Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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.

The compromise candidate

Several years ago I wrote a post about the strikingly different place of the US Civil War and the English Civil War in the collective memories of their respective countries. The other day I alluded in a post title to William Faulkner’s famous dictum “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This things come together in the way the news from Washington was dominated for a few days by an argument over the causes of the Civil War. Donald Trump’s Chief of Staff decided to take up the white supremacist’s burden by claiming that the war was an unfortunate consequence of well-intentioned men on both sides being unwilling to compromise. (Rather in the same way that Polish intransigence over the border issue started the Second World War. Not to mention the SS guards’ well-documented failure to maintain proper air-quality standards in Auschwitz…) (more…)

The mystic electric cords of memory

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s masterful treatise The Fiery Trial, on the evolution of Abraham Lincoln’s views on slavery and race. I was struck by this passage from Lincoln’s speech in Chicago, during the 1858 senate election campaign. Referring to the suggestion that citizenship was inherited by blood from the patriots of the Revolutionary era he said that half the current population had no blood tie to those English, but

when they look through that old Declaration of Independence they find that those old men say that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” and then they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men, that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration, (loud and long continued applause) and so they are. That is the electric cord in that Declaration that links the hearts of patriotic and liberty-loving men together, that will link those patriotic hearts as long as the love of freedom exists in the minds of men throughout the world.

So I wondered, why is he referring to an “electric cord”? This is long before any household electricity. I’m guessing he is thinking of a telegraph wire. I find it surprising that he could expect his audience to have a meaningful association with this specific element of what was then a brand new technology, and I wonder what feelings went with it.

(In case you don’t know the reference in the title, it’s in the last paragraph.)

The new Athens

Reports from Theresa May in Brussels

Speaking on Thursday night, the prime minister said both sides needed an “outcome that we can stand behind and defend to our people”, hinting at the political difficulty she would have in selling a deal that involves handing over a large sum to the EU.

Translation: We made unrealistic promises to our people. Now it’s up to you to fulfill our promises. In the name of democracy.

As I recall, another European leader recently tried to reject financial demands from international organisations by appealing to the spirit of democracy and the results of a popular referendum. I wonder how that one turned out?

Harold MacMillan famously compared postwar Britain to the Ancient Greeks:

These Americans represent the new Roman empire and we Britons, like the Greeks of old, must teach them how to make it go.

I guess, after the last dreams of empire fade, the British establishment can still grasp for the hope of becoming the new Athens.

Fascist alarm in Germany

There’s a lot of breast-beating, inside and outside of Germany, about the right-wing nationalist AfD getting more than 12% of the vote and taking seats in the Bundestag. I find much of this commentary overwrought. It’s not just the rhetoric that tries to make the AfD into the second coming of the Nazis, such as this from the Telegraph:

The far-Right could return as a force to be reckoned with in Berlin politics for the first time since the Second World War.

Almost identical lazy rhetoric appears all over the place, such as this from NPR:

It’s the first time since the Second World War that a party professing such xenophobic, anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic views has been voted into the Bundestag.

I dare say that the previous time they are alluding to, the problem was not that the far-right was “a force to be reckoned with” in Germany. It’s a bit like if you were writing an article about the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster and called it “the most significant nuclear incident in Japan since the Second World War.” (I suppose they could have made it worse by calling this instead “the second time since the First World War” that the far-Right was a force to be reckoned with.) (more…)

The self-modifying enabling law

The UK government seems to be so pressed for time to get their Brexit legal framework going, that they’ve taken to translating old German laws to fill in the gap — with certain pernicious modern features. I thought this stuff about “Henry VIII” powers was just hysteria, but the proposed European Union Withdrawal bill is nothing short of a dictatorial power grab.

The text may be found here. Section 7 deals with “regulations” for implementing the law:

A Minister of the Crown may by regulations make such provision as the Minister considers appropriate to prevent, remedy or mitigate— (a) any failure of retained EU law to operate effectively, or (b) any other deficiency in retained EU law, arising from the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU.

and in paragraph 4 we read:

Regulations under this section may make any provision that could be made by an Act of Parliament.

Compare to the German original:

Reichsgesetze können außer in dem in der Reichsverfassung vorgesehenen Verfahren auch durch die Reichsregierung beschlossen werden.

[In addition to the methods described in the Reich constitution, laws may also be determined by the government.]


Racism in context

Oriel College, Rhodes BuildingThis story happened to a friend of a friend — FOF in urban legend technical parlance — when I was a student at Yale. Said FOF had applied for a Rhodes scholarship, and was invited for an interview. Reading the FOF’s application letter stating that he sought to “further the legacy of Cecil Rhodes”, one interviewer asked, “When you refer to the legacy of Cecil Rhodes, do you mean in particular his legacy as a white supremacist or as a pedophile?”

I’m not sure if it’s credible that a representative of the Rhodes Trust could speak so disparagingly of its founder — this may be an example of British establishment values refracted through the prism of 1980s American student sentiment — but the principle is solid: Many who advocate leaving monuments to dubious figures of the past in situ — whether Cecil Rhodes or Robert E. Lee — complain  suggest, instead of “rewriting history” that this statuary needs to be seen “in context”. But they rarely concern themselves with providing the full context.

Now that Charlottesville has deposed its racist monument and Oriel College has kept its own, I wondered if the Oxford City Council might propose a solution amenable to all. Accepting the right of Oriel and its not-at-all-racist historically-minded alumni who refused to donate to a Rhodes-free institution, there is still plenty of space in front of the facade for more context. As it stands, the college places Rhodes in the context of two 20th-century kings and four 15th-16th-century college provosts and bishops. The city (or enterprising protestors) could contribute more context by placing an exhibition out front of famous British racists — for example, Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Enoch Powell — with the Rhodes statue in the centre.

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