Sunday, April 25, 2010

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.

Sheep make me homesick. I’ve been reading Mum’s reminiscences about growing up at Raeshaw, the family property at Fulham, a few miles west of Sale in East Gippsland. She wrote: “It was enjoyable going in the jinker with Dad, and also riding with him to round up the sheep. I remember going out with him to check on the new lambs. There was a ewe with a half-delivered lamb. Dad had to get off his horse and chase the ewe to act as midwife. We often had poddy lambs to feed. They would be brought in nearly dead and put in cartons lined with old blanket near the range in the kitchen. They would be fed cows’ milk from tomato sauce bottles with rubber teats. You had to keep pulling the teat out of the lamb’s mouth to let the air into the bottle…The poddy calves were fed the same way when really tiny, but soon learned to drink from a bucket if you put your hand in and let them start sucking your fingers.” This must have been in about 193436. I can’t find the spot where Mum recalls her father once remarking that he far preferred cattle to sheep because sheep are stupid—maybe she once told me this; I don’t remember. In any case, with the greatest respect to Jesus, who, at the Feast of the Dedication (John 10:27) speaks explicitly as a shepherd, these days few Australians would reasonably expect any sheep to respond in this way to the sound of a human voice. But the text of John is unequivocal: “τα προβατα τα εμα της φωνης μου ακουουσιν καγω γινωσκω αυτα και ακολουθουσιν μοι”—ακουουσιν, like acoustic, i.e. hear, and ακολουθουσιν, like acolyte, i.e. follow. This dual, hear-and-follow concept glides straight into the Vulgate: “Oves meae vocem meam audiunt, et ego conosco eas, et sequuntur me.” No doubt about it: Jesus’ sheep hear his voice, and obediently follow. Is this even possible? I didn’t think so, but according to my indispensible Hastings ancient flocks could be as large as Australian ones; the author of Job thought it plausible that his subject started off with 7,000 head, and happily finished up with 14,000. And, incredible as it may seem, Jewish shepherds did indeed manage somehow to train sheep, and to shift flocks from place to place, even to divide them into more manageable, carefully differentiated squads, most often to be watered from troughs at wells. In other words by means of gesture, signaling, and vocal commands Jewish shepherds led sheep there and back again. I suspect Granddad would have been extremely skeptical about this, but as recently as the 1910s ethnographers and Biblical archaeologists observed this going on in Palestine, and had no reason to doubt that the technique was exceedingly ancient. In Australia as far as I can see we’ve always relied on brilliantly clever, well-trained sheepdogs, and in turn the ear-piercing stockman’s whistle (to handle the dogs), but so too did Jewish shepherds (Job 30:1). However in the Holy Land it seems that dogs were used more to protect flocks against wild animals and thieves at night than actually to round up and drive the animals during the day. Maybe nobody in Australia ever attempted to train sheep, but the ancient Israelites clearly knew how it could be done. So too did Jesus, and the authors of John.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Is there no balm in Gilead?

הַצֳרִי֙ אֵ֣ין בְּגִלְעָ֔ד אִם־רֹפֵ֖א אֵ֣ין שָׁ֑ם כִּ֗י מַדּ֙וּעַ֙ לֹ֣א עָֽלְתָ֔ה אֲרֻכַ֖ת בַּת־עַמִּֽי׃

μη ρητινη ουκ εστιν εν γαλααδ η ιατρος ουκ εστιν εκει δια τι ουκ ανεβη ιασις θυγατρος λαου μου

Numquid resina non est in Galaad aut medicus non est ibi quare igitur non est obducta cicatrix filiae populi mei

Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the daughter of my people recovered?

