Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sunday Extra

When sorrows come they come not single spies
But in battalions. 

There are some perfectly good things to be said about “grief athletics” and “grief inflation”. One might indeed compare the outpouring of public grief over the very funny Victoria Wood (2016) and compare it with that over comedy legends such as, say Eric Morecambe (1984), Charlie Chaplin (1977) or even Stan Laurel (1965). One could do a similar compare-and-contrast with Prince and Bowie on one hand and John Lennon and Elvis Presley on the other, and wonder how on earth we are going to top it when Paul McCartney finally shuffles of this mortal coil. (Fortunately, Bob Dylan is going to live forever.)

My working hypothesis is: “Until 1997, the death of a singer or sportsmen was show-business news or sporting news; after 1997 it became simply news. Before 1997, a death from natural courses would be reflected by an obituary and possibly an season of old movies on BBC 2. After 1997, the amount of newsprint given over to the death had to reflect the perceived importance of the deceased person. Not giving enough column inches to the departed would be a faux pas on a level of bowing from the neck instead of from the waist at the cenotaph, or being seen out in October without a poppy. AN INSULT TO THE DEAD." Prior to 1997, a tabloid might make Elvis Is Dead it’s front page story; after 1997 the serious broadsheets did so as well. 

My mother used to say that people always died in groups of 3, although the rule didn’t apply to major family bereavements. Great Uncle Bulgaria said something similar, so I suppose it was a proverb. I suppose that if old Mrs Dodsworthy three doors down passed away; and a few days later you heard that old Rev Bandersnatch kicked the bucket in his home for redundant clergyman, then you would be consciously waiting for Number 3, and be positively relieved when the paper recorded that Uncle Tumble, who you used to watch on the radio when you were a kid had gone to join the choir invisible, and could stop counting. 
It’s an old saying that “Dog bites man” is not news, but “Man bites dog” is. But if a local man dies after being bitten by a labradoodle (which is “news” in practically anyone’s book) then, for the next three weeks, the local paper will (quite understandably) think that every dog bite in the hospital’s incident book is worth a mention giving the punter (quite wrongly) the impression that there has been a terrible epidemic of men being bitten by dogs. It only required two deaths — David Bowie and Terry Wogan — for someone to decide that 2016 was a terrible year for celebrity deaths; and from then on every obituary  has been underlined in magic marker. 

No such thing as a Curse of Superman had even been thought of before Christopher Reeve had his riding accident.

One of the most boring and annoying rhetorical devices is the one where you pretend that because you think that something ought to be true, it actually is true. It might, in fact, be that the United Kingdom would be better off electing it’s next titular head of state rather than handing the title to the eldest child of the present incumbent. (1) I am, as everyone knows, agnostic on the issue. I tend towards saying that the process would be so complicated and divisive that it’s not worth the effort. Would we simply elect a new King when the old King dies, or would we stop having Kings and elect a President every five years? What would he be President of? “The United Republic”? “Greater England”? “New Britain”? “The Margaret Thatcher Memorial Islands”? This is a country where people claim that a preference for simple plurality vs instant run-off elections is a matter of ineffable religious conviction, for goodness sake.

But, as a matter of fact, we do have a Queen, and it is not too unkind to think that the time is not remote when we must, in the course of nature, have a new King. So there is a certain amount of interest in the day to day life of the Queen, and the next King, and the next King but one, and even the terribly cute next King but two. As arguments go, “Why are we interested in a photograph of an old lady and her grandchildren” and “Why does this require any coverage beyond a simple ‘Elizabeth Windsor, 90 today’ in the announcements column” makes republicans look like grumpy old twits. Republican twittery is cut from very much the same cloth as atheist twittery. I suppose it has to do with being against something rather than in favour of something. 

It might be that the public ought to care more about the finer points of the E.U referendum than about the death of a funny person who used to come on the telly when they were kids. But thinking that a thing is so does not make it so. (Patrick Stewart is getting worryingly close to his 80th birthday.)

There was a point, just after I left college for the second time, when all the legendary geek writers and artists seemed to be turning up their toes. The Golden Age of science fiction and comic books was the 30s and 40s, so many of the participants were always going to to die in the 90s. (2) The 1970s were the Golden Age of television: everyone had a TV, but there were only two channels (plus a third one which only showed nature documentaries in Welsh) and there wasn’t much else to in the evenings, so a very fine comedy actor like Ronnie Corbett could easily become a household name. A generation before, he’d have been making a very decent living as a much in demand stage actor; remembered by no-one except a few aficionados; a generation after, his well reviewed comedy shows would have had to compete with eighty five channels showing rolling 24 hours footage of cats falling off sofas. The entertainers who were always going to die in the second decade of the second millennium weren't cleverer or funnier than the entertainers who have died at other times. But they were famous in a way no-one had ever been before, or ever will be again. 

It isn’t big or clever to look at a photo of the next-but-one King and the next-but-one Queen outside the Taj Mahal and say “Why is a couple sitting on a bench news, especially?” It isn’t big or clever to pretend that you don’t know who Prince is. I suppose that it is possible to cut yourself off from popular culture to that extent (”and what exactly is a ‘beatle’?”(3)) but that rather prohibits you from talking bout it. I don’t think I could name a single professional football player. (There used to be someone called David Beckham, but he retired to sell perfume and knickers.) 

For some people, it may simply be a logical error. If A is better than B then it follows that B is positively bad. If B is not quite as good as some people say, then it follows that B is awful. So the correct way of expressing the insight that "I am quite surprised, actually, by the importance the media attached to David Bowie" is "David Bowie was a talentless hack who couldn't sing."

But some people are, sadly, positively addicted to saying horrible things. If a lot of people are sad because a singer they liked as died their drug forces them to say "Who the hell was he?" A mad, sad man who writes for the Telegraph managed to describe Prince as “an obscure, sparsely talented performer”. A below the line commentator spoke about his “welcome death”. (4) The humans suffer from a disease called hatred: one day it may be possible to cure it. 

I was a bit surprised, actually, that a left wing paper like the Guardian ran a full page solid black front page to mark the death of a singer. I used to think it was silly to feel sad when a performer you liked died: since I have been going to live gigs, and since several of the performers I most revere are the wrong side of 70, I don’t feel that any more. If Prince merits a front page and a pull out supplement, then nothing short of suspending all other reporting and printing 60 pages of black ink will suffice for Dylan. But as I say: he is immortal. 

