Johnson is our doom

Is there somewhere an ancient manuscript sealed with eldritch lore, on which is inscribed the tale of the final days of Britain, under the rule of a mysterious BJ? I have had the feeling, over the past four years that the real agenda of government has been to evade the doom foretold of the Boris Johnson premiership. And, as in classical tragedy, the steps that are taken to prevent that fate — the Brexit referendum, Theresa May’s selection as prime minister, making him responsible for foreign policy, expelling him from the cabinet, new elections — turn out to be precisely the ones that bring it closer. At this point I could understand if some Conservatives are ready to give up fighting what is obviously a divinely ordained chastisement.

Correspondence bias and communism

Reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right I was struck by this relatively banal observation:

In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale… But what of the crimes of capitalism? What of the atrocious bloodbath known as the First World War, in which the clash of imperial nations hungry for territory sent working-class soldiers to a futile death? The history of capitalism is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide and avoidable famines.

Superficially, this looks like dialectical what-about-ism. Whose mass murder was worse? But it occurred to me that there is something here that needs explanation: Given that communism and capitalism both have long charge sheets in the court of history, how can the association with atrocity and tyranny serve so broadly as a knock-down argument against communism?

It made me think of correspondence bias, the psychological tendency of people to interpret their own behaviour as situation-dependent — I didn’t do the reading for the seminar because I had a family crisis and I was exhausted — while someone else’s behaviour is seen as representing their essential nature — too lazy or inconsiderate to do the reading. This also works between groups, as when, for instance, a man’s failure to successfully lead a research team shows that he’s not cut out for that sort of responsibility (or not yet ready for it) while a woman’s failure shows that women aren’t suited to leadership.

So it is with economic systems: Stalin reveals the fundamental nature of communism, its core evil revealed by the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge; but but Hitler and Pinochet are only incidentally capitalists, and the explanation of their crimes must be found outside the economic sphere. The Great Irish Famine has nothing to do with capitalist ideology, even while merchants were exporting food from starving Ireland to British markets, and American slavery and the Native American genocide are particular historical events that cannot tell us anything about the general implications of capitalism.

Increasingly, climate change makes capitalism look like a global suicide pact.

There is a similar bias at work in the judgement of religious communities: Many Christians attribute violence and brutality to Islam as an essential quality of the religion, proved by selective quotes from the Koran, while dismissing Christian-motivated atrocities to “not real Christians” or special circumstances of people long ago or far away. (We Jews are in an awkward position relative to this: On the one hand, our communal experience does not incline us to trust the good faith of Christians any more than of Muslims or druids or Satanists; on the other hand, Jews have become a particular target of Muslim rage, while many of us are well assimilated in majority-Christian nations. Some are happy to repay the recent good treatment by echoing the local prejudices.)

Yeoman Trump: Saul Steinberg and the fascist politics of outer-borough resentment

Reading  How Fascism Works by Yale philosopher Jason Stanley — which is interesting, though not quite the general theory of fascism that the title promises, but something more like a Prolegomenon to a Theory of Trumpism — I was interested by his discussion of the valorisation of rural life as a fundamental feature of fascism, and of Trumpism.

Fascist politics feeds the insulting myth that hardworking rural residents pay to support lazy urban dwellers, so it is not a surprise that the base of its success is found in a country’s rural areas… Anticity rhetoric had a central role in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections… Fascist politics targets financial elites, “cosmopolitans”, liberals, and religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities. In many countries, these are characteristically urban populations. Cities therefore usefully serve as a proxy target for the classic enemies of fascist politics.

Among the many peculiarities of Trump’s appeal — the lifelong sybarite as hero of self-identified Christian conservatives, the draft-dodger as champion of the military, the man who built an empire off cheating ordinary workers as tribune of the (white) working class — is the profound support that a Manhattan real-estate developer, with an almost comically New York accent, found among anti-cosmopolitan small-town and rural voters.

This is where I think Saul Steinberg’s classic representation of New York psychology can help us. Objectively you might think that the scion of an ultra-wealthy New York real-estate empire is an urban insider. But they were from Queens. Seen from 9th Avenue, Donald Trump was just another outer borough yokel. He might as well have been digging potatoes out on Long Island. McKay Coppins described this well in The Atlantic at the start of Trump’s presidency

Though he was born into a wealthy family, partaking of the various perks and privileges afforded to millionaires’ offspring, Trump grew up in Queens—a pleasant but unfashionable borough whose residents were sometimes dismissed by snooty Manhattanites as “bridge-and-tunnel people.” From a young age, he was acutely aware of the cultural, and physical, chasm that separated himself from the city’s aristocracy. In several interviews and speeches over the years, he has recalled gazing anxiously across the East River toward Manhattan, desperate to make a name for himself among the New York elite.

