answering is at a low ebb in the political life of the nation. As I sat, my attention wondering, while the banality of the whole occasions unfolded before my eyes, I  wondered how the great parliamentarians of the past - Pitt, Disraeli, Churchill, Healey, Lloyd George, Powell, Jenkins, Gladstone, Thatcher, Foot, Bevan, Attlee, Macmillan et al  - whose soaring oratory and incisive arguments once filled this great chamber must feel as they look down from their ghostly pedestals. This is not a party political thing. It is not the preserve of any party to have the monopoly of great speakers. Enoch Powell was an extreme right wing politician whilst Michael Foot a member of the left yet  the two were great personal friends with a huge respect for each other. What united them in Parliament and was the basis of their friendship was their erudition, their ability to use words effectively to argue their case, and their ability to, with a few well chosen words backed up by undeniable evidence, not only destroy their opponent's argument but encourage the rest of us to understand and support. This is the power of language and it is why our leaders must have this quality. If it is not present then our form of government is in danger.

Two political masters: Clement Attlee & Winston Churchill
We have recently had a good illustration of the low ebb to which we have sunk with the quality of our UK elected representatives and political debate - the resignation of one of our most senior diplomats Sir Ivan Rogers. As a diplomat his very essence and currency was the careful and effective use of words and in his resignation he suggested strongly that there are  “ill-founded arguments and muddled thinking” abroad amongst our leading politicians – most notable those in charge of the Brexit campaign. When someone of Rogers’ calibre is making this sort of allegation then we should, at the very least, begin to ask questions. As I watched ‘Prime Minister’s Question Time’  I could only reflect that Rogers is correct – the mother of parliaments seems to be currently filled with second class minds unable or unwilling to verbalise a well formed argument and consequently display clear thinking.
Great political orators: Margaret Thatcher, Michael Foot
& Enoch Powell

My despair reached new depths later in the afternoon when I tuned in to hear the much vaunted first press conference given by the US president-elect Donald Trump. Oh dear! We have heard and seen so much of this man in the past year that I don’t know what I expected but I suppose I rather naively thought that now he is president-elect he would somehow prove us all wrong and look like a potential candidate for the position of most powerful and influential man in the world. How wrong I was. We had the same shallow language, the same bizarre hyperbole, the same, almost “Mrs Malapropish” misuse of words, the same paucity of logical structure in his utterances. So limited is Trump’s vocabulary and ability to use appropriate adjectives and adverbs he describes all that he approves of as “beautiful” – just as an immature teenage who uses “cool” or “wicked” at every opportunity to describe something he or she likes.  We have “beautiful deals”, a “beautiful wall”, a “beautiful funeral”, “beautiful wins”, a “beautiful, beautiful safe zone in Syria”, and so the list goes on. From start to finish Trump’s announcements and public speaking (it would be a mistake to call it rhetoric since rhetoric usually implies some skill with language) are a rag bag of ill considered words and ideas. And so it was with the news conference which was a shambles reminiscent of a bar conversation between drinkers who had consumed too much, where speech was slurred, vocabulary misused, and reason non-existent. Of course, we have got used to this; reading Trump’s Tweets belies the man’s total inadequacy and inability to string together any coherent thought or logic. “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass” he has sagely advised us, or “It’s freezing and snowing in New York – we need global warming!” or “Gitmo, we’re keeping that OPEN. And we’re gonna load it up with a lot of BAD DUDES out there” are typical of the ill thought out, badly put together and ultimately totally inappropriate utterances.

