"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Knowing you have well-trained and competent pilots up front is always reassuring"
Alas, it wasn't a good month for Cathay Pacific. A new controversy landed on the tail of a story alleging pilots taxied slowly in a pay dispute.
The latest uproar erupted after three flight attendants made derogatory remarks about a mainland Chinese passenger. They'd mocked his English ability when he requested a blanket. A recording went onto mainland social media in no time, where a netizen pile-on soon reached extraordinary heights.
Even our Chief Executive felt the need to comment that such behaviour was unacceptable and damaging to Hong Kong. He's right, although much more is happening here than meets the eye.
CX acted with speed, firing the three. Ronald Lam, the head of CX, made repeated apologies as he attempted to dampen a crisis that could harm the business in its biggest market. Previous allegations of mistreatment of mainlanders provoked calls to boycott the airline, which is already struggling after Covid hit hard.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, the incident generated fervent discussion. Social media memes soon emerged, mocking CX staff. They must be feeling the pressure. The staff union responded, citing low morale, poor pay and overwork as factors, although how these lead to such behaviour is a moot point.
I've had a few run-ins with CX staff. In a ludicrous episode, a male flight attendant accused my wife of stealing a child meal tray during a flight back from Australia.
His allegation of theft came in a loud voice that drew the attention of other passengers. I immediately demanded that he search all our bags and the area and retract the allegation. His colleague had provided the meal without a tray due to a mix-up.
Long story short, the purser arrived and escorted us forward, apologising as the hyper-ventilating attendant hid in the rear galley. The poor lad had a bad day.
But this unfortunate incident didn't deter me from using CX again because they do an excellent job most of the time. Plus, knowing you have well-trained and competent pilots up front is always reassuring.
Moreover, it's important to remember that these incidents represent a small fraction of the millions of interactions between airline staff and passengers each year. The vast majority of which are positive and respectful.
And passengers can be overly demanding and aggressive, making life difficult for flight attendants, as seen in increasing air rage incidents. In a 2021 study drawing on international data, unsurprisingly, alcohol was a factor in most incidents. At the same time, American and British passengers accounted for 46% of reported unruly passenger incidents in 2020. A list of air rage and unruly behaviour incidents is here.
In this current incident, it might help to recognise something else is taking place because, on the surface, it looks like a straightforward lack of professionalism.
Putting on my lay social anthropologist hat and peeling back the layers prompts the question, should this event be seen in the context of an unpleasant undercurrent of prejudice against mainlanders that still inhabits a fair part of Hong Kong society?
These sentiments festered for years, playing a role in the 2019 civil unrest, with the firebombing of mainland businesses and beating of anyone the rioters heard speaking putonghua.
In 2019, protests erupted in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. The protests soon escalated into broader civil unrest with a sectarian element. While many in the West sought to frame the riots around "democracy" only, they dodged this driving element shaped by prejudice.
The roots of this discrimination are deep, going back to when Hong Kong people saw themselves far superior to their northern cousins. For example, a popular TV show in the 1970s depicted "Ah Chan", a mainlander struggling to find his way in Hong Kong. Similarly, many local comedy movies drew their laughs from framing mainlanders as ignorant of the modern world.
Then, over time, as China boomed while Hong Kong slipped by comparison, these sentiments hardened into outright bigotry shaped partly by resentment. While not universal, this attitude is baffling because most Hong Kong people can trace their roots to the mainland.
Another aspect is that some CX staff played a prominent role in the civil unrest, including the illegal occupation of the airport. That led to the firing of at least twenty-six CX staff including several pilots.
Cathay Chairman John Slosar said in a statement in August 2019, that events had called into question the airline's commitment to flight safety and security and put its reputation and brand under pressure.
Whether the latest incident is motivated by bias, I can't say. Maybe it's just banter. Yet against the backdrop of events discussed above, it takes on a broader significance, with many mainland Chinese viewing it as another example of prejudice against them.
Still, it is essential to recognise that both communities are part of the same country and share a common destiny. That's worth remembering.
"Spengler's view of history is deeply pessimistic, and he suggests that the decline of Western civilisation is already well underway."
The return of geopolitics, catapulted forward by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, will reshape world economic activity, alliances and the standing of nations for decades to come. I've discussed some of these issues in this companion article, which explores the sort of world that will emerge as the power of the U.S. wanes, but does not disappear, while China and India rise.
