Seeking clarity from Chomsky

A book about anarchism from the world’s most influential anarchist leaves me unclear what anarchy actually is.

As improbable as this might seem given that I was a politically engaged teenager who was angry about wars and stuff, I’ve never before read any Noam Chomsky. I had, however, come across his ardent fans. They generally seemed to come equipped with extensive mental archive of his arguments that they would wheel out at the least provocation. And I’d also come across scathing attacks both from ideological enemies like Paul Berman and disappointed disciples like George Monbiot. Love him or hate him, he seems to generate a lot of passion.

So I was expecting that when I read a compilation of his writings on anarchism (with the imaginative title On Anarchism), I would wind up feeling strongly about it. In fact, I was rather non-plussed. I had picked the book up because I was looking for some kind of insight into anarchism, what with there being renewed interest in it on the left and all. What I was hoping to get was a better sense of what applying anarchist principles would mean in practice. And that was precisely what Chomsky seemed least interested.

Rather he continues to enunciate the broad principles of anarchism in a way that becomes rather repetitive even in a book that is fewer than 200 pages long. We learn of various concepts of which he approves: democracy, decentralisation and workers’ control of production all meet with his approval. As to how these might be achieved we are left guessing.

Rather we are given constant reassurance that plenty of eminent thinkers also endorsed these concepts. In a book about the illegitimacy of authority and elitism, to have it constantly implied that you should support the ideas of anarchism because a long dead white guy apparently did feels rather incongruous. We also get a LOT of Chomsky explaining that anarchism is not state socialism without ever really being clear what it actually is.

He is actually challenged about his vagueness in the transcript of a Q&A that is reprinted as part of On Anarchism. He replies by declaring himself a “reformist” who rather than being able to “spell out a plan for future society in any detail” but is instead content to work towards implementing certain principles and believes that the important thing is to “work to help people start trying them.” Now that’s a respectable position, which I would endorse. However, it does not excuse one from considering practicalities. Putting a principle into action involves translating it into institutions, procedures and practices. Here people trying out anarchism would not find Chomsky remotely helpful.

Besides this big weakness with the book, there are a number of others worth highlighting. I found Chomsky’s way of establishing his arguments rather unconvincing. His critique of contrary positions is often perfunctory and superficial to the point of being glib. And he has a rather grating habit of doing the intellectual equivalent of launching a commando raid on an out of the way enemy outpost and then declaring that his full scale invasion has resulted in complete victory. So for example, at one point we move with astonishing and unconvincing speed from Chomsky nit-picking an academic history of the Spanish Civil War to the conclusion that the Allied Powers actually welcomed the rise of fascism as an alternative to communism.

This is not to say there is not a convincing case for anarchism out there. Chomsky, himself might even have written it in a less cobbled together and breezy book. But On Anarchism has managed the remarkable achievement of talking about a subject I’m interested in but know little about for 200 pages without changing my perception at all. I can’t help feeling that if Chomsky really deserved his title of the World’s Top Public Intellectual then he probably shouldn’t be writing books which elicit a ‘meh’ from the reader.

The sharing economy? More like the ‘subletting economy’

Ignore the schmaltz surrounding “the sharing economy.” The benefits of websites like Uber and Airbnb come in the form of greater efficiency rather than new friendships.

My initiation into the so called ‘sharing economy’ came about 18 months ago. I was planning a trip down the East Coast of the US for my sister and me and was grappling with how to do it on a budget. The problem was that budget accommodation in the US seemed to consist of motels that were about twice the price of European hostels. However, a way to avoid spending a $150 a night on accommodation turned up when a friend who doing essentially the same journey in reverse suggested using Airbnb – a site that allows people to rent out spare rooms and empty apartments.

Airbnb is part of the so-called “sharing economy.” It consists of a constellation of companies using technology to facilitate peer-to-peer transactions. As Noam Scheiber reports in New Republic there are big claims made for this new corner of the economy:

“The insistence that the sharing economy has tapped into a deep yearning for social interaction is both the most idealistic and least questioned assumption among its boosters. “People are both hungrier for human contact and more tolerant of easy-come-easy-go fluid relationships,” David Brooks wrote in a recent mash note to Airbnb. In a Wired story this spring, John Zimmer, the co-founder of the Uber competitor Lyft, invoked a stint on the Oglala Sioux reservation to summarize his feelings. “Their sense of community, of connection to each other and to their land, made me feel more happy and alive than I’ve ever felt,” he said. “We now have the opportunity to use technology to help us get there.”

