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Friday, 21 February 2020

Whoever you are, the Liberal Democrats will stand up for you

By the middle of 2019 in the United Kingdom, Leavers and Remainers could be considered neck-and-neck. A significant number of the elderly who had voted Leave had died since the 2016 Referendum; new young voters, overwhelmingly Remainers, had joined the electorate.

Every poll showed that Remainers were on average younger and better educated than the Leave voters and by all normal standards that ought to have given the edge and allowed them to outperform,  to win and reverse the 2016 Referendum result. They didn’t. Why?

One very large part of the answer lies in what is called the narcissism of small differences. Nice educated Remainers could not bring themselves to sink their differences in the face of an overwhelming threat to their way of life. They went around saying Oh, I couldn’t possibly vote for someone who is on record having said in 1973 that …. or I draw the line at someone who does not believe in the rights of penguins or In the past, they collaborated with the Tories. They did not look to the future,only to the past. In contrast, Leavers focussed on the main issue of getting Brexit done, sunk their differences (which were manifold), and turned out to vote for the only party which clearly announced that it would get Brexit done - and indeed  did, very rapidly, on 31 January 2020. So old and uneducated they may have been, but Leave voters understood how to think and act strategically. They got what they voted for.

Remain voters didn’t because in places like the nice, middle-class university town of Lewes they went out and voted Green and Labour thus ensuring the defeat of the Liberal Democrat, the blindingly obvious choice in Lewes to beat a very hard line Brexiteer Tory. The margin of defeat was  smaller than the combined Green  and Labour vote. But, honour  satisfied, the Green and the Labour voters had not betrayed their Principles as they no doubt made a point of reminding everyone at every opportunity.

This local inability to think strategically was reflected at national level, where the “strategists” of the Labour and Liberal parties went out of their way to rub voters’ noses into the fact of their differences, Liberal leader Jo Swinson leading the way but Labour not far behind.

The Liberals are now completely without any strategy. Yesterday I received an email from them headlined

Whoever you are, the Liberal Democrats will stand up for you

It's called desperate marketing. And I hope it's untrue; there are people out there who I trust no political party will rush to stand up for.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Souvenirs of Jacques Lacan

Number Ten Downing Street is now the home of Tsar Boris and his Tsarina, Carrie; in the corridors there lurks Rasputin, Mr Dominic Cummings,  currrently advertising for weirdos (his word) to assist him in running the country and keeping the Tsar's children out of the newspapers. His job description explicitly rules out anyone who can talk about Lacan over dinner, otherwise I might have applied. But at least I can dust down this previously-unpublished piece of memoir. We are all opportunists now.

An “O” level in French dated 1962 and no subsequent study of the language would hardly equip me for graduate studies in Paris ten years’ later and so, after being awarded a Leverhulme European studentship, I spent the summer of 1971 attending full-time at the Alliance Française on the Boulevard Raspail. The teaching methods were traditional and effective but I was hardly fluent by the end, either as speaker or writer.

Nonetheless, I composed a letter to Jacques Lacan. It was handwritten and I don’t have a copy, though I recall writing about my interest in Althussser, oblivious of Lacan’s own connections. I had already bought a collection of Lacan’s writings and had heard of his seminar. But I understood “seminar” in the English sense as something which at most twenty people might attend, so I wrote seeking permission to be one of them. 

In reply, I got a hand-written letter giving me the details of the seminar which would re-commence on the 8th December in Amphitheatre II of the old Law faculty in the Place du Panthéon. In addition, he was to give a one-off lecture in the chapel of Saint Anne on 4th December at 21 heures 15 - arrive early, he added, because it will be crowded. Finally, should I wish to meet, he had alerted his secretary - the letter gave a telephone number.

 Click on Image to Enlarge

I made my way to Saint Anne for the crowded lecture and subsequently to the first, equally crowded “seminar”. There were hundreds of us. A little late, Lacan entered stage left in full-length fur coat, behind him a young woman who assisted with the coat, draped it over her arm, and left. I was sitting next to Ann Smock (later, Professor of French at Berkeley) and I think it was she who pointed to the front row of the lecture theatre which was populated by stylishly and indeed flamboyantly dressed young women. It’s said that they are paid to sit there.

I duly noted that fact and on my way to the second lecture the following week paused to buy two buttonhole flowers. I sat next to Ann Smock again and presented her with an orchid to match my own. We should join in the spirit of the thing, I said.

