Monday, 30 June 2014

"My swastika"

That disturbing phrase is the headline of this piece on an Economist blog. In an understated manner, the writer, a Jewish man, describes finding a swastika graffiti'd on his doorpost. In London. In 2014.

It is in the truest traditions of the Economist that the writer turns to the data and finds grounds for optimism (the Whig view of history is alive and well in the Economist): "modern Britain is indeed an almost uniquely benign place for Jews (lapsed or otherwise) to live", he says. It is good of him to say so. But I am disgusted.

Instinctively, I regard decent treatment of Jews as a good test for the decency of any gentile society as a whole. On analysis, I think that instinct is well-founded.

Testing how a society treats minorities in general is less revealing. Some minority groups are deserving of sympathy or special treatment in some way: the very poor, the badly disabled, criminals. It is interesting to know how a society treats these people, what we might call its weakest members, but one will always be looking at how a special case is handled, and sometimes hard cases make bad law. On the other hand, some minority groups are ones that might 'recruit' you or your children: drug addicts, Buddhists, the very rich, left-handed people. It is hard to generate a real 'them and us' feeling with such minorities. Equally, some minorities don't have clear entry criteria ('very spiritual' people) or any self-identity as a group (twins). Some minorities are only contingently minorities: Muslims and (practising) Christians are two minority groups in Britain now, but one was a majority and perhaps the other will be; but Jewish people will always be in the minority.

Jewish people are just people. They are not fortunate or unfortunate and there is obviously no reason why he law or society should single them out for any special treatment. But they are an identifiable minority, whom gentiles can in theory pick on without fear of picking on their own children and without fear of having the tables turned on them. In theory and, in too many places and at too many times, in reality too.

So my theory is that if you want to know whether a gentile society is a fundamentally decent society then you should look at the lives of its normal Jewish members. I like to think of Britain as fundamentally decent. I hope it stays that way.

Friday, 27 June 2014

What's wrong with Juncker? Or, the British Question

The Economist has some nice-ish things to say about Mr Juncker (e.g. "probably the least bad choice"). I was pleased to see that he is "On the “social” wing of the Christian Democrats", which sounds like it comes from Borgen. I think it means he is well to the left of Nick Clegg.

But that aside, what does he stand for? Well, I have been to his campaign website (so that you don't have to). It is fair to say that I went for the merchandise but I stayed for the policies. More interesting than I thought it would be - see below the break for what he says about the British Question.

Sex workers' rights

Here is an interesting article in the LRB, perhaps best summed up in this quotation:

"If sex workers claim they aren’t victims, we expect them to say they chose sex work voluntarily, that they find their work fun, or a therapeutic public service, that they are empowered. We’re not satisfied if they say that it’s a crappy job, but they’re doing OK. But why should workers have to be having fun, or be satisfied with their job, before they can earn the right to join a union, or have legal protection from violence?"

I am put in mind of the Borgen episode where Birgitte Nyborg wrestles with whether prostitution should be legalised, the relationship with human trafficking and so on. But even that did not go so far as to have the sympathetic sex worker say that it's a pretty rubbish job but, even so, that's no reason why we or our clients should be in trouble with the police.

There is a straightforward libertarian position: so long as there is no coercion, there should be no criminal sanction. But in this context, we suddenly find libertarianism at its least inspiring. We are not talking about JS Mill and experiments in living; we are not talking about a thousand flowers of freedom blooming; we are not with Pitt the Elder proudly declaiming "The poorest [sex-worker] may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!" We are simply saying that if consenting adults want to engage in an unsatisfying and rather regrettable line of employment then they may. It's the argument you could make for legalising working in a call-centre or as a dwarf for being thrown - but only if you couldn't think of any better argument.

Indeed, it is so uninspiring that it isn't the argument that anyone actually makes for legalisation. If you're a feminist or a conservative then you can say that you are in favour of protecting vulnerable women (who isn't?). If you're on the left you can argue for empowering people to lead valuable self-actualised lives through sex work. If you're on the right, you can say that it's always going to happen, so why bother the police with trying to stop it? They all have more persuasive force than saying rubbish jobs should be legal too.

I agree with the premise of the rhetorical question in the quotation. Everyone's job has good bits and bad bits, and you wouldn't want to have to persuade the state that your job had enough good bits to it before you were entitled not to be beaten up or raped for having that job. But I would stick with the happy hookers if you want to change the law: you already have the libertarians on your side - it's the others you need to worry about.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Capital, income and Piketty

There is, it seems, plenty to say about Thomas Piketty's book. Below are some thoughts - longish, but slightly leavened by evil twins - prompted by a response to it.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

A right-wing Canadian

It's Ted Cruz, sympathetically profiled by the New Yorker here. Or is that intended to be unsympathetic? I warmed to him, anyway.