Good to know that the spirit of
Abraham Lincoln will live on in the White House - not
Of course, one might ague, with a small measure of justification, that Tweets are probably not a good reflector of mental of linguistic ability. But with Trump, this is also the way he speaks – indeed it seems to reflect his whole mental process such as it is. And the thing that really gives him away is not only his limited vocabulary and child like sentence structure but his insistence of using upper case letters to emphasis something: “Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”  This really gives away his limited linguistic development – most children grow out of this immature use of upper case to emphasise importance by the time they get to about 10 – but not so Donald Trump. One can add to this his obvious an unawareness of very basic grammatical structures such as double negatives as in “NO NOTHING”. As someone who has taught children for most of my life I would confidently expect the vast majority 10 year olds to spot that fundamental misuse of language and error of logic immediately. The future President, however, seems unable to grasp this very simple, but very important misuse of language. But, it is not only in an inadequate and immature grasp of the requirements of basic communication in which Trump displays his unsuitability for office. Running through all his pronouncements – be they Tweets, news conferences or other public announcements is the emphasis upon himself and his perceived power and influence; they are ego centric in the extreme: “When I come to power,” or “I am gonna....” are typical. This desire to promote himself and his “power” might just be seen as boasting but it raises questions about his suitability for high office. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was spot on when she said “Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t” Quite!

Oh dear - a rather unpleasant child in man's clothing
We live in very worrying times, there are many very grave problems facing mankind; it is frightening to conclude that those we have elected and thus those charged with resolving these complex and dangerous issues seem increasingly unable to think with clarity, and use language appropriately as a formidable weapon to argue a point, to question, to clarify, to inspire, to explain or to rebuff. Some eighty years ago the author George Orwell, against a back drop of rising fascism in Europe, commented “....political chaos is connected with the decay of language”. He was not wrong. Amidst the mad, bad syntax,  the repetition (“it’s gonna happen, gonna happen”), the lack of basic understanding of grammatical structure and the minimal breadth of vocabulary obvious in people like Trump one cannot but fear for the future.
George Orwell

Yesterday I watched as departing President Obama awarded Vice President, Joe Biden, the highest award America can give for his services as Vice President and for his many years in public office. The words chosen by Obama and by Biden in his emotional reply were beautifully crafted, sincere and humbling. Behind the two men as the ceremony took place in the White House was a large painting depicting Abraham Lincoln. And as I watched I mused that Lincoln would have nodded approval at the ceremony and all that underpinned it. He would have understood the solemnity and gravitas; he would have thought the words used appropriate and well judged, he would have quietly applauded.  
Lincoln, perhaps used words more powerfully than just about any other president or politician; he knew about the importance of words. It would not be a rash claim to say that it was the power of Lincoln's words as much as the cannons that won the American Civil War for him and so laid one of the foundation stones not only of modern America but indeed the rest of the world. The victory over the Confederacy and the emancipation of the black slaves was one of the major events of the time to fundamentally change our perceptions of man's relationships with each other - be we black or white, yellow or red. And, as I thought this I reflected upon what Lincoln, the man who forged the mighty words of the Gettysburg Address and a wealth of other comments and speeches that have become part of all mankind's heritage might think as he looks down on the new President Trump as he speaks in the White House; Trump, a man who seems to think that an appropriate comment for a national leader (or indeed anyone) is: “..It really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass”. Lincoln, I concluded, might quietly weep as he gazes down from the White House wall.

Lincoln looks down on Obama & Biden
It is our ability to communicate ideas through language that is the main determiner in separating us from the animal kingdom – it allows us to reason, reflect, plan, analyse, explain, empathise, understand and fulfil a million more functions that we need each and every day of our lives. In an increasingly complex world the ability to understand and use language is more important than ever. This is not about using florid phrases or extravagant vocabulary; it is not about using the Queen’s English or Received Pronunciation, it is about our thought processes when we communicate. When we think, we think in words and our words are the manifestation of the ideas that we are thinking; an inability to effectively use and understand language by definition hinders our ability to think. It is a sad truth, however, that any criticism of Donald Trump or other leader on this score is a mere reflection of a wider malaise. We live in a world where, certainly in the western hemisphere, the correct use of language is too often perceived as old fashioned, pedantry or simply unimportant. In the age of texting and email where accepted conventions have been cast aside and where the language of the popular culture of the streets seems to be as highly acclaimed and worthy as Shakespeare, Milton or Dickens our very ability not only to communicate but to think and reason effectively is in danger. But effective and considered use of language is not an unimportant and irrelevant art meant only for old fashioned pedants, brilliant lawyers and boring school teachers; in the final analysis, when a person speaks or writes carelessly or sloppily then they think and understand carelessly or sloppily; language and understanding are inseparable. 

