Harrod’s massacre of the innocents

Herod the Great: Ancient Judaean tyrant and department store magnate

From today’s Guardian:

Harrods limits Christmas grotto to £2,000-plus spenders

I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing that makes Jews in the US and UK feel more alien than Christmas, and nothing weirder about Christmas for those not part of that culture than the Santa Claus/Father Christmas complex. As I’ve commented at length before, I have always been genuinely baffled by the custom of persuading children to believe — not just play believe, but genuinely believe — in a mythical figure that no adult believes in. Unlike belief in God, or trustworthy government, which can lead to awkward but also fruitful discussions, this one depends on the children never asking the question. Once they ask the question the jig is up, or the parents need to lie, or create elaborate deceptions that are the stuff of modern legends. This puts children from non-Christian religious traditions in an awkward position, because they have to keep this obvious truth from their fellows, or be accused of undermining the Christian family, which is a heavy burden to place on five-year-olds.

Which brings us to today’s headline.

Amid all this there is nothing odder — unless it’s the workshop literally in the middle of the ocean — than the nexus of Father Christmas to capitalism. On the one hand, there’s the whole racist sweatshop vibe (brilliantly parodied by S J Perelman in his Clifford Odets spoof Waiting for Santy) that’s supposed to paste a gift-economy covering over the cold cash transaction of holiday purchases. On the other hand, there’s the literal use of the Santa Claus figure for in-store sales promotion.

The Knightsbridge department store has been accused of “behaving like the Grinch who stole Christmas” by restricting access to its Father Christmas to customers who have spent at least £2,000 in the 170-year-old shop.

One customer complained that his family’s Christmas tradition “had been ruined by Harrods’ greed”, and that the store

has turned the charitable nature of Father Christmas into a money-making venture.

I think Harrods is playing with fire here. How long until Father Christmas finds out about the grasping nature of his partner and pulls out of this arrangement, which he obviously had entered into in the assumption that an upscale London department store could be counted on to put the interests of ordinary people first?

Really, if wealthy capitalists can’t be trusted anymore to eschew greed and promote the general welfare, who can we turn to? Any ideas? Karl? Friedrich?

16th century lessons on fake news and disinformation

I’ve just been reading an interesting book on the relationship between two 16th-century social-media influencers, Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther (Fatal Discord, by Michael Massing). I was struck by one comment that came up at the Diet of Worms that speaks to our current conundra over propaganda and disinformation.

Luther argued that he could not recant all of his writings, since some stated truths universally acknowledged by Christians. They must point out to him which particular assertions were false, and demonstrate the falsity with citations from genuine authorities, which could only be scriptural.

Determined not to be drawn into a debate, the theologian Johann Eck countered that Luther’s

assertion that some of his books contained teachings that were sound and acceptable to all was specious, for heretical books, going back to the Arians, had been burned, despite containing much that was godly and Catholic. In fact, Eck said, no doctrine is more effective in deceiving than that which mixes a few false teachings with many that are true.

This is a clear formulation of the principle of optimal fakery that I have discussed at length in this essay.

May God bless and keep the tsar far away from us…

I’m happy to see the UK government interested in attacking antisemitism — even if they do tend to see the main contribution of Jews to UK society as being to shield the Conservative Party against accusations of racism (as demonstrated most recently by Boris Johnson at Prime Minister’s Questions) — but I can’t help feeling it shows at the very least some level of insensitivity to historical context for the government to appoint an antisemitism tsar.

I find it jarring in the same way I did this reference to both the “Mecca of the kibbutz movement” and “a huge garage in southern Tel Aviv turned into the new mecca of dance, drugs, and casual encounters.

I suppose we should be grateful the government has not decided to launch a Crusade against Antisemitism.

Everything I needed to know about British politics I learned in kindergarten

The Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said, “The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton”. Whether or not that ever well described the preparation of the British military I cannot say, but I feel like to understand British politics you need to go back earlier, to the playground of whatever toff kindergarten prepares the English elite for Eton. How else to explain Boris Johnson thinking he can pressure the Labour Party into agreeing to an election on Dominic Cummings’s preferred schedule by calling Jeremy Corbyn “frit”, a “chlorinated chicken”, or “a great big girl’s blouse“.

