Quotulatiousness

June 4, 2015

QotD: The debt we owe to ancient Greece

Filed under: History,Media,Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What more to say? Well, I could say that I am jealous of Jack’s choice of period. My choice of early Byzantium is a good one. Contrary to the general view, this was an age of heroism and genius. The fight the Byzantines put up against the barbarians and Persians and Moslems saved Western civilisation. There are few stories more inspiring than the defeat of the Arabs outside the very walls of Constantinople in 678 and 717. At the same time, nothing compares with what the Athenians achieved a thousand years earlier.

Forget the Egyptians and the Jews. Forget what we are told about the ancient Indians and Chinese. Forget even the Romans. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer – and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. They had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

Richard Blake, “Review of Jack England, Sword of Marathon“, RichardBlake.me.uk, 2013.

June 3, 2015

Re-examining the history of “the Raj”

Filed under: Britain,History,India — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In The Diplomat, Nigel Collett reviews a new book by Ferdinand Mount called The Tears of the Rajas: Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905:

It was the discovery of a book by his aunt, Ursula Low, published in 1936 and entitled Fifty Years with John Company, which opened Mount’s eyes to his family’s history and led to the writing of The Tears of the Rajas.

His aunt’s book, a work long ignored and derided as an eccentricity by her family, was a biography of her grandfather, General Sir John Low. What staggered Mount about his aunt’s account was her matter-of-fact recording of the massacres, mutinies and mayhem in which her grandfather and many of her relatives had been involved during their colonial careers. For General Sir John Low had, during a career in India that lasted from 1804 to 1858, seen the brutal suppression of the mutiny of his own regiment at Vellore a year after his arrival in India, the “White Mutiny” of European soldiers in the East India Company’s Forces in 1808 (which resulted in the massacre not of the European mutineers but of the Indian soldiers they led) and finally, in 1857, of the Indian Mutiny itself, which erupted at a time when Low was the Military Member of the Governor General’s Council.

More than this, Low, in a largely political career up until the outbreak of the Mutiny, had been intimately involved in policies which led directly to it, including the removal from power of three Indian potentates to whom he was attached as Resident (the Peshwa of Poona, the Raja of Nagpur and the King of Oudh) and the annexation of their lands. He was at one point, in yet another posting as Resident, personally involved in detaching a large chunk of Hyderabad from the lands of the Nizam.

During his service, Low had watched, and other members of his family had been involved in, the British annexations of Sind and the Punjab, the conquest of Gwalior and the disastrous attempt to depose Dost Mohammed, the Shah of Afghanistan, which led to the catastrophe of the 1st Afghan War. Mount’s title is well chosen: Low literally reduced several of his Rajas to tears.

[…]

Perhaps more stomach-turning than this, especially to a British reader, are Mount’s revelations of the dishonest policies followed by almost every Governor General of India towards India’s native princes, policies driven by pure greed, conducted with cold ruthlessness in utter disregard of treaties, promises or any code of honor, and hidden beneath layers of hypocritical cant. Much of this has not been made generally known. Few, for instance, in the Far East, will know that as the First Opium War in China ended in 1842, another began in India, for the British conquest of Gwalior was aimed at the control of the opium it grew independently of the East India Company.

The removal of misgovernment was all too frequently the fraudulent public excuse for the imposition of direct rule and the canard of the protection of the peasantry from their own rulers was little more than a front for taxing them more efficiently. Add to this noxious behavior insulting racial pride, ignorance of culture and tradition, and a religious evangelism that persuaded army officers that it made sense to tell their Hindu and Muslim soldiers that they would go to Hell if the wars into which they were leading them resulted in their unconverted deaths, and there seems little need for further explanation of why it all ended in disaster in 1857.

While I can’t claim to have read deeply in Indian history during this period, I still think the best introduction to the at-best-ambivalent legacy of British rule is the fictional exploits of Sir Harry Flashman by George MacDonald Fraser (especially the original Flashman, Flashman and the Mountain of Light, and Flashman in the Great Game). How many other novels have extensive footnotes about all the historical characters and situations the fictional hero encounters? Oh, right … for the younger set: trigger warning in all the Flashman novels for racism, sexism, imperialism, militarism, violence, and pretty much anything that would offend the ears of a young Victorian lady modern university student.

