Saying what you mean
Among those who have won the Nobel Peace Prize there are some remarkable characters (remarkable in some cases for their status as winners of a Nobel Peace Prize). I seem to remember it was the highly remarkable international fixer Henry Kissinger who gave what is actually one of the very best pieces of advice to bellicose national leaders playing ‘dare’ against powerful opponents (with millions of powerless citizens as the potential collateral damage): ‘Declare victory and lead the troops back home’. (Bellicosity often goes with poor judgement.) It must have been a slightly less military version of the same policy that allowed so much jubilation in July when Greece was officially declared to be a good and successful pupil in the EU’s Institution for Developing Economic Policies and congratulated on getting a Pass mark which allows her once again to enter a bank without a prior appointment and without any accompanying financial ‘minders’. The jubilation was in Brussels, notice, not in Athens. Greece is now equipped with a debt equal to 178% of her GDP. (Let’s emphasise that: not 78%, but one hundred and seventy-eight percent.) It is estimated that servicing this debt ‘going forward’ in the cant phrase (though ‘going backward’ might be more appropriate) will take 3½% of her annual GDP. Prospects for economic growth to help with financial recovery? There are minor disagreements about the projected figures, but for 2019 onwards they vary between 1% and 2·4%. Opinion is that the debt will not be paid off before 2050 or even 2070, and that further tranches of ‘aid’ (actually arriving as interest-demanding loans) will be needed in the meantime. Pensions and other state support for those who really need it have been severely cut (reduction of pensions having for instance been an explicit demand of the IMF) and suicide rates have risen. Unemployment is officially just below 20% of the population. 10% of the population have left since the mess really got going. So everything hunky-dory? In EUspeak, maybe so. (By the way, why should poor Papandreou who was honest enough to tell the EU about bad things having been done bear the blame; another case of ‘whistle-blower beware’?)
Meaning what you say Trump has been blaming China for the disappointing failure so far of ‘denuclearisation’ in Korea to turn up as previously expected. It is not surprising that human beings seem to have a predisposition to believe what other humans (or bots) (or perhaps aliens disguised as human beings) tell them. This predisposition obviously had powerful value in evolutionary terms. If you are a primitive humanoid wending your way through the mountains and the leader of your group pauses, points to a cave ahead and to the right and grunts ‘Sabre-toothed tiger’ (or hominid noises to that effect), it could be very advantageous to believe her. Of course, like so many good things, this valuable strategy can be carried too far. For instance the grunting leader may take advantage of your hasty retreat back down the path dropping the load you were carrying to steal and eat the tarsier forearm you had been intending to keep as a treat for yourself when you finally reached the head of the pass. For several million other instances of how words can actually convey things other than true reports you could cast an eye on what is available today on social media. But the fault really lies with the person who makes the quite unjustified assumption that what gets said must be true in the dictionary+grammar sense, a belief which could be a terrible constraint on effective action and continuance in public office. It should be immediately obvious that what a national leader says has meaning in the official sense; that is, it means what the national leader wants the audience to believe, not – oh goodness! – most certainly not what the unskilled audience would take the words to mean. At present, around the world thousands of journalists a little too busy to be decently investigative are passing on the news that the denuclearisation of North Korea so triumphantly foretold by Donald Trump not very many tweets ago is actually proceeding rather less apace than the Donald’s tweets had led many naïve listeners, viewers and readers to suppose; so far unskilled audiences have no reason to get confused. But many of the journos are adding to that, usually without comment of their own, the White House view that this was not the Donald’s fault for getting things wrong but China’s fault for not pushing hard enough in the desired direction, and leaving the nuclear capacities of North Korea to flourish. This does reflect the Donald’s words, but how did he mean them? This is one case where outsiders can quite easily form an opinion on which sort of meaning is involved. A simple way to decide is to look at a map, and ponder whether any state is likely to be dragging its feet on a high profile programme aimed at scaling back the nuclear activities of a frighteningly unpredictable nation, which is also just 700 km of easy rocket flight away from its own capital city. (And here a glance at any old school atlas lying in shreds in the cat’s basket may be relevant.)
