Saturday 28 November, 2020

100 Not Out! — my lockdown diary — is out on Kindle. If you’re interested you can get it here

The Mask

Venice, 2010.

Quote of the Day

“There can be no law if we were to invoke one code of international conduct for those who oppose us and another for our friends.”

  • President Eisenhower, speech on the Suez crisis, 31 October 1956

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Chris Rea | Ace of Hearts


Long read of the Day

You have to make a proper appointment with this — the piece David Foster Wallace wrote for Rolling Stone after spending a week on the campaign trail with John McCain in 2000. It’s long, long, long, but as beautifully written as anything DFW ever wrote. And it’s the best piece of campaign reporting I’ve ever read — and I’ve read a lot over the years. (The only other campaign reporter who comes close is Hunter Thompson.)

DFW starts with a detailed account of McCain’s horrific experience as a POW in Vietnam, and his refusal to accept a release because that would have given him a privilege over other servicemen who had been captured before him. Acceptance would have broken the Code in which he believed. For that refusal the Commandant, right there in the office, had guards break his ribs, re-break his arm and knock his teeth out. McCain still refused to leave without the other POWs. Now read on…

But that moment in the Hoa Lo office in ’68 – right before he refused, with all his basic normal human self-interest howling at him – that moment is hard to blow off. All week, all through MI and SC and all the tedium and cynicism and paradox of the campaign, that moment seems to underlie McCain’s “greater than self-interest” line, moor it, give it a weird sort of reverb that’s hard to ignore. The fact is that John McCain is a genuine hero of the only kind Vietnam now has to offer, a hero not because of what he did but because of what he suffered – voluntarily, for a Code. This gives him the moral authority both to utter lines about causes beyond self-interest and to expect us, even in this age of Spin and lawyerly cunning, to believe he means them. Literally: “moral authority,” that old cliche, much like so many other cliche’s – “service,” “honor,” “duty,” “patriotism” – that have become just mostly words now, slogans invoked by men in nice suits who want something from us. The John McCain we’ve seen, though – arguing for his doomed campaign-finance bill on the Senate floor in ’98, calling his colleagues crooks to their faces on C-SPAN, talking openly about a bought-and-paid-for government on Charlie Rose in July ’99, unpretentious and bright as hell in the Iowa debates and New Hampshire Town Hall Meetings – something about him made a lot of us feel the guy wanted something different from us, something more than votes or money, something old and maybe corny but with a weird achy pull to it like a whiff of a childhood smell or a name on the tip of your tongue, something that would make us think about what terms like “service” and “sacrifice” and “honor” might really refer to, like whether they actually stood for something, maybe. About whether anything past well-Spun self-interest might be real, was ever real, and if so then what happened? These, for the most part, are not lines of thinking that the culture we’ve grown up in has encouraged Young Voters to pursue. Why do you suppose that is?

Like I say, it’s a mighty long read. But it leaves one musing in the silence afterwards. And thinking again about Trump’s attempt to belittle McCain way back in 2015. (“He’s not a war hero. He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”) This from a guy who dodged the draft using the pretext of a bone spur. (38% of people have the same bone growth that kept Trump out of Vietnam.)

The other thought is the tragedy of DFW’s death at the age of 46.

Et in Arcadia non sum

Pithy comment today on Jonty Bloom’s Blog

The news that Arcadia the British store group seems to be about to go into administration raises many issues about business in the UK. High Streets across the country will take another massive hit, with more empty stores adding to their misery and 13,000 staff could be out of work when unemployment is already soaring.

Sir Phillip Green on the other hand will still be a billionaire, or to be more precise his wife will be; she after all owns the company. Both are based in Monaco, not for the tax benefits you understand, but as Sir Phillip told Parliament because he found the schools there were so good.

We will have to take his word for that but the wider issue is how the owners of businesses can take billions out of a company and then watch it fail. Sir Phillip is not the first and he won’t be the last to do this. Accountants, lawyers and auditors arrange and sign off these deals, they are all perfectly legal.

But stripping cash from a business, loading it with debt, failing to fund the pension pot properly and then wringing your hands as thousands of loyal workers lose everything; is not a business model any country should be proud of. Not least because at the end it is the state and its taxpayers who pick up the bill.

I particularly like the effrontery of living in Monaco because of its excellent schools. Who knew?

But there is a bigger point. The liberal democracy to which so many of us want to return to after Trump and his authoritarian peers fade away is the same system that permitted, enabled — and sometimes even valorised — the kind of looting by private equity of serious enterprises like Arcadia. Is that really what we will return to after the pandemic? And if not, what are democratic institutions going to do about it?

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • A remarkable optical illusion. Link. Eventually, this convinced me that the rotating circles didn’t move. HT to Jason Kottke.

  • Roadside America. On a series of road trips across the US, John Margolies recorded the fading remnants of a culture of roadside architecture which was under threat from freeway building, changing taste and corporate fast food. His photos of the bizarre, the surreal and the often downright brilliant examples of twentieth century popular architecture are, well, fantastic. [Link

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if your decide that your inbox is full enough already!