The name of this blog has been altered from “The Black Flag” to one that more closely describes my political position. More changes are on the way …probably.
“Wearing your heart on your sleeve at least gives you something to wipe your nose on.” – Ophelia Oldfellow
Private expressions of emotion: grief, regret, elation or affection, may or may not be sincere but I believe in giving them the benefit of the doubt until their falsity is proved. Public expressions of emotion, on the other hand, should be judged more harshly and their exponents regarded as guilty until proved innocent.
It is a source of shame to me that I can remember where I was when I first heard about the death of John Kennedy or that of Diana Spencer. It reminds me that I am not immune to popular obsessions, no matter how hard I try. When I’m waiting at the supermarket checkout I anxiously scan the magazine covers on display. I am relieved whenever a celebrity is referred to by its first name and I don’t know who it is. I feel vindicated and uplifted. Occasionally I do recognise a name and gloom envelops me. Memento, homo, quia ovis es.
(For the record: I was at boarding school when John Kennedy died. A bloke called Mick W, who had got up earlier than the rest of us, came hurrying out of the bathroom where had been listening to the radio and said “The American President’s been shot!” Years later, I was ironing a shirt when the radio or television – I forget which – announced the death of England’s Bimbo-in-Chief.).
Diana’s death, while funny in itself, was completely overshadowed by the “outpouring of public grief”* that followed it. Cartloads of flowers dumped in public places! Oh if only I could have been a by-laws officer, with the power to impose on-the-spot fines for littering! “I’m sorry sir, but you’re not allowed to deposit decaying vegetable matter on the footpath.” Because human beings are such sheep this sort of anti-social vandalism has become fashionable and widespread. When the Australian cricketer Phil Hughes died after being struck by a ball people placed cricket bats in places where they were visible to passers-by (gateways, balconies, verandas) as a “tribute”. A number of his former teammates took every opportunity, when playing a match in front of a sufficiently large crowd, to gaze soulfully heavenward at moments when they knew the cameras would be on them, in pretence that their former friend was looking down on them. I suppose they were at least recognising someone who had actually existed, which makes them less ridiculous than those athletes who cross themselves or kneel and give blubbering public thanks to a god who is only a figment of their sick imaginations.
Nobody has been more appropriately scornful about contrived public emotion than the great South African poet Roy Campbell. His epigram “The Land Grabber. (On a Poet Who Offered His Heart for a Handful of South African Soil)” goes like this:
The bargain is fair and the bard is no robber;
A handful of dirt for a heartful of slobber.
*Did you note that? Journalism!!!!!
This post, a short one, is an attempt to make a particular argument clear to people who disagree with me (all my previous efforts have failed miserably – I have never been able to make myself understood). To show goodwill I intend to play nicely. I will soft-pedal the sarcasm and not refer to them as “Greenshirts”.
The contradiction at the heart of Green ideology is a false distinction between things that humans do and things that other animals (or microbes, or chemical reactions or sunspots) do. They select one creature out of all those who have ever existed and pass moral judgements about its behaviour. My argument is that, by doing so, they are guilty of the same foolishness of which they accuse others – regarding humans as a special case.
Humans wiped out the dodo. An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. Both events were the inevitable result of inevitable processes. To say that one was “natural” and the other was not is to adopt an untenable philosophical position: that humans have free will and stand outside the rest of the universe. The best articulation of their fundamental argument is:
And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.
In other words, the argument that most enrages them is implicit in their own position.
It follows that every public manifestation of a political party with “Green” in its name must inspire contempt in the intelligent observer. Oooops!
I’ve devoted several posts to the deficiencies of “democratic” political systems and recently I’ve been reading Democracy and its Crisis by AC Grayling. Anybody with the slightest interest in the subject should take a look at it. Here is a link. It starts with a good history of how our current systems have evolved and follows up with an analysis of what is wrong with them. The emphasis is on very recent events in the UK and US, particularly the “Brexit” referendum and the election of Donald Trump.
