Let in the light

Yesterday was the day when America rejoined the world. In the space of an hour, the dark rhetoric of hate was banished by the winter sunshine over Capitol Hill. In that hour, memories of the violence less than two weeks previously faded like old photographs bleached the sun. By the end of the inauguration, all the fears of mischief, the rumours of armed militias descending upon state capitals bent on havoc were banished. This was no longer the America of mistrust, fear and antipathy towards one’s neighbour. No longer was the country the unwitting victim of a spoilt brat sent to bed without supper. No longer will it be subjected to paranoid politics, looking to bully other nations. No more the politics of revenge, thriving on division. No more of those ridiculous social media outbursts, tweeting into the night like some epileptic nightingale. No more playground politics. It was time. It took four years to do so but in banishing Voldemort from Washington, America finally has drained the swamp. No more politics of division, no more walls of separation. Yes, what did happen to that wall?

Whereas the previous president had a certain novelty value in 2016, that currency was long since spent. A catalogue of misjudgments locally and internationally dragged down credibility of his administration in general and his own standing in particular. Greed driven politics and an every-man-for-himself attitude gnawed away at the very fabric of America and what it is to be an American. A cynical betrayal of the American dream. Power, corruption and lies invaded the collective psyche of the Americans. Greed was good, power the ultimate end and lies the roadmap to that end. A nation ill at ease with itself. Over four years, the previous president’s international pronouncements, off-the-cuff remarks masquerading as reasoned policy, veered between brutish thuggery and comically ill informed rabble-rousing. Denial of climate change, dismissal of the severity of the Covid pandemic and repeated undermining of his own appointed experts did little to instil confidence. No president can be expected to understand all the science. But, as Forrest Gump said “stupid is as stupid does”.

I truly believe in what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature”. America was a great country and yesterday showed it will be again. The damage inflicted over the last four years, severe as it is, is nonetheless reparable Greatness is not measured in personal wealth, in a rising stock market or in the denial of inconvenient facts. Greatness is the sum of many tiny things – the little ways in which we daily show how we care for our fellow man. And that starts from the top down. Respect for individuals starts with respect for your president.

I would like to believe that the last four years will fade from memory with time, the tragic but retrievable error of judgement by the American people. A blip on the timeline of your great republic. More likely I think it will become an example, along with Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, of the terrifying power of mob culture. They will teach it in schools.

Joe Biden has a job ahead of him. I don’t mean coronavirus. I don’t mean race relations. I don’t mean even the international status of the country after four years in which America’s standing in the world slumped to an all-time low. No, these are just steps along the way to the real destination. America needs to wash away the sins of the last administration, to be baptised once more on the path it was always meant to take. There is no country like America. It’s time for Americans to feel good about themselves again, to show ethical and moral leadership at every level, to take pride in a job well done. And yesterday afternoon America, bloodied but unbowed, was born again.

It starts with a conversation

The events of the last few days, and in particular those of Wednesday when a mob invaded the Capitol building in Washington, are emblematic of a very disunited States. News channels round the world covered the events live. Scarcely has a less flattering image of the United States been transmitted in living memory. It reminded me of the scenes in the American compound in Saigon during the last hours of the Vietnam War.

What impressed me most was the significant disconnect between the television images of the mob and the individual motivations to do so. Individual demonstrators/rioters felt they were crusaders, the last bastions of truth in the world misled by fake reporting. They justified their actions in the kind of language that would have been familiar to the soldiers of the American Revolution back in 1783. They were freedom fighters, trying to make/keep America great. They saw themselves as patriots.

Of course others saw it differently. While Republicans were uncomfortable, uneasy at best with what they were seeing, Democrats were clear. This was an assault on democracy, an attempted coup, anarchy in urban America, domestic terrorism, even treason. Take your pick. Not only was it an unconscionable act of defiance but one incited by the president himself. Writing this four days later, it still seems hard to believe.

But significantly absent from any of the television coverage, focused on hyperbole, was a sense of perspective, an attempt to make sense of the events rather than project their consequences forward. News coverage focused on several perceived desecrations of the building and its assembly. Protesters relaxing, their feet on the speaker’s desk. That sort of thing. As the night wore on, despite a hurriedly imposed curfew, the arrests began, along with the inevitable post-mortem analysis of the level of policing.

