The New Populism

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The world has been waiting for Donald Trump since 9 November, 1989. It’s not often we can calculate the end of a political era to the exact day, but the breach of the Berlin Wall on that date set off a dénouement to the Cold War, a 776 day countdown to the final dissolution of the authoritarian model represented by the Soviet Union.

The ensuing interregnum had its own name, the Post Cold War period, highlighted but not defined by the 9/11 attacks. Its defining events were the Yugoslav wars, the GWOT and the continued strong dominance of neo-liberalism in the United States, which many believe led to the other defining event of the period, the 2008 financial crisis.

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During the Post Cold War period political scientists grew impatient for the world to get on with things, to get past this pause in history. Now the new era is well and truly here; out with the old, a half century’s balance of power between representative government and authoritarianism, in with the new populism.

Few get to watch an inchoate new era take form, and that is our great good fortune. I look forward to reading future writing about the underlying dynamics that set this unnamed new era in motion. It will earn its own name in due time, but whatever we call it, who on earth would have thought one of its founding fathers would be Donald Trump?

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Berlin Wall photo from EarthPhotos.com. Other photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Brexit Shock in London on the Morning After

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Friends and others I talked with here felt gently optimistic about the prospects for Remain this time yesterday. Even as British TV coverage started up at 10:00 last night, BBC1 entered the fray with a wink and a nudge, ‘we think we’ve got this remain thing in the bag’ kind of undertone.

The Brexit vote saw the highest UK-wide turnout of the past two decades and the people we know told us just about all their friends and most of the people they know favored Remain, convincing them that the Leave camp was, as was the popular view, made up mostly of older people who remembered a ‘good old days’ that never existed.

The solid Leave result reinforces a couple of ideas.

First, it adds weight to the emerging consensus that in today’s atomized, web-driven information seeking, we really do get information that tends to reinforce our beliefs. It was obvious to my entire cadre that the only correct-thinking way to vote was Remain, but we only turned up with 48 per cent of the vote.

Second, this is a real and tenacious revolution against the establishment that may well spread across west. Just yesterday we were joking that with a leave vote the U.K. could have the honor of kicking off Donald Tusk’s ‘end of western civilization,’ which could then be followed by Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen in France, the end of the EU and shortly after surely the apocalypse. Yesterday, that was a joke.

Will the EU or the UK be the first to pull apart? As to the UK, politicians were staking out their positions before the last votes were counted. Here is Nicola Sturgeon on the Scottish vote: “Scotland has delivered a strong, unequivocal vote to remain in the EU, and I welcome that endorsement of our European status.”

And from Wales, Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood: “With Scotland voting to remain and a second independence referendum now on the cards, it is clear that the UK cannot continue in its current form. Wales, its economy and its communities will soon be at the full mercy of the Westminster elite and robust action must be taken to mitigate the impact of this.”

The centrifuge spins within the parties too. Labour’s leader is widely derided and it was the Tories’ slow motion disintegration kicked the whole thing off in the first place. The Prime Minister has resigned, not so much the honorable choice as the only one after driving the bus over the cliff. 

It’s the 10:00 hour on the morning after and London has awoken to market shock, reassurances from the central bank and, as from one of my friends, “I despair! I really fear for the future of my children and their generation.”

Let’s hold that thought for now. I’m going to wander down to Westminster and see what I can see.

Svalbard Avalanche

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Keep the tight knit Arctic community of Longyearbyen, Svalbard in your thoughts this holiday season. After an evil storm, an avalanche has killed two and hospitalized more, and to complicate matters it happened just two days before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, at the height of the long polar night.

Mark Sabbatini, editor of the local weekly newspaper and web site icepeople.net, is providing the best English coverage by far in difficult circumstances – Mark’s own house is among those evacuated until officials determine the risk of further avalanches is past.

It looks from here like Norwegian authorities are responding crisply, running an air ambulance from Tromsø and offering 80-100 free seats on an extra Norwegian Air flight to Oslo for evacuees. The town’s main store, Svalbardbutikken opened on Sunday to provide supplies to evacuees and victims at the city government’s expense.

Spare a good thought for those folks.

Chekov’s Gun

Guns

Imagine last Sunday as screenplay:

Fade up as a massive C-130 cargo plane thunders overhead. Aboard is the lead negotiator in fraught talks with a longtime American adversary. There are exactly thirty days until the deadline for a nuclear deal that the President of the United States seeks as his legacy. The negotiator, who is also the Secretary of State, is being airlifted home for surgery after an accident. Blue emergency lights and that two-tone European ambulance wail, and fade to black.

Fade up on muted yellow lights and low, mournful music. It is the very same day in Washington, and the president’s second in command is laid low, gut-punched with bereavement over the death of his son. In the movie it is clear the Vice President of the United States, in his grief, will be incommunicado for days.

A cacophony erupts as the gauzy yellow at the Vice Presidential residence becomes the yellow of midnight oil burning at the United States Capitol building where the Senate, in rancorous, extraordinary Sunday session, debates whether it has unilaterally compromised American national security and laid the United States open to enemy attack. It is still the very same day. Which could only happen in the movies.

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Sure it’s all a coincidence but it makes me uneasy. If the events of Sunday, 31 May were a movie, by the end of Act One Chekov’s gun would lie squarely in the center of the table. Something “no one could have foreseen” would be about to occur.

The Fire at Chernobyl Is a Real Danger Right Now

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Articles with titles like Ukraine Fire Near Chernobyl Disaster Site Brought Under Control create an incorrect impression. They probably mean to reassure by suggesting that the sarcophagus that contains the ruined reactor four is not under threat.

But as I’ve been tweeting this afternoon, it’s not that simple. The forests around the Chernobyl nuclear facility have been irradiated since the event itself in April of 1986, and the forests are still toxic. A study has shown that radioactive cesium 137, for example, with a half life of 30 years, “isn’t disappearing from the environment as quickly as predicted.”

Ukrainian authorities established the exclusion zone in the first place to keep people away from dangerous materials like cesium 137, strontium 90 and others. Visitors to the exclusion zone are made to sign an agreement not to wander into the woods and disturb the ground. We were instructed not even to rest a camera bag on the ground while changing batteries.

Fire needn’t reach the reactor proper to cause the dispersal of cancer causing material. It can be lifted from the forest floor into the air in clouds of smoke from the fire. People in Kyiv, Minsk and rural areas of Ukraine and Belarus must be careful not to breathe smoke from this fire.