There are certain differences between AC Grayling and me. He is a professor of philosophy with a shitload of academic qualifications and has published many books. I am unemployed, unqualified and haven’t. He has better hair than I do. Nevertheless many of his conclusions are compatible with mine and he deserves credit for that.
I have believed for a long time that a few comparatively simple reforms would quickly improve the efficiency and morality of our political systems.
Make parliamentary voting secret. This will smash the rigidity of party discipline with one blow. Every argument in favour of the secret ballot applies with even more force inside the legislature than outside it. If the party bosses cannot tell how an individual legislator has voted they are powerless to direct the process and the legislators are free to exercise their proper function: applying their minds to the question at hand and voting for what they believe is the best outcome for Joe Public. Grayling makes the excellent point that in any other workplace it would be unlawful for bribery, intimidation and blackmail to be the standard means of imposing discipline (as they undoubtedly are within political parties). Similarly, anyone who sought to dictate how an ordinary citizen should vote (in the same way that political parties do to your elected representatives) would go to jail. And let’s not forget that, under the present system, every legislator who automatically votes the party line or succumbs to the routine intimidation of party bosses is a traitor to the electorate. An elected representative has not undertaken to reflect the wishes of a particular party or even the wishes of the voters. The true function of a representative legislator has (of course) never been stated more eloquently than by Edmund Burke:
… it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.
Induce more people to vote. Grayling favours the Australian practice of making voting compulsory. I don’t agree with him. I understand the arguments in favour of it, especially in places like the UK which have first-past-the-post voting with all the unfairness inherent in such systems, but rather than penalise people who don’t vote, I would reward people who do. The act of voting should automatically move you into a slightly more favourable tax bracket. I don’t have enough technical knowledge to say exactly how this should be done but I’m sure there are already enough existing (if unacknowledged) links between tax records and voting records to make the process simple enough in practice.
Proportional representation. Most of the arguments that are used against it, when analysed, turn out to be arguments in its favour. “It makes coalition governments more likely!” “You mean it creates a system where parties must cooperate and compromise? Great!” “There are too many minor parties!” “You mean that the composition of the legislature actually reflects the choices made by the electorate? Terrific”. “A government might not be able to muster a sufficient majority to implement its program!” “You mean there are safeguards against the tyranny of the majority? That sounds good.”
Preferential voting has many variants but its essence is well described by this definition from the Encyclopaedia Britannica: ” … a system of voting in which voters indicate their first, second, and lower choices of several candidates for a single office. If no candidate receives a majority, the second choices are added to the first choices until one candidate has a majority.” Such a system avoids the iniquities of first-past-the-post voting where the candidate who scores the most votes wins and, unless the winner gets more than half the votes, most electors are dissatisfied with the outcome. The more public interest there is in the election the more likely it is that there will be many candidates and therefore the greater probability that the winner will not have a majority. Preferential voting guarantees that even if you vote for a candidate with no hope of winning your vote still has a residue of significance. Compare that to the situation of an English voter who supports the Labour Party but has the misfortune to live in a safe Conservative seat (or vice versa). Preferential voting also has the huge advantage that the candidate actively hated by the fewest electors is the most likely to win.
It is the responsibility of governments to provide, either directly or indirectly, services to their citizens. Governments have no other function or purpose . I believe that members of the executive should be restricted by law to the range of public services available to the poor. They and their families may only be treated in public hospitals; they may not own or travel in a private vehicle; their kids must attend government schools.
We must find a way to minimise the impact of all those forces that try to interfere in the direct interplay between candidates and electors: party officials, advertisers, sponsors, pollsters, newspapers and so on. To discourage these unwanted outsiders I’d suggest that the only form of electoral advertising should be public meetings either paid for by the government and attended by all candidates or paid for by individual candidates where a sign would be clearly visible to the audience saying “This meeting was paid for by a donation from x”. No television or newspaper advertisements. No telephone calls. Speak before a live audience and answer direct questions or don’t get your message across. No opinion polls. Draconian laws should be introduced to frustrate the malign influences who will be trying to thwart my proposals. For instance public meetings are likely to be disrupted by hecklers aiming to prevent their opponents from being heard. It would be a defence against a charge of heckling if the defendant could convince a court that the interruption was (a) funny; and (b) audible to three-quarters of the audience. With that exception, interference with a public meeting or pretending that “deplatforming” is a word that an adult might use should be punished severely.
