Books: A Point of View: Newsflash from the Far East |
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Newsflash from the Far East : on the final part of this series

(S05E10, broadcast 29th and 31st May 2009)

"Bowing to a higher authority"
— despotism v democracy

This is the last broadcast in my current stint and I would like to thank little Kim Jong-Il of North Korea for handing me, at the eleventh hour, a useful peg around which to do a wrap-up. Throughout the series I’ve been trying to stress the advantages of liberal democracy over less representative forms of government.

I didn’t pretend that liberal democracy can infallibly deliver justice to everyone in all walks of life, or always deliver a sensible foreign policy, or even deliver a disk full of secret personal information without leaving it in a taxi. But I did try to point out that liberal democracy is more likely to guarantee a life lived under the rule of law than any system that rules according to the desires of an oligarchy or a despot. Sometimes the despot has been democratically elected but that doesn’t make his regime a liberal democracy. So let’s just call liberal democracy ‘democracy’ for short, and save a word.

The minimal definition of democracy that was devised in New Zealand by the exiled philosopher Karl Popper during World War II still holds. It’s a democracy if the government can be changed at the people’s whim. The French writer Albert Camus added a valuable nuance when he said that democracy was the form of society devised and maintained by those who know they don’t know everything.

One way or another, those two descriptions are at the heart of the case for favouring a mechanism by which no group can consolidate itself in power, or any individual rule alone unchallenged. Democracy gives justice its best chance to realize itself as a principle. This fact is obvious, and in fact every commentator in the West accepts it even when he earns his living by railing against its deficiencies as if they were built in. He still calls the police if his house gets robbed, and sometimes the police even turn up. If they don’t, he can write to his MP.

Aha, you might say, our MPs are currently in disrepute. They’ve all had their hands in the bag, we scream, even though it’s remarkable how many of them haven’t, despite a temptation that amounted to a standing order. I’ve already pointed out in a previous broadcast that the expenses scandal could have been far worse. At least we were shocked. In a truly corrupt non-democracy we might not have been shocked: we might have thought it normal. Here it seems abnormal enough to crowd the headlines.

But I’ve already made that point, and even though the headlines continue to be crowded week after week, it would have been a feeble wrap-up to make the same point again, except to say that it’s high time to remember just how hard and long, including during the holidays, most MPs work, for what really is a tight salary. Those who bumped the salary up by claiming their expenses were doing what was allowed, and those who made too good a thing of it will either walk the plank now or lose their seats next time, so really our form of government is still democratic, or else the rogue MPs would have staged a coup by now, roped in the army and shot us down in the streets.

But I can hear you nodding off already. Again, it’s obvious. Damaged doesn’t mean destroyed, and repairs can be made. Indeed the party that shows it knows how to make them will probably win the next election, which might even have a high turn-out, as people remember what their vote is for: changing the government at the people’s whim.

That was the sublime cunning of Karl Popper’s minimal definition. He said the people’s ‘whim’. He didn’t say that the people had to be fully informed, or wise. He said that all it took was for enough of them to want a change, and it could be made to happen. In a despotism you can want all you want, and there will be no change, except that, if you do any of your wanting aloud, the police really will turn up on time, and set about demonstrating to you and your family exactly why Saddam Hussein, of fond memory, won every election by 100 per cent of the vote.

If you are fighting sleep as I grind out these truisms, get set to be propelled even more deeply into the arms of Morpheus when I launch into a short version of the other wrap-up I thought I might be stuck with, namely the Oxford Poetry Professorship imbroglio. Yes, poetry, normally a tight little world, got itself into the headlines for the second time in three weeks when, after Carol Ann Duffy was appointed to the Laureateship, Derek Walcott not only pulled out of the election for the Oxford Poetry Professorship, but the winner, Ruth Padel, resigned from the post.

Never before in the history of English literature had poetry been a news story twice in quick succession: it was as if the murder of Christopher Marlowe had been succeeded within a fortnight by the revelation that the boy genius Thomas Chatterton was a forger. Yet the dust-up over the Poetry Professorship wasn’t really the fault of the participants, it was a fault of the system. Carol Ann Duffy was appointed to the Laureateship, whereas Walcott and Padel both hoped to be elected to the Professorship. Election proved to be a bad way of choosing a poetry professor, because the press got into the act, not just to report the issue, which was its right and duty, but to help decide it, which wasn’t. The great sixteenth-century French poet Ronsard is only the first of the poets I can think of whose candidature for election to the Oxford post would have been sunk by press coverage of his attitude towards personable young women.

Ronsard was of advanced years when he repeatedly struggled up the stairs of the old Tuileries palace, before it burned down, and made advances to a young lady of the court called Hélène, to whom he undoubtedly used inappropriate language. After she gave him the freeze, Ronsard took revenge, warning her in a sonnet that when she was old and grey she would regretfully remember that Ronsard had sung of her when she was young. ‘Ronsard me célébrait du temps quand j’étais belle.’ It was a wonderful sonnet and he would have been able to deliver a wonderful set of lectures on how to write sonnets, but the press would have screwed his chances of winning an election.

If Byron had run, he would probably have been jailed for what the press uncovered about him. Sodomy, incest, forget about it. Nice draft lecture about how you wrote Don Juan, my lord, but sorry, no chance. Goethe was more than eighty years old when he proposed marriage to the beautiful teenager Ulrike von Levetzow and the whole of Europe burst out laughing after she turned the old goat down. He consoled himself by writing the Marienbad Elegy, one of the triumphs of German literature, but there goes the Oxford Poetry Professorship, lost in the blaze of a Sun headline: Kraut Bard’s Last Grope. Ulrike says, ‘What part of the word Nein don’t you understand?’