Jeremiah 8:22

Sunday, April 18, 2010


As usual, distraction in church: “So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and although there were so many, the net was not torn” (John 21:11). Why 153? It’s not a prime number. Mea culpa, Greta: 153 ÷ 51 = 3. Anyhow, it’s there in the Greek: “κατὸν πεντήκοντα τριῶν,” in other words 153, which was for Jerome a piece of cake in terms of translation, “centum quinquaginta tribus,” 153, but not of interpretation. There are, he posited in his prologue to John, 153 varieties of fish. 153 nations were known in antiquity, it was once claimed. A sum total of 153 persons received direct blessing from Christ, a tally made by the pious Lieutenant-Colonel F. Roberts of the Indian Army, who appears to have had a considerable amount of time on his hands, or not nearly enough to do. Gregory and Augustine saw in this number an amplification of the seventh prime number, viz. seventeen, to which much symbolism was attached in Classical antiquity—because, according to that doggedly learned low-church divine E. W. Bullinger (1837–1913), it was held to be “the sum of two perfect numbers—seven and tenseven being the number of spiritual perfection, and ten of ordinal perfection.” Gregory applied to this principle a Trinitarian gloss, and got to 153 by multiplication (17 x 3 x 3). By contrast, in his Tractatus in Evangelium Ioannis, Augustine used that staple of ancient Roman commerce, simple addition, most probably using the fingers of his left hand (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 5 + 6 + 7 + 8 + 9 + 10 + 11 + 12 + 13 + 14 + 15 + 16 + 17 = 153). For an extensive and wholly bizarre summary of these patristic and other efforts to interpret the exact significance of 153, see Bullinger’s dotty Number in Scripture, p. 273 ff., evidently thanks to the internet now much consulted by persons of questionable sanity, as well as quacks, religious maniacs, and the bogus numerology set. Perhaps the best recent comment is that of Professor Richard Bauckham, who, referring explicitly to John 21:11, writes: “Such evidence should not be misused. On the other hand, in many cases the detail is, of course, significant detail, with a clear role in the narrative, while, on the other hand, vivid detail is the stock-in-trade of a skilled storyteller, such as the author of this Gospel most certainly was [and/or the author of this significantly later epilogue-like portion of it]. All the same, these details do help to give readers the impression that the Gospel portrays the Beloved Disciple as an observant witness of what happened” (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006, p. 399). In other words the issue of 153 ties to that of reliable testimony, person-to-person transmission through the second and third quarters of the first century, in other words orality. There were 153 fish, no more and no less. This thing happened; they were totted up by a prudent eyewitness, who committed the number to memory. You can count on it.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Goldman Sachs

Judging from the longer of two press releases that you can read on their website (“Goldman Sachs Makes Further Comments on S.E.C. Complaint”) the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., are this weekend deeply rattled, and far more than by the sharp 13% decline in the value of their stock on Friday. They have misspelled benefited, and there is no full stop at the end of the final sentence in the first paragraph of the section headed “Background.” According to Louise Story and Gretchen Morgenson in this morning’s New York Times, that loss is “a possible sign that investors fear that the S.E.C. complaint will damage Goldman’s reputation.” A possible sign? Damage? What reputation?!

Goldman Sachs are quite sanguine about the principal purpose of the transaction (a so-called synthetic collateralized [sic] debt obligation known as Abacus 2007–AC1), in connection with which the United States Securities and Exchange Commission took legal action in New York yesterday, accusing the firm of securities fraud. But their robust claim that the S.E.C.’s complaint lacks merit in fact and law strikes a shrill, discordant chord of desperation.

Abacus 2007–AC1 was created so that one party (Paulson & Co.) could wager on a collapse in American housing prices, and the other (IKB Deutsche Industriebank and ACA Capital Management) could bet on the opposite outcome. According to their statement, Goldman Sachs were paid a modest $15 million fee for organizing the bet, and also joined the losing side.

Goldman Sachs claim that all parties were fully apprized of the amazing risk, and a gauge of how defensive they have become is that they are now obliged to boast that, having taken account of that risk, the firm nevertheless lost more than $90 million in that single transaction. In other words they affirm that because they lost on the short end of the deal they are somehow innocent of collusion with any of the other parties. They also state that ACA Capital Management “ultimately and independently approved the selection of 90 Residential Mortgage Backed Securities, which it stood behind as the portfolio selection agent and the largest investor in the transaction.

