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Chris Bertram

Sunday photoblogging: more Bogota pigeons

by Chris Bertram on October 23, 2016

Pigeons, Bogota, Colombia


Crooked Timber comments: a big change

by Chris Bertram on October 19, 2016

We Timberites have been chatting amongst ourselves about our comments threads. Recently, and perhaps even not so recently, our threads have been dominated by a few commenters who are rude, abusive and dismissive to one another and others. This creates an environment where other commenters get squeezed out and where many of us feel reluctant to post on the blog because it isn’t fun exposing yourself to such gratuitous hostility and because housekeeping comment threads (and arguing about housekeeping decisions) is frankly exhausting. We want to create an environment where we feel more willing to write for the blog and where a wider spectrum of people feel encouraged to participate in discussions. There are no perfect solutions here. Abolishing comments threads altogether is an option, but that excludes people who have been good citizens at CT over the years.

Here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to enforce our comments policy more rigorously (including the requirement that you supply a valid email address), and not just the part about comments that are racist, sexist or homophobic, but also the part about comments that are personally insulting. Specifically, commenters should abjure ostentatious displays of contempt towards other participants in the thread and commenters should not write in a manner that clearly presupposes that they do not believe the person they are engaging with is deserving of intellectual engagement. To pursue this policy, we’re going to try out putting everything into moderation by default. This will requires more work on our part to scan potential contributions as well as making it more difficulty for people to engage in the kind of to-and-fro that is characteristic of good conversation. That’s a pity, but may be the price we have to pay. We’re planning to review our policy in a couple of weeks, to see how it is working.


Sunday photoblogging: Pigeons, Bogota

by Chris Bertram on October 16, 2016

Pigeons, Bogota, Colombia

Sunday photoblogging: Cathedral, Bogota

by Chris Bertram on October 8, 2016

Cathedral, Bogota, Colombia

Notes from Colombia

by Chris Bertram on October 4, 2016

Last Sunday, the 2nd of October, in a vote that defied predictions, Colombians voted in a referendum to reject the peace deal that had been negotiated between their government and the FARC guerillas. Many people were stunned by the outcome. My Facebook feed was full of people typing “WTF?” and similar, utterly uncomprehending that a people could vote for the continuation of this ancient and apparently pointless war. What follows is my own, inexpert take on things, based solely on the fact that I was there for the vote as an international observer and have had an opportunity to talk to some Colombians about what happened (albeit English speaking ones with liberal views). So read what I’ve written with that in mind. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Gothic portico, Laguardia, Spain

by Chris Bertram on September 18, 2016

Gothic portico, Laguardia

This polychrome gothic portico is in the church of Santa Maria de los Reyes in Laguardia and dates from the 14th century. It used to be the on the outside of the church but has been inside for several centuries and was probably painted this way in the 14th century. I took the picture hand-held at 6400 ISO, 1/30sec, f4 (the maximum aperture on the lens) in very dark conditions (flash prohibited), which tells you what cameras can do now.

Sunday photoblogging: Herefordshire sky, today

by Chris Bertram on August 28, 2016

Herefordshire sky

The EU referendum divided the UK very deeply. Some people want reconciliation with their political opponents; for others the scars are too recent. I’m in the latter camp. A national political project requires people to think of themselves as being in some sense in community with their co-nationals and to recognize themselves as being under special obligations to those others, obligations that they don’t have to outsiders. But I now feel myself out of community with my co-nationals who voted differently. Of course, I’m not utterly indifferent to their well-being — they have their human rights after all, even though they might dispute that — but I don’t feel any enthusiasm beyond pragmatic self-interest for putting them ahead of distant others.

One reason for this is that I think of nearly all of them as racists and xenophobes. Since this is one of the most bitterly resented accusation, prone to trigger outbursts of indignation, some explanation is needed. So here goes. Most Brexiters don’t actively hate foreigners. At least I think and hope that’s true, so let me stipulate that it is. If active hatred were a necessary component of racism and xenophobia then it would follow that most Brexiters are neither racists nor xenophobes. But I don’t think such an active attitude is needed for the accusation to proceed. Rather, I have something else in mind.

Brexit triggered a wave of hate crimes against the many EU citizens living in the UK, and, indeed, against foreigners more generally and made the legal and social position of those people precarious. This was all predictable. The formerly silent haters felt that the vote gave them a licence to act. Leaving the European Union also leave EU citizen residents in a state of acute insecurity, unsure what their future status will be. Brexiters were nearly all, when they contemplated their vote prospectively, indifferent to these impacts or they failed to give them the thought they should have. Though some Brexiters now seem appalled at what they have wrought, they seem incapable of grasping the full complexity of the rights that need reviewing and protecting which go beyond residence and work but extend to family life, and many social rights. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: wires near St David’s

