Friday, January 27, 2017

Deflection

I am in favor of using words correctly. I don’t think that you should say “depressed” if what you mean is “sad”; I don’t think you should say “bipolar” if what you mean is “moody”; and I definitely don’t think you should say “autistic” if what you mean is “shy.” It’s insulting and patronizing to people who are actually depressed or bipolar; and it’s also a kind of linguistic inflation. (If you say “depression” when you mean “sadness” you have to make up a new word for when “depression” is what you actually do mean.) It would have been better if we’d never started using “poxy” to mean “small” or “lame” to mean “inadequate” or “psychotic” to mean cross. In fact, you probably shouldn’t say “surreal” if what you mean “silly” or “existential” if what you mean is “gloomy” or “random” if what you mean is…whatever kids mean by “random” nowadays. 

But I don’t want to go too far in that direction. Otherwise I’ll turn into one of those boring people who says that “decimate” only ever means “divide by ten” and that “gay” only ever means “brightly colored” and that “literally” can never mean “figuratively”. And that’s literally the thin end of the wedge. 

I believe I am correct in saying that “mad” no longer has any medical meaning, but does retain a legal meaning. And it definitely has a lot of colloquial meanings. I’ll get mad if you are rude about Star Wars because I’m on mad on Star Wars. The original meaning of “crazy” was “cracked”: if I say that my garden has crazy paving, I’m using it in the older sense. It was applied to people by analogy. (I remember the original Star Wars craze: people went crazy about it.) 

If my friend tells me that he has met and spoken with a fairy (which, as previously mentioned, at least three of my friends have in fact done) there are basically three possibilities

1: There really are fairies, and I need to expand my view of reality to encompass such creatures or 

2: My friend is lying, or telling fairy stories, with or without the encouragement of Mr Conan Doyle. 

3: My friend is mad, crazy, delusional or hallucinating. 

If I went with 3, I don't think I would be providing an amateur diagnosis, or patronizing my other friends who have to cope with mental conditions every day. I think that mad, cracked, crazy, or two land cards short of a Magic deck is a word we use to describe people who see stuff which isn't actually there. 


"What do you think about the people you say claim to have really met fairies, Andrew?” 

“I think that one of them was describing a spiritual experience — ‘In a particular location, I felt something I cannot explain, and “fairies” is the name I am going to give to that experience’ If he’d come from a different background, he might have said that he’d encountered the Blessed Virgin. I think that one of them was talking about faith: I think that fairies form part of his neo-pagan belief system. I think the other one had done a lot of drugs.” 

It seems to me that there comes a point at which a person — a politician, say — denies facts — about vaccination, say, or climate change, or the number of people who attended an inauguration ceremony — to such an extend that the rest of us are entitled to say “Either you are lying, or your are crazy.” 

*

The famously sane Tony Blair used to claim that it didn’t matter whether a particular policy was “left wing”, “right wing”, “conservative” or “liberal”; as Prime Minister he would do “whatever worked”. 

This is, of course, bullshit.

You can only tell if something has "worked" if you know what result you wanted; and the result you want depends greatly on whether you are left wing, right wing, conservative or liberal.  Someone might think that a law and order policy worked because it resulted in lots of criminals being punished; someone else might think that it was a failure because there was no overall reduction in the amount of crime. You might think that schools sports policy worked because Team Little Britain won lots of medals in the Tokyo Olympics; I might think it was a failure because hardly any non-elite athletes were still taking exercise ten years after they left school.

But “whatever works” does admit the possibility that something might not work. In theory, we can look at what did happen, and say "I don't think that what you did worked".

*

The new American dictator said yesterday that he was in favour of torturing people because "torture works". It isn’t immediately clear what “works” means. Does it mean that if someone knows a secret they will definitely and automatically tell it to you provided you hurt them badly enough? Or does it just mean that if the goodies are doing some torturing, the baddies will stop doing so much terroristing? "If only we had been torturing people in the 1990s, the Twin Towers attack wouldn't have happened; once we started torturing people after 2001, the London bombing didn't happen. Or if it did, it would have been worse without the torture. Or it only happened because we weren't doing enough torturing. Or something."

Someone is said to have asked Auberon Waugh how a horrible person like him could possibly claim to be a Christian. "But if I wasn't a Christian" he replied "Think how much worse I would be."

A man who tells jokes for a living cited the famous “ticking bomb” thought experiment on twitter, in the following terms: 

Your baby is tied to a timebomb. 

You have the terrorist. 

He tells you you have 1 hour. 

Do you torture him to find your baby or let it die?

He got extremely cross when anyone suggested that this was a silly scenario: you wouldn’t have a single terrorist, there wouldn’t be a single piece of information that would save the victim, and you have no way of knowing if the person you are torturing is a coward (who will blurt out anything to avoid being hurt) or, a fanatic who positively wants to be hurt in order to be martyr.

I proposed a couple of alternative scenarios:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

The terrorist is a colossal pervert. 

Do you let him spend 1 hour with your 12 year old son or let the baby die?


Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

You have 99 innocent people and 1 terrorist.

