Monday, September 19, 2016

Geopolitics and the US presidential election

"Could fear of Trump rattle Stoics, while fear of death finds no purchase?”

Dwayne Holmes was alluding to self-styled Stoic Massimo Pigliucci's readiness – in the face of the possibility of a Trump presidency – to endorse over-the-top, emotion-driven political analysis. There is certainly a lot of panic in liberal and progressive circles.

Here Holmes summarizes his own take on the upcoming election:

“We are down to haggling over whether it is a moderate pro-business southern Democrat (aka conservative) or extreme right wing ... reality TV star [and] pro-business conservative who sits in the office. Both are hawks (with Trump more blustery but less hawkish) …”

He is right in that Trump is certainly less hawkish in terms of foreign policy. Trump is not a neocon.

On the issue of conservatism and the left/right divide you’d have to say that these terms are getting more difficult to apply in the normal way. This is partly because across the Western world a lot of people – including many traditional conservatives, classical liberals and previously apolitical folk – are becoming disgusted with the status quo and so are voting or threatening to vote for candidates outside the mainstream or otherwise in quite radical ways (e.g. Brexit).

Hillary Rodham was a keen Goldwater supporter before she went to Wellesley College and was introduced to left-wing thought. She wrote her senior thesis on Saul Alinsky. But she certainly seems to have moved away from Alinsky’s ideas (apart perhaps from his ideas on lying). She is a neocon and supported by neocons. But many conservatives now clearly hate the neocons and are strenuously resisting their foreign policy prescriptions.

Why is it that President Dwight D. Eisenhower's prescient warnings about the American military-industrial complex (often now conceptualized in terms of the broader concept of the deep state) are only now becoming mainstream in conservative circles? The reasons are complex but certain things stand out.

For one thing, the recent track record of American interventions has been quite disastrous. But, more importantly, associated with these failures has been a loss of confidence in America's future prospects in terms both of prosperity and (partly as a consequence of this) of geo-strategic power. The centre of gravity of the world's wealth is reverting to a more normal historical pattern, balanced between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. There even seems a real prospect that the West is entering a period not just of relative decline in economic and social terms but of actual decline. And, of course, those overseeing this difficult period – the promoters and implementors of recent and current financial, monetary and foreign policies in the West – have lost or are rapidly losing credibility.

My main concerns regarding this election are geopolitical. Clinton’s general foreign policy orientation (and she has form on this front, remember) strikes me as a greater danger to world peace than Trump’s.

And if she has serious health problems (as appears increasingly likely), that would only add to the danger/instability. I could easily imagine a situation in which, if her health holds out until the election and there are no more ill-timed coughing fits or physical stumblings and she manages to get elected, that she would be not be at all inclined to step aside in favour of the Vice-President even in the face of very serious health concerns.

There is at least one precedent of this happening in America: Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke and stayed in office. And there have been many cases in other countries. Some occurred in the old Soviet Union. There was, for example, Leonid Brezhnev who had severe arteriosclerosis which affected his speech and other aspects of neurological functioning. His immediate successors were almost as bad but didn't take so long to die.

And then, of course, there was the sad case of the bloated-looking and alcohol-fuelled Boris Yeltsin in post-Soviet Russia.

Clinton would be more Brezhnev than Yeltsin, you'd have to say.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No more politics?

[This piece was posted earlier today in my Google+ collection, Social and Political Reflections.]

I'm beginning to question the wisdom of writing about and giving my personal views on politically contentious issues. For one thing, speaking out is socially disadvantageous. In fact, I have more than once lost a good friend because they read something I wrote with which they strongly disagreed.

There is, of course, a downside to most activities. But where, I am wondering, is the upside here? What is the point of my sticking my neck out on political themes? It's not as if I really expect people to be persuaded to my point of view.

On the other hand, it may be that such ideological reflections do have a point and purpose, albeit one which is difficult precisely to discern or define. It may be in fact that they have more significance than just about any other form of discourse because they are centrally concerned with human values (and so with the motive force of human actions). Even if something I say makes only the slightest difference to how you see the world, your subsequent thoughts and actions will be different from how they would have been without that influence, will they not? The difference may be miniscule, but in complex systems – brains, societies – even small differences can sometimes become very significant.

