Confidence Man: The Making of Donald Trump and the Breaking of America, by Maggie Haberman

Summary: portrait of a fascist as a fat man

The character of Biff Tannen in Back to the Future is based on Donald Trump: bullying, lazy, greedy, misogynistic. Confidence Man traces the original Biff’s career from the corrupt world of New York real estate to the American presidency.

It is a depressing story, but, in hindsight, seems almost inevitable now. Because, enabled by his overweening sense of entitlement and his daddy’s money, Trump has one talent that Biff lacked. As the title of Haberman’s absorbing book suggests, Trump has the instincts of a grifter. Like Giovanni Ribisi’s character in the short lived, but highly entertaining, series, Sneaky Pete, it is Trump’s instinct every time he is caught in one lie to double down with another, to meet every attack with a counter attack, and, where possible, to get his retaliation in first. 

According to Haberman Trump was once told, “You’re really very shallow.” “Yes” he agreed, “that is my strength.”

Everything is a transaction to Trump in a zero sum game. For him to win there must be a loser. Love, selflessness, compassion, empathy are meaningless to him. Haberman reports Former White House chief of staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, describing Trump as “the most flawed person” he had ever known. 

Yet enough Americans confuse Trump’s brand of meanness with strength to vote to award this revolting human being the Presidency.

Not that Trump ever understood the role he had won in a constitutional system. Again and again in this book he is described as unable to comprehend why he is not permitted to do the unlawful. How he yearns for the unconstrained power of a Putin or a Hitler. Nevertheless even corralled by the law and the constitution, Trump and his acolytes still managed to do more damage to the concept of “government of the people, by the people and for the people”, than the entire Confederate army.

Haberman’s fine book is not just an explanation of Trump but also a warning: given the chance again this bloated fascist will reek further chaos.

Apeirogon, by Colum McCann

Summary: a desperately sad but hopeful perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Rami Ethanan, a graphic designer, and Bassam Aramin, a scholar, are friends. They have a lot in common. Both are smokers. Both are former combatants. Both understand the deep, moral corrosiveness of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. Both understand that peace requires people to talk to each other and try to understand each other’s point of view. Both are the fathers of murdered children: Rami’s daughter, Smadar, was murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers; Bassam’s daughter, Abir, was murdered by Israeli soldiers.

Apeirogon is the story of how, in particular, these two men have sought to advocate for peace by building mutual understanding. But it ranges even more widely, into the lives of their families, including their murdered daughters, and into the cultural and political history of Israel and Palestine.

(From the Guardian)

I finished this book just before Israel launched its latest series of child-killing attacks on Gaza. As usual, in such situations, American politicians are to be found on social media congratulating themselves for the US military support to Israel that allows its leadership to launch such attacks on Gaza with impunity. Such politicians find the slaughter of children with rockets, and American journalists with bullets, much more palatable than the murder of children by suicide bombers. But that is the logic of the US’s military alliance with what the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has called an apartheid state.

The asymmetric nature of the warfare between Israelis and Palestinians is very much on display with the latest Israeli attack on Gaza. In prison, for throwing a dud grenade at an Israeli patrol, Bassam realised that responding to Israeli violence with violence, even if only stones, plays into the hands of those who want to sustain the occupation: it allows them to portray Israeli violence and theft as defensive, and the Palestinians as less than human. As a result of this realisation Bassam became committed to the ideal of non-violence.

Rami, recognising the common humanity of Palestinian and Israeli families who had suffered similar losses to his own, came to his own realisation that the status quo offered no real security for Israelis either. His wife, Nurit, a distinguished academic and peace activist, had understood this much earlier: with enormous courage she explicitly and publicly blamed the racist and militaristic policies of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the death of her daughter.

Apeirogon reminds us that as well as the meat-headed terrorists in the high echelons of government and the military, Israel and Palestine also have thousands of people like Rami and Bassam: people committed to non-violence, human rights and dialogue as a path towards justice.

For success such activists need international support. Yet the US and Europe fail utterly to do this, privileging Israel with arms and trade rather than compelling the dialogue that is essential for any meaningful peace to be forged.