Do you torture all 100 of them or let the baby die?


Your baby was tied to a bomb by a Jehovah's Witness. 

Do you arrest and torture all 226,000 Jehovah's Witnesses or let the baby die?


Of the 226,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses 1% give in and scream, "I'll tell you where the baby is." 

Which of the 2260 confessions do you follow up?


There is nothing wrong with asking purely hypothetical questions; there is nothing wrong with thought experiments. "Don't be silly, I'm not on the moon" is not a very good answer to the question "If you dropped a feather and a one kilogram weight on the moon, which would hit the ground first? I suppose the ticking bomb fantasy establishes whether your objection to torture is a moral one, or a practical one: do you say "No, I wouldn't torture the guy, even if it totally would save the little'un life?" or "Yes, if in some magic way, torturing the guy would get my baby back, then I would torture him.".

But it occurred to me that the scenario we really needed to consider would be something like:

Your baby is tied to a bomb. 

Would you sacrifice a white goat to Aphrodite in order to bring your baby home in a golden chariot pulled by winged horses?

To which the answer is: yes, if sacrificing the goat would summons up the magic chariot, yes I would. But it wouldn’t. So it’s a silly question. 

In these scenarios, it's always a Really Bad Guy who is getting tortured; not a basically pretty harmless guy who happens to know the codes. And one cannot escape the suspicion that when someone says "torture works" they are adding, under their breath "and even if it doesn't, the really bad guy had it coming to them." Torquemada, Matthew Hopkins and Donald Trump all know in advance that Jews, women and Muslims are "baddies", and the search for heretics, witches and terrorists provides a pretext to hurt bad people.

If your baby really was tied to a time bomb, and if you really did torture a terrorist, or a suspected terrorist, or a Brazilian electrician who looked as if he might be a terrorist, and if the guy holds out under torture; or tells you that they’re on Dantooine when they’re really on Yavin… and one way or another the bomb goes off and the baby dies…

Everyone who believed in torture would continue to believe that torture worked. 

Because the baby would quite definitely still be alive. The photos of the pathetic little corpse being taken out of the burning building is FAKE NEWS produced my MAINSTREAM MEDIA which is run BY cultural Marxists who yes want the terrorists TO win.

If I saw some very powerful people actually looking at the dead baby, and saying "the baby is still alive", I would say that they were either mad or liars, and you would say that things weren't always as black and white as we Trotskyites like to pretend. You would write long think pieces in the Guardian about the interesting controversy of the exploding baby.

And years later, the story about the baby chained to the time bomb who saved by the torturing would be one of those things which everybody knows, like Alfred and the Cakes and the school that sang baa baa green street and weapons of mass destruction. Everyone would say that horrible as torture is and obviously we’re not in favour of it and it’s a great shame that we inadvertently castrated that kid whose dad had a name quite similar to the person who almost definitely knew something about an outrage that hadn’t actually happened yet...but you have to admit, torture stopped the baby from exploding.

And I'll point to the pathetic little gravestone and the autopsy report, and you'll say “Ah, still  going on about the dead baby. It’s political correctness gone mad. Fake news, fake news. Social Justice Warriors always lie.” 

*

Fortunately, no-one has attached any bombs to any babies. But my country is about to sacrifice its place in the world on a Quixotic whim. And it will be impossible ever to ask the question "Did Brexit work? Did it do what it was supposed to do?" 

If as expected, Theresa May lights the blue touch paper next month, then for decades to come, every media outlet but one will contain nothing but stories about how everything is rosy and wonderful: stories about factories opening, stories about people with new jobs, stories about nasty Polish restaurants being replaced with proper 1950s English cafes that sell burned steak and blue nun wine. 

And if anyone says that this isn’t true — that inflation is high, the pound is sinking, people don’t have jobs, every media outlet but one will say That’s what you would expect the remoaners to say. Why do they run this country down? Why do they feel it necessary? Don’t quote statistics at me. You can prove anything you want with statistics. Anyone can SEE the country is doing brilliantly. Except Social Justice Warriors, who always lie.” 

And if, by some chance, sanity prevails, we will have another 50 years in which people stare at big, yellow, curved bananas and say “of course, you aren’t allowed to buy curved bananas any more. It’s political correctness gone mad."

(It is just about possible to imagine the Remain camp, ten years down the line saying "well, that wasn't nearly as bad as we feared." It is impossible to imagine the Leave camp, even in the face of Armageddon, saying "We're afraid that didn't work as well as we'd hoped.")

Which, in a sense, makes life a bit easier. 

We don’t, in fact, know whether the September 11th attacks would have been averted if some CIA officers had put some black guys balls in a vice in a camp in Cuba. To know what would have happened, child? No-one is ever told that. But we still know what is moral; what is right; what is wrong.

We don't know what works, because the crazy people will see whatever they choose to see. But we know what is moral. What is right and wrong. Big people don’t hit little people. You can’t have sex with anyone without their consent. The rich help the poor. You don’t hurt other people, however much you might sometimes want to.

In a “post truth” world, that may be all there is to hold on to. 

