Baywatch suffers an especially brutal snark attack

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If you like reading film reviews that means you are either a fan of films or harsh put downs. As an example of the later may I commend Kyle Smith’s review of Baywatch for National Review. My favourite section is the following:

At one point, Zac Efron’s character lay in a morgue drawer while fluids from a cadaver dripped into his mouth and I wondered why he didn’t turn his head or at least cover his face. Then I thought: Who am I to judge? I’m still here watching, after all.
Disclaimer: Haven’t seen the film. I come not to bury it but to praise Smith’s bitchiness.

Terrorism makes us feel fear, anger and compassion. We should aim instead for apathy.

Human, all too human

It is usually the details that allow you to grasp the full horror of a tragedy. Earlier today the BBC reported that the first victim of the bombing at the Manchester Arena to be named publically was Georgina Callander, an 18-year-old in “the second year of a health and social care course”. The realisation that a young woman heading towards a lifetime of caring for others, had been murdered by people who cared only for their glory and their twisted political agenda, came to me as an almost physical sensation, as if rage was replacing out the blood in my veins.

I confess this in order to acknowledge that what I am about to ask of you is very difficult. Once you have finished reading this, you may think I am imploring you to respond like a robot rather than a person. In that regard, you would be right, and that is the point. Terrorists know that their adversaries are human and have designed tactics that prey on the vulnerabilities of the human psyche. They want to draw attention to their movement, so they cause pain, knowing that our empathy will make it hard for us to ignore the harm they are doing. They need our resolve to waver, so they generate as much fear in as many people as possible, knowing that being scared can make us fight, but it can also put us to flight. And they need us to make mistakes in how we respond to their atrocities, so they act with such callousness that we cannot help becoming mad with rage. You see, not only do terrorists know we are not calculating machines, they are relying on it.

In a situation where our humanity has been weaponised, the wisest cause is to be more than Vulcan than man. Our sympathy for the victims may feel helpful, and if allied to concrete actions it can be. When it motivates taxi drivers to turn off their metres while they ferry survivors home, or increases the determination of police and spies to prevent future attacks, then such feelings are a powerful force for good. Otherwise, they are dangerous. Sympathy is a positive emotion, but where terrorism is concerned it will almost invariably be intermingled with darker emotions. When I read about Ms Callander’s demise, my first thought was not that I wished I could comfort those close to her, but that I regretted that her killer’s death was likely instantaneous. I fantasised about a more lingering and hopefully agonising demise.

You may feel that a suicide bomber would have earned such a fate. I probably wouldn’t disagree. Nonetheless, fear and anger tend to be corrosive.  Unmoored from a constructive outlet, they can create a distressing sense of impotence. Taking a flight or a metro ride can become an unsettling experience, because you now feel powerless to protect yourself against the terrorist you imagine to be lurking amongst your fellow commuters. Even worse things happen when we try to shake this sense of impotence. Denied good ways to respond, we find bad ones. We shred our civil liberties, start wars, seek out scape goats, and look to strong men for protection.

Behind cruelty lies weakness

The tragic irony behind all this is that a clear-headed analysis would actually be rather reassuring. Worldwide, more people are killed by snakes than terrorists and their attacks account for just 0.0006% of all deaths. They target teenagers dancing along to Break Free partly because they are wicked, but mostly because they are desperate. If they could have instead destroyed the White House or an aircraft carrier, we can be sure that is what they would have done, but they are military and geopolitical minnows, and the vast majority of people could safely ignore them.

Killer attention-seekers

We don’t do that, however, because terrorism is an exhibitionist malady. They use cruelty to draw the spotlight to themselves. For example, the perpetrators of the Paris attacks wore bodycams and livestreamed their atrocity. They also benefit from an unfortunate paradox: Precisely because terrorist attacks are so rare, when one happens it seems remarkable and we take notice. Media across the world will cover last night’s attacks and people living continents away from Manchester will be frightened and upset. It shouldn’t be like this. Like most attention seekers, terrorists do not merit much consideration.

Just to reiterate, I do know how difficult what I’m suggesting is. While I was writing this post, a notification from the BBC news app came through on my phone, relaying the ghastly news that an eight-year old had died in the Manchester attack, and once again I felt an intense hatred for people who could do such a thing. However, we could perhaps try acting as if we already feel, how we hope one day we will really feel. If we think that terrorists do not deserve our attention, we shouldn’t do things that draw attention to them. Tweeting out “sympathy for Manchester” or posting on Facebook about how angry killing children makes you is a very human response, but as we’ve seen terrorism prays on our humanity. In this case, it is using our empathy to generate publicity for their attacks. If you want to defy these killers, offer them the one emotion they have no use for: apathy.

 

I recently wrote a long series of posts exploring the theme of this post in much greater depth. I hope regular readers will forgive the repetition but making those arguments in the abstract, felt rather different from doing so in the direct aftermath of an attack. It is in precisely these moments that the most acute decisions about responding to terrorism are made and I felt that if I could not make my arguments speak to times like this then they were of little value at all.

How I became a reluctant monarchist

Sunday Express front - 21/05/17

It seems a bit much even now!

Monarchy is both a stupid idea and a good choice

On days like this, it is hard to defend Britain’s monarchy. It is beyond me how people manage to care about stuff like Pippa Middleton’s wedding. It has the banality and irrelevance of celebrity news, but lacks the colourful characters and outrageous behaviour. That combination is made even more grating because it is presented in a tone of fascinated obsequiousness, and in staggering volume. Every paper in the UK apart from the Guardian put the wedding on its front page today. By contrast, none found space for Iranians deying hardliners and re-electing their moderate president, an objectively significant story.

It is hard not to be aware of the absurdity of the Royal Family as an institution and, perhaps even more so, our reaction it. I laughed for several minutes when I first read a headline in the Daily Mash, Britain’s answer to the Onion, that went ‘Duchess wows easily-wowed crowd‘.

