The first minister’s second person

There’s a comedy trope that I think of as “second person confession”. The person starts telling a generic story in the second person, except that the details of the story start getting weirdly specific, morphing into an embarrassing or disturbing confession. Something like, “You know how it is, you’ve just been working all day, you come home exhausted, you want nothing more than to eat a sandwich and zone out on the couch. And then you get a call from some guy you barely know, who wants to meet up for some reason, and you’re about to tell him to fuck off, when he reminds you that you’ve known each other since the summer when you were 17, and he’s the only person who knows where you hid that body…”

So, Boris Johnson, the cringeworthy master of does-he-mean-this-to-be-a-joke, commented recently on the need for all of us lazy British workers to get back to the office, in these terms:

My experience of working from home is you spend an awful lot of time making another cup of coffee and then, you know, getting up, walking very slowly to the fridge, hacking off a small piece of cheese, then walking very slowly back to your laptop and then forgetting what it was you’re doing.

Thinking back to his pre-election bus hobby, it makes me wonder if there’s some embarrassing story about cheese that he’s trying to push down in the Google search rankings…

The Rwandan Shabbos elevator

Comments on the present Tory government’s contempt for the law have tended to focus on the prime minister’s lockdown parties, or his bribes for home redecorating, or his lying to Parliament. But there has been nothing so explicit and brazen as the prime minister defending a plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda to await decisions on their cases, as a necessary defence against “a formidable army of politically motivated lawyers”. Rather like the US sending prisoners to be tortured abroad — or doing it themselves in the law-free zone of Guantanamo — he is saying that our legal protections for asylum seekers are too onerous (when lefty lawyers have the audacity to actually use them) so we’re going to evade the law by sending the people to another jurisdiction where they don’t apply. Rather than simply change the law to match what he believes ought to be done, providing clarity and confidence to all concerned.

Which brings me to… the Shabbos elevator. One of the things that makes Orthodox Judaism seem bizarre to us Liberal Jews is its never-ending struggle to put one over on God. The Torah is full of rules and regulations — 613 of them according to one popular enumeration — and these are variously extended, expanded, and interpreted in various rabbinical texts and traditions to form the quasi-legal corpus known as halakha. Orthodox Jews commit themselves to obeying all of these precepts, which immediately leads — because some of them (like the ban on carrying anything outside or making a flame — interpreted to include electricity — on Shabbat) are quite onerous, some (like the prohibition against borrowing money at interest and the requirement to cancel all debts every seventh year) inconvenient, and others (like the ban on clothing made of mixed fabrics) simply bizarre — devote vast stores of legalistic ingenuity to evading these rules.

Thus you see the Orthodox tying wires — an eruv — around whole neighbourhoods, or even a large part of a city, to define it as a single “household”, where objects may be carried and journeys are permitted on Shabbat. They formally transfer their loans to a rabbinical court to avoid the required cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical year. They put their electric lights on automatic timers on Shabbat. And in hotels and apartment blocks — particularly, but not only, in Israel — they continue to use elevators that are specially designed to stop on every floor on Shabbat (to avoid needing to activate electrical buttons).

In his book The Shabbat Elevator, and other Sabbath subterfuges, the folklore scholar Alan Dundes considers the question of why the same people would have a set of overly strict customs, and then “counter customs” that relax the strictures. Within the framework of Jewish tradition the explanation is simple: The halakha is not a mere custom, it is the perfect law of God, and so must be followed. To the letter. Not, though, in spirit, because interpreting the spirit is beyond the capacity of mortal man. We are responsible for obeying the exact perfect words as passed on to us from God through our ancestors. These tricks may seem bizarre and counterintuitive, but if God wanted us to behave differently he would have formulated his Torah differently.

To a liberal Jew this seems kind of crazy. Our ancestors collectively created the law, and we do not respect it by evasion. We respect it by updating it. That forces us to acknowledge what we are doing, and to justify it, to ourselves and to our community.

And so it is with refugee law in Britain. If the UK government finds the law inappropriate, if it admits what they consider abuse by lefty lawyers, then they are free to use their majority in parliament to change the law, and to remove the legal rights and protections that refugees currently enjoy. To leave the law in place, but to evade it by sending the asylum-seekers to a country where they are not legally protected is bizarre and pointless, except as way of avoiding responsibility for the moral principles that their ancestors encoded into British law.