This last expression struck me as so bizarre — not only is it much too ungainly a phrase to function effectively as an insult, but I can’t think of another term of abuse that compares the target to an item of clothing — but various explainers have revealed that it is indeed a slang expression from the period of Johnson’s childhood, and that Johnson has been known to use it in the past.

It never ceases to astonish me, not just that someone in a position of influence would publicly speak this way, but that his co-partisans seem to find it normal, acceptable, not at all embarrassing, even powerful.

None of this can compare to early-twentieth-century British playground politics. One of the most horrifying details of Christopher Clarke’s meticulous analysis of the march to war in 1914 The Sleepwalkers was his adumbration of the temperamental state of mind prevailing in the British foreign-policy establishment in the decade before the war, illustrated by the comment of UK Ambassador to France Sir Francis ‘the Bull’ Bertie that the Germans wanted “to push us into the water and steal our clothes.”

Jerry Garcia on heroin and Brexit

I think often of an interview with Jerry Garcia that I read in 1987, when the Grateful Dead had rebounded and gone back out on tour following Garcia’s brush with death: A combination of diabetes and heroin addiction had landed him in a coma, and for a while it wasn’t clear if he would ever be able to play guitar again. Anyway, the interviewer asked him directly about his addiction, and he said (approximately; I don’t have the original text) “You come to drugs with your problems. And after a while the problems fade away, and it’s just you and the drugs.”

And similarly Brexit. Britain came to Brexit with lots of serious problems: housing shortage, inequality, underfunded health service, declining influence in the world and uncertainty about what global role it should or could aspire to. Brexit doesn’t solve these problems, but they’ve faded away. Now it’s just us and Brexit.

The nature vs. nurture debate: High Christology edition

At least since the late nineteenth century the social interpretation of biology — and of genetics in particular — has devolved repeatedly upon the nature–nurture dispute: To what extent is a human’s individual characteristics determined by a predetermined essence or nature — qualities they are born with, commonly identified with inheritance; or by nurture, the particulars of the physical and social environment in which they develop after birth. From one of the most interesting books I’ve read recently, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, I learned that an analogous debate roiled the early Christian Church.

One of the key disputes among early followers of Jesus concerned the nature and meaning of Jesus’s divinity. At the extremes you had the “low” christology belief that Jesus was a wise man and preacher, of the same nature as any other human; and the “high” christology claim that Jesus was identical with the creator God of the Hebrew Scriptures, and only appeared to be human. (Perhaps even more extreme were the gnostic claims that Jesus was an even higher being than that nasty Yahweh, who obviously fucked up his one major task*, for possibly nefarious purposes. In between were a range of beliefs that Jesus was entirely divine and entirely human. Ehrman points out that in the ancient Mediterranean world there were two “major ways” that it was believed possible for a human to be divine:

  • By adoption or exaltation. A human being… could be made divine by an act of God or a god…
  • By nature or incarnation. A divine being… could become human, either permanently or, more commonly, temporarily.

In other words, God by nurture or God by nature. Nurture is particularly emphasised in the Gospel of Mark, Nature in the Gospel of John. Reflecting the common prejudice in favour of “nature” as the more powerful, one typically thinks of incarnation as representing a more exalted view of Jesus. A Jesus who grew up as a human, and only in adulthood was adopted by God seems less genuinely godlike than one who is, so to speak, fruit of God’s loins — hence the virgin-birth story of Matthew and Luke.

One of the more fascinating novelties of Ehrman’s account is his elucidation of adoption customs in the Roman world, particularly as regards nobles and rulers. Of course, we know that Roman emperors commonly adopted heirs — most famously, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian — but Ehrman explains how prevalent views of adoption were that today would be called progressive: Adoptive families are families by choice, so could be considered superior to the accidental biological families. An heir chosen by a great leader for the qualities he has demonstrated better incorporates and perpetuate’s the leader’s essence than his biological descendant.

Thus, a Christ nurtured by and ultimately adopted into the divine family by God after he had proved himself worthy is a more genuinely divine being than any merely so-to-speak genetically divine progeny, who might ultimately turn out to be a disappointment to his father.

