an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Archive for the ‘politics’ Category

Reading matters 5

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Eichmann and the holocaust, by Hannah Arendt

content hints – the bureaucratic mind, ideological muddles, the replacing of slaughtered sub-groups with museums, the Nuremberg laws, the corralling and subjugation of the Jews, the brown shirts and the black shirts, zionist optimism, Eichmann as zionist, Eichmann as idealist, Eichmann’s gormlessness and petty pride, protecting the ‘best Jews’, an environment of death, the final solution, everyone on the same page, conspiracies of silence, Jewish denial of reality, control of deportations, policing of ghettoes, the impossibility of open dissent, failures of prosecution, failures of defence, reflections on an international criminal court, Eichmann’s final clichés, the banality of evil.

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2020 at 11:56 am

Reading matters 4

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Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, bit-part actor, theatrical investor and obsessive quill-pusher

content hints
– exotic locations, harsh laws and lax enforcement, whores and virgins, pre-marital sex, dubious disguises, a puppet-master duke, wise retainers, kind-hearted gaolers, a mean-spirited newbie, a much-married madam, justice v mercy, letter v spirit, high life v low life, capital punishment, malapropisms avant la lettre, gadabouts, spurned women, sunken dowries, a woman finds her voice, a man is bent by lust, the shoals of desire, fraternal betrayal, an absurd assignation, a head in a bag, from nunnery to marriage bed, sex in the dark, silent women, revealings and unmaskings, a triple coupling, a questionable ending?

Written by stewart henderson

July 3, 2020 at 10:21 am

Covid-19, politics, government – some observations

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No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

Aneurin Bevan, founder of the UK’s NHS

Dr Anastasia Vasilyeva, engaged in the dangerous task of exposing Putin’s lies

Let me look at Covid-19 cases and deaths in different countries in terms of the political persuasions (and gender) of their leadership, with some obvious caveats and reservations, e.g. that correlation isn’t causation, that there are a whole host of factors influencing how well or badly particular nations are faring, that the data coming from many nations is highly suspect, etc. My statistics come from the Worldometer site, which names a wide variety of sources, and notably tends to be slightly less conservative than the WHO and Johns Hopkins sites in terms of numbers. The differences aren’t great, but I think it’s reasonable to assume that the overall numbers are greater than even the Worldometer site has been able to confirm.

I’m doing this because I’ve been checking the stats on a daily basis for weeks now, and impressions have, not surprisingly, been forming about the relationship between national leadership and the impact of the virus. So here are some statistics, and some speculations on them, for what they’re worth.

The UK (I was born in Scotland) has fared worse than any other country, apart from Belgium, in terms of deaths per million. Conservative PM Boris Johnson, prior to catching the virus himself, seemed to suggest letting it run its course through the community, which of course would have led to a huge death rate, and generally the messages from the beginning were confused, and mostly of a softly softly nature, which has clearly proved disastrous. The NHS has suffered years of severe cuts under ten years of conservative government, and mixed messaging has continued to damage what has been a truly woeful governmental response to the crisis. Scotland, which has a female First Minister and a centre-left government, has a slightly lower ‘excess death toll’ than England, but it’s still high compared to most countries, and higher than those of Wales and Northern Ireland. England is, of course, by far the most densely populated of the four UK nations.

Belgium wears the shame of having the worst Covid-19 mortality rate of any significant-sized nation (of say, 5 million or more) on the planet. However, to be fair, Belgium appears to have an accounting system for the virus which is as anomalous as is that of Russia at the other end of the spectrum (a spectrum from inclusive, i.e Belgium, to exclusive in Russia’s case). This issue of accounting is too enormously complex and fraught to be dealt with here (though many are suggesting that measuring ‘excess mortality’ might be the best option), so I’ll take Belgium’s disastrous figures at face value for now. The country’s PM, Sophie Wilmès, is a member of the centrist Mouvement Réformateur, and heads a coalition government. In fact Belgium has long been so factionalised that coalition governments are a more or less permanent feature of government there, and internal squabbling in recent years has led to a lot of government inertia. Though clear information is hard to find, the lack of strong, supported central government is very likely negatively affecting the country’s Covid-19 experience.

Germany is generally regarded as the success story of Europe. It’s Europe’s largest country, and currently the 19th most populated country in the world. It is 12th overall in the number of cases, and 11th in the number of deaths. This may look bad, but we know that western Europe has been particularly hard-hit, and it’s worth comparing Germany to its neighbouring countries. Interestingly, Germany shares its border with no less than nine different countries, and in terms of deaths per million, which I think is a good guide of a nation’s internal handling of the pandemic, it is doing far better than its westerly neighbours (Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark), and considerably worse than its easterly ones (Austria, Czechia and Poland). Again I’m skeptical of some of the stats, especially in a country like Poland, which has descended into a quasi dictatorship under its all-powerful Law and Justice party, but there does seem to be a radical divide between the eastern and western halves of Europe in terms of the pandemic’s impact. Anyway, Germany’s centrist Chancellor Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005, and she’s recently suffered under the description, ‘leader of the free world’ in lieu of the USA’s absence of leadership. Being a former research scientist, she’s been credited, rightly or wrongly, with having shepherded the country through this crisis better than most. Wikipedia has this to say about the country’s response:

The country’s low fatality rate, compared to fatality rates in Italy and Spain, has generated a discussion and explanations that cite the country’s higher number of tests performed, higher number of available intensive care beds with respiratory support and higher proportion of positive cases among younger people.

Italy, a country renowned for its political instability, fared disastrously early on (in March and April) in terms of cases and deaths, but has reduced the numbers greatly in recent weeks. Even so, Italy’s deaths per million is one of the worst rates in the world, five times that of Germany. Italy has in recent years developed closer ties with China than any other country in western Europe, and evidence points to the virus arriving in northern Italy via a Chinese couple from Wuhan. It’s clear that there was early skepticism and government officials were caught unawares by the magnitude of the crisis, and the rapidity of spread. The wealthy and densely populated Lombardy region has been disproportionately affected. Italy’s PM, Giuseppe Conte, has held the position for two years, making him one of the longest serving leaders in Italy’s post-war history. The nation’s volatile political history makes co-ordinated strategic planning for pandemics very difficult. This article on Italy from the Harvard Business Review, aimed at an American readership, captures the problems that face individualistic nations who favour rights over responsibilities:

Consider the decision to initially lock down some regions but not others. When the decree announcing the closing of northern Italy became public, it touched off a massive exodus to southern Italy, undoubtedly spreading the virus to regions where it had not been present.

