From the monthly archives:

June 2021

Not CRT, but critical thinking about race

by John Q on June 30, 2021

Over the fold a piece I wrote on the Critical Race Theory panic. I took my time and I think everything has been said by now, but readers might like to discuss it anyway. There’s an earlier version here

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I wrote something a while ago about why I think forgiving all student debt is neither a good idea nor progressive. One of the common responses to people who make the kinds of argument that I make is that, indeed, forgiving student debt is progressive, because, at least on the plan Sanders had, it would be paid for by a tax on speculative trades. So, it is progressive because it redistributes down.

After I saw that objection several times I realized that I didn’t have a well-formed concept of progressivity or regressivity, and didn’t really know what other people meant by it. So I’m asking you to do either or both: help me understand what progressive means, and/or understand why it matters that some policy is progressive.

To be clear. I agree that, if paid for the way Sanders planned to pay for it, loan forgiveness would have the net effect of redistributing down. Now, that doesn’t impress me a huge amount. Imagine a proposal that redistributed down from the top 1% just to the next 9%, and does nothing for the bottom 90%. Sure, that redistributes down, but the population within which it redistributes isn’t really of interest to me for now.

The definition of “progressive” on which the transfer from the top 1% to the next 9% is progressive is:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of redistributing resources downward at all.

That’s clearly not the definition underlying my objection to student debt forgiveness being progressive. (As I say, I just didn’t have a clear idea of what definition was in my head, but it wasn’t this one).

Here’s a second possible definition:

  • A policy is progressive as long as it has the net effect of reducing inequality of resources in the whole population

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Diana Ross and Kevin Coyne

by Harry on June 27, 2021

Radio 2 has been playing Thank You by Diana Ross all week. I wondered why I’d never heard it before, and discovered it’s because it was just released and, therefore, I presume, written sometime after 1972. I wondered whether someone with more musical knowledge/understanding than I have (which is nearly everyone who reads this) would listen to the first 36 seconds of Kevin Coyne’s “Need Somebody” from his first solo album, Case History, and compare it with the first 29 seconds of Thank You. They sound unnervingly similar to me.(And, the home recorded version sounds even more like Thank You to me).

If I’m right, can you suggest examples of artists ‘borrowing’ from other artists that are more unlikely than the Ross/Coyne pair?

Just to be clear, I don’t actually think this is a case of borrowing: I don’t imagine for a second that anyone of Ms. Ross’s team has ever heard of Kevin Coyne, let alone heard anything he wrote, and if I am wrong about that I will admire her even more than I already do.

Swamp 81

by Harry on June 24, 2021

I’ve been listening to longform radio documentaries ever since I started listening to Radio 4/The Home Service more than 50 years ago. I can’t remember anything better than this series about the Brixton Riot of 1981, hosted by a chap called Big Narstie (of whom I had never heard, but who my somewhat-cooler-than-me son-in-law assures me is a generally good chap). The combination of careful historical analysis, eyewitness testimony, dramatic recreation (of which I am generally skeptical, but is done, here, carefully and sparingly) is brilliant. Mr Narstie himself is charming. He seems genuinely moved by some of the stories within the story, and manages to convey his enthusiasm about just how much progress has been made while insisting that much is left to do. It’s not until episode 7 (of 8) that we get to the riot itself. What the series does is explain why the riot (and the riots that followed in the summer of 81) happened, and to do that it traces the history of police/community relations in south London from the mid-1960’s. It’s not perfect. There’s no real discussion of the St. Paul’s riot from the previous year. And the thread about the New Cross house fire loses steam a little bit: it is not made clear to the listener that forensics eventually established that the fire began inside the house, which is a pity, because the relevance of the New Cross fire is that however it was started no reasonable person in that community could believe anything that the police told them.