Apeirogon is an extraordinarily important book. It is a tribute to the thousands of (asymmetrically) marginalised Palestinians and Israelis who have sought to build peace and fraternity through dialogue and understanding rather than acquiesce in violence. How many more children will be slaughtered before their path is recognised as the only truly viable one?

Photo by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken; and Fake Law, by The Secret Barrister

Summary: the UK’s process of becoming a rogue state explained

The Secret Barrister’s first book, Stories of the Law and How it’s Broken, described the contemporary criminal justice system in England and Wales and how years of underfunding have left it dangerously unfit for purpose. Fake Law looks at the law more widely and examines how populist politics, dishonest journalism, and increasing authoritarianism in government have led to a wholesale assault on ordinary people’s most basic rights.

Taken together these two books are an elegantly written primer of key elements of UK law and how it is practiced. However they also represent a searing indictment of the ongoing assault on the fundamental tenets of rule of law in the United Kingdom.

Take, for instance, that perennial bug bear of the English Far Right, the Human Rights Act. The Secret Barrister describes in some detail how, to take just one example, the victims of the serial rapist, John Worboys, were only able to obtain any remedy for the appalling police failings in the case that left Worboys free to assault other women, due to the Human Rights Act. This piece of British law allows citizens to hold the government to account for its failings. Hence it draws particular ire from those who believe that ministers and other public servants, such as the police, should not be accountable before the law.

As the Secret Barrister points out, it is untrue that the UK has no constitution. This, they note, is scattered through diverse pieces of legislation stretching back centuries. Fundamental to the UK constitution is the supremacy of parliament. This does not mean the “supremacy of government”. Government is also meant to be accountable under the laws set by parliament, and it is the role of the courts to publicly administer these laws, including whether the government is acting in accordance with them.

This is pretty fundamental to how the UK is meant to work. But findings of government unlawfulness, such as with the Tory government’s plans to withdraw from the EU without primary legislation, or Boris Johnson’s unlawful attempt to prorogue parliament, have drawn particular venom. For example the vile Daily Mail infamously declared judges “enemies of the people” for just doing their jobs. And parliamentarians and government ministers from both Labour and the Tories, some of them, like Harriet Harman and Dominic Raab, qualified lawyers, have wilfully misrepresented due process and demanded removal of citizens’ human rights protections because, they think, it plays well with sections of the electorate: “There go the people. I must follow them because I am their leader.”

The resulting political climate has allowed the government to advance their programme of reducing the human rights protections, and access to justice, of some of the most vulnerable in society, and limiting the power of the courts to scrutinise government incompetence and abuse.

The Secret Barrister’s books should be required reading for every individual who has the temerity to put themselves forward for elected office. While some of them struggle with the big words, the rest of us should read them to get informed and stay angry about the sustained assault on rule of law that is being perpetrated before our very eyes by the authoritarians who currently dominate the UK’s parliament and government.

Great Hatred: the assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP, by Ronan McGreevy

Summary: a fresh and gripping new perspective on the Irish war of independence in London

Great Hatred is a superb addition to the literature of the Irish revolution. Similar to Anita Anand’s, The Patient Assassin, McGreevy explores the lives of the killers and the killed. So Great Hatred provides a triple biography of Reggie Dunne, Joe O’Sullivan and their victim, Henry Wilson. The result is a book that is hugely illuminating on the conduct of the War of Independence in London and the experiences of the London Irish community during the First World War and in the fight for Irish freedom.

As Director of Intelligence of the IRA, Michael Collins had a central role in London operations, so he is also a major figure in this book. One thing that did niggle with me was the author’s apparent acceptance, along with many other fine historians, of Emmet Dalton’s criticism of Collins’ actions at Beal na mBlath, and the idea that the only rational option was to try to run the ambush rather than stop and fight into it. This seems to me to ignore the realities of IRA ambush practices which Collins would have been more familiar with than Dalton.

Like so many other books, this one also does not mention that the last Dail representative for South Armagh in Northern Ireland was Collins. This is emblematic of the depth of Collins’ emotional commitment to the North, and in exploring this McGreevy seems to have found the key to the enduring mystery of who gave the order for Wilson’s killing.