This illustrates what is now clear to many observers: An effective response to the virus needs to be orchestrated as a coherent system of actions taken simultaneously. The results of the approaches taken in China and South Korea underscore this point. While the public discussion of the policies followed in these countries often focuses on single elements of their models (such as extensive testing), what truly characterises their effective responses is the multitude of actions that were taken at once. Testing is effective when it’s combined with rigorously contact tracing, and tracing is effective as long as it is combined with an effective communication system that collects and disseminates information on the movements of potentially infected people, and so forth.

Clearly this information-collecting, when it isn’t coercive, requires compliance and collaboration for the broader good. Libertarians are reluctant, it seems, to admit this.

Sweden‘s record on the pandemic is worth comparing to the other four countries comprising Scandinavia – Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Sweden is certainly the most populous of the five, but its deaths per million tell a grim story – more than five times those of Denmark, around ten times those of Norway and Finland, and almost 20 times those of isolated Iceland. The rate is higher than that of the USA and France, and not far below that of Italy. Currently, the centre-left PM Stefan Löfven heads a highly unstable coalition, which clearly isn’t able to provide the co-ordinated response required in a pandemic. In fact the country deliberately took a ‘relaxed’ attitude to the virus, and are now paying the price, though some of the country’s epidemiologists are still standing by the nation’s approach, astonishingly enough. Around half of the country’s fatalities have occurred in nursing homes. Apart from Sweden, all of the Scandinavian countries have female leaders. Just saying.

Russia, which has recorded the third highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world, has a bizarrely low death-rate, which can’t be accounted for from an epidemiological perspective, as I’ve reported before. Dmitry Peskov, one of Putin’s favourite arse-lickers, defended the record, saying “Have you ever thought about the possibility of Russia’s health care system being more effective?” This in fact caused a spike in fatalities, as several thousand Russians immediately died laughing. A very brave doctor, Anastasia Vasilyeva, founder and head of the medical trade union Alliance of Doctors, is creating videos exposing Putin’s lies about Russia’s handling of the pandemic, showing run-down hospitals, sick and unprotected medical staff and a generally under-funded and unprepared healthcare system. She has, of course, been viciously attacked by Putin’s media thugs, arrested and generally harassed. It’s safe to say that nothing credible is coming out of Russia’s state reporting of Covid-19, and the same must be said of China, or any other state which has more or less complete control of its media. So the full truth of what is happening in Russia, and in other closed societies, will likely not come out for years.

Final remarks – from what we’ve seen so far, right-wing, limited government, libertarian-type governments do worse than strong, centralised governments, especially those led by women. Closed societies generally can’t be trusted on their reporting, so it’s virtually impossible to judge their performance vis-à-vis  the pandemic.

Next time I’ll look at some countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/04/tories-protect-nhs-coronavirus-slogan

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-05-18/why-belgium-has-a-high-number-of-coronavirus-deaths/12259032

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/26/virologist-christian-drosten-germany-coronavirus-expert-interview

https://www.livescience.com/results-of-sweden-covid19-response.html

https://hbr.org/2020/03/lessons-from-italys-response-to-coronavirus

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-06-02/anastasia-vasilyeva-doctors-alliance-russia-coronavirus/12276094?nw=0

Written by stewart henderson

June 29, 2020 at 10:08 am

reading matters 3

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Will he go? Trump and the looming election meltdown, by Lawrence Douglas, Professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought, Amherst College

Content hints

  • failure of impeachment, high crimes and misdemenours, rigged voting, media scum, sleepy Joe, election hoax, treason, fraud, shades of 2016, tweetstorms, dictator worship, Putin, Erdoğan, Orbán, the USA’s quaint constitution, pathological lying, Presidential authority to ban media, Trump as weak authoritarian, foreign interference, catastrophic scenarios 1,2,3, the unforeseeable, the electoral college and faithless electors, uniquely awful system, hacked elections, profoundly antidemocratic outcomes, gerrymandering, swing states, 12th amendment, enemies of the people, problems of peaceful succession, civil war, hang on, bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 28, 2020 at 3:01 pm

the USA’s weird Electoral College system

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number of electors per state, favouring rural states

Canto: What do the words ‘electoral college’ mean to you?

Jacinta: Let me see, ‘electoral’ has something to do with processes and methods relating to elections, and a college is an educational institution, and connected words like ‘collegial’ and ‘colleague’ bring to mind teams and teamwork, in an educated sort of way. I’ve also heard about the electoral college in relation to US federal politics, but I’m not sure what it means. At a guess, I think it just means the electorate, and the regions it’s made up of, though why that would be called a ‘college’ I’ve no idea.

Canto: Well there’s this American-only phenomenon called the Electoral College I’ve been hearing about since I’ve been tuning into what has become, hopefully briefly, Trumpistan, but the term has kind of washed over me, and I’ve not thought of it as anything more than a fancy term for the electorate and its divisions, as you say. But no, a little book called Will he go?, by Lawrence Douglas, a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College, has taught me otherwise, though I’ve not completely got my head around it, so now’s the time.

Jacinta: Wikipedia tells me it goes back to that worshipped but problematic constitution of theirs. It also seeks to explain how it works, but it doesn’t really explain, at least not in its initial section, how it was thought needful.

Canto: Well, Douglas has a chapter in his book, ‘The Electoral College revisited, alas’, which opens thus:

The Electoral College is our constitutional appendix, a vestigial organ that has ceased to perform any valuable function and can only create problems for the body politic. It is a deservedly unloved part of our Constitution. Recently asked what part of the Constitution she would most like to alter, Justice Ruth Baider Ginsburg quickly answered, ‘the Electoral College – I’d like to see it abolished.’ Most Americans agree. No poll conducted over the past 70 years has found a majority of Americans supporting it. Only roughly one third of those polled in 2019 ‘would prefer to keep’ it.

L Douglas, Will he go? p 49.

Douglas goes on to argue that the USA is the only country in the world where the loser of a presidential election, based on popular vote, can actually win it by means of another system, namely the Electoral College in this case.

Jacinta: But in Australia we often have parties losing the popular vote but gaining more seats and so gaining ultimate victory, or in cases where neither party has an outright majority, it’s the party that can form a coalition with minor parties or independents that can form government.

Canto: Yes but here they’re talking about one-on-one presidential battles, no coalitions. Though such one-on-one races are just indicative of a bad political system, IMHO. And the reason parties win with a minority of votes is because the voters in some electorates are ‘worth more’ than the voters in other electorates. This imbalance was sort of deliberately created to provide more rural states with more power, so they wouldn’t be swamped at every election by the urbanites, but with the dramatic increase in urbanisation in recent decades, and the increase in productivity of those urban states, it’s become clear that the most urbanised states are effectively subsidising the rural states, while being dudded out of their share of the vote.

