Jonathan Payne

Writes Crime Fiction & Dark Comedy


The first week of the regime of the 45th POTUS has been characterised by ignorance, arrogance, petulance, xenophobia, Islamophobia and mendacity. Most of these are words that the president probably can’t spell, let alone understand.

I couldn’t possibly cover all those ills at once. For now, let’s focus on Islamophobia.

As a European, I’m aware that Islamophobia exists in that continent. You can find it, if you go looking amongst the fringe and poorly-educated elements. And certain politicians are trying to increase its popularity for their own ends.

But, here in the US, Islamophobia is already at another level entirely. Here, the ignorant hatred of people on religious grounds has become a mainstream epidemic. With no effort at all, you can find people – some of them educated and otherwise-intelligent – who will happily regurgitate all sorts of lies about Islam and conclude that those lies are sufficient to justify their hatred.

Now, with the publication of the wrong-headed, unnecessary and indeed counterproductive executive order on migration from seven middle eastern countries, the new regime has fueled the epidemic by giving it official sanction.

In case you think this is an over-reaction to what’s happening, my intention is not to try to argue my case. I don’t need to, because others have already done it much better than I could.

I call as my witness – wait for it – the 43rd POTUS, George W Bush who, on September 17th 2001, visited the Islamic Center here in Washington DC and delivered the following speech.

The core argument that all moderate, intelligent people need – both Republican and Democrat – is right here. It is for the fascists now soiling the good name of this country around the world to explain why Bush’s argument is wrong.

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all very much for your hospitality.  We’ve just had a — wide-ranging discussions on the matter at hand.  Like the good folks standing with me, the American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday’s attacks.  And so were Muslims all across the world.  Both Americans and Muslim friends and citizens, tax-paying citizens, and Muslims in nations were just appalled and could not believe what we saw on our TV screens.

These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it’s important for my fellow Americans to understand that.

The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don’t represent peace. They represent evil and war.

When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that’s made brothers and sisters out of every race — out of every race.

America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

Women who cover their heads in this country must feel comfortable going outside their homes. Moms who wear cover must be not intimidated in America. That’s not the America I know. That’s not the America I value.

I’ve been told that some fear to leave; some don’t want to go shopping for their families; some don’t want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they’re afraid they’ll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America.

Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior.

This is a great country.  It’s a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth.  And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do.  They’re outraged, they’re sad.  They love America just as much as I do.

I want to thank you all for giving me a chance to come by.  And may God bless us all.

Got a letter from the DMV


Got a letter from the DMV. It said I have to register my new car and prove it’s insured.

So, I burned the letter and locked the car in the garage.

Then I ran down to the showroom, bought three more cars and hid them in the woods.

If those bastards want my vehicles, they’ll have to pry the steering wheels from my cold, dead hands.

How did we get here?

frogEveryone knows the old trope about boiling a frog. Drop a frog in hot water, the story goes, and it will jump right out. But drop a frog in cold water and heat it slowly, and the frog will die as the water boils, unaware of the gradual changes.

In the last ten days or so, I’ve been counting up the various reasons given – often passionately – for America having chosen the dark and dangerous path that now seems to be in front of us. Some of the most popular are (i) the working classes have been abandoned and voted in protest at that, (ii) the Democrats in particular ignored the working classes, so it’s their fault, (iii) the Democrats chose an unpopular candidate, whereas another Democrat would have won, (iv) the electoral college is outdated and needs to be reformed, (v) turnout was only a fraction over half, in which case anything can happen.

I believe there’s an element of truth in all these arguments. But I also believe that all of them, to an extent, miss the point. Perhaps more accurately, each of these important issues is more like a symptom than a cause. Each of them is a tree, but none of them, in itself, is the forest.

So, what then, is the bigger picture? How did we get here?

I believe that the water has been heating up around us for about 40 years, in the form of a misguided socio-economic experiment called neoliberalism.

If some of the folk reading this have not heard the term neoliberalism before, that simply demonstrates the stealth with which it has been foisted upon us. But it has been very real for the past four decades, and it’s ugly consequences are now becoming visible around the world, in the form of the recent US election, the UK referendum, the struggles of various European countries – notably France – to supress far-right political tendencies, amongst other things.

