Thursday, 29 December 2016

Intentional buffoonery

This, from 2005, might explain a few things about our current political landscape:
...we argue here that in an age of escalating global resource war and in the face of an omnipresent corporate entertainment industry, we are now witnessing a subtle, intentional and seemingly permanent transition to the politics of distraction. Celebrities become politicians, and politicians aspire to become celebrities as voters are relegated to the role of fans. All the while, power is ever more concentrated in the hands of a few who stage manage pseudo-events from behind the scenes.

Without independent access to information about what occurs behind the scenes, the public is ever more marginalized and diverted from effective engagement as citizens. In the most powerful democracy on Earth, with non-stop media coverage of political celebrities, national politics have become a sideshow where clowns and buffoons strut and bellow across a movable stage to divert the public’s attention from what is really shaping their lives and determining the future fate of the planet. This shift to a permanent politics of distraction deserves deliberate scrutiny if we hope to move beyond it...
From From Sidekick to Sideshow -- Celebrity, Entertainment and the Politics of Distraction: Why Americans Are “Sleepwalking Toward the End of the Earth”, by Timothy C. Weiskel, published in the American Behavioral Scientist, Volume 49, Number 3.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

I'm dreaming of a white Christmas...

Where the treetops glisten and children listen.
To hear sleigh bells tank tracks in the snow
Because there's something oddly Christmassy about a parade of wartime Soviet tanks, crewed by cartoon Japanese schoolgirls, singing songs from The Great Patriotic War in what I'm told is hilariously Japanese-accented Russian. Just a more dieselpunky version of sleigh rides and carols, really:
Girls und Panzer has apparently been around for some while, but I still can't quite get my head round its sheer mind-bending weirdness, which makes it as appropriate a way to round off this screwed-up year as John Oliver's highly NSFW, but understandable, response.

Amyway, however you choose to celebrate the solstitial holiday, have a happy one and a preposterous New Year.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

" have the tone of a frenzied man and you boast of it..."

To or against those who obstinately persist in what they have determined

When some persons have heard these words, that a man ought to be constant, and that the will is naturally free and not subject to compulsion, but that all other things are subject to hindrance, to slavery, and are in the power of others, they suppose that they ought without deviation to abide by everything which they have determined. But in the first place that which has been determined ought to be sound. I require tone in the body, but such as exists in a healthy body, in an athletic body; but if it is plain to me that you have the tone of a frenzied man and you boast of it, I shall say to you, "Man, seek the physician": this is not tone, but atony.
Epictetus the stoic - Discourses, Book 2, Chapter 15

Monday, 19 December 2016

Another British value

I've got three specific reasons to think that Sajid Javid's plan to make public office holders swear an oath to "British values" is nothing more than the impressively noisy clang an ambitious politician can make by hitting hollow rhetoric hard enough:
  1. "Values": Most people are broadly in favour of things like democracy, equality and freedom of speech, so long as they're so broadly defined as to be meaningless. But few people believe in absolute free speech and there are plenty of meaningful differences between people about where the limits of free speech lie (hate speech against different groups, blasphemy, how broadly or narrowly defamation laws should be drawn, etc). The same goes for equality (how much economic equality do we want to build into our society and how much do we want to leave to unregulated competition and what about affirmative action versus non-intervention when it comes to gender and disability and racial discrimination?) and democracy (does a referendum result trump parliamentary democracy, if we are now taking decisions of national importance by referendum, should we be institutionalising some form of direct democracy, or if we're still a parliamentary democracy, wouldn't proportional representation be more democratic than the system we have, how exactly is out bloated, unelected House of Lords compatible with democracy, etc?).
  2. "British": there are plenty of other countries where democracy, equality and freedom of speech are held in high esteem. It's even possible that some in some other countries, people might enjoy more of these things than we do in the UK* (I know it's hard to believe that we don't self-evidently live in the most democratic, equal and free-speaking country in the entire world, but even this extraordinarily counter-intuitive proposition might actually turn out to be true).
  3. "Oath": When your job depends on paying lip-service to a set of values, it's not that hard to lie about your true beliefs. I once worked for a large company that had an - arguably vague and platitudinous, but well-meaning - equality and anti-discrimination policy. Everybody was supposed to do a bit of computer-based training to demonstrate diversity awareness and everybody duly passed the module. Thanks to the WikiLeaks dump of the British National Party's membership list, I know for a fact that one of the people who achieved a pass in diversity awareness was actually a member of the aforementioned fascist organisation. Belonging to an extremist party which actively loathed the very ideas of  diversity and equality was not, it seemed, any barrier to completing an official anti-bigotry module to a perfectly acceptable standard.
So mostly it's just nonsense. You could, I suppose, point to some values which are, if not exclusively British (sorry, rest of the UK), at least things that the British are supposed to have more of than most other people. For me, pragmatism is the first one which springs to mind. Continentals are supposed to have have universal, all-inclusive, overarching schemes, from the philosophical (Hegel's concept of a Weltgeist or "world spirit", or Nietzsche's "will to power"), to the legal, (the completionist legal codes of Justinian and Napoleon), to the pseudo-scientific (Freud's make-it-up-as-you-go-along universal explanation of all human psychology as the working out of an incestuous sexual psychodrama), to the administrative (France's Grand Projects, a term identified with François Mitterrand, but continuing a tradition that goes back to Versailles and Haussmann's remodelling of Paris).