Two police officers from the time tell their stories. One is frank and straightforward – the police force he joined was populated substantially by racist criminals, and almost entirely, otherwise, by people who were either implicated in, or happy to turn a blind eye to, the lawlessness of their colleagues. (Political scientists can correct me here, but from casual observation there does seems to be a pretty general rule: when you’re trying to explain rioting during peacetime in liberal democracies a good starting point is police/community relations, and it’s not unusual to find a long history of criminality toward the rioting community on the part of the police). The other officer is much more defensive, tarring the young men who were regularly stopped and searched under the Sus laws, beaten up, arrested, and “fitted up”, as criminals. But there is one amusing moment, in which he says, probably with at least an element of truth, something to the effect of “People say we were racist. But Blacks had moved into that area, and we treated them the way that we treated the people who had lived there before”.

Many of the stories of individual encounters with police officers that are told in the first few episodes are shocking and should be very hard to believe. I think it is worth dwelling a little, as the podcast doesn’t, on just why so many people not directly affected by the way Brixton and other Black communities were policed, did not understand the problem. To understand it you had to be willing to believe that (often violent) lawbreaking was the norm in the Metropolitan Police. Think of your own workplace. Imagine that you violently assaulted a someone you had just grabbed off the pavement/sidewalk in front of 10 of your colleague. How much push back would you get? Wouldn’t somebody get a little nervous that you, or they, would get into trouble? Now imagine that you do it again the next day. Now imagine that several of your colleagues do the same thing in the next few weeks. And then boast about it in the cafeteria. Most people in my parents’ and grandparents’ generations did not inhabit workplaces where that was normal, and, I think, found it very hard to take seriously the idea that the police, in particular, were like that. Especially if they lived in part of the country (and there were some) which was relatively well policed. [1]

Unless, of course, you had some direct experience of the Met yourself.

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Janet Malcolm and Joshua Cohen

by Corey Robin on June 19, 2021

Janet Malcolm has died. I, along with three other writers, wrote something about her for The New Republic.

Like Orwell, who thought Homage to Catalonia would have been a good book had he not turned it into journalism, Malcolm described her writing as a failure of art. Only writers who invent, she said, can write autobiographies. Journalists like her could not. They lacked the ability to make themselves interesting. The light of their work was powered, almost entirely, by the self-invention of their subjects.

You can read the rest of it here.

On Tuesday, at 7:30 pm (EST), I’ll be interviewing Joshua Cohen about his amazing new novel, The Netanyahus. You can sign up for the online event here. I can’t say enough good things about the novel—it’s about Jews, Israel, the Diaspora, identity politics, campus politics, declining empires, tribalism, nose jobs, and more. And Cohen is just an extraordinarily fertile mind, a genuine novelist of ideas, who’s also very funny. Should be a fun event. I hope you’ll join us. Again, sign up here.

Brideshead re-revisited

by John Q on June 19, 2021

While we are talking about tangentially religious topics, it might be fun to look at the question of Boris Johnson’s nuptials. It’s been stated in seemingly authoritative terms that it was OK for the twice-divorced Johnson to be married in a Catholic ceremony, because his previous marriages were outside the church.

My knowledge of this question comes from the TV version of Brideshead Revisited[1], where a minor character, engaged to a Catholic, jumps through all sorts of hoops to convert to Catholicism, then discovers that he is disqualified by a previous divorce, arising from a non-Catholic marriage.

Things have loosened up quite a bit since Evelyn Waugh was around, so I thought these rules might have changed. But it seems clear that this is not the case. The central point is that the Catholic Church accepts non-Catholics marriages as valid, in the absence of the conditions that would justify an annulment. Indeed, if it was the actual teaching of the Church that all married non-Catholics were living in sin, we would probably have heard about it before now.

Where does this leave Boris, and the Church? I Am Not A Canon Lawyer, but my guess is that, even if the marriage was contrary to church law, it would still be valid and binding. But it certainly seems that the great and powerful get special treatment from the Church, as they always have done.

Not always favorable treatment, however. It looks as if Joe Biden may be singled out from millions of other pro-choice Catholics for exclusion from Catholic communion. That would set an interesting precedent.

fn1. I read the book first, but I remember this episode from the TV series

Mars, Ares, Tiw/Tyr, God, Allah

by Harry on June 15, 2021

I’m alarmed by how interesting I find this comment by J-D in the Christian thread.

