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become very hackneyed by then, but because traditional conservative, authoritarian right-wingery was seemingly being superseded by a culturally cosmopolitan right, which had no problem with women, minorities, or people with non-traditional lifestyles (at least with the ones who didn't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.