‘Liberal Christianity and sex’ revisited

 

You know how you were just telling me that you really wanted a follow-up to that post about liberal christianity’s unhealthy silence on sex and relationships I wrote back in 2013?

You know the one that said:

For a number of years, I’ve been attending various churches whose congregations would broadly be described as liberal. During that time I have heard sex mentioned once in a service. That was to admonish a preacher for using a wedding service as an opportunity to preach about abstinence before marriage. To be fair, that’s because the churches I’ve attended tended to be quiet and conflicted about their liberalism. Even those that are more assertive – like the church whose signs I blogged about earlier this week – tend to define their views negatively, asserting their differences from other Christians rather than discussing what they do believe. This reticence to discuss sex stands not only in contrast to an increasingly sexualised secular culture, but also to evangelicals and Roman Catholics who tend to be willing to opine that sex should only be within heterosexual marriage.

To the extent that liberal Christianity has a message it’s tolerance, but this is a very limited view. A hesitance to condemn is right but an outright refusal to do so is not. “Judge not lest the be judged” does not mean one cannot judge but that one must be prepared to live up to the standards you demand of others. Liberal Christians do not preach tolerance alone in other matters and are generally quite prepared to pass judgement on bigotry, greed and damage to the environment. And if you consider sex a subject uniquely immune to judgement, then may I ask you about your views on rape? Or if that seems an extreme example, may I ask if you’ve never been angered by a love rat? There is as much – perhaps even more – scope for people to be hurt where sex is involved as when it is not, and so we have to be ready call out people (including and especially ourselves) who do not “love their neighbour.” More fundamentally, while a call to tolerance can guide how we view the actions of others it is a useless guide to our own actions. Liberal Christians might not think that gay vs. straight is a matter of morality but we really ought to decide what is.

Of course, no one actually asked me for a follow-up to that. However, WordPress’s stats page tells me, that it is a surprisingly well read post even to this day. Plenty of people find it through google, which kind of proves my point. There is clearly a demand for liberal christian answers to these questions, and the supply is so meagre that people are finding their way to the blog of a nobody, who ironically doesn’t even provide any answers of his own. I concluded the post saying that for all my certainty that we needed positive suggestions, I had little idea what they might be.

Fortunately, the American journalist Conor Friedersdorf has actually come up with some. In an excellent article – that is nonetheless burdened with the mediocre title “When ‘Do Unto Others’ Meets Hookup Culture” – he presents the case I wish I had known how to make. When I first read it, I felt like I was seeing my own post in a reverse carnival mirror: he’d made clear and crisp things that I’d left messy and distorted. I was particularly impressed that he’d express ideas I’d voiced as regrets, but as something constructive.

While I would recommend reading the whole article, the heart of Friedersdorf’s argument can be found in an address he imagines a fictional pastor delivering to a hypothetical group of university freshers:

Christianity prohibits certain things, like murder and stealing and adultery. But I want to talk today about something that Jesus calls on his believers to do. He teaches us to love one another, to be good to one another, to treat others as we’d want to be treated. Christians aren’t alone in preaching that code. I raise it today in part because I expect you all already agree with it. And if you do agree that we have a responsibility to be good to one another, I’d ask one favor: As you proceed through this college, bear that obligation in mind! Do so even when you’re deciding how to live your sexual lives here. Doesn’t that sound like it’s the right thing to do? But of course, it isn’t always easy.

The dean of students talked to you about consent. By law and the rules of this campus, you need consent to be intimate with anyone. I want to remind you of something: If we’re truly trying to be good to one another, consent just isn’t enough. Maybe there’s a person who has a huge crush on you. You’re at a party. Maybe you’ve had a beer or two, and in the moment, kissing that person would be a lot of fun. But you know, deep down, that you don’t share the same feelings they have for you—that if you kiss, you’ll be leading them on, and they’ll be all the more hurt tomorrow or the next day when you’re not interested anymore. You have their consent. You want to kiss in the moment—but you don’t, because you decide it’s more important to be good to them.

Say you’re dating someone. And you want to have sex with this person. They consent without being pressured. Yet you can’t help but sense that they’re not ready for intercourse. You understand this is a big decision with many physical and emotional consequences. And so, to be good to them, you hold off, despite their consent. You err on the side of caution, even though you’d rather go ahead.

What I take away from this is the notion that our moral duty goes beyond asking if someone is consenting. We must consider their welfare in the round. Which is not in any way to diminish the necessity of consent – why it is so important should be very obvious just at the moment – but to argue that it is not sufficient. It’s presence, even in its most robust form, merely demonstrates that you are not committing an assault, and we should all be aiming to clear a much higher ethical bar than that. There are ways to harm people other than violence, and before we have relations with someone, we are honour bound to check we are not about to perpetrate any of them.

Friedersdorf acknowledges that his guideline does not generally produce definitive answers:

I don’t pretend that confronting these situations with the question, “How can I be good to others?” will lead all of you to the same answers, let alone to my answers…

Nonetheless, I would suggest that thinking this way does lead to at least one blanket prohibition. I cannot see a way that it allows for casual relationships. Which is not to say all such relationships are harmful. However, it seems to me, that you cannot know if you are going to harm someone, without first knowing them pretty well. Something to ponder perhaps?

 

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6 Ragnarok reactions

N.B: Unless you’re REALLY spoiler-phobic this post should be ok for you!

1 – I liked it a lot. It’s funny, exuberant and inventive. It’s the MCU turned up to 11.

