The god of democracy is athirst

Taylor for president

Let’s start with what I see as a truism and most other Westerners will probably regard as heterodoxy, apostasy or downright sedition:

No political system – including democracy – is unequivocally good, although some may be unequivocally bad. What is important isn’t method of government, but the kind of society it brings forth and the kind of leaders it pushes to the top. That’s why it’s as foolhardy to worship democracy as it is to dismiss it out of hand.

Even the definition of democracy is hard to pin down. For the only kind of democracy where the demos would rule would be the direct kind, eschewed by all Western countries. Any other kind of democracy, limited or unlimited, presidential or parliamentary, is a complex organism irreducible to simplistic formulas.

The pro-democracy arguments are usually based on spurious comparisons between Western democracies and their undemocratic antipodes. And yes, the former tend to boast greater freedoms, more respect for individual sovereignty and for the law. Yet ascribing such wonderful things strictly to the way people get their governments is ill-advised.

Democracy in the West built on the solid legacy of Christendom. Such supposedly democratic premises as freedom of choice, respect for human life and dignity, sacrificing if necessary one’s interests to the common good are all fundamental Christian concepts. The founding principles of our legality came down from two mountains, our pluralism owes much to the Catholic concept of solidarity counterbalanced by subsidiarity and so on.

In fact one could argue (as I have done in several books) that the West began to decline when it severed its links with its heritage and abandoned it for the sake of political formalism. In consequence, people have lost the habit, perhaps even the ability, to look at a country and ask not “Is it democratic?” but “Is it good?” And no, although the two concepts may overlap here and there, they are not invariably synonymous.

They could become synonymous, and here I’m about to go on a wild goose chase, if the electorate were made up of individuals aware that taking part in governance (which is what voting is) imposes responsibilities. A citizen should only cast his vote after seriously considering the pros and cons of the policies proposed by various candidates and evaluating their ramifications for personal and public good.

That doesn’t mean that everyone should be an accomplished political scientist, but it does mean that some basic education is a must. For example, if raising interest rates is a key issue in a campaign, voters must understand, if only in general terms, what effect that would have on the economy, specifically the people’s economic behaviour.

Different people may come to different conclusions, and it can never be guaranteed that truth will out. But at least each vote would be cast by serious people aware of their responsibilities to their country, to themselves and to their families.

If anyone labours under the misapprehension that modern democracies meet even such elementary requirements, I can disabuse you of that notion with two words: Taylor Swift.

In a recent survey some 20 per cent of Americans said they’d vote the way Swift tells them. Now, I understand this young lady is some kind of pop star, although I can’t boast any familiarity with either her art or her politics.

However, as someone who cherishes first principles, I have little doubt that her art is an exercise in pseud vulgarity, while her politics is a compendium of brainless kneejerk fads.

As a pop star and an ‘influencer’, Miss Swift has to love abortion, LGBT rights, racial minorities, any Third World values, MeToo, BLM, ‘gender identity’, ‘our planet’, uncontrolled immigration and any Democrat, especially Joe Biden. And she must oppose private ownership of guns, whites who stubbornly cling to their majority status, capitalism, colonialism, men who still outnumber women on corporate boards, and any Republican, especially Donald Trump.

(If I’m wrong in those a priori assumptions, I’m prepared to eat my hat, either raw or cooked by any method known to gastronomy.)

If some Americans have carefully considered those issues and felt affinity with them, then by all means they should vote that way. But voting as some bimbo ‘influencer’ tells them, and simply because she says so, compromises not only them but the very idea of democracy as it has become.

Lest you may think I have it in for America, the situation in Britain is just as bad and more sinister. Our democracy increasingly comes close to any sensible definition of mob rule.

Until relatively recently, British democracy was what is sometimes called Burkean. MPs, Burke explained with his customary epigrammatic clarity, are people’s representatives, not delegates. They should act according to what they see as people’s interests, not wishes. The people choose their representatives and then trust them to govern according to their own conscience.

That concept fell by the wayside long ago, with the arrival of cynical politicians seeking office by pandering to every wish of an illiterate and therefore malleable electorate. Since the silent majority is just that, silent, effectively this means MPs are at the beck and call of variously pernicious pressure groups or simply the mob.

Since our Labour politicians mostly, and Tory politicans often, represent constituencies with a heavy Muslim presence, they are supposed to toe the line drawn by fanatics of Islam. If they dare overstep that line, for example by evincing the mildest of pro-Israeli sentiments, they find themselves under an avalanche of vile abuse and highly credible death threats.

Muslim zealots act in cahoots with white ‘liberals’ who hate our civilisation because it’s British and formerly Christian, and our culture because it’s white and ‘elitist’. Together those groups create a menacing atmosphere making our MPs run for cover or even quit. Some are given police protection, sorely needed because some others are attacked and occasionally murdered.

The Chairman of the Labour Party and his deputy were photographed ‘taking the knee’ during the BLM riots. But both of them seem reluctant to ignore Israel’s right to self-defence when the issue of Gaza ‘genocide’ is brought up by the mob. However, one can see their views moving away from even qualified support for Israel: grassroots pressure, fortified by death threats, is working well.

All this goes to show that even countries with centuries of democratic tradition fail to uphold its basic tenets. Expecting democratic Johnnies-come-lately, such as the former Soviet republics, to be impeccably democratic is either foolish or disingenuous.

There especially, applying moral standards would produce a much better assessment than insisting on unwavering democratic probity. However, pretending otherwise can be used as a ruse to justify Putin’s fascist aggression against the Ukraine.

Peter Hitchens, who has been an open admirer of Putin’s regime from its inception, now blames the Ukrainians for ousting their “democratically elected” president Yanukovych by popular uprising, which Hitchens adroitly refers to as a ‘putsch’.

Ukrainians, unaware that Yanukovych was a Putin stooge, did vote him in. When they realised the new government would shortly put paid to their country’s sovereignty, they rose against him in popular revolt. Democracy was temporarily abandoned; lasting political goodness was served.

Proving that the uprising thwarted Yanukovych’s (meaning Putin’s) mission, reincorporating the Ukraine into Russia, Russia immediately invaded, first surreptitiously in 2014, then openly in 2022.      

Yet Hitchens insists on democratic form even at the expense of diabolical content. “Belief in democracy is near-sacred,” he says. He then earns my appreciation by his nimble transition from democracy to regurgitating Kremlin propaganda. One must respect skill even if it’s put to evil ends, as in this case:

“Of course, I do not know who if anyone was behind the overthrow of Yanukovych. All kinds of Western politicians and intelligence types were hanging around Kiev at the time. And the West blatantly betrayed its own principles to condone and forgive the nasty event. But that of course does not prove that any Western nation backed the coup against Yanukovych.

“Even so, it is my view that any outside force which did support that putsch is just as guilty of aggression and warmongering as Russia’s Putin is. Think of that as you listen to all those loud, safe voices demanding that we keep on fuelling this war, in which Ukrainians die daily for democratic principles we do not, in fact, support.”

NATO is to blame, in other words. And Ukrainians come across as both more democratic than thou, prepared to die for democracy, and also contemptuous of it. I’m confused – but enough about Hitchens.

I’m only using him as an illustration of how easily democratic formalism can be coopted to promote evil. One can be validly concerned that before long it will be mostly used for that purpose.

Unhappy anniversary

Two years ago today, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the Ukraine. Putin declared the war would be over in three days, which has turned out be the longest three days in history.

That blitzkrieg immediately claimed a large chunk of Ukrainian territory, at which point the Ukrainian forces began their heroic fightback. Before the attrition phase began last autumn, they had reclaimed some 50 per cent of the lost territory, inflicting heavy losses on the invaders.