Jacinta: This isn’t a problem with the Electoral College, though, is it? The solution to what you’re talking about could surely be solved by a kind of independent commission on demographics, which could redraw the electorate every few years, say, on the basis of the movement of peoples….

Canto: Which would thus constantly be reducing the value of the rural vote, which would, if people considered the value of their vote to be a high priority in their lives, increase the rate of urbanisation. I’m wondering if that would ultimately be a good thing. But to return to the Electoral College..

Jacinta: Before you go on, this problem of losing the popular vote and winning the election, which has become much more of a factor in recent years in the US, is far more of a worry in these one-on-one contests, because you could have contests between, say, a centrist candidate and a far-right or far-left candidate, and if the extremist candidate manages to win the contest based on electoral boundaries rather than popular vote – which can be done more and more in the US, even with a substantial loss in the popular vote – that candidate and his personally appointed courtiers (another example of American exceptionalism) can do substantial damage to the public interest during his term, given the extraordinary powers given to one person by the system. That’s what’s happening now – though Trump is neither right nor left, nor up, he’s just down down down.

Canto: True, and if you regularly adjusted those boundaries so that they better captured one-vote-one-value, it’s probable that Trump would never have been elected. As Douglas writes, perhaps a little optimistically, ‘it seems fair to say that it is harder to convince 50% of the electorate to embrace a politics of division and intolerance than it is to convince 40%’.

Jacinta: Trump has never had 50% popular support at any time during his presidency, which provides support for that.

Canto: So the Electoral College system is little understood by even tertiary-educated Americans. Douglas suggests that its very opacity from the public perspective is a damning indictment, but it requires an amendment from the most impossible-to-amend constitution on the globe to change or dump it. In fact their constitution is hoist by its own petard in this case, as the system gives disproportionate power to less populous states, who would have to ratify its elimination. It’s a collection of electors, 538 in all, so requiring the magic number of 270 for a majority, who meet every four years to decide who’ll be the President.

Jacinta: I thought the federal election did that. So clearly the EC, if I can call it that…

Canto: Please do.

Jacinta: Clearly the EC is tightly bound to the election. I knew there were some 500-odd parts to the election, or the electorate, but I just thought that meant 500 electoral regions, a certain number in each US state, just as there are currently 47 electoral districts here in South Australia. Why would they need electors, and what are they?

Canto: To be honest, it’s confusing – when people, including Douglas, complain about the Electoral College, it seems to me they’re complaining about the electoral system, which again can be made to be highly unrepresentative of the popular vote, with safe electorates and swinging electorates, which can change as electoral boundaries change, and that can happen quite often, in Australia at least. But, the electors…. it all started with the very concept of the President, and the so-called separation of powers. In the USA they originally had the idea of a President being something like a monarch, only elected, and having to fight for re-election every so many years. But they also wanted a parliament, again like Britain, which they, presumably just to be different, called a congress, as a ‘coequal branch of government’. But in Britain, parliament has long since ceased to be a co-equal branch, it is the government. No need for a separation of powers, parliament is the power.

Jacinta: You’re right, the US congress is just another parliament, and the USA is still just a British colony – why can’t they face facts?

Canto: Anyway, back in the day, there was a huge amount of argy-bargy about this separation of powers, with constitutional conventions and various formulae and compromises, and finally they settled on this weird electoral college thing, with electors from each state ‘in the same numbers as their representatives in Congress’.

Jacinta: So a state with, say, seven electoral districts will have seven electors. For what possible reason? If one guy wins the district, he wins the seat. What more do you need?

Canto: That’s the billion-dollar question. I’m trying to get to the reasoning. In fact, your straightforward option was favoured by some constitutional convention delegates, such as James Madison, though he recognised that this might disadvantage the South, where there was a disproportionate number of slaves, and of course, they would never be allowed to vote, even if they were freed. Though I’m not sure how this situation could be resolved by an Electoral College. The whole idea of this EC seems as complicated and bizarre as quantum mechanics.

Jacinta: And as impossible to get rid of.

Canto: So, an elector for each electoral district, who was expected to be a proxy for the district, voting the way the district voted. But each state was able to choose its electors and to decide on how they chose them. You would think this wouldn’t matter, as they were required to vote the way their district voted. But get this, they weren’t legally obligated to do so – at least there was no clear law, and still isn’t any clear law, forcing them to do so, and there have occasionally been ‘faithless electors’ who’ve cast their vote for the loser.

Jacinta: Which is highly undemocratic. But I still don’t get…

Canto: Don’t bother, just thank the dogs you don’t live in America.

Jacinta: Oh well, I’m sure they do their best, the poor wee souls…

Written by stewart henderson

June 22, 2020 at 11:01 pm

yank jingoism – why is it so?

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Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it

George Bernard Shaw

I believe in American exceptionalism.

Joe Scarborough, MSNBC presenter (born in the USA)

I’ve had a gutful. I was listening to an American cable news program, which I do too often these days, and the interviewer was discussing the distinct possibility, much mooted currently, of Trump not giving up power peacefully later this year. Before asking his question, the interviewer spoke of America’s ‘unique and historic tradition of peaceful transition of power’. The word ‘unique’ jumped out of the screen and smacked me in the face like a wet kipper, and of course this piece of bullshit went unchallenged by others, either because they considered it irrelevant, or not worth correcting, or because they actually believed it, or, most likely, because it was so much a part of the ‘American exceptionalist’ blather that forms the background of political discussion there that they didn’t even notice it. Yet all they have to do is drive a little north and cross the border to find another of many such ‘unique’ nations.

I was born in the UK and have lived most of my life in Australia. I’m a humanist with no strong nationalist allegiances or convictions. Australia has a federal, Westminster-based system, and is a relatively new nation which has experienced peaceful transitions of power since it became fully independent a mere 120 years ago. The UK has experienced peaceful transitions of power since its constitutional monarchy was established after the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s, a full century before the USA achieved nationhood. I’ve already written here about the lies so many Americans tell themselves about the USA being the birthplace of modern democracy. And this is not to say that the ‘American experiment’ wasn’t one of the many important little steps taken since Magna Carta towards effective democracy, along with the aforementioned Glorious Revolution and the early parliaments under Simon de Montfort and Oliver Cromwell.

Of course there are good, balanced American historians, and the troubles now occurring there are a reminder to everyone about those excluded from political and economic power both in the USA and elsewhere, but my concern here is to get to the bottom of why so many Americans have this un-self-critical view of themselves. Is it a problem in their educational system? Is American exceptionalism drummed into their heads from the kindergarten years, as I suspect? Is this sense of American ‘specialness’ more prevalent among those who’ve never actually stepped outside of the country, as I also suspect?