*

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Donald Trump: I may not like his policies, but he’s no different from any other right wing politician. 

But a man who said the sorts of things that Donald Trump has said would not be merely a right-wing politician. He would either be a lunatic -- on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg -- or else he would be the Devil of Hell. 

You must make your choice. Either this man is genetically superior to the rest of the human race, or else he is a madman or something worse. 

You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can believe everything he says because he’s such a smart guy. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being merely a right-wing politician. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. 


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sherlock, redux


Sherlock Holmes is about the idea that you can start with an absurd set of data and work backwards, through a series of logical steps, to a completely reasonable starting place. (Many people have spotted that Sigmund Freud had roughly the same idea at roughly the same time.) Neither Freudian nor Holmsian methods would work in real life: Sherlock admits as much, though Sigmund never does. The cases that Holmes solves (or at any rates the cases that Watson bothers to write up) are exclusively those cases which Holmes methodology happens to work for. Which generally means closed-systems with something weird — or as Holmes always says, singular — about them. Give him a guy whose been killed in a remote country house after swearing he saw the ghost of a hell hound, and Holmes has a fair chance of sorting things out. Pull John Doe’s body out of the Thames three months after it got there, and boring old forensics are a better bet. 

Deduction is where you start from a premise and work out what the conclusion will be. Starting from a conclusion and working back to the starting point is induction. You would have thought Holmes, or at any rate Watson, or at any rate Doyle, would have known that. 


Not all the stories work: but in the ones that do, there is a real joy in seeing Holmes impose order on chaos; in saying “Of course: the club which you can only join if you have a particular kind of hair; or the bedside drawer with the hair of two previous occupants in it now makes complete sense. Clever Sherlock.” There is a similar joy in reading Freud’s case histories. Who cares if he never actually cured anyone. 

Holmes is a remarkable chap, obviously; Watson calls him the best and wisest man he ever met, which is not insignificantly what Plato said about Socrates. But he isn’t a superhero. Part of the point of the stories is that his deductions are plausible; anyone could do it if they kept their wits about them. We are inclined to think that Watson is a bit of a twit for not keeping up. A detective story wouldn’t be worth reading if the detective were that good. Ideally, Gentle Reader should get to the conclusion just after Holmes and just before Watson.

Holmes often has information that we and Watson don’t have, which a classical Whodunnit writer would regard as cheating.


The Moffat / Gatiss  Sherlock TV series has always been a slightly odd confection. It uses the now-superhuman inductive skills of Holmes in much the same way that the now-infallible navigation of the TARDIS is used in Doctor Who: as a pretext for (on a good day) brilliant, non-linear narratives and (on a bad day) for just abandoning cause-and-effect storytelling as a lost cause. Cumberbatch plays a kind of parody or race-memory of Jeremy Brett’s Holmes, which was itself a parody of Holmes as he is in Study in Scarlet and hardly anywhere else: crazy, misanthropic and not yet humanized by the arrival of Robin the Boy Wonder. It correctly spots that the real fun in Sherlock was not the bobbies and the fog and the hansom cabs; or the funny pipe and the funny hat and the slippers. It was all about the logic and the mysteries. 


But convincing, Doylish mysteries — crazy end-points to which Holmes can provide convincing back-stories — are hard to write. Not impossible: the sub-plot about the dead son in the car in the Six Thatchers is the sort of thing I would like to have seen more of. But Moffat and Gatiss increasingly fall back on the lazy writers' worst cliche: the clever guy solving bizarre riddles which an even cleverer guy is consciously setting for him. 

Doyle’s Moriarty is a brilliant man turned into a brilliant criminal. Moffat's Moriarty is simply a lunatic. From Don Quixote to Hannibal Lecter, fictional lunatics can be the subjects of interesting stories. But they are a very lazy plot device. Why is he is doing this? Why is he going to all that trouble? How did he escape from the escape proof prison? He doesn’t have to have a reason. He’s a lunatic. Moffat’s Moriarty could very easily be imagined painting clown make up on his face and releasing poisoned balloons over Gotham City. 

The Final Problem (TV episode) produced newspaper headlines about “How the TV phenomenon became an annoying self parody” and “Missing persons inquiry launched as Sherlock vanishes up own arse”. But it seemed to me to have very much the same strengths and weaknesses as all the other episodes. It sets up a very interesting villain whose only function turns out to be to set up problems for and experiment on Sherlock Holmes. In a proper story, some believable chain of events would lead to a situation where Holmes has to choose between killing his brother Mycroft and killing his best friend Watson. Having a super-villain put them in a room and say “You must now choose between killing your brother Mycroft and killing your best friend Watson” is barely a story at all. It’s more like a Dungeons & Dragons puzzle. (The solution is straight out of the Hunger Games.) The deductive power of Holmes and Moriarty and Mycroft and the Mysterious and Unexpected Villain Who is Even Cleverer Than Any Of Them is not something that any normal person could keep up with.

