The downward slope
[Editorial note: this journal has a proud tradition of fostering goodwill wherever it can still flourish. It is in this spirit that we extend warm best wishes to Boris Johnson in his quest to be the leader of a minor British political party, which achieved more than 8% support at the recent European elections! Don’t be disheartened Boris just because some have described your newspaper columns as fatuous rabble-rousing twaddle. Good luck in dealing with that irritating ‘misconduct in public office’ charge. Life imprisonment? Seems rather stiff. But don’t worry, they won’t hand down that long to a former Foreign Secretary.]
(1)Tourism until it hurts: Simon reports that there are increasing tensions in Obliy Korobakh where tourists now have to book a week in advance at a stiff price to get 15 minutes (maximum time allowed) for taking selfies of themselves at the ‘world’s loneliest human settlement’ in north-eastern Siberia. (Obliy Korobakh is one of 139 settlements strung out along the north of the Asian continent, all of them claiming this title expressed in one way or other.) Last month riots broke out when three aircraft carrying tourists eager to get their 15 minutes of selfies at the ‘outpost’ arrived at the same time, at the new airport with its 30 storey reception centre. Two Chinese tourists were injured and one who had taken refuge in the refuse disposal facility was eaten by a polar bear.
(2) Some cheerful optimists are looking forward to the end of fake news, basing their optimism on what they have heard about current progress by technologists who started out with mere facial recognition, based on the exact positions of thousands of reference points that can be established for a human face. Those specialists are now hacking ever deeper into the murky depths of the human behavioural jungle. The early goal of mere personal identification was reached and systems are already in daily use e.g. at airports and at new luxury apartment blocks where they prevent unauthorised children using the play areas. However, startling new developments are anticipated with the next level of exactitude (fr 5), 1200 times more accurate, and with the possibility of recording variations through time measured in milliseconds. Experts are confident they will be able to determine (a) the underlying character and (b) the current mood of a facially captured subject, and therefore also (c) the likelihood of corresponding activity in various behavioural directions, even before it has had a chance to take place Nevertheless, those optimists are on a fools’ errand. Paradoxically it is wholly irrelevant whether results claimed for the research are genuine or not. ‘Physiognomical experts’ will soon appear claiming to have devised apps which can build on (a), (b) and (c) to ‘adjust’ recordings of the captured face so as to present it on screen with the appearance and therefore behavioural characteristics appropriate to any story which an editor, or proprietor wants told. This will almost immediately lead on to a huge expenditure of resources on a further layer of research to develop verification systems; and of course thereafter frantic campaigns to arrive at data of types (a) and (b) while circumventing the verification systems. Quite soon after that the endgame will see the collapse of nearly all news corporations, and the establishment of a draconian world-wide system, banning all transmission of material containing images of the human face.
(3) Unparallelled universe Older readers will remember the shoe-throwing incident in Iraq, a recent and relatively mundane event as far as Earth was concerned but which by some still unexplained malfunction at Universal Continuity (CEO and Principal Shareholder D.Trump the DLXVIIth) (he claims to do time-travel too), failed to spawn a parallel universe along the usual lines. The glitch instead produced a small parallel universe where Muntazeri had just thrown his shoes at Bush, and where Bush, touched by inspiration for the only time in his life, did not simply watch him being manhandled out by guards on his way to the cell where he would be tortured, but asked the guards to hold him until the press conference, at which point the president, still surrounded by guards but without flying shoes, took over the proceedings, telling the protester he looked ‘like a kinda regular guy but all fired up about sumpn’ and asked about his motivation. The explanation was given peacefully and without rancour but in persuasive detail, and after ten minutes Bush asked for another meeting the next day, to which a dozen other protestors were admittted, after vetting by the presidential suite, and the discussion went on for two hours. It was followed the same afternoon by a visit to the area where Muntazeri lived. Next day Bush accompanied by the Secretary of State announced some major changes in his policies for the ‘very fine people of Iraq’ and, of course, set up a committee. Despite bureaucratic resistance from officials in Washington, that was the start of a process that led to what came to be described as the era of the new Levant, an Antonine period of fair socialistic government, increasing prosperity, and a revival in civilised dealings between individuals. (Unfortunately advanced research by leading scientists shows that parallel universes formed in this way are inherently unstable, and as widely predicted this particular parallel universe is no longer available for inspection, and indeed no longer detectible, time-travel or no time-travel.)
