Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The "achievements" of Cuba

Are not entirely imaginary, but have been achieved at great cost. Think of the educational and health benefits as being like Eastern bloc countries and their Olympic medals: some were won fair and square, some were not, but you have to ask 'was it worth it?' about all of them. For example, on infant mortality:

"Cuba does have a very low infant mortality rate, but pregnant women are treated with very authoritarian tactics to maintain these favorable statistics,” said Tassie Katherine Hirschfeld, the chair of the department of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma who spent nine months living in Cuba to study the nation’s health system. “They are pressured to undergo abortions that they may not want if prenatal screening detects fetal abnormalities. If pregnant women develop complications, they are placed in ‘Casas de Maternidad’ for monitoring, even if they would prefer to be at home. Individual doctors are pressured by their superiors to reach certain statistical targets. If there is a spike in infant mortality in a certain district, doctors may be fired. There is pressure to falsify statistics."

Read it all here.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Outside the bubbles - UPDATED

No doubt you are all busily peering outside your bubbles to see what is happening in other people's. I'm here to help you.

First, you've got to do this properly. Don't just go to the Guardian for a guide: "It looks like Jason Wilson assumes that all religious people are some form of conservative — and nobody in The Guardian's editorial chain of command knew enough about religion to counter him." Oh dear. The Guardian's guide to the Dark Side goes awry.

This article says it is about Steve Bannon, who is well outside your bubble, but it's not really so you can safely read it whatever bubble you are in. The article is about the contrast between Zionism and the diaspora Jewish identity, and is interesting. It would also be interesting to know more about other disapora groups: what do NRIs in Silicon Valley think of Hindutva? What about émigré Kurds or Iranians? The traditional British Costa del Sol-type diaspora has been caricatured as (ironically) not very internationalist. But everyone thought the majority of the modern British diaspora would be pro-EU. Anecdotally, that seems right, even in Hong Kong.

If you really want to know about Steve Bannon then read his actual words here, from a talk given at a conference focused on poverty hosted by the Human Dignity Institute at the Vatican. What a weird bubble he must be in to be interested in that kind of thing.

Here's Slavoj Žižek, in an interesting bubble of his own. I'm not quite sure whether he would be happy with Europeans giving very large amounts of money to refugees so long as they stayed at home. I think he would have been happy with Saddam Hussein running the Congo. Possibly. Possibly that's a multi-bubble preference.

While you are surfing these new bubbles, please do keep an educated sense of proportion. "This mass forgetting leaves us with few analogies for any new event, save those provided by pop culture; when a populist demagogue is propelled into power, Americans can only debate whether they will be a.) Hitler, or b.) not Hitler, without asking whether they could be Peisistratus, or Sulla, or Justinian, or Komnenos, or Andrew Jackson." Or Berlusconi. Or Peron. Or Chavez.

UPDATE: but in fact, it looks pretty nice inside the Bubble (SNL sketch).

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


"On 14 June 2016, the resident judge at Exeter Crown Court stayed all further proceedings against M, at 97 years old the oldest defendant so far to have stood trial in a Crown Court in England and Wales.
Following pre-trial legal argument, the trial judge ruled that some allegations should be stayed, due to the loss of documents and the impossibility of now having a fair trial. The Crown challenged the decision, unsuccessfully, in interlocutory proceedings in the Court of Appeal ([2015] EWCA Crim 1928). ... M suffered from a catalogue of age-related ailments, and a range of special measures were introduced. Statements had to be read out to M as he was virtually blind. Audio amplification equipment was used as he was 90% deaf. M’s powers of processing information and recall were inhibited by Parkinson’s disease, requiring unnatural pauses in the evidence as each question and answer had to be repeated. M’s short-term memory was greatly diminished, and at the beginning and end of each court session the evidence had to be summarised to him by counsel. Court sitting was limited to 45-minute sessions, with a maximum of four sessions a day. Sitting days were often much shorter on the advice of ever present doctors and court appointed intermediaries.

Two trials progressed to jury verdicts. Both resulted in acquittals. Undeterred, the Crown sought a further trial, and was only prevented from doing so with the judge’s intervention in staying all further proceedings.

Read the whole thing here. Pretty shocking, right? In England, in 2016, hounding an old man like that?

Well, maybe. As you will have guessed, this is a case involving allegations of historic sexual abuse. I'm pretty sure that 97 year olds who were active but uncaught burglars in the 1950s are safe now.

It's an extreme case and I am doubtful that there was much public interest in this prosecution. I can think of better uses of taxpayers' money. But perhaps the law is in fact in the right place on this point. 

One of passages covered by an ellipsis above was this: "M was headmaster of a boarding school in the 1960s and 1970s. He had been tried four times for similar allegations in the 1970s. All previous proceedings resulted in acquittal or dismissal of charges. Complainant pressure led to a Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) review in 2013. Witnesses were re-interviewed and enquiries made to identify further potential evidence. Fresh allegations emerged, including from two further complainants, now pensioners, who had provided character evidence for M in the 1970s proceedings. They now alleged abuse by M from their childhood in the 1950s." That puts a bit of a different spin on it, doesn't it?  Imagine you were a complainant in one of the 1970s cases who saw (presumably) your fellow pupils lie to support the defendant, a man who (so they all have now said, I assume) abused them. There's something to be said for vindication in a case like that, and better late than never.

Moreover, there's something to be said for the law saying that you can never rest easy if you commit crimes such as those. What would we think if someone could wait (say) 20 years and then turn around and say "aha! I got away with it!"? Is it wrong to say that if all the guilty child abusers lose some sleep worrying whether the past will catch up with them then a little bit of justice is done?