Great Hatred is a fresh, elegantly written and wholly gripping work. It is one of the best books on the Irish Revolution in many years.

Silence Among The Weapons, by John Arden; and UnRoman Romans, by Siobhan McElduff

Summary: two wonderful books that in different ways remind the reader of the consequences of violent prejudice for ordinary folk

John Arden (1930 to 2012), a long-term resident in Galway, was a distinguished playwright, and an English member of Aosdana, the elite Irish artistic association. Silence Among the Weapons was his only novel, and was short-listed for the Booker when it was first published in 1982.

1982 was when I first tried to read the book, which I found difficult at the time and brought it back to the library once I had finished part one. This recounted events in Ephesus leading up to the arrival of the Roman general Sulla’s brutal army. 

Over the subsequent years I have often wondered what became of Ivory, the book’s principle narrator, and his lovers, Cuttlefish, an Ethiopian who has been enslaved since childhood, and Irene, an agent of the Persian King. So, I decided to track down a copy and finish what I started all those years ago. 

Like Arden himself, his principle characters are theatrical types. It is from their perspectives that the “great” events are viewed. These include the conflict between Sulla and Marius for mastery of Rome, and the ferocious Social War unleashed against the Italian allies of Rome who had the temerity to claim greater civil rights.  (One part of the book, dealing with Ivory’s adventures with pirates, I thought was probably an allusion to Hamlet who went on a similar jolly before turning Elsinore into a charnel house.)

Silence Among the Weapons led me to Siobhán McElduff’s wonderful book, UnRoman Romans. This is a reader of the ancient sources that she compiled with her students. It deals with the experiences of and attitudes towards people like Ivory and his friends: the slaves, the thespians, the dancers and the gladiators who “elite” Romans despised but upon whom their privilege depended.

I suspect the lives of Arden’s characters are based more upon his own experiences in the theatre than on the ancient texts. But one thing he seems to get very right: McElduff notes that “the Romans were frequently quite appalling in their treatment of those they considered outsiders or different, ” and this is something that Arden conveys starkly.

There is a clear intent in Arden’s writing to sound modern in spite of the ancient setting. Hence his references to “police” and theatre “green rooms” among other things. This is, I think, both to increase the reader’s empathy for his characters and their circumstances, and because, for Arden, Sulla, Marius and the Social War are mere examples of the colonial violence that has plagued the world for centuries. The second part of the book, for example, dealing with the eruption of the Social War makes very clear allusions to the beginnings of the Troubles in Derry: Arden even traces the beginning of his conflict to the reaction of the “City” to the reasonable demands of a “Civil Rights Association.”

I must say I still found portions of Silence Among the Weapons difficult: for one thing I would have expected a playwright to be able to present dialogue more clearly, but much seemed buried in long paragraphs. But the book is well worth persevering with. It is often funny, occasionally horrific, and the characters appealing. One hopes against hope that they can somehow escape the random carnage that is engulfing their world.

It is a great pity that, in spite of its remarkable success upon publication, that Silence Among the Weapons now appears to be out of print and in little demand. A book that asserts the importance of remembering ordinary people in the midst of the machinations of warlords should never be forgotten.

Long-term lessons for the humanitarian sector from the war in Ukraine

Summary: In Ukraine humanitarian actors are awakening to risks of trafficking they studiously ignore elsewhere.

On 17 Mar 2022 the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) “warned of the dangers of people fleeing the armed conflict in Ukraine falling victim to human trafficking and exploitation.”

They are right, of course. On 12 March 2022 the Guardian reported that children were beginning to go missing amid the chaos of the refugee crisis from Ukraine. On 15 March, the Irish Examiner reported that a property in County Clare in the South West of Ireland, was “being offered for free to a “slim Ukrainian” woman, with an expectation of sex.” In the parlance of trafficking, this latter case is an example of an attempt to abuse the position of vulnerability of a person fleeing war for the purposes of sexual exploitation.

Trafficking in human beings is always an intrinsic part of war. Indeed, historically slavery has often been the very raison d’etre for war: Caesar enriched himself through the trafficking of thousands of prisoners during his conquest of Gaul. In the same way the European colonial powers enriched themselves with their trafficking of millions to the Americas during their invasions of Africa.

