Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: February, 2016

Colloquium on Twinning

All our office meetings are in the past. We never waste time by planning in advance to have a meeting.  But if a conversation or (more often) argument seems to have turned up something interesting or troublesome we declare it a meeting after it’s happened, so long as at least three of us were present.  Usually someone scribbbles down minutes then and there, and that’s the official record.  But yesterday the dark shadow of efficiency poked its head in.  Louise had got so cross with Simon’s vagueness and forgetfulness that she bought him a Loyal Lifelogging Loop which she straps round his head in the morning and which records everything he sees (or more likely fails to notice) in front of him and everything he hears all day until she switches it off in the evening.  So we have a full record of what turned out to be Meeting number 266 (give or take a few dozen). (For new readers I should just mention that Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems is our bureaucratic [sic] correspondent and Monty Skew our political expert.  Karela is a native of Zagreb.  Manos is an inimitable Greek.)

Berthold:   I heard our Manos saved a Chinese tourist from drowning down at the jetty yesterday.

Monty Skew:  Had to really, considering that he’d pushed him in.

Manos:   Monty my friend, I see you learn to twist a story just like those political crooked you write about.   Of course I must save her.  Fifty Chinese tourists on a jetty three metres wide!  All I did only was step back a little to help a pretty one get into the launch safely, and that old man behind me was standing too close.

Self  : Just as well we aren’t really on the tourist circuits.  Though I know some of the businesses round the harbour would like to change that – want to build up the island’s reputation, they say.

Monty Skew   : Nothing whatsoever to do with building up their bank balances then?  I’d guess that’s the main motive for most of these committees trying to twin their village, town, rural slum or whatever with some charming spot that would make the ideal destination for a freebie.

Berthold   : You seem a trifle confused Monty.  Are they after the cash or a delightful holiday?

Monty Skew   : Oh, so you see those as mutually exclusive, then, Berthold?

Self   : But do you really think there’s no aspect of getting to know another culture, learning how different people live, and developing international friendship and all that?

Berthold   : That surely plays a part.

Monty Skew   : Pshaah

Karela   : My uncle once tried to twin his town with a town in Serbia.  Fortunately he did not succeed.  He hoped to use the arrangement to poison that town’s water supply.

Simon   : Golly!

Manos  : That man went too far a little, but I think he was going in the right direction.  What is the good in learning to understand people who are the same as yourself, only living in another country?  Exeter, across the water from here, is twinned with Bad Homburg.  Two comfortable middle-ranking cities in pleasing natural surroundings with many comfortable middle-class citizens.   The very same bloody boring lifestyle in both.  Your twinners in Britain should find a twin city in a strange place that is hard for them to understand, China, or America.

Monty Skew : How about Syria?

Karela   : Why only try to twin cities and towns?  Why not islands like this one?

Berthold   : With Devil’s Island?

Self   : That point about avoiding identical twins is not bad.  A bit like what GBS said about marriage – one side or other should make a social  gain out of it.  But come to think of it, instead of the usual sort of stuff it really would be much more interesting to twin, say, Dortmund with a Lithuanian peasant farmer settlement, wouldn’t it?  That should seriously challenge the mental capacities on both sides.

Manos   : Or Luton with Athens?   (Savagely) Ha!

Self   : But seriously, I’m agreeing with you Manos.  Let’s have twinning arrangements where the two sides differ in both type and size.  That could really show us things.

Karela (sarcastically)  : You mean like a French village twinned with the Kiel Canal?

Monty Skew   : Very good Karela, I like it.  But then the business about reaching over to another country is relatively unimportant.  For instance you could instead twin – in the remotely unlikely circumstance that either side would ever agree to it – a stately mansion in the seigneuries of Surrey with a poor street in Leeds.

Berthold   : Yes, and at least you will have no problems because of the EU falling apart and dropping Schengen.

Simon   : What are shenguns?

Manos   : Ah, you English –

Karela (interrupting)   : I am not English, you Greek gorilla.

