The iron bun

The US Senate and the European Parliament likened to the ostrich that Sir Thomas Browne tried to feed an iron bun.

A bad week in democratic politics. By the virtual filibuster procedure conceded by Harry Reid, the Republican minority in the US Senate killed the minimal Manchin-Toomey bill ever so slightly tightening background checks on gun sales. It almost adopted Cornyn’s amendment imposing interstate recognition for concealed carry, a step toward the gun nut dystopia of arms everywhere, all the time.

American politicians are crazy, I thought, European ones are just stupid, I thought. Until the European Parliament voted down the Commission’s proposal to tighten carbon emissions allowances and revive the cap-and-trade market, now at a zero lower bound that makes the scheme a nonsense.

At least the American public, if it’s interested, can find out instantly who crashed the plane. I can’t find a proper analysis of the EP vote. Here is the raw voting list by parties (doc, page 23, vote on item 10, amendment 20 to reject the proposal). List of political groups, to explain the acronyms. Debate transcript – not yet translated, so you get the multilingual flavour of the plenary, if not a full understanding, unless you read Greek and Finnish.

ostrich2In an engagingly eccentric BBC programme on 17th century sensibilities, they picked Sir Thomas Browne, provincial doctor, polymath, writer of prose as rich and flavourful as Malmsey, and enthusiastic but unstructured Baconian experimenter. His best-selling(!) compendium of received errors, Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths (1646), has a chapter attacking the belief that ostriches eat iron.

The ground of this conceit is its swallowing down fragments of Iron, which men observing, by a froward illation, have therefore conceived it digesteth them; which is an inference not to be admitted, as being a fallacy of the consequent, that is, concluding a position of the consequent, from the position of the antecedent. For many things are swallowed by animals, rather for condiment, gust or medicament, then any substantial nutriment. So Poultrey, and especially the Turkey, do of themselves take down stones; and we have found at one time in the gizzard of a Turkey no less then seven hundred.

Browne finally encountered a live ostrich. According to Leslie Stephens [microupdate, see comments]:

Sir Thomas takes a keen interest in the fate of an unlucky ‘oestridge’ which found its way to London in 1681, and was doomed to illustrate some of the vulgar errors. The poor bird was induced to swallow a piece of iron weighing two and a-half ounces, which, strange to say, it could not digest. It soon afterwards died ‘of a soden,’ either from the severity of the weather or from the peculiar nature of its diet.

pain au chocolat The BBC presenter Adam Nicolson claims, relying on Browne’s copious notebooks, that he first tried to tempt the ostrich by concealing the iron in a pastry, like a haematic pain au chocolat. (Browne’s style is catching.) The ostrich ate the bun, but spurned the filling.

By what illation do we get our ostrich politicians to swallow their iron bun?

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

21 thoughts on “The iron bun”

  1. “At least the American public, if it’s interested, can find out instantly who crashed the plane.”

    That would be WHY the plane “crashed”: because that part of the public which actually cared about the matter wanted the plane to crash, it was taking them nowhere they wanted to go.

    I take it as a given that, were the House and Senate permitted to enact legislation by secret ballot, they would swiftly enact gun controls far more onerous than what was just defeated.

    And that’s why it’s a good thing they do not have the benefit of secret ballots when voting on legislation. Representative democracy requires public votes to restrain legislators by the threat of consequences at the next election.

    1. I take it as a given that, if the House and Senate actually represented their constituents rather than their NRA commanders, the gun bill would have passed–since 90% of Americans were for most provisions in it. But, alas, our politicians are owned simultaneously by the big banks, the NRA, the media (in the case of CISPA) and other corporate entities.

      Were the House and Senate permitted to enact legislation supported by their constituents, they would swiftly enact gun controls far more onerous than what was just defeated. It wouldn’t have to be by secret ballot. In fact, it could all be transparent sunshine, unlike the current de facto “secret ballot” system by which our politicians meet with their lobbyist minders.

      1. Let’s hope that Brett is correct about consequences in the 2014 elections.

        Of course, that also would require a memory on the part of the electorate, something they have rarely displayed.

      2. You seem to be deluded by some recent polling. Allow me to explain:

        Most people do not care about gun control. It is, according to polls, way, way down the list of concerns, only perhaps 4 or 5 percent of the population regards it as their most important topic. Most of those people are opposed to gun control, while a tiny fraction of that tiny fraction both care, and favor it. So, why do polls frequently show freakishly huge majorities favoring gun control measures, which when subject to democratic processes go down to defeat?

        Because the large majority who don’t care about this subject, don’t really hold any opinion on it. And it is human nature, when you have no opinion on a subject, to adopt, as protective coloration, what you believe to the majority opinion. And the the American media, who DO favor gun control, labor mightily to generate the impression that everybody is, of course, in favor of it.

