It’s Friday evening now and I’m tired but I feel a real wish, a need, to put this up here.
Monday (30/1/17) I worked from home. I took an hour out to do the annual RSPB “Great Garden Birdwatch”, more on that over the weekend I hope. Even without that, as the day drew on I had the familiar feeling that I had achieved less than I had hoped, less than I had planned to, arguably less than I needed to. However, as the day wore on I learned that there was another protest in London, again against Trump, this time against his “Moslem ban”, his executive order barring entry to the US of anyone born in or having nationality of the now famous seven countries, all predominantly Moslem countries by religion. (I’ll come back to being pedantically, meticulously, precise later.)
The protest was to be at 18.00 in Whitehall, the big road Downing Street joins, and as near as one can get to our Prime Minister as a member of the protesting public. I knew I had to go.
So Toto and I set off for Whitehall. Coming over Westminster Bridge the stream of people was thickening and the traffic diversions were in place so I locked Toto up safely and made my way toward the junction of Whitehall and Downing Street. It was a longer way than it might have been as one of the cut throughs I would have used was blocked by a friendly policeman explaining to us that that was just for people working in that government building. The crowd was thick where I did manage to join Whitehall and it was clear that, as with the Women’s march, police had underestimated the numbers and the speed with we would stifle Whitehall. Cars, buses and delivery vans were trapped. I was impressed by how friendly and tolerant their denizens were being: the bus passengers were decanted I think, and sent on their ways by foot to find new buses beyond the masses, and the others were simply trapped.
Can I do this? Can I put a link to the Sun, that disgusting pretence of a newspaper? Oh joy, I will, I can, because google lobbed it to me and the picture at the top gives a good sense of the numbers and the trapped bus. Even the Sun can recycle truths sometimes I guess.
I don’t know how many protesters were there and I never got near enough to the entrance to Downing Street to hear speeches. I heard one person coming back through the crowds say they were good — when it had been possible to hear them over the cheers and chants. This protest did, I think, have a clear leader: Owen Jones, an emerging young critic of our political messes. It had its organiser, it had its speakers and, vitally, it had its many of us. I must have seen over a thousand people as I let myself sift through parts of it, and as waves of people streamed past me slowly in different directions. I must have made quick eye contact with hundreds and probably read a hundred banners or more. The protest filled Whitehall, which is an ample dual carriageway width road and it was solid way back toward Trafalgar Square so the numbers must have been many thousands over the course of the evening. I never had a viewpoint to have a chance of even a rough estimate and it would be hard one to call I suspect as, when I decided to head home at 19.30, hordes of new people were streaming in still.
As in the women’s march the membership was diverse. One very respectable man in what I’d call “senior civil servant” suit and very good overcoat, good hat and umbrella had no banner but was there with young child (2-3 years?) in pushchair, or sometimes on the tall man’s shoulders, and he was with the equally well dressed and respectable looking wife. As at the women’s march, not your “usual protesters”. There were a very small group of “usual protestors” behind me for a bit, whose conversation seemed to me to be about them, well, mostly one young man, about his pleasure that he was against everything. I can be intolerant and they seemed to me to be missing the point. Oh boy were they the minority. There were people of all ages, many very young and none of them seeming intimidated or fearful. Many significantly older than me. There was at least one expectant bump labelled with a sign telling us s/he was there in spirit and would be out and swelling the numbers in some months. There were all colours of course (this is London and hooray for multicultural London), there were many, many with US accents and my US accent location isn’t that great but sufficiently good that I think I can say many States were represented. Again there were the personal banners, many clearly improvised at the last minute from pieces of cardboard avaiable at home or work. They were mostly amusing, often beautifully so. Two men near me had a neat one improvised from an umbrella with a small bike light on the handle of the umbrella providing its own floodlight to their sign. I confess I can picture the umbrella and the light now but I’ve completely forgotten the wording though I remember agreeing with it!
As I finally decided it was time to get home and, very, very slowly, joined a flow of us doing that, meeting a much larger flow coming in, I passed two particularly eye catching signs with their people (you know how it is in some demonstrations, like some dogs walking their people in more sparsely peopled settings). One said (I paraphrase) “Child of Jewish refugees to the UK who fled from the Nazis welcomes Moslem refugees here” with a single woman (when I saw it and her) about my age but in better looking nick than me, standing by it and smiling warmly, clearly as glad to be part of all this as I was and we shared a quick warm smile to each other. Another, larger one, with a bunch of people said “Jews from xxx welcome all Moslems in the UK” (I’ve forgotten where “xxx” was). This was a mixed group in age and gender with calm demeanours and radiating that sentiment … as did so many others.
