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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

It's not about good versus evil

Morals are relative, and may not even be about morals. You all know the famous George Carlin quote “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” Here we are looking at a sliding scale situated somewhere between the extremes of staying in second gear and total recklessness. A different scale, one that we might characerize as more a moral scale, operates when we find a wallet on the ground. For someone not scrupulously honest many factors come into play. starting with how much cash is in it? Did anyone see you pick it up? Does the wallet contain the owner's ID? Is the owner attractive? Is there anyone nearby you could hand it in to, and could they be trusted not to pocket it themselves? Not everyone praises honesty in such a situation. Some might call a poor person who passed up such a windfall an idiot for having missed a chance to change his life. Like the driver in Carlin's example, we judge others' reactions to this situation by comparing it to what we would do faced with the same variables (Amount, presence of ID. etc.). They are either too honest (handed the wallet in with no ID) or really stupid (could have been 700 dollars better off).

In nature we see a sliding scale between peaceful symbiosis and raw predation that has little to do with scruples and everything to do with survival imperatives. Parasitism and invasiveness complicate the picture somewhat, but at a more abstract level we can describe the sliding scale as stretching between a conservative attachment to the status quo and a violent urge to overthrow it. Ancient History has highlighted the dichotomy between agriculturalists and pastoralists, or settlers and herders. The conflict in Darfur is only one recent resurgence of this age-old opposition, now mirrored in the hubris of Corporate Power as it continues to herd and manipulate the supine, tasting-panel-simulated consumer-hobbit. Tolkien saw it all coming!

24eme Salon de Peinture de Clairac

True to form the 24th Salon de Peinture de Clairac kicked off with a riot of globular breasts, paint spills, harlequins and merry-making cubistic peasants, with guest of honour artist Jean Coladon. With the intermittent meticulousness of the self-taught the man paints bare ladies with eyes like decals, geometrical tits and smudgy muffs, and has been doing so for 30 years. He places these in various imaginary contexts, sometimes adding an accessory here, a pair of wallpaper wings there. One would like just once to be spared the up-the-nostrils chin shot intended to represent ecstasy but more often than not suggestive of acute back pain. Taking the mike at the opening vin d'honneur, the artist listed the various labels he had been given, and said that his favourite was to be called a symbolist. Too soft to be soft porn these silicon breasted naiads have become the dominant theme of French village art, though they make you wonder when any of these artists actually last saw a real woman in the buff. Clearly influenced by photoshopped images from lads mags and Lara Croft, the formalised anatomy and generic (where not totally blank) faces incarnate half-formed idealisations of the female object. What is so strange is that half the artists that produce this stuff are women. Needless to say the selection committee didn't like my stuff and hung it under a spotlight that drilled a shaft of light down the middle of my sunset creating an alarming nuclear armageddon effect.

Monday, December 26, 2011

On Ted Hughes being admitted to Poet's Corner

To the residents of Poets Corner

Budge over ditty-mongers, Ted
Is here; and lugging rhymeless tomes
He comes to join the rhyming dead
And here engrave his timeless pomes
(That’s timeless in a modern sense
As in “no time to pause and think.”
It doesn’t mean they transcend tense.)
No long re-writes – why waste the ink?
The stuff just poured out from his heart
With that berating earthy voice
Committees love; and hence their choice.
Now Ted can share with you his art:
“When inspiration fails use guile!
Who reads all that? Just clock yon pile!!”

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Auenis player

I was recently intrigued by the above caption, mirrored on several sites, to an image of a Roman mosaic depicting a man with a panpipe. Sensing the red herring, it didn't take me long to narrow down the source of the information to an online article whose author claimed to have “stumbled” on a Latin word, undiscovered by previous Latin dictionaries, meaning “panpipes”.


