The Klan has an application form

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The image above is a Klan membership application form. It dates from the 1920s. The organisation would send them out unsolicited to people who’d been recommended for membership by a friend or associate who was already a Klansman.

Even today one apparently still fills out an application in order to join. Though according to Slate’s Brian Palmer:

The Klan application has undergone some telling changes. The KKK was acutely concerned about immigrants in the 1920s, and the application used to ask whether the prospective member’s parents were born in the United States and whether the applicant believed in “the principles of a PURE Americanism.” Few of today’s applications ask about the applicant’s birthplace, let alone that of his parents. Religion also appears to have been a greater focus. Pre-Depression applicants had to answer a series of questions about religion, such as “Are you a gentile or Jew?” “Of what church are you a member (if any)?” and “Of what religious faith are your parents?”

Palmer goes onto suggest that the Klan has relatively lax membership standards and that the application process is mostly an excuse to charge membership fees ($20 apparently). More sophisticated hate groups will run criminal records and credit checks in order to try and detect undercover police officers trying to infiltrate them.

What America’s top firms look for in graduates is appalling

From the Economist:

Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management interviewed 120 recruiters from American law firms, management consultancies and investment banks. Their principal filter was the applicant’s university. Unless he had attended one of the top institutions, he was not even considered. “Evaluators relied so intensely on ‘school’ as a criterion of evaluation not because they believed that the content of elite curricula better prepared students for life in their firms…but because of the perceived rigour of the admissions process,” Ms Rivera wrote. After the status of the institution, recruiters looked not at students’ grades but at their extracurricular activities, preferring the team sports—lacrosse, field-hockey and rowing—favoured by well-off white men.

I’d like to think things are different in the UK. Frankly, I doubt it.

Having diabetes now reduces your life expectancy more than HIV

Assuming you are British and have access to antiretrovirals. Even with these caveats, what my friend Benjamin Krishna set out in a post about antiretrovirals is still impressive:

…the life expectancy of a  patient who is HIV positive, who is receiving antiviral treatment in the UK, is the same as anyone in the general population. The life expectancy of a person with diabetes, however, is shorter than the general population by up to ten years for type II and twenty years for type I. Although much can still be done to treat people with both diseases, the improvement in life expectancy for a patient with HIV is remarkable.

The life expectancy for an HIV positive patient without treatment is 3 years after diagnosis. In 1990 with basic treatment, this has increased to 59 years of age. Now life expectancy for those with HIV and receiving treatment is simply labelled as ‘normal’. The incidence of HIV has been reduced thanks to public health campaigns, changes in attitude to homosexuality and government policies. HIV life expectancy has increased thanks to greatly improved antiviral drugs. In many ways our ability to treat HIV infections is one of the miracles of modern science.

All this surprised me but I’m not sure it should have. That in a rich country like Britain, medicine should afford us very good protection against an infectious disease but be far less effective against a condition strongly correlated with eating too much and consuming too little is very much in keeping with broader trends.

Be nice to canvassers

The Guardian recently ran a piece an anonymous local councillor under the heading ‘What I’m really thinking‘:

When I knock on your door, you tell me you never hear from me, despite the fact that I go to all your local meetings, send you regular letters and have knocked on your door several times before. You hold me personally to account for everything, from the state of the nearest tree to the war in Iraq. Some of you have awful, heartbreaking stories, and I do my best to help with the ever-decreasing resources we have. Others complain that the local high street doesn’t have any hanging baskets. The range of issues we deal with is surreal.

I had a fair number of experiences like this when I was a councillor myself. And I resented them as much as this elected representative with no name does. However, looking back now what actually seemed worse were the people who were rude or judgmental to me when I was an overly keen teenage volunteer looking to make a difference.

What I find both offputting and bemusing is people sitting at home, who think they and not the person giving up their time to try and change politics are the one who has the moral high ground.

I often found myself having to resist asking an irate voter, why if they were so disgusted by what my party was doing, they weren’t out knocking on doors for a rival party? One of the great blights of contemporary British politics is widespread sense that everything is completely terrible combined with a general disinclination to do anything to remedy this situation.