For an introduction to neoliberalism, you could do worse than starting with this piece by George Monbiot.

Monbiot traces the neoliberal experiment back to Frederick Hayek’s book The Constitution of Liberty, published in 1960, and, more particularly, to the influence Hayek and similar thinkers had on Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan from the mid seventies.

Monbiot does a much better job than I could of explaining the thinking behind neoliberalism. But I want to highlight a couple of its principles here.

Firstly, a key tenet of neoliberalism is that competition between citizens is the driving force of a successful economy, and therefore a successful society. Not joint endeavor, not cooperation, not teamwork, not shared values, not national pride, but competition.

The approach of Hayek, and subsequently Thatcher, was that people are fundamentally self-interested and, therefore, the most efficient way to organize is to set things up so that the population competes with each other on as many levels as is possible. Anything that is seen as restricting this competition – including regulations that are intended to protect citizens’ rights and the government that is intended to enforce them – are to be minimized.

Secondly, neoliberalism reveres super-rich elites. Bizarrely, it values inherited super-wealth over earned super-wealth, on the basis that the independently wealthy are the ones who drive progress by thinking great thoughts and experimenting with new ways of living. (Apparently it didn’t occur to Hayek that some of these revolutionary new lifestyles might consist largely of attending fancy dinners and snorting cocaine, for example.)

In other words, in neoliberal theory, super-rich elites began to see a respectable-sounding opportunity to do what they had wanted to do for a long time: protect themselves from democracy.

If the population at large could be persuaded that unbridled competition, the stripping back of individual rights and the minimization of wealth distribution were the keys to a more prosperous future, the super-rich would be free to pursue their self-interest vigorously, protected from the shame of doing so by an economic system that had given its blessing.

And so, in the early eighties, as the Reagan/Thatcher era began, the citizens of the US and the UK were plunged into the tepid waters of neoliberalism. Not knowing that the heat was about to get turned up, they beckoned their compatriots from other western countries to join them. “Come on in! The water’s fine!”

Perhaps because the water seemed to be fine, the left-leaning parties of the day largely went along with the prevailing wisdom of neoliberalism, tweaking some aspects to suit their historical perspectives, but never challenging its fundamentals. And so the great political con trick of the 20th century was safely under way.

The big problem with unbridled competition, of course, is that there are always losers as well as winners. For every citizen who makes a fast buck and climbs the ladder, there’s another who loses a job and/or a home, only to find that the safety nets of yesteryear are no longer there to catch them.

Fast forward four decades. In June, many British voters, dismayed by the sense of being on the losing side, voted to leave the European Union, despite having no idea what the alternative would look like. Earlier this month, many American voters, gripped by a similar sense of loss, opted for a dangerously unqualified and unpredictable candidate. And, in April, the French people will go to the polls against a backdrop of unprecedented support for candidates from extremist parties.

These three examples share something more than the devastating sense of loss experienced by working class – and many middle class – voters. They also share the disturbing pattern that many of those voters are prepared to swallow the bigoted scapegoating of minorities and immigrants which has been spread by some political candidates to explain the sense of loss.

The irony of this ugly scapegoating is that, in many cases, the politicans responsible for spreading it are members of the very super-rich elites who promoted the neoliberal experiment in the first place. Not surprisingly, they are more than happy to point the finger at those less able to defend themselves – let’s say, immigrants taking minimum wage jobs or gay people who have the audacity to get married – because it reduces the chances of the populace working out who’s really to blame.

At this point, let’s pause whilst I attempt to do some mind-reading. I’m guessing that some of the readers who’ve made it to this point are thinking something along the following lines. You’re thinking I’m just another lefty who will do some sleight of hand and, ta-da!, I will produce from my top hat a rabbit. A rabbit that, depending on your location, looks a lot like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. Bernie will make college free, Jeremy will renationalize the railways, and we’ll all live happily ever after.

