Strained historical comparisons: Holodomor edition

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen today condemned Russia, comparing its actions to Stalin’s brutal engineered famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, and promising to take action to… export thousands of tons of Ukrainian grain.

Stalin was all in favour of exporting Ukrainian grain!

This is clearly a positive development, but the analogy needs some work…

The World Comeuppance

There are few turnabouts more satisfying than when the cynic who thinks he’s calculated everything to his own benefit finds himself suddenly betrayed by the evil to which he’d accommodated himself. Extra points if he mocked the boring sincerity of those who moralised blah blah blah.

Which brings us to the World Cup. Anyone planning to attend or support the games has to be willing to ignore the corrupt process by which Qatar was selected; the thousands of labourers worked to death to build the facilities; and the foul mistreatment of women and sexual minorities by the Qatari authorities.

Eight years ago it was reported that the Qataris were already breaking the promises they had made to be allowed to host these games. They broke their promises to improve working conditions. They broke promises to allow LGBT+ visitors to attend the games safely. Most fans were happy that these promises were made, providing them cover to enjoy the World Cup, and were indifferent to whether the promises were kept.

But can they enjoy the World Cup without beer? Personally, I have zero appreciation of sport, but I have always accepted that other people really seem to dig football. But I do need to point out that the number of people who enjoy watching football completely sober seems to be rather small. Hence the dismay, that the theocratic dictators turned out to actually sincere in opposing alcohol, and are willing to take an economic hit to ban it from the tournament sites. Shocking!

Suicides at universities, and elsewhere

The Guardian is reporting on the inquest results concerning the death by suicide of a physics student at Exeter University in 2021. Some details sound deeply disturbing, particularly the account of his family contacting the university “wellbeing team” to tell them about his problematic mental state, after poor exam results a few months earlier (about which he had also written to his personal tutor), but

that a welfare consultant pressed the “wrong” button on the computer system and accidentally closed the case. “I’d never phoned up before,” said Alice Armstrong Evans. “I thought they would take more notice. It never crossed my mind someone would lose the information.” She rang back about a week later but again the case was apparently accidentally closed.

Clearly this university has structural problems with the way it cares for student mental health. I’m inclined, though, to focus on the statistics, and the way they are used in the reporting to point at broader story. At Exeter, we are told, there have been (according to the deceased student’s mother) 11 suicides in the past 6 years. The university responds that “not all of the 11 deaths have been confirmed as suicides by a coroner,” and the head of physics and astronomy said “staff had tried to help Armstrong Evans and that he did not believe more suicides happened at Exeter than at other universities.”

This all sounds very defensive. But the article just leaves these statements there as duelling opinions, whereas some of the university’s claims are assertions of fact, which the journalists could have checked objectively. In particular, what about the claim that no more suicides happen at Exeter than at other universities?

While suicide rates for specific universities are not easily accessible, we do have national suicide rates broken down by age and gender (separately). Nationally, we see from ONS statistics that suicide rates have been roughly constant over the past 20 years, and that there were 11 suicides per 100,000 population in Britain in 2021. That is, 16/100,000 among men and 5.5/100,000 among women. In the relevant 20-24 age group the rate was also 11. Averaged over the previous 6 years the suicide rate in this age group was 9.9/100,000; if the gender ratio was the same, then we get 14.4/100,000 men and 5.0/100,000 women.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the total number of person years of students between the 2015/2016 and 2020/2021 academic years were 81,795 female, 69,080 male, and 210 other. This yields a prediction of around 14.5 deaths by suicide in a comparable age group over a comparable time period. Thus, if the number 11 in six years is correct, it is still fewer deaths by suicide at the University of Exeter than in comparable random sample of the rest of the population.

It’s not that this young man’s family should be content that this is just one of those things that happens. There was a system in place that should have protected him, and it failed. Students are under a lot of stress, and need support. But non-students are also under a lot of stress, and also need support. It’s not that the students are being pampered. They definitely should have institutionalised well-trained and sympathetic personnel they can turn to in a crisis. Where where are the “personal tutors” for the 20-year-olds who aren’t studying, but who are struggling with their jobs, or their families, or just the daily grind of living? And what about the people in their 40s and 50s, whose suicide rates are 50% higher than those of younger people?

Again, it would be a standard conservative response to say, We don’t get that support, so no one should get it. Suck it up! A more compassionate response is to say, students obviously benefit from this support, so let’s make sure it’s delivered as effectively as possible. And then let’s think about how to ensure that everyone who needs it gets helped through their crises.

Diwali sweets and the tofu-eating wokerati

I’m always fascinated by the way foods define people’s identities — their own and other people’s — and particularly how they are politicised, used to recognise one’s own folk and reject the Other. Bush-era attacks on “latte-sipping liberals” made a big impression on me (“sipping” was a good touch there — not just expensive coffee, but effeminate sipping), as did the scandalised mockery of Obama when he remarked in 2008 on the price of arugula. (According to some, arugula was also effeminate.)

I find the ethnic dimension particularly interesting. It is no coincidence that these two foods that lefties were ridiculed for consuming have Italian names. Jews, of course, have always been attacked for their exotic food preferences, as with the probably anti-Semitic attack on Ed Miliband for looking insufficiently natural when eating a bacon sandwich.

Nowhere is the political valence of ethnic foods more complex than with Britain’s Asian population. Whereas I grew up in the US thinking “Asian” meant by default Chinese and Japanese, in the UK the term refers primarily to the former colonies of Indian subcontinent. Hence the justified pride, in the whole country, in the Indian community, and particularly among the conservatives, in having the first prime minister from an Asian background.

