THE HYPOCRISY OF THE GREENS

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!

 

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DO YOU REALLY WANT TO FIX THE POLITICAL SYSTEM? SERIOUSLY?

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:

Gentlemen,

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.

Yours etc

Anthony Henley

 

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.

 

THE HOBGOBLIN OF LITTLE MINDS

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

Rudd was 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).

 

 

THE DEMOCRATIC ILLUSION

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!”.

TIME FOR SOME DISCRIMINATING TALK ABOUT WOMEN

It’s only a matter of time before top-level sporting teams will be compelled, by the power of fashionable opinion, to include equal numbers of women and men. This is just one of the thoughts that struck me while I enjoyed the spectacle of Adelaide getting flogged by Richmond in the recent AFL Grand Final.

Note that I didn’t say “public opinion” since the opinion of Joe or Joan Public is irrelevant in determining which issues occupy the headlines. Some examples: same-sex marriage; abolishing the titular monarchy; the plight of illegal immigrants who get sprung trying to  enter Australia. These are some of the issues that take up a lot of air time at the moment but, regardless of their rights or wrongs,  I doubt if any of them matters much to Joe or Joan.

The precedent for selecting sides by ideological rather than athletic criteria has already been set. I understand that some South African sporting teams are compelled to include a certain  number of “black” or “non white” members. Normally I would be amused by the problems of definition raised by these rules (How dark is black enough? What percentage of European ancestry is acceptable?). However if anybody is going to be inconvenienced I’m glad it’s the  South Africans; it serves them right for having made  such a stupid fetish of strictly defined racial categories in the first place.

From time to time some reckless public figure tells the truth about the difference in standards between male and female tennis players. John McEnroe was the latest, when he said that Serena Williams, on a good day, might be able to compete with the 700th best male player.  It was as if he’d thrown a handful of chips into a flock of hungry seagulls. A whole lot of indignant squealing and not much rational dialogue. In fact McEnroe has a high opinion of Serena Williams as an athlete – I’ve heard him say so. His point is that by comparing female to male tennis players you’re not comparing like with like. That’s why they have separate tournaments.  But ideological purity is more important than good sense or good will; so I’m confident that eventually they’ll have to play one other (the men will need to be blindfolded or have their legs broken or something but that’s just a matter of administrative detail). Incidentally I can’t resist the opportunity to make another point about Serena Williams: remember her disgusting outburst against a line judge a couple of years ago? If a man had behaved like that there would have been a queue of blokes lining up to smack him around the head.  Or am I  just a starry-eyed old idealist? Anyhow Serena Williams makes Nick Kyrgios look like Victor Trumper and the sport would be better off without the pair  of them.

Moving now to the silver screen: it appears that a growing number of actresses want to be called actors (presumably because “actress” is an example of unacceptably accurate and precise language). On the other hand any impassioned outcry from actresses for the Academy Awards to stop handing out separate Oscars for women has escaped my notice. I know that this is a genuine sociological problem and you’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve solved it for you. In future there can still be two awards for good acting. The categories can be:

  • Best actor claiming to have a penis; and
  • Best actor claiming to have a vagina.

Now I’ve given this matter some serious thought. Of course I wouldn’t suggest that potential nominees should be subject to any form of inspection. That would be an invasion of their privacy and we all know that it’s far better to do something really stupid than to run the risk of encroaching on anybody’s rights. Hence my cunning formula “claiming to”. We can do this on the honour system! Like all honour systems  it will be abused in a certain percentage of cases but that just provides the subtlety by which actors who don’t want to claim to have either a penis or a vagina can still be eligible. The’ll have to tell a lie, of course, but which lie they choose to tell is a matter of indifference to the system. And if it’s the worst lie told in Hollywood that week I’ll go he.

 

 

MORE MEANS WORSE

Nearly always, more means worse. Increasing the number of university students lessens the value of a degree; the more popular a film or book, the more likely it is to be rubbish;  the longer a memorandum,  the more confused its meaning; while an individual display of emotion may or may not be genuine, a display of public emotion is almost certainly bogus; the more teams in a sporting competition, the more inferior players; the more politicians in a legislature the more likely that a lot of them will have shit for brains. More means worse.

