His Grace of Traffic Cones

I recently finished reading The Man Who Broke Napoleon’s Codes, by Mark Urban. This very readable book recounts the progress of one Major George Scovell both as Wellington battled his way across Spain, and as George battled something called the Great Paris Cipher (code) while serving under Wellington as an assistant quartermaster. Wellington won in large part because George won first, but His Grace was parsimonious in praising Scovell. When peace meant Scovell fell on hard times, Wellington apparently did not even acknowledge his cryptographer’s one plea to his old boss for help.

Wellington had a bias against any military system that promoted officers based on merit, and most particularly against officers who had come up through ranks on the basis of outstanding performance. When Scovell widgied his way into an officer’s billet, he had left behind the august position of tailor’s apprentice.

Wellington’s argument was that elevating men who had no connection “with the land,” (meaning ownership of real property), would result in revolution. Exhibit one, of course, was France. Give these base-born guys a taste for power and authority, inure them to violence, and next thing you know, the scum of earth, as Wellington referred to his largely Scottish and Irish recruits, will be breaking down the palace gates.

Throughout the Peninsular campaign, Wellington had first-hand evidence that officers drawn from the peerage could be disastrous in command, and officers risen through the ranks quite talented (and somewhat conversely). Still, he did not change his mind about who should be an officer, and how they should get the job (essentially by buying in). The fact that the French army, with its merit promotion scheme, was pretty much beating the breeches off everybody else was also insufficient to give His Grace pause.

Credit:: Wikipedia

Nothing changed Wellington’s mind, no matter how deadly the bungling of his less competent aristocratic officers (much less his own bungling) became, no matter how great the contribution of his officers from humbler origins.

I contrast Wellington’s intransigence with an exchange I had on social media, on the topic of Wellington’s traffic cones. In downtown Glasgow, you will find an equestrian statue of His Grace, and usually, somebody has put a traffic cone on the duke’s head. His horse gets a few from time to time as well, and sometimes, as many as eight cones will be stacked atop the ducal bean. The constables regularly remove the cones, and in the dark of night, somebody replaces the duke’s millinery.

A commenter was offended that anybody who risked his life to defend his country (Wellington, and he absolutely was in mortal danger on many occasions) should be the subject of ridicule, When it was explained (by me) that this was a Scottish context, that serving under Wellington was much riskier than being Wellington, and in point of fact, the Scots had always been deployed to the scenes of the worst fighting and taken horrible casualties under His Grace… well, the commenter modified her stance. She still didn’t find any humor in the tradition, but she understood why, from a Scottish perspective, traffic cones might have some validity.

She changed her mind. Not radically, not on a major issue, but she could admit of more than one valid perspective.

On the one hand, I don’t expect I will change my values very easily–be kind, tell the truth. You won’t get me to budge very far off that prime directive. But my opinions? My theories of human behavior? My cherished prejudices? I would like to be more like my Facebook friend, who could yield a little in the face of new data, who could accept that reasonable people can differ.

When was the last time you changed your mind? Have you succeeded in changing a mind set on some fixed belief?

PS: A Gentleman in Search of a Wife goes on sale at the retail sites Friday!

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11 comments on “His Grace of Traffic Cones

  1. You studied the art and science of changing opinions, Grace. You then had a deal of experience with it that most of us don’t and a written record of it

    Many of us change our minds, our opinions, frequently as new information comes in, ie better take a different highway, there’s construction; the price on eggs is better down the road. I expect I change others’ opinions in exactly the same way. On the other hand, some people’s values require that they pay whatever the going price is for particular eggs. Price isn’t the criteria.

    Then there’s perspective. I went to high school in Germany for awhile. That year we studied the period between world wars. At home, I got pre-civil war three times from three different teachers. I tutored Northwest history in Washington and the same period in Canada… the Canadian version stopped at the US border which didn’t exist in that era which made for some serious weirdness.

    And as for Wellington in Glasgow, I expect someone figured out his head was exactly the same dimension as the bottom of a traffic cone and put it up there because it could be done. I understand that someone/s hung a VW bug off the Golden Gate bridge for the same reason. I object to both because someone is going to have to return the situation to “normal” and has better things to do with their time, but it’s a story. And as vandalism goes, the traffic cones beat spray paint.

    • I spent a few months in Germany right after college. Changed a ton of my assumptions about the US, and in a way that broadened my world view for the better. Travel really can broaden the mind!

  2. Once again, you gave us (well, me at least) a difficult topic and I’m still not sure of my answer. I do change my mind when I get sufficient new information. However, I also try to get enough information to make a good decision to begin with (don’t always succeed, of course). As for changing other people’s minds, I’m not terribly good at it since I have trouble understanding their motivation and feel that just presenting the facts is sufficient, since it is sufficient for me. Unfortunately, especially these days, facts don’t always matter to people. Feelings seems to be more important and discerning other people’s feelings are not my strength.
    I look forward to reading your blog every week and your books whenever they arrive!

