Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Donald Trump’

In Defence of Experts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2020

Anthony Fauci and Donald TrumpIn the run-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, declared that “we have had enough of experts”. That argument unfortunately helped carry the day as millions of voters ignored the warnings from economists about the likely negative consequences of Brexit — and will soon have to live with them. The prejudice against experts also featured in the successful campaign by Donald Trump to become the 45th President of the United States. Indeed he took this philistinism up to another level, denying truths and propagating his own “alternative facts”. That willful amateurism may still resonate with much of Trump’s base, but in the age of coronavirus it is increasingly obvious that whereas populists may feel empowered by the conviction that anything they believe in must be true nonetheless scientific fact must take precedence. We see this acted out most starkly in the way that NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has resolutely offered a scientific counter-narrative to the President’s fantastic ramblings about COVID-19. This clearly irritates expert-phobes like Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, but large swaths of the population in the Americas do seem to be preferring facts over fantasies when their own lives are at stake.

Boris Johnson and Dominic CummingsHere in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose own statements about the best way to react to the pandemic have been confusing and at times plain misguided — still enjoys the vocal support of a claque of loyalist Ministers who are regularly trotted out to defend him when he makes a gaffe, or even to promote disinformation. For example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock the other day blithely stated that the coronavirus lockdown in Britain had started on 16 March when it self-evidently began a week later, when Boris Johnson went on TV to announce it. UK opinion polls suggest some of the shine is coming off the Johnson government, but there are still significant numbers of voters who are prepared to swallow his disinformation and outright lies. Moreover, the PM’s eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is carrying out a frontal assault on the civil service because civil servants do acquire expertise and act on facts rather than ideology. In this ongoing battle, on both sides of the Atlantic, one can only hope that the experts prevail.

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The Big Lie

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th July, 2020

Hitler and GoebbelsOne of the weirdest moments in my childhood was finding an English-language copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf hidden in the bottom of a wardrobe in the nursery of my (adoptive) maternal grandmother’s house in Derbyshire. “Brown Grandma”, as she was always referred to at home because she always wore brown clothes (as opposed to “Black Grandma”, my adoptive father’s mother, who wore widow’s black) had been President of the local Conservative Association but didn’t strike me as a fascist, however I never plucked up the courage to ask her why the book was tucked away under a pile of blankets. However, I did read Adolf Hitler’s work surreptitiously. Much of it was pretty boring, while other bits — such as his hatred of the Jews — were revolting. But one thing which intrigued me and has stayed with me ever since was his theory of The Big Lie — that if a lie is colossal and you keep repeating it, people will believe it as they will feel that no-one would have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. This propaganda technique was perfected and implemented by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Göbbels, who manipulated political discourse and in particular used the medium of radio to feed the German public a steady diet of nourishing lies.

Boris JOhnson and Donald TrumpI am surely not alone in thinking that the Nazis’ use of The Big Lie (mirrored by Josef Stalin and the Soviet Communists, one should note) is enjoying a kind of renaissance today on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2016 here in Britain during the EU Referendum the Leave campaign produced a series of seminal lies, even plastering one of the most effective on the side of a big red bus. The assertion that the NHS could benefit from the £350 million allegedly sent by Britain each week to Brussels was demonstrably untrue. An even bigger whopper was the claim that Turkey was about to join the EU, meaning that 70 million Turks would become eligible to move to the UK. Remainers complained in vain about this distortion of reality, but large swaths of the public were happy to believe what they were told, just as millions of Germans had in the 1930s. Meanwhile, in America, Donald Trump and his team were up to the same tricks, manufacturing and disseminating untruths to great effect. That helped him win the election and he has stuck with the strategy of The Big Lie while in office. So, to a large degree, has British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I am certainly not arguing that Johnson is a fascist, but the technique of The Big Lie (perhaps promoted by the Prime Minister’s amanuensis, Dominic Cummings) is evident to me. The US presidential election in November will be a litmus test to see if sufficient people still swallow the lies. For the health of democracy both in the United States and here in Britain one cannot only hope that they do not.

