I shudder to think…
President Zelensky: Hello, Mr President. I call to confirm what we agreed at the end of our previous conversation. After you say everyone went home, so it missed being on the official transcript.
The President: Thank you, Mr President. As the interests of world peace are to me second in importance only to the interests of the United States of America, it is most important that our plans be carried out exactly as we agreed.
President Zelensky: Yes, that was what you said to me last time, during that interval when the stenographer said she had urgently to use the -- how did he say? -- little boys' room? My advisors tell me that you are very brave to pursue only what is best for your country, despite the evil distortions of the fake news media.
The President: The understanding of my fellow world leaders is all I can hope for. Now repeat back to me the steps of the plan we agreed.
President Zelensky: Yes, as you know, for political reasons I must emphasize the so-called threat from Russia, but in fact our nation is menaced most severely by the corruption emanating from a gang of American oligarchs who my people have termed "the angry Democrats". We thought these were primarily the family of your former Vice President, but we have discovered that the criminal organization is also being led by Senators Warren and Sanders and, according to a recent poll, by the mayor of one of your smaller cities, whose name I find difficult to pronounce.
The President: Yes, and we're doing what we can.
President Zelensky: I understand. You explained to me that this conspiracy has its tentacles in your "deep state", who are protecting their criminal machinations. That is why we agreed that you would have to make a show of withholding the military aid, that we really do not need anymore.
The President: It is the only way to force them to reveal their corrupt plans, by luring them into an impeachment trial.
President Zelensky: So brave. Have I told you that The Ukrainian Academy of History will be presenting its report on presidential harassment at its next annual meeting? These meetings are usually held in Ukraine, but then they found out about the deals available at a spectacular resort in Miami, called Mar-a-Lago. Have you heard of it? My minister of culture was very skeptical, but when they explained how superior the facilities are to anything we have in Ukraine, we almost could not afford not to move the meeting there. They will be presenting a report confirming that no leader in history has ever been so treated so unfairly as you. Despite the unprecedented strong economy, including record low unemployment for African Americans. If you don't mind my saying so, if your unqualified predecessor had had half so good an economy…
Hearing Donald Trump and all his lackeys repeating “no quid pro quo” ad nauseam gave me flashbacks to an earlier Republican president:
This was sufficiently prominent to be parodied in Doonesbury:
Rick: Sir, off the record, what’s the deal with Honduras? It really is starting to look like you cut a deal with President Suavo to support the Contras…
Bush: Rick, that’s just a bunch of needless, reckless speculation, so let me help you out, fella…The word of the President of the United States, me, George Bush, is there was no pro quo! Repeat, no… quid…pro…quo! Ergo, no de facto or de jure nolo contendere! Reporters: Quis? Quois?
For repetition is a mighty power in the domain of humor. If frequently used, nearly any precisely worded and unchanging formula will eventually compel laughter if it be gravely and earnestly repeated, at intervals, five or six times.
— Mark Twain, Autobiography
The Guardian has yet another report on the radical anti-family policies of the UK Home Office. This time it is an elderly Iranian couple with three generations of descendants in Britain, who have lived in the UK since the 1970s, who are now to be deported. This despite the fact that they are ill and wholly dependent on their children for care, and despite the fact that they currently care for an autistic grandchild. The Home Office takes the official view that the grandchild would not be affected, because
It is noted that you own the house you reside in Edinburgh, therefore you could choose to allow your daughter and grandson to live there on your return to Iran, which then would not impact on your grandson as you claim he visits you there every day.
This is close to the cruelest stereotype of the British character: cold and haughty, a nation of bookkeepers and arrogant property owners, sensitive to animal suffering but indifferent to humans. The only “equity” they care about is home equity. The Guardian has become the only effective court of appeal against this inhuman immigration policies, meaning that basic human rights end up depending on the vagaries of journalists’ attention.
The series of individual tragedies reported in The Guardian seems endless. It struck me that every one of these reports ends with the same coda:
A spokesperson for the Home Office said: “All UK visa applications are considered on their individual merits, on the basis of the evidence available and in line with UK immigration rules.”
I know this conforms to ordinary journalistic standards — you have to let the government state its perspective, the government has a policy of not commenting on individual cases, blah blah blah — but, following the principle articulated by Mark Twain, this repetition — The Guardian transcribing this boilerplate again and again and again, begins to produce a darkly comic effect, satirising without comment the robotic, dehumanised and dehumanising character of the Home Office bureaucracy.
(I never cease to be fascinated by the role of bureaucracy in whitewashing tyranny. The UK Parliament could abrogate its recognition of asylum rights, eliminate family rights in immigration cases, and so on. But that would openly acknowledge what monsters they have become — and invite open resistance, at home and abroad, and might even be uncomfortable for the perpetrators themselves. We’re not splitting up families, we’re facilitating the use of modern digital technology to keep them together. It’s the same motivation that led the Nazi SS to apply the term Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) in official documents to the murder of disabled children, and the mass gassing of Jews.)
I suppose this could invite a variation on Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Kerenina: Comedy is repetitive. Tragedies are unique.
