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Chris Bertram

Sunday photoblogging: Lac de Vailhan, dragonfly

by Chris Bertram on September 13, 2020

Lac de Vailhan - dragonfly

Budapest (or should that be Beijing?)-on-Thames

by Chris Bertram on September 9, 2020

These are unpleasant times to be British, if you also happen to be of cosmopolitan disposition, if you value good governance, and if you think that government ought to be restrained by the law. Boris Johnson’s government has announce its intention to break international law “in limited and specific ways” as the UK’s negotiations with the EU over a future trade deal founder and we slide towards no-deal and international isolation. Henry explores some of the background to this in the “Northern Ireland backstop” over at The Monkey Cage. Johnson proposes to tear up parts of an international treaty, which he hailed as a good deal as recently as January and which was the basis on which he campaigned in the last general election. It was put into UK law by this Parliament, only a few months back, on a tight timetable with restricted opportunity for scrutiny. Various Tory politicians, including Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May, are unhappy with the prospect of breaking international law, arguing that nobody will have reason to trust the word of the British government ever again. The government’s senior legal civil servant has resigned over the issue and its implications for the rule of law. Critics point out that it weakens the UK’s ability to complain when other states, such as China, break their international agreements at will. (I assume that assurances will be given and any rebel Tories will back off, as they have done repeatedly over the past four years.) Johnson’s more extreme supporters, in places like Spiked,1 are already engaging in the familiar rhetoric of treachery to defame anyone who is critical of the UK’s “negotiating position”. Presumably Johnson is banking on Trump’s re-election, a further trashing of international norms and a friendly US government, because without that complete isolation beckons.

Meanwhile, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, a member of the Cabinet that is happy to disobey the law, has characterized climate protestors as “criminals” and suggested that Extinction Rebellion could be classified as an organized crime group. She’s also been active around a confected “refugee crisis” concerning a few people who have crossed the Channel in dinghies (most of whom, it turns out are bona fide refugees) and the government is making noises about changing the law to make it easier to deport people, raising the possibility in the minds of observers that the UK could walk away from its obligations under the Refugee Convention and the European Convention on Human Rights. It is almost as an afterthought that I mention that because of the Johnson government’s mismanagement, the UK has one of the highest death rates in the world and a strategy for fighting the disease that seems to consist mainly of announcing “world beating” measures that fail to materialize. Meanwhile, because of COVID-19, rights to political protest have been severely curtailed,2 and organizers of gatherings face financial penalties of £10,000 each. If COVID doesn’t go away soon, then restrictions on our ability to resist the policies of the Johnson government will be in place when no-deal Brexit comes in January and the economic hit from COVID is compounded by food shortages and further mass job losses. Will the UK even survive all this? Pro-EU Scotland will want to secede as soon as it can, which might mean a hard border at Berwick-on-Tweed and a united Ireland would be one solution to the problems caused by the Conservative and Unionist Party’s Brexit outcome. I’d say “Hungary here we come”, but at least Hungary, as an EU member, continues to enjoy access to European markets.

  1. Spiked is the website of the network of the former Revolutionary Communist Party, some of whose members are intertwined with Johnson’s administration. Johnson has recently decided to elevate one of its senior cadres, Claire Fox, in earlier times an enthusiast for IRA bombings, to the House of Lords.

  2. It almost seems superfluous to recall, amid this litany of perfidy, that in the case of Johnson’s adviser or controller, the Rasputinesque Dominic Cummings, the legal restrictions on movement because of COVID didn’t apply. Another instance of one law for them ….

Sunday photoblogging: Poilhes

by Chris Bertram on September 6, 2020


This is a guest post by Kenan Malik replying to two posts by Chris Bertram last week

Chris Bertram published two posts on Crooked Timber last week, the first1 challenging critiques of the concept of “white privilege”, the second2 arguing that certain claims about race and class are irrational. As one of the targets of these articles (Chris linked to one of my posts as exemplifying the problem, and we had previously debated the issue on Twitter), this is a response. Chris’ two posts are not directly linked, but they clearly deal with linked issues, and it is worth looking at them in tandem.

In the first post, Chris argues that “the ‘white privilege’ claim sits best with a certain sort of metaphysics of the person, such that individuals have a range of characteristics, some of which are more natural and others more social, that confer a competitive advantage or disadvantage in a given environment, where that environment is constituted by a range of elements, including demographics, institutions, cultural practices, individual attitudes, and so forth.”

But he also acknowledges that “I’m not establishing that, as a matter of fact, “white privilege” in the form I describe is a real thing, although I believe that it is”. It is difficult to see, though, how one can have a debate about whether “white privilege” is a meaningful category without have first established whether it is “a real thing”. It is possible to have an abstract debate about whether such a phenomenon could exist, but not to critique those who challenge the concept as inchoate in reality. Chris, in common with many proponents of the “white privilege” thesis, takes as given that which has to be demonstrated.

