Monday, November 08, 2010

The easy way out

I really need to start reading comics again. Except that comics no longer exist. These days we have "graphic novels". Thankfully, even graphic novels feature superheroes. Though superhero costumes are significantly different these days. No more undies worn on the outside, or so I'm told. I won't hazard a guess as to what has replaced the Phantom's diagonally striped briefs, but the Indian version of Spiderman reportedly wears a dhoti!

Graphic novels were brought to mind by a whimsy in Samit Basu's new novel "Turbulence" - that superheroes actually prefer simple exploits, like fighting muggers off an old lady's purse, to grand schemes for improving the world. Makes sense, if you think about it. Punch a hoodlum, save a lady, smile for the paparazzi, then fly off with the cape billowing heroically. Much easier than, say, identifying the bugs in health-care delivery systems. And so very much easier than actually thinking up workable solutions. Besides, try explaining fiscal reform to a guy who’s on his fifth beer. “Look, suppose this napkin here is the federal debt, and this salt-cellar is the bail-out package … ”. Nope. Wouldn’t work. You’d get a much better connect with “So we decided, these guys aren’t going to listen to reason, we need to bomb the **** out of them!” Keep it simple. And, if possible, suitable for television.

A brilliant example is the strange incident of the dog on Salisbury Plain, as recounted in the memoirs of the Rt. Hon. James Hacker. Remember that? Where the Minister spends several million pounds of public money to save a dog that's strayed onto an artillery range, all because it will earn him votes? Cuddly dog, convenient cameras, caring Minister, great sound-bytes. An event rather than an issue, more circus than bread. A showy gimmick that’s not only easier than a systemic solution, it's also easier for the common man to understand.

Gimmicks these days are much easier. Or principles easier to defend. They were rather tougher propositions in the past. In 1865, Sir Robert Napier led an army from India to Abyssinia to fight the Emperor Towoodros (Theodore II) just to free a handful of British prisoners. Nine thousand infantry and cavalry with their guns and artillery ferried from India to the northern tip of Africa, then 30 kilometres of railway built to take them up-country. And a last brilliant touch - 44 elephants to pull the guns into the mountains! Three months for the army to cross 400 miles of mountain and ravine between the sea and Towoodros’ mountain-top stronghold, Magdala. Then, anti-climactically, just one day to rout Theodore's army. With only 2 fatalities on the British side, one of them in a shooting accident during the march. (5 of the elephants died, alas.) Sir Robert Napier was lionized for his brilliant leadership. Parliament and a grateful Queen made him First Baron Napier of Magdala.

Then came the bill for the exercise. And the reaction. 9 million pounds? Too steep a bill to pay for Britain's glory! The press and public tore into him, and into the government that had seen fit to send his army to Abyssinia. Perspectives change when there's an election to fight.

The British political establishment, of course, was justifiably scared of being judged by the electorate, especially when the victory was long past. Isn't that what we voters do? Applaud as long as our leaders fight the lions in the circus, then raise the roof with cribbing when we find there's the devil to pay? Napier - and others after him, in other times and in other countries – faced the public attitude summed up by Kipling when he famously wrote about the British soldier. "Oh, it's Tommy this and Tommy that and Tommy go away / But it's Thank you, Mr. Atkins! when the band begins to play."

I suppose we all know the risks when we sign up for a life in the public eye. Whether it's on the hustings or the silver screen, success comes with the hazard of the pillory, the laurel wreath barely conceals the basket of rotten tomatoes. I wonder, though - do the tomato-chuckers ever consider how it would feel to be on the receiving end? Would we be as quick to criticise if we knew we might be asked to step up ourselves?

That's a sobering thought. Especially when I think of the names we like to call our politicians. The next time you think they're taking the populist route, evading the tough issues, beating up on the muggers instead of rebuilding Gotham City (to use the Superhero Simile), just consider - would you put your money where your mouth is? Would you stand for election?
And if you would not, will you be honest about the reasons why you wouldn't?


Flutterby said...


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

My apologies, it was Sir Robert Napier. No relation to Charles of "Peccavi" fame.


km said...

Wait...did you just apologize for all politicians and public servants?

Sougata Sarkar said...

Why this sudden pity-party for politicians, JAP? Are you running for office?

No worries, mate. You have my vote.

Your question is prolly rhetorical, but here's a stab at an answer anyway.

There are some folks who slam politicians as a class and politics as a profession. For them, the answer surely must be "No, I will not ever consider becoming one. Haven't you been listening to me?" Anything else is hypocrisy.

And then there are some who slam this politcian or that. I think this is quite acceptable to do without actually becoming one. There are good politicians and bad politicans. Just as there are good actors and bad actors. Or good doctors or bad doctors. Noting this fact is not some sort of weird reaction-formation, it is just bland observation.

Determining the quality of Doctor A vs Doctor B is easy. If Doctor A doesn't cure your condition AND your condition is NOT intractable AND Doctor B does, then Doctor B wins. I think politicans can have a similar objective standard applied to them and that non-politicans should be able to criticize or praise them based on that standard.

My two bits.

Unknown said...

Actually it is a case of Cost-Benefit analysis, as in any other situation. The public figure-politician, rockstar, civil servant aspiring for ministerial berth-decides that the rotten tomatoes are worth the trouble, considering the rewards that are possible.

Anonymous said...

And because they were 'brave' enough to stand for election we should treat them with kid gloves?

JAP...JAP...I don't know what to say to you these days.


J. Alfred Prufrock said...

A clarification (which I shall elaborate in my next column):
I'm not saying that we should go easy on public figures who err.
What I AM saying is that public policy concerns all of us. Therefore we should not be mere armchair critics and we should not generalise (e.g. all cops are corrupt, all politicians are self-serving).

Refer to Clint Eastwood and Carmel-upon-Sea.