Like all tyrannies, though, the UK Home Office is endeavouring to mass-produce tragedies. And the evil wrought by Theresa May works on, even after she has moved on to greater things.
It’s unusual to have an ambush that has been so comprehensively announced in advance. Fortunately, to help unravel it we happen to have a transcript of the top secret radio communications that preceded this ambush:
UK: Maybot here. We’re coming through the Chequers Pass.
EU: Don’t come this way. We have a big force, 27 strong, blocking the way. We can’t let you pass through here.
UK: No, we have to go through here. If we turn back our own rearguard will shoot us.
EU: We don’t want to attack you, but the Chequers Pass leads into dangerous territory. We can’t let anyone through.
UK: Maybot, approaching Chequers Pass.
EU: There are multiple other passes. Please take one of them.
Warning shots are fired.
UK: Ambush! Treachery!
People have been comparing Brexit to a messy divorce since before Brexit was Brexit, but I suspect we may be in the wrong movie. The Tory Eurosceptic claim is, effectively, that they were never really married. And that means that we need to draw our clichés from a whole different realm of romantic fiction.
Think of Bull Johnson, an emotionally immature man with a steady but not sensational income. He’s been involved with a woman (let’s call her Europa) who lives nearby, and they get along pretty well. But he has this dynamic and very successful friend, Merry, who he used to be close to, but who now has her own life on a distant continent. They still talk often, share secrets (ahem), and occasionally lean on each other in hard times. Merry thinks that Bull should finally commit to Europa and settle down. (Europa has some reservations as well, having had some unfortunate encounters with Bulls in the past, but thinks this relationship can work.) And he does, sort of. Then one day Bull calls up Merry and says, I’m thinking of leaving Europa. I hate feeling tied down. I want my old “buccaneering” life. What does that even mean? asks Merry. He can’t say, but he insists he misses his old life. Merry says to think about the good life he and Europa have built together. Bull agrees that he’ll give it some more thought, and have a talk with Europa about what he’s dissatisfied about.
Next scene, Bull is ringing the doorbell at Merry’s flat at 3 am. “I’ve done it. I’ve left Europa. I finally realised, you and I should be together.” And Merry says, “Uhhh…”
To be continued…
Following up some references related to Thomas Malthus recently, I discovered that Carlyle’s notorious appellation “dismal science” for economics (or “political economy”) was not a reference to the pessimistic world view of Malthus and his descendants. This sobriquet first appeared in an essay “Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question”, in which he criticised the emancipation of Black slaves in the West Indies, leaving the unfortunate Blacks to wallow in disgraceful idleness. Carlyle attacked political economy for undermining natural hierarchies, for
declaring that Negro and White are unrelated, loose from one another, on a footing of perfect equality, and subject to no law but that of supply and demand according to the Dismal Science.
Here “dismal” is presumably not being used in the modern sense of “gloomy”, but in the older sense of “threatening” or “inauspicious”, as in Henry VI pt. 3:
Bring forth that fatal screech-owl to our house,
That nothing sung but death to us and ours:
Now death shall stop his dismal threatening sound,
And his ill-boding tongue no more shall speak.
Carlyle lumps the Dismal Science together with other unfortunate modern political innovations, such as “ballot boxes”, “universal suffrages” and “Exeter-Hall Philanthropy”.
Here I’d like to call attention to Carlyle’s framing device. The essay is attributed to a fictitious author with the absurd name Dr. Phelin M’Quirk. It begins
THE following occasional discourse, delivered by we know not whom, and of date seemingly above a year back, may, perhaps, be welcome to here and there a speculative reader. It comes to us — no speaker named, no time or place assigned, no commentary of any sort given in the hand-writing of the so-called “Doctor,” properly “Absconded Reporter,” Dr. Phelin M’Quirk, whose singular powers of reporting, and also whose debts, extravagances, and sorrowful insidious finance-operations, now winded up by a sudden disappearance, to the grief of many poor trades-people, are making too much noise in the police offices at present! Of M’Quirk’s composition, we by no means suppose it to be; but from M’Quirk, as the last traceable source, it comes to us; offered, in fact, by his respectable, unfortunate landlady, desirous to make up part of her losses in this way.
Together with some self-mocking references to some offended members of the fictional audience leaving in a huff, this sets up the cover story, particularly beloved of British racists and misogynists, that “I’m just joking”. You insult people with a wink, simultaneously spreading poisonous sentiments and confirming your superior power by forcing them to smile while you insult them — if they don’t, they are dismissed as “humourless”. Most recently there was Tim Hunt, whose defenders say that his disgraceful remarks on women in science were some kind of protected speech because he followed them with “Now seriously, I’m impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt an important role in it.” “Now seriously” is the proof that he was just joking, so critics are joyless harridans.
Continue reading “Just joking”
What is the attraction of monarchy? According to the BBC headline “Kate Middleton in labour as world waits”. Really? The world? What exactly are they holding off on? Doesn’t the world have important things to do? (On the other hand, I’ve just discovered that The Guardian now has an alternative “republican” versions of its web site, with a report on rock star Morrissey in place of the princess’s labour pains. Just click to toggle.)
