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Goodbye to all that

I’m sorry to say it, but I’m glad to see the back of the poppy season. The omnipresence of poppies on television, the competitive patriotism of the tabloids and the increasingly reflexive tendency to refer to all servicemen as ‘heroes’ has made me a bit twitchy over the past few years, but it was really brought into focus by the ludicrous storm in a teacup over FIFA’s refusal to let England team wear shirts with poppies on them. Perhaps most creepy was hearing that both the sports minister and David Cameron had described the poppy as ‘a symbol of national pride’, which I found genuinely unnerving.

Unnerving because when you come from the same culture as someone, you assume that there are some basic cultural touchstones whose meaning is well-established and uncontroversial. I thought everyone brought up in this country agreed that the poppy was a symbol of remembrance for those killed and injured in war; David Cameron saying it is a symbol of national pride is as unexpected as if he said that on a traffic light, red means go.

The whole thing would make me even more uneasy if I thought there was any chance that all this very public symbolism had much chance of turning into anything more sinister. Because if Britain had a history of military coups, I would be wondering if we were heading for the point where we wake up one morning to find a tank parked on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street and a TV bulletin with a man in uniform announcing that, for the sake of national stability, the army had reluctantly found it necessary to install themselves in a transitional government which would of course be strictly temporary.

But we are not that country, and I don’t think that all the slightly shrill rhetoric about sticking up for our boys is really militaristic in origin. It’s that ‘our boys’ have done an awful lot of fighting over the past few years, in wars which no one is very enthusiastic about any more. Thankfully they’re out of Iraq, which started to seem stupid, ill-conceived and counterproductive almost immediately, but Afghanistan just keeps grinding on for year after year and it becomes harder and harder to see what the point is. And on top of that, although it’s something the the tabloids are unlikely to say out loud, there’s the sense that the British forces haven’t actually enhanced their reputation; that they went in with a lot of big talk about their professionalism and expertise in counterinsurgency, and ended up having to be bailed out by the Americans.

So there’s a deep well of anxiety associated with the subject of our armed forces. And if it was a conscript army currently fighting in Afghanistan, that anxiety would probably be expressed directly as anti-war protests. Instead it gets manifested as an insistence that all our fighting men are ‘heroes’ by definition, and as ever more elaborate public displays of support.

However, even if the whole business is, in the end, mostly harmless, it still makes me twitchy. Hopefully now Remembrance Sunday has passed for another year, the press will at least turn down the intensity a couple of notches — although the Mail and the Mirror both have front page headlines about ‘our heroes’ today, so perhaps I’m being too optimistic.

» The photo, Fading Beauty, is © David Maitland and was Specially Commended in the ‘In Praise of Plants and Fungi’ category in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition 2011.

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Needling camels

I think it’s fascinating the way that, quite accidentally, the Church of England has been drawn into a debate about the state of capitalism. Because the protestors were not targeting the church; it was a pure accident of geography that a protest aimed at the Stock Exchange should end up camped around St Paul’s.

But that was how it turned out, and the church has been forced to take a position, and lots of commentators have been cheerfully picking out their favourite bible verses about camels going through the eye of a needle, and money-changers in the temple, and arguing about whether or not it makes any sense to call Jesus a socialist. And a lot of people who would not normally have any interest in the opinions of the Dean of St Paul’s or the Bishop of London are suddenly watching them very carefully and asking serious questions about the kind of relationship the church should have to wealth and power: always awkward ground for an established church which has the Queen as its head and an archbishop chosen by the Prime Minister.

And unexpectedly, the support for the protest by at least some of the staff of the Cathedral has given the protesters extra credibility. Because, after all, the protestors who turn up to these things are easy to mock, and their specific political aims, insofar as they have been articulated at all, are often a bit dubious; but the ham-fisted and divided way that the church handled the situation helped frame the debate as a moral question about inequalities of wealth and power.

