Christopher Weyant’s cartoon in The New Yorker (HT: SP).
Archive for the 'Obituaries' Category
The influence of Mrs Margaret Thatcher on British economic and cultural life is shown now, at her death, by the pages and pages and pages of newsprint devoted to her in every British newspaper, all day every day since her death. Even the Gruaniard has joined in the chorus, although sometimes singing from the hymnal of another denomination, but still with pages and pages of text and images. It is like the mass media psychosis that hit Britain the week after the death of Princess Diana in 1997.
The praise heaped on Saint Margaret (Patents Pending) has stretched credulity to the limit. Like some modern-day Bolivar, she apparently single-handedly liberated Eastern Europe from Communism, which if true would surely be news to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR (1989 membership), the Central Committee of the CzechoSlovak Communist Party (April 1968 membership), the Central Committee of the United Workers Party of Poland (1956 and 1989 memberships), and the millions of brave citizens of Berlin, Leipzig, Budapest, Gdansk, Prague, Warsaw, Bucharest, Moscow, and throughout the region, who actually did, through argument and protest and strike and resistance, liberate their countries from tyranny. Part of the justification given for her role in the freedom of Eastern Europe is the fact of her early meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev, before his elevation to the General Secretary-ship of the CPSU, after which meeting she proclaimed that she could do business with him. But why would this endorsement have helped him rise? Surely such a public statement from one of the nation’s nuclear-armed enemies potentially lost him votes in the race to be General Secretary.
And, by a certain class of people, she was then, and still is, seen as the Simon Bolivar of Britain. Yes, like all politicians, she represented a particular economic class and indeed she represented their interests very effectively. (It was not, by the way, the class of her parents or of her upbringing, but it was the class of her husband.) But statesmanship requires a politician to decide in the national interest, not in the interests of a particular class. With just one possible exception, I cannot think of a single major decision she took in which she decided in favour of the nation against the interests of her own sectional base. The one exception was the decision to defend the Falkland Islands following invasion by the Argentinian military junta in 1982.
One could – and she did – defend such sectional decision-making on ideological grounds, for example, using the so-called theories of trickle-down economics, of metaphysical entities (eg, invisible hands), and of magical thinking and psychokinesis (eg, frictionless adjustment to free trade) that constitute the parallel, reality-free, universe that is neoclassical economics. In other words, she argued that although the decisions she took seemed to favour one group over another, in reality all would benefit, although perhaps not all would benefit immediately. But all economic policies have both winners and losers. Mrs Thatcher rarely evinced any public sympathy for the losers of her policies, and her contempt for those who lost was always obvious.
Her last major enacted policy – towards the end of her 11 years in power – was the Poll Tax, which punished society’s losers with a most unfair and regressive tax, at the same time as giving manifest and immediate benefit to her sectional base. This was not a policy of someone governing in the national interest. This was not a policy of someone having personal compassion for the downtrodden, the ill, the unlucky, the old, and the unfortunate in our society. This was not policy – and her dogged insistence on maintaining it against all evidence that it was not working epideictically reinforces this – that showed her approaching the challenges of governing in a reasoned or pragmatic way, with an open and rational mind, intent on balancing competing interests, or of finding the best solution for the country as a whole.
Norm is correct to castigate those who have publicly rejoiced at her death. Such rejoicing is quite understandable, even though wrong. Mrs Thatcher’s condescension, contempt, and antipathy for those who suffered from her policies or from life in general was evident to everyone, all along. She herself said there was no such thing as society. She herself said that anyone using public transport over the age of 35 was a failure in life. It is no wonder that the worst riots in Britain in the 20th century happened under Mrs Thatcher. It is no wonder that her party has no longer any support to speak of in Scotland (ground zero for the Poll Tax), and no wonder that support for Scottish indepencence is now so strong. It is no wonder that punk and reggae developed in overt opposition to her. Linton Kwesi Johnson named his famous song for her, conflating her with Inglan. It is no wonder that people are organizing street parties in the cities of Britain to celebrate her departure.
In contrast to most of the reporting engulfing us now, here are two responses to show the historians of the future that not all of us alive at this moment welcome the sudden attempt at canonization. The first is from a Guardian editorial on Tuesday 9 April 2013:
In the last analysis, though, her stock in trade was division. By instinct, inclination and effect she was a polariser. She glorified both individualism and the nation state, but lacked much feeling for the communities and bonds that knit them together. When she spoke, as she often did, about “our people”, she did not mean the people of Britain; she meant people who thought like her and shared her prejudices. She abhorred disorder, decadence and bad behaviour but she was the empress ruler of a process of social and cultural atomism that has fostered all of them, and still does.”