Despite all this I now consider myself a monarchist. That’s not always been the case. I was a republican up until 2011. That was the year of the William/Kate wedding. As you can probably deduce from what you’ve just read, I found that a rather trying period. Never has so much attention been paid to so little. Would her dress have sleeves? Oh seriously, who gives a ****?

I retreated to thesis writing. But as usually happens when I do that, procrastination followed, and for me that meant perusing blog after blog. Naturally, most of them considered the Royal Wedding in one way or another, and plenty of them considered it as strange as I did. Nonetheless,  many also found convincing rationales for the paegentry.

Two arguments particuarly stuck with me. The first from Chris Dillow at Stumbling and Mumbling:

John Band makes a superb point:

“I suspect it’s not a coincidence that the countries which are best at equality overall (e.g. Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands) [he might have added Japan – CD] also tend to be monarchies.”

This, he says, is because monarchies remind us that our fate in life is due not solely to merit but to luck, and thus increases public support for redistribution. Is it really an accident that monarchical Spain is more equal than presidential Portugal, or Canada more egalitarian than the US, or Denmark more than Finland?

The Observer says that “meritocracy and monarchy is one marriage that just doesn’t work.” True. But a true meritocracy would, as Michael Young famously pointed out, be even more horribly inegalitarian than the fake one we have now. So given the choice, give me monarchy.

The other came from the philosopher Mark Vernon:

A republican will say that a president can [also embody a nation], along with the pageantry that surrounds the dignity of their office. Or that a country should be founded on explicit values, like liberty, fraternity and equality. Clearly, some countries opt for such alternative institutions – though I remember being persuaded that a monarchy has the upper hand when, after 9/11, it became almost impossible to criticize Bush without being taken as criticizing America too, because the political leader and the head of state were embodied in the same person. Similarly, a list of values will run into trouble when they conflict – as liberty and equality clearly do. A symbolic figure seems better able to hold together inevitable contradictions because they’re symbolic not explicit.

That the monarch is born, not chosen, is therefore also a good thing. In a democracy, where political power rightly rests with elected representatives and the electorate, hereditary ensures the head of state is above the political. Their power is soft, in all the good things they stand for.

After this, I came to see my own (and I confess other’s) republicanism as rather literal minded and, dare I say it, a bit adolescent. Not every institution needed to conform to every desirable ideal. Sometimes anachronisms that make little logical sense, can still serve a purpose. Events like royal weddings are inherently silly, but the people excited by it weren’t: They were enjoying a moment that bonded communities. So, when the Diamond Jubilee came round the next year, I gladly went along to a (as it turned out very wet) celebratory barbecue, safe in the knowledge that its absurdity was something to savour rather than reject.

Is Iron Fist as bad as everyone says?

The Daily Show joked that Trump should make his wall out of Iron Fist’s first season because it was ‘impossible to get through.’ Well I did the impossible and here’s my take.

Iron Fist? Is that like an Iron Man spin-off?

No, but you’re not hugely off. It’s another part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Only this is one of the grittier, ‘street level’ TV shows Netflix have been making, along with Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage.

So, what’s the story?

Danny Rand is the son of a billionaire. Ten years ago, when he was still a boy, he and his parents were on board a private jet flying to China. It crashed, killing both of them and leaving him stranded in the Himalayas. He’s rescued by warrior monks and raised in the mystical city K’un-Lun. In the present, he returns to New York to take back control of his parent’s company and work through the issues arising from their death.

An orphaned heir to a multi-billion-dollar trust fund goes to Tibet and then comes back to Goth-…I mean New York City, becomes a superhero and fights for control of Daddy’s business empire. Are you sure you didn’t watch Batman Begins by mistake?

Well, I’m assuming the creators would insist that despite the plot similarities,  they have made something original and distinct. While Bruce Wayne relies on technology for his powers, Danny Rand’s are more mystical. In K’un-Lun not only was he trained in kung-fu but he also became the immortal Iron First.

The what now?

Some kind of chi powered superwarrior apparently. The upshot seems to be that he can make his fist glow, at which point it is bullet proof and super strong.

IronFistTA

Honestly, that sounds pretty lame.

It is, and it’s indicative of the whole misguided enterprise.

The main difference between Batman Begins and Iron Fist is that the film is a masterpiece, whilst this series is atrocious.

Given the way you titled this post, I thought you were going to keep me in suspense about whether it’s any good?

I could try but that would require me saying nice things about it for a while before turning around and going ‘however….’. Alas, the show undercuts my efforts to offer any fulsome or even convincing praise for it.

There are some good fight scenes. There’s a nicely kinetic one in a moving truck. Danny has an entertaining encounter with a drunken martial arts master, who nonetheless nearly defeats him. However, they are needles amongst an indifferent haystack. Some of that is down to poor directing. Most of the action is edited too quickly, which turns the fights into a blur. However, a larger problem is that Danny is played by Finn Jones, an actor who looks like he learned kung fu yesterday. In a show literally called Iron Fist, you need the lead actor to be able to throw punches that look like they’d hurt, and Jones can’t. When we see Danny in action, his movements appear so weightless that he seems like he’s been inserted with CGI.

A lot of reviewers looking for positives have settled on (sections of) the supporting cast. Jessica Henwick’s performance as Coleen Wing – Danny’s partner in crime fighting and love interest – has rightly been praised. And Ms Henwick deserves that. She’s charismatic, convincing and looks like she can actually do martial arts. But all that means is her awe of and attraction to the drippy, petulant and unimposing lead feels unconvincing. Less noted, but for my money even more able was, Sacha Dhawan as a warrior from K’un-Lun, who arrives towards the end of the series. However, the conceit of this character is that he thinks that Danny is unworthy to be the Iron Fist and that he himself would have been more deserving recipient. That made his presence a rather too effective critique of the show itself. Elsewhere, Rosario Dawson and Carrie Anne Moss return, playing characters we met in earlier Netflix shows, and they are great. Unfortunately, that means that when they are on screen, they serve mainly to highlight how not great everything happening around them is. Otherwise, if I were to praise the acting, I’d mostly be praising the ability to persevere in the face of terrible writing. This is especially true of David Wenham, who is saddled playing an overripe and frankly ridiculous villain, but nonetheless pushes forward with an impressive intensity and commitment.

