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Chris Bertram

Self-respect, justice and black resistance

by Chris Bertram on June 3, 2020

One of the most important books I’ve read over the past couple of years is Tommie Shelby’s Dark Ghettos: Injustice, Dissent and Reform. One of the passages that struck me most forcefully at the time is where he discusses the value of self-respect in the face of oppression. “Those with self-respect,” he writes, “live their lives in a way that conveys their conviction that they are proper objects of respect. For example, they resist the efforts of others to mistreat them and openly resent unfair treatment.” (98)

He has a brief, but powerful discussion of this value in and the need to resist if it is to be affirmed:

Oppression can erode a person’s sense of self-respect, causing one to doubt one’s claim to equal moral status. We can understand an attack on one’s self-respect as an action, policy, or practice that threatens to make one feel that one is morally inferior, that one does not deserve the same treatment as others. To maintain a healthy sense of self-respect under conditions of injustice, the oppressed may therefore fight back against their oppressors, demanding the justice they know they deserve, even when the available evidence suggests that justice is not on the horizon. They thereby affirm their moral worth and equal status.

…. Persons with a strong sense of self-respect sometimes refuse to co-operate with the demands of an unjust society. They stand up for themselves, are defiant in the fact of illegitimate authority, refuse to comply with unjust social requirements, protest maltreatment and humiliation, and so on, even when they know that such actions will not bring about justice or reduce theor suffering. Self-respect, then, can be a matter of living with a sense of moral pride despite unjust conditions. (99-100)

This seems absolutely right to me. Resistance may turn out to be futile in the sense that it brings about no lasting change or improvement in conditions, though we hope that it will. Often, as Shelby says a few lines later on, discretion is the better part of valour, both morally and prudentially. But sometimes people just have to stand up to affirm their status as human beings. And when they do the rest of us have to stand with them, and we deny their value, and demean our own if we turn our backs. This is why the many acts of resistance and protest by black Americans and those standing with them are so deeply moving and significant, however this ends.


Sunday photoblogging: fox news

by Chris Bertram on May 31, 2020

This character has been ruling over the local allotments recently. Bold, but very quiet, and you don’t see it coming until you do. Looks to be in good condition.

Fox at the allotments


Sunday photoblogging: San Francisco

by Chris Bertram on May 24, 2020

San Francisco: alley


by Chris Bertram on May 22, 2020

One thing I’ve found a bit more time to do under lockdown is to listen to more music, and on the back of reading Richard Powers’s The Gold Bug Variations, I’ve been listening to different recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations every day. Very calming and sometimes transporting. The trouble is, though, that as someone who likes music, who has read quite a bit about it, who goes to the occasional concert, I am also somewhat unmusical. My attempts in middle-age to learn the piano were not crowned with success and my elderly teacher was really quite vocal in his denunciations of my incompetence. (A welcome side-effect though was that my children have managed to become musicians.) So how, among the bewildering variety of performances on different instruments – all of which are available at the click of a mouse – to pick what is “good” to listen to? How far do you trust the experts and their recommendations? And what if you find yourself liking things that the musically competent condemn and disliking things that they praise as exsquisite. Such are the anxieties of the aesthetic inadequate faced with art and the judgement of the acknowledged cognoscenti.

So what have my listenings prompted so far by way of inexpert conclusions? First, that I am pretty allergic to the sound of the harpsichord — something I knew already — though I accept that you sometimes hear things in the music that you don’t when listening to a piano performace. Second, that neither of the celebrated performances by Glenn Gould really do it for me: the first sounds too dry, in the second I find the humming too distracting. Third, that there is an extraordinary degree of variation in the playing, such that it can seem like different pieces of music are being performed (most obviously in something like Wilhelm Kempff’s ornamentless performance of the Aria as contrasted with most others). Finally, that it turned out to be really important to me how a particular variation (XIII) is performed. Some of the renditions are extraordinarily soulful and affecting and some seem like technical exercises that lack such meaning. For what its worth, I’ve most enjoyed performances by Tatiana Nicolaeva (a concert in Stockholm), by Murray Perahia, and by Maria Tipo. I have on LP or CD the 1955 Gould, a Rosalyn Tureck and the Charles Rosen, but I haven’t revisited the last two yet. What do Crooked Timber readers suggest?

