Sunday, 11 April 2021

This is eye-opening

This is the University of Chicago:

"After my first year of teaching, troubled by the unclear, disorganized, and utterly unaesthetic papers written by students who had, in theory, received the best (and certainly the most expensive) educations in the country, I tried a new method to inspire them to improve their writing. In my office hours, after confronting a student with the revisions they would have to make to whichever assignment, I would ask them to tell me the last book they had enjoyed reading. My naive expectation was that in response to their answer I could send them off to analyze what had made its author’s writing style seem so effective.

The exercise was a failure. Most students had not read a book for pleasure for years; they had no time. Even in college, away from their parents’ schedules, they kept themselves busy with student organizations that are often indistinguishable from classes (the finance and consulting clubs, membership in which is highly sought after, assign homework and study sessions). They have—or give themselves—no opportunity to read what they like.

Or what about this:

"Students write poorly because they have been stripped of agency. What they have instead of an internal locus of control, the ability to form their own personal standards and adhere to them, are stories, usually written by other people on their behalf, about how by dint of hard work and personal talent they have surmounted powerful and malevolent social structures. Such images of themselves, whether expressed in terms of the older meritocratic ideal or its new woke competitor, are a kind of camera obscura in which the students’ real powerlessness, their lack of even the most basic components of private life such as leisure time and personal taste, their total beholdenness to hegemonic social norms, are inverted.

Young people whose self-understandings are organized by narratives about their heroic resistance against racism and sexism, and excellence in the face of adversity, are rewarded by the university—and will be rewarded by employers, media, and other sources of legitimation—for their deft combination of meritocratic and woke discourses. They will have no reason to notice that they are kicking down open doors—that, far from racism and sexism holding back their access to elite spaces, they are being invited in on the basis of their ability to perform triumph over oppression.

Interesting and depressing throughout - read more here.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Handling the Truth - a postscript

"The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted his Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle's division must not contain any black soldiers.
Finding an all-white division that was available proved to be impossible due to the enormous contribution made to the French Army by West African conscripts.

So, Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.

When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.
In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish.

Read all about it here. (Spotted by Tomiwa Owolade.)

Monday, 29 March 2021

Who can't handle the truth?

The headline to this piece, by Priyamvada Gopal, is "Why can't Britain handle the truth about Winston Churchill?

The piece itself is entirely predictable and not worth your time. Gopal says, in a nutshell, that if you start to mention Churchill's "views on race or his colonial policies ... you’ll be instantly drowned in ferocious and orchestrated vitriol", and that this fear of seeing Churchill for Who He Really Was "is tied to a wider aversion to examining the British empire truthfully, perhaps for fear of what it might say about Britain today". Blah blah blah - you've heard it all before.

Let's say that Gopal is right and Churchill was indeed an appalling person. I think her thesis is she would be able to handle that truth and it's only the fragility and short-sightedness of those around her, lacking in her courage and clear vision, that makes it difficult for them. I'm sure she's right that she could handle that truth - in fact, I'm pretty sure we could all handle it. 

But there is a much more interesting possibility here, a possibility raised by the headline to her piece. 

The phrase "you can't handle the truth" comes, of course, from the film A Few Good Men. The film is primarily a courtroom drama (A Few Good Scenes, the wags called it), and the line is delivered in the final climactic courtroom scene. Let's look at a bit of background to see what the line is all about.

The line comes from the angry mouth of Colonel Nathan Jessep, memorably played by Jack Nicholson. Jessep is a senior US Marine. He serves in the US base on Cuba. He, and the men under him, face death every day. (Yes, I know - they are the US marines and on the other side of the wire there is just a bunch of Cubans, but just go with it for the moment.) 

Jessep is a Bad Man, but he has the good fortune of being the creation of Aaron Sorkin, so he gets more than A Few Good Lines. (I quote below from the revised third draft of the script, which I found online. It's close enough to the final version for our purposes.) Jessep says things like "whoever wrote that memo has never served on the working end of a Soviet-made Cuban Ml-Al6 Assault Rifle" and "We follow orders or people die. It's that simple", while his associates say things like "I like all you Navy boys. Every time we've gotta go someplace and fight, you fellas always give us a ride". 