The West sprang, or rather trundled, to the Ukraine’s defence. President Zelensky issued a Churchillian plea for the tools to do the job, which regrettably didn’t elicit any response on the scale of the Lend Lease. The tools did come, but nowhere near enough to do the job that really needs doing: driving the fascist aggressors back to the 1991 borders established by both bilateral and international treaties.

Having had their tails pinned back, the Russians bared their fangs and began a war of annihilation. In addition to savage (and well-documented) brutality towards civilians in the occupied areas, they systematically proceeded to destroy Ukrainian cities and infrastructure burying thousands under the rubble.

Putin’s intention is clear: since the Ukrainians have the temerity to resist, the country and its people must be exterminated. Cato’s demand, Carthago delenda est, has been reiterated in a different place and at a different time by an evil dictator who has never heard of Cato.

Western aid has been trickling down to the Ukraine, but at a level that testified to only two possibilities: either the West was mortally petrified of Putin or it wasn’t aware of the full magnitude of the threat Russia posed. The first was craven; the second, stupid.

If NATO presented a united front of countries deadset on stopping Russian aggression in its tracks, Russia couldn’t even consider a conventional assault on any NATO member. It’s doubtful Russia could successfully take on even Poland on her own, never mind the combined might of all NATO countries.

Putin knows that, which is why both he and his stooges incessantly threaten the West, in fact the world, with nuclear annihilation. If we are made to leave, they keep saying, we’ll bang the door on the way out with such force that nothing will remain standing anywhere.

In other words they resort to the “I’m a psycho!” ploy I described the other day. That was how weaker boys used to keep bullies off their backs in Russian dark alleys. Now, I have neither the intelligence data that would confirm or deny the probability of such a scenario nor the military knowledge to judge its likely outcome.

But considering the relative military, economic and technological strengths of NATO and Russia, one can confidently predict that, while the former would suffer horrific losses, the latter would be wiped off the map. Putin knows this and, more important, those who form his power base know it. Another player opposed to the game unfolding in that way is China, which has much to lose and nothing to gain from a nuclear exchange between NATO and Russia.

That makes Russia’s nuclear retaliation against the West highly improbable, though of course not impossible. Nothing is impossible for evil dictators.

However, if that remote possibility forced the West to surrender to evil, the West would remain Western only in the strictly geographical sense. Everything that used to amount to the moral, intellectual and metaphysical strength of our civilisation would have had to fall by the wayside.

Since I believe – or rather hope and pray – that this isn’t the case, the second possibility is more likely. The West doesn’t see Putin as enough of a threat to anything other than the Ukraine’s sovereignty. And that isn’t a sufficient inducement for the West to commit itself fully to her support.

If so, then this misapprehension can be kindly called myopic or, more realistically, idiotic. Watch what evil dictators do, chaps, and especially listen to what they say. For, unlike Western politicians, people like Hitler or Putin don’t have to fear an electoral backlash. So they are never reticent about their intentions. Putin hasn’t yet written his own Mein Kampf, but what he and his spokesmen have said could easily be collated into a book that size.

The Ukraine, they are saying, isn’t the final destination but only a step along the way. Putin regards the Ukraine as strictly a NATO proxy whose rearguard action is holding up the Russian offensive. Its strategic objective is returning to the halcyon days of the Soviet Empire.

That means reincorporating the former Soviet republics and re-establishing the Russian domination of Eastern Europe. Since almost all Eastern European countries are NATO members, such an objective is tantamount to NATO being disbanded or at least emasculated.

Refusing to take Putin at his word spells criminal irresponsibility, far exceeding the West’s craven response to the Nazi threat in the runup to the Second World War. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst – this homespun truth is indeed truthful, and the West ignores it at its peril.

We, citizens of Western countries, should thank our lucky stars (we’ve forgotten how to thank God) that we aren’t called upon to do our own fighting. The Ukrainians are happy to do that for us. All they are begging for is weapons: artillery, AA defences, air superiority warplanes, tanks, long-range missiles and above all ordnance for the systems already in operation.

What happens when they don’t even get enough artillery shells was demonstrated at Avdiivka, a key town in the Donetsk area the Russians managed to capture after four months of non-stop fighting. The Ukrainians fought brilliantly, killing at least 14,000 Russians and in the end managing to break out of the encirclement. That was the best they could do because their cannon fell silent. They ran out of ammunition.

Over the two years, the US has been the biggest supplier of aid, averaging about $1.5 billion a month. That was a drop in the ocean for a country spending the better part of $800 billion a year on defence. But even that drop dried out in December, when the Democrats and the Republicans began to play their little games while the Ukraine was bleeding white.

The difference between the two parties is mainly rhetorical. Biden pledges undying support for the Ukraine and calls Putin a “son of a bitch”, while the congressional Republicans inspired by Trump make frankly isolationist noises along the lines of “not our war” and “let’s sort out our own problems first”.

In that spirit, House Speaker Mike Johnson kept refusing to put the aid package to a vote, trying to delay doing so as much possible. Yesterday he sent the House into recess without that vital vote ever taking place.

Meanwhile, Biden is currying favour with his electorate by talking tough yet doing nothing. He tries to score electoral points against the Republicans while refusing to provide to the Ukrainians the $4.5 billion already allocated in the budget for this fiscal year. That’s equal to three months’ worth of aid – at a time when Russian murderers are claiming hundreds of Ukrainian lives every day.

Every Putinversteher, in fact Putinfan, justifies delivering the Ukraine to Putin by explaining that the country is less than perfect. Only fanatic Putinistas like Hitchens repeat Putin’s lies about the Ukraine being Nazi, but they all point out she is corrupt.

Of course she is. What do you expect after 75 years of communism? I assure you that the level of corruption even in the most westernised post-Soviet republics, the Baltics, is higher than anywhere in the West. But whoever said the West should choose as its allies only angelic countries where none of the nation’s wealth is ever pilfered?

The Ukraine is good only relatively speaking, but the critical thing to understand is that Putin’s Russia is evil absolutely. The moral choice is clearcut even if we are so foolhardy as to ignore the strategic considerations.

Understanding that the Ukraine is more corrupt than Britain should affect only the nature of the aid we provide, not our determination to provide it. For example, I’d keep cash transfers to the Ukraine down to a minimum, channelling most aid into armaments. Whatever cash is sent can come from raiding the ill-gotten Russian lucre, some $300 billion of it, sitting in Western banks, although that money could be better used to rebuild the Ukraine after the war.

But not to supply armaments the country needs to stem the onslaught of evil is the height of strategic myopia and moral decrepitude. The Ukraine may be an imperfect country, but she is our imperfect country.

Today, on this tragic anniversary, every decent person must join the Ukrainians dying for us all in crying “Glory to the Ukraine!” Today, that is the battle cry of the forces of good.

A wail of two cities

Last year, Notting Hill, an upmarket area of London (p. 3,097), paid more in capital gains tax than Manchester (p. 2,791,000) Liverpool (p. 917,000) and Newcastle (p. 823,000) combined. Either those northerners are real wizards at tax avoidance or any committed egalitarian must cry havoc and let slip the dogs of class war.

The two most obvious ways of reducing economic disparities between two groups are either making the poorer group richer or the richer group poorer. The second solution has the advantage of being easier and more conducive to virtue signalling.

Yet there exists a less obvious way of achieving social justice (the modern for injustice) by making a prosperous area statistically less prosperous: plonking thousands of units of low-income housing right in the middle of it.

For example, putting a few sprawling council estates into Notting Hill, thereby quadrupling its population, would serve that worthy purpose in two ways. First, since the denizens of such lugubrous quarters hardly ever pay any tax, never mind one on capital gains, the stats will start to look better straight away.

And then there’s the extra benefit of the original fat cats moving out. Because, for a reason I can’t possibly fathom, much as council estates increase equality, they have the opposite effect on social tranquillity. And people who pay a lot in capital gains tax can read such statistics fluently. So they up sticks and move somewhere else.

