The Null Device
A few days ago, I travelled from London to Amsterdam by train. I caught the Eurostar from St. Pancras International to Brussels-Midi, and then caught a Thalys high-speed train, along the Belgian/Dutch coast with its grey concrete flatness, to my final destination. The journey went smoothly; check-in was quick, the trains were on time, and everything went to plan.
Two days later, the British Parliament voted, as expected, to unconditionally authorise leaving the EU. There was dissent (Corbyn's fragile authority over the Labour Party eroded further, with many MPs defying the whip to vote nay), but it meant little; an overwhelming majority voted aye, with a good proportion preceding their votes with speeches on why leaving the EU is a catastrophically bad idea and the action they're about to vote in favour of is stupid and/or undemocratic. Three cheers for the Westminster parliamentary system!
I have travelled by Eurostar before, but now it did feel a bit like the last days of an era. I can't help but think that, in five years' time, a journey such as mine will be more like a trip on the Trans-Siberian Railway, down to the onerous visa paperwork and customs checks required by the granite-hard Brexit we're now inevitably spiralling to, and the sense of exoticism of being among foreigners whose ways are not like ours. Indeed, it's not clear whether the Eurostar will still be running then; a lot of its business is contingent on both political and economic relations with the continent, and if steep tariff barriers go up and Britain reorients towards its former Empire, or perhaps towards a coalition of nations like Turkey and Saudi Arabia it shares a disdain for politically-correct notions like “human rights” with, there'll be far less demand for travel across the Channel. (On the other hand, we just might need another runway or two at Heathrow.)
Progress is not a one-way ratchet; it can slip back. Just as there were serfs in feudal Europe who were descended from the free citizens of Greece and Rome, today's world, with all its mundane annoyances, may be an unfathomable, quasi-mythical golden age to our descendants. For example, in ten years' time in Russia, there will be a generation of young people who have no awareness of LGBT issues; they will, of course, know from playground whispers and insulting graffiti that homosexuality exists, but it will be either associated with child molesters or else be something disgusting and unnatural that happens in seedy places alongside crime and squalor; meanwhile, the very idea of transgenderedness will be the stuff of circus sideshows. (The young Russians who happen to be gay or transgendered will not have a pleasant time.) By the same token, the generation of British young adults some ten years later will, for the most part, have never travelled to Europe or associated with Europeans, in much the way that the typical young Briton today has never spent time in China and knows little about contemporary Chinese culture. To them, and to whom tales of Easyjetting to a weekender at Berghain, spending a semester studying on Erasmus in Lisbon or Leuven, or hanging out or going out with people whose first language isn't English and whose cultural assumptions differ subtly from one's own in a thousand ways will seem as exotic as the world of pre-war travelogues. Few of them will have met an European, and the image of Europeans will converge onto outlandish stereotypes: half berets and baguettes, half tabloid slights about garlic and vino, loose sexual morés and poor personal hygiene, and the odd bit of weirdly displaced Islamophobia or reheated red-baiting (“I heard that Belgium is an ISIS rape camp/all the supermarket shelves in Denmark are empty and people are fighting like rats over canned food because their economy has been ruined by socialism!”).
As one of his final official acts, US President Obama has commuted the prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the former intelligence analyst who leaked classified video of drone pilots massacring civilians, to time served. Now all that Manning has to do is survive the next four months in prison under the total control of a fundamentally hostile administration and she'll be free. The usual hawks are apoplectic.
Of course, we have the selfless Julian Assange to thank for this; were it not for his pledge to surrender to extradition to the US in exchange for clemency for Manning, this may or may not have happened. Though now, Assange seems to be backing away from his commitments, saying that Obama's offer of clemency does not meet the conditions of his offer, in that Manning will not be released immediately. Perhaps he'll surrender in May, when Manning is scheduled to walk free; in which case, his sentence may be to play Robin to Rudolph Giuliani's Batman in the Trump administration's Department of Cyber; the job may involve taking orders from an 11-year-old “special advisor”.
Pointedly left out of any option of clemency is, of course, Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker/hero-and/or-traitor currently holed up in Moscow. Russia has apparently extended his visa for another three years, though that could well be a feint, and he could be in restraints on a light plane to the US as an inauguration present. If he is convicted and the timings of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case are anything to go by, he would be likely to be executed in 2020, as the monster-truck-rally spectacle of Trump's second-term campaign cranks up, and as much heat and noise as possible is called for. Assange may find himself guest of honour at Snowden's execution, an invitation without the option of refusal, whose purpose will be to underscore the fact that he is not relieved of his obligations to his handlers, and that bad things happen to you if you cross Trump/Putin. (Later, rumours will emerge that the firing squad was ordered to aim at the wrong side of Snowden's chest, a death traditionally reserved for particularly unpopular deposed dictators in Latin America.)