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Another thought about the monarchy, which I didn’t quite finish in time to post immediately after the last one.

Say you live somewhere without a monarchy. You’ve got a government running things in the form of a representational democracy. It’s based, at least in theory, on politicians holding office for limited terms to carry out the will of the people who directly elected to put them there. But it’s still a flawed system in many ways, and you’re wondering how it could be improved.

While discussing this very subject, your drinking buddy Ten-Toed Jake pipes up.


Hey, [opines Jake], you know what I reckon’d sort this government out? If they put me in charge of everything. Make me the big boss of the whole country, I’d knock ’em into shape.

Oh god, [you sigh], this is going to be another of your implausibly drawn-out, baffling flights of fancy that I’m going to have to play along with, isn’t it? Alright, then, let’s see. Putting you in charge of the whole country… It’s not quite in keeping with the whole notion of democracy or egalitarianism, is it, Jake?

Nah, but look where just voting for people’s got us. Everyone hates politicians. They’re just in it for themselves, they spend more time campaigning than actually working to help anyone. They could do with being taken down a peg, having someone they have to suck up to, make sure they don’t get too big for their boots. I reckon I’d be good at that. And then when I die, my son can take over.

One-Nosed Colin? What, so he gets to run the country after you? And then his kid, I suppose, and on and on down the generations forever?

Yeah, why not?

For a start, your family all seem to have weird names that describe perfectly normal and unsurprising characteristics.

You’ve not met my cousin, Gary Twoballsbutnotwhereyoumightexpect.

But mostly, why should it be you and your family, indefinitely? I mean, you’re not even pretending to be democratic about this. Who gave you the right to just decide you’re in charge of everything now?

Oh, I see. You want in on the action, eh? Making a power-grab? I’ll arm-wrestle you for it.

What?

I mean, I think it should be a basically arbitrary choice who gets to rule over everything, and obviously I think that arbitrary choice should be me. But it might as well be based on any number of things. We could arm-wrestle for it, or maybe have a “whose ancestor was the awesomest” contest. Just so long as we pick someone, then stick with them and their descendents forever. No changing things around centuries down the line. At least not without a massive, devastating civil war.

This still sounds insane, Jake. I admit the current system could stand some serious changes, but I don’t see how this can possibly be an improvement.

Okay, fine. Have it your way. We can say I won’t have any power to actually run the country, I won’t get to make any of the actual decisions – but they’ll all still have to, like, ask my permission to do everything, and stuff. Not because I really get to decide, it’s just ceremonial. Keeps them from getting too uppity, y’know? For the look of the thing. And I’ll need millions of dollars of taxpayer money every year to keep up this fabulous new lifestyle of mine.

Hmm.

I’ve got to be able to pay for my gold-plated butler, otherwise how can I expect the Junior Senator from Oklachusetts to feel appropriately demeaned when he has to kiss my feet and call me “your glorious, well-endowed worshipfulness” every time he wants a bill passed?

You’re not selling me on this, Jake.

Oh, come on. Think of the pageantry! The glamour! The spectacle! People will flock just to be near me! It’d be great for the tourist industry.

I’m not sure people would want to get closer to you if you declared yourself king and started ordering everyone around, Jake. Actually it’s starting to have the opposite effect. But even if they did, I don’t think it’s worth giving up the ideas of equality that we at least nominally cherish, and raising some arbitrary line of individuals onto some kind of diamond-encrusted pedestal, regardless of their merit or qualities, and exacerbating any class problems our society might have by reinforcing the notion that some people are inherently better than others and deserve fealty and unearned wealth as part of their birthright, just in the hopes of bringing in some hypothetical, hard-to-calculate, harder-to-prove foreign coin.

Huh. That was quite a speech. Really tripped off your tongue, there. Almost like you’d crafted it ahead of time in order to make some sort of point.

What can I say, I’m a fluent public speaker. Look, Jake, it’s not about you, you’re a great guy… It’s just the idea of having anyone in that position of bizarre pseudo-authority. It doesn’t sit right. It seems like an entirely superfluous addition to a supposedly egalitarian society.

Hmm. Well, I’m going to go ahead with the coup I had planned anyway. I think it’s my round first though. Another pint?

Cheers.


I may have lost the thread at the end a bit there. But the point, of course, is that introducing a purely symbolic monarchy seems to make very little sense, if you imagine a world where we don’t already have one. Our own system evidently isn’t one we’d want to switch back to, were the status quo different. So maybe it’s time for a change.

