In a thoughtful column in today's Independent, Mary Dejevsky strikes a note that I took issue with a few weeks ago when something similar appeared in a Guardian leader. She's discussing the new memorial to Bomber Command, and she writes:
Another war memorial offers another excuse for just the sort of nostalgic wallowing in our glory days that today's Britain most emphatically does not need.
But one does not have to put it under that sign, so to speak - of glory days and wallowing. One can think of it under another sign, as we may do by referring to the 20th century's preeminent witness and one of its great writers, Primo Levi. Levi said of what he and others had gone through at the hands of the Nazis that 'One is tempted to turn away with a grimace and close one's mind; this is a temptation one must resist'. He wrote of the difficulty, for him and others who had survived the camps, of speaking to the young about their experiences; they risked sounding anachronistic and not being listened to. Yet 'We must be listened to', he insisted.
Is this the wrong - an inappropriate - sign under which to place the matter? I don't see why. The Allied victory in the Second World War is, in one way of thinking about things, the most important event of the last century. Without it, who knows what? To memorialize the crews who flew, and the thousands of them who lost their lives, in the war against Nazi Germany is not the least bit exorbitant even 70 years later; particularly since, as Dejevsky herself notes, the memorial acknowledges the innocent victims of the bombings as well as the crews.
There may be other Brits like me who could use some illumination over the Court's decision to uphold Obamacare. I recommend - but without any supporting expertise - two pieces I've read with interest. David Cole explains the legal detail, as he sees it, of why Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the liberals in the Court, and he then adds this political gloss:
[I]n addition, I cannot but think that at the back of Roberts's mind was the Court's institutional standing. Had the law been struck down on "party lines," the Court's reputation would be seriously undermined. In May, the Pew Research Center reported that favorable views of the Supreme Court as an institution had reached an all-time low. Sharply divided partisan decisions like Bush v. Gore and Citizens United appear to have done damage to the Court's legitimacy - and ultimately, its legitimacy is the source of the Court's power. Today's result, which upholds the actions of the democratically elected branches on a major piece of social welfare legislation that affects us all against a challenge that was always a real long shot, driven more by politics than legal principle, may help repair the Court's tarnished image.
Ezra Klein says that Roberts 'sided with the conservative bloc on every major legal question before the court', and with the liberals only on a matter of relative unimportance.
It's as if an umpire tweaked the rules to favor his team in the future, but obscured the changes by calling a particular contest for the other side.
Whatever the case on this score, I'm glad the Supreme Court decided as it did. It's a victory for some elementary values.
In the course of an interesting post on how people change their minds or don't - and it's well worth reading for that - Marbury alludes to the so-called argumentative theory of reasoning. This is that 'reason and rationality evolved not to serve truth, but to win arguments'. If I can make a point here that I've made once before, though make it in a slightly different way: do the proponents of this theory themselves use reason to defend it in order to establish what they believe to be the truth, or do they do it merely to win an argument?
The writer's choice series features writers writing about books. Below
is a list of the pieces that appeared during the eighth year
of the series, with the links to them. There is a comprehensive index for the entire series here.
Now, let's see. The Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport runs a cartoon in which Mario Balotelli is depicted as King Kong. People take exception to this as being racist, and the newspaper apologizes: good taste is necessary, it says; it was not one of the best efforts of their talented cartoonist. However, no one should accuse them of racism.
Two questions. (1) Why, then, are they apologizing? For bad taste only? Pull the other one. (2) Are they among those who take the view that if it ain't intended as racist, it isn't racist? This view is not rationally defensible (see section 4 here). All they had to say was that it was misjudged; the cartoon is racist, but our paper isn't - end of story.
Since I was appointed to my first job in 1967 until today, my social circle has, for obvious reasons, included a lot of other academics. Amongst these, as well as amongst the dozens and dozens of university people I have come across professionally, I have been friends with, run into, or been part of the same events as, not a few Marxists and other kinds of socialist, other anti-capitalist radicals. Now that I'm retired I see fewer people from a university milieu than I used to, but I believe it still to be the case that academics of the sorts of persuasion I've just listed can be found in British universities and those of other democratic nations.
