30 November 2016

The Feast of Fools

For most of the year [medieval Christianity] preached solemnity, order, restraint, fellowship, earnestness, a love of God and sexual decorum, and then on New Year's Eve it opened the locks on the collective psyche and unleashed the festum fatuorum, the Feast of Fools. For four days, the world was turned on its head: members of the clergy would play dice on top of the altar, bray like donkeys instead of saying 'Amen', engage in drinking competitions in the nave, fart in accompaniment to the Ave Maria and deliver spoof sermons based on parodies of the gospels (the Gospel according to the Chicken's Arse, the Gospel according to Luke's Toenail). After drinking tankards of ale, they would hold their holy books upside down, address prayers to vegetables and urinate out of bell towers. They 'married' donkeys, tied giant woollen penises to their tunics and endeavoured to have sex with anyone of any gender who would have them.

But none of this was considered just a joke. It was sacred, a parodia sacra, designed to ensure that all the rest of the year things would remain the right way up. In 1445, the Paris Faculty of Theology explained to the bishops of France that the Feast of Fools was a necessary event in the Christian calendar, 'in order that foolishness, which is our second nature and is inherent in man, can freely spend itself at least once a year. Wine barrels burst if from time to time we do not open them and let in some air. All of us men are barrels poorly put together, and this is why we permit folly on certain days: so that we may in the end return with greater zeal to the service of God'.

- Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, London, 2012, p.63-5.

See also:
France: Paris chose to be self-centred, 1 October 2016
France: The Paris correspondent starts his day, 30 April 2016
France: City of Lights, 20 April 2009

22 November 2016

Looking for America, and not finding it anywhere

In March, the Washington Post reported that Trump voters were both more economically hard-pressed and more racially biased than supporters of other Republican candidates. But in September a Gallup-poll economist, Jonathan T. Rothwell, released survey results that complicated the picture. Those voters with favorable views of Trump are not, by and large, the poorest Americans; nor are they personally affected by trade deals or cross-border immigration. But they tend to be less educated, in poorer health, and less confident in their children’s prospects—and they’re often residents of nearly all-white neighborhoods. They’re more deficient in social capital than in economic capital. The Gallup poll doesn’t indicate how many Trump supporters are racists. Of course, there’s no way to disentangle economic and cultural motives, to draw a clear map of the stresses and resentments that animate the psyches of tens of millions of people. Some Americans have shown themselves to be implacably bigoted, but bias is not a fixed quality in most of us; it’s subject to manipulation, and it can wax and wane with circumstances. A sense of isolation and siege is unlikely to make anyone more tolerant.

In one way, these calculations don’t matter. Anyone who votes for Trump—including the Dartmouth-educated moderate Republican financial adviser who wouldn’t dream of using racial code words but just can’t stand Hillary Clinton—will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country. Trump is a national threat like no one else who has come close to the Presidency. Win or lose, he has already defined politics so far down that a shocking degree of hatred, ignorance, and lies is becoming normal.

At the same time, it isn’t possible to wait around for demography to turn millions of disenchanted Americans into relics and expect to live in a decent country. This election has told us that many Americans feel their way of life is disappearing. Perhaps their lament is futile—the world is inexorably becoming Thomas Friedman’s. Perhaps their nostalgia is misguided—multicultural America is more free and equal than the republic of Hamilton and Jefferson. Perhaps their feeling is immoral, implying ugly biases. But it shouldn’t be dismissed. If nearly half of your compatriots feel deeply at odds with the drift of things, it’s a matter of self-interest to try to understand why.

- George Packer, 'Hillary Clinton and the Populist Revolt', New Yorker, 31 October 2016

20 November 2016

Infecting their enemies with their own sickness

When a leader is both boastful and indecisive, the leadership vacuum is filled by aides who feed into the posturing but compensate for the indecision. [Trump's National Security Advisor, Lt Gen Michael] Flynn fills that Trump-shaped hole perfectly.

But we know where this leads. [Dick] Cheney cherry-picked manipulated intelligence reports to build a case for the war in Iraq that was the single worst US national security decision in a generation. We are still living with its consequences today, with Isis and a global refugee crisis that is unthinkable without the Iraq war.

Condi Rice, Bush’s national security adviser, was unable to control the hawks inside the cabinet, even as she leaned towards the doves. Flynn doesn’t need to control any hawks, because he is leading the pack.

The opportunity for Flynn to cherry pick intelligence is almost limitless. With his public hatred of Islam and his desire to wage a war of religion, the case for military action will be simple inside the Trump West Wing.

It may be time to concede that one of the biggest winners of this election is the twisted and murderous worldview distilled by Osama bin Laden. Unlike Bush and Obama, Trump and Flynn believe we are engaged in a war with Islam, just as al-Qaeda and Isis believe they are engaged in a war with Christianity and Judaism.