In honour of the newly announced maturation of the royal zygote into an air-breathing royal neonate — and its generous decision to head off a constitutional crisis by choosing to make do with only half its potential complement of X chromosomes — who is already predestined to rule over Britain, even while he is likely to be occupied less with affairs of state in the near future than with spitting up curdled royal milk from HRH the DoC’s royal mammary glands, I am reposting my proposal from two years ago, occasioned by the royal wedding. The proposal has been unaccountably ignored, despite its prospects for improving the democratic legitimacy of the monarchy. I can only infer that the neglect is due to a basic discomfort among the British elite with the innovations of modern science (unlike the innovations in, say, tax accounting, of which they tend to be avidly fond).
With the impending union of male and female royalty breeders, there has been increasing tendency to cite Thomas Paine’s evergreen mockery:
The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.
(Paine never got to see the number of statistician children filling posts in some of today’s leading statistics departments, but the point is, in principle, well taken.) Seen as the monarchical version of an election — the keystone of the procedure by which a legitimate head of state is created — a Royal wedding certainly feels a trifle arbitrary. But this opposition to monarchy, though it wears the finery of modernity, has failed to keep up with advancing technology. True, it might formerly have been the case that the hereditary principle made the choice of head of state no different from a lottery (for which, see this suggestion). It seems impossible to unite the hereditary principle with the increasingly popular superstition that rulers should be selected by some non-random process, and that hoi polloi should have something to say about it. But now the following arrangements have been announced by the Palace (a particularly sodden corner of the palace wine cellar, to be precise)*:
- Following the wedding, a selection of at least 5 royal spermatozoa** will be extracted and fully sequenced by a specially selected team at the Royal Institution for Genetics Pedigree Studies. The secret method (which, in a nod to popular taste, does use beer as a reagent) has been designed to be maximally non-destructive.
- The sequences will published on the website princesperm.gov.uk. The public will have 5 days to register and vote for the one that they prefer be invited to form their new ruler.
- The elected sperm will be invited in the first instance to inseminate the royal egg. Should it fail in its attempt, the second-place sperm will be sent in. In the case of a repeat failure, a national referendum will be held to determine the correct voting procedure.
* It may be argued that this election proposal, being purely fictional and even farcical, has no bearing on the justification or not of the British monarchy. A dangerous argument indeed, for those who would dispense with fiction and farce would leave central pillars of the British constitutional order bereft of all foundation.
** Why are the future queen’s eggs not also sequenced? Choice of the ovum is a royal prerogative, cf. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, v. 5, section 113 (Oxford 1765-1769).
Speaking at the recent Conservative party conference, a government minister has said that the mass arrests and prison sentences for decent citizens who chose to rob shops and set buildings ablaze in London and other cities during a recent wave of looting, had brought the law into disrepute.
Our laws against arson were introduced centuries ago, when a typical London building was built of wood. There have been huge advances in fire-fighting technology since then. Our blanket ban on arson has been discredited, because it failed to keep up with these changes. And what about “vandalism”? Should the law really be fixated on the practices of wandering bands of hairy Germanic tribesmen? Can anyone genuinely say he thinks our laws against burglary are fit for a 21st century economy? By allowing a portion of the shops’ overpriced merchandise go up in flames, and another portion to the informal vending sector, where it is substantially marked down, we bring thousands of decent firebugs and thrifty shoppers back within the law, restoring the legitimacy of the penal system, improving productivity and delivering hundreds of millions of pounds of stimulus that the economy sorely needs.
No, sorry, I got that wrong. The correct quote is:
The 70mph motorway speed limit has become “discredited” and resulted in millions of motorists breaking the law, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said today as he confirmed plans to consult on allowing it to rise to 80mph.
Mr Hammond told the Conservative Party conference the move would “restore the legitimacy” of the system and benefit the economy by “hundreds of millions of pounds”.
He said: “The limit that was introduced way back in 1965 – when the typical family car was a Ford Anglia.”
Mr Hammond said he owned an Anglia, as did Baroness Thatcher when she became an MP, but added: “Things have changed quite a bit since then. There have been huge advances in car technology, road deaths have been reduced by three-quarters.
“Meanwhile, the 70mph limit has been discredited because it failed to keep up with these changes – with almost half of all motorists exceeding it, bringing the law into disrepute.
“So I will consult on increasing the limit on motorways to 80 mph, bringing millions of decent motorists back within the law, restoring the legitimacy of the speed limit system, speeding up journey times, improving productivity and delivering hundreds of millions ofpounds of net economic benefits.”
We should start making a list. Laws that need to be ruthlessly enforced when they are disobeyed en masse: Arson, burglary, “theft by finding”, receiving stolen goods. Laws that need to be abolished when they are disobeyed en masse: Tax laws, speed limits. Hmmm. What’s the pattern? Prosperum ac felix scelus virtus vocatur. [Seneca. A successful and happy crime gets to be called virtue.]
Of course, Monty Python nailed it while I was still a toddler. In this case, the Mouse Sketch:
Make a thing illegal and it acquires a mystique. Look at arson – I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn’t set fire to some great public building? I know I have. The only way to bring the crime figures down is to reduce the number of offences.