Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

The story to date: A petty criminal from Kent committed a murder suicide in the centre of London, killing 4 and injuring 40. The attacker was Muslim, which seems to be enough for this to be classified as a terror attack*, and so the English praise themselves for their fortitude in continuing to carry on with their lives, rather than, I don’t know, hunkering down in air-raid shelters until the sirens announce all-clear. #WeAreNotAfraid, they tweet. Amazing that a city of nearly 9 million people is uncowed by the threat of a scary Muslim (acting on his own, apparently) now deceased, who killed as many pedestrians as non-terroristic London drivers killed with their cars in the whole second half of February. It’s a terrible thing that people were killed and injured, but people in cities all over the world live their lives surrounded by the suffering of others, without hiding in their cellars. The specialness of Londoners in this regard is as delusional as the British deal-making acumen.

Besides which, it’s not even true. While the PM was announcing in Parliament

An act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy, but today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message – we are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism,

the London police were trying to pressure pro-EU protestors to cancel their planned march on Saturday, because the unafraid Metropolitan Police with its approximately 30,000 officers couldn’t be expected to simultaneously manage both a criminal investigation AND 20,000 peaceful demonstrators.

Because nothing says WE ARE NOT AFRAID like using a minor terror attack as an excuse to prevent the exercise of core democratic rights.

* Whereas a genuinely politically inspired random murder in New York, intended to “send a message”, is not called “terrorism” and doesn’t inspire any praise for New Yorkers continuing for to live, because the perpetrator was not Muslim.

Women in the US Congress

I was somewhat perplexed by this line from a BBC report about women’s anger triggered by a photo of the all-male (actually, one woman out of the photo) at the White House negotiating cuts to, among other things, women’s health care:

Less than a fifth of Republicans in the House of Representatives are women, but gender representation is not just a Republican problem – the US Congress as a whole is still dominated by men.

With 20% female, the US ranks alongside Bangladesh in global terms. In Sweden it’s 44%.

It sounds like it’s about 20% of Republicans and about 20% altogether, meaning hardly any difference between Republicans and Democrats. In fact, there are 22 Republican women out of 237 in Congress, so 9%. “Less than a fifth” seems an odd way to put it. (Almost 1/3 of Democrats are women.)

Pascal on the Trump era

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:

Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.

This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.

Friendly warnings

Donald Trump spoke to Republican legislators yesterday, encouraging them in a friendly way to support necessary legislation that would ease 24 million Americans off their dependence on health insurance. Apparently he didn’t threaten anyone:

“He warned us that there are consequences if we don’t come together for us as a party and also for individuals,” Representative Richard Hudson of North Carolina said after the meeting. “He wasn’t threatening in any way. He was just giving us a pretty clear warning.”

Tactfully

The Guardian reports on UK government posturing to back out of its financial commitments to the EU, ahead of next week’s formal collapse start of the Brexit negotiations:

The EU scrutiny committee chairman, the Conservative MP Sir Bill Cash, urged the UK negotiators to point out during the talks that the UK wrote off half of Germany debts after the second world war, and as a result did not owe the Germans anything politically or legally. 

Cash said the UK had been “net contributors for many decades” and the “massive contributions” paid to Brussels would offset any divorce fee demanded by officials. He urged the government to remind Europe’s leaders of the 1953 London debt agreement, “where Germany, for all its malfeasance during the second world war” and unprovoked aggression, had half its debt cancelled.

Cash said that given Germany’s dominant role in the EU, it might be worth “tactfully” reminding people “that there is a realistic position here that we really don’t owe anything to the EU, whether it’s legal or political”.

Well, that already sounds pretty tactful to me, backing out on financial commitments to all of Europe because of Germany’s “malfeasance” in the first half of the 20th century. It’s funny that the British didn’t mention how strongly they felt about this back when they were applying for membership in the EU. You would have thought their memories would have been fresher.

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

“Up to 500”

I’ve just been reading Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History. I don’t think there’s much new in the overall picture, but there are certainly many details that I was not aware of. For example, Rees discusses Himmler’s May 1940 memo “Some Thoughts on the Treatment of the Alien Population in the East”.

A large section of the memo dealt with Himmler’s plans to conduct a search among the Polish population in order to find children that were ‘racially first class’ and who ‘came up to our requirements’. These children would then be transported to Germany and raised as German citizens. Himmler believed this policy would not just allow Nazis access to more German ‘blood’ but deprive the Poles of the potential for a leadership class. As for the rest of the Polish children, they would receive the most basic education — taught only to count ‘up to 500’ and to write their own names.

It’s easy to fall into thinking of leading Nazis as ruthlessly efficient master criminals. Reading things like this is a good reminder of the extent to which they were actually kind of erratic and bonkers. It’s a sort of dilettantish megalomania that one sees in certain leaders today as well, with grand ideas that come from manipulating a vague picture of reality, decked out with a few random, nonsensical details. Why “up to 500”? Why not just say, “teach them to count” and leave it at that? How could anyone think that it would be possible to teach people to count up to 500 without learning the general principle of counting further?

This is why historians have emphasised the role of the proverbial Schreibtischtäter, the “desk criminals”, who worked hard to interface the lunacy with the proverbial railway timetables, that can’t be cajoled with blather about national will to power and providence.

Unity!

The news from Westminster and Holyrood inspires me to adapt a cartoon that I recall from a German newspaper from the days shortly after the opening of the Berlin wall:

Theresa May: We are one nation!

Nicola Sturgeon: We are too!

Maybe this doesn’t completely work in translation. In the original, of course, it was the East German demonstrators who really did shout “Wir sind ein Volk!”, and then the West Germans reply, “Wir auch!” That plays on the ambiguity in the German: “ein Volk” can mean “one people” or “one nation” or “a nation”.

17 Republicans in the US House of Representatives have signed a resolution to take “meaningful action” against global warming.

It is the largest number of Republicans ever to join an action-oriented climate initiative in “maybe ever,” said Jay Butera, a congressional liaison for Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which helped put together the resolution. “I’ve been working on this issue for 10 years,” he told me. “This is a high water mark.”

The Brexit Phony War is coming to an end.

Apparently the government is preparing to trigger Article 50 next week. Having trounced the House of Lords, the EU negotiatiors will be a cakewalk.

  • Commons: Give us the precious!
  • Lords: It is too much power. You must consent to some minor restrictions.
  • Commons: Give us the precious!
  • Lords: Okay.

Why do the Lords even bother to go on existing?

One of the more bizarre claims made by the government was to explain its opposition to the House of Lords amendment that mandates a final vote in Parliament on the Brexit deal in two years.

Downing Street has warned Lords that an attempt to give Parliament the final say over Brexit will “incentivise” the EU to give Britain a bad deal.

The Prime Minister’s spokesman argued that guaranteeing Parliament the power to reject Theresa May’s deal would “give strength” to EU negotiators during talks.

What is bizarre is that the usual argument is exactly the opposite: The negotiators are strengthened by being able to argue that their hands are tied by needing to convince skeptical legislators back home. Don’t bother offering us a crappy deal, because even if you dazzle us, it will never get through Parliament.

I understand the difference here — the EU doesn’t actually have much motivation to make any deal at all, and would be happy to have it rejected — but that just underlines how fatally weak the British position is. Supposing the EU negotiators would offer a deal that they are sure Parliament would reject. There are two possibilities:

1) The government would reject it too. In that case, it would never go to Parliament anyway, so Parliament’s right to a final vote is moot.

2) The government would accept it. In that case, what would motivate them to offer a better deal?

Am I missing something?

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