Earlier I quoted Edmund Burke on the obligations of a legislator to his constituents. Alas, there aren’t many Edmund Burkes in contemporary politics but there were damn few of them in Burke’s own day. Far more typical, then and now, is the attitude exemplified by Anthony Henley, MP for an English parliamentary seat before the Great Reform Bill of 1832. (I have taken this story from a wonderful anthology entitled Scorn, compiled by Matthew Parris.) I gather that Henley, having been elected by the corporation of Southampton after bribing them, quarreled with them “about the Excise” and subsequently replied to their letter of complaint as follows:
I received yours and am surprised by your insolence in troubling me about the Excise. You know, what I very well know, that I bought you. And I know, what perhaps you think I don’t know, you are now selling yourselves to Somebody Else; and I know, what you do not know, that I am buying another borough. May God’s curse light upon you all: may your houses be as open and common to all Excise Officers as your wives and daughters were to me, when I stood for your scoundrel corporation.
We should be grateful to Tony for reminding us just how necessary the various Reform Bills were and how far we have all come under our separate constitutions. The reforms I’ve suggested may seem extravagant or fanciful but most of them will become commonplace eventually and 2018 will then seem as far away as 1832.
I love poetry but I’m no good at writing it. I have tried from time to time and probably will again but I’m just smart enough to know that I have no talent for it, in the same way as being a glutton isn’t enough to make me a chef.
The ability to write poetry is one of those qualities actually possessed by a tiny minority of the people who claim it (like rapport with dogs and children or a capacity for independent thought). Nevertheless the poetic gift does appear in odd places; you never know whom the Muse will choose to go home with. An exploration of this topic gives me the opportunity for a quick run around some of my favourite things: poetry, history and being a smartarse.
What do the following people have in common? Field Marshal Wavell, Britney Spears, the Marquis of Montrose, Henry VIII and George Orwell. Yes, they all wrote poetry: not equally well (in fact not necessarily well at all) but they did it and we’ll look at a few samples in a minute.
Some uninspired poetry has a certain historical interest but, like the proverbial Chinese takeaway, it soon fades even from memory and certainly has no lasting effect. Britney Spears, for example; she is one of those people who are famous, allegedly for singing, whom I have never knowingly heard sing. However she has written poetry. Now I don’t think it’s very good and I can’t help but quote Samuel Johnson’s remarks about a woman preaching:
” (It) is like a dog walking on its hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
Here is an extract from Britney’s poem “Remembrance of Who I Am”:
“…The guilt you fed me
Made me weak.
The voodoo you did
I couldn’t speak.
The phone is ringing.
Resurrection of my soul
The fear I’m bringing.
What will you say
And what will you do?
She’s not the same person that you’re used to.
You trick me one, twice, now it’s three.
Look who’s smiling now
Damn, it’s good to be me!”
Sometimes, however, the work of a writer who is not a great poet has that indefinable something that makes it memorable. “Bellerive” was the pen name of Joseph Tishler, born in Dunedin, New Zealand, in 1871, died in Melbourne in 1957. His verse is distinguished by misspellings, odd grammar, odder rhymes and unconscious hilarity. I will reproduce a couple of examples here because they’re short. If you don’t like them I’ll never speak to you again.
The Stage Villain
To and fro he
Did pace the stage
And cursed the hero
In he’s rage.
“I’ll foil the hound”
He did egaculate
“By heaven I will
Seal he’s fate.
He robbed me of
My sweet Totlinda.
I’ll throw him out of
He’s top room window.”
While driving a nail I
Failed in the nack
Missed the head and gave
My finger’s a smack;
I did groaneth and writh
For the pain it did throb
And out of pity the Missus
Did finish the job.