        So people who don’t have any interest or opinion on the topic get polled, and thinking that they’re supposed to have an opinion, and that it’s supposed to be anti-gun, answer the pollster that way.

        But, because they don’t REALLY hold that opinion, this protective coloration generates none of the actions actual opinions do. It doesn’t cause them to write or call their Congressman, it doesn’t influence their voting, it doesn’t cause them to go out and join an organization. They do nothing on the basis of this pseudo-opinion. Frustrating as hell for the media, who keep trying to leverage their power to induce protective coloration into real opinion changes, and failing.

        Worse still, (From your perspective.) if they actually are caused by something to start caring about the topic, and start thinking about it, they mostly end up on my side of the aisle. Which is why more pro-gun bills than anti-gun have resulted from the media storm over Newtown. So, yes, this is likely going to effect the 2014 election, just like the ’94 “assault weapon” bill helped the Republicans take Congress. You’re going to lose some seats over this, and unlike ’94, you didn’t even get a law in return for your sacrifice of some Senators. Boo hoo.

        1. “.. if they actually are caused by something to start caring about the topic, and start thinking about it, they mostly end up on my side of the aisle. Which is why more pro-gun bills than anti-gun have resulted from the media storm over Newtown.”

          You have no evidence for this. The pro-gun bills and the spike in gun purchases can be economically explained by the intensity of the beliefs of the gun nuts. A number of parents in Newtown were recently “caused by something to start caring about the topic”, and surprisingly they seem to have developed strong views in favour of gun control.

          1. The ones who developed strong views in favor of gun control got press. The ones who opposed it mostly did not. You have a warped view of these things because you’re taking extremely warped news coverage at face value.

            Maybe you didn’t notice that the Newtown school board adopted the NRA’s much derided armed guard approach?

          2. “The ones who opposed it mostly did not [get press].” As evidence you link in economical self-refutation to a national Fox News TV clip!

            24 family members of 11 victims (10 children, 1 teacher) signed a public letter to Connecticut legislators in favour of stronger gun control. Not all grieving family members with that view will have been ready to go public with a political act, so the letter translates under common sense to a substantial majority of the families of the dead. If there were many antis, why didn’t they sign a letter? Mark Mattioli (of the Fox segment) was the only parent who gave evidence in the state capitol against gun control; that clearly suggests he was the only one ready to go public, though there may have been a few others in the silent minority.

            The gun troll campaign reminds me of Daniel Davies’ epigram at the start of Gulf War 2:

            Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance.

        2. It’s amazing how you reject my comment based on actual polling in favor of your own highly intuitive, anecdotal, and totally speculative pop-psychological analysis. Please tell us more about how your mind reading skills have demonstrated that the actual data is wrong.

          1. It’s amazing the way you reject actual political outcomes in favor of polls that happen to say something you like, but which are flatly incredible in light of the actual politics.

          2. See: my original point, which you didn’t address. That the GOP and few Dems care more about their NRA masters than their actual constituents. Can you address this without raising again your highly speculative and personal psychological notion of how polling works?

          3. The NRA does not have the kind of power that would drive politicians to vote the NRA’s way in a case where 90% of the public actually opposed the NRA. The NRA lacks access to diabolical mind control ray projectors. The entire pro-gun lobby is outspent by Bloomberg alone. The NRA can barely get a hearing in most media outlets, let alone dictate the content of coverage. Direct NRA membership amounts to only 2-3% of the voting population. How do you imagine the NRA has made itself the “master” of so many politicians, to the point where people who are up for regular vote of the people would obey the NRA, and not the people? (To the point where politicians up for reelection are particularly subject to the NRA’s commands?) Radio controlled bombs implanted in sinus cavities?

            Catch a clue: Politicians are afraid of the NRA only because enough voters look up to the NRA as representing their views, that to piss off the NRA IS to piss off a large portion of your constituents. It’s not the NRA vs the constituents.

            Your polls are for crap, naked propaganda meant to sway public opinion by persuading the weak minded that everyone already holds the views the poll is meant to sway them to. And your fantasy of NRA “masters” is just a delusional excuse generated by people who can’t admit that they lose political battles because their views are unpopular.

          4. “Because their views are unpopular….your polls are for crap….etc.” 90% of Americans are in favor of background checks. Period. The polling on this is not “for crap.” It is a fact, contrary to your speculative delusions that the beliefs of the electorate are somehow in line with a libertarian pipe-dream. In fact, without the presence of the NRA as an incredibly toxic force within the GOP that essentially forces moderates who support stronger gun regulation to vote against their beliefs, we’d see much more stringent gun laws and they would be popular.