Well, that’s not what I’m going to argue. I don’t pretend to have a grand vision to replace the neoliberal experiment that has failed us so badly. But I know a couple of things for sure. I know that we need to find an alternative. And I know that it will only be found via new thinking rather than old thinking.

Fundamentally, whatever comes along to replace neoliberalism needs to be based on a more realistic view of human nature. Instead of pretending that we’re all self-interested automatons who don’t appreciate our inter-dependence, we need to find new economic models based on the reality that most citizens are essentially good, fair-minded people who care about their family, friends and neighbors and don’t need to see others fail before feeling good about themselves.

Let me give an example of just one aspect of what that could look like. An idea which is not new but is gaining a lot more attention in recent years is Universal Basic Income (UBI). There’s been a lot written about UBI, but you could do worse than starting with the movement that’s building in Canada.

At its most basic, UBI is a very simple idea designed to eradicate poverty. Although there are a number of different approaches, they all have in common the idea that a civilized society doesn’t want any of its citizens to live in poverty, and so acts decisively to wipe it out.

One model of UBI involves replacing multiple, complex welfare programs with a simple, single payment that ensures no one dips below the poverty line. Another approach is to leave other welfare programs in place and simply top up the income of anyone who needs it to bring them above the poverty line.

A number of more enlightened countries around the world are beginning to pilot these ideas. One of the more intriguing pilots will start next year in the Canadian province of Ontario, which will use the top-up approach to make sure that no one drops below the poverty line, regardless of their job status or health or anything else.

And here’s the most interesting thing about it. The Ontario pilot is being run by a former senator called Hugh Segal who is – wait for it – a conservative. Oh, yes.

Last week I wrote – in the post What’s Happening? – about asking the right political questions. They key question, I argued, is What kind of country do I want to live in? This question is not the sole preserve of those of us who lean to the left. Indeed, every decent, thinking, responsible citizen should be asking it.

It’s no surprise at all that a conservative should be a leading proponent of UBI. Surely we can all agree that poverty is bad for everyone and diminshes all of us. That being the case, why don’t we work together on simple and effective ways to wipe it out?

This is, I believe, just one example of the kind of new thinking that we need, in order to break away from the disastrous neoliberal experiment and find something that is more fitting for decent, civilized, forward-looking societies, around which thinking people across the political spectrum can unite.

But there is no time to waste. We need to do this thinking now, and quickly. Before the fraudsters who sold us the neoliberal lie try to blame its failure on a range of totally innocent scapegoats.

Which brings us back to the proverbial frog. Only recently has the surface of the water begun to roll, and only recently have we seen signs – both in Europe and North America – that the frog’s health is giving out. Are we going to keep floating until it’s too late? Or are we going to jump out of the pan and try something new?


What’s happening?

voting-boothAt 2 o’clock this morning, as the electoral college map began to firm up, my wife and I both received a text from our eldest son, who is away at college. It asked, simply, “What’s happening?”

That’s a good question. Here’s my attempt to answer it.

Much of the media coverage over the past year has focused on how divided we are as a nation. There’s no doubt that the divisions are deep and real. But what is it that divides us?

In a normal election year (not this one), most of the debate and disagreement hangs on policy positions. But I’ve never believed that policy is the divider. For one thing, people change their minds on policy all the time. For another, we’ve all had the experience of talking to someone who’s at a very different place on the political spectrum, expecting to disagree on everything, only to find something that we’re able to call common ground.

The division must be based on something deeper.

Maybe it’s background or world view, in other words how we perceive the world and the issues we’re facing? That’s pretty fundamental stuff, isn’t it? But, if that was the source of our political divisions, we’d divide ourselves based on background or upbringing. In that case, how is that I – a white, European, middle-class male – find myself in almost total political agreement with my colleague who is a black woman from a working-class background in the deep south of the US?

I’d like to suggest something else. I believe the key divider is none of the above. I believe it’s this: when you think about politics, when you prepare to vote, when you discuss social issues or civics, what question are you asking?

Do you ask Question 1, which is “What’s in it for me?”, or – to be fair – “What’s in it for me and my family?”