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Hi! Let’s talk about dismantling the establishment and abolishing the dominion over the masses by a privileged minority.

No? You’ve already got weekend plans? It’s okay, we can start with something smaller. How about we just get rid of the monarchy?

I’m a republican. Not in the increasingly widespread “keep your Darwinian religion out of my schools and your tampons out of my gun rack” sense that’s still distressingly popular across the pond, but the ever-so-much more British meaning of the word. By which I mean, I rather think that still having a royal family in this day and age just isn’t cricket, old sport, though obviously I don’t want to make too much of a bally fuss over it.

First, though, if we’re going to have any sensible conversation at all, can we dispense with the caricature of the grumpy, resentful, joyless grouch, whose only real gripe about the aristocracy is founded in a cruel grudge against anyone else who gets to have nice things?

It’s odd how often this one is wheeled out. The claim of anti-monarchists is simply that having an unelected, hereditary head of state, in this day and age, is at best unnecessary, and at worst North Korea – and that it’s possible to hold this view as a matter of principle, not just because you’re greedy.

Even if you don’t agree with this claim, it shouldn’t be so impossible to conceive that someone might genuinely feel this way, that you have to start writing their own motivations and neuroses for them. It takes quite a determination to be cynical, and to see ill will and insincerity in those who disagree with you, for you to instinctively ascribe a lack of support for an institution to nothing more noble than bitterness.

As many republicans have explained time and again, it’s nothing personal. William and Kate seem like decent folk, as do many of their immediate family, and I wish them and newborn George all the best. But my friend Sara’s a good person too; that doesn’t mean I think she should be given a castle and a police escort at the taxpayer’s expense. (Just checking whether she still reads my blog these days. If so, sorry, Sara, I’m still totally buying you that castle I promised you when I’m a billionaire.)

Anyway, that could become a whole tangential rant in itself, but not today, because one particular argument in favour of keeping the monarchy has been bugging me lately.

The idea is that, although the Queen’s role is largely that of a figurehead, and she doesn’t take an active involvement in running the country, she’s someone the people who do run the country have to defer to. The Prime Minister’s the top dog of our democracy, but he still has to go visit an old lady covered in jewels and humbly beg her say-so before he’s allowed to do stuff. Which is meant to keep him in his place somewhat, or something, and not let him assume the role of the pinnacle of concentrated power himself.

A terrifying pair of words have often been deployed to explain this argument in an impressively succinct fashion: President Blair.

Ugh, imagine that. Not just Prime Minister Blair, but President Blair. That Tony Blair was awful, so just imagine if he’d been our President. Eesh. It would’ve been hideous. He might’ve gone mad with power and, I don’t know… started an intractable war in the Middle East on dubious legal grounds, or something. God, can you imagine? We’re lucky the Queen was there to reel him in and stop any such catastrophe.

Oh wait, no, sorry, this is completely asinine, his role would’ve been basically exactly the same, just with a slightly shorter job title.

Also, here’s the real problem with a democracy which maintains an unelected monarch, in order to keep its elected leaders in check:

Isn’t that supposed to be our job?

Seriously, if you’ve got a democratically elected leader, put in place by the people as a result of a popular vote, then aren’t the masses themselves supposed to be able to exercise their democratic powers to evict any unscrupulous politicians from office, and make sure that those in power really do represent the nation as a whole?

That’s supposedly the idea, anyway. How well it works in practice is another matter, but surely this is the promise of democracy, and is exactly what people mean when they talk about your “duties as a citizen”, and all that. We’re supposed to be able to keep our leaders in check ourselves.

But if we’re delegating even that duty – if we’re trusting in someone unelected, unappointed, born to the role, to do even this job for us, of stopping our representatives from getting drunk on power and running away with themselves…

…then isn’t that a pretty clear sign of democracy itself being broken?

If we don’t need the monarchy to keep our country ticking along, let’s get rid of it. There’s no need for any undue unkindness to the individuals involved; being born into a dynasty and having the world handed to you on a silver plate means you didn’t ask for any of the unpleasant side effects, either. They’ve had any chance of a normal life pretty much obliterated anyway by the never-ending media fascination and scrutiny. So let’s just gently shuffle them along. The Queen’s a nice old lady, and deserves a comfy retirement. One where she’s not expected to stand out in the rain and the cold for hours any more, watching endless processions of boats.