I never responded to the invitation to meet Lacan, perhaps because  shortly after I met someone who had just had a bruising encounter with him. Lacan’s first English translator, Anthony Wilden, was in Paris to give a few seminars (which I must have attended). In conversation afterwards, he said that he had now written a book on Lacan’s work and had sent the typescript to him for comment. Wilden was hoping for Lacan’s imprimatur in the form of a Preface, something which Lacan had recently provided for Anika-Rifflet Lemaire’s Jacques Lacan (1970).

Lacan summonsed him and sat behind his desk with the typescript laid in front of him. He flicked through and Wilden could see that certain words were underlined. Lacan gestured at the typescript and said, My name does not appear often enough.

My own feeling now is that Lacan's early work is still worth reading, notably the Rome discourse which Wilden translated as The Language of the Self . It is sensible to read his work alongside Melanie Klein and Donald Winnicott rather than as something which stands alone and apart. For example, Lacan's contrast between parole pleine and parole vide parallels Winnicott's True Self and False Self. 

But as the work becomes more obscure and convoluted, I think it eventually becomes uninteresting except as the symptom of Lacan's desire for some kind of cult status - a status he clearly achieved. Along the way, he also made a lot of money enabling him - most notably - to purchase Gustave Courbet's L'Origine du Monde when it came on the market. The painting is now in the Musee d'Orsay.

Rather in the same way, I came to distrust Derrida's work and gave up on his lectures. (I tried again at a later date but gave up again). But I never developed the same distrust towards Barthes, Foucault or Levi-Strauss. I had chance to listen to  them during my time in Paris and felt that in their different ways they were all perfectly serious and not seduced by their own fame.

I attended Lacan's seminars and read the Ecrits when I was in Paris. I also had chance to discuss Lacan's work with Elisabeth [Sanda] Geblesco who commuted up to Paris weekly from her home in Monaco to train as an analyst. Later (1974 - 81) she became one of the last analysts to be supervised by Lacan. She died in 2002 and in 2008 her notebooks recording her meetings with Lacan were published as Un Amour de Transfert.

Friday, 6 December 2019

The Marquis de Condorcet meets Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?

A couple of times recently, I have been taken back to work I did in the 1970s on the justification for majority voting, both in government and the legal system (jury trials).

The first writers to treat the matter seriously were Rousseau and Condorcet, the latter - among other talents - a mathematician specialising in the theory of probabilities.

Condorcet showed that majority voting is a good guide to truth:

(1) the more enlightened (knowledgeable) is each individual voter, with a minimum requirement that they be more likely to be right than wrong on any one occasion (p = greater than 0.5)

(2) provided that when voting, voters are trying to give the right answer

(3) and provided that they vote independently of each other - if one voter follows the lead of another, that simply reduces the effective number of voters

If these conditions are met, then in a majority vote the probability of the majority being right increases (and quite dramatically, heading towards p = 1 [certainty])the larger the vote gap between majority and minority.

Since I did the work in the 1970s, the TV quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? has come along and it demonstrates Condorcet's theorem perfectly. When a contestant Asks The Audience to select the right answer from four possible answers, he or she can safely assume:

(1) that the Audience is quite knowledgeable- Quiz show live audiences are likely to contain a high proportion of people good at quizzes
(2) members of the audience have no motive to give answers they believe to be untrue (they enjoy giving right answers!)
(3) they vote independently of each other using push-button consoles with little or no time to consult the person sitting next to them

Hey Presto, the audience's choice of right answer will, almost certainly, BE the right answer. If some researcher checked back over Ask the Audience choices, I think they would rarely find that the Audience got it wrong. Ask the Audience is a No Brainer if you don't know the answer yourself.

There is more serious stuff in my essay "Majoritarianism" on my website

Originally published on this site on 25 August 2011

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Is there a Right not to be Conceived?

I don’t read much popular science, but recently in my local bookshop I picked up Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived (2016) which is a very readable introduction to modern genetics and its historical background. At one point he illustrates the hazards of inbreeding by telling the tragic story of Charles the Second of Spain who died in 1700 aged thirty nine, but after a lifetime of painful illness and distressing incapacity. When people marry out of their family then after six generations they will have 62 different ancestors; after eight the number rises to 254. But because of the marriage of cousins to cousins, uncles to nieces, and disregarding the possibility of unsanctioned incest, Charles the Second had just 32 six-generation ancestors and a mere 82 eight-generation ancestors. “This is not desirable”, comments Rutherford at page 190. There is both a general problem about inbreeding and a specific problem that the probability of a recessive congenital disorder being activated dramatically increases.

