Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘transport’

Londoners pat themselves on the stiff upper lip

The story to date: A petty criminal from Kent committed a murder suicide in the centre of London, killing 4 and injuring 40. The attacker was Muslim, which seems to be enough for this to be classified as a terror attack*, and so the English praise themselves for their fortitude in continuing to carry on with their lives, rather than, I don’t know, hunkering down in air-raid shelters until the sirens announce all-clear. #WeAreNotAfraid, they tweet. Amazing that a city of nearly 9 million people is uncowed by the threat of a scary Muslim (acting on his own, apparently) now deceased, who killed as many pedestrians as non-terroristic London drivers killed with their cars in the whole second half of February. It’s a terrible thing that people were killed and injured, but people in cities all over the world live their lives surrounded by the suffering of others, without hiding in their cellars. The specialness of Londoners in this regard is as delusional as the British deal-making acumen.

Besides which, it’s not even true. While the PM was announcing in Parliament

An act of terrorism tried to silence our democracy, but today we meet as normal, as generations have done before us and as future generations will continue to do, to deliver a simple message – we are not afraid and our resolve will never waver in the face of terrorism,

the London police were trying to pressure pro-EU protestors to cancel their planned march on Saturday, because the unafraid Metropolitan Police with its approximately 30,000 officers couldn’t be expected to simultaneously manage both a criminal investigation AND 20,000 peaceful demonstrators.

Because nothing says WE ARE NOT AFRAID like using a minor terror attack as an excuse to prevent the exercise of core democratic rights.

* Whereas a genuinely politically inspired random murder in New York, intended to “send a message”, is not called “terrorism” and doesn’t inspire any praise for New Yorkers continuing for to live, because the perpetrator was not Muslim.

Trump and the bicycle-riders

We now have Donald Trump’s final argument for his election, which basically amounts to saying that manly man Donald Trump will beat down the foreigners and Jews — George Soros, Janet Yellen, Lloyd Blankenfein — who are secretly pulling the strings behind the political establishment. (Speaking of Janet Yellen, I have to confess that I hadn’t noticed that the Federal Reserve had been led by elders of Zion Jews — three of them Republicans — for all but nine years since 1970.)

I think often of a public lecture that Yale history professor John Boswell gave in the 1980s with the title “Jews and Bicycle-riders”. The title came from a celebrated anti-Nazi joke of the 1930s: A Jew is pushed off his bicycle by a Brownshirt, who looms over him and screams “Who is responsible for Germany’s misfortunes?” “The Jews,” replies the trembling Jew, “and the bicycle riders.” “Why the bicycle riders?” asks the Nazi. And he replies: “Why the Jews?”

Boswell’s lecture was mainly about homosexuality, pointing out that prejudice against gay people had risen and fallen over the past two millennia, and tended to parallel the ups and downs of antisemitism, and to be promoted by the same people. The joke suggests that antisemitism is irrational and arbitrary, and has nothing really to do with the Jews; Boswell extends this to say that antisemitism and homophobia are both targets of convenience for what is really an anti-urban, anti-cosmopolitan agenda.

(The bicycle-riders in the joke are supposed to be an obviously ridiculous target of discrimination. Boswell might have been amused to know that in the febrile politics of the 21st century, bicycle-riders have also become a frequent target of right-wing abuse — for example, Colorado Republican who called Denver cycling initiatives “part of a greater strategy to rein in American cities under a United Nations treaty” and Rob Ford in Toronto: “What I compare bike lanes to is swimming with the sharks. Sooner or later you’re going to get bitten… The cyclists are a pain in the ass to the motorists.”)

Obviously part of the point was that the credibility of antisemitism was at a low point in the mid-1980s, while discrimination against sexual minorities was decidedly respectable. From the perspective of 2016 things look decidedly different. Homophobia us barely tolerated in polite circles, while antisemitism is ascendant. I’m sure I thought in 1985 that the downward trajectory of antisemitism was inevitable — it was so obviously irrational — while the rights of gay and lesbian people seemed to need fighting for. In retrospect, I see that no matter how marginalised they may be, both of them are always capable of recolonising the body politic when the right conditions return. Somehow this seems to me more obvious and intuitive with regard to homosexuality than with regard to Judaism; Boswell’s link helps to clarify the danger.

Blurring the lines

Those of us of a statistical turn of mind and inclined toward caution (not the same, even if the categories may be highly correlated) like to compare the lives lost to terror attacks (about which there tends to be unbounded panic, leading to willingness to abandon vast stores of wealth, national pride, and long-cherished principles of justice) and to the sorts of banal lethal events that people don’t get very excited about. For example, there was the study showing that additional automobile travel due to fear of airplane hijacking in the few months following the 9/11 attacks killed more people — through the ordinary difference in automobile and airplane fatality rates — than were killed in the planes on 9/11 (and over time may have killed 2300 people, almost as many as the entire death toll of the attacks).

An obvious point of comparison is between the Paris terror attacks and the remarkably similar style of mass shootings that have become such a regular affair in the US. (More than one a day in 2015!) The latter evokes reactions ranging from a shrug to a right-to-bear-arms rally. The former have American conservatives — who not too long ago would eat nothing but freedom fries — expressing their fraternité with the noble liberty-loving French people, and the need to exclude refugees from ISIS from the US because you can never be too careful. The connection was best expressed by Texas congressman Tony Dale, with an “A” rating from the NRA, who argued that Syrian refugees need to be kept out of Texas because once legally admitted they would be entitled to Texas drivers licenses, and with those they could freely purchase firearms: (more…)

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