The British, by contrast are supposed to muddle through, to make do and mend. Supposedly, examples abound. The piecemeal evolution of the Common Law, the almost accidental adoption and evolution of an established church founded on no higher principle than the desire of one monarch to remarry and sire a male heir, the unplanned, incrementally developed map of London, as opposed to the visionary remaking of Paris, the bit by bit accretion of our not-written-down-in-any-one-place constitution, the unplanned compromises of the UK's constitutional monarchy (OK, the UK shares this feature/bug this with a few other countries, but Britain, in particular, has spent an awful long time perfecting the art of the royal fudge  - which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like an item from Prince Charles's Duchy Originals range of high-class comestibles).

It is, in short, the British way is to try things and see whether they work in the real world. If so, the Brits go with it, without worrying too deeply about whether they fit into some grandiose, all-encompassing ideology, vision or scheme. If not, we stop doing it and try something else. That's not quite such a universal, impressive-sounding value to claim as democracy, equality and free speech, but being pragmatic is still a reasonably good thing to be known for and you could, arguably, claim that the Brits have more of a right to lay claim to the virtue of pragmatism than many other countries.

But if we can make a slightly more convincing case for pragmatism as a specifically British sort of value, our presumably pro-British values government isn't displaying very much of that quality (I'm making the assumption that Sajid wasn't going completely off-piste with his suggestion, which seems in tune with the generally nationalist tone of the rhetoric coming from the May administration).

A lot of the the other stuff coming out of government at the moment sounds less like a pragmatic plan, based on a sober assessment of the situation, than a grandiose fantasy based on pure wish-fulfilling delusion, undiluted by reality. These, from the parodic Twitter hashtag #brexitopportunity (h/t Tom Pride), are satire, but the attitude sounds dangerously close to the sort of delusional mind-dumps that have been plopping out of the Department for Exiting the European Union's bunker lately:
"Tesco sell more to me than they buy from me, so if they want my custom they'll accept MY terms or they'll be sorry!"

"Stopped sending my kids to school. I'm going to negotiate with individual teachers to make sure I get the very best deal"

"I’ve sacked the police. I’m going to negotiate with individual criminals to leave me alone. They want a small fee."

"Decided to bin Apple Music and negotiate individual music deals with all my favourite artists"
Maybe the very people who are keenest to wrap themselves in the flag are the same ones who paradoxically display that most un-British failing, a massive pragmatism deficit.

Or maybe, Britain just isn't the pragmatic place of our flattering self-image - after all, as I'm well aware, my examples of pragmatism are all anecdotal, unquantifiable and generally not particularly rigorous. Maybe counter-examples exist.

Alternatively, maybe Britain used to be a pragmatic place but it isn't any more. After all, the idea of a national character isn't a fixed thing. Before 1997, Britons were thought to display a stiff upper lip and be emotionally reserved. Then Princess Diana died and massive outpourings of public emotion were, apparently, the British way.

Go back far enough, though, and it turns out the national stereotype of emotional reserve, which supposedly died in 1997, was once itself a new and unusual facet of the national character. At an earlier point, in the 18th Century, when the cultivation of sensibility was seen as a high-status social skill, bewigged and powdered gentlefolk competed with one another to see who could display the most effusive outbursts of tearful emotion on any suitably affecting occasion (the lower orders were, then as now, expected to just suck it up, being thought too brutish and insensible to feeling to emote to the same refined degree as their betters).

