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Thursday, 16 February 2023

The Ostentation of King Charles


This is an excerpt from my book The Best I Can Do (2016) available from the usual suspects and also 


Prince Charles is a year younger than me. He has been heir to the throne for so long (since 1952 in fact) that if and when he becomes King and I am still alive, I am sure I shall continue to think of him as Prince Charles. Over the years I have watched his face age and the number of medals on his full dress uniforms increase. One day it occurred to me that most of his medals are birthday badges given to him by his Mum. He is still pinning them on sixty years after most of us stopped. They infantilise him.

In Africa during the past sixty years, kleptocratic and psychopathic tyrants, backed by their old colonial masters, have lorded it over impoverished peoples using a rhetoric of visual ostentation taken unashamedly from those former colonial rulers – and not just the British. But with no Mum to award them, they have simply had to award medals to themselves, getting some lackey to pin them on until their chests attain the full splendour of which Imperial kitsch is capable. The Emperor Bokassa - every whim indulged by the governments of France (Bokassa had uranium) - is the all-time outright winner for mirror-imaging the ostentation of the European Imperial powers. His coronation in 1976 cost the dirt-poor Central African Republic more than its entire annual state budget. The images are still worth Googling. You can see a copy of Ruritania’s famous Coronation coach and surrounding Bokassa, you can see haute couture-styled flunkeys like those – all male - who still surround Imperial President Hollande.

Bokassa’s rivals have included General Idi Amin (with a taste for British military top-brass tassels), and Colonel Gadaffi (specialist in Italianate gold braid) and dozens of more forgettable bit players who have strutted and killed for a short while, all of them weighed down by this abject drive to outdo European levels of ostentation.

Added 4 September 2023: the tradition is still being upheld. Here is the leader of the recent coup in Gabon being sworn in to whatever office it is that he lays claim. Why would anyone want to dress like this and in a hot country too?

You would think it would shame Prince Charles into dressing a bit more like Nelson Mandela or maybe the Dalai Lama but, no, when it comes to keeping up appearances he is still determined to provide a role model for the next dictator up. One day, he hopes to live in a Palace where the Guards are dolled up in such a way that they could not guard a goldfish bowl and on hot days, no bare skin visible, collapse from heat exhaustion. It is both ostentation and irrationality. The tourists love it; it’s much more fun than the Zoo.

Added 4 September 2023: He is of course now King and even more keen on ostentation:

In Charles’s country, those who are likely to become his Subjects are introduced at an early age to irrational dress. The British not only do ostentatious uniform at the top; they do school uniform at the beginning. They really have a thing about it - some of it part of a long paedophilic tradition - and, if anything, it’s getting worse. Parents off their heads on Janet and John think that education from three years up is about woollen caps and blazers and the more brightly be-ribboned the better for indicating your aspirations. Colour co-ordinated knee socks, striped ties, polished shoes, pleated skirts, boaters for summer, all obsessively listed  in pages of Rules, declare that aspiration as a commitment to maintain Ruritania’s social order and its established Table of Ranks.

British schools devote a great deal of time and money to devising and enforcing their uniform rules. It can be almost a full-time job for one Deputy Headteacher and they don’t come cheap. Some parents grumble about the cost, forgetting that cost is partly what it’s about – about showing that your child is in a different class to the riff-raff child in that school (unfortunately) just down the road. It is sometimes said that school uniform makes social distinctions less visible: you will not so easily spot the poor child in the classroom. But if you work back from the sharp-elbowed one-upmanship which characterises the uniforms of rival schools, it is most unlikely that social distinctions are not still visible in one school’s classrooms. Showing off as better than someone else does not stop at the school gates.

British parents do not really find it possible to believe that there are successful countries, not plagued by juvenile delinquency or illiteracy, that manage to function without any school uniform at all. But dreadful as it may seem, they do exist, and  if you want living proof of what can be done without the benefit of school uniform, check out the Cusanus-Gymnasium, Erkelenz, a German High School in a fairly ordinary town of just 45 000 people. It doesn’t have a fancy website but you can get some idea there what the pupils look like. Normal is a word that comes to mind. Go to YouTube and – though I should give you a trigger warning that you will have to look at trai**rs - enjoy listening to the Erkelenz choir, the Oberstufenchor. They do English, of course. And lots more.  Time and money isn’t taken up with uniforms, you see. It’s one reason German education gets better results.