Jessep is contrasted with Danny Kaffee. Kaffee is a soft (he's in the Navy but he doesn't like boats!), liberal, Harvard-educated lawyer. When Jessep talks to Kaffee, he gets to say: "You see, Danny, I can deal with the bullets and the bombs and the blood. I can deal with the heat and the stress and the fear. I don't want money and I don't want medals. What I want is for you to stand there in that faggoty white uniform, and with your Harvard mouth, extend me some fuckin' courtesy."

That's all good drama. But what about the "truth"? 

The plot revolves around the illegal (and fatal) punishment inflicted on a young marine called Santiago. Kaffee's achievement is to prove that Jessep ordered that punishment, which Kaffee does by goading Jessep into delivering the "you can't handle the truth" line and then proudly boasting that he did indeed order the Code Red (as the punishment is cinematically called). But in the middle of all that pat plot development, Kaffee claims that he is entitled to the truth, whereupon Jessep delivers the truth that, so he says, Kaffee cannot handle:

"Son, we live in a world that has walls. And those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who's gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg [another softy]? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. (beat) You don't want the truth. Because deep down, in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You me there (boasting) We use words like honor, code, loyalty...we use these words as the backbone to a life spent defending something. You use 'em as a punchline. (beat) I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I'd prefer you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you're entitled to."

The film immediately proceeds to the arrest of Jessep, all the characters coming to realise that the right thing to do is protect people like Santiago, and everyone (except Santiago and Jessep) living happily ever after. Roll credits.  

But Sorkin gave Jessep too many good lines for us to dismiss him so easily. What if Jessep was telling the truth? He certainly thought he was. The characters in the film couldn't handle it: having goaded Jessep into confessing, they exult in his downfall and then go on their merry way. They were not really interested in the truth beyond its value for them in the game that is high-stakes litigation. 

We are not characters in a Sorkin legal drama and so we ought to give what he says a little more attention. Jessep tells us that the only reason we get to live our lovely life full of good things - think of this as you kiss your children goodnight and tuck them up in bed, plant bulbs in your garden in the hope of spring flowers, practise your scales, some yoga or the law, bake bread or break bread, worry about the environment or just give your neighbours a friendly wave - is because we employ a set of bad men to man the wall that separates the tranquil garden of our lives from the evil and chaos that lie beyond. We have the "luxury of not knowing" exactly what they get up to, but if we were to look closely then what we see would be "grotesque and incomprehensible". We sleep "under the blanket of the very freedom [they] provide", so we are complicit in their evil: we should just say thank you, and go on our way. 

To put it another way, perhaps it is not simply that the people who in fact defended the UK in WWII were baddies, as Gopal suggests. Perhaps they had to be baddies. 

So: is that the truth? Was Jessep the man who saw clearly, while the shallow, flimsy, pretty men who walked around him were the ones who averted their gaze, clutched their pearls and sneered their Harvard sneers? 

I certainly hope not. But hoping is not necessarily enough. As I mentioned, A Few Good Men itself is set in the US base in Cuba, which is to say: in Guantanamo Bay. From a post-9/11 perspective, that's not a bad setting for a drama exploring the outer edges of what the civilised world is entitled to do to protect itself. Sure, we all abhor what goes on there. And yet ...

Or we can follow Gopal back to World War II. I'm sure you'll tell me that the bombing of Dresden, or even of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, was not necessary for the protection of the free world. Fine. I won't argue with you. But surely you won't try to suggest that it was not necessary to ally with a moustachioed authoritarian dictator who oppressed his people on an industrial scale and then subjected half of Europe to his tyranny? Maybe the Georgian with the moustache was less bad than the Austrian, but let's not forget that his troops - our side - committed war crimes. Just pull the blanket of freedom around you a little tighter; say thank you and go on your way.

And we can go further than that. It was a matter of pure luck, so far as the UK and the rest of the free world are concerned, that the ideologies of the two dictators were that way round. Had matters been otherwise - had expansionist Communists been the ones who threatened the UK - then we would have fought a hot war against the German Soviets while allied to Russian Nazis, promptly followed by a Cold War fought against fascism, all the while considering ourselves to be the good guys. One can imagine some differences between that alternative world and our own (one that springs to mind is that our Cold War spies would have gone to Oxford rather than Cambridge), but are they really important ones? We did what it was necessary to do; and we would have done what would have been necessary.