The second is an impassioned speech from Glenda Jackson MP, given in the House of Commons yesterday, about the pain Mrs Thatcher’s policies wrought. The speech was given against and over the top of much noise and shouting from the Yahoo Henrys who still, apparently, sit on the Conservative Party Benches. I say thee, Yay, Ms. Jackson, Yay!
The death has occurred of Mrs Joan Child (1921-2013), first female Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives (1986-1989) and Labor MHR for Henty in Melbourne (1974-1975, 1980-1990). She was the first female Labor Party MHR, and only the fourth woman elected to the House. That it took 73 years for the Australian Labor Party to elect a woman to the Lower House of Federal Parliament is quite telling about attitudes in the Party and in the wider society. As Speaker, she refused to wear the traditional wig and gown, and was always very down-to-earth. On the evening before the Queen’s opening of the new Australian Commonwealth Parliament House in 1988, for instance, Madame Speaker Child could be found relaxing where she often went – having a drink and playing the pokies at the Canberra Labor Club. She was always quite approachable there, too.
Her SMH obit is here.
POSTSCRIPT (2013-03-29): Here is James Button, son of former Labor Industry Minister, Senator John Button, writing about the ALP:
Outside Albania, was there ever a more macho party than the old ALP? Its first female member of the House of Representatives, Joan Child, was not elected until 1974, thirty-one years after Enid Lyons became the first female conservative MP. It was a party that prized hardness, humour, guts and aggression: men who could hold their drink, hold their tongue when they had to, and hold their own in argument. Its language was vivid, often vulgar. Doing the numbers for Hawke, his backer Graham Richardson once said, was ‘better than sex and almost as exciting as a good feed’.” (Button 2013, page 126 of large print edition)
James Button : Speechless: A Year in my Father’s Business. Melbourne, Australia: Melbourne University Press.
This post is a tribute to Zimbabwean political scientist, John Makumbe (1949-2013), who has just died. I first met him in Zimbabwe in 1981, and once traveled with him to Botswana. We had many conversations on religion, where we disagreed greatly. He became an outspoken and fearless opponent of Robert Mugabe’s corrupt regime, and had been planning to stand for election for his home region, Buhera, to the Zimbabwe House of Assembly at the forthcoming national elections.
The BBC Radio 3 program Jazz Record Requests had a special edition yesterday in memory of Dave Brubeck. It is available to listen for another 6 days, here.
Brubeck’s reknown was remarkable. I requested a busking violinist in a Kiev cafe in the early 1990s to play Take Five, and saw his face light up with delight. As it happened, he also knew The Hot Canary.
The death occurred last week of George Fortune, former Professor of African Languages at the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (later the University of Rhodesia, and later still, the University of Zimbabwe), and pioneer of the study of chiShona and Bantu linguistics. He was the principal author of the standard chiShona language text. His wife was a daughter of Leonard Morgan, Rhodes Scholar and first permanent secretary of the Federal Department of Education in the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Fortune’s nephew, the late Christopher Lewis, was one of the brave Zimbabwean opponents of minority rule assisted by the Rhodesian Underground Railroad. I met Fortune only a few times three decades ago, and although by that time his politics were quite conservative (surprisingly so, given his earlier Jesuit training), his views on language and culture were always interesting.
An obituary is here.
As the path of life unfurls, these are people I’ve encountered along the way whom I wish to remember:
Dan Adams (1919 -2011), businessman
Jonathan Adler (1949-2012), philosopher
Dorothee Alsen ( -1984), musician
Isabelle Atcheson ( -1999), musician
Christophe Bertrand (1981-2010), composer and pianist
David Beach (1943-1999), historian
Yuri Bessmertny ( -2000), medieval historian
Jennifer Biggar (1946-2008), charity worker
Leo Birsen (1902-1992), violinist and violin teacher
In a posthumous tribute to one of my late university lecturers, I read:
His [name of university] years were characterised by his love and enthusiasm for teaching. His dedication to his students was reciprocated in their affection for him. The large Economics I classes that he taught (numbering in some cases up to 400 students) were legendary.”
Although I would prefer not to speak ill of the dead, these words are a distortion of the historical truth, or at the least, very incomplete. The lecturer concerned was certainly legendary, but mostly for his vituperative disdain for anyone who did not share his extreme monetarist and so-called “economic rationalist” views. It is true that I did not know ALL of my fellow economics students, but of the score or so I did know, no one I knew felt they received any affection from him, nor did they reciprocate any. Indeed, those of us also studying pure mathematics thought him innumerate. He once told us, in a thorough misunderstanding of mathematical induction, that any claim involving an unspecified natural number n which was true for n=1, n=2, and n=3 was usually true, more generally, for all n. What about the claim that “n is a natural number less than 4“, I wondered.
