Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for January, 2016

The Rhodes goes ever on and on

It is decided: The Rhodes statue remains at Oriel College. What was promised to be a long and thoughtful reconsideration of the appropriateness of honouring a notorious racist in the facade of an educational institution of the twenty-first century was short-circuited by threats to withdraw £100 million pounds in donations. The ruling class has spoken! Surely, at the least, we can agree that this demolishes the notion that Rhodes is a mere quaint historical figure, whose ideology is of no concern. Clearly there are quite a few mighty pillars of the establishment who feel that an assault on the honour due to a man who brought great wealth and power to Britain through dispossessing, subjugating, and frankly murdering members of what he considered “childish” and “subject races”.

Most bizarre is the appearance of an extreme form of the standard political-correctness jiu-jitsu, whereby students raising their voices in protest constitute an assault upon free speech, while the superannuated poobahs who tell them to shut up until they have their own directorship of a major bank are the guardians of liberty. And we academic hired hands are neglecting our pedagogical duty if we don’t help them tie on the gag.

As I remarked before, they talk as though the protesters sought to excise the name of Rhodes from the history books with knives and acid, rather than proposing that the Rhodes statue be removed from its place of honour to a museum, where it can be viewed neutrally among other historical artefacts.

There is an argument that says, the Rhodes Must Fall argument points to general iconoclasm. What statue would stand if we judge the attitudes of our past heroes by contemporary standards. Putting aside the question of whether a complete lack of granite equestrians would impoverish modern urban life or undermine public morals, there is a vast difference between a historical figure who is honoured for great accomplishments and services to his country, but who shared in what we now consider benighted attitudes of his time; and Rhodes, whose accomplishments consist in dispossession and subjugation of other races. Take away the racism and imperialism from Rhodes and nothing remains.

Obviously, different views of the Rhodes statue are possible. What I find extraordinary is the accusation that even to raise the issue is somehow improper. That this is presented as a defence of free speech only demonstrates how the implicit critique has driven some portion of the elite into unreasoning frenzy.

The American Cavalieri

The British tend to view Donald Trump as an unprecedented only-in-America freak. Self-glorifying libertine billionaire turning his media ingenuity and unbounded reserves of cunning ignorance into a nativist political career. Racism and misogyny lightly disguised as heroic candour. The strongman allure, and the tendency of opponents to dismiss him as a buffoon. He’s the American Berlusconi. Which should serve as a warning to anyone who thinks he can’t possibly win.

When did it become verboten to rewrite history?

The role of chancellor is a difficult one: He’s the symbolic aristocratic authority figure, of modest intelligence but sterling character, set to superintend the carryings-on of the overly clever boffins.

Anyway, there’s been a bit of to and fro at Oxford over the position of Cecil Rhodes. Following the successful “Rhodes Must Fall” protests at the University of Cape Town, Oxford students have been demanding that Oriel College remove the statue of Rhodes prominently displayed in the college’s facade. Oxford’s chancellor, the failed Conservative politician and last colonial governor of Hong Kong Christopher Patten, has decided to stoke the flames by using his ceremonial platform, where he was supposed to be welcoming the university’s first woman vice chancellor, to attack those who wish to “rewrite history”:

We have to listen to those who presume that they can rewrite history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct. We do have to listen, yes – but speaking for myself, I believe it would be intellectually pusillanimous to listen for too long without saying what we think…

Yes. “We” must say what “we” think. Since history has been written once and for all, correctly, it is inappropriate to rewrite it. And heaven forfend that the rewriters should rely on their own notion of what is correct, morally or otherwise! It’s about time we got rid of all those people who try to rewrite history, you know, what are they called? Historians.

It’s pretty bizarre. It’s not as though protestors are breaking into the Bodleian and excising the name of Rhodes with a razor blade. The existence of the Rhodes statue is clear testimony to his outsized influence and to the honour accorded to him in his day, and it would continue to serve this function if it were placed in a museum. To continue to display the statue on the façade of a college is a declaration of current respect for him. Which is a matter of public debate. In 1945 all the Adolf-Hitler-Strassen in Germany were renamed, and I don’t recall whether Patten protested the felling of the Lenin statues in Berlin in 1989, or the Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq.

(A friend of a friend of mine, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, made the unfortunate choice to issue the bootlicking pledge in her application essay for the Rhodes scholarship, that she would aspire to fulfil the spirit of Cecil Rhodes. At interview she was asked, “Were you thinking of Rhodes’s spirit as a racist, as a colonialist, or as a paedophile?” Her answer was not transmitted, but she was not awarded a scholarship.)

(Personally, I would have attended the ceremony, to have been present at the historic investiture of Oxford’s first woman vice chancellor, if only I’d been able to rewrite the historical dress code, since at the last moment I couldn’t locate the academic hood required for attendance.)

Bilingual nominative determinism

According to this article in PubPeer, PubPeer has been attacked by the editor-in-chief of the journal Plant Physiology, a man named Michael Blatt. This is a nominative determinism twofer, because Blatt in German can mean either “leaf” or “journal”.

Why are bank accounts so complicated?

A BBC report today says that some popular current account packages are having their fees increased substantially.

The change in Santander fees – announced in September – will see customers paying £60 a year, instead of the previous fee of £24. The charge for its 123 credit card rises from £24 a year to £36.
Last year the Santander account proved very popular, with more than 27,000 people switching to it in a single month. But experts said that – even after the changes -it still offered relatively generous interest payments of up to 3% a year, and cashback of up to 3% on some household bills. “Don’t jump ship until you’ve done the maths,” said Hannah Maundrell, editor in chief of advice site Money.co.uk. “To put it simply, you need to look at how much you’re earning in interest and cashback. If it’s less than the new £60 a year fee you need to take it as a wake-up call to seriously consider your options.”

Why should people need to do complicated calculations to figure out whether their bank is scamming them? Obviously, this is a rhetorical question. I know, sort of, that banks see current customers as locked in, so they are motivated to provide a minimum of interest and service to them, while trying to dislodge a few customers from other banks with some flashy (but inexpensive) offer.

Barclays has said it will double its cash rewards programme for those who take out an account this month. Marks and Spencer is already offering incentives worth up to £220 to anyone who switches.

The article cites experts arguing about whether the banks have been forced to charge more because of increased costs, or whether they are padding their profits. But even have to raise the question shows how pathological banking has become. It’s the consumer

Every few years I find myself in my bank, needing to spend half an hour talking with a customer-service drone about why the Super Privilege Advantage account doesn’t pay interest anymore, but if I switch to the brand new Club Lloyds (really) Account I’ll get interest (varying amounts depending on my balance, increasing up to £5000, and then cutting out after that.

By the theory of the competitive market, you might think that someone would see an interest in providing simple financial services, to people who have better things to do than discuss their half a percent interest with a bored bank employee for half an hour every year or two.

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