May 29, 2015

“The historian’s blindfolds”

Filed under: Europe,History,Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Sarah Hoyt coined the term “the historian’s blindfolds” to describe historical situations where “the ‘everyone knows’ [happenings don’t] get recorded, and the ‘never happens’ or ‘happens so rarely it’s big and sensational’ gets recorded ALL the time”:

I’ve – for instance – for the last several years been very suspicious of Dickens, because my other sources for the time (not just primary sources, but those writing often in a family/biography) context paint quite a different picture.

I mean, yes, there were horrible conditions at the time, but they were horrible conditions by our perspective, and we live in an era of superabundance. And the underclass lived very disordered lives. Well, I read student doc. Our underclass just uses different substances and is better fed. Go to Student Doc “Things I learn from my patients” (it’s not coming up for me, hence not linked. Also, prepare to lose hours there. [This might the site]) BUT as “bad” as the industrial revolution might have been, it attracted droves of farmers from the countryside. And having seen it happen in real time in India and China, I’m no longer able to believe the propaganda that they were “forced” off their lands.

Farming looks like a lovely, bucolic occupation to those who have never done any, but the farming they did at the time involved no tractors, no milking machines. It was inadequate tools and inadequate strength beating inadequate livelihood out of inadequate (in most places) soil. Yeah, to paraphrase Mark Twain, the girls wove wreaths for Michaelmas, and everyone danced around the Maypole, but in between there was a very harsh reality that made the rather horrible conditions in the early mills seem like heaven and depopulated the countryside and packed the cities – as we see now in China and India.

So, our first problem with finding out if there really was a “first night” right for the seigneur is to figure out the difference between the accounts and the truth. There is no direct evidence, but remember all the recording of the times was done by church men who might very well not know what was going on. Sometimes, granted, it was willful not know. The village priest determinedly didn’t know of certain things that went on around May Day and I’m fairly sure would continue not knowing if he walked in on it and saw it. Because he wasn’t stupid and stuff that’s been going on for two thousand years and yet is of a nature not to be co-opted into the church celebration of this or that saint (St. Anthony and St. John with bonfires and wild herbs and jumping over the fires, and trekking to the city and across the city to see the sunrise on the sea, for instance, for Summer solstice. Yeah. Perfectly normal Catholic tradition) couldn’t be stopped cold, but knowing about it would mar his ability to preach against certain things which he must preach against. (“It was a morning in May—” And for the record this particularly guppie always thought going amaying is about gathering the flowers to put in every entrance to the house to word off evil spirits. But I am an ODD and often unable to see what’s right before my eyes because I was told it was different.)

The problem of the “first night” is compound by several issues: we’re talking a span of about 2000 years. It’s about sex and everyone lies about sex, or shuts up about it, which can be the same. We have fundamental disagreements on the basic nature of men and women. And that’s what I’m going to go with. Because that’s the interesting part.

May 23, 2015

The Hitch

Filed under: Britain,Politics,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

H/T to Open Culture.

A quick note: Kristoffer Seland Hellesmark was looking for a documentary on Christopher Hitchens to watch, but could never find one. So, after waiting a while, he said to himself, “Why don’t I just make one?” The result is the 80-minute documentary about Hitchens, lovingly entitled The Hitch, which features clips from his speeches and interviews.

May 8, 2015

QotD: The barbarians in our midst

Filed under: Quotations,Science,Technology,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… possibly the most dangerous barbarians live in the West. These, by being born there, assume they are Westerners by inheritance or osmosis. They also regard Western civilization as “found”, its goodies a stash waiting to be used or distributed. Nor do they trouble themselves as to its provenance, for there has always been plenty more where the stash came from.

For these barbarians Western civilization and its associated quest for God or Truth are a bothersome impediment, a “white man’s culture”, a hundred year old relic ideology nobody bothers with, some irksomely judgmental superfluity that gets in the way of fun and spreading the fruits to arrivals at the border and various victim groups.

For the barbarian the only reality is appearances. Cargo cultists, for instance, believe that function comes from form. If they build something which resembles an airport then gift giving airplanes will arrive there to bring goodies. The 21st century barbarian completely lacks the attitude of Roger Bacon, who lived in the 13th century. Bacon knew that the truth was not a “white man’s” culture — in fact in his day nearly all learning came from the East — but believed the truth was nature’s culture; baked into reality; another word for what used to be called God. Of barbarian ignorance Bacon wrote:

    Many secrets of art and nature are thought by the unlearned to be magical. … The empire of man over things depends wholly on the arts and sciences. For we cannot command nature except by obeying her.

