Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for August, 2014

“For he is an Englishman…”

For, in spite of all temptations

to belong to other nations

he remains an Englishman.”

Bringing together my posts from last year about cases of US citizens being expelled from or denied re-entry into their country, with my recent remarks on a senior UK politician’s suggestion that British citizens who fight with Islamists in Iraq and Syria have their citizenship revoked. This is of a piece with my earlier observations that xenophobic excesses which would be confined to the tub-thumping fringes in other countries, very quickly find resonance in the British political establishment, with the major parties falling over themselves not to be outflanked in expressing their hostility toward the alien.

To be fair, though, some moderately senior German politicians have made similar statements. The German constitution makes it absolutely explicit that citizenship cannot be revoked (except when a new citizenship is acquired, or when citizenship was acquired by fraud), which may make the belligerent exploitation of anti-Islamist chauvinism in these terms more or less despicable, depending on your perspective. (The US constitution is slightly less explicit, but reasonably clear on the subject.) By contrast, the UK — lacking both a written constitution and the clarifying experience of Nazi and Communist dictatorships — clearly makes revocation of citizenship a live option: 20 British dual nationals had their citizenship revoked last year, and the law — originally a 2006 Labour government product — was recently amended to allow the Home Secretary to deprive even single-nationals of their citizenship, rendering them stateless, showing blatant contempt for the 1961 UN Convention on Statelessness.

The only requirement for a naturalised British citizen — which includes many people born in the UK — to be deprived of his or her citizenship is that

the Secretary of State is satisfied that the deprivation is conducive to the public good.

Of course, “public good” is a pretty flexible concept, particularly when the Home Office is required to present neither an explanation nor evidence, and invariably takes the step when the individual is travelling outside the country, sending the notification to the home address in the UK (from which the person is known to be absent), allowing 28 days for appeal. Certainly the Nazi Home Secretary was satisfied that allowing Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann to return home would not be conducive to the public good. The GDR had the same trick of revoking citizenship when troublesome individuals were temporarily out of the country.

Lest anyone think the UK is recapitulating the march of tyranny, though, the Home Secretary has promised that this power will be used “sparingly”. That should be enough of a bulwark against fascism to satisfy anyone. And unlike the Nazi law on deprivation of citizenship, property is not confiscated, so it’s something completely different.

Creative destruction (Updated)

Headline on the NY Times website:

TV Chief Takes 2-by-4 to a Proposed Cable Merger

I was at first confused by the reference. Having grown up around my father’s lumberyard, I naturally think of a 2-by-4 as a basic element of house construction. For those whose experience of lumber is shaped by Mafia films, it’s an implement of destruction. (It’s interesting how the pop-culture image of organised crime has been shaped by the somewhat coincidental situation of the New York-New Jersey crime families who largely laundered their money through construction firms. Think “cement overshoes”.) I am reminded of the period in the early 1990s when skinhead mobs in Eastern Germany and Berlin suddenly started attacking foreigners, particularly but not exclusively asylum-seekers. The favoured weapons were baseball bats. I remember an article from around 1993, where a police expert was interviewed about why it was that baseball bats were ideally suited to be used as weapons, in addition to their advantage of having a legal use that endows carrying them with a superficial legitimacy, despite the fact that, as the German association of baseball enthusiasts admitted, the total number of baseball players in Germany was estimated at just a few hundred, substantially smaller than the number of baseball bats that had been sold in the past year. In any case, baseball bats (“Baseballschläger”) have become routine emblems of violence in German newspaper headlines, with no further explanation required, specifically xenophobic neo-Nazi violence. For example, when Der Spiegel reported on a government-sponsored youth music initiative with a CD of songs opposing neo-Nazi violence, the article was titled

Tonträger gegen Baseballschläger     (Recordings vs. Baseball Bats)

Interestingly, when Bill Gates handed over control of Microsoft to Steve Ballmer, Der Spiegel covered press reports with a headline “Baseball bat in his hand”, referring to an LA Times report that said

Ballmer, der dafür bekannt ist, dass er bei internen Besprechungen herumbrüllt und manchmal Anordnungen gibt, während er einen Baseballschläger in der Hand hält… (Ballmer, who is known for screaming during internal conferences, and sometimes holds a baseball bat in his hand while giving orders…)

It sounds much more menacing in German.

Update: Somehow I forgot the famous lyric from the gospel song Oh Mary Don’t you Weep (what I take to be Pete Seeger’s revised lyrics; at least, it’s clearly not part of the original spiritual, and does appear on Pete Seeger’s recordings, and later versions):

Moses stood on the Red Sea shore

Smotin’ the water with a two-by-four.

Pharaoh’s army got drowned.

Oh, Mary, don’t you weep!


After the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many physicists felt that their discipline’s principles had been betrayed. Oppenheimer said that physicists had “known sin”. Their abstruse subject, seen as a pure source of enlightenment, had revealed its enormous destructive potential. The healing arts, the quintessence of noble pursuits, have also been showing their dark side, as the power to cure disease is inseparable from the power to cause disease. An Oath Betrayed was the title of a recent book on the role of U.S. physicians and psychologists in facilitating torture in Guantanamo. And now, yet another betrayal: The BBC reports that

The apparent killing of a US journalist by an Islamic militant with an English accent is "an utter betrayal of everything British people stand for", the foreign secretary says.

