If he wins…

Using mixed conditionals to hedge your bets

Turmoil prevails regarding the use of modal verbs in Present-Day English. We can posit any number of deep underlying reasons for this. Modern life, for instance, remains stubbornly uncertain, despite (or perhaps indeed because of) the extent to which industrial society attempts to control the future. Likewise, growing belief in a world of technology programmed by computers in binary code, in accordance with strict scientific rules of cause and effect, contrasts sharply with a residual tendency still to think and act more in accordance with hunches, animal spirits, instincts, feelings, and faith.

Nowhere is this confusion more apparent than in the discourse of those modern-day oracles called elections and the pundits charged with forecasting their outcome.

Newspapers are currently filled with speculation as to what a different US president might do in the near future. In this context, it is not at all unusual to see the rules of grammar as they are taught in course books regularly breached … and, most often, for the very good reason that no such rules in fact exist.

A case in point is the use of the conditional.

 Conventional grammar books trot out the usual typology that divides conditional sentences up into three (or four) types.

The categories are as misleading as they are exquisitely neat; complete with (pseudo-) scientific-sounding coding system. Furthermore, (hurrah) the rules can easily be jotted down on the back of an envelope.

The Zero conditional refers to effects that follow logically or automatically from a condition (the computer code type of ‘if…then’ statement).  If x2 equals 4 and x is non-negative, then x equals 2. [If + Present Simple, Present Simple]

The First Conditional refers to a future event with a fairly high degree of likelihood.

If it rains, we will hold the event indoors. [If + Present Simple, will + Infinitive]

The Second Conditional refers to future events that are unlikely or counterfactuals (i.e. things that are patently not true).

If the sun disappeared tomorrow, the earth would freeze.

I wouldn’t do that, if I were you.

[If + Past Simple, would + Infinitive]

Some grammar books also include a fourth Past Conditional to refer to events that did not occur (counterfactuals) in the past.

If Napoleon had conquered Russia, people in Vladivostock would have had to learn French.

[If + Past Perfect, would (have) + Past Participle]

 Inclusion of the Past Conditional in fact upsets the whole neat and tidy system. It should be covered by the Second Conditional, but, if we do include it in that category, we will have to admit that the form of the verb in the main clause can be something different from would + Infinitive.

If we let in one exception, why not permit many? Come to think of it, why should we not allow any exception whatsoever?

This in fact is what real-life language users do all the time.

An article on Joe Biden in today’s Guardian newspaper bears the headline If he wins, what would the first 100 days of his presidency look like?   https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/28/joe-biden-presidency-first-100-days

Here a First Conditional-type ‘if-clause’ is combined with a Second Conditional-type main clause. Far from being anomalous, in everyday life, such mixing of different types of conditional is quite common and is used to enable expression to a subtler range of degrees doubt and certainty and our attitudes towards them than it is possible to covere with a simple logical schema.

In real life, flux and ambiguity are the rule.

In this headline, for example, the mixed conditional serves two not entirely compatible purposes. First, more explicitly, the use of Present Simple in the if-clause suggests that a Biden victory is likely, while the use of ‘would’ in the main clause indicates that what he might do thereafter is much less predictable.

In fact, this reflects a broader rule that we can use any modal verb to convey a degree of probability or uncertainty with regard to past, present or future and the article that follows is thus duly peppered with ‘might’s and ‘could’s and ‘may’s and so forth, in reference to a Biden presidency.

More implicitly, however, this headline also suggests that the degree of likelihood of Biden being elected president in fact lies somewhere between the two levels of probability that the First and Second Conditionals alone would convey. It is probable, but not as likely as one might wish… Best hedge one’s bets…

As one analytically-minded philosopher has put it: simple predictions about the future can be tested and proved true or false when the future comes to pass; statements about probability, absent access to multiple universes, cannot. We will know some day who wins the election next Tuesday. Who might have won, however, will remain forever in doubt.

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How Not to Mis-Elect a Government

Misinformation is rife these days. This is nothing new.

However, far from throwing a spanner in the works of a hitherto transparent and orderly process, the Internet and social media are now exposing the soft underbelly of a system that has always been elitist, fundamentally mendacious and flawed.

I cast my mind back 36 years to the first time I ever voted. It was 1983. I was nineteen years old. Britain had just been through a brutal and, in my view, unnecessary military conflict with the Argentinean junta in the South Atlantic. The Conservative government of the time, despite grueling austerity at home and race riots on the streets, was basking in the glory of this tin-pot military victory, which was broadly and uncritically reported in the press. Meanwhile, most newspapers launched a vicious often deceitful propaganda campaign against the opposition Labour party, tarring it as pacifistic and unpatriotic. Anyone who opposed the war, for whatever reason, had good reason to be fearful. It was not uncommon to be beaten up by gangs of right-wing thugs for espousing such views.

