• Lies and Lies and Lies

    When Shepard Smith of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News lambasted Donald Trump on-screen this week for ‘lie after lie after lie’, it was a hugely significant turning point for the Trump presidency.  The President has hitherto been able to rely on the uncritical support of the right-wing media, so – when he cannot easily dismiss Smith’s condemnation as “fake news” – he is left to explain to his equally uncritical supporters why even his friends in the media have had enough of his cavalier treatment of the truth.

    His critics, of course, will ask why it has taken so long for supposedly responsible news reporters to call him out on his more egregious flirtations with falsehood.  And, for students of the political process, it raises the question of whether Donald Trump has any longer even a rudimentary understanding of what the truth is.

    It seems clear to me that the President long ago ceased to recognise that there is such a thing as an objective truth.  He has after all built a whole career on a simple proposition – that the truth is what people believe, and that it can therefore be established, whatever the objectively determined facts might suggest, by the degree of confidence and persuasiveness with which it can be declared.  If people believe what you say, that is enough – the truth is thereby established for all practical purposes.

    He discovered in his business career, and in building his public image, that force of personality and the credibility that comes from celebrity were much more important than the facts; and, as the boss of his own commercial empire, he surrounded himself with toadies who knew that their jobs depended on believing whatever he told them.  He has carried that experience with him into politics where it has again proved its worth in persuading people to vote for him.

    He saw no need to abandon this tried and true approach to the truth when he reached the White House.  Indeed, as early as his inauguration, we saw the technique at work.  He was quite happy to declare, in the face of the established facts, that the margin of his victory was one of the greatest on record and – even more ambitiously, given the visual recordings of both events – that the turnout for his inauguration was greater than that for his predecessor.  The gullibility of his supporters, he thought, would be enough to win the day.

    Despite some reverses, and the degree of scrutiny to which he is now subject, he has not lost confidence in his ability to declare that black is white.  As long as he is believed, by his supporters in particular, the “truth” is thereby established.  We can expect much more of the same – unless there are more Shepard Smiths prepared to do their jobs properly.

    The issue that prompted Smith’s exasperated declaration was the meeting held during the campaign by members of the Trump campaign team, including Trump’s son, Donald Trump Jnr, with a range of Russian figures, including representatives of the Russian government and security services.

    The meeting was kept secret and its existence denied – and even when news of it broke, the purpose of the meeting and the identity of those attending was misrepresented.  The person doing the misrepresenting was none other than the President’s son – truly a “chip off the old block” if the extent of his lies is anything to go by.  He seems to have well and truly learnt the lesson provided by observing his father’s example over many years – that it matters little what really happened as long as the preferred, even if false, version is presented with sufficient confidence and certainty.

    It is always distressing to realise that a person one has dealings with is unable to tell the truth – and is, not to point too fine a point on it, a congenital liar.  It is not just distressing, but alarming, when that person is the President of the United States.

    We cannot expect Donald Trump to recant or to change the habits of a lifetime, so what is to be done?  The one glimmer of hope is that Trump’s poll ratings have slumped dramatically to record low levels.  Perhaps ordinary people have at last had enough and have enough self-respect to demand that their elected leaders are worthy of their trust.  Perhaps some of that self-respect will rub off on Trump’s political colleagues, and they will act before bad gets worse .

    Bryan Gould

    17 July 2017

     

  • The Many, Not The Few

    The British general election has produced an impressive list of casualties.  Theresa May may survive for the time being but her gamble on a snap election so as to increase her majority – and her authority, especially in the forthcoming Brexit talks – has spectacularly misfired.  Even with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland, it seems unlikely that she or her government will survive a full further term.

    Other casualties were even less expected.  The Scottish National Party’s losses seem to have put paid to any talk of a second referendum on Scottish independence.  And the loss by Nick Clegg of his seat in the House of Commons demonstrates the price that has been paid by the Liberal Democrats for the coalition arrangement Clegg took them into with the Tories.

    That leaves for consideration the political leader who was widely expected to come a cropper.  Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, did not of course win the election – though, under an MMP voting system that would surely have produced more seats for smaller parties, he might have had a good shot at forming a minority or coalition government.

