23 March 2018

Free speech: roots of the problem

BBC’s Julian Pettifer interviewing Jane Fonda in 1970:


In none of those societies [that you admire] have they been able to allow free artistic expression. Do you not feel that as an actress you would be extremely limited in that kind of society?

Perhaps if I wanted to do things that ... You see, when you’re carrying on a revolution ... during the process of change and educating people, removing people from the state of being in which they want to exploit and become rich and get ahead over someone else and things like that ... during that changeover very stringent rules have to be laid down until such a time that the level of the economy is such that everyone is comfortable, that everyone has as much as they could possibly want.

The supposedly benevolent ends justify the oppressive means?

Perhaps this is not very different from contemporary students and academics who want to stifle speech they find unacceptable, supposedly in the interests of ‘oppressed’ social groups.

16 March 2018

Maloja Snake

On BBC iPlayer at the moment is Clouds of Sils Maria, a 2014 film by Olivier Assayas with Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. It shows there is still theatre worthy of the name, even if takes the form of a movie.
Clouds has everything theatre should have: psychological complexity, ambiguity, tension; and lacks all the things theatre should lack: obvious political points, the grimness level set too high, characters that are two-dimensional.

Despite the story being, on the face of it, closely bound up with its physical setting — the Swiss Alps — it is definitely theatrical: the dialogue is the driving force.
If you don’t like theatre, you may find the plot artificial and stilted. If you do like theatre, you should find it moving.

Yet as a film it has two characteristics which I normally regard as warning signs. First, it is almost entirely about women. In spite of this, the flavour is (oddly) more masculine than feminine.
Second, it contains a high degree of “reflexivity”. This is usually offputting, as for instance in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, where the inserted fling between Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep, as actors, is an annoying distraction.
Clouds is about a play, and about acting, and the plot revolves largely around the parallels between the play and the action of the film. In this case, the reflexivity arises naturally and without triggering postmodern ‘irony’.

09 March 2018

A new piano talent

● Here is a new piano talent I would vote for: Vanessa Benelli Mosell. Precision and romanticism — two of my favourite qualities. Not much yet on YouTube to sample, but this Liszt Waltz is a nice example. Or try this Scriabin Etude.

An article on Sputnik by Ivan Danilov is worth a look. Its headline thesis is that psychology professor Jordan Peterson is too nice to lead the culture war opposition, but the article is more interesting for the ancillary points it makes. For example:
“progressive inquisitors” from academia [have learnt] that they can bully anyone with no palpable consequences, and even if they do get caught, they won’t receive a punishment more severe than a slap on the wrist
in modern political discourse everyone to the right of Pol Pot is labeled as being “right wing” or “conservative” or “alt right”

01 March 2018

New article re Ethics and Empire

I have expanded my posts about the Ethics and Empire open letters into an article, on the subject of academic bias and professional etiquette.

the approach adopted by Biggar’s opponents is unethical, and smacks of bullying. The two open letters represent a disturbing precedent. The one from Oxford scholars is particularly alarming, given Oxford’s position in the academic hierarchy, and the suggestion that academics can expect to be ganged up on even by members of their own institutions.

The signatories’ implicit attitude to academic freedom sets a bad example, not just for fellow academics, but for students. [read more]

23 February 2018

The Housewife's Tale

Reuters, 11 September 2185.
A sheet of paper, believed to contain a fragment of the lost novel by Margaret Atwood, The Housewife’s Tale, has been discovered by academics from Oneworld University. The fragment is reproduced below.

Notes for Editors
1. Margaret Atwood was a twentieth-century Canadian novelist.
2. A housewife was a married woman without formal employment.
3. Marriage was a contract under which the parties promised not to sleep with other people.
4. Paper was a wood-based material used to record text.

I awake. The room seems to be brightly lit. I realise it is morning.

There appears to be sunshine entering the bedroom. I had forgotten there was such a thing as sunshine.

Sunshine has often been considered male, as it is an external agent which makes things swell and grow. My friend Lynda used to say she hated sunshine.

My husband George is stirring next to me. Suddenly I feel something hard prodding me. Do I like it? I am not sure.