One year later, I was fully politicized by the year-long miners’ strike. It was not the strike per se that motivated me—I did not live in a mining community—but rather the obviously duplicitous propaganda that was put about by the Conservative government of the time through its loyal press. This hurt my innate sense of fairness and truth.

In those days, there were only two TV channels in the UK and these were routinely accused of bias by the government and/or opposition despite bending over backwards to be impartial or at least non-partisan. I was 18-years-old when Channel 4 was launched as the first genuine alternative to the state-run BBC and the private TV stations funded by commercials, known collectively as ITV. I remember what a breath of fresh air it was to have a novel more nuanced perspective coming from Channel 4 at that time.

Nearly four decades later, it is hard to imagine that sense of excitement at the appearance of a new TV channel and a new news outlet. Nowadays, we are spoilt for choice, not only by ‘official’ 24-hour streaming news, but also by unofficial publications put out by all and sundry on YouTube. Few of these propose nuanced or fresh points of view. In fact, many are cynically designed to perpetuate pre-existing prejudices or purvey conspiracies and outrageous opinions to a more mainstream audience.

Such is the starkness of this contrast that it is easy to imagine that there has been some enormous rift in the social fabric. But, in fact, no such thing has occurred. The Internet and social media have merely accelerated an age-old process and made manifest a phenomenon that had long lain hidden, albeit in plain sight, before the advent of this new communications age.

And although this new online discourse may provide somewhat greater scope for proselytizing and the persistence of insular mentalities, it is substantially no different from the kind of discourse that was previously bandied about in living rooms and saloon bars across the country, often spurred by spurious opinion pieces in widely-read highly partisan tabloid newspapers.

In fact, by exposing the true ugliness underlying the process by which ideologies are created, social media present us, for the first time in human history, with an opportunity to truly change ourselves for the better this time and embark on a more enlightened age.

The role of social media in bringing about the worldwide surge in populist politics over the past decade is vastly exaggerated. This is a pity, because the scapegoating of Twitter or Facebook distracts attention from the real causes of the current state of anomie: the moral bankruptcy of the right and the failure of the left to put forward proposals that rectify the shortcomings inherent in globalization.

Instead of concentrating its efforts on this, the left kow-towed to neoliberal economic consensus, ignored those excluded by the global economic system and focused its attention instead on identity politics, envronmental issues and minority rights. As a result, it alienated a large portion of those who used to support it, making these hapless individuals easy pickings for a newly emboldened extremist right. The failure of the left to create a hegemonic movement encompassing all those excluded by late capitalist society is a tragedy whose consequences have yet to fully play themselves out.

It is perhaps, however, still not too late to pull back from the abyss.

This Thursday, British citizens eligible to vote will go to the polls to elect a government for the fourth time this decade. As a disenfranchised expat, I will yet again not be among them, but I will, as has become something of a tradition on this blog, give my own views as to how I believe Britons should cast their vote.

On few occasions has the mendacity of one party been so transparent as it is today. Thanks to the Internet, it is relatively easy to correct Tory lies with a quick online search. I urge people to do this and not to vote for the Conservative or Brexit parties at this election on the grounds that they are morally unqualified to govern.

On the other hand, I understand the wariness of voters with regard to the Labour Party, which disappointed its natural constituency so bitterly when it was in power in the late 1990s and 2000s. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has, however, shown that a truly radical progressive approach to politics is not only still possible but in fact more urgently needed in this cynical age and that such proposals can be presented in a pragmatic fashion that stands up to the intense scrutiny that a world awash with mass data entails.

In this election, therefore, I urge people to vote Labour or to vote tactically for other parties or independent candidates in constituencies where these stand a better chance of ousting representatives of the Conservative Party.

On previous occasions I have urged British citizens to vote rationally, each according to his or her own interests, and I have not publicly favored any one particular party. On this occasion, however, it is in no-one’s interest to perpetuate the rule of the current UK government and I therefore urge everyone to vote for opposition candidates.

 

 

 

Catalonia, Scotland and Kurdistan

All nation-states are oppressive artificial constructs, but some are far more oppressive and artificial than others.

In the relatively short history of the nation-state-based world system, few artificially engineered national units have been more oppressive than those of Spain, the United Kingdom and Iraq. Despite recasting themselves in recent years as liberal democracies, these supposed nations are still at root brutal ethnocentric hegemonies. Scratch the surface and you get a nasty response, as was plain for everyone to see in the ugly events that unfurled in otherwise super-civilized Spain last weekend.