But upon what possible basis in this context could ACA Capital Management ever be described as “independent”?

And even if they had been independent, how was it possible for ACA, with its “long established track record as a CDO manager,” rationally to assemble a bouquet of subprime mortgage “securities,” and, presumably knowing what subprime means (i.e. not creditworthy), then place a bet of $951 million on the short-term survival of those 90 worthless little packets of sliced and diced subprime mortgage chicken feed? Of course, the substance of the S.E.C.’s complaint is that it was Paulson and not ACA who did the slicing and dicing, the better to insure the desired outcome. Whichever way it was, Abacus 2007–AC1 could not have worked without the cynical collusion of Goldman with certain of their clients, and of course with those miserably expedient ratings agencies.

The only conclusion to be reached is that the losing parties (including Goldman Sachs) must have made some actuarial or other calculation, a logarithmic guess according to which enough people who could never qualify for an ordinary mortgage might just manage to stay afloat long enough for IKB Deutsche Industriebank, ACA Capital Management, and Goldman Sachs to win their bets, grab the money, and run. However there was surely never any question as to whether the underlying Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities were ipso facto doomed.

I suppose some gamblers can be reckless; others reckless and stupid, or reckless, stupid, and almost criminally irresponsible, but the proprietor of the casino does not generally issue a press release to the general public announcing this fact about their clients and customers, for the simple reason that every sensible non-gambling person already knows full well that they are reckless, stupid and irresponsible. Nor does the casino often argue the case that, because they too lost heavily in the game over which they presided, that game was a sophisticated financial transaction devised for highly experienced professional investors, and not a desperately foolish exercise in crooked gambling, with unthinkable national and international consequences for millions of ordinary, hard-working people with modest savings.

They conclude: “The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., is a leading global investment banking, securities, and investment management firm that provides a wide range of financial services to a substantial and diversified client base that includes corporations, financial institutions, governments, and high-net-worth individuals.”

And I am Marie of Roumania.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Her Lunch II

Upon further investigation, the myth of Queen Sālote’s lunch turns out to have been an especially blunt expression of what in London in 1953 was quite widespread speculation about the visiting monarch’s character, race, and color.

In an unsigned article entitled “‘Queen of Paradise’ at the Coronation,” for example, which was widely syndicated to many English-language newpapers including the Sydney Herald (May 31, 1953, p. 22) “a special correspondent” reported that “Queen Salote, who has never been to this country before, will be waiving one of the rules of international court procedure, for it is not usual for a ruling monarch to attend the coronation of another.” That much was certainly true.

“But this dusky queen’s position is perhaps unique. She is the sovereign of the Tongan Islands, which have been under British protection since 1900, the year the Queen herself was born...”

(The language here is ambiguous. What was signed in 1900 was a treaty of friendship, not a surrender of sovereignty, nor a dual mandate—even if it was occasionally misinterpreted as such in the Government Houses of Suva, Port Moresby, Wellington, Melbourne, Sydney, and indeed in Whitehall, or even further up the line. In her playful reminiscence For My Grandchildren (London: Evans Brothers, 1966, p. 286), for example, Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone, recalled: “Before our turn came to leave Buckingham Palace in the procession we watched the rulers of states under Her Majesty’s protection, including sultans from Malaya and Zanzibar resplendent in their national costumes. But it was the statuesque figure of Queen Salote of Tonga, swathed in the voluminous pink mantle of the Order of the British Empire, who stole the limelight and caught the public eye” [my italics].)

The “special correspondent” continued: “In fact the little princess was named Salote (Charlotte) in honor of the House of Hanover. And so Queen Salote, who is the only other Queen Regnant in the Commonwealth, will be in the Abbey to see Queen Elizabeth crowned. There is a regal air about the Queen of Tonga that is bred of a dynasty that has its roots in a thousand years of history. The term ‘every inch a queen’ is perhaps particularly applicable to this dark-haired, sloe-eyed sovereign who is certainly the tallest queen on record, standing 6 ft. 3 in. in her bare feet and weighing over 20 stone [280 pounds]…She rules her 50,000 brown-skinned islanders as a Queen and as a mother...”