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A New Cold War?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st May, 2020

UyghursIn recent weeks, both houses of the US Congress almost unanimously passed a Bill calling on the Trump administration to enact sanctions against China for its human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. Republicans expect the President soon to sign this into law. The main individual target is Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party’s regional secretary, whom the Bill accuses of gross human rights violations against the local Muslim population, many hundreds of thousands of whom have been detained in re-education camps in what some international human rights groups have termed cultural genocide. This is not the first time that China’s Han-dominated regime has tried to eradicate the religious beliefs and cultural norms of a minority ethnicity, of course; the military occupation of Tibet in 1959 caused a flood of refugees over the Himalayas to Nepal and India, while those who remained behind witnessed their heritage being largely destroyed, especially during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Josep BorrellIn the case of the Uyghurs another disturbing element has been the use of forced labour in detention centres and in factories across the country, with several major Western companies in fields such as fashion and electronics complicit in this abuse through their supply chains. The US Bill specifically calls on US companies and individuals working in the region to cut ties that involve forced labour in Xinjiang. This move in Washington coincides with the stated determination of the European Union to be more “robust” in its dealings with China. At a virtual meeting of the bloc’s Foreign Ministers on Friday, the EU in particular expressed its “grave concern” over China’s new security law relating to Hong Kong, which it said was not in line with Beijing’s international commitments. However, the EU — whose member states are divided about how strongly they want to stand up against China — stopped short of approving any sanctions against China.

Hong Kong demosThe issue of Hong Kong is particularly sensitive in Britain, the former colonial power. Now the UK is no longer a member of the EU it has to decide its own line on disagreements with Beijing. But in London, too, there are divided opinions, for example regarding the wisdom of letting the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei be integrated into the country’s 5G network. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is close to US President Trump, however, and the latter has become increasingly strident in his criticism of China, whom he particularly blames for the COVID-19 pandemic and for allegedly manipulating the WHO. Other Western governments have also increasingly expressed concern about what they see as China’s projection of disinformation since Xi Jinping consolidated his hold on power — a tactic previously mainly associated with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This does all lead me to wonder whether a new Cold War is in the offing. The last one, between Washington plus its allies against Moscow plus theirs, ended with the collapse of Communism in Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But the new one would be between Washington and Beijing, with a disparate group of nations lining up on either side. But whereas the US could with justification claim to have “won” the last Cold War, its chances this time are perhaps not so bright. Despite Donald Trump’s bluster about Making America Great Again, he has presided over his country’s decline on the international stage, while China, despite recent economic setbacks, partly related to COVID19, remains on the ascendant.

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A Different Europe Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th May, 2020

Europe Day 2020In recent years on Europe Day, 9 May, I have usually been attending a concert at St. John’s Smith Square, sponsored by the European Commission office which occupied the former Conservative Party headquarters opposite. These days the latter building houses the EU delegation to the UK, because Britain left the European Union on 31 January, in keeping with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s determination to Get Brexit Done. Because of COVID-19 there could not have been a Europe Day concert and reception this week, anyway, as all such public events are potentially dangerous and in fact prohibited under the “new normal”. But millions of Brits who, like myself, bitterly regret the EU’s uncoupling from our 27 European friends and neighbours — though “resent” would be a more accurate verb in my case — still like to see ourselves as Europeans and cherish the values at the heart of the European project, many of which are under assault not only from distant rulers including Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping but also from within, notably from Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Those values and the peace that our continent has enjoyed for the past 75 years need to be resolutely championed. And even if I shan’t have my spirits raised by the traditional rendering of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as the finale of a Europe Day concert this year I shall celebrate my European heritage and future with a suitably sourced Mediterranean lunch washed down by a fine bottle of pinot noir.

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We Haven’t Left Europe!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 5th May, 2020

Council of Europe accessionIn common with many Remainers I am still in a state of shock following the EU Referendum of June 2016, though Brexit pain has been slightly assuaged by the fact that although formally Britain left the EU on 31 January we are in a transition period scheduled to last until the end of the year, during which many of the advantages, as well as the rules and regulations, of the EU are still in place. I have, of course, supported calls for an extension of that transition period, ideally for two years, not because I am trying to hold onto the EU by my fingertips but because the double whammy of COVID-19 and Brexit might be more than this country can handle. But on one thing I agree with the Brexiteers, namely that although we have left the EU we haven’t left Europe. Geographically that is obvious, however much the Trump-loving coterie of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Co. might wish to drag us into the mid-Atlantic. However, for me a far more important reason why we haven’t left Europe is that we are still a member of the Council of Europe, which has been celebrating its Europe Day today.