Another great Spectator Competition

In this competition readers were invited to step into the shoes of a well-known writer of your choice and submit a poem or piece of prose in praise or defence of something you would not expect them to champion. I give you my favourite one in full:

next to of course god mister gove i
love you futuring the past as be-
ing where it is and me oh man i buy
it. no more grammarblind i see
just where youse backwards going to
which is (damascus roadwise) why
i’ll kidlike batandball along with you
and ‘i’ my dots from here on now by
gollygosh i will. you mister gove
(britannia shake the spear) have shown
the world your eng lit treasure trove
which being never ruleless rules alone
and leaves us (fools too late learn)
rueing all (god save america) we strove
to write — so (stripped of stars) we turn
to you the master teacher mister gove
Alan Millard/e.e. cummings

Friday, 20 June 2014

A lesser-known saying of the Buddha

"I have some friends who are considered, well, modern-day prophets, and one of them said, ‘It must be wonderful for your children to have such a conscious father—when did that happen?’ And I said, ‘I’m mindful of a quote attributed to Buddha, which is that you don’t find the pearl of enlightenment lying around on the beach. You gotta go through a lot of oysters, and you gotta scrape your knuckles and break your fingernails opening all the motherfuckers up. And then one day’ ”—he beamed and grasped the air—“ ‘there it is! The fucking pearl of enlightenment!’

To be fair to Don Johnson, who is the subject of the New Yorker interview from which this quotation is taken, perhaps he was not ascribing all of those words to the Enlightened One.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Killing the Hydra

Following not-all-that-hotly on the heels of the revelation the sum of all positive integers is -1/12, here is another hugely implausible mathematical argument.

Badger the fox and you’ll fox the badger

The headline is from a Spectator competition to invent proverbs that sound profound but have no meaning. Here are some other ones I liked:

The overcoat of conceit will not deter the lizard of oblivion.

Life is the crossword, love is the clue.

There is no ‘I’ in ‘eye’.

Woods do not grow on trees.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Ross McKibbin loses contact with reality

Ross McKibbin writes this (in the LRB):

"It is surprising how unwilling even the partisans of the EU are to argue the case for membership.  Most voters don’t realise that we can safely drink our water, eat our food, swim in the sea, have a reasonable expectation that a building won’t fall on us, thanks to EU legislation. Damning such legislation as the work of the nanny state is simply a way for Conservative (and Ukip) politicians to escape their obligations, something the British political class has frequently done."

Does he seriously believe this? Does he think that before the UK joined the EEC, we were unable to drink our water and eat our food, and that we all lived in fear of collapsing buildings? Does he believe that that is how, say, Canadians or Japanese live today?

If that is the best the "partisans of the EU" can do, it is no wonder they are unwilling to make the argument. The problem is that British partisans of the EU on the left don't have many arguments. The whole free-trade side of things is problematic (McKibbin points out that it has not done great things for the old, tariff-protected industries that traditionally supported trades unions and the mainstream left), while the other bits (the euro, greater political union) just aren't that popular, or even very left-wing. These people support the EU for emotional reasons, because it is modern and progressive (or at least, used to be) and because the people who oppose it might be xenophobes. It's a mood and a set of prejudices - not an argument.

5 things to see

1. Competition winners in Belarus.

2. Proof that Axl Rose has a larger vocal range than Mariah Carey (or at least, a good infographic on the point).

3. Some lovely eggs. (Bower birds should go into high-end handbag design, if you ask me.)

4. A woman working as a table, with intriguing post-colonial implications.

5. Some minimalist film posters.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

How the children of the world could have built Stonehenge

The trick is not to have watched the Gangnam style video, which has apparently deprived the world of nearly 5 Stonehenges. On the basis that children make up a fair amount of the viewers of the video, but require longer to build installations using monoliths, I think it's a fair assumption that children could have built at least 1 of those Stonehenges.

In fact, if you add in all the time they have spent watching Eton Style, dogs doing Gangnam style and so on, plus the time spent doing their own imitations of Psy, I'm confident that there's another Empire State Building that has been lost as well. In our household alone, Psy must have deprived the world of at least a Lego model of the Burj Khalifa and a small paper-based Wikipedia of all knowledge known to small children. On the other hand. those of you who think the last thing London needs is another one-and-a-bit Olympic parks will be wishing Psy well with his next video.

Monday, 2 June 2014