Even when war is ostensibly for reasons other than pillage, it rips away the protections that millions of ordinary people depend upon for their safety and renders them vulnerable to slavery. Hence the Rohingya refugees in the Cox’s Bazar camps in Bangladesh are vulnerable to similar trafficking risks as those Ukranians who have suddenly, rightly, exercised European civil society. Other war zones, such as those wracked by Boko Haram and Islamic State, see the routine enslavement of children as soldiers, and the systematic trafficking of girls and young women as sexual rewards for the fighters.

Hence slavery pervades contemporary war just as it did historically. So, the European Union’s offer of temporary protective measures towards Ukrainian refugees is an important step in reducing their vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Unfortunately, such protections are still unavailable to most of the migrants and refugees who risk their lives to get to Europe across the Mediterranean each year.

So, what is perhaps remarkable about the Ukrainian crisis is that the risk of trafficking has been so widely recognised already and that some systemic protections have already been put in place. Elsewhere consideration of trafficking risks in humanitarian crises is conspicuous by its absence.

In a 2021 paper, “Exploring the Relationship between Humanitarian Emergencies and Human Trafficking”, Viktoria Curbelo conducted a narrative review of databases for scholarly articles that address the issues of human trafficking and diverse forms of humanitarian crisis.

Curbelo acknowledged that a more comprehensive literature review may find additional material. Nevertheless, it is an indication of the disinterest of humanitarian policy makers and practitioners in trafficking that she managed to find only five papers fulfilling her criteria

This in turn corroborates my own observations, as both a humanitarian practitioner and an anti-slavery researcher and advocate, that the humanitarian sector is strikingly uninterested in the issue of slavery. This is surprising given that trafficking is demonstrably intrinsic to the sort of catastrophes to which the sector routinely responds.

In the very worst instances humanitarian practitioners themselves have become involved in the trafficking and exploitation of those that they are mandated to assist. In former Yugoslavia Kathryn Bolkovac, an American cop working with UN operations, blew the whistle on her own colleagues when she found they were involved in the trafficking of young women and girls for sexual exploitation. In the aftermath of an earthquake in Haiti, it was found that some Oxfam staff were involved in the exploitation of vulnerable children.

These scandals have provoked greater attention to safeguarding policies and procedures within humanitarian organisations. But in addition to such procedures there is a need for a more systematic approach from the humanitarian sector to the other trafficking risks that crises create.

This must start from a recognition that part of the reason that trafficking is practiced during humanitarian crises is that traffickers are faster in taking opportunity of the chaos of the crises than humanitarian policy makers and practitioners are in applying protections. Indeed, it must be recognized that neglecting human rights and anti-slavery protections in humanitarian response is as professionally negligent as ignoring war displaced people’s need for clean drinking water and shelter.

The awareness of the risks of exploitation and the generous extension of rights by the European Union towards Ukrainian refugees must become the template for future humanitarian responses everywhere. Without this, traffickers will continue to prey unimpeded on the victims of war.

The Devil That Danced on the Water, by Aminatta Forna

Summary: a masterpiece of history, journalism and memoir

The Devil That Danced on the Water is something of a hybrid book. It is in part a memoir of Aminatta Forna’s childhood. As a daughter of a Scottish mother and a Sierra Leonean father she was a bit of an outsider in both paternal and maternal societies and, perhaps therefore, a keen observer of both.

But this book is also a memoir of Aminatta’s father, Mohamed, a post-independence finance minister of Sierra Leone and a champion of sustainable development. When he managed to obtain a budget surplus, and despite being a medical doctor himself, he advised the reinvestment of the surplus into primary education rather than health as the only viable basis for his country’s future development.

Unfortunately for Sierra Leone, Forna’s Prime Minister, Siaka Stevens, had other ideas and squandered the money on patronage and corruption. Soon Mohamed was out of government but remained a focal point for democratic opposition.

