Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Is Donald Trump British?

In some formal sense the answer is yes: His mother was Scottish, after all. But I’m thinking of two pathologies that are dominant in British politics, and observable in the purest form yet seen in Trump:

  1. Viewing all human interactions as sporting competitions.
  2. The delusion that they are brilliant master negotiators (“deal”-makers, would be Trump’s expression).

I’ve written before about the British compulsion to turn everything into a sport, so that it is impossible to imagine anyone winning without someone else losing. This is, at least, modulated by a charmingly deep-seated concern with “fair play” and being a “good sport”. (It is no coincidence that modern German has adopted the English word “fairness”. It is a peculiarly Anglo-American construct, not well covered by such overlapping concepts as Gerechtigkeit.)

But this interacts in peculiar ways with the peculiar conviction that they are particularly skilled at business and diplomatic negotiation. What they did have was an idiosyncratic blend of ruthlessness, geographic advantage, and technological prowess that they parlayed into a position of global dominance. Through stubbornness and admiration of their own idiosyncracies (“British values”) they have managed since then to turn their dominant position into a position of a weak, economically mediocre nation on the fringes of Europe, plagued by extreme inequality. But they think they’ve been winning or, where they have lost, it has been because of the perfidy of foreigners.

With Brexit, this delusion has entered its perhaps final stage. The UK has an incredibly weak hand in Brexit negotiations. They could appeal to comity and sentiment, but that doesn’t fit their vision of themselves as tough guys. They believe they know how to get what they want haggling with the lesser races — you have to show them you’re willing to walk away, and destroy both parties. That’s why the foreign secretary is threatening to turn the UK into an offshore tax haven saying the UK would “do whatever we have to do” if the EU doesn’t cave in to British demands.

Of course, that makes no sense for the UK economy, even if it wouldn’t be likely to result in crushingly punitive measures from Europe. But they think they’re brilliant, and by showing their willingness to damage themselves in order to punish Europe, the EU will agree to a “fair” deal (i.e., benefitting Britain). What is really likely happen is that the EU will be more inclined to bolt the doors against the lunatic, and leave Britain to complete its destiny as an offshore colony of Donald Trump’s America.

This is Donald Trump’s opinion of NATO. And possibly of the U.S. constitution.

P.S.

My 8-year-old was telling me about a recent school lesson. The teacher was telling them (for some reason) about the use of the term P.S. Her explanation began “In the old times people didn’t have computers, so they had to write letters on paper…”

Of course, I know that my children have lived entirely in the age of personal computing, but it was still striking to hear it presented in such stark terms. I actually experienced the transformation exactly during my university studies. When I arrived at Yale in the fall of 1983 I had my Apple IIe, my roommate had a Compaq, and otherwise pretty much no one had a personal computer. Everyone else seemed to be writing their papers on a typewriter. (It was kind of unreasonable of me, actually, to expect the professors to read the low-resolution dot-matrix output that I turned in, but I wasn’t very considerate at the time.) The Macintosh appeared the next year, and by 1986-7 everyone was writing their senior essays on the Macintoshes in the college’s computer room.

I’m reflecting now on the various US presidential elections of my lifetime. I have always supported Democrats, and have tended to disparage Republican presidents and presidential candidates personally as well as disliking their policies. I thought it irresponsible of Republicans (and the new media) to cover for Reagan’s increasing mental deficiencies, particularly in his second term. I thought George W. Bush’s first election was tainted by the problematic vote in Florida and the ridiculous intervention of the Supreme Court, and that he owed it to the country to bend over backwards to govern in a moderate, middle-of-the-road manner. (At the same time, it was clear to me that there wasn’t really a clear winner to the election. The electoral system simply failed. Though I believed, and still believed, that the most legitimate resolution would be an absolutely scrupulous full recount of the state which, it turns out, according to later studies, would ultimately have given the election to Gore.)

But it is quite clear to me that I have never watched the impending installation of a new president with such fear and loathing. Genuine fear. I worry about social programs I care about in the US, but having lived outside the US for more than a decade, and without any likelihood of returning, I feel pretty detached from day-to-day politics in the US. What I feel is existential dread for the fate of a country that is still my own, and for the world, which seems generally more unstable than it has for a long time, and where the US still has overwhelming influence, and even more overwhelming destructive power.

