23 September 2008

Midweek review

• Celia Green has some thoughts about the Establishment, involving reminiscences about colonial governors, BBC departmental heads and Oxford college principals.

• "Greed, Greed, Greed!" The papers last week were absolutely full of it — their preferred explanation for the financial crisis. Amazing how many columnists just happen to know what the psychological dynamics are like inside investment banks. Why not "Stupidity, Stupidity, Stupidity"? I know no better than Fleet Street journalists what has been going on inside bankers' heads, but I do have experience of working for accountancy firms. While there were no major stupidities going on that I was aware of when I left the profession, it did seem to me that old-fashioned diligence was starting to be swamped by 'clever' ideas that weren't always adequately thought through, and by pseudo-egalitarian ideology which expressed itself through pointless HR-initiated social exercises and 'diversity' programmes. But I suppose "greed" plays better than "stupidity" to newspaper readers, especially ones fed on mediocratic ideology. Some people, incidentally, have already started asking the question: what role did the Big Four play in the dressing up of fantasy finance as valuable assets?

• Two examples which illustrate the use to which the new "wellbeing" education is liable to be put.
(1) Teachers at some secondary schools in Essex have apparently been telling their pupils that there's been an outbreak of typhoid, requiring a 48-hour quarantine, then revealing it was a lie. Allegedly this is done to stimulate creative writing, but shouldn't it be classified as abuse? The headmistress of one of the schools explained she was working hard

to eradicate 'passive learning' and replace it with exciting, creative lessons where students are active participants and wholeheartedly involved in their learning.
Next time you see a statement like that, you may need to read between the lines.
(2) It appears some state schools are making 9-year-olds keep emotional diaries, while assuring them that their parents won't be allowed to read them. But is it safe to assume the contents will not be passed on to other employees of the state as evidence of pathology, if they express anything that conflicts with the prevailing model of normality?

• Last Wednesday's $90 rise in the price of gold seemed to me one of the most remarkable market events since Black Monday. Unlike the latter, this one had no good explanation. Market reports referred to dollar weakness and oil strength, but neither was particularly noticeable at the time. Gold had been in a downtrend and shown no signs of responding to market turmoil up till then, so why the sudden turnaround? One item I saw, not linked specifically to gold, did make me wonder: a reference to liquidity drying up in the foreign exchange markets. When even a market of this size (average daily turnover: 4 trillion dollars) shows signs of strain, you know that conditions really are highly anomalous.

• "Universities cannot resolve the problems of inequality in society on their own" writes HEFCE's "Head of Widening Participation" in the Guardian. But why should universities be responsible for resolving them at all? He doesn't explain. Clearly HEFCE is another supposedly non-political body which has become politicised. And, by failing to resist government pressures, so have universities themselves: most of them now appear to accept that their role has shifted from providing scope for the intelligent to providing another source of socioeconomic levelling.

• How does a dominant ideology stay dominant? Probably via what my colleague Celia Green calls "belief in society" — a quasi-religious belief in the validity of social ranking. It's fashionable these days to sneer at deference towards royalty or aristocrats, and the suspension of critical judgment that supposedly goes with it, but the effect has simply shifted towards those with non-hereditary status such as professors or other accredited experts. So you can get odd effects such as the following: a writer who seems to be fully aware that establishment culture is ideologically biased, but who nevertheless genuflects towards those with social status. Most people are terrified of calling "emperor's clothes" in areas such as philosophy or educational theory, perhaps because they fear being accused of lacking 'training'. Ultimately it comes down to a question of power — 'might is right'. Those who control cultural resources get to make the rules. That much Foucault got right — though by failing to distinguish sufficiently between 'is' and 'ought', he actually strengthened the claims of the elite to define truth.

• Poor Jonathan Yeo. His excellent, albeit heavily Freud-indebted, portraits have gained him financial rewards but not A-list status. They are too traditional for today's art world, in which trying to shock palates already jaded by excess sensationalism remains de rigueur. Solution? He could, I suppose, have started painting them with his own bodily fluids, but has actually opted for the slightly more original course of collaging them from pornographic pictures. Yeo's first portrait* in the new style, of George W Bush, he did "as a kind of insult", according to the Sunday Times. Very daring. Whether his new approach will launch him into the pseudo-radical Britart establishment, given the handicap of being the son of a Tory MP, remains to be seen.

• Last week I wrote that "more [financial] regulation seems inevitable, regardless of whether it makes sense". I had not expected it to come quite so quickly. The ban on short-selling bank shares may have helped to produce a phenomenal stockmarket rally from an extreme of bearish sentiment, and may even have generated the trigger for a change in animal spirits. But it's hard to see the undermining of market principles which it represents doing the economy any good in the long run. More thoughts here.

• A propos chemist Sir Harold Kroto's theory that America's religious Right have "almost complete control" over education, journalism and television, here are two items (via Maggie's Farm) of actual data: (i) Amherst's chaplain, and an unidentified person in the history department, were offering students two college credits if they would campaign for Obama, (ii) anti-Republicans have been disrupting programmes on which conservative figures were due to speak. Camille Paglia asks, "when did Democrats become so judgmental and intolerant?" That would be some time ago, Professor Paglia.

* Images of Bush by Jonathan Yeo via Des Bulles