* A classic joke with a gnostic perspective: A man goes to the tailor to order a new coat. The tailor fusses around taking measurements, asking exacting questions about the fabric, the cut, and so on. Having finished he names a price and tells the customer the jacket will be finished in three weeks. “Three weeks! The Lord created the whole world in just one week!”

The tailor shakes his head, picks up another recently completed coat, and beckons the man to come to the window. “One week you want? Look at the work here. The precision cuts. The minute stitching. The harmonious interplay of the parts. And now” gesturing out the window, “look at this world…”

Magic and class struggle

I just started reading the book Magic for Liars by Sarah Galley. I’d purchased it because of a short review, but by the time I got to read it I’d completely forgotten anything about it, so I was bemused to discover that it is sort of a hard-boiled detective murder mystery set in a boarding school for young magicians. It struck me then how odd it is that “boarding school for young magicians” has turned into a whole genre, spanning a range of works for young people and adults, and now starting to colonise completely different genres, like detective fiction.

So far as I can tell this is largely an Anglo-American literary phenomenon (though Harry Potter is certainly very popular throughout the world), and I suspect that it reflects a natural response to the class system and the power that is accrues to elite education. Surely an uneducated Briton, seeing how a mediocrity like Boris Johnson can be elevated to a position of power on the basis of pairing his hail-fellow-well-met demeanour with the Eton-Oxford training can’t really imagine what they’re learning there, but supposes it must be some sort of deep magic. That’s why the spells in Harry Potter are all Dog Latin: Unexceptional people go to these weird schools, learn these dead languages, and end up ruling the world.

Update: I have deleted a comment asserting a common etymology of magic spell and spelling (learning to write). The words (as Maria Christodoulou pointed out) in fact have completely different roots. (I’m not sure where I got this false etymology from. I would have sworn it was Mary Daly, but while Gyn/Ecology has lots of (sometimes dubious) wordplay on spell and glamour, the association spell-witchcraft-learning is not there.

True freedom of religion

I’ve just been reading David Nirenberg’s history of antisemitism Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, and I came across the interesting letter 40 of Ambrose. Ambrose was Bishop of Milan for two decades in the late 4th century, and is considered one of the Fathers of the Church. The letter, addressed to the Roman emperor Theodosius, is framed as a plea for freedom and tolerance. And what is it that the “Godfearing, merciful, gentle, and calm” Theodosius has not sufficiently tolerated? It is the religious obligation to burn down synagogues.

In 388 a mob of monks in the Mesopotamian city of Callinicum burned down the Jewish synagogue and a gnostic Christian church. The local military governor ordered that the monks be punished and that the synagogue be rebuilt, at the expense of the local bishop, who had incited the attack.

There is, then, no adequate cause for such a commotion, that the people should be so severely punished for the burning of a building, and much less since it is the burning of a synagogue, a home of unbelief, a house of impiety, a receptacle of folly, which God Himself has condemned.

Ambrose goes on to remind Theodosius of the fate of his predecessor, who was thought too solicitous of the safety of Jews and their houses of worship:

Is it not on this account that Maximus was forsaken, who, before the days of the expedition, hearing that a synagogue had been burnt in Rome, had sent an edict to Rome, as if he were the upholder of public order? Wherefore the Christian people said, No good is in store for him. That king has become a Jew.

In other words, if you defend the Jews you might be suspected of being kind of a Jew yourself.

Anyway, this reminded me of John Boswell’s Jews and Bicycle Riders, and certain cries for religious tolerance that are abroad in the land today…

Correspondence bias and communism

Reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right I was struck by this relatively banal observation:

In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale… But what of the crimes of capitalism? What of the atrocious bloodbath known as the First World War, in which the clash of imperial nations hungry for territory sent working-class soldiers to a futile death? The history of capitalism is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide and avoidable famines.

Superficially, this looks like dialectical what-about-ism. Whose mass murder was worse? But it occurred to me that there is something here that needs explanation: Given that communism and capitalism both have long charge sheets in the court of history, how can the association with atrocity and tyranny serve so broadly as a knock-down argument against communism?