Meanwhile, African dictators can still look to Prince Charles as a role model. British parents will take their cues from how the child known as Prince George is got up for school.

Wednesday, 15 February 2023

Two Rules of Social Life


Two rules make social life possible and endurable:

1.      You can’t always have what you want and sometimes you shouldn’t want what you want. (I will explain in a moment).

2.      A good rule is one which can be broken if circumstances demand it.

Whatever Lola Wants, Lola gets makes us smile not least because the words do make us want Lola. But not all our wants have quite so much charm about them as Lola’s. Some wants are just greedy, some are nasty (I want to see you dead). Some are reasonably upgraded to the level of Needs (I just need some money to get started again) and some get further upgraded to Rights though not always reasonably.

The language of Rights once served an excellent purpose, notably in establishing goals for international organisations. Countries signed up to Declarations of Human Rights and then found that other countries wanted to hold them to account for non-compliance. Those Declarations also gave individuals and movements access to a rhetoric in which to couch their appeals.

But the language of rights becomes useless when too many people use it to assert what are really no more than their wants, and  more or less regardless of how others might be affected. Social  media provide forums where a cacophony of voices  can shout out claims to competing and incompatible Rights. You end up thinking that they are immature rather than deprived of something. The language of Rights is totally fucked.

The possibility of co-operating with others breaks down if you don’t accept that you can’t always have what you want. In democratically organised polities, if you lose an election you are supposed to accept that you have lost - however upset you may be - and hand over to the winner. Not so Donald Trump. He is not prepared to lose; declares himself the Real Winner, the True Winner; denounces and bullies those who disagree and, in general, seeks to undermine democratic process. It would be merely pitiful if there wasn’t about a third of the American population still cheering him on and even reading the absurd Tweets. Even President Bolsonaro did not put up a serious fight against losing. That so many Americans can still back Donald Trump indicates that the USA has a really serious problem in functioning well as a society.

Part of self-discipline - unknown to Mr Trump and to millions on Twitter  - is that you recognise that something you want is not always something you should try to get  because of how others would be affected. Doing things which are illegal often falls into that category, though not always. Regardless of what the law says, you can still judge that the adverse effect on others would outweigh any good which might accrue to you from some particular action.

That thought is one which sharp-elbowed people have trouble with, starting in my country with NotInMyBackYards who don’t want new housing in their very expensive neighbourhoods, thank you very much.

More generally when we accuse people of a sense (or excessive sense) of entitlement and privilege we are in effect, saying that they are unable or unwilling to balance their own wants against those of other people. They are just Me, Me, Me people. Often it works and Me, Me, Me will get you Likes by the thousand and if you are really lucky the hundred thousand. There is not just one Donald Trump in the world; there are hundreds and thousands, some of them female, and many of whom become Celebrities because they have so,so many Followers awaiting today's new photograph. It's hilarious, really. 

So that’s the first Rule: You can’t always have what you want and you shouldn’t always want what you want.  What about the second?

Societies and most obviously big societies are governed by many thousands of rules most of which we don’t even know exist. A huge cadre of people earn their living by enforcing those rules and can really only do so if they believe that rules will fit every case. They don’t and the system isn’t working if there is no mechanism for over-riding a rule to achieve some greater good. A stickler for rules is not only a pain in the arse but someone who gets in the way of achieving better outcomes in difficult situations.

In my country a good example is provided by the way the Ministry of the Interior (the Home Office) treats people who arrive in the country illegally. I agree entirely that it does create problems: some of those entering illegally will do so because they are criminals of one kind or another and intend to pursue a criminal career; others may be agents of a foreign power intent on causing disruption (though it’s true, some of those have been welcomed with open arms including, I guess, university students acting as agents of their home country’s regime). Some need medical care and housing and all the rest and there is already a very long queue of people waiting for those things so really you should take your turn.

But the overall response is rule-obsessed, unimaginative, and hugely expensive. It is also actively and deliberately unpleasant.

An alternative approach would acknowledge that rules have been broken but would try to make the best of a bad job. A preliminary assessment might simply try to establish whether an illegally-arrived person  could go to work while awaiting a decision on their future. So you’re a doctor? Yes. Can you prove that? Yes. OK. Would you be prepared to work in some capacity in the NHS? Yes. Great, then let’s set something up.