    But he did out-perform all expectations and could justifiably be regarded as the stand-out figure of the campaign.  He achieved this, despite being dismissed as lacking personality, charisma and relevant experience, and as being as a consequence unelectable.  He achieved this despite the most vitriolic campaign of vilification against him by the right–wing press who used banner front-page headlines to accuse him of being unpatriotic and of being a jihadist sympathiser.  Even BBC journalists conceded that he had been very unfairly treated by the media.

    He achieved this, despite the repeated efforts by the “New Labour” or “Blairite” wing of his own party in parliament to unseat him as leader, and their constant efforts, both in public and in private, to undermine him.

    Imagine what he could have achieved if he had had a united party behind him and a fair go in the press!

    So, what did he have going for him?  What explains the unexpected (and admittedly comparative) success that he and Labour enjoyed?

    What seems to have attracted voters is that he was willing to talk to them, not as a politician but in human terms – in marked contrast to Theresa May, who was so robotic that she attracted the nickname “Maybot”.  Jeremy Corbyn, by contrast, attracted huge crowds, and seems to have particularly enthused young voters.

    What did he talk to them about?  He talked to them about what a good and decent society looks like, about how its members should treat each other, about government’s responsibility to ensure that no one gets left behind and that everyone has a fair chance of achieving what they want and are capable of – in other words, he described “a politics for the many and not just for the few”.

    This meant, he said, that there must be an end to “austerity” which was merely a clever way of saying that the many must “go without” while the few made fortunes.  He said that pubic services – like the railways or the health service – should not be privatised and run (often inefficiently) for private profit, but should be truly “public” – owned by and serving “the public”.  It meant that taxation should be paid fairly by those who can afford it so that the country could deliver good health and education for all, as well as effective policing, defence and security.

    He said all this, despite the warnings – even from within his own party – that it would mean electoral suicide.  He understood that if politicians commit only to what will win the approval of the few, then the voters will quickly understand that the interests of few will always prevail, and that those of the many must then come much further down the list.

    Corbyn’s readiness to talk about the issues that matter to most people struck a chord with voters who had been told for years that he was a no-hoper.  Bernie Sanders had already demonstrated much the same thing in the US presidential primaries.  Left-of-centre parties around the globe – and not least in New Zealand – might at last take note.

    Bryan Gould

    10 June 2017

     

     

     

  • International Women’s Day

    Last week – a week that included International Women’s Day – appropriately enough saw the role of women in our society making the headlines.  Sadly, those headlines highlighted again the way that women are treated in a male-dominated society – less a matter of celebration than of shame.

    First, we learned that the perennial and apparently immutable gap between men’s and women’s pay rates – so that men are paid more than women for doing exactly the same job – is not attributable to inherent gender differences in capability or to the varying roles that men and women fulfil in society but is primarily due to the attitudes of those who determine pay rates – and guess who has the most influence over that issue?

    Women are paid less than men, in other words, because men – who predominate in positions of responsibility and constitute a sort of permanent oligarchy – decide that it should be so.  As with so many issues of discrimination, it resolves itself into a matter of attitude – the attitude of those whose attitudes matter, in this case, men.

    The pay gap is not a one-off issue; it is a reflection of the wider scene, a scene in which women are constantly put down and given less value than they deserve.  In the same week, we (or most of us) were shocked at the Facebook boasts of Wellington schoolboys that they had raped unconscious young women, and at the sexual harassment of women teachers by another (and younger) group of schoolboys, also from Wellington.

    That was followed by the findings of research into the impact of pornography on those (not always, but predominantly male) who watch it.  Kiwis, it seems, are amongst the world’s most avid consumers of pornography, and what the research showed was that it could be regarded as potentially creating an addiction that causes psychological and emotional harm and, in particular, makes it more difficult for consumers to build full and respectful relationships with the opposite sex.

    To complete a picture that is far from reassuring, we also had news that the legislation on domestic violence is to be amended to provide for paid leave for a short period to women whose employment is interrupted by damage and injury suffered as a result of domestic violence – a commendable reform in itself, but disturbing evidence of how commonplace domestic violence has become.

    These reports are worrying enough indicators of how women are treated in New Zealand – particularly given our somewhat self-satisfied assumption, on the basis of our pioneering history in extending the franchise to women voters, that our society is one in which women are treated as fully equal citizens.