I blame Diana. 

(1) Another thing I find boring and irritating is when people say "titular" when the actually mean "eponymous". 

(2) Gene Roddenbury, 1991; Isaac Asimov, 1992; Joe Shuster, 1992; Jack Kirby, 1993; Jerry Siegel, 1996; Bob Kane, 1998

(3)It is very doubtful is any judge ever actually said this. And if even if he did, every word spoken in an English court is recorded verbatim so it is fairly important that slang terms and terms from popular culture are defined for the benefit of future generations. I know this from having watched Crown Court when I was off school with ‘flu. An American Judge would have said “And for the record, Mr Starr, could you tell the court what a Beatle is…” and no-one would have found it especially funny.

(4) Imagine being a Daily Mail journalist and having to sit up all night working out how to get some hatred and bile into reporting the death of an elderly middle-of-the-road comedian who just about everybody like. Imagine reading the Daily Mail and learning of the death of Mr Ronnie Corbett under the headline “WHY WASN’T HE GIVEN A KNIGHTHOOD”. (Due to an establishment conspiracy, apparently.) 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Coxcomb Watch

Everyone is going to tell me that I shouldn't do this kind of thing, but here goes:

Five times Hugo award loser John C Wright recently placed on his web log a piece of text, written in 1938 by Gene Autry, a country singer and actor now best remembered for Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It purports to be the moral code which Cowboys followed; it seems to have been sent out to children who sent him fan mail.

One might have expected a devout and pious Catholic like Wright to put the Singing Cowboy’s grab-bag of secular morals alongside the Ten Commandments or even the Sermon on the Mount to demonstrate how inferior the one is to the other. One might have expected him to say that if you are still thinking up rules and codes you probably haven’t understood Christianity very well.

But if you are hammer, everything looks like a snail. If you see a well-meaning set of moral precepts written by a celebrity for the edification of kids nearly a century ago, then obviously the first thing that will occur to you is "Aren’t The Left awful." The Hugo award loser wants to know how many of the Singing Cowboy's moral precepts The Left break, or encourage others to break, on a regular basis.

I intend to tell him. 

I do not speak on behalf of The Left. I do not even regard myself as a Socialist. (As we've seen, a Socialist thinks everyone should have the same amount of money as everyone else; a Communist thinks we should get rid of money altogether. I am merely a Reformist: I think the Rich should be a little bit poorer and the Poor should be a little bit richer.) I am a member of the British Labour Party, and a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn. I have been called an SJW, although not by anyone sensible.

So. Here is how The Singing Cowboy's Code struck this particular Leftie. Next month, I promise to start writing about Spider-Man.

The Cowboy Code goes thus:

1. The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.

2. He must never go back on his word, or a trust confided in him.

3. He must always tell the truth.

4. He must be gentle with children, the elderly and animals.

5. He must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas.

6. He must help people in distress.

7. He must be a good worker.

8. He must keep himself clean in thought, speech, action and personal habits.

9. He must respect women, parents and his nation’s laws.

10. The Cowboy is a patriot

If I have counted correctly, these 10 precepts actually contain 23 different commandments; which can be grouped under eight general principles:

I: Be kind

II: Be honest

III: Be tolerant

IV: Be conscientious

V: Be polite

VI: Be chaste

VII: Be law abiding

VIII: Be patriotic

Eight out of Autry's ten rules I endorse unreservedly. One I would like to have a little more information about. One is, as it stands, positively misleading. Let's go through them one by one: 

Rules 1 and 4

I fully endorse both these rules, which are in fact, the same rule stated in different words. Don't start fights; don't fight weaker people; don't take advantage of anyone who is weak. I would call this "Kindness", and it’s a universal human virtue.

Insofar as these rules are specifically intended for the edification of Cowboys, the Singer may be thinking particularly about chivalry and honour: how men behave in fights. When soldiers are not actually fighting, they should go out of their way not to be macho and aggressive; even when they are fighting their mortal enemies, they should fight fair, accept his surrender; never kill or torture prisoners.

I have never come across anyone on The Left or The Right who was opposed to Kindness. The Left are on the whole more strongly in favour of it than The Right. It has tended to be The Left who have made laws against child beating, domestic abuse and the inhumane treatment of pets and animals: it has often been The Right who have called these rules silly and sentimental and said that if a man can’t beat his own wife and children in his own house then whose wife and children is he supposed to beat? When there are complaints about our soldiers not using Honour and Chivalry — there have been terrible allegations about the use of torture and the mistreatment of prisoners in recent wars— those complaints mainly come from The Left. It is The Right who are inclined to regard such concerns as soft, unmanly, treacherous or cowardly.

Rules 2 and 3

Rules 2 and 3 are also different wordings of the same rule. I fully endorse both of them. Keeping promises, keeping secrets and telling the truth are part of the universal human virtue called Honesty.

I have never come across anyone on The Left or The Right who is opposed to Honesty. It is always possible to come up with clever, exceptional cases where lying is the best thing to do, for example, when the Gestapo knock on your door and ask if you have a Jewish family hiding in your attic. But the fact that we can imagine exceptions doesn’t invalidate the general principal. The exception proves the rule, as the fellow probably didn’t say.

Rule 5

This rule is oddly worded. I don't have that much of a problem with someone "possessing intolerant ideas" or indeed "advocating intolerant ideas". I am not quite sure how you can possess and idea without advocating it. What I have a problem with is people who behave in an intolerant way.

But I think we all know what the Singing Cowboy was getting at. He wasn't saying that Unitarians (who think everybody goes to Heaven) made good Cowboys, but Baptists (who hold to the arguably less tolerant theory that only people who have been washed in the blood of the lamb can be saved) made bad ones. If anything, he probably thought that Religion and Party Politics were not the kinds of things which gentlemen ought to talk about  — certainly not when they were risking their lives together in hostile in’jun territory. I think that what he had in mind was saloons with "No Jews or Irish" written on the doors; and individual Cowboys who refused to associate with black people or who used horrible words about them behind their backs. I think he was telling the kids that they should treat everyone the same, even if they don’t look like you or use the same word for God.

