Review: Superior by Angela Saini

Science journalist Angela Saini’s third book Superior: the Return of Race Science is a very timely survey of the history and contemporary impact of the attempts to use science to prop up racism and beliefs about race.

From Carl Linnaeus to the sinister Pioneer Fund, Saini maps the shifts both in actual understanding and the layers of post-hoc rationalisations for prejudices. She does this with minimal (but appropriate) editorialising and instead lets the views of a very wide range of interviewees inform the reader about how views have shifted or, in some cases, stubbornly refused to shift.

Much of it covered topics and personalities I was already familiar with and if you have read books like Stephen J Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, then you’ll be familiar with a lot of the background. However, Saini takes a broader survey and branches out into topics like the misguided but often well intentioned use of race in prescription medicines. I found that the sections that covered areas I was already very familiar with where both interesting and provided good insights, although I obviously got more value out of the sections on topics I was less aware of.

Saini also charts recent events such as the rise of the alt-right, the renewed ideological racism in populist governments (in particular Trump’s America but also Modi’s Hindu nationalism) and demonstrates how the 18th century obsession with race is connected to modern concerns and pseudoscience.

The people-centred approach of the book gives it a very human quality. Saini has a knack at humanising many of the protagonists without excusing or apologising either for their mistakes or (in many cases) their bigotry. Rather, by focusing on the individuals her approach highlights their motives and in the cases of many of the scientists involved how they managed to fool themselves into thinking they had transcended their own prejudices and somehow found objective truths instead of discovering convoluted ways of having their own biased assumptions echoing back to them.

I listened to the audio-book version which is narrated by Saini herself. I really highly recommend this book both in terms of the insights she gives on the topic but also as an example of excellent modern science writing.

Richard Dawkins saying poorly thought through reactionary things again

Oh dear:


Alternatively we could not do anything like that because it is an appalling idea.

There are at least three levels of confused thinking here. The first is that in the past such attempts to ensure people were sufficiently ‘qualified’ to vote intellectually have been attempts to disenfranchise specific ethnic groups. When coupled with restricted access to education and with the test wittingly and unwittingly full of the biases of the more powerful ethnic group, such tests would be simply a way of creating a kind of apartheid electoral system.

OK, but what if somehow only people who could really understand the issues of the day could vote? Wouldn’t that be better? Isn’t it because of stupid people that we have Trump and Brexit? No or at least not ‘stupid’ as the term is usually used. Voting for Trump or falling for Nigel Farage’s propaganda are certainly daft things to do but a terrible secret of the world is that these are the kinds of ‘stupid’ that otherwise intelligent people do. There are connections between levels of education and political preference but they are neither simple nor straightforward. There is evidence of an ‘educational gradient‘ with how people voted in the UK on Brexit but that gradient does not account for other regional variations (e.g. Scotland). It’s also important to remember that any educational gradient represents people with quite different economic interests as well. Nor was that gradient as smooth as it might sound:

“So, based on the above, the Leave vote was not more popular among the low skilled, but rather among individuals with intermediate levels of education (A-Levels and GSCE high grades), especially when their socio-economic position was perceived to be declining and/or to be stagnant. “

Blaming the UK’s current Brexit confusion on stupidity maybe cathartic but it provides zero insight into a way forward. Further it ignores that the architects of the political chaos are products of the reputedly the best education you can get in Britain. Boris Johnson is manifestly a buffoon but he is a buffoon with a good degree in classics from Oxford. The Boris Johnson’s of this world would waltz past Dawkins’s test.

US politics also has a complex relationship with educational attainment. Conservative views peak at mid-ranges of education (e.g. ) People with college degrees and more advanced higher education are more likely to vote Democrat currently but in the past (e.g. 1990s) this was less so. The growing (indeed, reversed) education divide doesn’t account for differences among ethnic groups or between genders. Other divides (e.g. urban versus rural) may work causally in the other direction (i.e. different economic demands making decisions about higher education a different choice in rural v urban contexts but the underlying politics resting on other urban v rural differences).

