breaking news from the world of ideas

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 14
October 2019

Sorry Lady Hale, that’s not quite an answer

Back in June, Lord Sumption delivered the Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4. In a series of devastating talks, he charted “law’s expanding empire” – the extension of the law into areas of public life that were previously thought of as being beyond its legitimate remit.

In 1911 there was one solicitor in England for every 3000 inhabitants. Just over a century later, there is about one in 400, a sevenfold increase.
- Lord Sumption

Human rights law, he argued, has been particularly beset by a sense of mission creep.

When he delivered his lectures, he could hardly have imagined how prescient his words would seem just a few months later. The philosophical question raised by Gina Miller’s recent use of the law to thwart the will of the executive in proroguing Parliament was very much a question of the proper balance between the political and the legal. As Sumption warned, the encroachments of law into areas that it previously thought of as outside its concern threatens fundamentally change the balance of our constitutional settlement. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 11
October 2019
Seen Elsewhere

Why haven’t you seen your friends recently?

Back in 1929, the Soviet Union abolished the weekend. In its place a more ‘rational’ and less historically religious arrangement was established. The nepreryvka – or “continuous work-week” – divided workers up into five groups and assigned them all colours, with each group given their own specific day off. This way, production would never cease, with four-fifths of the workforce always on the go.

Socially, the nepreryvka was a disaster. People had no time to see friends; instead they associated by colour: purple people with purple people, orange with orange, and so on. Managers were supposed to assign husbands and wives to the same colour but rarely did. The Communist Party saw these dislocations as a feature, not a bug, of the new system. The Party wanted to undermine the family, that bourgeois institution.
- Judith Shulevitz, The Atlantic

But hasn’t capitalism simply reinvented nepreryvka, Judith Shulevitz argues in The Atlantic, with our hectic work-lives now increasingly directed by the demands of a 24-hour gig economy that has no respect for shared time with friends or the old fashioned idea of the family weekend? ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Wednesday, 9
October 2019

Not a soul on the streets for Yom Kippur in Tel Aviv

This photograph was taken this morning at 8.30 am, in the centre of Tel Aviv, in what ordinarily would have been the rush hour. And when I say there was no traffic on the road, I don’t mean like in the UK at Christmas where a few cars still drive about. I mean none. I wandered around for two hours and saw not a single car driving the streets.

It is not illegal to drive here on Yom Kippur. You can if you want, but people don’t. Even atheists and those hostile to religion respect this. Children take over the streets with their scoters. People lie down in middle of the road, but not in an Extinction Rebellion kind of way. Families wearing white head off to synagogue. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Tuesday, 8
October 2019

When war becomes like mowing the lawn

As Donald Trump announced that he is to withdraw American troops from northern Syria, the military academy at West Point is planning to hold an academic conference later this week on the question of how wars properly come to an end. The conference blurb describes it thus:

2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles which officially ended World War One.  The treaty is infamous for failing to resolve the conflict and setting the stage for World War Two.  As the United States struggles to find resolutions to its two longest wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we will gather to examine the theme, ‘How to End a War: Peace, Justice, and Repair.’
- Ethics of War and Peace Conference
 ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 7
October 2019
Behind the news

Why won’t the Islamic Republics criticise China?

The Middle East Eye is reporting the deepening of diplomatic relations between China and Iran. 

With the United States waging a trade and economic war against both countries, high-ranking diplomatic, military and trade officials from Beijing and Tehran have met repeatedly in recent months.
- Middle East Eye

From China’s perspective, Iran is located at a key intersection between the Caspian Sea to the north and the Arab states to the south, offing a gateway to Europe and Turkey to the west. Iran thus forms of crucial part of the Chinese 25 year plan known as the Belt and Road initiative. This plan for what is being called a new Silk road is already understood to be one of the largest infrastructure projects in human history, and a means of expanding China’s global influence.  ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 4
October 2019

Satire isn’t as powerful as you think

Chris Morris has been talking about satire on Channel 4 news:

“The problem is that we have got used to a kind of satire that placates the court. You do nice dissection of the way things are … and you get slapped on the back by the orthodox elite.”

He doesn’t explain who the “orthodox elite” are. Are they, for instance, the same as the “north London, metropolitan, liberal elite” as referred to by Home Secretary Priti Patel at the Conservative Party conference? – a reference that one satirist, David Baddiel, understood as dog-whistle anti-Semitism:

“Whether she knows it or not, “North London metropolitan liberal elite” is alt-right code — shit alt right code — for Jews.” ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Wednesday, 2
October 2019
Seen Elsewhere

Chinese Christians face real danger

In 1999, the Chinese Communist Party banned the Falun Gong, an ancient spiritual and meditation technique practised by many tens of millions of people around the world. You may have seen some of its followers in the park, with their distinctive slow moving exercises and breathing regulation techniques. They don’t seem especially politically threatening. Nor does their general philosophy of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance. A blend of Buddhism and Taoism, Falun Gong grew strongly in the 1990s, prompting the Communist Party to fear its potential as a threat to its hegemony, hence the ban and subsequent crackdown. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 30
September 2019

Who matters more, your family or the wider world?

Last summer, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a radio programme on a growing ethical movement known as effective altruism.

Singer argued that we ought to calculate moral regard in such a way that we treat all people the same way, irrespective of how close we are to them – irrespective, that is, of whether they are members of our nation, group, or even family.

As he was speaking, I couldn’t help thinking: “I bet you give rubbish Christmas presents to your kids.” I mean, if you treat all people the same, then there is no reason to prioritise gift giving to your nearest and dearest over against a total stranger in a far-away country. ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Thursday, 26
September 2019

Why “Green Growth” is a have your cake and eat it philosophy

I believe Greta is correct when she speaks of “fairy tales of economic growth”. Here she echoes that well-known observation of David Attenborough:

We have a finite environment—the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.
- David Attenborough

But the very people that applaud her for her radicalism are still wedded to the language that Greta so passionately decries. The above screenshot is taken from a Labour Party broadcast from earlier this year.

The same language of growth is there in the Labour Manifesto: ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Monday, 23
September 2019
Seen Elsewhere

The strange phenomenon of MAGA evangelicals

The term ‘evangelical’ has been so distorted by American politics that is meaning is now a million miles away from its historical formulation – so laments Thomas Kidd in a bracing new book Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis.

What began in the eighteenth century as a movement for renewal within the ailing Church of England has morphed into a white nationalist God-and-country movement within the United States, with those who self-identify as evangelicals often not having the faintest idea of its history or how far it has strayed from its roots.

Writing about this book in The Atlantic this week, Alan Jacobs claims: ...  Continue reading