I was just interested in comparing the conditions for citizenship and annual number of new citizens between the UK and Germany. The UK numbers I found on this government website. Under “Key Facts” the first thing they have to say is

Applications for British citizenship fell by 29% in the year ending June 2015 to 137,406.
There were 112,407 decisions about British citizenship, 40% fewer than in the previous year (188,910). Correspondingly, there were 42% fewer people granted British citizenship (-75,908 to 105,043). This was the lowest annual figure since 2002 (120,121).

It seems like they’re really proud that British citizenship has become so unattractive. The number of people acquiring German citizenship in around the same timeframe was slightly higher — 107,181 according to the Statistisches Bundesamt — which also notes that this represents a slight decrease (1.1%) from the previous year.

The Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel commented on these statistics with concern:

 Deutscher Pass verliert weiter an Attraktivität

Die Zahl der Einbürgerungen in Deutschland ist seit Jahren rückläufig. Das ist ein beschämender Trend.

German passport continues losing its lustre

The number of people acquiring citizenship in Germany has been going down for years. This is an embarrassing trend.

The Statistisches Bundesamt also compares these numbers to the “Einbürgerungspotenzial” — the “potential acquisitions of citizenship” — finding that only about 2% of the available citizen material has been “ausgeschöpft” (made use of).

I might note at this point that the Germans take only 255 euros as a citizenship fee, as opposed to the £1,236 that the British take. (One wonders if the whole Brexit thing is just a scam to get Europeans living here to apply for citizenship. If all 3 million apply, that will be worth nearly £4 billion.

As someone who actually works with DNA — or, at least, DNA data — I find the drift of the colloquial use of “DNA” disturbing. It’s impossible for me to avoid the resonances of biological determinism, but I’m not sure how other people understand it. I’ve collected a lot of usages, and it seems to have been used in the past to suggest that individuals are being driven by their training or by the historical imperatives of their organisations. Which is sort of fair. But either the meaning is drifting, becoming more crude, or it’s being appropriated for racist purposes.

In this article in yesterday’s Washington Examiner

That Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., will politicize everything is a given — it’s in his DNA 

Now, I’m pretty sure that the reference to his DNA is not meant to be an ethnic slur. But not completely sure. Why is it there? What is DNA supposed to be adding? Is it his political DNA, his personal DNA (in which case it’s just a redundant statement that this is his immutable characteristic), his family DNA, or his ethnic DNA (which would make it an antisemitic slur). Impossible to say.

Maybe in 2020 we can clarify matters by dropping the Republican/Democratic mask and just let the FBI and CIA field their own candidates.

Assets

Against all odds, all political sides in the US are converging toward agreement. Here was a headline from the left-wing Daily Kos that seemed extreme three weeks ago:

Former spy reports Kremlin cultivated Trump as an asset for 5 years

And here is Donald Trump, speaking yesterday at a press conference:

If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks, that’s called an asset

Racism and forgiveness

It reminded me of the aphorism, popularised by the journalist Henryk Broder, attributed by him to an Israeli (commonly understood to be the psychoanalyst Zvi Rex), but without an identifiable original source:

Auschwitz werden uns die Deutschen nie verzeihen.

The Germans will never forgive us for Auschwitz.

One interesting lesson of the past year’s politics, particularly in the US, was learning how angry many white people seem to be about the legacy of slavery and racism. For example, when Michelle Obama spoke at the DNC about living “in a house that was built by slaves”, I had tears in my eyes, even as I rationally found it slightly mawkish and oversimplifying the trajectory of progress. Other people reacted differently, first doubting that that was true, calling it slanderous to mention the fact, and then dismissing the significance of the implicit criticism by saying that the slaves  “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
One typical survey in June 2016 showed that most white Americans — and 59% of white Republicans — believe that “too much attention is paid to race and racial issues”, with 32% of white Americans saying that President Obama has made race relations worse. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, only 46% of Republicans say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in the US, while 30% (and 45% of “Tea Party” supporters) say there is a lot of discrimination against White people. 64% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”

In a Jerusalem cafe the other day I picked up a right-wing Israeli newspaper that proclaimed on the front page Netanyahu’s  intention to “boycott” those countries that disapprove of Israel’s settlement policies (i.e., all of them). No mention of “divestment”, but definitely sanctions are in the offing. Perhaps Netanyahu’s policy should be called “BS”.

While threatening to withdraw Israel’s assistance to Senegal, they are kindly agreeing to continue accepting US aid, but presumably only because the US abstained rather than voting in favour of the UN resolution. But those Americans are on thin ice if they want to keep the Israeli international aid flowing.

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