Scant progress

In the middle of an economic slowdown and a huge expansion in spending to reduce households’ winter fuel costs, the new UK government has just announced, in its new “mini-budget” its intention to drastically cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Not surprisingly, the price of UK bonds has plummeted, and interest rates have risen to their highest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

The Guardian quotes international market experts from ING saying this was a “perfect storm” for the UK, as “global markets shun sterling and gilts.” They continue

Price action in UK gilts is going from bad to worse. A daunting list of challenges has arisen for sterling-denominated bond investors, and the Treasury’s mini-budget has done little to shore up confidence.

“Little to shore up confidence” is such an elegant bit of English understatement, so extreme as to amount almost to deception. Like “the expanded hours for flight departures at Heathrow have done little to improve the noise pollution problem for residents near the airport” or “Herr Hitler’s new ‘Nuremberg Laws’ have done little to shore up confidence in fair treatment among Germany’s half million Jewish citizens.”

The Queen’s two bodies

There’s something that baffles me about the public discussion of ERII’s legacy: Why do so many people feel comfortable lauding the late monarch as the (no longer) living embodiment of the nation when she’s waving to the crowd and dispensing Christmas bromides, but just a befuddled girl when her imperial government is committing crimes against humanity?

The cognitive dissonance is extreme: What kind of monsters would we be were we to be charmed by a person responsible for the murder and torture of thousands? Therefore she was not responsible. Therefore, implicitly — since she was responsible for everything — these crimes did not occur.

And just to be extra clear, I am not doubting the expert claim that Harold Macmillan lied like a rug to keep Her Majesty in the dark on the sordid details of the Empire, or lied to the public to pretend that he did. The living embodiment of the nation embodies its crimes as well as its virtues. She can’t embody the spirit of Paddington Bear, but be free of any taint of Hola. The victims of Her Majesty’s government are her royal victims, whether or not her mortal body participated, whether or not it was indeed aware.

The alternative is, monarchy is just bullshit, just celebrity culture with extra-fancy headgear. That seems to be the genuine belief revealed by the public’s response.

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!

Passive murder

The Guardian has an article today about the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to put an end to attempts by the London Metropolitan Police to punish women who participated in a vigil for Sarah Everard, the woman raped and murdered by a serving police officer.

Everard was abducted by Wayne Couzens as she walked home in south London, with the police officer pretending to be enforcing Covid rules to get her into his car. Couzens – now serving a whole-life sentence – drove the 33-year-old out of London, where she was raped and murdered.

Beyond the outrage of the police force using Covid rules to punish its critics, after one of their own used those rules to carry out a brutal rape and murder, there is the shocking fact that some of the women were “previously convicted behind closed doors under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP)”, a process usually used for traffic violations and failure to pay television fees.

A very informative article, and generally sympathetic to the women targeted by the Met. But I am particularly struck by the Guardian’s choice of wording to describe the original crime. Couzens abducted the woman, raped her, and murdered her. Was it squeamishness or something else that led the Guardian journalist to say only that Couzens “[got] her into his car” and “was raped and murdered” — passive voice. One could imagine, if this report were all we knew of the story, that Met officer Couzens was as shocked as anyone else when the poor woman who “got into his car” ended up dead, at the hands of some unknown malefactor.

Conservatives ❤️ Jews

Tory foreign secretary and leading candidate for party leader has been expressing her admiration for my people! Apparently we’re really good with money, and we look out for our own. Things that Conservatives love:

At the same time, she set out her own view of Jewish values, saying: “So many Jewish values are Conservative values and British values too, for example seeing the importance of family and always taking steps to protect the family unit; and the value of hard work and self-starting and setting up your own business.

When it comes to a general election I look forward to her praising Black Britons’ uncomplicated joy in life and sense of rhythm.

It’s an esteem shared by many conservatives. Donald Trump famously loved the Jews, because they’re all a bunch of sharp-elbowed greedsters. He promised in his first campaign that he would be greedy for the United States, and he expected the Jews to be greedy for him. He put this on full display in his 2019 speech to the Israeli American Council, where he told the main Jewish audience, apparently approvingly, that

You’re brutal killers, not nice people at all… Some of you don’t like me. Some of you I don’t like at all, actually. And you’re going to be my biggest supporters because you’re going to be out of business in about 15 minutes if [Democrats are elected].

Back in his businessman days there was this racist twofer where he told the head of one of his casinos

I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else.

It’s that kind of keen appreciation for the admirable qualities of the Hebrews that got Trump named — by himself — “the least anti-Semitic person that you’ve ever seen in your entire life”.

The urtext of the modern Anglo-American welfare state

In George Minois’s History of Old Age I noticed this passage from the 5th century Christian writer Salvian of Marseille:

Those who commit [these sins] have grown old, furthermore, they have become poor: two circumstances which only serve to worsen their crime, for sinning in youth, sinning in wealth is a much less surprising matter. What hope, what remedy can there be for these men who are not turned away from their habitual impurity either by indigence or by declining age?

We expect the rich to be pigs, but the poor are obliged to set a good example for the rest of us. It’s interesting that we tend to be much more explicit in winking at the occasional depravity of youth, explaining it away with their not-yet-fully-developed mental faculties, and their ability to learn and grow into a more responsible maturity. We also connive at all manner of crimes and misdemeanours from the rich, without ever expecting of them that they will some day be poor and well-behaved. I think, because there are no more cakes and ale, that thou shalt be virtuous…

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.

The first minister’s second person

There’s a comedy trope that I think of as “second person confession”. The person starts telling a generic story in the second person, except that the details of the story start getting weirdly specific, morphing into an embarrassing or disturbing confession. Something like, “You know how it is, you’ve just been working all day, you come home exhausted, you want nothing more than to eat a sandwich and zone out on the couch. And then you get a call from some guy you barely know, who wants to meet up for some reason, and you’re about to tell him to fuck off, when he reminds you that you’ve known each other since the summer when you were 17, and he’s the only person who knows where you hid that body…”

So, Boris Johnson, the cringeworthy master of does-he-mean-this-to-be-a-joke, commented recently on the need for all of us lazy British workers to get back to the office, in these terms:

My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.

Thinking back to his pre-election bus hobby, it makes me wonder if there’s some embarrassing story about cheese that he’s trying to push down in the Google search rankings…

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.