A few pages later (page 200) Rutherford tells us that in 2005 one United Kingdom ethnic group produced 3.4% of all live births but 30% of all babies with recessive congenital disorders. He then goes on to discuss genetic counselling as a way of reducing such outcomes which in practice arise largely from repeated first cousin marriages, which are allowed in English law. But I was shocked by his figures, which I had never come across before, and felt that genetic counselling sounded like a feeble response. But how to think through the problem in a dispassionate way?

I imagined using something like John Rawls’ veil of ignorance. In his major 1971 book A Theory of Justice, Rawls tries to show what kind of social contract individuals would agree to if they were obliged to decide not knowing important facts about themselves as individuals. So, for example, if behind the veil of ignorance you did not know whether you would turn out to be male or female when the veil is lifted, then it is most unlikely that you would agree to a public decision making method which excluded females – or males, for that matter – from any franchise. You would tend to favour universal suffrage which minimises your risk of being disadvantaged and maximises the opportunity which others, thinking along the same lines, would be willing to grant you.

In the case I am trying to consider, those behind the veil of ignorance have not yet been conceived. Nonetheless, these potential persons can be imagined as listeners to a genetics lecture which informs them, among other things, that their risks of being born severely disabled are greatly multiplied if people with varying degrees of closeness are allowed to conceive children, especially if done repeatedly. They are given figures and the problem of recessive genes explained. They are told that the risk of being born disabled is greatly reduced when the law forbids conception between closely related individuals, especially when this is repeated through generations. Eventually, they have to decide on the level of risk they are willing to accept in formulating one of society’s fundamental laws, the law which sets out with whom you may and may not conceive children.

This kind of question has been posed in other ways for other life and death issues. In his 1785 major work on majority voting, the title now usually translated as Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Theory of Decision-Making, Condorcet pointed out that when the death penalty is provided as a possible punishment in any society, there is always the possibility that an innocent person will be executed – and that is irreversible. So he asks us to consider the question: What probability would you accept for an outcome in which you yourself might be executed though innocent?

From the point of view of the unconceived, the choice seems fairly straightforward whether you think along Rawlsian or Condorcetian lines. Though you stand to lose something from outlawing a host of close relative reproductive relationships – you will never get to be Philip the Second of Spain - this potential loss of benefit is minimal compared to the risk of being born to a life of pain and discomfort which may be very short and may, unfortunately, be quite long. You will listen to the geneticists and you will outlaw reproductive relationships which carry a high risk of causing you serious harm if you are born within them.

This calculus done from the standpoint of the as yet unconceived is quite different from that deployed by those entering genetic counselling. They are being asked the question, Do you want to risk having a seriously disabled child? not the question Do you want to risk being one? Those counselled are real, existing people. They may be under family pressure to start a family together. They may be in love. They may be gamblers. They may not believe in science. They are unlikely to be thinking of the fact that their choices may well yield very large health care bills, to be paid for out of other people’s taxes. Overall, they are not well placed to answer the question in terms of the best interests of an as yet unconceived child.

In other words, though adults normally think otherwise, their situation in real life is not always one where they can be assumed to be good judges for children, still less for children who have not yet been conceived. Both veil of ignorance reasoning and Condorcetian probabilistic reasoning suggest that our laws about who you can and can’t have children with are lax, and that the fall-back of genetic counselling unreasonably favours the interests of the living over those of the unconceived.

Trevor Pateman  explores other gaps and failures in our moral thinking in essays included in his The Best I Can Do (2016) and Silence Is So Accurate (2017)

Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Voice Mobility

The other day, I recorded my first podcast. Since I had not been in a recording studio for many years, the sound engineer suggested that I make a sample recording - just a few minutes long - and then listen to the playback before returning to my soundproof booth to do the real thing.

I sat down with the engineer and he pressed Play on my sample. What do you think? he asked at the end. I sound a bit posh is what came out, immediately. He was surprised (maybe he had heard no poshness) and puzzled, Is that a bad thing?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because it may give listeners the wrong idea about me. I didn’t start life with a posh voice; I acquired one as a result of succeeding educationally and thereby becoming socially mobile. But I’ve always liked to think that my voice has not been quite so mobile. I still recall once meeting a university acquaintance from a similar background but a decade after we had both left Oxford. I was appalled by his accent, Oxford and affected. But it probably wasn’t affected at all; it’s likely that he had just assimilated more easily.

Now here am I, someone who hasn’t taught a university seminar or been to a middle class dinner party for twenty years, placing myself in front of a microphone and immediately, to my own ear, sounding posh. Maybe the subject matter explains it: I was reading something I had written about Milan Kundera’s theory of the novel. Maybe if I had been talking in a less scripted way about my childhood or a pet hate I would have sounded different.