The cleverness of Holmes has become another manifestation of our old friend The Plot. Anything that the writers want to happen can happen because Holmes can make it happen because he is so clever. Add a non-player character who is as clever as he is, and then another one, and then a third one, and what you are watching is no longer detective fiction; it's a competition to see who has the biggest Sonic Screwdriver.

"Annoying self-parody" isn't a bad description of the whole project actually: maybe I'd have gone for "clever, engaging but annoying self-parody."


Most of us now expect a TV series to have some sort of forward momentum. Gone are the days when the BBC could put all three seasons of Star Trek tapes in box, shuffle them up, pick one out at random, show it on a Monday night and no-one would notice the difference. We now expect characters to die and get married and have babies (not necessarily in that order), partly because soap opera has replaced the novel as the dominant genre, and partly because verisimilitude. If our hero doesn't have the scars from the end of last week's thrilling adventure at the beginning of this week's thrilling adventure we won't be able to suspend our disbelief.   

Sherlock Holmes had a brother. He had an arch-enemy and a landlady. These characters are so peripheral to the canon that we could very nearly say that they don’t exist. Moffat and Gatiss create entirely new characters with similar names, and present us with something that superficially feels a good deal like classic Holmes: Mycroft is clever and mysterious, Moriarty is evil, Watson misses the point and writes it up on his blog, and Mrs Hudson makes them all a cup of tea. But once you have shouted “go” and allowed events to start happening they stop being clever 21st century takes on 19th century ciphers and end up as the sum total of the last thirteen episodes. Which gets us very quickly to a Sherlock which has nothing much to do with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. You may or may not have a problem with that. 


A similar process killed off the Marvel Comics “Ultimates” line. Issue #1 of Ultimate Spider-Man re-imagines Peter Parker as a 15 year old computer nerd from 2001; and we all said “wow, you’ve come up with a precise 21st century analogy for what made Spider-Man so great in the 1960s”. By issue #75, New York has been destroyed, J. Jonah Jameson is a goodie and Spider-Man is member of the X-Men, dating Kitty Pryde, on the run from SHIELD and dead. You can barely recognize him as Spider-Man any more; and the comic is just as hard to "jump aboard" as the fatally compromised Marvel Universe version. But the alternative is a 1950s sit-com where nothing ever happens and no-one ever gets any older.

I suppose that Sherlock was always going to be the kind of series that some people would over-love, and, therefore, when it started to disappoint, the kind of series that some people would over-hate. I never loved it that much (apart from the Victorian special, which was genuinely clever) but I never hated it that much, either. It is clear that Stephen Moffat can only write one character: you could swap the Cumberbatch Sherlock with the equally interchangeable Smith and Capaldi Doctors and no-one would really notice. But that one character is a lot off fun. Matt Smith was my favorite non-canonical Doctor Who, after all. The clash of Cumberbatch’s over-the-top theatricality with Martin Freeman’s toned down naturalism (so underdone it’s practically not there at all) makes for consistently good scenes. The two of them would be riveting in any context: apart, obviously, from the Hobbit. 

Kudos to Gatiss and Moffat for realizing that Holmes could be taken out of Victorian London and still be Holmes. But how typical that when the smog and the urchins and the rats were cleared away, what was found to be left was not a man who cleverly worked backwards from the end of the story to its beginning; nor even a man eschewing emotion but guided by rationality. No: what Sherlock Holmes turned out to really be about was the friendship between Sherlock and John.

It’s like one of those trailers where some Hollywood luvvie has been persuaded to appear in a low budget docudrama about William Ramsay and the discovery of the nobel gasses.

“Oh,  but it’s not about chemistry” they always say “It’s really about love.”

There is a thing which Moffat and Gatiss do: and Sherlock Season 4 is Moffat and Gatiss continuing to do that thing. Disappointment, or even anger, seems curiously misplaced. It is what it is.











Friday, January 20, 2017

2016

Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph.
      Robert E. Howard



So, anyway: people keep falling down holes.

"Okay", I said: "We’d better have some people standing by with ladders and ropes and pulleys, so when anyone falls down a hole they can pull them out. And everyone will pay two and sixpence a year old money to pay their wages and the upkeep on the ropes and the ladders."

"No", you said. "That’s unfair on the people who never fall down holes. And the whole process of collecting two and six from everyone is wasteful. What we’ll do is charge the people who actually fall down holes the actual cost of pulling them out. Although naturally, if someone falls down a hole and really can’t afford the fee, we’ll exempt him from the charge. Or let him pay it installments, or make him do a stint pulling other people out of holes, or something." 

Then my friend joined the conversation. "I have an even better idea", they said. "Instead of spending all this money pulling people out of holes, why don’t we spend it filling in the holes, and putting up fences and lights and warning signs round the holes and preventing people from digging holes in the first place?"

"Oh, no, no, no" you said: "We can’t molly coddle our citizens like nanny goats! People must be free to fall down holes on their own time."  