In recent months, and especially so since the Brexit campaign and the election of the new President we have heard much about what is termed the “post truth age” in which we are now said to be living. In today’s world, we are told, objective facts (truths) are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to the emotions or prejudice or personal belief. We see this everyday as we read the headlines of tabloid newspapers (and even some broadsheet papers as well); we see it in almost its full glory on social media sites or in internet chat rooms; and sadly we see it in our political leadership. The Brexit campaign was fuelled with high octane appeals to the emotions (anti immigration, anti foreigner, anti EU) whilst at the same time senior politicians openly disparaged expert opinion or facts. In America we have see exactly the same reaction – Trump’s unwillingness to accept the facts of global warming or his disparagement of ethnic minorities such as Muslims whilst at the same time appealing to the baser instincts and prejudices abroad in his nation. We see it, too, in the emotive words used by these people; when Donald Trump describes all he approves of as “beautiful” it may on one hand show his undoubted limited and childish vocabulary but he is also using a word that is ambiguous, extremely subjective and emotive. Trump’s linguistic ability may leave much to be desired but he also knows well how to manipulate and influence unsuspecting minds. In today’s world wearing your heart on your sleeve and showing this in your communications is a worrying trend – and especially so when it is allied to the marginalisation of truth and facts.   Truth and facts are increasingly under threat and it is only by the use of language and the ability that it gives to think, analyse, argue and rebuff that these worrying trends can be shown up for what they are – dangerous and unacceptable developments.  
A.C. Grayling

Philosopher AC Grayling is openly critical of this modern trend suggesting – rightly in my view: "The whole post-truth phenomenon is about, 'My opinion is worth more than the facts.' It's about how I feel about things”. Grayling goes on to say this phenomena “[is] terribly narcissistic. It's been empowered by the fact that you can easily publish your opinion”. He is correct also on this point – this blog is a good example of that trend. In today’s world anyone with access to a smart phone or some other means of accessing the internet can make their views known with a minimum of thought. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter are the most obvious forms but there are other avenues and all provide an easy framework for easily expressing a point of view. In itself there is nothing wrong in this but the downside is that the most banal and ill considered views and comments easily become mainstream. It is easily done and too often little considered; posting a comment on Twitter or Facebook takes seconds and is instantly thrown away to all in the world who care to read it. It does not encourage thought or responsibility. The ultimate expression of this is the Tweet where, with only a very few characters, its required brevity leaves no space for nuance, explanation, or in depth argument which can be countered by other opposing arguments. The result is it is inevitably shallow, emotive and too often brutal. There are no shades of grey, no nuance – you are either with us or against us. Grayling suggests that we have moved on from the world of the political sound bite and now live in the world of the “i-bite” – a reflection of the narcissistic society that we now inhabit – where truth is whatever an individual wants it to be. It is the world of Alice in Wonderland come into being where increasing numbers of people, media and politicians follow the advice of Humpty Dumpty to Alice when he said: 'When I use a word.....it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