Manos   : You English cannot stretch your minds enough.  What are the most important differences between people that you should learn to understand?  They are not differences of money, or place where you live, or language you speak.  They are the differences of how you behave with other humans.  Do you help them or use them, do you steal from them or give to them, do you admire them or do you think they are horrible?  Differences of the human spirit.  So if you want to make a twinning that may give you real differences then you have the chance but not like you have said before now.  I give you an example.  Take the accountants who work for the mayor’s office in an English city and tell them they will be twinned with a brigade of the Egyptian police or a hospital for the criminally insane in Bulgaria.  Then you will have twinning that is worth something!

Self   : Manos, I stand amazed, or perhaps I mean appalled.  But I think that maybe adds up to a meeting!  Will you take care of that Karela?

(Manos has asked me to say that he is available for twinning, either electronically or in person, with English people of culture and mature years, preferably wealthy but, please, no bankers! NB This website accepts absolutely no responsibility whatever for any actions, utterances or views of Manos committed or expressed outside the office of this journal.)

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Think again, Australia!

            We regret the tardy appearance of this item which is partly a result of its being a collaboration between Monty Skew and Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems

As the tide of trust in the constitutional excellence of hereditary monarchy slowly and sadly recedes around the world (despite the efforts in Korea and some third world countries to pump the water up the beach again) it is high time to ask why on earth any country fortunate enough to be so ruled should think of abandoning this exceptionally successful constitutional arrangement, Australia being the latest in the benighted queue.   I should acknowledge that I am not going to object to the generally accepted assumption that in these times a hereditary monarchy will be a constitutional monarchy, although the two notions are theoretically quite distinct. Although it cannot be denied that certain families have not handled their hereditary tasks with the surpassing skill and exemplary dignity shown throughout her long life by the present Queen of England, a swift conspectus of the countries of the world shows that a nation with a hereditary monarchy is far more likely to be broadly speaking unified and at peace with itself than those with elected heads of state. However keen bloggers, second-rank journalists, and tweeters may be to launch cheap shots against easy targets so that their friends can applaud their ‘brave’ blows for democracy, the empirical evidence is plainly overwhelming. There is in any case absolutely no incompatibility between hereditary monarchy and democracy if an elected government is handling the ordinary business of the state; if you seek an instance of incompatibility with democracy, just cast your eyes on the banks and multinational businesses. Opposition to hereditary monarchy is objectionable in principle, and often disastrous in practice. The thing which makes the hereditary aspect so valuable is the enormously greater independence, from the pressures and influences affecting others in public life, of a head of state who is installed for life, by birth.

If there is one constitutional move even more misguided and frankly destructive than abandoning hereditary monarchy it is to take up as an alternative an elected presidency. Again I have to acknowledge my provisional acceptance of a general assumption that is not rationally justified, namely that election is for a limited term. An elected president, unbalanced by accession to the highest office for which he (or in principle she, but there seem to have been no such instances yet) was neither born nor trained may feel an urge to ‘serve’ his country for the rest of his life. This has in fact been observed in a few, but curiously only a few, heads of state in the third world; the derangement seems not to afflict those who do not bother with elections in the first place. Subsequent events consistently show this as a very undesirable progression, even if those who aim to stay on for life go through a mummery of election from time to time. There is also another assumption not strictly justified, that there is a distinction between appointment and election; clearly the two overlap, and depend on the number of the qualified electors. And yet one more factor needs to be taken into account, the eligibility of the would-be heads of state. This gets relatively little attention (except in Iran) against a background of belief in ‘universal suffrage’. This superficially simple expression covers all manner of tricky pitfalls. Eighteen-year-olds? Prisoners in gaol? Those convicted of financial fraud? (Cf the French view). In America, those who cannot produce a driving licence with a photograph? And remember, after all many countries only allowed women into the electoral universe within living memory.

