The unwritten rulebook (part 1001)

I’m lifting this brief post from the very smart and witty Steven Hayward at the peerless Powerline, which apart from anything else, has five regular writers who are absolute role models for concise and pithy blog posting. Here is the essence of Steve’s piece, referring to the work of Michael Uhlmann, about whom I know very little. He is though, a master of the unwritten law:

Like Uhlmann’s law of legislative analysis:

If an Act of Congress has a long title—lock up the children and run for cover.

Or Uhlmann’s Razor:

When stupidity seems a sufficient explanation, there is no need for recourse to any more elaborate analysis.

Uhlmann’s Razor also has a corollary known as Uhlmann’s First Law of Historical Causation:

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

And my personal favorite:

When evaluating the soundness of any moral proposition, law, rule, or regulation, however popular, to ascertain its true meaning, read it aloud slowly in a German accent.

…to which Steve adds the rules of historian Robert Conquest:

  1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
  2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
  3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

Timeless advice from both parties, and universal (ie. also broadly applies to the UK)

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Uhlmann’s Razor applies again

 

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The Devil, probably

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Washington DC, last week

You don’t have to be a dyed in the wool Republican, or generally lean towards the conservative end of politics, to be shocked by the events of this last week, in Washington. I have no doubt that the legions of Hillary fans and Trump haters will have said to themselves “thank God it’s not happening to me or my family“, as they contemplated the attempted evisceration of Brett Kavanaugh, on the incredible grounds that he is a rapist manqué. 

And I mean incredible in the sense of not being credible. What the hell is going on?

Well, aside from sheer politics, there is an undercurrent of plain old evil here. Lots of people have commented on it. I have no idea if others mean evil in a religious sense, or just bad behaviour. I specifically mean the former, and I know that would get me laughed at in what passes for polite society. In following UK politics you will encounter all sorts of badness, solipsistic idiocy, bullying, arrogance and many many other vices. And that’s just Alastair Campbell. But evil? Not so much.

Accusing a man of rape, knowing there to be no evidence is undoubtedly evil. Attempting to wreck the lives of his wife and children is evil. Abandoning the presumption of innocence is evil (and foolish*****).

Surely we can all agree on this, in theory at least***. So why would you do that?

I get the “all’s fair in love and war” cliche. I know that politics is a rough game, although part of the problem is that the judiciary should stand apart from politics, and doesn’t. I know that the Supreme Court stakes are very high for all parties. But this latest assault on Kavanaugh is something else, something much darker.

Again, this is not a left/right thing. Any reasonable person should be appalled. The fact that it’s still being pursued is a mark of how strong, the evil impulse is. It is not politics as normal. It is nothing to do with investigating sexual assault. The latter is being cynically used as a vehicle by people who have in fact routinely supported sexual abusers.

Back to religion. Give up reading now, if you are groaning inwardly, but the truth is that Charles Baudelaire – no stranger to evil, by his own admission – was right when he stated: la plus belle des ruses du diable est de vous persuader qu’il n’existe pas. Most people will be able to work that one out: the devil’s finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist.

He has a point.

When ISIS, or Mexican drug cartels do their now almost banal torturing people to death, we can all agree, that’s evil. It’s also mostly in a land far away, removed from our comfortable existences. And we do use the word evil in describing them, we also use the words devilish, demonic, and hellish, and rightly so. But this week in Washington it has been in our own backyard, metaphorically. You don’t have to saw heads off to merit the use of these terms.

I trust that it will still end well, with the manifestly innocent Kavanaugh being eventually confirmed, although badly battered, and that the very real problem of sexual abuse will return to being a crime worthy of investigation and punishment – not a handy weapon for evil people to attack their opponents with.

To quote the eloquent Effie Deans, a voice of reason on this side of the pond: The madness that has taken over the United States is such that people’s lives are being ruined because of unsubstantiated allegations that go back decades. If we allow this to become the norm then our politics will simply become impossible.

That’s the practical problem**. The moral problem goes much, much deeper. Until recently this theme of evil, and dealing with the Devil in order to get ahead, would have been widely understood . The whole Faust legend, embedded in Western culture in numerous forms is a perfect example of that (see the top picture). Dante, Milton, Goethe, Bosch, Berlioz, Pasolini, Bresson, Dostoevsky, Chesterton and innumerable others all created masterpieces from this, the temptation that resonates with every person. As recently as 2011, a movie on Faust won the Venice Film Festival Golden Lion prize. This timeless dealmaking didn’t come out of nowhere, nor did it come out of superstition. It was probably easier to understand the ways of the world 400 years ago than it is now.