Or, if we do need the monarchy, because our megalomaniacal elected leaders can’t be trusted without it? Then we should be massively terrified of how potentially dangerous our elected leaders apparently are, and we really shouldn’t be satisfied with keeping a protective figurehead over the problem and hoping for the best. Either way, things need to change far more than any conservative seems willing to imagine.

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Okay, no. I’m not actually proposing a direct causative link between those two things; I’m not the Daily Mail. The evidence that proximity to Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann causes life-threatening illness is, at best, hazy and inconclusive.

What has happened is that she has strongly opposed a certain vaccine, which is known to prevent cervical cancer in women, and which fellow White House wannabe Rick Perry attempted to mandate for all girls of a certain age in the state where he was Governor.

The safety of the vaccine is well understood, by a number of scientific bodies which have explored the matter in some depth. Michelle Bachmann, however, reminded us that there’s another side to the story:

I had a mother last night come up to me here in Tampa, Florida, after the debate. She told me that her little daughter took that vaccine, that injection, and she suffered from mental retardation thereafter. It can have very dangerous side effects… This is a very real concern.

An HPV vaccine causing “mental retardation” is entirely implausible and unsupported. If anyone can produce the medical case file from this woman’s daughter which would demonstrate otherwise, there’s a $10,000 prize up for grabs:

 

 

The host of the above video suggests that, in fact, Bachmann concocted the entire story for the sake of a talking point. The malice of that speaks for itself, but let’s be charitable and assume she really did have an encounter, much as she described. She may be fudging the details or remembering things in a somewhat more convenient way than they really occurred, but let’s be generous.

What do her subsequent actions tell us about the way Michelle Bachmann sees the world?

There are three possible conclusions which I think we can draw:

  1. Michelle Bachmann thinks she’s doing science. That is, she really believes that – to borrow Stephen Colbert’s phrase – citing a study in The New England Journal of Some Lady I Just Met is a legitimate way to reach valid scientific conclusions. One person told her that this thing happened; ergo, there is a “very real concern”.

    Now, I’m willing to credit Michelle Bachmann with a great deal of ignorance about how science works, but this still seems unlikely. Imagine she’d been approached, instead, by a different stranger, with a similarly compelling but equally false story. Let’s say it was someone whose daughter ate some Gouda cheese, and immediately and as a direct result developed a crippling phobia of her own elbows. Would Bachmann have brought up the “very real” concern caused by this particular dairy product, for the sake of protecting the nation’s children?

    I’m going to suggest that she wouldn’t. I think that, in most cases, Michelle Bachmann would not accept the truth of just any anecdote from a complete stranger, as well as the broad conclusions drawn from it. There must be some other reason why she trumpeted this particular one so vehemently.

  2. Michelle Bachmann thinks the science is on her side. Maybe she understands that this one random woman she met doesn’t prove anything, but believes her case to exemplify a more general truth. It’s just an anecdote, but it’s representative of what’s going on elsewhere. She knows that there is scientific data to back her up, but a personal story is something that people can relate to more easily.

    This also would require a substantial and worrying ignorance about the current scientific understanding of how the world works, but I find it more plausible that Bachmann actually is that disconnected from reality.

  3. Michelle Bachmann doesn’t care about science. She’s trying to score some points against a political opponent, and knows that using the right kind of scary rhetoric, talking about “innocent little 12-year-old girls [being] forced to have a government injection”, will turn her into the morally courageous candidate in the eyes of many Americans who aren’t inclined to think about this in a lot more detail. The science behind the alleged vaccine dangers doesn’t matter to her nearly as much as people’s perceptions of it.

    This is perhaps the most cynical option, but a politician caring less about reality than about their public perception is hardly unprecedented.

My guess is that it’s mostly 3, which may also be powering the delusion of 2. What do you think?

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So I think I might be starting to give fractionally more of a shit about local politics.

It’s still not a great deal of a shit, mind. I’m not going to start taking to the streets and campaigning loudly for the important issues facing the good people of Bromley just yet, not least because I don’t know what they are. I’m not at the stage of waving placards angrily outside City Hall (do we even have one of those?). But the idea of having some sort of involvement in what’s going on around here politically is starting to seem like a less dull and distant notion.

