Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Does Someone at Sony Read this Blog?

Some time back, I described the pocketable tablet computer—foldable, with two screens that could be used as one—that I wanted someone to make. It appears that someone is making it.

Spain: Orwell's Mistake

I have been rereading the four volume collection of George Orwell's letters and essays, and a number of points strike me. One of them has to do with his view of British policy during the Spanish Civil War. On moral grounds, of course, Orwell thought Britain should have aided the Republicans against Franco's nationalists—despite his serious reservations about what was happening on the Republican side. 

More interesting is his view of the pragmatics of the situation. As he saw it, his government's policy was not merely immoral but suicidal. It was obvious that, sometime in the next few years, England would be at war with Germany, and equally obvious that Franco, having been aided in his civil war by Germany and Italy, would come in on the side of his fellow fascists. By failing to aid the Republic and so letting him win, the British government was providing its enemies with key resources—access to Gibralter, air bases near the straits, Spanish territory in North Africa. The only explanation was conservative stupidity; Tories  saw Franco as on their side in the class war while ignoring the certainty that he would be on the other side in the next world war.

Reading what Orwell wrote on the subject from the time of the Spanish Civil War to the early years of WWII, the argument seems entirely convincing. It also, as we now know, was wrong. Franco permitted Spanish volunteers to form a division that fought on the German side on the eastern front, while forbidding them to fight in the west. For a little while, when it looked as though the Axis was winning, he let German ships make use of Spanish ports. But for the most part he maintained Spanish neutrality, even if a neutrality somewhat slanted towards the Axis. He did not attack Gibralter, he did not invite the Germans to move troops through Spain in order to attack Gibralter, he did not provide them with access to Spanish airfields. The Spanish border remained mostly open to Jews fleeing the Nazis, and some estimates suggest that as many as 200,000 of them survived as a result.
An honest politician is defined as one who stays bought. On the evidence, Orwell overestimates Franco's honesty—he willingly accepted German and Italian help during his war but failed to reciprocate during theirs. The conservative politicians whose stupidity he blames for British failure to support the Spanish republicans may have had a more realistic view of the matter.

U.S. Military Expenditure: The Power of Factoids

It is often asserted that the U.S. spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined, and until today I assumed it was true. Then, in an online exchange, someone posted a link to an estimate of the relevant figures. If correct--and it looks like an honest and reasonably accurate job--the U.S. spends on its military a little more than half as much as the rest of the world combined.

I am reminded of a similar factoid that used to be in circulation to the effect that the U.S. had (small) x% of the world population, but  (large) y% of world consumption; y, if I remember correctly, was 40. That turned out to be a true statement—about the situation immediately after the end of WWII, before Europe and Japan had recovered from the devastation of the war. I have not seen that one of late, but as best I recall it was in common use twenty years or more after it ceased to be true.

Hence my title. A purported fact that is simple, memorable, and provides an argument for a position that some significant number of people want arguments for has a power almost entirely unrelated to its truth.

All of which leaves me with an image of an office somewhere, containing a hard working inventor of factoids. Being a professional, he takes all customers. For feminists, a factoid about what percentage of female college students get raped. For conservatives, the number of people who die while waiting for critical operations in Canada. For the anti-smoking lobby, the lethality of second-hand smoke.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

How Real is Religious Belief: Three Cases

A few days ago, for no particular reason, I was thinking about religious denominations—not whether their beliefs were true (I'm an atheist) but to what degree the members believed them, as demonstrated by the degree to which their membership affected their beliefs.

My first case was mainline Protestantism. As best I can tell, in the U.S. in my lifetime, mainline Protestants believed pretty much the same things those people would have believed if they had not been mainline Protestants, the same things college professors and elite media such as the New York Times believed. They were for decolonization, for the War on Poverty, for the Civil Rights movement, against apartheid, ...  . Off hand, I cannot think of a single issue on which the dominant position of mainline Protestants was sharply divergent from the position of people of otherwise similar backgrounds who happened to be non-religious Jews, or atheists, or ...  . Perhaps a reader can offer an example.

Contrast to that Catholics. Early in the 20th century, the Catholic church was the one major holdout against the eugenics movement, the project of keeping the unfit, or less fit, from reproducing, a project whose support ranged from George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill. In my lifetime, it has opposed contraception and abortion. It has not yet, so far as I can tell, come to terms with the now widespread acceptance of casual sex.

For a third case, a little harder to classify, consider Protestant fundamentalists, again in the U.S. in my lifetime. At first glance, they seem to fit the Catholic pattern, rejecting a good deal that the American elite accepts. But there are two qualifications worth making.

The first is that, unlike the (current) Catholics, a significant part of what they reject is modern science, in particular the theory of evolution, which underlies quite a lot of modern biology. The Catholics, in contrast, long ago abandoned any attempt at biblical chronology, accepting evolution as a scientific account while retaining their belief in God's guiding hand—a hard claim to refute.