This truly is a country divided against itself. Not since 1861 and the opening salvoes of the Civil War has there been such disharmony in America. And in an uneasy reflection of those times, the country once more is divided on racial and geographical lines. The southern states of the old Confederacy mirror Trump’s powerbase.

Clearly this stand-off is insupportable. A country divided against itself has two choices – revolution or reconciliation. It really is as stark choice as that. Either the US takes steps on the road to reconciliation urgently or faces the most terrible of consequences. And let’s be under no illusion about this. It is not simply an American problem. This has implications globally. Either America heals itself or the year 2021 will go down in history as the onset of the second Civil War. When brothers stand apart, rifles trained on each other, either they lower their rifles or they pull the trigger.

But how can such reconciliation be effected?

It has to start with a conversation. And that conversation cannot occur with guns held to each other’s heads, figuratively or otherwise. So start with those who are able to take that step. Start with those whose differences are more trivial. Talk about subjects you agree upon. Seek for agreement not disagreement. Find the many areas where you see eye to eye. Explain your vision of America.

I have always taken the view with social media that one should never make comment that one would not be prepared to endorse. Facebook and other social media sites invite polarisation rather than reconciliation. Differences of opinion swiftly descend from reasoned analysis into the abyss of name-calling and abuse. And yet I wonder how many would feel comfortable repeating their comments face-to-face. It is too easy to use the anonymity of the chat room to fuel disharmony.

So the path to reconciliation will never occur in the pages of Facebook with its currency of confrontation, pithy one-liners substituting for considered analysis. It requires real people to have real conversations about real issues. It starts with the singular understanding that conversation should lead to conciliation not confrontation. Confrontation creates winners and losers and, when the stakes are as high as they are now, ultimately only losers. Conciliation, or at least the desire for conciliation, creates only winners.

My position, in terms of American politics, has been adequately expressed in this blog/column over several years. There is no need to reiterate it here. But I recognise that victory of one party over another is less of a conclusion than a commencement. We have to get away from this tribalist approach to politics. There are no winners and losers, only losers. The path to reconciliation has to start. And it has to start now, with a willingness to engage. And this applies at a personal, national and global level.

I confess I can’t understand the position of my opponents. But I need to. And I want to. Because there is no other way forward.

How? It starts with a conversation.

The 12 days of Christmas: Parts 1-4

Monday, 6 PM. Doorbell rings.

Van driver: Amazon delivery for you.

Jon Stamford: I’m not expecting one. What is it?

Van driver: I don’t know, I just deliver. It says live bird and plant specimen. Some sort of shrub I guess.

Jon Stamford: I think there’s been a mistake,

Van driver: Don’t think so. The address is correct.

Jon Stamford: Can you show me the document… And tell your man to stop unloading it. That’s hardly a shrub, is it? It’s taken two of you just to get the thing out of the van. Now don’t bring it up the drive. Just hold on there until we get this sorted out.

Van driver: Look I’m just doing my job. It says here “leave with customer. No signature required”

Jon Stamford: Yes but what if the customer isn’t expecting it or doesn’t want it? I mean who sent it for a start?

Van driver: Doesn’t say. The ink has run on the docket. Look mate, we’re just delivery men. If you’ve got a problem, take it up with Amazon.

Jon Stamford: I will, but incidentally for future reference, something 15 feet tall is not a shrub. That’s a tree by any standard. Now please take it away to wherever you take unwanted trees. And the bird. Whatever it is.

Van driver: Sorry. Can’t do that. We are already running late so we can’t get back to the depot tonight. And were not allowed to carry live animals.

Jon Stamford: Well you appear to have carried a live animal here…

Van driver: Yes but that’s different you see. That’s a delivery not a return. We are not allowed to take returns.

Jon Stamford: So what am I meant to do with a partridge in a pear tree that I didn’t order and don’t want?

Van driver: Phone Amazon?

Jon Stamford: Why– do they have a Department for unwanted plants and animals delivered without warning and unrequested?

Van driver: I don’t know mate. We are just deliveries.

Jon Stamford: Well thank you.

Van driver: Enjoy your evening.

Jon Stamford: Well thank you so much. I can’t wait to see what you bring me tomorrow that I haven’t requested.

Tuesday, 6 PM. Doorbell rings.

