Desiderata – “desired things” in Latin – is the concept behind Les Crane’s 1971 spoken-word recording Desiderata – “You are a child of the universe… You have a right to be here.”
That was the chorus, matched with soothing smug slowly-spoken advice on how best to live this life. The recording was quite popular – it won a Grammy – but it was cloying and really irritating, and the masterful response was Deteriorata – the 1972 parody was written by Tony Hendra for National Lampoon. Melissa Manchester sang the chorus and Les Crane himself admitted he preferred the parody version, because Tony Hendra had nailed it:
You are a fluke
Of the universe.
You have no right to be here.
And whether you can hear it or not
The universe is laughing behind your back…
Be assured that a walk through the ocean of most souls
Would scarcely get your feet wet…
And reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot
It could only be worse in Milwaukee.
Yes, things may be bad. Everything may be falling apart. But at least you’re not in Milwaukee – which is quite unfair to Milwaukee. So let’s revise this. Let’s update this. Things are bad. The president is about to be impeached. And the world has been laughing at him. And half the nation is calling the other half traitors. And that other half returns the favor. Which side has no right to be here? And the president encourages this nastiness. He may be the problem. The Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne sees this:
The profound damage President Trump has inflicted on our liberties can be measured by widespread complacency in the face of his administration’s escalating attacks on the rule of law, our public servants and the truth itself.
As Attorney General William P. Barr was reducing the Justice Department to a legal defense and public relations firm, Trump himself (who pretends to be law enforcement’s greatest friend) was attacking the FBI in terms that authoritarians use to prepare the way for persecuting their political enemies.
“Look how they’ve hurt people,” Trump told his supporters Tuesday night in Hershey, Pa.. “They’ve destroyed the lives of people that were great people, that are still great people. Their lives have been destroyed by scum. Okay, by scum.”
Please pause here. “Scum” was the word used twice by the president of the United States about those who dedicate their lives to battling wrongdoing and lawlessness. And because he is Trump, the response involved mostly shrugs and head shaking.
That’s because what was once unacceptable is acceptable now:
When this presidency began, it was commonplace to write off fears that our political and journalistic systems would eventually “normalize” the president’s abuses. The worry was that however strong our system might have been in the past, we would come to accept behavior that had never been acceptable before.
This is exactly what has happened. When the House unveiled impeachment articles on Tuesday, a large share of the reporting and commentary was about the political risks facing Democrats for insisting on something that would once have been uncontroversial: It is a chilling threat to freedom and to democracy for the commander in chief to use his power to press a foreign government to investigate a political opponent.
Not long ago, the hopeful – and also the complacent – were certain that such a thing could never happen here. But it has happened here.
And the Republican Party – including many of its leaders from whom we once expected better – has reacted not with horror but by closing ranks around their petulant, abusive leader, accepting from him behavior they would have rightly denounced from any other president.
So the rule of law and our public servants and the truth itself really don’t matter much anymore. But of course, whatever misfortune may be our lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee. No. Scratch that. It could only be worse in Britain. We have Donald Trump. They have Boris Johnson:
Boris Johnson retreated into a fridge as he sought to avoid a TV interview, amid rattled nerves at CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters, formerly known as Conservative Central Office] over a narrowing in the opinion polls.
The prime minister was ambushed by the Good Morning Britain producer, Jonathan Swain, during a pre-dawn visit to Modern Milkman, a business in the Tory-held constituency of Pudsey, in Yorkshire.
When Swain first approached Johnson, he asked: “Morning prime minister, would you come on Good Morning Britain, prime minister?” Johnson’s aide can be heard mouthing “oh for fuck’s sake” in response.
The show’s hosts, Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid, appeared shocked by the aide’s reaction.
And then it got even stranger:
When Swain presses the prime minister, stating he was live on the show, Johnson replied “I’ll be with you in a second” and walked off, before Piers exclaims “he’s gone into the fridge”. Johnson walks inside a fridge stacked with milk bottles with his aides. One person can be heard saying: “It’s a bunker.”