In this sort of world truth is sidelined and since words and ideas are inextricably linked intellectual integrity and the very basis of ethics and justice are corrupted. And as Grayling points out, when this occurs then the whole fabric of democracy is in danger. Democracy cannot survive without the careful use of language. Donald Trump seems to think he can base his presidency upon Tweets. He cannot and must not be allowed to do so. The language of government, of democracy, of life itself is necessarily complex and increasingly so; the devil is in the detail and the nuance – remove those, as does Trump, and we have the potential for tyranny.  It must also be recognised that good government will only survive if not only the leaders are aware of and able to use language and ideas effectively but so, too, are the rest of us. In a world where electorates must grapple with complex choices about economics, justice, basic human freedoms, peace and war and all the other many problems and opportunities when they cast their votes and elect their leaders we all require a basic facility to understand, to challenge and to formulate questions of those who would influence and lead us . A poorly informed public or a public that unable to understand or question the arguments, a public that cannot discriminate objective fact from prejudiced opinion is easily swayed by propaganda and much less able to resist the dark manoeuvrings of special interest groups and would be dictators  If the electorate is increasingly intellectually or linguistically unable or unwilling to grasp the issues then the snake oil salesmen like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson will hold the reins. In any democracy part of the "deal" is that those who are given the privilege of voting - the ordinary citizens, the electorate - have a clear responsibility to use that privilege wisely and to the best of their ability. And that means taking the trouble to familiarise themselves with the issues, tease out the important points, ask questions, read and listen to whatever information is required in order to make a sensible decision. Not to do so is an abdication of their responsibilities as citizens in a free society. Sadly, however, when I read today the comments of many who support Donald Trump following his news conference I am not confident. “I couldn’t form an intelligent opinion” or “I haven’t been following that or paying attention,” were typical of the comments from ordinary Americans. It is the same in the UK - in last year's referendum upon whether we should stay in Europe many didn't bother to vote and more worryingly many more confessed that they didn't know enough about the issue to vote. American business man, philanthropist and politician William E. Simon commented that "Bad politicians are sent to Washington by good people who didn't vote or who didn't care" - he was not wrong.  We should be very worried.
Friedrich Nietzsche

One hundred and fifty years ago German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, a man whose ideas, writing and use of language influenced the thinking of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini wrote "All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down" – he was not wrong. If we are not prepared to be a little more thinking and a lot more challenging of the language that our leaders use when they articulate the their ideas in this increasingly complex world modern world then we will suffer the consequences. One of Donald Trump's fellow Americans, Oliver Wendell Holmes, nailed it when he said: "Language is the blood of the soul into which our thoughts run and out of which they grow". Sadly, when we read and hear the ill conceived and ill composed utterances of Trump and the rest of these modern day representatives of the post truth age we also see into their very souls. It is not a pretty sight; we should be very afraid.

06 January, 2017

A candle in the darkness.

Jethro Tull's seed drill
This week, here in Nottingham, the children have gone back to school at the end of their Christmas holiday. My three grandson’s Sam, Luke and Alex have also gone back to their school in Berkshire to begin a new term and a New Year. And still today, even after more than a decade of retirement from the life of schools, I find myself marking the passing of the year with echoes of my own life in the classroom – the events, lessons, timetables and day to day life of the school year still being markers for my passing year. At this time of year when the sun is low in the sky and on a bright winter’s day casting long shadows, I frequently remember, as I drive into the low sun, a favourite assembly story I used at this time of year about a man who sold his shadow. Or, when it is autumn and harvest time I’m sure to recall as I drive along behind some slow moving tractor pulling a giant combine harvester telling children in history lessons the story of Jethro Tull the 17th century English agricultural pioneer who perfected a horse-drawn seed drill that sowed the seeds in neat rows and thus helped to provide the basis for modern agriculture. In Tull’s invention  the seeds were placed in a rotating cylinder. Grooves were cut into the cylinder to allow seed to pass into a funnel below. They were then directed into a channel dug by a plough at the front of the machine, then immediately covered by a harrow attached to the rear. Legend has it that Tull had struggled with his invention until one day as he sat in church and noticed the cylindrical church organ pipes which allowed air to pass through them; he made the connection that if air could pass through a cylinder then so could a seed!  And, a spring equinox cannot go by without my recalling at some point the geography lessons when we pulled down the classroom blinds or went into the windowless TV room at school and sat in a large circle in the dark with a bright electric light (usually my garage inspection light!) placed in the middle as the “sun”. As the light shone casting shadows on the encircling children I could explain the earth’s annual journey around the sun and how the earth rotated on its own access and, because of its tilt, the length of days and nights changed – and at the spring equinox in March or the September Equinox the hours of day and night are about equal.

But, at this time of the year as we begin a New Year two other memories of my classroom days are often in my thoughts. The first is a poem by the Victorian poet Sara Coleridge. It sounds very twee in our modern brash world but was often a good starting point for a child to write a poem of their own on a similar theme or to reproduce as an illustrated piece of handwriting in their poetry anthology folder. It traces the passage of the year:

What will the New Year bring?