It would be safe to say that Scheiber doesn’t think much of such claims. With specific reference to Airbnb he says:

The company’s origin story, which Chief Technology Officer Nate Blecharczyk cheerily recounted at the Share conference, involves two of its co-founders renting out a bedroom in their San Francisco apartment during a 2007 conference. “Real friendships were formed,” Blecharczyk said. “Something special was created.”

Airbnb doesn’t release data that would indicate how much its users value the social aspect of the service. But, while there is probably a core group who are genuinely out to bond with their hosts, the company’s own moves suggest its users care much more about the authenticity of their surroundings than befriending hosts. Airbnb recently hired a prominent boutique hotel operator named Chip Conley to improve (and generally standardize) its guests’ experiences. When we spoke in July, Conley told me the key insight from his boutique-hotel days is that people want to feel like they’re really getting to know a city or a neighborhood, not staying in some generic or touristy location. (No surprise that Airbnb’s motto until very recently was “live like a local,” something it delivers on exceptionally well.) He told me that a growing number of users are people mulling a move to a new city and want to try it out first.

There are hospitality companies focused on maximizing guests’ social interactions—the Sydell Group’s upscale hostels, for example. Airbnb just doesn’t appear to be one of them. “The Airbnb model is … isolating in a way. You’re staying in an apartment,” says Sydell CEO Andrew Zobler. “Substantively, you’re much more immersed if you’re staying with us. You’re meeting people.”

This tallies with my own experience of using Airbnb. The woman who hosted Cat and me in Richmond, Virginia – the remarkably hipsterish former capital of the Confederacy – had travelled quite a bit herself and seemed to letting out her spare room in part so she could meet other people who liked travelling. But she was something of an outlier. We didn’t meet two of our hosts and didn’t socialise with the remainder. We met far more people in the four days we spent in a hostel than the two weeks staying in places we found on Airbnb.

Which is not to say it isn’t a great service: it makes travelling on a budget a lot easier especially in the States. But the relationship it creates are those between buyer and seller. They are commercial not social.

What the sharing economy fosters most effectively is not community but competition. They allow a vast number of new providers to enter a marketplace and challenge established players. Airbnb makes it practical for someone with a single room or flat to connect with travellers, where previously you generally needed economies of scale such that you needed a whole hotel or hostel to compete effectively. Likewise, Uber allows drivers to sell lifts to customers without participating in the local government backed cartels that generally control the market for taxis. That obviously threatens a lot of people – hence the backlash against both Uber and Airbnb. But part of the point of a market economy is to stop anyone getting too comfortable.

Given that these enterprises are really about selling spare capacity rather than sharing it, Scheiber suggests we should be talking about the “subletting economy.” That’s a piece of branding that’s not going to make anyone feel warm and fuzzy about the advantages of these new companies are delivering. But that doesn’t mean these advantages aren’t real.

American police are more trigger happy than British Criminals

Not like Dixon of Dock Green!

An American is at least three times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a Briton is by a criminal.

The ongoing violence in St Louis suburb of Ferguson seems to have produced much debate in the US. The clashes were ignited by the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man which – along with the aggressive police tactics that followed – has left  America about the militarisation of the police.

Here’s John Oliver on particularly biting form lamenting the extraordinary amount of military hardware which has found its way into the hands of police who are generally poorly trained to handle it. For example, he makes much of a small New Hampshire town given an armoured personnel carrier to protect its annual pumpkin festival from terrorist attack:

By way of contrast, it has been noted that the police in England and Wales have not killed anyone with firearms in the past two years.

What I have yet to see mentioned though is how the rate at which Americans are shot and killed by the police contrasts with the general firearm homicide rate in the UK.

Annually, for every 100,000 people in Britain there o.o4 homicides in which a firearm is the murder weapon.

It is difficult to say how many Americans are killed in police involved shootings because (astonishingly) nobody collects that data. However, the patchy recording of such incidents by the FBI indicates that there were an absolute minimum of 400 of them. There are by one estimate 319 million people living in America. So that translates into a minimum of 0.13 police shooting per 100,000 Americans.