Now, though I don’t have similar data for Paris, anecdotal evidence shows similar iniquity. One decent apartment in, say, Avenue George V costs more than 100 houses like mine, and that’s if I could sell it at all (rural properties aren’t in high demand).

There is no escaping the shameful fact that both London and Paris spit in the face of everything modernity holds dear. Yet this outrage may not last long if the mayors of the two great cities can do something about it. And let me tell you, they can.

Both cities are blessed with mayors whose politics place them beyond the left end of the mainstream spectrum. Sadiq Khan has held his London office for eight years now, and his Parisian counterpart, Anne Hidalgo, for ten. That’s a lot of time to spend on correcting social injustice, and the two officials seem to compete to see which one can inflict the greater dam… sorry, I mean do more good.

I don’t know whether Sadiq and Anne compare notes, but they do seem to espouse similar policies. For example, both have made driving well-nigh impossible in both city centres. The last time I ventured into Paris was on a Saturday a year ago, and on the way out it took me almost two hours to travel about as many miles. Reducing three lanes to one works wonders for city traffic.

In London, Mr Khan suffocated traffic with bicycle lanes, expanded the congestion charge zone and also extended it to weekends. That means it now costs £15 to drive into the large central area on any day of the week, which has reduced congestion only marginally if at all, while reducing much more the disposable income of those poor out-of-towners who have no other way of getting to work.

Council estates also proliferate in London, with special care being taken to build them in places like Notting Hill, not to let the resident toffs feel too complacent.

Yet, much as it hurts me to admit this as a Londoner, if Sadiq and Anne are indeed in competition, Anne is taking the lead. She has just announced plans guaranteed to give her London rival an acute sense of inferiority.

Mlle Hidalgo wants to build new council estates (HLMs in French) in the smartest parts of Paris, such as Champs-Elysées and Avenue George V. That’s consistent with what Mr Khan is doing in London, but Anne wants to go Sadiq one better.

However, space available for new construction is such areas is limited. That’s more than one can say for Anne’s desire to achieve “social and demographic equilibrium”. The will is there, and she has found a way.

To begin with, she plans to convert some Catholic school buildings into HLMs. That serves three purposes, each impeccably worthy. First, the desired equilibrium will be within sight. Second, the greater equilibrium will make the current residents squirm and, ideally, run for their lives. Third, fewer children will have their mind poisoned with those uncool Christian myths. Happiness all around.

Alas, there are only 110 Catholic schools in Paris, so even converting them all into HLMs won’t do the trick, even though that would be a step in the right direction. Further, longer strides are urgently needed and trust Anne to know what they must be.

Mlle Hidalgo can’t take all the credit though, because she works hand in glove with her Housing Deputy, who is a card-carrying communist. Anne herself is merely a socialist, which on this evidence is a distinction without a difference.

The two of them came up with a plan striking in its simplicity. The city will confiscate 10 per cent of the area in every new or refurbished building 5,000 sq. meters or larger and turn it into an HLM. Falling into that category are most Haussmann buildings on the Right Bank, such as the one in the photo above.

This is called servitude de mixité sociale, and servitude is the right word for it. However, even the feudal servitude of the past presupposed a greater respect for property rights than Mlle Hidalgo shows. The French in general hold these rights in lower esteem than is customary among les anglo-saxons, but this really takes la brioche.

When I first heard the news I recalled a conversation I had with a Parisian friend some 15 years ago. Then it had just been announced that 50,000 units of HLM housing would be built in the 16th Arrondissement, Paris’s answer to Notting Hill.

I did some quick mental arithmetic and pointed out to my friend that this could mean half a million recent arrivals moving into a fine residential area. His reply made me think of Saltykov-Shchedrin, the 19th century Russian satirist who once quipped that “The severity of Russian laws is only mitigated by noncompliance therewith”.

“Don’t worry,” said my knowledgeable friend. “None of those flats will go to the people you are thinking of. They’ll go to the mayor’s friends, their friends, or anyone capable of placing a bribe strategically.”

That put my mind at rest: it was good to see fiscal corruption trumping the ideological kind. Given the choice between bribery and ideological ardour, I’d choose bribery every time.

But things have changed and ideology is taking the upper hand. Mlle Hidalgo has specifically said that the new properties will go to the socioeconomically and racially disadvantaged.

There shall be wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth among middleclass Parisians who make up most of the population inside the ring road. They are hoping the mayor won’t be allowed to act on her plans, and their hope may well come true.

Yet the very fact that such plans were to be hatched shows that Sadiq Khan still has work to do. Anne Hidalgo is pulling so far ahead she may be hard to catch up.

I have an idea, Sadiq: how about killing every white male middleclass new-born? Something to think about, I dare say, although I confidently predict it will still be a few years before such an idea can come to fruition.

P.S. I’ll look askance and possibly out of the window at any attempt to attribute the ideas of the two mayors to their foreign lineage. However, this is another thing they have in common.

Putin’s trump card

Whole books have been written about Donald Trump’s special bond with Putin, an affair based on mutual attraction and a sense of spiritual kinship.

Some commentators have suggested that other factors, such as an FSB dossier of kompromat, may be a factor as well, but the romantic in me insists on ascribing the relationship to warm feelings rather than cold calculations.

Anything more than that falls into the category of treason, and such accusations can’t be levelled without prima facie evidence, which in this case is lacking. However, if lawyers demand proof, commentators can make do with indications.

Trump has always been generously obliging in providing those, but seldom as much so as in the immediate aftermath of Navalny’s murder.

That crime has caused global shouts of outrage, with most of the West’s top politicians especially in fine voice. Probably not all of them felt genuine wrath and a sense of personal loss, but they all acknowledged the political benefits of not showing callous indifference to that brutality. Some might even have been guided by simple decency, although I wouldn’t bet on it.

Against that background, here’s how one of the world’s most influential politicians, Trump, commented on that crime: “The sudden death of Alexei Navalny has made me more and more aware of what is happening in our Country. It is a slow, steady progression, with CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction.”

Every word is a real gem (as is the orthography), but especially precious are the words that didn’t appear in that typically illiterate missive: ‘Putin’ and ‘murder’. Instead, Trump repeated the mockingly cynical diagnosis issued by Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service (FPS): sudden death syndrome.

Another possibility offered by the same source was a loose blood clot, which diagnosis was made within minutes of Navalny’s death. None of those ridiculous Western expedients, such as scans or even X-Rays – Russian diagnosticians don’t need them, they are that good.

Incidentally, that second diagnosis immediately inspired Russian rappers. Just two days later federal TV channels ran a video of youngsters disco-dancing to the deafening sound of the band bellowing “Loose clot, loose clot!” Nice clean fun, Russian-style.

That alone is enough to tell you all there is to know about the moral degradation of the Russians. But what interests me today is the moral degradation of Donald Trump. And let’s not forget his unique take on logic, which, to follow current fashion, may be held as evidence of cognitive decline.

I for one fail to see any obvious connection between Navalny’s “sudden death” and the “CROOKED, Radical Left Politicians, Prosecutors, and Judges leading us down a path to destruction”.

My feeling about those reprobates are every bit as vehement as Trump’s, even though they so far haven’t made me shell out $350 million (good luck with that). But is Trump suggesting it’s those miscreants who are directly responsible for Navalny’s “sudden death”?

The Romans used to call this sort of thing non sequitur, while the Russians came up with a proverb, “Where is the water and where’s the estate?”. Next time Trump talks about Biden’s stupidity and senility, he ought to remember the English proverb about glass houses and stones.

In case Trump really does think that it’s those $350-million extortionists who caused Navalny’s sudden death, then his friend in the Kremlin has happily disabused him of that notion. While everyone knows who ordered the murder, Putin blithely revealed the names of those who responded “Yessir!” to the order.

Yesterday it was announced that several FPS officers had been promoted without the requisite time in service.

