Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK society’

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…  (more…)

Slow travel

After plunging UK travel into chaos, British Airways CEO Alex Cruz announced that he will not resign. And why should he? BA needs his bold leadership now more than ever. In the spirit of not letting a crisis go to waste and no such thing as bad publicity and there’s no platitude like business platitudes, I’m expecting him to announce that this was actually a successful promotion for BA’s new motto: Slow Travel©.

Imagine the scene: First a harried woman being yelled at by her boss, forced to rush through some task, papers dropping every which way. Voiceover: Your work life can be pretty stressful. Rushing all the time.

Cut to: Same woman with her family, rushing through an airport, trying to catch a flight to Disney World or Mallorca. Boarding closed, children in tears. Voiceover: You don’t need the same stress on your holidays.

Cut to: Another family happily strolling through the duty-free selection. Voiceover: When you fly with British Airways, our international team of IT experts will make sure that you have untold hours to browse through the world-class shopping attractions of Heathrow… Maybe even days!Heathrow stay-and-playCut to: Happy children playing in the Terminal 2 play structure. Voiceover: Joyful moments like this can’t be rushed!

Cut to: Passengers sleeping on the floor and seats in the terminal. Voiceover: Travel means taking the time to get close to new people.

Cut to: Alex Cruz saying “Slow travel. Because Bland Acquiesence is what BA is all about!”

 

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

Deadbeat Britain

My prediction for quite a while has been that the xenophobia is going to heat up here pretty soon, when the UK activates Article 50 and is immediately confronted with immovable demands of the EU that do not comport with the due status of the Snowflake Kingdom — particularly the expected €60bn bill for outstanding financial obligations — and the negotiations stall. The tabloids will go nuclear, and turn their wrath on the European foreigners who are still enjoying her majesty’s hospitality.

But now Britain has just discovered a trick long known to deadbeats everywhere for escaping financial obligations: You flee the country, and so evade the jurisdiction of the courts. Such a simple idea, they wonder why they didn’t think of it sooner:

The EU cannot enforce a penny of a possible €60bn divorce bill if Britain crashes out of the bloc without an agreement, according to a report by a Lords committee…

“We conclude that if agreement is not reached, all EU law — including provisions concerning ongoing financial contributions . . . will cease to apply and the UK would be subject to no enforceable obligation to make any financial contribution at all.”

As part of the scheme, Great Britain will move to the Caribbean in the middle of the night, leaving no forwarding address. Seriously, is this intended to frighten the Europeans into offering better terms? It seems more likely to convince them that there is no use to making any reasonable offer to a UK that can’t be counted on to honour the spirit of any agreement, or even basic norms of decent behaviour. (Recall that before there was Brexit there was Grexit, threatened by the failure of Greece to meet its international financial obligations.)

But now the chancellor tells us

If there is anybody in the European Union who thinks that if we don’t do a deal with the European Union, if we don’t continue to work closely together, Britain will simply slink off as a wounded animal, that is not going to happen.

I can reassure the chancellor that no one else in Europe thinks of Britain with such bathos. In any case,

British people have a great fighting spirit and we will fight back. We will forge new trade deals around the world. We will build our business globally. We will go on from strength to strength and we will do whatever we need to do to make the British economy competitive and to make sure that this country has a great and successful future.

Apparently they’re going to threaten to cut off exports to the continent of tough platitudes, which seems to be the only industry in which this country is still world-leading. (Though if France asserts appellation d’origine controlée to restrict use of the cliché, it could doom the whole British diplomatic effort.)

The government’s negotiating posture reminds me of the famous scene in the film The Usual Suspects, where the gangster Kaiser Sose is confronted with opponents who have taken his family hostage, and he responds by shooting them himself, just to prove that he can’t be pressured.

 


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