    But what is also worrying is that, even when we make an effort to redress the wrongs suffered by women, we still cannot shake off the sexist assumptions on the basis of which that effort is made.  I recently had occasion to experience at close quarters just such an instance.  A young woman and mother had summoned up the courage to end a marriage in which she had suffered psychological abuse (or what is now sometimes called “coercive control”).

    She was offered two opportunities to defend herself against attempts by her former husband to re-assert his control.  First, she was required to attend a “mediation” with him – an occasion that proved to be merely an opportunity for him to try to reinforce the dominance and coercive control which had caused the problems in the first place.

    And secondly, when her husband took her to court over an issue concerning access to the children, she found herself in a courtroom where not only was the judge male, but the lawyers for the parties (including the children) were also all male, as was of course her husband.  They were all in dark suits, and all knew each other; they proceeded as though at a social gathering at a gentleman’s club, and she was totally ignored. The men sorted it out to their own satisfaction.  The justice and protection that the law was supposed to provide for a young woman struggling to bring up young children alone was simply not delivered.

    We have a long way to go before we can claim that the world’s largest disadvantaged group (I was going to say “minority”, but there are more women in the world than men) are not similarly disadvantaged in New Zealand.  The pay gap, attitudes to rape, the popularity of pornography, the prevalence of domestic violence, the unconscious assumption of male superiority, all go to show how much we yet have to do and how deeply entrenched are sexist attitudes.  It’s surely time that all you men who profess to love and respect your mothers, wives, daughters and sisters stepped up to the plate and insisted on change.

    Bryan Gould

    12 March 2017

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Does the Rule of Law Matter?

    Most people in Western countries, one would like to think, see great value in the democracy they enjoy.  Rather fewer, perhaps, attach similar importance to the rule of law under which they live.

    Yet the rule of law is a central element of the ordered, yet free, society which we have succeeded in creating.  It is the rule of law that ensures that government is not able to exercise arbitrary power, but is subject to the same legal checks and balances as apply to the rest of us.

    It was the great Chief Justice, Sir Edward Coke, who established early in the seventeenth century the fundamental principle that “no man – not even the King – is above the law”.  At that time, the King was – or at least saw himself as -the government, and was determined that his supposedly divine right to rule could not be limited by any other body – neither parliament nor the courts.

    Coke’s great principle is still alive today.  Governments will still try from time to time to behave as autocrats – and indeed, they find it easier in some ways to do so than did Charles the First.  This is because, in a modern parliamentary democracy, governments are often able to rely on their parliamentary majority to carry the day – and they therefore behave as though they can take parliament for granted, which often they can.  A compliant parliament can allow the executive, in other words, a virtually free hand.

    Step up the courts.  It is the courts that will ensure that governments, even if they have command of parliament, cannot step over the mark.  The courts have developed a range of remedies available to the ordinary citizen when governments behave in an arbitrary fashion.  One of the earliest such remedies was the ancient writ of habeas corpus which required “government” or “officials” in whatever guise to give up “the body” – that is, to release a person who was being held illegally.

    Since then, a whole body of law, known as administrative law, has been developed to rein in public authorities that exceed their legal authority; I had the great pleasure, as an Oxford law don many years ago, of making a small contribution to its development.

    It is this body of law that ensures that a government minister who makes a decision affecting private rights will find his decision struck down if it is biased, or he suits only his own interests or fails to listen fairly to all sides, or he takes account of irrelevant factors or ignores relevant factors, or he behaves or decides unreasonably, or he makes a legal error, or exceeds the powers he can lawfully exercise.

    The courts stand ready, at the request of an individual citizen, to conduct what is called a “judicial review” of decisions that might be vitiated by any of these errors and to make sure that governments cannot simply say “we are the government – we can do what we like.”

    The “rule of law” is sometimes attacked by those who resent being constrained by the law of the land.  But it is the courts that stand as a bulwark between arbitrary power and the ordinary citizen and that guarantee to each one of us equality before the law.

    Does any of this matter any more?  Yes, of course it does, and even more so in modern times when the power of government reaches into every aspect of our lives.  And we have just seen a striking current example, not here in New Zealand, but in the United States.

    The new US President is obviously no constitutional lawyer.  He appeared to believe that, as President, he enjoyed supreme power – a modern Charles the First!  When the courts declared that, in banning entry to citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries, he had exceeded his powers and had discriminated against people on unacceptable grounds, he was outraged, and attacked the courts as a whole for “usurping power”.