“Paradise,” “dusky,” “sloe-eyed,” “bare feet,” “20 stone,” “brown-skinned”—the racial stereotypes are not just cued in, one after another, but shouted through a megaphone, and certainly ill-contained by the over-use of “perhaps”; the “regal air”; that fantastic, indeed false assertion about the 1,000-year Tupou dynasty; the slightly crude reference to the Queen’s height, and the highly indelicate and certainly exaggerated stab at guessing exactly how much Her Majesty weighed. It would not surprise me to discover that by some corresponding, nearly universal exercise of British and Commonwealth editorial discretion no estimate of the physical weight in stones of Queen Elizabeth II has ever made it into print, even lately.

Princess Alice was only marginally less condescending by choosing the words “statuesque” and “voluminous,” while also drawing careful attention to the petunia mantle which Queen Sālote was entitled to wear on account of her G.B.E.—petunia, not “pink.” Although at this date the Queen shared that honour with Lady Churchill, nevertheless Princess Alice knew better than most how many finely chiseled notches separated it from the more senior Orders of the Bath, the Thistle, and the Garter.

Interestingly, when in 1962 Era Bell Thompson, co-managing editor of Ebony magazine, met and interviewed Queen Sālote in New Zealand (an encounter she described in Jet, Vol. 22, No. 10, June 28, 1962, p. 15), “officials told Miss Thompson that she was the first Negro woman” ever to visit Tonga, implying that the many African-American servicemen stationed there during World War II were regarded locally as equally curious and unfamiliar. Yet on that same occasion the Queen herself spoke to Miss Thompson of “we people of color,” presumably reflecting her own commonsense view, and not a mere impulse toward hospitality, good will, or even regal noblesse oblige.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Her Lunch

From their vantage point in a grandstand outside Buckingham Palace on Coronation Day (June 2, 1953), a companion turns to Noël Coward and wonders aloud: Who is “that little man” sitting in the pouring rain beside Queen Sālote of Tonga in the open landau? Coward’s reply: “Her lunch.”

This myth has proven stubbornly durable and, notwithstanding the racist slur directed at not one but two visiting heads of state (crowned heads, moreover), it still crops up from time to time as an apparently prized example of the wit of Noël Coward, most recently in the late Sheridan Morley’s awful Noël Coward (London: Haus Publishing, 2005, pp. 109–10).

H.M. Queen Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III was born on March 13, 1900, and reigned over Tonga from April 5, 1918, until she died on December 16, 1965. She was the daughter and heir of King George Tupou II and his first wife, Queen Lavinia Veiongo. Queen Sālote’s companion en route from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace that rainy afternoon was H.H. Paduka Sri Sultan Sir Ibrahim IV ibn al-Marhum Sultan Muhammad, Sultan of Kelantan, one of the Federated Malay States, since 1963 the northeastern-most in the mainland portion of the kingdom of Malaysia.

Outside the coronation annexe at the abbey, a footman asked Queen Sālote if she wished to have the hood raised over her landau, but (according to the Queen’s own account, quoted at length by Elizabeth Wood-Ellem in her Queen Sālote of Tonga: The Story of an Era, 1900–1965, Auckland: Auckland University Press, and Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 1999, pp. 243–44) Sālote was so moved by the enthusiastic reception of the crowd that she declined, and was driven instead smiling and waving enthusiastically through the streets, exposed to heavy rain, a gesture that was much appreciated by tens of thousands of ordinary wet people who had camped out overnight.

