The Children are Whining. Again

The Left – I dislike the term but it self-identifies –  has gone a little bit crazy since DT became PE. Not all liberals are Leftists, fortunately. Liberals often talk some sense, when they can be persuaded to abandon a content long in emotion and short on fact, but the latest #notmypresident meme has drawn a lot of people, mostly the young, the naive and the woefully ignorant, out on the streets and participating in strange joining rituals.

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Guess the average age…

By way of example, Cornell University held a “cry-in”. The kids all got together and wept in the quad, sobbing about how “terrifying” Trump’s victory was. They scrawled their heartbreak upon the pavement with coloured chalk.  Adults, presumably including some faculty members, appeared on the scene, but strangely none of them told the kids to grow up, which really should enrage the university’s alumni and donors. Staff were “providing tissues and hot chocolate” to the emotional exhibitionists, according to the WSJ. Outrageously  expensive institutions of higher learning, it would seem, are churning out students who can’t deal with the results of an election and the blame for foolishness of this magnitude must be laid squarely at the door of out-of-touch, ivory towered academics teaching weirdly marginal social science and gender studies courses which have almost zero impact on daily life. Maybe they did it on purpose, as part of the great liberal project to make childhood hence manipulability a permanent condition. Children have their needs met, on the whole, by nurturing adults. To expect politics to do so is spectacularly naive and borderline stupid. What else can be expected when you are taught to believe that your pet ideology deserves to be empowered by election and you stamp your feet in unison when the collective will of the people decides otherwise. 

Columnist Mark Steyn made an interesting observation; an alarmingly large percentage of people legally permitted to cast a vote had “knowledge of history so scant that hitherto they had no idea America wasn’t a one-party state and that once every decade or so the other guy gets to win.” Funny, but alarming. It’s very unhealthy to assume political victories are permanent.

screen-shot-2016-11-17-at-14-57-55One of the more laughable identifiers has been the proliferation in safety pins, normally once used to attach a terry nappy securely around its incontinent wearer, but the irony has clearly been lost on the Pampers generation. Unlike previous fashionistas, like punks and Elizabeth Hurley, it’s supposed to show those who get it that the wearer identifies with the marginalised in some way.

‘If you’re wearing a hijab, I’ll sit next to you on the bus’. Now everybody thinks that they’ll be able to run to the nearest safety pin when the death squads come for them.  It’s going to be interesting to see if people will resort to even more deranged acts of political exhibitionism to reinforce their sense of superiority and entitlement, sow fear among the populace, and win even more media attention. Perhaps ‘Trump assassination porn’…

Second-Hand

screen-shot-2016-11-06-at-6-51-44-pmIt’s chastening to reflect, guiltily or not, on the proposition that none of our ideas, pleased as we might be with their having occurred to us, cannot really be called our own. I often find myself vapidly empty of both initiative and spark when it comes to writing something – let’s say –  meaningful, because all the good ideas have been snapped up and all that is left is a mish-mash, a cracked kaleidoscope, a palette put together by somebody else, and rejected in consequence.

Mark Twain’s masterful dissection to his friend Helen Keller is the sum of all writerly fears and the sound of a gently deflating ego.

“Oh, dear me, …the kernel, the soul — let us go further and say the substance, the bulk, the actual and valuable material of all human utterances — is plagiarism. For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his. But not enough to signify. It is merely a Waterloo. It is Wellington’s battle, in some degree, and we call it his; but there are others that contributed. It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others. He added his little mite — that is all he did. These object lessons should teach us that ninety-nine parts of all things that proceed from the intellect are plagiarisms, pure and simple and the lesson ought to make us modest. But nothing can do that.

Steve Jobs reminded us that ‘creativity is just connecting things’, the things, ideas and the ephemera of almost-there were in existence inside somebody’s head before being teased into the daylight and joined up by someone else, full-formed and ready made. Even the genius of Salvador Dali was, in his own words, subject to imitation. When he wrote ‘those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing’ – he just stated the obvious, he imitated better than everybody else. We borrow constantly, repurposing and reimagining. The writer’s craft sets about a piece and reinvigorates it, turning meanings around as if they were Mobius strips and creating a new politics out of the old. 