    He appeared unaware that the law is not made merely on his say-so.  Much as he seemed to relish, with the cameras on him, the act of signing his “executive orders”, they must be made in a proper exercise of his legal powers.  If a would-be autocrat tries to exercise powers he does not have, it is in the interests of every citizen that he should be struck down.  We can all rest more easily under the rule of law.

    Bryan Gould

    14 February 2017.

     

  • Presidential L-Plates

    Donald Trump is by no means the first US President to take office without any previous experience of holding political office.  Dwight D. (Ike) Eisenhower, for example, became President after a stellar career in the military, though his military service no doubt gave him some familiarity with the concept of public service.

    Trump, however, is unusual in taking office with only the experience of pursuing his own self-interest to guide him – “and a very good thing too” many of his supporters will no doubt say.

    But, however appealing may be the prospect of a President unencumbered by political baggage, the lack of any political or governmental experience can be just as much a handicap for a new President as would be a similar absence of relevant experience in any other field of endeavour that requires judgment, knowledge and understanding.

    Politics in a democracy is essentially about carrying people with you.  It requires – in addition to the usual qualities – an ability to persuade and compromise, to respect the other person’s point of view, to recognise that “the public interest” is more than the simple aggregation of individual interests – yet these are precisely the qualities that the President-elect has yet to demonstrate.

    The absence of relevant experience, though, is one thing – the continuing impact of inappropriate and unhelpful experience quite another.  It is the fact that Trump’s life has been dedicated to his own self-advancement that leads to concern that he is not just lacking the necessary qualities but that he is actually handicapped, as he takes office, by allowing his experience to have taught him the wrong lessons.

    The early indications, even before his inauguration, are not encouraging.  He has already been exposed, by some immediate and pressing issues, as being ill-prepared for the major responsibilities that will soon become his.

    It was surely unwise, and unlikely to build confidence, to have parted company so publicly from his providers of intelligence.  His rejection of the briefing he has been given by the FBI, and the breakdown of relations between them, means that the US no longer has an accepted and reliable source of information about the activities of hostile interests – and the fact that the rejected briefings involve President Putin and Russia can only increase anxieties about the role they may have played in Trump’s election.

    And his child-like susceptibility to flattery, so expertly exploited by Putin, is hardly what one would expect from the man to whom the free world entrusts its future.

    The nature of the allegations made against him – that the Russians have “compromising” material of either a sexual or financial nature or both that could be used to blackmail him – and his difficulty in shaking himself free of this story, show how much his public image has already been damaged by what he revealed about himself during his election campaign.  There can be few who have ascended to high office under such a cloud of their own making.

    In domestic politics, too, he has already shown himself to be less than sure-footed.  He seems to have struggled to comprehend that running the country is different from running his own businesses and that the two must be separated – indeed, it isn’t clear that he sees any difference between them.

    There is also, of course, the persistent impression – not helped by his continued refusal to publish his tax returns – that those businesses are in trouble and that they owe vast sums of money; indeed, it is believed in some quarters that his prime motivation in running for President was to rescue his businesses from failure.  The fact that such a belief has taken hold is further evidence of the low regard in which he is held.

    His record in business does not help.  It is one marked by risky borrowing, followed by repeated bankruptcies, leaving the burden of unpaid debt to be borne by the lenders – hardly likely to inspire confidence if (as he advocates) the same practices are applied to the management of the public finances.

    And, in the appointments he has made to some of the most important offices in his administration, he seems to have followed the principle that the essential qualification is that the appointee should have a record of opposition to the interests (such as climate change or an end to racial discrimination) to be overseen.

    Most worryingly, Trump’s life experience appears to have taught him that celebrity and headlines are all that matter and will cure all.  It seems that we are about to enter an era of government by Twitter.  A snap overnight response to some perceived slight is apparently to replace careful analysis and considered policy – and opponents and those who disagree with him are to be countered by insults and scant regard for the truth.

    It is hard to see that such an impetuous and narcissistic approach to government can possibly succeed.  It is even harder to discern the likely end point.  No American President, surely, has ever entered the White House so much behind the eight ball before he has even begun.  Oh, American voters, what have you done?

    Bryan Gould

    13 January 2017