For a while, I was at least hoping I could faintly praise it for not suffering the same sharp decline in quality as the other Netflix shows. They started out excellent but over their run became a slog. Iron Fist’s first few episodes are atrocious but it seemed to recover somewhat, as Danny moves from aimlessly wandering New York to actually superhero-ing. However, the cliché and contrived finale is probably the worst episode of all, so I can’t even tell you that it gets less worse as it goes along.

So, if those are the (not very) good points, I dread to ask what the bad ones are?

But you have to right?

Yeah….

The major problem is characterisation. Many of the key players lack depth or definition, and spew clunking dialogue that makes them rather wearisome.

That’s especially true for the lead. As I’ve already alluded to, Finn Jones is terribly miscast. Which, in combination with some terrible writing, is deadly. The character who is on screen the most is grating in the extreme. That’s partly intentional: his unusual upbringing has left him with a poor sense of social graces and damaged him so that he’s prone to emotional outbursts. The problem is that it doesn’t really come across like that. Rather, he seems petulant and needy.  Worse still, we get no sense that deep within him lies a true hero. When he announces that he’s ‘the immortal Iron Fist’, a warrior who earned mystical powers by ripping out the heart of a dragon, it is about as convincing as me claiming to be Miss Universe 2014.

There has been some criticism of the show for failing to cast an Asian actor to play Danny. I don’t know how strong that specific charge is. In the comics, Danny has always been depicted as white, and that fact serves to highlight his status as an outsider in K’un-Lun. Nonetheless, the charge of cultural appropriation is one that has bite where Iron Fist is concerned. This show riffs off a tradition of martial arts films that bring with them a lot of ideas from East Asia. These make their way into the story but its engagement with them is woefully shallow. Danny may spout about ‘Chi’ or ‘the Bushido code’ but one feels like if you asked him ‘what Chi is specifically’ or ‘what’s in the Bushido code’, he’d reply with a blank stare. That adds to the shows other credibility problems.

The worst thing about Iron Fist, however, is that it is silly and takes itself seriously. It is fine to be either of those things. I saw Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume II, last week and it is so utterly ridiculous that it contains not only the talking racoon and sentient tree from the first film but also adds a new character called Ego, the living planet. However, it knows it’s ridiculous and is determined to have fun with it. It is positively swimming in knowing humour. Iron Fist by contrast seems oblivious. It thinks it really is Batman Begins. It tells you with a straight face that Finn Jones is ‘the immortal Iron Fist’ and expects you to go with it. That’s also a joke, just not a funny one.

So you wouldn’t recommend Iron Fist?

Nope. It is a procession of grinding mediocrity. Watching the whole series felt like being taken on a thirteen-hour hike round a car park. If like me, you are watching it to be caught up in time for the Defenders. Don’t bother. Read the plot on Wikipedia instead. Believe me when I say that reading an encyclopaedia entry will be more exciting than spending time watch

How to avoid terrorism getting to you

2017-05-16 12.24.18

An apt response from Londoners

So, dear reader, we are now at the end of our long series of posts on the dangers of overreacting to terrorism. While its existence is grotesque, it kills relatively few people and has limited scope to increase that number. It is not a civilisational threat like fascism or communism. Instead, it is merely an unusually malicious form of criminality. By treating it as a more severe issue than it really is, we not only worsen the problem itself, but also create a host of additional problems like the loss of civil liberties or a greater risk of war between states.

What I have not addressed up till now is that it is easier to recognise logically that there is an extremely low likelihood of you or anyone you know being harmed by terrorism, than it is to feel that. David Spiegelhalter, a Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge University, has written that it feels inappropriate to compare the probability of terrorist attacks with other equally unlikely events because:

terrorism presses many of the buttons that psychologists have identified as features of “dread” risks: we feel out-of-control, it affects the vulnerable, and we have seen media coverage of the consequences resulting in a strong sense of “outrage”.

Cass Sunstein, a senior advisor to Obama, claims that people display “probability neglect” when confronted with vivid images of terrorism, so that:

when their emotions are intensely engaged, people’s attention is focused on the bad outcome itself, and they are inattentive to the fact that it is unlikely to occur”. So the “true” risks are ignored: it’s been shown that people are, rather illogically, willing to pay more for insurance against terrorism than insurance against all risks, just because the use of the word conjures up dread.

How are we to avoid this trap? How can we take charge of our emotions?

1. Turn off the TV

In an article for Berkley University’s Wellness Magazine, the clinical director of their anxiety centre suggests that:

one problem contributing to our fears is that we’re exposed to too many triggers—words and images that appear on TV or social media—that can make us anxious…If you always have the news on, your mind stays on constant alert. Regular exposure to images makes it feel as though the event is happening more frequently, and we’re retraumatized each time we see them. I believe that much of our anxiety comes from this nonstop access to information we’re all flooded with.

Therefore, she recommends that we:

Turn off the TV, meditate, or go for a walk in the neighbourhood…Do something calming and soothing to activate a different part of your brain.

I think part of the problem is that we consider terrorist attacks to be highly important events and therefore feel the need to scrutinise what is happening. Given that attacks tend to become a big part of our national conversation, it is probably true that you need to know the basics, but once you have got those, feel free to tune out. In particular, you should not feel the need to wallow in harrowing images or alarmist punditry.

2. Do not reward people who magnify the threat of terrorism

If a TV station is producing lots of lurid and sensationalist coverage of attacks (real or potential) then you should turn it off. Programmers know that coverage of terrorism is emotionally compelling and their reasons for producing so much of it are, at least partially, commercial. We should start giving them an incentive to act more responsibly by not watching. Better still, write to explain why you turned off.

The same goes for politicians who hype up terrorist groups. That is not only bad in itself but also indicates a lack of judgement and a tendency to get carried away. Use your vote and your financial contributions to indicate that you expect better from your leaders.