Socialist maths

The recent decision by the state of Florida to ban a slew of mathematics textbooks from its schools because of their links to banned concepts has attracted much attention. The website Popular Information has pored through the banned texts to try and suss out what the verboten ideological content might be. Some books seem to have impermissably encouraged students to work together and treat each other with respect. Another may have set off alarms because it included, among its capsule biographies of mathematicians, some non-white individuals.

I’ve always wondered, though, why it’s not considered problematic that books persistently teach the concept of division with problems that require that a fixed amount of wealth — 10 cookies, say — be allocated equally among a group of children. No consideration of whether some of the children might be smarter, or work harder, or just be closer to the cookie jar, and thus be entitled to a larger share. Pretty much the definition of socialism!

(More generally, it always fascinated me, in my years spent as an observer on the playground, that it was taken for granted that toddlers were always being pressured to share their toys, and learning to share was seen as a developmental milestone, where we do not expect adults to be willing or able to share anything at any time.)

Actors and financiers

The New Statesman has published an extended interview of Tony Blair by… the Welsh actor Michael Sheen. I found it a bizarre prospect. I know nothing about Sheen — I saw him in a film once — but I’m pretty sure if I wanted to hear Blair’s opinions, an actor would be one of the last interlocutors on my list. (A judge at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, on the other hand, would be right near the top.) What is it about actors, particularly film actors, that makes people want to rub up close to them and insert them into all kinds of roles for which they are in no way especially qualified or even interesting?

Michael Sheen and Tony Blair

My use of the word role there may suggest part of the reason: Even if actors are generally not especially intelligent, or insightful, or capable of repairing a leaky faucet, and their life experience is less relevant to the concerns of average people than pretty much anyone else’s — academics such as myself excepted — actors are used to playing the part of people who are intelligent or insightful or capable of fixing a leaky faucet, and perhaps they convey the superficial image of holding an intelligent conversation, even when they are utterly banal. (Just to be clear, I’m not saying that actors are unusually stupid: I have met some reasonably intelligent and interesting actors, and heard interviews with an occasional few who seemed genuinely fascinating. Only that their professional accomplishments give me no more expectation of their competence in any other area — or of them having anything interesting to say on any subject other than theatre and film — than members of any other profession or none.

It occurred to me, that there is an analogy to the perverse role of the finance industry. Money is sticky. That is, a significant fraction of the money running through the banks sticks to the people who handle it. It’s not at all obvious that the people who are responsible for investing and manipulating rich people’s money should themselves become rich. There is a German expression about the opposite expectation, “Pfarrers Kind und Müllers Vieh/ Gedeihen selten oder nie”: The preacher’s child and the miller’s livestock/ Will as good as never thrive. But we accept that there’s no way to prevent the people who are close to the money day in and day out from siphoning much of it into their own pockets. According to some estimates financial services in the US absorb a full 20% of all corporate income in the US.

Actors have a similar position in the attention economy. Attention is sticky. Their main job is to attract attention. And once they have the attention of a large public, the attention sticks to them, personally, even when they transition to activities that no sensible person would want to pay attention to.

The alternative to NATO

Apologists for Putin’s Ukraine atrocity point to NATO’s eastward expansion as the original sin that provoked Russian aggression. Proponents of Western innocence argue that this is a matter of autonomy of independent states whose need for the protection of the NATO alliance has been confirmed by Russian aggression not only against Ukraine, but also against Georgia and Moldova. Realism wouldn’t allow expansion to include former Soviet republics (except the Baltic states), they argue, but Western Europe had an obligation to go as far as it could to defend newly aspiring democracies.

In this telling, NATO has done as much as it could, taking on the burden of defending Poland, Hungary, etc. It explicitly decided not to make a commitment to Ukraine, and so has no moral obligation there — though it has gratuitously chosen to go beyond any obligation in assisting in the current crisis. But I’ve just been wondering… I haven’t heard any discussion of the alternative to NATO expansion. I don’t know what was realistic at the time, but I could imagine that following a rejection for inclusion in Western defense arrangements, the non-Russia former Warsaw Pact might have formed some kind of defensive alliance of their own, aimed at deterring Russian aggression, but sufficiently separate from NATO as to be recognised as a neutral buffer. These countries collectively have comparable population to Russia, and significantly higher GDP.