    • You raise an interesting point, at least when it comes to whether facts matter.
      Apparently, getting along with the tribe matters more. Somebody figured out that neurologically, we pay more attention to “does this alienate the people I rely on,” than we do to, “Is this true?” That makes sense when you’re trying to survive an ice age with your small band of friends and family. It’s not serving us as well when we no longer have the small band and are trying to retro-create it as we bump along.
      And as for changing minds, I think it takes changing hearts first on the big stuff, and that’s VERY hard to do with facts.

  3. It’s hard to change one’s own mind! But harder to change someone else’s, I’ve found.
    I’m trying to be more open to things I would have previous found too alternative or too “woo woo” and I think I’m better for it!

    • In college, I took it as a compliment that I would change my position when offered new (and persuasive) data. I thought it was immature to confuse the arguer with the argument or cling to wanting to be “right.” I valued my intellectual training and wanted to be a disciplined thinker.

      When public discourse got coarser, and people began substituting insults and glib one-liners for arguments, I thought the problem lay in a lack of intellectual training. (Which would not have been Wellington’s case.)

      But I found myself one day in the company of three racist men, day after day, for several years. The worst of the three delighted in being outrageous. He genuinely did believe various scurrilous things, but he also enjoyed my not being to able to persuade him otherwise. No reasoned argument, no appeal to empathy would sway him. If he changed his mind, he’d have “lost”–and he never did lose. So concluded that some people are impervious to persuasion.

      Then I watched an ER doctor handle a belligerent drunk. He explained to me later that he based his techniques on Karen Horney’s method of handling psychotic people by characterizing them as hard, soft, or fragile. He observed that the drunk brawler was “hard” (impervious to influence on his actions), and he wanted the man to be “soft” (accepting influence), so he treated the man as “fragile” (unable to take action).

      He pointed to the brawler’s head and said, “Look! You’re bleeding! Sit down here so I can see where you’re bleeding.”

      The brawler stopped yelling and throwing things, looked at the doctor, became concerned, and sat down.

      The doctor, who was an engineer at heart and loved systems, was pleased that his system worked. But the doctor also genuinely did want to care for the brawler’s wounds.

      I think the appeal to the brawler’s fragility worked because it was an offer of a kind of love. Anyone can evoke another’s sense of fragility and then *not* offer care. It was love that made the change happen. The doctor saw the brawler’s wounds, let the man know he saw the wounds and that he cared about the man and the harm that had come to him, and gave him a practical task he could do to let the doctor care for him.

      I think the three racist men who were so horrible were also likely in pain, but I hate to make excuses for their wretched behavior. It may be that I was never the one who could provide the kind of perception and care they would need to put down their abusive ways, and change, and mend. But I do think that only that kind of love could do it. I don’t think that particular love could come from their wives–there’s a reason that beaten women excusing their partners’ abuse is a cliche–but it could come from other men, in other circumstances.

      Wellington, I believe, was afraid, and fear drove his intransigence. But didn’t he famously say he was never afraid?

      Grace could write a story for his healing.

      • Love your comments.

        Wellington got a lot of “remittance men,” too. Spares. If we aren’t all sick to death of the term.

    • When it comes to my health, I’ve hit a few “nothing works” dead ends. Migraines, for example. No drug, no “lifestyle change,” no exercise, NOTHING stopped those suckers from bombarding me, and some of the tried and true solutions made things worse. I went woo-woo, and at least felt heard if not cured. What finally helped? AGING. My dad and grandma reported the same experience.

  4. You know, Grace–I got nuthin’.

    I have read and reread your eloquent discussion, read the thoughtful comments from Marianne, Karen H., Make Kay, and Hazel– and I still got nuthin’. Well, other than I think it’s hilarious that traffic cones fit on Wellington’s head.

    Seriously, I really have nothing to add to this discussion. I can’t come up with anything worth sharing, except for the fact that I have always kind of found Wellington to be a praise-hog. Yes, he may have been pretty smart about planning battles, but the real praise belongs to all the soldiers who carried out the battle plans, those who were wounded or died, yet were referred to as scum.

    • He was VERY politically astute, blaming his failures on everything from Parliament’s parsimony, to the weather, to the fickle Spanish/Portuguese/Hessians/Belgians… But then, he was a younger son in a world that viewed them as necessary nuisances, and then he ascended above his older in status. When that happened, I think he got over a few of his less attractive shortcomings, but he was a snob, for sure, with sometimes deadly consequences for his underlings.

  5. As a cradle Catholic raised post Vatican II, I responded to someone who mentioned that his mother always said that the Latin Mass was the true Mass. I gave the history of the Mass said in the vernacular and in Latin. I was thanked for the concise explanation and the comment that his mother probably just liked the Latin Mass better. I didn’t say his mother was wrong and I was right. I have been part of enough of those discussions. I presented the history and left the rest to be interpreted.