In today’s post-Western environment, we’ve forgotten Bacon’s adage.

Richard Fernandez, “Sword and Sorcery”, Belmont Club, 2014-06-23.

May 5, 2015

Interesting jobs for foreigners in China

Filed under: Business,China — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

I’ve had a few friends over the years who seemed to somehow be able to spend extended time in China. This article may explain how at least a few of them funded their stays:

In 2010, Mitch Moxley wrote a story for The Atlantic entitled “Rent a White Guy,” relating the story of his trip to Dongying where he pretended to be the representative of a non-existent California-based company that was allegedly building a factory in the city. His Canadian friend Ernie, hired to play the role of director, delivered a speech before a large crowd in which he “boasted about the company’s long list of international clients.” After the speech, “confetti blasted over the stage, fireworks popped […] and Ernie posed for a photo with the mayor.” The article has nothing to say about the extent of the scam. Were Mitch Moxley and his friend Ernie giving a boost to a local company or were the attendees being asked to invest in a company that didn’t exist?

A 2010 CNN report cited one ad posted on The Beijinger by a company called “Rent A Foreigner.” The story describes one foreigner who had police knock on his door one day, “after a financial company he worked at for a couple of months in Xi’an […] allegedly swindled millions of yuan out of clients.”

It’s commonplace in China to see expats paid exorbitant fees as dancers, singers, musicians, or models, often regardless of talent. I have seen unattractive models, dancers who couldn’t dance, and singers who couldn’t sing. One of my friends was once paid handsomely to play bass at a live concert. The thing was, he didn’t know how to play bass — so they left his instrument unplugged and he plucked at the strings as if he had some clue as to what he was doing. Several of the musicians were also pantomiming to a prerecorded track, but the track had no bass, so my friend was pretending to play a part that didn’t exist. No one in the crowd seemed to notice though, and he was paid more than twice what the Chinese band members, who were actually rather talented musicians, earned.

May 4, 2015

QotD: Sexual fidelity within marriage

Filed under: Quotations,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

A lot of wives … think they are being “faithful” as long as they don’t take a roll in the hay with some other male, no matter what they do to kill the spirit of the man they promised to cherish. They never get it through their silly heads that a mere roll in the hay could be no more important than a bad case of hangnails — certainly no worse than a bad cold — if they paid attention to the essence of the contract, “to love and cherish” come what may — buck him up and keep him going, somehow against an unfriendly world.

This is what marriage is all about — sex is at most a minor aspect of it: a partnership between two people, in which each places the other’s welfare as the paramount value in a shifting and uncertain world … There have been more than a few honest and loyal wives who have hit the streets to support sick husbands — and let us now have a moment of silence in honour of their gallant souls.

Robert A. Heinlein, letter to Betty Jane Babb 1959-02-04, quoted in William H. Patterson Jr., Robert A. Heinlein, In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better, 2014).

May 2, 2015

“…every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the'”

Filed under: History,Media,USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

An older article from Lesley McDowell at The Independent, discussing the relationship between Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett:

When Mary McCarthy said of Lillian Hellman, “every word she says is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the'”, a certain attitude was fostered. Not only to the celebrated playwright’s experiences in war-torn Spain during the 1930s or before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s, but also to her personal life. Hellmann, this attitude said, was a myth-maker of the worst kind. She couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth, not even about those she loved. So what if she wrote in her memoirs that crime writer Dashiell Hammett, with whom she lived on-and-off for 30 years, was the most important person in her life? “Did anyone ever see them together?” queried Gore Vidal.

Writers make myths out of people’s lives, especially their own. And when writers become embroiled with other writers, the opportunity increases ten-fold. It was to Hammett, the pulp magazine writer turned detective novelist, that she always owed a debt, Hellman insisted. The completion of her first play, The Children’s Hour, in 1934, just four years after they met at a Hollywood party, was all thanks to “help from Hammett.” She “worked better if Hammett was in the room.” Yet Hellman’s words about this crucial relationship have been doubted too. Perhaps it didn’t help that she wrote in her 1969 memoir, An Unfinished Woman, “what a word is truth. Slippery, tricky, unreliable. I tried in these books to tell the truth…I see now, in re-reading, that I kept much from myself, not always, but sometimes.”