The jihadists have infected their enemies with their own sickness. To be fair, this infection had been growing for many years before Trump started running for office. It broke out when Congress – Democrats and Republicans – voted against the closure of Guantanamo Bay. It is obvious in much of the world’s refusal to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

But now the sickness has given us Trump and Flynn to escalate a religious-fueled war that is unwinnable.

- Richard Wolffe, 'Michael Flynn will be a disaster as National Security Advisor', Guardian, 19 November 2016

19 November 2016

A fleet in being

International naval flotilla assembled in the Waitemata Harbour for inspection by the Governor-General, Dame Patsy Reddy, in honour of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of the Royal New Zealand Navy.  Viewed in light drizzle from the end of Princes Wharf.

13 November 2016

The Sovereign is not sovereign

Hugh Dennis channels Sir Humphrey in this excerpt from the Now Show, imagining a civil service wallah explaining Brexit implementation to the PM:

HD: It's quite simple, Prime Minister. Judges do not make the law; the Government makes laws which the judges then enact.

PM: So why do I have to go through Parliament?

HD: Because Parliament passed a law made by the Government which says that we are subject to European law. Therefore the Government must first go to Parliament to trigger an article which would make us no longer subject to the European law that a previous Government had proposed and Parliament previously voted that we should be governed by.

PM: But the people voted not to be governed by it.

HD: Ah, but in order to enact the people's vote not to be governed by law that Parliament had voted we would be governed by, you must involve Parliament. In other words, although we're governed by Government, the Government governs by enacting laws passed by Parliament, and what you're trying to do is govern by Government and going through the Sovereign, forgetting that Parliament is sovereign, and the Sovereign is not sovereign. It is really very simple.

- The Now Show, BBC Radio 4, 11 November 2016

12 November 2016

Wellington horsepower

Excerpts from the childhood diaries of Wellington journalist Pat Lawlor (1893-1979), and his accompanying equestrian memories as set out in his nostalgic Old Wellington Days (1959):

3 November 1903

'...Saw the horses swimming when I was round the rocks...'

Oh, those wonderful days of long ago when there were no motor cars; the days when horses abounded, many of them aristocrats. When Sunday came, the stable owners around the city gave their charges a special treat, a swim in the harbour at Oriental Bay. It was great to watch them, though you had to be wary when they came out of the water. Also, it was not wise to be taking a dip at the time when the horses were in the water. This is just where the trouble commenced. Soon there were so many horses in the bay of a Sunday that mere man just had to wait his turn. In 1907 John Fuller approached the Harbour Board for a time limit on the horses' Sunday dip. The Board decided that dobbin had to be out of the water by 8.30am on Sundays.

Another great outing for the horses in the week-ends was to give them an airing on the town belt. This privilege endured until the twenties. I remember Coley's horses being let loose from their stable in Hawker Street to thunder down the hill and take a sharp turn to upper Majoribanks Street. In a few minutes they would be kicking up their heels on the grassy slopes of Mount Victoria.

12 March 1904

'...Saw the tram horses being changed...'

The changing of the guard it might have been called for this transposition attracted the attention of passers-by. There may have been another changing-over place at the Thorndon end of the city but my particular memory is of the considerable area of ground at the Newtown end of the Basin Reserve where the trams would be halted, the horses unyolked to make way for a fresh team to pull the conveyance over the balance of the journey. The whole operation might take five or ten minutes while the passengers would wait with patient interest in the proceedings. The fresh horses, already equipped with their harness always looked so alert alongside their tired predecessors who, even so, were now aroused to fresh interest in the fact that a feed and a rub-down was waiting for them...

The concession cards in the days of the horse trams represented good value particularly for long distance passengers - one shilling for eight rides for the whole or any portion of the journey.

4 May 1904

'...Got a ride in a hansom cab...'

And what a rare, spanking ride it was with an uncle of mine who picked me up in lower Cuba Street. Off we went down Thorndon way with the wind in our faces, a grand horse in front, and a merry-faced cabby "on top". As he helped me in I told him it was my first ride. He had a sunburned face and a scarlet flower in his buttonhole. My uncle called him Jack. Perhaps he was the famous Hell-fire Jack (Jack Watters) but I think he used to drive a landau. It may have been W. Read who was the last man to drive a hansom cab in the city. Anyway, whoever it was, he made that horse fly. With the folding apron in front of me and my uncle by my side, I felt safe in spite of the many bumps in the macadamised roads. Every now and then the cabby would shout down through the trap-door to ask me how I was liking it, and I invariably answered "bosker".

05 November 2016

Farm Cove

Farm Cove, Sydney, 5 November 2016 - the site of the first farm of the New South Wales colony, and the Royal Botanic Gardens, established by Governor Macquarie in 1816.

03 November 2016

The heart of Melbourne

Street scene at Federation Square, Melbourne, 3 November 2016, featuring the Visitor Centre, a prominent ad for the musical Kinky Boots, Flinder St Station and St Paul's Cathedral.