Friday, December 12, 2008

Unattractive egos

Pride is the first of the deadly sins, and it sometimes seems to be the first prerequisite of a career in public life. No surprise there: It takes a certain degree of hubris to think yourself qualified to govern others -- and not just to think it privately, but to spend great quantities of money, time, and energy proclaiming it publicly to anyone who will listen. To remain modest and unpretentious while urging voters to elevate you to high office and entrust you with power is a challenge not many elected officials meet. It's a rare politician who is motivated enough to climb the greasy pole, deflecting the ambitions of rivals, without succumbing to the temptations of ego.

A few words of appreciation, then, for Mario M. Cuomo, who served three terms as New York's governor and was for a while one of the nation's most prominent Democrats, but seems to have come through the experience without suffering a permanent case of swelled head.

The New York Times reports that Cuomo has declined all requests to sit for an official portrait, making him the only New York governor whose likeness is missing from the Hall of Governors in the state capitol at Albany. For 14 years he has refused to pose for an official painting, apparently on the grounds that he finds the whole thing an exercise in vanity. "I went to electric razors so I would not have to look at myself in the morning," Cuomo told the Times.

As a politician, New York's 52nd governor was hardly devoid of self-esteem, but "he intensely disliked personal attention, especially any gathering focused on him," a former aide recalled. Cuomo himself says that the glorification of ex-governors unfairly slights all the men and women who made their accomplishments possible. "Why do a portrait?" he asked. "My view of the governorship is, yes, I was the governor, but whatever good things were done in my 12 years as governor were done by an army of us. The idea of saying, 'Boy, he was terrific, he led us out of the Depression' -- it's not like that."

Some might be tempted to dismiss Cuomo's refusal to have his portrait painted as false modesty, which, unlike the real thing, is just another form of pride. ("Don't be so humble," Golda Meir used to say, "you're not that great.") But Cuomo's reluctance to have himself glorified for the ages in oil and canvas compares favorably with the self-adulation of his successor, George Pataki, who's just thrilled with his portrait. A few months ago, reports the Times, Pataki "gathered friends and supporters at Manhattan's '21' Club for a private showing of the portrait. And he had already asked the artist, Andrew Lattimore, for revisions to his first version."

Why are so many public figures so hungry for the trappings of grandeur? Barack Obama has yet to take office, but he has already set the modern record for political narcissism. Imagine what his homespun hero, Abraham Lincoln, would have made of Obama's presidential campaign, with its faux-Greek columns, triumphal foreign tour, and quasi-presidential seal with the Latin motto. Or of Obama's post-election practice of speaking from behind a lectern adorned with the Great Seal of the United States and an official-looking sign that reads "Office of the President Elect" -- an office that doesn't actually exist under the Constitution.

To be sure, it isn't only politicians who could do with a little more modesty and a little less self-regard. The Boston Globe reported last month that the eminent Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky cancelled an engagement to conduct four concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra because he felt "insulted" and "slighted" by the BSO's actions. "I suffered . . . a moral insult," he fumed. And what had the orchestra done to outrage Rozhdestvensky? It had printed posters promoting his concerts that featured the name of the soloist in larger letters than that of the conductor. Rozhdestvensky is 77, which just goes to show that age guarantees neither maturity nor humility.

In the age of Facebook and "American Idol," it may seem axiomatic that ego is good and self-esteem equals health. But self-idolatry, like all idolatry, corrupts. Whatever else may be said of Cuomo, he knows better than to worship himself. Such humility is out of style these days, but it's a virtue more of us could stand to work on.


Kids need nonsense

Comment from Britain on British humour and entertainment -- reflections on the recent death of much-loved TV animator Oliver Postgate

Before my brothers had children of their own, one of them would be co-opted as Duty Uncle on Christmas Day, so that we could get lunch ready while he amused the children. Our son was 4 when he pronounced, one Christmas morning after an exhilaratingly failed session with a balloon-rocket: "I like Uncle Mike the best because he is the most silly uncle".

There was a profound truth in that, although for the sake of family harmony I should stress that Mike has always had hot competition in that area, and that when not in the company of under-fives all three brothers are sober citizens. But the fact is that all children have a strong urge towards nonsense, silliness, absurdity. And for all our desire to offer them educational or reassuring stories, they will always have an eye for goonery and an ear for silly rhymes.