As I recall, his lectures mostly consisted of declamations of monetarist mumbo-jumbo, straight from some University of Chicago seminar, given along with scorn for any alternative views, particularly Keynesianism. But he was also rudely disdainful of any viewpoint, such as many religious views, that saw value in social equity and fairness. Anyone who questioned his repeated assertions that all human actions were always and everywhere motivated by self-interest was rebuked as naive or ignorant.
In addition to the declamatory utterance of such tendentious statements, his lectures and lecture slides included very general statements marked, “Theorem“, followed by words and diagrams marked, “Proof“. A classic example of a “Theorem” was “Any government intervention in an economy leads to a fall in national income.” His proof of this very large claim began with the words, “Consider a two-person economy into which a government enters . . . “ The mathematicians in the class objected strongly that, at best, this was an example, not a proof, of his general claim. But he shouted us down. Either he was ignorant of the simplest forms of mathematical reasoning, or an ideologue seeking to impose his ideology on the class (or perhaps both).
I remained sufficiently angry about this perversion of my ideal of an academic discipline that I later wrote an article for the student newspaper about the intellectual and political compromises that intelligent, numerate, rational, or politically-engaged students would need to make in order to pass his course. That such a lecturer should be remembered as an admirable teacher is a great shame.
This is a post to salute Myrtle H, who was a blogger avant la lettre. She was born to a farming family in south-east Queensland early in the 20th century, the last girl in a a dozen children. She attended Gilston State School, a tiny bush primary school in the hinterlands of the Gold Coast that had been founded in 1881. At the time she attended, it was still a single-teacher school with just a handful of students; from there, she won a highly-competitive Queensland Government scholarship to attend high school in Brisbane. She was the first member of her family to attend high school. Within her immediate family growing up, her nickname was “The book says so“, since she was fond of quoting books and articles she had read in arguments with her brothers and sisters.
Her father, however, resented her becoming educated, and forced her departure from high school after a year. Her headmaster, sympathetic to her situation, found her a position as secretary and accountant to a saddlery in Brisbane. She then commuted to Brisbane by horse and train from rural Dakabin, north of Brisbane, where her family now lived. Daily commuting to work from the suburbs of large cities over longer than walking distances had begun in Melbourne and in Los Angeles in the 1890s, so commuting from a farm was perhaps not unusual in the 1920s. Her parents later moved to the small beach-side settlement of Woody Point on Moreton Bay, where her mother early each morning would walk to the surf to swim, and then find and eat fresh oysters. The photo above shows the Glass House Mountains, part of her country.
She married a dairy farmer in 1933 and they raised a family in rural northern NSW. Life for farmers was difficult through the Great Depression and the 1940s, and finances were a constant struggle. Despite this, she maintained a long-running subscription to a book club, reading each monthly volume as it arrived, as well as subscriptions to overseas magazines. She was renowned among her family for staying up late on election nights to track the individual seat results as they were announced on the radio. All her life she was devoted to crosswords, and both adept and fast at cryptic crosswords. She wrote well, and her one surviving story reveals a fine prose stylist.
Sometime in the late 1940s she heard a radio broadcast (perhaps one of the first in Australia) playing the Top 40 best-selling records. She thought this information needed recording for posterity, and so began a four-decades long practice of listening to a radio broadcast of the Top 40 each Saturday morning, and keeping a written record of the list in a series of school exercise books. This is the sort of information we’d expect nowadays to be maintained by some music fan on the web (although I cannot currently find these lists anywhere on the web). One could view this weekly activity as a form of Zen practice, with the discipline of the regular practice itself being its own reward. Due to such sustained and close listening, she acquired an uncanny ability to recognize popular singers, particularly men, and to tell them apart. She had had some piano lessons at school and always kept a piano in the house; her favourite piece of music was “Sunset on the St Lawrence“, a piano waltz by Frederick Harris (aka Maxime Heller).
She knew well the story of that river: she loved and was well-read in North American history, particularly the history of the western states. Starting in her 60s, she decided to record her opinions on various topics of public policy and current affairs, in the form of short essays (300-3000 words each). She then read each essay aloud, recording it onto cassette tape. What fun she would have had with blogs and podcasts!
Like all Australian pioneer women, she was courageous and unflinching in the face of great odds, and I was privileged to have known her. Sadly, after her death her writings and recordings were thrown away. I am reminded of Clover Adams, whose husband Henry Adams destroyed, after her death, all the photographs she had taken that he could find.