« « «             » » »

There is something faintly ridiculous about the male organ. I have become jaded about all those fumblings and thrustings, those wifely duties that we were always told would be so exhilarating — liberating, even. Or have I?

Lynda once said that you can get used to anything. But I am starting to feel I have done enough of that sort of thing.

« « «             » » »

It is later. I am in the kitchen, scrubbing carrots. As I look at the carrots, I realise how bright they are, how orange. Agent Orange. That was the name of a poison, used in the Indochina wars, which gave millions of people cancer. The shape of the carrots makes me feel vaguely nauseous.

George comes into the room. He gazes at me kindly, like a grandfather, or a benevolent uncle. I could almost love him at times like this. He does not look at me like most other men, always on the verge of thinking “bitch”.

« « «             » » »

I have a memory of an incident that happened years ago, after I first met George. Or was it last week? He, Lynda and I were sitting in a cafe drinking tea. George went to the toilet, and Lynda whispered something to me, I think it was about foundation cream. When George came back, I sensed he knew Lynda and I had been talking. But he never referred to the incident. We have never discussed it, and I now regret that. The resulting gap between us has become a festering wound, a source of reproach.

Men. One thinks they want love, but ultimately they just want to dominate you. But I am tired of being dominated. Love — what is it, when you get down to it, but gropings and thrustings? You can keep it.

« « «             » » »

Later, George and I are at a restaurant. Suddenly I catch a young man’s eye. I can tell immediately what he wants, and I suddenly realise I want it too. I am filled with a terrible hunger. I must have him. I am willing to risk everything — marriage, status, home. I am about to do something foolish. I wonder if George has noticed anything, but he is blithely studying the dessert menu.

Then a waitress moves between me and the man. When she has gone, the man is still looking at me, full of eager anticipation. But the moment has gone, and I have lost interest.

« « «             » » »

Time is like a boat powered by a dodgy motor. You cannot resist its motion, though you sometimes have the illusion of being given pause to reconsider, to change direction.

When I was a child, my mother used to warn me never to

[end of fragment]

16 February 2018

Orwellian blurring

An ominous trend in speech is the tendency for taboo themes to keep widening their catchment areas. If you criticise any aspect of feminism you must be a misogynist. Finding the movie Idiocracy funny must mean you favour eugenics. And so on.

A recent instance is the attempt to classify criticism of George Soros as being a form of covert antisemitism.

If it is legitimate to criticise Vladimir Putin for allegedly trying to promote Brexit then it is legitimate to criticise George Soros for trying to prevent it. Not everyone thinks of Mr Soros as Jewish. I didn’t — until I read this Guardian column accusing his critics of being antisemitic. Previously, I had associated Soros with being Hungarian, wealthy, making money out of Black Wednesday, supporting post-communist scholarship, and being anti-American.

Trying to bring antisemitism into the Soros/Brexit issue does no one any favours — except those looking for confirmation that we need to have more restrictions on speech.

09 February 2018

Too many students

● Brendan O’Neill, in a column in The Sun, draws attention to what he calls the “Stasi” student unions. Mr O’Neill says the joke isn’t funny any more. It never was, for those on the inside. E.g. the editor of Oxford student magazine No Offence, who was threatened with police action and feared he might be arrested.

A 2016 survey suggested that more than half of university students think it is correct to ban from campus anyone who “could be found intimidating”. By means of relentless propaganda over past decades, the il-liberal elite have managed to shift sensitivities, so that now anything deviating from radical egalitarianism may be labelled offensive or intimidating. A whole range of topics in politics, sociology and psychology have effectively become taboo.

Relatively few people are interested in knowledge and truth for their own sake. Learning to apply an ideology, on the other hand, seems to have greater popular appeal (judging by the history of religion). By massively expanding the student population, the priorities of campus have been shifted away from objectivity and neutrality, towards morality and politics. That may conceivably be good in some ways, but for the quality of debate and research it is disastrous.