I thought of this yesterday morning as the nation mourned Oliver Postgate, creator of such benign absurdities as Ivor the Engine, Bagpuss, Noggin the Nog and The Clangers.

Grown-ups like to present children with stories about being brave and sensible, or loaded with facts about the wide world. There is a place for this, whether in the old world of Arthur Mee's Encyclopaedia and The Railway Children or the modern equivalents of educational DVDs and books about children in tower blocks coming to terms with divorce and knife gangs.

But they need nonsense too. We all do. As soon as a baby can focus, it longs for jokes. Silly jokes. You can make a two-month- old grin and giggle by putting a wastepaper basket over your head and taking it off again: I demonstrated this once to a scornful academic who had been claiming that babies could not perceive incongruity because their range of experience was too short. His baby thought differently.

As a child grows it learns plenty of serious stuff - like language and how to use the potty - and immediately subverts it with daft rhymes, shouting "smelly jelly fatty belly". Any character calling himself Noggin the Nog or Bagpuss is halfway there already; and silly noises are gratefully received, so Postgate's Clangers with their mad slide-whistling were ideal. This does not indicate shallowness of understanding - the same child who learns keenly about steam engines and pistons can be charmed by Ivor the Engine's ambition to sing in a choir.

Nonsense, at its best, takes us into the realm of the impossible, and when your world is circumscribed by your size and strength and by living under authority (we can all feel that way, even as adults), nonsense is a blessed relief. It is an adventure, a romance, an escape. The horrors of the plague can become a ring o'roses, the fear of Napoleon a game (taught to my children by an old Suffolk lady) of Chasing Bony Party.

So prosy old Postman Pat is all very well, and so is the tediously responsible Thomas the Tank Engine (Fat Controller's pet that he is, always saving the day). But there are moments when you need something sillier. You need Oliver Postgate's Clangers eating some blue string pudding and green soup. Or a verse or two of Jabberwocky, a dose of Edward Lear, or Bill and Ben saying nothing more taxing than "flubalub". Or the Christopher Isherwood poem that starts: "The common cormorant or shag/ lays eggs inside a paper bag..."

And the more serious-minded and curriculum-conscious the adults around you, the more you need nonsense. It is particularly galling when they cheat by trying to sneak lessons into everything: I had high hopes of the Teletubbies, rolling around in coloured fat-suits and squeaking "eh-oh!" at each other on green mounds. But just as this psychedelic landscape became engagingly mad, one of them would stare at its telly-belly and give birth to an educational little film about canals, or baking a cake. Pshaw!

There is a long and lovely tradition of nonsense literature in English, and we would do well to remember and respect it rather than grey everything down into social realism, Barbie-fied celebrity or factual automatism. Dulling rationalism threatens at all levels: even James Bond has lost his edge of fantastico-technical nonsense (gondolas on wheels! cars with fish fins!) and turned, with the arrival of Daniel Craig, into a dour, sub-le Carre chronicle of tediously wicked villains and an angsty 007 who never cracks a smile.

The nonsense tradition must go on: it embraces everything from Anglo-Saxon riddles to T.S. Eliot's Jellicle cats dancing under a Jellicle moon, to The Goon Show and the various heirs of Monty Python. It is always best marked by a certain amorality, as in Lewis Carroll's The Walrus and the Carpenter, in which the neat little oysters are eventually eaten.

Even the most kindly child likes that: in the realm of nonsense there is little morality. Perhaps that is why it provides such needful, happy release to those who worry a lot about right and wrong - such as dutiful children or, indeed, our own Prince of Wales. Why else, do you think, does the heir to the throne - who literally worries for England - find such lifelong joy in the adventures of Bluebottle, Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty in The Goon Show? Why else, indeed, did those troubled men Sellers and Milligan invent it all in the first place? Not to push back the boundaries of art but to create a parallel universe where nothing is wrong and everything is daft. And why, one might equally ask, was John Cleese only ever funny in the days before he went to see a series of shrinks, worked out all his issues and lost the gift of nonsense?