I strongly endorse this rule. Tolerance is a universal human virtue. It tends to be emphasized more strongly by The Left than The Right. It is The Left who say that signs saying "No Jews" and certain kinds of bad-language shouldn’t be allowed. It is The Right who say that if a landlord wants to ban Jews from drinking in his pub, that's a matter for him. The Right have, indeed, invented a cuss-word, "Political Correctness" to refer to people who behave tolerantly. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that The Right are personally intolerant. It may simply mean that they have an unwritten eleventh commandment "A Cowboy thinks personal freedom is more important than any of these rules".

Rule 6

Rule 6, "help people in distress" is simply another way of phrasing rules 1 and 4. The former say "Don't hurt people if you can possibly help it"; this one says "Help people if you possibly can." Of course, the Singing Cowboy is thinking mainly of the rugged, manly outdoor life. When he says "people in distress" he is thinking of people who are trapped in quicksand and being menaced by hungry wildebeests. But I am sure he means us to apply it to other kinds of distress as well. If someone is sick or hurt, you should do whatever you can do make them better; if someone is broke, you should share your dosh with them. Many of us think that Jesus Christ was an even better role-model than Gene Autry, and he said that everything turned on this point: "For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat; I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink; I was a stranger, and ye took me in, naked, and ye clothed me; I was sick, and ye visited me; I was in prison, and ye came unto me."

I have never heard anyone on The Left or The Right who is against helping people. If there is a difference of opinion, here, it is usually between people on the The Left who say that we need to provide ropes, pulleys and ladders to help people out of holes; and people on The Right who say that if people fall down holes then it’s their own fault and if we keep fishing them out then no-one will ever look where they are going.

Rule 7

I strongly agree that one should be a "good worker". I think that whatever you do; you should do it to the best of your ability; and I think that everyone should do their fair share of whatever needs doing and not leave it to other people.

I have never heard anyone on either The Left or The Right say that laziness and incompetence are virtues. If anything, The Left is more inclined than The Right to say that everyone should lend a hand, and to object to rich freeloaders who sit on their trust funds and watch the money role in. That is what the "according to his ability" part means.

Rule 9

Rule 9 is confused. "Respect" means both "be polite to" and "pay attention to".

To Respect your parents and the opposite sex means to be polite to them; to use good manners and social etiquette in your interactions. I think that good manners are a good thing. I think hurting people with words is as ungentlemanly as hitting a smaller man or a man with glasses or indeed anybody. I would even go so far as to say that the old fashioned rules of etiquette were quite a good idea. If everyone agrees that the younger person should let the older person pass through the door first; and that the man should let the woman do so, then we avoid unnecessary pushing and shoving. Etiquette and manners change over time; but knowing about this is part and parcel of good manners. If Granny has good manners, then she understands that the young folk use words that she would never have used and don’t mean anything by them; if the young folk have good manners they try not to use those words in front of Granny because they hurt her feelings. (Idiots on The Left and The Right sometimes say that it is impossible to hurt people with words, or that hurting people with words doesn't matter, and that there is literally no such thing as giving offence. Cowboys know better.)

"Respect" in the sense of "Respect your nations laws" means something quite different. Calling a lady "Miss Jones" until she invites you to use her first name and refraining from parking on a double yellow even if you are in a big hurry are both good things, but they are not the same good thing. I strongly support rule 9.2. I think that you should obey laws, even silly laws, particularly in a democracy where you have the power to change them.

Sadly, the Singing Cowboy does not tell us if a Cowboys first loyalty is to the Cowboy Code or to the laws and constitution of the United States. Does the Cowboy follow the Code except where it would be against the law, or does he follow the law, except where it conflicts with the Code? If the Government says that citizens are no longer to put Bibles on the wall or flags on the table; or if the Government says that cowboys are no longer allowed to carry six-guns, does a good Cowboy cheerfully and uncomplainingly follow the law, at least until the next election? If not, what was the point of putting "respect the law" in the Code to begin with?

I think that in this case, The Right make more of manners and obedience to the law than The Left do. The Left is more likely to say that old fashioned, ceremonial codes of politeness can be dispensed with. The Left is more likely than the Right to endorse the breaking of immoral laws; or the breaking of any laws in pursuit of a laudable goal. The Left is more likely to say that the Suffragettes, for example, were heroes and martyrs; The Right is more likely to see them as a bunch of vandals. 

Rule 10

I like the country I grew up in; I think that England has good laws and a sensible constitution; I am proud of the BBC, the National Health Service and the Welfare State. With all my faults, I love my House of Peers. I feel that the Lord of the Rings, the Beatles and the Two Ronnies are mine in a way that Moby Dick, Woody Guthrie and the Marx Brothers are not.

I think that I am in some sense a good person because I don’t punch smaller men, am polite to my elders and have (so far as I remember) never shot first in a duel. I don’t think that I am in any sense a good person because I love England; any more than I think that I am a good person because I love jaffa cakes. That is to say: I am a Patriot, but I do not think being a patriot is a moral virtue. Some of my friends on The Left would certainly say that patriotism is a vice or a temptation; that Loving England can too easily turn into Hating France and even Being Nasty To French People. Some of them would say that we should stop thinking of ourselves as English and see everyone as citizens of the world and members of the human race. A very great man once assured me that it isn’t hard to do.

I am not exactly sure how the Patriotism of the Cowboy Code is meant to play out in practice. Does a Cowboy simply go around thinking that the Yosemite valley is the most beautiful place on earth? Or is obliged to love the Constitution as well? Does he have to love it with "a love that asks no questions", or can he patriotically acknowledge its faults? He is entitled to think that the present, democratically elected Commander in Chief is an idiot, or does he have to say "my President, right or wrong." Or are we going to smuggle in some idea that Patriotism involves loving "the real America", and that certain places, people, institutions and points of view don't count?

A brief survey of Gene Autry’s music suggests that he was one of those who conflated Christianity with America and who had an instrumental attitude to religion. The Bible on the table and the flag on the wall are the backbone of our nation. Rely on both God and bullets. Pray to God, not because it's a good thing in itself, but because otherwise Santa might not bring you any presents. 

