‘You have come down here to see an election – eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops — masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?’ The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff.
‘And what is the likely result of the contest?’ inquired Mr. Pickwick.
‘Why, doubtful, my dear sir, rather doubtful as yet,’ replied the little man. ‘Fizkin’s people have got three-and-thirty voters in the lock-up coach-house at the White Hart.’
“The man who is not a socialist at twenty has no heart, but if he is still a socialist at forty he has no head.” (Aristide Briand (1862-1932)) Well, Aristide, Prime Minister of France 11 times, was certainly a Socialist when young, but perhaps felt himself as an international statesmen becoming more right-wing as he became older.
It is an aphorism that is endlessly quoted, with knowing smirks, by the Right, most famously by Churchill, trying to counteract the opposite observation – “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.” – by John Stuart Mill. And trying to counteract modern studies showing that politically conservative people have on average a lower IQ than politically progressive people.
Not the point I want to discuss though, though related.
“In 1969 Robert Wilson, director of the National Accelerator Laboratory, was testifying before the US Congress. He sought funding for a particle accelerator (forerunner of the Large Hadron Collider at Cern where the Higgs boson was discovered in 2012). Asked by Senator John Pastore how his project would help defeat the Russians, he responded: “It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another . . . are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets . . . new knowledge has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”
was sent to me by my old friend Rob Banks, who knew that I would enjoy it.
It made me think of this, from H.H. Kirst’s “Gunner Asch goes to war” (What, you don’t know Kirst and his great creation Herbert Asch? Shame on you. Rectify at once, if you can find it, and the later works):
‘Sergeant Asch said “I’m not going to die for this sort of Germany”
“But who’s asking you to?” said Kowalski
“There must be another Germany, which is worth dying for”
“Man!” said Kowalski “Perhaps one day there’ll even be a Germany which is worth living for!”‘
Something to bear in mind as we are in the year marking 100 years since the war to end all wars began. And in Australia we are just a year away from the commemoration of ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) troops (as well as British troops) landing at the start of the failed attempt to invade Turkey. An event now commemorated by Anzac Day on 25 April, and said to mark the true beginning of Australia’s nationhood. An event so important to the Right in Australia that the Education Minister (a title impossible to use seriously) appears to want the whole education curriculum built around it.
I’ve been watching, at long last, the three Star Wars prequel movies (yes, yes, I know how truly awful the first two are NOW, but you didn’t warn me, did you?). Something struck me as I watched the endless computer graphics supplying background to the endless special effect fight scenes.
It has long been a commonplace that the representation of “alien races” in science fiction always gets it wrong. In brief, for this is totally irrelevant to the essay, natural selection will work exactly the same way wherever life appears in the universe. And we know that physics and chemistry is uniform. So alien body forms can’t be just random collections of unconnected exotic features, and bodies are limited by physical and chemical laws. So Wookies, possible, Jar Jar Binks, not so much.
Where was I? Oh yes. Aliens are wrong, but so, generally, are the planets they are portrayed as living on. Many Star Wars planets are portrayed as having surfaces totally covered by cities composed of huge skyscrapers and clearly intended to indicate populations of billions of beings. It is an old concept in science fiction. I guess based on the ideas of inevitable massive population growth, endless technological innovation, and cities as the ultimate expression of human evolution and civilisation.
“My heart is broken by the terrible loss I have sustained in my old friends and companions and my poor soldiers. Believe me, nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won.” Duke of Wellington, letter from the field of Waterloo (June 1815)
Tacitus some 1700 years earlier – “They rob, kill and plunder all under the deceiving name of Roman Rule. They make a desert and call it peace.”
At Xmas I came across a sad piece talking about Xmas 1913, looking at what a number of young men were doing that Xmas, and what would happen to them in the Great War. That is, die.
The essay beautifully makes the obvious point that 1913 marked the end of the old world. Nothing would ever be the same again – “What the war changed most, as Philip Larkin suggested in his great poem “MCMXIV”, written in 1964 for the half-centenary of the war, was the social deference born of ages; a blind trust in authority; a belief that everything was most likely to advance towards a better world. “Never such innocence again.”"
Some years ago I wrote a piece in which I suggested a new form of swearing-in of a new Prime Minister of Australia, which included a choice of books on which the newly elected best and brightest could swear the oath instead of the bible – Origin of Species, Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 1984, Catch-22.
This week I remembered those suggestions as the revelations of rorting of parliamentary allowances by Liberal MPs belatedly (ie safely after the election) came to light. Among the rorts were thousands of dollars worth of books purchased.
It is August*, and the citizens are aware of the barbarians at the gates of their civilisation. The Visigoths have a bad reputation, but they have been secretly chatting to the slaves and convinced them they are really good guys, big supporters of the Lower Orders in fact. So one night the slaves open the locked gates and in come the Visigoths who then proceed to rape, pillage and generally wreck the joint, just as their reputation had suggested. The slaves, and this will shock you, ended up worse off.
Forty five years go by. Not very long, really, sufficiently short for old codgers like me to have seen the Visigoths in action and to think, oh shit, not again. But yes, this time it is the Vandals at the gates. No shenanigans with slaves this time, no need, all sorts of silly buggers have been played by the rulers of the civilisation, the politics is a mess, and next thing you know “The Vandals are coming, the Vandals are coming”. Who proceed to try to outdo those wimps the Visigoths and thoroughly trash the joint, so thoroughly that the year 455 is generally considered to mark the end of the once mighty 500 year old Roman Empire.
