Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘politics’

Being demographic

People have been saying for a long time that the Republican strategy of ethnic nationalism is running out of room, because of increasing proportions of ethnic minorities. I noted during the 2012 election how odd it was that some groups of people were considered to vote “demographically”, while others (white Protestant men) were assumed to vote on the basis of a broad array of concerns. According to the demographic fallacy, minority groups have special interests that are very important to them, but only of peripheral interest to the majority. Too much pandering can piss off the majority, but targeted appeals can motivate the minority, potentially to very high percentages, but there is no way to motivate the majority en bloc. After the 2012 election there were any number of comments of the sort “To win the presidency, Republicans need to make up their deficit among black and hispanic voters. They are losing them at such a level that (with changing povulation composition) a future Republican candidate would need to win the white vote at implausible levels to win a majority.” Now it appears that this argument is exactly wrong, for three reasons:

  1. As Trump correctly intuited, white people are also susceptible to ethnic appeals. And if you can motivate them as an ethnic group, they’re the biggest, baddest one of all. Meanwhile, the Democrats appeal to ethnic minorities was maxed out. The pervasive undercover racism of the Republican party gave Obama a huge edge among hispanics and blacks; naked racism, religious exclusion, and threats of deportation by Trump couldn’t move it any further, but could pull in vast numbers of white voters who share his racist world view and are relieved to hear it expressed openly. Those of us who move in educated circles should have taken more seriously the assertions early on that “Trump says what everyone really thinks”. Obviously, we didn’t know what people were thinking.
  2. Similarly for women. The model of what I called “demographic thinking” in politics is  I’m not the first to notice that women are not actually a minority. The power relations (yay intersectionality!) nonetheless seem to justify seeing the struggle for women’s rights as analogous to the struggle for rights of ethnic minorities.
    Feminists may have gotten suckered by a figure-ground second-sex fallacy with regard to women voters. If you think of males as the default, and women as the “minority”, then an openly misogynist candidate like Trump would seem to turn out the women to vote against him. But most of those women have been having to compromise with and make excuses for Trump-like figures in their lives — in their families — their whole lives. Some will recoil in horror, but most will continue to make excuses. And the women voters lost may be balanced by just as many men gained.
  3. It’s perfectly possible to maintain a semblance of democracy while entrenching the power of a minority to rule over the majority. Many countries have done this. With the single exception of 2004, the Republicans have not won a plurality in a presidential election since 1988. Democrats received a majority of the votes for representatives in 2012 and (probably) 2016. Nonetheless, the Republicans have attained unrestricted control over nearly the entire federal government, and very little stands in the way of further restricting voting rights to maintain their control and civil rights of minorities, expanding the political influence of the wealthy, to maintain their power indefinitely.

The electoral college was designed to leverage the 3/5 compromise to increase the power of southern slave-holding states in presidential election. Now, under very different circumstances, it is still serving this function.

Big notes

I remember reading, back in the late 1990s, an article in Spiegel, about the dubious decision of the Euro finance ministers to create a 500 euro banknote. Since the only people who use cash in significant quantities in this millennium tend to be shy people eager not to be singled out for their achievements by prosecutors, the question was raised, why would you want to create a unit of currency that enables law-abiding citizens (and others) to pack five times as much currency into a suitcase as the former favourite $100 bills?* The answer given by Edgar Meister, one of the directors of the Bundesbank, was that Germans had gotten used to having a 1000 Mark banknote, and that if the largest Euro banknote were worth less, people would think this new currency was a weakling.

Eine Währung, die es sich leisten kann, mit so hohen Noten herauszukommen muß wertbeständig sein.

A currency that can afford to produce such large banknotes must be solid.

