Hope is overrated

The pursuit of hope becomes dangerous when it comes at the price of clarity.

A little over six months ago, the Guardian columnist George Monbiot wrote that:

Perhaps there was a time when this counsel of despair made sense. No longer. The lamps are coming on all over Europe. As in South America, political shifts that seemed impossible a few years earlier are now shaking the continent. We knew that another world was possible. Now, it seems, another world is here: the sudden death of the neoliberal consensus.

The top item on his list of reasons for optimism was the rise of the Greek leftists Syriza. Now that same party appears poised to let down the electorate who they promised they would keep Greece in the Eurozone, The country has imposed capital controls. It’s shut down its bank for at least a week leaving the large numbers of Greeks without cash cards struggling to get the cash to pay for food. Syriza has turned the most modest of recoveries into the most nightmarish of potential crashes. In short, the party is giving Greeks very little reason to feel hopeful.

That I’m afraid is hardly surprising. Hope is a very poor basis on which to base your political calculations. Don’t get me wrong, my spine stiffens as much as the next liberal hearing a circa 2008 Obama speech. But even Mr-Hope-and-Change himself has been forced to become much less sunny. The man who aspired to bridge the gap with Republicans, has had to take them on in a deeply partisan battle using every tool at his disposal. Some might see that as betrayal but I’d suggest it rather reflects the president becoming wiser with experience.

There is nothing inherently desirable about politicians being optimistic. Naturally, they should aspire to make the world a better place. But achieving that means recognising which goals are realistic. It also requires having leaders who are wary of the dangers that could instead make things worse. Panglossians are precisely the wrong people to deliver positive change.

That’s not an excuse for cynicism or paranoia. One can be unduly pessimistic as well as unduly optimistic. But it is a warning against wishful thinking. Fear has played a big part in many of the worst moments of human history but so as delusional optimism: think of Soviet industrialisation collectivisation or the Iraq War.

We should not be seeking a politics that replaces fear with hope. Rather we should be seeking to balance the two. Humans evolved to feel fear because it is helped us to avoid dangers. Now we are political animals, we must also be attuned to political dangers. Sounding the alarm and in so doing making people afraid is often the only responsible course. To take an extreme example Churchill was fearful where Chamberlain was hopeful but he was still right.

Sadly among the dangers one must be vigilant for are those peddling hopes that lack foundations and dismissing real threats. And even more sadly such people appear to be leading Greece to disaster.


Velociraptors were actually pretty lame

They were the size of turkeys, had the brains of ostriches and probably could have been fought off with a good kick.

I’m pretty clearly in a minority on Jurassic World. Audiences seem to be lapping it up; it’s box office taking currently exceeds the GDP of Gambia by several hundred million dollars. Nonethless, I felt it’s human characters were lazy stereotypes there solely to deliver ‘well duh’ worthy exposition. Where the original generated genuine awe, this one keeps telling you that you are being awed before presenting you with something that looks like a so-so episode of Walking with Dinosaurs. And its gender politics are as bad as Our Lord Joss predicted they would be.

But one thing even I think it got right is maintaining the menacing appeal of the velociraptors, all the more heightened because this time they may be lulling the human characters into a false sense of security. They might lack the raw power of the T-Rex but they more than make up for it with cunning and the ability to work together to bring about our downfall.

Unfortunately (or if humanity ever does start bringing dinosaurs back, fortunately) the real things were rather less impressive. The New York Times spoke to a number of paleontologists who explained that raptors were about the size of a turkey with the feathers to match, lacked the facial muscles to snarl and had to contend with with overflexible wrists and tails. Indeed, the article quotes one paleontologist saying:

“If you had a good pair of work boots you could kick it in the head and it wouldn’t be frightening”.

Our best guess at what an actual velociraptor would have looked like

As for their intelligence I’m not sure that’s quite up to what the Jurassic film suggests. An article on the Smithsonian website, says that based on their brain-body weight ratio they were probably among the smartest dinosaurs. Disappointingly, that’s not saying much and they’d only be about as smart as an ostrich.

I also found a post on a blog hosted by the University of Berkley commenting on the claim in Jurassic Park III that raptors were “smarter than dolphins, smarter than primates”. In fact:

They had modestly large brains but those brains were nowhere near as elaborate as the brains of mammals or even most modern birds. If relative brain size is any measure of intelligence, dromaeosaurs were just a little smarter than typical dinosaurs. Not geniuses by mammalian standards.

So the particularly chilling moment in the original film where human characters realise that the raptors pursuing them can open doors probably wouldn’t have happened. Indeed, it stands to reason that if your cat would struggle to figure something out, it would almost certainly have defeated a raptor.

[Spoiler] Hence it seems exceedingly far fetched to claim as Jurassic World does that because it has raptor DNA, the fictional Indominus Rex would be smart enough to: leave claw marks on its enclosure to make it captors think it has climbed out, then exploit its tree frog DNA to make its thermal signature disappear, then lie in wait for humans to open its enclosure, before finally clawing out its tracking implant and going on a rampage.

So in conclusion, velociraptors have been significantly overhyped and are much less impressive than generally thought. Rather like a certain summer blockbuster currently showing at a cinema near you.

The hypocrisy of flying the Confederate Flag

In a Team of Rivals, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin quotes Lincoln’s Secretary of State William H Seward predicting that:

“when the stars and stripes wave over [the confederate capitol of] Richmond…you will have to look mighty hard to a find a man who was a secessionist, or an aider of the rebellion”

Indeed such a turn had happened before:

He [Seward] recollected that when he was was a boy in the early 1800s, his parents had told of “the vast number of Tories” who opposed the government during the American revolution; yet, thirty years later, “there was not a tory to found in the whole United States”.

And we’ve seen similar things happen since; after WWII few people in France would have publicly expressed pride at having collaborated with the occupying Germans.

Yet Seward was wrong. One might expect an attempt to build a racist state that upheld slavery and launched a war that killed hundreds of thousands to be universally reviled. Yet in the Southern States it is often valorised. It’s true that in the twenty-first century explicit support for racism, slavery and segregation is confined to an often violent fringe. Yet a milder form is surprisingly common.

Even as a tourist visiting historic sites in Richmond and Charleston, I was struck by how often the issue of slavery was sidestepped and the Confederacy’s ruinous decision to rupture the Union was presented in a sympathetic. Its symbols, especially its flag, are widely displayed. Streets are named for Confederate commanders and politicians, and large statues to them still stand. There is actually a High School in Tennessee named after the founder of the Klu Klux Klan. A clear majority of South Carolinians support having the Confederate flag displayed in front of their statehouse.

The last forty-eight hours have left this seeming especially distasteful. A racially motivated terrorist attack in Charleston has left nine dead. The church that was attacked was a symbol of the long struggle for black equality. It’s predecessor was banned during the time of slavery and was only able to legally exist because the Confederacy was defeated. Yet it is on a street named for a Confederate general.

The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates lays out the full ugliness of continuing to venerate such a dark legacy:

The Confederate flag’s defenders often claim it represents “heritage not hate.” I agree—the heritage of White Supremacy was not so much birthed by hate as by the impulse toward plunder. Dylann Roof plundered nine different bodies last night, plundered nine different families of an original member, plundered nine different communities of a singular member. An entire people are poorer for his action. The flag that Roof embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act—it endorses it. That the Confederate flag is the symbol of of white supremacists is evidenced by the very words of those who birthed it:

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…

This moral truth—“that the negro is not equal to the white man”—is exactly what animated Dylann Roof. More than any individual actor, in recent history, Roof honored his flag in exactly the manner it always demanded—with human sacrifice.

This is clearly true. Indeed, it’s depressing that otherwise reasonable people disagree with it.

Nonetheless, while implicitly endorsing racism may be the most distasteful aspect of this phenomenon, it’s not the most surprising. That’s how oddly it sits with ideas about American patriotism.

The former Confederate States are the heartland of a brand of American conservatism that insists that people loudly proclaim not only America’s brilliance but its unique brilliance. It also has an expansive view of what one can do to out oneself as secretly not loving America: supporting gun control, believing in universal healthcare and being sceptical about using force abroad are apparently among them.

Yet staggeringly, somehow excluded from this list is flying the flag of a rebel group that tried to destroy the United States. One can apparently insist you are proud to be an American but also celebrate a movement whose success would have stopped you being American. On an innocent matter this would be massive inconsistency. On one as loaded as this it’s rank hypocrisy.

The tyranny of geography

A few weeks ago I wrote a long post setting out the core reason the Lib Dems had lost so many seats at the General Election. I wound up concluding the problem was:

…we became too defined by the local to operate effectively as a party of national government. Our spines stiffened too much when we heard people say that the only things that would survive a nuclear war were cockroaches and Lib Dem focus deliverers. We were too interested in the details of local government. And we too often spoke to the electorate not as liberals but as locals.

My proposed solution was that:

…in order to succeed we need to get better at mobilising voters around identities other than locality.

I was thinking about how the party relates to the electorate. But an interesting post by Mark Pack suggests the same could be said of how it interacts with its membership.

He observes that in the business world there’s been a shift away from supplying products through local branches. Think of how Amazon et al have battered Bricks and Mortar retailers. Yet there’s been much little change in the political world that he jokingly speculates that parties are perhaps taking Woolworths as their role model.

Some local connection clearly is…useful – as we saw by its absence in 2010 when a huge Facebook community grew up in the wake of Cleggmania but translated into very little extra vote-winning activity in marginal seats.

But is “some ” really “to such a great extent as to justify the dominance of geographically based local parties”? For example, new members of the party get welcomed by the central party – and welcomed increasingly well with the ramping up of membership cards, welcome packs, introductory events and initial phone calls over the last few years. Yet the only other element is to put them in touch with their local party even though we know that the quality of local parties when it comes to welcoming new people and getting them more active is not only highly variable but also often not up to scratch at all.

Imagine a world instead where the habits of geographic organisation didn’t grip minds quite so tightly and there was a dual structure: the local geographic party and a national (regional?) electronic social community with new people welcomed into both – and the latter picking up more of the work for people living in areas with weaker parties or for people who simply aren’t that rooted in the place they are temporarily living.

It’s instructive to see what happens if you don’t have a postal address to give the party. I moved out of a house in Oxford I was renting with friends back in July. I now live in another shared house but this one is in Hanoi. The corruption and inefficiency of the Vietnamese postal service means that the only way for the party to send me a physical letter would be to put an activist on a plane and have them deliver it themselves. This state of affairs seems to discombobulate membership services. A lot of processes are predicated on the fact things can be posted to you and that you can be assigned to a local party. However, in my case they can’t be and there isn’t one. So they’ve responded by pretending I still live in Oxford. I recently got an email telling me that my leadership ballot was going to be sent to my Oxford address, even though by this point they’d been told three times (twice by me and once by Royal Mail) that I’d moved!

Irritating members living overseas is not a big problem: we are few in number and assuming we don’t have the potential to be large donors there’s not much we can actually do to help. It’s more of a worry that a lot of volunteer energy is expended on sustaining local parties that don’t do a great deal. Producing accounts, holding executive meetings and the like takes time but only indirectly contributes towards campaigning. In many (perhaps most) local parties this kind of internal bureaucracy becomes an exercise in allowing people to feel they are being useful rather in actually achieving anything.

I suspect that our present local branch-centric model is too ingrained to be changed quickly. So I wonder if as an interim measure, the party could waste less of its activists time by merging local parties.There’s surely no good reason that a group of five local parties that each have a membership of 20 or 30 people each have to find someone to dragoon into being their treasurer and producing set of accounts that mostly only show that they are neither raising nor spending much money. I gather this has already been done in some cities. I would suggest extending this by setting a minimum size for local parties and requiring any constituencies that fall below it to merge with a neighbour.

Praising Magna Carta, burying the Human Rights Act

How a mythical version of Magna Carta is being used to undermine real human rights.

Magna Carta – more often invoked than understood

The Onion, with its typical brilliance, once concocted the headline “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be” for the satirical story of

self-described American patriot Kyle Mortensen, 47,….whose understanding of the Constitution derives not from a close reading of the document but from talk-show pundits, books by television personalities, and the limitless expanse of his own colorful imagination. “It’s time for true Americans to stand up and protect the values that make us who we are.

And thinks:

…the most serious threat to his fanciful version of the 222-year-old Constitution is the attempt by far-left “traitors” to strip it of its religious foundation.

“Right there in the preamble, the authors make their priorities clear: ‘one nation under God,'” said Mortensen, attributing to the Constitution a line from the Pledge of Allegiance, which itself did not include any reference to a deity until 1954. “Well, there’s a reason they put that right at the top.

In Britain, we don’t have a codified constitution to reimagine in line with our ideological prejudices. But we do have Magna Carta. And instead of Kyle Mortensen, we have David Cameron, who will say:

… the world was changed for ever when King John put his seal to Magna Carta. “The limits of executive power, guaranteed access to justice, the belief that there should be something called the rule of law, that there shouldn’t be imprisonment without trial – Magna Carta introduced the idea that we should write these things down and live by them.

But that:

“…here in Britain ironically, the place where those ideas were first set out, the good name of human rights has sometimes been distorted and devalued. It falls to us in this generation to restore the reputation of those rights – and their critical underpinning of our legal system. It is our duty to safeguard the legacy, the idea, the momentous achievement of those barons. And there couldn’t be a better time to reaffirm that commitment than on an anniversary like this.”

The legal journalist David Allen Green dissects this peculiar British habit of praising Magna Carta whilst disdaining the human right instruments that are actually in effect. Drawing on a speech by Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption he observes that the document itself was toothless, irrelevant and short-lived. It was essentially forgotten until propagandists in the age of the Stuarts began using it as a basis for their contemporary claims:

“No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right”.

It is heady stuff, and it should be read aloud, perhaps to Purcell or Elgar.

But read it again carefully, and you will see it says little which is concrete at all. For as Sumption and others have pointed out, its meaning is essentially circular: you shall only be treated by the law under the “law of the land”.  it tells you nothing about what that law should be.  And if the “law of the land” includes, say, an unfettered royal prerogative or other unlimited executive powers, then it offers no protection whatsover; and it didn’t.  It was – and remains – a platitude, a slogan.

And so, the advances in “liberal” protections for the individual in English legal history – the writs of habeas corpus or the rulings against unrestricted warrants – came in unrelated legal developments, none of which depended on Magna Carta.

In fact, for a supposedly fundamental document, there is little to see of its “fundamental” effect: few, if any, cases have ever turned on it.  Although it is often invoked in passing, it lacks the live and real effect of an actual constitutional instrument.  Compare this impotence with the entitlements in the US Bill of Rights, which make actual differences to US citizens every day.

But, but….

But, so what?  Magna Carta is symbolic, isn’t it? And isn’t symbolism important?

So used are many people to thinking Magna Carta is a Good Thing they are displeased at hearing anything about it other than praise.  Don’t you understand, they will ask, that Magna Carta is symbolic?

Symbolism is important. And what Magna Carta is symbolic of is not a great English constitutional principle, but the lack of one.  It symbolises the capacity of people to nod-along at being told they have fictional and non-existent rights instead of having rights which can actually be enforced.  It symbolises that people are content with believing in fairy tales.

Those with political and legal power know this.  It is safe for the government to want you to celebrate Magna Carta, which you cannot rely on in court, whilst it – for example – seeks to repeal the Human Rights Act, which you can.

Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you, asked Tony Hancock.  Sadly, to the extent it matters, Magna Carta means almost nothing at all.

Now, one could be cynical about Cameron wrapping himself in Magna Carta; he has to talk about Magna Carta for the same reason communist East Germany had to call itself ‘the German Democratic Republic’. I’m inclined to be more generous and see it instead as an example of widespread naivety on the right. They think liberty is intrinsic to Britishness: just look at our history of respecting  freedoms that stretches all the way back to Magna Carta!

One can see this assumption that the British of all people don’t need need onerous human rights standards in the regularity with which opponents of the ECHR observe that it was originally intended to stop the rise of another Hitler and therefore should not possibly be affecting a country like Britain. Indeed, I once heard a Conservative friend argue that it was safe to scrap the Human Rights Act because “it wasn’t like we weren’t free before it passed”.

This is a supremely complacent reading of history. It arises from the conservative proclivity for reducing the word to simplistic binaries: there are free nations and then there are tyrannies. In fact, free nations can act most tyrannically. For example, the US Senate’s report on the use of torture found that amongst other atrocities, detainees had pureed food pumped it into their anuses.

Some of the victims of these cruelties found themselves in Black Sites due to collusion by British authorities. And lest we forget we used torture ourselves in Northern Ireland, in our colonies and even during our proudest moment: WWII.

Sadly, this is not an exception. Britain has a long history not only of freedom but also of oppression. We were the nation that invented concentration camps. British soldiers massacred hundreds of peaceful protestors on a single day in India. The victim’s relatives did not have the option that Baha Moussa’s family did of taking Britain to the ECHR. Or closer to home, we might note that marital rape only became a crime in Britain in 1991. There is thus nothing about being British that makes us impervious to the temptation to abuse and degrade.

That means we need those instruments that entrench a culture of human rights. It is good that we that through the ECHR, we are part of a community of nations that challenge each other to uphold human rights. And it is desirable that the Human Rights Act makes it easier to bring challenges by allowing them to be heard in British courts rather than a massively backlogged one in Strasbourg. Neither Magna Carta specifically nor our history generally gives us any right to imagine we are above such things.

Christopher Lee reads ‘the Raven’

It’s quite hard to find a pithy way to sum up the late great Christopher Lee. Such a long and busy life resists being boiled down to a few words. What expression sums up a man who was variously a thespian, musician working in a number of genres including heavy metal, soldier, national treasure, spy, nerd icon, the definitive Dracula and Frankenstein, pilot, Bond villain, hunter of Nazi war criminals, linguist and Commander of the Venerable Order of Saint John?

It’s probably better to let his work speak for itself. In the clip below he lends his wonderfully gothic voice to a gothic classic, Edgar Allen Poe’s the Raven.