2 – It is by far the best Thor film to date. A large scale purge of the supporting characters pays off. While obviously very accomplished as actors, the likes of Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Stellan Skarsgard always seemed uncomfortable being in these films. Their replacements punch their way into Ragnarok already embracing their OTT camp glory. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie feels ready to join the main Avenger’s line-up from the get-go. And if we can see Taika Waititi’s Korg or Jeff Goldblum’s grandmaster again that would be great. Obviously that could be in another Thor sequel, but they both seem like they’d fit-in well in a GOTG adventure.

3 – Casting Cate Blanchett as the villain serves to illustrate the difference between a good actor and a great one. Marvel villains have generally been uninspiring. Even capable actors struggle to do much with their generic objectives and motivations, modest screentime and clunky dialogue. Blanchett doesn’t so much overcome those hurdles as devour them. The likes of Lee Pace and even Mads Mikkelsen struggle when their characters get into full flow: they need to deliver dire declamations with conviction, without seeming silly. Blanchett needn’t worry. Her performance is hammed up to a level beyond the pantomime, but even at Hela’s most overwrought, Blachett inhabits her, such that you never wind up questioning, a character who on even cursory examination is totally ludicrous. This video illustrates the point rather well.

#Thorsday 101 – What is Ragnarok?

A post shared by Marvel Entertainment (@marvel) on

4 – Ragnarok has a decidedly antipodean flavour. It was filmed in Australia, its director is a Kiwi, and much of the cast is from that part of the world. That helps make it feel distinct from the rest of the MCU. I felt that was reflected in a humour that’s a bit looser and more than the hyperverbal Whedony quipping you get in most Marvel movies. Not that I mind hyperverbal Whedony quipping, but some variety is pleasant. [Edit: put it this way. Marvel dialogue is generally very coffee. Ragnarok is more larger]

5 – The synth heavy score is exactly what this movie needs.

6 – If I had to find fault with Ragnarok, I would be point-out that:

  • he action scenes look cool but nothing more. I never really became invested in what was happening in them. Instead I’d enjoy the spectacle whilst waiting to return to the characters interacting entertainingly.
  • It takes about 20 mins to really click into gear. Doctor Strange’s inclusion felt unearned.
  • Idris Elba remains chronically underused, and Hiddleston feels sidelined to an extent that is suprising given the popularity of his character.

But honestly, I was having a riot, so none of this really bothered me.

7 – I am conflicted about the trailers. They stepped on many of the best moments, but were also really entertaining in their own right.

Meritocracy for thee, a leg-up for me: conservatism and the academy

What right-wingers usually think of positive discrimination

As a general rule people on the right tend not to like so-called ‘positive discrimination’. Take this op-ed from America’s most venerable conservative magazine, the National Review:

Excellence should be celebrated wherever it is found, and affirmative action policies undermine colleges’ ability to search for it.

Or the British conservative columnist Toby Young on getting more working class students from state schools into the UK’s top universities:

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that universities should not lower the bar for state school applicants because that would effectively be sending a message to state schools that they can never be as good as independent schools. Rather, they should have the same expectations of all their applicants, regardless of their educational background, and encourage state schools to compete with private schools on a level playing field.

A double standard

However, there is one group that many right-wingers are comfortable demanding university’s show a special preference towards: themselves.

Take this example from the US:

A bill in the Iowa Senate seeks to achieve greater political diversity among professors at the state’s Board of Regents universities. Senate File 288 would institute a hiring freeze until the number of registered Republicans and Democrats on the university faculty fall within 10 percent of each other.

“I’m under the understanding that right now they can hire people because of diversity,” said the bill’s author, Sen. Mark Chelgren, R[epublican]-Ottumwa. “They want to have people of different thinking, different processes, different expertise. So this would fall right into category with what existing hiring practices are.

This is an unusually stark proposal, but its subtext has been around for decades. In 1951, the National Review’s founder wrote a book called God and Man at Yale that argued that the curriculum of the famous university was biased in favour of liberalism and atheism. Since then universities have regularly been a been targets of conservative attacks on America’s coastal elites. As far back as 1989, the first President Bush attacked his Democrat opponent for having ‘the views of the Harvard Yard.’

As these things tend to, that idea has now made its way across the Atlantic. And we get outpourings like this:

캡처

Do not mistake discernment for discrimination

The unexamined assumption underlying these accusations of bias is that universities – or rather the staff and students they are constituted from – should be treating all views equally. In fact, the opposite is true. While I deplore attempts to exclude views from universities through coercion, it is a natural part of how academia works that some ideas will first be attacked and then ignored. It would be absurd for universities to, for example, provide balance between mainstream earth scientists and flat earthers.

As Robert C. Post, a Yale Law professor, recently wrotes for Vox, universities exist precisely in order to help society discern which views have merit and those which don’t. As Post notes the people who make up a university simply can’t fulfill that function without giving greater prominence and respect to certain ideas than to others:

…universities can and must engage in content discrimination all the time. subject my students to constant content discrimination. If I am teaching a course on constitutional law, my students had better discuss constitutional law and not the World Series.

Professors are also subject to continual content discrimination in their teaching and their research. If I am hired to teach mathematics, I had better spend my class time talking about my equations and not the behavior of President Donald Trump. If I am being considered for tenure or for a grant, my research will be evaluated for its quality and its potential impact on my discipline. Universities, public or private, could not function if they could not make judgments based on content.

Critically scrutinising an idea like ‘Brexit is a desirable outcome’ fits with that mission. It is definitely the sort of thing university humanities and social science departments should be doing. The purpose of that enquiry is not necessarily to pass a singular judgement on the idea. However, if the majority of academics who look into it, come away unimpressed, then that does reflect poorly on the idea.