The second is that my original criterion was not whether people believed what the elite believed but whether they believed what they would have believed absent their religion. For the mainline Protestants, given their typical cultural and professional backgrounds—especially, I think, the backgrounds of their leadership—those are pretty much the same question. But the base of fundamentalist Protestantism, at least so far as I can tell, is much more heavily weighted towards small town, rural populations, people that would be skeptical of the beliefs of the New York Times and Harvard professors whatever their religion was. It is not clear to me to what degree the beliefs of people with that background who happen to be fundamentalists are different from the beliefs of their neighbors who are not.

All of this is, of course, speculation, and not terribly well informed speculation. But it does seem to me that different religions, now and in the past, project very different images so far as how substantial their content is, how important a role it plays in the beliefs of adherents. 

As Orwell put it:
Now, I find it very rare to meet anyone, of whatever background, who admits to believing in personal immortality. Still, I think it quite likely that if you asked everyone the question and put pencil and paper in hands, a fairly large number (I am not so free with my percentages as Mr. Dark) would admit the possibility that after death there might be ‘something’. The point Mr. Dark has missed is that the belief, such as it is, hasn't the actuality it had for our forefathers. Never, literally never in recent years, have I met anyone who gave me the impression of believing in the next world as firmly as he believed in the existence of, for instance, Australia. Belief in the next world does not influence conduct as it would if it were genuine. With that endless existence beyond death to look forward to, how trivial our lives here would seem! Most Christians profess to believe in Hell. Yet have you ever met a Christian who seemed as afraid of Hell as he was of cancer?

Friday, April 22, 2011

Sustainability: Empty Rhetoric or a Bad Idea?

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my university is big on "sustainability;" it has just been having an extended event designed to boost the idea. I responded to an email urging faculty members to introduce sustainability into one of their classes by asking if it was all right if I argued against it in mine, and suggesting that a program which consisted entirely of presentations on one side of an issue looked more like propaganda than education.

To the credit of the people who received my response, their response was not to tell me to shut up but to offer me a time slot in their program to present my views. I did so, with the title I have used for this post. The audience was tiny—so far as I could judge, the talks were mostly attended by the classes of the professors giving them, and I did not tell my classes to attend mine—but friendly. I recorded the talk and webbed it, along with the powerpoints I used.

Sustainability: Empty Rhetoric or a Bad Idea?


My first post on sustainability

Sustainability: Part II

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Orwell on Kipling, A Critique

A commenter on a previous post mentioned Orwell's piece on Rudyard Kipling. It is both more favorable and more perceptive than one would expect of a discussion of Kipling by a British left-wing intellectual c. 1940. Orwell recognizes Kipling's intelligence and his talent as a writer, pointing out how often people, including people who loath Kipling, use his phrases, sometimes without knowing their source. And Orwell argues, I think correctly,  that Kipling not only was not a fascist but was further from a fascist than almost any of Orwell's contemporaries, left or right, since he believed that there were things that mattered beyond power, that pride comes before a fall, that there is a fundamental mistake in 
heathen heart that puts her trust
In reeking tube and iron shard,
All valiant dust that builds on dust,
And guarding, calls not Thee to guard,
There is a good deal of truth in Orwell's discussion, but I think it is mistaken in two different ways, one having to do with Kipling's view of the world, one with his art.

On the first, Orwell writes:
It is no use claiming, for instance, that when Kipling describes a British soldier beating a ‘nigger’ with a cleaning rod in order to get money out of him, he is acting merely as a reporter and does not necessarily approve what he describes. There is not the slightest sign anywhere in Kipling’s work that he disapproves of that kind of conduct — on the contrary, there is a definite strain of sadism in him, over and above the brutality which a writer of that type has to have. 
 There are passages in Kipling—not Loot, the poem Orwell quotes, but bits of Stalky and Company—which support the charge of a "strain of sadism." But the central element which Orwell is misreading is not sadism but realism. Soldiers loot when given the opportunity, and there is no point to pretending they don't. School boys beat each other up. Schoolmasters puff up their own importance by abusing their authority to ridicule the boys they are supposed to be teaching. Life is not fair. And Kipling's attitude, I think made quite clear in Stalky and Company, is that complaining about it is not only a waste of time but a confession of weakness. You should shut up and deal with it instead.