But the next confrontation could be even more interesting. Now that the church has had a change of heart, the legal challenge to the protests comes from that strange entity called the City of London Corporation. At its most mundane level the Corporation is the local government for the ancient City of London, the ‘Square Mile’. But it is also a very weird historical anomaly. The Corporation has been around for a very long time — the oldest recorded charter, in 1067, confirmed rights and privileges that already existed — and over the centuries it has carved out a semi-detached relationship to the rest of the country; mainly because a succession of kings and governments were willing to make concessions in return for the financial support of the City.

And so, in the middle of what is nominally a modern democracy, we have a borough where corporations still have the vote, and the votes of actual human individuals are vastly outnumbered by the votes cast by businesses. That anachronism wouldn’t be particularly sinister if the Corporation confined itself to organising street-sweepers and mending the roads. But it is also a very wealthy organisation explicitly committed to lobbying for the interests of business, and particularly for the financial industry. It even has its own representative inside Parliament, the ‘City Remembrancer‘.

In other words, it is the perfect symbol for the influence of money over politics. Over many centuries, time and again, from autocratic kings to democratic governments, everyone has flinched in the face of the City’s power. The anomalous existence of the City of London is the result of a thousand years of regulatory capture.

That makes them an excellent focus for protests. If the protestors do manage to turn the spotlight on the Corporation, it could be interesting to watch.

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Steve Jobs and William Morris

In my post about Steve Jobs I quoted William Morris’s famous dictum ‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’.

I just wanted to say: yes, I am aware of the irony of quoting a socialist and anti-industrialist in praise of a great capitalist, a titan of industry who sold products by the hundreds of millions, each one assembled by low-paid workers in vast, sterile, soulless factories in China.

But then Morris’s vision of handmade, artisan production was quixotic even when applied to things like furniture and books; he couldn’t uninvent the industrial revolution. It certainly wouldn’t work for smartphones.

And to leave the politics to one side for a moment; aesthetically the Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against the way that mass production cheapened and coarsened material culture. It was a reaction to all those second-rate industrially produced imitations of traditional craftsmanship. Well, Apple’s best products have also fought against the shoddy and second-rate; but instead of rejecting mass production, Jobs wanted to do it right.

I suppose Morris would argue that was little consolation to those workers in their factory in China.

» The wallpaper is Morris’s ‘Fruit’ pattern. I picked it because it includes some apples.

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Riots, again

There was a story on the front of the Times today (I’d link to it, but it’s behind a paywall), about a young woman, recently graduated from university, who was passing a looted store on the way to get some McDonald’s, and on impulse went and stole a TV. And then three days later, unable to live with the guilt, she went and turned herself into the police. So she had a degree, she was planning to be a social worker, she didn’t even need a TV… and yet in that moment she couldn’t resist a bit of looting.

I find it a very intriguing story, and the lesson I am tentatively inclined to draw from it is this: the stuff that happened over the weekend in London, the mob craziness; these are not normal events. And if you assume you can understand people’s behaviour according to your normal, everyday expectations — if you apply ‘common sense’ — you are likely to mislead yourself.

But perhaps that’s not surprising. If there’s one thing that experimental psychology has demonstrated over the years, it’s that our intuitions about human behaviour are surprisingly rubbish at the best of times. Our intuitions about behaviour in the middle of a mob are sure to be even worse.

Not that you even need that much of a mob, really; there’s always what you might call the Bullingdon effect. David Cameron would no doubt say it was cheap political point-scoring to draw a parallel between smashing up a restaurant in the course of a riotous evening out with the Bullingdon, and smashing the window of JD Sports in the middle of an outbreak of looting; but it’s not exactly radical to point out that young people under the influence of alcohol, adrenaline and peer pressure will do things — stupid, reckless, anti-social, criminal things — which in the calm, sober light of day, they would like to think were completely out of character.

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make, really. I guess I’m still irritated by David Cameron’s line ‘this is criminality, pure and simple’. When has human behaviour ever been pure or simple?