Frightful Fiends and Hallowe’en

idem sacra cano signataque tempora fastis: ecquis ad haec illinc crederet esse viam?

I sing of sacred rites and calendar days: would anyone have thought it would lead to this? (Ovid: Fasti II)

“Like one, that on a lonely road  doth walk in fear and dread,  And having once turn’d round, walks on and turns no more his head: Because he knows, a frightful fiend doth close behind him tread.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”

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Today is All Saints Day, or Hallowmas, the day after the night when the ghouls rise, the witches cackle and the Devil rides abroad, seeking whom he may devour. Perhaps. We seem to love scaring ourselves witless. It’s the same old perennial, every year, we ask ‘is Hallowe’en a good thing, a bad thing, harmful or harmless, I wonder’?  As with most holidays – or holy days –  it’s a mish-mash of Christian and pagan traditions, rather like Yule and Eostre, which we’ve conveniently Christianised at least in part, whereas this one, possibly initiated by Pope Gregory IV (795-844) as All Saints Day on November 1 has been left to evolve as the scary one, being celebrated the night before. Most sources agree that the day we know of as Hallowe’en in Western culture was lifted from the pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain. Samhain was the close of summer, the end of the growing season and the start of the harvest. Food was prepared and set aside for ancestors and protective spirits, and rituals honouring the dead took place – a similar ritual is still observed in Mexico as Dia de Muertos sitting somewhat uneasily beside modern Catholicism. Churches celebrate Harvest Festivals around this time so Samhain hasn’t quite escaped a whitewashing from the Church, which celebrates growth, hope and good harvest while leaving out the scary bits.

The Island had a party last night and as I walked home, small shrieking ghoulish creatures besplashed with fake blood, greyed faces and black witches’ hats were trick-or-treating, accompanied by parents in cadaverous make up and clothing.

No, I’ve never really been much of a supporter of All Hallows Eve, the Day of the Dead. Essentially a celebration based on fear seems to me to be psychologically counterproductive, the emotional equivalent of riding a fearsomely steep rollercoaster – being scared just…because. Americans are worse than we are, they spend over six billion dollars annually not just on costumes but on silly nonsense such as a garden ornament in the form of a life-size stuffed “bride” hung by a noose around her neck.  You can also buy bloody plastic severed limbs – the hatchet still embedded in the fake flesh to hang from trees in the garden. Some feature severed heads dangling from trees, eyes a-goggle, seemingly watching one’s every move. A few years ago, a woman dressed as a zombie bride with blood trickling from her face processed stone-faced through the aisles of a supermarket; young children screamed.

Wouldn’t it be so much better if instead of sending ghouls to knock on the door and be given treats, the only day in the year when the neighbours’ kids ever darken one’s own porch, to leave the lights on more often so they felt at home tapping on the door for the other three hundred and sixty – odd days as well?

Whose White House?

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-10-21-01-amI’m glad I’m not an American voter. There’s a tendency as November 8 approaches to adopt a kiddie-pundit, adversarial and almost desperately black and white yes/no voting booth philosophy, so much so that the deeper arguments, the ones that really matter, get lost in a welter of junk media; baby food for the masses.
I suppose myself to be quite ‘liberal’, embracing a worldview based on notions of liberty and equality, more or less. Whereas classical liberalism emphasises the role of liberty, social liberalism majors on equality, so, for me classics trumps social libertarianism every day and twice on Sundays. Liberals generally support ideas such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, civil rights, democratic societies, secular governments, gender equality and international co-operation; fine and laudable precepts, loaded as they may be with politically slippery cautionary tales. However, in its modern form liberalism has contained within it an intrinsic tendency towards extreme relativism, which in turn has historically led to two types of nihilism. The first was a “brutal” nihilism as expressed in Nazi and Marxist regimes; Mao did not come to power in a vacuum. Leo Strauss wrote in ‘On Tyranny’ that these ideologies, both descendants of Enlightenment thought, tried to eradicate all traditions, history, ethics, and moral standards and on the resultant tabula rasa forcibly replace them with an iron fist under which nature and mankind were subjugated and conquered. The second type, a “gentler” nihilism as expressed in Western liberal democracies was a kind of value-free aimlessness and a hedonistic “permissive egalitarianism”, which everyone can see has penetrated to the core of  European and American thought. His view was that 20th century relativism, scientific pre-eminence, historical criticism and nihilism were thus all implicated in the deterioration of modern society, bringing us to a political impasse clearly demonstrated by the Clinton/Trump tickets of choice. Trump calls out the house divided in terms of the fear it generates and the notion of extreme regime change resonates with the masses. Clinton has Machiavellian tendencies and people don’t trust her.  I wonder whether societies are really capable of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions, on accident and force. Whose White House will it be?

