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.]

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Orwell again

Referencing George Orwell's 1984, Gerald Warner comments on cultural changes in the United Kingdom which mirror similar changes in other Western countries. I agree with the gist of what he is saying but I think it is best said without using the terms 'Marxism' and 'cultural Marxism' in the way that he does – too loosely. As he uses the terms, they are almost semantically empty.

"Political correctness – the euphemism for cultural Marxism – has colonized almost every corner of life in Britain. The social assumptions and public discourse, as well as the legal framework, have become Marxist. Genuine free speech is now an historical memory.

"One can only marvel at the prescient accuracy of George Orwell’s dystopian warnings in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Thought crime is today called “hate crime”; Newspeak is the constipated, hideous neologisms of PC language. People have begun to police their own speech; formerly articulate individuals now have a hesitant delivery as they negotiate the pitfalls of an ever-expanding minefield of taboos."

(From his article, "Marx is winning", Reaction, May 15, 2018.)

Monday, May 7, 2018

A Parkinson's playlist

This is an abridged version of an essay of mine which appeared recently at The Electric Agora.

It's well-known that music can play a positive role in dealing with such conditions as Parkinson's disease and depression.

My mother has been struggling with a range of medical problems (including Parkinson's disease, severe depression and dementia) for some time. She has lived in a care home for six years now. Her concentration span is limited and she finds speaking increasingly difficult. But music remains important to her. She had some early classical training on the piano but her main passions as a young person – apart from movies – were dancing and pre-rock-and-roll American popular music.

When I visit her, mostly in the evening, there is not a lot of talk, no dancing, and no television (apart from ten or fifteen minutes of news). Music is the main entertainment. I play recordings which I know she likes mixed in with others which I think she might like: a bit of classical piano music (Mozart's sonata K. 331 is a favorite), but mainly popular songs. Certain themes and moods (e.g. love, loyalty, steadfastness, defiance) and certain styles and tempi (simple and slow) tend to resonate.

My mother is a fighter. She has been written off many times by medical professionals over the years but has always managed to rally and come back from the brink. It’s sheer determination that keeps her going. The topic of funeral arrangements came up recently. I told her not to think about it; my brother and I would deal with any arrangements. Then she said she wanted me to arrange things (as she put it) “so that I don’t die.” I said I would do my best.

Not surprisingly the Puccini aria “Nessun dorma”, which ends with that marvellously defiant “vincerò” (“I will prevail”), works for her – the Mario Lanza version, at any rate.

We know we won’t prevail in the end. Though battles are won, we are fated to lose the war. We live as if this were not the case; as if victory were possible. But love and loyalty exist, and this fact stands between us and dark despair.

Generally I choose less emotionally extreme pieces than “Nessun dorma” – popular love songs, the sort of music you could dance to, ballroom-style, certain forms of jazz.

George and Ira Gershwin's “Love is Here to Stay”, as sung by Gene Kelly, is simple, straightforward and reassuring.

Results can be unexpected. Happy songs – especially if they are known and remembered – don’t always have the desired effect. "On the Sunny Side of the Street", a song my mother used to sing, once brought on a crying episode.

By contrast, “My Funny Valentine” (early Frank Sinatra version) always gets a good response. Another old Sinatra song which she responds well to is “Nancy (with the laughing face)."

Another favorite is (the long version of) “These Foolish Things”, as performed by Jane Birkin and Jimmy Rowles. Philip Larkin, the English writer and jazz-lover, thought the song a bit too self-consciously poetic, but he liked it nonetheless (at least as performed by Billie Holiday). Part of what gives the song its strength for me is that it involves real memories of a real love affair.

The lyricist was Eric Maschwitz, an Englishman who became involved with the Chinese-American film actress, Anna May Wong. Some of the memories sound like romantic clichés, but many are believably specific: a cigarette with traces of lipstick; airline tickets to romantic places; a tinkling piano in the next apartment; a telephone left ringing; first daffodils; long excited cables [telegrams were charged by the word and could be quite expensive]; the sigh of midnight trains in empty stations; gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow; silk stockings; wild strawberries (“only seven francs a kilo”); Greta Garbo’s smile; a waiter whistling as the last bar closes; the scent of smouldering leaves; the wail of steamers...

Not being a musician, and being very language-oriented, I tend to see the lyrics as primary. The music is the setting. It enhances the words (or not, as the case may be).

