Friday, February 27, 2015

"The pirates of Penzance" as satire

And some surprising political implications

If the above title sounds very much like the title for a Ph.D. dissertation I suppose my academic background is to blame for that.  Unlike a Ph.D. dissertation, however, all I want to set down here are a few comments.

I first saw "Pirates" when I took my (then) teenage son to see a well-reviewed production of it here in Brisbane.  I am not at all a Gilbert & Sullivan devotee -- the profundity of Bach is my musical home -- but I know the G&S works as classics of entertainment. So I felt that I should help along my son's musical education.  I remember another occasion in that connection.  In his early teens I recommended Stravinsky to him but he said that he didn't like Stravinsky.  I said to him:  "Don't worry. You will". He came to me some years later and said:  "John, you were right.  I do like Stravinsky".

Anyway, you see far more of any Singspiel on DVD than you do in a theatre audience so I recently acquired a DVD of "Pirates". And, watching it, I did see that it had elements of satire. "Pirates" is not of course satire an sich.  It is simply the madcap humour of W.S. Gilbert ably abetted by the great musical abilities of Arthur Sullivan. I see it as a forerunner of other madcap British comedies such as those of  Mr. Bean,  the Goons and the Pythons.

What differentiates comedy and satire is of course that satire is humour targeted at someone as a form of criticism.  It is deliberately didactic.  But straight comedy can teach lessons too, if only in an incidental way.  And I see some of that in "Pirates".  Perhaps a surprising one that I see is in the song of the "modern major general", now a widely treasured bit of fun.  What Gilbert was doing in that song was referring to something that no Leftist would believe: That  British military officers  were and are often quite scholarly in various ways.  That's not at all universal but not infrequent either.  Even an RSM will often be a man of unexpected depths.  The Sergeant Major of my old army unit  was/is in fact a fan of Bach and Palestrina (nothing to do with Palestine).   And the only Wing Commander (airforce) I know is a voracious reader with a wide knowledge of history.

Captain Cook, the 18th century British discoverer of much in the Pacific is a very good example of a scholarly military man.  His discovery of the cure for scurvy alone ranks him as a distinguished scientist and his practice of quarantine was exemplary for the times.

But a much less well known but quite commendable 18th century military man with scientific interests was Watkin Tench,  an officer in His Majesty's Marine Forces.  He was posted to the new British colony in Australia in its very earliest days, then a hardship posting.  You could lose your life just getting there and back.  So he was no elite soldier and was actually from a rather humble background.  His interest was meteorology and he brought with him the latest Fahrenheit thermometer. He kept a meteorological diary that included  observations from his thermometer taken four times daily in a sheltered spot -- exemplary practice even today.

And his record of the Sydney summer of 1790 is particularly interesting.  It was very hot.  There were even bats and birds falling out of the trees from the heat.  And his thermometer readings tell us exactly how hot.  So we have both readings from a scientific instrument and behavioural observations that validate the readings:  Very hard to question.  And the solidity of his data is very useful in exposing the liars of Australia's current Bureau of Meteorology.  They have got the virus of Warmism in their heads and are always claiming that Australia in whole or in part is currently experiencing a "hottest" year.  And they exploit the fact that Sydney does occasionally have some very hot summers.  But Tench's data show that such summers go back a long way in Sydney  and hence cannot be attrributed to nonsense about the current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. The only additions to atmospheric CO2 from the Australia of Tench's days would have been the product of breathing by various living creatures.  There was not even any reticulated electricity anywhere in Australia or anywhere else at that time.

So in the famous song of the modern Major General, Gilbert was simply doing an amusing exaggeration of a real phenomenon, a military man with scientific interests, probably one better known to the British public when Gilbert wrote around 100 years ago.

I actually find prophetic Gilbert's treatment of the police ("When the foeman bares his steel").  The police have always been greatly  respected in Britain -- though that must have eroded in the last two decades -- but Gilbert defies that.  He makes fun of the police and portrays them as cowards.  As a portrayal of modern British police forces that would not be too far astray.  Did Gilbert have some experience of police to lead him to the derogatory view he took of them? I suspect it. In Strange Justice and Political Correctness Watch you will certainly find a wealth of instances of reprehensible behavior by the British police of today.

And the other police song ("A Policeman's Lot Is not a Happy One") is also very modern, expressing sympathy for offenders and a reluctance to arrest them.  Gilbert is actually a rather good prophet.  Warmists eat your heart out!