Attempts to answer the question of whether the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God confront some of the same difficulties that confront attempts to answer the question of whether Ares and Mars are the same god, or whether Mars and Tiw are the same god; or, for that matter, whether the creatures that Chinese people call dragons and unicorns are the same creatures as the ones that European people call dragons and unicorns.

There must be a vast literature about this in philosophy of language and philosophy of fiction, and those of you who know it will doubtless find what I have to say extremely naïve. If someone can point us to some interesting work and/or, even better, explain it to us, that would be great. But here goes with a naive blog post.

I’ve no idea whether the God of Christianity and the God of Islam are the same God, and some of the difficulties in assessing whether or not they are are indeed the same as those involved in assessing whether Mars, Ares and Tiw/Tyr are the same god. So I tried to think about which difficulties might be different.

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Why I am not exactly a Christian

by Harry on June 14, 2021

The last talk I gave before lockdown (sometime in March 2020) was for the annual Freethought conference held by the Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics of Madison (No, I don’t think they know Alan Partridge). It’s much looser, and more fun, than my usual talks: they asked me because the President of AHA had heard from a small group of my students the way I think about these issues, and, to be honest, I think they bugged him to invite me to force me to write something down. Here it is:

This talk doesn’t really contain an argument, unlike most that I give. It’s more an autobiographical sketch on the topic of its title – which is a sort of tribute to Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, but has a twist to it. I’m not a Christian. Not exactly. I’ll explain why I’m not, but also why it’s a little misleading to say I am not.

I’ll start with two stories about students.

First. About 13 years ago an evangelical Christian student was in my office discussing career options with me (this is one of the many great parts of my job). At one point I asked if she’d considered becoming a pastor. She shot back “No, I couldn’t be a pastor”. After a pause she added: “You should become a pastor”. My reaction was immediate: “Um.… I lack one key qualification”. “Oh, that’s ok”, she retorted, “I’m sure lots of pastors don’t believe in God. And, anyway, if you were a pastor, perhaps you’d come to believe in God”. [1]

Second. A student who just graduated [Dec 2019] is getting married and invited me, and many of her classmates from a class that she took (though didn’t much enjoy) as a freshman. Her spouse-to-be, impressed presumably, that she was inviting a professor not in her major, asked her if Brighouse would be willing to do a reading. She told us all that she replied, “Oh no, I don’t think he’d do that because he is an atheist”.

I’m glad she told us this. Because I said “Oh, I’d be happy to do a reading. I’m not that kind of atheist” and, to be honest, I was a bit surprised that she didn’t already know that. [Sadly, COVID prevented me and her classmates from attending the wedding, but I am glad to say it did go ahead without us]

Maybe you can tell something about the kind of atheist I am through this story, from the 1980s shortly after I moved to the US, and was still quite bemused by the culture. I heard a news story about a lawsuit. Football players at a public high school had been praying in the end zone during a game. And someone was suing the school district to try and get it to prohibit them from doing so. My immediate reaction went something like this:

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Labor and its imaginary friends

by John Q on June 13, 2021

As with the centre-left in other countries, there’s lots of concern in the Australian Labor part about the perceived loss of its traditional working class base. I’ve written a piece in Crikey,reproduced over the fold, arguing that this is mostly misconceived. Lots of Oz-specific stuff, but I think most readers should be able to follow the thread. Interested in comparisons with similar debates in other countries.

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Sunday photoblogging: Albert Dock/Tate, Liverpool

by Chris Bertram on June 6, 2021

Liverpool: Albert Dock/Tate

The end of the population pyramid (scheme)

by John Q on June 1, 2021

In a case of l’esprit de l’escalier, I just worked out the perfect parenthetical addition to this piece that was published in Inside Story, responding to a string of pro-natalist pieces in the New York Times and elsewhere. The central point is that the economic model in which strong young workers support elderly retirees is outdated and will only become more so.

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