Now a fair chunk of these irate voters would claim there is no party for them. To which I can only respond that there are more than 400 parties registered with the Electoral Commission: can they really not find one whose platform they broadly agree with?

And even if you don’t agree with the people who are knocking on your door, you should probably still be glad to see them. Political parties are an indispensable part of a healthy democracy. Where you have weak parties, that creates a void that tends to be filled by unsavoury actors. Politics may come to revolve around individuals like Vladimir Putin or Silvio Berlusconi, or the role of organising political life may fall to other institutions life the church or military (e.g. Egypt and Iran).

None of which, is to say voters are of course free to tell canvassers where they disagree with the party they are representing. It negates a large part of the value of the exercise if they don’t. But they do have an obligation to be polite and reasonable. The canvasser is after all engaged in act of public service from which the ordinary voter benefits.

Why Thomas is my favourite Disciple

What with it being Easter and all, I thought now was the time for a Resurrection themed post.

There is one figure in the Bible (besides Jesus obviously) who gives me more comfort in being a Christian than any other. He’s the Apostle Thomas. He’s the one of the twelve men Jesus chose as his disciples and who followed him during his ministry. All four gospels mention that he was a disciple but beyond that we know very little about him and basically nothing about his life before meeting Jesus.

Nonetheless, he is one of the most recognisable figures from the Gospels on account of an incident that occurred shortly after the Resurrection. Jesus has been reunited with the disciples but at a time when Thomas was away:

…the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But [Thomas]..said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (1)

Indeed making leaps of faith does not appear to be Thomas’ strong suit. Take for example, the Last Supper where Jesus predicts his own death and tells the Disciples:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place where I am going.” (2)

Hearing this beautiful sentiment, Thomas’ obstinately practical response is:

“Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way? (3)

I find it immensely reassuring that his scepticism did not put Thomas outside Jesus’ flock. On the contrary, tradition has it that he would be the one to take it to India.

I imagine I would have responded to the events of the Gospels very much like Thomas did. I would almost certainly want extraordinary evidence for the extraordinary claim that someone who’d suffered the grisly fate of crucifixition was now walking about meeting people. Indeed a large part of me suspects that’s the only response and finds believing without seeing rather suspect.

That there’s a place (and indeed a rather important place) for Thomas suggests there’s one for me too. Indeed, I wonder if besides being Patron Saint of India, he could also perform the same role for people who watch Derren Brown documentaries, are incredulous that homeopathy is a thing and make themselves unpopular correcting the viral photos their friends post on Facebook.

Thomas is the cornerstone of my conviction that a Christian faith need not be a blind faith.

(1) John 20: 24-29

(2) John 14: 1-4

(3) John 14: 5

Beware knock off Singapores

I have seen the future and it works (but at a price).

One of the books that has most influenced how I see the world we now live in is John Kampfner’s Freedom for Sale. It is essentially a long rebuttal of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History thesis. Fukuyama (a political theorist) believed that History (with a capital H and defined in a very particular way) was over because liberal democracy had no serious ideological competitors. Kampfner (a journalist) toured the world and saw something very different. He believed that a serious rival was taking shape. A form of authoritarianism that offered people not a grand vision like Fascism and Communism did (and Islamism does) but a more pragmatic offer: we will strip away your freedoms and then use the control that results to protect you and make your prosperous. He traced the evolution of this ideology back to one place: Singapore.

Earlier this week the city state buried its founding father Lee Kuan Yuew. He is credited with turning it from a vulnerable backwater into a place of global renown. It is rich, peaceful, politically stable, has little corruption, its courts are transparent and fair, its infrastructure is fantastic and it has perhaps the world’s most capable bureaucracy.  That has ensured it has plenty of admirers and plenty of people trying to replicate its success even in apparently unlikely places like Nepal and Kyrgyzstan.