European flagIndeed, Britain was a founder member of the Council of Europe and British lawyers were instrumental in framing many of its statutes and purposes. Founded in 1949 — like a phoenix rising from the ashes from the Second World War — its stated aim is to uphold human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Europe. All European states except Belarus and Kosovo are members — that’s 20 more members than the current EU. Based in Strasbourg, symbolically near the Franco-German border in Alsace, the Council of Europe shaped the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), including the abolition of the death penalty. It has a parliamentary assembly, whose members are appointed by national parliaments (MPs and Peers in Britain’s case). My old friend, the late Russell Johnston, was its President for several years, executing the office with panache. Though older and bigger than the EU, the Council of Europe has nonetheless been the Cinderella of European institutions, which is maybe something Britain should now try to remedy. So, yes, let us celebrate the Council of Europe’s Europe Day — and also the EU’s Europe Day four days later on 9 May. They may not share the same date, but the two institutions share the same European flag and indeed the same anthem, based on Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. So let us Europhiles indeed be joyful and celebrate Europe Day twice this year and reassure ourselves that we haven’t completely left, nor should we ever!

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Bolsonaro, Brazil’s Nut?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 1st May, 2020

BRAZIL-ELECTION-CAMPAIGN-BOLSONARODonald Trump’s COVID-19 press conferences at the White House have raised eyebrows on both sides of the Atlantic, not least when he suggested that ingesting disinfectant might be one possible cure. But he is far from alone in his off-message pontificating without a shred of medical expertise. In Brazil, Mr Trump has a mini-me tribute act in the form of President Jair Bolsonaro, who swept to power to take up office last year on a wave of popular anger about the corruption and incompetence endemic in the country’s political landscape. Mr Bolsonaro’s middle name is Messiah (Messias) and many in the Christian fundamentalist community that was a large part of his electoral success believe that that is indeed what he is — destined to clean up what they see as the moral rot that has undermined traditional values of God, family and discipline. The parallels with Donald Trump’s bedrock supporters among US Evangelicals are obvious. And just as President Trump at first dismissed the coronavirus pandemic as “a hoax”, so President Bolsonaro has referred to it as “a measly cold”. The United States has by far the highest incidence of the disease in North America and so does Brazil in South America. Draw your own conclusions. Two weeks ago, Mr Bolsonaro fired his Health Minister for strongly advocating social distancing.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro looks on during a Soldier's Day ceremony, in Brasilia Mr Trump lambasted the WHO, withdrawing US funding for the body and claiming it badly mishandled COVID-19 at the outset. But Mr Bolsonaro went one stage further, accusing the WHO of promoting homosexuality and encouraging toddlers to masturbate. At least his advisors got him to delete that particular tweet. The Brazilian President has a particular hatred of gays, once declaring that he would rather that a son of his would die than come out as a homosexual. Mr Bolsonaro also loves the military, often expressing nostalgia for the dictatorship than ran the country for 21 years up to 1985. He has a military background himself, though not a very elevated one, and appointed a number of present and former military personnel to his administration. Some political opponents fear he could usher in a new military government if current economic and civil turmoil worsens. But some generals are so concerned about the President’s increasingly bizarre and intemperate outbursts that they would privately quite like him to be pushed out of office. Meanwhile, opposition politicians are trying to get him impeached. There’s a wonderful line in the Brandon Thomas’s classic farce, Charley’s Aunt, when “she” says she comes from Brazil, “where the nuts come from”. But growing numbers of people are worried that this particular nut is ensconced in the presidential palace.

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There Are No Facts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 12th April, 2020

Friedrich NietzscheThe German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued that “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Nonetheless, at my primary school, History was all about “facts” — names and dates, almost all linked to kings and queens of England. But at secondary school, the radical insight that facts could be interpreted differently and therefore that History was mainly about interpretation — analysis, if you prefer — was an eye-opener for me. Even a topic as apparently black and white as War could be legitimately judged independently and differently, as a matter of opinion. And at university level, one learned that opinion had to be backed up by evidence. So far so good, taking Nietzsche’s saying at face value, but whatever would the philosopher have made of Donald Trump?