Lillian Hellman was married to a writer, Arthur Kober, when they wound up in Hollywood in 1930. Kober had a script-writing job and Hellman was a script-reader. She was 25, bored in her five-year marriage and had writing ambitions. When she met Hammett at a party, he was 36 and famous, the bestselling author of Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. Different accounts of their first meeting don’t help Hellman’s case for truth-telling, but there is a nastier undercurrent to those who doubted Hellman’s version of the subsequent relationship.

Hammett was extremely handsome and rich, thanks to his books. Hellman was never a pretty girl, and had a forthright manner that scared people. Some doubted Hammett’s interest in her: why should such a successful writer take up with an unattractive nobody?

April 18, 2015

How the Hugo Awards became the latest front in the Culture Wars(TM)

Filed under: Gaming,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At The Federalist, Robert Tracinski talks about the expansion of the ongoing culture wars into the SF and Fantasy communities:

This is the era in which we are all being drafted in the Culture War. It doesn’t matter if you’re secular or religious, political or apolitical, frat boys or geeks, hipsters or bros. Nobody gets to be neutral or sit on the sidelines, because we’ll all be expected to make our obeisance to the latest politically correct opinion handed down to us by a Twitter mob.

By now, we know the basic ingredients of a typical skirmish in Culture War 4.0. It goes something like this: a) a leftist claque starts loudly pushing the “correct” Culture War position onto b) a field previously considered fun, innocuous, apolitical, purely personal, or recreational, and c) accusing anyone who opposes them of being a racist, sexist, bigot who relies on oppressive “privilege” to push everyone else down, while these claims are d) backed up by a biased press that swallows the line of attack uncritically and repeats it.

Any of that sound familiar? It’s just daily life for anyone on the Right, and it’s slowly becoming daily life for everybody else. Ask Comet Guy.

The innocuous field in which the personal is suddenly discovered to be very political might be fashion, music, toys, sports, or sex, not to mention weddings, flowers, cake-baking, and pizza.

Or video games. Or science fiction.

Which explains the latest, wide new front of the Great Social Justice War: Gamergate*, and the battle over the Hugo Awards, a prestigious annual fiction award for science fiction and fantasy writers.

Hugo nominations are not made by a cloistered group of experts. They are voted on by anyone who becomes a “supporting or attending member” of the World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon. This has usually meant that the voting is limited to a small pool of a few thousand die-hard science fiction fans. But in practice it means that anyone willing to shell out $40 can cast a ballot.

Science fiction has always been a fertile arena for exploration of big ideas — much more so, these days, than highbrow “literary” fiction. The use of fantastical science fiction premises allows authors to project a future in which everything is done differently, or in which human nature itself has been altered, and this leads them to ask questions about what is really natural, necessary, or essential to human life and what is merely conventional, artificial, and unnecessary. It has been remarked that “big-idea novels are more likely to have an embossed foil dragon on the cover than a Booker Prize badge.”

Clearly, all of this freewheeling exploration of ideas has got to stop.

April 2, 2015

The new editor of The Walrus bows in

Filed under: Cancon,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jonathan Kay, formerly of the National Post, is now the editor-in-chief of The Walrus. Here’s the start of his first editorial for the magazine:

“Any slighting reference to Canada is bound to produce a flurry of anguished letters, most of them attached to manuscripts,” Michael Kinsley wrote in The New Republic three decades ago. “On the other hand, so is any favorable reference to Canada, so it would be futile to add at this point that I think it’s a lovely country and we’re darn lucky to have it next door, especially considering the alternatives. Yet Canada is, for all its acknowledged merits, a nation of assistant professors, each armed with articles designed to ‘dispel misunderstanding.’ These literary missiles are aimed at the American media, ready to be fired at the slightest provocation.”

Any Canadian past the age of thirty will recognize the whiny writing that Kinsley aptly skewered: until recently, our relationship with the United States was the great neurotic obsession of our intellectual life. This neurosis didn’t just produce insecurity; it also produced bad writing.

In the domain of foreign policy, especially, virtually every debate — missile defence, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, terrorism, peacekeeping — was brought back to the question of whether we were doing enough to distinguish ourselves from the southern hegemon. To describe our place in the world in a way that made us feel morally superior, we became reliant on a canonical set of clichés — honest broker, human security, global citizenship, soft power. The dreariness of these tropes was unavoidable, because the approved form of argumentation among all those assistant professors was to string old ideas together in new ways.

