Saturday, August 10, 2019

Sex, schisms and pseudo-scholarship

I have been following – via The Electric Agora and via Twitter (where I maintain a fitful and tenuous personal presence*) – certain recent sex/gender identity debates and, more generally, the internecine conflict between various feminist and other progressive factions. I have not been participating in these clashes and skirmishes. They are not my battles.

I will say here, however, that I support the view (which Daniel Kaufman has articulated through EA articles and through the EA Twitter account) that much psychological and physical harm is being done to children and others, especially in relation to sex/gender “transitioning”. There is no doubt that young children need to be protected from the actions of a group of people who are at once the victims and promoters of a set of extremely muddled ideas about sex and identity.

My criticisms are not just of the arguments being deployed but of underlying assumptions; in fact, of the whole framework of identity politics within which the arguments are deployed. I am inclined to see the ideological splintering as deriving from deep-seated contradictions and flaws within feminism and within progressive and radical thinking more generally. The process is similar to what has happened to churches and other religious groups over the millennia, and also to the splintering which inevitably affects political parties. The more passionate and radical the groups, the more they are subject to internecine strife.

An article by Sonia Zawitkowski
recently got me thinking about these issues again. The article is about standpoint theory which entails a highly politicized approach to knowledge and values. You know the sort of thing: the “oppressors” see everything in distorted, self-serving ways, while oppressed groups tend to see things more truly.

Zawitkowski writes: “[T]he complexity of today’s most controversial social problems coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate means that we need standpoint theory more than ever.”

Do we really? Sure, we need to take account of social situation, self-interest, etc. when assessing people’s opinions (including our own) on various controversial social issues, but we don’t need standpoint theory or any other kind of theory to do this. The whole concept of “theory” when used to refer to intellectual constructs driven by ideology (critical theory, feminist theory, standpoint theory, etc.) is extremely problematic. It is, as I see it, a case of intellectual sleight of hand, rhetorical trickery, the packaging of mere opinion and polemics as scholarship. (Once upon a time scholarship required a commitment to actual research – and scholars were actually respected.)

I have points of agreement with Zawitkowski. She speaks, for example, of “a glaring disregard of the moral and normative nature of [early arguments concerning universal suffrage and the status of women]… There exist rational arguments for and against most egalitarian policies, but ultimately people are arguing for their preferred state of affairs based on their conception of the Good. This necessarily involves the prioritization of different rights, each conferring benefits and drawbacks for different groups.”

It is always unfortunate when values-based and ideologically-driven arguments are presented as if they were not values- and ideology-based.

As I see it, social harmony is a function of the extent to which moral and social values are shared within a population, and the social fragmentation we see today in most Western countries is directly associated with the loss of a shared culture. Ideologically-driven academic theorizing isn’t going to help.

Inevitably, in the sort of situation we are in, bureaucracy and regulation expands and proliferates. This process is both facilitated and justified by the promulgation of narratives developed and approved by various entrenched groups (including teachers and academics). Clumsy legal remedies are sought in areas where previously informal cultural and moral systems did the work. A spare and limited framework of law and regulation supporting the basic prerequisites for ordinary social existence, prosperity and peace is now just a forlorn libertarian dream, or perhaps a distant memory.

* mark_english1

Monday, April 1, 2019

The wisdom of Roman Polanski

The girl on the phone (it's Catherine Deneuve in the film Repulsion if you're wondering) featured in an illuminated hoarding promoting a program of old Roman Polanski films at a local cinema. The image is certainly striking. The old technology (big, old-fashioned receiver with coiled cord) gives this still a weirdness it would not originally have had, but does not make it quaint. There is a wildness in the pose and a confronting directness in the stare.

The accompanying quote (from Polanski) runs: "Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theatre."

Well, yes... Polanski made some great films but this famous remark of his is not a particularly penetrating one. It goes without saying, I would have thought.

I had a look at a list of Polanski quotes and he certainly wasn't averse, it seems, to stating the obvious – e.g. "Films are films, life is life." But then all of us say things like this. The problem for celebrities is that offhand remarks get written down and presented as some kind of wisdom.