The title of this post is a slogan that I first read in some non-fiction piece by Kingsley Amis. I don’t even remember the context in which Amis – a proverbially moderate and judicious commentator on the human experience – used it, but I have found it useful ever since.

From time to time politicians boast that more people now attend university than was the case under previous regimes. In other words, they are proud to have overseen a decline in academic standards. Here in Australia that process began in the late 80s or early 90s when the federal government (Labor, if it matters) in an attempt to hide the true rate of unemployment, announced:

“In future, universities will not seek to attract the smartest elements of the population. Instead, they will become post-secondary kindergartens: everybody will be welcome and nearly everybody will win a prize. Starting tomorrow Wallaby Crossing Tech will be known as Simpson Desert University and will offer degree courses in marketing, public relations and women’s studies.”

All those who think that our culture is the richer for this process please go and drown yourselves.

My education was  interrupted by several years of compulsory school attendance.  Among the handful of useful things I learned in that period was that good writing is succinct and compressed. I thank Lips Murray, for showing us that a passage of Shakespeare, rewritten into common speech, will be greatly extended in length and diminished in value.  This example provides a double whammy. Not only will the shorter passage be better in itself but it will also be understood by fewer people, thereby illustrating yet again how the majority’s judgement is always inferior. More means worse. Almost everything you read is too long. Tempted to add extra words  to something you’ve written? Ask yourself what new information the new words add. What will the reader know now that was not known before? If the extra word or phrase or  paragraph doesn’t add a clear new meaning, take it out. Everybody should memorise George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language.  Go to link  and start now.

There are, of course, exceptions to every rule (except this one). While most really popular books or films are awful some moderately popular works are OK.  I am almost tempted to be optimistic when I see authors like Donna Tartt riding high on the charts (and, of course, I love her name); but there is really no hope for a civilisation that enriches the authors of “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “The Secret”. Most lists of all time best sellers are headed by three works which have an unfair advantage: they are religious texts with a guaranteed circulation among their insane devotees: The Koran, The Bible and Quotations from Chairman Mousy Dung. The fact that one of them contains passages of rare eloquence is a fluke, pure and simple, like Glen McGrath’s 50 against New Zealand.

If I drop a brick on my foot the resultant display of emotion will be heartfelt and genuine. On the other hand, some of you may remember  when the ditzy ex-wife of England’s most shameless dole bludger was killed in a car accident. For weeks the streets of London were jammed with extras from Coronation Street littering the capital with flowers and maudlin placards in memory of somebody they didn’t know. That was amusing; but it has been emulated so often, so tastelessly, that the joke is wearing thin. Every time some Moslem idiot brings eternal happiness to a few Christians we have vigils and candles and hand-holding and journalism – all the nauseating manifestations of public emotion that we have come to expect. But let’s be fair: are they any more spurious than our older traditions of Anzac Day (Australia), Memorial Day (America), Remembrance Sunday (England) and so on? We must always beware of being sucked into mass displays of emotion, especially in celebration of people from whom we are too far separated in time or space to have anything in common. More means worse.

 

THE MOST POWERFUL DRUG – some cautionary examples

“Words are … the most powerful drug used by mankind. Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain ….” – Rudyard Kipling

It is a truth not yet universally acknowledged that a single cause in possession of multiple titles must be in want of credibility.

This truth is independent of the merits of the cause. A cause with multiple titles is not necessarily nonsense but it merits closer scrutiny and greater scepticism than would otherwise be the case.

Take, for example, what used to be called Global Warming and now is more often described as Climate Change. There was always something a little bit fishy about it and the change of name encourages the suspicion that it is just a successor to the Y2K bug. I’m inclined to believe that those parts of the theory that are true are not significant and those parts that are significant are not true. So the geography of the planet changes over time? Wow! Hold the front page! Some species which exist now might not exist at some time in the future? Gee, that’s never happened before.