[…]

This attitude is gone — or at least very much on the wane. Whatever you may think about the way Stephen Harper has changed Canada, it is undeniable that we have become a richer, more interesting, and less insecure country than we were just a decade ago. I’ve lost count of the number of international surveys that Canada (and Toronto, its largest city) now tops. Ambitious Canadians in every field have better reasons to stick around than they did even a few years ago.

And all those assistant professors whom Michael Kinsley disparaged have become less whiny: having shed our anxieties about our relationship with the US, Canadian intellectuals now draft their impassioned manifestos in a country that is important and interesting in its own right.

Needless to say, this is good news for The Walrus, a magazine that explores Canada and its place in the world. Never in my lifetime has it been a better time to write — and read — about this wonderful country.

March 30, 2015

Apple’s cultural significance, as illustrated by reactions to the Apple Watch

Filed under: Business,Media,Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

James Lileks points out that Apple does not get the media attention for being innovative (at least, not just for innovations):

What’s that, you say? You don’t want an Apple Watch?

Let’s talk about that.

People seem obliged to offer substantial, reasoned arguments why they don’t want one — and that seems proof that Apple’s cultural position is enormous. I mean, imagine it’s 1956, and Kelvinator just brought out the new Fido-Matic Fridge that automatically extrudes moist dog food into a bowl at preset intervals. The press wouldn’t say boo. The Today show wouldn’t do a live report from people queued up at the Kelvinator store. There wouldn’t be bitter battles in the letters-to-the-editor section about Kelvinator fanboys falling for the latest gimmick, and besides Frigidaire did that last year.

But Apple invents something, and the world is riven into two camps. Those who desire, and those who decline. The former group is regarded with less interest than the latter, since those who want the Watch are assumed to be devotees of Apple who would pay $199 for a white plastic brick used to prop open doors.

The people who don’t want them — ah, they’re the ones who make for good copy. They’re the rebels now. If I were a New York Times editor, the day the Watch was released I’d run a lifestyle-section story about men in Brooklyn with carefully curated beards who repair 1950s watches, and how this attention to the craft — nay, the art — of timepieces stands as a Contrast, and perhaps a Rebuke, to the overcomplicated Watch the sheep are lining up to get.

“It’s just an honest thing,” the watch-repair guy (Josh, I’m guessing) would say. “You hold it to your ear, you hear it tick. It manifests time in a real way. The delicacy of the movement — it’s almost intimate, to have a machine on your wrist with such precise detail, devoted to just one thing. The time.”

Yeah yeah. Go have a sarsaparilla, hipster. Look: You don’t want an Apple Watch, you don’t. But reject it for the right reasons — and that’s not because it’s another screen that takes you away from dealing with humanity, because that’s not what it is.

March 23, 2015

“You’re doing it wrong!”

Filed under: Humour,Media,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

James Lileks on the omnipresent stories headlined like this: “Respiration: you’re doing it wrong”.

If there’s one thing that makes me want to go all Cagney and push a grapefruit in the Internet’s face, it’s the phrase “You’re Doing It Wrong.” It’s been a popular cliché with tiresome, bossy millennials for a few years, and every week brings more news of things you have performed incorrectly. These are never important things. One doesn’t read YOU’RE UNBLOCKING THAT CLOGGED ARTERY WRONG. It’s always “Putting cans in the fridge: YOU’RE DOING IT WRONG,” written in the tone of someone standing behind you with corn-chip dust on his shirt and beard, smirking because you totally don’t know that putting the cans upside down recirculates the carbonation. Moron.

The other way to write the headline is helpful: Here’s a smart new way to do something you do all the time. (Such things are called “life hacks” by people who were not slapped enough by their editors in front of everyone.) But it’s not enough to find a new way; the old way has to be WRONG, and YOU are WRONG for DOING IT. This leads the author’s peers to find something else that everyone is doing wrong, and crow about it on some website that summons buzz and infuses the most banal innovation with virulence. How’s that piece about how everyone’s buttering their toast wrong doing? Forty-six thousand shares! Toast-buttering will never be the same!

This is why many adults read the stories of overeducated millennials stooped with college debt working crap jobs and writing piecework blather for fizzy websites, and are not overly burdened by pity.