Rule 8

Rule 8 is about cleanliness, which is, it will be recalled, next to godliness. (*)  I do not think that the Singing Cowboy is telling me that I should take a shower every day and make sure that I have a supply of lavatory paper in my saddle bag. I think that "clean" and "dirty" are euphemisms for "chaste" and "unchaste". I think that when the Singing Cowboy tells children to have "clean thoughts" he is telling them not to think about sex. When he tells boys to have "clean actions" he is telling them not to get too close to girls. When he tells them to have "clean personal habits" he is telling them not to masturbate.

I don’t think it’s a great idea to look at too much pornographic material; and I definitely think that young people ought to be careful how far they go on a first date; and I am a fan of marriage as only a bachelor can be. But I think that looking at sexy pictures and having sexy thoughts and yes indeed playing with yourself in a sexy way is a perfectly normal part of being a human being, and that it is a very bad idea to tell children to associated their sexuality with dirt.

Chastity — total abstinence before marriage, total fidelity within marriage — is a Christian virtue; but I don’t know why this is the only Christian virtue that a Cowboy needs to worry about. Why not include "going to church on Sundays"; "only worshiping one God"; "not worshiping idols" or, for that matter "not coveting your neighbors ox"?

I don't think that there is any particular split between The Left and The Right over this rule. The Right have been known to prohibit things like pornography and sex-clubs on moral and decency grounds. The Left have also been known to campaign against pornography and sex-clubs on the grounds that they are degrading and insulting to women. Both sides have also said that grown-ups should be allowed to look at pictures of other grown-ups with no clothes on if they really want to.

In summary: this particular member of The Left is in favour of kindness, honesty, toleration, conscientiousness, politeness, law-abidingness and (depending on what you mean) patriotism. I think that The Left, on the whole, places more emphasis on kindness and toleration, while The Right, on the whole, places more emphasis on politeness and law-abidingness. I reject only one of the Singing Cowboy's precepts outright: it is pernicious to teach children that ordinary sexual feelings are dirty.

I know, of course, what five times Hugo Award losing author J C Wright will say at this point. He will say that The Left (on the whole) support a woman’s right to choose, and therefore approve of cruelty to foetuses; that The Left (on the whole) believe that two males who love each other should be treated exactly the same as a male and a female who love each other, and therefore disapprove of chastity; and that The Left support such things as a legal minimum wage and welfare payments for the unemployed and therefore disapprove of hard work. In fact, I think he would say that The Left approve of legal abortion because they positively disprove of kindness and want to encourage as much cruelty as possible; that The Left approve of civil partnerships and equal marriage because they positively hate chastity and want to encourage as much sexual immorality as possible; and that The Left came up with the idea that everyone should be paid enough to live on because they positively hate work and want to encourage everyone to be layabouts and bums.

There difference between The Left and The Right isn’t anything to do with their adherence to the Singing Cowboy Code. We all believe in kindness, honesty, tolerance and good manners in the same way we all believe in oxygen and gravity. We disagree about the extent to which kindness, honesty, tolerance and good manners are matters of individual responsibility; and the degree to which we all have to get together and make a kind, honest, tolerant and well-mannered world. We all agree that big people shouldn’t hit little people. We disagree about whether there need to be laws preventing grown ups from hitting children; or whether we should stop poking our noses into people's domestic affairs. We all agree that you should help people in distress; we disagree about whether the government needs to set up a big anti-distress fund or leave it to individuals to help each other. We all agree that if you see a lady in a burning building, you should try and get her out. We disagree about whether there need to be building regulations that stop ladies living in houses which are constructed of flamable materials; or whether that kind of thing is health and safety gone mad.

There are nasty, immoral people on both sides. We have recently had pundits on The Right saying that they positively hope refugees will drown; and newspapers of The Right positively comparing immigrants with vermin and infections. That goes against the Golden Rule, and the Sermon on the Mount and point 6 of the Cowboy Code. It is wicked, plain and simple. But we on The Left may be tempted to say that anyone who doesn't agree with our particular approach to immigration and asylum is a monster who thinks that foreigners are no better than rats. And that isn't true: only some of them are.

I support the National Health Service: like most British People, it is practically a religion to me. "The collective principle asserts that... no society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means." But I couldn't quote you facts or figures to show why the British tax-payer funded system provides better outcomes to say, the German insurance based model; or demonstrate what the optimum balance between standard of health care and tax burden lies. Those sorts of debates are difficult, boring, and once you start looking up facts there is a terrible risk that it will turn out that there are good points on the other side. So the temptation is to say that The Right positively want poor people to get sick and die. And that isn't true. Only some of them do.

The Far, Far Right go much further than this. They don't just say that The Left is incorrect about the degree of collectivization that is possible or desirable. They affect to think that The Left -- not just Kim Jong Un and Tony Blair but you and me and Jeremy Corbyn are actually evil -- zombies and moorlocks with funny hats and bad breath who actively reject the basic moral values of humanity. When they see a confused list of watered down Christian morals, written decades ago by a well-meaning celeb, their first reaction is to say "Here is someone who dares to come right out and say that he is in favour of kindness, tolerance, honesty, good manners and chastity — UNLIKE THE LEFT WHO ARE IN FAVOUR OF CRUELTY, BIGOTRY, LYING, RUDENESS AND FORNICATION!!!

I don't think that The Right are, on the whole, wicked and amoral. I do think that one or two of them are very, very stupid.

"Why are you printing this on your blog, Andrew, rather than contributing to the discussion on Wright's own page."

"Because Wright says that he will only publish contributions if they contain offensive, derogatory and intolerant language."


Illustrations of the Tao, taken from the works of the Singing Cowboy.



1.1 Never shoot first,
1.2 Never hit a smaller man,
1.3 Never take unfair advantage.
4.1 Be gentle with children
4.2 Be gentle with animals
4.3 Be gentle with old people.


6. Help people in distress.


2.1 Never go back on your word.
2.2 Never go back on a trust
3: Always tell the truth.


5.1 Do not advocate racially intolerant ideas
5.2 Do not advocated religiously intolerant ideas
5.3 Do not possess racially intolerant ideas
5.4 Do not possess religious intolerant ideas


7. Work hard


8.2 Keep clean in speech
9.1 Show respect to women
9.2 Show respect to your parents


8.1 Have clean thoughts (ie Don’t think about sex)
8.2 Have clean actions (ie Don’t have sex outside of marriage)
8.3 Have clean personal habits (ie Don’t masturbate)


9.3 Show respect to the laws of your nation.


10: A Cowboy is a patriot

(*) "But only in an Irish dictionary." R.I.P Ronnie Corbett.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

How to Break a Franchise

Princess Leia and Sana Starros take take Dr Aphra to the Rebel Prison Planet. A mysterious third party breaks into the prison, and begins executing the prisoners. Then, the power cuts out, the cells open, and Leia is trapped in the dark with  a mob of cold blood imperial murderers.

