• A School in Good Heart

    A year ago, my wife and I attended the Senior Academic Prizegiving at my old school, Tauranga Boys College.

    I recall writing at that time a piece in which I registered how impressed we were at the evidence provided by the ceremony of a school in good heart, excellently led, and serving its pupils so that they achieved to the very best of their considerable abilities.

    This year, we again attended the annual Prizegiving and were again impressed by what it showed us of the school’s excellent spirit and high level of achievement.

    But this year, we had two additional reasons for being impressed. The first of these was intensely personal in nature. We were able to see our grandson, Benjamin Adams, awarded the distinction of becoming Dux of the school.

    His accolade was a proper recognition, not only of his academic prowess, but also of his commitment and application to his studies, and the effort he had put in to achieve his success. It was greeted by a standing ovation from all of those present – a salute to his exceptional abilities in which my wife and I were delighted to participate.

    When it came to the second reason for being impressed, we were able to be a little more dispassionate. It is the tradition at the school that the Head Boy, at the conclusion of his year of service in that capacity, addresses those present with his thoughts on what the year as Head Boy has meant to him and – perhaps even more importantly – what it has taught him.

    On this occasion, the task fell to a young man called Logan Green. It was a task – speaking to the large numbers present – that would have daunted most of us. He discharged it with great aplomb and confidence – but it was not just his manner and assurance that impressed us.

    It was the content of what he had to say that bespoke a young man who had thought deeply and carefully about what he might say. He took as his theme the role and concept of leadership and what constituted its true meaning – a topic that might rightly preoccupy many of us in view of events both at home and overseas, including what is currently happening in the US.

    He described a mode of leadership which he labelled “everyday” leadership, by which he meant leadership that did not depend on grand gestures and flamboyant posturing, but consisted instead in innumerable small, daily interactions, on a basis of common interests and mutual regard, between the leaders and the led.

    He rightly identified such an approach as building confidence between leaders and led, and drawing out the best from both. It is a concept of leadership that rests less on the self-importance of the leaders and more on the service they can render to the cause which they cherish in common with those they serve.

    We were greatly impressed by this thoughtful treatment of a complex subject – all the more remarkable when found in someone who seemed (at least to those – like my wife and me – of advanced years) just about to set off on life’s journey.

    We left the ceremony, not only in high spirits in light of our grandson’s success, but also marvelling at the school’s achievement in producing and developing a young man like Logan Green. The school is clearly doing some – or perhaps many – things right.

    Any school would be proud of exceptional alumni like Logan Green and Benjamin Adams. What was even more worthy of congratulation was the evidence provided by the ceremony that the school was enhancing the life chances of all its pupils by ensuring that, whatever level or range of ability they enjoyed, whatever their background and ethnicity, they were able to take the chances offered them by a school that cared about all its pupils.

    Well done, Tauranga Boys College.

    Bryan Gould
    17 November 2020

  • A Slow-Motion Coup

    We all know what a coup looks like – we have seen them often enough in benighted counties around the world.

    They usually begin with the appearance of armed troops in the street, with people being arrested and taken away, with radio and television studios and newspaper offices being closed, with opposition leaders being imprisoned and put on trial, with the newly dominant leader making speeches to proclaim his victory.

    We are less used to, and therefore less likely to recognise for what it is, a coup that takes place in slow motion – one that takes place in small stages and is brought about by inertia rather than aggression, contempt for the law rather than violence – yet that is what we may be witnessing in the US.

    How else are we to characterise the attempts by Donald Trump to maintain himself in power by refusing to accept the result of a democratic election? What is surely clear is that he is asserting his right to exercise power, even though that flies in the face of the people’s choice.

    He is refusing to comply with the rules and precedents established by the US constitution, and he is doing so by sitting tight and defying others to remove him. He continues to assert that he won the election and to rely on the unwillingness of his Republican colleagues to gainsay him.

    He is preparing for an eventual showdown by removing (from the Pentagon, for example,) those unlikely to support his claims and replacing them with others who will be more compliant. He is exploiting the interest of other Republicans in hanging on to power, and their fear of losing his support.

    What more do we need to convince us that we are seeing a coup that is unfolding in slow motion and that depends for its success, not on decisive action, but on craven inaction? As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

    Trump’s Republicans may or may not be good men (or women), but they are – sure as hell – quite happy to do nothing.

  • A Future President

    The welcome given to Joe Biden’s election as President-elect is understandable. He seems to be a decent and thoughtful man, in stark contrast to his predecessor, and seems well-equipped to take on the considerable challenges that now face him.

