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!

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.

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 Rwandan Shabbos elevator

Comments on the present Tory government’s contempt for the law have tended to focus on the prime minister’s lockdown parties, or his bribes for home redecorating, or his lying to Parliament. But there has been nothing so explicit and brazen as the prime minister defending a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to await decisions on their cases, as a necessary defence against “a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers”. Rather like the US sending prisoners to be tortured abroad — or doing it themselves in the law-free zone of Guantanamo — he is saying that our legal protections for asylum seekers are too onerous (when lefty lawyers have the audacity to actually use them) so we’re going to evade the law by sending the people to another jurisdiction where they don’t apply. Rather than simply change the law to match what he believes ought to be done, providing clarity and confidence to all concerned.

Which brings me to… the Shabbos elevator. One of the things that makes Orthodox Judaism seem bizarre to us Liberal Jews is its never-ending struggle to put one over on God. The Torah is full of rules and regulations — 613 of them according to one popular enumeration — and these are variously extended, expanded, and interpreted in various rabbinical texts and traditions to form the quasi-legal corpus known as halakha. Orthodox Jews commit themselves to obeying all of these precepts, which immediately leads — because some of them (like the ban on carrying anything outside or making a flame — interpreted to include electricity — on Shabbat) are quite onerous, some (like the prohibition against borrowing money at interest and the requirement to cancel all debts every seventh year) inconvenient, and others (like the ban on clothing made of mixed fabrics) simply bizarre — devote vast stores of legalistic ingenuity to evading these rules.

Thus you see the Orthodox tying wires — an eruv — around whole neighbourhoods, or even a large part of a city, to define it as a single “household”, where objects may be carried and journeys are permitted on Shabbat. They formally transfer their loans to a rabbinical court to avoid the required cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year. They put their electric lights on automatic timers on Shabbat. And in hotels and apartment blocks — particularly, but not only, in Israel — they continue to use elevators that are specially designed to stop on every floor on Shabbat (to avoid needing to activate electrical buttons).

In his book The Shabbat Elevator, and other Sabbath subterfuges, the folklore scholar Alan Dundes considers the question of why the same people would have a set of overly strict customs, and then “counter customs” that relax the strictures. Within the framework of Jewish tradition the explanation is simple: The halakha is not a mere custom, it is the perfect law of God, and so must be followed. To the letter. Not, though, in spirit, because interpreting the spirit is beyond the capacity of mortal man. We are responsible for obeying the exact perfect words as passed on to us from God through our ancestors. These tricks may seem bizarre and counterintuitive, but if God wanted us to behave differently he would have formulated his Torah differently.

To a liberal Jew this seems kind of crazy. Our ancestors collectively created the law, and we do not respect it by evasion. We respect it by updating it. That forces us to acknowledge what we are doing, and to justify it, to ourselves and to our community.

And so it is with refugee law in Britain. If the UK government finds the law inappropriate, if it admits what they consider abuse by lefty lawyers, then they are free to use their majority in parliament to change the law, and to remove the legal rights and protections that refugees currently enjoy. To leave the law in place, but to evade it by sending the asylum-seekers to a country where they are not legally protected is bizarre and pointless, except as way of avoiding responsibility for the moral principles that their ancestors encoded into British law.

Socialist maths

The recent decision by the state of Florida to ban a slew of mathematics textbooks from its schools because of their links to banned concepts has attracted much attention. The website Popular Information has pored through the banned texts to try and suss out what the verboten ideological content might be. Some books seem to have impermissably encouraged students to work together and treat each other with respect. Another may have set off alarms because it included, among its capsule biographies of mathematicians, some non-white individuals.

I’ve always wondered, though, why it’s not considered problematic that books persistently teach the concept of division with problems that require that a fixed amount of wealth — 10 cookies, say — be allocated equally among a group of children. No consideration of whether some of the children might be smarter, or work harder, or just be closer to the cookie jar, and thus be entitled to a larger share. Pretty much the definition of socialism!

(More generally, it always fascinated me, in my years spent as an observer on the playground, that it was taken for granted that toddlers were always being pressured to share their toys, and learning to share was seen as a developmental milestone, where we do not expect adults to be willing or able to share anything at any time.)

Opine borders

Boris Johnson has aroused the ire of many classical historians for his dubious claim that the Roman Empire was destroyed by “uncontrolled immigration”. What is most striking is the unquestioned implication that when Romans moved outward, conquering and enslaving their neighbours, that was GLORY, and much to be lamented when it was (possibly) destroyed by their ultimate failure to prevent people from “the east” from migrating in the opposite direction. It seems to me, if there’s anyone who had a problem with uncontrolled migration from the east it was Carthage.

Possibly we misheard Michael Gove

From The Guardian today:

Gove has been subjected to a lot of mockery for supposedly having dismissed the value of (economic) expertise during the Brexit referendum campaign, but perhaps he was misquoted. Maybe what he really said was

people in this country have had enough of exports.