When Marvel's new Star Wars title launched last year, it felt impressively like a comic book adaptation of a lost 1979 movie, albeit with material from the sequels and prequels folded into it. So deftly and tactfully was this handled that it smoothed over some of the cracks in the Star Wars Saga; almost convincing us that the Episode IV Darth Vader really was still the Episode III Anakin Skywalker underneath. Issue #15, (an excerpt from Obi-Wan's lost journal) was both a shameless exercise in faux nostalgia and also a cunning synthesis of the old and new movies. A young kid called Luke shoots womp-rats near Beggars Canyon watched over by a figure who is older than Ewan McGregor but younger than Alec Guinness. It was the most enjoyable Star Wars Thing in years. 

But there is a growing sense that, now Luke has read Ben’s diary, and now that Darth Vader knows who destroyed the Death Star, writer Jason Aaron has filled in the space between Episode IV and Episode V and been reduced to making stuff up. And the more stuff gets made up, the further away from Star Wars we move, until, in issue 50, 60, 70 we'll realize that, even though the main character is based on reference photos of a very young Mark Hamill, what we are reading a generic space opera comic unconnected with any movie and Uncle Walt declares the whole thing non-canonical. 

I remember reading the first issue of Ultimate Spider-Man when it came out and loving it like I hadn't loved any comic in a decade. Everything that was ever fun and good about Spider-Man, re-imagined in a millennial setting. I forget how many issues it took before Peter Parker was being hassled by Nick Fury and dating Kitty Pryde and meeting up with his father’s old colleagues and dying heroically and being replaced by a much younger kid. Nothing against the comic: stuff had happened. Stuff had to happen. But the more stuff happened the more obvious it became that we were no longer re-imagining Spider-Man but, reading about a completely different character with a similar costume.

Sana Starrors and Dr Aphra? Who the hell are they? (*) And what the hell is the Rebel Alliance doing with a Prison Planet?

The new Rebel Prison arc (beginning Star Wars #16) is perfectly logical. The Rebellion, as depicted in the movies, is something way beyond being a guerrilla force or a bunch of terrorists. It has medals and insignia and battleships; I seem to think that the role-playing game described it as having its own currency. It's the remains of the Old Republic; the other side in a pretty substantial civil war. So of course it must take prisoners. And if it takes prisoners it must have a prison, unless it executes them on the spot, which is what rebels would do in a civil war but not what goodies ought to do in an heroic space opera. And if there is a Rebel Prison, then the prisoners must be very scary indeed, and there must be lots of people who would like to free them and lots of people who would like to kill them.

Perfectly logical. But if you are going to apply perfect logic to Star Wars you might as well go home. 

Jason Aaron has a pretty good handle on the character's voices and Princess Leia still sounds a bit like Princess Leia. But she is forced to have conversations that are just not the kinds of conversations that Princess Leia ought to be having. 

— I won’t let you do this, I won’t let you gun them all down.

— I know you won’t because you still believe you’re fighting a noble fight, don’t you. But there’s nothing noble about war, princess. Not if you want to win.

—I’m not going to debate you. I’m just going to stop you. You’re not killing anyone else.

—You’re right. You are. I’ve just released 17 cold blooded murderers from their cells, Princess. Perhaps you can have that debate with them. Though if you’d rather live, I suggest you get busy killing them. 

Princess Leia, the Princess Leia who called Chewie a Walking Carpet and was only a little bit sad when her planet blew up is just not big enough or real enough to be having Socratic dialogues about ethics. She doesn't become more real by debating with Hannibal Lecter, any more than Penelope Pitstop becomes more real by carrying a huge great phallic gone. She just becomes less like Princess Leia. To even ask the question "is war ever noble" is to abolish the franchise called Star Wars. 

Okay then, clever clogs: what would you have done if you were writing Star Wars and were forced to address the question of what the Rebels do with baddies they capture?

I would have imagined something shiny and wonderful. One of the races in the Alliance is a telepathic mind parasite that subsists by sucking the evil out of other life forms. Someone knows an Old Jedi Trick of gently turning people back to the Light. The same medical science that can graft new limbs onto wounded heroes can also teach bad people to be good. There is a beautiful, paradise like planet many millions of light years away where bad people are sent to live more or less contented lives until they can no longer harm society.

But actually, I would say "This is not the sort of question you ought to ask about Star Wars, any more than you should ask if Luke killed the civilian crew of the Death Star or how Biggs joined the Rebellion quite so quickly. It’s just not that sort of story."


Three elderly Clone Troopers are holding out on a cobbled together Old Republic Walker. Two Imperial AT-ATs are bearing down on them. They know that they have no chance, but mean to go down fighting. They attempt to ram one of the AT-ATs legs. Suddenly, with a literal fanfare, a Rebel spaceship zooms in. It loops over the top of one of the Walkers, and three people jump onto the roof of the cockpit. Two of them, a man and a boy, cut a hole with their lightsabers; the third, a bad tempered alien, jumps through it and bangs the heads of the two pilots together. The rebels commandeer the AT-AT and immediately start shooting at the other one. 

In one sense, it’s the total lack of ambition which makes Star Wars: Rebels the one iteration of Star Wars that honestly recaptures the spirit of '77. Clone Wars always felt too big and self-important. It was not only the story of a major galactic war; it was an attempt to justify the existence of the prequels: to convince us that galactic politics and swashbuckling could go together; to redeem Anakin’s character from what Hayden Christensen did to it. Rebels doesn't pretend to be about anything other than five incredibly generic characters running errands for the Rebellion. Episodes sometimes seems to have been created via a Random Mission Generator from the Star Wars role-playing game. “We need you to fly to the Planet Such-and-Such and deliver supplies / pick up supplies / make contact with Rebel agents there." One episode is lifted directly from a West End adventure module. 

