A chess player’s analysis of the new world order

Brian Devlin

November 17, 2016

What a wealth of analysis we have been offered by journalists, politicians, scholars, writers and other concerned citizens in the last few months! Just for the sake of a different perspective, here is one from a chess player.

The conservative playbook is well known. Take command of the centre, as if it is your right to rule. Keep your hands on the levers of power (so that you can check and eventually checkmate the enemy king when you can). Set up clusters of pieces that work seamlessly together (such as fabulously endowed think tanks). Queen your pawns whenever you can (get your key people elected to high office).

Also quite familiar are the progressive strategies of influencing the media, the entertainment industry, academia and the government through ideas and critiques–whether these frameworks are based on socialism, the Frankfurt School, or some deconstructive, postmodernist strain associated with a favourite French philosopher (take over the flanks and exert influence on the board from there).


This photo was taken in Bali on January 17, 2014, before I could finish (and, I think, win) this game. Unfortunately, my chess partner was not around when I returned the following year to continue it. White to move.

At the grandmaster level of play a consistent strategy may be followed from start to finish. One can see this in the great games of Akida Rubinstein, Alexander Alekhine, Magnus Carlsen, Mikhail Botvinnik, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, José Raúl Capablanca, Emanuel Lasker and other wonderful exponents of the game. ‘Immortal’ games have long been celebrated in books and newspapers. At my level of play the bold ideas do not always come off. Nonetheless, the game is played by rules, which specify what moves are allowed.

I never imagined that there might be a new revolutionary version of chess, one that corresponds to international e-populism. We all know who the international populists are, for recently we have seen evidence of their activity in events such as Brexit, building the Hungarian wall, and the election of Donald Trump. But  international e-populism? What’s that? Well, you are forgiven for not having heard of it, for I have only just made up the phrase. It refers to a movement which uses social media brilliantly to achieve stunning influence, and so surprise those who trust polls, or read books and broadsheets made from paper. The heroes in this space have been people such as Andrew Breitbart and Stephen Bannon, skilled drivers of new ‘rage machines’ (Rebecca Mead, New Yorker, May 24, 2010).

Mr Bannon brings phenomenal social media mastery to his new role as chief White House strategist. As I am only a social chess player, I can only dimly intuit the rules of the new, revolutionary version of chess, but let me share with you what I have figured out so far.

The starting point is to forget about the game as a pleasant activity. It is an epochal, high-stakes, face-off. Your pieces are not just quaint medieval symbols: castle, king, queen, bishops, knights, peasants. The aim is not to work in feudal harmony while jousting chivalrously with the other side. Not at all. The forces at your disposal actually comprise the church militant, arrayed in all its ferocious might, true crusaders and forgotten people alike, pitted against Jihadist Islamic fascism and other forms of terrorism, crony capitalist Republicans, Ayn Rand libertarians and other enemies of those enlightened, commonsense,  Judeo-Christian working men and women whose jobs have been stolen from them.

In conventional chess the moves may be daring and brilliant, but they must be allowable. For example, the bishop can only move in a straight line in his own colour.  That familiar rule book has its corollary in real life, where peacetime virtues such as truthfulness, diplomacy, decency, tact and politeness are normally respected, and wartime activities are constrained by agreements such as the Geneva Convention through the procedures to be followed when handling prisoners of war.  In revolutionary chess new rules have been devised because of totally new thefts or threats. Two simple examples will suffice. Trillions of dollars have been diverted, as a result of the Global Financial Crisis, since 2008. Not only have those responsible not been held accountable, the resulting losses have often been covered by governments which can ill-afford to pay. The Panama papers give us a just a glimpse of new system that allows the ultra-wealthy ‘one percent’ to opt out of the old taxation systems in which only the losers pay for schools, hospitals and roads. Then there is the rise of Islamic State, which  calls for new rules of engagement. Its fighters have to be tracked down the rabbit hole with Leninist zeal. And so the revolutionary chess game seems to work in this way: You create your own post-factual marquee online. You devise avatars such as Joe (the Plumber) Wurzelbacher to be your mouthpieces. You assemble your audience, and entertain them in your own expanding echo chamber with a dizzying display of acrobatics, clowning and performing with tigers. Who knows? The virtual power you amass on the internet could even turn into real power in the physical world.

Let me hasten to add that I was only able to spare a few moments to write this piece, because I want to return to a game of traditional chess, which has begun to look very drawish. I look forward to playing in this old style way with my six-year-old grand daughter, Amy, in a few weeks time. She is learning to move her pieces very thoughtfully, and so we are now able to play some great games together. Meanwhile, I will await with interest the moves that will be played next in the revolutionary chess competition that is now being staged by international e-populists for all the world to see.