Conservative sources subsequently insisted that Johnson was “categorically not hiding” in the fridge, from which Johnson emerged carrying a crate of milk bottles – but instead his aides were taking a moment to prep the PM for a separate, pre-agreed interview.
It is hard to imagine Donald Trump hiding in “the fridge” and then walking out to talk to the press whilst carrying a crate of milk bottles, but things are different over there:
Tory aides have closely controlled the PM’s appearances since a chaotic day on Monday. Johnson pocketed a journalist’s phone during a TV interview rather than look at a picture of a four-year-old boy asleep on the floor at a Leeds hospital.
Boris was ticked off. He didn’t want to deal with that, so grabbed the reporter’s phone, and he still hasn’t returned it. Trump doesn’t do such things, yet, or this:
After the visit to the dairy, Johnson delivered a crate of milk to a house in nearby Guiseley, where the homeowner, Mrs. Monaghan, appeared delighted to see him. “It’s so nice to meet you prime minister: what are you doing up so early?” she asked.
There’s something a bit absurd about that. William Booth, the Washington Post’s London bureau chief, and Karla Adam, a London correspondent for the Post, explain how messed up things are there:
The United Kingdom goes to the polls Thursday to decide the fate of vexatious, divisive, gridlocked Brexit. The vote – between the two major parties offering the starkest of choices – is set to shape Britain’s sense of itself, its union, economy and relations not only with Europe but also the United States, for years to come.
There’s no escaping it. This snap election was called because Britain is broken over Brexit.
If Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Conservatives achieve a solid majority in Parliament, they will assuredly plow forward with Brexit. Dreams of a second referendum – of remaining in the EU – will be dashed. And by January, one of the dominant partners in the long, lucrative, peaceful, postwar order, manifested by Europe’s political and trade bloc, will go off on its own.
So this is kind of an end-of-the-world thing, or the end of Britain, and maybe the European Unions too, but nothing is certain:
A Conservative majority has been widely anticipated, as opinion polls through much of the six-week campaign have showed the party with a lead of 10 points or more. But that advantage may be diminishing.
A last major poll published Tuesday night by YouGov predicted the Conservatives would win with a 28-seat majority, less than half the 68-seat majority that was forecast two weeks ago. The pollster said the prediction was within the margin of error and warned that a hung Parliament – or an even larger Conservative majority – is still a possibility.
So no one knows anything:
If the voters deny Johnson the outright win he has been pleading for, hobbling him with an enfeebled slim-majority government or, worse for him, a hung Parliament – well, then, things could get very testy, with yet more months or years of paralysis over Brexit to follow.
If Johnson’s archrival, the opposition Labour Party leader, the hard-left Jeremy Corbyn, surprises every one of the pollsters and takes enough votes, he could best the Tories and try to cobble together a coalition to run the country and begin his promised “radical transformation” of the British economy under a socialist banner.
Britons cry that they are weary of the current era of noxious, hyperpartisan politics, though in truth, the public has stoked this furnace, with their honest, but harsh, differences of opinion.
That is, half the nation is calling the other half traitors, or at least fools, and that other half returns the favor, and thus nothing is possible:
This is the third general election in a little more than four years, and, according to the surplus of opinion surveys and interviews, people are as hopelessly divided over leaving the EU as they were in June 2016, when they voted 52 percent to 48 percent to go their own way.
The entire country has been transformed into “Remainers” vs. “Leavers.” Family and friends have become combative over issues they never imagined they’d fight over – such as frictionless trade or the diktats of the European Court of Justice.
Traditional courtesies have been flung aside, with members of Parliament hurling charges of treason and surrender at one another in the House of Commons and decrying plots to “undermine democracy.”
Campaigning lawmakers from both parties, but especially women, say they have been terrified of being physically attacked while knocking on constituents’ doors.