Even if we imagine a Dawkins-dystopia in which you had to have a university degree to vote (a much more substantial hurdle than the demands of either the UK or US citizenship tests) the proposal falls into the political fallacy of technocracy as an alternative to democracy. By ‘fallacy’ I don’t mean that competence or technical understanding or evidence-based policy are bad ideas or things we don’t want to see in government but rather that is a reasoning error to judge democracy in principle as a process by which technically competent policy is formed.

Democracy serves to provide consent from the governed to the government. That’s its purpose. It provides a moral and practical basis on which there can be any kind of government that is even vaguely just. Logically, a vote doesn’t determine whether something is true or not (except in trivial cases on questions about ‘what will people vote for’). Consequently, it is always easy to attack democracy by setting it up AS IF that’s what voting is supposed to achieve. A referendum can’t determine what the smartest course of action is but then that’s not what a referendum or an election is supposed to do. Instead asking people to vote is a way of trying to establish broad social agreement on what a country will do.

Without that kind of broad social agreement a country has only two options: disunity or authoritarianism. Restricting the franchise along any axis will lead to overt authoritarianism. Paternalistic ‘benevolent’ authoritarianism is still a system that depends on brutality.

The shorter version: democracy is about consent of the governed not about how smart voters are. The political divides we currently have wouldn’t be solved by a test that high school graduate would pass. A nation in which only college graduates could vote would be a shitty one and politically unstable. Well educated people can and do advance bad ‘stupid’ political ideas. Come to think of it, there’s a great example here: Richard Dawkins is very well educated and here he is putting forward a stupid idea.

A Reminder: The Main Kind of Voter Fraud is GOP Voter Suppression

In 2016 I wrote this post when I was attempting to look at Republican beliefs about voter fraud.

Revisiting the post recently I discovered a key link was broken. Famous conservative think-tank The Heritage Foundation had shifted the location of their voter fraud database. If you recall, this ‘database’ was a hodge-podge of incidents of voter fraud that sounded impressive in volume but actually demonstrated what experts have confirmed: voter fraud by individuals is rare, largely inconsequential and a what there is often postal ballot fraud that would not be impacted by voter ID measures.

The real fraud is voter suppression, illegitimate and often illegal attempts to create barriers to voting to skew elections to one side. This is overwhelmingly done by Republicans.

Luckily (?) the Heritage Foundations voter fraud database has only moved rather than gone. and it is more of an actual database. It is still a shoddy piece of work (putting aside any partisan issues) but it is at least more accessible now. The purpose of the database seems to be to just try and get as big a number as possible and hence there are cases from 1948 to 2018 but with really only the past couple of decades properly surveyed. Interrogate the database and a clear picture resolves: voter fraud is rare. The category of ‘Impersonation Fraud at The Polls’  has THIRTEEN cases. Let me re-state that: the best evidence that a conservative think tank can put forward has only 13 incidents of impersonation fraud at the polls in all the years they have gathered data from dating back to 1948. Now to be fair to the conservative case, that’s probably an under-estimate caused by incompetence but it does demonstrate that actual cases are hard to find.

Ineligible voting has more cases (226 by my count) scattered over multiple years and elections. Taking a range of 1998 to 2018 for when the data seems more comprehensive that’s about 11 cases per year across all US states and all levels of elections. Again, as measured by the people CLAIMING voter fraud is a massive problem (i.e. this isn’t my data, it’s the Heritage Foundations), the numbers indicate that voter fraud is rare and largely inconsequential in impact but with heavy punishments for those caught.

Anyway: if you are American and can vote it would be a smart idea to vote 🙂 There is a political party who, more than any other political party in Western nations, is actively trying to prevent people voting. That alone is sufficient reason for any person of principle to vote them out.

CoOrDiNaTeD aTtAcKs!

