Friday, May 20, 2016

Cold War reflections

Here is the text of my latest post in Social and Political Reflections.

Because of renewed tensions between the US and Russia, people talk about a new Cold War, but the current situation is entirely different from the situation which pertained for forty years or so after World War 2, culturally as well as in terms of the geopolitical strategic balance.

The Cold War was clearly a very dangerous time in terms of the risk of a massive nuclear war. But in some other ways maybe it wasn't so bad – compared, that is, to now. It was certainly a more ordered and culturally sophisticated time, quite different from our own.

John le Carré worked for both MI5 and MI6 (i.e. the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service), and his early novels draw heavily on these personal experiences. The tone of the books is dark, but not overwhelmingly so. They depict a shadowy, brutal and morally ambiguous secret world but always against the backdrop of ordinary life, and specifically of the strangely reassuring middle-class world of post-War England and Germany.

A link is provided to an old blog post of mine which was prompted by my reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Introducing my new Collection on social themes

Here is the text of the first post in my Google+ Collection on social and political themes.* [Conservative Tendency continues as usual, but my two new Collections (Social and Political Reflections and Jewish Identity) can be individually followed and so will allow readers to focus on only one or both of these areas as they see fit.]...

Social and political territory is difficult to map in part because it is always dependant on context and point of view and in part because it is always in a state of flux to some extent.

What's particularly interesting about the present time is that things seem not just to be changing (and changing rapidly) but changing in potentially fundamental ways.

The old distinctions between the left and right, for example, are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain – or even make sense of.

A lot of rethinking is called for, that's for sure. And such rethinking is what this new Collection is all about. Over time I will post here new pieces (usually brief and informal) of my own, various things I have written in the past (possibly revised, or at least with an explanatory gloss) and links to pieces which I come across.

We need to be skeptical of political ideology, of course. But we can't escape ideology in the more general sense of a value-laden perspective on the world which guides our social and political judgments and actions.

We can, of course – and sometimes we must – just go with our intuitions.

But some intuitions are better than others. And my strong sense is that the intuitions and opinions of those who think critically about these matters, who recognize alternative perspectives and are interested in – even if they find fault with – the opinions of others, are likely to be both more interesting and more in touch with social and political realities than the intuitions and opinions of those who are not interested in other views.

We need, I think, to engage not just with the thoughts of our immediate contemporaries but also with past thinkers. An historical perspective is often crucial in social and political matters.

Recently at The Electric Agora I had a brief and friendly exchange with someone whose political views (judged by the normal standards) are diametrically opposed to mine. The exchange occurred in the comment thread of a piece I wrote entitled Mixing but Not Matching. He described his own disinclination to follow trends and suggested that it was due in part to personality type. Here is the comment I made in response to his:

'I agree that we seem to see many things similarly, and that much of this is a personality thing and also cultural [rather than being based on a particular ideology or a conscious decision]. Not running with the pack isn’t really based on a decision, is it?

I still think there are decisions to be made, however, and also that there are facts of the matter concerning the nature of human psychology and the scope and limits of social behaviour (even if these facts are difficult to describe or apply directly to political or social thinking). Like you, I don’t see this knowledge as necessarily being scientifically-derived in a strict or even a general sense. It can be intuitive to an extent and/or based on historical knowledge.

As you put it, “we piece together our personal, social, and political beliefs out of experience, deep and wide reading, analysis and, in the end, judgments concerning the viability or consistency of differing positions…” '

I don't know that we can do much more – or better – than this.

* The URL is:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A new Collection on Jewish themes

I am setting up a couple of Collections on Google+, one titled Social and Political Reflections, and the other titled Jewish Identity. These Collections are not intended to replace Conservative Tendency which will continue to operate as normal.

Here is the text of something I posted today direct to Jewish Identity*:

I want to explain what is driving my interest in Jewish identity, history etc..

Ethnic identity is a very vague and often slippery concept. Some people have a relatively clear and simple connection with a single ethnic group but most of us have a lot of flexibility in terms of how we can choose to see or define ourselves in ethnic terms. I am not Jewish but, as so many of the thinkers and writers and filmmakers who have influenced me were Jewish, I have long felt a certain cultural affinity with Jews.

