Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Ten links for you

1. The Vatican's Latinist: "I saw him for an hour in Rome in 1985 and that one hour completely changed my life." And many other people's lives too, it seems.

2. The Fox's Prophecy. And pretty prophetic it is too. "Taught wisdom by disaster, // England shall learn to know // That trade is not the only gain // Heaven gives to man below": there's Brexit and Indyref2 in one stanza from 1871.

3. Computer games vs the Game of Life. "In May 2016 he finished his graduate-school training in business law. A few months later, he decided he didn’t want to work in law after all; he wanted to play video games. ... During his studies, he could only spare a couple of hours each day for his habit. Now he can slip into his video-game worlds for five or six hours at a time. A law career would have meant more money. Yet it would also have meant much more time spent at law." Trade-offs, you see.

4. Semper sic tyrannis? "If, however, it turns out that the intelligence agencies have indeed been actively collaborating with the White House in working against opposition politicians, the whole tale assumes a particularly dangerous aspect as there is no real mechanism in place to prevent that from occurring again. The tool that Obama has placed in Trump’s hands might just as easily be used against the Democrats in 2020."

5. "One precious thing about ordinary readers is that sometimes they develop feelings for the characters. This is something critics never discuss. Which is a shame. The Anglo-Saxon critics do good plot summaries but they don’t talk about the characters either. Readers, however, do it uninhibitedly." Houellebecq. In my view, it is nearly always worth reading interviews with boxers or Michel Houellebecq.

6. "I don’t understand why we look down on people who vote against their own interests. ... putting the good of the country ahead of your own pocketbook? I salute you, my noble friend, and wish you had a less idiotic idea of what’s good for the country." That's from this chap, here.

7. A couple of links about the capitalist world we live in: why are the French so miserable? and how to save capitalism,

8. Malcolm Gladwell on leaks. There's quite a few things going on in this piece to do with the changing of the generations, game theory, technology and the law and more besides.

9. What Robert Kelly himself has to say about that BBC interview.

10. Last but not least, a funny and new (well, newly-published) story by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Trump and Clinton gender reversal

This is the story. Not quite as medically invasive as it sounds: re-enacting the debates with a male actor playing Clinton and a female actor playing Trump. Everyone expected a female Trump to be unbearable - but it turns out s/he's a really appealing character, whereas a male Clinton is even more unlikeable.

It's an interesting example of upending one's expectations. I would also say it's a pretty good rebuke to the idea that people don't take to strong women in politics. A certain confident, forthright style seems to go down well, as least in debates. As if Margaret Thatcher's performances at the dispatch box did not already prove that.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Three interesting things to read

Here are three interesting pieces that I recommend you read.

First, this crazy story about a 752 pound emerald. The film would be easy to cast: Danny DeVito and Joe Pesci would have big parts, and maybe John Malkovich could be the Mormon.

Second, here is "polymath" David Gelernter. Worth reading all the way through. He says lots of different things and can't be summarised. Here are some examples.

"Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty." Hmm. I instantly search for counter-examples. But isn't the lack of counter-examples striking?

"I've written & argued in Germany that (for example) computers & social nets ought to be treated like bars or strip joints: not acceptable for children. (At least we ought to consider treating them that way.) I don't like the idea of legal restrictions. But I might urge that we get computers out of schools until our children are able to read & write half decently—at least as decently as they used to during the middle two-thirds of the 20th Century."

"Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it."

An intelligent provocateur, perhaps?

Third, here is Brendan Simms with something interesting to say about Brexit. Unlike Gelernter, he has a single thesis which is capable of summary. His idea is that England has been responsible to a large part for the creation of modern Europe, and that the UK was created by England as part of that project. Leaving aside the England/UK bit, here's the core of the thesis:

"The continental order is largely a product of British and latterly Anglo-American attempts to create a balance of power that would prevent the emergence of a hostile hegemon (first Spain, then France and then Germany), while being at the same time robust enough to ward off external predators (first the Turks, then Russia and then the Soviet Union). The resulting “goldilocks” problem, in which the continentals were either too strong or too weak, has been one of the central axes of European history in the past half-millennium.