Sunday photoblogging: Stairs in Rome

by Chris Bertram on May 10, 2020

Rome: staircase

Freedom, lockdown, and COVID-19

by Chris Bertram on May 6, 2020

Despite the UK now having the highest death toll from COVID-19 in Europe and the second-highest in the world after the United States, the right-wingers of the Telegraph and the Spectator, abetted by the erstwhile Marxists of Spiked! and similar persist in denouncing lockdown as a tyrannical assault on freedom. It is clear that compulsory social distancing measures do indeed reduce people’s negative liberty by constraining the set of actions they can legally perform. Most people, however, view this as a sensible price to reduce the threat COVID-19 presents to each of us and to others, particularly the most vulneralble, the elderly, health workers, transport workers etc. After all, if you are dead then your freedom is worth nothing.

As students of freedom know, however, there is more than one way of understanding the concept. Libertarians who are extraordinarily sensitive to the least legal limitation on negative freedom are usually completely immune to the idea that structural features of capitalist society are coercive and freedom-limiting. In particular, they either fail to notice or deny that the workplace is coercive. After all, the people who work for the person to whom they are now subordinate freely contracted into that position, didn’t they? I don’t think I need to repeat the familiar points about choices, options, and structural oppression here.

Instead I invite you to consider what will happen if and when lockdown is lifted. Jerry Cohen made the point in his essay “Are Disadvantaged Workers Who Take Hazardous Jobs Forced to Take Hazardous Jobs?” that you can’t force someone to do what they are unfree to do. If workers are unfree to contract for less than the minimum wage or to work in unsafe conditions they bosses can’t (legally) force them to do those things. The same, rather obviously, goes for lockdown. People who are more-or-less confined to their homes can’t easily be forced to work in workplaces that expose them to the threat of COVID-19. (I know that even under lockdown many workers, such as health workers and bus drivers are effectively so forced, and COVID has rather powerfully exposed some of the divides that exist among different groups of workers.)
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Sunday photoblogging: Herefordshire field

by Chris Bertram on May 3, 2020

Herefordshire field

Sunday photoblogging: trees

by Chris Bertram on April 26, 2020

I’m reading Richard Powers’s magnificent novel The Overstory at the moment, so I’m learning and appreciating a lot about trees that I hadn’t before. And I’m wishing that I’d know those things before encountering the magnificent specimens in this Sunday’s offering. First, a tree with magnificent roots and multiple trunks (probably from the fig family) that I saw in the grounds of the Brasilia Palace Hotel outside Brasilia in 2013. Second, the wonderful redwoods in Muir Woods in northern California.

Brasilia Palace Hotel-2

Muir Woods, redwoods

What are we watching?

by Chris Bertram on April 17, 2020

As we are all (or most of us) shut behind our front doors for fear of the plague, and once we’re through with improving ourselves or home-schooling others, what are we watching? I’m always in need of a good recommendation, but happy to share too. At the moment the two drama series that are occupying me are Baron Noir and Babylon Berlin (both series 3 now). I’m guessing, possibly incorrectly, that Baron Noir will be the less familiar of the two to CT readers. It follows the career of socialist mayor Phillipe Rickwaert from the mayor’s job at Dunkerque to the highs and low of national power. Rickwaert is both a Machiavellian tactician (not above dirty tricks and electoral fraud), personally ambitious but also deeply attached to the historic socialist cause. One of the grittiest depictions of how the political sausages get made of recent times. You should start at the beginning with series 1, which is excellent, and persevere through series 2, which gets a bit flabby, since series 3 is again taut, well-plotted and acted. The France of Baron Noir is a parallel one that is just a tiny bit different (the eventual Macron figure is female and the Mélenchon character is vain and narcissistic). Really compelling stuff. Babylon Berlin, based on the novels by Volker Kutscher, is a Weimar era detective series in which our heroes Gunther Rath and Charlotte Ritter battle against dark forces. The plot is sometimes incomprehensible, but the depiction of 1920s Berlin is wonderful.