As everyone knows, that’s why Germany produced this 50 million Mark note in 1923: (more…)

Surfin’ NSDAP

I think we can all agree that the entire 20th century has conspired to make this sentence from the April 11 1933 NY Times the most bizarre political analogy since the New Jerusalem:

Screenshot 2016-05-12 09.28.28

Cleverly mixing his sports metaphors, Rev. Clinchy went on to say

Germany has been down for the count of nine and now she is arising to her feet and beginning to assert herself, and Hitler knows how to capitalize on that.

Hitler and Germany conducting a boxing match on a surfboard. The cartoon practically draws itself.

The value of a reputation

I strongly appreciate the importance of a reputation for probity.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands.

So many vague accusations and suspicions can float around in everyday life where the best basis for judgement is to appeal to prior probability. But this goes too far:

Mossack Fonseca says it has operated beyond reproach for 40 years and never been accused or charged with criminal wrong-doing.

Mossack Fonseca has just mislaid 11 million documents that show its complicity in a vast web of tax evasion through secret accounts in Panama. Even to say that it has operated legally would be stretching credulity. To say that it has been “beyond reproach”… well, I suppose it’s technically true, since no one knew enough about them to reproach them. Similarly a master burglar, when finally caught with his home full of stolen jewels and cash, could say, “This is an outrage. No one has ever cast such aspersions on my good name.”

The Rhodes goes ever on and on

It is decided: The Rhodes statue remains at Oriel College. What was promised to be a long and thoughtful reconsideration of the appropriateness of honouring a notorious racist in the facade of an educational institution of the twenty-first century was short-circuited by threats to withdraw £100 million pounds in donations. The ruling class has spoken! Surely, at the least, we can agree that this demolishes the notion that Rhodes is a mere quaint historical figure, whose ideology is of no concern. Clearly there are quite a few mighty pillars of the establishment who feel that an assault on the honour due to a man who brought great wealth and power to Britain through dispossessing, subjugating, and frankly murdering members of what he considered “childish” and “subject races”.

Most bizarre is the appearance of an extreme form of the standard political-correctness jiu-jitsu, whereby students raising their voices in protest constitute an assault upon free speech, while the superannuated poobahs who tell them to shut up until they have their own directorship of a major bank are the guardians of liberty. And we academic hired hands are neglecting our pedagogical duty if we don’t help them tie on the gag.

As I remarked before, they talk as though the protesters sought to excise the name of Rhodes from the history books with knives and acid, rather than proposing that the Rhodes statue be removed from its place of honour to a museum, where it can be viewed neutrally among other historical artefacts.

There is an argument that says, the Rhodes Must Fall argument points to general iconoclasm. What statue would stand if we judge the attitudes of our past heroes by contemporary standards. Putting aside the question of whether a complete lack of granite equestrians would impoverish modern urban life or undermine public morals, there is a vast difference between a historical figure who is honoured for great accomplishments and services to his country, but who shared in what we now consider benighted attitudes of his time; and Rhodes, whose accomplishments consist in dispossession and subjugation of other races. Take away the racism and imperialism from Rhodes and nothing remains.

Obviously, different views of the Rhodes statue are possible. What I find extraordinary is the accusation that even to raise the issue is somehow improper. That this is presented as a defence of free speech only demonstrates how the implicit critique has driven some portion of the elite into unreasoning frenzy.

By their scandals you shall know them

I’ve always been impressed by German political scandals. More generally, I think that the quality of political scandals is an excellent indicator of the general health of a country’s political culture. More than 20 years ago I was in Germany during the Briefbogenaffäre, the “letterhead affair”, when the business minister and deputy chancellor Jürgen Mölleman was forced to resign after having used his department’s letterhead to tout a really banal business idea of his cousin (selling plastic chips to be used instead of one-mark coins to stick into supermarket trolleys as deposit), calling it a “pfiffige Idee” (clever idea). At the time I thought the whole thing seemed ridiculous, and simultaneously I was impressed at a political culture capable of being genuinely shocked by minor corruption. You couldn’t imagine an Italian minister being forced to resign over something like that.