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London riots

I suppose I ought to make some kind of comment about the fact that London seems to have suddenly gone nuts. But I don’t know what the fuck to say. I certainly didn’t see this coming, so I can hardly claim any insight into the causes.

I mean, it’s possible to step back and paint a broad picture which makes rioting seem inevitable: the third year of a shitty economy, a financial system bailout paid for by cutting benefits and services, a country with terrible social mobility where the gap between rich and poor has been increasing for decades, the most unequal city in the western world, where we help Russian oligarchs to avoid tax while cutting spending on homeless shelters and youth clubs, the rightward shift of the Labour party leaving the poor with even less of a mainstream voice in British politics, an Old Etonian prime minister from a family of bankers… these seem like the kinds of things that create the conditions for social unrest.

But all that was true last week, and I certainly didn’t expect to see London in flames. And maybe it isn’t all that stuff anyway. Smashing in the windows of Curry’s and nicking a TV isn’t exactly an overtly political gesture. It’s just too easy to spin a narrative and think it’s an explanation.

Maybe it’s better understood as a failure of policing, whether community policing before the event or the response once it started. Maybe new-fangled communications really are important, at least in terms of how it spread and gained momentum. Maybe the country really is in a moral decline. Maybe it’s just some random confluence of events, the flap of a butterfly wing in China. The hardest thing to do in situations like this is to try and remain open-minded, to hold on to the fact that actually you just don’t know.

» Ealing riots – the aftermath is © Erik Hartberg and used under a CC by-nc-nd licence.

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‘The Miscegenation Hoax’

I was browsing around Project Gutenberg and stumbled on a book with this magnificent title: The Humbugs of the  World. An Account of Humbugs, Delusions, Impositions, Quackeries, Deceits and Deceivers Generally, in all Ages. And it’s by none other than P. T. Barnum.

So I thought, that could be interesting. And one of the things that caught my eye from the contents was ‘The Miscegenation Hoax‘. Barnum explains:

the history of Ancient and Modern Humbugs would not be complete without a record of the last and one of the most successful of known literary hoaxes. This is the pamphlet entitled “Miscegenation,” which advocates the blending of the white and black races upon this continent, as a result not only inevitable from the freeing of the negro, but desirable as a means of creating a more perfect race of men than any now existing. This pamphlet is a clever political quiz; and was written by three young gentlemen of the “World” newspaper, namely. D. G. Croly, George Wakeman, and E. C. Howell.

The design of “Miscegenation” was exceedingly ambitious, and the machinery employed was probably among the most ingenious and audacious ever put into operation to procure the indorsement of absurd theories, and give the subject the widest notoriety. The object was to so make use of the prevailing ideas of the extremists of the Anti-Slavery party, as to induce them accept doctrines which would be obnoxious to the great mass of the community, and which would, of course, be used in the political canvass which was to ensue. It was equally important that the “Democrats” should be made to believe that the pamphlet in question emanated from a “Republican” source.

This is in 1864, during the Civil War, so of course the Republicans are the abolitionist party. It carries on a bit later:

The first stumbling-block was the name “amalgamation,” by which this fraternizing of the races had been always known. It was evident that a book advocating amalgamation would fall still-born, and hence some new and novel word had to be discovered, with the same meaning, but not so objectionable. Such a word was coined by the combination of the Latin miscere, to mix, and genus, race: from these, miscegenation—a mingling of the races. […] Next, it was necessary to give the book an erudite appearance, and arguments from ethnology must form no unimportant part of this matter. Neither of the authors being versed in this science, they were compelled to depend entirely on encyclopedias and books of reference. This obstacle to a New York editor or reporter was not so great as it might seem. The public are often favored in our journals with dissertations upon various abstruse matters by men who are entirely ignorant of what they are writing about. It was said of Cuvier that he could restore the skeleton of an extinct animal if he were only given one of its teeth, and so a competent editor or reporter of a city journal can get up an article of any length on any given subject, if he is only furnished one word or name to start with.

