Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Month: March, 2016

When to wave the rules

We still have no idea and no information on who succeeded in submitting the bogus piece, ‘Warnings’ (16th March), supposedly by the Mad Doc.   As we have been unable to get any help from the NSA or GCHQ, any plausible lines of enquiry suggested by readers will be welcomed; moreover, bearing in mind Holmes’ prime principle of investigation, the same welcome is offered for implausible suggestions also.

Monty Skew our political expert writes

Humpty Dumpty led the way, assuring Alice that when he used a word, he determined what it should mean.  Goebbels followed up by addressing the quantitative aspect of linguistic falsehood, asserting that if you tell a big lie often enough people will in the end believe it (though he did go on to remark that you can keep a lie going so long as the state can stop the people noticing the political, economic and military consequences of it).  That is a strategy that has become one of the most honoured variables, or invariables, in the mystical equations of the advertising industry in the States and world-wide.   All the same I think in its simple form that strategy misses a trick, because even if hearing the same thing over and over does have an impact on all but the most recalcitrant brains, the business will work even better if you can get the owners of the brains to do the repeating themselves.  (It is strange, though, that meaningful sequences are reinforced by repetition, whereas stimuli without a semantic charge tend to have a diminishing effect.)  Now, where does one find large groups of people all busily agreeing on the same assertions (apart from the workers gathered outside Nipponese factories for their morning singing of the company song with accompanying performance of the company’s keep-fit programme.)?  The answer of course is ‘in schools’.  And it makes little difference whether the assertions are fundamentally true, in a mathematical, geographical, political or any other sense, or false.  It is true that some education alerts some among the brighter children to opportunities for lies and deceit and careers in investment banking, but in proportional terms that is probably pretty small beer.  A far more characteristic aspect of modern education, the assumed backdrop to all normal parts of the curriculum, is instruction, telling children what to do, what to think, what to approve, and then making damn sure they do it – in other words, spreading a comprehensive conformity, and obedience to regulation and regulators.  As many will have noticed governments everywhere have for decades been extending dramatically the periods of life subject to this training, and we can assume that they have not done so merely to reduce the figures for unemployment.  It is held that the desired conformity not only is beneficial when it comes to resisting military invasion, but also strongly promotes economic success in the community.  This current orthodoxy is of course not new.  It arrived forty or fifty years ago as a successor to the idea that schools should implant skills and knowledge into future adults (with, naturally, the aim of promoting the economic success of the community), and that idea was itself a successor to the nineteenth century view that a school should implant team spirit and ‘character’ thus promoting the national and international political success of the community.  (This account deals of course only with the British stance.  By contrast the Prussian approach has throughout been firmly based on future economic return from those taught, and has not bothered with any flim-flam about theoretical underpinnings.)

            This piece of mine was in preparation to about this point before we heard of the terrible events on Tuesday.  At present Karela is on a visit to Westminster, where despite having once been an activist and nicknamed ‘the Balkan firebrand’ she seems now to have good contacts with well-informed circles including certain important officials of the kind who do not perform on camera.  This being so, although there is no  particular need to modify the remarks I wished to make, I shall postpone them since the e-mail she sent us deals with closely related topics and with more immediacy.

     As Editor I apologise for posting Karela’s comment as it arrived by e-mail, since she is always meticulous about sub-editing, but in the present case that would have caused her contribution to miss this posting.

Before, it was maybe correct that the people do not like all the rules they have to use in airports, and I was one who got angry.  But now?  About 2,000 killed by such terrible crimes in 15 years?  And many injured.  All that is true and a bad shock to Europeans.   Certainly do not forget also how many were killed by faults with airplanes, how many killed by cars, how many because the hospitals in their country did not have all the doctors wanted.  But do not only compare.  It is the duty of honest governments, if there will be one, to be a government for the people not over the people, and what should they look at first?  First, and second and third, safety of the people in all its ways.  Safety of the banks is maybe number 99 (and safety of the bankers does not even stand on the list).  One trillion dollars, I think, or more than that, governments gave to their banks in 2008 to keep them safe.  Maybe just one percent of that could stop most of the accidents with cars, and with airplanes, and give them better hospitals, and, yes, make the airports safer too.  That is all part of the same thing, the duty of the governments.  But the people must take their part of duty now also.  That is reasonable, and I hate to be reasonable.  Most times in life what is the advantage?  But right now, it is necessary and they must behave in some way like children and follow rules even if they know themselves that they are good people.  Right now it is necessary.  I know the rules at airports make them angry, and maybe in one year they find no bad person with a bomb.  The old professors with brains so strong they make the noise squeak even if they walk through that thing with no clothes at all, and they get crazy.  But if there are no rules, then that is when the bombs will try to come.  After, when the world comes to more peace again, then they can ask if all those rules are correct, and must do that quick before the government has time to fix rules it wants in cement like Cameron wants to do with doctors and teachers already now.  But myself I am coming back to the island on train and ship by Monday.