Now there’s a new scandal, and Germany has again showed itself to be a country that takes democratic values seriously. About a week ago the blog netzpolitik.org, a major organ for German journalism about issues of internet freedom and privacy, received notification that the Generalbundesanwalt (GBA — basically, attorney general) that they were officially being investigated under suspicion of treason, for having published secret documents of the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV — the “Federal Agency for Defense of the Constitution”, the somewhat Orwellian name that Germany has bestowed on its internal secret police) relating to its new plans for mass internet surveillance with a special secret budget. The letter says that the investigation was provoked by a criminal complaint issued by the Verfassungsschutz.

What happened next was surprising. The Verfassungsschutz and the GBA were both strongly criticised in the press, with accusations that they were trying to stifle public criticism. Comparisons were drawn to the 1962 Spiegel Affair, a crucial event in postwar German history, where the government imprisoned journalists who had revealed secret documents showing weaknesses in German military preparedness, but was then forced to back down. Then the circular firing squad began. The justice minister criticised the decision as improper. The GBA office said they were obliged to act on the complaint from the BfV. The BfV said they only reported the facts to the GBA, they had no responsibility for the criminal investigation. Then the GBA fired back at the justice minister, saying his comments were an “intolerable interference” in the independence of the judicial system. Whereupon the justice minister fired him and had the investigation stopped.

It’s hard to imagine any important political or judicial figure in the UK or US losing his job because he was seen as being too aggressive in protecting state secrets against press freedom.

Quantum politics

According to The Guardian,

It is, perhaps, a measure of just how powerful she has become: Angela Merkelnow appears to be influencing youth slang. The compilers of Germany’s most popular dictionary say that the verb “merkeln” is on track to become the most popular “youth word” of the year… The word is none-too flattering, meaning being indecisive, or failing to have an opinion on something – behaviour that Germans often attribute to Merkel.

They attribute this characteristic to quantum physics:

Merkel observers put the chancellor’s approach down to her training in quantum physics, which leads her to work a problem through step by step like an experiment, rather than trying to predict its outcome in advance.

What’s weird is, first of all, that she’s not particularly an expert on quantum physics. Her doctorate is in physical chemistry, and while it did involve quantum mechanics, it also involved many other tools and methods equally well. Second, the characteristics they describe have nothing to do with quantum physics. They’re simply attributes of an experimental scientist (though I would have thought that scientists are more typically accused of being dogmatic and inflexible, more than of being indecisive).

Surely, if you’re attributing someone’s indecision to their training in quantum physics you have to make some reference to “uncertainty” or “quantum superposition”. Merkel is Schrödinger’s Kanzlerin.

Singing the Swedish national anthem

When someone speaks incomprehensibly, an English speaker will be inclined to reference Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, saying “it was Greek to me”. But what does a Greek finance minister say when no one understands him at Eurogroup negotiations? From an interview with Yanis Varoufakis in the New Statesman:

There was point blank refusal to engage in economic arguments. Point blank. You put forward an argument that you’ve really worked on, to make sure it’s logically coherent, and you’re just faced with blank stares. It is as if you haven’t spoken. What you say is independent of what they say. You might as well have sung the Swedish national anthem – you’d have got the same reply.

Mixing up the issues

The Salaita fiasco rumbles along. I have commented before on the case, where the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign took advantage of ambiguities in its hiring process to try to destroy the career of a tenured professor of American Indian Studies, whom they pretended to want to hire, and then fired after he had resigned his old job, but before his new contract had formally started. (Admittedly, by presenting it in these terms I’m pretending that it is not just a giant cock-up. This is what it looks like if you try to pretend that the people acting for the university have any idea what they’re doing. Depending on your perspective, I’m being either generous or unfair.) The current state of play is well summarised here. This was punishment for anti-Israel tweets that had attracted unpleasant attention of some of the university’s major donors.