Ideas about the American ‘experiment’ as something special of course abounded in the early years of the colony. Founded mostly by puritan radicals in the 17th century, it was certainly exceptionally religious, and could also be described as exceptional in other ways – in having to deal with an established and proud indigenous population, in having to bring under white, Europeanised control and cultivation an enormous area of land, and in having to devise a new polity from British and European sources. But of course I’m not talking about the ‘exceptionalism’ of the colonial experience, more or less shared by Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the South and Central American nations, I’m talking about ‘exceptional’ as in ‘better’.

It’s quite amusing to note Alexis de Tocqueville’s usage here, which seems to amount to damning with faint praise:

The position of the Americans is therefore quite exceptional, and it may be believed that no democratic people will ever be placed in a similar one. Their strictly Puritanical origin, their exclusively commercial habits, even the country they inhabit, which seems to divert their minds from the pursuit of science, literature, and the arts, the proximity of Europe, which allows them to neglect these pursuits without relapsing into barbarism, a thousand special causes, of which I have only been able to point out the most important, have singularly concurred to fix the mind of the American upon purely practical objects. His passions, his wants, his education, and everything about him seem to unite in drawing the native of the United States earthward; his religion alone bids him turn, from time to time, a transient and distracted glance to heaven. Let us cease, then, to view all democratic nations under the example of the American people.

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840

I have no great objection to American capitalism which, properly regulated, is a benefit, or should be, but many of the new nation’s apostles of liberty, such as Jefferson, were slave-owners, and the contribution of slavery to the development of the nation’s economy still receives scant recognition. And the point here is not to condemn the USA for its misdeeds – Australia doesn’t have a proud record in this regard – but to point out that the USA is no more or less liberty-loving, racist, exploitative, generous and selfish as any other Europeanised, or indeed human, nation.

But of course every nation is different, if only in degree rather than kind. Some scholars have argued that the USA is more ‘classless’ than Western European countries. That may be true, depending on your definition of class, but the country is old enough to discuss the difference between old and new money – the old Vanderbilts and Rockefellers versus modern real estate crooks and tech billionaires – and more importantly, this idea of classlessness is hard to sustain in the light of a massive rich-poor divide that makes a mockery of the American Dream. The African-American population, somewhere between 12% and 14% of the total, are statistically worse-off by every measure and by substantial margins. Again this is a problem for many other countries with ‘first-nation’ or minority cultures, but the US hasn’t found better solutions to these issues than any one else.

Freedom is of course often trumpeted as the force that propels US superiority. No country is as free as the US, so the story goes. This freedom, and distrust of government oversight and over-reach, appears to be one of the factors driving that nation’s tragic covid-19 response. I note that the New York Times has an article showing that many of the nations with female leaders (e.g. Taiwan, Germany, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Norway) are handling the pandemic far better than others, especially those with buffoonish and/or overly macho ‘I know best’ leaders (e.g. the USA, the UK, Brazil, Russia and Iran). We often mock male bluster, but the fact is that it can come at a great cost – and so can myths about individual freedom. I read somewhere that there were even protests in the USA against wearing masks during the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic which killed over 50 million – ‘my freedom trumps your fear’.

As I’ve often written, we’re the most socially constructed mammals on the planet, and we owe to that social construction, first in tribes and villages, then in larger states and civilisations, our domination of that planet, for better or worse. It’s true that for most of our history, government has been too pyramidal, heavy-handed and ruthless, with most of the population consisting of landless ‘peasants’, despised and exploited by a fortunate hereditary minority of nobles, lords, daimyos, boyars, nan, seigneurs etc, and the USA, with its ‘we, the people’, played an important role in further flattening that gradually flattening pyramid of power. But there’s a real problem with the anti-government ‘freedom’ that so many Americans seem to espouse. It’s seen in the lack of a national healthcare system, the lack of a decent minimum wage, the weakness of environmental protection, the apparent lack of anything like truth in advertising, the gun craziness, and so much else. While I’ve met many a likeable American sojourning in my world, I don’t think I’ve ever met one who doesn’t ultimately complain or make mention of the ‘nanny state’ here in Australia. My guess is that they would make the same complaint in any non-American democratic country. The idea that a state would go out of its way to provide affordable housing, healthcare, education and other benefits to its citizens, and enforce particular norms, such as the driving of roadworthy vehicles, the wearing of bicycle helmets, the banning of smoking in particular areas and the like, all this seems to outrage the American sensibility. But what can you expect of a people who actually seem to believe that the right to own guns makes everybody more safe?

Of course, not all Americans are that silly, but the shifting balance between individual freedom and community responsibility (embodied in taxation, minority protections and developing provision of opportunity, inter alia) is never easy for nations to get right, and always in need of adjustment. The USA, it seems to me, is more in need of such adjustment than most advanced nations at present.

The aftermath of the Trump horrorshow, surely arriving in a few months, must be used for thoroughgoing troubleshooting and reform of a broken system. The current administration has revealed massive problems with the USA’s beloved, antiquated Constitution, and the lack of effective law around emoluments, the legal status of the President, vetting for high office, long overdue reform of the electoral college system and a host of other checks and balances, but these are essentially administrative matters. The more pressing but intractable problem is with the country’s culture. Internationally, I suspect there will have to be a lot of fence-mending and rather less breast-beating – the world really doesn’t need the ‘American leadership’ that David Frum and others seek to restore. There aren’t too many western nations seeking to emulate the American system. What they’ll be expecting is partnership, respect and forthright, humane dealing. All nations need to understand that economic and military might has nothing whatever to do with moral stature. As to how the USA deals with its many internal problems over the next few years, we’ll be watching with interest. Recycling jingoism and American exceptionalism won’t be solutions, they’re clearly tied up with the problems. The next couple of decades will be vital for the USA’s internal and international future. It might well be a bumpy ride.

Written by stewart henderson

June 16, 2020 at 4:51 pm

the US horror: the beginning of the end?

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right, and I didn’t even talk about education…

So there’s a bit of a crisis going on in the USA right now, and it may or may not be the beginning of the ‘blood in the streets’ scenario that I’ve been predicting and imagining as the end of this farcical, sad, disgusting, more or less unforgivable US Presidency.

The perennial pre-teen spoilt brat in the White Palace knows enough to know he might be nearing the end of the road, and all his crimes might be catching up on him. He has only one thing on his minuscule mind at the moment – winning an election. It’s like the scenario of an unbelievably melodramatic movie, proving that true scenarios are so often stranger than fiction.

I was never hugely engaged in US politics before the befuddled brat emerged as an unlikely candidate for one of the most responsible jobs on the planet. My thoughts then were – how can it be that such an obviously inept buffoon – a bragging, blustering blowhard incapable of ever saying, or thinking, anything remotely interesting – be permitted to be a candidate for such a position? What sort of a country…? Was this an example of American exceptionalism?