by Chris Bertram on August 21, 2016

Wires near St David's

Sunday photoblogging: St David’s Cathedral

by Chris Bertram on August 14, 2016

St David's Cathedral

The lost world of Albert Kahn

by Chris Bertram on August 10, 2016

There’s nothing like a few unexpected days at home to allow you to discover new things, and the great find of the past few days — thanks to a tweet from Fernando Sdrigotti @f_sd — has been to watch (via Youtube, start here five programmes in all) some BBC documentaries about Albert Kahn and his Archives of the Planet, now preserved at the Musée Albert Kahn outside Paris. Born in Alsace, Kahn was displaced by the Prussian seizure of the territory in 1871 and became immensely rich though banking and investing in diamonds. But he was also an idealist, convinced that if the various tribes of humanity only knew one another better they would empathize more and would be less likely to go to war. In pursuit of this hope, and taking advantage of the Lumière Brothers’ Autochrome colour process, he sent teams of photographers to all parts of the globe and, before the First World War, caught many forms of life on the edge of being swept away by globalisation, war and revolution. (There’s quite a good selection here but google away.) Pictures taken around the Balkans, for example, depict the immense variety of different cultures living side-by-side at the time and then later we see the sad stream of refugees from the second Balkan War as they head from Salonika towards Turkey. Kahn’s operative document rural life in Galway, harsh penal regimes in Mongolia, elite life in Japan and a tranquil Rio de Janeiro with little traffic and few people.

Kahn’s hope for a peaceful world was lost in 1914, but we owe to his project many images of wartime France, particularly the life of ordinary people behind the lines. Postwar, Kahn was a great supporter of the League of Nations and, again, his operatives were on hand to document many of the upheavals of the inter-war years, such as the burning of Smyrna in 1922 (as Izmir, the city is once again crowded with refugees today) and the abortive attempt to found the Rhenish Republic in 1923. Many of the photographs are included in a book by David Okuefuna, The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age (BBC Books, 2008). Sadly, Kahn was ruined by the Great Depression and died in Paris shorly after the Germans invaded in 1940. He seems little-known today, but there’s a lot of material out there that’s worth your time.

Nauru, Australia’s shame

by Chris Bertram on August 10, 2016

The Guardian today publishes a vast number of leaked reports from Nauru, one of Australia’s offshore processing sites for asylum-seekers (in reality, a camp for the indefinite detention of asylum-seekers). The reports, or “unconfirmed allegations” as the Australian government would have it, are a harrowing catalogue of physical and sexual abuse, and of consequences for mental and bodily well-being, often suffered by children. These places exist to appease an Australian citizenry hostile to the arrival of “boat people” who believe that such people — even those determined to be refugees by Convention criteria — are not their problem. Though Nauru is a particularly vile example, it would be wrong to think that Australians are alone in their attitudes to refugees and asylum seekers. Other Western governments are happy to do deals with other states beyond their borders to ensure that the wretched of the earth are out of sight, where they can exist as an abstraction, not disturbing the conscience of their own citizens. Human rights, together with other liberal principles like the rule of law, have become, for many liberal democratic states, the exclusive right of the native-born citizen or, at best, someone else’s problem, somewhere else.

I’d be interested to learn from people in Australia now, how much traction this latest leak is getting in the Australian media. A surf to the websites of the Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald suggests not much.

Sunday photoblogging: hospital

by Chris Bertram on August 7, 2016

Outside the Children's Hospital

This week’s picture is quite an old one, of the sculpture outside the then-new Bristol Children’s Hospital which is directly adjacent to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, where I spent a good past of the last week following an acute gallstone attack (with associated pancreatitis) last weekend. On the Thursday I had my gall bladder removed (which turned out to be slightly more complicated than anticipated) and by Friday I was home. I’m now resting and recuperating, but basically feeling fine. Some reflections on the experience below the fold.
[click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: Hunter

by Chris Bertram on July 17, 2016

Maybe after Henri “le Douanier” Rousseau.


Where now for the UK?

by Chris Bertram on July 15, 2016

I’ve been feeling an obligation to write something on the post-referendum UK here at CT, but little inclination to do so. The result came as a punch to the gut, and everything since then has been a weird combination of deeper depression and insane hilarity as the dreams of the Brexiteers unravel. Still, we have a new Prime Minister and a new government, the basic contours of which are becoming clear. Mrs May has been chosen as a grown up, charged with charting a course through the reefs and shallows of Brexit to the fabled open water beyond (reports of which are largely based on unreliable traveller’s tales). So what sort of government do we have? One that is markedly to the left of the Cameron-Osborne version on matters of economic policy and markedly to the right on individual rights and citizenship. We’ve had May giving speeches about inequality, class and opportunity that are indistinguishable from Ed Miliband’s election platform and Philip Hammond (the new Chancellor) saying that, given low interest rates, we can borrow to invest in infrastructure projects. On the other hand, May’s record at the Home Office is one of some who thinks that “citizenship is a privilege and not a right”, who has floated the idea of leaving the European Convention on Human Rights, who doesn’t think the rule of law applies to foreigners, and who was reluctant to guarantee the position of existing EU national residents in the UK. The quasi-libertarians who believe in free-market economics and gay rights have been dumped, Osborne foremost among them, to be replaced by social authoritarians like the disgraced Liam Fox. More inclusive and cuddly for good native-born citizens, an iron fist for the rest. The only incongruous note in all this, and one that undermines somewhat May’s image of seriousness, is appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, a man who has insulted many world leaders personally (and entire countries) and who is know abroad for serial lying, adultery and getting stuck on a zip-wire wearing the Union Jack. Still, even that is of a piece with her tactic of putting Brexiteers (Johnson, Fox, Davis, Leadsom) in the places where the hard negotiating has to be done. They said leaving the EU would be a piece of cake, now they are expected to deliver.