What of goodness and purity remains in the world, when even English accents may also be deployed for nefarious ends? (Of course, in Hollywood films they are used for almost nothing else.)

More profoundly, two thoughts occur to me: (more…)

Hiring formalities

One other point has occurred to me, with regard to the firing/not-quite-hiring of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, which I have commented on here and here. Defenders of the university’s decision say that he had no right to have his academic freedom respected by UI because he was not formally in their employ. The fact that he had accepted a written offer of employment nearly a year before, agreed on a starting date, signed a contract, quit his previous job, moved across the country, and been assigned courses to teach in the fall semester were simply free-time activities, which only would become a real employment in October — a month after he was supposed to start teaching — when the board that meets once a semester ratified the hiring.

Whether this is legally accurate I can’t really judge. But I’m just thinking about the effect on future hiring, particularly at UI, but elsewhere as well. Clearly no one is going to let themselves be fooled this way by UI in the future. Everyone knows that claims of “just a formality” are simply deception at that university, and will insist on ironclad promises before they begin steps to move to a position there. Other people will just spare themselves the stress by not applying for positions at UI. (Remember, this is not about low-level jobs, of which there is a great shortage in the humanities, and a huge mass of qualified people desperate to take any meagre job. This was a tenured position.) And the ripples from this decision will affect other universities as well. Even if they make the offer in good faith, why take the chance that someone will comb through your public utterances and scare the university off hiring you. Best to insist on an ironclad contract before taking any steps. And this includes withdrawing the applications from other posts. Universities are likely to find senior academics who they thought they’d hired suddenly withdrawing shortly before they were supposed to start, because they didn’t consider themselves bound by the agreement until the formalities were taken wrapped up, and in the interim they got a better offer. This is likely to gum up university hiring in the US for a long time to come. Procedures will have to change, and the traditional role of occasional board meetings to ratify hiring decisions changed or eliminated.

Respect for others’ perspectives

It sounds like a good idea, but can get you trapped in contradictions. With regard to l’affaire Salaita, which I commented on here. Much more information from Corey Robin here and here, including links for various subject-specific petitions; a general academic petition (which I have signed), committing to a vaguely defined boycott of U Illinois until Salaita is rehired, is here. The public opposition to Salaita has been led by UI English professor and former AAUP president Cary Nelson. Leaping to his defence is Stanford German Studies professor Russell Berman:

Given that Illinois has a diversity policy that includes respect for others’ perspectives and world views, and that Salaita’s tweets “indicate that he would not respect others’ opinions on the Middle East,” Berman said Nelson’s conclusion “is reasonable, and I agree with him.”

Agree or disagree, Berman added, the “ad hominem attacks” on Nelson are “reprehensible.” Similarly, he said, “it is appalling when [Salaita’s supporters] blame pro-Israel or Jewish groups,” as some commenters have. Berman said that there’s no evidence thus far, only innuendo, that outside pressure influenced the university’s decision and the “fact that pro-Israel groups are nonetheless blamed is evidence of a rampant anti-Semitism in this affair, cut from the same cloth as the recent riots in France.”

The most important thing is to respect other peoples’ opinions! Since the people who disagree with me are a howling mob of rioters, they must be silenced. Dismissal from their jobs is too good for people on that side of the argument, since they have no respect for diversity of opinion.

Fortunately, the silent majority supports Nelson, as he is quoted in the same article saying

ad hominem attacks are also a BDS strategy that serves to silence opponents. Many faculty who believe the university made the right decision about Salaita are now unwilling to say so publicly.

Perhaps Nelson could do more to contribute to that climate of respect that he craves, where no scholar is silenced by the gripping fear of public criticism or, I don’t know, losing their jobs.

As Tom Lehrer famously declared (introducing his song “National Brotherhood Week”), “I know there are those who do not love their fellow man, and I hate people like that!”

The tragic contradiction of rooting for the underdog

Everyone loves stories of plucky individuals, beaten down by circumstances but working hard to get ahead. Dickens made a career out of them. It’s a noble sentiment, but it’s a terrible basis for public policy, which is unfortunate for the US, which has persistently put that heart-warming story at the centre of its social welfare policies. I was reminded of this recently when reading an article in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel about the push in some American cities — Seattle, in particular — to raise the minimum wage substantially. (The article doesn’t seem to be available online, but a related interview with activist-entrepreneur Nick Hanauer is here.) I am all in favour of these proposals — there’s no better way to help poor people stop being poor than to give them more money — but it’s clearly not going to solve all of society’s problems. In particular, the Spiegel reporter talks to a single mother of two children, working 32 hours a week for Domino’s Pizza, whose apartment is too small for both children, only manages to get enough to eat by taking home leftover pizza, and has to admit shamefacedly that she never can afford to buy her children any sort of gift. It’s wonderful that she will be earning 60 percent more in a few years (unless she loses her job), but the reporter adds in the sort of detail that German reporters inevitably include in reports on US urban misery:

She lives in a suburb of Seattle. Not a good neighbourhood, she says, lots of drugs and crime. Once someone was shot to death in front of her house.

