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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Naz Shah's Vote and the Labour MPs who did not step up to help

Because of a breakdown of the usual convention, Labour MP Naz Shah had to vote yesterday after discharging herself from hospital and arriving in a wheelchair. Normally, such problems are dealt with by finding an MP intending to vote the other way who would sign-up and agree not to vote. Ms Shah could then have stayed in hospital as her doctors advised.

Since Labour MPs voted on both sides for yesterday's division, then even if the evil Mrs Leadsom's Conservatives refused to co-operate, Ms Shah could have been paired with a Labour MP intending to vote the other way. It would have left the gap between the Ayes and the Noes unchanged.

There were four Labour MPs who could have stepped up to the plate: Frank Field, Kate Hoey, John Mann, Graham Stringer.

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Sunday, 17 June 2018

Tackling the Statue Problem: What Goes Up Should Come Down

In the United Kingdom, it is a convention that all postage stamp designs include a portrait of the current monarch. From 1840 up until now, not one stamp has been issued without the monarch’s head. But when the monarch changes, so does the portrait and no one seems to think this disrespectful.

Banknotes change in the same way but, in addition, their designs have to change within the reign of one monarch to cope with inflation and the needs of maintaining and enhancing security against forgery. In my country, when banknotes change the opportunity is also taken to change the great or good personage now conventionally represented on the back of every note.  But those personages don’t last forever; it is soon the turn of someone else. We will swap the critic of slavery for the friend of slavery, and so on.

In contrast, we are stuck with the men on plinths – even more so now that we have started to big up women on their own plinths. Once a statue has been put up, it is supposed to stay up, and any attempt to take it down would be met with fierce opposition – not that anyone very often even tries. As a result, we have cityscapes where a great deal of pavement and park is given over to monuments to the temporarily-reckoned great and good of the past few centuries.

The atavistic stone and brass works on plinths are one or two steps removed from embalmed corpses or effigies, but for the most part they aim to be copied from life, perhaps larger than life size but otherwise naturalistic. In artistic terms, nearly all these monuments are without merit nor are they really intended to be with merit. This is as true of Gillian Wearing’s Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Sqaure as of the men around her. Nonetheless, it is partly because they are seen as works of art that the totems on plinths are safe from being toppled. If we could get away from that idea of work of art, it would begin to make the task of de-cluttering our cityscapes that much easier.

Who gets to be monumentalised is partly decided by governments and partly by Public Subscription. The latter creates its own problems. When people contributed their shilling towards a brass or marble statue, they expected the result to stay where it is put. They expected long-term value for their money. It’s not for some future generation to declare some person unworthy of a statue in public space; the subscribers have already settled the matter for eternity.

This is a bizarre line of thought. Public cemeteries are full of the work of monumental masons paid for by the grateful inheritors of some dead person’s property, but the cemeteries fill up and decay, the monuments topple over, and eventually the whole lot is bulldozed. Nobody much minds. No one cares who paid or how much or why for some drooping angel.

Most Londoners who pass around Trafalgar Square on their way to work could no doubt sketch Nelson’s Column on the back of an envelope and supply the name of the monument at the same time. But how many could sketch the men on horseback on the three plinths around Nelson, or name them? I leave you to do the necessary search to discover that they are not particularly meritorious individuals, unless you have a very rose-tinted view of our Imperial history. But just imagine what an exhausting business it would be to get those statues off those plinths and shipped off to some horse sanctuary or knacker's yard willing to take them. But that is what should happen.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Jobs for Brexiteers

In Iasi, Romania's second city, young people say they have no intention of picking fruit.
Puiu Jonut, 23, studies geography.
"The English pick and choose what they want to do and leave the harder jobs for the foreigners," he told BBC News.
"There are a lot of English people that could work the fields and not let the fruit rot. That's why Brexit to me was really strange because the foreigners are coming to do the hard jobs and the low-paid jobs - surely you want them to stay."

Source: BBC News 6 June 2018

Friday, 1 June 2018

Germaine Greer and Tanja Bueltmann

I call for Germaine Greer to stop calling herself a feminist. Because she very clearly isn't. And the hailing of her as one needs to stop. It should have stopped a long time ago, really, but now is certainly a good time to really do it.

The latest spat about Germaine Greer – see Tweet above – has taken me off into re-visiting my views on the use people make of titles they possess. My own view is that titles should not be used outside the context to which they belong. So if you are a university Professor, then on campus you are Professor X, but off campus you are not unless you are speaking or writing on a subject about which you are claiming an expertise to which your title gestures. Ditto if you are a General.

Professor Tanja Bueltmann may be a jolly good professor (she’s a historian) but that does not give her any special claim on Twitter to pass judgement on Germaine Greer, nor should she be using her title for this purpose. It has clearly been a helpful thing to do because it has meant that the deference-encouraging BBC has picked her Tweet for wider dissemination. As plain Tanja Bueltmann my guess is that she would not have so easily achieved her five minutes of fame. In my view, that’s unfair on the many Tanjas who aren’t professors and who may have equally or more interesting thoughts about Germaine Greer.

Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Some Problems With Identity Politics

In a very distant past, people proclaimed themselves anarchists, communists, conservatives, liberals and socialists with political parties to match (the anarchists excepted). In those days, people were likely to join in discussions by saying things like, “As a socialist, I suppose I think …”  It would be regarded as an irrelevant, ad hominem argument if you replied to this by saying, “But you went to public school …” An appropriate response would be something on the lines of, “As a liberal, I place more value on personal freedom than is allowed for in your argument for nationalising fish and chip shops…”

Nowadays, people open discussions with such phrases as “As a gay man, I feel …” or “As a black woman, I think …” Whether it’s feeling or thinking something, such phrases are often enough meant to close down rather than open up discussion. You have got a chance if you can reply, “Well, that’s interesting, but as gay man I feel rather different about this …”  You haven’t got much chance if you reply, “It’s irrelevant that you’re a black woman, the point is that ...”.  This may simply be regarded as offensive, since it denies a claim to authority based on personal positioning.

But there is a good argument which would say that though personal experience is often and maybe always relevant in debate (“I went to public school and I hated it”) it has no special authority. From this perspective, identity politics can then be defined as that variety of political positioning which consistently confers special authority on personal experience framed by a self-defined identity.

The trouble with special authority is that it almost always turns into some kind of one-upmanship, some kind of sharp-elbowed jockeying, which is intended to reduce a supposed conversational partner to silence. “When you get to my age, young man, you will realise …” is the archetype of such one-upmanship. There’s no dodging it unless you try something like, “Well, I try not to be ageist in the way I think” which probably won’t go down very well.  More recently, “I have had the experience, you haven’t”, does the same job. You are probably in deep trouble if you reply to that, “So what?”

There is another problem with arguments from special authority. Those who assert an identity and claim authority based on it don’t agree with each other. So in the United Kingdom, the Labour Party has groups for people who self-identify as this that or the other, but so do other parties. There are gay socialists but also gay liberals and gay conservatives, which actually suggests that being gay is politically irrelevant. Or rather, it is only relevant because you have constituted yourself into a lobby group for a special interest: you want the Labour Party to pay special attention to your needs; over in the Conservative party, there is a parallel group jockeying for that special attention.

In America, this would once have been called pork barrel politics or log rolling – in any case something to be disdained. But now it’s mainstream and Americans are supposed to approve of it. In the UK, The Guardian newspaper aligns itself very much with trends in the USA. I eventually gave up reading it when I came across a story headlined East Asian Actors Under-represented in Hollywood. Just try to get your head around that. First off, there is the geographical challenge: who are these North Asians, South Asians and West Asians who are cheating East Asians out of the desirable good of playing bit parts in bad Hollywood movies? Second, there is the rather bigger challenge of what would count as fair representation. In some cases, this is obvious; in many it isn’t. If you are making a film about the lives of Korean comfort women in the Second World War and the Japanese men they were made to serve, how does the concept of “fair representation” apply? If you are making a film about the lives of women who were parachuted into France in World War Two as agents of SOE (the Special Operations Executive) and what happened to them, how does the concept of “fair representation” apply? In each case, who ends up not getting parts?

I want to argue that the concept of “fair representation” is very hard to specify because it runs into problems analogous to those identified by Kenneth Arrow in his classic Social Choice and Individual Values (1951). Re-discovering a theorem which had first been proposed by the Marquis de Condorcet in the eighteenth century, Arrow showed that there is no possible democratic decision-making mechanism which will avoid the problem of intransitive choices. We like to assume, with the logicians, that if A implies B and B implies C, then A also implies C. Unfortunately, when you aggregate choices, it doesn’t. If more voters choose A when offered A or B and more choose B when offered B or C, it does not follow that more voters will choose A when offered A or C.  

D’oh! This conclusion is rather alarming. It means that in a democratic system, the outcome of a Pick A or B vote is rather less decisive than it might seem. If you had framed the choice differently, you may well have got a different result. This problem of cyclical majorities also introduces a strong element of instability into democratic systems. What looks like the capriciousness of voters - something which might be dealt with by severe exhortations to weight the choice carefully - is actually a manifestation of a general problem of choice intransitivity.

The same problem will I think arise in endeavours to achieve fair representation. These are entirely worthy endeavours but they face the problem that what looks like fair representation when the choice is between A or B and then between B or C may not look fair if A or C is introduced. Kenneth Arrow’s view was that such dilemmas can only be eliminated by introducing non-democratic elements into choice mechanisms, which in this case would involve laying down the law on what is to count as fairness and allow no more choice in the matter. Fairness becomes what I say it means and that’s an end to it, and this is perhaps the fall-back position which inspires identity politics and explains its own arbitrariness.

Trevor Pateman writes cultural and political criticism, some collected into The Best I Can Do (2016) and Silence Is So Accurate (2017) both available very cheaply on Amazon