So I’m in the bath listening to some retired admiral on CNN say that Mattis should step up and testify on the Hill when suddenly his voice changes and he’s talking about balsam and something called garland berry. Bertie has changed the channel to QVC. Not only do I have to listen to two people babble about Christmas trees for the remainder of my bath, when I come out both Bertie and Olive are watching a show about scented candles.
Bertie's right - there's no point to watching talk shows any more. The news is old as soon as it breaks: in the political world on both sides of the Atlantic, shoes are dropping like centipedes, and it's nearly impossible to keep up. Will the DUP scuttle Boris's Brexit deal? It depends - who the hell are the DUP? Will the SDF make a deal with Assad? Dunno - who are the SDF again? How many of Giuliani's friends must twist in the wind before he becomes a felon? What is the Press Secretary smoking? Why did Rick Perry get put in charge of a Department the name of which he couldn't remember? Harold Bloom died - that's but a trifle here, as the Duke of Albany says when there's way too much news to process at the end of King Lear.
And it does feel like the end of King Lear. Boris has come back from an intense period of negotiating with the EU (he must have hated that), with a deal that has--get this--customs checks not between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic but between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Resolved: that Britain should ditch Northern Ireland to keep the rest of the Union together. If Cameron’s fucking referendum (as David Runciman puts it in this week’s LRB) leads to the union of Ireland and the end of Orange marches, good.
There's no chance of this happening: the DUP will find a useful echo chamber in the gasoline alleys of the internet, the Tories will splinter, Labour will do what they love doing best (saying no on principle), and the last best chance of putting this all behind us will go down in flames. Cue another 3 months of posturing, wishful thinking, and post-mortem recriminations. The British are good at that. Ian McEwan has a new book that reverses Kafka's Metamorphosis, wherein the cockroach becomes Prime Minister in charge of Reversalism, a bankrupt economic theory in which you have to pay to work and get paid to shop. At least satire is doing well.
Moving to the Middle East, a new chapter in civilization has apparently been reached by Erdogan offering the Kurds 120 hours to get out of Northern Syria. The Americans have not only left the Kurds behind, they have bombed their own bases as they go. Bad visuals...
Resolved: that Trump’s letter to Erdogan reaches a level of incompetence that can no longer be ignored. It's easy to be misled by the braggadoccio of "I don't want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy," to be alarmed by the invocation of the devil across two ancient religions, and to call our 45th President a slum landlord out of his league. Some will recognize in the line about Pastor Brunson (who?) the classic tell of the bad teacher - getting down into the weeds so early that you lose your audience. Some will wonder what "History" might mean to someone who thinks that Frederick Douglass is alive and that the U.S. and Italy have been allies "since ancient Rome." Many people will see this scribble and think it's satire.
But when I read "Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool" I can hear only one song in my head. For me, that rhythm refers directly to an old song I watched on Top of the Pops in 1974 on a little black-and-white TV in my parents' bedroom in Oxford. The song is"Billy, Don't Be a Hero," voted by Rolling Stone as one of top 10 Worst Songs of the 1970s.
In the version I remember, it was accompanied by a slideshow of Vietnam protesters and stock war footage. For those of you who missed the sixties (and didn't catch it in either Reservoir Dogs or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), the song is about a young woman pleading with her lover to walk away from an unnamed war. Apparently it was covered in the US by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods.
(Yes, the 70s were the finest decade in 20th century history.) The song ends predictably, with Billy ignoring her and going off to die: "He was a hero. He was a fool." "Don't be a tough guy," croons our President to his favorite strongman. "Don't be a fool." We all know how that song ends. With body bags, footage of broken buildings, refugees with no safe haven to turn to, the phoenix rebirth of a dead terrorist group, and the death of a nation that had a referendum on its independence just over two years ago, in which 93.25% voted in favor of becoming a nation which now doesn't exist. This is how democracy dies, not in darkness but in the dazzling light of lie after lie. On October 22 Erdogan flies to Moscow to ratify a presumably already arranged deal with Vladimir Putin, our President's other favorite strongman, to carve up the abandoned territory. And America on the world stage, like England in Europe, is reduced to a carnival sideshow. The betrayal of those who fought and won the Second World War is complete.
Still, it's heartening to think of this letter finding its way into the Smithsonian, long after Ivanka has been appointed Vice President and pardoned her father, long after the law about federal pardons is changed to cover state crimes, long after Scotland has joined the EU. "I will call you later" will be framed next to "a day that will live in infamy" and the Gettysburg Address as an example of presidential rhetoric. We will all wonder then what mass psychosis led to all of this. And almost certainly someone will still be blaming Ukraine.
So - keep away from the talk shows. When is the Liverpool - Man United game? Bertie wants to know.