Forna’s narrative is framed by an account of Mohamed’s final years following his arrest on trumped up treason charges. In describing his judicial murder by the Sierra Leonean kleptocracy, Aminatta charts the roots of the country’s appalling descent into bloody chaos in the latter part of the 20th Century.

Forna’s illustrates how, like all violence, that meted out to her father rippled across her whole family. She details her extraordinary step-mother’s struggles to take care of her and her siblings while desperately trying to also save Mohammed’s life in the face of the brutal stupidity of the Sierra Leone dictatorship. That she knew that Mohamed was being unfaithful to her at the time of his arrest never seems to have caused her to waver for a moment in either of these efforts.

Forna is an exquisite writer and a brave reporter, summoning incredible reserves of moral courage to interview many of those involved in her father’s assassination in order to gain a deeper understanding of just what happened. The story she has to tell is a deeply moving and hugely illuminating one. The Devil That Danced on the Water is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

The Cure at Troy: Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes

Summary: still with something vital to say about a new Ireland

Odysseus has come to Lemnos with Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, to procure the bow of Heracles, without which, so it is foretold, Troy cannot fall. Unfortunately for Odysseus this is in the possession of Philoctetes, a former comrade abandoned by Odysseus on this island because of his foul-smelling, unhealing wound.

The Cure at Troy contains some of Heaney’s most famous lines, including that of Chorus reflecting that sometimes “hope and history rhyme”. This became something of an epigram for the Irish peace process organised by Heaney’s former schoolmate, John Hume.

But while there are themes of forgiveness in The Cure at Troy its protagonists are not actually concerned with peace but with the organisation of an atrocity. When Sophocles wrote the original play the audience would have been aware of the horrors that Odysseus and Neoptolemus would inflict in their future on the women and children of Troy. Heaney, a classical scholar himself, would have known this too and Chorus warns these men against the very atrocities that they will go on to commit.

But, just as in the midst of the Troubles, in this play the pleas for peace and restraint are, at the very moments they are being said, falling on deaf ears. Neither Odysseus nor Neoptolemus are interested in such things. Instead they are dreaming of rape, pillage and martial glory. Across the course of the play they do not really change from Chorus’ initial assessment of them: “…every one of them / Convinced he’s right, all of them glad/ To repeat themselves and their every last mistake/ no matter what./ People so deep into /Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.”

Perhaps that is a more fitting epigram for the current state of the Peace Process and the hopes of a New Ireland in the aftermath of the UK’s buffoonish Brexit: “Republicans” dwell on the hurt they have suffered and dismiss the pain of those on whom they have inflicted hurt. “Loyalists”, convinced of their fundamental entitlement to privileges they would love to deny their nationalist neighbours, are in denial of the consequences of their own actions, and desperate to blame on someone else the damage that they have inflicted on their own community.

But in recognising the humanity of murderers even as they plan their foulest atrocities, the play reminds us that eventually the pleas for restraint and toleration are recognised to be not mere idealism or wishful thinking but the overwhelming wisdom essential for survival. Sometimes hope and history do indeed rhyme.

Towards a new Ireland: reflections on The Treaty, by Colin Murphy, and Playing the Enemy, by John Carlin

Summary: Unity in diversity requires accommodation not triumphalism

Towards the end of Colin Murphy’s gripping play, The Treaty, there is a scene in which Griffith and Collins present to the Irish cabinet the text securing partial independence that they have managed to negotiate. The minister of defence, Cathal Brugha, berates them brutally for the compromises they have been forced to accept and for failing to meet every detail of his impossible ideal of an Irish republic. As far as Brugha is concerned Griffith and Collins are traitors bought off by the British.

As discussions regarding the constitutional arrangements for a new Ireland are developed over the next few years this scene will be played out again and again across Ireland in households and communities, on social media and in elected forums. The heirs of Cathal Brugha, the self-appointed guardians of the sacred flame of Irish republicanism, will denounce all those who propose any sort of accommodation with unionism as a means to secure Irish unity. Indeed, it’s happening already.

I recently commented on social media that, much as I like the Irish tricolour, a new Ireland might need a new flag. And, really, the only folk who should maybe be singing the Soldier’s Song these days are the national Defence Forces.

