The World Comeuppance

There are few turnabouts more satisfying than when the cynic who thinks he’s calculated everything to his own benefit finds himself suddenly betrayed by the evil to which he’d accommodated himself. Extra points if he mocked the boring sincerity of those who moralised blah blah blah.

Which brings us to the World Cup. Anyone planning to attend or support the games has to be willing to ignore the corrupt process by which Qatar was selected; the thousands of labourers worked to death to build the facilities; and the foul mistreatment of women and sexual minorities by the Qatari authorities.

Eight years ago it was reported that the Qataris were already breaking the promises they had made to be allowed to host these games. They broke their promises to improve working conditions. They broke promises to allow LGBT+ visitors to attend the games safely. Most fans were happy that these promises were made, providing them cover to enjoy the World Cup, and were indifferent to whether the promises were kept.

But can they enjoy the World Cup without beer? Personally, I have zero appreciation of sport, but I have always accepted that other people really seem to dig football. But I do need to point out that the number of people who enjoy watching football completely sober seems to be rather small. Hence the dismay, that the theocratic dictators turned out to actually sincere in opposing alcohol, and are willing to take an economic hit to ban it from the tournament sites. Shocking!

Diwali sweets and the tofu-eating wokerati

I’m always fascinated by the way foods define people’s identities — their own and other people’s — and particularly how they are politicised, used to recognise one’s own folk and reject the Other. Bush-era attacks on “latte-sipping liberals” made a big impression on me (“sipping” was a good touch there — not just expensive coffee, but effeminate sipping), as did the scandalised mockery of Obama when he remarked in 2008 on the price of arugula. (According to some, arugula was also effeminate.)

I find the ethnic dimension particularly interesting. It is no coincidence that these two foods that lefties were ridiculed for consuming have Italian names. Jews, of course, have always been attacked for their exotic food preferences, as with the probably anti-Semitic attack on Ed Miliband for looking insufficiently natural when eating a bacon sandwich.

Nowhere is the political valence of ethnic foods more complex than with Britain’s Asian population. Whereas I grew up in the US thinking “Asian” meant by default Chinese and Japanese, in the UK the term refers primarily to the former colonies of Indian subcontinent. Hence the justified pride, in the whole country, in the Indian community, and particularly among the conservatives, in having the first prime minister from an Asian background.

Interestingly, this was emphasised by the King providing Diwali sweets (marking this week’s Hindu festival) when Sunak visited the palace recently. But these gestures of pride and acceptance are not extended to Asians and their foods when their heritage is not British colonial. Particularly striking was the attack in Parliament just last week by the Tory Home Secretary on the “tofu-eating wokerati”.

Hindus can be good Britons and eat Diwali sweets, but those who indulge in other Asian foods are foreign, most especially if they don’t even have the excuse of ancestry. At least the Chinese eat pork…

The Tories can’t get no satisfaction

Proving that despite having acquired UK citizenship I understand nothing about the country’s politics, chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng has been forced out after less than a month in office. I had loudly declared this to be impossible, given that his defenestration would be predicated on the entirely implausible notion that the government’s Three-Stooges-level economic policy had its origins somewhere other than the reptilian complex of Liz Truss’s brain. Apparently, she’s willing to make a play for that political fantasy.

Anyway, I note that there seems to be some hope that the predicament of the entire loss of confidence in this government jointly and individually might be evaded simply by making their policy announcements and changes sufficiently difficult to parse on a purely logico-grammatical level. It seems to be policy-making by double (at least) negatives. To wit:

According to the Times, Truss will abandon the cancellation of a rise in corporation tax from 19 to 25 per cent, as well as a number of other measures announced in the mini-Budget on 23 September. The government has already been forced into a humiliating retreat on scrapping the 45p top rate of income tax.

I had to read this multiple times to figure out whether the corporation tax would be going up or down, and I guess the Conservatives are hoping that in a few months’ time they can counter charges of “U-turn” with “You’re misremembering. We didn’t never change no policy direction turns.” They’re opposing Labour socialism with Marxist politics of the Grouchoist tendency. (See here and below.)

Scant progress

In the middle of an economic slowdown and a huge expansion in spending to reduce households’ winter fuel costs, the new UK government has just announced, in its new “mini-budget” its intention to drastically cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Not surprisingly, the price of UK bonds has plummeted, and interest rates have risen to their highest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

The Guardian quotes international market experts from ING saying this was a “perfect storm” for the UK, as “global markets shun sterling and gilts.” They continue

Price action in UK gilts is going from bad to worse. A daunting list of challenges has arisen for sterling-denominated bond investors, and the Treasury’s mini-budget has done little to shore up confidence.

“Little to shore up confidence” is such an elegant bit of English understatement, so extreme as to amount almost to deception. Like “the expanded hours for flight departures at Heathrow have done little to improve the noise pollution problem for residents near the airport” or “Herr Hitler’s new ‘Nuremberg Laws’ have done little to shore up confidence in fair treatment among Germany’s half million Jewish citizens.”

The Queen’s two bodies

There’s something that baffles me about the public discussion of ERII’s legacy: Why do so many people feel comfortable lauding the late monarch as the (no longer) living embodiment of the nation when she’s waving to the crowd and dispensing Christmas bromides, but just a befuddled girl when her imperial government is committing crimes against humanity?

The cognitive dissonance is extreme: What kind of monsters would we be were we to be charmed by a person responsible for the murder and torture of thousands? Therefore she was not responsible. Therefore, implicitly — since she was responsible for everything — these crimes did not occur.

And just to be extra clear, I am not doubting the expert claim that Harold Macmillan lied like a rug to keep Her Majesty in the dark on the sordid details of the Empire, or lied to the public to pretend that he did. The living embodiment of the nation embodies its crimes as well as its virtues. She can’t embody the spirit of Paddington Bear, but be free of any taint of Hola. The victims of Her Majesty’s government are her royal victims, whether or not her mortal body participated, whether or not it was indeed aware.

The alternative is, monarchy is just bullshit, just celebrity culture with extra-fancy headgear. That seems to be the genuine belief revealed by the public’s response.

Don’t jump!

Britain’s presumptive next prime minister has been demonstrating the kind of top-drawer platitudes that the nation will be showered with after her investiture tomorrow:

“I have a bold plan that will grow our economy and deliver higher wages, more security for families and world-class public services,” Truss said in a statement, as the curtain came down on the often bitter race with her 42-year-old rival Sunak.

“If I am elected prime minister, I will never let anyone talk us down and I will do everything in my power to make sure our great nation succeeds.”

Now, this may be one of these Anglo-American language confusions (like the perennial embarrassment over “pants”), but when I hear the phrase “never let anyone talk us down” I think of an image like this:

EU: Come down from the ledge. We can talk about the NIP!
Liz Truss: Jump! Jump!

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.