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…  Continue reading “Boris is Britain”

Those people

It seems like it’s a pretty solid PR principle that if your political party is bragging about what you’ve done for “them”, it’s going to seem more like pandering than like identifying with “their” core interests. Thus the Conservatives and “hardworking people” (as opposed to just “working people” who, we know, are hardly working, and usually on the dole). After presenting their hyper-pandering budget with tiny cuts to taxes on beer and Bingo, they went and boasted in a pretty crude advent that blew right across the narrow line between self-promotion and self-satire: Beer and Bingo“The things they enjoy”? It’s this sort of thing that puts hardworking political satirists out of work. Who can top this? Even if you support the goal of cutting taxes on lower earners without judging what they’re using the money for, this is a really odd framing. Could it really be a Conservative priority to encourage people to drink and gamble more? And, of course, this just confirms the way everyone just assumes the Conservatives talk about the sub-Etonian classes when they’re strategising in their country homes.

A plan to completely segregate British schools

It’s hard to believe this is not a cynical ploy:

The wealthiest parents should have to pay the same fees to send their children to a top state school as they would to an independent school, a leading headteacher has proposed.

Independent schools should also offer a quarter of their places to children from the poorest of backgrounds, according to Anthony Seldon, the master at Wellington College.

In a report published by the Social Market Foundation (SMF), Seldon calls for a radical wave of reforms to end the divide between state and independent schools, enhance social mobility and offer young people a more rounded education.

Maybe he’s just trying to “bring new money into the state system, as well as incentivise state schools to perform better”, as he says, while being too naive to understand the consequences. Seems unlikely. He also says his plans would “reduce the domination of places at the top state schools by the children of well-off parents”. Indeed it would, since children of well-off parents would be almost completely absent from state schools.

If you think the well-off aren’t paying enough for education, why not just raise their income taxes? Why specifically penalise them for sending their children to state schools? There is already a prejudice — often unfounded — that private schools provide superior education. Forcing out the upper classes — and that’s clearly what would happen, if they were to be charged the same fees for a school that is less exclusive, and thus apparently inferior. The only ones who would benefit would be the independent schools, which would no longer need to compete with the state sector on price. How convenient!

If you want to know what the benefits really are of British independent schools, a colleague made it clear to me a while back, when he said he sends his children to private school so that they learn “self confidence”. I was reminded of this recently when someone spoke to me about having heard about research about “perceived fair wages”. “Someone who’s earning £30,000 a year isn’t going to apply for a job with a £60,000 salary. He knows it’s out of his league, that he doesn’t have the skills for that.” Now, I’ve encountered this notion of “perceived fair wages” in the  analysis of wage inequality: in particular, that women often are paid less because they are conditioned to expect lower wages. (For example here.) But this fellow thought it was simply a matter of everyone having a good sense of their proper place.

So how do you get to be a self confident banker who refuses to roll over and let The Man cut his multi-million pound bonus? Presumably, that’s the job of the independent schools.

Flyin’ kites in the rain: Reflections on American fairy tales

What’s the connection between Ben Franklin and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly’s character in the 1952 film musical Singin’ in the Rain), aside from being the Americans most famous for felicitous activities during a rainstorm? I was watching the film recently, and was struck by the opening scene, which I had forgotten, where the hero, movie star Don Lockwood, narrates his biography, and we see Lockwood’s intimation of a sophisticated, upper-class upbringing — “[Mum and dad] sent me to the finest schools, including dancing school. . .   We rounded out our apprenticeship at an exclusive dramatics academy… We played the finest symphonic halls in the country.” — humorously intercut with images on the screen of low-class reality — tap-dancing in a pool hall and fiddling in burlesque theatres, piano in honky tonks and whorehouses, being slapped by parents, etc.

It occurred to me that in one paradigm old-world fairy tale, a seemingly riffraff protagonist is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed high birth is recognised. In the American transformation, a seemingly foppish aristocrat is revealed to be a person of consequence when his hitherto concealed low birth and plucky struggle to the top are revealed. And as in so much else, this feature of American character and culture was first limned by Benjamin Franklin, in his famous “Information to those who would remove to America“:

According to these opinions of the Americans, one of them would think himself more obliged to a genealogist, who could prove for him that his ancestors and relations for ten generations had been ploughmen, smiths, carpenters, turners, weavers, tanners, or even shoemakers, and consequently that they were useful members of society; than if he could only prove that they were gentlemen, doing nothing of value, but living idly on the labor of others.

An even more pithy statement of a similar world view, that I have seen attributed to Franklin though without being able to find the reference (so that I suspect the source is in fact someone else):

I care not who my ancestors were. I care who my descendants will be.