The closing of the conservative mind

Now confronted with this judgement, people who hold that idea dear have two basic responses. These are the same options that anyone confronted with criticism has. They can take the criticism on board and try to use it to help improve. Or they can get defensive and begin to deny its validity. Or put more metaphorically, you can either get mad with the bathroom scales, or try to eat better and do more exercise.

Not all right-wingers are of the yelling at the scales variety. For example, the conservative MP David Willetts changed his mind about whether income inequality was a problem in response to a pretty consistent finding by social epidemiologists that it was. And clearly, being reluctant to update your views in the face of contrary evidence is not something only people on the right do. There are examples, of it occurring on the left too. Indeed, it is probably something everyone does at some point. However, at the present moment in the US and the UK, it does seem more prevalent amongst conservatives. Take for example, attitudes to science:

A 54 percent majority of Democrats, compared with just 13 percent of Republicans, say they have “a lot” of trust that what scientists say is accurate and reliable. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 75 percent of Republicans trust scientists at least “a little,” with 5 percent of Democrats and 15 percent of Republicans saying they don’t trust them at all.

As Ezra Klein has noted, whilst causes like climate change denial have become mainstream amongst Republicans, Democrats have largely managed to resist buying into anti-science messages – such as on GMOs – that might appeal to left-wing inclined voters.

The difference is that conservatism’s mistrust of climate science has taken over the Republican Party — even politicians like Mitt Romney and John McCain have gone wobbly on climate science — while liberalism’s allergy to messing with nature hasn’t had much effect on the Democratic Party. And part of the reason is that the validators liberals look to on scientifically contested issues have refused to tell them what they want to hear.

Klein thinks the emergence of scientists like Bill Nye and Neil De Grasse Tyson as liberal opinion formers is especially important in this regard.

This dynamic is appears less severe in the UK. Perhaps for that reason, it has received less quantitative study. At least that I can find! Nonetheless, you still see signs of it. While prominent scientists and science popularisers, like David Attenborough and Brian Cox have voiced progressive views and opposition to Brexit, climate change denial has become mainstream amongst both Conservative MPs and their allies in the press. Indeed, the power within the British right of tabloid newspapers that combine reactionary politics, a penchant for pseudoscience, and a generally loose attitude to accuracy makes it kind of inevitable.

The mirage of ‘politically correct’ bias

Now it would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the possibility that there is real bias in academia and research. Sometimes your bathroom scales are broken, and sometimes universities favour ideas for reasons other than them being more truthful. This issue is probably clearest with regards to funding. For example, we almost certainly think the average medication is more effective than it is, because many clinical trials are funded by the people who make those medicines. Right-wingers have a theory for why academia might be biased against them. Universities are in the grip of a form of ‘politically correct’ groupthink. Academics do not want to voice conservative views, lest they incur the disapproval of their left-wing colleagues and students.

I find this unconvincing because:

  • It does not account for why left-wing ideas would have become dominant in the first place. If right-wing arguments were coherent and well evidenced wouldn’t they have become the dominant ones with which it is risky to disagree.
  • Many academics do produce work with ‘right-wing’ conclusions such as that children typically do better if their parents are married rather than cohabiting, tax increases being bad for economic growth or immigration depressing wages.
  • There is a well-funded ecosystem of media and think tanks promoting right-wing ideas that should not only foster ideas that could make their wake into academia. Plus that same funding could be directly applied to funding academic research.
  • The conservative tendency to pick fights with research applies as much to what are essentially empirical questions as ones that centre on values.
  • In academia as in many fields, being confirmist lowers not only risks, but also rewards. The most celebrated researchers tend to be iconoclasts, who overturn recieved wisdom. Therefore if academia generally ziggs left, there are incentives for individual academics to zag to the right.

All of which makes me think that the reason that right-wing ideas find so little support in academia is that they mostly don’t stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Instead of engaging in the hard, boring work of coming up with proposals that account for uncomfortable information, contemporary conservatism has chosen the easy comforts of conspiracy theories and tribal epistimology. ‘Alternative facts‘ are treated as if they are as good as the real thing. Institutions that raise questions about the movement’s proposals – including but not limited to academia, the media and the judiciary – have their legitimacy questioned. Rather than coming up with a conservative solution to the problem of climate change – probably the gravest one currently facing the world – many conservatives have opted to pretend it isn’t happening. The Brexit campaign was marked by claims that sounded just about plausible to a voter with a modest amount of attention to devote the the subject, but not to anyone able to study it in any kind of depth. We were told that the UK could save itself millions of pounds in budget contributions that had already been remitted back to us. Likewise we were warned that the UK didn’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU, even though the treaty article governing the accession of new member states explicitly says that it can only happen if exist members including the UK “shall act unanimously” in support of it. Michael Gove’s notorious assertion that “Britons have had enough of experts” may have been true of the country, but it was definitely true of a campaign that had many reasons to face focused scrutiny, including from academia.

Role-models

The sad part about contemporary conservatives developing such disdain for universities, is that they are attacking the very places that previously incubated many of the most important right-wing ideas. Here are some examples:

  • It is hard to imagine the Thatcher revolution, and the monetarist economic policies which accomponied it, without the work of the Nobel Prize winning economists Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Indeed, legend has it that Thatcher once interupted a presentation she felt misrepresented conservative thinking, by slamming one of Hayek’s books on the table and declaring this is what we believe!
  • Michael Oakeshott wrote his philosophical defences of a conservative disposition as a professor at the LSE.
  • Henry Kissinger went from Harvard to being Nixon’s most important foreign policy advisor.
  • The first generation of neoconservatives relied heavily on the work of Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell, and his critiques of sixties counter-culture.
  • The concept of Broken Windows policing – espoused most famously by Rudy Giuliani – was first developed by two Harvard criminologists, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling.
  • Public choice theory, the notion that you could use the tools of microeconomics to study the public sector as well as private markets, is relied on by many scholars from across the political spectrum. However, it was originally developed by conservatives working as academic economists, who were looking for a tool with which to critique the expansion of welfare programs. They included James M. Buchanan who would win a Nobel Prize for his work.