Moreover, the fact that the global South hasn't embraced the West's narrative on Ukraine is also a significant feature of the new emerging world order. Making unfavourable comparisons to the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, they ask what is the difference?
With so much change and confusion, many pundits grasping for comprehension of these events have sought refuge in the works of German philosopher and polymath Oswald Spengler (May 1880-May 1936).
Spengler's best-known work,"The Decline of the West", is a fascinating and controversial piece that offers a unique perspective on the history of human civilisation. Published in two volumes in 1918 and 1922, the book presents a view of cyclical rather than linear history and argues that every culture and civilisation has a life cycle that follows a predictable pattern of growth, maturity, decline, and eventual death.
At its core, "The Decline of the West" critiques the Enlightenment belief in progress and the idea that human society steadily improves over time. Spengler argues that this view is fundamentally flawed and that history is not a steady march towards progress and Enlightenment but a series of cycles of growth and decline.
He suggests that every culture and civilisation has a unique "morphology" determining its destiny. As a result, each one will eventually reach a stage of decline and decay, no matter how advanced or successful it may be in its prime.
Spengler's view of history is deeply pessimistic, and he suggests that the decline of Western civilisation is already well underway. He argues that the West has reached the final stage of its life cycle and is now in a state of irreversible decline.
He asserts this came about because the West has lost touch with its roots and traditions and is now dominated by a soulless and materialistic culture devoid of any real meaning or purpose. Thus, it is easy to see why those who despair at the state of American and European societies see resonance in Spengler's ideas.
According to Spengler, the West's decline began in the late 19th century, as it became increasingly dominated by the forces of rationalism and materialism. Spengler drew on Nietzsche's idea that, "God is dead, and we killed him."
He suggests that the West has lost its spiritual and creative vitality and that a consumerism and mass production culture now dominates.
Moreover, he argues that this culture is fundamentally shallow and empty and incapable of producing great works of art, literature, or philosophy. Anyone who has seen a recent Hollywood movie would agree.
For sure, something strange has indeed happened in the ethical atmosphere of the 21st-century West. A century has passed since the masses accepted Christianity as setting the norms in morality, the foundations of culture, law and values. Even fifty years ago, most people in the West thought marriage was the best instrument for social stability and for bringing up children and was solely a union between a man and a woman. That has changed—likewise, attitudes towards euthanasia.
In 2013 Putin said, "We see many Euro-Atlantic countries are actually rejecting their roots, including the Christian values that constitute the basis of Western civilisation. They deny moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual."
That may explain why Putin enjoys some tacit support from the Christian right in America. Should Trump or DeSantis gain the Whitehouse, it will interesting to see if robust U.S. support Ukraine continues.
Some scholars argue that Spengler's cyclical view of history is too simplistic and fails to account for human civilisation's complex and unpredictable nature. Others say his ideas are too dark and pessimistic and offer little hope or inspiration for the future.
In this regard, it is worth remembering that Spengler formulated his ideas during and in the aftermath of World War One, as German society collapsed and convulsed. Moreover, he wasn't witness to the ability of Western cultures to reinvent themselves.
For example, the U.S. has shown an ability to adapt to the structural shifts and the increasing regionalisation of the world order. Atop that it continues to lead the world in its ability to adapt to, incorporate and develop new systems and new technologies.
Despite these criticisms, Spengler's work continues to be widely read and debated today, and it has significantly impacted many fields. For example, his influence can be seen in the study of cultural evolution, which has become an increasingly important field in recent years.
Spengler's ideas have also influenced the development of authoritarian and fascist political movements. These movements have been critical of liberal democracy, emphasising the importance of solid leadership and a centralised state. They have also been critical of the Enlightenment's emphasis on individualism and have argued that the needs of the community should take precedence over the needs of the individual.
It is important to note, however, that Spengler himself did not advocate for any specific political ideology or movement. Instead, he was a cultural pessimist who was critical of both liberalism and Marxism.
Whether one agrees with his ideas or not, it is impossible to ignore the profound impact that his work has had on our understanding of history, culture, and civilisation.
