Thai mirrors

November 6, 2006

Funny thing, Thai politics. Our former leader, Thaksin, was unceremoniously and undemocratically booted out because those behind the coup knew that if elections were to take place he would win comfortably. Thaksin himself had been rightly accused of eroding democracy by muzzling the press and failing to respect the rights of anyone suspected of being involved in drugs or Muslim extremist inspired insurrection. None of which worried the vast majority of rural Thais who voted for him. But once the King had made it clear he was fed up with Thaskin and supported the coup, everyone is happy with the generals and no one wants Thaksin back. What they want back even less is a return to the old corrupt democratic regimes offered by the alternatives to Thaskin. One Thai commentator suggested a way forward. Why, he said was there corruption under the old regimes? Because politicians had to pay people to support them. And where did they get the money to pay their supporters? By dipping into major construction projects and the like. And their supporters had to pay their supporters in turn. And how did they augment their income  to pay them? By dipping into some less major projects. So it’s not surprising that the road to our village still hasn’t been built and the main Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai highway cracks up every time it rains.  And what was the answer proposed? To get the King to appoint some trustworthy politicians to form the government who wouldn’t then have to pay anybody to support them. Not surprisingly, the idea met with the approval of 100% of the Thais I have it discussed it with. So it’s not surprising that the international community’s call for a ‘swift return to democratic government’ doesn’t carry much resonance here. Is it democracy when a people democratically decide not to be governed democratically? Nobody is under any illusions as to what would happen were the old politicians to return. As the speaker of the Thai parliament put it in 1996: “The budget is like a popsicle that is passed around. Everyone gets a lick at it when it comes their way , so that by the time the one at the end gets it, there’s little left.” Democratic elections aren’t the answer. As The Economist commented in 1996 , “Elections … often produce the best government money can buy, rather than a good one.” And not just in Thailand.

spoken in jest

November 4, 2006

The unfortunate Mr Kerry committed a cardinal political sin by making a complete snafu out of a joke against his opponent the other day. How can anyone respect a public figure who is unable tell a joke without getting his underwear contorted? The Admiral really needs to take a lesson or two from President Bush or even Tony Blair in the art of the well-told wisecrack. One remembers the classic Bush rib-tickler on Brokeback Mountain: “Lynne Cheney and Laura were out of town recently so I called up Dick and said ‘Why don’t we go to a movie’? He said ‘Great idea, let’s go to a cowboy movie’. Yep, finally went to see Brokeback Mountain. Let me tell you, whooo-eee. Dick sat through the movie, didn’t say a word. We came out, after a while he says ‘nice horses’. I say ‘yep’. Then he becomes real quiet again and kind of serious. I knew something was on his mind. Finally he turned to me and said: ‘You don’t suppose the Lone Ranger and Tonto …”‘ Or the sublime moment when he looked inder his desk and said “Nope, no WMD’s there.” Those were jokes any great leader could really be proud of. Our own dear leader didn’t do too badly with his ‘at least she won’t run off with the bloke next door’ line that had them rolling in the aisles at Blackpool. Mr Blair, very astutely, specialises in self-deprecating jokes on the basis that he will at least have the butt of the jokes in common with the general public. These contrast with the style of most world political figures who seem to prefer a more macho, salty flavour to their jokes. It is rather a pity that most of Blair’s seem to have been designed by a committee then vetted by a special subcommittee of the JIC and a panel of lawyers for political correctness, intelligibilty to Sun readers, potential to backfire, everything, in fact, except humour. Not a word, of course, about rape or other unmentionable subjects that spelt trouble for the rather unfunny Mr Putin, who can,however, wield his razor-like wit with deadly effect as Mr Blair found out: “Asked by a British reporter how he would respond to Mr Blair’s concerns about Russian democracy, Mr Putin said he was always glad to hear fellow leaders’ views. Then, after a long pause, he smiled and added: “There are also other questions; questions, let’s say, about the fight against corruption. We’d be interested in hearing your experience, including how it applies to Lord Levy.” It is not known whether Ms Merkel has ever been heard to utter a joke, unless inviting President Bush to a wild boar barbecue while the Middle East was going up in flames counts as one. (Incidentally, that’s a ‘wild boar’ BBQ, not a wild ‘boar BBQ’. Presumably.) President Chirac, however, does make jokes and most of them boomerang, as did his infamous remarks about British and Finnish food which are supposed to have lost Paris the Olympics. (The two Finnish members of the IOC voted for London.)