I can’t say exactly how my mother perceives these songs, but I know that the cultural world in which she grew up – dominated by Hollywood and British movies and the popular songs of the time constitute a significant part of – and color much of the rest of – her memory base. The sense of outrage and loss she felt as a teenager when her mother found and disposed of a box of cuttings and photographs from movie magazines (like Film Fun) which she had hidden in her room stayed with her for years.

Once when she was in hospital a few years ago during a bout of pneumonia and very close to death, she said that she had been visited by Eddie Cantor. We thought she was hallucinating – until we encountered a young psychiatrist who had been assigned to her. He had very thick rimless glasses which made his eyes look prominent.

Even now memories of movies and actors and singers and dancers from that period are still active for her – singers like Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore, for example. She had a crush on Tyrone Power, and had a special interest in French actors working in Hollywood: Annabella (who was married to Tyrone Power), Simone Simon, Michèle Morgan and – her two favorite Frenchmen – Charles Boyer and Jean Gabin.

French songs or singers were generally not so familiar to her. But Blossom Dearie's version of “Plus je t'embrasse” typifies the ideal kind of song for my Parkinson’s playlist. It’s light and bright and jazzy. This kind of music – like the music of Mozart – conveys a reassuring sense of equanimity and provides a bulwark of sorts against the waves of depression and anxiety that are commonly associated with the condition.

Perhaps my mother’s favorite song is “Someone to Watch Over Me” by George and Ira Gershwin. Blossom Dearie’s interpretation is perfect, and certainly more convincing than the Frank Sinatra version which my mother remembers. Somehow it’s a bit of a stretch to see Sinatra, even in his young and skinny days, as "a little lamb who's lost in the wood."

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sex, gender and contemporary progressivism

Daniel Kaufman recently made some cogent points about the paradoxes and contradictions at the heart of today's gender identity politics. I won't try to sum up his view or even articulate my own in a rigorous way. In fact, my views are not settled, and I am just noting down here a few preliminary, disconnected thoughts which Dan's essay has prompted.

The way that identity politics has developed is unfortunate in a number of respects, and the contradictions and apparent absurdities play into the perception on the part of many that something has gone badly wrong here. These ideas have adversely affected the standing of institutions where they have taken root: universities, sections of the media, government bureaucracies, etc.. More broadly, they could be seen (as Dan notes) as more evidence of the breakdown of the liberal consensus (I am using the word "liberal" in its old-fashioned sense here) upon which secular, Western forms of democracy have historically depended.

My first response to most gender identity talk is to dismiss it as self-indulgent and silly. And I think a powerful case can be made that most of it is.

Dan is right that there are conflicts and contradictions within and between various kinds of contemporary progressivism and feminism. He sees this as a problem for progressives (like himself) because, clearly, it undermines their credibility and so weakens their cause.

But I am tempted to the view that the current absurdities are not so much aberrations as a natural development of what were, from the beginning, basically flawed ideas. I am thinking particularly of the notion (dominant in the 1960s and 70s) that the brain is like a blank slate upon which social and cultural experience writes.* This idea is simply wrong as many capacities and behavioural tendencies are innate. This is not to say that all boys like to play with trucks and all girls with dolls; there is huge individual variation. But general tendencies are to a significant extent built in. Sure, they develop and are often reinforced in a social context. And attempts can be and often are made to counter them.

Some such attempts I would endorse, in fact. My point is not about the desirability of particular behaviours but rather about the roots of such behaviours.

Just look what happens when you let baby chimpanzees loose in a playroom: the males go for the trucks and hammers, the females for the dolls. Or rats in a maze: the males have a better sense of the wider environment, the females of the proximate environment. The evidence for innate differences is overwhelming, and it is clearly only an ideological commitment to certain social ideals which – as far as I can see – can explain the persistence of (variations of) the blank slate view. Obviously, to the extent that certain tendencies are deemed to be innate, there are limitations on what social engineering can achieve, so there will be a natural resistance to these ideas on the part of those hoping for or seeking to implement radical social change.

Dan quoted from a recording which his parents gave him as a child and which was designed to express in simple terms some of the doctrines of the secular liberalism and progressivism of the time (early 1970s). He links to the title song of the collection which, he says, still elicits a positive emotional reaction. I think I understand this. But I interpret it in slightly different terms.

