Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK culture’

It’s all fine

Regulations are commonly enforced by fines. Economic logic says that the level of fines should be set high enough to discourage most of the violations, and if the laws are being violated frequently that means that the penalties are set too low. But that’s not how British politicians and businesspeople think. I commented before about how the Conservatives seem to think that high levels of speeding and parking violations are prima facie evidence that the laws need to be changed, rather than that there needs to be more effective enforcement.

Now we have this comment in the Oxford Times about the “bus gate” (ban on private vehicles) in one part of High Street. It should be prefaced by saying this is hardly an arbitrary restriction. Because of river geography and the huge space taken up by colleges, Oxford is inevitably a challenge for transport. High Street is sufficiently congested at most times of the day, with just buses, taxis and bicycles, as well as the vast numbers of tourists on foot, as to be difficult and dangerous to pass through.

A top businessman said Oxford’s bus gate in High Street should be reviewed after it emerged council bosses have raked in fines totalling more than £6m over 10 years.

The bus gate uses camera enforcement to restrict normal traffic from using the High Street between 7.30am and 6.30pm.

After the £6.2m fines total emerged following a Freedom of Information request by the Oxford Mail, Jeremy Mogford, owner of The Old Bank Hotel in High Street, called for the restriction to be reviewed.

Weirdly, he also seems to believe that it’s a problem that many of the scofflaws paying the fines are tourists. Given that Oxford has to pay a huge burden for maintaining transport infrastructure for millions of annual visitors who don’t pay local taxes, what could be more appropriate than that those who abuse the system and endanger our lives to get an advantage would pay the costs.

Two other points that Mr Mogford makes:

“I do think the bus gate should be better signposted in High Street because some drivers are clearly missing the signs or ignoring them.

“It’s quite likely some delivery drivers will go through the bus gate and pay the fine instead of spending half an hour going all the way round.

I agree with the first point, though the current signs don’t seem obviously deficient. As for the latter, I don’t really object. Fines can serve as a kind of stochastic congestion charge, allowing those with an urgent need to use a certain resource to pay the cost. I think that a formal congestion charge is better, though, since it is less ambiguous, more predictable, and removes the taint of illegality.

Boris is Britain

Of all the bizarre developments in British politics over the last couple of years, none is stranger than the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign minister. I genuinely don’t think it is possible for any foreigner to understand him — or, to put it differently, I think that if you understand Boris Johnson you must have sufficiently internalised British values™ that you should be granted citizenship. I listen to him and am reminded of Oliver Sacks’s essay about observing a ward full of aphasics — patients with damage to the language-processing centres of their brains — laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. Limited in their ability to interpret the verbal content of his speech, they focused on the tone and expression, which they found grotesque and dishonest. One patient, with tonal agnosia, had the opposite problem. She could only recognise the text, not the charming expression, and so judged “Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”

I feel like I have tonal agnosia listening to Boris Johnson. He’s obviously playing a complex tune on Britons’ class consciousness that I simply can’t hear. Some people here find him clever, some call him a buffoon. I just hear the verbal equivalent the scene in Amadeus where the court opera is commanded to clomp through a dance number without any music.

One shorthand I’ve come up with to explain Johnson is that he is a stupid person pretending to be a smart person pretending to be a stupid person. I mean stupid in a relative sense. You don’t get to the highest level of politics without significant mental resources of some sort. But he has chosen to play the role of an exceptional intelligence, despite his average endowment. I’ve been around elite universities most of my life, so I recognise the glib, polished facade over the mediocre mind.

Of course, acting smart isn’t like acting strong*: You can’t just put up a show at some decisive moments and conceal your true deficits. It requires that you actually produce some penetrating insights on a semi-regular basis, and if you could do that you would really be smart. Johnson has, I think, adopted a strategy that one also sees at times in mathematics students: appealing to stereotypes of an idiosyncratic genius where the idiosyncracies take the place of demonstrating actual brilliance. Johnson invites people to identify him with a stock figure, the brilliant toff who hides his light under a bushel to feign the common touch. So he is dumb, and he acts dumb, but people attribute assume that’s all just covering up his secret brilliance.