3. Take only proportionate precautions

Last year, the US State Department responded to a series of terrorist attacks in Europe by advising Americans visiting the continent to, among other things, “avoid crowded places.” The advisory does not narrow that warning by place or type of gathering. Apparently entering any crowd anywhere in Europe is too great a risk. The State Department might as well have also advised American tourists in Europe to carry an umbrella to guard against meteorite strikes!

Making substantial changes to your behaviour to reduce small risks is not only unnecessary and inconvenient, but also liable to accentuate your distress. Robert L. Leahy, a Psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has written in Psychology Today that:

I live and work in New York City, and after 9/11 many people were afraid that there would be another devastating attack. However, for almost everybody I know, these fears decreased over the following months. The more you normalize your life the more normal you will feel. The more you avoid situations that make you anxious the longer you will stay anxious.

I’m not a psychologist but I gather they generally take a dim view of avoidance. It is a shame that where terrorism is concerned many public authorities actively recommend it. If they do, you should ignore it.

4. Laugh at terrorists

I have not seen Four Lions, Chris Morris’ comedy about a group of wannabe suicide bombers, who are barely competent enough to make a martyrdom video. However, the approach seems like a good one. It’s certainly preferable, and closer to the truth, than the likes of Homeland and 24, that depict Islamist terrorist groups as implausibly nefarious and sophisticated. Deflating the pretensions of terrorist groups seems not only bad for them, but good for our psychic well-being.

5. Befriend the other

It’s a lot easier not to be scared of the Muslim guy next to you on the plane or the train, if you actually know some Muslims. They will make the fact that not all Muslims are terrorists appropriately vivid to you.

6. Do not use your social media to amplify the impact of terrorist attacks

As soon as an apparently noteworthy terrorist attack happens, it will start showing up in my social media feeds. People will start posting messages like “I hope all my friends in Istanbul are safe” or “solidarity with the people of Brussels”. Facebook will turn on its ‘safety check’ feature.  After the attack in Westminster Bridge earlier this year, I saw several friends who live and work in London but miles away from the site of the attack turning it on. At some point, if the attack is horrendous enough, then the option to overlay your profile picture with a symbol of solidarity will present itself. After the killings in the Bataclan, you could turn yourself into the colours of the French tricolour. After the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, it was the rainbow flag. Then people start opining on what the attack proves, which generally happens to be exactly what they already thought before it happened.

There may be admirable impulses behind this behaviour, but it’s profoundly unhelpful, as it serves to disseminate news about attacks and spread the anxiety that comes with them. Just like conventional media coverage of attacks, discussion of them on social media makes the groups behind them seem more formidable (and therefore more appealing to potential recruits). And even if you are writing a post connecting a place to terrorism in order to show solidarity, that is still helping to forge a mental connection in some minds between that place and terrorism, and as we saw in the previous post that’s liable to damage its tourist industry.

If there is a legitimate question about your safety, then feel free to assure people that you are alright. Otherwise do not post about terrorists.

Indeed, let that be our general rule of thumb: to the extent you can reasonably ignore terrorism, you should ignore terrorism.

A few words of conclusion

Unless something comes up – perhaps a particularly incisive comment that needs responding to – this is the end of this series of posts.

You can find the previous parts here.

The idea that I might write a blog post about how the fear of terrorism has become more dangerous than terrorism itself, first occurred to me over a year ago. It went through numerous actual drafts and many more mental ones. During that process it split, initially, into two posts and by the end, into five. The completed series is now longer than at least one dissertation I’ve written!

So, if you’ve read all (or even just part) of it, then thank you for sticking with me. I hope I’ve repaid your time.

Please also spare a thought for my friend Aaren Tucker. If you have noticed fewer missing words and malapropisms on the blog of late, then she is the one you should thank. She has proof read and edited all this monster series of posts, as well as a number of other recent entries on the blog. Of course, any mistakes remain my responsibility.

Everyone gets impostor syndrome

A story courtesy of fantasy author Neil Gaiman:

Some years ago, I was lucky enough invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

South Korea should totally compete in Eurovision (Cable from Korea #13)

This morning I woke up in Korea. That’s not altogether surprising: I live there. Then (also unsurprisingly) I opened up my phone, and saw that tonne of friends back home were posting and tweeting about Eurovision. Now, that is not surprising either: The contest was held last night. What was surprising is until Europeans took to social media, I’d not really heard anything about the contest. It isn’t something that registers in Korea: people don’t watch it, it isn’t discussed, and there are no viewing parties.

 

There’s an obvious explanation for why: Korea doesn’t compete. But that just begs another question: why doesn’t Korea compete?

Someone only vaguely familiar with the contest, might object that Korea can’t because it’s not in Europe. However, neither are Azerbaijan, Israel or Australia all of which enter. Indeed, Australia is further from Europe than Korea.Just to illustrate the point that being in East Asia is not a barrier to taking part, an entry from China has been considered a possibility. Despite this not yet happening, Eurovision is still shown live by a major Chinese broadcaster.

A better objection would be that Korea already takes part in a similar contest: the Own Asiavision Song Contest. But let’s be realistic, that’s a spin-off of a spin-off of Eurovision, hosted on Youtube rather than TV. Naturally, it has a way lower viewership than the real thing. That’s not where the nation that gave the world Gangam Style belongs. It should be in the premier league of cheesy music.

It is hard to think of a country that would more relish pursuing national glory through riotously over-the-top pop than Korea. It already produces plenty of the kind of music that would work as a Eurovision entry. K-Pop songs may not usually have a great deal of depth- though there are of course plenty of exceptions – but they do tend to be exhuberant, catchy and places a lot of emphasis on visual spectacle.

My impression is that the genre has not yet broken out in Europe in the way it has in Asia and North America. A Eurovision entry might be a good way for the Korean government – which very consciously works to promote cultural exports – to do that. It has a public broadcaster, so would be eligible to join. It should seriously consider the possibility.

 

Updated 21/05/2017 to be less glib in discussing K-Pop, which has more range than I gave it credit for

 

Barter economies are basically a myth

Most of us imagine that before currencies came along economies worked something like this:

Say, you made bread but you needed meat.