So astoundingly Americans are three times more likely to be killed by a police officer with a gun than someone in Britain is by a criminal with one.

Israel and the Holocaust

A lot of nonsense gets talked about Israel and Palestine, some of it by me. In one of the first posts I stated that I believed Zionism was “an objectionable and misconceived project” in part because it “made Arabs atone for European sins.”

Vox’s guide to myths surrounding the conflict explains why this line of thinking is so wrong:

First, Israel was not a creation of European colonialism: Israel’s creation was in large part the work of Jews who moved to present-day Israel, despite European efforts to stop them, and who dragged the world into accepting them as a state. It is true that, in 1917, Britain issued its famous Balfour Declaration promising the Jews a homeland in British-controlled Palestine as long as this did not undercut the rights of non-Jews there. But in the 1930s, as Jewish immigration and Jewish-Arab tension increased, the British tried to sharply limit Jewish immigration into the area, forcing many Jews into refugee camps in Cyprus and elsewhere. Jews smuggled in large numbers of illegal immigrants in the 1940s; Jewish militias that formed to fight Arabs also conducted violent operations against the British, whom they saw as an enemy.

This was not, in other words, a European-Jewish joint project at all. The United Nations did come around to creating a Jewish state with its 1947 plan for partitioning Palestine, but that was in large part a reaction to the chaos and communal violence in British Palestine, which the UN hoped to solve by dividing the territory, not an affirmative plan to create a Jewish state just to. And of the 33 countries that voted for the resolution, only 12 were European; 13 yes votes came from Latin and Caribbean countries. (13 countries voted against it.) To be fair, it is definitely true that the UN ignored Arab and Palestinian objections to the plan, in a way that left them disenfranchised and feeling, not without reason, that their land had been taken from their without their consent. But the point is that it was not a European or Western conspiracy.

Second, Israel’s creation was not just a response to the Holocaust: While it is true that Holocaust galvanized global public opinion in support of Jews, and accelerated Jewish immigration to Israel, it is also true that all the factors that led to the creation of Israel were already well in place before the Holocaust happened. There were centuries of European anti-Semitism, a strongly felt Zionist movement among Jews, many thousands of Jewish immigrants in Palestine, and an international campaign to generate diplomatic support. In some ways, the Holocaust depressed Jewish immigration, because Nazi governments largely forbid it and because it left Europe with so many fewer Jews to emigrate. The question of how big a role the Holocaust played in leading up to Israel’s creation is debated among scholars, but the point is that it was by no means, despite the widespread misconception, the primary impetus for Israel’s creation.

So in summary: oops! This is topic I should really do my homework before opining on.

9 things you have to do in exams that would be terrible if you did them in a real job

At the time you read this I will most likely be engrossed in a business law exam lasting a little under 4 hours. It is the first of what will hopefully be the last ever significant set of exams I have to sit.

By now my attitude towards them something like this:

It may be fatigue talking but I really have to wonder how this strange process came to play such a large (and growing) part in how we measure intellectual ability. In so many regards they testing you on your ability to do the exact opposite of what you would do in actual job. Here are some examples:

1. Do all your work immediately in a single sitting without taking any breaks

Sometimes if deadlines are really tight you’ll need to do this but it’s not a great way to approach things. Generally work is a marathon not a sprint.

Everyone knows that taking shorts breaks every so often will boost your productivity. In fact, you get told as much in most workshops on how to revise for exams. Yet come the big day it’s a frantic dash to the end.

2. Don’t redraft

You’ll hardly ever get anything right the first time, so it’s best to give it a second try. It’s even better to a draft, sleep on it and come back to it with fresh eyes. Of course, that’s not really possible in an exam where you are lucky to get time for corrections let alone for a full rewrite.

3. Don’t clarify your instructions

Unclear exactly what you should be doing? Best practice is to ask your boss for clarification. In an exam you’ll hardly ever be able to.

4. Avoid teamworking

Exams make the single most important skill for the working world into a form of cheating.

5. Don’t research

Need to clear something up, check it or expand on it? Best just blag it instead.

6. Devote a substantial amount of time to stuffing incidental details into your short-term memory

This one is closely related to #5.