The best comments in the collection I looked at were about the crucial importance of attention to detail, and about honesty in dealing with violence.

He also had some interesting things to say about neuroticism. He values certain forms of neuroticism in actors, and seems himself to exhibit neurotic tendencies.

Here he is sounding a bit like Woody Allen:

"Whenever I get happy, I always have a terrible feeling."

I can relate to that.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Radicalism and religion

Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, had been involved with a mystical form of Judaism (possibly Merkabah) before he joined the early-first-century Jewish sect which became (largely through his own writings and missionary activities) a new religion quite distinct from Judaism. Paul knew that his teachings were unacceptable to most devout Jews and would be perceived as utter foolishness by most non-Jews, especially by those educated in classical culture. The Mediterranean world was dominated by the Roman Empire; Koine Greek was the main language of international trade and culture. Paul, as a practising Jew, a Roman citizen and a speaker of Greek, understood – and unequivocally rejected – both classical values and the tribal aspect of Judaism. Arguably, more than any other single figure, he universalized and so cut loose from its ethnic moorings the radical political morality which had become a significant feature of the Judaism of the time.

Though Christianity is now in rapid decline, secularized versions of Biblical ethics and eschatology still flourish and continue to exert a profound influence on moral and political thinking, especially in left-wing and radical circles. Unfortunately these modes of thinking become very problematic if you remove them from the theological context in which they arose. The moral imperatives of the Biblical and Christian world cannot be divorced from the absolute and morally engaged deity who lies at the heart of most Biblical texts without creating major distortions.

What gives force to notions of moral responsibility which go beyond our natural instincts and the requirements of social life? If there is a morally engaged creator-God involved, a God who communicates with us and cares about us, an absolute and demanding Biblical-style morality makes sense. If not, not.

On the Christian view, we are called to feel in some sense responsible for and to truly care about everybody on the planet. And this may be psychologically possible – if one believes in prayer and providence and a beneficent deity.

If you take these radical moral imperatives seriously in the absence of religious belief, however, they create an absolutely crushing and debilitating psychological burden. It is a recipe for cognitive dissonance and worse. Self-protective moral contortions and distortions, compartmentalized thinking, cynicism and hypocrisy are not restricted to the atheistic left but such cognitive and moral aberrations are certainly in evidence in contemporary progressive circles. What’s more, in the absence of actual religion, social and political causes have a tendency to become cults, or at least vehicles for cultish or tribalistic behavior. Activist groups typically involve a strong in-group/out-group dynamic.

Moreover, there is a demonstrable link between radical Western social and political thought and Biblical ethics.

Thinkers with a Jewish background (amongst them Heinrich Heine, Alexander Herzen, Karl Marx, Eduard Bernstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor W. Adorno, Saul Alinsky and Noam Chomsky) have been prominent proponents of radical ideas within the Western tradition, especially over the last two hundred years. It would be naive to attribute their prominence solely to a shared, secularized religious culture. Much can be explained in terms of social and economic history. But it is not unreasonable to see many of these thinkers as having being influenced, directly or indirectly, by the radical morality implicit in certain books of the Hebrew Bible as well as by a sense of belonging to a group with a long history of persecution and resistance.

Many Christian radicals also took their cue from the Bible, of course. Over the centuries, anti-establishment Christian thinkers of all kinds have found inspiration for religious reform and radical politics in both the New and Old Testaments. The New Testament draws heavily on the prophetic and apocalyptic literature of postexilic Judaism. Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is just one of many apocalyptic texts, the vast majority of which were associated not with Christianity but with Judaism. Perhaps the most influential of these was the the Book of Daniel, composed in the second century B.C..

Despite attempts by later thinkers to Christianize them, mainstream classical values stand opposed in quite fundamental ways to the uncompromising moral spirit of the prophetic literature and the New Testament. The contrast between mainstream Greek and Roman philosophy (with its emphasis on reason and moderation) and the apocalyptic literature (with its emphasis on revelation and its often extreme and violent imagery) is even greater.