Valery Boyarinov, Deputy Director, was bumped up to Colonel General; Alexander Rozin, another Deputy Director, to Lieutenant General; Dmitry Sharovatov, Administrative head, to Major General; and Alexander Fedorov, Head of Personnel, to the same rank.

Since the promotions came in circumvention of the statutory requirements, these officers must have provided a special service to Russia. You aren’t getting any prizes for guessing what kind.

The name of the hands-on murderer hasn’t been made public yet, but I’m sure he was rewarded internally. It must have taken a lot of courage and skill to kill an emaciated prisoner with a single blow to the heart.

Trump’s response to Navalny’s murder, sorry, I mean “sudden death”, amounts to disgraceful toadying, making him an accomplice after the fact. Next to that salient fact, it seems almost petty to mention another murder ordered by Trump’s friend who is on a roll.

On 9 August last year, the Russian pilot Maxim Kuzminov flew his Mi-8 helicopter across the frontline and defected to the Ukraine. The young officer risked his life – and make no mistake: the risk was huge – because his conscience couldn’t allow him to take part in Putin’s mega-crime.

Unfortunately, Capt. Kuzminov didn’t stay in the Ukraine, where he would have been relatively safe. Instead he took his $500,000 reward and went to Spain, somewhere near Benidorm. There Putin’s hitmen riddled him with bullets the other day.

That didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who had watched an earlier interview with Russian Spetsnaz soldiers. Their voices firm and masculine, their faces hidden by balaclavas, the soldiers swore vengeance. “We’ll punish him where he is,” they promised, and they or their colleagues have been as good as their word.

The murder (what Trump would probably also call “sudden death”) of Capt. Kuzminov sends, or rather reiterates, a message ad urbi et orbi: Putin is prepared to murder anyone he considers his enemy anywhere in the world. Whether his victim is completely in his power, like Navalny, or at large, like Kuzminov, is immaterial. “We have long arms,” as those Spetsnaz soldiers put it.

The world, specifically the West, is facing the onslaught of absolute evil, Putin’s Russia. Like its other manifestations, such as Nazism and communism, its triumph depends not only on the originators but also on the servile collaborators.

If Trump’s shameful response to Navalny’s murder is any indication, one of them stands a good chance of ending up in the White House, which is supposed to be the headquarters of the West’s resistance. Considering that, and also the available alternative, I can’t look to the future with a song in my heart. Unless that song is a dirge.

When talking about elections in any Western country, I show my commitment to responsible recycling by often talking about the evil of two lessers. One can understand the growing popularity of my favourite candidate, Mr None of the Above.  

A royal pain and a farce

Prince William seems hellbent on following in the footsteps of his mother, who was woke long before the word even entered the Oxford Dictionary.

The other day HRH delivered himself of a view on the Gaza war, leaving one thankful that he stopped short of wrapping himself in the Palestinian flag and shouting “From the river to the sea!”

On the plus side, William clearly knows that Gaza isn’t the nickname of a former England footballer. On the minus side, he spoke of the “terrible human cost of the conflict in the Middle East since the Hamas terrorist attack”. [My emphasis.]

It’s that little word ‘since’ that shows where the prince’s heart is. Contextually, he was talking about the Israelis’ desperate attempts to wipe out sadistic Hamas murderers baying for their blood.

The pattern is all too familiar: first the Muslims, either terrorist gangs or actual states, attack Israel under variously worded slogans calling for another Holocaust. The woke majority in the Western media registers perfunctory disapproval, only then to unleash its full wrath when Israel begins to fight back.

Speaking of dictionaries, our lexicographers should add another meaning to ‘disproportionate’: “adj. the nature of any response by Israel to Muslim attacks”. HRH hinted at that meaning when he added that “too many have been killed”.

He must have a quota of permissible casualties in his mind, and Israel is guilty of exceeding it. Actually, Your Royal Highness, there is only one valid reply to anyone wondering how many should be killed in a war: as many as it takes to achieve the stated objective.

Israel’s objective is to defang Hamas and prevent repeat performances. Even though I haven’t been authorised to speak on behalf of the Israeli government, I can assure HRH that the killing will stop the moment that objective has been achieved. Until then, the phrase “too many” will remain meaningless.

As will the prince’s desire for “an end to the fighting as soon as possible”. PM Sunak rushed to William’s defence, saying that this was consistent with the government’s position.

I’ll let both gentlemen in on a secret: everyone in the world hopes the fighting will soon end. It’s just that different people hope it will end in different ways.

The only moral position is hoping that as a result of this war Israel will be left in peace, with its citizens allowed to go about their daily business without fearing that their babies could be disembowelled by diabolical ghouls.

Stopping before that wish becomes reality would mean admitting defeat. That’s why the superficially humane calls for a ceasefire in Gaza (or for that matter in the Ukraine) promote the triumph of evil over good – and I’m sorry to be using such outdated absolute categories.  

William’s sainted mother used to carry on ad nauseam about saving the homeless leprous whales in the rain forest from the landmines, which she saw as an unqualified evil. That enraged several generations of our veterans who tried to explain to her that minefields are an essential way of protecting one’s own soldiers. Like most other battlefield weapons, mines are morally neutral. It all depends on who lays them and to what end.

Yet Diana kept uttering abstract bien pensant phrases she thought were “humanitarian”, but were in fact silly and woke. And her son proves that some apples don’t fall from the tree at all, making one reassess one’s views on nature versus nurture.

The prince’s remarks have angered quite a few conservatives, who insist that our royals are constitutionally obligated not to make political pronouncements. One irate Tory even reminded William of what happened to his ancestor Charles I who also decided to dabble in politics.

It’s always nice to be kept abreast of the fine constitutional points, but we no longer live in 1649, nor even in 1688. In those days it was easy to categorise statements as political or apolitical. Alas, our world has been politicised to such an extent that everything we now say has political connotations.

Prince William, for example, has often voiced his heartfelt desire to save ‘our planet’ from, well, anything ‘our planet’ needs to be saved from. Whatever its astrophysical or climatological justifications, if any, that quest is a statement of political allegiance above all else. The prince might as well wear an ‘I’m woke’ pin in his Savile Row lapel.

This is to say that forbidding our royals to utter political statements is these days tantamount to hushing them up altogether, on any subject. Unless Buckingham Palace is ever inhabited by deaf-mutes, this strikes me as unrealistic – and also undesirable.

I wouldn’t even have a problem with the royals making overtly political pronouncements, provided such statements reflect the dignity and significance of the office they have inherited. In that regard, it’s important to remember that republican sentiments may be latent in Britain, but only as much as the pressure building up in the cooker.

If the slightest weakness develops, the pressure may blow the lid off and burst out. The greatest constitutional harm our royals could possibly cause would be for them to cater to the dormant antimonarchism by waking it up with woke statements.

A monarchy is a conservative institution by definition, out of keeping with the Enlightenment zeitgeist sucking oxygen out of our civilisation. Even though our royals are now devoid of executive power, they should keep reminding their subjects of everything constant and eternal, everything that links the generations past, present and future to make Britain British.

Since the monarchy has to survive in our party-political world, it must cast its lot with Tory principles, if not necessarily the politics of the present Conservative Party. The Tories, aka Conservatives, used to believe in a social order based on authority and traditional hierarchy, although not without flexibility.

Above all, they believed in the sacral meaning of the state in general and monarchy in particular. As an epigrammatic encapsulation of that mission, Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, observed that “he who gave our nature to be perfected by our virtue, willed also the necessary means of its perfection. He willed therefore the state.”

(Burke was one of the leaders of the Whigs, but in fact just about every leitmotif of modern conservative thought, including constitutional monarchism, can be found in his Reflections. In a way, the French Revolution helped Burke to open his political eyes, which the contemporaneous liberals castigated as apostasy. Thomas Jefferson, for example, spoke of the “rottenness of [Burke’s] mind,” which could only be ascribed to his “wicked motives”.)