In order to get a good mark on the academic legal course I did last year, I had to memorise at a conservative estimate upwards of a hundred case names as well as the sections numbers for various legislative provisions. A year later, how many do I remember? Probably about half a dozen. What is more on the vocational law course I’ve done in the mean time, I was warned that such details are generally irrelevant to clients.

And that makes sense: would you rather have a lawyer who could tell you that the guidelines on applying for an interim injunction were established  American Cyanamid Co v Ethicom Ltd or one who can get you an interim injunction if you need it?

7. Communicate only in writing

You know that thing where you use your tongue, lips and teeth to manipulate the flow of air into particular sounds which have a meaning to other people? Think you might use that in your future career?

8. Write only with pen and paper

Some organisations have adjusted their exams to account for the fact that personal computing is now a thing. Most haven’t.

9. Work in silence in a school gym on the worst desks ever made surrounded by dozens of other panicky people

You are never going to do this again!


That’s not to say exams don’t have a place. They have the not insubstantial merit of being hard to cheat in. However, it would be better if they stopped being the principal way we test what people can do. Rather they should be part of a suite of assesement methods including alongside coursework, take home exams, group projects, vivas and presentations.

And when we do use exams they should be (where possible) open book to avoid pointless memorisation and let people choose between word processing and writing by hand.

Alas as my exams will be underway by the time this is published, it’s probably too late for me!

Depression doesn’t make sense, that’s the point!

I’ve posted before about how brilliant I think Andrew Solomon’s writing about having Depression is. He draws on this experience to try and offer some insight into the tragic suicide of Robin Williams.

“When the mass media report suicide stories, they almost always provide a “reason,” which seems to bring logic to the illogic of self-termination. Such rationalization is particularly common when it comes to the suicides of celebrities, because the idea that someone could be miserable despite great worldly success seems so unreasonable. Why would a person with so much of what the rest of us want choose to end his life? Since there are always things going awry in every life at every moment, the explanation industry usually tells us that the person had a disastrous marriage, or was a hopeless addict, or had just experienced a major career disaster, or was under the influence of a cult. But Robin Williams does not seem to have had any of these problems. Yes, he fought addiction, but he had been largely sober for quite a while. He was on his third marriage, but it appeared to be a happy one, and he seems to have been close to his children. His newest TV series was cancelled a few months ago, but his reputation as one of the great performers of our time remained untarnished. So he would have had little “reason” to commit suicide—as, indeed, most people who kill themselves have little “reason” other than depression (unipolar or bipolar), which is at the base of most suicide.”

I would second this. How someone with Depression thinks and acts can genuinely be baffling to people who don’t have the condition. Therefore the impulse to try to understand it is natural. However, it is probably not going to lead to anything as clear cut as a “reason” because irrationality is precisely what defines Depression.

When we see someone in distress it is reasonable to wonder what has caused this pain. However, the ordinary rules of cause and effect do not apply to them. What makes someone Depressed is that it no longer takes an event like losing a job, the end of a relationship or the passing of a relative to provoke intense melancholy. When you are in the diseases grip misplaced keys, a surly bus driver or just about anything life throws at you become enough to make you despair.

This is something that even people very familiar with Depression can struggle to grasp. In the depths of my own struggle with the condition, I was struck how often close friends would ask how I was and then follow up an answer like ‘miserable’ by asking ‘oh why?’ This presupposed I needed a particular reason for me to feel wretched.

Our habit of looking for such reasons is deeply ingrained. Our difficulty coping with the fact they may not be there is part of what makes Depression so confusing and scary both for sufferers and those who care about them.

So while it is clearly a step forward in terms of our respect for people with mental health that we have abandoned the language of ‘madness’ or ‘craziness’, we also lost something. Sufferers behaviour will often seem ‘mad’ generally because it is. After all they were being logical then they would not be sufferers at all.




P.S: both this post and Solomon’s piece were written before the revelation from William’s wife that he was in the early stages of Parkinson. I suppose this could be construed as ‘the reason’ he ended his life but I think Solomon’s point is that human’s are complex and that as such simple explanations like this generally miss the point.

Why Christians are so excited about Vicky Beeching coming out

A primer for non-believers on this week’s most important newsmaker you’ve probably never heard of.

Who is Vicky Beeching?