It still seems to me that the USA, not the babbling boy-bully, is to blame for this disaster, which cost lives and destroyed childhoods at the southern border, and has now wrought tragedy upon the country in the form of thousands of lost souls. Any reasonable person, examining this clown’s history, would bar him from any position of responsibility anywhere. He’s never worked for anyone in his life, and would be incapable of doing so. I’m totally convinced that if he’d ever been hired as a kitchen or factory hand – jobs that I’ve held in the past – he wouldn’t have lasted till the end of the shift.

So why did the USA commit this fatal error? Why do Americans still proudly proclaim that anyone – even a profoundly underdeveloped malignant narcissist – can become their Prez?

It seems to me that at least one of the problems, perhaps the main one, is that they’ve fallen into the too-much-democracy trap. Democracy – which a lot of Americans seem to imagine was invented in their country – is not a perfect political system. Its most significant weakness – and I’m sick of pointing it out – was described two millennia ago by the ancient, avowedly elitist Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. And this weakness – populism or demagoguery – was exactly what the ageing brat exploited. Most other democratic countries provide screens against direct democracies though a process either of party discipline (someone applying for high office must prove to others that she can lead a team) or work on the ground (presenting her credentials to a particular electorate, and if successful locally, working herself up from there as an independent or party member). But the current American Prez has been allowed to bypass all that, and to do absolutely nothing but talk his way into high office (with more than a little help from his Russian frenemies). Promising everything works with a lot of people. And because of this, because, as a person who has spent sixty-odd years conning people out of their money and their brains, honing that one spoilt-brat skill of pretending to know what he’s doing and what he’s talking about, of barging about like an impressive-to-some bull in a china shop, he’s taken over a whole country, probably the only democratic country he could ever have taken over. Though, to be fair, he could’ve taken over other, non-democratic countries, with even more disastrous consequences – many dictators throughout history have had personal profiles similar to his.

The USA’s appalling Presidential system, with no vetting, with its ‘superhero fixit-man’ pitted against ‘superhero fixit-man’ elections, its reliance on a vaguely-worded and widely-worshipped Constitution rather than solid, clear L-A-W, its emoluments clause without claws, its White Palace in which the boy-king is able to sit amongst his selected sycophantic courtiers, fuming and tweeting and soiling himself instead of working in the cauldron of Congress or Parliament, proving himself every working day as a team leader and an agile opponent to his no-holds-barred critics… the USA’s system is to blame for this.

It’s long been my view, shared by a few others, but not enough, that this dangerous brattish narcissist will not go quietly, and that lives will be lost, and not his own, before he’s removed. Currently his hopes of ‘legitimate’ re-election are on a downward spiral, which makes him a very dangerous beast indeed. It’s clear that he sees the current riotous situation as an opportunity to create the kind of division he sees, in his strange unclear unerringness, as being to his advantage. It’s impossible to suspend a Presidential election, all the pundits say, but it’s not impossible to try to suspend an election. This bloke has gotten away with so much wrong-doing in his life, he’s been emboldened to try anything. Whatever happens in the next few months, I have a strong feeling that ‘we ain’t seen nothin yet’. I’m just glad I’m over here.

Written by stewart henderson

May 29, 2020 at 11:35 pm

there’s no such thing as a fair election 1: the apportionment issue

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Canto: So we’ve been talking about how politics have been interacting with the Covid-19 pandemic, and came to the tentative conclusion that strong centralised governments, collaborationist and respected by their citizens, were faring better at managing the situation than right-wing quasi-dictatorial anti-government governments like Trump’s USA, Putin’s Russia and Bolsonaro’s Brazil…

Jacinta: And those three countries just happen to fill the top three places in Covid-19 cases, though to be fair, they have very large populations. Anyway, the Scandinavian countries we looked at all seemed to have coalition governments of some kind, and from our great distance we preferred to assume that they operated through some kind of more or less happy consensus – but maybe not.

Canto: So we’ve been reading David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, and there’s an interesting chapter, ‘Choices’, which looks at voting systems and what we want from government…

Jacinta: Or perhaps what we need, or should expect. What is objectively best, something which Deutsch, being a progressivist optimist, believes we’re converging upon – what he calls, in the political sphere, ‘advancing from misconception to even better [i.e. less damaging] misconception’. Deutsch considers first the ‘apportionment problem’ in the USA, a problem that many electoral polities have, as they attempt to represent particular electoral regions, with their different populations, fairly within a federal electoral system. The USA, like Australia and many other countries, has a House of Representatives, to indicate the aim of representative government. There are 435 US House seats, and the Constitution requires that these seats be apportioned to the states according to their populations. For example if state x has 5% of the nation’s population, it should get 21.75 House members. This is of course impossible, so the obvious thing to do is round up to 22, right?

Canto: Obvious, maybe, but brimming with controversy, because this rounding up, or down, will affect states’ representation, often rather more than was ever suspected. Deutsch imagines a more simplified House with 10 seats, and 4 states. One state holds a little under 85% of the population, the other three have just over 5% each. Rounding will mean that the large state gets rounded down to 8 seats, the three smaller states get rounded up to 1. This means that you have to add an extra seat, but it also means that the smaller states are over-represented, population-wise, and the large state is under-represented. And if you don’t add an extra seat, and the rule is that all states must be represented, then the larger state is reduced to a grossly unrepresentative 7 seats. You could of course add two seats and allocate them to the large state, giving it 9 out of 12 seats, but that still under-represents that state’s population, while enlarging the House to a questionable degree.

Jacinta: In fact a quick calculation shows that, to provide that large state with 85% representation, while giving the other three states a seat, you’d have to add 10 more seats, but then you’d have to add more seats to make the other states more representative – unless I’m missing something, which I probably am. And so on, the point being that even with a simple model you can’t, just from a mathematical perspective, attain very precise representation.

Canto: You could, on that simple model, take a seat way from the least populated state, and give it to the most populated one, thereby keeping the state to ten seats, but having no representation at all seems grossly unfair, and in fact the US Constitution explicitly states that ‘Each State shall have at least one Representative’. The aim, of course is to have, as near as can be, the right measure of representativeness. Having no representation at all, even in one small region, contravenes the ‘no taxation without representation’ call-to-arms of the revolutionary American colonists and the founding fathers.

Jacinta: Yet all the argy-bargy that went on in the USA in the 19th century over apportionment rules and quotas – and it was often fierce – overlooked the fact that black peoples, native Americans, the poor, oh and of course women, were not entitled to be represented. As Deutsch points out, the founding fathers often bandied about the concept of the ‘will of the people’ in their work on the Constitution, but the only ‘people’ they were really talking about were the voters, a small fraction of the adult population in the early days of the nation.

