Passive murder

The Guardian has an article today about the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to put an end to attempts by the London Metropolitan Police to punish women who participated in a vigil for Sarah Everard, the woman raped and murdered by a serving police officer.

Everard was abducted by Wayne Couzens as she walked home in south London, with the police officer pretending to be enforcing Covid rules to get her into his car. Couzens – now serving a whole-life sentence – drove the 33-year-old out of London, where she was raped and murdered.

Beyond the outrage of the police force using Covid rules to punish its critics, after one of their own used those rules to carry out a brutal rape and murder, there is the shocking fact that some of the women were “previously convicted behind closed doors under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP)”, a process usually used for traffic violations and failure to pay television fees.

A very informative article, and generally sympathetic to the women targeted by the Met. But I am particularly struck by the Guardian’s choice of wording to describe the original crime. Couzens abducted the woman, raped her, and murdered her. Was it squeamishness or something else that led the Guardian journalist to say only that Couzens “[got] her into his car” and “was raped and murdered” — passive voice. One could imagine, if this report were all we knew of the story, that Met officer Couzens was as shocked as anyone else when the poor woman who “got into his car” ended up dead, at the hands of some unknown malefactor.

Conservatives ❤️ Jews

Tory foreign secretary and leading candidate for party leader has been expressing her admiration for my people! Apparently we’re really good with money, and we look out for our own. Things that Conservatives love:

At the same time, she set out her own view of Jewish values, saying: “So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business.

When it comes to a general election I look forward to her praising Black Britons’ uncomplicated joy in life and sense of rhythm.

It’s an esteem shared by many conservatives. Donald Trump famously loved the Jews, because they’re all a bunch of sharp-elbowed greedsters. He promised in his first campaign that he would be greedy for the United States, and he expected the Jews to be greedy for him. He put this on full display in his 2019 speech to the Israeli American Council, where he told the main Jewish audience, apparently approvingly, that

You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all… Some of you don’t like me. Some of you I don’t like at all, actually. And you’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’re going to be out of business in about 15 minutes if [Democrats are elected].

Back in his businessman days there was this racist twofer where he told the head of one of his casinos

I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else.

It’s that kind of keen appreciation for the admirable qualities of the Hebrews that got Trump named — by himself — “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life”.

How to do (presidential) things with words

Donald Trump’s home has been raided by the FBI. While there has been no official announcement of the object of the raid, most are assuming that the government is looking for official documents that the former president may have taken with him from the White House. And particular concern has been raised about possible secret (classified) documents. This raises an interesting legal question, because it is generally accepted that the president has broad latitude to classify and declassify any information.

One of the great texts of modern Anglo-American philosophy of language is J L Austin’s How to Do Things with Words. The title is brilliant, of course, and it compelled me to pick it up off a friend’s bookshelf and read it before I’d ever heard of it or knew how significant it was. As someone who had immersed himself as a teenager in the early twentieth century mathematico-logical approach to Austin’s simple point was a revelation: Language is not solely (or even mainly) about making statements about the world that can be judged on their truth value. (Wittgenstein had already led me into this terrain, but Austin is much more concrete, and not so oracular.)

Austin’s point is that there is a whole class of “speech acts”: Verbal utterances that are not true or false, but actions. Examples are

  • Making a promise;
  • Naming something (e.g., a ship christening, one of Austin’s examples);
  • Issuing a challenge, bet, or threat;
  • Marrying (meaning here, performing the ceremony, though also one of the parties making marriage vows);
  • Making an order;
  • Handing down a legal ruling.

Crucial to Austin’s analysis is that we need different categories for describing the success of such utterances. Not truth, but appropriateness. Basically, there needs to be an accepted conventional procedure for conducting this act at a certain time, with agreement that the procedure has a certain effect, and such that the role of uttering the words has an established role in the procedure. And this procedure must have been carried out in the correct circumstances by appropriate people, and in the correct manner.

Which brings us back to the sticky-fingered former president. One of Trump’s lackeys is insisting that Trump can’t have broken the law regarding classified information, because he declassified all of it before he stole it. (Regardless of whether the information officially classified, he presumably still contravened the Presidential Records Act by taking the government documents, but that seems like a more politically venial crime than mishandling classified information.)