This is largely down to a couple of activist websites I’ve been encountering recently, in particular TheyWorkForYou.com, a largely volunteer-led project organised around the idea of establishing some accountability for our elected politicians. Which sounds like a handy thing to have. And it takes off a lot of the pressure for me to have to be organised myself, in order to get involved in some way.

For instance, all I’ve really done so far is type in my postcode so they know what constituency I live in. And now I know all sorts of things that I’d never taken enough interest to find out myself in the time I’ve lived here, like that my MP is called Bob Neill, is the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, and that he has tended to vote against legislation to establish and protect gay rights and in favour of renewing Labour’s anti-terror laws. Which are the kind of things I might want to know if and when I’m trying to decide who to vote for in future. Also, Wikipedia tells me that in the last by-election the liberal democrats made substantial gains in this area, and as such Mr Neill has one of the smallest majorities in parliament.

I was actually first prompted to find out who my local elected representative is when I was being encouraged to find out his position on libel reform, and was directed to WriteToThem.com, a site built to make it absurdly easy to send messages to your MP without having to do all the off-putting research like finding out who they are. I didn’t get a reply to my questions, and apparently only 48 out of 147 messages sent to him this way in the year 2008 got a response. Which ain’t great.

And then there’s Democracy Club, which provides a forum for residents of a particular constituency to suggest and discuss local issues that may need addressing, in the context of a forthcoming election, and recommends the kind of tasks you can do to help get things done. Right now, the main default task being recommended to me is to “Describe local issues”, but I’m so woefully out of the loop that I can’t even really think what to bring to the table here. I’m going to keep a lookout for any election leaflets we get posted, like it says, but I’m still hoping to be able to follow people’s leads for a while. Things seem mostly fine around here, really. The bins get picked up on time. The roads aren’t full of pot-holes. The crime rate has avoided me entirely.

So… what should I care about most? Now that I’m actually being persuaded to take an interest, has anyone got any ideas where I should go from here? How do I decide what’s important to me without getting bored again? For all that this has grabbed my attention, it’s still local politics, and it’s not unlikely that I might just doze off if I try writing about it at this length again in a few weeks.

In other news, another anti-gay Republican senator is gay. Yeah, this kind of thing has long since stopped being any kind of a surprise. I guess he’s doing better than most to have simply come out, though, rather than done the press conference rounds with his supportive wife by his side and muttered about indiscretions and having a problem and needing help and going into rehab. I’m just looking forward to when this all becomes as irrelevant as race, frankly. Not that I’m saying we’ve totally moved beyond racial prejudice and into a utopia of tolerance and acceptance or anything, but at least people aren’t usually appalled by white folks and black folks wanting to get married any more, and the only people who still openly complain about foreigners being inferior are mostly fuckwads we can all just ignore.

So, what I appear to be saying is that I can’t wait for the day when everyone’s homophobic bigotry is forced beneath the surface and has to fester in secret as people mask their true feelings for the sake of a superficially polite and tolerant society, just like they’ve done with racism. Maybe that needs a little more thought.

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Update: The Daily Kos story referenced below has been taken down. They don’t seem to have anything directly replacing it to address the issues differently, that I can find, but it looks like this may all have been overblown, or at least premature. I still have no idea, but it’s still the politics relating to this story – what laws the Republican vice presidential candidate would or would not support regarding sex education, teen pregnancy, contraception, abortion, and so forth – that are relevant and worth addressing. However, I’m going to leave this piece of entertaining but possibly pointless speculation as it is, now that it’s here, with the proviso that it may all be utter nonsense.


I have a proper skeptical post just about set for tomorrow, but today, it’s still politics. Specifically, it’s still the Republican vice-presidential candidate, which sounds like about the most tedious and dreary topic imaginable for a whole day’s worth of blog post if your interests are anything like mine.

But man, this is better than a soap opera.

There’s been some speculation that Sarah Palin’s youngest son, Trig, is actually the child of her eldest daughter Bristol, and thus Sarah Palin’s granddaughter. There’s reams of stuff about this on Daily Kos, where they actively accuse Sarah Palin of lying about this, and provide a whole lot of stuff to back up their claim.

There are a number of photos of both Sarah and Bristol, with descriptions of how pregnant they supposedly were at the time; I’m sure there are women who would kill to be able to keep their figure as well as Sarah Palin seems to after they’ve given birth, let alone while they’re still carrying a child. Sarah Palin announced that she was pregnant while apparently seven months along, by which point nobody around her had noticed; Trig Palin was born premature about a month later, while Sarah still didn’t seem to be noticeably bulging.