Canto: Nevertheless the apportionment issue proved the bane of election after election, eminent mathematicians and the National Academy of Sciences were consulted, and various complicated solutions were mooted but none proved to everyone’s satisfaction as the system kept chopping and changing.

Jacinta: Of course this raises the question of whether majority rule is fair in any case, or whether fairness is the right criterion. We don’t decide our science or our judiciary by majority rule – and good science, at least, has nothing to do with fairness. Arguably the most significant weakness of democracy is the faith we place in it. In any case, as Deutsch reports:

… there is a mathematical discovery that has changed forever the nature of the apportionment debate: we now know that the quest for an apportionment rule that is both proportional and free from paradoxes can never succeed. Balinski and Young [presented a theorem which] proved this in 1975.

Deutsch calls this a ‘no-go theorem’, one of the first of which was proved by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Kenneth Arrow more than twenty years before. Arrow set out five basic axioms that a rule defining ‘the will of the people’ should satisfy:

Axiom 1: the rule should define a group’s preferences only in terms of the preferences of that group’s members.

Axiom 2: (the ‘no dictator’ axiom) the rule cannot designate the views of one particular person regardless of what the others want.

Axiom 3: if the members of the group are unanimous in their preference for something, then the rule must deem the group to have that preference.

These 3 axioms are expressions of the principle of representative government.

Axiom 4: If, under a given definition of ‘the preferences of the group’, the rule deems that the group has a particular preference, this remains the group’s preference if some members who previously disagreed with that preference now agree with it.

Axiom 5: If the group has some preference, and then some members change their minds about another matter, then the rule must continue to assign the original preference to the group.

These all seem like unproblematic axioms, but Arrow was able to prove that they were inconsistent, and this turns out to be problematic for social-choice theory in general, not just the apportionment issue. According to Deutsch at least, it reveals the mythical nature of ‘the will of the people’.

Canto: Did we really need to be told that? There is no ‘people’ in that sense. And I’m not talking about the Thatcherite claim that there’s no society, only individuals. I’m talking more literally, that there’s no such thing as an indivisible national entity, ‘the people’, which has made its preference known at an election.

Jacinta: Agreed, but that rhetoric is so ingrained it’s hard for people to let it go. I recall one of our prime ministerial aspirants, after losing the federal election, saying ‘graciously’ that he would bow to the ‘will of the people’ and, what’s more, ‘the people always get it right’. It was essentially meaningless, but no doubt it won him some plaudits.

Canto: In fact, voting doesn’t even reveal the will of a single person, let alone the ‘people’. A person might register a vote for person x mistakenly, or with indifference, or with great passion, or under duress etc. Multiply that by the number of voters, and you’ll learn nothing about the soi-disant will of the people.

Jacinta: Okay, we’ve talked about the problems of apportionment under the US multi-state system. Next time we’ll look at the different electoral systems, such as proportional-representation systems and plurality or ‘first past the post’ voting. Is any system more fair than another, and what exactly does ‘fair’ mean? Good government is what we want, but can this be described objectively, and can this be delivered by democracies?

Canto: Well, here’s a clue to that good government question, I think. I walk into my class and I’m faced with twenty students. If I’m asked ‘who’s the tallest person in the class?’ I can come up with an answer soon enough, even if I have to make a measurement. But if I’m asked ‘who’s the best person in the class (not the best student), I’m very likely to be lost for an answer, even if I’ve taught the class all year….

Jacinta: Interesting point, but we’re not talking about the best government. There might be a variety of good governments, and you might be able to point out a variety of students/persons in the class who’ve positively impressed you, for a variety of reasons. Good government is not one.

References

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity, 2011

The Institutional Design of Congress

Written by stewart henderson

May 26, 2020 at 10:08 pm

Covid-19: lies, damn lies and statistics

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Brazilian President Bolsonaro, explaining how government mismanagement and corruption is a good thing

Canto: So Russia is being described as a ‘late arriver’ with regard to Covid-19. It now has the second-highest number of cases, as everyone knows. Yet the mortality figure is astonishingly low. It’s only natural to be suspicious as there’s surely no obvious epidemiological explanation. It’s worth comparing Russia to Germany, whose figures few would quibble with, given its reputation for efficiency. It’s been treated as the European outlier in terms of its response, but nobody appears to be praising Russia for its tiny mortality rate. Why would that be?

Jacinta: Just looking at some reporting, various reasons have been given. Take this one from Dr. Elena Malinnikova, the chief of infectious diseases in the Russian Ministry of Health:

The low mortality is due to timely detection of infection as well as the fact that that Russians tend to see their doctor soon after symptoms appear.

Canto: Hmmm. Other nationalities don’t see their doctor, when there’s a killer pandemic on the loose? And ‘timely detection of infection’ sounds overly vague to me.

Jacinta: Let’s try another one. ‘Russian journalists have reported that more than 60% of all cases diagnosed in the country have been in Moscow, which has a younger and healthier population than rural areas’.

Canto: Yeah, but in the USA it’s the richer, more heavily populated regions of the north-east that have been hardest hit. The rural regions much less so.

Jacinta: Okay. In the article linked to above, Kent Sepkowicz, a physician and infection control specialist, provides good reasons why Russia’s mortality figures don’t make much sense on their face. And before I report on that, let’s look at rough reported mortality rates of a few countries, for comparison. I’ve just looked at total reported deaths as a percentage of total cases. As of May 20, the USA’s mortality rate is around 6%, the UK’s a horrendous 14%, Germany’s has gradually risen to 4.6%, and Brazil, another latecomer like Russia, and now with the fourth largest number of cases, is at 6.5%. Russia, on the other hand, is at 0.95% mortality. That’s a huge disparity, which we might call ‘Russia’s miracle’. But, as Sepkowicz points out, despite reports that Russia is doing well on testing (more than ten times that of Brazil, and somewhat more than the USA, and they might’ve started earlier too), Russia scores poorly on the comorbidity front, otherwise known as ‘pre-existing conditions’, such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, diabetes and obesity. It has an ageing population, and smoking is far more prevalent there than in European countries and Brazil. The testing regime is definitely not so much better than other countries to account for Russia’s apparent success – both Spain and Italy have done more tests per population.

Canto: Hello, are you saying there’s something shifty in the works? Vlad and and his charming circle would never lie to us, surely?

Jacinta: I don’t know that they’d gain much from fudging the figures…

Canto: Are you kidding? Isn’t that like saying Vlad wouldn’t gain much from rigging his election results? What he loses in international credibility, he might gain on the national scene, and that’s more important for him. But maybe there’s some less nefarious reason for the low mortality – I know they’re counting the numbers differently in some way. But the deaths from Covid-19 are the deaths from Covid-19. It should be a straightforward matter.