I had other criticisms of my first attempt. My voice was too high pitched - first night nerves; I spoke too slowly - I was afraid of stumbling over words, an age-related hazard. And when I listened to the final product, I thought I sounded a bit camp. The editor of Booklaunch (Stephen Games) who had requested the podcast picked up on the last two aspects, asking that in any future recording I should be a bit faster (but not less dramatic)

But there is a case to be made for the poshness. The voice in which I read my piece about the novel was appropriate to the subject matter. It was full of words I never learnt as a child, only much later from teachers and friends. If I had read it in my original accent, it would have sounded false because a listener would realise that those words being spoken in an identifiably lower class accent would never have been spoken in a lower class home. That falseness would have been more distracting than the poshness. In contrast, if someone who had grown up speaking with a Scottish or West Indian accent had read my piece for me, it would be less distracting or not distracting at all because those accents are not in themselves class-related. In middle and upper class Scots and West Indian homes, one also talks about the novel.

To hear the finished podcast, go to

Monday, 5 August 2019

Memory meets De tre vise men of Dalarna

Click on Image to Enlarge

Like death and taxes, memory losses are inevitable. We may swear to ourselves or to someone else that this moment will never be forgotten but it will, even before old age or worse sets in. As psychologists keep trying to tell us, to little effect, our minds constantly reorganise our memories: deleting, mislaying, editing, revising, inventing. Our memory is a bit like Microsoft run amok, improving or weeding to its own satisfaction yesterday’s Word docs while we sleep.

There are things I would like to write about but when I sit down to it, I promptly discover that I remember no more than the file name. Oh, they are splendid file names but standalone they do not make a splendid story.

The objects which pass through our hands perhaps have a bit more success in being there when we want them. It’s true that we lose things, bin them, give them away, forget where we have put them but, still, some survive and often for much longer than the memories which we may hope to find still attached - but don’t.

Today I come across this charming card which has managed to accompany me through many house moves since it was purchased in 1964 - fifty five years ago! The summer of that year - I had just turned seventeen -  I organised for myself a holiday job in Sweden, working in the Hotel Siljansborg situated beside Lake Siljan in the province of Dalarna.

Everyone is familiar with one Dalarna thing: those simple, chunky carved wooden horses painted in bright colours (traditionally red) with simple floral decorations in green, white, blue and yellow - the last two the colours of Sweden’s flag. When I came to the end of my time at the Hotel Siljansborg, I was given one as a leaving present and I still have it.

The carved horses were a portable part of a larger tradition of visual folk art, centred in Dalarna, which flourished in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and which produced painted furniture and wall decorations in which the floral motifs ( the technical name is Kurbits and I was able to google it because I still remembered the word) are always present.

My card has pin holes in the top corners so at one time I must have displayed it. A horizontal banner across the top spells out what the original depicts: De Tre wise man matthei 21 Cap Malat ar 1841 an A L S  ( The Three Wise Men Matthew chap[ter] 21 Painted [in the] year 1841 by A L S ).

Aren’t they splendid? Not a whiff of the Middle East. No donkeys or camels to bring them to the stable, just fine Dalarna horses. The three kneeling figures who could have been modelled on the local priest or lawyer - maybe they were; a rather patrician Joseph and a matronly Mary, her black leather shoes peeking out from under her full skirts. It looks as if having babies is something she takes in her stride.

We are very familiar with the idea that human beings fashion God in their own image; in Dalarna, they imagined the Nativity as something which happened not so long ago and just down the road. But I suspect that their religious beliefs were at least as robust as those of people who were brought up on donkeys, flowing robes, and sandals. But either way, the Dalarna folk artists were thinking rather like those who re-thought Shakespeare as West Side Story.

On the back of the card, the work is titled De tre vise men (modernising the spelling) and given as originating from the small town of Rättvik which provided the postal address for my hotel. Then it gives the current location of the work as the Zornmuseet. That opens a file: one day, during hours off work, I walked to the Anders Zorn museum in Mora. It googles and I am immediately offered a portrait of the artist (1860-1920) which I recognise as one of which I took away a postcard. But though I can google as much of his work as I want, I can’t see the folk art which must also have been in the museum.

I  google a bit more. It is out of the question that I walked. Mora is 37.8 kilometers from Rättvik!

The World Memory finds and opens its files for me in half a second and, once again, forces me to revise my own memory.

I write more about that summer in Sweden in my memoir of childhood, I Have Done This In Secret (degree zero 2018)

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Do The Dead Have Any Rights?