Spain was never meant to be unified. The Greeks, Carthaginians and later Romans and Vandals wisely colonized only the Southern part of the peninsula and this geopolitically savvy foreign policy was continued by the Muslim régimes that ruled southern Spain well into the middle ages.

The so-called unification of Spain was an event of great cruelty and brutality, involving ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, mini-genocides and the imposition of a system of cultural engineering based on inquisition and torture. You could be arrested in the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella for eating aubergines.

This unholy legacy persisted on the peninsula well into the 20th century, with the focus of opposition to the centralized Catholic authoritarian state shifting from traditionally multi-faith Andalusia to nascent socialist and Republican movements in Catalonia and the Basque Region. These regions were subsequently brutalized by the Franco régime. Guernica has become, thanks to Pablo Picasso, a by-word for man’s inhumanity to man, but few remember that it was chosen as a target because it lay within the ‘troublesome’ Basque Region.

Franco’s régime persisted, unlike those of Hitler and Mussolini, down until the mid-1970s. Philip K. Dick’s fantasy alternative history, in which Germany and Japan win the Second World War, was very much the reality in Spain. You could be arrested for reading Lorca; the beautiful and culturally enriching Basque and Catalan languages were discouraged or banned.

Since then, Spain has attempted to reconstitute itself, somewhat clumsily, as a quasi-Federal state organized around an artificially restored national monarchy. Tensions, however, remain. While the Basque Country has become the rust belt of the peninsula, Barcelona and its environs has flourished and regained much of its former glory, while the rest of Spain languishes under the aftermath of a government-induced debt crisis. Catalonia has its own local cultural heroes, quite distinct from those of Spain—Gaudí, Miró, Tapiès. The skills of the Barcelona football team—the unofficial Catalonian national team—are greatly admired around the world and, unlike most other successful international football teams, Barcelona FC is owned, not by a Russian oligarch or Thai businessman, but by its fans.
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Scotland and England have a long history of being bickering neighbors. Scotland, being smaller, less populous, and colder, has generally come out worse in the long series of conflicts. Nevertheless, there have been periods during which Scottish culture and science and government have been far in advance of that of England or what would later become the UK. Scotland was a resilient pioneer of Protestant reform and religious tolerance, while England’s Bloody Mary was sending clerics to the stake. In the 18th century, the intellectual Enlightenment took root in Scotland far sooner and more deep-rootedly than it did in its sister-nation. Adam Smith, David Hume and James Watt were all Scots. Scottish technocrats, however, have been routinely excluded from power and relegated to the engine-room (like ‘Scottie’ in Star Trek), both during the British Empire and in subsequent London-centered regimes. Look what happened to Gordon Brown when he was elevated from the ‘engine room’ of the Treasury to the ‘bridge’ of the Premiership. Scots have recently come into the ascendant again—upholding basic Scandinavian-style human rights, tolerance and social justice against English elitism and neoliberalism and affirming their commitment to the ideal of European Union, while England languishes in nostalgia for a more illiberal, militaristic, mercantilist age.
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The history of Kurdistan is perhaps less well known, perhaps because these people have never enjoyed the comforts of their own nation-state. The Kurds are the largest ethnically and linguistically homogeneous group in the world not to have a nation-state of their own. This is a huge gash of injustice that vitiates and destabilizes the whole Middle East and threatens the wider world.

Always culturally and linguistically distinct from other parts of the region, Kurdistan has historically been overwhelmed by more powerful surrounding nations and empires. Vied over by the Persian Safavids and Ottoman Turks in the early modern period, after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the peoples of this region were first promised independence by the Treaty of Sèvres. The Allies soon, however, reneged on this deal, bullied by Atatürk’s growing nationalist movement in Turkey and preferring to incorporate the rest of the Kurdish population into their own recently created artificial imperial ‘protectorates’ of Syria (overseen by France) and Iraq (overseen by the UK).

Despite the brutal politics of the region, this arrangement has persisted more or less intact to this day. Kurds in Turkey have been routinely excluded from power and denied the use of their native language. In Iraq, they were brutalized by Saddam Hussein, before being corralled into a US-protected, but not independent, zone, in the aftermath of the First Gulf War. Up to and including the recent referendum, appeals for Kurdish independence have been met with deaf ears or outright hostility by surrounding nations and global powers alike. Kurdistan’s only ‘friend’ in the region is Israel, a nation with which it shares a somewhat similar history and projected destiny.

