Archive for June, 2012

The Law of Declining Outrage

June 25, 2012

How serious are the government’s new welfare proposals?

Back in April the government said it was going to cut housing benefit for unemployed people under 25. Since then, nothing seems to have come of it. Now Cameron makes a speech saying he wants to cut housing benefit for all under 25s whether they work or not. This was part of a raft of seventeen different policy ideas including cutting all benefits for under 21s, cutting all benefits for the long term unemployed, cutting child benefits if you have too many children, and the routine arming of Work Programme subcontractors (alright, I made this one up. Still, wait on the 2020 manifesto).

The speech has had a predictable reaction. People are angry and scared and they are entitled to be. The policy rationale has holes you can drive a bus through. Housing benefit is overwhelmingly an in work benefit, in cities with rocketing rents many people can’t continue to work without it, many young people don’t have safe comfortable homes to go back to (the DWP seems to think the greatest hardship someone in their early twenties can face is to have to go back to their childhood bedroom in Herefordshire) the cut will prevent young people from rural areas or small towns moving to more populated areas where the work is, so it will slow down growth and keep people out of work. And it sends another clear signal to young people that they are barely tolerated guests in this country.

Johnny Void, the criminally underrated welfare reform blogger, noted a recent shift in benefits rhetoric. Before, only people who didn’t work at all qualified as Daily Mail cannon fodder. Now, you can work all the hours there are but if you are still reliant on some kind of state help then you are considered fair game – as the BBC’s treatment of lone parent Shanene Thorpe showed. Possibly the ideal is some kind of ultra libertarian society where people will be denounced for, say, calling the fire brigade if their house is bombed, or driving on publicly maintained roads.

But is any of this going to be implemented in practice?

The government has just passed a huge tranche of welfare reform legislation. Danny Alexander has said that the government should concentrate on implementing Welfare Reform Part One – which isn’t going that well so far. The Guardian‘s Andrew Sparrow said it felt like he was hearing an early draft of the 2015 Tory general election manifesto. Given the amount of time and effort it takes to turn ideas into law, surely Welfare Reform Part Two can’t fly before then.

So all these ideas depend on people electing another coalition government with the Lib Dems voting for these proposals (which is possible) or a full-on majority Tory government (which, at the moment, is just fantasy).

Political bloggers like to say that they know what’s really going on, but we don’t really and it could be that Cameron is completely sincere in this. Or he could be trying to look tough and distract attention from government clusterfucks on the economy, the NHS, Leveson, the list is endless. Or he could be trying to build up his base and outflank Gove as a successor. Just as Ed Miliband has to throw some bones to the white working class right and Nick Clegg has to occasionally pretend his party has a reason for existing. You can get obsessed with this Westminster village bullshit if you’re not careful.

The dance is an old one. The debate circles the same G-spot issues like lazy vultures returning to a declining corpse. Cameron gives us the same stupid and counterproductive ideas framed in aspirational volkisch rhetoric that pretends these ideas have never been tried and that they can work. The Mail and the courtier press love it while charities, unions, policy groups and the Twitter left react with fury. The silent majority is supposed to think that if the intellectual left is against something then it must be a great idea.

The leftwing take is that Cameron is exploiting working class resentment of benefit claimants. Perhaps Cameron thinks he is shoring up his Man of the People credentials and it’s worth alienating the under 25s because they don’t vote and certainly don’t vote Tory – although in my experience the apathy of youth is a shaky assumption.

However, I think that this kind of manufactured outrage is subject to diminishing returns. There’s only so much hate.

I think that it will take more than another ‘bold and radical’ welfare reform idea to save this farcical government.

Update: You should really read Red on this, but just one of her sentences sums the housing benefit proposal up completely.

Apparently though, our prime minister thinks you should be treated like a child until you’ve been alive for a quarter of a century.

Welfare Reform part 94: this time it’s gonna work. (Image: Guardian)

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Sympathy for the Haterz

June 17, 2012

There’s a good piece by Terence Blacker, who lived next door to Twitter death threat loon Frank Zimmerman. It is, as Blacker says, an interesting story and kind of sad. Zimmerman comes off as a bourgeois family man who went off the rails. Blacker knew him in the 1980s when he was trying to set up a consultancy. They lost touch, until Zimmerman called him up a few years ago.

If I remember rightly, he was in search of professional advice. He told me that he was writing now – people had often told him he had a talent for comedy. His voice was as chirpy and confident as ever but, as the conversation progressed, it became clear that something was awry. He spoke of his friendship with Charles – Prince Charles. He had been left several million pounds in Princess Diana’s will, he said.

I didn’t. Frank said he would ask Hugh – Hugh Grant – next time he played golf with him. He was living in Provence, he said, and when I asked where, he said, ‘Hang on. Darling, where do we live?’ He was living with a young French girl these days, he explained. She was called Marie-Claude.

So it went on. He was writing a lot now, and liked to contribute to message-boards. He mentioned that he had had his say beneath Hugh Grant’s ‘The bugger, bugged’ piece in the New Statesman, both under his own name and, amusingly (he thought) under the name ‘Henry Root’, the enraged fictional letter-writer created by the late Willie Donaldson. I checked later, and there were his messages – angry, feebly facetious, but not that different, to tell the truth, from others on the same board.

Later, Blacker got the same kind of death threat emails Louise Mensch received. He recognised Zimmerman’s style, and alerted Mensch. Police raided Zimmerman’s home, which was apparently in a state of some disrepair.

Zimmerman had emailed Louise Mensch and said, this:

Subject: You have been HACKED 😀

Louise Mensch, nee Bagshawe, the slut of Twitter.

We are Anonymous and we don’t like rude cunts like you and your nouveau riche husband Peter Mensch. You have been hacked!

We are inside your computer and all your phones, everywhere … and inside your homes.

So get off Twitter.

We see you are still on Twitter. We have sent a camera crew to photograph you and your kids and will post it all over the net, including Twitter. Cuntface.

You now have a Sophie’s Choice. Which kid is to go? One will, count on it cunt.

Have a nice day

From all of us at MIT 617-253-1000.

Zimmerman was convicted this week and got six months, suspended. He was also banned from contacting Mensch on a restraining order which also named various high profile figures including General Petraeus, who commanded the US Army in the Iraq ‘surge’ phase.

It’s always a moment of deep dismay when you realise that someone close to you has gone delusional – there’s a lurch in your heart when your friend starts talking about mercury poisoning or a certain email sent to members of a certain ethnicity on a certain day in September 2001.

Blacker’s article is a well written human story.

However – and maybe I’m reading too much into this – the note of sympathy in the piece grated with me.

We always imagine that internet haterz are lonely and bitter people. Or young thugs on council estates. That’s not necessarily true. They could be respectable men of the shires with families and businesses behind them. Blacker is right to say that there are plenty of Frank Zimmermans out there.

Clearly Zimmerman had some real disappointments in his life. He does claim to be an agoraphobic and apparently ordered all his groceries online. Unfortunate. But I don’t like the assumption that any criminal act can be rationalised by past troubles, or traced to the ‘root cause’ of mental illness. I was agoraphobic for a year and a half and at no point did I threaten to kill anyone’s children, or send inappropriate tweets to female politicians. What annoyed me about the ‘racist tram woman’ case was people saying ‘Oh, she must have terrible mental health problems.’ A remaining myth about the mentally ill is that we are all potentially violent sociopaths who could ‘snap’ at any second. The liberal argument on crime directly undermines the liberal argument on mental distress.

Perhaps my hangover is getting to me or perhaps it’s true that you do get more conservative as you get older. Perhaps I’m just tired of Britain’s self pity culture.

I just think people should take a little more personal responsibility.

We all have disappointments and sadnesses, traumas and reversals.

It’s how we react to them, that counts.

The Shot

June 14, 2012

Recently, talking about Christopher Hitchens, Martin Amis said this:

He was someone with exceptional love of life and since he has died he has bequeathed his love of life to me. I feel the obligation to value every moment because he is not there to value it… Your wonder of life increases towards the end because it is tinged with a leave-taking feeling that it’s not going to be there for very much longer.

Norman Geras, who’s maybe Amis’s age, picks up on this:

Recognition! You get to this point where you not only enjoy things (when you do) but also have a second-order response, along the lines ‘I’m enjoying the day (this book, movie, walk, get-together with family, friends etc), and that’s good because my time is now (more) limited, and I must make the most of it.’ Probably it comes for everyone at a different point in their lives, but I know exactly the day, just over nine years ago, when I started to have this background consciousness, so to say noticing what used to be just the regular events of life.

Norm goes on to ask whether we should develop that background consciousness at an earlier stage. Perhaps a constant knowledge that it’s all going to end would make us better at living. However, he writes, this same foreknowledge could as easy ruin such transient joys. ‘If there was already a second-order narrative in your head,’ Norm says, ‘your youth would be grey at the temples.’

I guess it depends on the person. I started thinking about mortality at around nineteen or twenty and it became quite a psychological kink for me. Youth is full of immediate opportunities and we think that something bad’s going to happen before the good thing. I even used to criticise myself for not paying enough attention to the moment, not feeling it enough – wondering if this was just me, or if we are all stranded in the past or dreaming of the future, barely skittering the surface of lived time.

When I was officially diagnosed with anxiety disorders I realised that my own background consciousness contained a fear of imminent death. I would have trouble planning something weeks or even days in advance because there was always this disclaimer – well, fuck, you could be dead by then. I actually factored this in. In some ways my generation are more conservative and aware of our own mortality than was Amis’s – I knew twenty year olds who were afraid because they were halfway to forty. There was also the assumption that we were all going to be married with children by around twenty five and so in a sense life would end. It’s a smug sacrifice I always rejected, although my own life – interesting and enjoyable though it’s been – doesn’t exactly advertise the road I’ve taken.

I am still very aware of being alive. I try to fill my days with good and productive things, I try to resist mindless routine and low expectations and I try to lose myself in the texture of life. Music, writing, books, booze, good company and long runs; you just have to take the thing you love – as Hank says in Californication – and make it your life. Not many of us will be able to claim as Hitchens could that we lived life to the full but I think most of us will have taken our best shot at it.

Contextualising a Few Links

June 10, 2012

My review of Ed Vulliamy’s book about the Bosnian War, The War is Dead, Long Live the War, is now available at 3:AM. This was a long one to write and I consulted Nick Cohen’s chapters on Bosnia in his seminal What’s Left, which provides an overview of the war and a demolition of the denial claims. My paras on the Leuchter Report and holocaust denial rely heavily on Deborah Lipstadt’s Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory.

Other 3:AM writing that I haven’t got round to posting on here:

– A piece on Colin Shindler’s book about the relationship between Israel and the left

– An article explaining why John Lanchester’s Capital isn’t very good

– A review of Blaine Harden’s book on the North Korean death camps, featuring the story of Shin Dong-hyuk, who escaped from one of the camps

– A piece on Irvine Welsh’s remarkable prequel novel, Skagboys.

Deport My Heart

June 10, 2012

Even an open borders enthusiast like myself has to admit that family based migration has its problems. From the dark shores of Telegraph Blogs, Ed West draws a link between family migration and forced marriage:

The vast majority of forced marriages in the UK are inflicted on young British girls of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin, and yet last year 6,460 British citizens applied to bring over a spouse from Pakistan, the largest of any country; most will succeed, and every year 20,000 Pakistanis are granted British citizenship, many through family reunion. As that tireless anti-forced marriage campaigner Ann Cryer MP told the Economist three years back, as many as 80 per cent of Muslim marriages in her area were to spouses from the old country, and this ‘a way of getting around immigration controls’.

He goes on to say this:

Not only are those brought over often unskilled, rural and un-cosmopolitan, and so the least suited towards a diverse society, the overwhelming majority of cases involve people marrying those of the same ethnic group; in fact a large number marry people from their own extended family, and ethnic groups who marry their relatives are harder to integrate because they tend towards clannishness… such is the cognitive dissonance that immigration produces that many of the Left have been willing to ignore another aspect of this migration – the terrible effect on women, who can never enjoy England’s freedoms while the threat of marriage looms over.

West praises the government’s proposal to increase the minimum income you need to apply for a spousal visa. However, let’s look at this idea in more detail. The minimum income for sponsors is £13,700. The coalition proposes whacking this up to £25,700, a level which would exclude anyone on the national average wage of £21,000. The Guardian claims it would exclude two thirds of UK citizens.

The Guardian quotes a report from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, ‘United by Love – Divided by Theresa May’, which has case studies of couples and families who would be affected if this proposal were to become law. It is a choice between effective deportation, and giving up a loving relationship.

From the report:

Anna is a 25-year-old British citizen who was born and brought up in the UK. All of her family is here. Anna met her husband Khalid, a Palestinian national, in 2008 when she was studying abroad. The couple married in 2009, when she was a student. Anna returned to the UK in 2009 and Khalid applied for a visa to join her. After 14 months he finally secured this. He came to the UK in 2010.

It is unlikely that it would have been possible for Anna to have been reunited with Khalid were the proposed thresholds to have operated at that time. She was at that point a student, and was in receipt of third party support from her grandparents and mother, who is the Chief Executive of a company.

The upshot of the above is that Anna, an indigenous British citizen who has lived in the UK for the entirety of her life, may be forced to travel to another country in order to continue to reside with her husband. So far as Palestine goes, Khalid is a third generation refugee who was born and brought up in Syria and is technically stateless, and therefore has no entitlements to reside in the West Bank or Gaza. Whilst Khalid has residency in Syria, certainly the advice currently appearing on the Foreign Office website is that British citizens should not only abstain from travelling to the country, but should simply not travel there at all because of the current conflict.

The proposal, which looks modest and reasonable, in fact amounts to class discrimination at its worst. As with so many of this government’s ideas there is a head-toss of disdain for the human lives behind the statistics. Theresa May is essentially saying: if you earn below a certain level, we can take away your right to marriage. Have a family. But do it our way. When I think of the people I’ve known who found love and happiness with someone who happens to be from another country, I realise that this issue should get the same kind of coverage as gay marriage. What gives the state the right to say that two people, who love each other, cannot get married?

Spousal visa are associated with Thai brides but in an open world it’s inevitable that more and more people will marry across nationalities. Many people meet their life mate at university and British universities attract students from America, Europe, Asia and beyond. The law against forced marriage is just going to have to be enforced by hard operational work and public funding rather than the easy option of yet more big sweeping strategic changes to the immigration system.

In fact the government’s proposal could make things even worse on that score. May wants to extend the probationary period from two to five years, meaning spouses will not be able to find work or claim benefits. The JCWI points out that women on spousal visas who are imported into abusive marriages will have their ordeal prolonged as they will be dependent on violent husbands for food. Its report has a case study of a battered wife who ended up in hospital, severely malnourished, having had her savings taken away by her abuser.

The coalition goes on and on about family values but the practical effect of its ideas will be to assault and break apart the family unit.

Update: Sarah A-B picks up on this.

For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?/Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

– Matthew 19 6-7 (King James)

Punk is Dead – Come On!

June 4, 2012

Chris Dillow has an interesting post – interesting as in well written but completely wrong headed – about generational activism:

Watching Punk Brittania reminded me of a now-lost world – one in which young people’s anger shocked their elders.

Punk was more rebellious and more disquieting to the establishment than anything we see today. Nobody of my generation is as appalled by dubstep as 40-somethings were by punk. It’s unlikely that a single today would be banned for political reasons and get to number one, as God Save the Queen did. And try as I might, I can’t imagine Rizzle Kicks doing to Alex Jones what the Sex Pistols did to Bill Grundy.

In this, music reflects a wider social fact – that today’s young people are much less gobby than we were. Last summer’s riots, for example, contained less political motive than their 1981 equivalents. And much as I love them, today’s ‘voices of their generation’ are pretty tame: Owen Jones is no more radical than some Bank of England economists and Laurie Penny is a milk and water Julie Birchill.

The plea of one of the greatest songwriters of my generation – teenagers, kick our butts – has fallen on deaf ears.

This is not because of a lack of cause. Today’s youngsters have the same grievances as my generation – youth unemployment and police harrassment – and then some.

Chris Dillow is a great blogger but he is wrong on this occasion. Bear in mind that since Johnny Rotten pranced around on a boat we have had the rave revolution, the anti globalisation movement, Gaddafi squat parties and a resurgent feminism propelled mainly by under 30s activists. The 1970s feminist Germaine Greer defends female genital mutilation. Today’s young radicals campaign against it.

Punk changed nothing. The monarchy is still very much alive (as its courtiers have delighted in telling us over and over again this weekend) and Britain is a far worse place in terms of youth chances than it was in the 1970s. The punk movement reached its obvious terminus in this week’s article by the pompous and overrated Tony Parsons in which he declared: ‘like the overwhelming majority of our people – I have nothing but respect, admiration and love for the Queen. She is of course more of a true punk than Johnny Rotten will ever be. Her Majesty has followed her destiny, done what she was born to do – surely the very heart of the punk ethos.’

Rave altered British culture forever. It startled John Major’s timewarp Tory government to the extent that it wrote a proscription into the Criminal Justice Act 1994 that covered ‘open-air gatherings with more than 100 people at which music that includes sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats’. In terms of feminism, sexuality, individuality, the expectations of the young and poor, rave kicked punk into the Thames. And the music was better. And the drugs were better. End of.

Admittedly my generation were active in Stop the War – half the people I grew up with marched in February 2003 – but that was a coalition led by baby boomer zombies and career SWPers. All youth activism risks raising the ghost of Rik Mayall from The Young Ones. Yet the worst kind of totalitarian left politics today comes from older men and women – Noam Chomsky (born in 1928) Tony Benn (1925) John Pilger (1939) Lindsey German (1951)  George Galloway (1954) Alex Callinicos (1950) Ken Livingstone (1945). These are establishment radicals but you can find many respectable elders of the shire bourgeoisie who enthuse about Russia Today because it dares to tell the truth suppressed by mainstream media, who sign campaign postcards and attend rallies in support of Islamist terror suspects and plane hijackers.

Whenever I hear commentators snigger and moan about the silly idealistic unworkable ideas of the young, I want to shout: what about the stupid, unrealistic and unworkable politics of the old? What about the generation that left us in this mess? Christopher Hitchens, a boomer radical taken too young, said towards the end of his life that ‘when I check the thermometer I find that it is the fucking old fools who get me down the worst, and the attainment of that level of idiocy can often require a lifetime.’

So yeah – I think that Dillow has let his imagination run away with him this time.

(Image from The Prodigy official website. Thanks: Shuggy.)

Bravo Jubilee

June 2, 2012

Ankh-Morpork is a fictional city state created by bestselling fantasy author Terry Pratchett. The city is ruled by a Florence-style Patrician, and citizens are always harking back to the days when Ankh-Morpork had an absolute monarch. That most of its kings were frothing sadists never puts a dent in the nostalgia. As Sergeant Colon remarks: ‘every time someone stubs a toe in this town, turns out it wouldn’t have happened if we had a king.’

A well-connected villain devises a plan to bring the monarchy back. He conjures up a dragon from some other dimension (seriously, you need to bear with me on this) and arranges for a good-looking youth of apparent nobility to slay the beast in the town square. Unfortunately, the dragon incinerates the knight in a microsecond, and is itself crowned king by townsfolk who have hung out their bunting and are damn well going to have a coronation. The following scene is a masterpiece in dark comedy as the terrified villain, now enslaved by his own creation, briefs city authorities in the dining hall of the Patrician’s Palace as the dragon stomps and prowls its way around the upper floors. The mood is tense, the walls shake, guildsmen try to pick their way through a dense and stodgy meal. The subject turns to ‘the matter of … the king’s . . . diet.’

‘The whole essence of the king’s feeding is that it should be, well… an act of bonding between king and subjects. It is, it is perhaps a living allegory. Reinforcing the close links between the crown and the community,’ he added.

‘The precise nature of the meal?’ the head thief began, almost choking on the words. ‘Are we talking about young maidens here?’

‘Sheer prejudice,’ said Wonse. ‘The age is immaterial. Marital status is, of course, of importance. And social class. Something to do with flavour, I believe.’ He leaned forward, and now his voice was pain-filled and urgent and, they felt, genuinely his own for the first time. ‘Please consider it!’ he hissed. ‘After all, just one a month! In exchange for so much! The families of people of use to the king, Privy Councillors such as yourselves, would not, of course, even be considered. And when you think of all the alternatives…’

They didn’t think about all the alternatives. It was enough to think about just one of them.

Pratchett’s satire on kingship is like a pint of beer and a cold shower after all the sycophantic documentaries, the glossy supplements, the totalitarian-kitsch billboards and flotillas, the beard-stroking op eds, the historical blockbuster movies in which a tactful curtain is drawn over the Royal Family’s support for appeasement of Nazi fascism. A royal event has this atmosphere of weird head-girl conformism (‘Play up! Play up! And play the game’) where provincial streets flutter with flags, aristocrats experiment with self-deprecating humour, and the whole country begins to look like the monoculturalist utopia that conservatives dream of it being.

It’s true, the courtiers are winning. The last big republican moment was in the late nineties with a wave of public anger in the wake of Diana’s death. The Windsors fucked up her whole life, and barely bothered to grieve for her. It looked bad, and for the first time in decades the throne was teetering. Since then, though, the Royal Family has turned itself around. Posh is cool and even our elected leaders are from the old and true bloodlines. Republicans are an embittered minority who haven’t advanced their cause a single inch in a hundred years. We’re like grumpy old Sam Vimes, badly hungover and kicking a can down Treacle Mine Road as the city celebrates around him.

I don’t want to cast a shadow over the street parties that will be happening all over my city. You must never, ever wag your finger at working class people having a good time. Most people work difficult and low paid jobs – if they are lucky enough to have jobs at all – and will seize any bank holiday with both hands. What I am against is being told I’m not a patriot because I don’t have time for this fucking medieval passion-play. What I am against is the condescension of so much of it, this idea that the monarchy brings a little magic into poor and simple lives. Here’s an example of what I mean from Sunder Katwala, who gives the Fabian case for the monarchy:

The final surprise has been how, against the backdrop of Britain’s increasing ethnic diversity, the monarchy has become more relevant. The journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown surely exaggerates when she writes that ‘I am the only black/Asian republican I have ever met’, but perhaps only a little. Bernie Grant, Labour’s most left-wing MP of recent times, was among the most vociferous royalists, taking much pride in the Queen’s interest and reputation in the Caribbean. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was mocked for wearing traditional African dress each year to the State Opening of Parliament. However, by making the connection between his black Guyanese origins and his seat in the Commons, he was reminding us that we share more history than we think.

Notice Katwala’s assumption that most black minority ethnic people are royalist by default. Same goes for the Chief Rabbi, who asserted in his ‘Thought for the Day’ that ‘Jews are intensely loyal to the Queen.’ The Heresiarch picked up on this: ‘What, all of them? How many has he asked?’ Monarchists don’t bring different cultures together under a common heritage, they patronise, deny and piss upon the individual human being.

Of course the court has moved with the times to some extent. The divine right of kings is not evoked anymore, because it is so ridiculous given the current shower and its all too evident humanity. Prince Charles is any middle aged philanderer with a creepy woo flirtation. Prince Harry is any middle class Cheshire thug outside a sports bar. With the original justification for the monarchy gone, its courtiers have to babble about national identity, cohesion, community, the living allegory… will this do? Oh, and they’re good for tourism. But maybe it’s not the royals all those tourists are looking at. Come to England! See the peasants!

It won’t do, not anymore. We’re a feudal backwater run by a kleptocratic media-political elite where success is built through family and connection rather than talent and hard work. We’re a country where more and more working people cannot afford to fucking eat. The misery, resentment and self-pity that infests so much of our public discourse, the infantile nastiness of it, derives, at least in part, from the fact that we have never been citizens, only subjects. Oh, we love to laugh at the vulgar Americans with their shotguns and four-wheel drives and their rather demonstrative patriotism. The fact is though, they got their country back, and we didn’t. As Polly Toynbee says, you should compare ‘land of the free’ to ‘long to reign over us’.

There’s nothing wrong with going to a street party this weekend or raising the Loyal Toast. But some of us will take time out to go outside for a smoke, tilt our gaze towards the ocean, and dream of something worth fighting for.

Update: If you still think that what happened this weekend was just harmless national conviviality consider this: unemployed workfare claimants bussed into London to work as unpaid stewards, doing 14-hour shifts on the river pageant, and sleeping under London Bridge.

As Nick Lezard said: what the fuck is happening to this country?

‘Men will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest’

– Diderot