Saturday, January 30, 2021

Powerful Fools are Dangerous Fools; Bring on the Wellerman [TPaS0]


It used to be that I wrote regularly.  Ideas would bounce around in my head, and the only way to get some respite was to put my thoughts in writing.  It would seem that as I've aged and achieved more meaningful work that I have less mental real estate for writing, and the ideas that bounce around my head are technical and not as good for a broad audience.  I still think Rh could make for a good internal standard for ICP-OES, but that's another topic for another day.

So as it gets farther between posts, the world changes, and my life changes, I'm not sure there's as much purpose for a blog like this.  I care, and agree, so much less with what I've written in the past (particularly my attitudes towards proper citation, jeez).  Much of what I've written now strikes me as having been written by a younger, more naive man.  But then January 2021 happens, and I know that writing will help.

2016 was a rough year for me.  I watched two improbable back-to-back elections that reflected a world and a mindset that I didn't know existed.  The Brexit election was followed by Trump's election and the "alt right" was either born or emboldened.  I saw neither coming.  

"Why," I asked, "would the UK separate from an organization that creates and enforces the trade rules that the UK will necessarily be governed by?  Why voluntarily surrender votes in an organization that governs your largest trading partners?"

Well, why does anyone do anything?

Britons were tired of listening to experts.  They wanted to fund the NHS instead of the EU, so much so, that they wrote it on a bus.  And strangest of all, people I knew and whose opinions I deeply respect agreed.  I heard that it was about time, and they'd been getting shafted for years.

It was also in this period immediately following the Brexit vote that we found ourselves at the beginning of a four year slog.  The morning after, the day of the video linked above, suddenly the rhetoric from people like Farage softened.  Prime Minister after Prime Minister fell, as did every attempted deal, until finally. Finally.  They reached a deal that the EU could accept, which maintained most of what the EU wanted, because they were by far the Goliath in the trade negotiations.  Meanwhile, r/leopardsatemyface was brought to my attention, where people relished in the schadenfreude of those who proclaimed "this isn't the Brexit I voted for!"

To be clear, I think the UK will be all right in the longer term.  Right now there are shortages of fresh vegetables on shelves, truckers are facing massive border delays, and fortunes will be accrued and lost as a new reality imposes itself.  But people will live, love, and die just as they always have.  It's just a sudden, and baffling change.


"Donald Trump Rally 10/21/16" by Michael Candelori Photography is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The Trump election was unexpected, but not ruled out by the best pollsters.  Five thirty eight described the narrow path that would need to be navigated to win the electoral college, and, as the night wore on, every state he needed was won by the Republicans.

I wasn't happy about the rhetoric, or the track record of Trump the businessman, but I thought that the Republican braintrust would surround him and keep him out of trouble.  What worried me was the elements of society that were emboldened.  Posters were seen in Toronto that set off alarm bells in my mind.  Rachel Notley and Catherine McKenna faced death threats.  All it seems to take is economic hardship and a leader who tells you whom to blame.

And despite a presidency where his approval rating could never reliably breach the 50% ceiling, an insurrectionist mob eventually marched on the US Capitol with the objective of overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election.  They were fuelled by their thought leaders spewing mistruths that didn't hold up to scrutiny.  They were fuelled by a conspiracy theory whose mouthpieces, when nothing panned out, told them to basically remember all the friends they'd made along the way.

It happened because rhetoric has consequences.

"Doug Ford Getting Grilled After a Debate" by Alex Guibord is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

And let's not forget this guy.  During the second and deadlist wave (so far, I guess), of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario, Ford offered nothing but rhetoric.  Concerned about the health of businesses, he allowed local lockdowns to be to solution as case counts continued to rise from October of 2020 into the end of the year.  Even as it became clear that people were leaving locked down areas in order to do their holiday shopping.  And finally, after the case count was fully out of control and ICU capacity was threatened, Ford announced that urgent action was needed (on December 21st), and that the province would lock down after Christmas.  

Because when a pandemic is threatening the capacity of your health care system, it's important to give people a 5 day window to get their shopping and holiday gatherings in.

As cases continued to climb, because of course they did, Ford offered the ferocity of an 800-lb gorilla, lauded the success of curfews in other jurisdictions while saying he wouldn't enforce one despite everything being "on the table".