In this telling, NATO would bear significant responsibility for the current plight of Ukraine, not because it provoked Russia, but precisely because it couldn’t afford to provoke Russia too much. This led it to absorb Ukraine’s natural allies into an alliance that could never plausibly include Ukraine. It is then plausibly the fault of NATO expansion that Ukraine seemed to Putin a tempting target, defenceless and alone.

Riley in Odessa

While looking up something else in Uriel Weinreich’s Yiddish-English dictionary I came across the expression לעבן ווי גאָט אין אדעס — to live like God in Odessa — translated as “to live the life of Riley”.

I was familiar with the German expression Leben wie Gott in Frankreich — to live like God in France — with the same meaning, and I’d always assumed it was a reference to the large number of opulent houses that God has in France. But Odessa? It’s not a city I associate with cathedrals — though I’ve never been there. And would a Yiddish expression locate God’s dwelling in cathedrals? Is it originally a Russian expression? Presumably it’s connected to the German expression, but which came first? Maybe they both have nothing to do with cathedrals, but with a general opulence of lifestyle, in which God figures only as a kind of ironic hyperbole.

So many questions…

(Including about Riley. According to some sources the phrase goes back to a Sligo landowner Willy Reilly who found his way through to a contented and prosperous life after some ballad-worthy marital complications. There are no records of him ever having visited Odessa.)

“Unfair to other rich people”

The UK government is making a big show of considering, though they ultimately probably won’t follow through, scrapping the so-called “golden visa” programme, which allows wealthy people to bypass immigration constraints to move to the UK, in exchange for investing at least £2 million. This scheme is generally considered to have grossly abetted the growth of London as a world centre for money laundering.

Now, The Guardian reports, “London lawyers who help the global super-rich apply for “golden visas” to enter the UK have called on the government to reconsider its decision to abolish the Tier 1 investor visa scheme, warning that it would be “enormously damaging” to the economy.”

Kyra Motley, a partner at the law firm Boodle Hatfield, said the UK was jeopardising billions of pounds in overseas investment “because of a popular myth that foreign money is dirty money”…

Chetal Patel, a partner at law firm Bates Wells, said scrapping the investor visa because of increased tensions over Russia’s threat to Ukraine would be “unfair” to other rich people wishing to come to the UK.

“Since the introduction of golden visas in 2008, the UK has benefited from billions of pounds of investment. It would be enormously damaging to the UK economy if this was to be cut off.”

Weirdly, despite the fact that this is a purely economic argument the only people quoted are lawyers, not economists. I wonder whether The Guardian would be equally open to splashing on their home page claims by a group of economists that a new tax law would damage the integrity of the UK legal code? Particularly if those economists admitted — indeed, if their sole claim for expertise in this matter — was their personal pecuniary interest in having the law changed.

Honestly, is there any reason to think that the UK is suffering a shortage of foreign investment — as opposed to, say, a shortage of farm workers, which is well documented, and has been driven by intentional government action to exclude foreigners. And this despite the fact that — “popular myth” or no — the incidence of criminality among billionaires (domestic or foreign) is clearly higher than among farm workers.

Is science fiction the first draft of history?

I’ve just been reading a science fiction novel from 1998, Das Jesus-Video, by the German author Andreas Eschbach. It concerns a group of archaeologists in Israel who stumble upon what appear to be the remains of a time traveller from the near future who travelled back 2000 years with a video camera in order to film the crucifixion of Jesus. The dig is funded by an American mogul who is hoping that this discovery can be monetised to save his business empire, that has never been on sound financial footing. And in contemplating this he is obsessed with the example of another failed businessman from recent history:

Das mahnende Beispiel, das ihm immer vor Augen stand – so sehr, dass er sich allen Ernstes schon überlegt hatte, ein Bild des Mannes auf seinem Schreibtisch aufzustellen –, war das Schicksal eines längst vergessenen Immobilientycoons der achtziger Jahre, ein Mann namens Donald Trump, der jahrelang von den Medien als Wirtschaftswunderknabe und Erfolgsmensch hochgejubelt worden war, so lange, bis er es selber geglaubt hatte und leichtsinnig geworden war. Manche sagten später auch »größenwahnsinnig« dazu, und viele von denen, die das sagten, hatten zu denen gehört, die ihn beklatscht hatten, als er noch ganz oben zu stehen schien. Sein Sturz war schnell und grausam gewesen – Banken hatten ihre Kreditzusagen zurückgenommen, Investoren waren ausgestiegen, Projekte gescheitert – und er war sehr, sehr tief gefallen, war fast völlig von der Bildfläche verschwunden.

[The cautionary tale that always hovered before his eyes – so much so that he had seriously considered keeping a picture of the man on his desk – was the fate of a long forgotten property tycoon of the 1980s, a man called Donald Trump, who had been wildly celebrated in the media as a brilliant success and Enfant terrible of business for so many years that he came to believe it himself, and became reckless. Some even called him “megalomaniac”, even when these were some of the same people who had applauded when he seemed to be on top. His crash was abrupt and grisly – banks revoked his lines of credit, investors pulled their money, projects collapsed – and he had fallen very, very far, indeed had almost completely disappeared from the scene.

“Long forgotten” \_(ツ)_/

Booster — the final report

Another update of my Covid booster saga. After the only walk-in vaccination centre in Oxford decided to stop accepting walk-ins I looked about for other options. I was now eligible for a booster, but couldn’t sign up for an appointment, because only NHS-delivered vaccines count. I considered getting an appointment for a nominal first vaccine, but worried that that might just get me into trouble. I heard that the NHS had suddenly decided to start registering vaccinations performed abroad, and that would allow me to get a booster. (The website even suggested that you may be given a booster vaccine at the appointment, but you may not, and the appointment is really only to register your information.) But, bizarrely, the registration has to be done in person, and the nearest place is Reading, 25 miles away. So I could take the train, possibly get infected on the way, in order to get a booster.

Instead, I saw that there was a pharmacy offering drop-in vaccinations in Aylesbury, about 17 miles from Oxford, and connected by a reasonable route for cycling. And they were open Sunday. The weather was good, so I set out a bit after 8 on my bicycle, arriving around 9:45, shortly after they opened at 9:30.

“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. I’m here for a walk-in.”
Funny look.
“This is listed on the NHS website as a walk-in site.”
“It was, until yesterday, when we ran out of vaccine.”
“I just cycled two hours from Oxford.”
“If you want you can wait in that queue over there and try your luck.”
There were about a dozen people waiting already. I ended up being the last walk-in they let in, and I got the booster.

A student of mine waited 6 hours in the rain yesterday for a booster. I remember a German colleague commenting many years ago that he liked American university libraries because the librarians consider it their job to serve the readers with books. Unlike German librarians who consider it their job to protect the books from the readers.

The NHS — meaning, the larger dysfunctional system of the NHS and its many private subcontractors — seems to have a similar attitude toward vaccines. Better that ten should go unvaccinated than that one ineligible person should be vaccinated.

Self-deconstructing clichés: Polymeter edition

For earlier editions of this occasional series, see Weight-loss edition, Supreme Court edition, Europe edition, Bill of Rights edition, open door.

I remember very clearly when the figure of speech “the mother of all X” came into English. It was during the first Gulf War, and Saddam Hussein gave a speech threatening the US-led alliance with “the mother of all battles” should they have the temerity to attack. I recall how the phrase was so strange that an area expert spoke on television, explaining that this was the literal translation of a somewhat flowery Arabic expression, used to evoke an exceptionally strong superlative.

Because, the thing about mothers is that they are a) important, and b) unique. Which makes it surpassingly odd that Trump propagandist and still-congressman Devin Nunes some time ago, in the context of Trump’s first impeachment trial, referred to the allegations against the president as

“one of the mothers of all conspiracy theories” to imagine that “somehow the president of the United States would want a country he doesn’t even like … to start an investigation into Biden.”

To paraphrase an old saying, “a victory has a hundred fathers, but a conspiracy theory has a hundred mothers”, apparently.