Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

It takes a thief

Speaking to her fellow Conservatives this week, a “contrite” Theresa May said

I got us into this mess, and I’m going to get us out.

Ummm… Is this a common hiring policy? Is there any circumstance under which you’re looking for someone to lead a project and you say, “How about Theresa? She fucked everything up last time. That makes her just the person to make it go well this time.” Because she has the best inside view of the faulty decision procedures that caused all the trouble, or something.

It’s a bromide that is usually applied to a situation where the “mess” demands some unpleasant and unglamourous labour or expense to clean up — e.g., you misplaced the envelope with the club’s collected membership dues, so you need to go find it, or work out a new fundraising scheme, or replace the money from your own pocket. No one wants to do it, but it’s your job because it’s your fault. Applying it to remaining prime minister is just bizarre.

But this is all part of the way British politics is less about the effective deployment of power than the effective deployment of clichés. Of which Theresa “Brexit means Brexit” May is an unchallenged master.

Boris is Britain

Of all the bizarre developments in British politics over the last couple of years, none is stranger than the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign minister. I genuinely don’t think it is possible for any foreigner to understand him — or, to put it differently, I think that if you understand Boris Johnson you must have sufficiently internalised British values™ that you should be granted citizenship. I listen to him and am reminded of Oliver Sacks’s essay about observing a ward full of aphasics — patients with damage to the language-processing centres of their brains — laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. Limited in their ability to interpret the verbal content of his speech, they focused on the tone and expression, which they found grotesque and dishonest. One patient, with tonal agnosia, had the opposite problem. She could only recognise the text, not the charming expression, and so judged “Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”

I feel like I have tonal agnosia listening to Boris Johnson. He’s obviously playing a complex tune on Britons’ class consciousness that I simply can’t hear. Some people here find him clever, some call him a buffoon. I just hear the verbal equivalent the scene in Amadeus where the court opera is commanded to clomp through a dance number without any music.

One shorthand I’ve come up with to explain Johnson is that he is a stupid person pretending to be a smart person pretending to be a stupid person. I mean stupid in a relative sense. You don’t get to the highest level of politics without significant mental resources of some sort. But he has chosen to play the role of an exceptional intelligence, despite his average endowment. I’ve been around elite universities most of my life, so I recognise the glib, polished facade over the mediocre mind.

Of course, acting smart isn’t like acting strong*: You can’t just put up a show at some decisive moments and conceal your true deficits. It requires that you actually produce some penetrating insights on a semi-regular basis, and if you could do that you would really be smart. Johnson has, I think, adopted a strategy that one also sees at times in mathematics students: appealing to stereotypes of an idiosyncratic genius where the idiosyncracies take the place of demonstrating actual brilliance. Johnson invites people to identify him with a stock figure, the brilliant toff who hides his light under a bushel to feign the common touch. So he is dumb, and he acts dumb, but people attribute assume that’s all just covering up his secret brilliance.

But maybe I’m wrong and he’s just faking that, and he’s secretly an evil genius…  (more…)

Extreme left

Vox is explaining Jeremy Corbyn to Americans:

He is far to the left of Bernie Sanders: Corbyn has proposed renationalizing Britain’s rail system, abolishing tuition for British universities, massively hiking taxes, capping CEO salaries, and imposing rent controls to deal with Britain’s affordable housing problem. He’s even suggested reopening the coal mines that used to be a big part of Britain’s economy.

Hmmm. The rail system is already nationalised in US, as in most developed countries. Sanders himself did propose abolishing tuition at public universities in the US and raising taxes. He formerly advocated a maximum wage, though he retreated from that in the most recent election campaign. Rent control is, for obvious reasons, seldom an issue in US presidential campaigns, but it is certainly an issue that Sanders advocated as mayor of Burlington. As for reopening the coal mines, that’s kind of crazy, but it’s a Trump policy.