All this could make one despair (as of course one should) of election, turning instead to a system widely used elsewhere – competitive examination. How absurd it is that nowadays when you need to enclose original and photocopy of your Master’s degree in Domestic Utensil Cleansing in application for the meanest post in a fast food restaurant there is no course of studies nor any appropriate certificate for the position of Head of State. Lady W (known to many of our readers) has expressed herself willing to devise a suitable examination. This would plainly have to cover a fairly broad range of subjects including geography (I myself have come across a Crown Prince who could not identify Africa on a map of the world), physical exercise with special reference to facial muscles, and to upper body musculature (for the waving and hand-shaking), gastronomy (the least problematic filler of conversational gaps at banquets) and elocution (for the speeches). Animal husbandry with probably a concentration on the horse also suggests itself as a suitable topic. And we should not forget that a common trouble with elected presidents is that they are clever enough, certainly, but simply not honest. So we are going to need an interview as well; the ideal panel would consist of people with a proven record of ability in assessing the characters of their interlocutors and should therefore be made up of experienced confidence tricksters.

Anthropologists tell us that in the past some unusual societies have experimented with even more unorthodox approaches, notably to establish the office of Head of State but to have nobody actually in it; we can surmise that this idea was inspired by certain courts in ancient times which found it inconvenient to let subjects know that their monarch was dead. He thus remained as a sovereign legally alive but with no longer any taste for public speeches, nor for royal walkabouts (and cf the last weeks of Churchill as prime minister). No court seemed able to keep such a ruler for long but with a bit of efficiency, some imagination and a lot of claims about the need for security it should have been possible to keep the business going for centuries. Bulletins on royal activities could have been issued just as in these days, if a team of trustworthy scriptwriters could have been found. But the trouble with that option is the failure of the monarch to interact socially either with the people or with visiting dignitaries. However, modern technology could now overcome that by creating the virtual head of state for any republic where the politicians decided they did not want the trouble of elections. By combining holograms, voice synthesis and the latest results from neural network research it would be possible to construct a head of state able to make speeches (at least the sort of speeches that politicians want to hear), wave from balconies, and attend weddings of foreign princesses, and maybe even to go on skiing holidays in two different places at the same time if the public relations boys thought this could be managed safely. Even more adventurously, at this moment in a secret laboratory somewhere in, perhaps, Central Asia scientists may be plotting computer software to make it possible for citizens watching their screens at home each to see the sort of ruler they want – feminists would of course see and hear a queen, social democrats a cyclist in jeans, adolescent girls a tall dark handsome mesomorph, and so on. There is, however, a crucial flaw in their plans, and that is the ever increasing incidence of hacking and computer viruses; one can imagine the horrifying effect on national morale if, for example, in the middle of opening a museum one’s virtual head of state was transformed, with a background of, perhaps, the Ride of the Valkyries, into an image of Hitler making a speech calling for Britain to enter the EU and pledge one thousand years of allegiance to Germany.

Secret deals old & new

 

Monty Skew writes

A desire to conduct negotiations in secret is a common characteristic of bank robbers, kidnappers (of at least average levels of competence), and military officers planning a coup d’état. Also apparently of those preparing international reshapings of international trade arrangments, such as Tafta, the TTIP, and the TiSA. (We can leave the negotiations for the Southeast Asian Economic Community on one side, since war between any two or more of its members may well intervene before any serious change in the previous labyrinthine, sometimes subterranean, and certainly not always wholly ethical practices can take place.) The need for secrecy in all these cases is both evidence that the plans are likely to face resistance, and reason for suspicion that what is planned is contrary to established law and to the interests of those who will be affected by the changes. These two aspects are of course entirely distinct. A coup d’état is not necessarily bad for a nation’s inhabitants, Thomas Sankara’s name being one to cite. Likewise, it is at least theoretically possible to devise a national police force where all members would impartially support their judicial system while allowing minor derelictions in favour of mercy. (It is a rather remarkable observation that throughout history so few revolutionaries have grasped the idiocy of taking on the governing power by attacking its servants rather than seeking to enlist them.) Nevertheless many, including myself, would be willing to go out on a limb and say that negotiations affecting large numbers of human beings (we leave animals out of this, even though bringing them in might shine a bright and useful light on the moral issues) which are carried on in secret are so likely so often to be against the interests of those affected by the plans that they should be disallowed on principle by any person, group or power able to stop them. All the more so when many negotiators themselves are largely affiliated to or friendly with those who will benefit from the changes. Even more when the benefits will flow not to the poor and needy but largely to organisations which are already overendowed with assets. And unquestionably, when the plans include – an indication by itself that there is an unpleasing odour to these ideas – stipulations that would explicitly forbid anulment of the changes.