But then your friend joined in the discussion, and asked if he might play devil’s advocate for a moment. "If someone is weak enough and stupid enough to fall down a hole", he explored, "Then surely he should be left there? Where did this idea that anyone had any responsibility to help anyone else out of a hole come from? That just leads to people walking around, not looking where they are going, falling down holes and expecting the government to pull them out, like in Germany. And anyway, there aren’t any holes, or if there are, no-one falls down them, or if they do, they climb out by themselves…"

"I think you will find… " said I.

"No, I am not going to argue with you", said your friend. "You should help someone out of a hole is an obvious piece of nonsense, on the same level as why is a mouse when it spins? and feminism. People who believe in pulling other people out of holes always lie about everything. Surely we can all accept that as a starting point?"

*


Chivalry is the idea that a person whose job it is to brutally kill people should, when he isn’t brutally killing people, be exceptionally kind and gentle. 

This is obviously a silly idea. Left to themselves, a person who chooses “killing people” as his career path is likely to want to kill as many people as he possibly can — and rape their women, take their stuff, burn their land, and then swagger into the pub and brag about it, expecting everyone in the pub to defer to him because he’s got a bloody big sword and they haven’t.

The Parfit Gentil Knyght is a made up thing. But for hundreds of years, most of the real-life knights believed in it. They honestly thought that to be truly soldierly and truly macho you had to be incredibly soft and gentle and (if one can put it like that) girly towards civilians and kids and old people and your horse and the fat guy in the squad who isn’t much use as a soldier and (especially) enemies who surrender to you. 

It was a bit like the fine old British idea of being a good sport. Guys put so much of themselves into rugger matches, and care so much about winning, that we had to base our entire education system around the idea that the really good rugger player is the one who doesn’t mind (or at any rate, pretends not to mind) if he loses. Otherwise the whole thing would quickly turn into a bloodbath. 

The catch is that people started to believe that sportsmanship and chivalry were the natural order of things. That if you gave a hormonal young man a rugby ball and told him that the whole honor of his school depended on his scoring a wicket with it, it would automatically follow that he would shake hands with the captain of the other team and say “Well done, old chap, you played much better than us, let me buy you a beer shandy” at the end of the game. And that if you were the sort of person who didn’t mind disemboweling Jerries with bayonets you would automatically also be the sort of person who helped old people across the road and never said "bloody" in front of a lady. That the bigger a psychopath you were on the battlefield, the more of a pussycat you would be in the dining room. 

The other catch is that teachers stopped thinking of sportsmanship as the only thing which made rugby bearable, and started to think of of rugby as the most important part of education because it taught young men about sportsmanship. And perhaps it did. Perhaps the best way to breed judges and politicians and policemen who mostly don’t take bribes or pick on the smaller guy is to bring them up to believe that things like that are "just not cricket". Or perhaps — as that great philosopher Captain Kirk pointed out — sportsmanship is a terrible idea precisely because it does take all the violence and brutality out of rugby. Maybe rugby ought to be violent and brutal: to ensure that civilized people only resort to rugby as a last resort. 

Once we started to believe that soldiers were automatically chivalrous we naturally stopped bothering to drum the idea of chivalry into soldiers, which more or less guaranteed that soldiers would stop trying to be chivalrous. (A similar problem arose when priests stopped thinking of Christianity as “this radical idea that it’s my job to convince people of” and started thinking of it as “what all English people are by default.”) And so you end up in a world where respectable newspapers columnists honestly don’t understand how one of Our Boys could have been court martialled for executing a prisoner of war. (But it was an enemy! A foreigner! Can’t you even execute foreign prisoners of war any more? It’s political correctness gone mad!) A world where a mainstream politician can wonder out loud whether it might be a good idea to torture people even suspected of being enemies.

And their wives.

And their children.

“Because we have to beat the savages.”


*


When I was born, men were still being sent to prison for going to bed with other men. In fact, men were still being sent to prison for sleeping with other men when I was in college. Homosexuality was only fully legalized in this country in 2001.

When my Mum was born, the British government still employed an official whose role it was to put ropes around people’s necks and push them through trap-doors. He was made redundant less than one year before I was born. The last neck-breaking session took place on 13 Aug 1964. A Thursday. Doctor Who was coming to the end of its first season. That Saturday’s episode was called Guests of Madam Guillotine. Before Google, it wouldn’t have been possible to find that kind of stuff out.

When my Grandmother was born, women were not allowed to vote in elections.


I cannot personally remember signs outside shops saying “No dogs, no blacks, no Irish” but I can remember when the BBC showed black face minstrel shows as part of a normal Sunday afternoon entertainment -- and everyone, even nice people, thought this was perfectly normal. And I can remember when it was perfectly normal for children (including me)to have rag dolls called “Greedy-Yids” with cute hook noses, skull caps, yellow stars and little bags of money and no-one could see what the problem was. (Some people still can’t.) 

I was never personally hit by a teacher, but both my schools (like every school not actually run by hippies) had a special stick for smacking children with, and everyone, even nice people, thought this was perfectly normal and even slightly amusing. (I believe it still happens in America.)

I don’t remember the election where Tories said “If you want an N for a neighbor, vote Liberal or Labour”, but I do remember the one where they said we should run Labour out of office because they thought there should be, er, sex education in schools.