So all that matters is that everyone should be having fun; that every plan should be more complicated than it needs to be; that every battle should involve a silly stunt; that no character can ever face certain death without a wise-crack and smart remark. And in almost every episode, Rebels triumphantly delivers on this modest objective.

Why didn't they shoot at the AT-AT with the ship's cannon? Because that would have been no fun. 

Why did Zeb bash the troopers' heads together rather than punch them?  Because it’s more fun that way.

Can lightsabers really slice through armour like butter, even armour that's impervious to heavy gunfire? No, not all the time. Only when it's fun. 

In the final episode of Season I, our heroes end up flying a captured imperial TIE-fighter, which Hera, the resident graffiti artist has resprayed with a psychedelic, floral pattern. How do they get away with it? Player-character immunity and an awful lot of Force Points.

Even now the Extended Universe has been purged, Star Wars is a strange, four dimensional text, and that temporal depth makes Star Wars: Rebels something more than the thrilling adventures of Kid Jedi. The cartoon takes place 14 years after Revenge of the Sith, and five years before A New Hope. So the prequels are something which the older characters can look back on; but the original trilogy is something which hasn't happened yet. Every time Princess Leia or Moff Tarkin or, yes, the big guy with the black cape and the breathing problem come on stage we fans look back to Star Wars but the heroes look forward to adventures yet to come. Kanan, the aging not-quite Jedi, remembers the massacre of the Jedi Knights from Attack of the Clones: 14 years ago, from his point of view; 11 from ours. Princess Leia looks much as she did in Episode IV, which is 40 years ago from our point of view, but still in our hero's future. And most interestingly, in series 2, running the Rebellion is none other than Ahsoka Tano.

Who the hell is Ahsoka Tano? If you missed out on Clone Wars, then you won't know that Anakin had an apprentice: at first, as reckless and irresponsible as he was; but by the end, a wise and noble warrior. She walked out of the Jedi Order in the final series of Clone Wars in 2012, which is to say, 18 years ago. 

Whoah, Andrew. A minute ago you were complaining that the Star Wars comic was focusing on characters who were never in the movies. Now you are excited because an older version of a character from one cartoon series has turned up in a different cartoon series?

Yeah. It's a matter of how you do it, I suppose. I had a hundred a twenty episodes in which to get used to Ahsoka; and it helps that the cartoon series offered a more convincing picture of the Clone Wars than either of the movies that referenced them. And I am more inclined to buy into Ahsoka's presence in Rebels, because a confrontation between "the Sith Lord" and his former apprentice is an intrinsically interesting set up; just the kind of thing that ought to be happening in Star Wars. We've never seen someone who knew and liked Anakin Skywalker confronting him as Darth Vader before. (When Obi-Wan confronted Darth Vader, Anakin Skwalker didn't exist; not in that sense.)
The little boy from Episode I who is addressed as "grandfather" in Episode VII; the young, comic relief character ("Snips") in on cartoon who is also the mature, tragic leader in another; characters who look back on previous movies as parts of of their youth or as parts of a past known only from folklore...

It would be silly and over the top to say that Star Wars is about time and memory; Remembrance of Things Past considered as a weekly cartoon strip. But remind me: what are the first words of the caption that appears at the beginning of ever Star Wars movie? 


The Binary Suns motif taps out on a tinkly instrument: a piano or a harpsichord or some such. The same only different. 

We are following someone into the Rebel Base; walking behind her. 

(The Rebel Base on Yavin; the actual Rebel Base on Yavin, with all the technicians and X-Wings and droids Is Biggs there, for example? I bet he is, even if we can't see him.)

The back view of a character is familiar to anyone who has ever played a third person computer game. "Identify with this character" it says "She will have a little bit of individuality, but she's basically just your avatar in the virtual world." 

Note also the lens flare. Computer games love lens flare even though no actual lenses are harmed during the making of computer games. Lens flare says “documentary”. It says "this isn’t a thing we made, this is a thing being shot, by some camera man embedded with the Rebel Alliance".

She is Jyn. She is a woman. She seems to be in handcuffs. The voice over must be an Imperial Officer reading out a charge sheet. She must be some kind of criminal who the Rebels have rescued. 

There is a flashback. Another market. Another heroine. Another hood. She is shooting Stormtroopers. Stormtroopers used to fall over politely when they were shot. Now they are propelled across the landscape. 

There is stuff which everyone can see; everyone who has ever been to the movies; everyone who has ever been inside a toyshop. X-Wings; the Death Star; Stormtroopers; Walkers. They are what tell us that this is Star Wars. You could make a movie about someone going to the shops to buy some potatoes and if there were Stormtroopers, Walkers, Death Stars and X-Wings you would still know it was Star Wars. 

And then there is stuff which only the fans can see. Not so much a dog whistle as a little pat on the head. The person talking to Jyn is Mon Mothma. Mon Mothma is the leader of the Rebellion. She appeared for a few seconds during Return of the Jedi and even fewer seconds during Revenge of the Sith. And now she is talking to a lady called Jyn in the actual secret rebel base on Yavin from Star Wars. Good fan. Have a treat.

We always knew that the Death Star was the sort of thing you could mistake for a small moon; but the beauty shot of the small-tiny Star Destroyers passing in front of it… It sort of sums up the ever escalating scale that Star Wars was about but never quite had the special effects for.

The Death Star. The actual Death Star. The Death Star from Star Wars, only awesome. 

The very first thing we knew about Star Wars was that Rebel Spies had managed to steal plans to Death Star in capital letters, and that they did this while Rebel Spaceships were winning their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire, also in capital letters. That was all we knew about the Galaxy, and all we needed to know. 

Someone stole the plans and gave the to Leia, who gave them to R2D2, who gave them to Luke, who gave them to that guy with the beard at the end of Star Wars. Is there any reason at all why it shouldn't be a lady called Jyn? Revenge of the Sith ended with C3P0 and R2D2 on the Ship from scene one of Star Wars, which is to say, the Rebel Blockade Runner, which is to say the Tantive IV. Is there any reason why Rogue One should not end with Jyn handing the Plans of the Death Star to Princess Leia? 

How much back-story be piled onto one film before it breaks? Robin Hood can always play another trick on another fat monk. Ishmael can never be seen to go on another whaling voyage?