Cast your minds back to April 7 2015. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were beaten by the Connecticut Huskies in the NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship and Senator Rand Paul announced he was going to run for the Republic nomination for President of the United States. Meanwhile, in Sad Puppy related news, Larry Correia posted this:

“To the the SMOFs, moderates, new comers, and fence sitters I addressed yesterday, yes, we have disagreements with you. We’re happy to discuss them. We are not, however, happy to be libeled as the vilest forms of scum to walk the earth, and we are not happy to live in fear of career destruction. You want my part of fandom to coexist peacefully? You want to work out our differences and keep the awards meaningful? So do we. Though we disagree on the details and the issues, we also love this stuff. But coordinated slander campaigns, lies, character assassinations, threats, witch hunts? No… We won’t stand for that.” [CF: my emphasis]

“Coordinated slander”, oh my golly gosh! The issue being that the Sad Puppy campaign had become notable enough that its impact was being covered by the mainstream media. You’d think that was predictable — make a loud enough noise, eventually pay attention — but no, for Larry the news coverage must have been because of some hidden layer of coordination. A week later he was on the same theme:

“So here is a question for you.  What term would you use to describe the shared politics of the dozens of reporters, columnists, and bloggers who have run similar articles this week with obvious false accusations that Sad Puppies supporters ran an anti-diversity slate, motivated by racism, sexism, and homophobia? Jerks? Yes, they are, but that is a bit too coordinated for mere jerkage. That was a political attempt to establish a political narrative.” [CF: my emphasis]

Changing topics but not themes and sticking with a Sad Puppy outlet for a moment, fast forward to February 3 2017. Milo Yiannopolous’s star had risen high with an invite to the Conservative Political Action Conference and a book deal with Simon & Shuster when anti-Trump Republican group The Reagan Battalion released an edited version of a 206 video in which Yiannopolous justified sex with 13 year olds. At Mad Genius Club, Kate Paulk was unhappy about Yiannopolous’s book deal being cancelled:

“What I care about is that someone who has – objectively – done not one damn thing wrong is the subject of a coordinated effort to not merely silence him, but disappear him. I’ve seen this happen in the past. It happened to Larry Correia. To Brad Torgersen. I didn’t get the full force of it last year, but instead got the cold shoulder of people doing their best to pretend I’d already been disappeared.” [CF: my emphasis]

The theme being coordination obviously, the idea that if multiple sources are saying similar things it must be because of hidden coordination. Of course, some people really do plan things and approaches. Obviously the Reagan Battalion planned their media campaign against Yiannopolous but the “coordination” claim is stronger than that and proposes that the subsequent fuss and related outrage was also somehow coordinated.

I was initially planning this post yesterday after I read a series of tweets from Ethan Van Sciver, the right wing comic book artist who claims the mantle of ‘ComicsGate’®™. EVS was the guy who had the big falling out with Vox Day in September. In a series of tweets he disappointed me slightly by using the word “organized” instead of “coordinated”. I shan’t link to the tweets because it messes with the WordPress layout but the combined message was this:

“This Wave of Organized Attacks on ComicsGate consisted of:
1. The rise of @sinKEVitch as leader of AntiCG!
2. Jeff Lemire calling pros to arms against us!
3. Darwyn Cooke’s widow baiting CG!
4 Three Bleeding Cool hitpieces on me!
5. Hit pieces in the Washington Post, & INVERSE
6. Hit piece in The Guardian! The Daily Dot!
7. Robbi Rodriguez sending me a photo of his anus!
8. Vox Day trying to co-opt ComicsGate for the Alt Right!
9. Patton Oswalt condemning ComicsGate!
10. Pablo Hidalgo of Lucasfilm compares ComicsGate to the KKK!
11. John Layman spews bile at 21 year old CG writer Nasser Rabadi for 21 consecutive tweets!
12. Kieran Shiach penned hitpiece in POLYGON!
13. Marvel Comics Chief Creative Office Joe Quesada weighs in to debate @DiversityAndCmx and EVS: Loses debate.” [CF: my emphasis]

Rather like the Yiannopolous defence, the charge of coordination here crosses political lines. EVS suggests a conspiracy between a disperate group that includes the Guardian and Vox Day. The Yiannopolous piece suggested coordination between the left and the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Like I said, this post was going to concentrate on a theme among culture wars and be a break from writing about the nomination process of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. However, the morning news presented this to me:

“These are smears, pure and simple. And they debase our public discourse. But they are also a threat to any man or woman who wishes to serve our country. Such grotesque and obvious character assassination—if allowed to succeed—will dissuade competent and good people of all political persuasions from service. As I told the Committee during my hearing, a federal judge must be independent, not swayed by public or political pressure. That is the kind of judge I will always be. I will not be intimidated into withdrawing from this process. The coordinated effort to destroy my good name will not drive me out.” [CF: my emphasis]

It’s an interesting principled-tone Kavanaugh strikes whilst simultaneously accusing two different women of inventing ‘smears’ against him. And there is that tic again. Of course, yes, clearly the Democrats coordinate their opposition to his nomination just as the Republicans and other conservative groups have coordinated their support of him but the ‘coordination’ here is intended (as it does in the examples above) to imply that criticism is not just illegitimate but sinister and underhand.

“They” are out to get me and it doesn’t matter who ‘they’ are or that ‘they’ are a superfluous hypothesis to describe events. By casting events in this way, a call to action is made against the shadowy Them — who, to quote Kavanaugh, are a threat “any man or woman who wishes to serve our country”.

Personally I like to believe Them are giant ants. I prefer the classics.





Trump in perpetuity?

There is an excellent Tweet thread from the consistently insightful Alexandra Erin here:

She finishes with this observation:

‘the way Trump will deprive us of democracy is by two years of his collaborators sitting here and saying “But surely you wouldn’t suggest that he is.”‘

It’s an alarming thought and some might say it is itself alarmism. Afterall, I’ve heard (and considered) whether numerous leaders would somehow rig or cancel elections to stay in power permanently. I thought Margaret Thatcher would do that, I was worried that George W Bush might do that – I certainly read worried rightwingers who thought Bill Clinton or Brack Obama might do that. Notably, none of them did. Power shifted using normal means. Phew!

Yeah but…Vladimir Putin? Robert Mugabe? Or we cast the net wider and think of leaders who had to be forced from power by more assertive means such as Alberto Fujimori of Peru who ran for a third term as President when the role was limited to two terms ( ). The point being is that leaders in recent history have found ways to cling to power by authoritarian, corrupt and anti-democratic means. There is no shortage of cases and the leader subverting democracy doesn’t need to be a literal Hitler to do it. That’s not to say the Hitler comparisons are in-apt or a case of Godwin’s law – that Hitler came to ultimate power in Germany by quasi-constitutional means *is* a highly relevant example, it’s just that it is one of many.

So why aren’t we in the fifth term of a George W Bush presidency? I think two factors are in play:

  1. George W Bush really wouldn’t want to be President for life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not joining the rehabilitate-George campaign — his presidency damaged the world and damaged American democracy — I just don’t think he was ever really the sort of person who would want to cling to power. The key point being character. It takes a particular kind of paranoid narcism to want to hold on. It requires fear of your enemies gaining control and unwillingness to accept anybody else can rule.
  2. Civic society and institutions. Power requires societal co-operation. It requires generals to carry on running the army and the army to carry on following the orders of generals. It requires courts to continue functioning. It requires the police to carry on policing. It also requires people to literally carry on turning up for work each day.

For the kind of slow-coup to happen, where a leader can move beyond constitutional/formal limits and effectively suspend democracy both elements need to exist. You need somebody willing and eager to take control and weak institutions who won’t provide adequate resistance.

This latter point isn’t even one requiring powerful entities to be progressive or pro-democracy. What is required is that there are powerful groups who an aspiring dictator needs for his rule to proceed who would refuse to cooperate for reasons that could be cynical or high minded. The armed forces are the most obvious example and is why the slow-coup scenario is more likely to be of a rightwing nature (counter-examples would be when the military was born from a revolutionary movement in the first place).

So how do those two conditions apply now?

