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…)
I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:
Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.
All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.
This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.
According to the Washington Post Donald Trump had a miserable weekend, brooding over the mean-spirited press coverage of his remarkably successful first diplomatic initiatives toward Russia. Fortunately, his closest advisers know just how to lift his gloomy spirits:
That night at Mar-a-Lago, Trump had dinner with Sessions, Bannon, Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly and White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller, among others. They tried to put Trump in a better mood by going over their implementation plans for the travel ban, according to a White House official.
If he gets really down in the dumps, perhaps they can cheer him up by screening video of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
A lot of people say, oh, oh, Trump was only kidding with the wall. I wasn’t kidding. I don’t kid. I don’t kid. I watched this and they say I was kidding. No, I don’t kid. I don’t kid about things like that, I can tell you.
So what does he kid about?
Invading Mexico: “President Trump’s comments that he was ready to send US troops to Mexico to stop the “bad hombres down there” were “lighthearted” and not meant to be threatening, the White House said Thursday.”
Accusing President Obama of treason: “After repeatedly suggesting Thursday that President Barack Obama was the literal founder of ISIS, the terrorist group the U.S. is currently waging war against, Donald Trump called it “sarcasm” in a tweet Friday morning. The bizarre turn followed Trump’s assertion to a conservative radio host in an interview Thursday morning that he did not mean that Obama’s policies created the space for ISIS to flourish, rather that he was its actual founder.”
Destroying people who disagree with his policies: “President Donald Trump threatened to “destroy” the career of a Texas state senator after a Texas sheriff accused the lawmaker of getting in his way by promoting asset forfeiture reform.
“Want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” Trump told Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas.
Slopes and stairs, contradiction, and protests, according to one article in today’s Sunday Times, about government concerns related to the planned visit in June for the official handover of British sovereignty:
Members of Trump’s inner circle have warned officials and ministers that it would be counterproductive for Charles to ‘lecture’ Trump on green issues and that he will ‘erupt’ if pushed. They want the younger princes, William and Harry, to greet the president instead. Royal aides insist that he should meet Trump.
Senior government officials now believe Charles is one of the most serious ‘risk factors’ for the visit.
Trump’s team is also concerned that he will face a wave of protests, with thousands of people taking to the streets to denounce him…
Downing Street officials claimed the president’s phobia of stairs and slopes led him to grab the prime minister’s hand as they walked down a ramp at the White House.
UPDATE (30/1/2017): I was mentioning this story to someone recently, pointing out that “phobia” is clearly a really bad euphemism for “too old and weak”, which the strongman obviously could not admit to. He replied, “Apparently it IS a phobia – he also has a phobia of slopes, apparently.” I asked what the source was. It came from one of May’s aides, he said. And how would they know? People really have to stop defaulting to the assumption that claims coming from Trump’s circle is more likely to be true than false. On the contrary, information from anyone that has been near Trump is likely tainted.
It reminded me of the aphorism, popularised by the journalist Henryk Broder, attributed by him to an Israeli (commonly understood to be the psychoanalyst Zvi Rex), but without an identifiable original source:
Auschwitz werden uns die Deutschen nie verzeihen.
The Germans will never forgive us for Auschwitz.
One interesting lesson of the past year’s politics, particularly in the US, was learning how angry many white people seem to be about the legacy of slavery and racism. For example, when Michelle Obama spoke at the DNC about living “in a house that was built by slaves”, I had tears in my eyes, even as I rationally found it slightly mawkish and oversimplifying the trajectory of progress. Other people reacted differently, first doubting that that was true, calling it slanderous to mention the fact, and then dismissing the significance of the implicit criticism by saying that the slaves “were well fed and had decent lodgings provided by the government.”
One typical survey in June 2016 showed that most white Americans — and 59% of white Republicans — believe that “too much attention is paid to race and racial issues”, with 32% of white Americans saying that President Obama has made race relations worse. According to the 2015 American Values Survey, only 46% of Republicans say there is “a lot” of discrimination against Black people in the US, while 30% (and 45% of “Tea Party” supporters) say there is a lot of discrimination against White people. 64% of Republicans agreed with the statement “Today discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.”
There is a Rand-ian trope (or Mises-macherei) that attempts to reverse the Marxian notion that labour is the unit of economic contribution, that working people are the creators of our world, and capitalists mere parasites. The opposing view — pushed by Ayn Rand, and advocated in increasingly stark terms by right-wing politicians, is that the capitalists and managers are “job-creators”, that everything exists because of their contributions. From Adam Smith’s idea that capitalism enables the private greed to be channeled into promoting the public good, we have come to the notion that private greed is itself almost a form of charity.
The reductio ad absurdum has been provided (of course) by Donald Trump, in the less commented upon portion of his bizarre attack on the family of killed-in-action Muslim American soldier Humayun Khan. Responding to Khizr Khan’s attack “You have sacrificed nothing — and no one,” Trump said
I think I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I work very, very hard. I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve had tremendous success. I think I’ve done a lot.
For Trump, a rich man’s “tremendous success” is itself a sacrifice, to be matched against an ordinary man losing his child.
Brecht’s take on this question is below. I cited it in the last US presidential election as well.
Even in America it is illegal to attain political ends by threats of violence. But what about threats of threats of violence? From Florida:
A south Florida mosque that has served as a polling location since at least 2010 will no longer receive voters thanks to complaints and threats from local residents.
“We began receiving complaints from voters,” she said Wednesday in an email to the Post’s editorial board. “Some felt uncomfortable voting at the Islamic Center. When we received a call that indicated individuals planned to impede voting and maybe even call in a bomb threat to have the location evacuated on Election Day…
I suppose this is familiar as a kind of protection-racket negotiating stance. “We’re just having a friendly chat here. Nobody is making threats. If you want to make threats, we can also make threats, but there’s no need for any of that.”
I very much enjoyed reading Richard Thaler’s book Misbehaving, on behavioural economics and his own role in its development. It occurred to me that the basic lessons of that soi disante science may be summarised by a variant on a famous Rolling Stones song:
You can’t always know what you want…
But if you don’t try, most of the time
You just might find you want what you know.