She’s one of contemporary Christianity’s most impressive Renaissance Women.  She first rose to prominence in the early noughties as a singer and songwriter but has since then become a theologian (with a particular interest in technology) and something of a media darling.

She’s also close to a clergyman you might have heard of called Justin Welby.

Why are we talking about her?

She’s just come out as a lesbian. In an interview with the Independent she recounted growing up in an environment where she was taught that her attraction to other women was sinful and at one point even went as far as being exorcised. However, after the stress of being in the closet triggered a degenerative disease she decided to come out.

Obviously, it’s a big deal for her but does it matter more broadly?

Emphatically so. Much of the media coverage surrounding Beeching’s revelation has dubbed her “a Christian rockstar.” That’s not technically accurate because her music is more country than rock but it gives you a good sense of her profile amongst at least a subsection of believers.

Music of whatever kind is pervasive in Christian worship. You might assume that when believers go to church it is the sermon that has the greatest theological impact. But that’s probably not the case. Songs generally take up a larger part of the service, are a much more participatory experience and they gain impact through repetition. What is more, while a sermon is generally only delivered to one church, some worship songs spread to tens of thousands of congregations. This allows songwriters to become some of the most recognisable and influential figures in the Christian world.

And Beeching is emphatically amongst that select group. Pretty much any church which uses modern worship songs will have something by her in their repertoire. However, as you might imagine the audience for Nashville inflected Christian music is greatest in the Bible Belt and her music is most popular with the charismatic congregations which often derisively dubbed as “happy clappy” churches.

Beeching matters particularly in this world because it’s a rather anarchic. There are myriad different denominations with no central hierarchy to pull them together. In the absence of formal structures, informal figure heads can become especially important. Beeching’s music unites charismatic Christians as anything else!

The upshot of all this is that it puts Beeching in the unusual and potentially powerful position of being a liberal Christian with a mostly conservative audience.

What will the reaction in the Bible Belt be?

Minds are not going to change overnight but this does feel like an important moment.

There was already a boycott of her work arising from her expressing support for equal marriage. But I don’t think the point is that her coming out was going to immediately find support amongst those who had up till then thought homosexuality to be a sin. Rather it is that it is nigh on impossible for them to ignore what she’s saying. Nor is it going to be possible to just dismiss someone whose songs you’ve been singing for the past decade. So she may well have help to generate debate in communities where homosexuality has previously been a settled matter.

Furthermore, it comes at a time when conservative Christian stance on homosexuality appears to be in flux. Both in the pews and the pulpit there does seem to be a burgeoning sense that a grave mistake may have been made. This has most obviously manifested itself in a stream of evangelical leaders coming out in favour of equal marriage.

So Beeching might just be the right person in the right place (theologically) at the right time.

Hooked on a feeling

Guardians of the Galaxy is dumb, cheesy and gloriously fun.

It is quite possible for a film to be both dumb and smart. Consider, for example, Die Hard. It requires no mental exertion whatsoever to enjoy it. Furthermore, baring a few well-placed jokes about the idiocy of TV news it has nothing whatsoever to say about anything of substance. And yet a great deal of intelligence clearly was clearly applied to making it for it is almost perfectly crafted: the action excites, the joke amuses and the plot carries you along without distracting you.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not dissimilar. True, it’s not as perfectly executed as Die Hard. It continues Marvel’s lame trend of relying on Orb/Gem/Cube McGuffins and not being able to create non-Loki villains who aren’t bland (Hans Gruber would not be impressed!) Oh and it stars the hugely overrated Zoe Saldana.

However, these are minor blots on what is overall a great film. When it was first announced, I thought Guardians looked daft. I was right, it is. But I was wrong to think I’d care. It’s a delirious and entertaining blend of JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, Firefly and Top Gun. Next to the Winter Soldier or the Dark Knight it’s decidedly lightweight. But trust me you’ll be too entertained to notice. And anyway, none of those films have a foul mouthed racoon or a loveable walking talking tree.

It’s also worth saying that for the anarchy on-screen, behind the scenes director James Gunn has shown the discipline to avoid some of the pitfalls that blockbusters fall into: it stays the right side of 2 hours and the final battle scene takes up a reasonable proportion of that length.

Verdict: 8/10 – I’ll let Rocket summarise my views on this…