But what if the town butcher didn’t want your bread? You’d have to find someone who did, trading until you eventually got some meat.

In an article for the Atlantic, Ilana E. Strauss makes the argument that:

…various anthropologists have pointed out that this barter economy has never been witnessed as researchers have traveled to undeveloped parts of the globe. “No example of a barter economy, pure and simple, has ever been described, let alone the emergence from it of money,” wrote the Cambridge anthropology professor Caroline Humphrey in a 1985 paper. “All available ethnography suggests that there never has been such a thing.”………..When barter has appeared, it wasn’t as part of a purely barter economy, and money didn’t emerge from it—rather, it emerged from money. After Rome fell, for instance, Europeans used barter as a substitute for the Roman currency people had gotten used to. “In most of the cases we know about, [barter] takes place between people who are familiar with the use of money, but for one reason or another, don’t have a lot of it around,” explains David Graeber, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics.

Barter economies were mostly hypothesised by people, notably Aristotle and Adam Smith, who lived in economies with currencies and wanted to explain what might have preceded them. They missed many of the subtleties of how such systems actually worked:

Communities of Iroquois Native Americans, for instance, stockpiled their goods in longhouses. Female councils then allocated the goods, explains Graeber. Other indigenous communities relied on “gift economies,” which went something like this: If you were a baker who needed meat, you didn’t offer your bagels for the butcher’s steaks. Instead, you got your wife to hint to the butcher’s wife that you two were low on iron, and she’d say something like “Oh really? Have a hamburger, we’ve got plenty!” Down the line, the butcher might want a birthday cake, or help moving to a new apartment, and you’d help him out.

On paper, this sounds a bit like delayed barter, but it bears some significant differences. For one thing, it’s much more efficient than Smith’s idea of a barter system, since it doesn’t depend on each person simultaneously having what the other wants. It’s also not tit for tat: No one ever assigns a specific value to the meat or cake or house-building labor, meaning debts can’t be transferred.

The meaning of Moon: 8 thoughts on the progressive victory in Korea (Cable from Korea #12)

Whilst much of the world moves to the right South Korea goes left. Here’s what I think that means.

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Apology 1: I wrote this in a hurry to ensure you could read it whilst it was still topical. As a result there will be more grammatical errors, and fewer references and hyperlinks than I would usually aspire to.

Apology 2: While I live in Korea, I do not speak Korean and good writing about Korean politics in English is sparse. So please treat this post as a collection of intuitions rather than anything more definitive.

A quick note of background

On Monday, South Korea held a presidential election. This was unexpectedly early because the previous holder, the conservative Park Gueyn Hee, was impeached as the result of a bizarre corruption scandal involving her soliciting bribes on behalf of her shamen. Against this backdrop, it is probably unsurprising that a liberal won. A former human rights lawyer and presidential chief of staff Moon Jae-in received more than 40% of the vote comfortably defeating his divided opposition.

Some observations and speculations

1. Everyone seems to be voting just at the moment

Last Thursday, there were local elections across most of the UK, on Sunday there was a presidential election in France, and then yesterday there was one in South Korea. That’s three consequential sets of elections in less than a week.

And it’s not stopping. A week on Thursday Iran will also vote for a president. Britain and France will follow up the votes they just had with parliamentary votes next month. Later in the year, Germany will have to decide whether to keep Angela Merkel or replace her with the SPD’s Martin Schulz, and even China will come as close to electing its leaders as it ever does, when the 19th Central Committee meets to select the members of the politburo.

2. The curious failure of anti-establishment politicians

The wave of populism that is supposedly destroying all before was only weakly discernible in last week’s trifecta of elections. Yes, Macron was running outside France’s traditional party structure, Theresa May’s platform centres on implementing Brexit, and Moon’s victory was powered by the massive anti-system outrage engendered by his predecessor’s scandals. However, none of them is that much of an outsider. Macron was the finance minister in the government he just deposed. May is the most small c-conservative of Conservative politicians and deeply wedded to the party as an institution. She seems to be using Brexit primarily as an opportunity to bolster it. South Koreans were given the chance to vote for some clearly anti-system candidates: a radical mayor who touted himself as the Korean Bernie Sanders, a businessman running for a new insurgent party, and a far-left labour activist who spent much of the eighties on the run from a military dictatorship. Instead they went for Moon-Jae In, who by more or less any definition is the ultimate machine politician.* He was the Democratic Party candidate in the last presidential election, when he narrowly lost to the now impeached Park Guen Hye. Before that he was chief of staff to a previous president. All of three of these politicians use populist energy, however, none of them really represents it.

3. Korean election graphics are amazing

4. Both the UK and South Korea are cursed with zombie parties

Jason Cowley, editor of Britain’s left-wing New Statesman magazine, as a zombie party because it ‘is too weak to win and too strong to die.’ It can neither win power but it won’t give way for another centre-left force that might. The local elections seemed to confirm that pattern as Labour lost seats but not enough to collapse, and make way for a less inert political force.

I wonder if the Korean right now has a similar problem. The impeachment of a conservative president owing to her abusing her office in order to get bribes for her shamen (no really that’s what happened. I’m not exaggerating I swear!), seemed to have broken South Korean conservatism. It split into three rival parties. Their supporters seemed to abandon them for Ahn Cheol-soo, a centrist representing a party mostly composed of former liberals, who nonetheless said hawkish things about North Korea. Polls showed that for a while this combination of borrowed conservative support and his own base put Ahn level with Moon. By contrast, the combined rating of all three of the conservative parties struggled to break 10%.

However, it didn’t last. Some combination of lacklustre debate performances, conservatives noticing he wasn’t all that conservative, and Trump saying stupid things that tarred South Korean hawks by association, dissipated this surge and Anh came third.

In second place was Hong Jun-Pyo, standing for the same conservative party that just lost the presidency. He managed to rally older voters in the conservative strongholds in the South-East of the country, with furious attacks on both Moon and Ahn’s supposed leftism and North Korean sympathies. It repulsed most of the country but attracted enough of it to kibosh the chances of centrists and more forward looking conservatives. Unless that pattern is broken, Korea may also have a zombie party on its hands.