The Side Show
In a country town
One boxing day,
Into a tent show –
I made my way,
There was a congurer –
Trying to spin a hat,
A performing dog,
And a acrobat,
While an eccentric clown
To evoketh mirth,
Was banging a drum –
For all he was worth.
Bellerive has certain claims to modernity, not least his total ignorance about the apostrophe.
James Graham, Marquis of Montrose (1612 – 1550) was described by John Prebble as “one of the most skilful and intelligent of the world’s great captains”. His life and early death are impossibly melodramatic. You know the sort of character Errol Flynn used to play? That was a pale imitation of Montrose. Naturally, in the snake pit of Scottish history he is still seen as a villain by some factions. He was also a bit of a poet. An extract from his best-known work “My Dear and Only Love” has been quoted ever since by generals seeking to inspire their troops and also by mug punters making their way to the betting ring:
He either fears his fate too much,
Or his deserts are small,
That puts it not unto the touch
To win or lose it all.
Archibald Wavell was a high-ranking officer in the British Army during the Second World War (having lost an eye during the First) and the second-last Viceroy of India. He never got on with Winston Churchill who found Wavell boring and likened him to “the chairman of a golf club”. Yet in 1944 Wavell published Other Men’s Flowers, an anthology of his favourite poems. Since then the book has never been out of print. These were not poems that Wavell had written himself; they were part of a fairly conventional canon for an educated Englishman of his generation to have known, loved and, often, memorised. Yet there was a creative side to Wavell’s poetic interests: the ability to write light verse commentary on the events of his life. Field Marshal Alan Brooke’s wartime diary includes the story of an uncomfortable flight from Moscow to Egypt after a conference at which Churchill had faced the unenviable task of telling Stalin that, contrary to previous assurances, the Allies would not be invading France for at least a year. Brooke and Wavell were sitting on the floor of the aircraft (there were no seats) and Wavell began scribbling. After a time he tossed Brooke a piece of paper on which he had written the following:
MOST PERSONAL AND VERY SECRET
BALLADE OF THE SECOND FRONT
I do not like the job I have to do.
I cannot think my views will go down well.
Can I convince them of our settled view?
Will Stalin use Caucasian oaths and yell?
Or can I bind him with my midnight spell?
I’m really feeling rather in a stew.
It’s not so hot a thing to have to sell:
No Second Front in 1942.
I thought so: things are stickier than glue.
They simply hate the tale I have to tell.
Stalin and Molotov are looking blue;
If they give in an inch they’ll take an ell.
I wonder if they’ll put me in a cell
And deal with me like Hitler with a Jew.
It’s not so hot a thing to have to sell:
No Second Front in 1942
Come, things are taking on a rosier hue;
The whole affair has got a better smell.
I think that after all we’ll pull it through.
Though not as merry as a wedding bell
The sound is now less like a funeral knell.
Another vodka? Here’s to Fortune! Phew!
I’ve got away with what I came to sell:
No Second Front in 1942.
Prince of the Kremlin, here’s a fond farewell:
I’ve had to deal with many worse than you.
You took it, though you hated it like hell:
No Second Front in 1942.
George Orwell, one of the great masters of English prose, acknowledged that he wasn’t a very good poet. His best known poem is the one about the Spanish Civil War that ends
“No bomb that ever burst
Shatters the crystal spirit”.
Worthy but platitudinous. His other well-known one begins:
A happy vicar I might have been
Two hundred years ago
To preach upon eternal doom
And watch my walnuts grow;
Both of those are uninspired. My favourite Orwell poem, one with a genuine bite, dates from his time as a colonial policeman in Burma:
When I was young and had no sense
In far-off Mandalay
I lost my heart to a Burmese girl
As lovely as the day.
Her skin was gold, her hair was jet,
Her teeth were ivory;
I said, ‘for twenty silver pieces,
Maiden, sleep with me’.
She looked at me, so pure, so sad,
The loveliest thing alive,
And in her lisping, virgin voice,
Stood out for twenty-five.
