Thursday, February 17, 2011

What a Difference Thirty Years Doesn't Make

The George Santayana quote, "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it" is useful for historians, essayists, philosophers, and desperate history teachers who hope to avoid an over-reliance upon expensive prescriptions. It's a sort of career choice comfort food. But correct though it is, it also bumps up against the adage, "The more things change, the more they stay the same," an observation of French critic and journalist Alphonse Karr. Quite the conundrum.

Hands up, all who would like to see a Santayana/Karr cage match.
(which, admittedly, might look a bit like this:

When thinking about change vs. the status quo in politics, the more applicable saw might stem from the comparatively modern philosophy of Pete Townshend: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

While it's recognized that the complex realities of governing will yield a similarity in policy-making that borders on the homogenous, there does nonetheless persist the quaint opinion that we are entitled to expect better. As Stephen Sondheim noted, "Desperate times call for desperate measures," so the same tedious non-starter policy points being rehashed in government – many of which seem designed to lead us straight back to the 19th century faster than a TARDIS – can invariably lead one to feel a touch put out.

Britain and America are supposed to be autonomous nations, so one wonders how each of their governments manage to endorse and even cheer the same disastrous policies. This even despite the policies' proven ineffectiveness. As David Cameron's new government in the UK prepares to essentially demolish the Arts Council, those fighting him might take small comfort from the sitcom 'Yes, Minister,' which shows that this is hardly anything new and the Arts Council staggers on:

'Yes, Minister' and its companion series, 'Yes, Prime Minister,' was a satirical series that began in 1980. It featured the hapless MP Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) and his attempts to legislate while being cleverly thwarted by his Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne). Sometimes helping one or the other (and usually trapped) was Hacker's Permanent Private Secretary Bernard Woolley (Derek Fowlds). Although the program was a favorite of the new and deeply conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, it was a witty and often savage skewering of the political system and definitely gave no one warm fuzzy feelings about their government.

The shows are consistently cited as some of the best of British sitcom, but beyond the brilliant writing and acting that earns its place in history is an immediacy that one might wish it no longer had. To wit; we've all seen how different pollsters can achieve wildly different results. Sir Humphrey demonstrates how:

And his cynicism about local government is, one suspects, not confined to the British:

"If the right people don't have power, do you know what happens? The wrong people get it," sounds like invective spewed by Fox News whenever a democratic election in the Middle East results in a leader the American conservatives don't like. Of course, in at least one respect, the British run rings around the US – one doesn't imagine John Boehner will be defending either the opera or the countryside anytime soon. Or any universities.

As for anything in the way of equal opportunities and creating diversity, this conversation doesn't feel as distant as one would like:

Although to be fair, there are now women in senior cabinet positions in both governments. So this time, the meeting would be in a specialty sector or private industry. We've come a long way, baby.

The continued relevance and accuracy of 'Yes, Minister/Prime Minister' is such that it is often taught as part of political science courses. Thirty years on, one might have hoped it would rate more as history. After all, as Sir Humphrey once said: "Tempora mutantur, et nos mutamur in illis" or "Times change and we change with the times." In the case of modern government, it seems chance would be a good thing.

As a postscript, one rather wishes Sir Humphrey had been on hand with these diplomatic options when the invasion of Iraq was being discussed, as it might have led someone to reconsider:

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