And obviously I remember when the Tories made a law that you could only talk about homosexuality in school if you made it clear that it was a Bad Thing. (That one was abolished in 2003.)

But, on the other hand. 

I grew up in a world where free medicine was taken for granted. I remember literally not understanding when Jarvis betrayed the Avengers to Ultron because he needed money to pay for his mother's operation. 

I grew up in a world where free education was taken absolutely for granted. I could wish that my bog standard comp had pressed me harder to try out for Oxbridge, but there was never any doubt that if I got good enough A levels I could go to university for free, and even get a small stipend to pay for books and food and lodging and Dungeons & Dragons supplements.

I grew up in a world where the trains and the gas company and the water company were run by the government: not always infallibly, but generally affordably. I grew up in a world where unemployment was a misfortune, but not a catastrophe — where you knew that if worst came to worst you could sign on at a Job Center and get a small but adequate giro cheque every couple of weeks and (provided you weren’t living anywhere too posh) a substantial chunk of your rent paid. 

I didn’t even particularly notice any of this. I assumed it was the way things were.


*

So. That is what I believe happened in 2016.

I believe that the Nice Party took its eye off the ball. [*]

I think that the Nice Party forgot that the essentially Nice society we lived in was an amazing thing; based on counter-intuitive ideas; painstakingly built up over generations; a fragile flower that would die if you forgot to water it or exposed it to a draft. I think that the Nice Party came to believe that the Nice Society was just the way things were.

I think that the Nice Party came to believe that the victories of the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were part of an inevitable movement upwards and leftwards towards the Light, which would go on more or less forever. Not all the battles had been won, by any means, but the general trajectory was in the correct direction.

And that's a big part of the problem. When the Nice Party wins a victory, it is inclined to regard that victory as won. “Hooray!” we say “We have abolished slavery, done away with capital punishment, given women the right to vote and gay people the right to get married -- so now that’s over and done with. Onwards to the next victory!”

But when the Nasty Party suffers a loss, they are inclined to regard it as merely a temporary setback. They never give up. Every criminal sent to jail is a convict who has grievously escaped the noose; every penny paid in unemployment benefit is a penny stolen by a sturdy beggar who should be in the workhouse, or the stocks, or Australia. "Oh dear", they say: "We appear to have conceded the point that poor people should be allowed to go to the doctor when they are sick. Well; we may have to put up with that for a little while. But don’t for one moment think we have conceded the principal. The day will come again when anyone who can't pay for their own medical care will die. The day will come when no-one will be pulled out of a hole."

Partly, I think, it was down to a naive belief in progress. Yes, my parents and grandparents remembered the days when it was quite legal to pay a lady less than a gentleman and to refuse to employ a black person at all — they remembered July 1916 and September 1940 and October 1962 — but that was back when everything was in black and white and hardly anyone had broadband. All those really terrible things like hangings and concentration camps and grammar schools happened in the olden days, like pirates and highwaymen and the Tulpuddle Martyrs. There are good reasons why none of it could possibly ever happen again. Give me a minute and I’ll tell you what they are.

I think a lot of it was down to a naive trust in institutions; an assumption that even if Mum and Dad and Teacher and P.C Plod were sometimes mean to you, Families and Schools and Policemen were basically looking out for your interests. Prime Ministers could be wrong but they couldn’t be stupid and they certainly couldn’t be corrupt. I know I personally took it for granted that Members of Parliament, even Tories, were always going to be more sensible than the people who elected them; and even if they weren’t the constitution and the courts and the judges would prevent them doing anything completely mad; and even if they didn’t we had the court of Human Rights to fall back on. By all means let the Daily Mail call for criminals to be tortured and pork forced into the mouths of Jewish school children; no MP would ever vote for it; and even if they did, the Lords would overturn it; and even if they didn’t Strasburg would strike it down. It stopped being necessary to persuade people that racism was wrong: it was possible to tell them that racism was actually illegal. And we were right: right up until the Nasty Party seized its moment, and started to invoke Infallible Referenda (which you cannot speak against, because it is The People’s Will) to support it’s cause; and to call into question the whole notion of human rights and even independent judges.



If your whole life is about gardening and writing books about gardening and making TV shows about gardening, then it must be very tempting to think that gardening is the only thing that really matters and that gardening would solve all the worlds problems if you’d let it. (Osama Bin Laden would never have become a terrorist if he’d had a nice rose bush to prune!)

If you have spent your whole life teaching P.E, you probably aren't going to say that rugby is a fine thing in its own way, on a level with collecting stamps and painting 25 mm Space Orks. You are much more likely to say that sport is a corner stone of civilization and the only thing that will save us from the Commies. 