Oddly enough, today is Michaelmas, or the Feast of  St Michael and All Angels. He kicked Lucifer and his rebel army out of heaven, the story goes. 

Very timely.

Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Fall_of_the_Rebel_Angels_-_RMFAB_584_(derivative_work)
Cleaning the body politic…Feinstein, Booker, Blumenthal, Harris…mustn’t forget Schumer… (Bruegel, The Fall of the Rebel Angels, 1562. Musee des Beaux Arts, Brussels)

 

**John Hinderaker enlarges on the wrecking tactics here. My piece is more on the morality and…er…metaphysics

***Maybe not all of us would agree, sadly. If you think all this talk of evil – and the Devil – is nutty religious hyperbole, think again.

***** and lo, it came to pass….

Great hacks of our time (8): Conrad Black

Private Eye used to refer to him as the ‘sinister Canadian’, and in truth Lord Black’s life is a riot of intrigue, money, business, politics, religion, prison, history, women, enemies and quite a few other things. But it’s his writing that I’m here to praise (start here, and here).

Black has written numerous books, the latest of which is a unique take – we are assured – on the Trump phenomenon. Unique in part because Black has also been extremely wealthy, and has known and liked Trump for years. He understandably doesn’t buy into the ‘reality TV/idiot/monster’ meme beloved by the majority of the media. He knows whereof he writes.

And boy does he write well, with instantly recognisable prose, and a penchant for extreme and obscure vocabulary in the manner of Bruce “The Brute” Anderson (1, 2) and the dean of  this sort of thing, the pleasingly enduring R Emmett Tyrrell jr.

Conrad on religion:

I am not touting religious practice (though I am a practitioner, having long ago lost faith in the non-existence of God, but respect all even semi-rational religious views, including atheism). It need hardly be said that horrible acts have been committed in the name of religion. That is the problem when mere people interpose themselves between the terrestrial life we all know and the spiritual life which is elusive, personal, largely inexpressible, and the subject of much doubt, some of it informed and intellectually respectable doubt. Yet, in Marxist parlance, the commanding heights of society have been seized and occupied by militant atheists, with the complicity of the usual sodden camp-following of those who have no convictions and are easily moved by a tide of fashionable unquestioned wisdom, no matter how mindless and unrigorous. The inheritors of the crusade for reason have largely become crusaders for intolerance and for the repudiation of the Judeo-Christian roots of our civilization. This force which inspired Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and illuminated the works of Shakespeare and even Descartes, much of it subsidized by the Christian Church, is now effectively led by those who despise Christianity as superstitious and shaming bunk.

Conrad on Mueller and associated matters:

If this all sounds like the Hound of the Baskervilles chasing its tail, that is because it is that and more: The hound has caught its own tail and devoured itself from behind to the point that it has become a deformed biped. In résumé, original Obama appointees Mueller and Rosenstein (the latter of whom named Mueller to his present post as special counsel — at the improper behest of Mueller’s friend and protégé Comey, after Comey leaked an improperly removed and self-addressed document — and recommended Comey’s firing as FBI director) are examining whether Trump-Russian collusion occurred, based on allegations in a dossier that Comey has testified did not implicate Trump, and that was composed and paid for by the Clinton campaign. Reduced to its simplest terms, the Trump-haters who control the media are asking the nation and the world to believe that the continuation in office of the constitutionally chosen president of the United States depends on a file prepared by unanswerable Kremlin sources incentivized to defame the president who were retained and paid by the president’s election opponent — a file that the person Trump fired as head of the FBI (Comey) on the recommendation of the sidekick of the special counsel in not investigating the Clinton side of the uranium controversy in 2014 has testified does not implicate the president now being investigated by Comey’s mentor Mueller

Conrad on the justice system:

I fear we are losing the capacity for proportionate response to misbehaviour, to temper justice with mercy, to forgive the penitent, and to remember that we are all sinners, living to some degree in moral glass houses. We are slipping into the practice of consigning moral, ethical, and even legal questions to a sort of Manichaean lottery, where those who are not legally convicted of egregious offences, but are tripped up, caught out in naughty or tawdry behaviour, however sincerely the misconduct is regretted for moral as well as tactical reasons, don’t make the cut, are ruthlessly reclassified as bad and cast out like Old Testament lepers…..In treating those who seriously misbehave but are not criminals in this arbitrary and severe way, the majority is dispensing with the system of moral gradations that is inherent to all serious religious and moral and penal theory. We are all good and bad to varying extents at different times. If we draw a line before which all is permitted and after which everything leads to chastisement and damnation, we unjustly divide people into the good and the bad. This is not only unjust to the losers; it is an unearned psychic enrichment to the winners. Instead of striving to behave ourselves generally as well as we can, people are effectively encouraged to game the system; to get away with what they can and to join in the group self-delusion that in throwing the book at those who cross the double line, we are dispensing condign punishment to them and affirming the virtue of the unpunished.