Whatever rights the dead may have, they are secured for them by the living. A man writes a will disinheriting his children; they go to court to have the will set aside and a living judge decides the matter. Another man writes a will endowing a fund out of which lawyers can be paid to defend his reputation against all-comers. But in a jurisdiction where English law prevails, that would be pointless: there is no offence of libelling the dead. Only the living can be libelled. In France, the dead are protected too.

The living grant rights to the dead, no doubt guided very much by what rights they themselves would like to be accorded when they die. Rights for the dead are about anticipation, not retrospection. So in most cultures, maybe all, there are protocols for handling a dead body and disposing of it. Failure to observe those protocols is both shocking and probably a sign of some breakdown of the social order. If the protocols dictate at least a shroud and an individual grave, then something has gone very wrong if naked bodies are tipped into common graves, as often they are in times of plague and war. 

But does it make sense to say that the rights of the dead have been violated in such circumstances? After all, they know nothing of what is going on. And we can understand and criticise what is happening without invoking the language of rights. So, for example, we could say that if we don’t show respect towards the dead, we will soon cease to show respect to the living, to each other. And that is not going to be good news. This argument is a cautionary, prudential one rather than a rights-based one.

It is also the case that the language of rights seems inappropriate where there is constant flux in the protocols which set out the rights of the dead. It is only very recently in my culture that burning bodies has been accepted as an alternative to burying them; even more recently that it has been thought acceptable to harvest vital organs - with or without explicit consent -  from those who may have died only minutes beforehand. It doesn’t seem that “rights” come into it. It looks more like “needs must”.

Nonetheless, we do accord rights to the dead which are quite extensive and sometimes not always explicitly reflected upon. Most of these rights relate to property and reputation. Some deserve to be challenged.

An elderly widow with no children and a great deal of inherited wealth writes a will leaving the whole lot to a donkey sanctuary. She has every right to do so. There is no Public Advocate enabled to go before a judge and argue that the will should be set aside. There is no one who can stand up to say: Your Honour, the reality is that we have far too many donkey sanctuaries; donkeys are being bred to populate them; the sanctuaries are not much more than a lucrative scam for those who promote them. I urge you to divert the late widow’s wealth to the oncology department of her local hospital where, at public expense, she received extensive treatment for several years. It would be right for her estate to be put back into the community from which she took so much. Ditch the fake donkeys, Your Honour!

It would require a revolution in our thinking to find that argument compelling. I would welcome such a revolution, but as things stand, the imagined Public Advocate’s argument is nothing more than an open threat to property rights which - in our minds - are inextricably linked to the idea that those are things which can be passed on. Quite cursory analysis would show that there is really not much of a link between the idea of a property right and the idea of an indefinitely and indefeasibly transmissible property right. A practical demonstration of the distinction between property right and transfer right was once provided in traditional gypsy cultures where both the caravan and its contents were burnt on the death of its owner. But woe betide anyone who had thought to steal from the caravan during the lifetime of its occupant.

So much for property. What about reputation? Here there is a cluster of protocols which create or enshrine rights to externalised memory, to memorials. Someone dies, they are buried, and their grave marked with a tombstone giving name, dates, some personal details and maybe a Commendation, “A Kind Father to all His Children”; “She Loved the Donkeys”. All this involves several financial transactions, none of which guarantee that tombstone in perpetuity. In practice, grave furniture is quickly neglected by those who have paid for it; the weather takes its toll on soft stone; the graveyard fills up - and eventually everything is bulldozed to make way for new graves or simply public green space. The dead are forgotten. No one much minds because the protocol has allowed memory to be gradually, not abruptly, extinguished. Those who mourn have been given their time.

In contrast, when a memorial - a monument - to a dead person is erected in public space, whether at government expense or funded by public subscription, it seems to be some kind of assumption that they thereby acquire a right to stand or sit there, in stone or bronze, in perpetuity. There is no protocol for taking these things down, no equivalent to the protocol which allows graveyards to be cleared out. In the context of lively conflict over statues of controversial figures, it would actually be helpful to develop some kind of intellectual framework which would aid us in deciding when a statue’s lease on public space has run out. 

One criterion might be whether we still remember the name and history of a person memorialised, regardless of whether the memory is fond or hostile. Yes, for most of us, it’s still Nelson on top of the column in Trafalgar Square. But who are those characters who occupy the surrounding plinths? If you can’t so much as name them, why would you want them to remain there, in perpetuity? It’s not as if the hack work of monumental sculpture ever has any artistic interest and only rarely can it claim architectural merit. Without a protocol for removing the upright monumental dead, our urban public spaces are simply doomed to become more and more cluttered by forlorn figures, very rapidly forgotten by us and attracting the interest only of dogs - the reason for plinths in part to protect trouser legs - and pigeons.