A second, and to me more important, error in Orwell's essay is his underestimate of Kipling as an artist, both poet and short story writer. Responding to Elliot's claim that Kipling wrote verse rather than poetry, Orwell responds that Kipling was actually a good bad poet:
What (Elliot) does not say, and what I think one ought to start by saying in any discussion of Kipling, is that most of Kipling’s verse is so horribly vulgar that it gives one the same sensation as one gets from watching a third-rate music-hall performer recite ‘The Pigtail of Wu Fang Fu’ with the purple limelight on his face, AND yet there is much of it that is capable of giving pleasure to people who know what poetry means. At his worst, and also his most vital, in poems like ‘Gunga Din’ or ‘Danny Deever’, Kipling is almost a shameful pleasure, like the taste for cheap sweets that some people secretly carry into middle life. But even with his best passages one has the same sense of being seduced by something spurious, and yet unquestionably seduced. 
I am left with the suspicion that Orwell is basing his opinion almost entirely on Kipling's best known poems, such as the two he cites here. Kipling was a popular writer, hence his best known pieces are  those most accessible to a wide range of readers. He did indeed use his very considerable talents to tell stories and to make simple and compelling arguments, but that is not all he did. There is no way to objectively prove that Kipling wrote quite a lot of good poetry, and Orwell, unfortunately, is no longer around to prove it to, but I can at least offer a few examples:

The Mary Gloster: This is Kipling's version of a Browning monolog, and I think better than any of Browning's.

Hymn of Breaking Strain: A modern poem in a sense in which most modern poetry isn't; the central metaphor is the table of breaking strains at the back of an engineering handbook.

The Palace: Kipling's modest account, if I read it correctly, of the function of his own art. "After me cometh a builder. Tell him, I too have known."

Sestina of the Tramp Royal: Writing a sestina, a form in which every verse has the same end words with the order permuted, and not being obvious about it is a non-trivial project; Kipling makes it look effortless.

The Song of the Men's Side: The story this accompanies, The Knife and the Naked Chalk, is told by a member of a tribe of stone age shepherds who bought for his people the knowledge of how to make bronze knives with which to defend themselves and their sheep—and paid for it with an eye. The poem is the same story from the point of view of the tribe. In both, the central point is that the real cost is not the loss of his eye but the loss of his status as a human being; his fellows now regard him, and treat him, as a god.

And, for an example of technical virtuosity in the use of rhythm, these lines from The Last Suttee:
We drove the great gates home apace:
    White hands were on the sill:
But ere the rush of the unseen feet
Had reached the turn to the open street,
The bars shot down, the guard-drum beat --
    We held the dovecot still.
A few more points are worth making about the Orwell essay. One is that Orwell, as usual, overestimates his own understanding of economics, with the consequence here that he is too confident that Kipling misunderstood the nature of the British Empire. Another is that Orwell shows no sign of having read the works of Kipling with which one would expect him to be most in sympathy, the short stories about English history in Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies. The stories he discusses are the early ones that first made Kipling famous. 

Stranger still, Orwell not only does not mention Kim, Kipling's one really successful novel, he apparently does not know that it (or Captains Courageous) was ever written, since he refers to The Light that Failed as Kipling's "solitary novel."

Friday, April 08, 2011

Nicholas Kristof Gets His History Backwards

In a column in the New York Times, he writes:

"But one of the most basic principles of economics is that when an economy is anemic, governments should use deficit spending as a fiscal stimulus, even though that means an increase in debt. If Senator Rubio believes that the response to a weak economy is to slash spending, he is embracing the approach that Herbert Hoover discredited 80 years ago."

Kristof has his historical facts precisely backwards. From 1929 to 1932  federal spending increased by 50% in nominal terms, doubled in real terms, tripled relative to national income. Judged by that measure, Herbert Hoover makes Barack Obama look like a fiscal conservative.

Kristof is not the only one to subscribe to this particular historical myth. Just over a year ago, I wrote a op-ed that appeared in several places, responding to the same mistake made by David Frum, a conservative commentator.

As I pointed out there, we do have an example of a Republican president who responded to a surge in unemployment in the way they think Hoover did. From 1920 to 1921, unemployment rose from 5.2% to 11.7%, almost as sharp an increase as from 1930 to 1931. Harding responded by sharply cutting spending. By 1922, federal expenditure relative to national income had dropped almost fifty percent.

And the unemployment rate was back down to 2.4%.

That does not prove that Kristof's (and Frum's) view of the relevant economics is wrong; proof is hard to come by on such questions. Perhaps there were other features of the two episodes that explain why the Great Depression that happened in the thirties did not happen in the twenties. But both of them chose to base their argument on historical facts, and the historical facts are the exact opposite of what they claim.

Monday, April 04, 2011

In Praise of the Turks

According to recent news stories, a Turkish hospital ship has taken on board 250 wounded from the fighting in Misrata:
Turkey's foreign minister ordered the ship into Misrata after it spent four days out at sea waiting in vain for port authorities to give permission to dock, said Ali Akin, head of consular affairs with the Turkish foreign ministry.

It arrived under cover from 10 Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jets and two Navy frigates, he told Reuters. 
These people take their humanitarianism seriously.