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Perhaps you are a journalist covering the May 7 elections or the Oscar Pistorius trial – and will soon be immersed in Shrien Dewani’s adventures in our specialist niche of the honeymoon-tourism market.
You might be a TV continuity announcer-cum-journalist, circling endlessly between serious discussion about bone fragments, Nkandla’s fire retarding swimming pool, Numsa’s endless exit from Cosatu – and then back to Oscar standing up, Oscar sitting down, Oscar making gagging noises, Oscar weeping about how horrible and sad this whole business is for him.
If you’re very lucky you might get to do a colour piece on Zuma’s ‘shorty and the machine gun’ routine:
But after the 10th showing of that, between the traffic, Oscar Pistorius, the sport, Oscar Pistorius and the economy … and Oscar Pistorius, even you must be having to fight to keep your food in your stomach.
I understand the private honour in doing something deeply distasteful and humiliating when this is the price of earning a living. So, in an attempt to provide us all with some light relief, I hereby republish and rework some ‘cynical quotations’ I have posted on a few occasions previously. Apologies to those long time readers who have seen these more than once … but this is a public service I feel compelled to render.
These are from the excellent Cassell Dictionary of Cynical Quotations (John Green – Cassel, 1994) with a few comments from the peanut gallery.
As we listen to politicians as we head towards May 7
People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.
Otto von Bismarck
There are hardly two Creatures of a more differing Species than the same Man, when he is pretending to a Place, and when he is in possession of it.
George Savile, Marquis of Halifax, Political, Moral and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflexions, c.1694
An Honest politician will not be tolerated by a democracy unless he is very stupid … because only a very stupid man can honestly share the prejudices of more than half the nation.
Bertrand Russel, Presidential Address to LSE students, 1923
An honest politician is one who when he is bought will stay bought.
Simon Cameron, 1860
In general, we elect men of the type that subscribes to only one principle – to get re-elected.
Terry M. Townsend, speech 1940
That a peasant may become king does not render the kingdom democratic.
Woodrow Wilson, 1917
Anybody that wants the presidency so much that he’ll spend two years organising and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office.
David Broder, in the Washington Post, 1973
When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.
- P. J. O’Rourke
Should you bother voting at all?
Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote.
George Jean Nathan
… yes, but (and forgive the emphasis here on the over-cynical … and slightly fascist):
Democracy is the name we give to the people each time we need them.
Robert, Marquis de Flers and Arman de Cavaillet, L’habit vert, 1912
A democracy is a state which recognises the subjection of the minority to the majority, that is, an organisation for the systematic use of violence by one class against another, by one part of the population against another.
V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution, 1917
Parliaments are the great lie of our times.
Konstantine Pobedonostsev, 1896
Democracy is a device which ensures that we shall be governed no better than we deserve.
George Bernard Shaw
Democracy is a form of religion. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.
H. L. Mencken, Sententiae, 1916
Now majority rule is a precious, sacred thing worth dying for. But like other precious, sacred things …. it’s not only worth dying for; it can make you wish you were dead. Imagine if all life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza.
P. J. O’Rourke, Parliament of Whores, 1991
The democratic disease which expresses its tyranny by reducing everything to the level of the herd.
Henry Miller, The Wisdom of the Heart, 1941
Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.
H.L. Mencken, 1916
On the ANC and the (infamous) liberal media
Democracy becomes a government of bullies, tempered by editors.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals, 1909 – 14
It is a general error to suppose the loudest complainer for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare.
Edmund Burke – 1769
What seems to be generosity is often only disguised ambition – which despises small interests to gain great ones.
Francois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims 1665
Revolution, n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911
Every revolutionary ends up either by becoming an oppressor or a heretic.
Albert Camus, The Rebel, 1955
Fame is but the breath of the people, that is often unwholesome.
Thomas Fuller 1732
The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule it.
H.L. Mencken 1956
A judge is a lawyer who once knew a politician.
What a liberal really wants is to bring about change that will not in any way endanger his position.
An arbitrary comment about families
Sacred family! …. The supposed home of all the virtues, where innocent children are tortured into their first falsehoods, where wills are broken by parental tyranny, and self-respect smothered by crowded, jostling egos.
August Strindberg 1886
On love – and the current state of the ruling alliance:
The voyage of love is all the sweeter for an outside stateroom and a seat at the Captain’s table.
Henry Haskins 1940
On the global debt crisis and the Great Recession?
What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?
Bertolt Brecht 1928
A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain.
Bloggers (as a sort of author-lite) – in an attempt to be even-handed in my sneering
An author, like any other so-called artist, is a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His over-powering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police of all civilized nations, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression.
H.L. Mencken, Prejudices 1919-27
He (Jacob Zuma) didn’t threaten me with the red lightsaber or catch me in a honey trap. My natterings, fortunately, are not impactful enough to draw the attentions of the Dark Lord (Darth Vader, dah! – ed) or his stormtroopers.
The compulsion comes from watching, slack-jawed, as Jacob Zuma skips happily across the backs of starving crocodiles - on his way, off towards the welcoming horizon.