  1. I can’t say I understand Trump’s character. I openly wondered prior to the election whether he even wanted to be President. However, whatever his motives are they clearly aren’t uncynical or motivated by a desire to provide good stewardship. There are good reasons to think that by being President he avoids deep financial troubles and possible criminal prosecution  — both of which are reasons that he wouldn’t want to stop being President. He really wouldn’t want to lose in 2020 either just in terms of ego.
  2. US institutions have been actively weakened. Congress is not holding the President to account. The courts and federal agencies have been politicised in the sense that any actions they take are cast in party-political partisan terms by the GOP and the wider right. The press is economically and institutionally weak and news media is fractured and distorted.

Niether of those mean that Trump will attempt to remove democracy but it is more than fair to say that:

  • he has no deep attachement to democracy as a principle
  • the GOP has been acting anti-democratically with regard to a whole host of issues for some time (covered in Alexandra Erin’s thread above, i.e. ‘voter fraud’ fakery, gerrymandering & voter supression
  • US civic institutions are weaker in various ways and being actively weakened.

In other words, the concerns are real and the risks higher than they have been for a long time.

Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To…Again: Part 1

I got hold of a copy of Vox Day’s new ‘book’ with the intent of reviewing it for you all but an odd thing happened on several occasions. I fell asleep. It isn’t that the prose construction is worse than usual – Vox Day puts non-fiction sentences together better than he does with the sentences in his novels. With the fiction there’s that clunk, clunk, clunk effect that is reminiscent of somebody pushing a wheel barrow whose wheels have been replaced by squares. The non-fiction tends to trip itself up on its own ideas rather than sentence structure. So I didn’t anticipate quite how dull this book would be. You would think it would contain a mix of things either provocative or inadvertently funny but it is just a rehash of the previous SJW book with different examples.

You probably know somebody with a limited range of social anecdotes. They may tell you a story in some social setting and you listen politely. Then in another setting they tell you either the same story or one very like it. Then on a third occasion the conversation is the same story again and then again. That’s pretty much this book. It is hardly the first book that has sent me to sleep but I would have expected something more like a general feeling boredom rather than unconsciousness.

There are no new observations about Vox Day here. The formula is the same, a constant note of misogyny with sporadic racism and fear mongering. There is more to write about from my end in the later chapters as these hit the bits of bat-shit accounts of Aristotle and Rabid Puppies that readers may expect from my blog

Let’s dive in. You might need coffee.

Continue reading “Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To…Again: Part 1”

The Post-Ockham Age: Sometimes we have to multiply motives

The US Attorney General and living cliche Jeff Sessions has ramped up the failed and counter-productive war on drugs:

There have been many reactions to this but part of the left-leaning reaction has been a competition between two perspectives:

  1.  That this move is Sessions trying to distract from Trump’s and his own entanglement with Russia and the recent sacking of the head of the FBI.
  2. That point 1. is missing the point that this is something Sessions has been wanting to do his whole career and is an example of his overall nastiness and, given the skewed way in which the War on Drugs falls on different communities in the US, his overall racism.

Sure both could be true at the same time without creating a logical contradiction but we really should aim for parsimonious explanations of events. Yet this kind of duplication of interpretations of the Trump regime’s acts makes simple motives hard to pin down. Is policy X because Trump is evil/incompetent/corrupt or is X simply a ‘distraction’ from some previous thing?

Whether by intent or happenstance, the Trump electoral campaign often succeeded in pushing past scandals by simply moving on to some new kind of outrage. As a kind of denial-of-service attack on normal news media processes, Trump could shift the news cycle onto a new topic (I assume often inadvertently) by saying or doing something else that would capture the headlines. So it is reasonable to see such things as Sessions’s new drug enforcement policy as fitting that model: something intended to outrage those who oppose Trump so we’ll be talking about that rather than the growing constitutional crisis.