He found this word “auenis” in a line from Ovid. “Sub galea pastor iunctis pice cantat auenis”. As anyone who knows his Latin can see, “avenis” here is an ablative plural, confirmed by the presence of “cunctis”, ablative plural of cunctus, meaning “joined”, in agreement with it. A quick search in the dictionary will turn up “avena” meaning “oats” and by extension, a stalk of a grass or cane, and therefore “tube” or “chalumeau”.
The passage comes from book V of Tristia, in which the poet bemoans the civil strife in the countryside, causing the ploughman to plough unhappily with one hand, holding a weapon in the other, and here, the shepherd, under his helmet, to play on reeds joined with pitch (a makeshift panflute) to calm his sheep, who are afraid of the wolf.


Ovid also used the expression “avenae structae” to mean panpipes, literally “arrayed tubes”. These were presumably of better manufacture than the ones made by the shepherd with the materials to hand in the war-torn countryside.


Supposing for a moment that there was a word “avenis” or “auenis” (i-stem 3rd declension) meaning panflute, what is it doing in this sentence? If it is a nominative that would make it the subject in competition with “pastor”. The only other possibility ending in “-is” is a genitive. Either way, that leaves poor “cunctis” orphaned, a participle with nothing to qualify. The correct parsing of the line is therefore, as I tried to explain to him, “sub galea”=under his helmet, “pastor cantat”=the shepherd sings/plays, “avenis”= on tubes”, “cunctis pice”= joined with (coal tar) pitch.


While there may yet be undiscovered words of the Latin language, they are unlikely to inhabit the verses of Ovid, a poet already studied by millions of schoolchildren and professors.


When I made contact with the author to put him straight I was treated to a barrage of vituperative messages in which he claimed as his authority the Internet, specifically an online Latin dictionary compiled by an amateur from Texas. Blind faith in dubious sources goes back to before the printed word, where at least the name of the authority quoted carried a certain amount of weight. But today the argument "Just Google it and you'll see" seems to trump common sense.


So who was the authority in this case?


Well it turns out that he makes no bones about not even being one. By "just Googling" the name of the compiler of the dictionary, one William Whitaker, I came upon the following engaging disclaimer:


"I am not a Latin scholar, only a dictionary hacker (in the old sense of one building with only an ax as a tool). While I try to [...] do the best I can, I am a very unreliable source [...] And I am not qualified to even try English-to-Latin."


Ah, my faith in Google is restored!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Frog and the Scorpion: Fable or Prophecy?

Today at last, even the most Panglossian, chai-drinking Utopian dreamers are being grudgingly forced to admit that the Koran, a book held sacred by a fifth of humanity, contains a 1400-year-old call to arms against the other four fifths. Muslims are enjoined to fight them to convert them, squeeze them for tax or kill them.

There is a well known folk tale about a frog and a scorpion which typifies albeit in caricature the present confrontation between European do-gooders and Islam. The scorpion asked the frog to give him a ride over a river. The frog demurred, saying that he didn’t want to get killed by the scorpion’s sting. The scorpion argued that he wouldn’t do something as stupid as that since they would both drown. This made sense to the frog who agreed to carry the scorpion across. Halfway across, the scorpion stung the frog and as they were both sinking the frog asked why. The answer came: “Because it’s my nature, and I cannot change that”. The learned Arabist Hans Jansen, testifying at the trial of Geert Wilders for incitement to hatred, stated that what distinguished Islam from other religions is precisely its immutability. Everything in it is based on what is written, mektub, and that cannot be changed by man.1

A variation on this story puts a fox in place of the frog. The scorpion’s last words in this version were: “It is better we should both perish than that my enemy should live.” An answer which succinctly encapsulates the attitude of those sworn to the destruction of Israel: the current Iranian leadership, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in the Gaza strip. By their indifference to taking casualties, both Hamas and Hizbollah have already demonstrated with “conventional” weapons that the Cold War doctrine of balance of deterrence - which kept the peace for so long - is no longer valid. Speaking of Iran in the film Iranium Bernard Lewis remarked: “With these people with their apocalyptic mindset, mutually assured destruction is not a deterrent, it’s an inducement.” Iran, famous for having prepared a generation of schoolchildren for martyrdom during the war with Iraq, now waits to up the ante.