Or do you ask Question 2, which is “What kind of country do I want to live in?” Depending on the issue, the better question might be “What kind of community / society do I want to live in?”

Personally, for as long as I can remember, I have been a Question 2 person. That’s where I start. What kind of country do I want to live in?

I absolutely do not claim any moral superiority associated with asking this question. And I have no idea why I start there. I just know that I always do. Perhaps it’s because (like the losing presidential candidate) I was raised a Methodist. Perhaps it’s something else entirely. I do not claim to be Mother Theresa, that’s just where I start.

In reality, of course, for most people, there’s an element of both. I certainly consider political issues based on what I think the impact will be on my family and myself. But that question is secondary, it’s not where I start.

Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s first female leader (yes, America – it’s now 2-0 on that score) infamously said there’s no such thing as society, just a collection of individuals. Whilst I don’t agree with that sentiment, it’s useful in this context.

Thatcher’s point – I think – was that there was no need for political leaders to guess in an abstract way what the optimal outcome was around a given issue. All that was necessary, in her view, was that each citizen acted in their best self-interest, and the sum of those actions would determine what was best overall. Hence, no need for a concept of society.

This might be superficially attractive, but it misses a fundamental reality of modern life: inter-dependence. Let me explain what I mean.

In terms of economic issues, it’s fairly obvious that we are inter-dependent. My expenditure (or part of it, at least) is your income, if you are a merchant, say, from whom I buy something. But you are also a consumer, and your outgoings, in turn, become income for someone else. And so on. Multiply that by millions, and you have an economy.

If we think about it, we’re just as inter-dependent socially as we are economically. Let me take a risk by trying to illustrate this by means of an issue that has become associated recently with the Vice President-Elect (heaven help us), who is currently the Governor of Indiana.

Let’s say I go out today to achieve three things: I want to register my marriage, book a room at a B&B and order a wedding cake. Assuming that I have the money and the merchants have the availability, all should be well. Unless the three merchants in question discover that – for the purposes of this story – I’m gay and, on that basis, decide not to do business with me.

Think for a moment about how that might feel. I dare say I would feel offended at being snubbed for a reason that – from my perspective – is none of their business. Not to mention that I am going home with no cake, no registration and no room.

A very specific example, perhaps, but this is how social inter-dependence works. I can only go about my business if you go about yours. Multiply that by millions of daily interactions and there, Mrs. Thatcher, you have a society.

One of the recent tragedies of middle America has been the prevalence of so-called religious freedom legislation, which has nothing to do with religious freedom and everything to do with abusing faith to justify prejudice.

Let me explain what I mean. As a devout and practising Christian and member of the Episcopal Church, I enjoy complete religious freedom in the US. I can worship in my chosen church, and no one – either government or individual – has the right to stop me.

But my religious freedom must necessarily begin and end with me. Why?

Let’s say that you choose to live as an atheist, or a Muslim, or anything else that’s different from me. If I want not only to observe Episcopalian norms, but also insist that you observe them as well, then your freedom must necessarily be curtailed. Hence my freedom must begin and end with me, and yours must begin and end with you. That’s the only way we can be harmoniously inter-dependent.

In other words, the only way we can live inter-dependently in a complex society is by respecting others as much as we respect ourselves. This is, I believe, why Christ himself said, in Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets”. Christ is not simply asking his followers to be nice people. He is demonstrating a deep understanding that eluded Margaret Thatcher: we are all inter-dependent.

Apparently intelligent people have told me that everyone must have the right to refuse to do business with anyone else and that, if they choose to do so on allegedly religious grounds, that’s their business alone. Those that argue as such need to explain to me how that argument is different from certain English pubs in the early 20th century displaying signs in their windows that said, infamously, No Dogs No Blacks No Irish. Of course, the deep south of the US has had even greater troubles along those lines.

In essence there is no difference. If you want to reserve the right to treat anyone else as a second class citizen, as having less value than other people, can you write that belief up on a sign that you would be prepared to display on the outside of your house or business? If not, why are you persisting in hanging on to the prejudice?