We do not know, at this stage, if Jyn is the hero of the movie; or merely the one that the first trailer has decided to focus on. At least four other characters appear in the montage: 

White Guy With Mustache. 
Asian Guy With Stick. 
Bald Black Guy.
Guy With Beard and Plaits.

Trailers have a structure as fixed and invariable as the Journey of the Hero itself. No longer is there a booming voice saying “It was a TIME of heroes” or “Never before in the history of motion pictures..."
Instead, you get clips of dialogue playing over one or two scenes from the film: enough to tell you a tiny fragment of the story. And then, quickly, and totally without context, a montage of other characters and scenes, and another bit of dialogue which sums up what the story is About. Unfortunately, the story is never About “dinosaurs” or “gangsters” or “huge great space stations the size of a planet”. The story is always About family, or love, or how one man must choose. 

It seems that Bald Black Guy is Jyn’s mentor. He is the one who gets to announce what the film is About. 

"What. Will. You. Do. If they catch you. Whatwillyoudoiftheybreakyou? If you continue to fight. What will you. Become!” 

That’s the important question. What will you. Become? How will delivering the plans to Princess Leia affect you personally.``

Tell us, Jyn, tell us, about the personal journey you’ve been on.

It was been widely reported that Star Wars fans were unhappy that the protagonist of Rogue One is a lady. 

This is not true. 

Anyone who noticed the sex and/or gender of the main character was by definition not a Star Wars fan. The only possible reaction a Star Wars fan could possibly have had to the trailer was "bloody hell it's the actual Death Star and it's huge" with a possible side order of "AT-AT walkers! AT-AT walkers. I had one of those on my bedroom floor when I was a kid." The people who were unhappy about the protagonist being a lady are male supremacist nut jobs pretending to be Star Wars fans. They are cross about a lady having a big part in Star Wars because they are always cross about ladies having big parts in anything, on general principles.

The highest female representation in a Star Wars film to date was Episodes II and III in which 33% of the main characters are female. Rogue One seems broadly in line with the Original Trilogy and the Force Awakens, with four male characters to one female. No Star Wars movie has had more than one woman in a major heroic role. If one wanted to have a sensible discussion about gender balance, one would have to say “Boys feel intimidated if there is more than one girl in the team; the film makers can see that this is a problem and are trying to get round it by allowing the one permitted girl to be team captain."  (**)

When I saw Jyn, I did not think “Oh oh oh she is a lady there will never again be another movie with a male hero, I am undone,  its plickle kreckness gone mad.” 

But there was a small part of me which thought: “Oh oh oh she is an orphan loner who lives by her wits in alien markets and gets into trouble and breaks the rules and says ‘Yes Sir’ in a sarcastic voice. Which is quite close to Rey the orphan loner who lives by her wits in alien junk yards and Ezra the orphan loner who lives by his wits in alien markets, but quite a long way from Luke the restless young man who wants to go to the academy.”

That's the story that the trailer seems to be telling us. An unorthodox rebellious soldier, quite unsuited to the military. An old mentor, who has to teach her discipline, not realising that she is actually showing him that imagination and rule breaking isn’t such a bad thing after all. 

In short the plot of every war movie you’ve ever seen; ever Dirty Dozen movie; every Rogue Cop film. J.J Abrams even turned Star Trek into the story of an unorthodox, rebellious Captain entirely unsuited to any kind of military career. 

By all means, show us the rebels striking from their hidden fortress. By all means, show us the Death Star from an new angle and Walkers from the perspective of the troops on the ground. But please, don’t try to show us “the reality of war”. 

This will be a film, say director Gareth Edwards, in which "good guys are bad and bad guys are good". I could hardly come up with a more precise definition of what Star Wars is not. I’d honestly rather see the film about people buying potatoes.

(*) A former associate of Han Solo, and a rogue archaeologist who worked with Darth Vader in a different comic.


IV: Luke, Han, Chewie, Ben / Leia 20%
V and VI: Luke, Han, Chewie, Lando / Leia 20%
I: Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon, Anakin / Amidala 25%
II and III: Obi-Wan, Anakin / Amidala 33%
VII: Poe, Finn, Han, Chewie / Rey 20%
Clone Wars: Anakin, Obi-Wan / Ahsoka 33%
Rebels: Kanaan, Ezra, Zeb / Hera, Sabine 40%

If you have enjoyed this essay, please consider supporting me on Patreon. If everyone who reads this pledged to give me $1 dollar each time I write an article (between £2.82 and £5.65 each month) it would make a real difference to my solvency. 

Alternatively, there may still be people who have not read my first Star Wars book...

Thursday, March 24, 2016

You too can use proven school yard bullying techniques to win political arguments on the internet

The Calvin Gambit

A sophisticated form of Hobson's Choice -- heads I win, tails you lose.

To use the Calvin Gambit, deliberately act in an illogical way in order to frustrate and annoy the target. If the target shows signs of frustration or annoyance this indicates that he is weak and deserved to be targeted. (See the Scotsman Tactic.)

The Calvin Gambit somewhat resembles Hopkins Fork:

"I accuse you of being a witch".

"Don’t be silly. You saw me in Church last Sunday; a witch would never do that."

"You seem to know a great deal about witches…seems suspicious to me."

The classic school-yard version goes:

"You are a Muslim,"

"No, I’m not. I am Church of England. I actually go to Sunday School, which is more than can be said for you. There's nothing wrong with being Muslim, but I'm a Christian."

"Anyone who says they aren’t a Muslim is a Muslim!"

"Very well then, if it will satisfy you: I am a Muslim."

"Andrew is a Muslim! Andrew is a Muslim! He said so." 

"Only because, according to your own arguments, anyone who says they are a Muslim is not Muslim and anyone who denies it, is. But you can tell quite easily I’m not, for example, because I don't go to Mosque on Friday. Not, as I say, that there is anything wrong with being Muslim, but I happen to be Christian."

"Anyone who denies being Muslim is Muslim! You said you weren't, so you are!"

"Have it you own way: I am a Muslim."

Experts can keep this going for months at a time.

The Calvin Gambit is usually a set up for the Turgoose Maneuver.

The Coventry Technique

Never speak to you opponent. He is a zombie and a moorlock and therefore beneath your contempt. If you address him directly you will get trapped into trying to show why (or even trying to find out if) his ideas are wrong.  But the things he believes (man made climate change is a thing, women should be allowed to vote, private citizens should not be allowed to own guns) are so off the wall that they do not even count as ideas.