Evidence-based policymaking, extreme events, humanitarian crises, and the new US presidency

This short essay has been written for anyone who would care to join me on a short journey of reading and thinking. I would welcome dialogue on this issue. The title of this piece is a bit unwieldy, but I wanted to yoke together those particular ideas right at the beginning.
By way of introduction, I will just say that over the last few decades I have guided postgraduate students in weighing up all kinds of research findings and evaluating them critically.
What I would like to do in this short piece is to link seven online statements, ranging from a tweet to a PhD thesis. It is almost intuitively obvious that a tweet leads itself to expressing an opinion, briefly, and that a PhD is a perfect vehicle for laying out an argument in detail, and defending it at length.
Here are the seven pieces:
Now the challenge in starting to talk about any of them is we need to avoid a few traps, such as (1) assuming that a certain phrase such as ‘global warming’ has the same meaning for you and me, (2) deciding that an issue is hopelessly polarised that it is impossible to progress the debate and (3) convincing ourselves that we are right before we even start talking.
So protect myself against those traps, let me declare at the outset, as modestly as I can, and as impartially as I can, that I am simply venturing to express a viewpoint that might be helpful. I just ask the reader to accept that my motivation is to contribute, not to persuade, criticise or defame anybody.
I should add, as I began this foray, that it might be valuable to recall the wonderful advice expressed in The argument culture by Deborah Tannen and Etzioni’s, The new golden rule. For example: Don’t demonise those with whom you disagree. I have tried not to do that in this piece. Don’t affront the deepest moral commitments of your opponents. One way to do that is to avoid taking the high moral ground, being sanctimonious or holier than thou. Talk less of rights, which are non-negotiable, and more of needs, interests and wants. This is highly pertinent, for in a previous professional role I had thought that human rights were, front and centre, one of the key issues to be resolved. As I transition to a different role now, I can perhaps begin thinking more deeply and clearly about the needs, interests and wants of a whole range of people. Leave some issues out. Yes, it helps to travel lightly, to focus on one or two things clearly, before turning one’s attention to something else. Engage in a dialogue of convictions. Don’t be so reasonable and conciliatory that you lose touch with a core of beliefs you feel passionately about. Again, this is sound advice. My conviction is that the planet earth is being transformed and challenged by mega-urbanisation, careless destruction of natural environments, and pollution. As a grandparent I would love for these trends to be moderated–or better, reversed– so that my two wonderful grand daughters will have a world they can love and appreciate as they grow up. At the same time I appreciate that there are hardworking people in extractive industries (coal, oil and gas) helping to supply an energy-hungry world. Their immediate needs and interests have to be considered.
Amy & Liora, Nov 2015.png
My two grand daughters talking while drinking babicinos, November 2015
It is not my purpose now to provide a short cut and summarise all of the items I listed above. If you are interested, you can read them yourself. Nor am I going to tell you the conclusion I came to, for that would be giving you the punchline without you doing your own reading and thinking!
All I will venture to do for the moment is to offer these three reflections: (1) Australia is fortunate to have a Bureau of Meteorology that includes climate scientists such as Dr Blair Trewin, who writes often for The Conversation. The subject of his doctoral research was Extreme temperature events in Australia. (2) Since scientists are inclined to labour over long reports, and politicians to dash off quick tweets, it can be difficult to see any middle ground, where actions and events can be intelligently and dispassionately discussed, but that doesn’t mean that the effort to locate some space in which such dialogue is possible is a waste of time. (3) Professor Paul Cairney reminds us of the choice we have: we can bemoan policy makers’ quick decisions, or adapt to them by working out why they say and do certain things so that we, in turn, can understand the results of their fast thinking in context, and deal with that, regardlesss of whether we see it as denialism in a ‘post-truth’ society. It is harder to try to see the whole picture than it is to cling to the elephant’s leg and swear, hand on heart, that the animal does not have a tail. To evaluate and compare ideas, it helps to value practitioner experience, but there is a strategic choice to be made. We need to be clear about whether we want to be honest brokers, who present some evidence and leave it that. Or are we seeking influence? To seek influence is to get our hands dirty by beginning to issue emotional appeals, and manipulating people in an effort to persuade, in the knowledge that people do make emotional decisions.
Choosing the most effective technique in a difficult debate can be the beginning of a slippery slope. We may end up being as manipulative as those we criticise. I accept the legitimacy of democratically elected leaders saying and doing unpopular things. Yet, as a citizen, I think it is reasonable to try to encourage others to frame a contentious issue in a more constructive way so that we all benefit, now and into the future.
“This is what is likely to work in your context. This is the kind of evidence that seems relevant”. To what extent is this a reasonable starting point when dealing with politicians who deny that planet earth has a problem, and that all that counts is the economy, protecting jobs and all of that?