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Politicians who enjoy blunt talking don’t always crack the best jokes, a case in point being the late and unlamented Berlusconi. Most seem to have been of the level of his dismally unfunny joke about AIDS, the pick of a wretched bunch being his remark “Read The Black Book of Communism and you will discover that in the China of Mao, they did not eat children, but had them boiled to fertilise the fields.” This must have offended large numnbers of Chinese fertiliser manufacturers. Even the stony-faced Prodi can do better than that and once described Signor Berlusconi’s facelift as his biggest contribution to Italy’s infrastructure. Thailand’s own Berlusconi, the late and not unlamented Thaksin was also more successful at making money than at making jokes, a typical one being that that he needs no restraints on his authority, since his wife can keep him in line and he already is so wealthy, there is no need to pilfer from public coffers.
Returning to our shores, Master Cameron, who must rewrite and rehearse most of his jokes for a few hours first, discovered a new way of using a joke to shoot yourself in the foot when “an unscripted joke in his acceptance speech – about how a BBC-TV helicopter had stymied his determination to make a ‘carbon-neutral’ bicycle trip into Westminster – caused him to forget to mention one of the six major themes he’d meant to announce. ‘We got a good joke, but lost out on globalisation and world poverty,’ one aide commented wryly.” Being slightly sceptical of the value of such policy announcements, one is tempted to regard it as a small price to pay, even if the joke was a bit short on risibility.
To finish with Mr Kerry, what made his joke so tasteless was that what he said is, according to the Independent, actually true: “Figures released by the Pentagon show that the percentage of enlisted troops with college experience is considerably lower than that of the general population.” Mangling your punchline is bad enough, but making a remark that is true, well, that just isn’t funny.

rights of passage

November 1, 2006

Another ingenious scheme from Master Cameron. The Tory leader is apparently troubled by the idea that  “you can get married at 16, but you can’t drive until you’re 17. You can buy a gun when you’re 17 but you can’t buy fireworks until you’re 18.” So he comes up with his brainwave:every teenager should be able to earn “early adult status” by completing approved courses in grown-up behaviour which would entitle them to drink in pubs, get married, buy firearms and cigarettes, and place bets earlier than their less responsible contemporaries. These things should be decided not  by age but by level of responsibility. I suppose there would be an exam at the end of it rather like the test of Britishness thing. You’d probably find a few bright five-year olds picking up the certificate and mooching down to the pub at night. On the other hand, if certain individuals found the rights of passage delayed their transition to adulthood for a few decades, I would not object.Addressing the Young Adult Trust (YAT), an independent charity that is launching a series of two-week residential courses for school leavers, Mr Cameron said such programmes should be seen as a “stamp of adulthood.” The courses would allow young people from different backgrounds and parts of the country to engage together and constructively in society. This would help prevent those in different ethnic and religious communities living “separate lives” in many towns and cities.’ Hmm. Two weeks to turn a pimply teenager into a responsible adult and get yobs young people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds to engage together etc. ? Two whole weeks for that? Wouldn’t a couple of hours ‘dunking in water’ do just as well? Anyway, isn’t it like locking the stable door after the horse has bolted or counting your chickens after they’ve come home to roost or something? Shouldn’t there be a test for people to make sure they are reponsible enough to bear children in the first place or is spawning offspring willy-willy an inalienable human right? And while we are on tests and responsibility, how about a two week course for aspiring politicians leading to a certificate of incorruptibility, truthfulness etc.? The trouble is, this could be the top of a slippery slope to nowhere with courses for people to give them sufficient reponsibility to exercise their democratic right to vote and so on. Terrible thought. I would like to suggest setting up a new trust, the Teenagers-Welcome to Adulthood Trust (TWAT) which would only accept offspring of properly certified parents and would subject them to a rigorous two year programme including spells of mobile phone and Frozen Monkeys deprivation as well as lone survival in the Amazon rain forest. And the first recruit would be the youngster who told Mr Cameron “You do not know your arse from your elbow, you bastard.” Possibly lacking a little maturity but I’m sure his heart is in the right place.

Found in translation

October 20, 2006

Some great new excuses I did not include in an earlier post after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been overheard joking about the virility of his Israeli counterpart, who is accused of multiple rape.
First excuse: Mr Putin’s spokesman said the joke was not meant to be overheard
Second excuse: Come on, Russkies you can do better than that.  The spokesman again: “Russian is a very complicated language, sometimes it is very sensitive from the point of view of phrasing. I don’t think that the proper translation is able to reflect the meaning of the joke.”