That was met with not inconsiderable fury from some folk. John Hume may have taught us that you can’t eat a flag, but Twitter teaches us that flag-shaggers are not just Brexity gammons. There are plenty in Ireland too whose communion with the patriot dead allows for no iota of compromise on their ideals of an Irish republic.

The questions of the compromises needed to obtain peace and unity led me to reread Playing the Enemy, John Carlin’s superb account of the end of apartheid. Many will be familiar with part of the story: the book, particularly its final third, provided the basis of the Clint Eastwood movie, Invictus.

Carlin’s outstanding book is much more detailed in its account of how the peaceful transition of power was achieved. It starts well before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. There, he had decided not just to endure, but to continue to struggle. And part of this struggle involved understanding his captors. Starting first with his jailers, then with the increasingly senior officials and ministers who came to negotiate with him, then with the far Right who he engaged with to stave off the risk of civil war, Mandela sought to build trust and demonstrate to them that they had nothing to fear from a democratic future in South Africa.

Part of this process involved understanding the power of symbols. He learned Afrikaans so that he could show his oppressors respect as human beings by speaking to them in their own language. He came to appreciate the importance of rugby to the Afrikaners and the passion they felt for their anthem and the green and gold Springbok jersey.

As negotiations progressed he made sure that these symbols, which for decades had represented oppression to the black majority of the population, were retained in the new South Africa. In the course of the 1995 rugby world cup he led his whole country to embrace and share them.

Mandela understood that peace in South Africa depended not on victory for one side over another but through accommodation of all. It was his country’s incredible good fortune that they had in Mandela a person with the moral and the intellectual grandeur necessary to lead his people away from more retributive ideals to a place to where they came to share his vision of unity in diversity.

Ireland does not have a Mandela. So, achieving a new Ireland will depend on much more contentious leaders, and other ordinary people making accommodations with each other and with unpalatable symbols of the past to create a new rainbow nation in the Northern hemisphere.

It is an achievable goal. But it is something that will be threatened not just by the Protestant Supremacists of the North. It will also be put in jeopardy by the absolutist heirs of Cathal Brugha, the hard-faced men and women unreconciled to the variety of the Irish nation, and disgusted by any mention of compromises that may be necessary to achieve a unity of this diversity.

Master of the Senate, by Robert Caro

Summary: some Johnsons know how to wield power

Master of the Senate is the third volume of Robert Carol’s massive biography of Lyndon Johnson. Like the previous volumes, it is something of a history of his times as well as being a biography of Johnson.

So, Johnson is absent for large chunks of this biography as it introduces us to crusading economist Leland Olds, Hubert Humphrey, doyen of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Richard Russell, the leader of the Senate’s virulently racist Southern caucus, and, of course, Martin King.

Among other things this book is a study in power. It is fascinating to learn how Johnson transformed the hitherto irrelevant role of Senate majority leader into an office of incredible power.

There was little personally attractive about Lyndon Johnson. He was a bully, a serial adulterer, and a racist. But he understood power and he wanted to be president. So to obtain a viable presidential candidacy, Johnson destroyed Olds to keep his financial backers in the oil industry happy, and cosied up to Russell and his determined efforts to maintain state sanctioned terrorism against the black citizens of the United States across the South.

Caro observes in the course of this book, as he has in previous volumes, that Johnson’s life is composed of light and dark threads. However where Johnson’s instinct for compassion conflicted with his personal advancement, then his selfish interests won out.

But, in 1956 as he made his first attempt at the Democratic nomination, Johnson discovered that the support of corrupt oil interests and racist bigots was not enough. He needed support in the North as well. And Johnson revolted Liberal Democrats. So he had to do something to appeal to them. This led him to championing what became the 1957 Civil Rights Act, after first gutting it of all the substantive portions that Russell and his ghouls objected to. The negotiations and manoeuvring towards even this modest achievement provide a gripping climax to this volume, as compelling as anything in The West Wing or The Wire.

Caro argues that ultimately Johnson was by far the most important civil rights president since Lincoln. It is a remarkable aspect of his story how such an extraordinary narcissist was led towards this end from a beginning of overweening and selfish hunger for power.