In the recent conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the Kurdish Peshmerga has been instrumental in putting down the vicious religious bigotry of the so-called Islamic State uprising. Different from almost every other nation in the region, Kurdistan promotes genuine democracy, egalitarian social policy, religious and ethnic tolerance, gender equality, and the true values of Islam. It is a baffling miscarriage of international justice that the soi-disant liberal ‘international community’ has consistently refused to support the Kurdish cause.
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In a famous essay, Tom Nairn described nationalism as being Janus-faced. There is a good kind of nationalism, looking forwards towards the future, promoting freedom for oppressed peoples and cultures, without fear of sharing this future with other cultures and peoples different from their own. On the other hand, there is the bad face of nationalism, which looks backwards towards imperialism and intolerance and forges nation-states as empires writ small and attempts to impose hegemony over cultural diversity.

This subjacent ideological divide, more emotionally powerful than the struggles between capitalism and communism, liberalism and authoritarianism, has always been the defining ideological conflict of the modern age and it is one that recent events in Catalonia, Scotland, Kurdistan and elsewhere suggest is coming to a head. Let us hope and pray that it does so in a manner that is more liberating and inspirational than marred by tragedy and violence.

“Poorsplaining” and “True Education”

A recent newcomer to the ever-growing English lexicon is the word ‘mansplain’—a verb that refers to the act of a man over-explaining something (usually something quite obvious) to a woman, as if she were stupid. There is a funny scene in the US comedy series Silicon Valley in which a male character mansplains mansplaining itself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyC_NKEz62A

Joking and political correctness apart, I think this term makes a useful contribution to the English language and sheds light on an oppressive behavior pattern (going far beyond gender disparities) that has hitherto tended to be overlooked.

I will coin the term ‘poorsplaining’ for this broader phenomenon, since it is invariably used as a discursive mechanism by which a powerful group seeks to entrench the disempowerment of a less privileged group, under the guise of apparently enlightening them. It is a way of explaining things (poorly) to the poor in a way designed to keep them poor.

“Poorsplaining” has in fact become the main mode of conveyance of political and supposedly educational discourse in the modern age.
This has come about for understandable reasons based on generally good intentions. But good intentions alone, as the old cliché goes, can all too easily pave the way to hell.

In the not so distant past, political and intellectual élites draped themselves in a deliberately arcane and impenetrable mode of discourse designed to shore up their power base and deny anyone without privileged access to it any say in the debate. There is a scene in the James Ivory film adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in which a group of politicians are debating enfranchisement. One of them proceeds to ask the butler a question about economic and foreign policy, couching it in obscure terms. The butler is both stumped by the form in which the question is posed and too deferent to offer any point of view of his own. The politician takes this as proving his point regarding the need to disenfranchise the working classes.

Using language to make things unnecessarily difficult to understand is obviously oppressive. But the opposite—making complex matters apparently easy to understand—can be equally oppressive and much more deviously so. It has the advantage, from the point of view of the elites, of being a much subtler, less intrusive, seemingly more inclusive approach.

In the 1970s, future UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher stood atop a soap box brandishing a bag of groceries and attempted to poorsplain to the British populace how macroeconomics is in fact no different from managing the family budget. No economist would agree that this analogy is at all apt, although some might cynically argue that it is a useful necessary illusion to ensure that the rich are granted tax cuts while the poor are kept in their place. The ideological legerdemain was especially effective in so far as it was delivered by a woman—a woman who, true to her traditional stereotype, was doing her household chores and keeping things in simple terms.

Fast forward to 2016. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are campaigning frantically at Town Hall meetings and rallies in an effort to be elected to the most powerful political position in the world.

I am rarely impressed by politicians (especially when they are in campaigning mode) and these two were, by and large, no exception. But I saw something at a Town Hall meeting with Hillary Clinton that truly impressed me. A member of the audience asked the Democratic Party candidate a very specific question about difficulties she was having with her family healthcare insurance policy. Politicians usually take such prompts as an opportunity to appear caring, while spouting platitudes and set-pieces in response. Clinton did something very different. She asked the member of the audience to give her more details about her situation and proceeded to advise her on a face-to-face basis on the healthcare insurance options available to her. This impressed me but obviously did not make very ‘good television’. As the confused guest and the moderator tried to steer her back towards more comfortable platitudes, Clinton did something unprecedented, noble, yet perhaps politically fatal. She said, “It’s more complicated than that.”

Meanwhile, across the country, Donald Trump was haranguing rallies with a brutal simplistic discourse, putting everything in the most absurdly simplistic and monosyllabic terms and not responding to any negative feedback or input whatsoever, except aggressively.