The chants came and went “Shame on May” and “Shout it loud, shout it clear, refugees are welcome here”. I could smile assent but I’m not a chanter, it may be cowardly but I fear some of that sense of moving with and into a mob. I fear its nearness to what Trump and others use to rise to power. That brings me to another issue for me, and to how I come to be writing this tonight.
I’ve been meaning to write something about the protest ever since Monday but needed to start with the post about the women’s march, and having done that, well, it’s been a busy work week. As I said, I was tired when I got home tonight but I knuckled down to work some more (J won’t be home from her work day until 11.30!) I found myself looking at the Lancet and there was an article “Free speech and facts in the Trump era”. It’s very short, it’s free to open so do click on this link: http://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S0140673617302659 and read what that eminent journal’s editors are saying, and their stress on the need to hold to facts and everyone’s gains and losses, not just on the short term gains Trump promises to the already hugely priviledged.
So how does that link with my reluctance to join chants, and in turn with my interest in facts? Well, at the moment I’m trying to understand why 19.8% of US citizens voted for this man. Oh, you’re not sure about that 19.8%? Well, it was 62,985,105 votes if we sidestep for the moment some questions about how many of those may have been fraudulent. The estimated population of the USA on 23/1/17, from a quick hunt on the web, was 324,420,000 so he won on a landslide popular vote of just under a fifth of the population. Let’s also remember that it was only 96% of the votes Hilary Cinton got (65,853,625), though, as we all know, Trump claims that at least 2,868,521 of her votes were fraudulent, well, let’s quote him “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally” (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/802972944532209664?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw) OK, I’m trying to hold onto the fact that by my calculations 255,914,895 upstanding US citizens, well, probably many prone or supine US citizens didn’t vote for him. OK, OK, many of them were prisoners and homeless without a vote, many were under voting age, I’ve located that 19.8% of the US population were under 14 so I’m guessing we can exclude them. That still leaves us with a lot of people who could have voted in principle and didn’t vote for Trump. We mustn’t start blaming all US citizens but I really want to understand why 62,985,105 voted for him and why so many didn’t vote against him.
I think I understand something about why some of the 62,985,105 voted for him and I think it’s partly that he’s a chanter and some of those 62,985,105 wanted to rally behind an angry chanter. That’s what his often fact free rhetoric is: modern chanting. I’m not knocking the chanters at the protest, I don’t think the chants were in the same arena of content free rhythm: “Shame on May!” – Yes! I think Theresa May should be ashamed, that all of us there wanted to say that we think she brings shame on the UK. This wasn’t idiot chanting. “… refugees are welcome here”: yes again. We’re an overcrowded island but people shouldn’t be drowning in their hundreds already in the Mediterranean this year alone, people fleeing persecution in other countries should be welcomed here. We all at that protest believe that. I don’t think anyone there believes that’s a simple stance to take nor that it’s without risks. Of course welcoming refugees opens one way for spies or bombers to get into a country but blocking all refugees is unlikely to prevent all murderously angry people from killing (was Timothy McVeigh an immigrant?)
So I agreed with the chants and they weren’t fact free. However, going along with chanting overlaps with being sucked into the rhythms and rage of tyrants. One thing that chills me about Trump, and quite a few other rising right wing figures, is their disdain for fact and the way this manipulation is masked by the crudest use of rhythm and repetition. As an 18 year old at university for the first time I got to see most of Leni Riefenstal’s films including the famous “Triumph of the will” about Hitler’s 1934 Nazi propagand rallies in Nuremberg. There are horrible facts about her awe of Hitler but she left a record for us and I think if you watch that you see the relentless, spitting, inarticulate speech patterns that foster a chanting, unifying, sickening collapse among the listeners and you see how many independent, diverse people get transformed into an organisable mob, and then into a wave of terror. I don’t speak German (for shame, three feeble attempts to learn some all failed) but you can hear that the content he is firing at the microphones is not really the message, that there doesn’t have to be any reality base to the content. I know that native German speakers have analysed his speeches and comment on the reduced vocabulary, the minimal and, I believe, often (deliberately?) poor grammar. What Hitler and others were using was a disdain for truth, a strategic use of “alternative facts” and a chanting seduction. Trump is not Hitler, his nationalism seems much more about elevating a few than creating a new Nazi party, but there are chilling similarities in form, in the blaming of “others”, in the hatred, and in the complete disdain for truths.
So let’s fight in all the ways we can but with meticulous facts where we can: yes 62,985,105 voted for him, but it was under 20% of the population, it was fewer than voted for Clinton. As the Lancet says, we need to hold onto facts and back them up, protect them against attack and replacement with “alternative facts”. We also need all our generosity: the protesting bump, the warmth of that child of refugee Jews fleeing Nazism, the love of diversity and the willingness to work at all that is hard about bridging difference to live with each other. Enough for one night though.