From the monthly archives:

November 2021

Replacing Western civ: how bad would it be?

by Chris Bertram on November 30, 2021

A key element of the the ideology of the new populist far right (Trumpian, Faragist, Zemmourian etc) is some version of the “great replacement” theory, the idea that Western civ is under threat from migrants, Muslims, black people, brown people, yellow people and the rest. In some version or another, it actually goes back a long way, and was the main driver of things like the White Australia policy and similar paranoias elsewhere about white settlers being overwhelmed by coolie labour. I happen to think the fears are overblown and that the good stuff in Western civ – Bach, Shakespeare, Gothic architecture, science, ymmv – is going to survive any amount of demographic change. But the question I’d like to pose here is, how bad would it be, morally speaking?
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Sunday photoblogging: St Mary Redcliffe churchyard

by Chris Bertram on November 28, 2021

St Mary Redcliffe churchyard

The case for being born

by John Q on November 28, 2021

The New Yorker is running a profile of the anti-natalist philosopher David Benatar. Reading it, I was unconvinced by the implied response to the obvious objection, “if life is so bad, why not kill yourself”, namely that suicide is painful in itself and causes pain to others.

I searched a bit, and discovered that, not only had Harry covered the book here soon after it came out, but I had made the same objection in comments[1], which I’ll reproduce for convenience

given that Benatar is arguing from a utilitarian rational choice position, his argument leads straight to the (more or less standard utilitarian) conclusion that there should be no moral weight attached to suicide. That is, people should commit suicide if they reasonably judge that their future pains outweigh their future pleasures. Sympathetic others should not deplore the fact of suicide (though they should be saddened by the facts leading to the decision).

Once that position is established there’s no problem bringing new people into the world. If they don’t like it they can always kill themselves. That, it seems to me, is orthodox utilitarianism, with a bit of a helping hand from revealed preference.

Of course, this kind of thing is all very well in a philosophy class. In reality, suicide is more commonly the result of momentary despair and is a tragedy for both the person concerned and their friends and family.

Since 2008, most Australian states have introduced assisted dying laws, which seem to strengthen the case against Benatar’s claim (at least as applied to Australians). People who face suffering that outweighs any future pleasure can end their lives painlessly and without causing harm to their loved ones (most people who have faced the painful death of loved ones supported the legislation).

It’s true that this option is only available to the terminally ill (12 months to live), but there was no apparent demand for broader access, and the number of people taking the option has remained small.

So, if painless suicide is possible, and those who care about us should (and mostly will) support our choices if life seems unbearable on careful reflection, Benatar just seems to be saying that we are all making the wrong choice in staying alive. How (except in the extreme nature of his suggestion) does this differ from someone saying we are all wrong in our choices of food, music, life partners etc and would be truly happy if we only ate food listened to music, and shared our lives with people we hated?

fn1. This happens to me a lot, either because of failing memory or excessive opinionating.

The Great Resignation

by Maria on November 27, 2021

I love the various screengrabs that go around Twitter of an American working in the service industry being treated like crap by their manager who just doesn’t get that labour shortages mean power has shifted, and end with the worker quitting. They’re so popular I can only guess some are fake to hoover up extra likes, but the sentiment is real and the data seems to back it up. The Great Resignation is real, probably driven by deaths from covid, caring responsibilities and, it seems, older people leaving the workforce. In the UK, about a million Europeans have left the country, 700,000 of them from London by the first covid summer. Not that you’d know it from most newspapers. You have to infer it from the calls by government ministers for students to pick rotting vegetables and mothers to put in a shift in an abattoir after they drop the kids to school.

I used to always think having suddenly fewer of a certain essential group gave that group more power. Then I read sometime in the late nineties about China’s ‘one child’ policy, how it drove termination of pregnancies with girls, and how scarcity drove kidnapping and general mistreatment of the surviving girls and women as they grew up. Employers and governments have two choices; adapt the labour market to accommodate workers’ greater choices in the new reality, or punitively try and force them to continue behaving as in the old one. Or in the UK, complain about ungrateful (insert minority category)s, do corruption to personally buy yourself out of the broken system, and rail against reality while throwing dead cat after dead cat on the table. In this way, the ‘great resignation’ can mean both people resigning from shitty jobs and conditions, but also becoming fatally resigned to them.
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Around thirty people are dead, drowned in the English Channel. And everyone knows why they died. Because the UK government, like all governments of wealthy countries, makes it impossible for people who want to claim asylum to enter the country by the ways you and I travel. So people who want to do so – as is their human right – have to enter by clandestine means. And because states are powerful, have border guards, fences, technology to detect people etc, they have to make use of smugglers to get across international borders.