5. The regional divides in Korean politics are amazingly stark

The major division in Korean politics is not class, ethnicity or religion but province. The east of the country votes conservative, the west liberal. And it is a stark split. In the liberal pastion of Jeolla, Hong got barely 2% of the vote. To put that in context, when Tony Blair demolished the Conservative Party in 1997, they still managed to get almost a fifth of the vote in Scotland and around a tenth in Liverpool.

[N.B. lest you think this just a political thing, I live in the east of the country and have heard westerners described as gangsters and peasants]

6. The North Korean situation may now be even trickier to handle

I’ve been astonished how little of the coverage of the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program has mentioned that there were elections in South Korea, let alone considered how they might alter the dynamics of the situation.

To my mind that’s an especially grave error because it is on those subjects on which we should have the most reservations about Moon. He appears to wish to take a more conciliatory approach to inter-Korean relations and that involves risks.

During Moon’s tenure as presidential chief of staff, South Korea tried to buy off Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Il’s government took the money and the aid, whilst continuing to abuse human rights, develop nuclear weapons and threaten its neighbours. While a full scale resumption of this policy is unlikely, Moon has suggested re-opening a jointly operated industrial complex in the demilitarised zone between the two Koreas. That would likely breach UN sanctions on Pyongyang. That would make it almost impossible to criticise China for its lapses in sanctions enforcement.

Moon has also indicated an openness to withdrawing the ROK’s agreement to the placement of an American missile defence system in the country. That is doubly regrettable. Firstly, and most directly, that system would provide both the US and South Korea with a measure of protection from the North’s nascent ICMB program. Secondly, China has objected to the system on the grounds that its radar could potentially detect Chinese missile launches. It has responded in the manner of a petulant bully, and orchestrated an unofficial but very blatant campaign of economic intimidation: Chinese tourists have been discouraged from visiting Korea, K-Pop acts have been blocked from performing in China, and Korean shopping malls in China have suddenly been slapped with huge fines for supposed health and safety violations. This generated a backlash with Korean public opinion of Beijing suddenly turning very negative. If the system remains then this might teach China that it needs to treat its neighbours with more respect. If it goes then that will appear to vindicate its high-handed behaviour.

This would all be difficult to handle with an ordinary American president. With the current amateurish and unpredictable administration, that difficulty is magnified even further. I am not sure how well the current international system can handle friction between hawks in Washington and doves in Seoul.

7. Why has left/right politics in Korea not been replaced by a globalist/nativist battle?

Across much of the developed (and some of the developing) world, we’ve seen debates over the appropriate size of the state and extent of redistribution take a back seat to questions of how open countries should be to outsiders. Macron and Le Penn getting into the final round of the French presidential elections, whilst neither the socialist nor the conservative candidates did, provides a very clean example of this trend. It is, however, also visible in Trump’s election and the Brexit referendum.

This has not, as far as I can see, happened in South Korea. The presidential race centred on jobs, corruption, the role of huge family run conglomerates in the economy, and tensions with the North.

I am not really sure why this is but I might suggest the following as hypothesises:

a) There is relatively little immigration here (for the time being)

b) Korea is (for the time being) a substantial exporter of manufactured goods. That means globalisation is (for the time being) not associated with a loss of blue collar jobs, in fact quite the opposite.

c) That the main security concern is not terrorism but a nuclear armed and notionally communist rouge state, lends South Korean politics a decidedly cold war air. That might explain why it is still in a twentieth-century configuration.

d) The nativist/globalist split maps onto a graduate/non-graduate divide. In Korea, university education is as widespread as high school is in many western countries. That may mean the social underpinning for this ideological clash aren’t there.

8. Young people won!

Let us end on a positive not. Of late young people have seemed to be losing out economically and politically. And Korea is an especially hard place to be young. Kids here generally wind up on a brutal treadmill of exams and exam prep. That puts them under huge pressure, whilst leaving them little time for hobbies.

So, it is heartening to see their chosen candidate win despite South Korea being one of the oldest societies on earth.

Young people, not just students and graduates but also secondary schoolers, were central to the protests that brought about Park’s impeachment. When I teach high schoolers, it is striking quite how many of them will mention politics.

For more information on this I would recommend Korea Expose’s reporting on ‘the Sewol Generation’, a cohort whose formative political experience was a tragic ferry accident in which hundreds of teenagers drowned while adults on the ship’s crew, the coast guard and, ultimately, the conservative government did nothing to rescue them. It appears to have conditioned them to be less deferential to middle aged and elderly politicians. Moon’s victory marks their emergence as a political force and I am fascinated to see what they will achieve in the future.

 

 

*Most people would consider that an insult, so let me clarify that I don’t.

9 reasons why we’d be better off ignoring terrorist attacks

We pay a serious price for our alarmist reaction to terrorism. Here is what we would would gain if we could better manage our fears.

This is the fourth post in a multi-part series on the dangers of overeacting to terrorism. Click here to read the first, second and third parts.

In November 2015, Daesh executed a Chinese advertising consultant they were holding hostage in Syria. At first, this was widely reported both in China and abroad, and as a result the execution became a major topic of conversation on Chinese social media. Then the Communist Party’s censorship apparatus bored down on the issue. Reports on the topic by domestic outfits were pulled, those by international organisations were blocked and social media posts that included the deceased hostage’s name, and even phrases like ‘Chinese captive’, began disappearing.

That kind of behaviour is not an aberration. An anti-terrorism law passed shortly afterwards means that “[d]isseminating information about terrorist activities is now banned” in China, and apart from “pre-approved news media outlets, nobody is allowed to report on a terror attack nor the authorities’ response, online and offline”.