Many points of difference could be enumerated between the moral attitudes which are evident in these various traditions. The contrasts, however, are not just between Roman and Jewish or Pagan and Christian, but also between specific strands of Judaism or Christianity or Pagan philosophy. The New Testament narratives and other documents of the time make it clear, for example, that not all Jewish religious groups were committed to the values and beliefs of the apocalyptic and prophetic writings. And there were also many assimilated Jews (like Josephus) who took a basically pro-Roman stance.

Nonetheless, the contrast between the early Christian view and the classical view is pretty clear. Drawing on certain strands of Jewish thought, the Christian tradition defined morality or ethics in narrower terms than the classical philosophers. Prudential considerations were excluded (thus the emphasis on self-sacrifice and martyrdom). And moral considerations (in this narrow sense) trump all other kinds of consideration. Also, the Christian view is that we have a direct responsibility not just for our family members, friends and neighbours, but for everybody. My main point is that this style of ethics evolved within the context of a particular system of religious beliefs and, divorced from such a context, it is neither logically compelling nor (and I am speaking from personal experience here) psychologically bearable.

To summarize: I am saying that Western culture has inherited (at least) two very different – and incompatible – ways of conceptualizing and judging human behavior, and that the form peculiar to certain Hebrew and Christian texts in which commonsense and prudential considerations are marginalized or excluded altogether, is only sustainable within a religious framework of some kind. Furthermore, I am suggesting that, in many cases, traces of Biblical morality mark the thinking of people who see themselves as being non-religious and quite unaffected by the Biblical traditions of which I am speaking. This applies particularly in the sphere of radical politics.

I mentioned tribalism. As I see it, we are inveterately tribal creatures, but our tribalism may express itself in different ways. Traditionally it was associated with actual tribes and clans. But the radical moral views of the New Testament led to a tribalism of ideas, beliefs and values totally unconnected with – and in fact inimical to – family and clan loyalties. Radical forms of socialism clearly inherit such notions.

Finally, a brief mention of a couple of specific concepts which are are associated (mainly) with progressivism and the left and which also bear the marks of their religious origins: social justice and human rights.

The rhetoric of social justice has Christian roots but it was also a focus of much secular activism during the 20th century and beyond. In the 1930s the demagogic Charles Coughlin probably did more than anyone else in the United States to popularize the term. But, for him, the concept was still essentially a religious one in the sense that the moral imperatives involved had a religious basis. Remove that basis and you change the concept entirely.

The concept of human rights (taken from the natural law tradition rather than Biblical sources) is also a staple of today’s radical progressivism. Activists find the rhetoric of human rights extremely useful in pursuing their political goals. Few however have any interest in or commitment to the underlying metaphysics. Again, the result is unfortunate: conceptual confusion and a loss of meaning and coherence. As rights inflation has inexorably taken hold, the emptiness and absurdity of many of the claims being made becomes increasingly evident.

[This is a slightly revised version of an essay published at The Electric Agora.]

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Political narratives

Unless we postulate an all-seeing, all-judging God, there is no one true narrative about any person or sequence of social events we care to specify. For each case, there are countless possible narratives or variations of narratives which could be seen to fit the facts. Much of the variation is value-framework related. Different assumptions regarding moral priorities will produce different interpretations of events, and so different stories.

Personal and ideological narratives are an inevitable part of life, but they should always be seen as highly provisional. Science and reason and common sense can effectively identify false or pathological narratives, those that just don’t fit the facts or which incorporate values which are incompatible with social existence; but science and reason cannot adjudicate on most questions of value. Consequently we are left with a plethora of more or less plausible but incompatible narratives.

The tradition of classical liberal thinking in the West could cope with this, to a point. It was not geared to prescription or thought control, but was focused on providing a space for (a certain amount of) individual privacy and freedom of thought and action via institutional structures which would allow individuals and groups to interact in productive ways.

F.A. Hayek was a significant 20th-century thinker who tried to crystallize these ideas into an explicit ideology. He emphasized such things as spontaneous order and individual freedom, and he had an entirely process-based notion of justice. Many of his ideas I find persuasive. But my suspicion is that it is a precondition for this kind of liberal polity to work that there be a common culture in place (as there was, in fact, in the world Hayek knew).