I’d like to agree with most of what Monty and Karela say here about the various topics they raise.  I do agree with Monty that the issue of what is taught in schools and the propagation of falsehoods are subjects more intimately related than is usually considered polite to notice, and I hope he will take that  up again.  But with all respect to both our political correspondent and Karela I’d see law-abiding behaviour (which others may mock as docility) as a separate issue, and I also think that as far as schools are concerned what you teach matters no more than who and how you teach – and perhaps a good deal less.    I’d argue that the main problems following the attacks will come from the fact that the hugely increased need for ‘security’ has enormously enhanced the powers of controllers at many levels (not least the opportunities for jacks-in-office to parade their importance, stretching the patience of some of us to dangerous limits), and the willingness of the rest to be controlled.  In the short term this is better for nearly everyone (except the rather too numerous victims of French police ‘bavures’) despite the inconvenience.  But in the long term there are really only two types of outcome and this is one of those cases where distance allows the long-term outcome, really far more important, to be brushed aside without the attention it needs.  With one, we confront a society where rules and laws and regulations have everything trussed and hogtied so tightly that the whole enterprise seizes up and becomes immobile, or, worse, turns into a police state.  (Some might argue that the danger is illusory, and that evidence shows the knots tied by regulators claiming the public interest, are few and feeble and loose enough to let any number of dubious practices through, even in places where they are conspicuously needed, as with big business and organised crime; tax havens continue their sun-soaked life-style, for instance.  But I think this is at best wishful thinking.  Indeed I would like to see someone sketch out a socioeconomic law to the effect that the level of regulation varies inversely with the need for it.)  In the other outcome, the reaction against excessive control turns into violent revolution.

  • The meta-editor (aka Old Boore) writes, taking advantage of her seldom used remote access to the office’s local network:    The above, and I do not except the editor’s remarks, is like a bunch of extracts from badly taken minutes of a school debate, though I wouldn’t blame them too harshly in the present situation when a whole congeries of notions connected to ‘conformity’ is whirling around the more and less frivolous minds of Europe.  It is melancholy to observe how shocking events drive so many commentators back to a reliance on cliché and reach-me-down notions at the very point where clear-headed original thought could be most salutary.

Australian conversations

The delayed letter from Dr von Hollenberg has now arrived and is posted below.  If or when we learn anything about the intruder who inserted the forged posting ‘Warnings’ and what his game was details will be posted promptly.