Take your own medicine

That the right has largely disengaged itself from that kind of serious academic work has hurt it. I don’t think it is a co-incidence that Thatcher and Reagan came in with a clear program they could implement, whilst the Brexiteers and Trumpians are flailing incoherently. Had either group engaged seriously with academics who work on public policy, they would almost certainly have been better prepared for the challenges they faced.

Thus the conservative movement would not benefit from positive discrimination in academia. Quotas for right leaning academics and attempts to root out imaginary ‘liberal’ bias, would just make the right even more intellectually lazy than it currently is. Instead it must practice itself, the message of tough love it preaches to others. Rather than asserting that they have a right to the respect of academia, right-wingers should set out to earn it. The way to do that is with good ideas backed up by convincing evidence and cogent arguments. The likes of Hayek, Oakeshott and Kissinger did that in the past. If their heirs cannot do that in the present, the fault is their own, not academia’s.

 

Blade Runner 2049: seven observations of mine

1.

It’s good. Really good. Better than the original, in fact. It has the same haunting, unsettling quality. The same feeling of a universe that is lived in. The same ability to provoke uncomfortable questions. And visuals that are if anything even more stunning. Yet it also improves on it. The narrative has a clearer direction, the pacing is tighter and more even, and there are shorter gaps between action scenes. That adds to the excitement without detracting from anything else.

2.

Notwithstanding point 1, I don’t think Blade Runner 2049 will become an icon in the same way as its predecessor. That is partly an inevitable result of the fact that Blade Runner’s influence is now baked into popular culture. Blade Runner 2049 was never going to be able to execute a similar paradigm shift, because the very fact it is a sequel means it operates within an existing paradigm. Therefore, it cannot become the same kind of landmark in film history.

That said I think 2049 lacks something else that made the first one a classic, and it’s something it – at least in theory – could have delivered. The reason why one film becomes an icon and another doesn’t is generally not their totality. We cannot remember a whole film. Instead what stays with us is usually their most compelling moments. So, an icon status often stems from particular scenes. The kind that get seared in your brain if you’ve seen them and feel familiar even if you haven’t. It also helps if they have dialogue you can quote. The first Blade Runner absolutely had that in the final rooftop confrontation between Deckard and Roy Batty. I don’t think 2049 does. That said, this is one of those things where we have to wait for time to tell, before saying for certain. After all, Blade Runner initially appeared to have fallen flat, and only came to be viewed as a classic later. Maybe on reflection, one moment of 2049 will come to sum up the brilliance of the whole film. I’m not sure though.

3.

Denis Villeneuve seems a lot like the new Christopher Nolan. That’s partly because their films look similar and have similar tones. More importantly, however, they both make smart, complicated, thought provoking pieces of art that work for a mass audience.

I also sense that we’ve yet to see Villeneuve’s Dark Knight or Dunkirk. I await that masterpiece with barely contained excitement.

4.

I regret that Jóhann Jóhannsson didn’t get to score it. Hans Zimmer does perfectly good work but it is very much what we’ve come to expect from him and his imitators. Villeneuve and Jóhannsson seem to have a Spielberg/Williams (and indeed Nolan/Zimmer) style synergy and I suspect that them working together again might have produced something more memorable.

5.

This is a rare film that uses the ‘born sexy yesterday’ trope without indulging it. It is not only conscious of the fact that the idea is creepy but consciously uses it.

6.

2049’s being released just months after the very Blade Runnery live action remake of Ghost in the Shell does underline how much of a failure that film was. Mr Sunday Movies accurately described it as ‘the poor man’s Blade Runner, and also the poor man’s Ghost in the Shell.

7.

Blade Runner 2049 and Westworld (TV series) would make great companion pieces. They have similar themes and a shared ambition, but a different approach and feel.

blade2.png

Self-determination is overrated [Repost]

Barcelona_in_Parc_Güell

Dark clouds over Barcelon (Source)

In March 2014, against the backdrop of impending referendums in Crimea and Scotland, about why claims of a right to secede grounded in self-determination are problematic. Given the current crisis in Catalonia, I felt the argument was worth revisiting:

In a few days the Crimea will go to the polls in a referendum on whether to join the Russian federation. Leaving aside the difficulty of conducting a free and fair election in a region under military occupation, even if a majority of the population in the Crimea legitimately did wish to join Russia this would not in and of itself be enough to legitimate the annexation. For good reasons international law balances the right of a people to self-determination with respect for the territorial integrity of nations.

History furnishes another of good examples of where self-determination was clearly a noxious doctrine. Perhaps most notably the South’s bid for independence during the American Civil War was justified in terms of self-determination. However, virtually everyone would now accept this demand was trumped by concerns for the territorial integrity of the US and the human rights of slaves.