We are now in a very different world, having lost, or being in the process of rapidly losing, that common culture and the shared narratives which supported it. Indicative of these changes is the fact that political and legal institutions which once seemed more or less adequate are no longer effective and no longer respected.

Conservative thought (and, significantly, Hayek did not see himself as a conservative) has always been wary of ideologically-driven thinking. For the conservative, the context is crucial, and every context is different. Consequently, the only general prescriptions which are seen to have any worth are cautionary rather than positive. For example, conservatives typically emphasize the inevitability of unintended consequences of political actions. Positive prescriptions need to be tailored to the specific circumstances involved, and based on judgment honed by experience.

Such an outlook can easily lead to a certain detachment and political quietism. I don’t know that this is necessarily such a bad thing. Activists do harm as well as good. It’s well to be aware, at least, that powerful cultural, social and economic forces, well beyond the scope of a human brain to grasp or fully understand, are always in play.

Politically the best we can hope to do, as I see it, is to incorporate small aspects of this vast churning process into plausible narratives so that we may understand these aspects of reality in terms of our own personal value systems and so respond in more or less coherent and meaningful ways.

Narratives can be group-based or individual; they operate on different levels. There are meta-narratives and there are stories focused on particular incidents or individuals. There are private narratives and public narratives (political myths).

Fact-based testing cannot be applied directly to meta-narratives and political myths except to the extent that such myths make specific historical claims. These specific claims can, of course, be tested.

I learned a lesson early in my blogging career about not allowing a convenient meta-narrative to drive one’s thinking about a particular incident.

A local resident, an Iranian immigrant who had converted to Christianity, disappeared. Her Iranian husband talked to the press about threats she had received from extremists, and it was generally thought (and I went along with this) that she had been abducted and perhaps murdered by these extremists. The story played into a well-known meta-narrative about Muslim apostates being punished by the wider Islamic community. If such an abduction (and killing) had happened in the manner in which it was alleged, it would have been a big international story.

It turned out, however, that the woman’s husband had killed her and buried her body in the back garden. What happened certainly did not reflect well on aspects of Iranian and Muslim culture, but it was basically a sad, tragic, personal story without clear political implications.

One meta-narrative (or set of meta-narratives) with geopolitical implications which is depressingly compatible with many observed facts in today’s world relates to the notion that the political system has been corrupted by a system of patronage based around the military-industrial complex and (elite levels of) the political, intelligence and media establishments. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spelled out the dangers in his farewell address to the American public in 1961, and since that time much evidence has accumulated of endemic corruption at the highest levels of government, much of it associated with the arms trade and other “national security” issues.

Meta-narratives can help to make sense of events. They can also encourage confirmation bias, as inconvenient facts are ignored or twisted to fit preconceived ideas. They also play another role: they facilitate communication between those who share the same general framework, while at the same time preventing effective communication between those whose frameworks are different. My distrust of and lack of respect for all but a few mainstream media outlets sometimes make it difficult for me to communicate with people who trust the sources I reject.

This brings me back to my point about a liberal society being dependent on the existence of common frameworks which cut across social divisions. The spectacular failure of public discourse which we are currently witnessing could be seen to be a direct consequence of the lack of common narratives which transcend class and tribal-political boundaries.

A voice from the past underscores the points I am making. Paul Volcker’s politics are not my politics, but he does not see things in a narrowly ideological way.

He is a Democrat, and was at one time an economic advisor to President Obama. He is remembered as the Federal Reserve chair who raised interest rates to very high levels to counter high and persistent inflation in the early 1980s.

Volcker is now 91 and very ill, maybe dying. He recently talked to the New York Times. He sees “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions.

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone,” he says. “Even respect for the Federal Reserve.”

“And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But I don’t know, how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

America is developing into a plutocracy: “There is no force on earth that can stand up effectively, year after year, against the thousands of individuals and hundreds of millions of dollars in the Washington swamp aimed at influencing the legislative and electoral process.”