Trump is savvy, but not sensitive, intelligent or knowledgeable. Most people are more like him than like Hillary and he exploits that to the hilt. Clinton had recently handed Trump a gift when she described his supporters as an “irredeemable basket of deplorables.” Trump seized on this as an unguarded undemocratic display of condescension (which in fact it was). But he did something else far more significant. He explained to his audience what the word “irredeemable” means. “That means you can’t change,” he added, whenever he quoted the phrase.

Clinton later went back on what she had said, but in a statistically pernickety manner, arguing that she had only meant that some (not all) of Trump’s supporters were ‘deplorable’. She did not elaborate on her use of the term ‘irredeemable’.

This is in many ways the very opposite of the Thatcher campaign in 1979. Eyes roll as Hillary “womansplains” boring details to potential voters, while supporters cheer and roar as Trump from his podium of male privilege ‘poorsplains’ (condescendingly and poorly) complex economic and foreign policy issues and the meaning of English words.

Both politicians now find themselves hoisted by the petard of their own rhetorical and gender-influenced strategies. Trump struggles to provide a more thorough explanation of ill-thought-out macho policies that he had previously poorsplained the populace into believing in. Clinton’s recent well-thought-out memoir on the reasons for her defeat runs perilously close to the risk of being characterized as gender-stereotypical whingeing.

There is obviously much more to be said about this highly nuanced ongoing political controversy than I can possibly go into here. So, I shall turn instead to the pernicious influence of what I have dubbed ‘poorsplaining’ in the education system.

Charles Dickens’s Hard Times begins with a parody of a schoolmaster giving a lesson to underprivileged children. The class is discussing not Latin verbs or engineering or government economic policy, but interior decorating—more specifically the type of wallpaper with which it is appropriate to paper a sitting room. A girl pipes up that she would like the room to be papered with a pattern involving horses, because she likes horses. She is duly berated by the teacher, who insists that it is ‘more rational’ to use a flower pattern or geometrical abstraction.

This is probably not the part of Hard Times that readers incline to remember. But it is, I think, significant that Dickens chooses to begin his dour tale of Victorian injustice and social exclusion with a classroom scene and mocks the kind of education that is (excuse the irresistible pun) furnished by the teacher.

The passage is even more striking in that it presages a modern era in which TV shows and advertisements purportedly educate the populace as to the more refined fashions, while eschewing provision of basic information on civics and economics, still less mathematics or engineering. A culture in which knowing how to properly paper a wall is more important than the ability to build one or the knowledge of how to use your rights to pressure the government or your landlord to build one for you.

It is but a short skip from Dickens to the more dumbed down form of schooling to which I was subject, whereby art lessons supposedly involved promoting ‘free expression’ and avoiding the imposition of culturally-determined ideals. There were, of course, limits to this. But they were arbitrary rather than sensible ones. I remember an art class when I was six years old in which we were encouraged to experiment with free abstraction and use of color and I produced a painting that involved a series or orange boxes set against a purple background. Rothko style. The teacher, who was probably only doing this sort of exercise out of government-imposed edict anyway, castigated me on the grounds that purple and orange are not colors that ‘go together’. Ever since then, “purple and orange” have been my preferred color scheme, as they are, interestingly, in some of the more subversive comic book art that eschews primary colors. As a result of this arbitrarily imposed authority, within an arbitrarily imposed liberal context, I became arbitrarily rebellious.

There is a scene in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant (a film loosely based on the events surrounding the real-life Columbine High School massacre) in which the students are sat down and dutifully, if a little unenthusiastically, being taught about tolerance and difference. This scene occurs shortly before the shooting begins. Elephant is obviously based on a very real and very shocking act of extreme and seemingly senseless violence, but a similar theme is addressed in Lindsay Anderson’s 1960s film If…, in which the graphically presented revolutionary violence is confined to fantasy and set against a backdrop of the very real violence, abuse and ideological indoctrination of the normalized everyday life of an English ‘public’ (i.e. expensive private) school.

Both films involve a scene in which the headmaster/director is shot dead. In Anderson’s film, he is strutting arrogantly around in robes and perfunctorily gunned down from a distance by a rooftop sniper. In Elephant, he is confronted by his killer in the corridor and pleads for mercy. But the fate of the headmaster (the ultimate symbol of the school ethos as a whole)—one ridiculously authoritarian, the other ridiculously liberal—is the same and equally mercilessly meted out.

Here the Trump and Clinton communications strategies are reversed, ideologically speaking. The conservative authoritarian private school mansplains arcane and meaningless doctrines and rituals for young minds, while the modern liberal US public school preaches diversity and tolerance and dumbs down the curriculum in an effort to be ‘inclusive.’ Both, however, like the 2016 US presidential election campaign, succeed only in fostering a climate of alienation and heighten the potential for outbursts of senseless violence.