Consequently it came as a pleasant surprise for me to realize a few years ago that a good many of my ancestors were in fact Jews. (I won't try to quantify the proportion: smallish but not insignificant, I would say.)

There are, then, genetic links; moreover it is even possible that certain cultural peculiarities and preoccupations within my father's family were built on forgotten memories. This would be in addition, of course, to the strong – and quite pervasive – historical and religious Hebraic influences on the wider culture.

At any rate, certain family matters now seem to make more sense to me than they did in the past; I only regret that my father died before these things began to fall into place in my mind and I began to take an interest in them.

It took a while for the penny to drop because, at first glance, all my ancestors appear to be boringly British, certainly since about 1800.

I came to learn, however, that some of the names of my recent ancestors, though seemingly British, can indicate Jewish origins, and putting this together with family stories about ancestors coming from France and other clues suggested that a number of lines on my father's side trace back to Jewish communities on the Continent.

In some sections of my family tree, there are small clusters of obviously Jewish names mixed in with the Anglo-Saxon or Norman. My guess is that such patterns would be quite common for people of English ancestry and that similar considerations would apply in respect of many other European peoples.

Of course, some long-established English families have names which indicate Jewish origins, but origins so distant as to be virtually irrelevant from a personal or genetic relatedness (at least in terms of autosomal DNA) point of view. Such families have been Christian for centuries and intermarried with non-Jewish families and so are not in any meaningful sense Jewish. 'Moyse' [deriving from the French form of Moses] is an example from my own family history. The name in our case appears to trace back to a particular merchant (presumably Jewish) associated with a very old building near the centre of an English market town. But, as I say, this was so long ago it is insignificant from a genetic (autosomal DNA) relatedness point of view even if it is an important reminder that Jews have been an integral part of English (as of general European) culture for hundreds of years.

At the moment I am particularly interested in finding out more about the relatively undocumented waves of immigration into Britain which occurred during 17th and 18th centuries.

I have Irish as well as English ancestors, but these lines are less suggestive of a significant Jewish element. There are a couple of interesting Irish possibilities but (as with the English examples) I won't go into detail here.

My intention is gradually to bring together in this recently-opened Google+ Collection my old posts (possibly revised and updated) on Jewish themes, some new posts and external links. We'll see how it goes anyway...


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Joe Blank

E. John Winner talks in a recent post at The Electric Agora about his family surnames. His maternal grandfather (probably Jewish) had lived in various parts of Eastern and Central Europe before coming to America. Here is the story from Winner's essay:

'Nobody knows the name my mother’s father was given at birth. Family legend has it that when he arrived at Ellis Island, the first U.S. official he met could not pronounce his name and left the space on the list blank. The next processing official then wrote down “Joe Blank.” Eventually, by the time he needed to sign a marriage certificate, he was known as “Joe Blanchard.” Now, both “Blank” and “Blanchard,” while not common, can be found as surnames in Eastern Poland. However, there are a couple of problems here. Between Ellis Island and his marriage, he was known as “Blankodoff,” which is not found as a surname anywhere. Further, my grandfather was not Polish. According to the 1925 census, he was Romanian. By the 1930 census, he was Austrian, and in 1940 he was reporting as Russian. To his children, he was Ukrainian, but to his wife he was Hungarian. Since he could speak all of these languages fluently (the only language he had difficulty with was English), there was no linguistic or inflective means of pegging him to any one of these countries. It was generally assumed that he had lived in each of them at some time or other in his youth — a rather shady youth that included some military service, and left him with a pile of money, enough to buy a large farm in Steuben County, New York. (He later lost it all in investments thanks to the Crash of ’29.) We don’t even know exactly when he was born; he was 35 in 1930, by 1940 he was 49. The obituary has him dying at age 79, but my grandmother insisted he was 96. (He had bought her as his bride for 500 acres bottom land, when she was 15, the marriage certificate forged to make her 18.)'

Fascinating stuff. And probably not all that unusual really.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The spirit of the time

Just about every afternoon I have a (usually) quiet coffee at a bar that serves a cinema complex. Today something was up: I have never seen a crowd like this queuing for a film here. Quite a buzz. A movie had touched on something important; it was showing simultaneously on two screens. What was I missing then?