A classic Conrad footnote:

Note: Thanks to my friend Ron Radosh for pointing out that the comparison between Steve Bannon and King Henry VIII’s chancellor Thomas Cromwell, which I mentioned last week, was made by Bannon himself. But this was in an article by Michael Wolff, who is completely unreliable and knows nothing of Tudor history. I do not believe Bannon really compared himself to someone who undermined his predecessor (Cardinal Wolsey), supported the false conviction and execution of the queen (Anne Boleyn), and was then executed himself for proposing another failed marriage (to Anne of Cleves). None of it makes any sense and I say it is piffle.

I should leave the last word to another great – and highly prolific – contemporary commentator and historian, Victor Davis Hanson. In previewing Black’s new book, he summarises the point I wish to make, rather brilliantly:

Finally, Black is a singular prose stylist of what in the ancient world would be called the Asiatic, or florid and decorative, style—multisyllabic and sometime near archaic vocabulary, ornate imagery, melodic prose rhythms, diverse syntax, and classical tropes of deliberate understatement, juxtapositions of Latinate and Anglo-Saxon words, and plentiful metaphors and similes. In the modern world, few in English write (or can write) any more like Edward Gibbon or Winston Churchill, but Black does so effortlessly and with precision. So it is often a treat to read an Isocrates or Cicero in modern English.

Conrad Black
Conrad’n’Barbara

War stories…. World War Two edition (4)

The old man lived alone in a council flat. Access in and out was tricky, and he was, as the saying goes, becoming ‘off his legs’. He was 90 years old, and totally with it mentally.

I asked my usual question: “what did you do in the war?”

This certainly animated him. He told me that he’d been a gunner on an escort vessel in the North Atlantic, escorting the merchant navy convoys, that prior to this policy of escorting, had been decimated by a ruthless and highly effective U-boat campaign. It had clearly been very tough out there, often in 30 foot waves, freezing cold, and at risk of being torpedoed at any time, but he was exhilarated just talking about it.

“Did you actually see any Germans?”, I asked. He laughed and said very rarely, but there was one occasion in particular that sprang to mind. Depth charges had hit their mark, and the German submarine had to surface. The sea was relatively calm. The crew came out on deck and put their hands in the air, attempting to surrender. We Brits were generally pretty chivalrous about that sort of thing. Lots of crews did surrender.

“What did you do?” I asked, wondering how they transferred them on to the ship sitting much higher than the German crew.

“I shot them all. They’d been trying to kill me”.

Ouch. 

It all brings to mind the legendary Curtis LeMay, a pilot himself who led from the front, who masterminded the incredibly brutal – but possibly necessary – bombing of Japanese cities in World War 2:

Killing Japanese didn’t bother me very much at that time… I suppose if I had lost the war, I would have been tried as a war criminal…. Every soldier thinks something of the moral aspects of what he is doing. But all war is immoral and if you let that bother you, you’re not a good soldier.

Truly, one man’s war crimes are another man’s good soldiering. The dilemma is with us to this day.

uboat surrender
…what would you do?

Appeasement 2018, and DH Lawrence

The insult ‘Hitler’ has been casually tossed around in 21st century politics for years, with each use  provoking the most cringing of faux outrage, and simultaneously  diminishing the power of the comparison. Similarly, the term ‘appeasement’ has been invoked for all sorts of decisions ranging from pragmatic to cowardly, with numerous references to Neville Chamberlain’s deluded performance of 1938.