The most successful politicians have a howling vortex of resentment at their core, that resonates somehow with the resentments of a large fraction of the populace. If there’s anything genuine about Trump’s political persona it is this: He genuinely shares the feeling of the average American that educated elites are looking down at them. And no amount of money or cheering crowds can fill that void.

The meddling EU

I think maybe the leftist Euroskeptics have a point:

EU to ban meat and dairy names for plant-based foods

Henceforth mushroom steaks will be called “fungus slabs”. The meat of a nut will be the “nut turd”. Coconut milk is exempted, but what was formerly called coconut meat will now be known as “interior coconut lumps”.

This has nothing at all to do with protecting meat and dairy producers, and it has everything to do with the outcry from carnivorous consumers who buy “veggie sausages” as a main course to go with their veggies, and then are outraged to find that they’re not really “sausages” at all.

Mother’s milk may only be referred to as human mammary excretions. The “milk of Paradise” that Kubla Khan drank will, in future editions, be “slime of heaven”.

Weirdly, “salad cream” is exempted. The German Käsefüsse (cheese feet), for stinky feet will still be permitted, owing to their animal origin.
Strangest of all is the restriction on the word burger. While it has its origins in the word hamburger, from a meat dish common in Hamburg — oddly, this has not received AOC protection — among the earliest uses of the term “burger” is for the vegeburger, attested by the OED in a 1945 advertisement. The word “hamburger”, on the other hand, will be banned entirely, as it tends to promote cannibalism.
Henceforth a nothingburger will be called a nullity on a bun.
“Sausage” is only allowed to be of animal origin, even though the word has its origin in the Latin salsicia, meaning “salted”. And the English word meat itself, unlike the German Fleisch (and its English cognate flesh) has traditionally meant any kind of food, as in the phrase “meat and drink”, and the now somewhat archaic word sweetmeats.
Performances of Romeo and Juliet in the EU will now require that the third act be revised to remove the line

Thy head is as full of quarrels, as an egg is full of meat.

Because eggs have no meat, and it would be misleading to suggest to the audience that they do.

The time lords

The European parliament has voted to stop the practice of switching clocks forward and backward every year, from 2021. I’ve long thought this practice rather odd. Imagine that a government were to pass a law stating that from April 1 every person must wake up one hour earlier than they habitually do, and go to sleep one hour earlier. All shops and businesses are required to open an hour earlier, and to close an hour earlier. The same for schools, universities, and the timing of private lessons and appointments must also be shifted. Obviously ridiculous, even tyrannical. The government has nothing to say about when I go to bed or wake up, when my business is open. But because they enforce it through adjusting the clocks, which seem like an appropriate subject of regulation and standardisation, it is almost universally accepted.

But instead of praising this blow struck for individual freedom and against statist overreach, we have Tories making comments like this:

John Flack, the Conservative MEP for the East of England, said: “We’ve long been aware the EU wants too much control over our lives – now they want to control time itself. You would think they had other things to worry about without wanting to become time lords,” he said, in an apparent reference to the BBC sci-fi drama Doctor Who.

“We agreed when they said the clocks should change across the whole EU on an agreed day. That made sense – but this is a step too far,” Flack added. “I know that farmers in particular, all across the east of England, value the flexibility that the clock changes bring to get the best from available daylight.

So, the small-government Tory thinks it’s a perfectly legitimate exercise of European centralised power to compel shopkeepers in Sicily and schoolchildren in Madrid to adjust their body clocks* in order to spare English farmers the annoyance of having to consciously adjust the clocktime when they get out of bed to tend to their harvest. But to rescind this compulsion, that is insufferably arrogant.

*Nor is this a harmless annoyance. Researchers have found a measurable increase in heart attacks — presumed attributable to reduced sleep — in the days following the spring clock shift. A much smaller decrease may accompany the autumn shift back.

The promise-keepers

Liam Fox, the British international trade secretary, best known for confounding the Brexit critics with his stunning success in concluding trade continuity agreement with Andorra and the Faroe Islands, has stated in a radio interview that the government may just ignore the “indicative votes” that Parliament is expected to carry out, to express the will of Parliament on the way forward in Brexit. This is hardly surprising. The government, and Theresa May in particular, have been clear and consistent in their belief that a democratic government ought not to assign much weight, or allow themselves to be too much influenced by, votes that are formally non-binding. But I was struck by something else in Fox’s statement:

I was elected, as 80% of members were, to respect the referendum and leave the European Union. I was also elected on a manifesto that specifically said no single market and no customs union. That, for Conservative MPs who are honouring the manifesto, limits their room for manoeuvre.