I don't envy having those decisions to make, and Ford has stated that he's trying to keep businesses afloat, but people are dead because of the lack of province-wide restrictions.  A reluctance to close businesses has led to case counts so high that they'll be forced closed for an indefinite period.  I'll let that sink in.

The common thread here: powerful fools are dangerous fools.  Our time has become harder than it needs to be because politicians overestimated their ability, underestimated the importance of experts (you know, the people who dedicate their lives to understanding things), and in one case, were elected without putting forward a costed platform.  

As a brief aside, let's just remember that it was a platform that included a court challenge to the federal carbon tax. A challenge to oppose the Federal government's authority to levy a tax on its citizens. God, how I miss a time when that was the biggest issue in the news.

If we truly want to strive for a better future, we need to think critically about what politicians tell us, think critically about the news and the facts we consume, and we desperately need to ensure that our institutions are able to withstand the onslaught of powerful fools.  Roman institutions withstood Nero, Caligula, and Commodus, (just to name a few), and staved off the only thing worse than a tyrant: a power vaccuum.  We may need our minds and our institutions to weather similar.

*  *  *


I have long disliked think-pieces.  It's the ramblings of any given mind, shrouded in enough nonsense and polysyllabic words to lend an air of credence.  Granted, it yields clicks, enough attention for ad revenue, but is ultimately masturbatory from an intellectual standpoint.  And I've wanted to write a few intentionally stupid ones for a while now.  My own brand of stupid nonsense follows, the 0th edition of 'Think Pieces are Stupid'.

Like many of you, a little under 20 days ago, I came across the video from this post.  It follows the progression from skepticism to full embrace of The Wellerman by The Longest Johns.  It has since taken the world by storm. But why?

For an answer, we'll turn to the lyrics, and see that the song is about 2020.  An early verse starts:

    She had not been two weeks from shore,

    When down on her a right whale bore...

We hadn't been in 2020 that long (well, China was already in it by then), when down on us bore the right whale that is the pandemic.  But in response:

    The Captain called all hands and swore,

    He'd take that whale in tow (Hah!)

Our leaders (and we, more broadly), swore that we would fight the pandemic, that we would eradicate it.  No matter how expertly formed the grooves in our couches would need to be, we committed to it.  Not just for fun or sport, but in response to a virus that threatened about 2% of the 70% or so of us that experts estimated would be infected.  The verse closes with the singers collectively denoting their enthusiasm for the cause, just as we all did in March.

But the fight continued, and continues.

    For forty days, or even more,

    The line went slack, then tight once more,

    All boats were lost, there were only four,

    But still that whale did go (Hah!)

Forty days in biblical/older language refers to "a long time," and indeed, it's been going for a good long while.  The lines went slack in the summer in Canada, when case counts were low, but it's definitely tight as the pandemic rages through the two most populous provinces, and with continued news of riots abroad.

    As far as I've heard, the fight's still on;

    The line's not cut and the whale's not gone,

    The Wellerman makes his regular call,

    To encourage the Captain, crew, and all.

And this is where we find ourselves.  COVID-19 is not gone, we're still warned that there might be bouts of civil unrest, the fight is indeed still on.  But who is the Wellerman referenced?  The answer is in the chorus.

    Soon may the Wellerman come,

    To bring us sugar, and tea, and rum,

    One day when the tonguin' is done,

    We'll take our leave and go.

Supply ships owned by the Weller Brothers (based in New Zealand), would presumably supply whaling ships in the Pacific.  And sugar, tea, and rum are certainly welcomed by tired people, let alone sailors.  Tonguing was some of the earliest butchering done to a whale once it was brought to shore.  But only after the whale has been taken in tow, a promise made earlier in the song.

And that's where we are, and what we're doing.  We're waiting for supplies of good news, of vaccines, of calm, of normalcy.  One day, one day that seems so far away from us right now, on the day of the eradication of COVID-19, we can rest.  Perhaps even a day when dangerous fools no longer pervade the news and our screens. That's the day upon which we'll take our leave of this madness.

Until then we welcome all the sugar, tea, and rum we can get.

Until then, The Wellerman shall be our anthem.