That’s why the coronation ritual in Britain is not a political inauguration but a religious rite, and what can be more conservative than that?

William’s father, who had made all sorts of unconservative noises before his accession, wisely kept up that tradition at his own coronation. He must have realised, or was reminded, that our monarchy is conservative – or it is nothing. That overarching umbrella covers a whole slew of specific political beliefs, leaving no room for woke platitudes.

I hope his son will reach the same understanding when his turn comes. For the time being, his farcical statements make me fear that this hope may well end up forlorn.

Would you want to be an executioner?

Whenever party talk veers towards the death penalty, its supporters are easily outnumbered and outshouted by its opponents.

Charles-Henri Sanson

Their arguments start out as being rational, but eventually get personal. Most of the former are based on the possibility of judicial error, which in such cases would be irreversible.

Granted, few people would like to see a man killed for a crime he didn’t commit. However, not many more would rejoice at seeing a man wrongly sentenced to life in prison either, yet calls for the abolition of imprisonment are rare among sensible people.

The right to life is usually mentioned in this context, often by those who see nothing wrong with abortion. I haven’t run any statistically significant surveys, but observation suggests that most proponents of the death penalty are opposed to abortion and vice versa, with the right to life invoked by both sides.

We can discuss this incongruity some other time, at any length you wish. However, my experience suggests that, after every rational argument pro and con has had an airing, the question in the title inevitably crops up.

That is of course a rhetorical fallacy, known as argumentum ad hominem. But hey, what’s the odd rhetorical fallacy among friends? He who is without sin… and all that.

This question is usually directed at supporters of the death penalty, a group in which I’ve often found myself, if without excessive enthusiasm. My stock reply is that I wouldn’t want to drive a sewage truck either, but I realise that someone has to.

That response is fine as far as rhetorical tricks go, but it’s too flippant to have any real meaning. It would be more serious and honest to examine my feelings, a scrutiny that could only yield one answer: no, I wouldn’t.

Under any circumstances? Well, we can come up with any number of fanciful situations, but barring such extremes, no, I wouldn’t want to execute people, under any circumstances.

That usually triggers related questions. Would you agree to shake hands with an executioner? Entertain him at your dinner table? My answers are a qualified yes and an unqualified no, for whatever that’s worth.

But now it’s time to launch a counterattack against myself. Can I imagine a situation where I’d become a soldier? Easily, is the answer to that. Shake hands with a soldier? But of course. Have him as a guest? I’d consider it an honour, if he fought for my side.

These would be the spur of the moment replies of someone who hasn’t considered the issue deeply enough. Joseph de Maistre did, and he pointed out the absurdity of that kneejerk response.

Both the executioner and the soldier, he wrote, kill legally. However, the former puts to death convicted and condemned criminals, while the latter indiscriminately kills innocent men whose only fault is wearing a different uniform.

“Of these two professional killers, the soldier and the executioner, the one is greatly honoured… . The other, on the contrary, has just as generally been declared infamous.”

Now, Maistre didn’t just support the death penalty, but regarded the executioner as the central and most essential figure in any successful realm. That may be a bit eccentric, but it’s true that, when God wasn’t just considered a figure of speech, the death penalty was never seen as cruel or unusual.

Neither Scripture nor Catholic doctrine opposed the capital punishment, but there were always reservations. Aquinas, for example, insisted that, though he supported in principle the state’s right to execute criminals in pursuit of common good, the arguments either pro or con can’t be absolute. Each case must be decided by human reason.

The same, in St Thomas’s nuanced view, applied to warfare. While he condoned just war, he still regarded killing on the battlefield as a sin – a necessary one, but a sin nonetheless, something requiring absolution.

In 1908, Pope Pius X summed up the argument in this way: “It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defence of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.”

Lawful, yes. Moral, possibly. But what about one’s gut reaction to execution and executioners? Back come the lapidary questions, each falling down with a stone-like thud: Would you want to be an executioner or even invite one to dinner?

This brings me to one of the most famous (or infamous, if you’d rather) executioners ever, Charles-Henri Sanson (d. 1806). This colourful gentleman was in the fourth generation of his family dynasty of executioners, and there were two more generations after him.

Chevalier de Longval, as Sanson was known on the Paris party circuit, pioneered the use of the guillotine, with the help of which contraption he executed almost 3,000 people, King Louis XVI among them. That last act rendered him somewhat unpopular at society soirées, but until then his ‘de’ particle had made him socially welcome. In fact, many of the people he put to death were his friends.

(However, even such impressive numbers didn’t get Sanson into The Guinness Book of World Records. That honour, if that’s the right word, went to the NKVD executioner Vasily Blokhin, who dispatched tens of thousands with his own hand. He outdid even himself at Katyn, where he personally shot 7,000 Poles in just 28 days – hence the Guinness entry.) 

As a bit of poetic justice, Sanson’s eldest son Gabriel (d. 1792), his assistant and heir apparent, died after slipping off a scaffold as he triumphantly waved a severed head to the crowd. Teaches you not to gloat, doesn’t it?

It’s silly trying to imagine oneself in the shoes of those who lived centuries earlier. An Alexander Boot of the 18th century would have had different sensibilities and ideas from the present-day version. But just this once: if miraculously transported as I am now to Paris circa 1793, would I have wanted to break bread with Sanson?

Honestly? No, I wouldn’t, and don’t try asking me to explain. I ought to keep this irrational reaction in mind next time I present rational arguments in favour of the death penalty. Which I probably shall.

Connecting the dots

Putin’s mouthpiece

Once, intelligence officers are taught, is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action.

In other words, if an enemy does three or more seemingly unconnected things at the same time, ‘seemingly’ is the key word. There is always a pattern there, and it’s just a matter of being able to discern it.

The four events of the past few days that add up to enemy action are the murder of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s capture of Avdiivka after many months of desperate fighting, the announcement that Russian nuclear weapons will be put on satellites, and Medvedev’s hysterical threat to take out Western capitals.

To grasp the connection among them, one has to understand Putin’s mentality, formed as it was in the rough-and-tumble of Russian inner cities. Having a similar background helps, and that’s something I can boast, or rather bemoan.

When we were growing up, both his native Leningrad and my native Moscow were overrun with youth gangs. Putin ran with them, I ran from them, but we both had to acquire certain survival skills.

He and I were both smaller than most bullies around, making it impossible to fight them off. Following the tired maxim of joining them if you can’t beat them was one way out, and that was the path little Vova Putin followed. My upbringing took that option off the list, but our problems were similar.

Being a gang member didn’t protect a lad from violence meted out by rival gangs or indeed his mates. “Beat your own so others will fear you” is an old Russian proverb that has inspired the nation throughout its history. Hence both insiders like Vova and outsiders like me had to find an accommodation.

We tried to seek salvation in martial arts, for him judo, for me boxing. But that ran head on into another Russian proverb, this one of more recent vintage: “There’s no technique against a crowbar except another crowbar.” All that training only meant one got even a worse thrashing in the end. Neither judo nor boxing offered enough protection against stronger foes, especially several at a time.

The only thing left to do was pretend to be a psycho, what the Russians call a ‘no limiter’. “Don’t touch me, I’m a psycho!” was the battle cry of smaller, weedier boys. Meaning that, in response to some normal bullying, an attacker could get a pencil stuck in his eye or a brick broken over his head.

Once a ‘psycho’ had acted on his newly acquired reputation a couple of times, he was usually left alone. There was plenty of easier prey around, so why risk a serious injury picking on a ‘no limiter’?

Sorry about this exercise in nostalgia, but that’s what helps me understand Putin. I know where he is coming from.

His rival gang today is made up of bigger and stronger boys, otherwise known as NATO. There’s no way Russia can take them on in a fair fight, especially if they pool their resources. Yet take them on Putin must: his position as gang leader hinges on that. Show weakness, and one of his closest lieutenants will stick a shiv into his back. And the possibility of a popular uprising always looms large.