What Putin apparently said was: “What a mighty man he turns out to be! He raped 10 women – I would never have expected this from him. He surprised us all – we all envy him!”
The Russian media have been quick to try and defend their nation’s president, speculating that Mr Putin simply wanted to express support for Mr Olmert. So “I envy your President raping ten women” is diplomatic parlance for ” I think you’re doing a good job.” And I, naively thought ‘diplomatic’ language worked the other way round. Anyway, always ready to help a world leader out of a hole,  I dug into this business of translation a bit (I’m not a Russian speaker). The word for ‘rape’ (насиловать) can also, according to an online dictionary, mean ‘gorilla’; ‘jam one up’; ‘shake somebody down’, ‘snag’. ‘Woman’ (женщина) also has the meaning of ‘frail’; ‘furniture’  or ‘bit of mutton.’ So I imagine Putin really said something like ‘He’s a gorilla who really shook up the furniture’ or ‘there is a snag with his piece of mutton’. I’m quite prepared to believe this as I know how tricky a language Russian can be. I once sat in on a lesson conducted for British military intelligence people where the instructor explained a new word by saying: ” This word has two meanings. One, underpants. Two, Unconditional surrender.” Don’t mess with Russian translations, that’s my conclusion.

Logical boomerangs

October 20, 2006

Unfunny but interesting Tate Britain Lecture given by Armando Iannucci. He quotes a couple of “stunning reversals of all logic”. First George Bush’s remark made last year about the constant attacks on US troops in Iraq: “The insurgents are being defeated; that’s why they’re continuing to fight.”
Secondly, ‘an even stranger utterance from Tony Blair at Labour’s 2004 Conference when he defended his actions by saying: “Judgments aren’t the same as facts. Instinct is not science. I only know what I believe.” I only know what I believe. I find that one of the most chilling statements uttered by a seemingly rational politician. Apart from the fact that it overturns about 16 centuries of western philosophy and questions the entire principle of scientific inquiry, it’s also, surely, how the Taliban get through their day.’

To his credit, Blair also included this sentence in the same passage:
‘I’m like any other human being, as fallible and as capable of being wrong.’ The trouble is Mr Blair seems to fall back on these overtly humble admissions whilst at the same time justifying his decisions in terms of faith rather than reason.
One or two other choice reversals of logic from my collection:
– Nelba Blandon, of the Nicaragua Interior Ministry: “They [La Prensa] accused us of suppressing freedom of expression. This was a lie and we could not let them publish it.”

– A spokesman for the Pakistani Foreign Ministry, Tasnim Aslam : “Anyone who describes Islam as a religion as intolerant encourages violence.”

– Councillor Priestley, Mayor of Lincoln c. 1958 “There is no homlessness problem in Lincoln. This is just a rumour put about by people who have nowhere to live.”

– “Outside of the killings, [Washington] has one of the lowest crime rates in the country.” — Marion Barry, Mayor of Washington, D.C.

– I want the Nobel Peace Prize and I’m going to fight for it. — Ronaldinho

– Finally, in a different vein, the unnamed doctor’s receptionist the last time I tried to register for a doctor in the UK. ‘Are you in good health?’, she asked ‘because if you’re not, we can’t take you on’.

One way ticket

October 18, 2006

An article entitled PM’S 500 TONS OF GAS in the Mirror reports that last year Cabinet ministers and their staff produced nearly 1,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the chief greenhouse gas, half of which was down to the Prime Minister himself. The gas was a result of their air travel. Scientists haven’t yet begun to measure the catastrophic climate changes resulting from the emission of hot air every time a politician speaks. Is it any wonder that ice shelves the size of Luxembourg have melted? The Daily Record’s headline for their article on this subject reads ‘MAN GETS BLAME FOR ICE MELT’. And now we know which man.
On the transport angle, Lib-Dem environment spokesman, Chris Huhne said a survey of ministerial journeys for 2005-06 shows a combined equivalent to flying to the moon and back 14 times. Here’s my suggestion for halving that figure. Just buy one way tickets.