I'm guessing that the transition from emotionality being celebrated to the cult of the British stiff upper lip started some time around 1811, when Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility made a heroine of the sensible, pragmatic, emotionally restrained Elinor Dashwood and gently mocked the more emotionally self-indulgent sensibilities of her sensitive sister, Marianne.

Or maybe pragmatism, or emotionalism, or a love of democracy, or free speech, or equality are all complicated, changeable things, too nuanced to be reduced to the cretinous oversimplification of a jingoistic oath, asserting exclusive national ownership of particular human values?

*I'm assuming that Sajid intended to include the Northern Irish part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in his Great British Values Loyalty Oath Crusade, but "UK values" presumably just didn't trip of the tongue quite as readily as "British values." I'm convinced that Her Majesty's Government totally sees Northern Ireland as an integral, valued, part of the United Kingdom family and definitely not some sort of poor relation, or afterthought. Honest.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

"He died a much richer man than you'll ever be..."

Time, I think, for a festive addition to the growing subgenre of filmography which I'll call The Donald - A Warning from [Movie] History. Through the workaday parts of the year we've seen auguries of the coming of The Orange One in Citizen Kane, Back to the Future II and Goldfinger, among others.  But at this special time of celebration and goodwill, perhaps some Americans will wake up on Christmas morning and realise that they've slipped into the alternative timeline from that all-American seasonal favourite It's A Wonderful Life - the one where kindly, public-spirited George Baily was never born and the whole town has become the plaything of Mr Potter, the greedy, bullying, mean-spirited businessman and his rich cronies.

You'd have hoped that most people of voting age would have understood the film's not-exactly-subtle message about what constitutes a wonderful life by now:
But apparently not. Welcome to Trumpsville, USA.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The left-right divide

I found out a couple of moderately interesting things about left and right recently. One thing was to do with literal physical orientation and the other thing was about an anecdotally extreme position on the left-right political spectrum.

Literal right and left first. I'd never actually thought about the origins of the words "starboard" and "port" for the different sides of a vessel, but, as this short video shows, they're quite interesting (spoiler - "starboard" is way older than "port"):
So there you go. I must admit that I've always been slightly irritated by such exclusive bits of jargon - for example, when electricians insist on calling an electric light a "lamp." How does that convey any more information than calling it a "light" like everybody else? It doesn't, as far as I can see. I sort of feel the same way about "port" and "starboard", but I know I shouldn't, because the nautical terms do actually add some useful extra information - you know that you're talking about left or right relative to the vessel, not to yourself, or to the person you're speaking to.

What I should really be irritated with is the English language, for lacking such a useful distinction in everyday speech and relegating it to the specific jargon of sailors and aviators, or motorists (nearside and offside), or actors (stage right and stage left). You don't have to be a sailor, petrolhead* or thespian to feel a need for equivalent terms to banish all those entirely avoidable everyday linguistic misunderstandings ("Where is it?", "It's over there, on the left", "Where? I can't see it!", "Sorry, I meant on my left."). If we could all agree to use port and starboard, or equivalent clarifying terms, as well as the words right and left (which could then be reserved exclusively for right and left from the speaker's perspective), such silly microirritations could become things of the past.

On to the political right and left, now.  For as long as I can remember, lefties and liberals have jokily referred to people they considered very right wing as "to the right of Genghis Khan." The phrase started to sound a bit silly by the mid/late 90s, and right up to the last year or so, not only because it had become very hackneyed by then, but because traditional conservative, authoritarian right-wingery was seemingly being superseded by a culturally cosmopolitan right, which had no problem with women, minorities, or people with non-traditional lifestyles (at least with the ones who didn't commit the unforgivable sin of being scroungers skivers moochers poor), but still wanted to privatise and monetise everything in sight.

Now authoritarian cultural conservatism is back with a vengeance, but it turns out that Genghis Khan might not be its most appropriate avatar:
It was in an earlier best-selling volume that Weatherford persuasively argued that the 25-year blitzkrieg mounted by Genghis and his cavalries — who, in “the most extensive war in world history” beginning in 1206, swept mercilessly and unstoppably over the Altai Mountains to their west and the Gobi Desert to their south — brought civilization, fairness, meritocracy and avuncular kindliness to legions of undeserving satrapies across Eurasia. Those who believed Genghis to be a tyrant of monstrous heartlessness have thus lately come to think otherwise: Weatherford’s writings present us revisionist history on a grand scale, but one as scrupulously well researched (with ample endnotes) as such an intellectual overhaul needs to be.