But they’ve Broken the Rules!  Yeah, but a good rule is one which can be broken in the right circumstances and this looks like a right circumstance: this person has a medical qualification; we need people with medical qualifications; they need a job. It’s win-win.

Of course, it’s opportunistic and it doesn’t suit the bureaucratic mind. But it might achieve more overall good than current rule-bound approaches. And it would free up resources to attend to those who have arrived with  less to offer than the (stereotype) medical practitioner. But even among those with less to offer there will be fit young people who could pick fruit or build houses in NIMBY backyards. Go for it!







Tuesday, 14 February 2023

India Willoughby on Brianna Ghey


 India Willoughby



Because Britain does not have Self ID, trans teenager Brianna Ghey cannot be buried as her true self. She won’t be allowed the dignity of having ‘beloved daughter’ on her gravestone. Or a correct death certificate. All because the mob oppose something they don’t understand.

2:09 AM · Feb 13, 2023·




Yesterday, one of my News feeds reproduced this Tweet ; it’s the only way I ever encounter Tweets.

Brianna Ghey was murdered a few days ago at the age of sixteen and from first accounts it would seem that she would have realised she was being killed. Her family have to live with that knowledge added to the knowledge that they have lost someone who is never going to come back. As yet, it seems that the motives (if any) of the suspects are unknown and I don’t know what is worse: to think that Brianna was murdered for a reason or for no reason at all. Her family are in what is called the glare of publicity; they have to deal with that and with the police and a post mortem and, in due course, an inquest, a funeral [which I think has to follow the inquest and cannot precede it] and  trial. It barely bears thinking about - and India Willoughby isn’t going to even attempt it. She’s streets ahead imagining the gravestone.

A gravestone? Not many people now want gravestones; it’s a very conservative choice. Maybe it would have been Brianna’s choice and maybe it will be her family’s. But both may have or have had other ideas: scattered ashes, a rose bush, a donation in memory of; some people choose nothing at all.. But India Willoughby wants a gravestone because she can then harness Brianna’s death to her own cause: “Because Britain does not have Self ID….”

I found the Tweet crudely opportunistic (but then Twitter is designed for opportunists) and, to be honest, crass and unfeeling. But it will get lots of likes from the Twitter mob for whom Brianna is not really a person at all, just an example of something else.

Performativity 101 A Guide for Students



Back in 1962 some lectures given in 1955 by a recently deceased Oxford professor,  J L Austin, were published under the title How to Do Things with Words. Austin thought that we could better understand the character of statements which interest philosophers if we paid close attention to the way words are used in different settings. He pointed to situations where just saying something in the right circumstances itself brings about a change in the way the world is. In the English marriage ceremony, if you stand before an authorised official and answer I Do when asked if you wish to marry the person standing next to you then, provided the other person does the same, the official will declare you husband and wife and from that moment you are - in the eyes of the law - husband and wife. And in some cultures, if the husband declares three times and in the right circumstances I Divorce You then that’s exactly what they do.

It sounds a bit like magic, mere words changing the state of the world: Hey Presto! The sense of magic is a bit reduced if you notice that Austin’s examples suppose an elaborate institutional setting which may have a long history, has been legally created, and from time to time gets modified (think of gay marriage). Unfortunately, you don’t end up married to your pet dog if you declare in their presence I Marry You even if the dog wags his or her tail in agreement. Your act may have personal - let’s say, metaphorical significance - but it doesn’t convince what for convenience we can call “society”. A friend might intervene and suggest that you calm down.

Austin called those uses of language which change the state of the world performative utterances or just performatives. He contrasted them with constative utterances or constantives which make claims about the way the world is but don’t change the world itself.  The Earth Orbits the Sun is a stereotype example. We can utter this as many times as we like and still the Earth and the Sun take no notice at all; they are not interested. Period.

Austin invited us to look at other kinds of utterances which belong to the performative family. Say Hello! in the right circumstances (but in this case prescribed by much looser conventions than the marriage ceremony) and you have greeted someone; there’s nothing more you have to do, though you may in fact do more, like smile or hold out your hand.

Within a few years, Austin’s ideas helped in the re-shaping of linguistics as the scientific study of language. Though a distinction between syntax (structure), semantics (meaning) and pragmatics (use) has been available for a long time, pragmatics had been the Cinderella of the subject. Within maybe twenty years it became a powerhouse of new ideas, some highly technical, and which - as we say - transformed the face of the subject.