So if you are a politician, of course you are going to say that the only things worth fixing are the kinds of things that politicians can fix — schools and hospitals and welfare and housing — and that once they’re fixed then everything else will be fixed too. If human beings are Nasty, they were made Nasty by poor health and slum housing and rotten schools; fix all that, and all the Nastiness will go away. Now we’ve rehoused the poor in Nice housing estates, they won’t want to steal from each other any more. Now we’ve made prisons humane, there won’t be any more crime. Now we have reproductive rights and no-fault divorces there won’t be any more domestic abuse. Now we have pot luck parties where the Asian mums bring curry and the Jamaican mums bring fried chicken the Christians will stop hating the Muslims and the Muslims will stop hating the Christians…

But what if there were no natural inclination among people to be Nice?

What if Nice values were, like chivalry and sportsmanship, a made up thing? What if people with black skins naturally think that people with white skins are aliens and people with white skins naturally think that people with black skins are aliens? What if straight people naturally think that gay people are weird and yucky? What if it is natural for big boys to beat up little boys and for little boys to form gangs to protect themselves from the big boys, and for the big boys to get knives and the little boys to get guns? What if people had to be persuaded to be Nice? And what if, having won all the victories, the Nice party didn't think they needed to do any more persuasion?

Since the Bad Thing happened the Nice Party has been told, over and over again, even on this page “You made all this happen! If you hadn’t spoken so stridently in favour of Nice things, the Nasty people would not have got so cross and voted for the Bad Thing. In fact, you were so strident that a good number of Nice People voted Nasty just to piss you off!”

There is a tiny, infinitesimally small, smidgen of a truth in this accusation. The great Peter Elbow pointed out that being right is a dangerous tactic since “sometimes being right makes you so insufferable that people are willing to stay wrong just for a chance to disagree with you.” Someone has suggested that the satirical song I linked to last month went a little bit too far in portraying people on the wrong side of the Referendum as yokels and morons. I agree: that kind of thing doesn't help. (It's still a very funny song.)

But let's also keep in mind Screwtape's warning: that preachers and politicians always admonish people about the exact sins which they are least like to commit. If you live at time when everyone goes to Church as a matter of course and doesn’t do much about it, then you can bet that you will hear stern sermons warning you of the dangers of religious fanaticism. But if you live at a time when everyone is gung-ho to go on a crusade and give Johnny Infidel a damn good thrashing, then expect to hear firey sermons warning you about the temptations of lukewarmness and nominal-ism. It was when the Nice Project was about to come tumbling down that Nice Leaders started to say "Well, I think actually the Nasty Party has a point. Maybe we are a bit snowflakey. Maybe we are a bit prone to political correctness. Maybe people sometimes use racist language and don’t mean anything by it, and even if they do, maybe it’s patronizing of us to tell them they shouldn’t?” Which pretty much amounts to surrender. You don't wait until the Knights are slitting the French prisoner's throats and then say "Well, to be honest, maybe some of what's been said about chivalry is a little bit unrealistic." You don't pick the Saturday afternoon when the team captain has kneed the referee in the bollocks to say "I am not at all sure that some of the posher schools haven't gone a bit overboard in preaching about sportsmanship."

*

It may be possible for the Nice Party to regain some ground. Some of the Nasty Party are still a bit ashamed of being Nasty. If you call them Racists or Fascists, they will still deny it -- because they have some residual sense that Racism and Fascism are bad thing. Like the guy who cheats at games, but will punch you if you say he is Unsportsmanlike, because he was raised to think that Sportsmanship was a good thing. But this won't last forever. Plenty of the Nasty Party's supporters are already openly saluting Swastikas.

But to do this, we are going to have to go right back to first principals and explain, until we are blue in the face, why we ever thought that multiculturalism and women's emancipation and gay equality and the welfare state and human rights were good ideas. Nice people are going to have to challenge Nasty assumptions whenever we hear them.

No, actually, I am pleased to pay my tax, it’s a way of sharing the important things between everyone.

Stop talking about “them” and “us”; so far as I am concerned, we’re all British, even if some of us dress differently and have a different word for God. 

There is no such thing as political correctness; it’s a lie made up to make people hate each other. 

Isn’t the Health Service brilliant. 

Isn’t it fantastic that we can all vote. 

Aren’t human rights a fantastic idea. 

Isn't multiculturalism wonderful? Isn't it depressing to look at one of those old movies and see only white faces (and everyone dressed the same.) Isn’t it brilliant how you only have to walk down the Gloucester Road and find Italian Pizza and Greek Kebabs and Jewish fish and chips and Indian curry and American coffee houses using Brazilian coffee beans selling French croissants and that's before we even get onto Greek tragedy and German opera and Danish thrillers.

Those of us who grew up before the Catastrophe are going to have to tell this story. No-one else will. We will be told that we are speaking against the Will of the People. I don't think that we will be treated as traitors and subversives, fun though that would be. I do think we will increasingly be regarded as weirdos and eccentrics, in much the way that people who thought that it was okay to be gay were regarded as weirdos and eccentrics in the 1970s.

"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that was given us." Our generation was handed Camelot as a gift. We couldn't be bothered to defend it. But we're going to have to keep the memory alive so the next generation can have another shot at rebuilding it. 

*

It is said that one Sunday morning in 1923 or 1924,  the U.S President returned to the White House having attended a church service.

“What did the pastor preach about?” asked the First Lady.