As a teacher and a learner myself, I am well aware that learning is never easy and it is patronizing, disingenuous and ultimately unfair to pretend that it is or can be made to be so. Learning should be difficult, but it should not be difficult because of understandable resistance to arbitrarily imposed norms or obfuscating language, but because of the inherent obscurity, ambiguity and complexity of the subject matter, of the world itself. This is where the true source of fascination with learning lies and it is precisely this innate thirst for complex nuanced knowledge that is stifled by authoritarian and liberal schools and politicians alike from an early age.

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society was first published in the early 1970s but is more relevant than ever today. At the very start of this book, Illich notes an overlap between the language of education and the language of war. Nixon, for example, vows to “teach the Viet Cong a lesson”… by bombing them. In another chapter, Illich imagines a future world in which learners are connected to and learn through one another in ‘virtual learning communities’ by way of some, at that time, still unimaginable future technology, thereby dispensing with the need for the unavoidably oppressive infrastructure of schools.

Such technology and such virtual networks of course now exist in multitudes and, although they are still used less for good than for ill, there is increasingly no need for mansplaining or poorsplaining. All learners have always obviously been quite capable of exploring the nuances and complexities of the world for themselves. Now they are also fully equipped to do so. Illich’s futuristic utopian pedagogical world may yet be more than a mere pipe dream. For the sake of all of us and the fate of the world, let us strive to make it real,

Laudable Pus

As I write, protesters are banging pans in the street to bring down the federal government.

Their indignation is ostensibly spurred by outrage over corruption—a moral malady that has blighted Brazil, as it has every post-colonial nation, since its inception, but which, in fact, has declined somewhat over the past 13 years of PT (Workers’ Party) rule.

This is not to say of course that the PT itself has been entirely free of this endemic ailment. The realities of governing in coalition have necessitated that its very survival was predicated from the start on doing dirty deals to garner votes in a largely hostile Congress in order to push through its novel socially progressive agenda.

Despite much hullaballoo in the right-wing press, however, no-one took to the streets to protest this more originary sin.

As a consequence of developments in the global economy and some less than wise long-term government policies, Brazil is now in deep recession. It is by no means clear, however, why the current Brazilian government should be blamed for this, especially when a fractured opposition offer little in the way of viable alternatives to the export-driven cycles of boom and bust to which Latin America has forever been prone.

People are understandably frustrated about the present state of the economy and anxious about the future and this more easily turns to anger when a large swathe of the population have only recently come to know relative prosperity only to have it suddenly snatched away. It would be wrong to see the current wave of protests as a primarily middle-class endeavor to topple a hated leftist government. We should remember that this recent cycle of economic discontent first erupted in Brazil, from the left, in 2013, over white-elephant World Cup building projects and bus-fare hikes. Nothing came, however, of these more grass-roots demonstrations, which were met with a combination of indifference and police brutality.

The key, however, to the current wave of protests, which meets with very little police interference, lies perhaps in its highly personalized nature. The protests focus hatred on stereotyped figures of Lula and Dilma (Brazil’s first working class and first woman president respectively) and take the form of a cacophonous banging of spoons on metal pans—an act that has historically been used to shame situations that are not illegal but are perceived to be out of kilter with the traditional moral order. Such noisy protests would disrupt the wedding nights of brides and grooms who were kissing cousins or of widely differing ages shamelessly marrying for money in Medieval times.

Cowed or mollified by significant economic and social progress and mass support for the first three PT governments, voices deeply inimical to any change in long-standing traditional social hierarchies have hitherto bitten their tongues, remained silent and secretly seethed at the unprecedented but still somewhat timid promotion of ethnic minorities, women and the working classes in many sectors of society in Brazil. The current economic downturn and flurry of corruption scandals have now justified the venting of this long pent-up anger. And, as is always the case with long-standing self-repression, such anger tends to come out with especial violence in its ugliest and most unadulterated form.

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The same goes for what is currently going on in the United States and it is no coincidence that the opposition PSDB in Brazil is modelling its strategy on that of the US GOP, with its own colorful homegrown cast of fiscal conservatives, media personalities, crime-busters, Bible bashers, gun nuts, climate change deniers, closet racists, bigots and clowns.

Beset by a recalcitrant economic recession that seems only to affect the middle to lower classes, voters to left and right alike have turned their backs on traditional political leaders, unable to get a symbolic grip on the true causes and agencies at work behind the global economic crisis.