Underlying the “white privilege” thesis are two basic claims. First, that being “white” is a useful category in which to put everyone from the CEOs of multinational corporations to the cleaners in an Amazon warehouse. And, second, that being in such a category imbues people with privileges denied to those not in that category. Are either of these claims true?

The idea of whiteness as a “certain sort of metaphysics of the person” derives, of course, from racial thinking. In recent years it has found an important expression in the notion of “white identity” – the idea that all those deemed white have a common identity and set of interests which may conflict with those of non-whites. Most anti-racists (and, I assume, Chris, too) reject such a claim. We recognize that all whites do not have a common identity, that the interests of white factory workers or shelf-stackers are not the same as those of white bankers or business owners, but are far more similar to those of black factory workers or Asian shelf-stackers.

Why, then, do we ignore this when it comes to the question of “white privilege”? Because, proponents of the white privilege thesis argue, white people do not suffer the kinds of discrimination suffered by non-whites by virtue of their skin colour. At one level this is true. “Racism” refers to the practice of discrimination against, and bigotry towards, certain social groups; there may be many reasons for such discrimination and bigotry, but one is clearly that those who are non-white are often treated unequally. Viewing the issue in terms of “white privilege” is, however, deeply flawed for a number of reasons.

First, it is not a “privilege” not to have to face discrimination or bigotry; it should be the norm. I doubt if Chris, or, indeed, most proponents of the white privilege thesis, would disagree. Framing the absence of oppression or discrimination or bigotry as a “privilege” is to turn the struggle for justice on its head.

Second, the concept of white privilege fails to distinguish between “not being discriminated against or facing bigotry because of one’s skin colour” and “having immunity from discrimination or bigotry because one is white”. The distinction is important. Many whites, because of privileges afforded by wealth and class, do have immunity against discrimination. But many others, who are poor or working class, do not. Their experiences of state authority or of policing is often similar to that of non-whites.3

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Sunday photoblogging: Pézenas door

by Chris Bertram on August 30, 2020

Pézenas door

On a piece of bad reasoning about race and class

by Chris Bertram on August 28, 2020

Most people interested in thinking about inequality, will have come across the dry and sarcastic saying from Anatole France that “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” France shows us how the reality of class, economic inequality, makes a mockery of equality before the law because of the different real-life effects of the same law.

Now why is sleeping under bridges bad? Well, presumably, it is bad because it makes you more vulnerable to certain harms: exposure to the cold, or being beaten up by gangs of strangers. We can imagine a kind of objection to Anatole France, albeit a very obviously silly one. It would go like this: the thing we should really be concerned about is the harms that people are exposed to. And when we investigate we find no difference in those harms between rich people who sleep under bridges and poor people who sleep under bridges. (We can assume that a few rich people, inebriated after a night at their club, end up under bridges too). According to the silly objection, what we should concentrate on is the group of people who sleep under bridges: there’s a perfect match between membership of this group and those who suffer the harms, whereas it turns out that lots of poor people, because they never sleep under bridges, are not at risk of such harms.

It is a silly objection, and obviously so. And yet we come across something very similar in form in many arguments about race and class. There are harms reliably associated with low socio-economic status and those harms fall on people regardless of their race. Kerching! – it is claimed – race doesn’t matter in the explanation of those harms! But obviously, if being black increases your relative propensity of being sorted into a poor working-class group that is exposed to such harms, and if being white reduces your relative propensity of being so sorted, then race is actually a big part of the picture. Showing that, of those who are in a category that is strongly pre-selected for by race, harms were not associated with race, does not lead to the valid conclusion that those harms are not associated with race.

On an objection to the idea of “white privilege”

by Chris Bertram on August 27, 2020

The term “white privilege” has been getting a lot of play and a lot of pushback recently, for example, from Kenan Malik in this piece and there are some parallels in the writing of people like Adolph Reed who want to stress class-based solidarity over race. Often it isn’t clear what the basic objection from “class” leftists to the concept of “white privilege” is. Sometimes the objection seems to be a factual one: that no such thing exists or that insofar as there is something, then it is completely captured by claims about racism, so that the term “white privilege” is redundant. Alternatively, the objection is occasionally strategic or pragmatic: the fight for social justice requires an alliance that crosses racial and other identity boundaries and terms like “white privilege” sow division and make that struggle more difficult. These objections are, though, logically independent of one another: “white privilege” could be real, but invoking it could be damaging to the struggle; or it could be pragmatically useful for justice even if somewhat nebulous and explanatorily empty.