And the pirate King's assertion that "compared with respectability, piracy is comparatively honest" is also refeshingly cynical.  Commenters on modern-day "crony capitalism" in America will nod approval. And the decision of the daughters to "talk about the weather" rather than pry is quintessentially British. And the homage to Queen Victoria was also an appropriate contemporary reference but greatly exaggerated, of course.  It too could be seen as mocking by a modern audience

And I must pay tribute to the performance (in the production I have) to the singing of Linda Ronstadt.  Better known as a popular singer she is also a superb soprano and greatly ornaments the role of the Major General's daughter Mabel.

FOOTNOTE:  I use the German word Singspiel above because there is no equivalent in English.  It means a "sung play" and refers to any musical performance (from Mozart's Zauberfloete ("Magic Flute") to Benatzky's beloved Im Weissen Roessl ("White Horse Inn")) that includes both spoken and sung dialogue.  A Hollywood musical such as "Showboat" is also a Singspiel.  English has a horde of words borrowed from other languages so it seems regrettable that a useful word like Singspiel has not been borrowed too.


What Scott Walker Actually Said

Yes, believe it or not, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker actually spoke at some length at the dinner this past week where Rudy Giuliani charged that President Obama doesn’t love America. All the hullabaloo went to Giuliani, but in terms of the Republican presidential race, a number of Scott Walker’s pointed comments about policy and politicians are not to be missed.

First a word about the dinner itself, which was generously backed by John Catsimatidis. It was the second event sponsored by the Committee to Unleash American Prosperity, a new group founded by Arthur Laffer, Steve Moore, Steve Forbes and myself. Just as the Committee on the Present Danger – formed by Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, and Irving Kristol – worried about the decline in American foreign policy in the late 1970s, we are worried about the decline in American economic growth over the past 15 years.

Our view is simple: To maximize growth, jobs, opportunity and upward mobility, the U.S. must recapture the first principles of economic growth that were so successful in the 1960s, ‘80s and '90s. Namely, pro-growth policies should seek a low-rate, broad-based flat tax, limited government spending, the lightest possible economic regulations, sound money and free trade.

Since 2000, the U.S. economy has barely reached 2 percent growth per year. Over the prior 100 years, American growth averaged 3.4 percent annually. To get back to the long-run trend – which epitomizes the most powerful engine of free-market capitalist prosperity in the history of history – future growth over the next decade will have to average 4 percent annually.

To advance our policy goals, our committee (still in formation) will be interviewing all the Republican presidential candidates in the months ahead. A few weeks ago we had dinner with Texas governor Rick Perry. This week we welcomed Scott Walker.

In his opening, Governor Walker stressed growth, reform, and safety. During the question-and-answer period, he emphasized sweeping Reagan-like tax cuts. And he frequently referred to his successful efforts in Wisconsin to curb public-union power as a means of lowering tax burdens, increasing economic growth and reducing unemployment.

Noteworthy, Walker argued that when Reagan fired the PATCO air-traffic controllers over their illegal strike, he was sending a message of toughness to Democrats and unions at home as well as our Soviet enemies abroad. Similarly, Walker believes his stance against unions in Wisconsin would be a signal of toughness to Islamic jihadists and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Walker was also highly critical of President Obama’s conduct in the war against radical Islamism, and said the U.S. must wage a stronger battle in the air and on the ground against ISIS.

He stressed the need for a positive Republican message in 2016, and bluntly criticized Mitt Romney for spending too much time on the pessimistic economic negatives emanating from Obama’s policy failures.

And in an unmistakable rip at both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, he called for a new generation and fresh faces to turn America back in the right direction.

More specifics: When asked about a sound-money policy, Walker said he was willing to sit down and learn. And on free trade, he needs a much clearer message. But in response to a question about solving middle-class income declines, he insisted that sweeping economic-growth policies aimed at all groups and categories, not just the so-called middle class, is the answer. He also aggressively defended his controversial University of Wisconsin budget cuts, arguing that they would slow tuition hikes and force professors to teach more.

Why did he leave Marquette before graduation? He saw a more attractive position at the Red Cross and wanted to start a political career. Yes, he nearly flunked French. But many folks think that’s a political plus. And as National Review editor Rich Lowry has written, 68 percent of Americans do not have a college degree. And many of us believe the time has come for a president without Ivy League credentials.

