Living in Interesting Times

“These are the days of miracle and wonder, but don’t cry baby, don’t cry…”  Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble

With an election looming in Australia, touted as the most important election since the last election, a critical referendum next week in the UK that could precipitate a frightening leap in the dark, and possibly the most divisive presidential contest in the USA in living memory, I scale the News Corp pay-wall to share Paul Kelly’s thoughts on the “interesting times” that we are living in.

Disruption of Brexit, Trump Loom in Anti-elitist Age

Paul Kelly, The Australian, 15th June, 2016

Our age is defined by hostility towards elites and establishment power — caused by financial abuses, frustration at pressures over incomes, immigration and living standards, polarisation at changing cultural norms and Islamist terror — with the US and Britain now in domestic political turmoil from this phenomenon.

The sense of elite failure is taking hold. It mirrors the belief that established policy is rotten or ineffective. Witness the incessant talk of weak leadership and the demise of political trust. People feel they are losing control — of their suburbs, country and security.

The culture of complaint, partly justified, lurches out of control, fed by public anger, acrimonious social media and a coarsening in public life. In this cauldron, ideas that have governed prosperity and success are now under assault from extremes of Left and Right. This roughly describes the forces at work in the US and Britain today. The once unthinkable — just nine months ago — is now a real prospect.

Donald Trump, Republican nominee for president with a reasonable chance in a two-horse race, constitutes a danger to the US and the world. Britain, according to polls, is 50-50 on whether to vote for Brexit and leave the EU in a delusional national revolt. And Australia, devoid of such epic events, is not devoid of their causes, with an anti-establishment, anti-major party hostility possibly defining the 2016 election.

There are two dominant characteristics of this revolt against the elites — it proves the failure of established political leaders and every sign is that such angry, disillusioned populism is just making matters worse and leaving people worse off.

The Western democracies are sinking into a political and intellectual crisis.

The Trump and Brexit movements are different in form but close in motivation — they are driven by multiple grievance. They feed off the notion of a polity gone wrong and a public scorned for too long. They represent a community alienated by and from the centres of power, from the Republican establishment to an arrogant EU.

In extreme form, people feel the system is rigged against them. They are retaliating: part calculated, part irrational. In an age of economic and technological disruption, large segments of the community have said “you want disruption? OK, we’ll give you disruption”.

Tory PM David Cameron now finds his survival in peril. Barack Obama, the most progressive US president, bequeaths a legacy of public rancour, polarisation and low self-esteem. Is it possible for any leader to succeed in societies that have lost their traditional virtue and much of the civic glue that held them together?

It is a time of false prophets. A generation of different and dangerous populists now moves to centre stage. Some like Trump, are undisguised in their racial, sexist and selfish pitches. Trump knows the key to being a successful fraud is to be a grand fraud. He pledges “to make America great again” with an agenda that will damage America and endanger the world.

Yet he wins wide applause. This is because he is an anti-politician, shaking the system, abusing the established politicians, trashing their ideas. He thrives on shock and extravagance in a culture drunk with mindless celebrity. He stands for economic nationalism, trade protectionism, xenophobic hostility towards Muslims and a US strategic withdrawal from the world and much of its alliance system.

Many of the sentiments Trump champions are embraced, one way or another, by the collection of minor parties and independents running at this election — and receiving little scrutiny — from Nick Xenophon’s extreme protectionism to Pauline Hanson’s extreme attitudes towards Muslims and immigration to the strategic withdrawal advocated by the Greens in their hostility towards the US alliance and delusion of a neutralist and more “independent” Australia.

Because he is an inflated ogre, Trump invites resistance. He lacks the judgment for the US presidency and should be fiercely opposed every step of the way. His policies cannot be excused simply because of establishment blunders.

The situation in Australia is different because our revolt against the elites is conducted in the name of the underdog, the little Aussie battler, the moral crusader or, as the Greens say, against the political equivalent of the Coles/Woolworths duopoly.

It is a climate where Jacqui Lambie, a purveyor of cliches with the common touch, can become a Tassie heroine and Xenophon can exploit rent-seeking provincialism to become SA’s finest son. Australians with their anti-authoritarian instincts are notoriously susceptible to appeals to cut down the tall poppies. It is a national pastime and good fun. The public can elect protest candidates in haste and regret over time. Witness Clive Palmer. Who pray, will Queensland give us this poll?

The educated class is adroit at the game. Clever men, Oxford educated, who write books about Winston Churchill can become slick populists as they seek to repudiate Churchill’s legacy of Britain’s commitment to Europe. Boris Johnson spearheads the Brexit campaign and, if successful, he will be well ­positioned to become PM.

Exploiting the multitude of EU flaws, Johnson makes a big call in Churchill’s style — time to quit Europe altogether — mobilising the sentiments that blame Europe for Britain’s problems, channelling Euroscepticism, overlooking the evidence that exit will hurt Britain economically, hurt the living standards of its people, diminish Britain’s influence and create a series of policy challenges that ­nobody remotely knows how to solve.