In our own era, the ageing W. B. Yeats, sustained by monkey-gland injections, wrote some of his greatest late poetry while not only pursuing young ladies, but catching up with them. And Philip Larkin, the supreme poet in English of the late twentieth century, customarily kept half a dozen women on a string at once, while avoiding marriage with the dexterity of a dodgem. After his death it all got into the papers, and it would have got into them before his death if he had ever run for the Oxford Poetry Professorship. A gifted critic as well as a mighty poet, he would have been ideal for the job, but he would have had to be appointed, not elected.

How, you might say, if I am so much in favour of elections to government, can I not be in favour of elections to a professorship? Because Camus was right: the whole democratic system depends on the realization that we don’t know everything. The people know enough to know when the government needs to be changed in order to preserve democracy, but a fully developed democracy contains, within it, all kinds of areas where specialized knowledge really counts, and popular opinion, especially when it is whipped up by the press, is largely irrelevant.

We don’t have popular elections to a medical board. We ought to have government oversight of a medical board through the people’s representatives, but a popular election in every field would be government by plebiscite, and would produce more injustice than it avoided. Within a properly constituted democracy, there is room for all kinds of alternatives as long as they are enlightened. Theatre, for example, is always an enlightened despotism. And a poetry professorship falls within that realm of alternatives. The professor shouldn’t be elected by the whole of the people, or even, as in Oxford, by a bunch of graduates. The professor should be appointed by a panel of properly qualified literary figures who are fully aware that good poets are often frail people, and people who are not frail are seldom good poets.

It’s an essential part of democracy that it can shape and employ the idea of authority, so that authority can stave off the effects of populism run rampant. As for authority running rampant, well, in a democracy it can’t, or at any rate shouldn’t: a consideration which makes democracy superior to any system where power is concentrated perpetually in a few, or sometimes only two, hands.

But so obvious a point would have been a pretty down-beat wrap-up if a sudden flash of light on the other side of the world had not suddenly made the point so terribly clear. The all-knowing Kim, a bouffant hairstyle joined to a pair of elevator shoes by a psychotic personality, has got his own atomic bomb. And he can drop it whenever he likes. I hope I’ll be speaking to you again one day.


Oxford kept its electoral system for the Poetry Professorship and got lucky on the next try. Geoffrey Hill won the race, a result which pleased everybody who cared about poetry, although too many people who didn’t care at all had been among his competitors. In the field of politics, elections still looked to have the edge on dictatorship. In his role as unchallenged Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il proved to be even better comic material than his father. Kim Il-sung had been hilarious for his conviction that there was something profound about his Thought, which with the aid of a staff of scribes he expounded in many volumes of text uniformly unreadable in any language. Promoted by full-page advertisements in the world’s major newspapers, his Thought was North Korea’s major export for years on end. But his poisonous offshoot Kim Jong-Il not only showed his father’s gift for comporting himself as if to maintain an entirely arid totalitarian state were something to be proud of, he had a hairstyle to match. He was begging to be parodied. (Actually he was begging to be assassinated, but we’ll get to that in a minute.) The best portrayal was done by the inspired bunch of wits who put the movie Team America together. In my house people eventually had to be forbidden from singing ‘Lonely’ in the Kim manner.

The success on screen of the Kim Jong-Il puppet did something to offset the sad fact that in real life being funny about him was all we could do about him. In view of the sufferings of his people it would have been a blessing if outside forces could have invaded his country and shot him. But it wasn’t on. It hardly ever is, because of the cost. As Iraqis continued to murder Iraqis while their liberators took the blame, those of us who thought that Saddam Hussein’s regime had been too horrible to put up with were obliged to consider that the cost of toppling him was great, even if we were reluctant to align ourselves with those who said that his regime had not been so horrible after all. Such retroactive wishful thinking, indeed, seemed part of the cost. But perhaps it would have been better to leave him alone until he died of shame after seeing himself caricatured so wittily in Hot Shots Part Deux.

Such sarcasm is rarely a spur to action; instead, it is a solace for the embarrassment of being able to do nothing. Chaplin’s magnificent spoof of Hitler in The Great Dictator exactly caught his homicidal megalomania but did little to mobilize the world against him. Many of those in the audience who laughed until they cried would have remained inactive if they could, even citing Chaplin’s achievement as a blow against war. It wasn’t meant to be; it was meant to be a blow against Hitler; but until they were forced to choose, most people thought that you could be against both. Finally it took half the world to put Hitler out of business: a fighting effort in which humour was useful only for purposes of morale. When humour is the only weapon there is, it lacerates. And anyway, it is often directed at the wrong target, or at any rate against the easier one. George W. Bush was always a more potent generator of cheap laughs than Osama bin Laden. Some of the Bush jokes were mine, but I tried to remember that bin Laden was still out there somewhere, with or without his beard. The monster with few characteristics is safe from satire. Pol Pot, who had no characteristics whatever, was never reached by a joke. In the course of too much time, the North Vietnamese deposed him, but not before he had reduced his country to a charnel house. For that event, wits in the West came up with exactly one gag — HANDS OFF DEMOCRATIC KAMPUCHEA — and it was unintentional.