Archive for January, 2012

Letters of Note: To my old master

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012

The link to this letter recently appeared in my twitter stream having been enthusiastically retweeted by many people. I read it and enjoyed its surprisingly modern sense of invective.

Then something about the letter kept nagging at me and I knew some things didn’t add up. As ever, in such cases, I thought through the imaginary story arc.

Firstly, amidst all the turmoil of the civil war aftermath, this emancipated slave, Jourdan, had moved away some five hundred miles from his former residence. How was his previous owner, Colonel Anderson, going to track down his address? Presumably, Jourdan, didn’t leave a forwarding address seeing as how Colonel Anderson once tried to shoot him. The other question is why would Colonel Anderson wanted to contact him in the first place? If it was just to offer him his old position of oppressed ’slave,’ how stupid did he think he was?

Unfortunately, we don’t see the original letter that Colonel Anderson wrote to Jourdan, so we’re not sure how he phrased this.

But let’s assume that somehow, Colonel Anderson’s letter found its way to Jourdan and that he considered Jourdan stupid. Being a slave, Jourdan would have more than likely been illiterate so writing him a letter would have been a waste of time. Presumably, there must have been a convention of ‘owners’ or employers reading letters to illiterate people.

So Jourdan gets the letter read out to him. He now knows his former owner (who once wanted to kill him) knows where he lives. Is he worried? No. Does he up-sticks and find somewhere else to hide himself? No. Instead he decides to dictate a sarcastic letter which will only serve to antogonise a powerful enemy.

As an emancipated slave, we can only assume, Jourdan’s pay does not go far, every cent will be precious to him and his family. He also probably works long hours. He would need to find the time, inclination and money to reply. I’m assuming he had to pay to have the letter transcribed for him by a literate person. Who would do this? Let’s assume a sympathetic educated person helped him out without pay (possibly the V. Winters mentioned in the letter).

The letter is dictated by someone who is clearly not stupid, so Colonel Anderson obviously didn’t know his slaves very well. Jourdan even has a grasp of finance as he demonstrates with his workings out of interest payments due on his back pay. Where did he get this knowledge when nearly all of his time would have been spent in the fields? Of course, whoever transcribed the letter could have suggested this line of attack, in which case, how much of the letter is consciously Jourdan’s and how much of it is the anonymous transcriber?

So the letter is completed and only needs posting. Presumably, this cost money. If every cent counted why would he spend money on a symbolic gesture?

My best guess is that his current employer (V. Winters?) did much of the composing of the letter and probably suggested the idea of asking for back pay with interest. He also paid for the postage if it ever got sent, because, finally, the letter had to get into the possession of the newspapers. How did they come across it? Was it kept by Colonel Anderson as a memento of an old slave full of spite and spunk ? Or was it deliberately held back by Jourdan and his helper to pass onto the newspapers as anti slave propaganda?

Sponsorship (Part 2)

Monday, January 30th, 2012

On a walk to school my daughter proudly announced that some children’s television presenter had finally reached the South Pole.

“Why did she go there?” I asked.

“For charity,” my daughter replied.

“For charity? You mean she was taking some unwanted clothes to a charity shop that stands on the South Pole?”

“No! She was collecting money for charity.”

“But nobody lives at the South Pole, how is she going to collect money from there?”

“No! She’s collecting the money when she gets back.”

“So let me see if I’ve got this right… This woman has spent a lot of money and used up many resources—equipment, fuel etc.—to undertake an essentially useless activity to raise money for charity?”

“It was a very brave thing to do, not everyone could do it.”

“Well, you’re right about that; not everyone could do it because they don’t get offered the opportunity from a television company. Most people have to work. But anyway, my point is this; she has already spent a large sum of money just getting to the South Pole—which is a useless activity, remember—so this money has to be deducted from the money she collects from her sponsors when she gets back, therefore the total is much reduced. But hey, I suppose the television presenter gets a personal buzz from doing something adventurous and it helps her television career no end. Oh, wait a minute, does that mean she is really doing it for herself and not for the people she is supposed to be collecting the money for? Which charity is she supporting, by the way?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hmm, that proves my point. You remember the television presenter and the useless activity but not the charity that it is all supposed to be about. Why didn’t she think to do an activity that would actually be of benefit to someone?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, why didn’t she get sponsorship to dig a well in Africa? And to make it ‘dangerous’ and ‘dramatic television’ she could do it by just using her teeth. There, that covers all the angles: it’s got jeopardy; it’s worthwhile; she gets even more famous in her career but more importantly, her activity actually produces something—a well. And the children will remember the stunt as being something about a well in Africa so maybe they’ll make the connection that clean water wells are needed in Africa. And of course, after she’s collected the money for completing this worthwhile stunt, she will have more money to build other wells. Doesn’t that make much more sense?”


“In fact, now that I think about it, the whole set up is a bit suspicious. How do we know that the collected money is going to the people who are supposed to be the recipients? How can we be sure that the money isn’t going to building some fancy new headquarters for some charity administrators? If they so enthusiastically support useless activities for raising funds then they could just as easily support useless activities in the spending of the money. No, I think it is far better to do charity work that is local and that you can see the benefits of…”

“Oh look, there’s Joely! Bye daddy!”

When two tribes go to war

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

This promotional video of the Frankie Goes to Hollywood song, Two Tribes, imagines the, then current, leaders of America and Russia slugging it out in a dusty ring. After I saw it, this ‘joke’ resonated with me for a long time as a dream of extreme democracy.

Here’s the dream.

If the leader of any country in the world had a particular beef with the leader from another country then instead of the usual stupidity of declaring war on the other country, they would be obliged to resolve the dispute personally in unarmed combat.

The fight would take place in a cage measuring fifteen feet by fifteen feet and the combatants would be completely naked. The bout would be televised and the full reality of war in all its disgusting, biting, scratching, hair-pulling, bloody depravity, would be visible for all to see. The winner of the contest (either a fight to the death or until one cried submission) would be deemed to have won the war and the people of the losing side would be obliged to give up their oil, nuclear weapons, terrorist activities or whatever.

Of course, if the people objected to losing the war, they could always refuse to participate and instead, put up memorials to their fallen leaders and have special commemorative days to celebrate their futile but honourable sacrifice for their overtly territorial and political ambitions. Then the people would carry on as normal.

Any elected leader of any country in the world would be obliged to abide by this convention, which would be enforced ruthlessly by the people of that country. Failure to abide by the convention would result in the leader being sent white feathers through the post by anonymous senders before they were humiliated in court and eventually imprisoned.

Imagine for a moment how such a reality would affect politics.

Firstly, you would deter the worst possible people who had the worst possible motives for wanting power. Secondly, the leaders of any country would have to be sure of their fitness, both in their physical condition and in their ability to think rationally. All political posturing in their rhetoric would have to be carefully considered in case their bluff is called and they are required to back up their words with physical force. You would end up with either a giant for a leader or a philosopher.

Either way, it’s got to be better than the system we have today.