So little Vova, now the big cheese in the Kremlin, has to resort to the stratagem that used to get him out of trouble in his youth. He has to scream “I’m a psycho!” and come across as a real no limiter.

If we take that mentality out of the back alleys of Leningrad (as it then was) and transpose it into the somewhat wider field of geopolitics, it means Putin wants to scare off the West and also those of his own people who are beginning to get second thoughts.

Many commentators, those who grew up in different circumstances from his or mine, didn’t believe Putin would kill Navalny. That would turn world opinion against him, they explained. Such a vile act would disgust and galvanise the opposition both in Russia and abroad. People in his own country would come out in their millions to throw him out of the Kremlin.

Yet those analysts got their numbers wrong, if not their moral rating of that murder. A few thousand people in the West protested against that crime, an action that doubtless made them feel good about themselves, but predictably failed to achieve any other effect. In any case they weren’t the target audience for that particular bravura performance.

By doing something so many people considered implausible, Putin sent the “I’m a no limiter psycho” message to the Russians. If he killed a man of Navalny’s international renown, he can kill thousands more without batting an eyelid, millions if he has to.

This explains why internal protests against Kremlin fascism involved hundreds of thousands 15 years ago, tens of thousands a few years later and merely hundreds now. People have bought the psycho act and they are justifiably scared.

Now, Avdiivka was the last Ukrainian stronghold in the Donetsk area, after the metropolis was captured by Putin’s troops years ago. Quite apart from its strategic value (which experts say is minimal), Avdiivka thus had a huge symbolic significance for both sides.

The other day the Ukrainian high command decided to withdraw its battle group from Avdiivka, because otherwise it risked encirclement and destruction. The Russians finally grabbed what’s left of the town after years of fighting, every inch of the way paved with corpses piled up many layers high.

Their success was inevitable because in that artillery-dominated war the Russians outnumbered Avdiivka defenders 10 to one in artillery rounds fired. The Ukrainians ran out of ammunition, in other words.

That showed Putin that his psycho act worked not just domestically but also internationally. The Ukraine had to relinquish her nuclear weapons according to the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, with the US, Britain and Russia offering her security guarantees in exchange.

How Russia honoured those guarantees is well known, but NATO’s help to the Ukraine’s struggle for survival has been sluggish from the beginning. The West has fallen for the psycho act, with Putin and his propagandists constantly waving the nuclear shiv in the air.

If we lose, you’ll lose, they screamed. Do you think we’ll go without trouble? Think again, you NATO wimps. If those Ukie Nazis look like they are going to defeat us with your help, we’ll push the nuclear button and take the whole shebang down with us. I’m a no limiter, screamed the collective Putin. I’m a psycho!

And what do you know: the trick worked. Western supplies were going up one month, down the next, but the overall vector was unmistakable: they were dwindling away.

But not fast enough, as far as Putin is concerned. So he did what his gang members used to do in his youth: if the mark wasn’t scared enough, he had to be scared more.

To that end, Putin declared that he’d put nuclear weapons into space to destroy American satellites. Whether that threat is feasible is up to the experts to decide. Those I’ve read so far say it’s a bluff because a nuclear blast causes much of the damage by a shock wave, the combination of the pressure jump (called the overpressure) and the dynamic pressure. That can’t exist in space. I can’t judge the physics of it, but I understand the intention behind the threat very well.

For the other threat, Putin selected his loyal stooge Medvedev, formerly Russia’s sham president and now deputy chairman of the Security Council. In the past 30 years, Medvedev hasn’t uttered a single word unprompted by Putin. The latter uses him to scream “I’m a psycho!” the loudest, especially since Medvedev has acquired a carefully cultivated reputation for drunkenness.

This time around, Putin, speaking through Medvedev, screamed “I’m a psycho!” in this way:

“Attempts to return Russia to the borders of 1991 will lead to only one thing, [Armaggedon]. Towards a global war with Western countries using the entire strategic arsenal of our state. In Kyiv, Berlin, London, Washington.”

If I were a Parisian, I’d resent that omission of my city. “And what am I, foie haché?” I’d say, with put-on anger and genuine relief. But this isn’t a joking matter.

It’s a direct threat to retaliate in an insane fashion against continued supplies of armaments to the Ukraine. In response, European nations still appear to be standing fast. The Danes have pledged to transfer all their artillery to the Ukraine, while the Czechs have miraculously found a million loose artillery shells sitting forgotten in their warehouses.

Yet by far the biggest supplier, the US, is clearly responding the way Putin’s bespectacled victims did in the Leningrad of his youth. They submit to the threats, their cowardice covered up with pseudo-rational excuses (“Not our war”, “We have our own problems we must solve first”, “Why should our taxpayers shell out for that war?”)

That’s not how you deal with blackmailing thugs, chaps. And you certainly shouldn’t expect their demands to stop once the first ones have been satisfied. They’ll be ratcheted up instead – take it from someone who grew up dealing with the likes of Putin.

P.S. After Navalny was poisoned by the FSB three years ago, he rang up one of the murderers and, pretending to be a government official, got him to describe the crime in detail. This is the video of that call, with English subtitles:

Death of a hero

Alexei Navalny, RIP

The title comes from the 1929 novel by Richard Aldington, whose main protagonist is killed in the First World War.

While both sides in that war claimed they defended good against evil, neither had a valid claim to such moral ascendancy. The lines weren’t so clearly drawn, as if to remind us that our post-Christian world allows for no absolute standards of goodness.

It’s more generous when it comes to absolute standards of evil. There is always room for those, and in Russia that space has been pre-booked for centuries in advance. Public, if not yet private, virtue has been expunged there, the very possibility of it consigned to oblivion.

Yet some people still harbour hopes, although few are prepared to die for them. Alexei Navalny was, and he will go down in history as a hero, a man who had the courage of his convictions. His murder by Putin has forever put his courage before his convictions, and this is the only order in which they can be discussed in the aftermath of the tragic news.

In 2020, Putin’s hitmen poisoned Navalny with Novichok, the nerve agent they had already used to murder other dissidents at home and abroad. Unlike others, Navalny didn’t die, and the public outcry around the world was such that Putin agreed for Navalny to be flown to Germany for treatment.

A fortnight later Navalny emerged out of his coma and felt strong enough to go back to Russia. His friends desperately tried to talk him out of that suicidal intention, but to no avail. Navalny knew he’d be arrested on return and imprisoned for a long spell. But he felt that his whole life had left him no choice. He had to either repudiate it or take Putin head on.

A series of sham trials followed, with more and more years tagged on to Navalny’s original sentence. He refused to indulge in jailhouse arithmetic, knowing that he was in prison for life, either his own or Putin’s, whichever lasted longer. Unfortunately, Navalny’s hearse beat Putin’s in that race to death.

“The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” wrote Tertullian, and the same goes for any revolution. I hope Navalny’s martyrdom will fertilise the soil in which what he called “a beautiful future Russia” may grow, but this hope has little realistic basis.

I’m not going to go over every detail of Navalny’s epic struggle against those he described as “a party of crooks and thieves”. The papers are full of such accounts, and I have nothing to add to them. Instead I’ll try to understand Navalny’s reasons for delivering himself voluntarily into the blood-stained hands of Putin’s torturers and murderers.

Why didn’t he just stay in the West, joining hundreds of Russian dissidents, journalists, bloggers, political scientists who had fled for their lives to the sanctuary of Europe or America? The question contains the answer: Navalny was neither a dissident, nor a journalist, nor a blogger, nor a political scientist.

He was an active politician who felt he had a fighting chance to supplant Putin and drive his “crooks and thieves” out of the Kremlin. In that regard, I can only repeat what I wrote on 22 January, 2022, when Navalny received yet another tagged-on sentence:

“Navalny certainly has a talent for what some may describe as inspiring the masses and others as rabble-rousing. He has become the focal point of dissent, and the only political figure seen as a plausible challenger to Putin.