A reflection on Cohen and Trump

When I look back on this last week in years to come, it may be that I will feel more hopeful. Maybe I will have a broader, wiser perspective. By then I might have much greater capacity to laugh at the irony and the comic ridiculousness of some aspects of human life. Right now though, I am filled with sadness.

My daughter and her wonderful family remind me of the importance of naming what we feel grateful for each evening, and sharing that. My son impresses me with his courage, his courtesy, his appetite for life, and his ability to include others. My wife is gracious, caring and giving, and is loved by many. My mother is alive, and keeping up her spirits in the face of adversity. So I should be happy, right?

Why then should I be bothering myself, right now, with questions about language, honesty and deceit. Well, it is because I have been thinking about two well-known figures, Leonard Cohen and Donald Trump: What they represent and the legacy they might leave.

Screen Shot 2016-11-13 at 2.23.27 pm.png
(Source: The Leonard Cohen files)

Cohen’s recent death from cancer has been a jolt. Over the last few days I have been recalling his poems, his novels, the first album of songs he released in 1967. At that time, it seemed to me, he wrote and sang as if composing from an inner space, in an almost sacramental way. I saw Cohen as a seeker, an enchanter, who could take you down to a place where  Suzanne, “wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters”, lived by the river.  Not a strange unnamed woman, but Suzanne.

And just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her

Then he gets you on her wavelength

And she lets the river answer that you've always been her lover

And you want to travel with her, and you want to travel blind

Born into an affluent Montreal family, Cohen would often dress in sharp suits, but he could lead us as he sang, and we would consent to travel blind with him , even although he would confess to his audiences  that “I don’t know the answers to anything”.  For me this was the badge of his authenticity. Like Boris Pasternak though, he wondered if his work was invalid and irrelevant.

Cohen returned from a retreat at a Zen Buddhist monastery one day to find that his manager had fleeced him, leaving nothing for him and his family. It was this crisis that forced him back on the road, even though performing on stage was so excuciating for him that he sometimes drank lots of wine (Chateau Margaut) to get back up there and work for our smiles. We were the beneficiaries of that manager’s theft, for it meant that Cohen could never retire; that is, until death claimed him in the end.

Where Cohen’s death has taken me back, Trump’s election victory, on the other hand, causes me to wonder about the future, particularly as it might affect my grand daughters and their generation as they come of age.

During the week I have spoken to many people, including a leading public figure, and I have been surprised by their eagerness to assure me that Trump will be fine as President, because of the checks and balances that are in place. Haven’t they heard? Don’t they know their history? I will return to that theme in a moment.

I thought I might begin my reflection on Trump by saying something about his speeches. First, because I am a sociolinguist with a strong interest in languages and their roles in framing what people do, but I am also a historian, so it interests me to analyse the election of Trump as President in the light of what we know about some European leaders who came to power in the early 1930s.

The day before the election Trump spoke at a campaign rally in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The stage was decked with flags in front of a partisan audience holding placards. All the journalists were corralled together in an enclosure at the back of the hangar like sheep, an arrangement that was the brainchild of Hope Hicks, Trump’s young press secretary. After the national anthem had been playing for a while, Trump denigrated “the corrupt political class” and “the failed political elite that has bled this country dry”, and promised “to put the factory workers, miners and the steelworkers back to work”. Then he looked up from the teleprompt and shaded his eyes histrionically: “See the dishonest people back there, the media, the totally dishonest people….They are so dishonest”. He then paused, to let the crowd boo, and continue booing, at the media representatives roped in behind them. Then he continued,  “The New York Times is a total lie. It is so false….The Times is going out of business soon. That’s the good news”.

The speech at Scranton was,  of course, carefully scripted and stage managed. The words, the symbols, the flags, and the music were all carefully designed to swell listeners’ breasts with pride, to stir their anger, to encourage hope, and to make them angry. The journalists huddled at the back were just doing their job, but they were hissed and booed for playing that role, as if they were reviled outcasts, with encouragement from Trump. They were the scapegoats that day. Who is next? The audience was then told that Trump’s first step would be “immediately repealing and replacing the disaster known as Obamacare”.