But while we genuinely seem to be lacking a new Hitler (pace Trump haters), appeasement is indeed on the prowl. Here is DH Lawrence, back in the late 1920’s, pondering the flaccid state of the nation and its so-called intelligentsia between the wars. It is taken from the chapter entitled The End of Old Europe (primarily relating to Hitler’s rise to power), in Paul Johnson’s invaluable Modern Times. Read it, history really does repeat itself.:

They want an outward system of nullity, which they call peace and good will, so that in their own souls they can be independent little gods…little Moral Absolutes, secure from questions….it stinks. It is the will of a louse

Photograph of D.H. Lawrence and Frieda Lawrence in Chapala, Mexico, 1923
Lawrence – prototype hipster?

Harsh words, but remarkably apposite to much of what we see today. So the reason why the Second Amendment is under attack again in the US (ha!), why Israel is criticised for defending its borders (not that I’m supporting excessive force), why the national armed forces are intended to be subsumed into an amorphous inchoate EU force etc, is so that wet middle class people far from the action can “in their own souls…be independent little gods”. That kind of sums up a certain bien pensant leftie to me. The absolute peak of such appeasement in recent times has been the utterly ineffective Iran Deal, created primarily to give Obama (and the hapless John Kerry) some sort of artificial legacy. The ‘will of a louse’ indeed.

To be honest, writing blog posts like this always feels a bit smug and a bit sour – it’s not something that gives you much pleasure – but we live in difficult times, and Lawrence’s quote is just too good to ignore.

It’s probably the best thing he wrote.

 

 

War stories…. World War Two edition (3)

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The Heldenplatz and the Hofburg today

 

This elderly lady was actually a sort of a colleague of another one of my patients. She was a 94 year old nun, still bright and active. The nuns lived in a convent by the North Sea, in an enclosed order. A very happy and tranquil group. They’re still there today.  She spent her days – when not in prayer etc – making greetings cards. These were decorated with dried flowers which she flattened by placing them between the pages of a book and sitting on it for a while.

As a young girl, her father was a big cheese policeman in the town where she lived. She was used to big civic events and tagging along.

One day her father took her and the family to a huge public meeting, and she was introduced to the star attraction, shaking his hand. The atmosphere was apparently buzzing, big things were happening, the children were told.

The date? 15th March, 1938

The location? The Heldenplatz in Vienna, still there in front of the remarkable Hofburg Palace.

The event? The culminating rally of the Austrian anschluss

The star attraction? Adolf Hitler.

Yes, that Hitler. Six degrees of separation indeed.

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80 years ago this month…

 

 

War stories…. World War Two edition (2)

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Buried in the jungle

I’m trying to find the quote from an old writer about the things that a fulfilled man must do with his life. It included going to war**, yet many people who have been in actual combat found it horrible and suffer still, despite the intensity of the experience and the irreproducible camaraderie induced by your lives being dependent on each other. They are a smaller group than everyone who actually served in uniform- for every single combat marine in the US Pacific campaign there were about 19 other members of the armed forces in logistics, engineering, supplies, catering, transport and so on.

So this is the second, in a short series

The Chindits in Burma, 1943 –

At the time of writing, today’s patient is still alive – 99 going on 100. A tall distinguished looking fellow, he had a relatively ordinary job back in civilian life, and is pretty healthy, despite the need for various operations. He is always quite happy to reminisce about his time in Burma with the Chindits.

If you want to know how tough these guys were, and what they suffered behind enemy lines, mostly in the jungle, read John Masters’ quite extraordinary – and horrific – account of having to shoot their own wounded. My man has numerous stories – fighting naked because of the damp and the ever present dysentery (this is different from their slightly crazy founder, Orde Wingate’s, propensity for wandering around naked); waiting for air drops knowing that the Japanese would also benefit from these clues to their location; having, amazingly, colleagues killed by an airdrop landing on them; hand to hand fighting with knives, in the jungle; blowing up Japanese installations when you’re a long, long way from safety….how do you return to ‘normal life’ after experiences like these?

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..it might look nice, but…

And they were pretty effective, not just for morale at a time when Japan was looking like a most formidable enemy. This excellent account of the 1943 Operation Longcloth tells you what you need to know. Although David Stirling started developing the unique capabilities of the SAS in 1941, Wingate’s not dissimilar long range, behind enemy lines work – with the added challenge of much larger numbers of men – was pioneering and not universally accepted. As he said at the time “If we succeed, we shall have demonstrated a new style of warfare to the world”.

The Japanese were the most brutal of opponents, as everyone knows these days – although I believe that Japanese schools still play down the extent of this – and compared to urban fighting in Europe against opponents with possibly similar values, the risk of capture was too much to contemplate – hence Masters’ impossible decision – not unlike ISIS in recent times. To quote John Hutchin, a veteran of the campaign, on how he was left behind by his fellow soldiers suffering from exhaustion with three days’ rations and a clip of ammunition.

