A Very Hard Brexit

Should you ever despair about the state of America’s politics, as we so often do, console yourselves that it’s even worse elsewhere. At the moment, even the United Kingdom finds itself in a very sticky wicket over its “Brexit” from the European Union.

We’re avid Anglophiles in our literary tastes and cherish America’s longstanding “special relationship” with Great Britain, so we try to keep up with the news from across the pond. Lately it’s all been bad news, as the messy business of “Brexit” plays out. The traditionally Tory Prime Minister Theresa May had to resign as a result of her failure to find a solution, and untraditionally Tory successor Boris Johnson doesn’t seem to be doing any better.</div<

The controversy all started back in 2016 when the British people narrowly approved a referendum to withdraw seem from the European Union. There were all sorts of reasonable arguments for doing so, as the European Union imposes all sorts of rules and regulations about immigration and how to measure the weight of bananas, and although the United Kingdom wisely didn’t abandon the Pound Sterling for the one-size-fits-all Euro that keeps creating problems there were many persuasive arguments for British sovereignty.
All along the counter-argument was that the UK’s alliance with the EU gave it un-tariffed access to the European economies that collectively comprise the third-largest market in the world, and that was also compelling. Should Britain take a “hard Brexit”from the EU its economy will direly suffer, and if it doesn’t the government will defy the narrowly expressed will of its people. Which makes for a complicated mess, and this Johnson fellow doesn’t seem to be up to it.
Johnson is a “Britain First” kind of guy, often compared to to American President Donald Trump, and he has an arguably even uglier head of hair, and so far he’s been flailing. He tried to suspend Parliament, which is arguably even crazier than Trump suspending Congress, as it’s a more longstanding institution. Even Johnson’s better-coiffed brother has resigned from the government, there’s talk of special elections, creepy left-wing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn awaits in the wings, and as much as we love the Brits they seem in yet another very bad spot.
The Brits have been through plenty of those over the last few centuries, on the other hand, and we we hold out hope they muddle through this one as well.

— Bud Norman

An Ill-Fitted President in an Ill-Fitting Suit

On his first day of a state visit to the United Kingdom President Donald Trump committed his usual number of offenses against longstanding diplomatic protocol, continuing his “twitter” war against the mayor of the host city, offering opinions on British political affairs that are none of America’s business and he doesn’t seem to know much about, and taking the occasion to hurl insults and threats from abroad at perceived enemies back home. The worst of it, as far as we’re concerned, was the outfit he wore to a fancy dinner with the Queen of England.
He was wearing a white tie and tales, which is appropriate dress for state dinners with royalty and those other very rare occasions in life when a black tie and tuxedo is insufficiently highfalutin, but surely such a rich man as Trump claims to be could have found a more adept tailor. The suit made him look far fatter than he and his doctor swear he is, even more so than his golf gear, with the coat cut higher and showing conspicuously more white cummerbund than any of the more elegant-looking other male guests, and along with Trump’s behavior on the trip it put us in mind of Burgess Meredith’s portrayal of the “Penguin” on the old “Batman” television series.
To be fair we must admit that only Fred Astaire ever looked great in such a get-up, and that we are by no means fashion icons ourselves, but we couldn’t resist joining all the jibes that many of the commenters at various internet news sites were making. Our observation might seem one of those ad hominem attacks we routinely accuse Trump of making, but on his first day in London he making fun of the mayor’s diminutive height, and his fans seem to that sort of plain-spoken bluntness and cheap shots.
Also, it seemed yet another dispiriting example of how Trump just isn’t very good at this state visit and international diplomacy stuff.
All the past presidents of our by now very long recollection were obviously striving for a certain dignity and decorum and paying exquisitely careful attention to all the infinitesimal details of international diplomacy while abroad, but Trump seems to pride himself on demolishing even the most time-tested traditions. He shoved the prime minister of Montenegro aside to get to the front of a photo at a summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, sided with brutal Russian dictator Vladimir Putin over the consensus of his intelligence agencies at a meeting in Helsinki, lavished unnecessary praise on the even more brutal North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un during negotiations in Singapore, and went out of his way to insult the democratically-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a G-7 summit north of the border.
Trump was on his best behavior during the dinner with the Queen and the rest of the royal family. He wisely refrained from reiterating his opinion that the recent biracial American member of the clan is “nasty,” which he now denies saying even there’s audio evidence that he did, and he seemed quite sincere in such over-the-top flattery of the Queen that she was probably embarrassed about it. Trump clearly loves pomp and circumstance, a tendency he has said he learned from his Scottish-born mother, who seems to have had a greater affection for the royals than your average Scot, and although he’s willing to wage petty and pointless feuds with all of the democratically-officials in the UK and the rest of the western world he clearly appreciates the red carpet treatment he routinely gets from the world’s hereditary monarchies and dictatorships.
The rest of Trump’s brief stay in England will include mass protests by a public that has about an 18 percent approval of him, including a blimp that portrays Trump as an obese and diapered baby holding a “twitter” machine, as well as outgoing and up-and-coming politicians who won’t be so polite as the royal family, and we expect that as usual he’ll want to punch back ten times harder. He’s got stops in France and other European locations where he’s also widely unpopular with both the public and their democratically-elected leaders, and we expect it will all play better with the fans back home than with our erstwhile crucial trading and military partners.
Trump fans love his bold willingness to disdain the longstanding traditions they believe has constrained America’s power, even though the past decades of business as usual have actually made America the economic and military and cultural leader of the free world in the post-World War II era, but we think there’s still something to be said for dignity and decorum and friendly relationships with the democratically-elected world leaders rather than its most brutal dictators. There’s also something to be said for hiring a tailor who won’t make you look so fat.