Linguists were not the only people to take an interest in performatives. Sociologists and cultural theorists  saw they might be able to transform their subjects and become famous if they could make the idea of performatives do more work than Austin had ever imagined. It seemed relatively easy: the starting point would be to show that some supposedly constative utterances were, really, just performative ones in disguise.

Suppose someone says to you, I’m a Christian. Is that constative or performative? On the constative side it looks like they are stating a fact about themselves. On the performative side they are, as we already say, professing a belief and professing a religious belief in the right circumstances seems to be at least part of what it is to have that belief. If we think (to coin an expression) constatively, then if someone says I’m a Christian and they aren’t then they are lying. But if we think performatively, then we have a different word to characterise a fake performance: they are being insincere.

In explanation of what comes next, I can only say that I think it arises from over-excitability.

Because next up comes the idea that what makes someone a Christian is not this rather elusive inner thing called belief but a whole series of acts (now to be called performative acts or simply performances) which taken together add up to that person being (or not being) a Christian. Or to slide a bit farther away from the starting point: a Christian is (just) someone who performs as a Christian, or performs the role of a Christian; there is no constative element. There is no fact of the matter. Performativity is King (or Queen).

And the next step? It’s to say that I’m a Woman is really just like I’m a Christian. It’s (just ) a set of performances; there is no fact of the matter.

And the step after that?  The Earth Orbits the Sun is an utterance in which a scientist simply performs the role of being a scientist. There is no fact of the matter; there are just scientists and the world they have (performatively) created.

By this point the idea of performance or performativity has lost any analytical or critical value because it no longer contrasts with anything else; it has itself become part of a set of performances which we might characterise as virtue-signalling, or membership-in-the-group signalling.

 As a theory it is indistinguishable from what, in the past, was called philosophical idealism, the claim that the world is (just) a world of ideas and nothing else, though in one version, it was paired with the idea of Will and the World was then a World of Will and Idea where wanting it so and thinking it so makes the world the way it is.

In the end, we have a story which tells us that there is no way out from the world of words, at least until one of the scientists’ bombs blows up the world leaving just ….

The moral of this story?

Dear Student, Because your lecturers suffer from over-excitability, it is unfortunately your job to work out what has gone wrong and identify the mistaken transitions which lead to conclusions which have taken them into la-la land and made their books pretty unreadable too.

Hint: In a technical philosophical paper included in his book Problems of the Self, the late Bernard Williams tried to clarify the idea of belief by pointing out that you cannot decide to believe. Belief happens to you or is the endpoint of some causal chain which may begin with something as simple as a perception: you see a spider on the wall and as a result come to believe that there is a spider on the wall. You have no choice in the matter. The belief is something to which you are liable, it just happens to you.




Tuesday, 7 February 2023

Pet Hates


Other people’s pet hates are among most people’s pet hates. They are not things you willingly listen to, read about, or otherwise engage with. The moment we suspect that a Pet Hate is about to surface in conversation we start to prepare the manoeuvres necessary to secure a change of subject. Often enough, we can think of nothing better than headlong retreat: Sorry, I must just go and have a word with so-and-so over there in the far corner (Arm and index finger extended to maximum length).

People can be very, very attached to their pet hates rather as if they were pet dogs to be groomed and pandered to and whatever else it is that pet dog owners do. People would be lost without their pet hates. Just imagine the ill-effect on the nation’s mental health if  the Council .... FILLED IN ALL THE POTHOLES.

Those who theorise what is called Identity Politics have simply got it wrong in limiting themselves to the trinity of race, class, and gender. [Copy editor: no need to insert Holy Bible capitals there]. You may say, Speak for yourself! but I reckon that pet hates play a large part in making us who we think we are. I don’t think any identity theorists have developed a typology or studied the distribution of pet hates by race, class, and gender, or considered what might be the function of pet hates. And presumably the pet hates of one hundred years ago will not be the same as today’s, though in my country popular attachment to the bric-à-brac of Heritage may have kept some alive for a very long time. Maybe our trains have never run on time.

(Question to the Learned: What were Shakespeare’s pet hates or didn’t he have any?)

Some pet hates clearly bind us together, like The Council and The Government, and if we feel frustrated when someone launches into potholes, parking schemes, or cycle lanes - well, then that frustration  arises simply because we would love to get  in a word of our own if we only knew how.