As I see it, such childhood influences – and all of us have them in one form or another – run very deep and continue to affect our values and how we think. Crucially, they operate largely beneath the radar of consciousness and so tend to make certain views seem self-evident and others anathema. (Parental views are not reliably passed on, of course: there are many other inputs and factors – including rivalry with siblings, and alliances and rivalries with friends and contemporaries – to take into account.)

This may be a simplistic view – it is certainly speculative – but I can't help seeing left-wing or secular progressive politics as playing a similar role to that traditionally played by religion, as being a kind of religion-substitute. Some of my radical cousins, for example, identify themselves largely in terms of their political position, and it seems to operate in a similar way to my early experiences of religious identity, both within the bounds of the nuclear family and beyond. Even naming practices are involved. My cousin Lizzie has a daughter whom she called Rosa (after Rosa Luxemburg).

I suggested above that the conflicts and contradictions which Dan Kaufman highlights in contemporary identity politics may derive in part from internal contradictions in basic liberal progressive doctrines. But, applying this politics-as-religion idea, one could also see the current disputes as paralleling the universal tendency of religious denominations to fragment into warring factions.

* I'm not sure what Dan's views are on this idea, but there are oblique references to it in his essay, and a direct (and approving) reference in a linked and recommended article.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Dirty Uncle Bertie

Blaise Pascal saw our need for entertainment and distraction as arising from the very essence of the human condition and dark fears regarding our place in an apparently hostile and infinite universe. He himself was terrified by the silence between the stars.
One does not have to follow Pascal all the way, however, to see something a bit odd about comedy as an institution. Wit and humor help to make life more tolerable, but the institutionalization and professionalization of comedic entertainment can be seen as a depressing reminder of our need for such diversion and — by extension — of our ultimately dire situation.
What’s more, the funniest things – for me at least – happen and are said, wittingly and unwittingly, in the course of ordinary life. There is nothing to compare with a witty, off-the-cuff comment, created on the fly; or even spoonerisms or malapropisms. Such remarks may not bear scrutiny but humor or funniness should not (in my opinion) be required to bear scrutiny. Consequently I feel sorry for professional comics. They are scrutinized. They are under constant pressure. No wonder their lives are often short, and their biographies painfully depressing.
In the midst of a recent bout of Pascalian gloom, I started looking at some old comedy videos, amongst them Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s dialogues. These old tapes are very uneven, but they have their moments. And they are certainly interesting as historical documents. They got me thinking about the way comedy is so often focused on sex and how it reflects the social attitudes of the time. One sketch in particular resonated. It dealt with the excruciating awkwardness which often accompanied ‘facts of life’ sessions between parents and their children, but it also brought some darker aspects of my family history to mind.
It goes without saying that the humor of a particular period or culture reveals much about that culture or period: it derives from – and exploits – a particular set of social assumptions, beliefs and attitudes.  During their undergraduate years, both Cook and Moore were involved in extracurricular theatrical activities, Cook with the Footlights club in Cambridge and Moore with the Oxford Revue. This was in the late 1950’s, so the world that formed them is very distant from our own.
In conjunction with Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller, they subsequently developed a satirical stage show, Beyond the Fringe. In this and other work, they were consciously pushing the boundaries and, though not political in a partisan sense, they were definitely anti-establishment. Their humor – much of which was social satire – drew heavily on the peculiarities of the English class system of the time and to a large extent was a reaction against it.
Peter Cook and Dudley Moore developed sketches for television in the mid-1960’s. Their Pete and Dud sketches (the so-called ‘Dagenham dialogues’) poke fun at working class and lower-middle-class tastes and habits, like hanging prints of famous paintings in bathrooms. The Laughing Cavalier was bad enough, but Pete’s Auntie Muriel had something worse: the Mona Lisa, “with that awful sniffy look about her, so superior, peering down at you, she looks as if she’d never been to the lav in her life.” (1)
The sketch in question is set in an art gallery. There are speculations about certain strange elements of the Renaissance world such as floating gauze and cherubs and also about changing styles of humor. There is a reference to the Burlington House Cartoon by Leonardo da Vinci (a cartoon in this context being a full-size study for a painting). Pete “couldn’t see the bloody joke.” (2)
Though they were seen at the time as doing something entirely new, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore were clearly the inheritors of a long tradition of class- and repression-based British humor. The material about the paintings in bathrooms and the ‘cartoon’ joke both involve making fun of lower-class habits or ignorance and so are hardly cutting edge, but in general the thrust of their humor was anarchic and their targets diverse. This general style of satire became very influential and played a role in undermining the class system and the Puritanism that often went with it. (3) It was nonetheless dependent on that system.
And perhaps this was why Cook – the more intellectually creative of the two – found that he had nowhere to go and gradually just petered out. The social system which formed him and which he mercilessly satirized had slowly disappeared, and – professionally, at least – he lost direction. Moreover, the early dialogues – which by all accounts had seemed daring at the time – exhibit a kind of prurience which now seems very dated (like some of the talk about the wisps of gauze which had a strange propensity for landing on naked women’s private parts).
Another example of Cook and Moore’s work is the father and son sketch in which Cook plays an unworldly upper-class father attempting to explain the facts of life to his 17-year-old son. (4) Mixed in with the innocence and obfuscation are references to rumors about “dirty Uncle Bertie” (who is the boy’s mother’s lover and presumably also his biological father). Despite the silliness, this aspect of the sketch highlights something real: strict notions of respectability and the strenuous avoidance of talk about sexual matters in polite company inevitably led to weird cover-ups and secrecy, even within families. 
The most common such cover-ups are related to children born out of wedlock, of course, and there are heart-rending cases on both sides of my family.  One relates to my paternal grandmother and her mother. My aunt regretted blocking attempts by her grandmother Cordelia to reach out to her when she was a child. Cordelia belonged to a different religious denomination, and my aunt considered her “stuck up.” Only much later did she find out about the real circumstances of her mother’s birth and her grandmother’s traumatic youth.