Van driver:  Delivery for Mr Stamford.

Jon Stamford: That’s me. I’m not expecting one. And incidentally aren’t you the driver I spoke to yesterday?

Van driver: Don’t know. We see a lot of people.

Jon Stamford: You delivered a tree and a bird. Unrequested. Does that ring a bell?

Van driver: Ah yes sir. I remember. You got a bit shirty about it.

Jon Stamford: A bit shirty? I had to hire a forklift to remove the tree to the local garden centre. And I’ve no idea where the bird has got to. Hitchhiking to Morocco for all I know. I shall be demanding compensation from Amazon for this.

Van driver: Well, like I said sir, we just do deliveries. If people don’t want deliveries, that’s their problem.

Jon Stamford: And what is today’s unsolicited parcel then?

Van driver: I don’t know. I’ll just get it down from the van. Sign here please.

Jon Stamford: And what am I signing for?

Van driver: Err, turtledove times two. Matched pair

Jon Stamford: Hold on a minute. I haven’t ordered any turtle doves.

Van driver: Delivery address is correct and you are Jon Stamford.

Jon Stamford: Yes but I didn’t order them. Who sent them?

Van driver: Let me check It’s a Mister Non. A Non.

Jon Stamford:Anon. In other words anonymous.

Van driver: Oh I get it. Now where do you want these?

Jon Stamford: That’s just the point. I don’t want these.

Van driver: I don’t get it why is somebody sending these birds.

Jon Stamford: I don’t know. Is there any point in me asking you to take them away?

Van driver: No sir. We…

Jon Stamford:… Only do deliveries not returns”. Yes I know. Look, I’ll tell you what. I will give you my phone number so that the next time you have an unusual delivery to make to my house you can phone me first and find out whether or not I need them.

Van driver: Okay, you’re the boss.

Jon Stamford: Thank you. Oh and release the birds.

Wednesday 2 PM car pulls into driveway narrowly missing a chicken. JS exits car.

Jon Stamford: What the…!

Neighbour: Oh I’m glad you are back. Amazon came this morning while you were out.

Jon Stamford: and… No, wait. Let me guess.

Neighbour (laughing nervously): You’ll never guess

Jon Stamford: I think I will. They delivered three hens. Please tell me I’m wrong.

Neighbour: No.

Jon Stamford: You mean they didn’t deliver birds?

Neighbour: No, I mean no I can’t tell you you’re wrong.

Jon Stamford: So they did in fact deliver hens today?

Neighbour: two buff Orpingtons and a Rhode Island Red.

Jon Stamford: Orpington and Rhode Island are hardly French are they?

Neighbour: So I gave them French names. Do you want to hear them?

Jon Stamford: Not right now. Let’s save that treat. And where are the other two that I didn’t nearly slaughter on the driveway?

Neighbour: Yes, I meant to say. A bit of a story there. You remember that fox we saw snooping around? Well I don’t know quite how to tell you this…

Thursday 4 PM. Doorbell rings

Van driver: Hello. Me again.

Jon Stamford: Hello. What new avian apocalypse are you planning to rain down upon me today?

Van driver: There’s no need to be like that. Somebody obviously likes you or they wouldn’t send you these birds.

Jon Stamford:… Or hates me. Whatever. Do your worst.

Van driver: It says here “four colly birds”

Jon Stamford: And what is a Colly bird when it’s at home – which incidentally is not going to be here?

Van driver: Let me see

Jon Stamford: No, let me guess. What would be the most inconvenient and unattractive bird to receive here. What would be my avian nemesis? Four tiny little songbirds twittering in the dawn. No, that would be too easy. I’m guessing that these “Colly birds” are in actual fact South American vultures, reeking of carrion, riding the thermals above my house and waiting for me to die. That would be much more in keeping, don’t you think.

Van driver: I just deliver parcels. But they are not very big.

Jon Stamford: Probably juvenile vultures. Don’t be fooled. They will grow to be enormous birds that will sink their claws into my neck, peck out my eyes and leave me for dead and their remaining siblings to dine on my choicer morsels.

Van driver: I think you need to lie down

Jon Stamford: Never mind. Show me the birds.

Van driver: Oi, Sid, fetch Mr Stamford’s parcel

Sid: Right you are.

To be continued…