The cult of St Jeremy

Observer, October, 2017

The few people not caught up in leader worship in Brighton asked how the cult of Jeremy Corbyn’s personality would die. Would his support for Brexit drive his young admirers away? Have we reached peak Corbyn? They forgot the lesson of history that you don’t worry about personality cults that fail. You worry when they succeed.

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Manufacturing fake news

Image result for robbie travers

On 12 May, Robbie Travers sent Esme Allman, a fellow student at Edinburgh University, a Facebook message.

“Hey Esme, just to let you know multiple news agencies have been delivered [sic] your comments on calling black men trash. You might want to think about saying that in future, some have been linked it [sic] to neo-Nazism.”

The ill-crafted words were at best half-truths and at worst outright lies. But there was a nugget of fact beneath them, which Travers could melt and remould. Allman had indeed said “trash”. But the context, which Travers did not mention, could not have been further from neo-Nazism. Allman was in a Facebook group for black and ethnic minority students at Edinburgh. Its members talked about the abuse Serena Williams received when she announced she had fallen in love with a white man. Black men who insulted a black woman for marrying the love of her life were “trash”, Allman declared. Harsh words, but understandable in the circumstances. Whatever their colour, trolls are trash, after all.

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How I learned to leave the pub and love running

Nick Cohen, Observer columnist, running in Islington.

The Observer August 2017

Four years ago, I put on what I used to call my gym kit and went for my first run in decades. Two hundred metres in, pain shot through my ample, but I liked to think, still manly physique. It was as if a sniper had taken out my legs. Abandoning all thought of fitness, I hobbled home, wincing with every step.

One should try to grow old honestly. And for middle-aged men that includes facing up to self-delusions. For anyone brought up in the journalistic culture of the late 20th century, the greatest delusions were about health. All kinds of subconscious diversion strategies clicked in whenever it was suggested that perhaps we should think about leaving the pub occasionally and taking some exercise.

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Brexit bullies turn on those sorting out their mess

Powers behind the May throne: Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy arrive for work at Downing Street.

The Observer May 2017

The racist right, it used to be said, wanted everyone to look the same, while the politically correct left wanted everyone to think the same. What unites the small and the dirty minded, however, is always more important than superficial ideological divisions. Now the worst of the right has become like the worst of the left. We must not only look like them but think like them.

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The Shortest History of Germany review – probing an enigma at the heart of Europe

A map of Prussia, circa 1870.

Observer April 2017

In AD843, Charlemagne’s grandsons divided his empire like mafia bosses parcelling out territory. Louis received the land we were to later call Germany. A large part of it had been in the Roman empire, lying behind the Limes Germanicus, the great wall the Romans built to keep out the barbarians to the east. Cologne, Stuttgart, Vienna, Bonn, Mainz and Frankfurt, all the greatest cities of the future West Germany and Austria, with the exception of Hamburg, grew up within or in the immediate shadow of Rome’s western empire.

Louis knew where his kingdom began – Germany began at the Rhine, of course. He knew, too, that at its heart were territories that were now Catholic lands and had once been part of the Roman empire. But where did Germany end? He wasn’t sure, nor was anyone else. The Treaty of Verdun, which managed the partition, simply assigned Louis “everything beyond the Rhine”. It left open the question of where “everything” stopped. Did Germany end at the Elbe, where Charlemagne’s rule had stopped, or could it go on into the Slav lands to the east, whose rulers had paid tribute to Charlemagne?

James Hawes’s sweeping and confident history shows how deep the division of Germany between west and east became as Teutonic knights, Junkers, Prussian militarists and Nazi imperialists all determined to establish an empire over the Slavs in the lands beyond the Elbe.

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Trump’s lies don’t matter. It’s the millions who believe them who should scare you

Believers: Donald Trump supporters attend the inauguration ‘freedom ball’ in Washington last month.

The Observer, 5 February, 2017

Compulsive liars shouldn’t frighten you. They can harm no one, if no one listens to them. Compulsive believers, on the other hand: they should terrify you. Believers are the liars’ enablers. Their votes give the demagogue his power. Their trust turns the charlatan into the president. Their credulity ensures that the propaganda of half-calculating and half-mad fanatics has the power to change the world.

How you see the believers determines how you fight them and seek to protect liberal society from its enemies. And I don’t just mean how you fight that object of liberal despair and conservative fantasies, the alternately despised and patronised white working class. Compulsive believers are not just rednecks. They include figures as elevated as the British prime minister and her cabinet. Before the EU referendum, a May administration would have responded to the hitherto unthinkable arrival of a US president who threatened Nato and indulged Putin by hugging Britain’s European allies close. But Brexit has thrown Britain’s European alliance into crisis. So English Conservative politicians must crush their doubts and believe with a desperate compulsion that the alleged “pragmatism” of Donald Trump will triumph over his undoubted extremism, a belief that to date has as much basis in fact as creationism.

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