But maybe I’m wrong and he’s just faking that, and he’s secretly an evil genius…  (more…)

Absence and present values: A thought on monuments

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, and came upon this passage, that is relevant to current debates about maintaining monuments to once-admired figures who have now fallen into disrepute:

[The Republican Party] did gain the support of General James Longstreet, whose example inspired some Confederate veterans to follow in his footsteps… General Longstreet’s decision to join the Republican Party made him an object of hatred among Southern Democrats for the remainder of his life. When he died, in 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and unlike other Confederate generals, no statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

It’s incredibly naïve to say, monuments should stay as they are because they are part of history. They’re not. History is history, but monuments are present expressions of an attitude toward history. Sure, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was recently taken down in New Orleans was itself a historical artifact, and part of (a certain period of) city history, but the curatorial choice of what to keep is a statement about our current values. To the untrained eye, the statue was not a monument to 1884, when it was put up, but to 1863.

If you really want it to be a monument to 1884, and the intervening time when it has stood, so that the public could appreciate the “history” represented by the erection of a statue of Robert E. Lee (or of Cecil Rhodes), you would need to be able to make them see not only the statue that is present, but also the statue that is absent (of General Longstreet, say, or Olive Schreiner). But an absence can never compete with a presence in its impact on the viewer. So Lee and Rhodes must fall.

More honesty: Migrants and Expats

I was poking around Google for more tabloid reporting on Brexit, and found this headline from The Sun:

Brussels ‘plotted for weeks’ to scupper Theresa May’s deal to secure fate of Brit expats in Europe and EU migrants in the UK

The British in Europe are “expats”, while the Europeans in Britain are migrants. Opinions differ, but to me the word expat is redolent of colonialism. An expat, in British vernacular, resides only temporarily in the benighted country where he labours to construct a simulacrum of civilisation, even if measured by calendar time he has spent most of his life there and never actually returns “home”. A migrant — not even an immigrant, which has a certain nobility to it — is an ethnic and civilisational climber, probably swarthy and reeking of garlic, who can wish nothing more than to leave his degraded origins behind him.

Bearing your cross to Cadbury

The Church of England wants people to know the true meaning of Christian faith, which is, apparently, chocolate eggs. Official church spokesmen have attacked Cadbury’s and the National Trust for conducting “egg hunts” without mentioning Easter. It’s just like when Peter denied his Lord three times, and then left his name off the adverts for his Galilee fish shop.

The chocolate-maker retorts “it clearly used the word Easter on its packaging and in its marketing”, and no greater love hath a man than to use his suffering and death in packaging and marketing. But the Archbishop of York* says that’s not enough:

The Archbishop of York said calling the event the Cadbury Egg Hunt was like “spitting on the grave” of the firm’s Christian founder, John Cadbury… He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output.”

I think we can all agree that Easter is a time for all Christian believers to reflect on industrial output.

And despite the politically correct marketing gobbledegook of the Cadbury’s representatives — “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats” — it is appropriate to expect that people should think of the Church of England when looking at a hollow shell stuffed with unhealthful, cloyingly sweet goo.

I’m reminded of the stories I heard from East Germany about attempts to rechristen the Christmas tree to Jahresendbaum [end-of-year tree] and the traditional angel on top to Jahresendflügelpuppe [end-of-year winged doll]. Christmas itself was supposed to be called Fest des Friedens [festival of peace]. I’m not sure if these were jokes, or whether they referred to genuine government initiatives — maybe both — but here is one report of these designations actually being used, and even compulsory.

* This statement really should have come from the Archbishop of Cadbury…

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.

British values

From the BBC home page today:

screenshot-2016-12-05-08-32-11

And here I thought racial segregation was a core… oh, never mind.

At least we don’t get ID cards

… because that would be fascism! Instead, we’re likely to get the NHS checking people’s passports and utility bills (for proof of address) before they can get medical treatment.