"In this latest outburst, Campbell summons up his doppelgänger Malcolm Tucker"
Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair's pet Rottweiler, can't help himself. After an appearance on BBC Newsnight to discuss Brexit last week, he apologised to the show host. Yet, he didn't have the good grace to apologise to the fellow panelist he’d bullied.
As the architect of the spin that led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq, Campbell underwent years of inquiries and earned much public disgust, especially around the suicide of weapons expert Doctor David Kelly. And while he was cleared of blame, much of the brown stuff thrown at him stuck. That he remains defiant, arrogant and dismissive of his critics in face of the evidence hasn't helped restore his reputation.
And yet he's had some success in a rebranding exercise through a podcast with the tame and polite former Tory MP Rory Stewart. “The Rest is Politics” podcast comes billed as a rational discussion from opposite ends of the political spectrum. Although this framing is misleading because both Campbell and Stewart have centralist thinking. Thus, they agree on most things with minimal disagreement.
Likewise, many of their guests get the kid's gloves treatment which often drifts into fawning. Listen to the episode with Hillary Clinton when they sing her praises and fail to tackle such issues as her attacks on her husband's accusers while she wears the cloak of a feminist. They also went easy on former terrorist leader Gerry Adams.
In fairness, Stewart had a fair stab at confronting Campbell over his actions around the Iraq war during a broadcast to mark the anniversary of the invasion. Still, Campbell managed to deflect and dodge. I’ve seen him do this several times and the formula is clear; make light of the question, then distract with some tangential issue and move on.
At first I enjoyed their podcast, but that has waned as the discussions are increasingly dominated by Campbell. At times it feels like Rory Stewart is developing Stockholm Syndrome as he rarely stands his ground. As such, their podcast is now an echo chamber.
In this latest outburst, Campbell summons up his doppelgänger Malcolm Tucker, the fictitious king of spin from the TV show “The Thick of It.” First, Campbell launched a full-throated attack on former MEP Alex Phillips before then moving on to slag off the host Victoria Derbyshire.
In the process, Campbell got his facts partly wrong. And he's hardly able to lecture anyone on the truth, given the Iraq saga. Here is the crux of the matter.
But at least this time he's dropping half-truth bombs instead of real bombs on innocent Iraq kids. That's an improvement.
This latest outburst sits oddly with Campbell's constant gripes about impoliteness in debates and being willing to listen to the other side and engage. Also, he made a lengthy rant on his podcast attacking Dominic Rabb as a bully, yet he does the same.
After his heated Newsnight exchange on camera, Campbell allegedly pursued Phillips as she left the studio. According to some accounts, fearful staff escorted her to the safety of a side office because they assessed Campbell's behaviour as menacing.
The other aspect to consider is that Campbell makes great play around mental health issues, frequently mentioning his struggle with depression and the work he does to help others. All commendable stuff, except I do wonder if he has serious anger problems.
There are several things that intrigue me about Campbell. At times he is remarkably engaging, eloquent with his insights into British politics, while simultaneously willfully blind to his personal faults. Many of the criticism he lays at the door of others equally apply to him.
Still as the mask slipped from the Yorkshire-born grammar school boy, what emerged on Newsnight was an intolerant, abusive individual. But is anyone surprised? We've all long suspected that Campbell inspired the infamous fictional Malcolm Tucker.
He's just confirmed it.
"Like their European counterparts, Chinese jesters aimed at anything deemed sacrosanct, mocking their sovereign's enemies and friends."
When Emperor Er Shi Huangdi (二世皇帝) (r. 209-207 BCE) decided to lacquer the Great Wall, his dwarf jester, You Zhan (優旃) (Twisty Pole), praised the idea. "Magnificent! Smooth and shiny! Too slippery for any invaders to climb over!" And now the punchline, "How big will the drying room need to be?" That was the end of that project.
Then when King Zhuang of Chu (楚莊王) (r. 613-591 BCE) favourite horse died from overfeeding, he ordered a full state funeral and wouldn't listen to objections. He threatened death to anyone who disagreed. But Jester Meng (優孟) entered the king's presence, weeping.
"It's that horse of yours, Majesty," he sobbed. "You loved him so much. Great Emperor, anything you wish is yours for the asking. Yet all you desire is a proper burial. I beg you to give him all the honours due a monarch, including land for 10,000 households bestowed on his descendants. And by these gestures, the world will know that Your Majesty prizes horses above mere men."