Now, with “Genghis Khan and the Quest for God” he has taken his thesis still further, arguing with equal fervor and conviction that the Khan, though godless himself, favored total religious freedom for his subjugated millions. While his empire encompassed “Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, Confucians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans, Hindus, Jews, Christians and animists of different types” (Weatherford’s passions for lists can sometimes seem like stylistic overkill), he was eager that all should “live together in a cohesive society under one government.” No walls to be built, no immigration bans, no spiritual examinations.
Simon Winchester in the New York Times, via.

I haven't read Weatherford, and the usual massive health warnings about applying anachronistic** modern political labels to historical figures apply, but I now have to at least consider the possibility that, by the standards of the time, Genghis was a pretty chill dude and not just an intolerant precursor of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells with an axe and a fur hat.

With so many extreme right wingers crawling out of the woodwork, it's high time we replaced Genghis Khan comparisons with something a bit fresher, anyway.

*Just had to change "petrolhead" back from "Petrograd" as (un)helpfully amended by my tablet's autocomplete.

** As anachronistic, say, as Winchester's use of the word "satrapies" to describe provinces which existed over half a millennium after the fall of the last Sassanid.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Anodyne death from the skies

It's political correctness gone mad ... apparently:

New British flying robot killer death machines renamed 'Protector' 

'Reaper' and 'Predator' were too aggressive...apparently

The Ministry of Defence has tried to re-brand its latest batch of airborne death machines as “Protector” drones rather than their actual trade name of Reaper.
grumbled Gareth Corfield at The Register recently.

This comes as no great surprise to me, as the Brits have got previous when it comes to making America's winged weapons of war sound a whole lot less cool and frightening. Back in the Second World War, the Royal Navy's Fleet Air Arm acquired a load of relatively fast and modern American planes to supplement the slow and antiquated British designs its carrier squadrons had been using at the outbreak of the war. These new planes included the Grumman F4F fighter, which the Americans called the "Wildcat" and the Grumman TBF torpedo bomber, known in America as the "Avenger."

The British authorities decided that these names were good enough for our American cousins but not quite classy enough for us, so they renamed the Wildcat in British service the "Martlet." What's a Martlet?
 Image credit

A martlet in English heraldry is a heraldic charge depicting a stylized bird similar to a house martin or swallow, with stylised feet. It should be distinguished from the merlette of French heraldry, which is a duck-like bird with a swan-neck and chopped-off beak and legs.
Great name - if you spent your childhood years nerdily obsessing over The Observer's Book of Heraldry. For almost everybody else, ridiculously obscure and a bit rubbish. Still, I guess that a few of the officer class might have got it, given that the Royal Navy boasted some senior officers of startlingly impressive aristocratic pedigree, including Lord Mountbatten (born "His Serene Highness Prince Louis of Battenberg") and that scion of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark.

Maybe people who were born a "serene highness", or had a family name that was longer than the average commoner's postal address, lived in a world where knowing your heraldic devices was a day to day life skill, like being able to wire a plug. Perhaps the person who came up with the name "Martlet" was just used to hob-nobbing with nobs like this?

To be fair, although "Wildcat" was a far better name, it wasn't a very good fit with the appearance of the F4F, a tubby machine which looked more like an overfed domestic moggie than a rangy, untamed predator:
Bagpuss takes to the skies!*

OK, it looked slightly less like an aeroplane from a Rupert Bear cartoon than its stubby radial-engined near-contemporaries, the Boeing P-26 and Polikarpov I-16, but not much.

Still, appearances can be deceptive - the legendary Eric "Winkle" Brown (who went on to fly more different types of aircraft than anybody else ever has, or probably ever will), flew the innocuous-looking Wildcat/Martlet in combat and thought pretty highly of it (Michael Gove may think that people are "tired" of listening to experts, but I still have this perverse, old-fashioned preference for listening to the opinions of people who might actually know what they're talking about, rather than the noisily uninformed wibblings of virtually fact-free political rent-a-gobs).