“The White House counsel failed to generate the paperwork to change the classification markings, but that doesn’t mean the information wasn’t declassified,” Kash Patel, a former staffer for Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) and, briefly, a Pentagon employee, told Breitbart in May.

“I was there with President Trump when he said ‘We are declassifying this information,’” Patel added.

There is an established procedure for declassifying documents, which may be invoked by a president, but it is more complicated than the president simply declaring “I declassify thee”. (For one thing, how would you define the blast radius of such an order? Has the president declassified all information held by the government? Everything written on papers in the general direction the president is gesturing at? What about an encrypted laptop in the same room?) “Per a 2009 executive order, markings on classified material need to be updated to reflect changes in their status.”

Patel went on to suggest that Trump had been betrayed, but that his order to “declassify” should retain legal force.

“It’s petty bureaucracy at its finest, government simpletons not following a president’s orders to have them marked ‘declassified,’” Patel said. “The president has unilateral authority to declassify documents — anything in government. He exercised it here in full.”

In Austin’s framework, there is a conventional procedure being invoked here, and the president is the appropriate person to invoke it. But the procedure was not carried out in the correct manner. It is rather as though an eager couple in a hurry appears in church. They haven’t registered their marriage (28 days required by law in England), and they don’t have time for a full ceremony. The priest says “I declare you married” and sends them on their way.

Trump’s lackey treats this as a mere matter of “petty bureaucracy”, but the need to exercise power through formal procedures is an important check on autocracy. In the Third Reich the Führer’s will was paramount, even if it had not been expressed. Germans were supposed to “work toward the Führer”. Requiring explicit instructions in specific forms creates a modicum of transparency and accountability.

There’s a certain formality two-step here that is immensely corrosive of public responsibility. You start with the observation, the president has the right to do X if he chooses. It’s a plenary power, potentially dangerous, so it is hemmed in by various complications and procedures. In particular, he needs to explicitly invoke the power. Which you can’t do in the required specificity to an unlimited extent. And then you start to say, well, it’s his power, he could exercise it any time he wants, so it’s mere pettifogging to insist that he actually have done that rigmarole of invoking, and pretty soon everyone is just working toward the leader, guessing what the law currently is.

The urtext of the modern Anglo-American welfare state

In George Minois’s History of Old Age I noticed this passage from the 5th century Christian writer Salvian of Marseille:

Those who commit [these sins] have grown old, furthermore, they have become poor: two circumstances which only serve to worsen their crime, for sinning in youth, sinning in wealth is a much less surprising matter. What hope, what remedy can there be for these men who are not turned away from their habitual impurity either by indigence or by declining age?

We expect the rich to be pigs, but the poor are obliged to set a good example for the rest of us. It’s interesting that we tend to be much more explicit in winking at the occasional depravity of youth, explaining it away with their not-yet-fully-developed mental faculties, and their ability to learn and grow into a more responsible maturity. We also connive at all manner of crimes and misdemeanours from the rich, without ever expecting of them that they will some day be poor and well-behaved. I think, because there are no more cakes and ale, that thou shalt be virtuous…

Boris y yo

Now that Boris Johnson has promised to resign — but still to stay in office long enough to accomplish his most important political objective — I feel like it’s a good moment to jot down my thoughts about how he has for years been a touchstone for my sense of political morality.

By which I mean, my own political morality, as a citizen. I believe strongly in civic virtue, that politicians who are entrusted with power need to behave impeccably, and that serious malfeasance, or just lack of seriousness in upholding democratic values, honesty, and fiscal rectitude, any hint of corruption, should immediately disqualify a person from office, beyond any consideration of political effects. Hence my admiration for trivial scandals, like the German Briefbogenaffäre.

The problem is, it’s easy to fool yourself about this sort of thing. And I genuinely have the impression that modern conservatives — particularly of the anglophone strain — tending as they do toward antinomianism and plutocracy, are generally far more corrupt, less honest, more inclined toward self-dealing, and less constrained by democratic principles than the left. But then, I would think that.