“Sin” replied the President.

“And what did he say?”

“He was against it.”






[*] Note: 

I am not here to argue that the British Labour Party or the American Democratic Party have the monopoly on goodness. I am not here to claim that Theresa May or David Cameron or George W Bush or Mitt Romney are simply evil. I think that most people on The Left and most people on The Right are mostly in agreement about most things. We all think it would be a good thing if everybody was well-fed, well-educated and could afford to see a doctor when they got ill; we all think it would be a Bad Thing if there were a nuclear war in the next few years. What we disagree about is which Good Things it should be the government’s job to do, and which Good Things should be left up to individuals, and who should pay for it all. And even that doesn’t necessarily split along neat party lines. 

If someone says “I think that we could get rid of the National Health Service and replace it with a German model of subsidized private health insurance, which would provide better hospitals for less money” then I would call him a Conservative. I would disagree with him politically. I think “from each according to his ability to each according to his need” is basically a good principal, but I wouldn’t think that he was stupid or evil.

But if someone said “I don’t think that one penny should be taken from the rich to pay the medical bills of the poor; if the poor can’t afford to pay their own hospital bills, then they should be allowed to die; you have no more right to free health care at the point of need than you do to free chocolate cake or free motor cars, then I would happily say that that person was both stupid and evil. (One such person writes to the Bristol Evening Post at least once a week.) 

I don’t think that all Conservatives are stupid and evil, and I don’t even think that all stupid and evil people are Conservatives. (That is a pleasing paradox, but I don’t set very high store by it as an axiom.) 

Hence, I am reduced to calling the people who believe in sharing the “Nice” party, and the people who believe in keeping all the good stuff for themselves the “Nasty” party. I have to say that the idea that we are all basically human and should be treated the same is a “Nice” idea and the idea that Our Lot are better than Your Lot and definitely better than The Other Lot is a “Nasty” idea. 

Regular readers will be amused, but not surprised, to hear that in an earlier draft of this piece I tried referring to them as “The Light Side” and “The Dark Side.” 




Sunday, January 08, 2017

NEW YEARS RESOLUTION: WRITE SHORT BLOG POSTS RATHER THAN LONG TWITTER CHAINS

Theresa May is sitting in the first class carriage of a train. Suddenly, she winds down the window, and throws a ten pound note out of the window. 

"What on earth did you do that for?" says one of the people in the carriage.

"Well" she said "I like to imagine that someone will find that note, and it will make them happy."

"Well on that basis, why not throw two five pound notes out, and make two people happy?"

"In fact" chips in another man "Why not throw yourself out and make everyone bloody happy?"

[NOTE, incidentally, that this is an example of the Dave Allen Rule -- any joke is funnier if you put the word "bloody" in the punchline. ]


What do you call ten Tories in the sea?
A start. 


Theresa May is rushing to an important meeting, and runs across the road into the path of a bus. Fortunately, three little boys, on the other side of the road, see what is happening and scream out to the bus to stop, and no harm is done. 

"I think you may have saved my life" says Mrs May "I would like to give you a reward. What would you like?" 

"May I have an X-Box" says the first little boy. 

"Certainly - see this child gets an X-Box and a couple of good games for it." 

"May I have an I-Pad" says the second little boy. 

"Certainly - get this lad a top of the range I-Pad....And what would you like?"

"I would like a state funeral..."

"You are awfully young to be thinking of that kind of thing!"

"But when my Dad finds out whose bloody life I saved today..."


I think that Cliff Richard should be buried in Poets Corner. Right now. 



The human race just can't get it right, can it? John Lennon -- murdered. J.F.K -- murdered. Martin Luther King -- murdered. Ghandi -- murdered. Jesus Christ -- murdered. Ronald Reagan -- wounded. 



Dear God -- In the last year, you have taken my favourite comedian, Ronnie Corbet; my favourite conjurer, Paul Daniels; my favourite singer, David Bowie; and my favourite actor, Carrie Fisher. Oh God, I want you to know that my favourite politician is Jeremy Corbyn." 


It is not in question that Jim Davison is odious little individual (or at any rate, that he plays one on the stage.) I understand that he sincerely regrets the racist "Chalkie White" material he did during the '70s. However, his "Jeremy Corbyn" remark was clearly a joke, presented as a joke, structured as a joke and indeed following a venerable joke-like formula.  (*)  He was not expressing a wish that someone would die, much less advocating political assassination.

Comedians have always told jokes about the deaths of politicians and other public figures. If you start down the path of saying "Tory comedian Jim Davidson wishes Jeremy Corbyn DEAD in sick gag" you end up saying "Well, I'm glad YOU think that the deaths of fifteen hundred people are funny, but I don't think YOU'D have found it very funny if YOU'D been in the bar of the Titanic with a Vicar and a Rabbi..."

(*)

Compare: 

"I've just been reading a fascinating survey of worldwide sexual behaviour. It says that Native Americans have the biggest cocks, but Polish men last longest. By the way, I don't think I caught your name?" 

"Tonto Pilsudski." 

(patrons are not being charged for this post)