Here is one meta-narrative at least upon which the left and the principled right can agree.

[This article was first published at The Electric Agora.]

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

China's rise and the US dollar

In a recent podcast interview Louis-Vincent Gave talked about the impending showdown between China and the United States, suggesting that China has a better than even chance of success in their attempts to combat the hegemony of the US dollar.

At the heart of China’s strategy is the Belt and Road Initiative (see map below) which Gave presents as a straightforwardly imperial project. The Roman Empire was at its core a road-building exercise, the roads being designed to facilitate trade and tie the regions into a mutual dependency relationship with the imperial hub. In the Eurasia region, increasingly at any rate, all roads lead to Beijing.

Gave also mentions the new Shanghai oil futures contract (which is priced in renmimbi but is also tied to gold). After six months of operation it now accounts for 14% of the global market. It is just one of many instances of international trading structures being set up which bypass the US dollar.

The United States has only been able to sustain its increasingly debt-dependent government spending programs because the current US dollar-centric global financial system created an artificial demand for US Treasury securities. Rising yields, even at a time of turmoil in emerging markets, would appear to indicate that demand is waning. Gave admits that he expected yields to fall as safe-haven assets like US Treasurys were sought. He believes that rising US government deficits have spooked investors to the extent that US government debt is no longer seen as the safe-haven asset it once was.

If these trends continue over the medium term, US standards of living will inevitably fall. They have fallen a lot already, putting stresses on the social fabric and on political institutions.

Many senior politicians and bureaucrats are aware that America’s prosperity has been dependent for decades on the privileged status of the US dollar. There is a real risk that they will seek to defend the monetary and financial status quo by military means.

The concerns of the Chinese leaders are slightly different. They know that time is on their side and so would be less likely to initiate military conflict. They are aware, however, that if their domestic economy falters social cohesion is at risk. They know they are in an economic slowdown at the moment but apparently believe that it will be manageable.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Do many common East Anglian surnames indicate Jewish ancestry?

I wrote an earlier post incorporating material from some emails I received from a resident of East Anglia about the Jewish presence in England and Wales which dealt with affinities between dissenters and Jews. That post was mainly about Wales; this one (based on information from the same informant) is focused on East Anglia.

My informant – who has Jewish ancestors himself and whose home town is near the Norfolk/Suffolk border – talked about the demographics of his area, alluding (for example) to former East London families who were resettled there in the 1950s. But his main interest is in long-standing residents of the wider region. Noting the history of towns in the area as wool and cloth trading centres closely tied to the Hanseatic League of northwestern and central Europe, he spoke of “classic medieval Semitic faces” resembling (as he put it) “the church gargoyles which I have always believed to be an early example of anti-Semitism, as are most […] representations of Satan.”

These speculative and impressionistic observations raise interesting questions about the identification of Jews with the demons of conventional religion.

Most forms of anti-Semitism, however, were less extreme, and Jewish stereotypes have varied from place to place and from time to time. The medieval view was different from modern stereotypes. (In the Middle Ages, Jews were normally depicted as having red hair, for example.)

My East Anglian informant notes that historically there was a high proportion of nonconformists (or dissenters) in the local population. Amongst them at one time was my great-great-grandmother, Caroline Sturgeon, who was born in the village of Coney Weston in Suffolk.

Was Sturgeon originally a Jewish name? I suspect so, but my evidence is circumstantial. The fish in question is mainly known as a source of caviar, but the flesh is also eaten. Sturgeon flesh was popular, especially amongst European Jewish communities, despite doubts concerning its kosher status. There was, in fact, a bitter dispute about the fish between orthodox and conservative Jews during the 19th century.

What’s more, some of our Sturgeons had very unusual Old Testament-based given names.

There are still Sturgeons in the area, and Hinderclay church has Sturgeon burials. Winfarthing churchyard was also mentioned as having a lot of Anglo-Jewish names. (“Perhaps as trades people there were sufficient funds to afford the burials skewing the apparent ratio proportions to general population.”)