(4) Up until about Thursday of last week it was still possible to refer to the British ‘two-party’ system, a system which inherently reflects a simplistic approach to politics and a reluctance or inability to adapt to changing circumstances, perfectly embodied in recent times by the prime minister herself. (When the Great British Collapse begins in a few months, the EU states should all put her face on their postage stamps to remind them how not to conduct politics where a no longer major nation has an overplentiful supply of energetic entrpreneurs who see they can no longer get much benefit from running things on the national basis and will do better exploiting whatever openings at home or abroad seem to offer them and their partners the best prospects.)
It is bad manners, is it, to speak ill of someone who is down and very soon to be out? It was not her fault? She deserves sympathy, since although seeking public office she was not able to detach her assumptions and ways of thinking from what surrounded her in a childhood passed among the agreeable middle-class middle England of communities united by shared ideas, complexions and passports? Sorry about that. But politics is not concerned with good and bad manners. A much more important question is ‘What did this person contribute to the humane treatment of other humans?’ Many will agree on the answer.
However, since those European elections, the British political mind needs to adjust to new notions about the conduct of politics both at home and overseas. Indeed it is now many decades since the British controlled anything near the firepower needed to divide the world simply into ‘them’ and ‘us’, a view on the scale of empire which parallels the domestic cleavage into ‘government’ and ‘opposition’. (Admittedly London has long accepted special arrangements for the Welsh and the Scots, when it comes to politics but that was generously accepted by the ruling class because, ‘well, after all the Welsh and the Scots are different’ even if Westminster folk feel it is tactless to point this out too forcefully.)
The French made their entry into constitutional middle age rather earlier (when trounced by the Germans in 1870). Their alternative to a two-sided asylum was the hemicycle with seating arranged according to where members saw themselves in the political spectrum, thereby encouraging them to appreciate that political differences do not necessarily mean barking hostility and a stark contrast between right and wrong. Representatives sit next to others who hold basically similar views but disagree on details. There is no visible yawning pit with inhabitants on the other side clearly too alien to be on ‘our’ side and therefore to be regarded as enemy. The semicircular chamber is certainly an improvement, but being still based on ideologies distances remain relatively fixed, and some are necessarily large. Using political beliefs as the factor governing seating is well-intentioned, but inadequate. What else then? Grouping members according to the geographical area which they represent, irrespective of party allegiance. The idea that people from the same region are likely to take a constructive view of others from the same area plainly has something going for it, but equally no shortage of counterexamples. Better would be a system which does not rely on any sort of views, political or other, allowing human beings to simply encounter others as individuals, under the eye of a sane master of ceremonies (the Serjeant-at-Arms?) There are various possibilities. We could simply place them in alphabetical order. Or we could arrange them in the same way as platoons in the army, tallest on the right shortest on the left. (This might lead to grumbles from the tallest men since in the nature of things they would tend to get less opportunity to socialise with the female representatives, but then tall men have built-in advantages in this respect anyway.) A proposal well worth trying is the one used with children at some birthday parties: a number is pinned on each guest as they arrive and that decides the seat they get when the bunfighting begins. This way your political representatives would get a different seat each day. Sooner or later they would meet most of the other members close up, with the immediate result that each one would come to see their neighbour for the day as a human individual. They would then be so taken up with observing his or her personal habits – cleaning ears with a pencil, nose-picking, carrying a briefcase full of garlic sausage sandwiches, breaking wind and so on – that there would be much less time to explore the neighbour’s identity as a personification of this or that type of political depravity. It is true that this system might lend itself to manipulation, with cunning or awkward politicians lurking around the entrance to ensure they either accompany or avoid some particular fellow member. But this could be overcome by linking entrance numbers to seat numbers on a random basis, easy enough with a small computer and appropriate software. However, if we are really looking for ways to improve the parliamentary system, perhaps it is rather timid merely to suggest allocating seats in the chamber by lottery. An idea which may well have already occurred to readers is `Wouldn’t it be altogether better to boldly go the whole hog and choose representatives by lottery in the first place?’
(5) Question of the month
Can anyone explain why so many dictators of the 1930s liked to wear leather belts going over one shoulder and then down to the waist on the other side
The fact that some persist in describing a vote by less than one third of the electorate, including only those who had reached voting age by 2015, as a decision by the British people (above all on a matter tying the nation’s hands in as yet unspecified ways for the foreseeable future) is a valid and startling index of the real level of political awareness in one of the world’s most self-congratulatory democracies. However, this paragraph is grateful that it doesn’t have to answer to the British electoral system