Australian rules football could become the world’s favourite spectator sport if only some way could be found to explain to outsiders what the rules are (if indeed there are any rules). This great lacuna in social connectivity does not stop most Australian conversations running aground sooner or later on football or at least some topic connected with sport, where they remain stuck fast, the engines still running but without further progress. (Australian conversations about sport are not much like the parallel phenomena in Europe because they concentrate very largely on the players and actual play. But in England, for example, the majority of the talk especially in the pseudo-conversations which take up so much time in ‘sports’ broadcasts, will be about money, money spent, money paid, money earned (or at least gained) or about what we might call celebrity issues, that is who has got divorced from whom, or has got a new sponsorship deal, or is the star of an eight-page pull-out supplement in the media; or about legal matters, a suspension for breaching political correctness or a libel suit for insulting an important official; or else simple vaporous opinions of coaches or managers or pundits invoking such ill-defined notions as grit or ‘hunger’ and treated with a ludicrous degree of respect.) The other peculiar feature of Australian conversations in my admittedly limited experience is that they pay so little attention to the issue of their own link to immigration which is surprising in a country where well over 90% of the population either is descended entirely or in part from parents or grandparents who were immigrants, or is itself immigrant and born abroad. (I see no reason to suppress the fact that my own grandmother reached Sydney in 1902 where she settled on Spectacle Island with my greatgrandfather who was attached to what would later become the Royal Australian Navy). Of course this is not to say that immigration is a topic absent from Australian conversations, but in defiance of statistics it has a rather peculiar restriction, since the mention nearly always refers only to those who have arrived (especially if from continents other than Europe) within the last twenty or thirty years, or who hope to be going to arrive, since they find this a preferable prospect to remaining in countries where their homes may be smashed to pieces any day or they themselves may be killed or maimed any day by military explosives directed at them, or randomly dropped in their vicinity or deliberately dropped on the offchance that they themselves might be enemies of those ordering the bombardment. For some of these would-be immigrants one or all of these experiences with the sole exception of their own individual extinction has already happened. In some of the countries which the immigrants leave the mere fact of criticising the rulers, however justifiably, can and does result in critics being imprisoned, tortured and killed. Some of the would-be immigrants have been brave enough to speak up for their compatriots and for human rights, in full awareness of what happens after such criticism. Now since it is common for people holding high positions in Australian public life to praise this country and its people for their high standards (referring to moral principles rather than life-style, you understand) you can expect of course that those who leave such terrors behind them and endure the hardships of the highly dangerous journeys leading them to Australia will receive the warm and enthusiastic welcome which such tough, resourceful and principled examples to the human race deserve. One can expect it as much as you like but it is not what happens. As this journal pointed out last year, boats have been seized on the high seas and their passengers carried off without the choice, to a destination they do not want. In what way, if at all, does this not constitute a combination of piracy and kidnapping? To make it worse, conditions at that destination are deplorable and so far as I know, to this day even tame journalists from sources supporting the government are denied entry. To make it almost inexplicable, the proportion between the number of would-be immigrants and the population of Australia is such that even if every last one of the former succeeded in arriving where they do wish to go they would be a virtually invisible minority (but a minority which once integrated could make an enormously beneficial contribution to the cultural and economic life of the country just as have done the Vietnamese who arrived earlier.) However, rational considerations may not take us very far. Is there a deliberate unwillingness here to share the advantages of a privileged lifestyle, as mostly in Europe? Or is it a half-deliberate ignorance of evil things happening out of plain sight? We should hope not, but then we may be driven back to an unwelcome conclusion. The disposition to shun those of the same kind who are, however, not same enough is embedded deep. We see it in highly articulate politicians in Europe; we see it when a flock of blackbirds mobs and expels a luckless albino. So it is not surprising that there is such a startling restriction on the sort of immigration that can be admitted to polite Australian conversation, even while year by year palaeoanthropology piles up the evidence that the real original inhabitants are more autochthonous than we had ever guessed.

I had originally intended to include with my offering a few footnotes, of the sort which this journal includes from time to time. But having found myself ending the above on a serious note – I think that actually a truly savage denunciation is needed – all except perhaps the following seemed indecently flippant.

Linguistic corner Among the new lexical confetti showered on one another by the prattlers of social media is the item tl;dr often intended to be insulting. This is claimed to correspond to the sequence of real English ‘too long; I did not read it’ as would probably have been uttered by most modern editors if the manuscript of War and Peace had been submitted to them. It therefore has two meanings: (1) the person uttering it has lost, or never had, the ability to grasp the essence of a text by skimming through it; or (2) the person uttering it is in a job with demands which they are not fully able to deal with.