Instead, talk about him, in a tone of voice that implies that you have already won the argument. Adopt the tone of voice of two school girls having a very confidential conversation in such a way that a third is certain to overhear it:

Oooo god did you see what Prudence wore to the disco last night I'm amazed she has the courage to show her face...

For example:

I met a person yesterday who actually thought Jeremy Corbyn was a politician, and what is more, I could tell from his photo that he smelled.

Do you know, there are people out there who think that philosophy is a proper subject, and what is more, some of them wear unfashionable jackets.

The Financial Times employs a journalist who knows so little about science that he thinks Jesus turned water into wine.

If the mark indicates that they have overheard or otherwise responds, accuse them of being cry-babies and move on to the Turgoose Maneuver.

The Scotsman Tactic

The Scotsman Tactic involves obfuscation between holding an opinion and membership of a group. It is absolutely central to all modern internet debate.

The classic political version runs:  

Jeremy believes that we should nationalize the railways.

People who believe in rail nationalization may be labelled "communist" 

Communists are evil.

Therefore Jeremy is evil.

Therefore we should not pay any attention to anything Jeremy says about rail nationalization. 

The classic Twitter version goes:

Andrew believes that women should be allowed to vote and own property.

People who believe in women's rights may be labelled "SJW".

The SJW always lie about everything. 

Therefore Andrew is a liar.

Therefore, we should not listen to Andrew when he says that women should be allowed to vote and own property. 

Note that the New Atheists have adopted a version of the Scotsman Tactic to prevent nuanced discussion of religion: 

Giles argues that Jesus preached a progressive message.

Arguments based on close readings of the Bible may be labeled "theological"

All theological arguments are meaningless.

Therefore Giles' argument is meaningless.

Therefore, we should not pay any attention to Giles’ argument that Jesus preached a progressive message.

They are currently trying to define all points of view apart from strict scientific reductionism as "the humanities" and declaring "the humanities" as a block as meaningless. This should eventually prevent the nuanced discussion of anything at all.

The Ricardian Device

When Shakespeare’s Richard III attempts to make a dynastic to marriage to the princess Elizabeth, she recoils in horror, saying that he is the man who murdered her two sons (the princes in the tower). 

"Harp not on that!" says Richard "It is past". Which is to say, being interpreted: I murdered your children yesterday. The fact that you are still going on proves you are a crybaby. Suck it up.

You should invoke the Ricardian Device whenever anyone quotes or references anything you have previously written. It doesn't matter if the target says "...but last year, you wrote" or "...but this morning, you said": they are still harping on the past, and therefore nursing a grudge (which shows that they are crybabies.)

The practical result will be that you can say anything you like, and be as inconsistent as you choose, without ever being called to account for it.

"The reason I say that you are racist is that you said that there would soon be a race war between black people and Americans." 

"That was yesterday. How weak would someone have to be to still be going on about something I said over twenty four hours ago?"

IMPORTANCE: If your opponent tries to invoke the Ricardian Device, accuse him of a sinister Orwellian tendency to change history. 

The Turgoose Maneuver

There is a scene in the movie This is England in which young Shaun deliberately misbehaves in a corner shop. When the Punjabi shopkeeper remonstrates with him, his older skinhead friends emerge and accuse the shopkeeper of picking on the little boy.

School teachers now recognize this as reverse bullying. A little guy follows a big guy around, perhaps for weeks, chanting (and I pick a purely hypothetical example here) "your dad’s a fucking cripple". The big guy eventually rounds on little guy.

At this point the little guy either 

a: goes crying to teacher, saying "he’s picking on me", or 

b: call in six of his bigger mates to beat up the big guy while telling everyone that he started it.

To use this technique on the internet simply say loudly that the mark is fat and smelly, preferably indirectly (see The Coventry Technique). When the mark responds "There is nothing wrong with being fat, and I am not, in fact, smelly", retweet the message to all your friends, and talk loudly to each other about how he is harassing you, abusing you, cyber stalking you, desperate for attention, creepy, sinister, mad, etc.

Advanced practitioners may ever like to try reporting him to the moderators.

The Midas Stratagem

We are told that in some ancient kingdoms, it was forbidden to say The king is a scoundrel. But it was also forbidden to say that it was forbidden to say The king is a scoundrel. The person who said If I find the man who said 'the king is a scoundrel' I will chop off his head  had himself said The king is a scoundrel, and would therefore have his head cut off. This is also how blasphemy works in fundamentalist Islamic context.

In the school-yard situation, the Midas Stratagem is often a game, although it is the kind of game that can drift into bullying without much effort:

"Bet you don’t know which Don McLean song was covered by Elvis"

"And I Love You So"

"Ha-ha Andrew said that he loved me, Andrew is a homo, Andrew is a homo."

In internet discussions, you should always feel free to take everything your opponent says completely literally; and to take sentences and even individual words as far out of context as possible.

"I think that anyone who uses the word n***** should be banned from Facebook"

"Andrew is the kind of person who uses the word n*****."

Note that the new atheists quote passages from the Bible or the Quran without context, and when context is provided, invoke the Scotsman Tactic.

"Jesus wasn't a good moral teacher. He said that people should hate their parents."

"Well, you need to look at what else he says in that particular discourse, at how the saying is quoted in parallel passages, and what the word 'hate' means elsewhere in the Bible..."

"Oh, now you are using theology. Theology is always meaningless. If you ignore theology, then Jesus told everyone to hate their parents."


1: How many of the above techniques can you spot in the following (real) exchange?

EPSILON: wow this guy looks like a faggot
ZETA: all Jeremy Corbyn supporters are faggot ass communists
ANDREW RILSTONE: Thank you for your imput. It has changed my mind totally. Tomorrow I shall resign from the Labour party and join UKIP

EPSILON: nobody cares you disfigured faggot

2: How many of the above techniques has David Cameron used in the House of Commons in the last week?

If you would like to contribute to the cost of placing an armed guard outside Andrew's house, please consider supporting his patreon (i.e pledging $1 each time he publishes an essay.)

The rhetoric of internet debate is discussed at greater length in One Hundred and Forty Characters in Search of an Author.