comma-hunting

October 17, 2006

Apologies for being three weeks late on this but news sometimes takes a while to reach this part of the world. Now the dust has settled on Bush’s infamous characterisation of the Iraq violence as ‘just a comma’ I thought I’d draw together some of the threads that were spun. Commas normally denote a pause in speech but, as the White House spokesman later ‘clarified,’ Bush meant ‘a relatively short period of time’: “when you look at the history book a ten month period is a comma.” So far so innocent. But then a bit of Googling revealed a widely-quoted witticism by comedienne Gracie Allen: “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” By whom is this aphorism extensively quoted? By evangeicals and the religious right. So this was Bush speaking in politicode, the comma was actually a dog whistle to his evangelical base, the message being ‘forget the lies, the incompetence, the cock-ups, mistakes, God will sort it out in the end.’ Britain, too, has a leader who believes that God will pick up the tab in the end. I wonder whether it isn’t better to have leaders who sort out problems and take decisions themselves rather than hoping that God will tell them what to do and sort out the ensuing mess in the fullness of time.
Now we don’t know President Bush’s views on semi-colons or parentheses but others have suggested some appropriate punctuation marks. including Greg Mitchell: “One can think of other punctuation that might be apt, including “?” for the 140,000 Americans still deployed there, “!” for the cries of the gravely injured, and “$” for Haliburton and other contractors. Or perhaps, as in the comics pages, when an angry character really wants to curse: “!@#%^&*()#*” But I’d like to offer one more, the simple period, to replace the hopeful comma. Below you will find some 2,700 periods, each standing for an American life lost in Iraq.” (and he does).

Here from Wonkette is a punctuated map of the area:

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Others have dug further into this comma business (see here):
‘From The Youth’s Companion, July 31, 1919, p. 412:
Don’t get to thinking in ultimate terms too quickly about life, my dear. There are not so many finalities in life as you young folks think. Remember the old saying, “Man’s periods are God’s commas.” Someone else comments: “I thought you would like to know that for a modern Hebrew speaker, there’s nothing odd about the Bush comma metaphor. We use comma quite a lot to designate small things, or things of no or little significance. Bush has linguistically blown his cover: He must indeed be an undercover Mossad operative, after all.” So, the plot thickens. Language log probes even further back and quotes, ‘from the middle of the 17th century, Samuel Sheppard’s Epigram 31, “Disorder the fore-runner of Ruine” [from Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick (1651)] which attributes periods as well as commas to the divine plan, though not in a way that will provide any comfort to those concerned about the situation in Iraq:

Both bodies Politick, and Naturall,
By this ill-shaped enemy doe fall:
Christendomes whip, who now doth soare so high,
By this in her own ruine low shall lie,
Factions those Comma’s are, ordain’d by God,
When he’l bring Kingdomes to their period.’
Going even further back, the word ‘comma’ apparently comes from the Greek ‘komma’ meaning ‘a piece cut off’ though in present circumstances it is not clear which or whose piece should be cut off.
Moving away from Bush for a moment, another blog reader reported seeing a billboard promoting the cardiac care department of a local hospital: heart attack. or heart attack,
How soon will it be before we see protestors with placards saying “Blair. not Blair,”?
My favourite comma quotation, though, is by Mistinguette: “A kiss can be a comma, a question mark or an exclamation point. That’s basic spelling that every woman ought to know.” (note: for those kissing cobras it can also be a period).
Two final scary thoughts. In the original tape of the 26 September interview it appears Bush corrected himself and what he actually said was “I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iran. er Iraq, it will look like just a comma.” And is it purely coincidence, I wonder, that only a few days after I came up with a post that poured scorn on the comma the US President suddenly starts referring to some pretty bad business in Iraq as ‘just a comma’? In case, you’re still reading, Mr President, I would just like to say that to refer to you as an ‘asshole’ is totally unfair. To a highly valuable part of the anatomy that is very good at its job.
A final quotation warning us of the ultimate futility of comma-hunting from Francis Cornford: “Another sport which wastes unlimited time is comma-hunting. Once start a comma and the whole pack will be off, full cry, especially if they have had a literary training…But comma-hunting is so exciting as to be a little dangerous. When attention is entirely concentrated on punctuation, there is some fear that the conduct of business may suffer ”
Well, here we positively lap up excitement and danger and in this case the business is the punctuation.
P.S. If you enjoy a piece of verbal fisticuffs I highly recommend the clip of Bill Clinton walloping Chris Wallace, Fox News and his critics Wonderful stuff and not a comma in sight.