One of the best expositions of the legal issues involved in questions of self-determination comes from an opiniondelivered in 1996 by the Canadian Supreme Court.* It was asked to deliver a judgement on whether Quebec could unilaterally secede from Canada by voting to do so in a referendum. They argued that international law gave them no such right:

[A] right to secession only arises under the principle of self-determination of people at international law where “a people” is governed as part of a colonial empire; where “a people” is subject to alien subjugation, domination or exploitation; and possibly where “a people” is denied any meaningful exercise of its right to self-determination within the state of which it forms a part.  In other circumstances, peoples are expected to achieve self-determination within the framework of their existing state.  A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self‑determination in its internal arrangements, is entitled to maintain its territorial integrity under international law and to have that territorial integrity recognized by other states.  Quebec does not meet the threshold of a colonial people or an oppressed people, nor can it be suggested that Quebecers have been denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development.  In the circumstances, the “National Assembly, the legislature or the government of Quebec” do not enjoy a right at international law to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.

To see why this is almost certainly the right- as opposed to merely the legally correct – position consider the Supreme Court’s Judgement on what allowing unilateral secession would do to the principles underlying the Canadian constitution:

Quebec could not, despite a clear referendum result, purport to invoke a right of self-determination to dictate the terms of a proposed secession to the other parties to the federation.  The democratic vote, by however strong a majority, would have no legal effect on its own and could not push aside the principles of federalism and the rule of law, the rights of individuals and minorities, or the operation of democracy in the other provinces or in Canada as a whole.  Democratic rights under the Constitution cannot be divorced from constitutional obligations.  Nor, however, can the reverse proposition be accepted: the continued existence and operation of the Canadian constitutional order could not be indifferent to a clear expression of a clear majority of Quebecers that they no longer wish to remain in Canada.  The other provinces and the federal government would have no basis to deny the right of the government of Quebec to pursue secession should a clear majority of the people of Quebec choose that goal, so long as in doing so, Quebec respects the rights of others.  The negotiations that followed such a vote would address the potential act of secession as well as its possible terms should in fact secession proceed.  There would be no conclusions predetermined by law on any issue.  Negotiations would need to address the interests of the other provinces, the federal government and Quebec and indeed the rights of all Canadians both within and outside Quebec, and specifically the rights of minorities.

This could be applied to the Crimea in a number of ways. In particular, we should be concerned about what happens to minority populations like the ethnic Ukrainians and Tartars if the province is annexed to Russia.

However, these matters are relevant far beyond the Crimea. For example, they raise questions about the validity of claims for independence by wealthy regions (such as Northern Italy or Catalonia) who resent supporting their poorer compatriots. Therefore, I have sympathy for Madrid’s refusal to recognise the legitimacy of the proposed referendum in Catalonia.

And while I believe that a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum should be respected, the path to independence would still require negotiation. This means that statements from the SNP about what will happen after independence need to be treated with caution. They cannot dictate the terms on which it will happen and London will have its own objectives in any negotiations.

Self-determination is just one value and it is not (and should not) be some kind of trump card. It has value when it makes democracy possible. However, it is not a valid way for groups to avoid the impact of democratic decisions that have gone against them.

Hat tip: http://opiniojuris.org/2014/03/10/ukraine-insta-symposium-crimea-ukraine-russia-self-determination-intervention-international-law/

Postscript (september 2017):

Looking back after more than three years, I feel confident in my negative assessment of the referendum in the Crimea. Not only does the poll itself appear to have been a sham, but it proved to be the first stage in a broader attack on Ukraine’s independence and integrity. The conflict that followed has claimed thousands of lives so far.

I am less confident applying these arguments to the current crisis in Catalonia. I have only a cursory knowledge of Spanish politics and could easily see myself discovering things that change my assessment of the situation.

However, my strong inclination is that the assertion that Catalonia has the right either to secede or hold a referendum on that question are mistaken. The Catalans are not the subjects of a colonial regime. Instead they are citizens of a democracy in which they enjoy the right to participate in government, and their region overratedhas significant autonomy.

As no right to secede or hold a referendum on the topic arises from international law, one would have to look for such a right in Spanish domestic law. As the nation’s constitutional court has ruled that the law authorising the Catalan government’s proposed referendum was illegal, I infer that no such right is found there either.

If a regional government is acting unconstitutionally – and has been found by the judiciary to be acting thus – then it does not seem unreasonable in the slightest for a central government to step in and uphold the rule of law. The accusations that this is ‘dictatorial’ or even ‘fascistic’ seem overblown to the point of absurdity.

 

See also:

Let’s ban referendums and Jihad or Jenga? which explore how the adverse consequences of secessionism and referendums spiraled out of control during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

What I learned from being Vince Cable’s intern

Photo with Vince

I have almost certainly written more letters and emails as Vince Cable than I have as myself. Back in late 2006/early 2007, I spent four months of my gap year as an intern in his Westminster office. My main job was to draft replies to correspondence for him. Me and another intern would print out our drafts, so there was a big pile of them for him to either sign or make amendments to when he came into the office.

That does not make me a close confidant of his or anything approaching it.

Dozens of other people will have filled the same role since I did. I have spoken to him

So what did I learn from working for the new Lib Dem leader?

 

His public persona is pretty close to the one he presents in a professional setting

If you are expecting anything shocking from this post, you are going to be disappointed. Basically, nothing I saw him do or say jarred with the impression I’d formed from seeing him on the telly.

If you ‘judge a man by how he treats his waiter’ then the judgement on the new Lib Dem leader is positive.

Researchers, interns and caseworkers are the proverbial waiters of Westminster. I heard stories of them being yelled at, given impossible instructions and expected to do strange things unrelated to their job description. Indeed, the waiter comparison is not entirely figurative: one researcher apparently had to wait their boss’ dinner party.

However, none of these stories were about Vince. The people who worked for all seemed to like and respect him, and felt in turn that he respected them. I’d be lying if I said his employees never griped about him – that’s what employees do about their employers – however, the tone of these complaints tended to be affectionate rather than seriously aggrieved, more like pointing out a foible than anything else.