I won’t quote the whole thing, intriguing though it is, but I can’t resist this bit:

Although, of course, the mass of the Republican leaders entirely ignored the book, yet a considerable number of Anti-Slavery men, with more transcendental ideas, were decidedly “sold.” The machinery employed was exceedingly ingenious. Before the book was published, proof-copies were furnished to every prominent abolitionist in the country, and also to prominent spiritual mediums, to ladies known to wear Bloomers, and to all that portion of our population who are supposed to be a little “soft” on the subject of reform.

Apparently spiritual mediums and ladies known to wear bloomers were the 1860s equivalents of latte-drinking tree-hugging Volvo drivers.

Anyway, archive.org has the original pamphlet online: Miscegenation: The Theory of the Blending of the Races, Applied to the American White Man and Negro. It’s hard to recapture the sense of shock apparently provoked at the time, although I suppose even now it would be fairly radical to suggest that we should be actively working to eliminate black and white as distinct entities. In fact far from being shocking, a lot of it is frankly boring, especially all the C19th racial pseudoscience; but it has its moments, like this bit of mischief:

THE SECRET OF SOUTHERN SUCCESS

The North is wondering — the world is wondering — at the marvelous success of the Southern people in statesmanship and war. The discretion, endurance, energy, and heroism they have shown in sustaining for so long a time a rebellion supposed to be feeble and short-lived, have elicited the admiration even of their enemies […] The truth may as well be understood, that the superiority of the slaveholding classes of the South arises from their intimate communication, from birth to death, with the colored race. Like Anteus, sent to his mother earth, they have risen reinvigorated. […]

On this point we might quote many pro and anti-slavery authorities, but the extracts would scarcely be fit for general reading. It is a notorious fact, however, that, for three generations back, the wealthy, educated, governing class of the South have mingled their blood with the enslaved race. These illicit unions, though sanctioned neither by law nor conscience, and which, therefore, are degrading morally, have helped to strengthen the vitality and add to the mental force of the Southerner. The emotional power, fervid oratory and intensity which distinguishes all thoroughbred slaveholders, is due to their intimate association with the most charming and intelligent of their slave girls. The local history of New Orleans, since its occupation by the Union army, proves what has often been suspected, that unions between the slaveholders and their slaves have often had, in the eyes of the parties themselves, all the sanctities of marriage. These facts give us an inkling of some of the sources of Southern power.

If you can ignore, just for a moment, the high stakes of the political issue at hand, and the many decades of overwhelming human misery caused by the slavery and segregation which the pamphlet was surreptitiously supporting… well, you almost have to admire bits of it as an example of proper, old fashioned trolling. These guys would feel right at home on the internet.

AN OMEN.

The statue of Liberty which has just crowned the capitol at Washington, stands as a symbol of the future American of this continent. It was meet and proper that while slavery exercised its baneful sway at the seat of Government, that the great dome of the capitol should have been unfinished, and that the figure of Liberty should not have unveiled its awful form upon the topmost summit. The maker of that statue has “builded better than he knew.” In order to insure it against the storms and variable temperature of a Virginia atmosphere, it has been washed with an acid which has caused a slight oxidation, producing a rich and uniform bronze tint, which no rains can discolor and no sun bleach. When the traveler approaches the city of magnificent distances, the seat of what is destined to be the greatest and most beneficent power on earth, the first object that will strike his eye will be the figure of Liberty surmounting the capitol ; not white, symbolising but one race, nor black typifying another, but a statue representing the composite race, whose sway will extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, from the Equator to the North Pole—the Miscegens of the Future.

Anyway, I just thought it was a fascinating little historical detour, not least the origin of the word ‘miscegenation’ as a faux-politically correct euphemism for ‘amalgamation’. It’s striking that ‘miscegenation’ is still a very loaded term, while ‘amalgamation’ has, as far as I know, lost any association with racial mixing at all. And also: isn’t it amazing how much stuff you can find on the internet these days.