The article I've linked to above is a good and sensible one. It's a good example of how looking at the nuts and bolts of a legal process can be more interesting than the theory. The issue seems to be that the public interest does not put much weight on the condition of the defendant, and surely even (especially?) in a case such as this it should do. There is a good reason for that: everyone is entitled to a fair trial, and some people are so ill or disabled that they can't fairly defend themselves. And I do mean everyone. Let me repeat: M has been repeatedly acquitted of serious allegations; please consider that he is the real victim here, of malicious or innocent errors that have led to him being unjustly hounded for serious accusations over the decades.

So read the article and form your own views, or at least your own doubts.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Zadie Smith's 7 year old did not know what a priest is

From an interview with Zadie Smith:

"Given that the world feels so fragmented, have you thought more recently about the famous Forster phrase, “only connect,” which is the epigraph to Howards End, and is, in part, a call for connection between people?

Yeah. It’s so easy just to fall through the gap because there’s the lack of collective experience. I was making my children watch There’s No Business Like Show Business because Nick was out of the house so I could get away with it. It’s a slightly terrible musical from the early ’50s. In the middle of it, one of the characters leaves the family act and becomes a priest. My daughter said, “What is a priest?” I thought, Jesus, when I was 7, is there any way I wouldn’t have known what a priest is? I don’t think so, just because you had a collective culture, the TV, but also our community, the church at the end of my road. You would’ve known.

It’s like wow, that’s a big gap, clearly that’s a quite serious thing not to know at 7 that there has been, in fact, our whole society is founded on a faith that she only has the vaguest idea of. She’d heard of Judaism just about, but that was it. That kind of thing is quite shocking to me. I don’t know. It’s atomized. I have no answer. It’s curious to me to watch it happening in my children. They’re kind of piecing together a world. They can’t even go through the record collection as we did and think, Oh there was the Beatles and there was the Stones and here’s Ella Fitzgerald. They only have this iTunes, which just seems to be a random collection of names and titles. There’s no pictures, no context, no historical moment. It’s so odd.

An arresting answer to a question almost as fawning as it was asinine.

In the era of Trump, elite bubbles, mutual incomprehension and so on, there's a lot of obvious points one can make about this story about an educated family that divides its time between New York and London not knowing what a priest is. I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader. 

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Scott Alexander on the media crying wolf about Donald Trump

This is just excellent. It is a first class demonstration, by someone with no time for Donald Trump, of what is wrong with the coverage of Donald Trump. I won't quote bits (except the warning at the outset: "Please don’t interpret anything in this article to mean that Trump is not super terrible"); I will just urge you to read it.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

The mixed benefits of a public school education

I did like this.

Coll (I assume) means College, i.e. the scholars' house at Winchester. So Seamus Milne is a bright chap.

But so was Rurik Jutting, also apparently a scholar at Winchester, it says here (a link also mentioning his thoughts about Wycombe Abbey) - but I issue a genuine trigger warning against reading anything about that person.

Monday, 14 November 2016


Of course it's going to be about Trump. You know all about him. But try looking at new perspectives. Too many of us have gone wrong by staying inside our comfort zones. These are interesting thinkers - probably wrong, but we have all been wrong - and a diverse mixture.

1. Peter Hitchens on what is going wrong. "Those old stories about wicked necromancers raising demons, and then not being able to send them back where they came from, seem to me to be metaphors for modern-day political alchemists who raise huge hopes which they know they cannot satisfy, so summoning into being crowds which can all too easily become mobs, and will not go home when asked. What then?" and "Someone has cut the ropes, and we are adrift on a strange, sinister, powerful current towards an unknown destination which it might be better never to reach at all."

2. Maybe it's more simple than that. Glenn Greenwald: "“both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for 30 years.” ... From the invasion of Iraq to the 2008 financial crisis to the all-consuming framework of prisons and endless wars, societal benefits have been directed almost exclusively to the very elite institutions most responsible for failure at the expense of everyone else."

3. Or perhaps Trump even has some right answers. Martin Kettle: "In his own deeply egotistical and socially illiberal way, Trump stands for something true."

4. Or perhaps Trump is supported by something false - identity politics: "Notice, though, that Miss Anderson does not fault these white women for voting according to identity politics. She only faults them for choosing the “wrong” identity: their race, not their sex." Or perhaps it doesn't matter that much. (Both Rod Dreher.)

5. As a final PS, here is Jonathan Pie explaining everything. (Video, with both rude words and wisdom.)

Monday, 7 November 2016

Good news

1. The world is getting greener: "As the paper’s lead author, Zaichun Zhu, of Beijing University, puts it, it’s the equivalent of adding a green continent twice the size of mainland USA."

2. Here's how you can find books you might like.

3. A judge got to write this: "This application by the joint administrators of Dent Company ... affords the opportunity to consider the application of the equitable doctrines of marshalling and subrogation in relation to a fixed charge over a dog."

4. "A new Alberta company lets you send greetings to your loved ones, or your enemies, by posting a potato in the mail." More here (including a picture of a personalised potato).

5. A-level students can make John Lewis Christmas ads.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Black Jeopardy

You might have seen some mention of the Saturday Night Live Black Jeopardy sketch with Tom Hanks. Here it is. It really is very cleverly done and well worth watching.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

What does 'right-wing' mean?

A question prompted by this:

"... bigots on the religious Right are, with increasing deliberateness and sophistication, mobilizing religious grievances in order to incite political violence – effectively turning freedom of speech against itself. The most high-profile incidences of this kind in Europe include the controversy in 2005 surrounding the publication of Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and of course the massacre at the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015."

(From the TLS.)

So the people who shot the staff of Charlie Hebdo were on the religious Right, were they? Like George W Bush, say? Does 'right-wing' mean nothing more than 'unpleasant'?