After the Second World War, the Americans, some visionary continentals and even some Britons (such as Winston Churchill) realised that the only way to cook porridge at exactly the right temperature was to establish a full democratic political union, with or without the UK. Such a United States of Europe could look after itself without endangering its neighbours and both embed and mobilise Germany for the common good. For various reasons, most of them to do with the incompetence and divisions of the continental Europeans, full union was never achieved; and while it remains the only answer to the European Question, its realisation seems further away today than ever.

The UK played and plays a unique role in the system. It is not in any meaningful sense “equal” to the other states of the “club” that it is leaving. Over the past three centuries – from the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, through the 18th-century European balance of power, the Treaty of Vienna in 1815, the Versailles Treaty of 1919, to the 1945 settlement and beyond – Britain has been central to the European order, far more than any other power. This remains true today, because the EU depends entirely on Nato, of which Britain is the dominant European member, for its security.

Though France likes to think of itself as a military superpower and boasts that it will be the only EU state with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council after Brexit, the reality is that it is a far inferior power in the European system. Its sovereignty was restored, perhaps unwisely, by the Anglo-Americans in 1944-45, and is now strongly qualified by how France controls neither its own currency nor its own borders, and while it could theoretically restore its sovereignty, this cannot be done without simultaneously establishing that of Germany, which is the one thing that French participation in the European enterprise was designed to prevent.

The EU may be a club and it can make whatever rules it likes, but it should never forget that the Anglo-Americans own the freehold of the property on which the club is built. Brussels and the continental capitals are at best leaseholders, and in many cases just tenants of this order. Put another way, the UK is not just another European “space” to be ordered, but one of the principal ordering powers of the continent.
"

It's an interesting sideways take on the world (worth reading in full for thoughts on the UK, the EU, Trump and more) but I wouldn't subscribe to it. Even with American help, the UK can't cook the porridge itself.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

This metropolitan elite business

What are we really talking about?

This is from Hugo Rifkind (in the Times and in the Australian):

"London, at its most reflexively liberal, is often populated by people who have chosen to come from somewhere else. Often those choices will have come with rewards (the sort of career that lets you pop over to Miami, for example) but urbanites also tend to be painfully aware of the sacrifices, too. Or, to put that another way, it’s pretty damn galling to be regarded as an “aloof elite” by somebody with a bigger garden than you. This is not, I think, about mutual incomprehension. I keep reading, as though it were some neat, rhetorical liberal “gotcha”, that the areas most hostile to immigration are the areas with the least of it. “The fools!” the subtext seems to be. “They have no idea!” Don’t they, though? Maybe they do, and just don’t like it, which is why they not only vote against immigration but also choose to live somewhere where it doesn’t really happen. That’s certainly true in Miami, where “white flight” has seen the English-speaking population streaming into northern suburbs for a generation. Closer to home, London’s soaring population has masked the departure of hundreds of thousands of “white British” into the suburbs, which now vote as the cities do not.

Every city has pockets like this, and they are growing, just as every city is increasingly surrounded by people who don’t want to live that way at all. These are different lives with different political priorities. With a metropolitan life, for example, the green belt is somebody else’s, and spiralling fuel prices largely happen to other people. By contrast, city-dweller political priorities such as pollution or minority integration doubtless look false and virtue-signally when viewed from a nice bit of Berkshire. Only that’s not how they feel when I join the hordes on my morning walk down the hill into Finsbury Park."

Rifkind is far from being an idiot. He's got some good points. But isn't this the bigger picture?

(1) Rifkind is the son of a Cabinet Minister, privately educated, went to Cambridge, lives in London, writes for the Times, the Spectator etc etc. I fully accept that he is not one of the people who in fact run the country. I fully accept that there are many state-school educated, non-Oxbridge people with no famous relations who have more power than him. But galling or not, he is, as a matter of fact, a member of an elite section of society. 