The Emperor paused, realising his foolishness and asked how he may rectify the situation. Meng suggested, "An immense cauldron as a coffin, some ginger, the most expensive rice, and a final resting place in the bellies of men." The Emperor laughed. Such indirect criticism, packaged as humour in riddles, verses or skits, was known as guifeng or fengjian.
In ancient China and medieval Europe, the role of the court jester was to entertain the court and amuse the royals and guests. But they also enjoyed "jester's privilege", which allowed them to mock and speak freely under certain circumstances. So, besides singing storytelling, acrobatics, and juggling, the court jesters sometimes acted as advisors and critics for the monarchs.
Some held positions of privilege and influence, accompanying sovereigns to treaty negotiations and weddings. Some were keepers of secrets not safely committed to paper acting as trusted envoys.
China has a 2,000-year jester tradition that began between 770 and 476 BC. They sported excellent names; Baldy Chunyu, Moving Bucket, Wild Pig, Mole, Fitting New Bridle, Going Round in Circles, Subtle Reformer King, and Flawless Jade.
Chinese jesters aimed at anything deemed sacrosanct like their European counterparts, mocking their sovereign's enemies and friends. They laughed at the wise and challenged the virtuous. Not even Lao Tze or the Buddha was spared. For example, Surpassable Li, a jester to the Tang Dynasty court of Yizong (860-74), created an irreverent argument that Confucius was a woman.
Throughout history, jesters used humour to highlight a monarch's shortcomings, providing a rare breath of fresh air for rulers surrounded by sycophants. To these ends, they needed to be able to make their responsibility-laden employers laugh.
The expression wu guo chi – "fools of no offence" – is the nickname for jesters. But as comedians throughout time are well aware, knowing how far to push the envelope is an inexact science with shifting variables. Speaking truth to power will always be a paradoxical privilege. There were instances when a line was crossed. The result came in banishment, imprisonment, or worse. In several cases, an execution was evaded by the same silver tongue that had led to the fix in the first place.
There are several recorded examples of jesters helping to expose corruption at court. In 1499, aware that the chief civil service examiner was accepting bribes from candidates seeking the answers to the exam, the court jesters decided to act. They organised a wordplay game that turned on "cooked" and "uncooked pig's feet," homophones for "seen" and "unseen questions."
Parading before the Emperor with a tray, one of the jesters hawked his wares: "Buy my trotters!" Someone asked, "How much?" An enormous sum was quoted. "Why so expensive?"
"Because," the vendor explained, "these are all cooked trotters (shu ti), not raw ones (sheng ti)." The court erupted, and the Emperor realised what was afoot.
We don't have jesters these days, yet comedians and cartooning are often equated with the canary in the free speech coal mine. "We need humour like we need the air we breathe," notes Patrick Chappatte, a multi-award-winning talent whose "cartoon" reportage has raged from the war in Gaza and the slums of Nairobi to gang violence in Central America and the nasty aspects of Silicon Valley culture.
In July 2019, the New York Times, having won a Pulitzer for political cartooning in 2018, suddenly cut all political cartooning. A social media uproar erupted over an image reprinted from a Lisbon newspaper. The cartoon had Donald Trump, blind and wearing a yarmulke, led by Israeli President Netanyahu, depicted as a guide dog wearing a Star of David collar.
As a result, all its cartoonists lost their jobs over a cartoon they didn't draw. The New York Times decided on self-censorship to calm the waters. Yet, critics argue that political cartoons are meant to be thought-provoking. They assert that satire breathes fresh air into the hothouse corridors of power; it points to the Emperor and dares to proclaim, "He's naked!"
Still, it can prove a dangerous business. In January 2015, Islamist gunmen attacked the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo – an irreverent, satirical weekly that has poked fun at everything from Catholicism and Judaism to Charles de Gaulle – because it published a series of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Mohammed. Twelve people were killed in the deadliest terrorist attack in France in 50 years.
And yet, there will always be a lot that deserves mocking or cut down to size. For instance, in recent days, former transport secretary Frank Chan compared district council members to domestic helpers earning a well-deserved lambasting. After all, a decent domestic helper is far more valuable.
Arguably, those in power need jesters as much as they ever did.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.