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.