Donald Trump VsignTrump — probably not an avid student of German philosophy — has taken the concepts of “facts” and “truth” one stage further, by arguing that there can be “alternative facts” and apparently believing that anything can be true if you believe it. Does the President actually realise he is lying when he utters his endless string of alternative facts and deceptions? I suspect not, half of the time. But if he does, I doubt that he cares. Like a king out of a fairy tale, he believes he is all-knowing as well as all-powerful, and he is surrounded by sufficient sycophants to just nod (or at least hide their grimaces) when he chunters on, scattering nonsense like confetti. Meanwhile, while Mr Trump denounces mainstream media as “fake news” there are plenty of conservative TV channels and political commentators willing to treat what Trump says as Gospel.

George OrwellWhich brings me to Easter. For two millennia devout Christians have believed the unbelievable, that Jesus rose from the dead this Easter Sunday in a resurrection that defies scientific logic. Of course, religion and science have often found themselves on opposing sides since the Enlightenment, but for many followers of religion — any religion — articles of faith are believed without concrete evidence. They are a kind of alternative facts. So if countless millions believe such things should we be surprised that other countless millions believe what is said by Donald Trump, or Russia’s Vladimir Putin or China Xi Jinping? This is very disconcerting for anyone brought up in a secular, liberal democratic tradition in Europe and who has digested the warnings about Newspeak and the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. Orwell was writing half a century before the emergence of social media, which in some ways have been a blessing for many people (especially at a time of isolation and social distancing) but they also have a dark side. On social media often there are no facts, only opinions. And they serve as a channel for disinformation as much as they do for information. When the coronavirus crisis passes, as it will, the virus of disinformation and of genuinely fake news will still be with us, and will alas probably prove far more resilient.

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A War with COVID19?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th April, 2020

War on coronavirus 1On both sides of the Atlantic, the rhetoric around the fight against the Coronavirus has become increasingly bellicose. Having initially tried to pass the whole thing off as a “Democrat hoax” President Donald Trump has now switched to wartime mode, though he can’t resist the temptation to take swipes at domestic political rivals, such as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, at the same time. In Britain, Boris Johnson — the author of a (not very good) book about Winston Churchill, among other things — quickly slipped into a Churchill tribute act when the virus started reaping lives here, though with a degree of Boy’s Own flippancy that would have made Mr Churchill wince. Now, of course, Boris Johnson is in hospital, having failed to shake off a bout of the virus himself and one can only wish him a speedy and full recovery. But even if Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is standing in for him at today’s COBRA meeting to discuss the crisis the language is still all about war. Even the Queen last night struck a note of wartime nostalgia in her national TV broadcast with an obvious reference to the (not entirely accurate) spirit of the Blitz, as well as making an allusion to Vera Lynn’s emotive song, We’ll Meet Again.

War on coronavirus 2Extraordinary measures unseen outside wartime have been brought in by the governments of Britain and many other countries, restricting people’s freedom of movement and association, in the belief that social distancing is the most effective weapon to stop the spread of the disease. And across the European Union border restrictions have reappeared after decades of open frontiers and nations are turning in on themselves. To an extent this is understandable, but battening down the hatches on a national level and evoking a wartime spirit could adversely affect international relations for years to come. Moreover, there has been a disturbing rise in right-wing nationalism, not least in some of the former Communist states of central Europe, and in the United States individual states are becoming rivals when it comes to things such as securing sufficient personal protection equipment (PPE). Surely the notion  of “we’re all in this together” should be international, indeed global, not just within national or state boundaries? COVID19 could have serious repercussions for the integrity and future of the European Union unless a more coherent common EU strategy to confront it is put in place. I know health is not usually an EU competence but in this instance it needs to be.  Meanwhile, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has called for a global ceasefire in the myriad armed conflicts still ravaging various parts of the globe. No-one seems to be listening to him, alas, but they need to. Combatting COVID19 requires peace and international cooperation. So tone down the warlike rhetoric, guys, and adopt a more constructive approach.