I won't say that Jessep was telling the truth. But it's worth wondering whether he might have been. And it's worth wondered whether if that is the truth, we could handle it. Could we handle knowing that it is necessary that those who protect us, those who allow us to build us the various bright worlds that we either love or desire, are bad? 

The situation is not like that in the Le Guin story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, in which a wonderful and joyous society is, in some mysterious but undeniable way, dependent on the misery of a child. Some people, refusing to be complicit in the suffering of the child, can walk away from Omelas; none of us can walk away from civilisation tout court

I suspect that there is something in the British psyche that thinks it could handle this truth; something, indeed, that finds this truth so plausible as to be almost attractive. I refer, for example, to the way in which the tabloid papers are rather too keen to take the part of British servicemen accused of atrocities abroad. Perhaps they are just keen on selling papers. Or maybe they are simply giving the benefit of the doubt to Our Boys over the lawyers who accuse them (and I would support that). But we also have Henry V (hero!) killing his prisoners and Churchill (him again!) proposing shooting the Nazi leaders quietly rather than trying them at Nuremburg. The celebration of the SAS storming the Iranian Embassy has notable undertones of delighting in the unrestrained, extra-judicial applicaiton of brute force. And then there is our everyday speech: all's fair in love and war, we say, or (admiringly) well, he doesn't take any prisoners, does he?, in each case casually endorsing war crimes.

No, on reflection, I suspect that if Jessep turned out to be right then most of us would be able to handle the truth. We would say thank you most politely to the Jesseps who man our walls, and go on our way; indeed, we might well shake their hands and buy them a drink first. 

But it might be harder for the likes of Gopal. Whether the free world requires Jesseps to man its walls, it certainly requires someone. And the stricter you make the requirements for those within those walls - the more you insist on any plausibly achievable version of the post-colonial, anti-white-supremacy, racially-progressive world that Gopal would like - the bigger those walls become, and the more likely it becomes that we are required to lean on some big, strong men prepared to do things that we are not. Well done to Gopal for asking the question. But I'm not sure she'd like the answer.

Friday, 12 March 2021

The freedom of Black freemasonry; or why have Americans always been weird?

I wrote recently about anti-racism. This is a more encouraging take on the same issue. 

For obvious reasons, a lot of thinking about anti-racism comes from the US. My concern is that the weight and noise of American anti-racism gives it an impact on the discourse of other countries, particularly the UK, that it does not deserve. As I shall try to show below, we should not forget that the US really is different from the UK - and has been since well before there even was a United States.

The Atlantic, a magazine of the American liberal establishment, spends a lot of time in its March 2021 edition looking into forgotten, overlooked or lost corners of Black American history. And very interesting it is too. But as I read one article, I thought it showed just how longstanding the weirdness of America is when it comes to racial issues. 

Here is the article. It's about Prince Hall, who was a free African American, born in about 1735 (not that he was free then), lived in Massachusetts and died in 1807.  

Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1780, so you might think that it was pretty enlightened by the standards of the time. But you'd be wrong. 

Hall was a freemason and keen on freemasonry. Why? Well, here's one good reason: someone "had been visited by a group of free Black men who had been kidnapped in Boston and had recently been emancipated and returned to the city. They were escorted to his house by Hall, and they told the story of their emancipation. One of the men who had been kidnapped was a member of Hall’s Masonic lodge. Carried off to the Caribbean and put on the auction block, the kidnapped men found that the merchant to whom they were being offered was himself a Mason. Mutual recognition of a shared participation in Freemasonry put an end to the transaction and gave them the chance to recover their freedom." So, at the very least, joining the freemasons appears to have been a good insurance policy against being kidnapped and enslaved. (I pause to observe: what sort of moral code is it to think that it's fine to have people as slaves so long as those people are not freemasons?) 

How did Hall get into freemasonry? Not as easily as you might think. "Although Hall and his fellows were most likely inducted into Freemasonry in 1775, they were never able to secure a formal charter for their lodge from the other lodges in Massachusetts: Prejudice ran strong. Hall and his fellows had in fact probably been inducted by members of an Irish military lodge, planted in Boston with the British army, who had proved willing to introduce them to the mysteries of the order. Hall’s lodge functioned as an unofficial Masonic society—African Lodge No. 1—but received a formal charter only after a request was sent to England for a warrant. The granting of a charter by the Grand Lodge of England finally arrived in 1787.

