Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: English

It’s worse than you think

From John Stuart Mill to the end of civilisation

A month or so ago, you had the posting with the heading ‘Ain’t whatya mean, hit’s the way thatya mean it’ (if you were on the general circulation list.  My apologies to friends, who did not receive it with the headline.  That’s what comes of being on the privileged list.)  The heading apparently puzzled some younger readers.  To make things a little clearer, it is an adaptation of the words which went with a jazz classic.  These, when put into standard English, were actually, ‘It isn’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it’, an excellent piece of advice to bear in mind when you next want to give your opinion on e.g. the release of all your personal data to the astonished and amused mockery of the cyberpublic.  (Don’t resort to threats and torrents of incoherent rage – or at least not where there are witnesses or spy cameras.  Simply say ‘We seem to have had some difficulties with this programme’.  Make sure they hear that final –me; it adds greatly to your air of authority, if you have one.  If you accompany the words with any kind of theatrical ‘business’ that you see as appropriate to your own situation and physical prowess, that is up to you.  This journal will ruthlessly deny any responsibility in the matter.)  For some reason, in the original jazz rendering the words ‘whatya’ and ‘it’s tha’ and ‘thatya’ were often pronounced ‘hotya’, ‘hitstha’ and ‘hatya’ which in some inscrutable way was felt to enhance the jazz quality of the observation.  Ah so long ago!  Are you really better off with rap and grime?

            Be that as it may, that posting pointed out that only those unfortunates burdened with an excessive incredulity deficit will take the words uttered by a national leader (or for that matter a senior member of any nation’s oligocracy, such as the Tory party in Great Britain) to have meaning in the ordinary way, as used in giving information.  Those words have istead what might be better called incantatory meaning, not so very different from the chants of some mediaeval self-proclaimed miracle workers.  They lay out a vision of future developments which will please the audience (whether that is a future without immigrants or with free hash for all or –  to venture into surrealism – with a properly funded national health service) and through some design flaw in the human creature audiences tend to believe that the speaker or some unknown agency at his command is going to provide those desirables.   For example, a ministerial speech in the House of Commons shortly after the infamous Grenfell Tower disaster reassured those listening that all survivors would be given proper and permanent replacement accommodation within three months.  This was an agreeable thing to hear (or at least one of the least disagreeable comments emerging from official quarters). Sighs of relief all round the Conservative benches and in the headlines of most of the press and even in the less clued-up members of the ‘Something really needs to be done’ movement (69% of the population).  The belief that something really would be done has faded for most of the population into an assumption that something was done, even now when reality has demonstrated the brutal falsehood of the words.  (For an encore, play the Windrush Saga, still running in some outlying areas.)

        Does the speaker himself (usually male) share the belief ?  Astonishingly, some of those most seriously deranged do, and this does not only apply to those on the western shores of the Atlantic, detached as nearly all of them are from most of the world’s realities.  But the sincerity quotient of a human utterance has no reliable relation to its validity.  And matters are made even worse by a different design fault that is quite wrongly regarded as a minor problem, when it is recognised at all.  This is the tendency to adjust willingness to believe according to the confidence of the speaker (in effect, listening to the man – this word reflects statistics –  with the loudest voice.)

            Whenever a major problem arises it will almost always involve a variety of factors, suggesting reactions in various different ways, many of them having drawbacks as well helpful options.  This means that people who study the issues thoroughly will realise that even if some particular way forward offers the best prospects, there will be a price to pay.  It is then built into human behavioural patterns that whether aware of it or not they will deliver their verdict with less red-blooded conviction than those who have simply seen one easily visible factor which points clearly in one direction, and who ignore or do not even see the problems which come with it, while they bay for everyone to follow their lead.  Obeying the voice of the loudest is not just a quick way to get a bad result at a political meeting or the sort of disagreement settled with a few cuts and bruises outside a football stadium.  In 1914 the streets of Berlin were packed with crowds calling for war against Britain, even as tens of thousands filled the centre of London, calling for war against Germany.  Is government according to the views of the majority really the right, reasonable, and proper way to organise a nation?  (No.)  It is the high road to quarrels between nations.  And no-deal Brexits, by the way.  And, if your luck is out, to war.  With that in mind, just take a look across the current products of the British media.