(2) That thing about the garden. Seriously? It's just like FE Smith or Lord Curzon or whoever it was (I can't find the quotation now) saying that he does not know why people are snobbish about terraced house since he had lived all his life in a terraced house. £1m, to take a figure almost at random, buys a much smaller garden a short walk from Finsbury Park station than it does a few stops down the line. It's up to Rifkind whether he wants his £1m to buy a small amount of vibrant zone 2 property or a larger amount of leafy zone 6 property.  Houses in Mayfair and Belgravia have pretty small back gardens too, but that doesn't mean that the people who live in them are the downcast powerless.

(3) Which leads me onto my central point, namely Rifkind's insight that maybe the suburban British do know what it is like in multicultural central London. Let me put it this way: where does Rifkind think those people work? Yes, there are schools and hospitals and shops and business parks outside London. But huge swathes of the population of London's suburbs - and beyond - travel into London every day to work in the midst of the pollution and all the rest of it. Even if they don't work there now, they probably once did. The suburbs, the dormitory villages and the commutable towns of southeast England are full of people who know London pretty well but choose not to live there.

But the opposite is not true. The people of Cockfosters pass through Finsbury Park on their way to work. But the Rifkinds have no need ever to go to Cockfosters. Or Purley. Or Basildon. Or - well, you get the picture. Rifkind himself, to his credit, has previously spotted this ("... do I really have a clue about South Hampshire? Or even take the London metropolitan area, which is 14 whole million people strong. If I’m honest, I do know it is not all like Finsbury Park, with its halal takeaways and shops selling hair extensions. Nor is it all like the posh bits I’ll pass through sometimes on the way to visit ex-London friends, full of hedges and cricket matches and Tudor pubs. A lot of it must be somewhere in between.[...] Maybe they’re the people you see in the audience on Top Gear. I’ve always wondered who they were.") This asymmetry is, I think, the real motivation for the 'aloof metropolitan elite' gibe that Rifkind evidently feels so keenly. The people of Cockfosters know all about Rifkind, where he went to university, where he took the children for half-term (Disneyland Florida, since you ask), how he voted in the Brexit referendum and so on. They know how he thinks. They know this he openly and honestly tells us, in the Times, in the Spectator and in the Australian. And the people of Cockfosters know these facts - or essentially similar ones - about many other similarly influential people, for similarly reasons. But perhaps those influential people have no knowledge of similar facts about the people of Cockfosters.

Rifkind is right. It is not mutual incomprehension. It is asymmetric comprehension. We can all accept that Rifkind is painfully aware of the amount of garden space he has sacrificed to live where he lives. But does he think that the people who live further down the line from Finsbury Park are not also painfully aware of the sacrifices they have made, the commuting, the distance, the need to drive their children to school? To put it another way, it's pretty damn galling to be regarded as a troglodyte Top Gear fan by someone who doesn't spend 2 hours a day on the Piccadilly Line. 

Monday, 27 February 2017

La La Land - by David Lynch (UPDATED - and by Slavoj Žižek)

In honour of the Oscars, here is the trailer for La La Land as if directed by David Lynch. The Los Angeles setting makes this reasonably convincing, and it draws out a hidden sense of menace from the (almost) Best Picture that I had not noticed while seeing it.

UPDATE: and here is Slavoj Žižek's Leninist reading of the film (also recommended, although not necessarily for this bit: "We stumble here upon a problem passed over by Alain Badiou in his theory of Event. If the same subject is addressed by multiple Events, which of them should be given priority? Say, how should an artist decide if he cannot bring together his love life (building a life together with his/her partner) and his dedication to art? We should reject the very terms of this choice.")

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Magna Carta Myth

Robert Tombs puts it this way:

"For me the problem was to understand the difference between cultural attitudes in Britain and the continental countries to the idea of being led towards European union. What I called a Magna Carta myth is the idea that in Britain it is the people who decide, and the politicians have to acquiesce. Whereas in France, Italy, Germany and some other countries, there has often been a sense that a vanguard of politicians or intellectuals have decided on the country’s future, and the mass of the population has sooner or later followed. It’s a certain conception of history; one gets it very clearly in Italy with the Risorgimento, and to some extent with France, when you think of how important Napoleon or the French Revolution − the Jacobin dictatorship − has been in creating the modern state. I think of this as a ‘vanguard myth’: ordinary people don’t know and can’t decide what the destiny of the country is, and they have to be led. I don’t think that’s the way people in Britain imagine politics. I was talking about myth: how people, deep down, see political legitimacy.