That makes Boris Johnson a clarifying figure for me. I find him utterly despicable, and always have — at least since 2016, since before then I was barely aware of him, and thought him merely ridiculous — and fervently hoped that he would not attain a position of influence in the UK government, much less become prime minister. And since he became prime minister, I have wholeheartedly desired for him to be gone.

At the same time, I am quite confident that keeping him in No. 10 promotes the policy outcomes that I am most committed to, for two reasons: First, as a thoroughgoing opportunist he is not any more committed to any party or ideology than he is to the truth or to the public good, and particularly not the Conservatives. His instincts seem to me generally globalist and liberal. Even his disgusting racism seems to be more a put-on for the rubes than a deep conviction. Any plausible Tory successor will promote policies that are less to my liking than those pursued under Johnson.

Second, Johnson is a force for chaos, and the longer he can remain at the top of the Conservative Party the more damage he can do, and the more likely that the next election will bring the needed change of government.

Boris Johnson’s grand ambition…

… seems to have shrunk down to the goal of clinging to his office for one more month, so that he will have been prime minister longer than his maudite predecessor. It’s hard to imagine why else he’d be putting on such an embarrassing display. It seems unlikely, even if the Conservative parliamentary party need to dismantle No. 10 Downing Street and carry Johnson out mid-tantrum.

On the other hand, looking at this excellent Wikipedia page “List of prime ministers of the United Kingdom by length of tenure” see that he only needs to hold out for two more days, to surpass the tenure of Neville Chamberlain.

Boris Johnson having a perfectly normal day.

The importance of saying “importance”

Susan Collins — Republican Senator from Maine — has made herself a legislative punchline by consistently pretending to be moderate by expressing her “concern” for the potential consequences while voting down the line for right-wing priorities. In particular, she claimed repeatedly to support abortion rights while voting for the Trump Supreme Court nominees who were committed to overturning Roe v. Wade. (She infamously proclaimed — after voting against conviction in Trump’s first impeachment trial — that she believed the president had “learned his lesson”. Which, in a sense, was true.)

Now she is shocked at how those justices deceived her. But the evidence is… unconvincing. Her staff have shared notes with the NY Times, from her discussions with Brett Kavanaugh during the time when the Senate was considering his nomination. He said:

Start with my record, my respect for precedent, my belief that it is rooted in the Constitution, and my commitment and its importance to the rule of law… I understand precedent and I understand the importance of overturning it

Roe is 45 years old, it has been reaffirmed many times, lots of people care about it a great deal, and I’ve tried to demonstrate I understand real-world consequences

“Lots of people care about it.” No suggestion that he cares about it. The only thing he says about his own intentions is literally the opposite of what Collins suggests. If he had said in a secret meeting with Trump “I understand the importance of overturning” precedent, everyone would understand that he was promising not to protect Roe v. Wade. It actually takes a lot of wishful thinking — Collins’s specialty — to interpret that as a promise to protect abortion rights precedents. That would normally be expressed as “the importance of not overturning precedent”.

Out-of-the-box approaches to the school shooting problem in the US

Now that the proverbial “good guys with a gun” — 19 of them, in fact — have singularly failed to prevent the mass slaughter of children in Uvalde, Texas, the American Right is resorting to ever more absurd proposals to deal with the terror that Americans feel over the threat of children being shot to death in school. Some are proposing that Guns don’t kill people, doors that let gunmen in kill people. Others argue that we stop sending our children to school altogether.

Eventually I expect they’ll hit on an old Cold War-era solution. Back in the early 1980s Ronald Reagan expressed dismay, in one of his State of the Union addresses, about a survey that found like a majority of US children said they feared there might soon be a nuclear war. Cartoonist Mark Stamaty, in his series Washingtoon, showed a group of leading generals listening to the speech and exclaiming, “American children suffering in fear of a nuclear war. That is unacceptable!” And they task the Pentagon with solving the problem… by commissioning a television series starring “Willie the Warhead” that will teach children to welcome rather than to fear nuclear war.