The Sultan of Kelantan was seated opposite Queen Sālote, and not beside her. With her normally cold eye for precedence, and from a vantage point by this date diminishing by several notches in the line of succession almost daily, Prince Alice, Countess of Athlone, recalled this unusual seating arrangement, implying a measure of counter-jumping vulgarity on the Queen’s part: “We noticed [at Buckingham Palace] with curiosity and admiration how she manoeuvred herself into her carriage and then sat down plumb in the middle of the seat of honour. A small but magnificently attired sultan who had been assigned to the same coach attempted to take his place beside her, but she put out an arm and majestically waved him into the seat facing her” (For My Grandchildren, London: Evans Brothers, 1966, p. 286).

Later Queen Sālote felt it proper to apologize formally to the sultan for being partly responsible for getting him drenched, but by all accounts His Highness’s response was entirely gracious. At length neither he nor she caught cold.

The miserable little quip about “her lunch” is difficult to trace, but it seems to have circulated widely through the London crowds before the end of Coronation Day, and was immediately attributed to Noël Coward: “‘Oh Noël, that was so funny,’ Dickie Fellowes-Gordon said when next she saw him, but he denied responsibility. ‘I didn’t say it. I wish I had.’” (Morley, p. 401. The tall Scottish singer and socialite Dorothy [“Dickie”] Fellowes-Gordon was the sometime lover and sole heiress of the hostess, gossip columnist and snob Elsa Maxwell.)

The same preposterous “lunch” remark was later ascribed to the moustachioed matinée
idol David Niven, either by Coward himself or more usually by “bystanders.”
It is remarkable that since 1953 no Englishman has ever seemed in any way reluctant to repeat it, nor (apart from Coward) even to disclaim responsibility. And few have ever taken the trouble to find out anything at all about its targets. The Sultan of Kelantan served as a deputy judge of the High Court of the Malay States; his eldest son and heir was elected king of Malaysia in 1975.

Queen Sālote was six feet three inches tall, and the sultan was short, so the disparity was principally one of height. However in subsequent iterations of the story, having begun as merely plump, Queen Sālote becomes gradually fatter, and eventually attains mountainous obesity, while the Sultan of Kelantan diminishes to “that tiny little man,” or an equerry, or an attendant, or even at times a faceless, nameless servant. As for her real lunch, the Queen wrote: “After the coronation we were led to an annexe of the Abbey and offered a light meal. It consisted of tea or a cold drink, with sandwiches and cake” (Wood-Ellem, p. 243).

Reports of cannibalism among the Polynesian islanders of Tonga were widespread in the early nineteenth century. At best they were unreliable, and at worst they were entirely fictitious. The practice seems to have existed as a genuine ritual adjunct to tribal warfare and at funerals, but ended with the arrival of Methodist missionaries in the 1820s.

The Tongan archipelago (21° 7’ 60” S, 175° 11’ 60” W) consists of 169 islands, 130 of them uninhabited, that stretch over a distance of approximately 500 miles from north to south. It is roughly one third of the way along a 4,400-mile straight line that stretches from New Zealand to Hawaii. Captain James Cook reached the locality in 1773, on his second circumnavigation, and owing to the warmth of his reception named it “the Friendly Islands.” This was an unfortunate misreading of the annual inasi festival (for the ceremonial distribution of fruits) with which his visit coincided, because in fact the local chieftains planned to kill Cook and his companions but could not agree on a sufficiently punitive method before the Resolution set sail. Six years later the Hawaiian islanders demonstrated greater efficiency and resolve in that regard.

Tonga united as an independent kingdom in 1845 under Queen Sālote’s paramount chieftain great grandfather Siaosi Tupou Maeakafaua Ngininginiofolanga, who at his coronation in Nukuʻalofa—the only such ceremony that has ever been conducted according to Methodist ritestook the name of King George Tupou I, apparently in honor of King George III. The decision was canny because henceforth Tonga shrewdly allied herself to Britain by treaties of friendship and thus, alone among the island groups of the South Pacific, she successfully avoided annexation, the hazards of trusteeship, and the loss of independence. Britain never bothered to install an official more senior than a spectacularly sidelined Foreign Office consul, who, though he reported to the Governor of Fiji in Suva, exercised no executive authority in Tonga.