Some pet hates are divisive, and deeply so, and that means they consolidate whatever sense we have of our own identity. In my country, Brexit opened up a whole new world of divisive pet hates which looks set to overshadow Dogs and The Daily Mail for a long time yet.

On the brighter side, pet hates which express how we feel do not need to have much of a knowledge base. Ability to articulate and enjoy them does not discriminate in favour of the well-educated. You don’t have to be a pub bore or barrack room lawyer to qualify as a pet hater.  Being strongly opinionated is quite enough.

Strongly opinionated or just opinionated? And is there anything wrong with Having Opinions? That, I put it to you, members of the jury, is an interesting question.

Asked about our identity  we are used now to talking about what we are not what we think or believe unless we give ourselves a religious identity. Speaking as an old and pale white male - I am one and I can perform the role of one with some pleasure just like all those others who go around Speaking as - there is a cultural shift I have lived through in which what you are has come to matter much more than what you think, believe, or feel, In my early 1960s boys’ grammar school, having opinions was a central part of being intellectually alive. We had opinions about everything, many of them againsts: we were against capital punishment, against apartheid, against The Bomb and we let anyone who cared to know know it.  But what we were - that was not really talked about. I can’t recall asking any class mate what his father or mother did or where they came from nor was I asked. That was a private matter; what you felt about apartheid was a public matter.

But, of course, Opinions can be tiring. So too can Facts. Sounds like we are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Saturday, 4 February 2023

From English to British: changing self-identification in the UK


Many people who live in Denmark think of themselves as Danish, in Norway Norwegian, in Sweden Swedish. But no one living in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland thinks of themselves a United Kingdomish. A few will say they are Northern Irish but only an ironist would think to identify as Great British. United Kingdom governments for over a decade (Prime Minister Gordon Brown, a Unionist Scot, started it) have encouraged people to think of themselves as British with British passports, British nationality, a British government; they have been incredibly successful. In the 2021 UK censusmore than half of the usual resident population (54.8%, 32.7 million) chose a "British" only national identity in 2021, which is a rise of 35.8 percentage points from 19.1% (10.7 million) in 2011. The opposite trend was seen for the "English" only identity. This fell by 42.8 percentage points, from 57.7% (32.4 million) in 2011 to 14.9% (8.9 million) in 2021” (Quoted from Census online data). The 45% who did not claim British as a unique identity are spread out over those who combined it with English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Northern Irish, Cornish, Polish, Romanian….keep going…. or selected one of those categories as their unique identity. (And spare a thought for  the half million or so illegals who didn’t get a Census form having no names or addresses and so didn’t get a chance to self-identify as anything).

This recent success of “British” is in some ways surprising: there is no national language to go with “British” - we remain English-speakers - and no football team to encourage with a Come on Britain! A United Kingdom team, not a British team, appears at the Olympics and le Royaume Uni turns up at Eurovision to score the traditional nul points. The main advantages of “British” are that it is shorter than “United Kingdomish” and rather than tracking the recent merging of two kingdoms and the even more recent military conquest of Ireland (our Donetsk and Luhansk) it harks back to indigenous First Nations, the ancient Brits of one kind or another,

The remarkable instability in self-identification shown by the ten-year shift from “English” to “British” is interesting.  I guess that the Brexit campaign had something to do with it but it may also be the case that some English people wanting to escape the stigma of flag-of-St George English nationalism and football hooliganism, attached to the Brexit cause, switched their verbal allegiance from “English” to the hopefully less-tarnished “British”.

I didn’t: on the Census form I identified as “English” and “European” - the latter, if I recall correctly, was a write-in not tick-box choice. Since I’d be delighted to see a united EU member Ireland and an independent EU member Scotland it seemed more consistent to use “English” than “British”. Wales? Well, Wales voted for Brexit and so ruled itself out from becoming EU member Wales and its future fortunes will be linked to those of England, in other words, downhill all the way.

The remarkable instability in national  self-identification re-inforces my sense that some contemporary identities will lose their current allure within a decade. Some of those students who currently affect “they” will revert to “he” or “she” when it ceases to attract Facebook Likes and they have a conventional job and a steady girlfriend/boyfriend. Some wannabe “transgender” people will admit that they have no enthusiasm for hormones or the surgeon’s knife (who could blame them?) and will settle for being good old-fashioned transvestites and good luck to them.  More likely, of course, some new fashion will come along and sweep up all the Likes available.