You can divide nonsense into two streams, though. There is full-on nonsense, detached from reality and floating free, far above us on pink-and-magenta-striped clouds, up there in the sky with Lucy and her diamonds. And then there is what I would call anti-sense. Lewis Carroll is the best example of the latter: he was a logician and his world is a looking-glass with everything backwards and therefore absurd, but mostly with clear references to reality: the Duchess's baby may well be a pig, but she is a recognisable, satirised character; Alice herself is grounded, always able to say "You're nothing but a pack of playing-cards!" or help the dormouse out of the teapot. Many of his best-loved poems are satires on the improving literature of the day - How Doth the Little Crocodile is a straight adaptation of an Isaac Watts verse. Yet sometimes Carroll can fly beyond the tugging threads of leftover 18th-century Oxford rationalism that still held him captive: The Hunting of the Snark is the most powerfully surreal and therefore beautiful of his works, the Snark itself a "Boojum", which is to say, nothing. And the crew's behaviour is satisfyingly mad:
They roused him with muffins, they roused him with ice
They roused him with mustard-and-cress;
They roused him with jam and judicious advice,
They set him conundrums to guess...
Here he moves closer to Lear, though nobody before or since has matched Lear's gentle, romantic blurred vision. I have met at least one teacher who won't use his verse on the ground that it is wrong to let children think there is any such thing as a Pobble, or that there is any help in Aunt Jobiska's remedy of "lavender water tinged with pink". I excoriate that teacher and all her dreary works! Nonsense it all may be, but I learnt much of what I know - really know - about life and love from Lear's poems: yearningly romantic, a Platonic ideal of a world where Owl and Pussycat may sink their natural differences, fall in love to the sound of a small guitar and buy a pig's nose-ring for a shilling. Every enterprise of my life has been fortified by the spirit of the Jumblies, who quixotically defied sense and prudence to follow their dream:
They went to sea in a sieve, they did;
In a sieve they went to sea;
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter's morn, on a stormy day,
In a sieve they went to sea!
They faced storms with pink blotting paper and a coppery gong, and knew themselves to be wise:
Though the sky be dark, and the voyage be long,
Yet we never can think we were rash or wrong...
O Timballo! How happy we are
When we live in a sieve and a crockery-jar!
Well, as Lear himself says with that melancholy inseparable from true romanticism, far and few are the lands where the Jumblies live. But when their message crackles through to us via Postgate or Carroll, Eliot or Milligan, we should rejoice. Recession is coming. Sail in a sieve, take plenty of honey, rely on your Aunt Jobiska and listen for the distant singing of Ivor the Engine in the heavenly choir. A little insanity keeps you sane.


More British welfare reform: Benefits to be paid only to those who show they are looking hard for work

Unemployed people will have to prove that they are taking practical steps to return to work in return for state benefits, under changes to the welfare state to be announced by ministers today. The only exceptions will be carers, parents of very young children and anyone who is severely disabled. All other claimants will have to show that they are preparing for work with activities ranging from updating a CV or finding out about childcare through to full-time training or work experience.

The conditions for claiming benefits will be set out in a statement to MPs and a White Paper by James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary. Most controversially, the paper will suggest that single parents with young children, possibly from the age of 1, should start work-related activities. They are currently not expected to attend work-focused interviews until their eldest child is 12, although this will be reduced to 7 next year.

Incapacity benefit and income support will be scrapped. Only the most seriously ill and disabled will be able to claim a new employment support allowance. Everyone else will be moved to jobseeker's allowance, with conditions attached requiring work- related activity. The plans mean that the controversial recommendations made by David Freud, Tony Blair's welfare reform adviser, will be implemented in full.

Gordon Brown initially rejected Mr Freud's findings when he became Prime Minister, but had second thoughts and now wants them to be enforced. Writing in The Times today, Mr Freud seeks to defend his proposals against criticism that they amount to a dismantling of the welfare state. He says that the roots lie in the Beveridge postwar settlement.
"The central proposition in the White Paper is that virtually everyone will be expected to set entering the world of work as their goal, including many of the people who have languished on incapacity benefit for years," he says. "Substantial support for individuals in achieving this objective is being developed, and should be ready in time for the next economic upswing. Beveridge would have approved - he wrote, `Most men who have once gained the habit of work would rather work ... than be idle ... But getting work ... may involve a change of habits, doing something that is unfamiliar or leaving one's friends or making a painful effort of some kind'."
Mr Freud said that it was also important to make the changes now, despite the economic downturn.