Whenever there’s a major loss of life, the same politicians who have done everything they can to make it impossible for people to arrive by safe means, blame the smugglers and criminal gangs whose businesses would not exist without the measures they themselves put in place. They deplore people who make a profit at the expense of the vulnerable, but make sure that they also criminalize people who would help those people for free from humanitarian motives.
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Sunday photoblogging: march of the cranes

by Chris Bertram on November 21, 2021

March of the Cranes

The Ones Who Take the Train to Omelas

by John Holbo on November 20, 2021

A couple years back I made a post about Le Guin’s “Omelas”. I teach it, and it’s been rattling around up there in the attic. I had this idea for a visual gag. And that led to a story, which led back to rethinking my story thoughts. I wrote a little essay. You can read the story and the essay here. And see the rest of the little pictures.

The Future Finds Its Own Uses for Things

by Henry Farrell on November 15, 2021

So this event on the relationship between social science and science fiction went live late last week. It has Paul Krugman, Ada Palmer, Jo Walton, Noah Smith and … me. I’ve been wanting to say something a little bit more about this relationship for a while. Here is one take, which surely misses out on a lot, but maybe captures some stuff too. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: from Bedminster Bridge

by Chris Bertram on November 14, 2021

From Bedminster Bridge

Lately, I find I’ve been spending more and more time looking at Facebook groups of old photographs of Bristol, the city where I live. I particularly enjoy the aerial photographs of the interwar period, often colorized. There are lots of reasons for this: I like photographs, I like history, I like cities. But it isn’t just Bristol, I can also spend hours on the Shorpy site, sometimes going to Google Street View for a modern take, and I own several books comparing the Parises of Marville and Atget and the New York of Berenice Abbott to the same scenes today, as well as multiple volumes of Reece Winstone’s collection of historic Bristol pictures. So what’s the attraction, indeed the compulsion? What is drawing me and others to these scenes? And does this attraction also have a problematic side to it?

One common response to the images is a sense of thwarted possibility. You see a functioning, bustling city, full of life, and full of beatiful surviving buildings, densely packed. The train is everywhere, with bridges, tracks, sidings, sheds to match. Sometimes a locomotive is in view. The rail infrastructure criss-crosses with the water, canal and harbours. Factories with their chimneys sit adjacent to medieval churches with their towers and spires. The technology often looks amazing, as with the Ashton Avenue Bridge (1905)(covered for photoblogging a while back), which in its day was a double-decker swing structure, with road on the top deck and rail running below. These days it has but one functioning level – the old rail deck is for pedestrians and cyclists – and it hasn’t swung since 1951. The “then” pictures give us the romance of industrial modernity combined with the charm of the medieval.
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Contingency, or some other thing

by Maria on November 8, 2021

I’ve been thinking about how so many stories touch on the idea that another life or even world is almost perceivable but impossibly far away, under normal conditions, but the heroine can see different versions of the future or choose different paths, etc. Or the whole ‘sliding doors’ thing, where a critical moment splits a life in two. Those stories are delicious, not just because we get to explore versions of what might have happened, but because they satisfy a deeper intuition that our sister-lives are almost touchable. (I will only ever recommend Jo Walton’s ‘My Real Children’ as the best, most profoundly compassionate and practically wise branched narrative any of us is likely to encounter.)

When my husband Ed was deployed to Afghanistan, I wrote him letter after letter, not quite able to believe that the blue envelope could exist both in a military quarter in Scotland and, soon after, a base in Helmand. (Letters! The original time travel machine, and the best.) Or that he might have walked out the door five months before for what we couldn’t yet know was be the last time. (It wasn’t.) We often spin contingency around tragic or life-altering events, the ‘if only’s’ about humdrum decisions that set in train outcomes we so desperately wish hadn’t happened, and whose precipitating actions seem so trivial, so mundane, there must surely be a way to take them back. Even stuff like taking the stairs and not the lift at the airport, and just missing that flight. You feel like you can almost reach back and grab yourself of just a few minutes ago.