The American author of the article does not make the point, but it stands out to this British reader: surely that nugget of history tells us something about the moral code of the English-speaking world at the time? The Irish were happy to have a Black freemason, and the Grand Lodge of England was happy to have Black freemasons, but the freedom-loving, Tea Partying, modern advanced liberals of Massachusetts were not. (I don't know who was in charge of Grand Lodge of England in the 1780s, but by the 1810s it was the likes of the Prince Regent and the Duke of Sussex, so I'm guessing it was a pretty Establishment affair in the late 18th century as well.) 

I don't think it's a good idea to judge the past by the standards of the present, but I don't see anything unfair about judging the past by the standards of the past. And by the standards of the past it seems that even Massachusetts was, as we now say, problematic.

Here's another bit from the article, this time talking about a parade in which the Black freemasons of Boston liked to participate in the 1820s: "An unattributed column in the New-England Galaxy and Masonic Magazine complained about the annual parade in recognizably racist tones: "This is the day on which, for unaccountable reasons or for no reasons at all, the Selectmen of Boston, permit the town to be annually disturbed by a mob of [African Americans] … The streets through which this sable procession passes are a scene of noise and confusion, and always will be as long as the thing is tolerated. Quietness and order can hardly be expected, when five or six hundred [African Americans], with a band of music, pikes, swords, epaulettes, sashes, cocked hats, and standards, are marching through the principal streets. To crown this scene of farce and mummery, a clergyman is mounted in their pulpit to harangue them on the blessings of independence, and to hold up for their admiration the characters of “Masser Wilberforce and Prince Hall.”" (I am sorry that the author of that piece, presumably a freemason himself, could not express himself in appropriately brotherly terms towards Hall: perhaps he thought it was enough merely not to try to buy or sell him.) 

The Atlantic helpfully explains, for the American reader, who this mysterious "Wilberforce" character is, but does not point out the irony, in an article describing Hall as a "forgotten Founding Father", of a crowd in Boston praising a politician from the former colonial oppressor. 

Now, I am prepared to imagine that respectable opinion in the non-American English-speaking world in the 1820s regarded Wilberforce as a kind of irritating do-gooder, some Bono or Thunberg who has to be endured rather than celebrated. (The 1820s, you will recall, fell between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833. We're a generation or two on from the 1770s.) But even if that is right, there is something peculiarly unpleasant about the open racism of that article. One finds it hard to imagine that it would have been acceptable in polite society in London.

But this is not about Wilberforce. The point is much wider. I immediately thought of Dr Johnson's great line: "How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of [African Americans]?" (If you know that quotation then you might want to know that I made the same change to it as I made to the quotation from the newspaper above.) 

And here the plot thickens ... I wanted to check the quotation so I googled it - and I immediately obtained yet further confirmation of my thesis. The search result I went to was this, an article in the New York Times dating from 1984 that says that Dr Johnson "loathed slavery, at a time when very few voices were raised against it". Hmm. Johnson's bon mot was in an article that resulted in him being burned in effigy (in Massachusetts!) in 1775. But a few years earlier, in 1772, the law of England had been stated by Lord Mansfield in the Somerset case: "The state of slavery is .... so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law. [I.e., unless a statute said otherwise, there could be no slavery in England.] Whatever inconveniences, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore the black must be discharged.

I think this is worth reflecting on for a moment. An educated American plainly felt able to say, in America's newspaper of record, that "very few" voices were raised against slavery in the 1770s - despite the fact that the common law of the metropolis to which the American colonies were still subject at that time regarded slavery as "odious". Sure, "very few" voices in a distant land of dissidents and oddballs might have raised their voices against it, but back in the country busily ruling the waves, building a world-wide empire and standing against Napoleon, lots of people were. Mansfield was not some wacky judge off on a frolic: he was a Scottish nobleman, former Attorney General, the Lord Chief Justice and one of the greatest commercial judges. Slavery was despised by Dr Johnson (a famous Tory), William Wilberforce, William Pitt (Tory Prime Minister), the British Parliament in 1807 - and so on. In the United Kingdom, being against slavery was not the province of a "very few". It was a normal, mainstream, Establishment opinion. 