As I’ve commented before, the British seem obsessed with not having national ID cards — when they came into power one of the first things the Conservatives did was to cancel a Labour programme that had been in the works for about five years to provide ID cards — because carrying an ID card is inimical to Anglo-Saxon freedom. They don’t object to round-the-clock video surveillance, police stopping foreign-looking people on the Tube to ask for proof of right to be in the country, or now checking nationality documents at the hospital.

They just object to providing people with the documents they need to meet the authorities’ demand (given that one in six Britons has no passport, and they cost about £80). Instead, they leave it up to easily falsifiable electric bills to attest their address.

Political typecasting

It is a well-known phenomenon, that some well-known actors find themselves too prominently identified as themselves to be appreciated as the character they are playing. So it is, I think, with Boris Johnson in his new role as foreign secretary. The BBC and other news outlets ran headlines yesterday saying

Boris Johnson to meet with EU counterparts.

For an instant I was genuinely puzzled. You’re supposed to understand this as

UK foreign secretary to meet with foreign ministers of other EU countries.

But I could only read it as “Boris Johnson is to meet with pompous upper-class clowns who are somehow similar to him in other EU countries”, which somewhat stymied me in trying to think of an example.

Refer madness

Shortly after the EU referendum, someone asked me why the EU referendum was made to allow such an enormous change from a simple majority. After all, many countries have either supermajority threshold for referenda, or requirements that a majority be attained in a majority of regions or states. The answer, of course, is that

  1. The point of this referendum was to settle a conflict between two wings of the Conservative party. This was not an election, but a sporting contest — though sooner or later, in Britain, everything turns into a sporting contest — and it would have been completely unacceptable if both sides did not feel they had a reasonable chance of winning.
  2. There wasn’t any threshold at all. As many have pointed out, this wasn’t a referendum in the normal sense of the word. It was an opinion poll. The relevant law, the European Union Referendum Act 2015, orders only that the question be asked, and describes eligibility for voting. It says nothing about how the result is to be interpreted or enforced. (The most intricate part of the law seems to concern the question of which hereditary aristocrats are eligible to vote.)

There is nothing inevitable about concluding that the UK should withdraw from the EU because 52% voted that way in the referendum. Most democracies would not make it so easy for one group of citizens to deprive another group of citizens of cherished rights — particularly when the groups really are clearly defined social groups, whether age groups or semi-autonomous component nations (Scotland and Northern Ireland).

In principle, there’s a good argument that the government is constitutionally obliged to get clear authorisation from Parliament before pulling the Article 50 trigger. And if they do that, the MPs could reasonably point to the national divisions, or just the lack of an overwhelming majority, as justification for avoiding such wrenching change.

They won’t, though. Because it’s a sport, and nothing is more important to the British than appearing to be “good sports”. They call this “democracy”, and there have been any number of articles from left-wing Remain supporters, arguing that a commitment to democracy requires that they get behind the Brexit project now. The people have spoken, and any other response is an elitist insistence that you know better than the unwashed masses.

Where does that leave us, the foreigners? I am reminded of the work of David Blight and other historians on the “Lost Cause” historiography of the US Civil War. Americans of the North and the South decided to come together in a spirit of reconciliation, requiring that the Northerners agree to look past points of dispute, like the civil rights of African Americans. They — that is, the white people — pretty much all agreed that this was the charitable and democratic thing to do. Similarly, Britons are divided by economic and class differences, but they can all come together in agreement that the real problem is the foreigners. This is something I noticed when I first arrived here.

Things aren’t so bad in Oxford — though we all know people who have at least been menaced in public in the last couple of weeks for speaking a foreign language — and those of us with good professional jobs have a fairly easy out, if we want it, by acquiring UK citizenship. At least, that gets us to the other side of the rope line in terms of formal legal harassment. Elsewhere foreigners have to be thinking imminently about being driven out of places where they have resided for decades, and where they mistakenly thought they were at home.

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