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Jacob’s Jewels

Apart from politicians and governance, Gen Jacob’s witticisms are targeted at the press, writes Karan Thapar.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2009 22:17 IST

Who’d have ever thought retired army generals spend their time trawling the net, discovering the witty or insightful comments of others and then circulating them widely to their friends? And certainly not generals who played a critical role winning the Bangladesh war and then went on to serve as governors of states like Goa and Punjab. But Jack Jacob is definitely one such.

I’m a regular and grateful recipient of Gen. Jacob’s tireless efforts. Depending on what strikes his fancy, his wide-ranging output keeps me informed, amused, appalled and, occasionally, horrified. I’ve even based a few current affairs discussion programmes on “research” that he’s sent me.

Today, however, I want to share what he calls “ageless wit and observations”. It’s a collection of pithy comments, which the good general must have spent a fair deal of time digging out.

First, how has politics and government been viewed down the ages? As far back as 430 BC, Pericles had seen the truth: “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you!” By 1764, Voltaire had considerably sharpened his focus on the problem: “In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one party of the citizens to give to the other.” A century or so later, George Bernard Shaw worked out the political logic behind such behaviour: “A government which robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

But it was Winston Churchill who exposed the folly of believing that just by taxing the rich you can make everyone well off: “I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up by the handle.”

The problem is our expectations of the government. Ironically, it doesn’t only make us secure. It can also make us vulnerable. As Thomas Jefferson put it in the 19th century: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is strong enough to take everything you have.” Ronald Reagan converted his admired predecessor’s aphorism into simple language: “Government’s view of the economy can be summed up in a few short phrases: if it moves, tax it; if it keeps moving, regulate it; and if it stops moving, subsidise it.”

The solution is a more cautious and less ambitious view of the government. Keep it slim and limited. Omniscient government can be a monster. As P. J. O’Rourke explained: “Giving money and power to government is like giving whisky and car keys to teenage boys.” But if cautious handling doesn’t work, there is the artist Edward Langley’s suggestion: “What this country needs are more unemployed politicians.”

However, Gen. Jacob’s collection of witticisms is not targeted at politicians or governance alone. Another of his favourite subjects is the press. He’s no admirer of my profession and dismisses us as hacks. If you ask him what he thinks of newspapers, TV and journalists, he will quote from Mark Twain: “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed, if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.”

In private conversation he’s a lot sharper. Once, when disputing a point he’d made, I quoted what I considered relevant facts, he shot back: “If you’ve got that from a journalist, it’s either exaggerated or down right wrong.”

I wonder how many of you agree?

The views expressed by the author are personal