It made me think of correspondence bias, the psychological tendency of people to interpret their own behaviour as situation-dependent — I didn’t do the reading for the seminar because I had a family crisis and I was exhausted — while someone else’s behaviour is seen as representing their essential nature — too lazy or inconsiderate to do the reading. This also works between groups, as when, for instance, a man’s failure to successfully lead a research team shows that he’s not cut out for that sort of responsibility (or not yet ready for it) while a woman’s failure shows that women aren’t suited to leadership.

So it is with economic systems: Stalin reveals the fundamental nature of communism, its core evil revealed by the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge; but but Hitler and Pinochet are only incidentally capitalists, and the explanation of their crimes must be found outside the economic sphere. The Great Irish Famine has nothing to do with capitalist ideology, even while merchants were exporting food from starving Ireland to British markets, and American slavery and the Native American genocide are particular historical events that cannot tell us anything about the general implications of capitalism.

Increasingly, climate change makes capitalism look like a global suicide pact.

There is a similar bias at work in the judgement of religious communities: Many Christians attribute violence and brutality to Islam as an essential quality of the religion, proved by selective quotes from the Koran, while dismissing Christian-motivated atrocities to “not real Christians” or special circumstances of people long ago or far away. (We Jews are in an awkward position relative to this: On the one hand, our communal experience does not incline us to trust the good faith of Christians any more than of Muslims or druids or Satanists; on the other hand, Jews have become a particular target of Muslim rage, while many of us are well assimilated in majority-Christian nations. Some are happy to repay the recent good treatment by echoing the local prejudices.)

The power of baselines

From today’s Guardian:


It took decades to establish that smoking causes lung cancer. Heavy smoking increases the risk of lung cancer by a factor of about 11, the largest risk ratio for any common risk factor for any disease. But that doesn’t make it peculiar that there should be any non-smokers with lung cancer.

As with my discussion of the horrified accounts of obesity someday overtaking smoking as a cause of cancer, the main cause is a change in the baseline level of smoking. As fewer people smoke, and as non-smokers stubbornly continue to age and die, the proportional mortality of non-smokers will inevitably increase.

It is perfectly reasonable to say we should consider diverting public-health resources from tobacco toward other causes of disease, as the fraction of disease caused by smoking declines. And it’s particularly of concern for physicians, who tend toward essentialism in their view of risk factors — “lung cancer is a smoker’s disease” — to the neglect of base rates. But the Guardian article frames the lung cancer deaths in non-smokers as a worrying “rise”:

They blame the rise on car fumes, secondhand smoke and indoor air pollution, and have urged people to stop using wood-burning stoves because the soot they generate increases risk… About 6,000 non-smoking Britons a year now die of the disease, more than lose their lives to ovarian or cervical cancer or leukaemia, according to research published on Friday in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

While the scientific article they are reporting on never explicitly says that lung cancer incidence in non-smokers [LCINS] is increasing, certainly some fault for the confusion may be found there:

the absolute numbers and rates of lung cancers in never-smokers are increasing, and this does not appear to be confounded by passive smoking or misreported smoking status.

This sounds like a serious matter. Except, the source they cite a) doesn’t provide much evidence of this and b) is itself 7 years old, and only refers to evidence that dates back well over a decade. It cites one study that found an increase in LCINS in Swedish males in the 1970s and 1980s, a much larger study that found no change over time in LCINS in the US between 1959 and 2004, and a French study that found rates increasing in women and decreasing in men, concluding finally

An increase in LCINS incidence could be real, or the result of the decrease in the proportion of ever smokers in some strata of the general population, and/or ageing within these categories.

What proportion of lung cancers should we expect to be found in non-smokers? Taking the 11:1 risk ratio, and 15% smoking rate in the UK population, we should actually expect about 85/(15×11)≈52% of lung cancer to occur in non-smokers. Why is it only 1/6, then? The effect of smoking on lu estimated that lung cancer develops after about 30 years of smoking. If we look back at the 35% smoking incidence of the mid 1980s, we would get an estimate of about 65/(35×11)≈17%.