Over two millennia after Cicero denounced Catiline for sedition in the Roman Senate, the most famous quote from his most-quoted oration remains relevant: “O tempora! O mores! (Oh, the times, the dreadful behaviour)”. It is frequently invoked by legionaries freshly thrashed by Asterix and Obelix, and by intelligent Americans reading Donald Trump’s early morning tweets, which offers a similar experience. It is also the only appropriate response to Kazuo Ishiguro’s disbelief upon receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Thanks to the pervasive atmosphere of fake news, the English writer dismissed congratulatory phone calls as hoaxes, and believed only when the BBC ran the news, according to an interview by The Guardian. Nothing ever changes. During the Cold War, Russians used to get the real news of the world from the BBC, on contraband shortwave radio sets. There was even an underground Russian song whose refrain went, “Bee Bee Cee”. In another century, the fake news pandemic has returned the broadcaster to the status of custodian of the truth — even in its own country.
Cicero’s classical lament is again evoked by the news flowing from the Las Vegas shooting. In a country with prehistoric gun laws that arm attention-seekers and those with delusions of grandeur with military-grade firepower, the media debate is now about religion and race. Everyone wants to know why nothing is ever done to prevent armed rampages. Is it because the perpetrators are almost always white men? Would the White House have cracked down and promulgated fresh laws if the shooter had been a Muslim, as was initially misreported? Is Donald Trump content with mouthing prayers for the victims because he took office with the blessings of the inexplicably powerful National Rifle Association? And why did Barack Obama, who promised amendments to gun laws, do nothing about it during his tenure?
The last questions, concerning the political will to disarm the populace, are actually the only ones worth asking, because the availability of guns is the only real issue. The rest is chaff, and only reflects the extent to which the American polity has been polarised on the old axes of race and class. On average, all nations and races of the world can be expected to exhibit roughly the same density of crazies. But the magnitude of harm that they can cause depends on what force mutipliers they have easy access to, and a kitchen knife is obviously less harmful than an automatic weapon. It is now easier to buy a gun in most states in the US than it is to have an abortion.
Despite the prime minister’s spirited defence of the management of the economy, and the reminder that he has the number of all the Shalyas in his midst, the BBC persists is spreading “undue pessimism” by reporting the ongoing job crisis, and suggesting that absolute employment is falling for the first time since Independence. In human language, it means that not only are new jobs not being created, existing jobs are being extinguished too. The usually compliant RBI is up to undue stuff, too. Its September survey shows that consumer confidence is at its lowest in three years. The curve had held up until demonetisation struck with its full force last November but ever since, consumer perceptions of the economy have remained low both for the present and the future, looking ahead one year. A half-hearted attempt at recovery in May seems to have been felled by the GST rollout.
An interesting tidbit from the scientific media: a paper in Science Advances titled ‘Quantised Gravitational Responses, the Sign Problem and Quantum Complexity’ puts paid to the pervasive anxiety generated by Matrix — that we are living in a computer simulation and therefore our lives are wholly devoid of meaning. The fear was heightened by automobile and space entrepreneur Elon Musk last year, when he declared in a technology forum that we are indeed parts of a computer projection. But Oxford University sleuths Zohar Ringel and Dmitry L Kovrizhin find that “not all quantum systems can be simulated efficiently using classical computational resources.” The rest is brain-numbing math, but we can safely take this as a vote for free will.
And someone at Channel 4 is using it. An anonymous presence at the public service broadcaster has put this out on its Twitter feed: “URGENT: Can all a***h***s stop being a***h***s for a bit? We’d like a break. Thanks in advance. Everyone.” One fantasises about the Twitter handler of Channel 4 leaving his or her phone unattended for a moment, maybe to go to the coffee machine or the loo, and some wild man producer leaping into the breach with both thumbs flying, to broadcast the unspoken hope that animates almost every sentient being in our noisy, abusive culture.