At a time when coronavirus dominates the headlines, other news struggles to get out. Yet one piece of news deserves to get a much wider hearing, namely, the story of how Labour full-time officials opposed Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party to a degree where they preferred the party do do badly in elections. The same party officials were responsibly for feeding contacts in the media a constant drip of anti-Corbyn leaks, particularly around anti-semitism and Corbyn’s alleged failure to deal properly with complaints. Now a leaked internal party report, commissioned during Corbyn’s time in office, has revealed some of what went on and much about the attitudes and behaviour of senior Labour staffers, particularly during the 2017 general election when Labour did better than expected and denied the Tories a majority. Reports: Aaron Bastani at Novara Media, The Morning Star (1, 2, 3), The Independent.

The details revealed are very shocking although perhaps not surprising to anyone who had encountered these individuals or others like them in student politics in earlier decades. Essentially, they regarded themselves as the true guardians of legitimate mainstream Labour, understood as being very right-wing social democratic indeed (probably well to the right of former leader Ed Miliband and possibly his predecessor Gordon Brown) and believed that the elected leadership of the party and the majority of the membership were illegitimate. The epithet frequently used is “trots”. They devoted their time to rooting out from the party those on its left by trawling social media for statements that could justify exclusion (perhaps someone just “liked” a tweet by the Green Party). In communications (including to a private WhatsApp group) they gave full rein to their attitudes and even violent fantasies about those they hated, expressed hostility towards Muslims and solidarity with journalists who promoted an Islamophobic agenda. During the 2017 election campaign, they diverted resources from marginal seats towards candidates they approved of, expressed dismay at any good polling results, and when the actual results started to come in were angry and disappointed that the party had done well. Following that election they redoubled efforts to destroy Corbyn’s leadership.
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Sunday photoblogging: Valentine’s bridge, Bristol

by Chris Bertram on April 12, 2020

Valentine's bridge

A guest post by David Owen (University of Southampton).

T. Alexander Aleinikoff & Leah Zamore, *The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime*, Stanford University Press, 2019.

This book is a bold attempt to rethink the requirements of an international protection regime for forced migrants as well as a significant challenge to the view I recently proposed in my own book (reviewed [here]( by Chris Bertram). Combining a revisionist history of the international refugee regime and a call for a contemporary widening of that regime, it traces proposes a set of principles and practices of protection that the authors take to be adequate to challenges of our current circumstances.

That the international refugee regime is far from well-functioning is hardly a controversial judgment and Aleinkoff & Zamore begin by sketching out the character of its failure and the relationship of that failure to the shift to thinking of refugees in humanitarian terms. As they rightly note, the 1951 Refugee Convention is much more focused than current humanitarian practice on rights and on the integration of refugees – as social, economic and even political agents – into their states of residence. Their reconstruction of the post-WW2 emergence of our current refugee regime provides the basis for the pivotal claim of the book, which is a rejection of what they term ‘the Modern Standard Picture’ (MSP) of refugee protection according to which (1) citizens are entitled to the protection of their basic rights by their home state, (2) a refugee is someone whose home state has failed to protect them so that they have had to flee from it and (3) international protection is a surrogate or substitute for the responsibilities of their home state implemented through the protection of another state. MSP is a widely held view (my own work may be seen as a version of it) but they argue that it cannot make sense of the focus of the Refugee Convention on overcoming obstacles to the rebuilding of refugee lives in the host state by establishing requirements on host states to provide some rights in forms equivalent to those enjoyed by citizens and the remainder in the form enjoyed by the most favoured immigrants: ‘if international protection is a surrogate for anything, it is the inability or unwillingness of the host state to protect and assist refugees in their territory’ (p.51). The simple but radical redirecting of the focus of refugee protection onto the obligation of the international community to provide the rights and resources for refugees to be able to rebuild their lives, to enjoy agency and welfare wherever they are, provides the basis on which their argument and proposals stand.
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Sunday photoblogging: Bantry House, Cork (2008)

by Chris Bertram on April 5, 2020

Bantry House, Cork, Ireland (2008)

Sunday photoblogging: Cardiff arcade, 2008

by Chris Bertram on March 29, 2020

During the lockdown, time to go through the archives

Cardiff arcade, 2008

Sunday photoblogging: Alderman Moore’s allotments

by Chris Bertram on March 22, 2020

We’ve mostly confined outselves to the house now, because of the threat of COVID-19, but Alderman Moore’s allotments provide a safeish place to get some sunshine and grow some vegetables. If the lockdown reaches Italian, Spanish, or French levels then perhaps we couldn’t continue, which would be a pity.

Alderman Moore's allotments