Cordelia Lester, working as a domestic servant, became pregnant and made her way to a charity hospital. She was quite ill and stayed at the hospital for some months after the birth of her daughter Caroline (my grandmother). The hospital records give the name of the father of her child. He was employed as a groom at the house at which she had been working. But, even within our family, all of this was covered up and Caroline was thought to be the daughter of the man Cordelia subsequently married.

The curious thing is, the boy’s family secretly watched over Cordelia and her daughter Caroline. Even long after Cordelia’s death – and in a city thousands of miles from where the story began – there were still secret contacts and communications (possibly involving financial help) between his family and Caroline. My aunt remembers odd meetings and letters, but they were never explained or discussed. And, at Caroline’s funeral, my aunt was approached by – and unfortunately rebuffed – a stranger claiming to be related to her and her mother.

But that father and son sketch – specifically the references to dirty Uncle Bertie – brought some stranger aspects of my family history to mind. They relate to my mother’s first cousin, Carl. Since the individuals involved are long dead, there seems to be no reason not to tell the story.
My mother told me about her father’s death. He was a saintly man who died quite young of Banti’s syndrome. He was ill for many months and was nursed and died at home. My mother – who was his favorite child and spent a lot of time with him during this period – was about ten years old. It’s a long and terrible story which I won’t tell here, except for one detail.

Apparently my grandmother (who was not particularly close to her husband) was very distraught during the time leading up to her husband’s death. There was something she felt she had to say to him but she kept putting it off, and he died. Normally cool and unemotional, she became extremely distressed, but apparently from guilt rather than from grief.

This episode may or may not be connected with a long-term sexual relationship my maternal grandmother had with her nephew Carl which was covered up for many years. I only found out about it during my last visit (not long before her death) to my mother’s older sister who blithely informed me that my grandmother and Carl had been, as she put it, “an item”. Even my mother didn’t know about it.

I had always thought that Carl was a bit strange. He was living at my grandmother’s house when we came to stay for a couple of months when I was seven years old. Carl played the violin and used to drive us around in his car. I still remember its slightly musty smell and its cavernous, dark interior. We (certainly we children) were all completely unaware of any romantic or sexual relationship between Carl and his aunt Lily. But I sensed a kind of weirdness and unpleasantness about the man, and apparently I asked my mother at the time, quite seriously, if Carl was from another planet.
Nobody would want to return to the classed-based, respectability-obsessed world which Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and others with whom they were associated were reacting against. It was a world of secrecy, hypocrisy and bigotry.
And though the hopes of those who thought that the demise of the old order would usher in a brave, new, enlightened and harmonious world have not been fulfilled, at least the secrecy is gone.
  2. section of the dialogue includes a bit of ad libbing as Cook tries to get Moore to laugh uncontrollably.
  3. The satirical magazinePrivate Eye, which Peter Cook helped to fund, was particularly influential.
  4. father didn’t even get as far as the Peter Cook character did in the sketch; he chickened out entirely. My mother took on the task.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Moral reputations and politics

[This is an extract from my latest post at The Electric Agora.]