For nearly a century United States foreign policy agents have been assiduously playing frog to scorpions worldwide, in Latin America and Africa, but above all in the Middle East and South Asia. American money has been naïvely funnelled in huge quantities to support regimes or the resistance groups which oppose them, on a “lesser of two evils” basis. Generous funding enables these “allies” to buy sufficient arms to become in effect a greater evil than the one the US was hoping to use them to defeat. At which point they turn against their erstwhile mentors and Americans are left to rue their ingratitude. Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the Mujahideen – later to morph into the Taliban – in Afghanistan are only the best known examples. The astonishing thing is how often the mistake is repeated, in a chain sequence. By deposing its former ally Saddam and bringing a semblance of majority rule to Iraq it has taken the lid off a can of worms by empowering the much more religiously deranged Shia section of the population, which Saddam had successfully kept down. To balance this error and in an effort to limit the consequent growth in Iran’s influence, the CIA now funds the Jundullah, a separatist Sunni terror organisation in south-east Iran. Who will be the next beneficiary of American largesse? Already the Taliban, a bunch of murderous goons, are being invited to talks likely to lead to power-sharing arrangements in Afghanistan. Doubtless, a condition of their participation will be a second helping of US funding, and so it goes on. The US seems to have boundless faith in its ability to buy buddyhood matched by a total blindness to the contempt engendered by its efforts to do so. As a result it ends up setting political wildfires and wondering why its hands get burnt.

A similar sucker role is also being played in Europe by governmental coddling of Islam. Every political and religious concession made to Muslim “sensibilities” adds a plank to the platform of those who would see democratic governance replaced by God’s law, as dictated in the seventh century by an illiterate serial rapist, mass murderer and armed robber – to keep the list short. Just like the frog, who had nothing to gain in the deal even if Scorpion were to keep his word, European governments are motivated by a futile desire to be liked. They will be lucky to earn pity. As for votes, they are beginning to get some surprises in that direction too.

What is most instructive in this cautionary tale is not so much the self-defeating spite of the scorpion (which we cannot change anyway), but the frog’s blithe acceptance of the scorpion’s arguments. By assuming the scorpion to be motivated by common sense and a shared survival instinct the frog judges the scorpion by his own rational standards. The scorpion has astutely based his arguments on his understanding of the frog’s thinking. Conversely, the frog is unable to form a conceptual framework to deal with the scorpion’s mindset. The frog takes the Confucian view that man’s nature starts off fundamentally good2. It is this incomprehension which puts the frog at a disadvantage and is the biggest threat to frog survival. How best to overcome this barrier to understanding? How can frogs brought up to believe with Candide that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds” learn to deal with a culture which says “If there is a dwelling purely for you in the hereafter with Allah to the exclusion of [other] people[s], then long for death if you are truthful.”3

There is an urgent need for frogs to come to an intuitive understanding of scorpion mentality. They will need to accept not only that such a mentality is possible in today’s world, but also that it is probably beyond a frog’s power to change it by kindness or persuasion. At the same time, if we can question the frog’s naivety, we might be able to avoid drowning in our own goodwill, and quit offering a free ferry service.

The frog’s weak spot



If we try to take a big step back and compare today with Churchill’s time, it is interesting to ask why the West seems to have lost the ability to breed principled leaders, or even stout defenders of national sovereignty or identity. And even if one Western country could produce such a person, what freedom of action could such a leader have in today’s world? The democratic seesaw tips between the so-called “left” (buying the votes of the poor with the money of the rich) and the “right” (letting the rich get quietly richer in return for electoral campaign funds). This meaningless dichotomy means that the public debate is centred on totally spurious priorities, built around two opposing strategies of getting elected.

After World War II, national sovereignty was eroded first by multinational companies who could simply threaten to relocate, taking jobs and tax revenue with them if they didn’t like a government policy. But in the 1990’s, old style industrial capitalism became terminally corrupt. Stock option remuneration packages turned executives from loyal corporate officers and pillars of the community into raiders with a three-year grab-and-run plan. Honest reporting gave way to accounting legerdemain, and tax havens opened their arms to those on the run both from their governments and from angry shareholders. As currency controls evaporated in the unquestioning rush towards the “ideal” of free trade, Big Capital took over the reins from Big Industry, and can now breathe down governments’ necks, forcing them to make austerity programs that none of their voters want. This extortionate practice, causing widespread bankruptcies and job losses, is cynically termed a “bailout”. So if the people have no say any more, what is the point of democracy?