Jacinta: What about the deaths from x, y or z, exacerbated by Covid-19 infection?

Canto: I think that’s what they’re doing in Russia. Unless they’re certain that it was Covid-19 directly, they’re not counting it, even if they’ve tested positive for the virus, and then they die. They might be arguing that they were going to die anyway, Covid-19 just hastened the end.

Jacinta: Very dodgy if true. You could say that about anyone who’s a bit peely-wally.

Canto: Anyway let’s look at another country in this very complicated trans-national battle against the virus. Brazil’s an interesting one. I’m noting that countries with right-wing laissez-faire governments tend to be killing their citizens at a faster clip than leftist or centrist governments. Whadyareckon?

Jacinta: That’s a bit crude, but let’s look again at the reported figures and give number of deaths per number of cases as percentages. I’m going to leave out Russia and China, as I don’t trust what they’re reporting – which isn’t to say I entirely trust the other nations, but you have to draw the line somewhere. Britain, as mentioned, is very high at 16%, and has a conservative government. A very interesting country to look at is Belgium, which has the highest death rate per million of population of any major country in Europe. It’s death-to cases percentage is also high, at just over 16%. The country’s political situation is horrendously complex. They’ve had a caretaker PM for a year or so, and there’s basically a caretaker government after messy election results in March, in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. This interim government is supposedly in place just to manage the crisis. Clearly it’s not going well. It would be reasonable to put their problems down to no strong central government, à la the US. Now, Brazil has a notoriously extreme-right government at present, and I’ve already given its deaths-to-cases ratio, but the number of cases is rising rapidly, as are the number of deaths. Now, let’s have a look at Scandinavian countries, often glorified as models of good government. I’ll include in that vague grouping, in order of population: the Netherlands (17m), Sweden (10m), Denmark (5.8m), Finland (5.5m) and Norway (5.4m), and I’ll exclude Iceland, which has all the advantages of a distant island re isolation (it’s 87th in the world for cases). On deaths-to-cases: The Netherlands 13%, Sweden 12%, Denmark 5%, Finland 4.7% and Norway 2.8%. On those statistics, it seems that the smaller the country, population-wise, the better managed it has been in terms of preventing mortality, which does make some sense.

Canto: Okay so I’ll look at their current governments. the Netherlands is clearly hard-hit, Covid-19-wise. It has a multi-multi-party system (that’s not a typo) and is currently governed by a centre-right or conservative-liberal party, VVD, presumably supported by the next largest party, PVV a right-wing nationalist group. The left appears to be divided amongst a number of smaller parties, and the current government has been in power for ten years. Sweden, also faring badly under Covid-19, currently has a minority government with a social democrat PM after a controversial and inconclusive election in 2018. So it’s a centre-left government relying on centre-right parties. The social democrats have been in power, mostly as a majority, since 1917, but there has been a movement towards the right in recent years. Denmark, doing better than the previous two, but faring much worse than we are here in Australia, where we have a death-to-case ratio of 1.4%, has again a multi-party system – and by the way, all of these Scandinavian countries, except Finland which is a republic, are constitutional monarchies practising parliamentary democracy like Britain, and, in a weird way, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. The leftist social democrats are currently in power in Denmark, and they have a far tougher position on physical distancing than the Swedish government. Finland Has both a President and a Prime Minister, somewhat like France. The Prime Minister, Sanna Marin, made news worldwide as the youngest PM in the world when elected late last year. She’s a social democrat and heads a coalition government, which seems to be the case with most Scandinavian governments.

Jacinta: Yes, They seem designed that way so the parliament is more or less forced to collaborate in order to get things done. It seems a much better way to run a country, a far superior system to that of the USA, much more team-based. Anyway, statistics seem to suggest that, overall, strong central governments that can co-ordinate efforts effectively, and have the support of the people, are doing better at saving lives. It’s not a conclusive finding though, and no doubt each country has its confounding factors.

Canto: Norway, finally, has handled things in much the way you would expect of the nation rated first in the world by the OECD. On March 19 this year, their federal government was granted emergency powers by parliament until December. That’s one way of creating strong central government, albeit temporarily. The current government is essentially right-centrist, within a multiparty system where the balance is usually held by left-centre parties. Clearly, though, this is a nation where people place more faith in government than, say, in the USA. And speaking of libertarianism and such, it’s interesting to look at Brazil more closely. When we began this post a couple of days, ago, Brazil was fourth in the world in terms of confirmed cases. Now it’s up to second, that’s how fast-moving things are.

Jacinta: And it’ll never reach top spot, surely – the USA is way way ahead of the rest of the world.

Canto: So Brazil is a republic, and currently has an extreme right-wing government under Jair Bolsonaro, who, according to this very recent New Yorker report, seems to be doing everything he can to exacerbate the situation. Brazil’s rise in cases has been more recent than most, and the death toll is now rising rapidly, now up to sixth in the world.Bolsonaro is shrugging it off and encouraging defiance of state restrictions in much the manner of Trump, whom he idolises. So it seems that when you get extreme anti-government government – negligence mixed with incompetence – as in the case of Trump and Bolsonaro, the death toll will likely be devastating, and will impact mainly the poor, elderly and disadvantaged. Who would’ve thunk it?

References

https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/13/opinions/russia-low-covid-19-mortality-rate-sepkowitz/index.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/without-a-government-for-a-year-belgium-shows-what-happens-to-politics-without-politicians/2019/12/19/5c13cb48-20de-11ea-b034-de7dc2b5199b_story.html

https://www.nationsencyclopedia.com/economies/Europe/Belgium-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT-AND-TAXATION.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_the_Netherlands

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Sweden

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Denmark

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Norway

https://www.forbes.com/sites/carmenniethammer/2019/12/12/finlands-new-government-is-young-and-led-by-women-heres-what-the-country-does-to-promote-diversity/#28236f8835aa

https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-coronavirus-hits-brazil-hard-but-jair-bolsonaro-is-unrepentant


Written by stewart henderson

May 23, 2020 at 10:47 am

progressivism: the no-alternative philosophy

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Canto: So here’s the thing – I’ve occasionally been asked about my politics and I’ve been a little discomfited about having to describe them in a few words, and I’ve even wondered if I could describe them effectively to myself.

Jacinta: Yes I find it easier to be sure of what I’m opposed to, such as bullies or authoritarians, which to me are much the same thing. So that means authoritarian governments, controlling governments and so forth. But I also learned early on that the world was unfair, that some kids were richer than others, smarter than others, better-looking than others, through no fault or effort of their own. I was even able to think through this enough to realise that even the kind kids and the nasty ones, the bullies and the scaredy-cats, didn’t have too much choice in the matter. So I often wondered about a government role in making things a bit fairer for those who lost out in exactly where, or into whose hands, they were thrown into the world.