It is rooted in our political culture that it is right that the people should take these decisions. Of course, not everyone agrees with that; there are plenty of people who said the whole idea of a referendum was bad. But it’s interesting now that very few politicians contest the result. ‘The people have spoken …’ is a phrase that has a lot of weight in British political logic; it might not necessarily be the same in all countries, if what the people have said is thought to be stupid or impossible, or against the course of history.
" (Emphasis added.)

There's definitely something to it. Here is Lord Finkelstein, i.e. a member of an unelected part of our Parliament (and a Remainer), on Brexit.

"There’s a Jewish story of a man who goes over a precipice and, tumbling into the ravine, manages to grab hold of a solitary branch. As he swings there, slowly losing his grip, he shouts: ‘Oh Lord, is there anyone up there? What should I do?’ And a voice comes out of the heavens. ‘Son, let go of the branch. Let go of the branch.’

The man swings a moment more, staring into the unknown as he ponders the advice. Then he shouts: ‘Is there anyone else up there?’

We’ve asked the question. We’ve had the answer. There isn’t anyone else up there. We have to let go of the branch. Brexit means Brexit.
"

Vox populi, vox Dei - in Britain at least.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Good reads (but you'll have to take my word for it) [UPDATED]

Just that - a list of good stuff to look at. Despite what it sounds like.

1. Scott Alexander on cost disease. Ok, I grant that that does not sound at all interesting. But it is. Honest.

2. Alistair's Adversaria. This guy says a lot of interesting things and has lots of interesting links. Give him a go.

3. How politics works: how Sadiq Khan's amazing announcements could have been Zac Goldsmith's.

4. Ollie the bobcat and the Washington Bubble.

5. A long Dominic Cummings post about how Brexit happened. "Why is almost all political analysis and discussion so depressing and fruitless? I think much has to do with the delusions of better educated people. It is easier to spread memes in SW1, N1, and among Guardian readers than in Easington Colliery." It would be worth testing that kind of thesis. Political innovations come in the good (universal suffrage, abolition of slavery, privatisation) and the bad (fascism, communism, Jeremy Corbynism). Presumably all of them start off more strongly amongst the well-educated than amongst the less well-educated - not knowing stuff like that is part of what we mean by less well-educated. But are the less well-educated better at spotting when the Emperor has no clothes on? Anecdotes of 20th century British political history are pretty supportive of that thesis (not a lot of fascist or communist MPs), but maybe that's just because the 20th century came up with a lot of really bad political innovations.

6. In praise of the analogue: "one of the earliest noble causes of the digerati was the One Laptop Per Child global initiative, led by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, a Garibaldi of the Internet age. The OLPC crew raised stupendous amounts of money and created machines that could run on solar power or could be cranked by hand, and they distributed them to poor children around the developing world, but alas, according to Sax, “academic studies demonstrated no gain in academic achievement.” Last year, in fact, the OECD reported that “students who use computers very frequently at school do a lot worse in most learning outcomes.”"

7. Cockfosters (photos).

8. Obituary of JSG Boggs.

9. A wonderful hatchet job.

[UPDATE] 10. A second-wave feminist's critical take on trans-activism: "Mount Holyoke, a women’s college, decided not to produce a play about women and their vaginas because some audience members who identify as women—but don’t have vaginas—would feel excluded." For a not unconnected bonus, here is a pretty forthright chap who says that children are being taught lies. He makes a similar point along the way: "These people [advocates for multiple gender identities and laws to protect them] claim that identity is a social construct, but even though that’s their fundamental philosophical claim, and they’ve built it into the law, they don’t abide by those principles. Instead, they go right to subjectivity. They say that your identity is nothing more than your subjective feeling of what you are. Well, that’s also a staggeringly impoverished idea of what constitutes identity. It’s like the claim of an egocentric two-year old, and I mean that technically."