● Either my standards are dropping, or BBC drama really is getting better. The Beeb have already demonstrated they can adapt classics in a way that gives priority to art and entertainment over sociology lectures. They have now shown the same for original drama. Six-part series Requiem does an excellent job at keeping high-pitched atmosphere and visuals in balance with strong narrative and characterisation. The supernatural provides a fruitful theme in fiction, but many are put off by the level of grimness which usually accompanies it these days. Requiem is gritty but not brutal.

Key talents behind the camera are Australian writer Kris Mrksa and British director Mahalia Belo.

02 February 2018

Brexit shmexit

The EU is threatening severe restrictions on consumers’ ability to carry out hedging or investing via spread bets and CFDs.

As is often the case, most corporations and wealthy individuals will experience minimal impact since they will be able to find ways round it. It’ll be the little guy that gets nobbled.

The proposed rules are even more draconian than those suggested by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority. In theory, the measures are to protect people from themselves, but the case illustrates how EU “harmonisation” has become an excuse for unnecessary cross-border paternalism.

As consumers and voters, we are free to question the motives of the bureaucrats behind such interventions. Do we want their paternalism? Should we accept their rationales at face value? Are state employees distinguished by an above-average desire for interventionist power, for its own sake, which only requires an acceptable cover story to be indulged?

Those who wish to express their views on this latest instance of EU meddling can can use this website, and have until Monday to do so.

26 January 2018

Peer scrutiny

The second of the two open letters denouncing the Empire and Ethics project — signed by scholars from (inter alia) Cambridge, Princeton, Cornell and King’s College London — exhibits even more contempt and vitriol than the first.

It seems unlikely that the principal problem the signatories have with the project is that it departs from approved academic methodology. That doesn’t prevent them trying to criticise it on those grounds. They object that it is not possible to “demarcate ‘empire’ as a fixed and stable subject”. They complain that the project’s core group “does not represent the diverse constituencies of scholars” working in this field.

These criticisms seem weak, and hardly provide justification for public denouncement. History is plagued with problems of definition and demarcation, yet proceeds in spite of them. There is no principle in academia that a research project must be staffed with representatives from varying schools of thought.

At the end of their letter, the scholars demand that Oxford University clarify

the research protocols that will be put in place to ensure that [the project’s] outputs are subject to due peer scrutiny [...]

It seems the scholars want to make quite sure that the methodologies of the project will meet with the approval of accredited practitioners. Are they (A) merely being helpfully concerned (on behalf of Professor Biggar, and the University of Oxford) that the research should not fail to benefit from the available techniques and insights of modern academic history?

Or are the scholars (B) adopting an exclusionary tactic? Do they suspect (and hope) that “peer scrutiny” would result in a verdict that echoed their own condemnation?

Possibility (B) raises the following interesting speculation. Is academia’s current obsession with accreditation, technique proficiency, peer scrutiny etc. in fact intended — at least in some subjects — to facilitate the exclusion of certain perspectives, i.e. those at variance with the dominant outlook?

19 January 2018

You can’t do history if you’re not one of us

Keith Windschuttle, author of The Killing of History:

“I got tired of leftwing theories and very tired of leftwing people, quite frankly, and, at the same time, the universities filled up with leftwing people. By the 1980s, to teach humanities you had to be on the leftwing or no one would even consider you.”

The historical establishment and the intellectual elite saw Windschuttle as another manifestation of the conservative ascendancy [in Australian politics]. They closed ranks, suggesting among other things that, because he was not a professional academic, he was not a “proper historian”.

From a 2005 interview with the Financial Times.

12 January 2018

Tutors who know best

The open letters attacking the Ethics and Empire project merit careful study. They are revealing, not just about the state of academic history, but about the purposes of academia, as conceived by the current incumbents.

For example, the Oxford scholars — a group which includes three professors of modern history — say that they teach their students

to think seriously and critically about [the histories of empire and colonialism]
yet go on to assert that
Neither we, nor Oxford’s students in modern history, will be engaging with the Ethics and Empire programme [...]