One reason for the relatively high proportion of nonconformists amongst the local population in past centuries was that the immigration of professional weavers from Flanders and Wallonia was encouraged. They mostly belonged to nonconformist Protestant sects and many would have had Jewish origins. They were known locally as “strangers”. (See the history of Strangers’ Hall in Norwich.)

I referred in my previous post to George Eliot’s novel, Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe. The main character – from the North of England – travels to the Midlands. He is presented as having an alien appearance and as belonging to a dissenting sect. And his mother’s given name was Hephzibah.

Richard Cobbold’s Biography of a Victorian Village was recommended to me. It describes the Suffolk village of Wortham circa 1860 and includes details of each family and their means of living.

According to my informant, most of the shop surnames in his area were English names which are known to be commonly indicative of Jewish origins. (Most of them, he said, appear on a list which I published some time ago.)

And so to the East Anglian names he happened to mention in his letters (apart from Sturgeon)…

“Bird names Crow(e), Bird, Swan, Heron, Starling, Dove, Finch and Wren are in my experience wholly Jewish.”

Also noted as local families claiming Jewish ancestry were Raven, Eagle, Sparrow, Partridge and Crane.

Harries was also mentioned as Jewish and Simmonds (which is another name in the East Anglian branch of my family) as probably Jewish.

My correspondent also listed some other names which (he said) might be worth looking at. I haven’t had time to check them yet, but my first thought is that most of these names would probably not have any significant Jewish connections. But I may be wrong. The names are: Bradbury, Bradley, Bush, Clarke, Comer, Flowerdew, Fuller, Hines, Ives, Leeder, Mills, Oakes, Potter, Scoggins, Strudwick, Ward and Wright. Also mentioned were three other bird names: Drake, Gosling and Nightingale.

If you have any thoughts on any of this, please don’t hesitate to comment or send an email (engmar3 at gmail dot com).

Monday, June 18, 2018

Jews and Dissenters in England and Wales

A correspondent with Jewish ancestors who lives in East Anglia and has family connections to Wales has provided some fascinating information about the Jewish presence in England and Wales as well as offering speculations about the significance of particular surnames. This is the first of (probably) several posts summarizing the main points of our discussion.

One recurring theme was the possible links between Jews and nonconformists (or dissenters from the established Church of England). My correspondent told of an encounter with a Welsh-born woman who had been raised "chapel" (i.e. as a nonconformist Christian) but who was, in effect, a crypto-Jew. Crypto-Jews were common especially amongst Sephardic populations, but I was surprised that the phenomenon persisted in Great Britain until well into the 20th century. This Welsh woman had been outwardly conforming to the standard (Christian) culture of her environment, but was well aware of her Jewish origins. She recalled that after Sunday school at her chapel, the pastor (who was obviously Jewish himself) had given her extra lessons so that she could "carry the torch" of Jewish lore, religion and identity to the next generation.

It is well-known that some synagogues were built in the Welsh chapel style; but it seems that even some Christian chapels had strong Jewish links.

Some of my ancestors were Pembers. George Hawkins Pember was not a direct ancestor but he came from precisely the same part of England as my Pembers – the cathedral city of Hereford (which is, as it happens, only 16 miles from the Welsh border). G.H. Pember was a theologian and religious author associated with the Plymouth Brethren. A scholar of Hebrew, his focus was on Old Testament prophesies etc.. I suspect that the Pembers were originally Jewish and that the name may derive from the Jewish name, Pemper. This is speculative however.

I am reminded here also of George Eliot's novel, Silas Marner, which I have written about previously. The word 'Jew' isn't mentioned but Silas is depicted as having an alien appearance and he has stereotypically Jewish traits. He is a weaver, and (as I will be discussing in a subsequent post) Jews were strongly associated with the textile business. He doesn't attend church and is totally unfamiliar with the rites and rituals of the Church of England. He is portrayed as belonging not to a specifically Jewish community but to a weird religious sect on the fringes of society. The author later wrote the novel, Daniel Deronda, which explicitly deals with the problems faced by Jews in Victorian times.

[Llanelli Synagogue was built in typical Welsh chapel style.]