            Yet even if mistakes, and dishonesty and self-deception may be enough to guarantee the species a much shorter run than its present occupants imagine, there is still another factor, which should perhaps be more worrying than all the rest.  Not long ago I happened to find a report written by a fine journalist, Norman Webster, in the Globe and Mail (fine paper) reporting on an interview on the 14th November 1981 with Ronald Reagan who, at the time and for eight years thereafter was President of the United States.  For once, the journalist avoided the normal approach, that is tidying  up the remarks of the interviewee to make them easy to understand for the masses and to take out anything that might shock sensitive listeners (or sensitive proprietors of the media channel).  He gave the words actually used by Reagan in response to two issues.  The first was whether a nuclear war involving Russia and the US could be (safely?) limited to European territory.  Here are Reagan’s words: “I don’t honestly know.  I think again, until some place…all over the world this is being research going on, to try and find the defensive weapon.  There never has been a weapon that someone hasn’t come up with a defence.  But it could …and the only defence is, well, you shoot yours and we’ll shoot ours.”  And the second (when pressed to say whether a nuclear exchange might be limited to a particular battlefield area): “Well, I would – if they realised that we – again, if – if we led them back to that stalemate only because that our retaliatory power, our seconds, or our strike at them after their first strike, would be so destructive that they couldn’t afford it, that would hold them off.”

            It wasn’t until after Reagan left office that those who knew dared to talk publicly about the mental state of the highest commander of the most powerful nation on the planet.

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NB1 Although published as long ago as 2005 The Rise of Political Lying by Peter Oborne is still an asset to a British consumer’s bookshelf.  ISBN 0-7432-7560-8

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NB2  Material from ammophila.org (prefixed by either www. or cui bono) may be used, but not for commercial purposes; it should meet standard conditions of fair handling, and full acknowledgment should be made

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Dreams from a dark knight

Paranormal.  Something far from this journal’s usual ambit, for the record. 

Donald Trump appears to have the rare gift of knowing instantly, without any need to investigate, whether a statement put into the public domain is true or not.  Generally I would be quite sceptical (not to say cynical) about most claims of paranormal powers or experiences and suspect that a very high proportion of those which are not mischievous fabrications or simple-minded lies can actually result from normal interactions with an environment.  It is different, though, when the experience belongs to someone known and trusted such as (in the set of cases I am about to mention) oneself.  I should say at once that they are not exciting in themselves.  It was a series that began when I was eleven and seems to have definitely ended when I was thirty-seven.  There were only about a dozen of them altogether.  They all involved another person whom I knew but not once anyone to whom I had any special relationship, and simply concerned knowing a number that they were going to say before they said it.  At that point the sort of person who likes to assume that others are easily fooled breaks in and says “Ah, but what’s really happening is that you have already heard the number uttered but part of your brain which tidies things up and declares them settled has not yet finished business.”  (I will come to that issue in a moment anyway but would add that I seemed in those days to have an above average capacity for observing sequences of events – e.g. traffic manoeuvres, wording of complex phrases – with fairly high accuracy.)  There are four points to mention.  First, I definitely have no special arithmetic gifts.  Second, the sensation was different in kind from other situations where one expects somebody to say something and cannot help guessing what it will be.  Third, there were no ‘false positives’.  I never had that sensation of ‘flatly’ knowing (as if already read in print), when the number then emerged ‘wrong’.  I tried a few times, when I could see that numbers were to be mentioned, to persuade myself that I had the same ‘flat knowing’ sensation before the other party uttered the number but did not succeed.  Fourth, the last time it happened I was on the phone to a friend who told me that someone she knew had come into possession of a painting by Dufy, famous French artist, and had been able to sell it – and at this point the feeling of knowing kicked in but I also remembered the “Ah, what’s really happening” guys and so I cut short what she was saying, and said I would tell her what the selling price was, which without question happened when she had not yet reached any figure.   At that time Dufy was one of the biggest names in the art market, and work by him could reasonably have gone, depending on what it was, for anything from as little as about £500 (it was in the UK) to easily a hundred times that or more.  I told her ‘£1,800’ and she confirmed that this was the figure.  Since that time, no more such experiences.