I think this shows, above all, how far Britain has drifted to the right (NHS notwithstanding) and the US has drifted to the left (despite the persistence of gerrymandered Republican control).

Destroy the monsters!

I think often of a lecture I heard many years ago by the late Richard Marius at Harvard, on Shakespeare’s Richard II. He made the point, novel to me, that the inviolability of kingly rule demanded that critics of the monarch direct their wrath ostensibly at the king’s advisers: The king is not unfit to rule, he is only being misled or corrupted. Compare:

Several politicians told the Guardian that Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who act as the prime minister’s joint chiefs of staff in Downing Street, must take responsibility for the poor result, which saw the Tories lose their majority. The pair were at the centre of recriminations flying back and forth between MPs on WhatsApp groups and even resulted in one cabinet minister branding the pair as “monsters who propped her up and sunk our party”.

Yes, those monsters! May should be furious at how badly they performed in the election campaign. I suspect that they are also the people — wasn’t one of them Home Secretary or something? — who were responsible for the “tolerance of extremism” and failed anti-terror policies of the past seven years that May rightly excoriated when she laid out her detailed new “Things need to change” policy.

It’s a good thing that she’s now formed an alliance with a party famous for lacking all tolerance (for terrorism).

What we’ve come to

I wonder whether any Republican legislators, in a quiet moment alone, is troubled to realise that the path they’ve followed has led them to work to trash the reputation of a highly respected moderate Republican former deputy attorney general and (until very recently) director of the FBI. Does it ring any alarm bells for them? Do they think, this isn’t really what I expected to be doing with my life?

Where are the simple joys of Maidenhead?

Theresa May’s gamble has gone badly wrong. There’s a danger of chaos overwhelming all of us now, but I want to take this moment, with the result  still fresh, to exult.

There is a special joy at seeing a tactically shrewd and wholly cynical and unprincipled scheme fail. The Tories made a principled case back in 2010 for fixed-term parliaments, which they enshrined in law. May made a principled case for not calling a new election last year when she took over the leadership last year. And then she abandoned all those principles as soon as she saw a political advantage in the sky-high poll numbers for herself and her party. There was no other justification than that she thought she was sure to win, because all the press barons loved her, and Jeremy Corbyn dresses badly, and she couldn’t conceive of having to compromise. Just to make it particularly destructive, she lit the 2-year fuse on Brexit before calling the new election, so that time is running out even while they sort out their mess in Westminster.

A reasonable conclusion would be that it was a mistake to try to run the country off the hard Brexit cliff on the basis of a paper-thin referendum majority, and that she should instead seek a broad consensus, at least on the EU negotiations, with all the major parties. That wouldn’t be Theresa May’s conclusion, though. She may not have been in favour of Brexit, but she’s not going to lose the opportunity to knife the perfidious foreigners, even if the price is collaborating with the DUP to undermine abortion rights, climate policy, and peace in Northern Ireland.

By the way, if you don’t recognise the reference in the post title…

Exponential vernacular

Like most mathematicians, I think, I’m irritated by the way “grows exponentially” has come into common parlance as a synonym for “grows rapidly”; whereas exponential growth in mathematics may be fast or slow, depending on the current level of the quantity. This has even crossed into technical discussions, as when I heard a talk by a cancer expert who objected to standard claims that cancer mortality increases exponentially through adulthood — which it does — because the levels actually stay low through the 50s, and so only “increase exponentially” after that point.

Anyway, I was under the impression that the vernacular application of this mathematical concept was fairly recent. So I was intrigued to find the cognate concept of “growing geometric”  popping up in Evan Thomas’s Nixon biography, on the Watergate tapes. In the context of cancer. Used correctly! It’s quite a famous part of Watergate lore, where John Dean refers to Watergate as a “cancer… close to the presidency”.

We have a cancer — within — close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding, it grows geometrically now, because it’s compounding.