February 26, 2015

America’s not-so-hidden class structure

Filed under: Government,Media,Politics,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Federalist, Robert Tracinski looks at the recent brouhaha over Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s lack of a university degree and what it reveals about America’s class structure:

On the surface, of course, it’s certainly about Scott Walker. The left-leaning mainstream media senses that he’s a potential danger. After all, he has won three straight elections in a swing state, while challenging the public employees’ unions head-on and significantly reducing their government privileges. (This is precisely what makes him interesting to those of us on the right.) The mainstream media feel that they need to disqualify him now, so they’re looking for anything they can use against him.

But behind that, there is a more visceral reaction. The real purpose of higher education is to learn the knowledge and skills required for success later in life. So if someone has already become a success, whether or not he went to college is irrelevant. If he has achieved the end, what does it matter that he didn’t do it by way of that specific means? But for the mainstream elites, particularly those at the top level in the media, a college education is not simply a means to an end. It is itself a key attainment that confers a special social status.

There are no real class divisions in America except one: the college-educated versus the non-college educated. It helps to think of this in terms borrowed from the world of a Jane Austen novel: graduating from college is what makes you a “gentleman.” (A degree from an Ivy League school makes you part of the aristocracy.) It qualifies you to marry the right people and hold the right kind of positions. It makes you respectable. And even if you don’t achieve much in the world of work and business, even if you’re still working as a barista ten years later, you still retain that special status. It’s a modern form of “genteel poverty,” which is considered superior to the regular kind of poverty.

If you don’t have a college degree, by contrast, you are looked down upon as a vulgar commoner who is presumptuously attempting to rise above his station. Which is pretty much what they’re saying about Scott Walker. This prejudice is particularly strong when applied to anyone from the right, whose retrograde views are easily attributed to his lack of attendance at the gentleman’s finishing school that is the university.

February 19, 2015

“Faking it” versus “Keeping it real”

Filed under: Britain,Media,Politics — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Neil Davenport reviews Authenticity is a Con by Peter York:

Everyone and everything today must, it seems, be ‘the real deal’ — they must be walking, talking embodiments of heart-on-your-sleeve authenticity. After all, no one wants to be accused of ‘faking it’, as Kurt Cobain put it in his suicide note. From pop stars to politicians, being real, being oneself, being transparent, is pretty much a pre-requisite for entrance into respectable society.

But social commentator Peter York believes there is something rather phoney in the need to be seen as genuine. In his short polemical book, Authenticity is a Con, York provides several deliciously scathing snapshots of the current tyranny of transparency.

For York, authenticity is the ‘absolute favourite word of shysters and chancers; of motivational speakers and life coaches dealing with “human potential”; of people who think “I’m so worth it”… people with only the vaguest idea of authentication and none at all about the philosophical back story.’ He traces the ‘me generation’ tendencies back to 1960s America. For York, the authenticity peddlers sell the idea that if you’re ‘true to yourself’ then everything else, from a satisfying career to successful relationships, will magically fall into place. York understands that the free-yourself psychobabble has always sounded preposterous. To lampoon it requires very little effort.

[…]

York’s sharp eye provides insights aplenty. There’s a hilarious dig at hippy ‘t-shirt and trainers’ companies such as Facebook or Virgin, whose informality disappears when they are challenged on something substantive (‘you get some very formal legal action’, quips York). He points out the irony of early- to mid-twentieth-century black musicians like Lead Belly, who wanted to wear smart suits and play hotel jazz, having to ham up a jailbird persona in order to sate their white audience’s demand for an ‘authentic’ blues performer. York also notes how, in the 1970s, the desire to be inauthentic, to not be ourselves or down to earth, was a mark of boldness and imagination. Think of the sci-fi-based, proto funk of Parliament or Funkadelic, or how working-class bricklayers donned tights and make up during the Glam era. Roxy Music made a career out of not keeping it real. They even prompted the NME’s Charles Shaar Murray to declare them a threat to Britain’s rock culture with, as York says, ‘their posey eclecticism, poncey retrofuturism and their wholly meretricious concern with appearances’. And then there’s David Bowie who elevated artifice, pretension and inauthenticity to the level of an art-form.