            Say what you want, here’s what’s going on: moderate Republicans are terrified of being primaried because they vote for slightly stronger gun regulations. But that’s exactly what will happen–for any moderate Republican or Democrat in a conservative state who voted for better gun regulations, the NRA would simply inundate the race with money and advertising in favor of their opponents. This has (as you well know but will likely not admit) little or nothing to do with the beliefs of the electorate. It has to do with how primary politics works in the age of limitless campaign donations.

            Oh, the naked propaganda you mentioned? Read below, and then tell me again whose views are unpopular.

            • Washington Post-ABC News poll, April 11-14, 2013: “Would you support or oppose a law requiring background checks on people buying guns at gun shows or online?” Support: 86 percent. Oppose: 13 percent.

            • CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll, April 5-7, 2013: “Some proposals would require a background check on anyone attempting to purchase a gun in order to determine whether the prospective buyer has been convicted of a felony or has a mental health problem. Please tell me whether you would favor or oppose a background check for a prospective gun buyer under each of the following circumstances. … If the buyer is trying to purchase a gun at a gun show.” Favor: 83 percent. Oppose: 17 percent.

            “If the buyer is trying to purchase a gun from another person who is not a gun dealer but owns one or more guns and wants to sell one of them.” Favor: 70 percent. Oppose: 29 percent.

            “If the buyer is purchasing a gun from a family member or receiving it as a gift.” Favor: 54 percent. Oppose: 45 percent.

            “Please tell me whether you would favor or oppose a background check for anyone who wants to buy ammunition for a gun.” Favor: 55 percent. Oppose: 44 percent.

            • Quinnipiac University poll, March 26-April 1, 2013. “Do you support or oppose requiring background checks for all gun buyers?” Support: 91 percent. Oppose: 8 percent.

            • CBS News poll, March 20-24, 2013. “Would you favor or oppose background checks on all potential gun buyers?” Favor: 90 percent. Oppose: 8 percent.

          5. I am perfectly willing to believe that, if you phrase it right, you can get 90% of the people answering your poll to give that answer. I just don’t believe that represents genuine opinion. I believe the actual political outcomes demonstrate the distribution of political opinion in this country, and that polling is just a proxy for actual opinions, and often a really lousy one.

            Now, you apparently believe that the NRA is, genuinely, ordering politicians to give the upraised finger to 90% of their constituents. Fine. What’s the mechanism?

            Can’t be buying them, like I said, Bloomberg alone, (And he’s not alone!) outspends the NRA.

            Can’t be mind control rays, they don’t exist.

            Can’t be the NRA’s absolute dominance of the news media.

            I think the FBI would get involved if it were radio controlled sinus bombs.

            So, how is the NRA enforcing it’s orders that politicians commit political suicide?

          6. You saw that the completely innocuous and unbiased phrasing for the questions from four different pollsters was just above your response, right?

            Which “genuine” opinion are you referring to? It seems you only believe an opinion is “genuine” if it agrees with your extreme minority views (roughly 10-15% of polled constituents), while I tend to think that the opinion espoused by the other 90% of the polled electorate has a bit more favor, according to four different pollsters.

            It’s fine to live in a bubble and delude yourself that somehow you’re on the side of the majority despite actual evidence to the contrary. And I don’t for a second believe that the NRA is convincing politicians to give the finger to 90% of their constituents. I do, however, believe that our system is rigged in favor of conservative opinion through a variety of mechanisms, from the filibuster to gerrymandering (I live in arguably the most liberal, dense neighborhood in Texas and yet, because of gerrymandering, our representative is fifty miles away and an arch-conservative.)

            A majority (54 senators) were in favor of stricter gun laws. As are a large majority of Americans.

  2. It’s Leslie Stephen, no terminal “s.” The father of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

  3. I have thought for a long time that a major reason for the EU’s perception problems is insufficient media reporting.

    In most countries, there is extensive reporting on the proceedings of the national parliaments (in particular, committee meetings that even a politically interested person has a hard time keeping up with) and you get a lively pubic discourse as a result; this also creates a sense of accountability by their members towards the electorate which can help in countering lobbyist influence.

    But the European Parliament is generally ignored by the media until after debate has completed and a directive has to be implemented by the national legislatures, at which point everybody starts complaining about unelected bureaucrats (ignoring that MEPs are elected) rather than admitting that they kept ignoring the issue until it was a fait accompli.

    Yes, the EU’s websites are a mess, but we didn’t have websites a couple of decades ago, and we still had plenty of news coverage to compensate. In fact, just to filter the enormous amount of information, you generally need people with sufficient expertise (in particular, political journalists) to condense the flow of information down to a level where the average person can process it.

    Note: I’m not saying that the EU does not also have its share of institutional problems, but the European Parliament and Commission constantly being ignored by the media remains a major issue. Backroom dealing is only possible only in the absence of media spotlight.

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