Unfortunately for parsimony, we have to accept that it is both a distraction and an evil thing in itself. I’ve no doubt that Session will try to get away with as many regressive, racist and authoritarian policies as he can regardless of how it may aid the regime’s management of the news cycle. However, Sessions isn’t an idiot and he (and others in the regime) will continue to use other scandals as cover and as distractions to push their agenda. This is why generic obstruction is a wise tactic: the various people under Trump pushing their own nasty agendas aim to do as much harm as they can as quickly as they can while they still can. Put another way: Sessions always intended to try this move but he can’t be oblivious to the fact that the Comey-sacking scandal is a distraction from his actions and that his actions serve as a distraction to the Comey-sacking scandal.

The difference here from a normal executive is that Trump’s regime is not scandal-averse in a normal way. Any normal government would seek to minimise scandals (often unsuccessfully) in terms of number, length and intensity. Trump now sits at the top of a kind of scandal Ponzi scheme – a pyramid selling model of scandal but with more sustainability due to a substantial supply of neo-Nazis, unreformed Confederates and omnifallacious right-wing policies that have been floating around pseudo-think tanks since the 1990s.

So yes, it’s both and you can’t let it distract from the Russian scandal nor can you let the Russian scandal distract from the genuine harm Sessions will inflict on many, many people and communities with this policy.

OK, that’s a depressing conclusion, particularly for US readers. Sorry. The positive side? Every shitty, nasty move pushes somebody, somewhere from unsure-about-Trump to opposed-to-Trump. Moves like this don’t expand Trump’s base but only inspire the narrow core of his support. I know that is small comfort to the families that will bear the brunt of these policies.

The Intelligence Community versus #TheRegime

So one down in Trump’s clique and it seems the intelligence community/Deep State/CIA had a hand in it. Naturally, the left is cheering (yay!) but holy effin shit: the CIA? The CIA helping topple governments is the thing we in particular hate.

Yeah but…let’s take a moment to reflect.

Flynn was compromised. When the content of his discussions with Russia were revealed, he had to resign. Russia and domestic intelligence services in the US knew about this. US intelligence services passed on the information to the DoJ (as they should) and the Whitehouse did nothing. That left Flynn in a position of power but open to blackmail.

So three choices:

  • do nothing – not viable because Flynn’s f*ck-up left open to blackmail from Russia.
  • use the information as a threat against Flynn – i.e. US intelligence services blackmail/pressure Flynn and thus gain power over the Whitehouse.
  • leak information so Flynn has to resign.

The best outcome would have been the Whitehouse doing something about Flynn but without that, the only ethical option was the last one. That’s pretty much how ethical whistleblowing should function – revealing information that exposes serious wrong doing.

The worry is the middle option. We don’t want a US government being effectively blackmailed by Russia but we don’t want a US government being effectively blackmailed by the CIA either. That is a worse precedent.

Who is the Most Trumpian Character in Literature/Popular Culture?

As we slip further into this timeline, I’ve noticed that both fictional dystopias and real-life accounts of authoritarian regimes are doing a good job at pointing at both specifics (the denial of reality) and general trends (people falling for a fake populism out of fear and uncertainty. However, I’m not sure there is a figure who quite matches Trump.

While the USA has a long way to go before it meets the full horrors of 1984’s Oceania, people are still managing to find many active parallels with Orwell’s political horror story. The Fox News Right have already nominated George Soros to be their Emmanuel Goldstein for example. Indeed, I can imagine in a century hence, when post-WW2 history is seen as all sort of smooshed together as one time period (as we tend to now with the Victorian/Edwardian periods), that people might anachronistically think Orwell’s invention was based on the panicked hatred of Soros rather than Trotsky. But while 1984 allusions are handy, Trump is no Big Brother.

440px-dictator_charlie2Perhaps some of this is time. Charlie Chaplin’s portrait of Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel is an absurd man with an over-inflated ego. While searing satire at the time, our full understanding of the horrors of Nazi Germany make Chaplin’s film seem understated – almost trivialising of the brutality. Not Chaplin’s fault (and still a magnificent film) but The Great Dictator was overtaken by history. Chaplin does neatly capture though the need for self-importance and constant praise of the would-be authoritarian.