Ethics or morality is not private in the sense that it is social and mainly about how we treat one another as human beings; but, in another sense, it is private. It is private in the sense that it is not just about the way we act and treat others; it is also about the way we see others and ourselves. (‘Opaque’ might be a better word than ‘private’ here.)

Moreover, I would suggest that, on the whole, the reputational side of things is taken too seriously. Simply put, reputations – which are by definition public and subject to rhetorical interventions, both positive and negative – typically bear little relationship to the (private, or opaque as I am calling it) reality of the person in question. And I believe that reputation as it pertains to the moral qualities of a person is something that we can – and should – remain agnostic about, under normal circumstances at least.

If there is a thing which we cannot know, the proper response is agnosticism; and we cannot know another person’s self-perception. We can see a small part of what they do. We can hear a small part of what they say. But – with a few possible exceptions (life-long friends, spouses, certain confessional writers perhaps) – we cannot know the details or nuances of the value systems of other people, nor how they see their own actions as relating to these value systems.

Of course, we can judge the actions and statements of others against our own value systems and/or against a legal framework. In fact, we need to do this. Anarchism is not a realistic option. But we need to be clear about what it is we are doing here, what it is we are judging. And what it is that we are not doing, not judging.

Even in its more mundane applications (relating to accomplishment, expertise or practical reliability, say) we often get things wrong when it comes to a person’s reputed qualities. The implication of the common idiom, “So-and-so has a well-deserved reputation for …”, is that reputations are often (usually?) not well-deserved.

Given the above points, it seems to me that there has been far too much emphasis on moral reputation in recent times, both on the positive side (in respect of certain historical figures, but also some contemporary figures) and – especially – on the negative side. Given the infinite possibilities for spin and communicational distraction and deception, this obsession is arguably having a serious adverse effect on our politics.

Monarchical systems of government were effective for long periods of history. Maybe they got certain things right that we get wrong. The monarch was not in the position he or she was in on account of his or her virtue or accomplishment but rather by an accident of birth. There were some advantages to this state of affairs which could be seen to have contributed to political stability, social harmony and continuity. “The King is dead. Long live the King!”

There is a moving scene in the film La Nuit de Varennes in which the ceremonial cape of the fleeing Louis XVI is displayed and the woman responsible for looking after it talks about having once watched the king address a large crowd. It was not the man that she saw in the distance but the red cape. In other words, it is not the person of the king but the role and the symbols of kingship which really count and which constitute the true focus one’s loyalty.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Truth and justice

This is an abridged version of an essay of mine which appeared recently at The Electric Agora. My Twitter profile: @mark_english1.

It seems from a slew of documents that have made their way into the public domain over the last year or so that the FBI and the Department of Justice have become unacceptably politicized, allowing political considerations to affect internal decision-making. No doubt there always has been and always will be a degree of politicization within such agencies and departments, but this tendency does seem to have got out of hand in recent years, and it is no surprise that matters are coming to a head. Juridical and law enforcement systems need to be seen to maintain a certain degree of integrity and independence from politics if they are to operate in anything like an effective way.

Certainly, one doesn’t expect a lot of truth and justice in the broader political sphere. Politics is essentially a power game and often a very dirty one at that. So, naturally, to the extent that the legal system finds itself influenced or infiltrated by political players, it loses credibility.

Lawyers I have known have, on the whole, been pretty cynical about the law and sometimes cynical in other ways too. I was shocked as an idealistic young man by the attitude of a highly-regarded progressive lawyer I once consulted. He was not much older than me, but he confided to me in a dismissive kind of way that he had given up entirely on the sort of sincere idealism that he saw (rightly) as lying behind my preoccupations of the time. His public reputation and profile belied his real views and continued to do so as he rose to national prominence.

Idealists and well-meaning intellectuals who might seek to engage with, or who happen to find themselves caught up in, the alien world of politics – or the law, for that matter – tend not to thrive. On the other hand, though, ideologues will often find a lucrative niche in today's think-tank-infested world.

