Entry from October 6, 2008

Readers of my last post here who are fans of Rudyard Kipling will have recognized the allusion in it to his great poem, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” The fact that liquids only trickle downwards, I wrote, is one of those inescapable realities — as, for instance, that “water will certainly wet us” and “fire will certainly burn” — which from time to time political hucksters emerge to persuade us are not inescapable at all. On the contrary, they are as subject to the hitherto undreamt-of political powers of what Kipling calls these “smooth-tongued wizards” as the laws of gravity are to the advocates of “trickle-up economics.” Eventually, of course, the promises of the hucksters always end in tears, which is why everyone ought to read and, indeed, memorize Kipling’s poem. It could have been written as a warning against the dangers of the political fantasies currently being peddled by The Chosen One, Barack Obama.

So, at least, I thought until I picked up my copy of The New York Times this morning to read Roger Cohen’s tribute to “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” as a rebuke to, of all people, Sarah Palin! How, you might wonder, had Governor Palin, spokesman for and champion of small town America, contrived to range herself with the promisers of political utopia? Turns out that, according to Mr Cohen, it was by saying “never again” to the irresponsible and greedy bankers who, as she saw it, had produced the crisis on Wall Street. According to this way of thinking, you are — or at least Sarah Palin is — only ever allowed to say “never again” to the Holocaust or, possibly, another example of genocide, which sort of spoils the point of saying it at all. But to use the expression about any lesser human calamity is apparently to risk becoming one of the smooth-tongued wizards and promisers of political pie in the sky that Kipling’s poem was written to discredit.

Well, he’s got this much of a point at least: neither Governor Palin nor anyone else is ever going to be in a position to banish from the world greed and irresponsibility. But then, neither is anyone ever going to be in a position to banish genocide. In any case, she didn’t promise that she would abolish either. She only called on ordinary people — “just everyday American people, Joe Six Pack, hockey moms across the nation” — to “band together” to make sure that nothing like this credit crisis, based on foolishly improvident loans, would happen again. Nor is the rhetorical sin, if such it be, in claiming as one’s political goal an ambition to prevent from happening the bad things that are pretty certain to happen anyway a very grave one. It’s not like telling us that the moon is made of cheese or that pigs can fly, which are two of Kipling’s examples.

Here’s another one, quoted by Roger Cohen himself as an example of how “Truth, in short, confronts delusion and utopia.” (Would that it did!)

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul.
But though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.”

Now I appeal to my fair-minded readers, whom does that snatch of verse sound more like: the “maverick” populist McCain-Palin campaign or the smooth-talking Obama-Biden one? Is it not Mr Cohen’s favored candidate who promises to pay for the massive increases in spending his abundance-for-all health plan will require by raising taxes only on “the rich”? And is not collective Paul, the beneficiary of this imaginary largesse supposedly taken from rich Peter, further promised his own “middle class tax cut”? These things, I’m afraid, are only slightly more likely to happen than pigs’ flying.

Coincidentally, The Wall Street Journal today offers a powerful editorial titled “Biden’s Fantasy World” in which it enumerates the falsehoods and fantasies of Governor Palin’s opponent in the debate where she so injudiciously uttered the fatal words, “never again.” It will be interesting to see if Senator Biden is ever called to account by the media and forced to retract these mis-statements of fact — as, for example, that Senator Obama never said he would meet with the Iranian president without conditions or that the U.S. and France kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon. I’m betting that pigs will fly before that happens. Roger Cohen is certainly right to say in his peroration that “The world’s still a dangerous place” so that “it’s time for copybook realists in the White House.” But to suppose that Obama-Biden is the realistic ticket is itself an example of political fantasy.

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