America is not quite there yet, but we’re getting close, and much of this should sound familiar:
Johnson has been the pied piper for Brexit since the 2016 referendum, though in the election campaign, he hasn’t said much about the reasons for leaving – except to promise that after Brexit, his government will unleash British potential on a global stage.
His dominant message is “Get Brexit Done.” He wore that slogan on his apron as he made sausage rolls in front of the cameras. He drove a bulldozer emblazoned with it though a pile of foam blocks.
It’s simple. It’s dynamic. It’s catchy – just like “Make America Great Again” – and it really is nonsense:
“Get Brexit Done” is a simple, aspirational message but ultimately misleading – because even if Johnson and his Conservatives win big, Brexit will not be over.
Untangling 45 years of integration with Europe – not only on trade, finance, migration and manufacturing but also on security, intelligence, aviation, fishing, medicine patents and data sharing – will take another year or more of hard-fought negotiations with Europe and will almost certainly dominate headlines and consume the agenda in Westminster.
But then this will come down to the personal, not to policy:
While Brexit has dominated the election, the two main party leaders have been dogged by questions about character, particularly their trustworthiness.
“As British elections have become more presidential, the question of the leader is now important,” said Tony Travers, a politics professor at the London School of Economics.
And these two make our politics look polite and simple:
Johnson has a reputation as someone with a loose relationship with the truth. He was fired from his first journalism job for making up a quote. He became a Brussels correspondent known for outrageous and factually questionable dispatches. In the Brexit referendum campaign, he promoted a highly inflated number on how much Britain contributes to the EU.
That reputation may have been reinforced during this election campaign as Johnson evaded questions – on the impact of his Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, on how many hospitals his government would build, on his relationship with American entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri, who accused him of ghosting her like “some fleeting one-night stand.”
And then there’s Corbyn, a European-style socialist, who has been mocked for years by Conservative news media as a “red menace.” When Labour released its campaign platform last month, the tabloid Daily Mail labeled it “the Marxist Manifesto.” Corbyn has additionally been criticized for refusing to be pinned down in his position on Brexit and for failing to root out anti-Semitism in his party.
Okay, one’s a damned liar about everything and the other is a damned socialist who might or might not hate all Jews. This is not Trump versus Sanders or Warren.
This is far beyond that. Jenni Russell is a book reviewer for The Sunday Times and has been a columnist for The Guardian and written the political column for London Evening Standard and she sends this assessment from London:
This is the dejection election. Not in my lifetime has Britain faced such a miserable choice. Two vain, incompetent, mediocre charlatans are competing to become prime minister. For the Conservatives, we have the blustering, lying, oafish puffball Boris Johnson. In the Labour corner is the querulous, wooden, sanctimonious Jeremy Corbyn.
The two candidates are so alarming that, in an unprecedented intervention, former prime ministers from each of their parties have pleaded with voters to block them. Tony Blair and John Major have urged tactical votes against Mr. Corbyn and Mr. Johnson. Everywhere, exhausted, disillusioned, skeptical voters debate who is worse. British politics has never known anything like it.
But the two of them are, in Russell’s eyes, oddly alike:
Each is ill-briefed, hazy on the facts and implications of his policy proposals, uneasy under scrutiny and belligerent when challenged.
Both are promising rank impossibilities. Mr. Johnson tells voters he can deliver Brexit, quickly and painlessly, if they give him a majority. Mr. Corbyn claims it’s possible to drastically transform the economy for ordinary people in five years, raising productivity and living standards, ending tuition fees and nationalizing rail, water and energy – all paid for just by modestly raising taxes for businesses and top earners.
Neither man is telling the truth. Both are addressing real, acute problems – Britain’s stagnant, unequal economy and people’s sense of powerlessness and dislocation – with consoling fantasies.
This is now the Age of Nonsense:
Mr. Corbyn may believe, delusional though it is, that he really can restructure British capitalism overnight without damaging the economy. His stubborn moral certainty means he’s deceiving himself along with everybody else. Most politicians, of course, have ambitions beyond their competence and dreams they can’t deliver.