One particular type of argument is to deny that some white people enjoy privilege on the basis of noticing that some groups of white people suffer outcomes that are as bad or worse than non-white people on average or some non-white groups in particular. The claim is then that it is nonsensical to think of these white people as enjoying “white privilege”, or, indeed, any kind of privilege at all. But whatever the truth turns out to be about the explanatory usefulness of “white privilege”, I think these outcome-oriented assessments, sometimes based on slicing and dicing within racial or ethnic groups in ways that create artificial entities out of assemblages of demographic characteristics (white+rural+poor, for example), don’t ground a valid objection because they misconstrue what the privilege claim is about.
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Sunday photoblogging: Lac de Vailhan

by Chris Bertram on August 23, 2020

Lac de Vailhan

What’s wrong with “cancel culture”?

by Chris Bertram on July 30, 2020

“Cancel culture” has recently been in the news as a threat to free speech and open debate, most notably with the publication the other week of that open letter in Harpers. Cancelling is essentially a kind of crowdsourced attempt to boycott and ostracise individuals for their words or actions, sometimes including calls for them they be fired from their jobs or denied contracts and opportunities by media organisations. In the democratic space of social media this can sometimes tip over into unpleasant mobbing and sometimes bullying. But is “cancelling” people always wrong? Is the practice always an attack on the norms of free speech and open debate? Might cancelling some people be necessary to ensure others get the voice and platform to which they are entitled?

One objection to “cancellation” is that it chills open debate and makes people self-censor. But the problem with this critique is that some speech should be chilled and sometimes people ought to self-censor. A society that refuses to tolerate speech like David Starkey’s recent racist remarks about “damn blacks” and the slave trade is better for it, and it is a pity that Starkey didn’t think twice before uttering them. Now that he has come out with such language, he’s been cancelled, and rightly so.
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Sunday photoblogging: Hebron Road Burial Ground

by Chris Bertram on July 12, 2020

Hebron Road burial ground

Book note: Johny Pitts, Afropean

by Chris Bertram on July 7, 2020

Just finished Johny Pitts’s Afropean: Notes from a Black Europe (Penguin). It is a remarkable and highly readable book which I strongly recommend. Pitts, a journalist and photographer from Sheffield in England, embarks on a journey across Europe to discover the continent’s African communities, from Sheffield itself, through Paris, the Netherlands, Berlin, Sweden, Russia, Rome, Marseille and Lisbon. Pitts, the son of an African-American soul singer and a working-class Englishwoman, is a curious insider-outsider narrator of the book which ambles from meditations on black history and (often American) literary forbears to chance encounters with black and brown Europeans in hostels, trains, stations, cafés and universities.

Is there a unity in all this? Hard to say, since as Pitts observes, these different populations, linked by an experience of marginalisation, come to be where they are via very diverse personal and collective histories. Some have come in their best clothes from former colonies to nations they were taught about as the motherland, only to find they had to make their lives in a place that was disappointing or hostile and where the white population — British, French, or Dutch — remain ill-disposed to see their new compatriots as being part of themselves. Others have fled war, persecution and trauma in Sudan or South Africa, only to find themselves exiled on the periphery of Scandiavian social democracy. And then there are the residual African students in a Russia transformed in thirty years from somewhere professing — occastionally sincerely — the unity and equality of all humankind, into a place where it is dangerous for black people to venture out at night for fear of violent attack or worse.

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Sunday photoblogging: Fox

by Chris Bertram on July 5, 2020

This character was very relaxed

Fox at Alderman Moore's allotments-4

“Traditional British values” in political science

by Chris Bertram on June 30, 2020

Yesterday, one of those reports was released purporting to reveal some things about British political attitudes. The take-home was that the public were closer to Labour than the Tories on the economic dimension but that things were reversed when it came to social attitudes, with voters being more authoritarian and traditional than their representatives and more closely aligned with the Tories. This, coupled with the claim that the social values dimension is gaining in importance compared to the economic one, looms large in some “political science” explanations of Brexit and Tory success.

Looking at the report, I noticed an odd thing: one of the questions was about “traditional British values” and whether respondents thought young people should respect them more. I imagined, naively that there must be a list somewhere of what these values are, given that they are purportedly what voters have opinions about. But no. Respondents are expected to interpret the question for themselves, so if a person thinks Britain is traditionally open and tolerant and thinks this has gone into reverse in recent years and says “yes”, their response will nevertheless count as a score for authoritarianism. I don’t know how likely my hypothetical case is, but it is at least possible, particularly, perhaps, from a disappointed immigrant who had been sold on a particular image of Britain.

There is, by the way, an official list of British values. It occurs in the case of the British goverment’s “Prevent” strategy, which is supposed to combat extremism. According to that policy, the British values are “democracy”, “the rule of law”, “individual liberty and mutual respect”, and “Tolerance of different faith and beliefs”. If you run an educational establishment, you have specific duties to encourage these. (A nursery for under-5s I’m acquainted with had a little official explainer on the wall, telling its charges that the “rule of law” is about “following the rules”.) I suppose, hypothetically, that a respondent with these values in mind, and thinking of the Brexiteer and Johnson record on them – plans for voter suppression, illegal prorogation of Parliament, frequent abuse of executive power in immigration, racist and Islamophobic diatribes by the man at the top – might regret their demise and say “yes” but be coded as “authoritarian”. Perhaps not so likely, I admit.
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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