Big Capital is the baby of the “positive net worth individual” (PNWI). This means people who, by being dealt good cards and/or playing them right, are able to pay off their mortgages and put enough money aside to live by asset management alone, or without working at all if a good manager can be found. Big Capital consists of institutions owned and run by these PNWIs and its principal activity is that of getting even bigger. It used to do this by investing in promising industries, thus creating wealth and justifying its own existence. In recent years however, it is looking at less risky sources of revenue, such as rental property and the financing of welfare states. Yawning social service deficits in developed countries are attractive sources of interest for the lenders. Unemployment is becoming big business, and a safer bet than productive enterprise. It has the secondary advantage of slowing inflation, Big Capital’s big enemy (and friend of the NNWI – Negative Net Worth Individuals – did they but know it).

In political terms this encourages the emergence of a new electoral strategy called “centre” politics, in which the poor are given money borrowed – not taxed – by the government from the rich. The magic here is that the government wins the votes of the poor, who think that it is working in their interest, and at the same time earns campaign funds from the rich, who can watch their pile grow with all that low-risk interest. It is as if the rich are making the poor a loan which is paid back by the government. The victims of this arrangement, our children who will shoulder the debt, are too young to vote. On the property side, wealthy landlords can charge sky-high rents to tenants who happen to receive housing allowance from the government, paid for with more borrowed money, yielding more interest to the rich and prising the wealth gap ever wider. The obvious instability of such arrangements results in those “bailout” moments described above. By threatening to downgrade a country’s credit rating, Big Capital is simply saying: if you can’t afford to pay us we will charge you even higher interest. In this it is dealing with politicians who are all playing the “centre” electoral strategy and are easily cowed by threats of a walkout from their sponsor. Amongst other favours, centre politicians do everything within their power to maintain house prices, especially in the UK – one of the most indebted nations in the world – which only benefits holders of interest-bearing loans (the banks and building societies), a fact which may surprise house owners who are weak at mathematics.

By giving the appearance of existing for the benefit of borrowers, financial institutions serve as front organizations, or catspaws, for the real cash beneficiaries, the PNWIs. In fine, they package and opacify the greed of depositors and shareholders (“investors”), screening it from customers whose function is to provide revenue. They can use their privy knowledge of the arcana of macro-finance to pull the wool over the eyes of legislators. During panics and crises often precipitated by the better placed among them, their representatives are suddenly available to offer expert advice to governments, suggesting bailouts and warning against controls. If governments, instead of talking about tough negotiations with banks and funds, were to acknowledge that they are begging the rich for advice to get out of the mess, while also tapping them for loans, the public would be presented with a truer picture. Why are State governments, who supposedly have the power to set taxes, going cap in hand to rich lenders and offering them deals to make them still richer? If any sign were needed that Western governments can no longer lead a pig to market, this fits the bill.

OK now: having caricatured Big Capital’s takeover of real power from nation-states, it might seem paradoxical to go on to describe this all-powerful beast as the frog’s weak spot. What makes it so is its lack of what used to be called moral fibre. Lending institutions have a primary duty to make their shareholders and depositors richer. These shareholders and depositors may include people with strongly held moral principles, but since voting power is proportional to holdings, the richer and therefore more wealth-intoxicated generally hold the majority. It is these people who, through the institutions which manage their wealth, have voting power which trumps that of electorates of nation states. Yet this power is virtually incapable of serving any principle other than dull greed. Driven by a constant stream of new hungry depositors, Big Capital will never afford the pasha’s luxury of being so rich he can affect a reckless indifference to wealth. And this is where the frog is most vulnerable: in its inability to do useful things to do with its money other than make more of it. Unlike a Saudi prince, the rich man in the West is owned by his money.