Interestingly, this was emphasised by the King providing Diwali sweets (marking this week’s Hindu festival) when Sunak visited the palace recently. But these gestures of pride and acceptance are not extended to Asians and their foods when their heritage is not British colonial. Particularly striking was the attack in Parliament just last week by the Tory Home Secretary on the “tofu-eating wokerati”.

Hindus can be good Britons and eat Diwali sweets, but those who indulge in other Asian foods are foreign, most especially if they don’t even have the excuse of ancestry. At least the Chinese eat pork…

The Tories can’t get no satisfaction

Proving that despite having acquired UK citizenship I understand nothing about the country’s politics, chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng has been forced out after less than a month in office. I had loudly declared this to be impossible, given that his defenestration would be predicated on the entirely implausible notion that the government’s Three-Stooges-level economic policy had its origins somewhere other than the reptilian complex of Liz Truss’s brain. Apparently, she’s willing to make a play for that political fantasy.

Anyway, I note that there seems to be some hope that the predicament of the entire loss of confidence in this government jointly and individually might be evaded simply by making their policy announcements and changes sufficiently difficult to parse on a purely logico-grammatical level. It seems to be policy-making by double (at least) negatives. To wit:

According to the Times, Truss will abandon the cancellation of a rise in corporation tax from 19 to 25 per cent, as well as a number of other measures announced in the mini-Budget on 23 September. The government has already been forced into a humiliating retreat on scrapping the 45p top rate of income tax.

I had to read this multiple times to figure out whether the corporation tax would be going up or down, and I guess the Conservatives are hoping that in a few months’ time they can counter charges of “U-turn” with “You’re misremembering. We didn’t never change no policy direction turns.” They’re opposing Labour socialism with Marxist politics of the Grouchoist tendency. (See here and below.)

Scant progress

In the middle of an economic slowdown and a huge expansion in spending to reduce households’ winter fuel costs, the new UK government has just announced, in its new “mini-budget” its intention to drastically cut taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. Not surprisingly, the price of UK bonds has plummeted, and interest rates have risen to their highest level since the 2008 financial crisis.

The Guardian quotes international market experts from ING saying this was a “perfect storm” for the UK, as “global markets shun sterling and gilts.” They continue

Price action in UK gilts is going from bad to worse. A daunting list of challenges has arisen for sterling-denominated bond investors, and the Treasury’s mini-budget has done little to shore up confidence.

“Little to shore up confidence” is such an elegant bit of English understatement, so extreme as to amount almost to deception. Like “the expanded hours for flight departures at Heathrow have done little to improve the noise pollution problem for residents near the airport” or “Herr Hitler’s new ‘Nuremberg Laws’ have done little to shore up confidence in fair treatment among Germany’s half million Jewish citizens.”

The Queen’s two bodies

There’s something that baffles me about the public discussion of ERII’s legacy: Why do so many people feel comfortable lauding the late monarch as the (no longer) living embodiment of the nation when she’s waving to the crowd and dispensing Christmas bromides, but just a befuddled girl when her imperial government is committing crimes against humanity?

The cognitive dissonance is extreme: What kind of monsters would we be were we to be charmed by a person responsible for the murder and torture of thousands? Therefore she was not responsible. Therefore, implicitly — since she was responsible for everything — these crimes did not occur.

And just to be extra clear, I am not doubting the expert claim that Harold Macmillan lied like a rug to keep Her Majesty in the dark on the sordid details of the Empire, or lied to the public to pretend that he did. The living embodiment of the nation embodies its crimes as well as its virtues. She can’t embody the spirit of Paddington Bear, but be free of any taint of Hola. The victims of Her Majesty’s government are her royal victims, whether or not her mortal body participated, whether or not it was indeed aware.

The alternative is, monarchy is just bullshit, just celebrity culture with extra-fancy headgear. That seems to be the genuine belief revealed by the public’s response.

Don’t jump!

Britain’s presumptive next prime minister has been demonstrating the kind of top-drawer platitudes that the nation will be showered with after her investiture tomorrow:

“I have a bold plan that will grow our economy and deliver higher wages, more security for families and world-class public services,” Truss said in a statement, as the curtain came down on the often bitter race with her 42-year-old rival Sunak.

“If I am elected prime minister, I will never let anyone talk us down and I will do everything in my power to make sure our great nation succeeds.”

Now, this may be one of these Anglo-American language confusions (like the perennial embarrassment over “pants”), but when I hear the phrase “never let anyone talk us down” I think of an image like this:

EU: Come down from the ledge. We can talk about the NIP!
Liz Truss: Jump! Jump!

Passive murder

The Guardian has an article today about the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to put an end to attempts by the London Metropolitan Police to punish women who participated in a vigil for Sarah Everard, the woman raped and murdered by a serving police officer.

Everard was abducted by Wayne Couzens as she walked home in south London, with the police officer pretending to be enforcing Covid rules to get her into his car. Couzens – now serving a whole-life sentence – drove the 33-year-old out of London, where she was raped and murdered.

Beyond the outrage of the police force using Covid rules to punish its critics, after one of their own used those rules to carry out a brutal rape and murder, there is the shocking fact that some of the women were “previously convicted behind closed doors under the Single Justice Procedure (SJP)”, a process usually used for traffic violations and failure to pay television fees.

A very informative article, and generally sympathetic to the women targeted by the Met. But I am particularly struck by the Guardian’s choice of wording to describe the original crime. Couzens abducted the woman, raped her, and murdered her. Was it squeamishness or something else that led the Guardian journalist to say only that Couzens “[got] her into his car” and “was raped and murdered” — passive voice. One could imagine, if this report were all we knew of the story, that Met officer Couzens was as shocked as anyone else when the poor woman who “got into his car” ended up dead, at the hands of some unknown malefactor.