The poetic impulse can occur at any social level, even royalty. Talking about any king or queen as a legitimate ruler is, of course, nonsense. A monarchy is a protection racket, pure and simple. It’s as if you started an argument about whether Lucky Luciano’s regime was more legitimate than Joe Bonanno’s. The Tudor family, for instance, came to power in England in the late 15th Century after a series of dynastic wars in which the various contending parties all had highly dubious claims to “legitimacy”. The one stone-cold certainty was that, whoever might have had the best claim to the throne, the Tudors certainly had the worst. Several members of this sordid crew fancied themselves as artistic and I admit that they had more of a claim to that adjective than either Bonanno or Luciano. Here is part of a poem (in modernised spelling) by Henry VIII:
Though some saith that youth ruleth me,
I trust in age to tarry.
God and my right and my duty,
From them I shall never vary,
Though some say that youth ruleth me!
It’s tempting to say “Don’t give up your day job, Harry” until you remember what the old degenerate’s day job actually was.
Did you ever have an interaction with an insurance company that left you feeling … poetic? I thought not. You probably haven’t dealt with the right company. Wallace Stevens was an insurance executive as well as a poet. A lot of his poetry is “difficult” but he was a genuine poet despite the tendency of his eloquence to outrun his meaning. I’m inclined to forgive him a certain amount of waffle: if you’ve ever read an insurance contract you’ll know that pointless obscurity was an integral part of the poor man’s working environment so we can’t be surprised if some of it leached out into his poems. Sometimes, though, he hits one right off the middle of the bat: “Death of a Soldier” for instance:
Life contracts and death is expected,
As in season of autumn.
The soldier falls.
He does not become a three-days personage.
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.
Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
Again, how much poetic sensibility did you encounter at your last appointment with a medical practitioner? No, me either. Well, William Carlos Williams was a paediatrician but he was also a fine poet. I particularly like “The Widow’s Lament in Springtime”
Sorrow is my own yard
where the new grass
flames as it has flamed
often before but not
with the cold fire
that closes round me this year.
I lived with my husband.
The plumtree is white today
with masses of flowers.
Masses of flowers
load the cherry branches
and color some bushes
yellow and some red
but the grief in my heart
is stronger than they
for though they were my joy
formerly, today I notice them
and turn away forgetting.
Today my son told me
that in the meadows,
at the edge of the heavy woods
in the distance, he saw
trees of white flowers.
I feel that I would like
to go there
and fall into those flowers
and sink into the marsh near them.
The link between medicine and poetry takes me to the best general history of the Second World War in Europe: Europe at War by Norman Davies. Here are the last words of that very fine book, published in 2004 (the cardiologist referred to is John Martin):
“… despite the arrival of the twenty-first century, many thinking people are still trying to grapple with the aftermath of the Second World War. A leading British cardiologist with a flair for poetry expressed the problem perfectly:
My patient lay in the hospital bed
Unshaven, smelling of urine
And bitten by lice,
Of no fixed abode,
Living on the street
Without family or friends.
In his Slavic accent he declared
“I fought at Monte Cassino.”
And my junior doctors in their ignorance
Remained unmoved by man or history.
And I turned to them
With my hand on the shoulder
Of my patient,
To address them on the greatness
Of the Second Polish Corps
And the infinite value
Of all human beings.”
Those may not be the greatest lines in the English language but only a fool would say there’s no poetry in them. May none of us ever be unmoved by man or history. Or poetry.
A famous American once wrote “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds .” No, it wasn’t Donald Trump (I said “wrote”!). The quotation, however, is a nice introduction to my theme: that politics is inimical to consistency of opinion.
Barack Obama is a secret Moslem who wasn’t born in America. Donald Trump is, wittingly or not, a Russian agent. If you find one of those statements plausible and one not, I’ve got some bad news for you: you’re a human being with some sort of an interest in politics.
It is almost irresistibly convenient to believe the worst about our opponents, and not just in the limited sphere of formal politics. We all know that those on the other side of the fence – in politics, work, sport or family dynamics – are not only morally inferior; but also unfairly favoured by the gods, referees, the electoral system and Rupert Murdoch.