Having a rather distant relationship with technology does not prevent you becoming the Cabinet minister responsible for it

Of those foibles, the one that stands out in my memory is his relationship to technology. I recall another member of staff saying with mild exasperation that ‘he theoretically understands what you can do with computers, but not how’.

The best symbol of this attitude was probably his mobile phone, which he’d kept despite it being several years old, and having a cracked screen, because ‘he knew how to use it’.

This seems rather ironic given that he went on to be Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills which had responsibility for science and technology. He was by all accounts pretty good at that aspect of the job, so maybe specific subject knowledge isn’t all that important a quality in a minister.

Delegation is the heart of good management

His attitude to both his Westminster and Twickenham offices seemed to be to pick people he liked and trusted to run them, and let them get on with it.

Politicians should emphasise common ground (even with people they disagree with)

As an awkward but ‘intellectually self-assured’ teenager my inclination was to reply to emails expressing illiberal views with a forthright explanation of why the correspondent was mistaken. When Vince rewrote these letters, he’d not only tone them down, but also look for points on which he and letter writer did agree, and put them up top. This seemed to make our correspondents less defensive and more open to changing their minds.

It turns out that ‘to tell someone they’re wrong, first tell them how they’re right’ is a well-established approach that’s been discussed since at the 17th century, when the philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about it, and is now backed up by psychological research.

When I later read that Vince had met his second wife when she asked him a critical question about his views on farm subsidies at a Lib Dem event that didn’t surprise me all that much.

It is really hard to explain things to voters without talking down to them

Because Vince was at the time Shadow Chancellor, a lot of the messages I drafted were to do with economics. I had done an A-level in the subject and was going to study it at uni, so I had been reading an awful lot about it. Thus many of my answers, incorporated the kind of “imagine we both have three burgers and four bananas…” metaphors that are a staple of popular economics writing. Vince would invariably take them out again because they come across as patronising. Explaining positions on complicated issues like economic policy with clarity but without seeming like you are lecturing voters is really tough. Vince has that ability. Not many other people do.

I may still have a career as a ghost writer ahead of me

When I started my internship, the drafts I was writing would have been equally applicable to any Lib Dem MP. They would often come back with a note from Vince outlining a personal touch he wanted added to the final message.

By the end of the internship, I had seen hundreds of such notes, and more often than not I could add these ‘personal’ touches myself before Vince ever saw a draft. The example that springs to mind was beginning an email on the ivory trade with something like: ‘Having lived in Kenya for a number of years, I have a deep respect for these magnificent animals…’

Even if you ignore Vince’s political career, his life has been genuinely eventful

There was a lot of material for these personal asides. He came from a working-class family, he was the father of three children, his father disowned him for marrying someone who wasn’t white and it was years before they were reconciled, he lost his first wife to cancer, he was in the Ibrox stadium during the deadly stampede that killed 66 people, he worked for the Kenyan government, he was chief economist at Shell, and that was all before he was a contestant on Strictly!

The impact of your email to your MP has will be proportionate to the time you put into producing it

Most of the emails Vince received were the product of campaigns by pressure groups and charities. These generally involved getting people to put their name and email address into an online form that would then automatically generate an email to their MP. The result was that we got many identical emails. I remember one email, the sender of which had neglected to delete a line saying ‘<Add details of your personal experience here. It will make more impact on your MP if you do>’. Another came in with a note saying, ‘apologises for sending a standard email, I hope you won’t mind’. I was tempted to start the reply with ‘Not at all. I trust you will not mind receiving a standard reply’.

And that’s the problem with sending an MP the same email as a dozen other people. You will all get the same reply. Each additional message requires very little from the MP who receives it and its impact will be limited.

If you really care about an issue, compose your own unique email. It shows far more commitment than does typing your name and email into a website. Furthermore, it is very possible that your MP and his/her staff will produce a reply specifically your message. That involves them spending additional time thinking about the issue you raised. It’s obviously harder, but there’s a payoff to doing it.

There is a definite pre/post ‘Stalin to Mr Bean’ switch in how well-known Vince was

Before, during and for a few months after I did my internship, if people asked me which MP I had worked for, my answer would leave them blank. Then came Vince’s stint as interim Lib Dem leader and the PMQs that included his jibe that in just a few weeks, Gordon Brown had gone ‘from Stalin to Mr. Bean, creating chaos out of order, rather than order out of chaos.’*

Suddenly not only did anyone who read a broadsheet paper know who he was, but I enjoyed (unearned) kudos from my association. Strangely, the fury over the tuition fees hike – for which he was the Cabinet member responsible – only partially dented this.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8zlZU_Y_vE4

Vince was a remarkably diligent correspondent

I don’t know what the situation is like now, but in 2006/07 if you wrote Vince an email you would get a reply even if:

1) You didn’t live in Twickenham;

2) You were writing about something he couldn’t really help you with and in which he’d never taken a particular interest;

3) You weren’t clear about what you wanted; and

4) You weren’t polite about it.

Indeed, if you replied to that reply, you could find yourself exchanging multiple emails.

At the time, I didn’t understand why he devoted so much effort to randomers. My answer came a few years later, when Susan Kramer, then MP for a constituency that bordered Vince’s, came to speak to my university Lib Dem society. She recounted Vince telling her that shortly after he was first elected, a Labour MP who had been in parliament for ages, warned him against replying to letters because ‘it only encourages the bastards’. I now interpret Vince’s studious replying as the sign of a determination to be a very different kind of MP.