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A hasty footnote, unconnected with the above. While, like virtually everyone else outside the hermit people’s republic I feel that North Korea’s launching a long-range missile adds a twilight shade to the visions of the future, it may not be an entirely unalloyed case of mindless militarism with added aggressivity that we witness. (It has been a busy week – judging a contest for mechanical sharks not far from the Arctic Circle to begin with – and as I entered the office, our Editor seized me by the collar and shouted ‘500 words before 11.30am!’ in my ear.) But I seem to remember that there were negotiations (not particularly secret) between the West and North Korea with a view to ending the latter’s nuclear plans. Agreement was reached, and formally approved. However, a major part of the deal was that compensation for ending the nuclear programme was that two (?) of the Canadian model nuclear power stations were to be delivered to North Korea. They never arrived and in 1994 (?) North Korea declared the deal cancelled on the grounds of bad faith of the other party. If my memory is correct, that may have been a point where Pyongyang took a resolution never to trust the West. My immediate checks at this point have not turned up any relevant information. Can any reader help?

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Karela who has just returned from a brief visit home, comes back with renewed dislike of both existence in the Balkans and international airports. The former may appear at some point in a posting. The latter cannot wait, she said, so we were going to let her share this posting, until we saw her draft. (Without her permission I quote ‘it looks like the airports have a worldwide conspiracy to flood the minds of the travelling public with right-wing propaganda, which is all carried on by most airlines with the inflight ‘entertainment’. And remember they have all your personal data’…) We have decided to allow her a little more time to adjust to our house style, as the Economist might put it, and, partly for that reason, encouraged her to rout around in the archives of a sister publication now in our possession for something which might be of interest to the public while expressing views with which she might sympathise, and written in the sort of style to which we too aspire. She came up, fairly enthusiastically, with what appears to have been part of a letter.

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Where you may well be wrong, my old friend, is first in assuming that bureaucracy needs literacy, and second in not taking account of the continuity in human societies, irrespective of changes of régime and even revolutions of independence. Look at the confections consumed with such avidity by the Greeks; don’t say it in front of them, but these were all introduced to them by the Turks. It is simply unfair to blame poor patient Ivan for a racial addiction to bureaucracy, which after all prevails with equal vigour in Romania. Have you forgotten that the whole region up to the Danube was long ruled by emperors in Byzantium, legendary home of bureaucracy, while their influence plainly extended wider still. Do you find it so difficult to picture a mediaeval peasant having to stand before an agent of his headman, reporting, as he is obliged to do, his harvest for the year, not later than the autumn equinox, knowing that failure to give a full account, before two witnesses of sound hearing, would lead him straight to the stocks; or obsequiously presenting the skins required, in triplicate, as the fee for a licence, in the shape of a curiously carved stick, entitling him to hunt the pine martens which actually swarm in great numbers in his part of the swamp, and agreeing that loss of the stick will result in a penalty of fifteen strokes of the knout or a fine not exceeding two goats?

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Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems:

Since our political correspondent has been permitted a footnote, which might conceivably be held to trespass on my sphere of interest, may I too be allowed a brief comment: the strenuous efforts of the French government to lay the foundations of a police state starting from the present état d’urgence must be causing great delight to Marine LePen as she contemplates the possibility of victory in the presidential of 2017.