Two insights are helping me to make sense of Trump’s electoral victory. The first is that he is a brand. ‘Trump’ stands for affluence and brashness. It is a brand that has financial value,  and so it is bought and sold. For example, a 70-story condominium in Panama pays one of Trump’s companies $5 million annually for use of his name, including the right to display it in enormous letters all over its hotel, marina and the sails of its casino. The second insight is that his campaign relied on naming and shaming groups of people, and that his partisan supporters shared his scorn for them. Adam Gopnik has written about the ‘weird free form nastiness’ that now passes for political oratory and debate.

So the angry, alienated voters of Scranton had a lot to be grateful for. There, in their very own depressed town, half the size of what it had been in 1940, they could come before a famous rich guy who knew other influential rich guys, and hear about a dream to make America great again.

It is hard to know whether Trump’s contempt for journalists was real or simply confected for the benefit of his reality television show, sorry his campaign, but I cannot help wondering whether those who work for newspapers, magazines and televsion stations are now feeling nervous, having been labelled collectively as ‘totally dishonest’. Since I am a writer too, like the journalists who were the butt of Trump’s anger, I find this attitude quite disconcerting.

Trump’s lie were preposterous and daring. He maintained that Obama founded ISIS. He claimed that Obama had not been born in America. These were lies masquerading as history of course, but as outrageous as they were, they helped get him get to the White House. This is why so many young people I know are upset. They keep asking “What does Trump’s election mean? Will it just encourage people to turn on one another? Does his success mean that it is unimportant to distinguish between lies and the truth? Does it tell us that what really counts now is money (lots of it) and success, especially huge, swaggering, in-your-face, name-plastered-over-lots-of-buildings success?

All of which leads me to the question of checks and balances. It just is not true that the American system of balancing the legislature, executive and judiciary is working well, and that the pendulum will easily swing back to whatever great and imagined state American democracy was in before. The net effect of the Patriot Act in 2002 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 was to grant the President the power to declare any person, US citizen or not, an enemy combatant. Anyone thus designated can be immediately deprived of any rights, including the right to legal representation. Someone deemed to be an enemy combatant can be handed over to an alternative system of justice and detention, where torture is permitted. Naomi Wolf’s Letters to a young patriot spells out these worrying developments. She points to some uncomfortable parallels between ‘the fascist turn’ in America and those changes in Germany that allowed a fundamentally undemocratic new leader, but one  offering hope, to come to power in Germany on January 30, 1933. What he brought instead was incalculable grief and destruction.

For several months in the summer of 1964 I shared a work hut in the Grampians with a Holocaust denier. His outlandish belief that the Holocaust was a fabrication never wavered, no matter how much evidence I tried to piece together to show him that he was wrong, factually and historically.

I have no doubt that the ex-miners, ex-factory workers, ex-steelworkers of Scranton have really welcomed the attention paid to their situation, and deservedly so, since so much of the once-productive heartland of American manufacturing has been hollowed out, shuttering buildings, blanketing hope.

I would love to believe that, when Trump railed against corrupt elites, what he had in mind was a fairer arrangement which would limit the ability of ultrawealthy individuals and corporations to secret their holdings outside the normal tax environment in which ordinary workers and the government struggle hard to build and maintain public schools, hospitals, railways and roads. Somehow, I don’t think so.

After the Treaty of Versailles (June 18, 1919) democracy came to be synonymous with humilation and defeat, and so in time Germany preferred to put its trust in a strong leader, even though America had shown that it was possible to flourish socially and economically as a constitutional democracy, protected by a framework of law.

President Woodrow Wilson planned to end destructive wars by setting up a League of Nations that would allow potential conflicts to be handled through dispute resolution procedures rather than through the use of force. However, he was never able to persuade his own country to join this new collective security arrangement. As a result, the League was weakened as a cooperative system, and war-weary nations re-armed. By the 1930s the world had become a haven for aggressors once again. We all know what that lead to.

My father served in Bougainville and elsewhere in New Guinea during the Second World War, yet apart from a few interesting anecdotes, he never talked about the hellfire that he and others went through. Partly as a consequence, I was brought up believing in democracy, the importance of truthfulness, honesty and prudence and the possibility of lasting peace. When only the strong seem to prosper,  these are values to treasure

As the day caves in

And the night is all wrong

(Cohen, Ballad of the Absent Mare)

If it seems that truth is no defence against the outrageous lie, is it enough to say “don’t dwell on it”?

The birds they sang

At the break of day

Start again

I heard them say

Don't dwell on what

Has passed away

Or what is yet to be.

(Cohen, Anthem Lyrics)

If it seems that the peacemaker always loses out to the bully, just remember:

Ah the wars they will

Be fought again

The holy dove

She will be caught again

Bought and sold

And bought again

The dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in.

(Cohen, Anthem Lyrics)