None of this is to say that the UK was a perfect, non-racist society in the late 1700s. No perfect society has ever existed and 18th century England is not an exception to that rule. The point I am making is that being opposed to slavery was entirely commonplace among the richest, educated and most cultured people of the English-speaking world. It had the same status that being opposed to global warming has today: one might complain that the Establishment is not doing all that it might to eradicate the problem, or insinuate that its opposition is insincere, half-hearted and qualified, but one cannot say that the position is merely the fringe view of a "very few voices"not supported by the rich or powerful. Everyone who is anyone has to pay at least lip service to the principle.

But that is not how history looks to Americans. When they look at the 18th century they see the equivalent of the climate-change deniers running the show. That is weird. Americans need not know that they are weird (they are rightly concerned with their own history), but the rest of us must. We must not assume that the history of a country which went to great lengths to break away from the UK is the same as the history of the country it rejected.

I say that not simply so we do not misunderstand the past but rather that so we do not mis-diagnose the present. Let's be clear: the US was an outlier in the 18th century when it regarded the "odious" as permissible; it was an outlier in the 19th century when it fought a vicious civil war about slavery; and it was an outlier in the 20th century when British people were appalled at the segregation of American GIs when they saw it at close quarters. So it is not surprising if it needs to be an outlier now in dealing with that history. There is at least a grain of truth in the 1619 Project's idea that the US suffers from an original sin of racism that requires exceptional attention to be paid and exceptional steps to be taken in remediation or expurgation. But that's not true of everywhere.

The US is a great source of new ideas, tirelessly hyped and then attractively marketed and packaged for export. That's a good thing. (This is an interesting take on the comparison with Europe in this regard.) But we should remember that we need no more adopt American solutions for social problems than we need adopt American sports to fill our social lives. Let's let them have their exceptionalism from time to time. 

Thursday, 11 March 2021

The Painful Politics of Tim Harford

This, from Tim Harford in the FT, is interesting. I think Harford is right about why it is interesting, but deeply wrong in other ways. If you can read the link first then I suggest you do; if you can't then don't worry, I'll tell you the story as I go.

Harford, who is a sane guy and an interesting writer, receives an email. It seems that some chap in his 70s had been vaccinated against covid and wanted to know why he couldn't meet his friends inside for coffee. He asks Harford: why not - what's the risk?

I pause here. How does that make you feel? Now read on.

Harford tells us that his correspondent was perfectly polite, yet the email made him "smoulder with rage ... the question sat in my stomach and burned".

Harford says - I think, rightly - that this extreme emotional reaction is the interesting point to consider. Frankly, I find it bizarre. But more about me later: let's get back to Harford.

Harford asks himself why he is so angry. He does a bit of mental arithmetic and says this:

"A vaccinated 70-year-old has roughly the same low risk of death as an unvaccinated 47-year-old. Those numbers may not be exactly right, but for this particular unvaccinated 47-year-old, they were close enough to trigger a severe emotional reaction. I have not been hanging out with my 47-year-old friends — and that is not because I fear death. It’s to prevent the virus from spreading, and thus protect the people who are most vulnerable. So it has been for all of us, on and off, for a year. And let’s not even talk about our fraying-under-the-strain children, vastly less at risk of Covid-19 complications than any 70-year-old will ever be, no matter how well vaccinated. That was why I smouldered. We have all been making extraordinary sacrifices to protect vulnerable people, and here was one of these people, suddenly feeling invulnerable (but, actually, no more invulnerable than I), complaining that his freedom had not instantly been restored."

Now, as it happens, I think Harford takes a wrong turn here. The question that matters is not whether vaccinated people are themselves at risk of dying from covid but rather whether they can pass it on to others while not themselves being affected. That is (at least in part) why schools have been closed: not to protect the children themselves, but in case the children pass covid on to vulnerable adults. As I understand it, the indications so far are that vaccination is pretty effective at preventing the disease spreading in this way, but of course I defer to the scientists for the final view. 

But that's not the interesting thing. What is interesting is that Harford's reaction to some old chap asking whether he can safely have coffee with his friends was unreasoning rage and vituperation expressed in fiery terms ("smouldering", "burning"). I quoted him at length above so you can see that I am not misrepresenting him when I say that it boils down to this: Why can't I see my friends? What about me

That strikes me as an odd reaction. I would be embarrassed to be such a dog in the manger in public. 

