Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘war’

Meeting our Waterloo

From the Guardian:

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Conservative, says the 23 June last year will be remembered as a great day in history. It is comparable with Agincourt and Waterloo, he suggests.

I guess that’s how people talk about it in Britain, but it seems to me everywhere else “Waterloo” is synonymous with a crushing defeat. I imagine the Brexit vote will be the same: Considered a victory in Britain, recognised as a crushing defeat everywhere else.

Foreigners in Britain and Germany

Many years ago, when I was hitchhiking through the US, I met a guy at a highway rest stop who, for no particular reason that I could discern, was agitated about foreigners. (My accent in English strikes some Americans as vaguely foreign, even though it is unmistakably American to any non-American native English speaker.) But I was surprised about why he was angry. I had always assumed that animus toward immigrants was directed at transients who have no roots or attachment, don’t speak English, are really oriented toward their home country. But this guy thought it was great to have people come and do unpleasant work for low pay for a few years, as long as they move on. What he didn’t like were immigrants who come and remain permanently.

Apparently the current UK government agrees. People like me are a failure of the system. Soon after they came into power the government announced the goal of “breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration.” Now, as net immigration ignores the government’s arbitrary goals and continues to rise, they are growing desperate, even forcing out highly skilled and expensively recruited foreigners who thought they had immigrated. They have introduced draconian fines and even prison sentences for landlords who rent to illegal immigrants; since landlords are hardly equipped to judge people’s immigration status, the effect (possibly unintentional) will be to make life difficult for everyone who looks or sounds foreign.

Most of Europe decided that “temporary workers” isn’t a category that you can reasonably force people into. As Max Frisch famously commented on the European experience of the 1950s through 1970s, “Wir haben Arbeitskräfte gerufen, und es sind Menschen gekommen.” (“We called for workers, but human beings came.”)

The contrast to Germany is stark. Universities are switching much of their lecturing to English, in an effort to attract bright students from around the world to study in Germany. UK universities scrabble for foreign students, too, but the justification is primarily mercenary: non-EU student fees are uncapped — typically they pay around £20,000 a year, whereas EU nationals pay £9,000. German universities, on the other hand, don’t charge fees. 

We could call it plutocratic tolerance: Germans are, by and large, willing to live with foreigners as long as they can profit from them. Britons are willing to exploit foreigners economically, but only if they don’t have to live with them. (The Home Secretary has particularly identified students as people whose otherwise welcome money is tainted by their propensity to continue existing after they have spent it, and to impose their existence on the long-suffering British. “Universities should now develop sustainable funding models that are not so dependent on international students” she said.) Next year’s EU referendum will force the population to decide which of the famous “British values” — greed or xenophobia — has priority.

This issue is not identical with, but obviously not entirely distinct from, the disgusting British government response to the refugee crisis in southern Europe — a combination of “it’s not my problem” and pompous moralising about the moral hazard of encouraging desperate people to make perilous journeys. Angela Merkel has resolutely refused to pander to anti-foreigner sentiment, and has even managed to pressure the UK into taking some small measure of responsibility for taking in some refugees — even if they’ll never accept that they, of all Europeans, bear the most direct responsibility for the Syrian disaster, which is part of the long-term aftermath of Tony Blair’s splendid little war in Iraq.

A tricky judgement call for the advertising agency

So you’re the head of the Adobe account, seeking to convince customers that Photoshop is a professional level software tool accessible to the masses. It’s used for important work by experts! It makes news! So now, the question is, do you seek an endorsement based on this news report (from Der Spiegel)?

Russland macht noch immer Kiew für den Abschuss von Flug MH17 verantwortlich. Doch die Fotos, die ukrainische Luftabwehrsysteme in dem Absturzgebiet zeigen sollen, sind offenbar gefälscht. Laut Experten hat der Kreml mit Photoshop manipuliert.

[Russia still claims that Kiev is responsible for shooting down flight MH17. But the photos that supposedly show Ukrainian air defence systems in the area of the crash are blatantly fake. Experts say the Kremlin manipulated them with Photoshop.]

Counting to zero

I was amused by the comments made by right-wing American TV news personality Bill O’Reilly, who referred to his time in the Falklands “war zone” because he reported on an unruly protest in Buenos Aires after the war ended. He supported his position by quoting a NY Times report that referred to a police officer firing five shots, without mentioning that the shots were fired “over the heads of fleeing protestors”.

Rich Meislin, the Times reporter who wrote the article, said on Facebook that as far as he knew no demonstrators were shot or killed by police that night. On Monday, Mr. O’Reilly said he was just reading clips from the piece during the Media Buzz interview and that official reports on casualties there were difficult to obtain.

One could imagine that in a dispute over the exact number of protesters shot or killed you might say that the official reports were “difficult to obtain”. It seems like an odd defence when people are claiming that the exact number was zero, since, of course, in that case there would be no reports on casualties to obtain. “I do remember that there was tension between the authorities and the crowd,” [CBS correspondent Charles Gomez] said, but added that he “did not see any bloodshed.”

Humans have a separate system for unconsciously apprehending the numbers of items under about four, called subitizing, that is distinct from the conscious process of counting. The idea of “counting” one or two items seems ridiculous, and counting zero items exaggerates the comic effect. I was reminded of a scene in the second volume Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, The Restaurant at the end of the Universe. Ford Prefect and his friends have accidentally stowed away on a space ship programmed to crash into the local sun (as part of the light show for a rock concert). Zaphod Beeblebrox yells “Ford, how many escape capsules are there?”