I suspect, however, that contentious values-based issues are best approached obliquely rather than head on. Perhaps very obliquely.

I never was much into polemics (which nonetheless has its place in the scheme of things); my style has been more 'thinking out loud'. Only now I am reconsidering what to 'think out loud' about.

I am usually careful in a casual social context not to be too outspoken. When you talk to a person or group you tailor what you say to that audience, taking account of their responses, etc.. But with written communication, you don't have that kind of control.

When you write something and make it publicly available the audience is largely invisible and its nature unknown. Moreover, you don't usually get a chance to correct misunderstandings or clarify, something which happens as a matter of course in normal conversational exchanges.

A crucial thing about social and political values is that they are largely subjective. We may feel that our point of view is totally compelling. It is compelling to us. But objectively speaking?

Though some aspects of social and political value systems can be set out and objectively assessed, in the end no objective assessment can rank competing systems or – except in the case of hopelessly implausible systems – make definitive judgments. Ideology is just not the sort of thing that can be laid out clearly or definitively assessed.

In the light of these considerations, I am – as an experiment – adopting a new strategy of self-censorship on contentious ideological matters. The intention is to refrain from expressing political views and to keep the focus on the non-ideological side of things.

How will this decision affect my personal sites? It will mean that I will probably be posting mainly to my other general collection – Language, Logic, Life – in preference to this one, and reposting most or all of that material to (the Blogger blog) Language, Life and Logic.

My other blog, Conservative Tendency, finds itself at least for the time being, like this collection, in limbo.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jonathan Miller's view of life

I said I might follow up on Jonathan Miller, having posted a couple of weeks ago a segment of an old TV interview in which he talked about his Jewishness. There he was basically saying that he asserts it only in the face of anti-Semitism, and also that he was not religiously Jewish. (Apparently, he gave up on the religious side of things as he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, which in the end never took place).

When he was interviewed by Ben Silverstone in 2006, Miller was saying the same things about his Jewishness as he had been a quarter of a century earlier. But it's clear that he had become more embittered over the intervening years, convinced that he had not been given his due (as a director, say) as well as exhibiting more regrets about giving up the practice of medicine.

A number of things struck me, most notably his commitment to the ideas (mainly his views on religion and social issues, I suspect) of Bertrand Russell. Miller's father (who later became a noted psychiatrist) had studied philosophy at Cambridge before World War I and Jonathan inherited his father's library which included works by Russell.

Miller -- I think unfortunately -- made a bigger deal than Russell did of rejecting religion. For Russell this was primarily a personal decision whereas Miller sees religion as an evil social force which must be actively resisted.

I am also out of sympathy with Miller's left-wing social and political views. His children were sent to the local comprehensive, described by his son as a "war zone".

Russell had some decidedly dodgy ideas on education, and made (or lent his name to) some extreme political statements, particularly in his old age as a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and associated groups. But generally I think his social and political views were more nuanced than Miller's.

I won't talk about Miller's activism on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel. I have never lived in the region and I prefer to steer clear of these sorts of discussions. Both sides have done bad things.

In three main respects I am on the same page as Miller: I share his respect for scientific knowledge and achievement, his rejection of metaphysics, and his fascination with ordinary human behaviour.

Miller says: "On the whole, the best works of literature simply address the tiny, quotidian questions - what happens when you get up? What stops you not going to bed earlier? In neurology, you’re also looking at the peculiar, anomalous ways in which patients do what they do: deficits, failures to say what they wished to say. In both neurology and theatre, subtle observation of what appear to be negligible details turns out to be the name of the game: that’s where the payload is."

I agree. Certainly there is no way we can get answers to those old, traditional metaphysical questions about purpose and meaning. The best we can do is muddle through, understanding the little we can and cherishing, if possible, the uncertainty and fragility of human life.

At the time of the interview, Miller was directing a production (in Michael Frayne's strange but wonderful translation) of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov, he points out, was a doctor also. Miller also mentions Flaubert in this regard (but not Somerset Maugham who -- though he too was trained as a physician and was an acute observer of mundane human behaviour -- was probably not ideologically sound from Miller's point of view, being rather conservative). Frankly, I think medical training is much less relevant to observational capacities than Miller is making out.