Anyway, having made her university a place where senior academics need to consult with expert legal counsel before accepting a job offer — if they even want to challenge an international boycott and join an academic pariah — UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise (who insists, according to the Chicago Tribune, simultaneously that “she wished she had “been more consultative” before rescinding Salaita’s job offer, and said it could have led her to a different decision” and that “there was “no possibility” that he would work at the U. of I.”) has told the Chronicle of Higher Education that

“People are mixing up this individual personnel issue with the whole question of freedom of speech and academic freedom,” she said in an interview. “I stand by the fact that this institution and all of higher education stands on the bedrock of the importance of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and that we should be and are the place where we deal with the most contentious and difficult and complicated issues that face the world, and that we have to provide the platform where discussions that are difficult and contentious and uncomfortable and unimaginable happen.”

That’s the kind of careful thinking on challenging questions that we look to academic leadership for! Some confused people are mixing up the issues. UIUC stands foursquare behind the principles of academic freedom, and the open discussion of “difficult and contentious and uncomfortable” issues, while confronting the completely unrelated practical real-world challenges of firing a professor for openly making contentious and uncomfortable statements in a public forum.

Or, as the irrepressible Abraham Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai Brith since before the Flood, more succinctly put it,

Donors give money and they expect certain things. There’s nothing wrong with them voicing their opinion.

Is Yahweh a constitutional monarch?

And was King David his prime minister?

I recently commented — as I’m not the first to notice — that an important advantage of having a monarch sitting formally on the throne, but prohibited from doing anything, is that it prevents the people wielding real power, like the prime minister, from putting on regal airs. You wouldn’t think such a silly trick would work, but it seems to.

It occurred to me that the origin of this trick could be seen in the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible. God is repeatedly referred to as the King of Kings, and he is not at all pleased when Israel insists on having a king of their own. A king? he says. Are you out of your fucking minds? A king will be making war all the time. He’ll tax your grain and livestock. He’ll take your sons for his army and your daughters to serve in his palace. You’ll be slaves. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But even then, it’s a very limited sort of kingship, because the real monarch is the King of Kings.

It’s a perfect solution, for keeping kings in their place. Even Queen Elizabeth meddles in affairs of state. What better way to keep the regalia from messing with human politics than to bestow them on a deity who is (depending on your perspective) either too busy to get involved with human trifles, or simply imaginary?

I got to think about this again in reflecting on what I find one of the most fascinating stories in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the prophet Natan and King David. King David, the story goes, seduced Bathsheba, and she became, as the expression goes, with child. The problem was, her husband Uriah was a soldier out on a long-term deployment, so a pregnancy was liable to raise some eyebrows. No problem! He’s the king! He summoned Uriah back from the field, asked him for a report on the status of the front line, and then suggested he take advantage of the opportunity to see his wife. But instead, Uriah slept outside the king’s door.

David said to Uriah, “Have you not come from a journey? Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.”

The king got him drunk, but he maintained his scruples. So the king decided to have him “accidentally” killed in battle. That worked, and David could take up openly with Bathsheba.

Problem solved! One could hardly imagine anyone criticising Rameses for accidentally on purpose bringing about the death of one of his subjects; nor Nebuchadnezzar; nor Louis XIV, for that matter. The story is set up so that the death is a soldier’s death in battle. The only crime was in David’s intention.

But then comes the prophet Natan and announces God’s anathema (to be punished by the death of their firstborn child — when I read the story as a child, I of course thought, why is the child being punished for this?). Actually, he gets David to condemn himself, by presenting his deed as an anonymous case of a wealthy man who stole the little that his neighbour had.

I’ve always been amazed that people 2500 years ago were able to formulate the principle that everyone, even a king, even the most majestic of holy priest kings, must respect the basic rights and dignity of other human beings. And a king who violates this principle is no better than a common thief.

But what never occurred to me before is to think that part of the trick was to declare the absent god to be the real king, and the king on earth to be just another servant. It took another couple of millennia for the West to instrumentalise this lesson.

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