Desperate Times in the Jungle

The media has been full of it.

screen-shot-2016-10-24-at-10-39-02-amSpeculation has run high in the French media in recent days about the probability of violence as the Calais Jungle, home to between seven and ten thousand desperate people, all attempting by wild and ingenious means to cross Britain’s protective strip of water and find sanctuary there, is razed to the ground. Rather than be rounded up and herded on to a bus to God knows where, some have already melted away into the forest, jumping trains to  central Paris to hide amongst their own, preparing for another try later.

The exodus began. Riot police were on hand and as night fell last night, fires began to rage and battles followed. For us, we had hoped to insulate ourselves from possible disruption by sailing to Dunkerque instead of the shorter and more convenient Port of Calais, since running a gauntlet of migrants possibly with stone-throwing, was not a particularly tempting proposition. Leaving the boat, the road sweeps in a wide arc around the port of Calais, the lights of the Jungle burning like the fires of Hell. Without warning, we were aware of large numbers of young men on the hard shoulder of the highway, all marching determinedly, so numerous that some were spilling over into the inside lane. The road was dark. An obstacle loomed in the gloom – a large tree was blocking all three carriageways of the highway. I applied the brakes so hard that the wheels spun on the wet road before we lurched to a stop, a few metres away from its stripped trunk. We were surrounded by young men, faces hidden behind the ubiquitous shemagh and for a moment I was reminded of stone-throwing Palestinians in East Jerusalem. We locked the car, hazards blinking, and waited.

The men milled about, aimlessly. The objective seemed to be to allow the cars to pass while stopping the lorries where some might be able to climb aboard undetected – a forlorn, desperate hope indeed. Eventually, the tree trunk was pulled aside and we were given just enough room to squeeze past and be on our way – the stopping tactic seemed to work since enraged Belgian and Dutch lorry drivers were standing on their horns as the migrants surrounded them. We came to no harm;  we were not the target. The sheer futility of the manoeuvre left an echo in my memory. They had to have planned for a robust police presence arriving within minutes, so the trucks had to be stopped, boarded and on their way within a very short window of time. We did not see the police arrive, but assuredly they did and would almost certainly have taken trucks away to be searched.

I cannot imagine the despair these people feel. A busload of unaccompanied ‘children’, some with crows’ feet and a five o’clock shadow found its way to the UK yesterday, windows firmly curtained, lest the media attempt to guess their ages should any be rash enough to smile. Despite the fact that obviously adult men have cheated a child out of a place on the bus, I cannot help but feel a certain sympathy for them. Some, perhaps most are fleeing war zones. Inevitably,  because the Home Office seems both bumbling, incompetent and, truth be told, to have been spectacularly wrong-footed, there will be a few whose motives are less than peaceful. Hidden in the huddled masses, some will almost certainly have slipped through, waiting to plant devices of mass destruction and share the glorious reward of the shuhada. As usual, anarchists, busybodies and activists were on the scene in the Jungle last night, some, ashamedly, were British. They came prepared to disrupt the evacuation and simply get in the way. My fervent hope is that the French police were, let’s say, robustly determined to get the job done, in spite of for many, serious moral misgivings. The existence of these squalid shanty towns is a symptom of Europe’s failure to manage the refugee reception crisis, as well as the broader issue of  migration  and closing them does nothing for the underlying problem. In France, the process is driven by a wish to clean the place up, dispersal creating invisibility which can be managed politically far better than thousands in a Calais ghetto. One representative had the chutzpah to suggest on live TV last night that the French were behaving to the migrants as the Nazis behaved to the Jews. I hardly think that taking people to safety on a bus has quite the same resonant cadence as a trainload of cattle trucks disgorging a cargo of misery into the gas chambers.

