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."

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

"For the West, “what is” has become increasingly difficult to disentangle from “what ought to be.”"

So says Viktor Orban here. He continues: "By contrast, our [i.e East Central Europeans'] perception of the real remains as sharp and cold as common sense. We have learned that the real is that which refuses to disappear even if we have stopped believing in it."

That's the best bit of his piece. But it's often worth reading people in their own words to see what their own concerns are - and to see where their popularity comes from. Who would vote for X?, you ask yourself. The answer is always: someone a bit like you. Listen to X and you'll start to see why.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

What's going to happen with Trump?

With my stunning betting successes behind me (well, two out of three ain't bad), you are no doubt gagging to know what I predict for the future of the Trump presidency. Well, my view is that it's too early to tell. But here are three people with much more interesting views - and you should read them all.

First, here is Ross Douthat on how populism stumbles, not least by triggering "an unusual level of solidarity among elites, who feel moved to resist on a scale that they wouldn’t if similar policies were pursued by normal political actors". Tyler Cowen mostly agrees with him.

Second, by contrast, here is David Frum on how Trump could build an autocracy, in the Turkey/Hungary sense at least. It is what the magazine would no doubt describe as an 'important' piece, but do not let that put you off as it's well worth a read.

Douthat and Frum are both literate, humane intelligent writers. Their theses are both worth your consideration.

On the other hand, here is Scott Adams, who really did predict the Trump presidency (strikingly unlike Douthat), setting out where Trump will end up on immigration and how you can spot it happening.

I would say that you pays your money and you makes your choice, but that's the wonder of modern international capitalism - it provides so much, of such high quality, entirely for free.