Mr. Johnson is playing another game entirely. Amoral and power-hungry, he’s lying with knowledge, calculation and abandon. He and his advisers have made a ruthless and sinister decision – to subvert and smash up British political culture. They have learned from the successes of the Vote Leave campaign, which Mr. Johnson fronted, and, it seems, from Team Trump.
And here she agrees with E. J. Dionne:
The old assumptions – that truth matters, that lies shame the liar, that in a democracy the press and the public must have a right to interrogate those who seek the top jobs – have all been swept aside by the Tories’ conviction that in an inattentive, dissatisfied, cacophonous world, victory will go to the most compelling entertainer, the most plausible and shameless deceiver, the leader who can drill home a repetitive and seductive incantation. Facts and details will be irrelevant so long as voters feel a politician is on their side.
This strategy has hit British politics like a tornado and has left broadcasters, the opposition, commentators and voters who care about veracity floundering. Mr. Johnson and his ministers have lied fluently and persistently about everything from their fundamental and fake promise to the electorate – that Brexit can be brought to a swift, neat end by him – to its damage to jobs, its impact on Northern Ireland, the ease of new trade deals and the number of new hospitals and nurses the Tories will fund.
But then they stepped beyond Trump:
It gets even more shameless. The Tories falsely recut a video of an opposition politician. They brazenly rebranded their Twitter account as a fact-checking site during a crucial political debate. They persistently claim that the election had to be called because Parliament had blocked Mr. Johnson’s Brexit deal and voted down his program for government, both of which are false.
But that’s okay, because this is very Fox-News American:
Mr. Johnson is not being exposed or embarrassed by his lies because the flood of them is overwhelming, because Britain’s powerful right-wing press is backing him and because he’s dodging any format that could sustain a challenge to him. He has skipped public questioning in favor of carefully constructed photo-ops. He has refused tough interrogations, wriggling out of a slot with the BBC’s most rigorous interviewer.
Mr. Johnson’s team has seized upon a terrifying truth: that the old media, particularly the broadcasters, and the establishment that has decided its rules of operation, are no longer the gatekeepers to communication. Cunning politicians can skip accountability, and skip British broadcasting’s rules on impartiality and balance, by going straight for the voters’ emotional jugular. In place of public and professional scrutiny there’s Twitter and Facebook, where millions of micro-targeted messages are flooding key voters.
These focused, ferocious evasions of democracy’s conventions and protections appear to be working. The Tories are ahead in the polls and apparently heading for a majority, though the race is tightening and the polls could be wrong. Voters in focus groups parrot Mr. Johnson’s slogans. If the Tories win, they’ll shrug off critics; the demos has approved their tactics.
And then there’s the parallel to what will happen if Trump wins a second term here:
I dread how a Tory victory would embolden Mr. Johnson and his strategists. Already they are threatening the futures of broadcasters who embarrass them. Already their manifesto promises to look again at the relationships among Parliament, the government and the courts, which is code for: We intend to emasculate anything that constrains us. Given greater power, they will seize more.
And all this means that Russell is torn:
I wish for both of these reckless men to lose. A Johnson majority would be petrifying because his lying, bullying and dodging mean Britain has no clue what his real plans for Brexit are. The European Union has made clear he cannot reach a comprehensive trade deal with it within a year, as he claims. We could be in another crisis next December as Mr. Johnson tips us out of our current deals into the coldest, hardest Brexit there is.
Mr. Corbyn cannot win outright, and I would fear his free rein. The least-worst result would be a hung Parliament: no party with a majority, but where Labour, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party could combine just long enough to hold a second referendum on Brexit, which might yield a vote to remain.
Nothing can unite this rived country, but that could rebuild it. It is a slight and improbable prospect. I fear for Britain’s future.
So there you have it. Forget Milwaukee. Whatever misfortune may be our lot, it could only be worse in Britain. But they have shown us what’s coming soon enough.