For a recent post, I’d dug out my copy of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man which is bound with the sequel The Truce, which describes his survival and journey home after surviving Auschwitz. In The Truce there is a magnificent description of the self-appointed leader of the Italian section of a Soviet refugee camp in Poland:

But the camp leader of the Italians, to whom I was directed to be ‘enlisted’, was very
different. Accountant Rovi had become camp leader not by election from below, nor by
Russian investiture, but by self-nomination; in fact, although he was an individual of
somewhat meagre intellectual and moral qualities, he possessed to a notable degree
that virtue which under any sky is the most necessary to win power — the love of power
for its own sake.

To watch the behaviour of a man who acts not according to reason, but according to his own deep impulses, is a spectacle of extreme interest, similar to that which the naturalist enjoys when he studies the activities of an animal of complex instincts. Rovi had achieved his office by acting with the same atavistic spontaneity as a spider
spinning its web; like the spider without its web, so Rovi did not know how to live
without his office. He had begun to spin immediately; he was basically foolish, and did not know a word of German or Russian, but from the first day he had secured for
himself the services of an interpreter, and had presented himself in a ceremonial
manner to the Soviet Command as plenipotentiary for Italian interests. He had
organized a desk, with official forms (in beautiful handwriting with flourishes), rubber stamps, variously coloured pencils and a ledger; although he was not a colonel, in fact not even a soldier, he had hung outside his door an ostentatious placard ‘Italian Command — Colonel Rovi’; he had surrounded himself with a small court of scullions, scribes, acolytes, spies, messengers and bullies, whom he paid in kind, with food taken from the rations of the community, and with exemption from all jobs of common interest. His courtiers, who, as always happens, were far worse than he, ensured (even by force, which was rarely necessary) that his orders were carried out, served him, gathered information for him and flattered him intensely.

Levi is a powerful observational writer both in this pair of harrowing memoirs but also in his science & science-fictional writing. We’ve never met ‘Colonel Rovi’ but he is instantly recognisable: the man who acts not according to reason but to his deep impulses. As it happens Levi goes on to describe how Rovi’s quasi-authority was relatively benign. Yet, in his description, there is the notion of a man who seeks power for the sake of sycophancy rather than the sycophancy being a by-product of a quest for power.

blazing2bsaddles4Moving rapidly from great literature to low comedy, I find myself frequently reminded of Blazing Saddles over the past few months. Of course, this is in part due to the sad death of Gene Wilder but also Mel Brook’s unsubtle side character Governor William J. Le Petomane. Brook’s himself is no stranger to portraying Nazism as absurdity but the Governor in the film is far too self-absorbed to be a tyrant. Instead, Brook plays a lecherous, racist, incompetent politician, who sees himself as a great popular leader but is actually little more than a puppet for the Machiavellian Hedley Lamarr. The Trump/Bannon parallels write themselves.

Brooks and Chaplin have both attempted, to varying degrees of success to capture the inherent comedy of the absurd trumped up figure – the spectacle of extreme interest of the man who acts not according to reason but according to his own deep impulses. I’m not sure either work in general or capture what we have in Trump.

The comedic quality to Trump was employed long before his campaign for the presidency was taken seriously (John Oliver, infamously pleading with Trump in 2o13 to run for president ). What Brooks fails to manage and which Chaplin captured better was the mix of both menace and absurdity. Le Petomane, not distracted by a paddle ball but by Tweets that might crash the stock market or start a war. Confronting the abuse of power with its absurdity hides that part of the horror is the absurdity. Closest to this is Chaplin’s dance in character as Hynkel with a globe that is also a balloon.

For awhile Hynkel has complete control of the world until…it bursts and  Hynkel is left with a childish expression of disappointment. The burst balloon is most obviously his ambitions but there is a horrific element of world destruction equally in the image.

When I think of that combination of horror from absurdity, that encompasses both the denial of reality forced upon people in 1984 *and* this notion of the dictator as childishly self-absorbed I can’t help but think of the Twlight Zone:’s_a_Good_Life_(The_Twilight_Zone)

In this episode, a town is controlled by a child (Bill ‘Lost in Space’ Mumy) who, for reasons unexplained has extraordinary powers. The horror is absurd and it is horrific because it is absurd and because fear prevents the adults from acknowledging the absurdity.