    But for many of us, the high point of the acceptance speeches from the successful Democrat candidates was the speech by Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris. For those of us who knew little of her, her acceptance speech was a revelation.

    We knew that she was of mixed-race (African and Indian) descent, that she was (of course) a woman and was relatively young – and that, for all these reasons, she was someone who was in the course of breaking new ground. We were not, perhaps, prepared to encounter someone of such ability and passion, someone (she is a lawyer) so thoughtful and competent.

    In the light of her acceptance speech, and as we review the tumultuous events of the last few days, I think we can perhaps make a re-assessment of what has happened. The role of a vice-presidential candidate is usually seen as ancillary to the main business, the decision as to who is to be President.

    But, having seen and heard Kamala Harris speak, we might reflect a little further. In such a close-fought contest, the contribution of a woman of such considerable ability as a potential Vice-President may well have made a crucial difference.

    This is not just because of the factors that, as her speech made clear, marked out her candidature as ground-breaking. She is of course a standard-bearer for women and for people of colour and, as she herself pointed out, where she has gone, others will be encouraged to follow. And the fact that Joe Biden chose her surely reflected well on him, as again, she registered, and will have helped his own chances.

    But the further significance of her rise to her new eminence is that, in addition to her obvious ability to appeal to an important sector of the electorate, she is a relatively young Vice- President. And that is given added significance by Biden’s advanced years – he is the oldest person ever elected to the presidency.

    It is not being too pessimistic or macabre to recognise the possibility that Biden may not be able to see out his term; if that proved to be the case, Kamala Harris would be required to step up. It must be a comfort to the Democrats, and to American democrats more generally, to have the assurance that a competent and proven potential replacement is standing by.

    Nor should a misfortune for Joe Biden be seen as the only circumstance in which Kamala Harris might be required, or offered the opportunity, to step up. It is not unrealistic to foresee that Biden, at his age, might not, having completed a full term, seek a second term.

    It would then be a highly desirable situation for the Democrats (particularly if Donald Trump were still around and wanting another crack at election) to have a ready-made candidate available. They could by-pass all the hassle and distractions of primary elections and proceed immediately to select a new candidate and, without delay, launch their new (but well-established and well-known) champion into the electoral arena.

    What we saw a couple of days ago, in other words, might well turn out to have been our introduction to, in the fullness of time, not one, but two new presidents. But we should not get ahead of ourselves.

    Having endured the past four years, the Americans are entitled to enjoy – in Joe Biden – the prospect of a gentler, kinder and more thoughtful President. But we can also recognise that part of his appeal has been – as Kamala Harris herself said – his “audacity” in choosing her as his running mate, and the care he seems to have taken to ensure a trouble-free succession.

    What price President Harris in 2024?

    Bryan Gould 11 November 2020

  • He’s Gone

    So, despite false claims of voter fraud and rigged elections (a strategy for which he had prepared the ground before the polls opened); despite repeated recourse to the courts; despite his refusal to concede; and, despite his incitement of his supporters to violence, Donald Trump has joined the ranks of those whom he has in the past contemptuously disparaged as “suckers and losers”.

    The American people have at last come to their senses, and pulled their country back from the brink – back from becoming a “failed state”. A malignancy has been cut out of their body politic; it is now Joe Biden’s task to restore it to full health.

    But Trump’s defeat still leaves the question as to how so many Americans supported such a dangerous charlatan and would-be autocrat. The answer is perhaps easier to discern than it may seem.

    One of the weaknesses of democracies is that voters can too easily see party politics as akin to a team sport, and see themselves as players in and supporters of their team, so that they close their eyes to any malfeasance by “their” man. Republicans – as long as Trump bore the label “Republican” – were unwilling to disown him, however insupportable his words and actions.

    And, he had the support of an openly partisan, Rupert Murdoch-owned media, who took his side, no matter what. For Fox News viewers, the nation-wide celebrations at Trump’s defeat would have come as surprising evidence of the unsuspected depth of his unpopularity.

    And, voters in democracies are susceptible to “personality” politics – and no society is more susceptible in this regard than the American. Their culture is one that has grown up with, and derives its values from, what they see on their television screens. They are accustomed to watching supermen, heroes and celebrities – and Donald Trump offered them an instantly recognisable and even exciting image and a larger-than-life personality.

    And Trump had a further advantage – he had originally introduced himself to the American public as a television personality, through hosting the television show “The Apprentice”. He had already entered their homes as a familiar and friendly face, apparently authoritative and successful, long before he became a politician.

    The USA is, of course, not the only country to experience “personality” politics. Boris Johnson in the UK was, arguably, a beneficiary of the same syndrome – and we might, at a stretch, regard our own election in a similar light. Jacinda Ardern is of course a far more estimable personality than Trump or Johnson, but who can doubt that her landslide victory owed much to her “star” quality?

