Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

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…)

The EU OS

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.

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