However, Lee specifically disavowed the notion that what he had built be combined with the kind of freedoms that people in the West took for granted. Singapore is known the world over as the country that banned chewing gum, which is perhaps indicative of strict set of laws backed up by capital and corporal punishment. Dissent faced repression, most notably the ruinous libel suits used to bankrupt government critics. And while Singapore holds elections, they are carefully stage managed to ensure the ruling People’s Action Party is returned to power. Lee became a proponent of what he called ‘Asian Values’ that as he saw it was in direct opposition to Western Liberalism.

Thus while Kampfner noted that Lee had admirers in the West, those for whom he was most important were autocrats in search of a role model. Chief amongst them was Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese premier who set the World’s largest country on a path from Maoism to Capitalism. He concluded on the basis of Sinapore’s experience that China could open up its economy without threatening the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

Not everywhere is a city state off the coast of Malaysia.

However, there is a pretty big problem with using Singapore as a role model: it may not be all that easy to replicate. For example, the current Chinese leader Xi Jinping is trying to root out corruption with the government and party, a pretty key part of the Singapore ‘recipe’. However, this has begun to threaten China’s ability to emulate an arguably even more important aspect of the Singaporean model: a capable bureaucracy composed of the best talent in the country. Xi has allowed a wide reaching campaign to terrorise officials involved in corruption involving torture and secret trials. This appears to be changing the behaviour of those officials. But this purge has had to be so wide reaching that it has left some parts of the bureaucracy so understaffed and barely able to function. In addition, it has reduced the flow of talent into public service as young Chinese now see it as both more frightening and less lucrative than it was before.

It shouldn’t surprise us that few countries can make themselves Singapore. As the Economist notes Singapore is hardly an ordinary place:

… four peculiarities of Singapore make it look like an anomaly, rather than a model for the leaders of China and Rwanda or others who think the best thing for their people is their own unending and unquestioned rule. The first is size. Singapore is a city with a foreign policy, which gives it a cohesion that more politically and ethnically chaotic countries cannot match. Second, this cohesion is reinforced by the turbulent circumstances of its birth. After a painful divorce from Malaysia in 1965, the government has never let Singaporeans forget that a Chinese-majority island, surrounded by Muslim-majority Indonesia and Malaysia, would always be vulnerable. Third, it shines by comparison with its less well-run neighbours. Rather as Hong Kong’s prosperity was based on being Chinese but not entirely part of China, Singapore has flourished by being in South-East Asia, but not of it.

However, the most important reason for Singapore’s singular experience is Mr Lee himself. Incorruptible, he kept government unusually clean. He ensured that Singapore pays its ministers and civil servants high salaries. Under today’s prime minister, his son Lee Hsien Loong, the bureaucracy has remained efficient and untarnished. Unlike many other independence leaders, Mr Lee designed a system to outlast him. Singapore’s government claims it has faced enough electoral competition to keep it honest, but not so much that there was a high risk of losing power. So it has been able to eschew populism and take decisions in the country’s long-term interests.

But outside Singapore, maintaining probity requires checks and balances. In much of the developing world, critics are regarded as enemies and those in opposition are treated as traitors whether their complaints make sense or not.

Liberal democracy is still the best way.

In addition, it is not clear altogether clear that Singapore’s success is actually a reflection of ‘Asian Values’. As John Cassidy notes in a column for the New Yorker:

…most of Lee’s development program consisted of mimicking what he saw as the best practices of the West: competitive markets, meritocracy, pragmatism, the rule of law, universal public education, and a mastery of science and technology.

Indeed it is hard to see what is uniquely Asian about Lee’s ideology. One imagines very many nineteenth century right-liberals would have (not withstanding his race) found Lee a very agreeable figure.

Indeed, the other Asian nations that rival Singapore in terms of combining of prosperity, security and development – Taiwan, South Korea and Japan – are all have electoral democracies with a free press. These things are not a Western imposition, Asians can and do make them work in Asia.

Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have said: “those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” The sad impact of using Singapore as a role model may be that many nations wind up sacrificing liberty for prosperity and good governance without getting either.