Problems with Bills of Rights

By Helen Irving (Helen Irving is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney, Australia)

Australia may be closer to getting a bill of rights. The Federal Government looks likely to begin a nationwide consultation process this week, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. Proposals for an Australian bill of rights are nothing new. On and off for decades there have been attempts to incorporate rights into the constitution or in comprehensive legislation, often following lengthy inquiries and detailed reports. None has succeeded. Is anything new this time round?

As proponents like to remind us, all other comparable countries, including Britain, New Zealand and Canada, have adopted a bill or charter of rights. Two Australian jurisdictions, the ACT and Victoria, have recently joined them. Now the pressure is on for Australia to fall in line.

If it is to be so, the issue must be how to make a bill compatible with Australian democracy. Australia's constitutional democracy is built on representative government and the separation of powers. In principle, the legislature makes the laws and the courts enforce them. A bill of rights changes this. Unelected courts gain the power to frustrate elected governments if they hold a law to be in breach of rights.

This may sound fine, even desirable. But many rights are in fact political. They rest on controversial propositions, matters open to reasonable disagreement, issues that should properly be debated in the public arena. We hear, for example, of the "right to die with dignity". This is not a natural right, or a settled matter. It is deeply, and essentially, contentious.

Another example: the Victorian Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities includes a provision giving a person of "a particular cultural . background" the "right, in community with other persons of that background, to enjoy his or her culture". To determine whether a person has a "particular" background, and whether its enjoyment has been denied, requires detailed knowledge of cultural practices and expectations, both in "particular" and mainstream cultures. These are sociological and historical issues, not questions for the courts.

The socio-economic rights that are favoured by many have major resource implications. Good health, education and housing are all worthy goals, but they are costly. To turn these into legal rights is to deprive governments of the power to make decisions about available resources, budget priorities and future plans.

But not all rights are political. Legal process rights - the rights that surround the arrest, charge, trial and detention of persons suspected of having committed an offence - belong properly to the judicial arm of government. They concern the judicial process. They are essential protections against arbitrary power, elements of the rule of law on which our constitutional democracy also rests.

Questions about legislative encroachment on these rights are appropriately answered in the courts. If the claims made by proponents of a bill were confined to legal process rights, then agreement might be secured among those who are otherwise sceptical.

Leading advocates now accept that a proposed constitutional bill of rights is unlikely to survive a referendum. They propose, instead, a statutory bill, passed by parliament and open to repeal or amendment. The powers of the courts, they also suggest, should be limited to making declarations of incompatibility between laws and rights, and not extend to striking down such laws. This is the model followed in the ACT and Victoria, and it is said to respect the separation of powers, allowing the parliament to decide what to do with "incompatible" laws.

These are many merits in such proposals. But there are concerns, too. Although a statutory bill is repealable in principle, the experience in other countries is that such bills quickly become "constitutionalised". The rights they include become fixed, and difficult to adjust to changing circumstances. Paradoxically, the very attempt to protect parliament by empowering the courts to make "declarations" may itself prove unconstitutional. The commonwealth constitution prevents the High Court from giving advisory opinions. The court may only rule on actual legal disputes. This hurdle may prove fatal. It will require close attention by the government.

If Australia is on the path to a bill of rights, let's have a genuine consultation process. Let us ask ourselves which rights are best protected by the courts, and why we believe Australia to be deficient compared to other countries. Let us also consider how advocates and opponents might find common ground. Given the long history of failure, this may be the decisive question.



Political correctness is most pervasive in universities and colleges but I rarely report the incidents concerned here as I have a separate blog for educational matters.

American "liberals" often deny being Leftists and say that they are very different from the Communist rulers of other countries. The only real difference, however, is how much power they have. In America, their power is limited by democracy. To see what they WOULD be like with more power, look at where they ARE already very powerful: in America's educational system -- particularly in the universities and colleges. They show there the same respect for free-speech and political diversity that Stalin did: None. So look to the colleges to see what the whole country would be like if "liberals" had their way. It would be a dictatorship.

For more postings from me, see TONGUE-TIED, GREENIE WATCH, OBAMA WATCH (2), EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC, GUN WATCH, SOCIALIZED MEDICINE, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, DISSECTING LEFTISM, IMMIGRATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL and EYE ON BRITAIN. My Home Pages are here or here or here. Email me (John Ray) here. For readers in China or for times when is playing up, there is a mirror of this site here.


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