All too often political abuse is characterised by an insane lack of judgement and proportion. You can accuse an opponent of any silly thing, no matter how implausible, confident that some of your allies will accept, embellish and reproduce it. For instance, Bertrand Russell – a ferociously intelligent man – described John Kennedy as much more wicked than Hitler. I’m sorry, Bertie but you should get out more. The comparison between Kennedy and one of his successors, Bill Clinton, is more apt because, although neither of them could keep his dick in his trousers (a quality they shared with Bertrand Russell, incidentally), fashions in public indignation had changed by the time Clinton came to power. Kennedy was lucky enough to be famous at a time when root rats were glamorous and the Press could be relied on to keep its mouth shut. Clinton, on the other hand, was condemned as a sleazebag. Admittedly Kennedy’s … er … conquests seem to have included women of genuine distinction: Mafia harlots, for instance; prostitutes; film stars. Poor old Bill, on the other hand seems to have been fated to link up with second raters. He even found himself married to a woman who couldn’t beat Donald Trump in an election.
Donald Trump is, by the length of the straight, the most ludicrous U.S. President in history – a constant source of embarrassment to his fellow citizens and amusement to me. However he’s not photogenic enough to be the Beast of the Apocalypse and doesn’t even have enough integrity or personality to be the second coming of Richard Nixon. Yet to hear his supporters tell it he’s the authentic voice of the people (a frightening thought given that most of them are allowed to vote). Barrack Obama, perceived by his enemies as an alien betrayer of US interests and by his supporters as a paragon of virtue was actually a bottomless reservoir of metronomic platitudes and not much else. He won the Nobel Prize for Blandness, didn’t he?
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, John Howard, a suburban lawyer with the charisma of an accountant, was disguised, for a time, as the Australian Prime Minister. He ended his career, much to my enjoyment, by losing an election to an ABC wind-up toy. Howard was described as an unflushable turd by a person (Mungo Macallum) who apparently made a living by providing political commentary. Epithets such as “racist” and “war criminal” almost passed for moderation among Howard’s critics. Abuse at that level no doubt, boosted his ego but reflected badly on the critics’ sense of proportion. We weren’t much better off after Howard departed: he was succeeded by the abominable Kevin Rudd, who is famous for eating his own ear wax in Parliament. You don’t believe me? Look here
stabbed in the back succeeded by Julia Gillard. She was the most embarrassing Australian Prime Minister in my lifetime, beating Biddy McMahon by a short half-head, but that’s all she was. She wasn’t capable of doing anything on a grand scale, either good or ill. After all, there isn’t much novelty in a politician being a treacherous liar; I doubt if anybody has ever become Prime Minister without it. To hear her critics tell it, though, she was a combination of Messalina and Myra Hindley. I shall always remember fondly her entertaining habit of leaping to her feet and squeaking “Misogyny!!!”, to roars of applause from the Fairfax press, every time somebody disagreed with her.
The point is that Joe Ordinary’s reactions to these politicians were predictable and depended almost entirely on Joe’s own political allegiance. Most politicians, of any party, have no personalities other than those invented by their hired liars with the aim of deceiving you. That won’t inhibit you from the most disgusting excesses of adulation or vituperation at the next election.
Has this always been the case? Or can I blame “social media” – almost as ridiculous a concept as “reality television”- for the decline of civilisation. (I realise that all fulminations against Facebook should be done in a Walter Brennan voice but I have a sore throat.) Abraham Lincoln was described by some of his contemporaries as “an idiot”, “a Yahoo” , “the original gorilla” and other endearments. The vows of many Clinton supporters to emigrate if she lost the 2016 US election were foreshadowed by the determination of a prominent abolitionist, who disagreed with some of Lincoln’s policies, to move to Fiji if he was re-elected. She seems to have turned out just as much a bullshitter as they did; see evidence here A good article about anti-Lincoln feeling can be found here
So why are our judgements so unbalanced? Why do political affiliations lead us into inconsistent opinions? Is it a variant of the Endowment Effect according to which we value goods (and, presumably, people) more highly if we feel they are “ours”, that we have some proprietary interest in them? Is it just that we feel unable to express an opinion on a public subject without a crowd to shelter in? Are we afraid to hold a nuanced position? Are we more comfortable with a simplistic view of the world? If any of these explanations are true why the hell are we allowed to vote?