The latter point hints at a cynical (and this being China, very likely at least partially accurate) read of the Communist Party’s actions. That an attack has taken place could be perceived as a failure on the part of a government that didn’t manage to stop it. However, in an article for Foreign Policy, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian provides a more generous rationale. She speculates that “hawkish sentiment among China’s grassroots” was in tension with the government’s desire “to avoid involvement in the sort of military quagmires that have plagued the United States”. In this context, preventing the public finding out about attacks could allow for a more measured response.

I do not for a moment condone this kind of censorship. Proper scrutiny of how government deals with all issues, including terrorism, is necessary. In addition, creating a healthy public attitude towards terrorism probably requires a degree of trust between government and people that simply won’t be there if citizens discover, as they inevitably would, that news is being kept from them.

Nonetheless, I would argue that there would be benefits if we managed to voluntarily move a bit closer to this kind of situation.

Currently, when an attack happens, it becomes the focus of intense coverage. Politicians will reassure us that they take the threat very seriously. There may be new security measures, changes to the law, or even military action.

I want to suggest an alternative approach. Media coverage of attacks would not be formally limited but outlets would make an editorial decision to afford them only as a much space as a bus crash with the same number of casualties. The topic would not be considered a topic of intense national importance. When asked about security, immigration or foreign policy, politicians would probably not mention terror in their answers. Unless you worked for the police or intelligence services, or were directly affected by an attack, terrorism would be something you only rarely discussed or thought about.

Not only would this be warranted by the actual (as opposed to perceived) scale of the threat but it would have the following benefits:

1. We’d face less terrorism

The less seriously we take terrorism, the less attention we will give it. That attention amounts to publicity for the groups that carry out the attacks. Without it, they’d find it harder to gain additional recruits.

If we were calmer, we could probably avoid unduly punitive responses that imperil our position on the moral high ground.

The air of panic around terrorism is also part of what radicalises the likes of Anders Breivik. Getting rid of it would likely serve to deflate that noxious tendency.

[Further reading: How our fear of terrorism helps terrorists]

2. Our civil liberties would be more secure

At the time of writing, France has been in a state of emergency for over a year. That allows, among other things, for the police to search homes without warrants, a power which they have used thousands of times. This often involved doors and other properties being broken, and parents being handcuffed in the presence of their children. Few of these searches lead to a prosecution, and when they don’t, an explanation for why an innocent person’s home was raided is rarely forthcoming. There is no end in sight to the state of emergency.

The Snowden leaks revealed that most electronic communications across most of the world are now monitored in some form. And it’s not only the NSA that has gained greater powers to snoop. In Britain, post-9/11 anti-terror legislation gave local municipalities surveillance powers previously restricted to the police and intelligence services. Predictably, such organisations had little cause to use them on potential terrorists. Instead, they spied on ordinary people suspected of crimes like littering and lying about their address on a school application form.

More acutely, America and some of its Western allies, precisely the countries that thought of themselves as exemplars of human rights, have felt the terrorist threat compelled them to engage in assassination, kidnapping and torture. The latter went by the euphemism ‘extraordinary rendition’ and in one case involved a prisoner having pureed food pumped into his anus.

In this context, the open-ended nature of the War on Terror is especially problematic. Suspending some freedoms in times of war is not unusual but a war against another state will generally have a defined end point – a peace treaty or surrender – after which freedom can be restored. By contrast, a war on a strategy will never end. Thus, our fear of terrorism has not driven us to suspend freedoms but to abandon them altogether.

It would be better if we realise now that we are not at war. We face a nebulous but low-level threat from some criminals, and they are not an adequate reason to discard important rights.

3. It would remove a pretext for autocrats

Assad destroying moderates

In the point above, I was mostly talking about trade-offs between security and civil-liberties that, whilst excessive, are nonetheless mostly made in good faith. There are, however, people for whom compromising freedom is the point and preventing terrorism is merely an excuse.

The most egregious example of this must be Bashir Al-Assad’s regime. It has consistently represented the opposition as almost uniformly composed of jihadis, and sought to present themselves as the only thing standing between extremists and control of Syria. At the same time, by focusing most of their effort on destroying the moderate rebels and largely leaving Daesh alone, they made that fiction into a reality. And there are people willing to applaud, rather than condemn, Assad for this. Donald Trump has said that “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing Isis. Russia is killing Isis and Iran is killing Isis and, before the sarin gas attacks on Khan Shaykhun, had appeared to indicate support for Assad remaining in power.

Trump has also embraced Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the military dictator of Egypt and by Trump’s reckoning, a man doing “a fantastic job in a very difficult situation”, on the grounds that he is opposed to Islamists and terrorism. This, in spite of the fact that Sisi killed hundreds of protesters in order to take power, and when he did so, reversed virtually all the increases in political liberty that resulted from the protests in Tahrir Square (which overthrew Hosni Mubarak). Nor does the situation seem to be improving. Amnesty International recently published a report on Egypt with the subtitle “disappeared and tortured in the name of counter-terrorism”.

The US also continues to back the Saudi government and its brutal war in Yemen. Riyadh argues that only by propping up its client regime in the country can a victory for Al Qaeda and/or Iranian-backed militias be prevented. At home, the theocracy uses anti-terror legislation to outlaw atheism.

The equivalent legislation in Turkey was used to prosecute a British academic for the crime of carrying an invitation to a Kurdish New Year celebration. Which seems strange but anyone writing in Kurdish or about Kurdish issues is now liable to prosecution as a sympathiser with the PKK, a group that wants an independent Kurdish homeland. This goes a long way towards explaining why Turkey has 1% of the world’s population but a third of its imprisoned journalists.

Nor is this behaviour confined to the Middle East. Beijing has used a small number of jihadis amongst the Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority living in the remote west of the country, as a pretext to suppress the Uighur culture and religion. Civil servants can be fired and students expelled for fasting during Ramadan, long beards and face coverings are banned, and mosques are routinely closed or demolished.

If we recognised how rare terrorism is, we’d see more clearly that it is no excuse for such widespread abuse.