Truth and other matters
In most countries the race to ‘get ahead’ and ‘stay ahead’ has enthusiastic supporters cheering from the grandstands (where the tickets – when they’re not freebies from well-connected friends – are the most expensive and so the average per capita wealth quotient is highest. In other words, applause for inequality of wealth is loudest among those who do well out of it.) It is said that at some of the most exciting venues such as Hong Kong or the Singaporean stock exchange the testosterone quotient in the air can reach levels classified by the admittedly left-wing group GASP (General Agreement on Standards for Pollutants) as liable to induce slight or moderate insanity. Many of those who feel they are far enough ahead to snatch a quick look back at the struggling hordes behind them will of course argue that the urge to achieve (as they will put it) has been one of the most important factors bringing humanity onward and upward from messing about learning how to knock stones together to the astounding capacity to hold in one hand a moving picture of what a friend ten thousand miles away was eating for dinner last night, and when the sequence is finished to play it all through again just by tapping the picture twice, much as a baboon might tap a sleeping cat just to see it move. Of course the changes in the human life style have not concerned technology only. Social organisation has certainly retained its original base structure, the quarrelsome family group, but over the centuries and millennia has developed – sometimes by design sometimes by failure to notice what was going on – an astounding proliferation of structures. Sizes range from the pair as in marriage, or even the unit, as with the hermit although by definition hermitry hardly qualifies as a social structure, to the millions as with current migrations from Africa to Europe Types range from the rigidly organised as with the Byzantine 1 bureaucracy to the Huns invading western Europe in the fifth century (or when Russian and British football supporters meet). Aims may be benevolent and clearly defined (e.g. the Red Cross) or purely ceremonial (the British House of Lords comes to mind) or loose and variable as with most modern opportunist political parties where the possibility of power decides the policies, not the other way round. Comparable diversity is found along a host of other axes. But the important point may be that the speed with which changes arrive has been accelerating rapidly. It is amazing how many institutions have changed in just a decade or two from doing things in the founder’s/grandfather’s way because that’s how he did it (more respectably a.k.a. `if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’) to a situation which looks dangerously close to administration for the sake of administration (to mention only its most acceptable face). Nowadays somewhere in almost any institution there will be someone, maybe lurking with co-conspirators in an underground labyrinth of unlabelled offices, maybe pontificating from the chair of the board of directors, trying to engineer a change in the way they do things. There may have been a genuine if mistaken belief that breaking up practices which had evolved naturally to meet the real situations encountered in whatever activity is involved would save money (unlikely) or time (very unlikely); (of course it may get the breaker-up a reputation as a go-getting ‘achiever’.) But just try an empirical approach. Read up about some of the recent collapses in British industry and business. A lot of it is down to a bizarre willingness to trust in the words of those who boldly assert they know how to plan some activity even when there is no evidence they have any personal competence in actually doing it. A mathematician who is a whizz with equations about ballistics is not the obvious first choice for your next trapeze acrobat. In a society where paper certificates matter more than practical competence, self-confidence however unjustified, has apparently become the trump card. Without for a moment saying that things were run perfectly, one suspects they went rather better (making due allowance for resources available at the time) when doctors – and matrons – ran the health service, railwaymen ran railways, soldiers ran the army (the number in the British army is now far below the number of civil servants and members of quangos doing business for the Ministry of Defence), forwards and fullbacks ran football clubs, broadcasters ran broadcasting, teachers ran education, librarians ran libraries, and rock bands wrote their own music. But bring in the administrators/professionals who ‘know how the business should be run’ (because they have certificates proclaiming them Masters in Administration of Education/Broadcasting/etc from Cooney Lane University of Management Expertise) arriiving with their questionnaires, mission statements, surveys, restructuring outlines, rationalisations, resource allocation priorities, project planning groups, quotas, quota table reports, performance assessments, not to mention their managers’ car park and clubhouse where the children’s library/music room/wooden leg store/rifle range used to be, and actual achievement nosedives (even though success recorded on the charts appears to soar), morale of those who really do the work accelerates downwards, and whoever is supposed to be on the receiving end gets a rotten service (with for instance the man sent out to the Middle East to fight ‘for his country’ having to buy his own equipment). Get worried. An alternative to the usual scripts for the end of civilisation is sketching itself in, with the jungle of interconnecting (but not necessarily intercommunicating) bureaucracies spread across the world threatening to demand ever more of the world’s resources for their support.
1 One demented detail: at one period of Byzantium those present were required to chant ‘Hail Caesar’ 27 times when the current emperor entered the Senate
§ next posting pencilled for 16 September