“None,” said Ford.

Zaphod gibbered.

“Did you count them?” he yelled.

“Twice,” said Ford.

 Update: In another interview O’Reilly continued to conflate the Falklands War with the unruly demonstration in Buenos Aires:

“A lot of people died,” said O’Reilly, nodding his head. “You bet.”

“On both sides, both the British and the Argentines,” Browne said, appearing to reference the broader war rather than the protests.

“Nine hundred deaths on the Island,” O’Reilly said. “And we don’t know how many in Buenos Aires.”

We don’t know how many. The number is generally reckoned to be around… zero.

War gilt

It has often been remarked that, whereas the English word “debt” has a long history as primarily a financial term, with only optional moralistic overtones, in German “debt” and “guilt” and “sin” are represented by the single word “Schuld”, deriving from the Indo-European root skel, meaning “crime”. This surely reflects the exceptional German inclination — conspicuous in the current tussle over Greek loans — to view indebtedness as a moral failing, and moral failings need to be chastised, lest the sinner slide back into his old ways. At least, that’s the principle for other people’s indebtedness.

Their own debts are more nuanced. Particularly war debts, as this article from Spiegel makes clear. In 1942 Greece’s national bank cancelled Germany’s debt of 476 million Reichsmarks, out of pure gratitude for Germany’s contributions toward a unified Europe, into which Greece had just been integrated. In retrospect this deal — the debt would be worth something between 8 billion and 80 billion Euros today — seemed overly generous to some, given complaints about the quality of the services provided to the Greek public by the Wehrmacht. The 1953 London Agreement on German External Debt provided for the resolution of these customer-service complaints to be postponed until after a formal WWII peace treaty which, I was surprised to learn, has never been concluded.

But obviously the Germans don’t believe that a people should be forced to suffer economic devastation because of financial obligations undertaken by an irresponsible government that the people have since repudiated.

Old-time Darwinism

I’ve just been reading Adam Tooze’s book on WWI and its aftermath. I see Tooze as the great Marxist historian that never was — I don’t know anything about him other than his two books, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like the comparison — since the grandest human affairs, in his accounts, end up in orbit around the black hole of capital. Anyway, I came upon an interesting quote there that reminded me of why some people of good will found themselves repulsed by Darwinism, particularly by Darwinian hangers-on who try to cite the “lessons” of Darwinism for human affairs.

The Japanese delegation to the founding conference of the League of Nations sought to have a ban on racial discrimination written in to the League covenant. (Not that they opposed racial discrimination in general, but they often enough found themselves on the unpleasant end of it.) Colonel House, a senior American diplomat and advisor to President Wilson, suggested to British foreign minister Arthur Balfour splicing the line from the US Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal” into the Covenant preamble. Balfour rejected this out of hand.

The claim that all men were created equal, Balfour objected, “was an eighteenth-century proposition which he did not believe was true.” The Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century had taught other lessons. It might be asserted that “in a certain sense… all men of a particular nation were created equal”. Bot to assert that “a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European” was, to Balfour, patent nonsense.

Of course, one needn’t look far to find scientifically-interested chatterers — and occasionally scientists themselves — citing Darwin-themed research to prove that all the prejudices they ever had (these days they tend to emphasise difference between sexes rather than between races) are not only true, but indisputable because they have been proved by science.

I suppose it’s also worth reminding oneself what kind of racist colonialist swamp early Zionism got its start in.

This is how democracy works

If you know anything about the difference between the US and the UK constitutions, you probably know that a parliamentary system, as in the UK, is more dynamic and effective: No separation of powers to hamstring the government. The Prime Minister stands on a parliamentary majority, and parliament answers to no one, so he (or sometimes she — that’s another difference), so the PM gets to make decisions and have them carried out.

That’s how it works for legislation, more or less, but not, apparently, in matters of war and peace. Parliament is now actually debating the decision to attack Syria. Labour has submitted an amendment to the government motion, requiring that military action proceed through an orderly process, including a vote by the UN security council. And it appears that there are enough disaffected coalition MPs to make it likely that it would succeed. This forced the government to back down yesterday on holding an immediate vote on a measure authorising the use of force. Now, they are debating a non-binding resolution of support.

I don’t know where I stand on the merits of this, but I’m fascinated by the process, and grateful for Ed Miliband — not someone I had previously thought of as a courageous leader — for being willing to ask some difficult questions. Presidents and prime ministers have a natural bias toward moralising with bombs. It makes them look strong and decisive, and like they’re accomplishing something important. Democracies need other forces that can ask difficult questions, and restrain the march to war.

I wonder if the the US Constitution could be amended to give the Congress a role in declarations of war? Nah, it’d never pass. Too utopian.

But this does spare the Obama administration from the frustration that leads to this sort of invective:

[A government] source was claimed to have said: “No 10 and the Foreign Office think Miliband is a f****** c*** and a copper-bottomed s***. The French hate him now and he’s got no chance of building an alliance with the US Democratic Party.”

I’m not sure what the “copper-bottomed” part means, but it sure sounds colourful.

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