4. There would be fewer wars

Terrorist attacks are often the trigger for wars that kill vast numbers of people. Hundreds of thousands of people have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11 precipitated American invasions. The assassination of the Archduke of Austria-Hungary was the trigger for the First World War and the millions of deaths that resulted. There is even a real possibility of terrorism triggering a nuclear war, as the most likely scenario for a war between India and Pakistan would involve a militant attack within India being blamed on Pakistan. In all these instances, the resulting wars have (or would) produce massively greater casualties than the terrorists themselves could ever hope to. A more measured, non-military response would save numerous lives.

5. We could do away with security theatre

Security measures that don’t make us all that much safer but do consume our time and money (known as security theatre) are a bane of modern life. It encompasses measures like having to take your shoes off before boarding a plane or being patted down on the way into sports events. Terrorism is rare, so unless measures like these achieve a significant reduction in its probability, or are very low cost, then it’s probably not worth implementing.

I suppose you can argue that security theatre makes people feel safer. However, I suspect that in the long run, constant needless reminders of the threat only makes us more anxious. So, if it’s alright with you, I’d very much like to stop having my bags searched before going into the Natural History museum!

6. We’d avoid unnecessary behaviour changes

The threat of terrorism pushes many of us to engage in a kind of internal security theatre, where we change our behaviour in the hopes of making us less vulnerable to terrorism. In reality, this is just a silly inconvenience to ourselves.

For me, the paradigm example is that after the terrorist attacks in Paris, there was a 5% drop in tourists visiting the city. The drop was much more pronounced amongst some nationalities, in particular Chinese and Japanese tourists, with the number of the latter falling by 40%. This not only denies tourists an experience they were presumably looking forward to – and Paris is objectively a great city – but also puts jobs connected to tourism in danger. Indeed, it seems that the attacks cost the city billions of euros. What happened to Paris was not an isolated incident . It seems to happen after most widely publicised attacks. Often, it happens to places less able to cope with it than the French capital. ISIS’s attacks on resorts in Tunisia resulted in a massive drop in visits to the country. That was especially unfortunate, as its economy is heavily dependent on tourism. An economic downturn at that point would have been especially problematic considering Tunisia was trying to consolidate its new democracy after the Arab Spring.**

While I understand being frightened of terrorism and wanting to avoid it, I can’t really condone this kind of response. For starters, the risk of being killed in a terrorist attack whilst on holiday is like the risk of being killed by a terrorist attack almost everywhere – small. The news brings us coverage of the single or double digit casualties amongst tourists visiting a certain place, but not the five, six or even seven figure for people who visit the same place and are not caught by an attack. What’s more, there’s something thoughtlessly callous about it. The effect is to financially penalise somewhere for being the victim of a terrorist attack. That seems to me to be compounding a wrong.

7. We could focus on more pressing security challenges

Military strengths graph.jpg

My suspicion is that when our current time is taught as history, our priorities will baffle many students. Teachers will have to patiently explain that, as strange as it seems, whilst North Korea became a nuclear power, Russia modernised its military, and China displaced the US as the most influential power in the Pacific, Americans and Europeans were focused on a few thousand religious zealots with rifles and trucks!

As rival states grew stronger, we worried that weak states might incubate terrorism.  We went into many of the least stable and developed parts of the world, and expended our strength fighting messy, anti-guerrilla wars against groups that had no prospect of defeating us.

We have allowed the threat of terrorism to warp our thinking about security in other ways. Donald Trump has branded NATO ‘obsolete’ because it offers ‘no terrorism protection’ as if terrorism was the only thing its members might need defending against.* While a lot of what Trump says is idiosyncratic, the line of reasoning that says ‘it doesn’t defend against terrorism therefore we don’t need it’ is a pretty common one. For example, we often saw the strange argument against missile defence, here articulated by John Kerry, that it would “do nothing to address…a much more likely and immediate threat to the American homeland from terrorists and from nonstate actors, who can quietly slip explosives into a building, unleash chemical weapons into a crowded subway, or send a crude nuclear weapon into a busy harbor.” With North Korea moving closer to developing an ICBM, and missile defence playing a key role in the American response, this view already seems spectacularly short sighted.

We have already made ourselves less safe and the broader world less stable with our fixation on terrorism and the resulting overemphasis on issues in the Islamic world. It is time to take our eyes off the fringe and refocus on more consequential matters.

8. Less of a backlash against innocents

There are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and only a few thousand jihadis. Not only do the bulk of Muslims not associate with groups like Daesh and Al Qaeda but polling evidence shows that they view them unfavourably.  They are widely condemned and reviled, which is unsurprising given that most of their victims are Muslims.

Despite this, ever since 9/11, Muslims have faced discrimination and demonisation. The same research that shows that most Muslims reject terrorism also shows that most Westerners perceive them as ‘fanatical’ and ‘violent’. They have been subjected to hate crimes and even terrorist attacks. They have borne the brunt of punitive counter-terrorist measures and have had to suffer the indignity of an attempt to ban them from the United States.

This issue is not confined to Muslims. During the Northern Irish Troubles, numerous Irish men on the British mainland were wrongly convicted of involvement with IRA attacks on the basis of their ethnicity, thin circumstantial evidence, and confessions the police beat out of them.

Prejudice is closely connected to fear, and if we can calm down about terrorism, then we can probably avoid acts of cruelty against people whose only crime is coming from the same community as some terrorists.

9. We’d all be less upset

Heart watches the news

This is the least tangible point but in many ways the most important. Each of the proceeding eight points come about because of how learning about terrorist attacks makes us feel: deeply demoralised. It makes us feel scared, upset, angry, vulnerable, powerless and defensive. We think it tells us something bleak about our world. But as we’ve established in earlier posts, acts of terrorism are freak occurrences. They take place against a backdrop of decreasing global violence. They are weapons of the weak, not the strong. We cannot stop them happening altogether but our societies are well able to overcome them.

 

 

 

*It is worth noting that the only time the mutual defence clause of NATO’s charter has ever been invoked was in response to 9/11, and that the alliance has played an active role in Afghanistan.

**Though in fairness as the attacks in Tunisia were targeted at tourists, I find the risk calculation that says to avoid the country more reasonable than for Paris.