“He is trying to unify various factions in what may become a sustained protest movement, to which end Navalny is uttering plenty of liberal phrases. But his heart lies elsewhere.

“Navalny’s problem is with Putin’s epic corruption, not his declared political sentiments: Russian nationalism, empire building, suspicion (if not hatred) of the West and so forth.

“Hence one hopes that Navalny will only act as a battering ram breaching the wall surrounding the kleptofascist regime, not as its one-for-one replacement. But such hopes are probably forlorn.

“Navalny may not get the chance to challenge Putin in earnest. Vlad has shown that he doesn’t mind turning Navalny into a martyr, and he may still feel Navalny is more dangerous alive than dead. After all, another plausible challenger, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead 100 yards from the Kremlin six years ago, and no mass opposition has rallied around his body.

“Hence I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of Navalny suffering a sudden heart attack in prison…”

In another article written at about that time, I wondered how the West would respond should that possibility become reality:

“Biden tried to answer that implicit question by threatening ‘devastating consequences’ should Navalny die in prison. By the looks of it, the devastating consequences will take the shape of another stern expression of deep concern.

“Anyway, why weren’t there any consequences, devastating or otherwise, when the previous opposition leader, Boris Nemtsov, was shot dead a few feet from the Kremlin wall? Or when another opposition leader, Anna Politkovskaya, was murdered? Or after dozens of other dissidents (Starovytova, Shchekochihin, Sheremet, Litvinenko et al.)  were ‘whacked’ in Russia and elsewhere?

“Where were the consequences of a London restaurant being poisoned with polonium and half of Salisbury with Novichok? What about that Chechen émigré shot in Germany? Boris Berezovsky garrotted in England? Alexander Perepelichny poisoned in Surrey?”

This isn’t a boast of my prescience: anyone with a modicum of understanding and knowledge could have predicted such gruesome events and the West’s cowardly response to them. But the question is still nagging: what was the source of the suicidal courage with which Navalny marched towards his tragic death? After all, such an outcome was even likelier than the death of Aldington’s hero.

I’m sure the role model Navalny saw with his mind’s eye was Václav Havel, who emerged from communist captivity to become the first president of the Czech Republic. Another example of a political Phoenix rising from the ashes of prison was Nelson Mandela, but I doubt Alexei found him as inspiring.

Whatever gifts Havel possessed as playwright and intellectual, Navalny was a more talented politician. Had he been born anywhere in the West, he could have reached the political summit. He certainly had every prerequisite: charisma, oratorial brilliance, campaigning stamina, leadership qualities – even a law degree.

Yet Navalny wasn’t born in the West. He was born in Russia, the place where politics has died, or perhaps has never lived. Power there changes hands by revolution, coup or fiat, never by anything a Westerner would recognise as politics.

And revolutionaries need a different set of skills, of which Navalny had some but not others. He had suicidal courage but not homicidal cruelty, which is de rigueur for a Russian revolutionary. Navalny was ready to accept his own martyrdom, but not to send others to theirs.

He watched most of his comrades in the Anti-Corruption Foundation flee to the West, and he was neither prudent enough to follow nor cruel enough to stop them. Navalny could have formed an effective political party but not a subversive cabal. And he didn’t realise that only the latter could possibly succeed in unseating “the crooks and thieves”.

Most successful revolutionaries in history led the masses by offering a drastically different vision of government expressible in simple slogans. Yet Navalny was consistent only in his opposition to the Kremlin, not in the premises from which he mounted such opposition.

In his younger days he was a nationalist whose pronouncements weren’t dramatically different from Putin’s. Navalny welcomed Russia’s attack on Georgia and subsequent annexation of the Crimea. In private, he also expressed pride in his Nordic looks and wasn’t averse to racial invective, such as describing Georgians as “rats”.

Displaying a certain amount of elasticity, so typical of Western politicians, Navalny sensed that a Putin Mark II, even if free of corruption, wouldn’t be able to rally the opposition. He then adopted the phraseology of the predominantly liberal dissidents, who, unable to come up with equally powerful leaders, accepted him as their own.

Yet even pooling their resources, they were unable to offer much beyond the usual phrases about freedom, democracy and real elections. Since the Russians have never tried such delicacies, they have no taste for them. Hence Putin’s stormtroopers have had no problem isolating such dissidents and either squeezing them out of the country or putting them in prison.

Navalny, the only real politician among them, had to die, just to be on the safe side. For Putin, already covered head to toe with the blood of hundreds of thousands, spilling another drop is no hardship, especially if that eliminates a potential nuisance.

The rest of us, whether or not we shared Navalny’s convictions, such as they were, should bow our heads to his courage. He lived and died as a hero, his whole life proving he was a man, not what Dostoyevsky called “a trembling creature”. May God look after his soul with the loving care his martyrdom deserves.

Culture is overrated

Both purveyors and consumers of culture, narrowly understood as high art, often assign demiurgic powers to it. Culture, they say, is the world’s only hope.

In support, they quote Dostoyevsky, whose Prince Myshkin insists that “beauty will save the world”. Our champions of high culture then translate that promise into a simple, and false, syllogism: beauty will save the world – culture is beautiful – therefore, culture will save the world.

That’s not what Dostoyevsky or any intelligent man could have possibly meant. Myshkin’s statement was either subtle philosophy or arrant nonsense, and it becomes the second when simplistically understood.

Beauty, along with truth and goodness, is part of the ‘transcendental’ triad that many thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Aquinas, regarded as the inseparable ontological properties of being.

They all agreed that a deficit in one part would also lead to a diminution in the other two. Hence, replace ‘beauty’ with ‘ugliness’, and mankind also loses truth and virtue, bringing about a global blood-sodden chaos. In that sense, beauty may indeed save the world, just as its lack may spell the world’s destruction.

However, narrowing the meaning of beauty to culture (and the meaning of culture to art) is wrong on any number of levels you care to name: aesthetic, philosophical, social, anthropological, political and so on.

Nevertheless the saving power of culture constantly crops up in all sorts of questions asked by people anxious to detect a link where none exists. How is it possible, they wonder, that two of Europe’s most cultured nations, Russia and Germany, produced the two most evil regimes in history?

Look at what they’ve given the world, they say: [a roll call of great names follows]. How could the same nation that produced Bach and Goethe also produce Hitler and Himmler? Replace the first two names with Tchaikovsky and Pushkin, the last two with Lenin and Stalin, and you’ll hear the same why-oh-why question posed over and over again.

Invariably, people who ask such questions themselves fall into one or both of the same groups I mentioned earlier, purveyors or consumers of art. Far from every member of these groups can genuinely feel the saving grace of art, yet those who can find it hard to understand why others don’t feel the same way.

Similarly, believers who are in communion with God and live their lives accordingly fail to see why others bypass this obvious route to private and public goodness. This is less of a fallacy because such believers can at least cite historical evidence of religion having that effect at times. Their opponents, however, cite evidence to the contrary, and a lively debate ensues.

But at least there’s something to argue about. When it comes to culture, no one can show any instances of Beethoven or Tchaikovsky preventing people from murdering one another in all sorts of imaginative ways and apocalyptic numbers.

So whenever our literati bemoan that those two gentlemen and their colleagues failed to mitigate their nations’ beastliness, I always reply: “Why, would you have expected them to?”

The kind of art that can raise a man a rung or two closer to God is produced for few by fewer. Lump those two groups together, and you’ll still only get an infinitesimally tiny fraction of one per cent of the population.

Even when looking at a pre-selected group, say audiences at classical concerts, I often wonder how many of them really feel elevated and purified by the music. Judging by the enthusiasm with which they applaud charlatans reducing musical performance to a circus act, not very many. Let’s say 10 per cent if we are feeling generous.