A Note from the Capital

Madding crowd at the changing of the Guard.
Madding crowd at the changing of the Guard.

The man who is tired of London, it has been alleged, is tired of life itself. Unlike myself, Samuel Johnson was a boundless optimist, seeing a rather dirty glass three quarters full instead of grimly empty. London seems to be in a permanently heaving state,  the ebb and flow of huge numbers of  breathless, wide-eyed tourists, endlessly craning their necks or waving selfie sticks about to catch a glimpse of the impressive gates of the Palace or taking pictures of the ducks in St James’ Park. Away from the Babel of languages – I counted at least seven in one minute on a bridge in the park – it has its charms for the vagabond, the bystander, the permanent inhabitant of some cranny or nook, far from the madding crowd. Always so much better to share the experience – my daughter in this case, who, blessedly, is also my friend. So many places to walk where the advantages of being street smart kept you alive have now been overtaken by what we once called the ‘quality’ or, perhaps, the ‘gentry’, with disposable incomes allowing the rental of tiny but chic little flats for thousands of pounds a month, and the purchase of Audis or BMWs and expensive shoes from the West End. Islington is so very chic these days, metamorphosing into a slightly blurred and certainly more muffled Brooklyn, watering holes and gastropubs with wooden floors, rough china and superb food. Similarly Clapham and Balham, once only rather drab bus destinations and little else have acquired chic, expensive pavement cafés and restaurants for the young and well-heeled to hang out as only millennials can.

It was interesting- in a strange, memory-rich kind of way to be back – slipping gently into left hand driving and remembering to look left first, but I slipped English moorings a long time ago and the whisperings of auld lang syne are neither insistent nor particularly nostalgic. Brexit will cement Britishness – that curious state of mind which only the British seem to possess, the kind of mindset that distrusts French cheese and enjoys warm ale with the determination to drink a lot of it at high speed. Later today, as the white cliffs disappear into the mist, and the snub silhouette of Cap Gris Nez pokes over the horizon, I shall probably breathe a slight but distinct sigh of relief.

Poor Democracy

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-5-47-26-pmAfter Brexit and new revelations about the moral turpitude, masquerading as ‘locker room banter’ of Donald Trump, I found a strange, all-pervasive anxiety beginning to overshadow me. Politics is a dirty, Machiavellian game, also highly complex, the rules keep changing and referenda and sometimes elections are the blunt little tools we all use to try to get the best for everyone. If the Brexit vote were recast today, it would almost certainly have turned out differently.  Activists and flag-wavers latch on to a very few easy-to-follow policy mantras which seem black and white, then agitate, push, protest and intimidate, whichever is required, to subjugate the weak or push the undecided out of the way in order to achieve their aims. Such anxiety as I found myself facing about the consequences of political ignorance is not new. In the long history of thoughtful people, not necessarily intellectuals, worrying about democracy and its failings, two basic fears surface. The first is that democracy will mean rule by the poor, who will use their collective power and numerical superiority to steal from the rich. During Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the houses of the middle classes were raided and their toilets smashed, since possession of such an item was considered too superior, too bourgeois, so secondly, democracy is rule by the ignorant, who will use their power to do foolish things. Both these worries go back at least as far as Plato. The ancient Greeks understood that democracy meant letting the have-nots get their claws into the haves. For Aristotle, that’s what the word meant: it was rule by the poor (the demos) over the wealthy. But if class conflict came with the territory, the deeper fear was what the masses might do out of sheer foolishness.screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-5-46-55-pm

For Plato, democracy suffered from the basic defect of putting decision-making in the hands of people who were not competent to decide. Politics was a skill – and most people were clueless. Worse, that made them prey for liars, snake oil merchants and demagogues who would promise them the moon and mostly get away with it. Democracy was fertile ground for fantasists with a taste for power. If you tell the people that black is white, and the people believe you, then who’s going to tell them that they’re wrong?

These fears never really evaporate. They resurface at times of political crisis. As long ago as the 1920s the argument was made, unblushingly, that modern citizens simply lacked the mental capacity to process the information needed for intelligent decision-making, thus were incapable of selecting appropriate leadership.

The polarization of America may not just rest on ethnic or gender lines but on education and critical thinking. Donald Trump has said he loves uneducated people. I wonder why.