[Re-post] Why in spite of everything I still respect Nick Clegg

Nick Clegg asked if you’d ever experienced true love, and you said “yes, of course”, and then there was a pause, and you said “why, haven’t you?”, and he said “oh yes me too obviously”, but then just stared into space for a while. 
https://twitter.com/#!/sadnickclegg

It would be fair to say that in having a certain affection for and admiration of Nick Clegg, I am in a definite minority. His approval rating amongst voters is dire and a poll this week indicated that his own seat is in serious danger.

I’ve not always been a cheerleader for Clegg but I do still have a lot of time for him. In light of the TV debates tonight, I thought it worth revisiting a post I wrote last year about my judgement of him:

I supported Huhne rather than Clegg in the leadership election because I feared that all “most [voters] will know of [Clegg] is his face and the odd sound bite and on the basis of that, they may well conclude that he is awfully like Cameron.”* But that was a decision of the head rather than the heart. For me the defining moment of that election was when in a Newsnight debate the two candidates were asked if there was too much immigration: Huhne waffled about ‘pressure on public services’, Clegg just said ‘no.’

The following two and a half years seemed to suggest my reservations about Clegg had been misplaced. He was an effective figurehead for the party even before Cleggmania largely rescued the Party from the damage it had sustained in the years since Charles Kennedy had resigned.

But then the Coalition happened. In contrast to the overwhelming bulk of the party I opposed it. But I had to admit that my position – a supply and confidence agreement with a minority Tory government – was the more cautious one and more informed by political calculation. I wanted us to have more distance from a government making unpopular decisions and greater opportunities to disengage. That would have come at the price of being able to implement fewer of our policies.

Going into Coalition wasn’t the only occasion where Clegg has shown such boldness: we could also point to his decision to challenge Nigel Farage for example. In fact, I would go as far as to argue that many of his major mistakes – from giving a pledge on tuition fees which couldn’t be squared with the realities of Coalition, to embracing austerity too wholeheartedly or not checking the details of the Health and Social Care Act – stem from a certain recklessness. And while I might not always be happy with its results as a matter of style I find it refreshing. We live with a political landscape dominated by pathetically limp and risk adverse politicians like Ed Miliband: whose signature policy an energy price freeze will make very little impact, disappears after two years with no lasting impact and potentially damages the environment. The contrast Clegg provides with this kind of crap is welcome.

Of course, others’ anger with Clegg was for rather different reasons. For many people, they see Clegg as a liar and a turncoat for entering a Conservative lead coalition. But that’s hardly fair. Before the election, he had stated that the Liberal Democrats would potentially enter a coalition with the Conservatives. And the Labour Party had warned people that the possibility of Clegg aligning himself with the Tories:

If anyone feels betrayed by what has happened since the General Election, then frankly they should have been paying closer attention before it.

I stand by that. I also stand by my view expressed elsewhere that he’s the wrong man to be Liberal Democrat leader: in too many voters eyes he’s now damaged goods. But that doesn’t make their assessment fair or accurate. I really do hope that enough of them will be able to look past the easy judgements of the man to keep in a position where he can do some good.

Day to day life without democracy

Suki Kim is a woman with an experience worth reading about. She must be one of a handful of outsiders to have lived and worked in North Korea whilst having regular contact with reasonably ordinary locals

 “Essay” was a much-dreaded word among my students. It was the fall of 2011, and I was teaching English at Pyongyang University of Science and Technology in North Korea. Two hundred and seventy young men, and about 30 teachers, all Christian evangelicals besides me, were isolated together in a guarded compound, where our classes and movements were watched round the clock. Each lesson had to be approved by a group of North Korean staff known to us as the “counterparts.” Hoping to slip in information about the outside world, which we were not allowed to discuss, I had devised a lesson on essay writing, and it had been approved.

I had told my students that the essay would be as important as the final exam in calculating their grade for the semester, and they were very stressed. They were supposed to come up with their own topic and hand in a thesis and outline. When I asked them how it was going, they would sigh and say, “Disaster.”