This sounds pretty persuasive. We want politicians to honour their promises, particularly those that have been formally laid out in a party election manifesto. But it occurred to me — and I may be unusual in this — I never actually read the 2017 Conservative election manifesto. It’s available here, so I had a look.

The first thing I notice is that the single market and the customs union are each mentioned only once, and not exactly in the form of a resounding promise, but in a kind of passive construction:

As we leave the European Union, we will no longer be members of the single market or customs union but we will seek a deep and special partnership including a comprehensive free trade and customs agreement.

Is this a promise or a (mistaken) suggestion of inevitability? Why is it formulated in this weird continuing tense “as we leave the European Union” rather than “after we leave”? Why is that comma in such a weird, ungrammatical place?

On the other hand, the first thing the manifesto has to say about Brexit does sound like a promise:

We need to deliver a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union and forge a deep and special partnership with our friends and allies across Europe.

And then there is this:

We will restore the contract between the generations, providing older people with security against ill health while ensuring we maintain the promise of opportunity and prosperity for younger generations. That contract includes our National Health Service, which is founded on the principle that those who have should help those who do not.

And this:

Under the strong and stable leadership of Theresa May, there will be no ideological crusades. The government’s agenda will not be allowed to drift to the right. Our starting point is that we should take decisions on the basis of what works.

Many promises, and they can’t all be fulfilled. So the decision about which ones to abandon — no smooth and orderly departure or saving the NHS or ideological moderation, yes leaving the single market and customs union — is a free political choice. The government could say, well, whatever we think of the single market, we did promise a smooth and orderly departure from the EU, and the only way we can obtain that is to negotiate on the basis of staying in the single market. The deference to “promises”, the assertion of “limited room for manoeuvre” is a way of pressuring other politicians, and indeed the electorate. They don’t want a second referendum because they suspect that their policies don’t command majority support. So they refer to a promise made to a previous electorate.

The argument against a second EU referendum would apply equally as an argument against holding parliamentary elections in 2022. “We made a promise…”

Operation Yellowhammer

I’m sure I’m not the only person in Britain somewhat nonplussed to discover that the British government’s secret contingency plans for no-deal Brexit — now swinging into operation — is called Operation Yellowhammer.

Let’s start with the decision to call it an “Operation”, as though they were preparing to storm the Normandy beaches. This is of a piece with the choice to call the feckless band meeting at 10 Downing Street to plan this shit show the “war cabinet”.

The name of such an operation is an unconstrained choice, pure public relations, so I can think of only a few possible explanations:

  1. Whereas you or I might think the overriding concern at this moment would be to communicate reassurance, to calm a jittery public, the war cabinet thought it would be much more valuable to arouse a sense of panic and rage. The name is maximally emotional and violent: “yellow” is warning, danger, “hammer” is a crude weapon. (It’s not even like “yellowhammer” is a real word.*)
  2. Like explanation 1, but the war cabinet wasn’t thinking about the public at all. Instead, Boris Johnson worked everyone up into a fit of Churchillian indignation against the Eurofascists and their normed bananas (nudge, wink), and Operation Yellowhammer seemed like just the thing to arouse corresponding fury in the civil servants who would have to create the plan. That the plan might actually be executed, and the public would learn about the name, was too far in the future to bother with.
  1. They tried to be reassuring. The British are now just really bad at public relations, which seemed like the last thing they still knew how to do well, after they gave up on diplomacy and sensible government.
  • Rejected names:
      • Operation Channel Hurricane
      • Operation Second Armada
      • Operation Frogs and Sprouts
      • Project Europa Delenda Est
      • Project Fear (good proposal, but already used).

    * Update: I have been informed that the yellowhammer is actually a widespread little yellow bird that does not travel between Britain and the European continent.

    The real antisemites

    Donald Trump is concerned about a political movement that he believes harbors antisemitic views:

    The Democrats have very much proven to be anti-Israel. There’s no question about that. And it’s a disgrace. I mean, I don’t know what’s happened to them. But they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they’re anti-Jewish.

    But wait, you might be saying, aren’t the Democrats the favoured party of the vast majority of American Jews?

    Precisely.

    Everyone knows that antisemitism is a great evil troubling the world. And who are the pernicious globalists responsible for all the evil in the world?*

    QED. So obvious it took an outside-the-box thinker like Trump to recognise it.

    * Hint: Their name rhymes with the Enemy of the People.