Johnson’s is a sophisticated populism. He cannot explain how Brexit will leave Britain more prosperous or safer. But he has invoked Hitler, Napoleon and the glories of the Empire along the road to what he calls a new freedom. He has panache and, exploiting the immigration card, he may win. Malcolm Turnbull, naturally, backs Cameron’s efforts to keep Britain in the EU.

False ideas are powerful in this new populism. People these days are disgusted with transactional politics — deals, trade-offs, compromises. Yet this is how nations are run in the age of fragmentation and diversity. It is what delivers stability, progress and social unity.

The anti-elites have a different view. They are obsessed by the notion of authenticity because they see most politicians as phony. They want politicians to take a purist stand in honouring their obsessions, single issues and self-interest — against the coal industry, for same-sex marriage, free Medicare forever, banning coal-seam gas, escaping the EU, building a wall to keep out Mexicans. It is a long list.

The anti-elites embody a rising intolerance — self-righteous refusal to accept the validity of the opposing argument is pivotal to this mood. These upheavals in the two great democracies, the US and Britain, are moments of great import. To list the sources of this malaise is to recognise its existence in Australia, albeit in different and less intense form. But for how long?

The mood in the Australian election is disengagement and disillusion with the main parties. The principal contest is Coalition versus Labor.

Yet there is another issue at stake: whether this poll sees an unprecedented number of minor party and independent candidates in evidence of a growing revolt against the Australian system.

Riding Shotgun in Jerusalem

I know we’ve come a long way,
We’re changing day to day,
But tell me, where do the children play?
Cat Stevens

A feature of the growth of Jewish “settlements” in the Old City of Jerusalem – houses occupied by Jewish families, bought or rented from Muslim and Christian owners through a mix of arms-length transactions, subterfuge, proxy purchasers, and intimidation – is the appearance of “kindie convoys ” in the crowded, colourful, bustling streets of the Muslim Quarter.

You will be walking down Suq al Khan az Zait towards the Danascus Gate, or al Wad, the Main Street, towards where it crosses the Via Dolorosa at the IV and V Stations of the Cross, amidst busy weekend shoppers and folk heading to the Haram for Friday prayer. Then, of a sudden, like a school of little fish, a gaggle of small children in kippas and backpacks flows onto the crowded street, enroute to kindie or home.

But these kids are like none other around them – those running, jumping, excitable, hyperactive Arab children who regard these ancient streets as their playground. For the Jewish littlies are being herded, and guarded, by slim, casually dressed young men with tee shirts over what appear at first glance to be bulging waistlines, but are in fact utility belts that would make Batman proud, and concealed handguns.

Two to the fore, two aft, and two more on each side of the infant convoy, keeping them in line and coaxing in the strays who meander out of the designated two-by-two line. And all the time, these young men turn and scan the streets, pedestrians, the roof tops, constantly alert, constantly scanning – and not being discrete about it either. They make no pretense at subtlety. For their very attitude is a warning, a demonstration of firepower, to any who would disturb or threaten their little convoy in any way: “you don’t want to mess with us!”

It reminded us of the scene in Series Three of “Deadwood” when, after Alma Garrett is fired upon by Hearst’s hired guns, antihero Al Swearengen orders his men to watch over her as she walks to her bank.

We follow them for quite a distance – immediately behind them, in fact -, and the rearguard look us up and down too. This is not the time for grabbing a Kodak moment.

Then, just as suddenly as they first appeared, the young men herd their charges into the passageway of a hidden house, or up a deserted alleyway, the wary rearguard facing the street until their cargo is safely delivered.

And then they are all gone.

Demographic Qualifier

The events described above took place in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

The population of the Old City is overwhelmingly Muslim – are an estimated thirty thousand Muslims here, and the population is growing due to high birth rates.

In the past, Christians, predominantly Armenian and Greek Orthodox, constituted a significant minority, concentrated in the centuries-old Christian and Armenian Quarters. The Arab Christian population has declined significantly since 1967, and stands at less than 6,000 according to the latest census figures. As with so many things in Jerusalem, appearances are deceptive. In the Christian Quarter, where pilgrims and clergy throng 24/7, almost all of the shops that cater for the tourists and the faithful are owned by Muslim Arabs as Christian owners have sold up and departed.

Christian numbers have declined drastically over recent decades, a development that has been mirrored throughout East Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories. From some 20% during the Mandate, to under 1% today. Bethlehem was once a predominantly Christian city, and this is no longer the case. Ramallah’s population used to be about 20% Christian, but no more.

The Jewish Quarter, which appears so vibrant and fresh since being rebuilt and repopulated 1967, and bustling with people visiting the Kotel and the many synagogues, is home to some three thousand souls only. In addition, there are some two thousand transient yeshiva students. Apart from the Jewish Quarter, Jewish residents are very few, living in dwellings scattered throughout the Muslim Quarter.

A Bigger Picture

This is Jerusalem. In London, Paris, and in other cities throughout Europe, synagogues and Jewish schools are for good reason under armed guard as antisemitism rises.


 Further reading: