15 December 2017

Down the river of hope

Uptrends climb a wall of worry,
downtrends slide down a river of hope.
Are we witnessing the return of classy in the field of television drama? It is tempting to think so.

First, there is Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino), about a Jewish housewife in 1950s New York who turns to stand-up comedy after the failure of her marriage. True, the central premise is preposterous, and Mrs Maisel (magnetic performance by Rachel Brosnahan) seems to come from a different decade than the other characters. Standard TV ideology inevitably makes its appearance: men are jerks, women are nice and sensible, and capable collectively of solving the world’s problems, etc. I have not yet encountered any dastardly Republicans, but it’s probably unwise to get complacent.

However, any such minor defects are forgiveable because, aside from the top-notch production values, this is the first English-language TV series with genuine pizzazz since the demise of Friends. Marvellous.

Second, on this side of the Atlantic, the BBC has confounded expectations by dramatising a literary work without indulging in the usual level of ideological revisionism. Howard’s End, a 4-part adaptation of E M Forster’s novel directed by Hettie Macdonald, provides a stunning example of small-screen filmmaking as highbrow art: superb on style, but without the poor quality of content that mars so many other visually impressive products. The acting is terrific, and allows for the build-up of complex psychology. It’s thoroughly watchable, even for those who don’t like Forster.

Two sightings of black swans might be interpreted as meaningful. But let’s not get too excited. Every downtrend has its rallies.

* * *

Why does it seem necessary for cultural producers to go back in time in order to show reasonably civilised behaviour? (Though it’s certainly not a sufficient condition — see for example Ripper Street, or Rome.)

The argument that producers reflect the realities of the time they are portraying seems like only partial explanation. Culture does not merely reflect, it selectively reinforces. In the modern era, it is as much cause as effect.

Other reviewers of Howard’s End have felt obliged to comment unfavourably on the socioeconomic inequalities, which supposedly cast a moral blight on the otherwise attractive lifestyles of the cultured middle class. This is standard, knee-jerk stuff.

Conversely, then, we can hypothesise that the dominant ideology requires the suppression of qualities which could be seen as supportive of inequality, at least in representations of contemporary life. According to this logic, politeness (for example) is seen as bourgeois, and as something which should be discouraged in favour of open aggression. Representations of the past may be exempt from this requirement, because the ideology now includes the well-accepted tenet that, on balance, the past can be ignored — it is useful only in providing illustrations of how not to run things.

08 December 2017

number one voice

Who deserves the title for most beautiful soprano voice? Not of all time, of course, just recording history.

“Beautiful” here means: pure, free of distortion, an unalloyed pleasure to listen to. Like a perfectly tuned musical instrument. A strawberries-and-cream voice.

(Not the same as “most expressive voice”, an accolade which might well go to Maria Callas.)

There is an excellent case for Kathleen Battle — particularly when singing Mozart, which brings out her strengths.

Battle made a superb recording of Mozart arias with André Previn in the mid-eighties. You can listen to one of the tracks here.

01 December 2017

spellcheck #5

Here is another Latin-based expression that’s in danger of being murdered by misspelling: per se. The phrase is used to mean in itself or by itself, often in the context of a negative.

I don’t have a thing against magnolias per se, just the one in my garden. (Guardian)

The spelling “per say” gets c. 600K Google hits, though most are articles pointing out the mistake.

The example I’ve just come across is from E E Holmes’s otherwise well-crafted Gateway ghost-comedy-thriller series.

There’s no official probation, per say, in Durupinen law.

From book 4 in the series, Whispers of the Walker (Kindle version).

24 November 2017


Wikipedia defines OPEC as an intergovernmental organisation which attempts to coordinate the petroleum policies of member countries. In practice, most consider OPEC to be a cartel, trying to maximise profits by agreeing production quotas.

Is it helpful for a cartel to have a leader? Economics tries to answer this question using game theory, but it’s not clear how helpful that approach is. Conditions prevailing in the real world are typically too complex to be captured by current game-theory models. Simple psychology suggests the answer is: yes, having a leader makes it easier to coordinate behaviour.

Roughly speaking, OPEC countries’ petroleum represents about half of the global total, and Saudi Arabia controls about a quarter of that. By comparison, the next biggest members in terms of production, Iran and Iraq, each generate about a tenth of OPEC’s output.

Saudi Arabia has no formal leadership status. OPEC’s chief executive from 2007 to 2016 was Abdalla Salem el-Badri, a Libyan. Yet in practice Saudi Arabia seems to play a dominant role in OPEC’s decision-making. It is therefore sometimes said to be OPEC’s “de facto leader”.

de facto here means:
- actual or in practice, while not corresponding to the legal or formal framework
(More examples of usage at dictionary.com)

In a recent Reuters article, de facto appears to have got Chinese-whispered into defector:

OPEC’s defector leader is focused on reducing global oil stocks
D’oh! Interestingly, six months earlier, Reuters was still getting it right.*

* In the earlier article, Reuters spells the phrase “de-facto leader”. Hyphenating compound modifiers is usually desirable, as it helps to avoid ambiguity. When, as in this case, the modifier is a foreign phrase, a hyphen seems superfluous.

17 November 2017

Plunging back into a dark age

Celia Green:

The recent peak of civilisation, centred on Western Europe, from which we are in the process of declining, was the highest that the world has known. At its height, it encompassed scientific and philosophical ideas which had not previously been formulated. However, in doing so, it brought about its own downfall. In both science and philosophy it came too close to areas of thought which the human race wishes to avoid. Consequently, it became necessary to plunge back into an intellectual dark age, and this is a process which the human race has already brought to quite an advanced stage in the present century. [...]

In these circumstances, the European mind took refuge in a social and intellectual revolution. The social revolution was designed to make it impossible for individuals to think, or express inconvenient thoughts. It should be made impossible for anyone to have time to think unless he performed this function as a paid agent of society. Society, naturally, would know how to select in favour of those who thought in approved ways. While the social revolution has been fairly obvious, the intellectual revolution (or the abolition of dangerous thought) has attracted little attention. But the fact remains that in all operative fields of thought the human race has involved itself in positions from which, on their own terms, no advance is possible.

from The Decline and Fall of Science

10 November 2017

Universities: from free speech to closed shop

A difficulty with analysing the ideology underlying current culture is that much of it is covert. This makes it harder to criticise, which may be the intention.

Occasionally, someone gets more explicit. This may not be in the relevant person’s best interests but can be informative.

As an example of what is wrong with contemporary academia, consider the following assertions recently made by an Oxbridge academic in a newspaper article. (I have paraphrased to prevent identification, as I have no desire to generate negative attention for the person concerned. More deserving of disapproval are those who adopt similar attitudes, or are complicit in allowing such attitudes to become influential, but who take care not to reveal their own position in print.)

Universities have political significance.

The election of Donald Trump and the rising dominance of the Right provides an incentive for increased efforts in activism.

Many have queried the white bias on campus which presents bourgeois reading lists under cover of “neutrality”.

The question “What should be done?” is on everyone’s minds.

We must scrutinise our teaching materials. There are excellent schemes which attack class bias in academia. It is our responsibility to implement them.

There is no such thing as an apolitical classroom. We must realise that not taking a stand, or presenting a guise of neutrality, is equal to complicity.

We must agitate and organise so that our students speak up, make the world a better place, and do not become complicit in its evils.

Now many may like the idea of fighting against right-wing, or other ideologically incorrect, ideas. The question arises, however: is campus a suitable place for this?

The purpose of universities is (or should be) to consider ideas by reference to whether they fit with the facts, or are helpful in understanding reality; not by whether they fit with some principle of morality or other belief system.

Note the writer’s assertion that there is no such thing as neutrality. The ostensible effect of this is to undermine the argument I just made against activism on campus. If neutrality is not possible, or its apparent presence is a deception, then one cannot complain about its absence. This may of course be the motive for making the assertion.

“We must agitate”, says the writer. In other words, it is not enough that certain viewpoints may only be discussed as positions to be rejected — we must make it unpleasant for anyone who tries to argue in favour of such viewpoints.

If you want to know why the principle of free speech is being eroded, in universities and elsewhere, part of the answer is clearly: because many ‘academics’ consider it irrelevant.

31 October 2017

500 years after Luther

500 years ago today Martin Luther published his 95 Theses, an event that set off the Reformation.

Luther — in this, and other publications — noted that the ideals of the Church had become corrupted. Corruption had happened gradually, involving a succession of distortions, each of which by itself may have been regarded as convenient and acceptable.

The net effect was that key concepts, such as repentance, which originally meant one thing had come to mean something quite different.

Luther’s observations of corruption were on a local scale, but the deterioration in the Church’s standards was global. A huge number of functionaries were operating within a system that had abandoned the standards which made that system meaningful. Many of them must have been aware of deterioration, but thought it was not in their interests to draw attention to it.

Indocte et male faciunt sacerdotes ii, qui morituris penitentias canonicias in purgatorium reservant.
Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory.

It did not take genius to write an uncompromising attack on the defects. It did, however, require honesty and courage.

Today there are parallel defects in the modern equivalent of the Church’s intellectual edifice: the universities. We need an analogous critique of deterioration. We need a return to earlier principles. Indeed, we may need something deserving of the term ‘revolution’.

20 October 2017

Revolution - III

Authorities are bewildered, heads of institutions try threats and concessions by turns, hoping the surge of subversion will collapse like previous ones. But none of this holds back that transfer of power and property which is the mark of revolution and which in the end establishes the Idea ...

When people feel that accretions and complications have buried the original purpose of an institution, when all arguments for reform have been heard and have failed, the most thoughtful and active decide that they want to be “cured of civilization”.

... The priest, instead of being a teacher, was ignorant; the monk, instead of helping to save the world by his piety, was an idle profiteer; the bishop, instead of supervising the care of souls in his diocese was a politician and businessman ... When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

13 October 2017

Altruism towards future generations

Some critics have suggested that the libertarian position regarding future generations is: “I don’t care”. But libertarianism does not reject moral responsibility towards others. It rejects the notion that the government should enforce such responsibility.

Feeling responsible towards one’s own descendants, and others who share a proportion of one’s genes, appears to be a hard-wired human attribute. Aggregating responsibility-towards-descendants feelings may be what has traditionally generated interest in the position of future members of a society.

Prior to the welfare state, and to the development of social justice ideologies, public actions motivated by responsibility towards descendants did apparently take place. The Victorians built bridges that were designed to last for hundreds of years, though there was often no obvious incentive for doing so.

After decades of welfare state – and rhetoric about preserving resources for the future – we seem to be behind the Victorians in terms of investment in the long-term future.

It is not in any case clear how a society could have a motive to behave more responsibly towards its future members than is generated by innate responsibility feelings towards descendants. Because the elite produces arguments for why one should feel responsible? People’s choices will still reflect what they perceive to be their own interests.

One can, however, see how hard-wired concern for future generations might be negatively impacted by policies. The existence of state medical and education systems, purporting to cater for everyone, means that each individual has fewer resources available to devote to interest in his descendants. The reallocation of resources means he is liable to assume that responsibility towards descendants has also been reallocated – without this assumption necessarily being justified.

Compared to aggregated individual actions, it seems collectivised action is likely to be less motivated by interest in the future, not more. Collectivised action is subject to ‘democratic’ control, and voting is notoriously conducive to short-termism.

06 October 2017



“Perhaps there are those who are able to go about their lives unfettered by such concerns.

But for those like us, our fate is to face the world as orphans, chasing through long years the shadows of vanished parents.

There is nothing for it but to try and see through our missions to the end, as best we can, for until we do so, we will be permitted no calm.”

Christopher in Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans

30 September 2017

‘Fairness’ and the triple lock

Part 2 of Intergenerational Hogwash is on the website:

‘fairness’ and the triple lock

22 September 2017

Revolution - II

Manners are flouted and customs broken. Foul language and direct insult become normal, in keeping with the rest of the excitement ... Printed sheets pass from hand to hand and are read with delight or outrage — Listen to this! Angry debates multiply about things long settled.

A curious levelling takes place: the common people learn words and ideas hitherto not familiar and not interesting and discuss them like intellectuals, while others neglect their usual concerns — art, philosophy, scholarship — because there is only one compelling topic, the revolutionary Idea ...

Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

15 September 2017

The Book of Strange New Things

As an illustration of my point that ‘trash’ can be entertaining, so long as it doesn’t have ideas above its station, consider another product from the Amazon stable, Preacher. This is based on a graphic novel series from the 1990s, and has been cleverly adapted for the small screen. Provided one’s expectations are low — as mine usually are these days — it is an enjoyable romp and doesn’t leave too much collateral brain damage in its wake.

There are two main problems with most movie and TV products currently coming out of the Anglophone world.
(1) They are dumb, and suffer from cartoonisation. (By this I mean the process by which something that starts out not being a cartoon is transformed into something that has most of the qualities of one.) Watching them is liable to make one’s IQ level drop several points, at least temporarily.
(2) They contain ideological subtext at an intensity level that is irritating.

The pilot episode of Oasis, another Amazon product which I recently had the chance to see, is significantly lacking in both these flaws. It’s visually sharp but without the style-over-substance characteristic which usually goes with that, i.e. camera and cutting work that is distractingly jazzy. This gives it a relatively cool and relaxed feel — unusual for a sci-fi product.

Oasis is based on The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber, author of The Crimson Petal and the White. The latter was turned into a BBC television series in 2011 which, while relatively low on defect (1), collapsed under the weight of the other problem. The viewer was made more aware of the currently fashionable model of Victorian society (dark, hypocritical, perverted, etc) than of the psychology of the characters.

07 September 2017

Intergenerational hogwash

The new article is on the website.

intergenerational hogwash

Part 2 is in preparation.