According to Miller, great literature is simply about "what it's like to get from one end of a life to another". This sounds about right. Seriousness and triviality are inevitably intertwined.

The Cherry Orchard, Miller explains, "ends with a short scene depicting the aged footman, Firs, locked into a freezing house, left alone, apparently to die, after the departure of the entire Gayev household for the winter."

In Michael Frayn’s translation, Firs’s final words read...

“My life’s gone by, and it’s just as if I’d never lived at all. I’ll lie down for a bit, then… No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing… Oh you… sillybilly…”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jewish identity and assimilation

[Latest post in my Google+ Jewish Identity Collection:]

Jonathan Miller is one of those multi-talented people whose stars shone brightly for a time but then faded, leaving a sense, perhaps, of promise unfulfilled. I know that Miller has expressed some regrets about the course his life has taken. He sees himself, I think, primarily as an intellectual and a man of science rather than identifying fully with the areas in which he has spent the most time working and for which he is mainly known (entertainment and the arts).
At the time he gave this interview [see video] his star was shining bright. The excerpt deals specifically with the theme of Jewishness. Miller defends Jews who, like himself, choose to assimilate. Though a number of his statements are strong and unequivocal, I'm not sure that his overall position, as expressed here, is entirely clear or consistent (especially on the issue of "solidarity"). But then perhaps a degree of ambiguity and even inconsistency is inevitable when we are dealing with the thorny issue of Jewish identity.

I agree with most of the points that Miller makes. Assimilating Jews are all too often seen by other Jews as betraying their heritage. I understand the reasons for this but, like Miller, I think it's nonsense to talk about betrayal.

I don't know the details, but all of my most recent Jewish ancestors took an assimilatory path. On what grounds could we deem their decisions to be wrong or unfortunate? They made their choices on this and many other (often more important) matters: it just seems inappropriate for others to pass judgment.

If one believes in the basic tenets of Judaism (however they might be understood), then – sure – it may seem unfortunate that someone born into this faith decides to renounce it. I know that Judaism is not a creedal religion like Christianity is, but (as I see it) it only really makes sense as a religion if it is seen to incorporate certain beliefs (for example – and most importantly – that the God of the Bible is real in more than a mythical, symbolic or psychological sense). Miller also sees the issue in these terms apparently. He says he can't accept "the creed".

If you set aside Judaism there are still of course many valuable things which could be seen to characterize modern Jewish culture (or, more accurately, cultures). Intellectualism, respect for learning and education, a certain kind humour... One could easily extend the list. But I don't see how one could find in such things a compelling, unifying force, something strong and coherent enough to hold all those with Jewish ancestors together as a people going forward.

A shared history of oppression? Yes, Jews have often suffered discrimination and oppression, but these experiences varied from place to place and from time to time. And not all Jews suffered in this way. It is not a defining feature of being Jewish (as being associated with Judaism is).

It would be interesting to know if Miller's views changed as he got older. I may follow up on this.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Assimilating Jews in England and Ireland

A few more thoughts on Jewish migration to Britain [from my Google+ Collection, Jewish Identity]. My focus (for personal reasons) is on those who made the move before the middle of the 19th century.

One point I want to raise relates to a topic that came up recently in a comment on my blog post 'English Jewish surnames'. A commenter mentioned that his/her gentile great-grandfather had been lodging with a Jewish family in Birmingham and married a daughter of that family. They moved to Hertfordshire and became Christian spiritualists.

My speculation is that assimilating Jews were often drawn to nonconformist or marginal sects rather than mainstream churches. The 19th-century novelist George Eliot had a sympathetic interest in Jews, and explicitly wrote about them in Daniel Deronda. But I am also thinking of an earlier book of hers, Silas Marner. The book doesn't mention Jews or Judaism but the main character is obviously being presented as a Jew. I won't go into detail but he is described as having an alien appearance and as belonging to a slightly weird, quasi-Christian sect and as being unfamiliar with the rituals of the Church of England. He is a weaver by trade. (Jews were often involved in textile-related businesses, including weaving.)