There’s also the really bizarre story about the conditions of Trig’s birth. Sarah apparently went into labour earlier this year, while in Dallas, Texas. Rather than going to hospital and cancelling the speech she was supposed to be giving that morning – which I think she could have been forgiven for, having a child is a valid excuse for missing just about any prior engagement – she gave the speech, and then took an eight hour flight from Texas back to Alaska, all the while “leaking amniotic fluid” (ew). The plane landed in Anchorage, which I’m guessing is a pretty big city in Alaska – they have an airport there, at least – but maybe not big enough to have a hospital of its own, because she then drove fifty miles to somewhere called Mat-Su Valley before finally popping the damn thing out.

Wow. Isn’t gossip fun?

I still really don’t know. None of the arguments are setting off my bullshit / conspiracy theory detector – in fact, it all makes for a pretty compelling case, but I’m holding back from drawing any definite conclusions just yet. Remember, I really am just a guy with no goddamn idea what he’s talking about. It’s possible that this is all entirely untrue, unfair, and distasteful. Though it’s not stopping me talking about it. I guess I must be kind of a dick.

Though, I do think this is something that potentially matters. Sarah Palin is pro-life, against abortion, and favours abstinence-only education. Although she supports the use of contraception, she’s not keen on letting anyone know how it works. The matter of whether she’s been honest about her children has a potential relevance to her actual thoughts and feelings on these political issues, as well as her general integrity and trustworthiness.

I’m not claiming to know what the hell’s going on here, but the situation does look unusual.

Oh, and this time around, Bristol Palin really is pregnant. Definitely. That abstinence-only education must be working really well.

Oh, and apparently Sarah Palin knows less about the Pledge of Allegiance than I do. No, the phrase “Under God” was not “good enough for the founding fathers”. It was added in the 1950s, to a pledge which was written in 1892. I know this, and I’m not even from this damn country. Sarah Palin runs a good chunk of it already, and wants to be in a position where she may be expected to take over the entire thing.

Proper skeptical post tomorrow. I promise.

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Rick Warren is an Evangelical Christian minister, author of a number of successful books on Christianity, and founder of the Saddleback megachurch in California. Yesterday this church hosted something called a Civil Forum on The Presidency, where Barack Obama and John McCain were both interviewed by Pastor Rick, before a ticketed audience who’d paid up to $1,000 a pop.

As ERV points out, it’s pretty depressing that none of the candidates wanted anything to do with Science Debate 2008, but they leap at the chance to share some platitudes, with a Christian minister, in a church, as part of their political campaigns.

Hemant has liveblogged the whole thing, and has a pretty comprehensive breakdown of the whole two hours. Obama seems to come off better, but to someone who was pretty well blown away by his speech on race a few months ago, in response to the whole Reverend Wright thing, this is a long way from being inspiring.

He plays up the Jesus talk, and moderates some of his views on abortion and gay rights, in front of a conservatively Christian crowd, because he can’t afford to alienate people by being brutally honest. I know, this is hardly a revelation – shock alliterative horror, politician panders to public opinion – but in the case of someone like Obama, who I think has some great ideas, and would be a good President, and who a part of me really wants to believe is as miraculously awesome as his hype, I resent how much of a cynic this presidential race is making me.

I really think that Obama is worth voting for, and I’d vote for him if I could, even though he does play the game, he can be disconcertingly slick, and some of the things he says and does make him sound like an empty populist – and even though I know part of my motivation for supporting him is that I think he’d be better for the job than John McCain. That’s an unavoidably cynical attitude. I guess I’m kind of a cynic.

Penn Jillette spoke recently about Bob Barr, the current Libertarian Party nominee for President, and the glorious joy and optimism that really infuses that campaign. They can talk about freedom and all the other things that are important to them as openly and optimistically as they like, whereas Obama “doesn’t have any hope; he’s got to do everything right.”

And Penn really kinda has a point. There is a degree of inspiration to the crazy libertarian position which Obama just can’t match. Because he’s mainstream, and needs to win this, and can’t put people off with the kind of honesty that the media will jump all over. He has to do everything right. That’s pretty depressing, and so is realising that I’m just cynical enough to go along with it.

Damn you, complex and diverse political arena.

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