So, maybe the increase in the minimum wage is going to help her and her sons move to a better neighbourhood. But it’s not going to make the neighbourhood better! The only way to reduce the number of people who have someone shot in front of their house is to reduce the number of people who are shot. If all the people earning minimum wage decide to use their raises to move to a better neighbourhood, the rent in the better neighbourhoods will just go up. Their negotiating position for housing will be improved relative to retirees, nonworking poor, students, etc. But the number of sad stories of people who can’t afford to move out of their run-down crime-infested neighbourhood will not change, though possibly the people suffering will be less sympathetic, which might seem like an improvement.


New applications for IP

The Guardian reports that the English Premier League is asserting its copyright over fans sharing short films of goals on social networks:

Dan Johnson, director of communications at the Premier League, said posting goal vines was illegal, as was sharing the videos on websites such as Twitter, and amounted to breaking copyright laws.

“You can understand that fans see something, they can capture it, they can share it, but ultimately it is against the law,” he told the BBC’s Newsbeat programme. “It’s a breach of copyright and we would discourage fans from doing it, we’re developing technologies like gif crawlers, Vine crawlers, working with Twitter to look to curtail this kind of activity. I know it sounds as if we’re killjoys but we have to protect our intellectual property.”

If it is really possible to copyright events, so that making or distributing images would be illegal, this could provide a solution to the modern problem of hardworking police officers being pilloried by the public when a viral video shows them working hard to beat a crime suspect senseless. Police departments could declare certain operations to be “performances”, and then impose heavy fines on anyone who distributes video on social networks.
(They’d need a release from the accused, who also participated in the performance, but the Metropolitan Police have never had difficulty obtaining the signatures they need.)

“Strong support for Johnson”

According to The Guardian, people want Boris Johnson to be the next leader of the Conservatives. They don’t say it explicitly, but they suggest that “next” means, like, tomorrow, and not after the next election. After citing a poll finding that 29% of voters want Johnson to be the next Tory leader (are those Conservative supporters? I might want Johnson to be the next Tory leader because I think he’ll lead his party to disaster…), they write

The strong support for Johnson feeds into the party standings. The poll finds that Labour’s seven-point lead would fall to three points if he led the Tories. The Tories would see their support increase by three points under a Johnson premiership to 34% while Labour would see its support fall by one point to 37%. Johnson would also hit support for Ukip,. which would see its support fall by two points to 8%.

Before the Tories dump Cameron, they might want to check whether this 3% boost is statistically robust. This looks like an elementary statistics exercise, but it’s not quite so simple. If D is the Tory support under Cameron, and B the Tory support under Johnson, then B-D might be expected to be about 3%. But how confident should we be that Johnson is really better than Cameron? Unfortunately, we can’t know that without knowing the correlations: in this case, that means we need to know how many people supported the Tories only with Cameron, and how many supported them only with Johnson, and how many supported them with either leader. (more…)

Mutually reinforcing headlines in Munich

I’m spending a couple of weeks in Munich, and I had to burst out laughing when I saw this tabloid on sale from a stand. The headlines seem to be unintentionally commenting upon one another:

New war in Iraq

followed by

This is your true legacy!

TZ headline

(I have to admit that my translation above, while literally more or less correct, and corresponds to the way I first read it due to the juxtaposition, is not really idiomatic. In the context of large tabloid headlines it’s clear that an appropriate translation would be “This is the right way to leave an inheritance”, and the article is all about how to write your will and avoid paying inheritance tax.)

When did anti-semitism become “horrible”?

I was just reading about the case of Steven Salaita, who had his offer of a tenured professorship of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois withdrawn because of some fairly ferocious anti-Israel tweets that he perpetrated. Now, I strongly support his right to write whatever he wants, particularly in his free time in a non-academic forum, as long as it does not cross the line into outright personal abuse or overt racism, sexism, etc.

Nonetheless, I feel obliged to point out that the content of these tweets would not encourage me to believe that their author is a clear and careful thinker. In particular, there was this one:

Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.

For someone in a field with a significant historical component this is particularly embarrassing. For substantial portions of respectable society anti-semitism was considered perfectly honourable, until the Nazis embarrassed everyone by taking it too far. So maybe there was a period of about 3 years when anti-semitism was “horrible”. Then it went back to being honourable. But it’s all the fault of the Zionists.

Actually, there need not be any gap at all, since some of the atrocities of Jewish fighters in Palestinians are at least as bad as the current attack on Gaza. So he might have made an even better tweet:

Zionists: preventing ‘anti-Semitism’ from being horrible after 1945.

I’m guessing he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with that one, though.

But I’m still writing to the University of Illinois chancellor to protest against this firing. I am appalled by the weaselly excuses of former AAUP president Cary Nelson (who proudly drapes that emeritus title about himself while undermining the AAUP’s principles), that this is striking a blow for “civility”, and that Salaita was fomenting violence.

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