It is interesting that the scholars feel able to announce in advance, on behalf of their own students, and the students of other history tutors at Oxford, a decision on whether students will engage with the project. One might think that the ability to “think critically” would include openness to ideas from heterodox perspectives, as well as the capacity to decide for oneself, independently of one’s tutors, whether a source of information is worthy of consideration. One has to remember, however, that the word “critical” may have a special technical meaning in the context of the humanities.

Here is my advice to undergraduates studying modern history at Oxford. If you want to learn to think seriously and critically, take an interest in the Ethics and Empire research, as well as any other heterodox projects you come across, irrespective of what your tutors may say. Do not commit the same mistake as some members of the history faculty, of writing such projects off a priori.

Of course, in my experience a significant proportion of Oxford students these days are not interested in thinking critically, but merely want to be able to get a good degree and a good reference from their tutors. If you fall into this category, you are unlikely to benefit from considering ideas other than those endorsed by your tutors, and I recommend you stick to those.

In neither case do I recommend repeating unendorsed ideas in your tutorials or exam papers.

05 January 2018

The ‘wrong’ questions

The government is threatening to impose penalties on universities which fail to uphold free speech. Critics argue that the real culprits are student unions rather than universities per se. But do the attitudes of students reflect the ideological bias of their tutors?

If someone had wanted to expose the less visible biases of academics – which may buttress the more blatant ones of student unions – they could hardly have done better than propose a research project on the British Empire. The topic seems to press some of the most sensitive buttons of the intellectual elite.

The Ethics and Empire project, being run by the University of Oxford’s McDonald Centre and led by theology professor Nigel Biggar, claims to be looking at the issue of empire in a less negative way than is usual. This, apparently, is like a red rag to a bull.

The project has generated open letters of indignation from (so far) two groups of academic historians. The letters are aggressively disapproving, and complain that Oxford should not be supporting this kind of research. The first letter is from scholars within Oxford itself – demonstrating that the place is no stranger to political correctness.

“We write to ...

express our opposition to [...] the agenda pursued in [the] recently announced project entitled “Ethics and Empire”
the Oxford scholars say, and go on to hurl a range of hostile epithets including: discredited, bad history, politically naive, swaggering, absurd, caricature, nonsense, useless, polemical, simplistic. The project is said to “ask the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes”.

According to student newspaper Cherwell, the University has responded by confirming its support for the project.

[...] an Oxford spokesperson has now [stated] that the University supports “academic freedom of speech”, and that the history of empire is a “complex topic” that must be considered “from a variety of perspectives”.

They said: “This is a valid, evidence-led academic project and Professor Biggar, who is an internationally-recognised authority on the ethics of empire, is an entirely suitable person to lead it.”
However, Cherwell seems to be the only source for this alleged support, and the spokesperson is not identified.

The signatories to the letters clearly do not like the sound of the project. They express both professional and moral reservations. Curiously, they seem to believe it is right to turn those reservations into a collective public attack.

Perhaps the project’s aim is simplistic, but surely no more so than countless other research projects. And perhaps the approach is at odds with orthodoxy, but so what? Neither of these criticisms are grounds for public denouncement, by people who sound as if they are speaking on behalf of an entire profession.

The Oxford open letter attacks the empire project by invoking (among other things) ideals of scholarship, criticalness, and openness. It accuses its target of complacency, and of making simplistic moral assessments. These accusations smack of hypocrisy. The signatories have themselves allowed simple-minded moral assessment to displace objective enquiry. If they were genuinely interested in “open, critical engagement” they would refrain from stirring up trouble against fellow academics. They would avoid themselves sounding complacent and arrogant about the correctness of their orthodoxy. And they would think twice before making inflammatory statements such as:

For many of us, and more importantly for our students, [Professor Biggar’s views] reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past.
To threaten that the project reinforces unacceptable attitudes towards inequality seems simple-minded. In any case, the possibility that proposed research might strengthen views that are regarded as ethically dubious should not be cause for denouncement. The signatories to the two letters appear to be unaware of this basic principle of academic enquiry. (Genuine enquiry, that is, as distinct from search for data supportive of a preferred viewpoint.)

Consider the following two alternative positions.

