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America doesn't have a fascist in the White House, but a bumbling incompetent

This week in the media, from Trump’s utter incompetence to how I survived the Great Lettuce Crisis.

In Washington, it’s politics as usual, except with much more drama and at higher than normal speed. Allegations emerge from intelligence agencies that the US national security adviser Michael Flynn had pre-inauguration conversations with the Russian ambassador over sanctions imposed by President Obama. General Flynn assures Mike Pence, the vice-president, as well as security officials, that the subject wasn’t mentioned. Pence backs him publicly and Donald Trump’s spokeswoman says the president has “full confidence” in Flynn. Flynn says he “couldn’t be certain” after all that sanctions weren’t discussed. Newspapers report that the justice department is considering whether Flynn is vulnerable to Russian blackmail and the army is investigating whether he received Russian government money in 2015. The president says he is “evaluating the situation”. A few hours later, Flynn resigns.

Press, politicians and officials move to the next stage. Did Flynn have contacts with Moscow’s man before the election? Did he know about Russian efforts to influence the result? What did the president know? And when did he know it?

The sequence of events is familiar from countless political scandals in countless countries over the past 50 years. What they make of it in the Rust Belt and the Midwest, where the votes for Trump piled up, is anyone’s guess. In all probability, they are struggling, as most people do during political scandals, to understand who did what, why and when. But voters don’t matter just now. Even Trump has to work out how he can govern day to day and deliver even a few of his implausible and inconsistent campaign pledges.

Ever since Trump’s victory, I have argued that the checks and balances created by the US constitution, Washington officialdom and a vigilant press would frustrate his more alarming intentions. Even I did not predict how quickly they would do so. Within less than a month of taking office, he is all but contained. And it is dawning on Americans that they don’t have a fascist in the White House but a bumbling incompetent who isn’t up to the job.


Not on our watch

It was once said that the French minister of education in Paris could look at his watch and tell you what every child in France would be learning at that moment. The education arm of the OECD, also based in Paris, apparently wants to imitate the minister’s (possibly mythical) powers on a planetary scale. For many years, it has tested the educational achievements of 15-year-olds across the world. This leads to league tables where British children are usually shown to be lagging while their east Asian peers steam ahead. Many critics point out that such international tests, and the importance governments attach to the results, threaten a standardised international curriculum.

The OECD – motto: Nothing is worth doing in life, if you can’t measure it – now proposes to introduce similar tests for five-year-olds. They will test not just literacy and numeracy but also “executive function” and “locus of control” (no, I don’t know what that means either). Countries can then provide “better outcomes for citizens and better value for money”, which, I think, is code for the best possible outcomes for neoliberal capitalism at the lowest possible cost.

Several governments, including those of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Germany, Belgium and Scandinavian countries, have declined to serve up their infants as guinea pigs for the proposed tests. England’s Department for Education, however, has eagerly offered its services.


Expat exodus

A leaked document from the European ­Parliament unsurprisingly warns that, if Britain refuses to guarantee the rights of EU nationals to stay in Britain after Brexit, EU countries may withdraw the “unrestricted rights” of British expats to “live, work and study . . . or benefit from . . . reciprocal health-care entitlements”.

Theresa May thinks she is going to bargain but has she thought it through? She will threaten to throw out 3.3 million EU citizens, a high proportion of whom are young, in work and skilled. EU countries will threaten to throw out 1.2 million British citizens, a high proportion of whom are old, retired and in declining health. Who has the better hand?


Blah blah land

I am still slightly baffled as to why La La Land, the Hollywood comedy-drama written and directed by Damien Chazelle and starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, received almost unanimous critical acclaim and why it has been showered with awards, most recently at the Baftas. It has a couple of numbers that get inside your head, some smart camerawork and several pleasing tributes to the great films of the past. Yet the first three-quarters of the film is excruciatingly dull, with a seemingly banal plot.

It was saved by the twist at the end, which I won’t spoil for the hermits who haven’t yet seen the film. Perhaps I am missing something but after I’d watched both the film and the annual orgy of mutual admiration at the Baftas, the Daily Mail’s habitual sourness – “another night for richly remunerated stars to burnish their lefty credentials” – came like a breath of fresh air.


Leaf or romaine

And what did I do in the great lettuce crisis of 2017? Why, I ate lettuce. Just as I ate courgettes during the closely related courgette crisis, spinach during the spinach crisis, cod during the cod crisis, and would have eaten vanilla if I thought I needed any. In each case, I noticed shortages for a couple of days, presumably caused by panicked shoppers emptying the shelves. Everything then returned to normal; the shelves at Sainsbury’s were groaning with luscious round lettuces on my latest visit. Cynic that I am, I suspect that, because these foods sell slowly in cold weather, supermarkets contrive shortages to boost sales.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times

John Moore
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The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.