07 December 2007

Truth is sacred...

...and if you tell the truth too often nobody will believe it
Two of my favourite books, as anyone who's heard me bang on about them can surely attest, are The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton. Curiously, it seems that both novels were of more than passing significance to Michael Collins.

Tim Pat Coogan, in his 1990 biography of Collins, reports that Collins's first job in Dublin was as 'financial advisor' to Count Plunkett for three days a week:
At least one member of the Plunkett family obviously had more in mind for Collins than the family book-keeping. This was Joseph Plunkett, the tubercular poet and an organiser of the 1916 Rising, who was literally to lean on Collins' shulder when the fighting started. It was he who lent Collins the book that was to colour his whole approach to the subsequent Anglo-Irish War, Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, in which the head anarchist makes the point, 'If you don't seem to be hiding, nobody hunts you out.'
As for Napoleon, Joseph Pearce writes in Wisdom and Innocence, his fascinating if somewhat hagiographic biography of Chesterton -- all biographies of the blessed Gilbert understandably tend towards hagiography -- that:
Collins was only fourteen when The Napoleon of Notting Hill was published and, although it is not clear at what age he actually read the book, it influenced his political outlook in its formative stages. Collins described it as his favourite book and there can be no doubt that he derived inspiration for his Irish nationalism from the words of Chesterton's fictitious President of Nicaragua and also, possibly, from Adam Wayne's local patriotism which proclaimed that a place, however small, 'which is large enough for the rich to covet . . . is large enough for the poor to defend.' It is said that Lloyd George, hearing of Michael Collins's literary taste, presented a copy of The Napoleon of Notting Hill to every member of his Cabinet prior to their meeting with the Irish delegation during negotiations for the Irish Treaty so that they might the better understand the Irish leader's minds.
In considering why these two books should be so influential on anyone, Pearce quotes Terry Pratchett, an old fan of Chesterton, born in Chesterton's Beaconsfield, whose Night Watch and Monstrous Regiment surely owe more than a little to Chesterton's two greatest novels:
It's worth pointing out that in The Man Who Was Thursday and the Napoleon of Notting Hill he gave us two of the most emotionally charged plots in the twentieth century: one being that both sides are actually the same side; it doesn't matter which side we're talking about, both sides are the same. The other plot can't be summarised so succinctly, but the basic plot of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is that someone takes seriously an idea that wasn't intended to be taken seriously and gives it some kind of nobility by so doing.

One Banana Short of a Republic
I was thinking about that latter point the other evening, while chatting to NMRBoy about the astounding One Banana Short of a Republic website. It's a remarkable -- if gloomily familiar -- story of arrogance and misconduct in academia which you can read about on the aforementioned site or on Constructive Insubordination, the website of another Lethbridge academic.

Quoting Constructive Insubordination, this fine clearinghouse for information regarding the bullying of academics relates how Professor Tom Robinson of Canada's University of Lethbridge grew frustrated with inconsistency and impropriety at Lethbridge and posted all of his documentation on the issue on his website, writing a letter to the student newspaper to advertise the site. Predictably, arrogantly, and foolishly the University demanded that he remove the website and publicly apologise or face disciplinary action; instead he posted the University's letter to him on his website. He has since been suspended without pay for gross professional misconduct.

Needless to say, and following legal advice, Professor Robinson has posted the relevant communications on his website as well. It's a fine strategy, truth be told, since as NMRBoy says, this is the kind of thing that he'd be in favour of writing, as if you've nothing to hide, you have nothing to hide.

It'd be tricky to come up with a title for a website as snappy as Professor Robinson's, though.

Me, I'd be inclined to go for something along the lines of 'Bullies and Buffoons', as it's often difficult to tell whether University misconduct should be attributed to malice or stupidity, or -- perhaps most probably -- a bit of both. I reckon a logo something like the one I've lashed up here would be good, although it might look better in colour.

A desperate and suicidal effort to persuade other people how good they are...
There's a fair chance that you'll be wondering whether Professor Robinson is off his rocker to be fighting as he's doing. Most people seem to think struggles like this are futile.

After all, are University procedures really meant to be taken seriously? Are Universities really serious when they claim to fully commit themselves to transparent and honest decision-making processes, or to provide staff and students with access to any information about themselves in accordance with Data Protection legislation? Do they really mean it when they say that disciplinary procedures and appeals will be conducted in accordance with the principles of natural justice? Are they being honest when they assert that all forms of bullying and harassment are unacceptable matters, and that any reports of such will be investigated swiftly, sensitively, and fairly? Are they telling porkies when they boast that such policies will not merely be complied with, but will be robustly implemented?

It certainly looks that way, and perhaps all these policies are just words in the wind, meant to impress people but never intended to require anything more than lip service. Perhaps this is merely a form of hypocrisy, that venerated tribute virtue demands of vice.

If that's the case, and I hope it's not, then like Chesterton's Adam Wayne, the likes of Tom Robinson -- no, not the one Atticus Finch so heroically defends in To Kill a Mockingbird -- are doing a hell of a job of demanding that Universities live up to the standards they purport to have.

Whether they do so in a spirit of burning conviction, resigned obligation, incurable optimism, or righteous indignation, well, I wouldn't like to say. It probably varies.