INTERIM POSTING : Discard ‘Warnings’

An extraordinary circumstance. Baron von Hollenberg, who generously puts up with us referring to him as the Mad Doctor, has called us from Australia and told us with great emphasis that the text which we posted thirty-six hours ago and which we believed had been sent by him as earlier promised, is a forgery. He had indeed been preparing some material, on a different topic he tells us, and apologises for not having already sent it in, explaining that he had joined a trip exploring a remote region of the outback, had suffered sunstroke and was taken back to Adelaide, where he was ordered to rest up for several days. He assures us that his own genuine contribution will be despatched in the very near future. Who perpetrated the fraud, how, and why are deeply mysterious. Manos suggested it might have been a dummy run to see if the malefactor could at some future date get us to post something which could be made the subject of a profitable libel suit in the British courts, but this seems unlikely as the whole bunch of us put together would not make an interesting target for a machination of that kind, and there is no prospect of that situation changing unless one of Manos’ money-making schemes actually works. The only other faintly plausible theory (Karela’s) is that it was the product of some training course for apprentice spooks, possibly based on ferreting around in our archives, which accidentally ‘went live’. If further information comes to light we shall let readers know. In the meantime we shall post Dr von Hollenberg’s genuine text as soon as it arrives and has been checked for political health and proof of identification.

Warnings

It is always a pleasure to receive a contribution from our principal financial supporter, (Baron) Malory von Hollenberg, and we are consequently delighted to present his thoughts in this piece sent from his current location in Australia.

I have been ruminating on the use of warning signs and pictures. These days a good many governments compel cigarette companies to print warning notices on packs of their cigarettes, often with an alarming picture of the physiological damage that can be caused by the habit. This is a convenient way for governments to balance two obligations. As guardians of their country’s inhabitants they have a responsibility obvious to all, except the occasional Minister of Health, to try to keep them in the best possible physical condition. There is in any case no point in holding would-be invaders at bay by purchasing all available modern weaponry if your well-defended citizens are too feeble or sick to keep the economic wheels humming in the manner you require. One might therefore expect governments to ban the sale of cigarettes. But governments also have a duty to keep their own accounts in the best possible financial health. As it happens, this too they could do by banning cigarettes, but only on condition that they could extract large amounts of money from the massive illegal trade in cigarettes which would be certain to arise, and which within a few years might exercise more influence on the workings of society than do the existing tobacco companies. In principle this source of funds should be within reach.   Direct taxation of course would be politically embarrassing, even though one concedes that political self-contradiction is an electoral advantage when judiciously managed. However, a better option could be to impose severe fines on traders arrested, while taking care that arrests are not so frequent as to hamper their activities seriously; gaol terms should seldom be imposed, so that traders can resume their activities at an early date. A somewhat similar approach, learned from financial regulators, would repress the illegality with a light touch, but would tax heavily all manner of associated activities and objects and locales. (American experiences during Prohibition could be helpful) . However, in practice few countries have successfully managed any such policies on a large and consistent scale, and even where this is claimed it appears any money accrued may have gone to individuals associated with the political class instead of the coffers of the state.

            The fact remains: repellent pictures of sick smokers, or body parts of sick smokers, do appear on cigarette packets, aiming to reduce bad health among consumers. Since they are a form of advertising and since we have been repeatedly assured (by those who make money from it, but also by other experts, e.g. Paul Josef Goebbels) that advertising ‘works’, we accept the case. But then one must ask ‘Why only cigarettes? Why not pictures of the horrid results of consumption of tobacco’s noxious social twin, alcohol?’ The initial objection, that the result of the cigarette may be a spasm of wrenching coughing whereas consuming alcohol may lead on to a jolly party, is specious irrelevance. In the first place governments are interested in long-term effects (provided that the issue does not concern the next election), and, second, subversives will remark that there seem to be two different types of long-term alcohol consumption; one can lead to sitting on a narrow bench in the back room of a small pub in Cork at the age of 22, rocking slowly backwards and forwards, drunk to the point of incoherence at six in the evening, while the other sets you up as a rosy-faced white-haired old man with twinkling blue eyes, surrounded by twenty-somethings begging to hear about your adventures in times long ago. Common decency suggests we should make at least some attempt to shock those of the former tendency out of their licensed premisses. Perhaps then the warning pictures should somehow be attached not to the bottles and cans but to the drinkers themselves. Doubtless modern technology could make this possible, indeed very likely has already done so in the case of individuals suspected by the spooks of membership of UKIP or other sinister tendencies. This could prompt self-questioning every time they look into a mirror. However such an intrusion of the state into supposedly private life cannot be openly introduced in the present era of lip service to individual human rights.   A few years have to pass before what is technically possible turns into what has been judged necessary for the prevention of crime and the efficient functioning of the caring welfare state. So for the present we must allow the governments to perpetuate, by failing to state the contrary, the fiction that alcohol only causes problems when in contact with a steering wheel (a combination which is supposed to be avoided by erecting signs saying ‘Don’t drink and drive’ in Times New Roman and a schoolmasterly voice, in places where they can easily be seen, by an alert driver).