With considerable dispatch, Queen Sālote declared war on Japan at noon on December 8, 1941 (i.e. 1.00 o’clock in the afternoon on December 7 in Honolulu, Pearl Harbor Day), almost 24 hours before the United States and Great Britain did. Although this ultimately proved not to be Tonga’s Grand Fenwick moment, thanks to the swift action of the U.S. Navy Nukuʻalofa was never attacked or occupied. Under provisions of Queen Sālote’s will Tonga joined the British Commonwealth as an autochthonous monarchy in 1970, and, after a long, ruminative pause for reflection, in September 1999 decided also to join the United Nations. Today Tonga is severely threatened by the prospect of rising sea levels as a direct result of global warming.

Perhaps the neatest commentary on the whole sorry business of Queen Sālote’s coronation lunch occurs in Elizabeth Wood-Ellem’s index: “Coward, Noël, not mentioned.”

Saturday, April 3, 2010


Lately an enjoyable correspondence has been going on in the Times Literary Supplement relating to the origins of that omnipresent and irritating word “cool.”

In his enormously long but exciting, indeed crucial campaign speech to the Young Men’s Republican Union at the Cooper Institute in New York City on February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln (Republican of Illinois) attacked the 1857 Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court, according to which neither African slaves, nor former slaves, nor even their descendants fell under the protection of the United States Constitution, and brilliantly turned that expedient, unfortunate, and chaotically muddled 7:2 majority decision back on the southern Democrats to whom for the time being it represented a dream come true:

“Under all these circumstances, do you really feel yourselves justified to break up this Government unless such a court decision as yours is shall be at once submitted to as a conclusive and final rule of political action? But you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that supposed event, you say, you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!’”

In Lincoln’s hands cool seems to have meant rich.

On 6 November, Lincoln won 1,866,452 votes, took eighteen states, and in the Electoral College beat his opponents Senator Stephen A. Douglas (Democrat of Illinois), Vice-President John C. Breckinridge (Southern Democrat of Kentucky), and John Bell (of Tennessee, Constitutional Union Party) 180 votes to 123. That was very cool.

Prominent on the podium when Lincoln delivered his famous speech—the speech that more than any other single factor won him the nomination at the Republican Convention in May—was Horace Greeley (1811–1872), the politician, committed abolitionist, and powerful editor of the New York Tribune, effectively the Republican Party’s national organ.

In a nice twist, many years later, Mr. Greeley cropped up in an unsigned article in the New York Times entitled “How To Keep Cool” (May 10, 1874), in which it was reported that the mercury had risen thirty-two degrees higher than on the same day twelve months prior, a gloomy harbinger of what was likely to be an especially trying summer:

“The question of keeping cool becomes of some importance when the thermometer touches 82 degrees, as it did in Park-row at 3.30 yesterday afternoon…The whole question might be discussed by parodying the late Mr. Greeley’s celebrated theory of resumption,—‘the proper way to keep cool is to keep cool.’ The aphorism is something more than a piece of alliteration. The wisdom of our ancestors has given the phrase a secondary meaning, equivalent to saying ‘avoid fretfulness and maintain an even temper,’ and in truth, all devices for summer coolness are thrown away if this first requisite for their success be neglected…Fénelon the Quietist, may be studied with advantage in the dog-days. ‘A patient, humble, tranquil spirit’ is an excellent thing to cultivate during the heated term.

Horace Greeley briefly represented the sixth district of New York in the United States Congress, but during Reconstruction moved gradually away from the Republicans, and eventually left the Party. In 1872 he ran for president against President Ulysses S. Grant as the nominee of the new and short-lived rival Liberal Republican Party, lost, and afterwards went mad—so perhaps it is just as well.