Today’s art-school poseurs, though, are as swept up with authenticity as anyone else. York begins Authenticity is a Con by visiting Shoreditch and noticing a product called ‘honest man’s beard oil’. As readers of Sunday supplements will know, east London has the highest beard count in the capital. York has great fun juxtaposing Shoreditch’s quest for reclaimed-floorboard authenticity with its entirely invented (read inauthentic) claim to be an artistic Boho enclave. ‘It’s a thing of surfaces’, writes York, ‘anti-bling surfaces that actually cost much more than the gold and glass and shiny marble of mainstream bling’. Indeed, Shoreditch and Hackney are the kind of places that have specially designed ‘old man pubs’ that don’t actually feature any old men drinking in them. York calls Shoreditch ‘applied authenticity’, which is about as accurate and as real a description of EC1 as you will find.

And yet the authenticity-marketing scam goes far beyond east London. For over a decade now, we’ve experienced what can be called ‘kooky capitalism’, wherein huge companies re-brand themselves as ethical, people-orientated cottage businesses. York supplements the idea of kooky capitalism with his concept of ‘micro-connoisseurship’, which refers to the ‘market for luxury, for superior, smart, snobby, value-added goods – “positional goods” of all kinds. We’ve got millions of micro-connoisseurs agonising about the thread count in sheets, the back-story of a recipe, the provenance of a shop.’

February 1, 2015

QotD: Travellers’ phrase books

Filed under: Humour,Media,Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

[George] handed me a small book bound in red cloth. It was a guide to English conversation for the use of German travellers. It commenced “On a Steam-boat,” and terminated “At the Doctor’s”; its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics: “Can you not get further away from me, sir?” — “It is impossible, madam; my neighbour, here, is very stout” — “Shall we not endeavour to arrange our legs?” — “Please have the goodness to keep your elbows down” — “Pray do not inconvenience yourself, madam, if my shoulder is of any accommodation to you,” whether intended to be said sarcastically or not, there was nothing to indicate — “I really must request you to move a little, madam, I can hardly breathe,” the author’s idea being, presumably, that by this time the whole party was mixed up together on the floor. The chapter concluded with the phrase, “Here we are at our destination, God be thanked! (Gott sei dank!)” a pious exclamation, which under the circumstances must have taken the form of a chorus.

At the end of the book was an appendix, giving the German traveller hints concerning the preservation of his health and comfort during his sojourn in English towns, chief among such hints being advice to him to always travel with a supply of disinfectant powder, to always lock his bedroom door at night, and to always carefully count his small change.

“It is not a brilliant publication,” I remarked, handing the book back to George; “it is not a book that personally I would recommend to any German about to visit England; I think it would get him disliked. But I have read books published in London for the use of English travellers abroad every whit as foolish. Some educated idiot, misunderstanding seven languages, would appear to go about writing these books for the misinformation and false guidance of modern Europe.”

“You cannot deny,” said George, “that these books are in large request. They are bought by the thousand, I know. In every town in Europe there must be people going about talking this sort of thing.”

“Maybe,” I replied; “but fortunately nobody understands them. I have noticed, myself, men standing on railway platforms and at street corners reading aloud from such books. Nobody knows what language they are speaking; nobody has the slightest knowledge of what they are saying. This is, perhaps, as well; were they understood they would probably be assaulted.”

George said: “Maybe you are right; my idea is to see what would happen if they were understood. My proposal is to get to London early on Wednesday morning, and spend an hour or two going about and shopping with the aid of this book. There are one or two little things I want — a hat and a pair of bedroom slippers, among other articles. Our boat does not leave Tilbury till twelve, and that just gives us time. I want to try this sort of talk where I can properly judge of its effect. I want to see how the foreigner feels when he is talked to in this way.”

It struck me as a sporting idea. In my enthusiasm I offered to accompany him, and wait outside the shop. I said I thought that Harris would like to be in it, too — or rather outside.

George said that was not quite his scheme. His proposal was that Harris and I should accompany him into the shop. With Harris, who looks formidable, to support him, and myself at the door to call the police if necessary, he said he was willing to adventure the thing.

We walked round to Harris’s, and put the proposal before him. He examined the book, especially the chapters dealing with the purchase of shoes and hats. He said:

“If George talks to any bootmaker or any hatter the things that are put down here, it is not support he will want; it is carrying to the hospital that he will need.”

That made George angry.

“You talk,” said George, “as though I were a foolhardy boy without any sense. I shall select from the more polite and less irritating speeches; the grosser insults I shall avoid.”

This being clearly understood, Harris gave in his adhesion; and our start was fixed for early Wednesday morning.

Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel, 1914.

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