Can Walker win? Arthur Laffer has known him for years and says he has matured enormously from his days as Milwaukee county executive. Others say he is the only Republican candidate with a record of winning many different elections, from local office, to state assemblyman, to three gubernatorial races in four years.

Walker is a superb retail politician, a trait that will serve him well in the early primaries. He has an uncanny knack of maintaining direct eye contact. At the dinner, rather than rushing out for an early-morning TV call, he insisted on talking to every person in the large crowd surrounding him.

The question now is whether he can develop from a tough state-union buster to a national politician who can modernize Reagan’s policies while maintaining the Gipper’s upbeat message of optimism and growth.



GAO: Medicare, Medicaid and Veterans Health Administration at High Risk for Fraud, Waste, Abuse

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has published its annual update of federal programs “that it identifies as high risk due to their greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement...”

Healthcare programs feature high on the list. Medicare, the entitlement program for seniors, and Medicaid, the joint state-federal welfare program for low-income households, are longstanding members of the list; and the GAO notes that legislation will be required to fix them:

"We designated Medicare as a high-risk program in 1990 due to its size, complexity, and susceptibility to mismanagement and improper payments.

We designated Medicaid as a high-risk program in 2003 due to its size, growth, diversity of programs, and concerns about the adequacy of fiscal oversight."

So, that would be 25 years for Medicare and 12 years for Medicaid. Seen any progress? Unfortunately, the GAO recommends more top-down centralized control to fix the problems, instead of giving beneficiaries a financial interest in fixing the problems, as I proposed in a recent Washington Post column.

Remarkably, this is the first year that the Veterans Health Administration has made the list of high-risk programs. Much of the criticism is of the VHA’s misuse of new technology:

For example, we have reported on VA’s failed attempts to modernize its outpatient appointment scheduling system, which is about 30 years old. Among the problems cited by VA staff responsible for scheduling appointments are that the system requires them to use commands requiring many keystrokes and does not allow them to view multiple screens at once. Schedulers must open and close multiple screens to check a provider’s or a clinic’s full availability when scheduling a medical appointment, which is time-consuming and can lead to errors.

VA undertook an initiative to replace its scheduling system in 2000 but terminated the project after spending $127 million over 9 years, due to weaknesses in project management and a lack of effective oversight. The department has since renewed its efforts to replace its appointment scheduling system, including launching a contest for commercial software developers to propose solutions, but VA has not yet purchased or implemented a new system.

I have previously discussed that the electronic health records (EHRs) at the VHA and the Department of Defense cannot speak to each other. The GAO report discusses this in depth:

Further, as we have reported for more than a decade, VA and the DOD lack electronic health records systems that permit the efficient electronic exchange of patient health information as military servicemembers transition from DOD to VA health care systems.

One location where the delays in integrating VA’s and DOD’s electronic health records systems have been particularly burdensome for clinicians is at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center (FHCC) in North Chicago, the first planned fully integrated federal health care center for use by both VA and DOD beneficiaries. We found in June 2012 that due to interoperability issues, the FHCC was employing five dedicated, full-time pharmacists and one pharmacy technician to conduct manual checks of patients’ VA and DOD health records to reconcile allergy information and identify possible interactions between drugs prescribed in VA and DOD systems.

Please note that the same federal government which, after over more than a decade, cannot effect interoperable health records between two of its own departments believes that it can do so for the entire country’s private doctors and hospitals.



For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH,  POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten. I also put up occasional updates on my Personal blog

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1 comment:

C. S. P. Schofield said...

Regarding G&S's "Modern Major General; an important cultural cue is that, not too long before the G&S era, the Army had undergone a series of major reforms, including the end of the system of purchase of commissions. In order to do this, the government was obliged to purchase back all the commissions outstanding. However, it had always been try that once an officer was promoted to a certain point, his commission was no longer salable. For most of the land forces, that point was Major General. So, to save money, the Army promoted a large swath of soon-to-be-retired officers who would otherwise have been passed over to Major General, and promptly booted them out. Hence, the rank was something of a staring joke in the late Victorian culture, as the "Colonel Blimps" of the era between the World Wars would be later.

Wikipedia goes through this, if I recall correctly, but I learned it from a fascinating little book named MR. KIPLING'S ARMY.