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.
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
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