I foresee a similar solution eventually arising from the Christian Soldier circles. Our children should not live in fear of being murdered by a nut with a gun in their schools. In the television series Straight to the Top, they’ll learn to see school shootings as a shortcut to the delights of heaven. Each week another group of blameless godfearing youth get dispatched by a leering antifa Democrat, and then get to eat ice cream and play video games in the divine presence, and enjoy watching the leftist killer being tormented in Hell. A recurring gun-grabber character will be the comic relief, until it turns out that he’s actually the one training the killers, in order to further his plot to carry out a Marxist revolution in a disarmed America.

Rothian perspectives on the current political moment in the US

The juxtaposition of “pro-life” jubilation at saving embryos without even paying lip service to preserving the lives and health of pregnant women, with their equally full-throated defence of the weapons that slaughter young children reminds me of the opening of a little-known book of satirical monologues and dialogues by Philip Roth, published around 1972 under the title Our Gang. The main character of these sketches was Tricky, his barely veiled caricature of Richard Nixon.

The first dialogue is titled “Tricky Comforts a Troubled Citizen”. The citizen is responding to Nixon’s 1971 statement about the need to restrict “abortion on demand”, because of his “personal belief in the sanctity of human life, including the life of the yet unborn”. The citizen agreed with this position, but was unsure how to square it with Nixon’s decision to show special leniency to Lieutenant William Calley, who had been convicted of murdering civilians at My Lai, in Vietnam, in 1968.

CITIZEN: Inasmuch as I feel as you do about the unborn, I am seriously troubled by the possibility that Lieutenant Calley may have committed an abortion. I hate to say this, Mr. President, but I am seriously troubled when I think that one of those twenty-two Vietnamese civilians Lieutenant Calley killed may have been a pregnant woman.

TRICKY: … We have a tradition in the courts of this land that a man is innocent until he is proven guilty. There were babies in that ditch at My Lai, and we know there were women of all ages but I have not seen a single document that suggests the ditch at My Lai contained a pregnant woman.

Tricky goes on to explain in his lawyerly way that Lieutenant Calley would have had no way way of knowing if the woman were pregnant, and in the state of panic she would have been in it is unlikely to have been capable of communicating that to him.

CITIZEN: But, sir, suppose that he did know she was pregnant.

TRICKY: Well, we are down to… this issue of “abortion on demand”, which, admittedly, is totally unacceptable to me, on the basis of my personal and religious beliefs.

CITIZEN: Abortion on demand?

TRICKY: If this Vietnamese woman presented herself to Lieutenant Calley for abortion… let’s assume… she was one of those girls who goes out and has a good time and then won’t own up to the consequences… and Lieutenant Calley, let’s say, in the heat and pressure of the moment, performed the abortion, during the course of which the woman died… Well, I just have to wonder of the woman isn’t herself equally as guilty as the lieutenant… Consequently, even if Lieutenant Calley did participate in a case of “abortion on demand”, it would seem to me… that there are numerous extenuating circumstances to consider…

Presumably this explains the lack of concern the American Right shows over taking any action to prevent incidents like the recent school shooting in Uvalde. The murdered girls were all too young to be pregnant. No danger that any abortions were committed. That would be, in Tricky’s words, “totally unacceptable”.

The first minister’s second person

There’s a comedy trope that I think of as “second person confession”. The person starts telling a generic story in the second person, except that the details of the story start getting weirdly specific, morphing into an embarrassing or disturbing confession. Something like, “You know how it is, you’ve just been working all day, you come home exhausted, you want nothing more than to eat a sandwich and zone out on the couch. And then you get a call from some guy you barely know, who wants to meet up for some reason, and you’re about to tell him to fuck off, when he reminds you that you’ve known each other since the summer when you were 17, and he’s the only person who knows where you hid that body…”

So, Boris Johnson, the cringeworthy master of does-he-mean-this-to-be-a-joke, commented recently on the need for all of us lazy British workers to get back to the office, in these terms:

My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.

Thinking back to his pre-election bus hobby, it makes me wonder if there’s some embarrassing story about cheese that he’s trying to push down in the Google search rankings…