    No other world leader, though, can match Trump for sheer vanity and narcissism. Who can forget the pleasure he showed when he recently declared that he was the most famous person in the world, conceding only that he might have to accept second place behind Jesus Christ.

    The irony is that Trump seems not to realise that the platform afforded to him as President has not enhanced his standing and reputation. Quite the reverse – it has instead simply ensured that his failings and weaknesses have been given global publicity. He has been reviled and scorned in every corner of the globe.

    If he had not entered politics, he might still be regarded as just another (supposedly) successful businessman and entertaining television personality. He would have avoided the spotlight which has revealed – to the world’s horrified scrutiny – all his reprehensible qualities and inadequacies.

    The question now is how much influence he and his acolytes will wield in the post-Trump era. His self-image, after all, demands that he convinces his “base” that he was not legitimately defeated, whatever the election outcome, so that they still believe whatever he tells them. Will he set out to encourage them to frustrate Joe Biden’s task of rebuilding and uniting American society?

    The rejection of Trump (the right description of an election when Trump was the only issue) at least offers some hope. The margin may have been a slim one, but a significant majority of Americans rejected the politics of division and prejudice.

    History will judge Trump harshly. Let us hope that we won’t hear from him again. Long live democracy!

    Bryan Gould
    10 November 2020

  • What Price Democracy?

    With our own election behind us, we now await another election – one whose result will matter greatly to us but which will not necessarily go as smoothly or be as democratic as ours was.

    We should never forget that democracy is not just about elections and is not necessarily guaranteed just because elections are held. An election is just a mechanism that allows democracy to operate, but that mechanism can suffer its own malfunctions and will not necessarily produce a result consistent with democracy.

    We see, after all, many totalitarian regimes conducting so-called elections in an attempt to legitimise themselves. And the American election about to take place is itself subject to a number of flaws and inconsistencies.

    There are, first, the Trump-engendered doubts and difficulties concerning mail-in ballots and his possible challenge as a consequence to the legitimacy of the election; and there is the threatened presence at voting stations of armed militia, allegedly checking that no double-voting occurs; and, sadly, there is the yet-to-be disavowed suggestion from Donald Trump that he might not accept the result if it goes against him.

    And the American electoral process itself can act against or frustrate a legitimate democratic outcome. The electoral college system, whereby, in the case of a presidential election, each state conducts its own ballot and then, according to the outcome, casts its entire vote (calculated according to the size of its population) for or against a particular candidate, can mean – as we saw the last time, when Trump was elected – that the candidate who wins the most votes from the country as a whole can be defeated.

    It may be that the time has come for the United States of America to adopt a new identity, for the purposes of electing a President, (as opposed to electing state legislatures and state governors and congressional representatives), and should become “the United People of America” – and should kiss goodbye to the state-based electoral college.

    But even that step is not enough by itself to produce a working democracy in good health. The essential condition for a successful democracy is that the people should be “united” – not only in their adherence to democracy but in their understanding of what makes a good society and of how they should best interact with each other.

    Sadly, and worryingly, the American people today are bereft of that condition, and do not share that common understanding. We see an American society riven by racial difference, uncertain as to whom to believe, distrustful of their media, tolerant of armed violence from militia groups and unfazed by downright lies from their leaders, preoccupied wth sectional advantage, prey to wild and destructive conspiracy theories, and apparently attaching little importance or value to the advantages that only a true democracy can bring. They seem recklessly unaware of the risks they run and unconcerned at the fact that they may well stand on the brink of a fascist dictatorship.

    America’s friends watch this unfolding spectacle in despair and in open-mouthed disbelief. America’s enemies, on the other hand, rub their hands together at the prospect of further blows being delivered to America’s standing as the world’s leading democracy.

    The truth of the matter is that democracy is not guaranteed merely by the process of election. Democracy is a plant that grows from, and whose roots are found in, society itself: it is nurtured by the standards that the people set for themselves – moral convictions, standards of tolerance, making common cause, working together, demanding the truth, trusting each other.

    Whatever the outcome of the American election, the electoral process in that benighted country has revealed, not a functioning democracy, but a people and society that is blind to democracy’s true meaning and value. The real worry is that American voters seem – as individuals – to be so ignorant and self-obsessed as not to care about what they might lose or may have already lost.

    Even if Trump were to be defeated, the problem would remain. How is it that, in the world’s leading democracy, so many people could be found to vote for such a charlatan – for someone who posed such a threat to democracy?

    Bryan Gould
    4 November 2020