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‘Heads I win.  Tails…’?

Regrettably our island’s cultural and commercial links handicap it with a close relationship to the dis-United Kingdom. Even with relatively enlightened individuals topics of British relevance float unappealingly  on the surface of the conversational barrel.  So once again whether we want to or not we are hearing about the wonderful benefits (to Britain) of sticking two fingers up to the EU.  Some of us politely pretend to be fascinated by the claims that even the most ramshackle hulk can surf the crests and troughs of the world economy in effortless style provided it is manned by a crew with the buccaneering imperial spirit described so misleadingly by Percy Westerman in his books for impressionable boys back in the 1920s and 1930s.  (Poor bloody Scots, though, likely to end up tethered three to a bench in the dark underdeck if any attempt is actually made to launch the vessel.)  So who are going to be the recipients of all the wondrous bounty apparently  promised to Theresa when she sped across the ocean to hold hands with Donald Trump back in 2017, and, more important, what horn of plenty is going to disgorge the boodle?  Some will have noticed that when Jean-Claude Juncker, representing a trade bloc not hugely impressive politically but somewhat bigger than the US, went over to talk sanctions with the Donald he came away with a far from unsatisfactory outcome – roughly, keeping things as they are.  What chances of that kind of semi-success when a lone economy, a mere fraction of that size, turns up at the back door of the White House, urgently needing a trade deal to stop the slide in the pound?  Begging it from a man who boasts of driving hard deals, and who by the way has his own re-election as a first  priority?  So where might Britain find the dosh to keep the bonuses flowing (never mind keeping the homeless and destitute alive)?  Admittedly, there are some resources Britain could fall back on, and probably will.  Fracking, for instance, even in the leafy suburbs of Tory constituencies.  But the biggest resource is the national territory, and a prudent sequence of responsible decisions (if such a thing could somehow be devised) about sales of conveniently detachable pieces of the country could keep the wolf from the door for a decade or two.  Margaret Thatcher (I am not inventing this) suggested precisely such a policy to Brazil when that country hit trouble while she was prime minister in Britain.  And of course it has sometimes been put into practice, for instance when the Americans bought Alaska from the Russians for $7million in 1867.  (A wonderful bargain, probably less than $1billion even in today’s terms.)   Britain has many convenient sites to offer and, what is more, valid legal title to most of them, unlike the Russians in Alaska.  An excellent first choice to test the market would be Lundy.  Its relative poverty in resources would surely be outweighed by its wonderful location, ideal for many purposes both commercial and military.  One can envisage Chinese investors, for instance, seeing it as a superb site for an entrepôt and for further activities in both Europe and North America.  (Perhaps skilful negotiators (see again below) could engineer a bidding battle between some of the more wealthy Asian economies?)  Next would come the Scilly Isles which would need a different sort of sales pitch stressing their obvious touristic potential, only partly exploited at present but clearly capable of vast and profitable returns once numerous restrictions imposed by current British law have been abolished.  (One thinks back to the period when the Cuban government reportedly declared it a patriotic duty of young Cuban ladies to help foreign tourists find their visits to the island enjoyable, a strategy now increasingly popular with  governments around the world.)   Once the Scillies have been disposed of the Isle of Wight would be next, a major step forward and one that could make a very substantial contribution to national finances when sold.  Its case is somewhat different since the size of the population might make it necessary to take the interests of the inhabitants into account.  However, unofficial Home Office advice is that difficulties can almost certainly be quashed by arranging that inhabitants will lose British nationality after the sale unless they co-operate with the necessary government decisions.  Curiously, beyond these options England is surprisingly ill equipped in the matter of islands.  (The Farne islands can be ignored for climatic and locational reasons.)  The real prize will of course be  an orderly sale, over the decades, of the islands of Scotland, scenically outstanding and liable to appeal to rich Americans and others with hazy notions that a great-great-grandmother with the surname Macalister counts as a close personal link to the windswept crag on which she kept her pigs in the 1790s.  The profits from these boggy goldmines could not merely shoulder much of the national budget, but allow for judicious tax cuts to the deserving classes.  These might be somewhat controversial, but the government is confident that legal experts will prove the proceeds from sales should go to Westminster.  What, though, of the Isle of Man, Jersey and  Guernsey, reputedly homes of legendary wealth?  They alas are off-limits.  No sales will be conducted there.  It is not just that the house of Windsor has means, little known but ruthlessly effective, to ensure that even the most tentative suggestion of intrusion on areas where the royal prerogative holds sway will never be made twice.  Even at the next level down those who wield the power to forbid it would never allow any serious interference to the material benefits that Westminster derives from its links to the enormous wealth in those territories.