But then I wondered: perhaps I am the odd one. Certainly Harford does not think he is alone. He writes: "It’s not just me who whines about unfairness. Ponder the reaction to the UK’s geographical tier system of late 2020. In principle, it made sense: places with high infection rates were restricted for their own good; those with low infection rates did not need such restrictions. But most people instead saw regional tiers as punishments, invidious and arbitrary. National lockdown, for all its costs and its discontents, has never been seen that way."

As I say, Harford is a reasonable person. I'm sure that he has good reason for saying that "most people" resented the regional tiers as invidious and arbitrary, and that most people "whine ... about unfairness" in that way. 

All of which leads me to conclude that indeed I am the odd person here. I thought that having regional measures to deal with regional problems was potentially a sensible idea. One might think that it wouldn't work, or that the boundaries were oddly drawn, or something of that kind, but I never imagined that there was anything intrinsically unfair about the concept. I suppose I never thought that anything might even think that. 

Equally, I find it hard to see why I might get annoyed about some other people being allowed to go to coffee shops when I can't. Good for you! I think. We will all be able to go to coffee shops soon enough, but in the meantime, I'm glad you get the chance even if I can't yet. Bear in mind that we are not talking about the place of coffee shops in the best policy for preventing the spread of a disease - Harford and I would no doubt agree, after looking at the evidence, what that is - we are just talking about one's immediate emotional reaction to the possibility of a retired person having a cup of tea and a slice of cake with his friends.

Harford talks about fairness. One can see that fairness might be a concern if we needed to share out the coffee shop visits, or each wait our turn. But that's not the case here: that 70 year old having a chat with his friend wouldn't stop anyone from doing anything. Instead, Harford feels an immediate and strong emotional reaction to the idea of someone having something he can't have. Something that costs him nothing, something that deprives no one else of anything and something that helps the economy in some small way for the benefit of all. 

The word for what Harford feels is envy. 

You may recall the old phrase "the politics of envy". It was, so I thought, an unfair attack used by the Right: the charge was that what socialists really wanted, behind their veneer of 'redistribution of wealth', was not good things for the poor but simply to deny good things to the rich. But it seems that it is not such an unfair attack after all. It seems that there is a psychological truth in it: envy really is a motivating factor in political opinions. 

Harford's piece makes this clear. "Will we give vaccinated people more freedoms than others? That is what is happening in Israel. And there is something to be said for that, both as an incentive to get vaccinated, and to combine the maximum reopening with the minimum public health risk. It is efficient; the economist in me applauds that. As Deng Xiaoping put it as he liberalised the Chinese economy in the 1980s: “Let some people get rich first.” But not even the Undercover Economist [i.e. Harford] is just an economist. Fairness matters."

It's revealing that Harford moves so quickly from British coffee shops to Communist China. Let's just recall what we are talking about. Deng Xiaoping's reforms are a big deal. What Deng did enabled the people of the most populous country in the world to go from having Indian-level incomes, i.e., incomes at a fraction of the level of, say, Thailand's, to middle-income levels comparable to those of Turkey or Argentina: see graph below. (Look up Turkey or Argentina if you want to check.)

Deng's reforms have a fair claim to be one of the biggest contributions to net human welfare in all of recorded history. To be concerned about the fact that they allowed some people to get rich first (or, indeed, to get very rich indeed) is odd. To think that valuing Deng's reforms requires one to swallow one's much-loved scruples about fairness in order to chew on a tasteless-but-worthy diet of efficiency is just plain weird. 

So I think the emotional reaction that Harford describes and considers to be widespread is a mean-spirited impulse. It's not an instinct for fairness - it's envy. We are talking about emotions here, so I need to describe in emotional terms what the alternative view of the world looks like. In short, there are those of us who would no more begrudge a 70 year a chat with his friends than we begrudge teenagers their youth, or old people their happy memories, or country-dwellers their star-filled night skies, or city-dwellers their short walks to the shops, or country-house owners their Old Masters, or bilingual people their communication skills, or the families of cabin crew their cheap flights or ... I could go on, but you get the picture. There are, to my way of thinking (or rather, to my way of feeling), a lot of lovely and wonderful things in the world. I will get to experience but a few of them: I will never score the winning goal in the World Cup, nor, for all that I live a comfortable life in a rich country, will I have the kind of extreme wealth that is commonly described using expletives. But I'm pleased that other people will get to have those experiences. Is that not a better impulse - a better emotional reaction - that to feel aggrieved that others have what you have not?

