Can you remember when ‘We live in interesting times’ was an acceptable response to the disruptions caused by Covid-19? And did you notice how, by the end of last year, it had become a phrase everyone had stopped using because it had fallen so far short of describing quotidian reality that it no longer even worked as irony; it just meant you hadn’t been paying attention.
I always assumed the line had a pommy provenance. It seemed to me to be the kind of stiff-upper-lip understatement some British admiral or general might have uttered, sotto voce, on being informed by a junior officer that his ship was going down or one of his legs had been blown off or the natives had breached the gate to the memsahibs’ compound. But according to Wikipedia, it’s both an Anglospheric import and a mistranslation. The original phrase is ‘May you live in interesting times’, and far from being a statement of stoic acceptance it’s a message you would send to an enemy whose death you were planning. Wikipedia doesn’t say whether the message would be written in Mandarin or Cantonese, but it does make it clear it’s something else we can thank China for. I’m just saying.
Of all the precedents set in 2020, of all the breaks with time-honoured tradition and breaches of sacred custom, none were more striking than the decision of HM the Queen to open her televised Christmas Day address with the question, “Where does one fucking start?” Luckily, for older viewers, the speech is pre-recorded, so the line was edited out before the program aired, just as, in previous years’ speeches, ad libs like, “So stop whining”, “Well done on Brexit, by the way”, and “I wonder who’ll play one in Season 4,” were edited out. But the sensibilities of monarchists, like my friend Professor David Flint, may not be protected for much longer. I’m reliably informed that to make up for the lost tourism revenue caused by the pandemic, senior members of the Royal Household — inspired by Prince Harry’s attempts to emulate his wife’s Hollywood career — are about to close a deal with a US cable network which will give them rights to not just all Her Maj’s unscripted out-takes and bloopers, but also to never previously seen CCTV security footage, including shots of the corgis mauling a gardener to death in the grounds of Windsor Castle and Prince Philip feeding the body into a wood-chipper.
A more likely fillip to the Australian Republican movement would be Boris Johnson’s agreement to the extradition of Prince Harry’s uncle to the US, to help police with their investigation into the activities of his friend Jeffery Epstein. To boost his re-election chances, Boris might agree to this if the Biden administration would agree to facilitate Britain’s post-Brexit US trade deal. But he might also try to convince his new friend Joe to end the FBI’s attempts to extradite Julian Assange from Britain, on the assumption that this would improve Britain’s stock in Australia, another country with whom he is hoping to establish a favourable new trade relationship. This would be a serious error of judgement on Boris’s part, since, as anyone who’s followed the case for the last seven years will confirm, the Australian government couldn’t give a monkey’s about poor old Julian Assange.
In the meantime, ordinary Australians will continue to comply with each new government Covid diktat with an unquestioning obedience which doesn’t sit at all well with the snoot-cocking larrikin spirit we like to project. And I confess I am becoming as ovine as anyone else. A few weeks ago I discovered from a summary of the Danish government’s investigation into the effectiveness of face masks — still the only such investigation conducted — that wearing one anywhere outside a hospital will protect me from the virus about as effectively as swimming at a beach protected by a sign in the water saying ‘No sharks beyond this point’. But while the libertarian in me has always believed a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something, the free marketeer in me also believes that every man has his price. And it turns out that mine is $200.
How often have you come across an acronym with no interpretation or explanation provided, and been irritated by the meaningless bundle of letters? Some are familiar. Everyone knows the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) but not everyone knows the BANANA (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone). However, just as we learn a new one, someone invents another set of initials and gives us a new puzzle to solve. Here are two recent coinages: BURP, I am told, stands for Bankrupt, Unemployed, Rejected Person. (This means that a BURP is probably someone who deserves our sympathy as governments continue to destroy the economy in the name of Covid.) The other is BLEATERS – Born Losers Expending All Their Energy Rubbishing Success. In Australia, most of the BLEATERS we hear from are supported by taxpayers in one public institution or another. In other words, they seem to work in an area where they never need to show they are meeting customers’ needs by showing a profit. Perhaps they resent anyone who is part of a profitable enterprise – where customers show their satisfaction by paying for products and services. Hence, they become BLEATERS. (If you listen carefully, you’ll hear them all around you.)
Why is there so little civil discourse in the public square these days? One reason is the apparent confusion in some minds between the two ‘A’ words: ‘assertion’ and ‘argument.’ Sadly, there are people who fail to understand that to make a case you must make an argument, and that making a mere assertion is not the same thing. The verb ‘to assert’ has been part of English since the 17th century, and in the range of meanings it has traversed in its semantic development the core notion is always one of ‘making a claim.’ However, ‘to argue’ has, since the 16th century focussed on the notions of ‘showing weighty reasons’ or ‘producing evidence.’ That’s what seems to have disappeared from the public square. Instead, we find people simply uttering their assertions and then becoming angry at (and rude towards) those who insist they produce their evidence and their logical argument. Civilisation dies without civility in public discourse, and this – in turn – requires not confusing ‘assertion’ with ‘argument.’
As 2020 drew to a close NSW Treasury withdrew (for review – whatever that means) two jobs they had advertised: an Associate Director (at $150,000 p.a.) and a Senior Advisor (at $120,000 p.a.) in ‘Reconciliation Strategy and Delivery’. The word ‘reconciliation’ means: ‘making people friends again after quarrelling.’ (That helpful definition comes from Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English, designed for folk with English as a second language – hence its useful clarity). The people targeted by this (and other) reconciliation programs are Indigenous Australians. But here’s the problem: the average Aussie has no quarrel with Indigenous Australians. In fact, the average Aussie is really pleased to see so many people who have an Indigenous heritage doing so well in so many professions. Which makes the need for programs (at a total of $270,000 p.a.) aimed at ‘reconciling’ people who have no quarrel an odd use of taxpayers’ money.
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