Oh and who was the American who inspired the title of this post? It was Ralph Waldo Emerson (no relation to Roy as far as I know).
Isn’t it wonderful that we live in a democratic system? Government by the people! Not like in those bad old days when we were ruled by kings! Bullshit, bullshit and bullshit.
All government is a racket. From time to time a new set of rulers emerges after a process designed to confer the appearance of legitimacy on one section of the dominant class. The details of that process vary from time to time and from place to place. The parameters of the ruling class are likewise variable – sometimes they’re defined by money, sometimes by education, sometimes by the number of inbred ancestors. The one constant is that people enamoured of their own system tend to be scornful of all others.
Western “democracy” operates by insisting that you choose between nntwo contenders about whom you know nothing except what hired liars have been paid to tell you. It’s a slightly less honest version of the old Soviet system: you’re presented with a list of candidates and told “You can choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Aren’t you lucky!” (The US variant seems to involve two millionaires competing to establish their bona fides as just plain folks and paying hucksters millions of dollars to convince you that they’ve succeeded). In each case you are told that the system has legitimacy because your act of free choice is the heart of it.
Systems of hereditary monarchy can get tricky. Does descent in the male line of a previous king’s third son outrank descent in the female line of his second son? This is important because legitimacy depends on the correct interpretation of those rules.
On the other hand the Chinese know perfectly well that legitimacy depends on the mandate of heaven. This is a great system if you want to become emperor because all you need to do is succeed. “Obviously the mandate of heaven had been withdrawn from him. I cut off his head, didn’t I?”.
Now take the Dalai Lama (Please!!! 🙂 ). Apart from illustrating the eternal truth that any cause espoused by pop singers and film stars is probably bullshit the DL exemplifies an interestingly bizarre method of choosing a ruler. The thud of a Dalai Lama dropping off the twig signals the beginning of a wide ranging search for his newest incarnation. Naturally this isn’t just pure guesswork. There’s a magic lake in Tibet that gives the searchers clues about where to look. Palden Lhamo, the Lady of the Lake (cf. Tennyson, Monty Python etc) keeps up a steady stream of directions: “You’re getting warmer …. now a bit colder …. freezing ” – that sort of thing. And the end result of this arcane process? You guessed it: legitimacy. It’s going to be interesting when the present DL croaks, since the Chinese government has already announced that they and only they will
choose identify his successor. What they really should do is to produce a world-wide reality TV show “The Hunt for the Dalai Lama”. Perhaps Donald Trump will agree to be the host.
No government has any real legitimacy except that which flows from its ability and willingness to guarantee benefits for the general population. “Benefits” is a broad term: it encompasses national defence, protection of the weak against the powerful, weather forecasts, roads, utilities, medical treatment, courts, traffic lights, prisons, disaster relief, national parks, statistical reports, immigration control, rules for aviation, suburban sporting facilities, professional licensing, diplomacy and drains.
Most of these benefits need not be provided directly by the government, although some of them should be. I would be very worried, for instance, about the future of any society in which the government allowed genuine armed forces or police to be replaced by private companies. I’m perfectly well aware of the ritual incantation “Government services are necessarily inefficient!” but I counter it with the equally valid mantra “Services underpinned by the profit motive are probably corrupt”. In any event the government’s job is to ensure that the services are available one way or another.
It follows that any political movement in the name of “independence” or “liberation” or “self determination” is just as much a racket as a “kingdom” or an “empire”. A new government resulting from an election may be better or worse than its predecessor – the difference is just a toss of the coin. Exactly the same is true of a new government after a palace coup or an assassination or a change of dynasty. If we like it we say it’s legitimate; if we don’t we take to the streets howling ineffectual slogans “Not in my name!”, “Not my Prime Minister!”, “Impeach Trump!”.