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Information Warriors

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 1st April, 2020

Vyvyan KinrossPeople in power have long used self-promotion as a means of increasing their public prestige. Vainglorious Roman emperors had statues of themselves in triumphant pose erected in prominent places while for centuries in Africa praise singers lauded the wisdom of their chiefs and the exploits of their tribe. The modern equivalent is that brand of the communications industry known as PR, which embraces a wide range of techniques, virtues and sins. Vyvyan Kinross is a PR and communications specialist who has advised several governments about their information and communications strategy, notably in the Gulf and Palestine. So he is well-placed to analyse how the good, the bad and the ugly have used information in the battle for hearts and minds across the Middle East, in his book Information Warriors (Gilgamesh, £19.95). A substantial part of his highly readable text examines the successes and failures in the information war of both Western — especially American — powers in their fight against dictators like Saddam Hussein as well as the jihadi Islamists, the most significant being Islamic State (IS). What I found particularly striking about Kinross’s discussion of IS is how much the young fighters and their PR teams learnt from the very Western culture they affected to despise, from Hollywood through video games to the slickest of TV advertisements. Condemned (rightly) by the West as inhumanly brutal, IS operatives turned their very inhumanity into a form of domination porn, highlighting the torture and slaughter of their enemies or the infidels, pandering to the bloodlust of angry young Islamist fanatics, a significant number of whom live in the United Kingdom.

Information WarriorsOf course, atrocities are usually publicised to damn their alleged perpetrators, not to laud them. And over the past century or so there have been many instances of such propaganda, from stories of German soldiers raping and pillaging in occupied Belgium to the (completely fictitious) account of Iraqi forces ripping premature Kuwaiti babies out of incubators and throwing them on the floor to die. All is fair in love and war, it seems. But whether the powers that be spin stories to their best advantage or totally fabricate them, the common motivation is a belief that perception management can influence public opinion massively, in their interest. PR and strategy firms such as Hill+Knowlton and Bell Pottinger earned hundreds of millions of pounds in advising their governmental clients how best to massage the message. But as George Orwell astutely predicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Ministry of Truth can in reality be a factory of lies.

Latterly, the situation has become even more complicated by the growth in disinformation, generated not just from Russia, and the weaponisation by Donald Trump of Fake News and “alternative facts”, leading to the widespread acceptance of the idea in swaths of the population that something is true if they believe it. For someone such as myself, who has spent half a century working in the media, this is all very depressing. But Kinross does offer a glimmer of hope in the final section of his book, by focusing on the positive aspects of what Harvard Professor Joseph Nye dubbed “soft power” and the potential of bodies such as the British Council. Nonetheless, in the specific context of the Middle East and the information war with the West, the challenge is daunting, in both directions. Opinion polls in countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia found as much of 90 per cent of the population had a negative opinion of the United States, mainly because of Uncle Sam’s interventions in the region. With regard to Britain there are similarly hostile reactions, especially among the young, over the legacy of the Balfour Declaration and the 2003 Iraq War in particular. But does the British public really care? A 2017 poll discovered few people in the UK know very much about the Arab world and few are interested in finding out more. Reading this book would be a salutary lesson.

 

 

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Stay at Home

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th March, 2020

Stay at HomeLast night, in a televised address, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did what he should have done at least a week ago by telling people to stay at home in an effort to curb the spread of the Coronavirus. For once it was not the joking Boris boasting about how we were going to “send the virus packing” within 12 weeks, or how the production of new ventilators would prove to be “the last gasp”. Instead he delivered rather a sombre and measured commentary on the current challenges and the new measures that have been brought in to confront them. And unlike Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic, he did not diverge from his script. Advice about social distancing had been transformed into instructions, following a sunny weekend in which hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Brits had shamefully ignored the warnings and gone out to enjoy the parks or the seaside en masse. Now, people — not just in London, which is the epicentre of the UK’s COVID19 cases — are told to stay at home except when they need to go to supermarkets or pharmacies to stock up on food or medicines. But they can also go out for one daily burst of exercise, such as a jog in the park, as long as they keep well away from others. Gatherings of more than two people are banned, except among members of the same household. The police will in principle have the power to order home and even fine transgressors, though it is unlikely that this power will be used as rigorously as it is being in France. Boris Johnson himself, as a libertarian, must be uncomfortable about these restrictions on people’s daily lives, which the newspaper of which he has been a star columnist, the Daily Telegraph, headlined as “End of freedom”. That is a grotesque and potentially counter-productive thing to trumpet. Instead, they could legitimately have asked: why did it take the British government a week to ten days to really learn the lessons from Italy and then act? And how many more lives have been put at risk because they didn’t?

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