If asked, they’ll all say they enjoy music. Of course they do. But that’s not what music is for. You may enjoy a good meal followed by flatulent excretions and a post-prandial snooze. You may enjoy driving fast or dancing slowly. Why, some people even claim they enjoy pop pandemonia, and one has to take them at their word.

But Bach and Beethoven aren’t there to be enjoyed. Their music cracks ajar the door beyond which lies salvation in Dostoyevsky’s sense of the word. However many subjects a Bach fugue has, three are always present if not always perceived: beauty, truth, virtue. Three in one, and one as three. So by all means do let’s talk about this when delving into philosophical or theological depths. But please leave art out of any sociological context.

Yes, some sublime poetry was written during the early years of Bolshevism, and some serious philosophy during the Third Reich. And yes, great German conductors still led great orchestras in masterly renditions of Beethoven symphonies throughout the Nazi years, even as Allied bombs rained on Berlin.

But that’s like saying that the sun sometimes shone when the Bolsheviks were machinegunning peasants or the Nazis were gassing Jews. One had nothing to do with the other. And no, art neither prevents evil from happening nor redeems it after it has been perpetrated.

What could reduce the amount of evil in the world is a social arrangement allowing the same spirit that flows into art to break banks and engulf society as a whole. For that to happen, all or at least most members of society must be raised in a way that leads them to beauty, truth and virtue – even if they remain deaf to Mozart and Schubert.

Not everyone can be taught to appreciate Bach’s counterpoint or Homer’s hexameters, but everyone can be taught to respect others, obey just laws, protest against unjust ones, and be able to tell the difference. Everyone can be taught not to be selfish and always remember that the Earth revolves around the Sun, not one’s own person.

I’m not saying that everyone can heed such lessons, but perhaps enough people will to make the world a slightly more civilised place. It’s not down to any temporal institution to erase original sin, thereby saving the world. That prerogative is reserved for a higher authority. But human institutions should still be able to do a better job than they are doing now.

The distinction between culture and civilisation isn’t deeply entrenched in Anglophone thought, coming as it does mostly from 18th century German philosophy. Although that isn’t my favourite period, the distinction is valid and useful.

While Western culture thrives on esoteric exclusivity, a civilisation can’t last unless it includes all, or at least most, members of society. Some may drive it, some may sleep in the back seat, but they all must be inside. Culture is merely a part of civilisation, and not the most important part at that.

In fact, one could even say that, unlike civilisation, culture is divisive. Cultural elitism (not unlike that which you can sometimes detect in this space) builds a social moat between people, with no drawbridge provided. But civilisation can fill that moat with, well, beauty, truth and goodness – leaving culture for the delectation of the very few.    

How to insult without swearing

Her dress is too white

These days one can’t go for a walk without overhearing one passer-by or another say nasty things about someone.

Most of the insults allude to the target’s Oedipal tendency to corrupt his mother’s morals or else to his propensity for self-gratification. Lest you may consider me a prude, I have nothing against that sort of thing in principle.

Why, on occasion (well, regularly, if I’m being totally honest) I’ve been known to use such words myself, much to Penelope’s chagrin. I defend myself with the technique refined by thieves and murderers: using my tough childhood as an excuse.

I was born on the wrong side of the tracks, I say. And when my wife points out that I grew up a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin, I explain, truthfully, that all of Russia is the wrong side of the tracks. The country is the world’s ultimate bad neighbourhood.

When that excuse is rejected, I invoke ecclesiastical authority, specifically emanating from the first priest of my life. He was appalled when I once took the Lord’s name in vain, adding the middle initial ‘H’ to his name. The servant of God explained to me that was repellent. If you have to swear, he said, use sexual allusions instead. To his credit, the clerical gentleman practised what he preached.

We first met some 30 years ago, at a dinner honouring G.K. Chesterton. The priest wore the insignia of his vocation, and I was suitably cowed sitting next to him. But then he tried the food and commented that “the grub is fucking awful”. The contrast with the clerical collar created such a delicious cognitive dissonance that we became friends for life there and then.

However, it can’t be gainsaid that swearing is the easy way out. All clichés are just that. They are the verbal equivalent of frozen pizzas and other ready-made foods. Anyone who prefers to do his own lexical cooking should be able to avoid lazy shortcuts.

Now, I can’t claim intimate familiarity with every national culture in His Creation. But I am familiar with a few, and it’s France and England (with her colonial offshoots) that excel in the art of the witty putdown.

Even our politicians used to be able to give the celebrated wits of the day a good run for their money (and there I was, forswearing clichés). Today’s lot are occasionally capable of humour, but hardly ever wit. And they may not even be aware of the difference.

But two Tories of the past, Disraeli and Churchill, knew how to handle themselves in verbal jousts.

Thus another member of parliament told Disraeli: “Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of a venereal disease”. “That all depends, Sir,” replied Disraeli, “on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress.”

Churchill often chose Labour politicians as bull’s eyes for his wit. Speaking of Stafford Cripps, the leftmost MP at the time, Churchill said: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” (I wish I had used that when writing about Donald Trump. Perhaps I will one day.)

Churchill’s direct competitor, Clement Attlee, often found himself in the great man’s crosshairs. Two examples will suffice: “An empty taxi drew up, and Mr Attlee got out.” And “Mr Attlee is a very modest man, but then again, he has much to be modest about.”

The previous generation of our royal family were no slouches either. For example, Princess Margaret once attended a New York party, where she was asked: “Your Royal Highness, and may I ask, how is the Queen?” “Are you asking about my mother, my sister or my husband?”, replied the princess off the cuff, drawing my retrospective applause.

But it’s Her Majesty Elizabeth II, our late Queen, who often belied her stern image with the odd cutting word. Her stock in trade wasn’t so much a memorable phrase as a subtle understatement. Much of it revolved around the intensifier ‘too’.

Thus she once described Tony Blair as “too presidential”. And after she first met Princess Michael of Kent (née Baroness Marie-Christine Anna Agnes Hedwig Ida von Reibnitz), Her Majesty quipped: “She is a bit too grand for us”.

It was Harry and Meghan who found themselves on the receiving end of some of the last putdowns in the Queen’s life. It’s no secret that Her Majesty wasn’t ecstatic about that match, and she made her feelings known without resorting to any obvious epithets.

Commenting on the wedding ceremony, the Queen said that Meghan’s dress was “too white”. Indeed, the white dress is supposed to symbolise the bride’s virginity or at least first marriage, neither of which Meghan could boast.

On another occasion, appalled at seeing her grandson henpecked by a Hollywood starlet, the Queen said “he is too in love.” That’s so much more poignant than any common phrase alluding to a certain part of a woman’s anatomy used as a whip.

That art of understatement, used in putdowns or otherwise, has been largely lost in England, along with most other admirable traits of the national character. We can safely chalk it up in the loss column, next to dignified stoicism, quiet courage, noble restraint, irrepressible cheerfulness, patriotism assumed, rather than shouted off the rooftops.

Far from being the exclusive property of the high and mighty, such characteristics used to cut across the social hierarchy. Yesterday, for example, I chatted with a wonderful woman who works at our local supermarket.

We always exchange pleasantries, and she is never short of a smile and a joke. When I told her a few years ago that my wife was ill, she gave me a bunch of flowers for her, and refused to accept payment. Since then she has always asked after Penelope, and I’ve dutifully kept her updated.

She’ll be retiring in April, she said yesterday, so now she’ll have time to do things she has always wanted to do. What, going on a cruise? I asked. No, working at the homeless shelter next door, replied my supermarket friend. She then joked about her career, with not a touch of bitterness or rancour anywhere.

When I look at her young co-workers, sporting tattoos, sullen expressions and telling the world with every gesture that they are hard done by, I can’t think of anything funny or witty to say. But then I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks.