Saturday, 17 October 2015

An early and illustrious exponent may explain why politicians indulge in so much BS

When it comes to BS, I’m sure most would agree that few can rival politicians. 

To be fair, I’ve worked, and even enjoyed working, with a number of salesmen (which includes women, by the way) who would give them a good run. Overall, however, I have to say that none achieve quite such outstanding mastery of BS as our statesmen.

Generally speaking, the ‘B’ in ‘BS’ stands for ‘Bull’. That’s why I was amused to come across a case of a fine BS performance by a politician where the ‘B’ stood for ‘Bird’.

The particular politician who established himself as a champion in this field was William Henry Seward. He would later win his place in history, firstly by being the front runner for the Republican US Presidential nomination in 1860. To the amazement of many, he failed to become the candidate, and then showed his quality by backing the rival who beat him, Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, at a time when the tradition was that candidates did not campaign for themselves, Seward did more to secure Lincoln’s election than any other man, canvassing 15 states, all but one of which went to his candidate in the general election, giving Lincoln the White House.

Seward then became Lincoln’s most valuable ally and his Secretary of State throughout the Civil War.

His great BS moment, however, came some time before all this. Back in 1856, then Senator Seward took legislative action to address the growing needs of US agriculture. At the time, one of the world’s main fertilisers was guano – sea bird excrement. BS, in fact.

Guano was mostly collected from islands on which the stuff had gathered for years or centuries. Rather like the Bull form of BS, which piles up in every increasing depth in our great legislative arenas.

Seward brought forward a proposal to give the US the right to occupy any guano island not already in the possession of a foreign nation. He was successful, and the Guano Island Law was enacted on 18 August 1856. Seward had made it clear that it was not intended to provide the United States with a means to extend its possessions, but only to give it access to sources of guano not claimed by anyone else, which could be given up later, once the supply had been exhausted.

However, though it left in this option for the US to withdraw from such islands, it didnt make it obligatory to do so. Guano ceased to be a particularly useful fertiliser, as other new forms became available, soon after the law was adopted. But of the more than 100 islands claimed, the United States still holds on to twelve. One at least is relatively well known.

Within six months of its attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, which failed to eliminate the US threat to Japanese naval dominance of the Pacific, Japan had another go at achieving that aim. On 6 and 7 June 1942, a major battle was fought that cost Japan four aircraft carriers to the US’s one. By then, Japan no longer had the resources to make good such losses. In other words, it was a turning point in the war in the Pacific, after which Japan never again had the opportunity to knock out the US as a naval rival.

By what name do we call that battle? By the name of the American naval base that was the key to the Japanese attack: Midway.

Idyllic Midway Atoll.
But the airstrip shows that the military matters more than the guano
The Midway atoll was a collection of islands seized by the US under the provisions of Seward’s Guano Island Act. One of the twelve such possessions that was never given up. Even though the guano is, presumably, no longer anything more than a bit of an unsightly nuisance.

All this, I feel, makes Seward something of a BS star. I mean, how many politicians have achieved anything of such lasting effect from mere BS? He became a major American statesman later, one of the great Secretaries of State, but you have to admit that you can already see from his guano measure, that he would leave a lasting mark on American history.

Incidentally, the Guano Islands Act has never been repealed. It’s on the US statute book to this day. It’s still in effect.

Perhaps that’s why so many politicians go in for so much BS: they know from Seward’s example that it can be of historic importance.

Sadly, however, they seldom get beyond the Bull variety.

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