As for the aggressive-sounding Avenger, the British decided for ... reasons, to rename it the "Tarpon", after a big fish that most British people had probably never heard of (although the name would have meant something to, say, Florida game fishers). Bonus points for choosing a name that sounds almost like "tampon." I'm not entirely sure whether the unintentional schoolboy humour is anachronistic - Tampax, apparently, first hit the US market in the early 1930s and whether tampons were a thing in 1940s Britain, I don't know, although if I had to guess, I'd imagine that the supply of innovative feminine hygiene products was low to non-existent in a U-boat blockaded country where stocks of everything were low to non-existent.

Later in the war, in a tacit admission that their naming abilities had been pretty woeful, the relevant British authorities relented and retrospectively decided to use the original American names for the Royal Navy's Lend-Lease Wildcats and Avengers. By the time the RN were adding the late-war US Corsair and Hellcat aircraft to Fleet Air Arm squadrons, nobody even thought about mucking around with the planes' names any more.

So, considering the British authorities' previous attempts at re-naming American kit, they could have done a lot worse than "Protector."

I'm not even sure that "Protector" even marks some sort of new low in the art of military euphemism. When the RAF got its hands on some American B-24 heavy bombers during the Second World War and wanted to name the big beasts, the name it came up with was "Liberator." Even in that undeniably just war, it's stretching credulity to imagine that the recipients of a stick of high-explosive bombs from a Liberator's capacious bomb bay would have looked around the smoking ruins and considered themselves liberated, any more than the survivors of a wedding party accidentally blown to hell by a Protector's Brimstone missile would feel themselves protected, but there you go.

*Updated - original Wildcat / Martlet image (nicked from Wikipedia article), replaced by relevant illustrations from British Air Forces, a wartime picture supplement / collectable, published by The Illustrated London News.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The King and I

I still don't know for sure whether Thailand's erratic new King, Maha Vajiralongkorn, is a genuine kook, or just a sufficiently advanced troll.

What I do know for sure is that it's risky to even ask the question, as Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, the first person to be arrested for lèse-majesté under the new monarch, has recently discovered. So we won't be spending 2017's big family holiday on the beaches of Phuket (a cynic would point out that we couldn't afford it anyway, but it's way cooler to say that we can't go because my subversive comments about the head of state put me in danger of arrest).

Those of us who live in countries which still enjoy free speech can joke about it now, but for Mr Boonpattararaksa and many other Thais, life under a thin-skinned authoritarian elite is no joke.

With the USA's erratic new president threatening his critics with financially crippling lawfare, street-level authoritarian buffoons agitating to criminalise dissent and massively intrusive surveillance networks tirelessly watching us all for signs of subversion and deviancy, those of us in the formerly free(ish) world may soon find that the joke's on us. If authoritarianism becomes the new normal, the question of whether our masters are kooks or trolls will have become academic - whichever it is, you won't be able to say it out loud, at least if you know what's good for you.

Monday, 5 December 2016

The unelected

A lot of politicians and commentators seem to be very cross about the idea that people who have never been elected might have some say in important decisions about the nation's future. I'm a bit depressed to see the independent judiciary being attacked for simply doing its job, (interpreting and enforcing the existing law), but at least it's slightly cheering to know that there are people out there who, though confused, are seemingly so passionate about democracy.

Unfortunately this passion for the will of the people seems to be a bit selective in some cases. This, for example, is what Jacob Rees-Mogg was thinking in November:
North East Somerset MP Jacob Rees-Mogg believes adding nearly 1,000 Brexit-supporting peers in the House of Lords would speed up the negotiation process between the UK and the European Union.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who backed the Brexit campaign ahead of June's referendum, also believes Article 50 would be voted out of Parliament...

...Speaking to the Daily Mail Mr Rees-Mogg, whose constituency includes areas such as Bathampton and Keynsham said: "I think most MPs accept the will of the people and will vote for Article 50.

"If that turns out to be wrong, it's definitely a matter of confidence and there would have to be a general election.

"If the Lords was obstructive we would just have to create 1,000 peers."
Jacob's modest proposal would leave us with a parliament made up of 650 people who were elected* and around 1,820 unelected peers. Because making sure that the people we voted for are outnumbered more than two to one by unelected, titled, appointees is what taking back control from an unaccountable elite looks like, apparently.

*or 600, if the people who want to slim down the elected chamber get their way.