Anyhow, the author of that article in the New York Times mentioned Greeley’s “celebrated theory of resumption.” This was a reference to the suspension by Congress late in 1861 of “specie payments,” that is, the issuing of United States dollars in paper money (“greenbacks”) in order to preserve and insulate precious federal reserves of gold and silver—a radical monetary policy measure that was obviously made necessary by the outbreak of the Civil War. The suspension of specie payments was exceedingly inflationary, and in due course the administration of President Grant sought to resume them, in other words to enable banks and the U.S. Treasury once more to redeem United States paper money in solid, dependably stable gold and silver coins, in other words equivalent units of real value—a concept that in the midst of the present economic malaise seems entirely alien to our own and immediately preceding generations of central bankers. Even so, in the mid-1870s the issue was controversial, and Greeley’s famously phlegmatic statement on the matter was simply that “the proper way to resume specie payment is to resume.” Hence the proper way to keep cool is to keep cool. The article was syndicated widely, even to bemused readers of the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, August 3, 1874 (page six), who were probably shivering, dreaming of summer, or both.

Meanwhile, “Fénelon the Quetist,” in other words François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651–1715), Archbishop of Cambrai, was the author of Les Aventures de Télémaque, Explication des Maximes des Saints, and other proto-liberal tracts. Inevitably, perhaps, His Grace fell foul of King Louis XIV and the Inquisition. Though permitted to retain his archdiocese, embracing Arras, St. Omer, Nemours, Tournai and Valenciennes, Fénelon was from 1699 not allowed travel outside it. He seems to have spent his later years trying to stay warm and keep cool at the same time.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


A massive earthquake destroys much of London. Buckingham Palace is flattened. The Archbishop of Canterbury is crushed to death at Lambeth. Thousands of other Londoners are killed beneath the rubble; scores are grievously injured, hundreds of thousands languish without food, clean water, medicine, or shelter. The world launches a massive relief effort, with assurances of sympathy, solidarity, and practical assistance over the long term. The special relationship is invoked. At Heathrow, U.S. Marines airlift distressed survivors to safety. After a long flight in cramped conditions, these British evacuees—none of whom has a criminal record—are processed at customs and immigration in Boston, but found to lack the appropriate travel documents and visas. They have nothing but the clothes on their back, and are severely traumatized. Nevertheless they are detained, locked up pending deportation proceedings, and the key is thrown away—notwithstanding the fact that the same authorities responsible for their arrest have since the earthquake indefinitely suspended deportations to Britain.

This scenario is, of course, a preposterous invention, and the main premiss would be inconceivable, impossible… unless you substitute Port-au-Prince for London, Haiti for Great Britain, and Miami for Boston. Incredible as it may seem, there were according to Thursday morning’s New York Times at least thirty blameless Haitian evacuees locked up in the Broward County Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, and all efforts to secure their release had thus far been unsuccessful. Pro bono advocates discovered them there in February, quite by accident. According to the Times, since their detention these people had little or no access to mental health care, nor to Creole-speaking relations who were more than willing to take them in, and wanted to know how they were getting on. Some had been transferred to farther distant “facilities,” and were gradually being absorbed into the vast national grid of detention centers—in other words jail. It is the kind of nightmare one associates with Franz Kafka, the cruelest and most pointless gulags, or Argentina’s dirty war; not, I think, with a great nation that is proud to describe herself as the Land of the Free. But like all the worst nightmares, this one is real. And the racial dimension is sickening. Can you imagine this treatment being meted out to a couple of displaced scaffolders from Slough, a schoolteacher from Reading, or an orderly from Guy’s Hospital?

It is a supreme paradox of modern America that, once exposed by a great newspaper of public record, an incredible administrative blunder such as this—the product of bureaucratic inertia, short memories, long distances, and general apathy—can be partly fixed within twenty-four hours, well before the end of Holy Week. Most but not all of the Haitian detainees have now been let go. Still, it is terrifying that unless someone in authority in Washington, D.C., had gotten a nasty little surprise whilst scanning the front page of the New York Times on Thursday morning, and received (let us hope) a robust follow-up call from the White House, these unfortunate people might still be locked up.