Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Volkswillen and Parliament

Brexit started with rhetoric about unelected Eurocrats thwarting holy parliamentary sovereignty. Now, faced with opposition to her Brexit plans in Parliament, Theresa May

insisted “the government’s hand in the negotiations cannot be tied by parliament”, adding that she would not countenance any amendment that would allow parliament to “overturn the will of the British people”.

I am reminded of this comment by German political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, shortly after the Brexit vote:

Dazu gehört in gewisser Weise ein Taschenspielertrick: Zunächst sagen sie, es gebe einen einzig wahren Volkswillen, der sich gar nicht irren könne. Dann behaupten sie, dass dieser Wille bisher von den Eliten unterdrückt und nicht gehört worden sei. Und schließlich, dass sie selbst nichts weiter täten, als diesen Willen zur Geltung zu bringen. Sie setzten nur um, wozu ihnen das Volk den Auftrag gebe.

Underlying it is a sort of sleight of hand: They start by saying, there is only a single popular will, that can never be wrong. Then they say, this will has been repressed and silenced by elites. And then, finally, that they themselves are doing nothing but to give effect to that will. They are just fulfilling the task assigned to them by the People.

The meaning of “is”

One of Bill Clinton’s most famous contributions to the political lexicon is

It depends upon what the meaning of the word “is” is.

This was his defense from the accusation of having lied when he explicitly said, of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky,

There is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship, or any other kind of improper relationship.

It was immediately obvious that there was something strange about his somewhat tortured insistence on the present tense, where what he was asked to deny was in the past. Of course, we know that he was trying to be extremely clever in making a statement that was literally true, while seeming to deny an accusation that he knew to be correct.

Now Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has spoken out, not in his own defense, but in defense of the president:

“In all of this, in any of this, there’s been no evidence that there’s any collusion between the Trump campaign and the President and Russia,” he said. “Let’s just make that clear — there is no collusion.”

Is he being ironic?

Less than zero: A new reckoning

One of the most important lessons I ever learned about capitalism and the nature of wealth I learned from Donald Trump. And now I discover that I was entirely misled, at least as regards Trump’s particular role.

As I discussed in a post a couple of years ago, back in the 1990s I read a newspaper article about Donald Trump’s most recent bankruptcy, and was struck by the fact that, despite having vastly more liabilities than possessions, Trump was still treated as a wealthy man, and not worse than a pauper. And his creditors were willing to come to an arrangement that allowed him to live a rich-man lifestyle, if somewhat less opulent than before. I understood that to mean that modern capitalism makes debt almost as valuable as property, that the person with a billion in debt and the person with a billion in property are considered to be much more similar to each other than either is to the one who has neither debts nor wealth.

Now, having read several books on Trump, including most recently Seth Hettena’s Trump/Russia: A Definitive History, I see that this beautifully esoteric interpretation must yield — at least in the case of Trump — to a simpler and crasser interpretation: At various stages of his career Trump has been propped up by criminals who found the Trump Organisation, and its self-absorbed empty-headed chief, too useful as a cover for moneylending — first for the New York mob, then on a larger scale for Russian oligarchs and criminals from the former Soviet Union — to let it fail. In some sense, this is the value of debt: When there are large numbers in play, it’s easy to hide smaller numbers, just as long as you can come to an agreement to keep the flow going. And it does take a special kind of person to have managed to accumulate that amount of debt in the first place, making Trump’s debt truly a rare and valuable commodity.

I’m perfectly willing to accept a certain claim of innocence, that Trump believed all along that the fact that he kept managing to steer around failure demonstrated nothing but his unique genius. It reminds me of Hitler’s famous comment “Ich gehe mit traumwandlerischer Sicherheit den Weg, den mich die Vorsehung gehen heißt”: I follow, with the certainty of a sleepwalker, the path that Providence has laid out for me.

That narcissistic naïveté probably was, and remains, his most useful quality. First time tragedy, second farce.

The dead end of 70s childrearing

People often raise their children with ideals that they don’t really hold themselves, either because they on some level think they would be better people if they shared these ideals and hope their children will be better (tolerance, patience), or because they think these ideals are particularly appropriate to this stage of life (sharing, studiousness, Santa Claus). But I’ve been realising that some of what I learned as I child — at home, at school, and from the general culture

I genuinely found it weird that Barack Obama was attacked for harboring a secret “anti-colonialist” agenda (inherited from his father’s experience fighting the British for Kenyan independence. If I’d had to say what the core historical experience was that Americans harked back to, that defined our national identity, that we could agree upon, it was the history as colonials fighting for independence. The people opposing Obama dressed up in colonial-era costumes, harked back to the Boston Tea Party, striking a blow against the imperial power. (more…)

Jared Kushner thinks ahead on prison reform

One of the oddest trends of the latter half of the odd 1970s in the US was the transformation of law-and-order conservatives like Charles Colson and even G. Gordon Liddy into prison-reform advocates, after they had spent some time themselves in federal prison for their role in the Watergate scandal. The President’s son in law isn’t waiting. Congress is considering a package of reform measures to improve federal prison training programmes, and increase the possibilities for early release for good behaviour. Reports are that Kushner has taken time out of his busy schedule making peace in the Middle East and solving the opioid crisis to lobby for the bill. JK is, of course, famously well behaved. What good is advocating prison reform if it comes too late for you to take advantage of it?