Unrealpolitik

Many readers will already be aware of Manos as the volatile spirit who keeps us constantly alert in the office. To our mingled regret and relief, he has been absent for the past week and may be away for a good while yet, pursuing yet another of his brilliant schemes for acquiring wealth, though to be honest we doubt whether this one is likely to bring him any more success than the proposals for velcro banknotes, food-free restaurants, or his very unusual ‘mental indigestion tablets’. But as he is hoping to ease this plan into the slip-stream of a governmental engine obviously firing on all cylinders and with bunting flapping from all available projections, perhaps we are wrong. The business of selling off public assets to remedy government deficits is now well entrenched in western politics as the only non-violent way for governments to present a decent set of figures to the public when their management has resulted in a hefty loss. But Manos wishes to tweak this basic strategy. He was inspired by the success of what was once somewhat derisively known as the ‘Nudge Unit’. This was set up by David Cameron in Downing Street in 2010 with the revolutionary idea of importing intelligence into the processes of government, and incorporating careful experimentation and analysis into the application of government policies. A number of ministers were impressed by the way that they could take advantage of its work so as to circumvent the citizen’s normal defences against doing what the government wants. Indeed it was so successful that it was raised to the rank of ‘Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills’. But not for long. (It is interesting by the way to notice that in the past few decades British government successes have had on average a life span considerably shorter than the career of the average lap dancer, while government failures hang heavy round the collective neck of the population for many years.) In short order the Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills became a privately owned commercial firm ‘Behavioural Insights Limited’ (a remarkably infelicitous name on the face of it) which recently reported profits of some £1.8 million and now is well regarded across the world. However, Manos proposes that rather than relying on the natural development of events, he, with a group of like-minded collaborators, should deliberately set to work to develop previously non-existent public assets with the sole and avowed aim of subsequently working them loose, detaching them from the rest of the governmental machine, and taking part in their subsequent disposal to suitable buyers. (Obviously we have not yet reached the point at which we will be offering easy terms to Chinese tycoons for parts of the Royal Air Force; ‘very smooth performers, these; outdistance most rivals you’re likely to meet; never yet used in aerial combat; regularly serviced; only ever flown by one highly trained pilot’.) Naturally the government will expect to make a bit of money in the process, but Manos is as ever confident that he could do very well for himself if things fall out right. All he needed to do, he said, was to strike up acquaintance with a few fellows having an outlook like his own and a zeal for enterprise (he insisted that it was very important to keep using the word ‘enterprise’, said it increased the chances of acceptance by 20%, just as ‘patriotic’ does in America.) No need for anything actually effective, just a matter of cobbling together a programme sufficiently impressive in presentation and sufficiently imprecise on content, and there would be a wide range of ministries open to infiltration. From some remarks he made before leaving, he had a specific target area in mind, namely a project to instal proportional voting, but in a radically different sense to that favoured by the Lib Dems. This would depend on boldly assuming widespread and thorough ignorance on the part of the electorate, and high incompetence of voters at coming to sensible decisions on public issues. As it happens, since he left, the OECD has issued a report which would greatly strengthen his case. It placed the UK last of 23 nations in both literacy and numeracy; for instance nine million out of some fifty million adults ‘may not be fully able to understand the instructions on a bottle of aspirin’ or to read the petrol gauge on a dashboard.   How this lamentable state of affairs arose will be disputed; some will blame it on the social media plague, others on a lack of vitamin C in the diet, but we might observe that Manos himself arrived on our island as a monoglot Greek and within a year had five A* passes at the higher A level. This could suggest that a lowering of educational standards has been delivering the wrong sort of success. However that may be, he and Karela sketched out a scheme whereby all who registered to vote would be tested for political competence. Those who passed with full marks would get a full vote, or perhaps even two; those who were found to be still trudging towards the petrol station would be allocated a token 0.1% of a vote. They both seemed very hopeful that such a scheme would be welcomed enthusiastically by members of the political class whose support would be needed to put it into action, notwithstanding the substantial administrative apparatus that would have to be set up, and I fear they may be right.

            ‘It will go down like a hot dinner in a cold Eskimo” as Karela rather distastefully likes to phrase her enthusiasms.