 

 

*Despite the brutality of that put down, my impression is that he actually respected and liked Brown.

The MCU ranked from best to worst

marvel_cinematic_universe_timeline_edit_2_by_bdwilder1-d9ydr0o

*Warning contains mild spoilers and copious anorakiness*

As I have now seen Spider-Man: Homecoming, now seems like an apt time to update my ranking of the films and TV shows in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

I fear that this will be the last time I am able to do something like this and have it still be comprehensive. The number of TV projects is escalating and I doubt I will be able to keep up.

So, for possibly the final time, let’s take this from worst to best:

#27 Iron Fist (2017)

Although the superhero genre is often criticised as homogenous and unimaginative, virtually all the films and shows on this list bring at least something distinctive to the table. Iron Fist is a sorry exception. It shows you nothing new. It could still have been ok if it was executed well, but it isn’t. The lead is miscast, the plot is diffuse and aimless, and for a series supposedly about martial arts it seems weirdly uninterested in them.

[Check out: Is Iron Fist as Bad as Everyone says?]

#26 The Incredible Hulk (2008)

About as dull as Iron Fist but since it is a film rather than a TV series, it mercifully feels far less interminable.

#25 Iron Man II (2010)

It’s all set up and no pay off. The filmmakers seem to have purposefully avoided anything too interesting lest that prevent them being able to use it later. Perhaps because of this, the story and script are a mess. It wastes Sam Rockwell (a serious crime) but gives us plenty of Gwyneth Paltrow (an even worse crime).

That said, it is the first time that the ambition of what Marvel was doing began to seem real, and the energy of Downey Jnr’s performance pushes along even this misjudged entry in the saga.

#24 Thor: The Dark World (2013)

This exemplifies a lot of the weakness of the MCU: generic villains, theoretically high-stakes that never feel real, a plot driven by MacGuffins, and CGI heavy battles that look like nothing. That said it does have the substantial redeeming feature of lots of scenes that involve Tom Hiddleston delivering dialogue written by Joss Whedon, which is a combination that really works!

#23 Thor (2011)

It has more plot and character development than the Dark World. Otherwise, the problems are similar.

#22 Agents of Shield [series 1] (2013)

For a long time, this series fell very flat: too much TV budget CGI, characters lacking in depth, an arc that seemed to go nowhere, and a tone that was too childish for the material. Sometimes it worked as dumb fun. More often it was just dumb.

Then two-thirds into its run, a development in the films forced the show to reconfigure itself for the better. It gained focus, became darker and ditched most of its dafter habits.

Still that poor two-thirds of a series ways it down a lot.

[Check out: Agents of Shield hits the ground strolling and My agents of shield wish list]

#21 Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

This was the first film to hint that Marvel could do smarter things with the MCU. The by no means straightforward evolution of Steve Rodgers into Captain America is well played with nice twists, like how the military’s first instinct is to use him for propaganda. The best part, however, is Hayley Atwell managing to elevate Peggy Carter from a generic supporting role to the core of the film. However it gets the basics wrong and largely falls flat as a result. The actions scenes are bland beyond words. As a result, the film actually tails off as it reaches its climax.

#20 Iron Man (2008)

Ignoring what it started, this is an efficiently done but mostly generic sci-fi action film. While Downey Jnr is very good as an anti-hero morphing into a hero – and Bridges is a decent villain – it is apparent with hindsight that the Iron Man films have the weakest supporting characters of any strand of the MCU.

#19 Jessica Jones [season 1] (2015)

This should have been way higher than it is. So many individual elements are superlative. Ritter is an engaging lead. Tennant is an even better villain, arguably the best Marvel has ever produced. The show is also thematically ambitious and insightful. Yet it doesn’t work. There are too many duff supporting characters, and the structure is a mess. A fairly simple story did not really stretch to the length of its run, so the screenwriters kept having to derail the plot’s progression.

[Check out: The Tragic Failure of Jessica Jones]

#18 Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

This had exactly the opposite problem to Jessica Jones. It tries to pack too much material into too little time. The result is still entertaining but also rather frustrating.

[Check out: Avengers: Age of Ultron (review)]

#17 Luke Cage [season 1] (2016)

I went with this series more than with Jessica Jones even though it has a lot of the same structural issues (and a pants big bad). The (often slapstick) action scenes are superior, the selection of supporting characters is better, and its stylistic choices are very apt. A lot of fun even though the final episodes are Iron Fist level bad.

[Check out: Magic and Mean Streets]

#16 Agents of Shield [season 2] (2014)

As we’ve already mentioned, this show’s first season varied wildly in quality. Fortunately, the second retained the quality of the superior latter episodes. It also added some genuinely entertaining supporting characters to its ensemble.

#15 Daredevil [season 2] (2016)

It begins with Matt Murdoch taking on the Punisher – perfectly played by Jon Bernthal – and it’s brutal and compelling. But six episodes in, he’s taken into custody, and the season moves onto some far less compelling nonsense about magical ninjas. If those early episodes had been on their own, then it would have been near the very top. As it is they are still quite enough to carry this series to a place above almost all the Marvel/Netflix collaborations.

#14 Doctor Strange (2016)

The plot, jokes and acting provide plenty to enjoy. However, it’s the strange – geddit! – and spectacular visuals that win this film a place high up the pecking order.

#13 Agent Carter [season 2] (2016)

It doesn’t really do much to develop its titular character, nor does it have its focus, clarity or thematic depth of the first season. It does, however, retain its appealing ensemble, period style and effervescent lead. The plot also remains compelling, just not quite as compelling.

#12 Iron Man 3 (2013)

Not only the best of the Iron Man films but also the first demonstration that the Avengers was not a fluke. A lot of people dislike both the twist and separating Tony Stark from the suits for a substantial portion of the runtime. However, I found both of them to be pleasant surprises that kept this instalment from feeling like a re-tread.

#11 Ant Man (2015)

Many of us will mourn the Edgar Wright version of this film that might have existed. Nonetheless, what we got is still a joy. It’s Marvel’s funniest project this side of Guardians. That a lot of that humour depends on visual flair suggests that the film retains at least some of Wright’s spirit.

#10 Agents of Shield [season 3] (2015)

AKA the point that fans of the show got to stop feeling a little embarrassed for liking it. It kicked the quality up a gear for a second time largely because of the acting. Up to this point the central cast had seemed only competent (and sometimes not even that). For much of the second season, they were outshone by supporting characters. However, at this point they really showed they could deliver stellar performances. The best showcase for this is 4722 hours, which sees Elizabeth Henstridge (AKA Simmons) carry a fantastic genre shifting episode almost single-handedly.

#9 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

It’s still funny, it’s still charming, and it still makes you care deeply about a racoon and a tree. It actually improves on its predecessor in several ways. It makes fuller use of Michael Rooker and gives Dave Bautista more chances at scene stealing. Most importantly however, is that in Kurt Russel it gets a substantial villain upgrade. But inevitably it cannot recreate the surprise of the first one.

#8 Spider Man: Homecoming (2017)

Homecoming has been out in the world for barely a week, yet it already seems like the natural way to tell a Spiderman story. The relationship between it and the Raimi and Webb directed outings, now looks like that between Sherlock Holmes and Murders in the Rue Morgue, you can see what they were going for, but it gets there. It will henceforth seem wholly obvious that Peter Parker should seem like an actual high schooler, that quipping should be a key part of his repertoire, that his adventures should connect up to the rest of Marvel’s heroes, and that the Vulture will now be in the starting lineup of Spiderman villains and that he should be depicted like Michael Keaton plays him in Homecoming.

The only thing that keeps it out of the very top tier of the MCU is that the action sequences are a bit ho-hum. Other than that, everything else is nit picking.

#7 The Avengers (2012)

It is big yet it is also clever. It required staggering craftmanship to have this many moving parts click into place and create an elaborate tapestry of superhero awesomeness. Also made Bruce Banner/the Hulk work on screen for the first time.

#6 Daredevil [season 1] (2015)

Marvel could reasonably be accused – from time to time – of cheesiness. That’s not a danger for Daredevil however. It is a bracing blast of bleakness and brutality. Zack Snyder has given gloominess a bad name, but here it is serving a purpose. We get rich themes from Catholicism to the nature of violence via gentrification. That and spectacularly choreographed fight scenes and Vincent D’Onofrio bringing us the MCU’s best villain.

[Check out: The Lord said run to the devil]

#5 Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

The strange thing about Guardians is that it presents itself as the most cynical of the films in the MCU, yet at the same time, it is – apart from its own sequel – also the most sentimental. That contradiction would undermine most films, but it is the making of Guardians. It has so much humour and brio that it manages to sell you on the idea its core characters are at once both heroes and anti-heroes, who have the most likable qualities of both.

[Check out: Hooked on a feeling]

[Please don’t check out my initial reaction to the first trailer which is rather embarrassing in hindsight.]

#4 Agents of Shield [season 4] (2016)

I’m not kidding. It really is better than the Avengers! It is far more ambitious than it has any right to be. It starts out delivering its own version of Ghost Rider into the MCU and then riffs on Age of Ultron, Blade Runner, Westworld, the Matrix, and the Man in the High Castle. Even more remarkably all of them are executed with aplomb.

#3 Captain America: Civil War (2016)

The Avengers series – of which this is an instalment in all but name – has always been in danger of being crushed by the weight of characters and plots it carries. The scaffolding that holds it up is the dynamic between Evans, Downey jr and Johansson; foregrounding that makes for an excellent story.

#2 Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The most tightly structured and plotted of the films. It benefits from keeping the scale relatively contained. At least for its first two acts, the Winter Soldier is admirably earthbound, light on CGI and relatively naturalistic in its tone. That is perhaps best embodied in the emphasis on hand-to-hand fights that feel much more real than ones with spaceships, robots and lasers.

#1 Agent Carter [season 1] (2015)

It is a shame that the best part of the MCU is also probably the least viewed.

The most obvious reason for this is Hayley Atwell as the titular hero. She manages to make a character with one foot in the ‘Golden Age’ of Hollywood and another in Whedonesque TV dramas, seem very natural and completely real.

However, the show as a whole is equally excellent. The 1940s spy story is an entertaining genre to play with, and Agent Carter uses it conventions to full effect: it is full of fedoras, poorly lit alleyways, sinister contraptions, and even more sinister Eastern Europeans. However, it also manages to transcend those same conventions. Most obviously by putting a woman at its heart, and rather starkly depicting the injustice of the sexism she faces. It also subtly and effectively depicts a society living in the shadow of a devastating war, as virtually every character is wrestling with some kind of trauma arising from WWII.

Lest that make it sound like a gloomy affair, I should also point out how funny it is. A particular comic treat is the double act of Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and James D’Arcy as the original human Jarvis, who between them deliver an impressive Jeeves and Wooster pastiche.

If you have not seen it – and given the low viewership figures that led to its untimely cancellation you probably haven’t – then I would urge you to seek it out. It is only a short season – just eight episodes – so it is not a big commitment but it is one that will be repaid many times over.

[Check out: Agent Carter (review)]