Embrace of the Serpent (Spanish Film Festival). Checked a few reviews. Predictably enough, it is highly political, screamingly anti-colonialist, utterly Romantic (in the original Rousseauian sense), a little bit psychedelic – and very, very spiritual.

Not my cup of tea.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Obama's warning

US President Barack Obama has responded to Boris Johnson's journalistic musings concerning the President's personal feelings about Britain. Johnson had been angered by, and was responding to, the President's strong endorsement of the campaign to keep Britain in the EU.

In his article, Johnson suggested that President Obama, on account of his family background, and specifically his Kenyan heritage, may well have less than positive feelings about the UK and its imperial past. He referred to a story that a bust of Winston Churchill had been removed from the Oval Office at the beginning of Obama's tenure.

The mainstream media came out strongly against Johnson, with accusations of racism, and various sources claiming that the removal of the bust was not Obama's decision at all.

Obama's subsequent comments confirm however that it was his decision.

"When I was elected as President of the United States my predecessor had kept a Churchill bust on the Oval Office. There are only so many tables where you can put busts otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered," he said.

“I thought it was appropriate and I suspect most people here in the UK might agree, that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who had somehow allowed me to have the privilege of holding this office.”

He claims to have warm feelings about Winston Churchill. "I love the guy," he said.

But his remarks also contained a warning about trade links with the US should Britons vote to leave the EU.

The Independent reports:

He said the US would rather the UK remained in the bloc, and said a unilateral free-trade deal between the two countries would not be a high priority for America.

He added that he was merely offering advice to a “friend” and that it was up to the British public which way they voted. [Britain votes on 23 June on whether to stay or leave the bloc.]

Sounds like a threat to me; and a curious one, given that the Obama administration will no longer be in place when decisions about a bilateral deal with a post-Brexit Britain would need to be made. [In the event of a vote to leave the EU, there would be an extended transition period during which Britain would remain within the trading bloc.]

In a piece written immediately after Boris Johnson's initial announcement of his support for the leave campaign, I suggested that his popularity and mainstream credentials could possibly swing the balance of probabilities towards Brexit. But the polls seem to indicate that a majority of Britons still favour remaining in the EU.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Stagflation on the way?

Whilst not necessarily endorsing Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's general approach to economics (too Keynesian for me), I always find his analyses worth reading. In a recent article he sounds a warning about equities and a stalling US economy, addressing the big question about how long disinflationary forces will persist.

What is clear is that the Fed and fellow central banks can do precious little to reverse a chronic decline in productivity. In this respect, we have reached the limits of central bank action.

Fed chief Janet Yellen is in a horrible predicament. She can keep running the economy 'hot' - and by her own admission real rates are 1.25pc below their 'neutral' or Wicksellian level - in a bid to build up momentum.

But in doing this she risks falling behind the curve on inflation, or more accurately 'stagflation', since that is where the US seems headed. She can pick her poison from one side or the other of the 1970s Phillips Curve - jobs or prices - but pick she must. “The longer the Fed dithers, the higher rates are eventually going,” said Paul Ashworth from Capital Economics.

Yellen has a revolt on her hands in any case. The heads of the Atlanta, St Louis, and San Francisco Feds have all been talking up the inflation threat. Even the ultra-dovish Boston chief has gently cautioned markets to expect more than the one solitary rate rise priced in by futures contracts for this year.

The Fed may succeed in stretching this cycle until 2017. But sooner or later it will have to grasp the nettle, and then we will discover how much monetary pain can be taken by a dollarized global economy with post-QE pathologies and total debt ratios some 36pc of GDP higher than in 2008...

There has been a lot of talk about stagflation recently. It seems like it may indeed be coming.

The scariest statement here is the remark by Paul Ashworth: "The longer the Fed dithers, the higher rates are eventually going."

And dithering they have been for years now.

For a slightly different perspective, emphasizing the current global deflationary situation and competitive currency devaluations (but equally critical of the role of central banks), note the latest – very bearish – views of Bob Janjuah of Nomura.