— Bud Norman

Anniversaries and Anxiety

Today is September 11, a date filled with dread. No American can help looking back in horror at the terror attacks that occurred on this day in New York City and Washington, D.C., in 2001, or at an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, nor nervously looking ahead for what might happen today. That nagging worry has occurred on this date for the past 14 years, but seems especially hard to shake this year.
The Islamist bloodlust that caused the past terror attacks is as impassioned as ever, and those afflicted with this ancient hatred have lately been conquering a large portion of the Middle East with beheadings and crucifixions, waging war against Israel with rockets lobbed into random civilians, committing the usual atrocities against one another, and issuing threats of mass murder against the west generally the United States specifically. It was once easy enough to dismiss such threats as mere Islamist bluster, but not now. Among the terrorist army rampaging through Middle East are hundreds of people with western passports that will get less scrutiny than the randomly selected businessman or tourist standing behind him at the airport, our  porous border with Mexico can’t keep out an illiterate and impoverished Guatemalan teenager much less an educated and well-funded terrorist, two Americans have been beheaded and others are being held awaiting the same fate, and the president’s prime time explanation of his hastily formulated strategy for dealing with the main Islamist threat on Wednesday offered no reassurance that our government is up to the challenge.
We’re not the only ones with this sense of foreboding. The United Kingdom has elevated its level of alertness in response to what the Prime Minister calls the “greatest terrorist threat in history,” Australia is considering doing the same, and a threatened king in Saudi Arabia has warned of attacks in the United States within months. A senior official at the Department of Homeland Security has told congress of Islamist plots to infiltrate the southern border, and although the agency quickly denied anything was currently afoot the brass at the Fort Bliss Army base near El Paso has been ordered to implement increased security measures. Polling data show that the public at large is lately more worried about the threat of terrorism, too, and the president’s appearing on prime television to admit that al-Qaeda is not on the run and the tide of war is not receding and our enemies are not a junior varsity team suggest that he at long last has the same necessary worry something big might happen.
He’s probably not yet so worried that he’ll reconsider his ban on detaining terrorists at Guantanamo Bay or using the harsh-interrogations that have successfully thwarted past terrorist plots, or his supposedly more moral preference for drone strikes that incinerate the terrorists and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity, or his instruction to Israel that even existential wars must be fought with the utmost politeness. Wednesday’s speech alternated tough talk about a “core principle” of his administration that “If you threaten America you will find no safe haven” with reassurances to his dwindling base of hippie peaceniks about the many things that he won’t do to the fight the enemy.
The president has recently described the country as “pretty safe,” a rather modest boast that he was obliged to admit he could make only because of all the national security apparatus created by his hated predecessor, and we’d like to believe it. Something about September 11 makes it difficult, though, so we’ll say a prayer, keep our fingers crossed and the radio on, and hope to be less anxious on September 12.

— Bud Norman

St. Patrick and the Borders

Today is St. Patrick’s Day, but we don’t have big plans. The parade and the celebration at The Shamrock over on West Douglas took place Saturday, presumably so that everyone could get the hangover out of the way before heading back to work, and there doesn’t seem to be anything else on the agenda in this not very Irish town. With all due respect to Ireland, however, we will wear something green to ward off the pinches, put an old Van Morrison record on the turntable, hoist a beer, and hope that the Emerald Isle lives on in something like it’s current shape.
Hanging on to national territory is getting to be a trickier proposition almost everywhere these days. Ukraine just lost a big chunk of itself to a dubious referendum overseen by Russian soldiers, and the rest of the erstwhile Soviet empire is nervously watching the west’s weak response. China also seems intent on extending its claims far into the South China Sea, at the expense of Japanese and Filipinos who are also no doubt wondering what happened to the good old international order, and any other tin pot would-be revanchists out there are probably figuring that now’s as good a time as any to stake a claim. The once great nations that used to impose peaceful borders on unfriendly neighbors are preoccupied with holding on to their own as territory, as Ireland’s neighbors in Scotland are considering bolting the United Kingdom, Venice is contemplating a break with Italy, and the Quebecois’ latent yearnings for independence from Canada have lately been reawakened. Similar secessionist movements are popping up everywhere, from Puerto Rico to California to the more easily disputed regions of Asia and Africa, and there’s no telling what the maps will look like by the end of the Obama administration.
Ireland should look pretty much the same, we suppose, unless “the troubles” somehow recur. Although we are not well-traveled outside the United States we did once drive almost everywhere in Ireland on a trip with the old man a few years back, and found it a lovely country full of friendly people, although the inebriated fellow urinating on our hotel window in Dublin wasn’t altogether atypical. There was an eerie abundance of European Union flags and a strange lack of Irish flags, and nothing to mark the border with Northern Ireland except that the pubs demanded payment in Pounds rather than Euros, but there was a distinct sense of nationhood that we expect will survive a few more years. The nationalist sentiment was even more apparent on the next week’s tour of Scotland, also a lovely country full of friendly people, although we did have to dodge a particularly rough bar brawl in Edinburgh, and we wouldn’t be surprised if Great Britain is missing a big chunk of itself soon.
That’s nobody’s business but the Scots’, we suppose, but when the lines are re-drawn with soldiers and warships and a complete disregard for the agreed-upon rules it always ends in trouble. When the nations responsible for enforcing the rules can’t keep themselves together, it’s even more troublesome.

— Bud Norman