A) Enquiry and debate should be respected, even if one disapproves of the viewpoint or approach adopted.

B) It is right to organise protest against research or speech which adopts viewpoints that are regarded by some as offensive.

Which of these two positions are students of the Oxford scholars more likely to internalise, following their open letter? If B, what will this mean for the likely impartiality of social science research when individuals who are now undergraduates become dons? Or, indeed, for free speech at Oxford, which already seems to be compromised?

* * *

Disciplines such as history, in which interpretation is more important than raw data, are prone to ideological capture. Following such capture, they are liable to become intellectual closed shops. Eventually, the only accredited people in such disciplines are unquestioning supporters of orthodoxy, since they are the only ones permitted to pass the relevant ideological tests (though there may always be a few freak exceptions to the rule).

What can be done once that has happened to a faculty or an institution? One course sometimes proposed is for an external agency to attempt to enforce fair access for dissident ideas.

Another possibility is to support projects by outsiders which, while not necessarily conforming to the standards of the orthodoxy – and largely ignored by it – at least let in a bit of fresh air.

Of the two options, the second seems preferable.

15 December 2017

Down the river of hope

Uptrends climb a wall of worry,
downtrends slide down a river of hope.
Are we witnessing the return of classy in the field of television drama? It is tempting to think so.

First, there is Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (creator: Amy Sherman-Palladino), about a Jewish housewife in 1950s New York who turns to stand-up comedy after the failure of her marriage. True, the central premise is preposterous, and Mrs Maisel (magnetic performance by Rachel Brosnahan) seems to come from a different decade than the other characters. Standard TV ideology inevitably makes its appearance: men are jerks, women are nice and sensible, and capable collectively of solving the world’s problems, etcetera. I have not yet encountered any dastardly Republicans, but it’s probably unwise to get complacent.

However, any such minor defects are forgivable because, aside from the top-notch production values, this is the first English-language TV series with genuine pizzazz since the demise of Friends. Marvellous.

Second, on this side of the Atlantic, the BBC has confounded expectations by dramatising a literary work without indulging in the usual level of ideological revisionism. Howard’s End, a 4-part adaptation of E M Forster’s novel directed by Hettie Macdonald, provides a stunning example of small-screen filmmaking as highbrow art: superb on style, but without the poor quality of content that mars so many other visually impressive products. The acting is terrific, and allows for the build-up of complex psychology. It’s thoroughly watchable, even for those who don’t like Forster.

Two sightings of black swans might be interpreted as meaningful. But let’s not get too excited. Every downtrend has its rallies.

* * *

Why does it seem necessary for cultural producers to go back in time in order to show reasonably civilised behaviour? (Though it’s certainly not a sufficient condition — see for example Ripper Street, or Rome.)

The argument that producers reflect the realities of the time they are portraying seems like only partial explanation. Culture does not merely reflect, it selectively reinforces. In the modern era, it is as much cause as effect.

Other reviewers of Howard’s End have felt obliged to comment unfavourably on the socioeconomic inequalities, which supposedly cast a moral blight on the otherwise attractive lifestyles of the cultured middle class. This is standard, knee-jerk stuff.

Conversely, then, we can hypothesise that the dominant ideology requires the suppression of qualities which could be seen as supportive of inequality, at least in representations of contemporary life. According to this logic, politeness (for example) is seen as bourgeois, and as something which should be discouraged in favour of open aggression. Representations of the past may be exempt from this requirement, because the ideology now includes the well-accepted tenet that, on balance, the past can be ignored — it is useful only in providing illustrations of how not to run things.

08 December 2017

number one voice

Who deserves the title for most beautiful soprano voice? Not of all time, of course, just recording history.

“Beautiful” here means: pure, free of distortion, an unalloyed pleasure to listen to. Like a perfectly tuned musical instrument. A strawberries-and-cream voice.

(Not the same as “most expressive voice”, an accolade which might well go to Maria Callas.)

There is an excellent case for Kathleen Battle — particularly when singing Mozart, which brings out her strengths.

Battle made a superb recording of Mozart arias with André Previn in the mid-eighties. You can listen to one of the tracks here.