I had naively assumed, if I had thought about it at all, that how I feel is how most people feel. I was of course aware that many people were in favour of taxing the rich until the pips squeak, but I had thought that the objection to the lifestyles of the rich - even at a visceral, emotional level - was that it came at the expense of the poor or that it needed to be curtailed in order that the poor could have more. But perhaps not. After all, Harford is not making a point about the money, wealth or income of the 70-year-old, but about his freedoms, and yet he has the same reaction and sees no difference between what he thinks about the man's freedoms and Deng's reforms. 

Perhaps the more prevalent emotion is simply that if I can't have it then no one can. But isn't that a sad way to go through life? Does it not seem petty, illiberal, uncharitable - just plain small - to feel affronted, to smoulder with rage!, at the mere suggestion that someone might have a coffee with a friend?

In this post-liberal era (or whatever you want to call it), emotional and subjective reactions - lived experience, your truth, all the rest of it - are increasingly important. We are asked to be careful of the meaner, nastier emotions associated with the populist Right: distrust of expertise, intolerance of outsiders, racism-sexism-other-isms, and so on. Quite right too. But please bear in mind that the Right does not have a monopoly on mean and grudging instincts: quite apart from the new intolerances and sensitivities of the modern online Left, it seems that good old-fashioned envy is still going strong.

Sunday, 24 January 2021


Here is Tomiwa Owolade in the Spectator reviewing Kehinde Andrews' book The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World. Owolade is a man on the rise: he's bright and sensible, and you will be seeing a lot more of him in the future.

As I read Owolade's piece a question occurred to me. 

First, some context. Go back a generation or two and there was plenty of racism in the UK. But it has got a lot better. I'm not saying the UK is perfect, of course (out of the crooked timber of humanity ...), but sensible liberal measures have made a massive difference to each measurable aspect of racism. If you were to have shown the anti-racism campaigners of the 1960s recent inter-racial marriage rates, say, or the make-up of the current Cabinet or Privy Council (here's a good detail: Kwasi Kwarteng "kissed hands" via video link - I am not the first to wonder if he kissed his computer screen) then they would have been pleased, one would think. Nearly there, they might say. The system works. One more push. Keep on keeping on.

Which bring me to my question: why do we have such strident calls for revolutionary solutions to racism now? And why are such calls not just the ravings of an extremist fringe but the mainstream writings of an academic, reviewed in The Spectator

There are a number of possible answers to this question. For example, one might think that campaigners need to make more of a fuss to gain attention when a problem is objectively smaller than when it is larger. Or perhaps this is just a rational decision on their part since making louder demands gains more attention: the Toxoplasma of Rage, to coin a phrase. 

But I have an alternative explanation. To see my point, you have to compare the progress of black people in British society with another small minority: gay people. 

We start our story in the late 1960s. If you were black you would notice a fair amount of racism, both in overt and more subtle forms. But you would also notice that being overtly racist was pretty low status behaviour, unacceptable in polite society and generally considered wrong and embarrassing. You would see Enoch Powell making his 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968 - and promptly ending his career. 

Now let's look at the position of (what you would not yet have described as) gay people. You would have seen that homosexual acts between consenting males over the age of 21 were first legalised in 1967. You would know that overt hostility to that change in the law was perfectly acceptable in polite society. 

So it seems that black people were better placed than gay people.: speaking out against homosexuals in 1967 was fine; speaking out against black people in 1968 was not. There were well-established moral arguments against homosexuality, but nothing but unreasoning and distasteful prejudice against black people. 

Fast forward a couple of generations. Anti-homosexual prejudice has gone from being common and acceptable to rare and unacceptable. Gay marriage is legal. Gay culture is celebrated. Drag queens are encouraged to read stories to children in public libraries. And so on. The world has moved a lot for homosexual people. But for black people ... 

Look, here's politics. First, the LGB community:

And that does not even include the gay Conservative Mayor of the West Midlands. 

Whereas for black people we see this:

First elected Secretary of State? Only this year! First AM? That's real scraping the barrel stuff.

And we see the same story elsewhere too. According to this link, there are 2 LGBT FTSE-100 CEOs and there are also 2 such CEOs from black or minority ethnic backgrounds. You could say that that's a draw. But just 2% of the population identify as LGBT, whereas BAME people account for about 14% of the population. Where are the black people at the top?