In January a touch of snow,
To make our feet and fingers glow.
February brings the rain,
Thaws the frozen lake again.
March brings breezes, loud and shrill,
To stir the dancing daffodil............

And the second reminiscence of classroom life at this time of year was an assembly that I often used for the first day back after the Christmas holiday. It was a time to remind children that it was a New Year, a fresh start, a time of New Year resolutions. I would tell the children about the Roman god Janus the god of beginnings, gates, change, time, doorways, and endings. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past and it is thought that the month of January is named after him. And, having told the story of Janus I would often use the famous words that King George VI used in his Christmas/New Year radio broadcast to the nation in the dark days of war in 1939 when he quoted a little known poem by the English missionary, poet and academic Minnie Haskins:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,
"Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown."
And he replied, "Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way."
May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.

As I have recalled these oft repeated moments of my classroom past during the final days of 2016 and  these early January days I have increasingly thought how very appropriate they seem to be as we stand at the gateway to 2017. Sara Coleridge in her poem asks “What will the New Year bring” and I have wondered what would Janus be thinking as he looks back on the 2016 and forwards into 2017. And I have reflected that when King George VI, our present Queen’s father, chose the words of Minnie Haskins’ poem he chose them wisely since they were so pertinent to the dark days being faced by his country at war and I wonder if they are not also very relevant and apposite today. We might not be at war in the same sense as 1939 but wherever we look our world of 2016/2017 is a world of turmoil, grave uncertainties and worrying prospects - we live in some very dark times.

The words of Minnie Haskins’ poem have been much in my mind as I sit in my lounge first few days. of 2017. Let me explain why.

Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio
A few weeks before Christmas Pat and I treated ourselves to day out in London. We caught an early train from Nottingham and three hours later were in the rush and bustle of the capital. Our reason for the trip was not Christmas shopping (thank goodness!) but to visit an exhibition at the National Gallery in London – “Beyond Caravaggio”. The well publicised exhibition was one of the high spots of the artistic year in that it brought together many works of art by the late 16th century Italian artist Caravaggio and by a host of artists who followed him and painted in his style. Caravaggio is one of our favourite painters and over the years we have been lucky enough to see many of his works in galleries and churches across Europe. Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio had a brief, brilliant but often violent life. He died in mysterious and probably violent circumstances aged about 39 having been on occasions involved in murder and other unpleasant episodes. He was frequently imprisoned or on the run. But his genius and his art changed the world; his wonderful draughtsmanship, exquisite drawing and painting skills and above all his use of light and dark for dramatic effect brought him to the attention of the great and powerful – from Popes to Princes. It also brought a new dimension to the world of art and his adherents picked up his style and still today works can readily be identified as “in the style of Caravaggio”. Our day at the exhibition was wonderful and in one corner we noticed a small painting unknown to us but which we both loved. It was not by Caravaggio but very much in his style and painted by a Dutch artist Matthias Stomer or Matthias Stom as he is often referred to. Stom lived in the first half of the 17th century and would never have met Caravaggio but the impact of Caravaggio’s work had crossed Europe from Italy to Holland and Stom obviously liked it.
Christ brought before Annas by Matthias Stomer (Stom)

So, as the days ticked down to Christmas I was (as usual) wracking my brains as to what I could give Pat as a Christmas present – and then I had an idea. I remembered that the painting by Stom seen at the National Gallery in London and which  we had so much liked was on loan to the gallery from the Birmingham Art Gallery so I contacted them and ordered a print. I asked that it be delivered to the little art shop at the end of our street (so Pat would not see it!).
To enter Peter White’s tiny “Artvine” picture framing shop is to enter another world. One can hardly move for empty picture frames, sheets of glass waiting to be cut to size, finished works hanging on walls or are stacked ready to be collected by clients. One might call it Dickensian – certainly Charles Dickens would have the words to create the atmosphere and clutter of this little treasure trove. Peter has framed many photographs and paintings for us over the years so we know each other well and he quickly advised me as to the most appropriate frame and borders. He also promised that it would be ready for Christmas – and, true to his word, so it was. Two days before the big day Peter sent me a text to say I could collect it and so while Pat was out at the shops I smuggled it in and hid it behind one of our lounge chairs ready to be opened with our other presents.