Odysseus and the NRA

From Emily Wilson’s lovely new translation of The Odyssey:

I put [the weapons] safe away from all that smoke.
Some spirit also warned me if you drink
too much and argue, you could hurt each other,
dishonoring your banquet and your courtship.
Weapons themselves can tempt a man to fight.

This sounds like a classic gun-control position, refuting the classic “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” gun-rights line. Weapons themselves provoke violence. Gun control saves lives.

But! In context, the meaning is exactly the opposite. This is one of Odysseus’s deceits. He is preparing this line as an argument for removing the suitors’ weapons, to leave them defenceless when he chooses to attack them. The lesson: don’t listen to the sword-grabbers who claim that disarming will make you safer.

Odysseus for NRA president!

What’s English for Führerprinzip?

The Guardian today knocks back the argument that UK vice chancellors are not overpaid — indeed, are grievously underpaid — when you take account of the extraordinary talents they must bring to the job, and compare them with the appropriate reference group of CEOs and American university presidents. They fill their remunerations committees with CEOs who will swear that no one worth their salt would get out of bed for less than half a million, and what can you do but pay what it costs to hire someone who can manage this huge and complex organisation and wheedle the high-class donors.Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.27.50 (more…)


Twenty years ago I had a short visit from a college friend* who had just discovered the technical utopia. Completely enthralled. The Internet was going to upend all power relations, make all governments irrelevant, make censorship impossible. I was fascinated, but I did ask, How is The Internet going to clean the sewers?

But there was something else that intrigued me. He was very much on the nonscience side as a student, but he had just been learning some programming. And he had discovered something amazing: When your computer looks like it isn’t doing anything, it’s actually constantly active, checking whether any input has come. The user interface is a metaphorical desktop, inert and passive until you prod it, but beneath the surface a huge amount of complicated machinery is thrumming to generate this placid illusion.

I thought of this when reading The European Union: A Very Short Introduction. The European Union is complicated. For instance, in EU governance there is the European Council and the Council of the European Union, which are distinct, and neither one is the same as the Council of Europe (which is not part of the EU at all). There is a vast amount of work for lawyers, diplomats, economists, and various other specialists — “bureaucrats” in the common parlance — to give form and reality to certain comprehensible goals, the famous “four freedoms” — free movement of goods, capital, services, and labour. The four freedoms are the user interface of the EU, if you will, and the

There’s a lot of legacy code in the EU. In the absence of a further world war to flatten the institutions and allow a completely new constitution to be created, EU institutions had to be made backward compatible with existing nation states. There is a great deal of human work involved in carrying out these compatibility tasks. When people complain that the EU is “bureaucratic”, that’s more or less what they mean. And when they complain about “loss of sovereignty” what they mean is that their national operating system has been repurposed to run the EU code, so that some of the action of national parliaments has become senseless on its own terms.

Some people look at complicated but highly useful structures with a certain kind of awe. When these were social constructs, the people who advised treating them with care used to be called “conservatives”. The people who call themselves Conservative these days, faced with complicated structures that they can’t understand, feel only an irresistible urge to smash them.

* German has a word — Kommilitone — for exactly this relationship (fellow student), lacking in English. Because it’s awkward to say “former fellow student”.

Horse thieves and inverse probabilities

Reading Ron Chernow’s magisterial new biography of Ulysses Grant, I came across this very correct statistical inverse reasoning from the celebrated journalist Horace Greeley (whose role in the high school history curriculum has been reduced to the phrase, “Go West, young man” — that he denied having invented):

All Democrats are not horse thieves, but all horse thieves are Democrats.

This seems like an ironic bon mot, but after he became the Democratic candidate for president against Grant in 1872 he tried to use a milder version unironically as a defence of his new party colleagues:

I never said all Democrats were saloon keepers. What I said was all saloon keepers are Democrats.

Presumably he meant to add that if we knew the base rate of saloonkeeping (or horse thievery) in the population at large, we could calculate from the Democratic vote share the exact fraction of Democrats (and of Republicans) who are saloonkeepers (or horse thieves).

Very fine people of 1863

I’ve just been reading Ron Chernow’s new biography of U.S. Grant, struck by some of the parallels to current events. As interim Secretary of War Grant was at the center of the struggle over the Tenure of Office Act that served as the pretext for Johnson’s impeachment. Johnson’s supporters charged Grant with lying and drunkenness. The New York Tribune retorted

In a question of veracity between U.S. Grant and Andrew Johnson, between a soldier whose honor is as untarnished as the sun, and a President who has betrayed every friend, and broken every promise, the country will not hesitate.

And Grant’s opponent in the 1868 presidential election, New York governor Horatio Seymour, had

Denounced the Emancipation Proclamation as “a proposal for the butchery of women and children, for scenes … of arson and murder.” During the 1863 draft riots in New York, Seymour had praised the responsible hooligans as “my friends”.

Shades of Charlottesville.

On the one hand, it might be comforting to know that the US has come through worse. On the other hand, to say that current affairs have their parallels in the extreme crisis of civil war, and in a state of division that could only be “resolved” by policies that imposed essentially a century of apartheid in the southern states, is hardly comforting.

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