When I was a university student, my father was involved in a serious car accident. At home looking after my younger siblings, I heard his deeply familiar footsteps come down the hall. In the moment the door handle turned, I both knew it must be him and that it couldn’t be. Both seemed equally true, and until the person came into the room, my father was just as much walking into the kitchen as he was lying in an ICU. (The steps were my older brother Henry’s. I just hadn’t realised they then had the same gait and also source of shoes, i.e. my mother…)

Of course, a lifetime of reading Borges and SFF and popular science about quantum physics is inevitably going to create a fractally abundant way of thinking and feeling about what is only ever plain old contingency. Or just provide more metaphors that dissolve on contact with the inability to express how weird it is that time moves inexorably forward when we, surely, can just. not. Or could sidestep it beautifully in defiance of the expected rhythms, if we, too, had Dune’s choreographer Benjamin Millepied (he of Black Swan/Natalie Portman fame) teaching us how to move.

(By the by, I’ve not seen anything about how very, very French the sensibilities of that film are, from its director to its male lead to Charlotte Rampling’s perfectly ‘learning nothing and forgetting nothing’ Bene Gesserit abbess, to its very slightly orthogonal aesthetic relation to imperialism in the Arab world. Also the music, though I may be wrong about that.)

Anyway, I was just wondering if other people have that ‘can almost reach out and touch it’ feeling about branched lives, or other forms of intuitive disbelief about continuity, causality and contingency, or perhaps I’m calling it the wrong name entirely. How one moment leading straight to the next, and one thing inexorably causing another just seems unlikely, at very large and very small scales. I’m not entirely convinced about the middle one, either.

Does this mode of appeal to other possibilities predate late twentieth century literature and physics, or do we just use new models and metaphors to describe something people have always felt? Or was there – oh no! – a complete fracture in how we conceive of this, or perhaps just the mental model of how we make peace with it, and now there’s no going back? Perhaps what I’m calling contingency, which seems also to contain the idea of its own unsteadiness, is just a secular form of disbelief in the primacy of the present. Was it always thus?

Sunday photoblogging: crane

by Chris Bertram on November 7, 2021


Fairness in five minutes

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 6, 2021

The European Union’s political institutions are organising a many-months-long Conference on the Future of Europe. Part of this are a series of meetings of randomly invited European citizens, who are deliberating on what they think is important for the future of Europe. They are divided in several panels, and the panel that focusses, among other things, on social justice, is meeting this weekend for an online deliberation. As part of this, I have been invited to explain, in five minutes, the concept of ‘fairness’, and to do so in a balanced and accessible way. Not easy if one is used to give hourly lectures to university students, but here’s what I came up with – trying to get the most out of 5 minutes while also being as accessible as possible to a very diverse audience.

When thinking about fairness, we need to ask 4 questions:

First: what is fairness in general terms?
Second, where does fairness apply?
Third, what are the relevant principles of fairness?
Fourth, what are possible policies that affect fairness?

I will explain these four questions one after the other. [click to continue…]

Coffee in Zürich

by Ingrid Robeyns on November 3, 2021

In 2007, I attended a workshop at which, during coffee after registration, I introduced myself to another scholar, who responded that he knew me. I couldn’t recall meeting him before, so when that showed on my facial expression, he added – “Well, I know your Crooked Timber persona”. That was a new expression for me! In my memory, Miriam was also there. A conversation ensued about Crooked Timber, and someone asked how the group of bloggers was put together and whether we all knew each other. I recall that those I was talking to were surprised to hear that, at that time (which for me was one year after I joined the blog), I only had met two Timberites – Harry and Chris. Harry I first met when I was a PhD-student at Cambridge and he was a keynote speaker at a political theory graduate conference, and Chris during a conference a few years later. But I had not met any of the other Timberites, and it would actually take quite a while before that would change. [click to continue…]