            The fact that special circumstances (I hope I will not be understood as referring specifically to the donations of the brewers to political parties) can restrict the use of pictures warning about troubles resulting from contact with psychoactive substances does not mean that efforts should not be made elsewhere. For instance, the car itself is a conspicuous element among the temptations luring misguided consumers towards ruinous outcomes, and here as so often reformers are up against the forces of darkness actively reinforcing the allure with meretricious counter-advertisements. Cars are claimed to have strange powers. Buy this car and not only will it make you younger and stronger, it will come with a languorous femme fatale strategically attached to the hood [subject to availability; alternative gender-neutral offer: young attractive partner and two children, all in perfect health and grinning like successful footballers]. Moreover you are implicitly assured you will find all other drivers – all other road users, in fact – have disappeared from the roads. There are drawbacks, admittedly; the immaculate highway along which you speed in smooth isolation, outdistancing a low-flying airliner breaking all rules of air traffic control, is evidently located in a magnificent but remote and uninhabited terrain, possibly on Spitzbergen. In the face of such blandishments, consumers certainly should be provided with pictorial warnings against the temptation to acquire a car. Many of the inconveniences are well known, from faulty windshield wipers to lengthy gaol terms but what is seldom fully realised is the size of the car’s contribution to stress in modern life. All the worry of buying and fuelling and maintaining and repairing the thing and of dealing with the various human enemies one meets in these battles; the frustration of the steady guerilla warfare needed to keep it insured and officially recognised by the state; the exploration day by day of the frontiers of irrational behaviour among other motorists on your way to work. Above all though, there is the anguish, almost never admitted consciously, of voluntarily shutting oneself into a metal box even smaller than the punishment cells the communists used in Czechoslavakia. Even for a ten minute trip to the shops it would bring a nervous breakdown if you allowed yourself to think about it. For the daily two-hour traffic jam, if handed down by a judge, it would amount to cruel and unusual punishment. Of course the warning pictures on the car will have the advantage that they will be on the car itself unlike the allegedly seductive visual encouragements to buy the things. Themes for pictorial warning notices will obviously be legion, and perhaps inexpensive if cut-price deals can be cut with the sort of television channels that make disastrous car smashes a prominent feature of their broadcasts.

            The regrettable truth is that modern civilisation is replete with aspects threatening physical injury, financial loss, and moral decay to misguided consumers, and the UN has a duty to launch a world-wide multifaceted campaign of warnings against all these factors. It could begin by dealing with the food we eat, or, to be more precise, with unhealthy eating habits. For around 700 million on the planet there is a single unhealthy eating habit which is simply taking no food (almost invariably an involuntary condition) so in their case it is not easy to see where one might attach the warning notices; and in any case it is questionable whether many of those 700 million could truly be counted as bona fide members of the consumerat. But what worries many of the other 6.3 billion is the continuing struggle against obesity, and so the type of picture required is easily settled – some vast balloon of sweating humanity fighting its bulk into or out of an airline economy class seat would do nicely as a first example The laws about pictorial warnings in this category will have to be especially forceful, just to elbow their way past the existing mountains of colourful encouragements to believe that eating this or that package’s mixture of highly saturated fats and sugars and 21 kinds of chemical unknown to science until a few weeks ago will be good for consumers (and make them slimmer, and more beautiful, and charming; and if the consumer is a man his hair may grow back, too).

            But the truth is that we have done no more than hint at the vast array of threats to the innocent consumer. Many other scourges of society need to be fenced off behind warning notices – social media, muzak, bad grammar, football, computer passwords, gardening, and many more. A plethora of warnings is needed and naturally for some the devising of visual warnings will be easy, for others difficult. The time is ripe for a new Hieronymus Bosch to show what he can do.