Canto: Well you could say there’s a natural diversity in all those things, intelligence, appearance, wealth, capability and so forth… I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. I remember once answering that question, about my politics, by describing myself as a pluralist, and then later being disappointed at my self-description. Of course, I wouldn’t want to favour the opposite – what’s that, singularism? But clearly not all differences are beneficial – extreme poverty for example, or its opposite…

Jacinta: You wouldn’t want to be extremely wealthy?

Canto; Well okay I’ve sometimes fantasised, but mainly in terms of then having more power to make changes in the world. But I’m thinking of the differences that disadvantage us as a group, as a political entity. And here’s one thing I do know about politics. We can’t live without it. We owe our success as a species, for what it’s worth, to our socio-political organisation, something many libertarians seem to be in denial about.

Jacinta: Yes, humans are political animals, if I may improve upon Aristotle. But differences that disadvantage us. Remember eugenics? Perhaps in some ways it’s still with us. Prospective parents might be able to abort their child if they can find out early on that it’s – defective in some way.

Canto: Oh dear, that’s a real can of worms, but those weren’t the kind of differences I was thinking about. Since you raise the subject though, I would say this is a matter of individual choice, but that, overall, ridding the world of those kinds of differences – intellectual disability, dwarfism, intersex, blindness, deafness and so on – wouldn’t be a good thing. But of course that would require a sociopolitical world that would agree with me on that and be supportive of those differences.

Jacinta: So you’re talking about political differences. Or maybe cultural differences?

Canto: Yes but that’s another can of worms. It’s true that multiculturalism can expand our thinking in many ways, but you must admit that there are some heavy cultures, that have attitudes about the ‘place of women’ for example, or about necessary belief in their god…

Jacinta: Or that taurans make better lovers than geminis haha.

Canto: Haha, maybe. Some false beliefs have more serious consequences than others. So multiculturalism has its positives and negatives, but you want the dominant culture, or the mix of cultures that ultimately forms a new kind of ‘creole’ overarching culture, to be positive and open. To be progressive. That’s the key word. There’s no valid alternative to a progressive culture. It’s what has gotten us where we are, and that’s not such a bad place, though it’s far from perfect, and always will be.

Jacinta: So progressiveness good, conservativism bad? Is that it?

Canto: Nothing is ever so simple, but you’re on the right track. Progress is a movement forward. Sometimes it’s a little zigzaggy, sometimes two forward one back. I’m taking my cue from David Deutsch’s book The beginning of infinity, which is crystallising much I’ve thought about politics and culture over the years, and of the role and meaning of science, which as you know has long preoccupied me. Anyway, the opposite of progress is essentially stasis – no change at all. Our former conservative Prime Minister John Howard was fond of sagely saying ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’, as a way of avoiding the prospect of change. But it isn’t just about fixing, it’s rather more about improving, or transcending. Landline phones didn’t need fixing, they were a functional, functioning technology. But a new technology came along that improved upon it, and kept improving and added internet technology to its portability. We took a step back in our progress many decades ago, methinks, when we abandoned the promise of electrified modes of travel for the infernal combustion engine, and it’s taking us too long to get back on track, but I’m confident we’ll get there eventually. ..

Jacinta: I get you. Stasis is this safe option, but in fact it doesn’t lead anywhere. We’d be sticking with the ‘old’ way of doing things, which takes us back much further than just the days of landlines, but before any recognisable technology at all. Before using woven cloth, before even using animal skins and fire to improve our chances of survival.

Canto: So it’s not even a safe option. It’s not a viable option at all. You know how there was a drastic drop in the numbers of Homo sapiens some 70,000 years ago – we’ll probably never know how close we came to extinction. I’d bet my life it was some innovation that only our species could have thought of that enabled us to come out of it alive and breeding.

Jacinta: And some of our ancestors would’ve been dragged kicking and screaming towards accepting that innovation. I used to spend time on a forum of topical essays where the comments were dominated by an ‘anti-Enlightenment’ crowd, characters who thought the Enlightenment – presumably the eighteenth century European one (but probably also the British seventeenth century one, the Scottish one, and maybe even the Renaissance to boot) – was the greatest disaster ever suffered by humanity. Needless to say, I soon lost interest. But that’s an extreme example (I think they were religious nutters).

Canto: Deutsch, in a central chapter of The beginning of infinity, compares ancient Athens and Sparta, even employing a Socratic dialogue for local colour. The contrast isn’t just between Athens’ embracing of progress and Sparta’s determination to maintain stasis, but between openness and its opposite. Athens, at its all-too-brief flowering, encouraged philosophical debate and reasoning, rule-breaking artistry, experimentation and general questioning, in the process producing famous dialogues, plays and extraordinary monuments such as the Parthenon. Sparta on the other hand left no legacy to build on or rediscover, and all that we know of its politico-social system comes from non-Spartans, so that if it has been misrepresented it only has itself to blame!

Jacinta: Yet it didn’t last.

Canto: Many instances of that sort of thing. In the case of Athens, its disastrous Syracusan adventure, its ravagement by the plague, or a plague, or a series of plagues, and the Peloponnesian war, all combined to permanently arrest its development. Contingent events. Think too of the Islamic Golden Age, a long period of innovation in mathematics, physics, astronomy, medicine, architecture and much else, brought to an end largely by the Mongol invasions, and the collapse of the Abbasid caliphate but also by a political backlash towards stasis, anti-intellectualism and religiosity, most often associated with the 12th century theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali.

Jacinta: Very tragic for our modern world. So how do we guard against the apostles of stasis? By the interminable application of reason? By somehow keeping them off the reins of power, since those apostles will always be with us?

Canto: Not by coercion, no. It has to be a battle of ideas, or maybe I shouldn’t use that sort of male lingo. A demonstration of ideas, in the open market. A demonstration of their effectiveness for improving our world, which means comprehending that world at an ever-deeper, more comprehensive level.

Jacinta: Comprehensively comprehending, that seems commendably comprehensible. But will this improve the world for us all – lift all boats, as Sam Harris likes to say?

Canto: Well, since you mention Harris, I totally agree with him that reason, and science which is so clearly founded on reason, is just as applicable to the moral world, to pointing the way to and developing the best and richest life we all can live, as it is to technology and our deepest understanding of the universe, the multiverse or whatever our fundamental reality happens to be. So we need to keep on developing and building on that science, and communicating it and applying it to the human world and all that it depends upon and influences.

References

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2012

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parthenon

https://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/why-the-arabic-world-turned-away-from-science

Written by stewart henderson

May 3, 2020 at 4:36 pm