On the right, this frustration has tapped, as in Brazil, into a long-repressed resentment with regard to social, racial and sexual equality and relative tolerance of the free flow of labor across international borders, and the ideology of political correctness that has accompanied these trends.

Donald Trump has, perhaps less wittingly than is made out, struck the oil of this repressed resentment and it is gushing forth with all its original violence and ugly vigor threatening to poison and pollute the whole political culture of the most powerful nation in the world. Voiceless disenfranchised bigots in other countries are already following suit.

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This upsurge of the ugly right, in Brazil, in the US, and around the world, is certainly nasty but is it necessarily a bad thing?

Unable to make headway with a more progressive economic agenda, the left has focused increasingly on issues of social inclusion and identity politics. Given that, in the absence of a more radical approach, they are incapable of dragging society out of the mire created by the dominant right-wing élite, left-wing parties are blamed (justly) for their failure to manage an economic system in which they do not truly believe and this failure is (unjustly) associated with a top-heavy superstructure of political correctness upon which leftist ideology increasingly depends.

The anger stirred is misplaced, but it is understandable in so far as the left has done little or nothing in recent years to channel it in a more positive direction.

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Pre-modern medicine had a notion of ‘laudable pus’—a creamy brown voluminous discharge that supposedly augured well for the progression of an infection towards a more desirable outcome. This was contrasted with drips of thin yellowish blood-flecked discharge, which indicated a more problematic course. Interestingly, the kind of pus that looks ugliest, is in fact the healthiest kind.

We should perhaps be grateful to the likes of Donald Trump for lancing this long-festering boil of resentment and bringing it to light. A copious outflow of right-wing bigotry may, at this point in time, be necessary to expose its malignant ugliness and free ourselves of it forever and, moreover, to force reflection on the way this symptom is related to the underlying much more serious systemic condition of neoliberal capitalism.

Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

*I am especially gratified that this was the second most ‘liked’ and viewed poem that I posted this year. It is a piece that had been rattling around in the back of my mind for some years now, but only came together under the inspiration of one of Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab prompts. It is a poem about childhood memories and the demise of 1970s trade-union politics, but it is also a belated Christmas poem of sorts. I continue to trim and touch it up, but I think that it is approaching a definitive version.*

 

Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

 

The squeaky plastic toy postman

was part of a series of shampoo bottles

—policeman, hard-hatted construction-worker,

fire-fighter, farmer, nurse—

a whole trade union movement

of workers dirtied by politics and labor

and cleansed by a daily baptism of bubble-bath;

and dirty for having been in and out

of your baby mouth so often,

and in and out of your high-walled pram

into the dirt and back, little sister,

until lost.

*

Oddly,

the loss of that little postman,

somewhere outside of the pram,

squashed, on the narrow sidewalk

between the blackened car-park walls

and the trucks thundering

along the once sleepy high street

through the center of town,

somewhere between the shiny-windowed family planning clinic

and the bakery chimney black with sugary soot

and the scent of gingerbread men,

lost forever under the wheels of a juggernaut,

upset me far more than you

with your giggling fort-da games.

*

The little postman was thrown unceremoniously

under the bus, as workmen drilled the road

noisily under red&white striped tents

between cups of tea. And probably laughed.

Mother didn’t even notice he had gone,

still less you, little sister, with your new-born smile.

Only I noticed that the postman

was missing and no longer among us

no longer lined up alongside the other smiling guilded icons

rimming the bath.

The only smile lacking mine.

The engineer was not weeping,

nor the policeman seeking him out,

nor the nurse tending his wounds.

“I’m alright, Jack,” they each seemed to grin back

from their own squeezy soapy toy world.

No solace there.

The dirty bathwater gurgled down into the plughole

as always and all was lost. The postman gone.

*

Later, policemen would take sticks to the backs of miners

and printers; squeeze the life out of picketing dockers;

bludgeon firemen and factory workers. Throw them all

out of the high-walled pram of the nanny state,

like unwanted toys.

*

The message the stern-faced postman brought was never his own:

letters from half-forgotten family members popped

through the post box among bills. The flurry of cards

and packages at the end of the year justified the postman’s Christmas box.

Even carefully packed clotted cream.

*

Once a year—double overtime—we would trudge—

duffel-coated little Santa’s helpers—

down to the railway station to load bags

full of gifts and festive greetings onto waiting trains.

And the ASLEF driver would step off the plate

to warm his feet on a two-bar fire and rant Utopian dreams,

riding his metal sleigh sullenly through icy dark of night,

a Santa clad in Lenin red

cheering us with his tales of times to be.

….

