The Times, They Are a Changing

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17 Nov 2020


The election of Joe Biden was greeted around the world like the fall of a dictator. People danced in the streets of Washington DC. Bells rang in Paris.  Fireworks went off in the United Kingdom.  The joy was palpable.


It was just one election.  Joe Biden is an unlikely rebel leader, having been part of the Washington establishment for over 4 decades.  Nevertheless, toppling Trump was a historical milestone; for many, it felt like the world tilted on its axis, and it had bent away from thuggery and brutality.


This development was followed by another: Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, his strategy guru.  Cummings and his American counterpart Steve Bannon are political arsonists: their main goal was to destroy. Bannon and Cummings believed that the edifice of the state was too rotten to be salvaged, however, once having set it alight, they struggled to come up with a viable alternative.


Anger dissipates eventually.  A person who has a tantrum may smash all the plates in the kitchen; however, once the catharsis of this event has passed, they are left with ceramic shards all over the floor.  There comes a time to sweep up the larger pieces, vacuum up the remaining detritus, and have a moment to reflect on what one is going to do for dinner now that all the dishes are gone.


That moment may have arrived.  Those who want to get excited about Brexit are in a minority; few discuss the “possibilities” any longer.  The populists who have ignored or belittled the significance of the coronavirus have proven to have few answers for grieving families.  As it turned out, merely shouting that anyone who feared falling ill was a “liberal cuck snowflake” wasn’t an effective pandemic containment strategy.


Populism has been tried before: the problem it always ran into was that there is a tension between being “popular” and being effective.  Take the death penalty: evidence suggests that it is not an effective deterrent to crime, as most murders happen in an atmosphere of irrationality.  You can execute murderers: but this won’t stop murder from happening.  Nevertheless, it remains “popular”.


Similarly, one can follow a Brexit “no deal” strategy.  However, this does not make the necessity of free-flowing trade with neighbouring states any less necessary.  One can make this more complicated and expensive, but it cannot be eliminated entirely. In any event, making this exchange more difficult is unlikely to bring about more prosperity.  At most, it will achieve the emotional satisfaction for the limited few who want to hear less Polish spoken on the high street.


I suspect Joe Biden is too focused on his tasks at hand to see himself and his election as a pivot for the world.  The Trumps, the Boris Johnsons are out of favour.  The Bidens, the Keir Starmers are suddenly in vogue.  The world has been on a long binge, in which the worst of human instincts have been allowed to boil over.  It is the morning after.  The mess is there to be swept away; calm reflection is required to analyse what happened.  Hopefully at the end of this process the world will be made anew.


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