Yes, Rome, what did you think? Oh, I see, you thought you could see analogies with the citizens of Australia terrified of the arrival of Coalition barbarians on 7 September? Well, I hadn’t thought of that but now you mention it…
See, there are people who believe… I’m sorry, you’ll laugh. There are people who believe that the money that tobacco companies used in advertising, promotion, sponsorship, to make their brand logos well-known, in order to make huge profits (including of course recovering as costs or tax deductions the money spent on promotion), is much more important to society than the vastly bigger amounts of money the public have to spend to deal with the costs of tobacco addiction.
Well, some of it is clearly genuine stupidity. While, it is well-known, not all stupid people are conservatives, it is undoubtedly the case that all conservatives are stupid. Add to that natural stupidity the pungent anti-science of the Tea Party style no-nothings in recent years, and you have the perfect recipe for believing any kind of crap nonscience that people of ill-will feed to you. If some clown pretends that there is a link between wind farms and an imaginary disease, then no matter how much proper science disproves this pretence, British Conservatives and Australian Liberals and Nationals will believe the clown every time. If only someone would tell them that gravity is a communist plot and a chap calling in to Alan Jones say it is well-known you can jump from high buildings but our socialist prime minister has covered it up!
A small herd of pigs arrived on the farm a week or so ago. Destructive creatures, destroying the world they live in as if they had an alternative in mind. Haven’t seen them before, looks like they have moved out of the forest up in the hills to the East, and down on to the lower plains to pillage. Perhaps they will become adapted to the soft lotus-eating life down here.
On the occasions when those of us on the Left dare to question the rise and rise of libertarianism, neoconservatism, conservatism, drown-government-in-a-bathtub-but-promote-the-combination-of-church-and-state, corporations-are-people nastiness, we generally get told we are wishy-washy idealists who have no idea of human nature which is red in tooth and claw and the devil take the hindmost because there is no-such-thing-as-society.
How to decide? Well the problem of course is that age-old conundrum “nature or nurture”. Have human societies often tended to be brutal big-dog-eat-little-dog affairs in which the poor give all their money to rich royalty and religions who get even richer because, well, that’s just the way human beings are made, or are human beings corrupted from an original much nicer disposition by the brutalities of states full of vested interests?
Very difficult to distinguish because we are always in, always have been in (with the exception of the occasional religious lunatic), a society, so there are no experimental subjects. We need something equivalent to the twin experiments, the ones where identical twins, raised separately, are tested for similarities and differences. and we do have equivalents. The first is that there are many societies around the world, Australian Aboriginal society being the one I know best, in which cooperation, altruism, sharing, equality, are the order of the day, and as far removed from Ms Rand’s nasty dystopia as it is possible to get. So, starting off from identical, or near identical, points of genetics, societies have different outcomes of human behaviour in response to different social, cultural, economic frameworks. Human behaviour, it would seem, is a response to society, not the reverse.
The other “twin experiment” is the one where the species Homo sapiens as a whole is compared to the “twin species” that have branched off from the ape line along the evolutionary pathway. How do humans, one could ask, compare to their nearest relatives the chimps, or to their slightly more distinct relatives the gorillas, and so on back through the ape lineage as a whole if one wished. The comparisons are made in relation to broad areas most relevant to humans. For example of intelligence (eg tool use, problem solving, language use), social organisation (hierarchy, sex, care of young, aggression, cooperation), nutrition, motor skills and so on.
But such comparisons in a sense miss the point. There isn’t much point in comparing modern humans with, say, modern chimps, because the two lines have gone their separate ways, under different selection pressures, for some four million years. Chimps are not the ancestors of humans, but their cousins, of exactly the same antiquity and origin.
So what we need to do is think about those early hominid groups moving out of the forests, leaving, as it were, their cousins lotus-eating back in the ancestral home (although I guess it was more a case of the forests, as a result of climate change in their part of East Africa, leaving them). Nature was certainly red in tooth and claw all round them, and just finding food, no longer a matter of plucking fruit from a tree you were resting in, would have been a constant challenge.
So these groups, these ancestors of Homo sapiens, would have been highly cooperative. Men cooperating in a hunt, women cooperating in gathering, all cooperating in child rearing and caring for the elderly, the elderly responsible for maintaining knowledge. A group that didn’t cooperate wouldn’t survive. Individuals who didn’t cooperate, tried to monopolise resources, or get others to do their work, wouldn’t have been tolerated. The ancestors of Ayn Rand, Freddy Hayek, Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, must have been very different people to their descendants.
It is only very late in human history, as cities, monarchies, hierarchical religions, develop that some individuals, eye on the main chance, see opportunities for concentrating wealth and power in themselves. Such people, and their friends with aspirations to be like them, told the population at large, unaccountably tending to challenge the huge discrepancies of wealth in the new order, that this was mother nature’s way, pity, but what can you do, human nature is as human nature does. Or, more succinctly, all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Don’t you believe them, pigs on two legs are still pigs.