We wait now for the postman thrown out of the pram to be found—

the redeeming Übermensch,

Homoousia knitted back together

by kind ladies who go to church—

and hang fairy lights in trees

to welcome his return.

 

Tinker, tailor, soldier and sailor

have lost touch with the candlestick-maker

who is out of work these days. Unions come

and go. Places taken by accountants,

upstart slum landlords, slick-talking lobbyists,

lawyers, ad-men, bankers, TV anchors.

But none of these become icons filled with foaming bubble-bath

squirted out with the cheerful squeak

of a station master ordering off a train

in a mist of sooty steam and a flapping of flags;

or of a factory chimney tooting time

for workers to knock off and get back home

on bikes

to polish billiard cues for the night ahead,

or of milkmen whistling

on whirring floats

as they do their rounds.

 

Poetry Rehab–Missing–Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

This longish poem is still very much work in progress. I am still far from happy with the way I have managed the rhythm and the development of ideas. It is an attempt to create the fusion of personal, political and spiritual concerns that I am still groping towards as a poet and a person. I submit it here in response to Andy Townend’s Poetry Rehab Missing prompt https://wordpress.com/read/post/feed/31982590/858627284 as it seems to cover various senses of this word. Any constructive criticism is, as always, most welcome.

 

Throwing the Postman out of the Pram

The squeaky plastic toy postman

was part of a series of shampoo bottles

—policeman, hard-hatted construction-worker,

fire-fighter, farmer, nurse—

a whole trade union movement

of workers dirtied by politics and labor

and cleansed by a daily baptism of bubble-bath;

and dirty for having been in and out

of your baby mouth so often,

and in and out of your high-walled pram

into the dirt and back, little sister,

until lost.

*

Oddly,

the loss of that little postman,

somewhere outside of the pram,

squashed, on the narrow sidewalk

between the blackened car-park walls

and the trucks thundering

along the once sleepy high street

through the center of town,

somewhere between the shiny-windowed family planning clinic

and the bakery chimney black with sugary soot

and the scent of gingerbread men,

lost forever under the wheels of a juggernaut,

upset me far more than you

with your giggling fort-da games.

*

The little postman was thrown unceremoniously

under the bus, as workmen drilled the road

noisily under red&white striped tents

between cups of tea. And probably laughed.

Mother didn’t even notice he had gone,

still less you, little sister, with your new-born smile.

Only I noticed that the postman

was missing and no longer among us

no longer lined up alongside the other smiling guilded icons

rimming the bath.

The only smile lacking mine.

The engineer was not weeping,

nor the policeman seeking him out,

nor the nurse tending his wounds.

“I’m alright, Jack,” they each seemed to grin back

from their own squeezy soapy toy world.

No solace there.

The dirty bathwater gurgled down into the plughole

as always and all was lost. The postman gone.

*

Later, policemen will take sticks to the backs of miners

and printers. Squeeze the life out of picketing dockers;

bludgeon firemen and factory workers. Throw them all

out of the high-walled pram of the nanny state.

Truncheons their toys.

The rich and privileged and their henchmen

behaving like little kids, treating other people’s lives

like unwanted toys. To be thrown out

of the pram; unwrapped under the Christmas tree

and tossed out with the trash on Boxing Day.

*

The message the stern-faced postman brought was never his own:

letters from half-forgotten family members popped

through the post box among bills. The flurry of cards

and packages at the end of the year justified the postman’s Christmas box.

Even carefully packed clotted cream.

*

Once a year—double overtime—we would trudge—

duffel-coated little Santa’s helpers—

down to the railway station to load bags

full of gifts and festive greetings onto waiting trains.

And the ASLEF driver would step off the plate

to warm his feet on a two-bar fire and rant Utopian dreams,

riding his metal sleigh sullenly through icy dark of night,

a Santa clad in Lenin red

cheering us with his tales.

….

We wait now for the postman thrown out of the pram to be found—

the redeeming Übermensch,

Homoousia knitted back together

by kind ladies who go to church—

and hang fairy lights in trees

to welcome his return.

Tinker, tailor, soldier and sailor

have lost touch with the candlestick-maker

who is out of work these days. Unions come

and go. Places taken by accountants,

upstart slum landlords, slick-talking lobbyists,

lawyers, ad-men, bankers, TV anchors.

But none of these become icons filled with foaming bubble-bath

squirted out with the cheerful squeak

of a station master ordering off a train

in a mist of sooty steam and a flapping of flags;

or of a factory chimney tooting time

for workers to knock off and get back home

on bikes

to polish billiard cues for the night ahead,

or of milkmen whistling

on whirring floats

as they do their rounds.