The professions are similar. In the pre-covid days of visting my office, I would be confident of seeing gay barristers every day but I rarely saw a black one. 

Why the discrepancy? Starting from 1967/8, how did gay people pull so far ahead of black people? 

Let's put ourselves back into the shoes of our notional black anti-racist. Won't he at least be tempted to say something like this. 

Hang on a minute here. What's the deal? We came here. We were just like you - you the white people who run the country - in fact we are just like you. We're normal people - normal families - with normal jobs and normal interests. The only difference is skin colour. We settled among you, went to your schools, followed all your rules. 

But it wasn't enough. We were never accepted. 

Meanwhile, when it comes to gay people, you were prepared to turn society on a sixpence. You changed the rules for them. You overturned laws, re-wrote sexual morality, reversed thousands of years of understanding of what 'marriage' means, changed the fundamental structure of family relationships.  You did all that for gay people. But not for us. Why?

I'm serious, he carries on, why? There have been several years during which gay people spread a really dangerous disease (AIDS). Did black people ever do that? No. Instead, we played in your football teams, and your rugby teams, and your cricket teams. We served in your armed forces. We came to a Christian country as Christians, singing your hymns and going to your churches. We tried to fit in. We never rubbed your face in our differences. Do I need to go on?

You always taught that it was wrong to hate us, but you never followed through on that. You used to teach that it was OK to hate gay people - but you changed the teaching. What's going on here? Why is it one rule for us and another one for them? Why do you open your prisons to us and your universities to gay people?

I've got nothing against gay people, he continues, looking hurriedly over his shoulder. (He knows that West Indian music can easily be described as 'homophobic'. He remembers that school trip to France where we all laughed at the shop called 'Batiman'.) I'm glad things worked out for them. I just want things to work out for us too.

Surely, our campaigner concludes, surely there is only one explanation. The gays are white and we are black. And that's what you really care about. Skin colour. All the rest of it - all your rules, all your liberal principles - that's nothing but hypocrisy, just as the rules in the 1960s were. Nothing but window-dressing for white supremacy. And now it's time to say: enough is enough. We're done with following your rules - you only change the rules to suit yourselves anyway. It's time for revolution.

I don't entirely agree with that analysis. There have always been gay people at the top of society so it's not surprising that that has not changed. Nonetheless, there is surely something odd going on. The cultural accommodation that needed to be made to allow people from the West Indies to participate fully in British culture was pretty slight. Some new foods, a bit more popular music, some argot - the normal give and take. White working class culture managed it, in the end, but not the middle classes. Why? Have you, you white person, ever been to a West Indian restaurant? Not even once? Just out of interest? I know you've eaten Indian food and Chinese food and Thai food and Peruvian-Japanese fusion and those spicy Sichuan peppers, but what about curried goat or chicken, rice and peas?

And what about cultural representation? Is there any reason why Doctor Who had to be a white woman rather than a black man? You know how many hilarious camp comedians there are on television, and how few black ones (especially black British ones). What is the black equivalent to Julian Clary's joke about Norman Lamont: an episode of Desmond's? Lenny Henry doing Theophilus T. Wildebeest?

I could carry on. But instead I will just say this. When Owolade is editing The Spectator and criticising Kwarteng's old and tired government, and no one thinks it interesting to point out anything about the colour of their skins, perhaps then the calls for revolution will be made by weirdos we can safely ignore. Until then, we should listen. There is a point.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Tom McTague continues his good run

McTague writes about the EU-China deal here. These are a couple of highlights:

"In 2007, following years of solid growth, the EU’s economy was slightly larger than that of the U.S., according to the World Bank, and both were drastically larger than China’s. By 2019, the American economy had grown by around 50 percent, whereas the EU’s had essentially flatlined. China, meanwhile, had all but caught up with the EU. George Magnus, an economist at Oxford University’s China Centre, told me that the trend over the past decade was clear: American resurgence and European stagnation. Since 2010, the U.S. share of the global economy has not only held, but increased, from 23 percent to 25 percent, according to International Monetary Fund data used by Magnus. Europe’s has shrunk from 21.5 percent to 17.5 percent, even including Britain in the total.
What is remarkable about the EU-China deal, which is supposed to show European strategic autonomy, is how unstrategic it appears to be.