“Creationism”, in its frantic but unavailing struggle against its own risibility, took to calling itself “Creation Science” and “Intelligent Design”.  No luck. Those who believed in it under the first name still do and those who can count to twenty without taking their socks off still don’t.

The controversy about homosexual marriage is another illustration .  I suppose I need to state my own position: I’m in favour of changing the legal definition of marriage to encompass same sex couples.  I made up my mind on this question some time ago and so haven’t recently read many arguments against the change. Most opinions I do come across these days are from the advocates of change. These are the people who set the terms of public debate and let me emphasise that these are the people with whom I agree. For the most part they express their views in a mixture of sloganeering and hysteria. They seem to start from the assumption that anybody who disagrees with them is wicked or stupid or both. And in the course of the debate the title of the objective has changed. First we heard “Same Sex Marriage” then “Gay Marriage”  (presumably because “sex” has been booted out of the enlightened lexicon in favour of the appalling solecism “gender”) and now “Marriage Equality”. So if you have reservations about the issue, you’re in favour of inequality, right?  You expect this nonsense from religious knuckleheads but I, naïf that I am, have always wished for better from people on my side of the fence.

“Language” said Virginia Woolf “is wine upon the lips”.   Yes, Virgie, but sometimes it’s goon.  Here are some more examples.

When it comes to political discourse familiarity, sadly, breeds a lack of contempt. The first time I heard expressions like “political correctness”, “ethnic cleansing” or “sexism” I laughed.  I appreciated the trouble somebody had taken to invent a satirical term as a way of skewering a particular form of muddled or dishonest thinking.  Most other people (those without a vested interest) did too. Not now, though. If you are critical of the cliché you are assumed to be critical of all the ideas that lie behind it.  Once the cliché has passed into common usage it functions in the general population as a substitute for knowing what you’re talking about.  Other examples are “islamophobia”, “misogyny”,   “un-Australian”, “ageism”, “accountability”, “wellness” and “think outside the square”.  Some dangerous clichés achieve this status (i.e., becoming a substitute for thought) without even having provided a laugh in the first place: “patriotism”, for instance, or “holocaust”.

Another perversion of language that gets up my nose is the cliché that is an example of what it seeks to condemn. “Soundbite” and “dog whistle” are terms that identify dangerous tendencies in public discourse. “Soundbite” means “the replacement of a complex argument by a word or phrase simple enough for the stupidest person to remember” (the best example of a soundbite in literature is “Four legs good, two legs bad”). But take the sentence “You can’t complain about soundbite politics and then hound anyone who doesn’t deliver it”:  here “soundbite” is a soundbite.  Similarly “dog whistle” means “political language that has an unspoken meaning aimed particularly at one section of the audience”. The phrase “dog whistle” is itself an example of just such a message. It feeds paranoia (see Betsy de Vos, below).

Different code words (to use a code phrase) occur in different contexts. The other day I came across a recent American example. In line with their current policy of putting the fox in charge of the fowlhouse, a woman named Betsy de Vos is Czarina of Education. (I can’t resist the temptation to say that only in this sense is our Betsy a fox). It seems that the de Vos family have spent lots of money in support of organisations that favour the teaching of “intelligent design” as a legitimate alternative to the theory of evolution. Apparently these groups have designated the expression “critical thinking” as  code for “promoting theistic alternatives to evolution”.  Every time Betsy slips that apparently innocuous phrase into the conversation the religious knuckle-draggers are able to nudge one another meaningfully and snigger, secure in their knowledge that the righteous are back at the top table.

And does any of this matter? Is language important? Well, obviously I think it is. So did W.H. Auden; in his In Memory of W.B. Yeats he wrote:

Time that is intolerant

Of the brave and innocent

And indifferent in a week

To a beautiful physique

Worships language and forgives

Everyone by whom it lives.

We can only hope that the reverse is also true and that time will eventually condemn those who pervert and misuse language. More to the point, I hope you join me in condemning them now.