Rather than talking directly about politics, however, I just want to make a few remarks and observations about the two concepts – both fundamental to an understanding of social and political questions – which I alluded to above: truth and justice. The notions of truth and truthfulness happen to be central to my own view of things; justice not so much. Let me try to explain why.

Life, it seems to me, is deeply and irredeemably unjust, from the womb. Our attempts to “make things right” are worthy, even inspiring. But it is wishful thinking to believe that political or judicial actions can ever have more than a very modest positive effect on the scheme of things; that they can ever right more than a minuscule fraction of the countless wrongs and injustices that surround us on every side. Putting the matter less emotively, I would say that the domain of predicates such as ‘just’ or ‘fair’ is quite constrained and that related or cognate terms like ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’ have very limited applicability.

High-minded intellectuals – who, along with less high-minded intellectuals, were until a century or so ago sponsored almost exclusively by churches or religious organizations – have over the centuries worked out various schemes in which justice does prevail in very significant ways. The only trouble is, these systems – whether one is thinking of the politically-charged apocalyptic literature of Judaism and early Christianity, more sober accounts of divine judgment focused on an individual’s moral choices, or Eastern ideas of karma and reincarnation – do not correspond with reality. As I see it, unless you are committed to such or similar religious notions or at least to the implicit metaphysics of the Natural Law tradition, justice is a problematic concept. Too grand, too ambitious and (in many cases at any rate) not altogether clear.

We have certain instincts that we share with some non-human animals which entail reactions and behaviors that give the appearance of involving a basic, inbuilt sense of fairness or justice, but our developed ideas of justice are heavily mediated by culture and subject to cultural variation.

The current notion of social justice, for example, is clearly culturally determined. It has a peculiar and fascinating history which I may discuss in a future piece. It is also notoriously controversial. Friedrich Hayek rejected the concept of social justice as nonsense. Justice, as he saw it, is essentially a process and not about engineering some predetermined outcome. In general terms I go along with this but will not attempt to defend a Hayekian view here.

Of course, in cases where there is common agreement, I’m for justice rather than against it. Who wouldn’t be? But in many cases it is either impossible to clearly and uncontroversially define or, if it can be clearly defined, it is unattainable.

Truth does not have things stacked against it in quite the same way. Sure, it’s philosophically contentious. But so long as it is understood in an ordinary, everyday, lowercase kind of way, it is quite within reach and attainable much of the time.

I will try to spell this out a little. We often get things right in everyday life in the sense that the claims we make are in accordance with the relevant facts. The cat is in the kitchen. Dinner is served. The coffee is cold. You lied about where you were last night. Such claims, if they are in accordance with the relevant facts, are deemed to be correct or true (it doesn’t really matter which word we use) rather than incorrect/untrue/false. I am just talking about ordinary usage here. Someone accused of lying might deny it by saying: “That’s not true! I was at my grandma’s as I claimed.”

Truthfulness is quite distinct from truth, of course. It is synonymous with honesty and relates to one’s communicative intentions. One is being truthful if one tells it as one sees it, without trying to deceive one’s interlocutor in any way. The facts may be wrong, but it is the intention that counts here. Truthfulness and fallibility are quite compatible.

Truthfulness is inextricably bound up with intellectual integrity. The scientist or historian who fudges her data or distorts the facts is not a real scientist or a real historian. The intellectual or writer who presents the work of others as his own is a fraud and is rightly ostracized.

I have argued that it certainly does make sense to talk of the truth or otherwise of specific claims in the course of everyday life. But truth in its grander or more scientific or scholarly manifestations may be something of an illusion.

Although facts of various kinds may be verified by observation, experimentation, documentation or plausible testimony, how we conceive of facts in the context of scientific research is often determined to a greater or lesser extent by the theoretical framework. Cats and kitchens and coffee and grandmothers are givens within the framework of ordinary natural-language-based conversations. We are using ordinary words in ordinary ways. But when the framework is, say, a scientific theory, and we are moving beyond the normal social framework for which natural language evolved, we need to be more circumspect both in our claims and how we express them. The facts in the context of a scientific theory may be expressed in terms of the theory itself, and so become dependent on that particular conceptual framework (more or less as ordinary facts are dependent on the framework of natural language, social interaction and ordinary life). Do the English words ‘true’ and ‘truth’ carry over into a scientific context? Perhaps. But I don’t think it ever really makes sense to talk of a complex theory as true.