Another point... Russell is a Norman name and one would normally expect families with this name to trace their roots back to the Norman invaders of the 11th century. But, in following up some Russell ancestors of mine, I came across a reference (in a book called The Families of County Dublin) to some Russells who lived in Dublin in the 18th century and who were merchants and weavers. Significantly, they were neither Catholics nor Episcopalians (the majority of Irish people were Catholic and there was a large Episcopalian minority). These Russells were Quakers.

There were also some notable Russells who were very active in Cork, merchants most of them. At least one was a draper. Some had links with Lisbon and one at least had business interests in (and travelled to) Brazil. This suggests to me that they were Sephardic Jews who had Portuguese roots, and that they may have simply adopted the name Russell and may not have had any connection to the Normans at all. (Russell is sometimes said to be a possible Sephardic name, but I don't have reliable information on this.)

Alternatively Portuguese Jews could have married into an established Russell family of that region, but I have found no evidence of this.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The case of the missing cuff-link

In their manifesto, the people behind the libertarian website Zero Hedge argue that anonymous speech plays an essential role in maintaining our freedoms. I wouldn't disagree with this, but I am a bit ambivalent about some aspects of online anonymity and the widespread use of pseudonyms. They have a place, but anonymity and pseudonymity are arguably being overused today and are all too often providing cover for wild and/or irresponsible and/or careless and/or crass content and commentary.

Strangely enough, however, the craziest articles at Zero Hedge are not from 'Tyler Durden' so much as from reprinted content from certain named, usually well-known – and often slightly unhinged – conspiracy theorists.

The site itself is fun. And useful, so long as you take most of what is said with a grain of salt.

And don't bother reading the comments. Unmonitored (as befits a libertarian site), but generally tedious and vulgar.

Here however is a little gem from a recent thread. It's witty, and could be seen – in an oblique and enigmatic sort of way – to be relevant to some of the wacky thinking (especially the technical analysis) that you often see on the site. Just two sentences from Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark...

"A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”

Beautiful, no?

Monday, June 27, 2016


[Just up on my Google+ Collection, Social and Political Reflections...]

Political and financial predictions are notoriously – and necessarily – unreliable, but we often have to make them and act on them. This is especially so for those who depend on investments for a large part – or all – of their income.

Predictions about the direction of stock market indices, property prices, interest rates, etc. are much harder to get right than predictions about the outcomes of elections or referenda. The former (like typical referenda and many elections) may involve a simple binary choice but – unlike elections and referenda – they are not tied to a timetable. So bubbles and other market distortions can persist for long periods of time. Timing is crucial for investment, but the best one can hope for in this regard is to get one's timing approximately right. [1]

Political risk is one of the things that makes financial predictions so problematic – and we are seeing a lot of it about these days.

Politics, one might say, is an unfortunate necessity. [2] Really, it's just about – or should be about – the boring business of organizing an institutional and legislative framework which allows large numbers of people to live together in a reasonably cooperative way. But it's also a very human thing, being utterly dependent on basic human attitudes, especially trust: trust in one another, and trust in the powers that be.

Recent events have amply demonstrated that both the US establishment and the EU establishment have lost the trust of (a majority of) the people. Add to that social divisions – the result of economic hardship and cultural changes (arguably compounded in some jurisdictions by large-scale immigration) – and you have a recipe for trouble. [3]


[1] I have been expecting a bear market in stocks for more than two years now. It may finally be upon us. But I have been dead wrong about Treasury bills and bonds, etc. (yields just keep dropping!). I know there is supposed to be an inverse relationship between stock and bond prices but (like many others) I see a bubble in both.

[2] The phrase is in my mind because a short commentary of mine on a fascinating episode of an old Canadian television panel discussion series is about to appear at The Electric Agora. The main question the panel addressed was: Is spying an unfortunate necessity?

[3] I know the immigration issue is a sensitive one, and there is a lot of xenophobia about, but it is wrong to accuse everyone who questions the wisdom of large-scale immigration of bigotry or racism. This is part of the problem, in fact. Many years ago Enoch Powell was forced out of British politics when he argued strongly against his country's immigration policies. The subject was taboo and it still is in certain circles. Why can't we just talk sensibly about these things?