Islam’s critique of the West relentlessly hits this very spot. The faithful are told that the world would be a fairer place if there were no more lending at interest, and if the rich were obliged to pay zakat to support the poor. And this is the very message that Western politicians should be delivering if they were really sincere in fighting on behalf of the majority of voters, most of whom are Negative Net Worth Individuals – at least in the debt-ridden UK and USA. But then who would pay for their TV ads at election time? More to the point, would the TV stations – owned by Big Capital – even run the ads? In any case, by refusing to tell voters the macroeconomic truth, Western Governments leave the door open for the truth to arrive from another quarter, dressed as religion this time.

When macroeconomic manoeuvrings - a “system” - produce manifest injustice, one can try to understand the mechanism in order to correct unwanted effects. But with Big Capital always several steps ahead of governments, and inventing ever more arcane plays to hornswoggle an ever dumber electorate, this will not happen. Instead, we will see violent reactions led by those who haven’t a clue what the enemy’s game is. This leaves few options. No internal force will ever stop Big Capital from gobbling up the entire world - if Islam doesn’t gobble it up first. Islam can win the hearts and minds of those who feel themselves victims of “the system”. But it is the frog who in the end is the biggest victim of its own system, snared by shareholders and depositors sunning themselves out of its reach.

To change the zoological metaphor, the West is a sitting duck. Islam is a bigger, tougher challenger than Communism was. And the West now has its arms tied in historically unprecedented ways. It waits in the grip of a triple paralysis: intolerant idealism or political correctness, the slo-mo legal labyrinth of supra-national legislation and treaties, and Big Capital’s full Nelson. Plus it may soon run out of credit.

Notes


1

Reading the Koran in chronological order reveals constantly shifting positions on a number of topics. It seems unreasonable that a god who changed his mind so often during the 23 years of Mohammed’s “ministry” should be forbidden from doing so in the ensuing 1400 years.

2

人之初性本善

3

Koran 2:94. One of the meaner verses of the Koran. The phrase khaalisatan min duuni nnaasi – “especially to the exclusion of people” seems intended to make paradise all the more appealing when there are less tourists or if you don’t have to share those virgins with anyone else.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Is the Koran desirable?

Since I posted the piece entitled "Is the Koran actionable?" I have come to realise that the real problem of the Koran lies not in the isolated verses where it steps over the lines (lines which were drawn by mere mortals in the House of Commons committees which frame our laws), but in its pervading paranoid tribalist mindset. Geert Wilders's film Fitna also makes a verse-by-verse indictment, which though it pinpoints different verses as objectionable, fails to answer the broader question of whether we would want such a publication even with the offending verses removed? Threatening hellfire on unbelievers (fakirs), and those who pretend to believe (the muneffekhs) is not illegal because the punishment is posthumous and does not constitute assault under English law. Still, Geert is to be saluted for taking on the fight, albeit obliged to resort to legalistic nitpicking curiously reminiscent of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. The truth is, for dealing with fire breathers, England was never more in need of this gentleman:



Given the prickly sensibilities involved, the best I can do for the concerned reader is direct him to a page where he can download
St George screensavers. If you get an error message, copy the address from the address bar (Ctrl+C), say a little prayer to St George and then paste it back in in the same place (Ctrl+V). Don't ask why that works.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

An Englishman's home

For too long the Englishman's home has been his financial instrument, and speculation has taken his mind off productive work. He has learnt to spend his time watching the changing size of his pile. His view of the Euro matches this mentality. He considers it his birthright to be able to leverage the strength of the pound to buy cheap property abroad and is sorely miffed when as an expat he can no longer live like a king on a sterling pension. But money is like the oil in a car's motor. If it isn't continuously pumped through the system the engine seizes up. The view of money as treasury which needs to be piled up is primitive and is equivalent to letting all the oil accumulate in the sump where it can do no good. For this reason alone, the euro, which has increased the ease with which money circulates over a large area of the world, has proved its worth, and for the Brits to stay out of the eurozone is to deny its potential for lubricating and feeding the real economies of both Europe and the UK.

Thomas Jefferson said "If the American People allow private banks to control the issuance of their currency, first by inflation and then by deflation, the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the People of all their Property until their Children will wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered".

Seems the same fate is befalling the mother country.