“You’re a bad man. You’re a very bad man and you keeping thinking very bad thoughts about me.”

I’ll stop there I think.


Yeah, but we aren’t Americans, what can we do?

Back in December, then President-elect Donald Trump established a forum “composed of some of America’s most highly respected and successful business leaders”

The members of the Forum include:

  • Stephen A. Schwarzman (Forum Chairman), Chairman, CEO, and Co-Founder of Blackstone; [Gateway One Macquarie Place, Suite 3901 Sydney NSW 2000, Australia]
  • Paul Atkins, CEO, Patomak Global Partners, LLC, Former Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission; [not in AU]
  • Mary Barra, Chairman and CEO, General Motors; [Holden Ltd: PO Box 1714, Melbourne, Victoria, 3001]
  • Toby Cosgrove, CEO, Cleveland Clinic; [not in AU]
  • Jamie Dimon, Chairman and CEO, JPMorgan Chase & Co; [ Sydney, Australia: +612 9003 8888]
  • Larry Fink, Chairman and CEO, BlackRock; [37, Chifley Tower, 2 Chifley Square, Sydney NSW 2000, Australia +61 2 9272 2200]
  • Bob Iger, Chairman and CEO, The Walt Disney Company;
  • Rich Lesser, President and CEO, Boston Consulting Group; [Level 41, 161 Castlereagh Street  Sydney, NSW 2000 Australia +61 2 9323 5600 ]
  • Doug McMillon, President and CEO, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.; [not in AU]
  • Jim McNerney, Former Chairman, President, and CEO, Boeing; [Boeing – Australia & South Pacific Boeing Australia Level 10, Exchange House 10 Bridge St Sydney NSW 2000 AUSTRALIA Tel: +61-2-9086 3300 ]
  • Adebayo “Bayo” Ogunlesi, Chairman and Managing Partner, Global Infrastructure Partners; [Global Infrastructure Management Australia Pty Limited (affiliate), Level 30, Deutsche Bank Place, 126 Phillip Street, Sydney, NSW 2000 Phone: +61 2 8259 4229 ]
  • Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President, and CEO, IBM; [Australian Head Office
    IBM Australia Ltd  Level 13 IBM Centre 601 Pacific Highway St Leonards NSW 2065]
  • Kevin Warsh, Shepard Family Distinguished Visiting Fellow in Economics, Hoover Institute, Former Member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System;
  • Mark Weinberger, Global Chairman and CEO, Ernst & Young EY; [EY The EY Centre Level 34 200 George Street 2000 Sydney phone: +61 2 9248 5555 fax: +61 2 9248 5959]
  • Jack Welch, Former Chairman and CEO, General Electric; [Multiple separate businesses in Australia]
  • Daniel Yergin, Pulitzer Prize-winner, Vice Chairman of IHS Markit; [not in AU?]
  • Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber (joined Dec 14)
  • Elon Musk, CEO Space X, Tesla (joined Dec 14)

Of those, Elon Musk has now spoken out against Trump’s attack on the US constitution & rule of law using his ban on people from selected middle east countries.

  • Investment bank, Goldman Sachs is not represented on the forum but Trump’s administration is replete with ex-Goldman Sachs employees, including Steve Bannon Treasury Secretary nominee Steve Mnuchin, National Economic Council Chairman-appointee Gary Cohn and Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman nominee Jay Clayton. [Goldman Sachs Australia Pty Ltd Level 46 Governor Phillip Tower 1 Farrer Place Sydney NSW 2000 Australia +612 9321 8777 ]

Many of those companies operate in multiple nations. Those companies have twitter accounts, some of them (e.g. Disney, Uber) market directly to ordinary people. We can challenge what they are doing. Sure, there is an argument that they are trying to engage with Trump for better outcomes for everybody – but if they can’t speak out against gross attacks on basic principles common to all democratic societies then they aren’t ‘engaging’ they are collaborating with hatred.