“I’ve only got one nightmare left, and that is being left”

Hutchin in fact made it, but many didn’t. To contemplate that as my patient does, and the near impossible nature of their mission, from a vantage point of  74 years later, as one heads for centenarian status is something that I – as someone who has never been to war – can barely comprehend.

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A risky airdrop

 

**though this quote from Ilya Radozhitskii’s  campaign memoirs, relating to Napoleon’s disaster in Russia, resonates here:  A military career, thus, occasionally presents experiences that do not exist in civilian life. The war reveals all of the human horrors and miseries that make our souls tremble, but they also elevate us amidst these dangers. He who has not been to war has not learned how to despise death. The ordinary tribulations of civilian life are nothing compared to the calamities of war where neither sighs nor tears could change anything. Their source soon runs dry and the warrior’s heart hardens like steel with which he brings death to the enemy.

War stories…. World War Two edition (1)

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A 400kg bullet ridden bronze nazi eagle, anyone?

When I graduated in 1986 I spent a lot of time as a junior doctor admitting elderly patients to hospital. So if my patient was 90 they were born in the Victorian era, and the men would frequently have served in the First World War, with the stories to go with that. The last WWI veteran of the trenches, Harry Patch, died in 2009. They’re all gone, along with their astonishing oral histories.

These days the average Second World War veteran is 90ish. There are still plenty of them, but they’re disappearing rapidly. A few years ago in the US, it was estimated that they were dying off at 600 per day.  So when I get in a patient – male or female – in their late 80’s or 90’s, I always ask them what they did in the war, and they certainly have stories to tell.

I thought I’d summarise just a few of them. These remarkable pensioners are living history. Bear in mind that these are the most ordinary and unassuming of elderly citizens, living out their retirements without much money, in an average British town. You would not notice them in the street.

The Battle of the River Plate, December 1939

Here’s the Wikipedia summary:

 The German panzerschiff Admiral Graf Spee had cruised into the South Atlantic a fortnight before the war began, and had been commerce raiding after receiving appropriate authorisation on 26 September 1939. One of the hunting groups sent by the British Admiralty to search for Graf Spee, comprising three Royal Navy cruisersHMS ExeterAjax and Achilles (the last from the New Zealand Division), found and engaged their quarry off the estuary of the River Plate close to the coast of Uruguay in South America. In the ensuing battle, Exeter was severely damaged and forced to retire; Ajax and Achilles suffered moderate damage. The damage to Admiral Graf Spee, although not extensive, was critical; her fuel system was crippled. Ajax and Achilles shadowed the German ship until she entered the port of Montevideo, the capital city of neutral Uruguay, to effect urgent repairs. After Graf Spee’s captain Hans Langsdorff was told that his stay could not be extended beyond 72 hours, he scuttled his damaged ship rather than face the overwhelmingly superior force that the British had led him to believe was awaiting his departure.

My patient was on HMS Ajax, I think. He recalls the early skirmishing and the battle, but his fondest memory was something different. When the ships got into neutral Montevideo – which then and now had various links with Britain, the sailors all piled into the bars to get hammered. The surviving crew of the Graf Spee did the same thing. After all, they had 72 hours to kill.  With the tension out of the situation he recalls just how jovial it was, and how well the Germans and the Brits got along. A sort of “Christmas in the trenches” in sunny South America. He told me all this about 70 years after the event, and the memory was still vivid.

hl1The Graf Spee is still there. Its captain, Hans Langdorff, a decent man in the way he treated prisoners, shot himself 6 days later, lying on his boat’s battle ensign in a Bueno Aires hotel room. The bronze eagle from its stern has been salvaged, and to my knowledge, no-one knows what to do with it.

Twattish comments: an occasional series – Gerry Adams

How do you intend to remember famed terrorism enabler, liar and hypocrite, Gerry Adams, as he heads for an overdue retirement? Here is Gerry’s own take:

“I am a very good dancer, I sing extremely well, I am a half-decent cook, I have written a wee bit, I like walking, but I’m comfortable in my own skin and I am surrounded by some wonderful people, a great family, my wife, people who love me.”

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A walk down memory lane with Gerry might take you to Omagh

In fact, Gerry’s only positive achievement is probably that he once made Eddie Izzard seem funny, for the first and last time:

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…he has a point…