One of the Marxists I knew somewhat back in the day was Terry Eagleton. Terry concludes a piece on Rousseau in today's Guardian by saying:
Universities are no longer educational in any sense of the word that Rousseau would have recognised. Instead, they have become unabashed instruments of capital.
In capitalist societies, universities undoubtedly will reflect the needs of the capitalist economy to some very large extent. But 'unabashed instruments'? If this were truly so, why would all these Marxists and such be free to pursue their research and teach in the (more or less) free universities of the Western world? I suppose one might try, in response, some variant of Marcusian 'repressive tolerance'. But it was a duff thesis back then, and it's the same thing now. Intellectual tolerance is a great boon and its absence a blight and an oppression. If universities in democratic countries were really unabashed instruments of capital, they would be worse institutions than they are. As the saying nearly is, be careful what you portray.
Joan Smith is 'sick of interviews conducted in a style more appropriate to the Colosseum than a civilised country':
On Newsnight and Radio 4's Today programme, presenters swagger into interviews like lions about to devour cowering Christians. Paxman is the retiarius of interrogators, casting a net over his victims and giving them repeated jabs with his trident while they're tangled up in words.
I'm with Joan on this. It seems not to occur to the interviewers in question that, like everybody else, they're subject to norms of civility and good manners. The thing that puzzles me is why people subjected to their rudeness, which is what it is, never call them on it - as, for example, by declining to answer anything that isn't put in a straightforwardly polite way, objecting to interruption, and so forth. If the Paxman-Humphrys style has become embedded, it's at least in part because others put up with it.
Ever heard of it? Well, I hadn't till I read about it in today's Times. But it's mystifying. Scientists don't yet know why it happens but are looking for an answer; there's a £1,000 prize to anyone who comes up with it. The question is: why does a cup of boiling water freeze faster than a cup of water at 35C (which it does, apparently)? As the Times's columnist says (£):
Quite apart from anything else, one would think a cup of boiling water has to become a cup of 35C water on the journey to becoming a cup of freezing water.
Think of it like this. You travel from Rugby to London, and I travel from Manchester to London via Rugby; but I get to London before you do. OK, maybe I choose to travel more quickly and you more slowly; maybe I'm on a faster train. But the water that's hotter can't choose anything, and neither lot of water is on a train. Still, perhaps something about the boiling water being boiling gives it a speed advantage. But it's water, damn it, just like the other water. How can it do that? And why doesn't it slow down when it reaches 35C? Ah, the wonders of the universe.
Look, I'm on the side of the 'good guys' in this. Honest. I, too, am in favour of the abolition of war. Could war be abolished? I don't know but I hope so. On the other hand, I'm fed up with reading the kind of pieces in favour of the abolition of war that scarcely even mention one of the principal difficulties, let alone propose a solution to it. Another in this line is the post at Comment is Free by Brian Lehrer. To save you the trouble of reading it all, I will give you pretty much what you need of it in two excerpts. Referring to John Horgan, Lehrer writes:
He thinks humanity can abolish war, in part because we abolished slavery. If slavery was such an ordinary part of human culture that it was accepted as a given in the Bible, but today, no nation or person could ever admit they hold a slave, then culture could change enough to abolish war, too - and maybe, more quickly than we think.
To end war, just advocate for the unacceptability of war. In all countries, at all times, especially when tensions rise.
The clue to what might be missing here can be summed up in a single word: slavery. Lehrer may not have noticed this, but slavery is not yet at an end. It may be illegal practically everywhere, but the practice is still with us. One of the reasons it is, is that some people profit from it and therefore keep the practice going.
Now, let's come back to war. If all the good people of the world oppose war and even make it illegal, what happens if someone, that is some leader or bunch of leaders, some country or bunch of countries, comes or come along who or that are in a position to wage war and have a mind to do so? Prison may be a potential answer to would-be slave traders and slave owners; but prison isn't, or isn't always, or isn't quickly enough, an answer to would-be makers of war. How, in the last resort, are the war-makers to be stopped other than by the threat of defensive war and, if it comes to it, war itself? There may well be an answer to this, but if you're out to abolish war, at least admit the question.
That everyone will by 'then' love one another and turn good is not necessarily a convincing way around this. (Thanks: RB.)