A brief point on respect. We are told by many people in the US today – not least the President-Elect (heaven help us) – that there’s a problem with so-called political correctness. If only we could cut out all this PC nonsense, they argue, we’d make so much more progress.

The opposite is, in fact, true, for the following reason. The term political correctness is and always has been a code for something else. And the something else can be paraphrased along these lines: I’m about to say or do something that disrespects another person or group of people, and I want you to give me a free pass to get away with it.

I have news for these people, including the President-Elect: the answer is never. You’re never getting a free pass. Why? Because some of us want to see everyone treated with respect. Why? Because we’re Question 2 people. Because we care what sort of society we live in.

Anyone who thinks this logic is the sole preserve of nutty progressives should check out the US Declaration of Independence, the second paragraph of which begins, “These truths we hold to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”. Why, then, should anyone be given less respect than anyone else?

While I’m on the subject of the President-Elect, he has said many times during the past year that his campaign has similarities to Brexit. By which he means, I think, that both are populist uprisings and both were unexpectedly successful. True enough.

But I’d like to suggest that the two are similar in a couple of other ways. In both cases, societal problems, with little or no evidence, are blamed on scapegoats who are always The Other: someone different from me. Someone who can be disrespected from a distance.

And, also in both cases, voters have eagerly opted for outlandish solutions which are not, in fact, available in real life. In the UK, leave campaigners are not going to get the benefits of the single market without freedom of movement, any more than their US counterparts are going to get a border wall paid for by Mexico. Both policies are fantasies that will ultimately leave voters feeling cheated.

Finally, a point for my son, his college friends and other young people that are reaching voting age. Here in DC, take a visit to the Korean war memorial, and you’ll see carved there the famous mantra Freedom Is Not Free. Having served my country (albeit as a civilian) in Afghanistan, I know for sure that that’s true.

But here’s something else that’s not free: diversity and pluralism. If we want to live in a diverse, pluralist society, we have to fight for it, every day. That means voting. It might mean voting for someone who is not your ideal candidate.

There’s very little that’s ideal about politics. It’s far from perfect. You have to know what you believe in and you have to fight for it. After what happened in the early hours of this morning, those of us who believe in diversity and pluralism and respect are going to have to fight harder than ever.

Which brings me back to my son’s question. What’s happening?

Are we asking “What’s in it for me?” Or are we asking “What kind of country do I want to live in?”

Here’s what’s happening:

We’re asking the wrong question. In doing so, we’re getting what we deserve, which is the wrong answer.

From Collins to the Girl on the Train

How we got to the Girl on the Train

A great article by John Mullan in The Guardian, drawing a line from Wilkie Collins to the contemporary psychological thriller.

An antidote to madness

City of MirrorsThe world is going to H in a proverbial H.

In my mother country, we have decided – for extremely thin and misinformed reasons – to take home our ball from the world’s most powerful trading bloc. Not to mention that the EU was originally envisioned by Winston Churchill as a political union to prevent future wars in Europe. Most of my fellow Brits seem to have forgotten that.

In my adopted homeland, we are being invited to choose a narcissistic and simple-minded TV celebrity to be leader of the free world. Anyone with a brain cell can see that he is spectacularly unqualified for the role. The same people are telling us that the proper reaction to the worst slaughter since 9/11 is to do precisely nothing.

At times like these, one needs an antidote.

My chosen remedy is 600 pages of vampire apocalypse. The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin, is the conclusion of the trilogy that started with The Passage and The Twelve.

In a funny way, when the fictional world has been ravaged by a virus that turns everyone into vampires, the total screw-up that is the real world doesn’t seem quite so bad.

International Thriller Writers, Inc.

Delighted to be an associate member of ITW. Very nice welcome letter from Lee Child. The spelling and grammar are immaculate, of course.

ITW letter

‘Surrounded’ published at Literally Stories

“Surrounded” is guaranteed to bend your mind. Read it at Literally Stories.

New Anthology from Down In The Dirt

There’s A Leopard In The Garage is featured in The Intersection, the new anthology of short fiction and poetry from Down In The Dirt magazine. Just in time for seasonal gift-giving!

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