Surely the world was an intrinsically hostile place for a black baby boy, born to a single-parent mother (who was also a domestic worker) in the South Africa of 1942? Surely when he received no formal education any chance of success in life would have become vanishingly small – in the estimation of a wandering actuarial statistician, perhaps?
When Jacob Zuma went to prison and then later was repeatedly caught with his hands in all sorts of cookie jars I imagine the hypothetical actuary would have confidently predicted a life of ignominy and poverty.
But instead Jacob Zuma is picking up an honorary Doctorate of Leadership from the Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (who writes the script of the world? … no ordinary mortal would dare make this shit up – ed) and rubbing shoulders with the great and the good and undoubtedly stashing bits of his loot in safe houses in Malaysia.
My second post on this website in mid-2009 titled The Accidental President (catch that here) argued that Zuma’s rise was pure chance and contingency. But when the same random set of things happens over-and-over (Jacob Zuma escapes danger with a sack full of cash) you have to start questioning whether this is purely the shambolic interactions of events, people, history and the world.
Politics is about power (yes, I know, we have heard that somewhere before). Power is agency, the ability to make stuff happen, to make people do your bidding and to make situations turn out in a particular way. Political analysis is the analysis of how (and why) power is exercised.
Which brings me back to Machiavelli.
I read The Prince when I was about 17 and, clearly, I didn’t understand a bleeding word.
I vaguely remember being outraged and confused by the book. Bertrand Russell is widely quoted as having said The Prince is a handbook for gangsters (which is a great line but there is much debate as to whether the great logician himself actually said it).
However, I am now kicking myself that I haven’t been reading and rereading The Prince every year – and in the flush of my transient enthusiasm, I promise myself I will do so from now on until I die … or perhaps I will stop a little before.
(As an aside: I was halfway through the book when the Syrian nerve gas story broke. I was glad to have Machiavelli as a companion to think about how those with agency might cause, or allow, such things to happen and why they might do so.)
So, anyway … Jacob Zuma is the Prince and I doubt he ever needed a Machiavelli to tell him how to be what he is and how to do what he does.
Here is the opening dedication. It’s quite compellingly mysterious to those among us who are a little thin on our Florence-during- the-Renaissance, but it is also a good explanation of the work that follows:
Dedication: To the Magnificent Lorenzo Di Piero De’ Medici
It is customary for such as seek a Prince’s favour, to present themselves before him with those things of theirs which they themselves most value, or in which they perceive him chiefly to delight. Accordingly, we often see horses, armour, cloth of gold, precious stones, and the like costly gifts, offered to Princes as worthy of their greatness. Desiring in like manner to approach your Magnificence with some token of my devotion, I have found among my possessions none that I so much prize and esteem as a knowledge of the actions of great men, acquired in the course of a long experience of modern affairs and a continual study of antiquity. Which knowledge most carefully and patiently pondered over and sifted by me, and now reduced into this little book, I send to your Magnificence. And though I deem the work unworthy of your greatness, yet am I bold enough to hope that your courtesy will dispose you to accept it, considering that I can offer you no better gift than the means of mastering in a very brief time, all that in the course of so many years, and at the cost of so many hardships and dangers, I have learned, and know.
This work I have not adorned or amplified with rounded periods, swelling and high-flown language, or any other of those extrinsic attractions and allurements wherewith many authors are wont to set off and grace their writings; since it is my desire that it should either pass wholly unhonoured, or that the truth of its matter and the importance of its subject should alone recommend it.
Nor would I have it thought presumption that a person of very mean and humble station should venture to discourse and lay down rules concerning the government of Princes. For as those who make maps of countries place themselves low down in the plains to study the character of mountains and elevated lands, and place themselves high up on the mountains to get a better view of the plains, so in like manner to understand the People a man should be a Prince, and to have a clear notion of Princes he should belong to the People.
Let your Magnificence, then, accept this little gift in the spirit in which I offer it; wherein, if you diligently read and study it, you will recognize my extreme desire that you should attain to that eminence which Fortune and your own merits promise you. Should you from the height of your greatness some time turn your eyes to these humble regions, you will become aware how undeservedly I have to endure the keen and unremitting malignity of Fortune.
I know how Niccolò feels. Sometimes these humble regions are just that little too humble. However, I would have been more cautious about calling for the Prince’s attention if I was Machiavelli. If the Prince read the little book, then the Prince would know that Machiavelli had the Prince’s number and that Machiavelli had rewritten the handbook. Which I can’t imagine would have charmed the Prince.
I will attempt a ‘highlights package’ of The Prince and possibly some learned comments (which are unlikely to be as good as you will find in this interesting article and interview). For the keenest among you, there are several places on the internet where The Prince is downloadable for no charge – I am sure the copyright has long expired … or rather I hope so. My copy, which is in electronic form on my laptop, originates at: http://www.feedbooks.com.
Finally, Jacob Zuma still has a few crocodiles to hop on before he reaches safety. I still think that the odds are against him, but I am not an actuarial statistician, wandering or otherwise . I draw comfort purely from the certainty that no-one, ultimately, gets out of this alive.