There is a website with the unfortunate name, Why Evolution is True. This just sounds wrong to me, a poor use of English. If ‘evolution’ is taken to refer to a process, then obviously the predicates ‘true’ and ‘false’ cannot apply. They can only apply to claims, beliefs, etc.. Even if the term ‘evolution’ is taken as shorthand for ‘the theory of evolution’ we still have problems. A theory is not a claim; nor is it merely a set of claims. It is a framework within which various claims are made and tested. Can a theory be true? This sort of statement doesn’t really make sense to me. A theory can be good or sound or well-established. Scientific theories are complex objects and they are not set in stone. There will always be modifications in the offing, of one kind or another.

Just as scientific theories are open to being shown to be incomplete or inadequate, so complex narratives purporting to be true accounts may be rejected as such if they are shown to be fictions, i.e. not in accord with certain known facts. But I think it is appropriate to be skeptical about all complex narratives. Inevitably, many quite different stories can be told which fit the known facts, and many more which fit some of the facts.

Much of our social and personal lives is driven by justificatory narratives of one kind or another. Political narratives could be seen as a subset of these: specifically as those justificatory, secular narratives which are shared (or which are designed to be shared) by large numbers of people.

I want to finish up with a few random observations on how antonyms and negation play into this discussion of justice and truth.

Just as the positive rights implicit in social justice are more controversial and contested than negative rights (like liberty), so the concept of justice is (I would suggest) more problematic than the concept of injustice or of a miscarriage of justice. You could argue about whether a person guilty of a crime, for example, ought to be punished in this way or that or punished at all or even blamed. (There might have been extenuating circumstances.) But there would be no disagreement at all about the wrongness of a miscarriage of justice, where a person innocent of a particular crime was convicted for it; or with respect to cases of a broadly similar kind but which do not involve the court system (so that the term miscarriage of justice would not apply). With respect to the latter, I am thinking of situations – not hard to find, it must be said – in which a person is disadvantaged or penalized in some significant way for what is generally accepted as honest and exemplary behavior.

Note that the two concepts, truth and justice, are not symmetrically related. Truth relates directly to justice. The legal process is designed to uncover the truth of what happened, and perjury is a serious offense. One talks of someone being falsely accused. But justice doesn’t relate directly to questions of truth and falsity. Claims are true or false according entirely to non-justice-related criteria. Justice (or injustice) just doesn’t come into it.


One example I have come across of truth being presented as being more problematic than its opposite is a literary one. No doubt there are countless possible examples one could give. This just happens to be one which stuck in my memory.

It comes from the author’s preface to a very controversial book by the literary academic and cinema historian, Maurice Bardèche, Nuremberg ou La terre promise. The book was published in 1948. The épuration légale was still underway. The execution of his friend and brother-in-law, the journalist Robert Brasillach, had politicized Bardèche. But my point here is logical and rhetorical and any discussion of the politics involved will be left for another time.

“I do not know if truth exists,” Bardèche wrote. “Many people have tried by subtle arguments to prove to me that it doesn’t. But I know that lies exist. I know that the systematic distortion of facts is a reality."

Friday, January 19, 2018


I have been neglecting this and my other Blogger site and concentrating on writing essays for Dan Kaufman's Electric Agora and (usually) posting shorter versions (plus links) to my G+ collections. I had intended to crosspost relevant essays here but haven't been doing this.

Over the past couple of years I have written quite a lot of material, and my EA essays have attracted a bit of attention and garnered well over a thousand comments in total.

The Electric Agora is not my site, however, and I don't have any control over it: over whether or in what form it continues, or over how the essays are indexed, etc.. (Though, as it happens, I am thinking of talking to Dan about the indexing question.) Anyway, I am thinking that I could use this site to bring together (possibly in revised form and/or with a view to reworking them) all of my relevant pieces from the EA (and elsewhere).

Again, one has no control over how particular platforms such as Blogger or G+ are going to develop (if indeed they continue), nor of course can one predict with any confidence how the general informational and communicational landscape is going to evolve in the future.

My intention is just to stick to the sites I currently have or contribute to.

Including my Twitter account... @mark_english1