            It has to be admitted, however, that most other revenue streams post-Brexit would be trivial in comparison  if not actually counterproductive.  Thus an optimist in the Home Office suggested that a reform of the visa arrangements could ensure that all tourists applying to visit the country but rejected on the grounds that they might be clandestine immigrants would be allowed to enter, so that they can spend money to the benefit of the economy, on condition that they agree to wear an electronic tag for the duration of their stay (not to exceed 14 days) while additional income could be extracted by requiring payment for an exit visa at the airport when they leave.   For a probably more successful example, there has been some interest expressed in Hollywood, provided withdrawal from Europe does go ahead,  in making a series of disaster movies showing how the British snatched defeat from the jaws of agreement (though others argue that the ‘horror’ genre might offer a more convincing scenario).  But the most promising of these minor contributions could be provided by the thousands of experts, advisors, consultants, and negotiators with the superb skills they have been honing in Brussels and elsewhere the past couple of years.  ‘Some of these fellows could persuade each other that the Earth orbits the sun in just 24 hours’ as one commentator put it.  It is likely that London will offer them substantial inducements to join ‘red, white and blue’ teams touring the world offering British expertise in dealing with situations needing careful preparation of proposals to leave all stakeholders convinced that their interests have been safeguarded and outlining all possible lines of future development while taking care not to formulate these in terms which could undesirably restrict freedom of action of those who could stand to benefit.  And so on.  Thus the development of French nuclear power generation at Hinkley Point has been held up as an example of what British negotiating expertise can achieve faced with complex problems; it is true that the contract (signed in 2006, with a view to the facility being ‘in service’ by 2012) foresees the UK paying for the electricity at a rate more than double the rate now expected to be charged by other producers in the 2020s (when on present estimates production may start), but this results from factors that could not have been foreseen (such as the new engineering problems reported in March of this year expected to delay completion by a further year and adding another 400 million to the construction costs).  In any case extensive evidence of the British talent for successful negotiation is amply provided by the numerous private finance initiatives now scattered across the British economic landscape like sinkholes in mined-out country.

However this little note began by wondering who would benefit when Britain, with or without part of Ireland, finally waves farewell to Europe, and one of the most conspicuous candidates must surely be Liam Fox, the minister who has been tirelessly circling the globe trying to find trading opportunities for Britain, ever since the die was cast.  Forty countries is it, that have told him they may be interested?  What the tangible outcomes will be, who can foretell?  But if a lively well-connected minister with all that experience and all those brilliant contacts does not end his days as a billionaire  then the world’s capitalist trading system is not even trying.

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For the third time since the beginning of last year the Anglophone Word has dropped more than 10% on the IIE (International Integrity Exchange) in a week, with effects that now risk serious damage to related domains, such as politics, trade, moral values and literary production.  Analysts believe there is now urgent need of a fresh international agreement to give the Anglophone Word a new start with a lower target exchange value against all other competitors.