An old woman and a boy by candlelight by Matthias Stomer (Stom)
Today it hangs in our lounge where I had planned – and we are both delighted. It was a present to Pat, but in reality we both enjoy it equally. Stom called his work
“An old woman and a boy by candlelight” and like all great pieces of art it is both simple and complex. The light of the candle illuminating the old woman and the boy’s face in the darkness is pure Caravaggio. The concentration on the old woman’s face as she shields the candle flame from any draughts and the boy’s face as he gazes at it are a delight but at the same time their concentration suggests that the light of the candle is important; it seems to be a tense moment as they gaze at the flickering flame. As one looks at the painting one can make up all sorts of stories and questions – who are they, is it grandmother and grandson, where are they going with their candle, is it bedtime or are they in a room or just about to go to bed; the boy carries his hat, so are they stepping outside – and if so where are they going and why.......? The list of possibilities is endless. But throughout runs a different theme and that is the obvious closeness between the two; although there are no outward signs of affection the two are clearly close to each other, there is a bond. The candle flame itself is only half visible but one can see its effect as it lights their faces and shines through the gaps in the old woman’s fingers giving her skin an orange translucent effect. The whole captures a very profound moment and the warmth of the scene created by the warm colours and the intimacy of the occasion draws the viewer in and makes one feel secure and good about what is pictured. It is almost a picture that makes one hold one’s breath because you are a silent observer on this very personal moment – breathing will give your presence away and maybe blow out the candle.
The little treasure trove that is Artvine at the end of my street 

And during these last few days of this new year as I sit in my armchair looking at the scene in the painting I am reminded of Janus and of George VI’s New Year poem and the words "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown". The painting, for me, seems a suitable metaphor for where we are on the planet at the moment – in dire need of some warmth, security and light as we anticipate some very dark times ahead. I’m reminded that our world of today is one of fine balances – with the global nature of the world, the internet, social media and all the rest what happens in one small corner of the world can impact greatly upon what happens elsewhere. In the late 19th century American writer and philosopher William James commented that “There can be no difference anywhere that does not make a difference somewhere”; he was right and in the modern world he would be even more right. As 2017 develops the impact of decisions and actions anywhere in the world will make difference across the world – be they about Brexit, Donald Trump, extremism, poverty, austerity, refugees, Syria, Palestine, Wall Street, global warming, inequality, or any of the other great issues that face the world – and each of these issues or the decisions that we make about them has the capacity to bring nations or mankind as a whole to its knees. Just as the old woman’s candle flame can be easily snuffed out so too much of what mankind has built up over thousands of years can be easily snuffed out if we are not careful; a wrong action, a moment of madness or worse, our own apathy, ignorance or a lack of care and responsibility can easily tip the fine balance and bring a world of chaos, fear and darkness.

In a modern world that for me seems to have increasingly become self centred, selfish, materialistic,  and  devoid of ethical or spiritual underpinnings it seems that we need a guiding light in the darkness and the unknown. In 2016 Pope Francis commented “When people become self-centred and self-enclosed, their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality.....The lack of physical (and not virtual) contact is cauterising our hearts and making us lose the capacity for tenderness and wonder, for pity and compassion.....[But]....we are not interchangeable items of merchandise or information processors. We are children, we are family, we are God’s People......We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet. ... We continue to tolerate that some consider themselves more human than others.”
The view from the armchair!
I am not overly religious but it seems to me that Pope Francis has got it right. He speaks of physical contact, of compassion, tenderness, of family and humanity and I think, looking at Stom’s painting, these are very much qualities inherent in the painting's narrative and in the relationship between the old woman and the boy. The Pope says how, if we are not watchful ,we might easily destroy the planet by our views and actions; just as the old woman in the painting does, we need to concentrate, watch and guard the flame which is both our humanity and our guide so that it is not snuffed out in the unknown storms of the coming year.