Trump’s cheap shyster responds to the former FBI director

I know that Donald Trump is famously stingy, but I would have thought a man with his history of persistent involvement with the shady side of the law would appreciate the value of competent legal assistance. Instead, he has this guy:

President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer on Wednesday responded to fired FBI Director James Comey’s prepared testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee by saying that Trump felt “completely and totally vindicated.”

“The president is pleased that Mr. Comey has finally publicly confirmed his private reports that the President was not under investigation in any Russia probe,” Marc Kasowitz wrote in a statement. “The president feels completely and totally vindicated.”

Seriously? The FBI director has presented what most people would consider overwhelming evidence of attempted obstruction of justice, attempting to block investigation of his close associates, strikingly similar but even more blatant than the actions for which Richard Nixon was forced to resign. The best his lawyer can come up with is to say that, in the course of the discussions in which he attempted to obstruct justice the president received assurances that he was not, at that point, two months ago, personally a target of investigation. That’s what he calls “totally vindicated”.

I suppose this is what you get when top law firms consider the president too skeezy to associate with.

Absence and present values: A thought on monuments

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, and came upon this passage, that is relevant to current debates about maintaining monuments to once-admired figures who have now fallen into disrepute:

[The Republican Party] did gain the support of General James Longstreet, whose example inspired some Confederate veterans to follow in his footsteps… General Longstreet’s decision to join the Republican Party made him an object of hatred among Southern Democrats for the remainder of his life. When he died, in 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and unlike other Confederate generals, no statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

It’s incredibly naïve to say, monuments should stay as they are because they are part of history. They’re not. History is history, but monuments are present expressions of an attitude toward history. Sure, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was recently taken down in New Orleans was itself a historical artifact, and part of (a certain period of) city history, but the curatorial choice of what to keep is a statement about our current values. To the untrained eye, the statue was not a monument to 1884, when it was put up, but to 1863.

If you really want it to be a monument to 1884, and the intervening time when it has stood, so that the public could appreciate the “history” represented by the erection of a statue of Robert E. Lee (or of Cecil Rhodes), you would need to be able to make them see not only the statue that is present, but also the statue that is absent (of General Longstreet, say, or Olive Schreiner). But an absence can never compete with a presence in its impact on the viewer. So Lee and Rhodes must fall.

The other statement is overridden

Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler used to be the gold standard for political obfuscation, with his declaration (when he had to reverse previous insistence that no one in the White House was involved in the Watergate break-in “This is the operative statement. The others are inoperative.”

Trump, recognising that his Watergate reboot won’t pull in 21st-century viewers if they have to watch a “third-rate burglary” investigation playing out over 2 1/2 years, is ramping up the malfeasance (Russian espionage! billion-dollar bribes!) and the pace, while still hitting the classic Nixonian marks (asking the CIA to block an FBI investigation!) One place where they’ve been exceeding their originals is in the obfuscatory rhetoric. Following on Kellyanne Conway’s celebrated rechristening of lies as “alternative facts”, we have budget director Mike Mulvaney explaining why Trump’s explicit promise not to cut Medicaid was now being reversed. NY Times reporter John Harwood:

“Overridden”! Like a good reboot, it’s reminiscent of the Zieglerian original, yet somehow punchier, with a novel twist. (Tens of millions of poor people losing access to healthcare. Great cliffhanger!) The critics, though, might carp at them reaching for effect this way on their policy statements, where Nixon himself was pretty solid, leaving perhaps less headroom for further amplification when we get to the corruption charges.

Some are saying the show might not even be renewed for another season.

By the way, I’ve just read Evan Thomas’s biography Being Nixon. I’ve never had much patience for those who claim that Nixon got a raw deal over Watergate — the burglary and cover-up were just the most salient aspect of the presidential malfeasance and abuse of power — but I understand better why many people would have seen his fall as tragic. Great talents that could have served the country well, sadly bonded to a flawed personality that dragged himself and the country into a mire of recriminations.

Comparing Trump to Nixon is deeply unfair to Nixon.

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