I emphasized the importance of essays since, as scientists, they would one day have to write papers to prove their theories. But in reality, nothing was ever proven in their world, since everything was at the whim of the Great Leader. Their writing skills were as stunted as their research skills. Writing inevitably consisted of an endless repetition of his achievements, none of which was ever verified, since they lacked the concept of backing up a claim with evidence. A quick look at the articles in the daily paper revealed the exact same tone from start to finish, with neither progression nor pacing. There was no beginning and no end.

However, when she did manage to get them writing things did not necessarily improve:

When I had them write a paragraph about kimjang (the annual kimchi-making tradition), I was handed a pile of preachy, self-righteous tirades. Almost half the students claimed that kimchi was the most famous food in the world, and that all other nations were envious of it. One student wrote that the American government had named it the official food of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. When I questioned him, he said everyone knew this fact, and that he could even prove it since his Korean textbook said so. A quick Internet search revealed that a Japanese manufacturer had claimed that kimchi was a Japanese dish and proposed it as an official Olympic food, but had been denied. Somehow this news item had been relayed to them in twisted form and was now treated as general knowledge.

To correct my students on each bit of misinformation was taxing and sometimes meant straying into dangerous territory. Another teacher said, “No way. Don’t touch that. If their book said it was true, you can’t tell them that it’s a lie.”

Sometimes they would ask why I never ate much white rice. They piled their trays with huge heaps of it at every meal, whereas I always put just a little on my tray. I explained that I liked white rice but did not care for it all the time. They asked what kinds of food I ate other than rice and naengmyun, their national dish. I couldn’t exactly go on about fresh fruit smoothies and eggs Benedict, so I named two Western dishes I knew they had heard of: spaghetti and hot dogs. I knew that North Koreans enjoyed their own version of sausage because I had seen them lining up for it at the International Trade Fair. One of the students then wrote in his kimjang homework, “Those Koreans who prefer hot dogs and spaghetti over kimchi bring shame on their motherland by forgetting the superiority of kimchi.” Nothing, it seemed, could break through their belligerent isolation; moreover, this attitude left no room for any argument, since all roads led to just one conclusion. I returned the paper to him with a comment: “Why is it not possible to like both spaghetti and kimchi?”

I read this with interest because my situation is on the surface similar to Kim’s. I am someone from a liberal democracy who has gone to teach in one of the world’s remaining communist countries. Yet my experience in Vietnam is utterly different from her’s in North Korea.

My movements are emphatically not watched ’round the clock’. I can move freely round Vietnam and speak to whomever I wish. I don’t need to have my lesson plans vetted by my boss, let alone anyone from the government or party.  And the people I meet have a broadly recognisable view of the outside world. The flow of information to the citizens of Vietnam is not free but it is constrained rather than blocked. The regime blocks websites it considers too threatening but Vietnamese people have access to the bulk of the internet even assuming they don’t use a proxy server to circumvent these restrictions. That’s in addition to all the foreign films, books and TV. And travel in and out of the country is pretty easy for those with the money to do it.

This is not a country that suffers from a lack of propoganda – its most visible in places like museums but I gather there’s plenty in schools too – but I’ve never had my students furiously preach at me. Indeed I notice how depoliticised things are a lot more than I notice political concerns intruding into ordinary life.

This is not to apologise for the Communist Party: the Vietnam pages on the Amnesty International, Transparency International and Freedom House websites make for grim reading. Nonetheless, it is probably true that the differences between life in autocratic Vietnam and totalitarian North Korea are greater than those between that in Vietnam and democracies like Britain, the US or South Korea.

If you don’t directly challenge the continuation of the Party’s rule in Vietnam, you’ll very likely be left to carry on. In North Korea, the Party demands near total control of your life and your induction into the cult of the Kims.

The question this begs for me, and to which I don’t have an answer, is why when every other communist regime has either fallen or reformed has North Korea has remained a Stalinist hell hole?