breaking news from the world of ideas

by Mary Harrington
Saturday, 2
November 2019
Weekend read

In defence of the Illiberal Arts

A dense and provocative long read this week from American Affairs, in which P. Kishore Saval suggests that the current state of exhaustion and deconstructive nihilism in academia and the arts are not the antithesis of our liberal civilisation but its logical consequence:

In its most productive period, liberalism derived its Promethean energy from a revolt against previous hierarchies. But liberalism could not live forever on the borrowed spiritual energies from which it claimed liberation.

When liberalism must actually accept the consequences of establishing itself on its own principles, it finds itself unable to deliver on its promises. Liberalism promises autonomy, but delivers subordination to power. It promises individuality, but delivers the degradation of personality. It promises freedom, but leads to a quest for private accumulation that undermines public legitimacy and great public works.

- P. Kishore Saval
 ...  Continue reading

by Giles Fraser
Friday, 1
November 2019

Should religious leaders tell you who to vote for?

Rabbi Jonathan Romain of the Maidenhead Synagogue has written to the 832 members of his congregation urging them to vote tactically against Labour:

In past elections, never have I dreamt of suggesting which way one should vote. This election is different … a Corbyn-led government would pose a danger to Jewish life as we know it
- Rabbi Jonathan Romain

As it happens, I think he is correct in his analysis. But my concern here is not this one. Rather, it applies to what was originally a nineteenth century piece of legislation ⁠— carried over into the 1983 Representation of the People Act ⁠— and revived a few years ago concerning what is called “undue spiritual influence”.

Back in 2015, this law was used against the then mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, for apparently exerting “undue spiritual influence” on the Muslim Bangladeshi community of East London, and was one of the reasons that deputy High Court judge Richard Mawrey QC used to remove Rahman from office. It matters not that many consider Rahman to be an otherwise unsympathetic character. For this nasty ⁠— and frankly racist piece of legislation ⁠— was first introduced to counter the fear that thick and impressionable Irish peasants would use their vote to do as the Roman Catholic clergy advised them. ...  Continue reading

by Elizabeth Oldfield
Friday, 1
November 2019

Becoming formed as well as informed

As we go into our third opportunity in four years to perform our highest civic responsibility, I’ve been thinking about citizenship and formation. Thomas Jefferson is regularly (slightly mis-)quoted as saying that democracy relies on an informed electorate. It’s often read as an argument for the free press, or other sources of information dissemination – if a citizenry has all the facts, they will make good choices.

Leaving aside “fake news” and the problems of accurate information, scholars since De Toqueville have long argued that facts are not enough. De Toqueville called for “habits of the heart”, social stories and rituals which shape disparate individuals into citizens able to sustain a democracy. Formation, the kind of people citizens are becoming, is as important as information, and even harder to get right. With most adults no longer regularly attending “sites of formation” such as religious services, voluntary groups and unions, our “habits of the heart” are ever more delegated to social media and entertainment consumption- industries not designed, or indeed willing, to bear that weight. ...  Continue reading

by Peter Franklin
Thursday, 31
October 2019

The real horror of Halloween

When I was a kid, trick-or-treating was something that mostly happened in America. And it was from the US that we heard chilling tales of poisoned candy and ‘treats’ containing razor blades. For the most part, these have proved to be urban myths.

But there is one deadly threat that does stand up to scrutiny — the elevated risk of death on the roads. (which is part of Vox media) reports on research that indicates a substantially increased danger on Halloween:

That simultaneous burst of increased pedestrian activity and increased car traffic creates a deadly combination. A study by University of British Columbia researchers looked at 42 years of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data. Halloween night was, on average, 43 percent more deadly for pedestrians than other autumn nights.

Recorded fatalities are much lower in years when the festivity falls on a Saturday or Sunday, suggesting that evening commuter traffic is the biggest source of danger. ...  Continue reading

by Eleanor Doughty
Thursday, 31
October 2019

Spare a thought for the troops whose Christmas just got cancelled

I was praying for a January election. Not for any political reason, but so we could have a Christmas. I knew that if it was held this year, Christmas would be cancelled. And ‘lo, it has been.

My partner is in the army, and yesterday his Christmas leave was cancelled. He is one of the few whose job revolves around state ceremonial events. Most of the time, it’s marvellous — all those shiny helmets, neatly-combed plumes and elegant horses.

It’s literally the stuff of Christmas cards. Ours will have apologies in them this year, as he won’t be going home for Christmas — he’ll be at work, with the rest of the ceremonial troops who now have the second State Opening of Parliament of the year to prepare for. ...  Continue reading

by Will Tanner
Thursday, 31
October 2019

Workington Man must be one part of a coalition

Will Tanner is the Director of Onward, responding to Freddie Sayers’s post about their new report, ‘The Politics of Belonging.’

Swing voter archetypes are, of course, reductive. They boil down the attitudes and demographic markers of an entire electorate to identify a sliver of voters that will have a disproportionate impact on an election, and the constituencies that may turn on their votes.

Workington Man is no different. Following in the footsteps of Essex Man and Worcester Woman before him, he is an artefact of hard data, not political judgement. The archetype is male, white, did not go to university, voted Leave, and lives in a Northern town because, in all mathematical probability, a tonne of polling data says that these are the characteristics that will be disproportionately influential in 2019. ...  Continue reading

by Libby Emmons
Thursday, 31
October 2019

Obama’s warning on wokeness

Obama’s got a message for the kids: quit being so judgy. This is basically what he had to say to those assembled at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago. He called out call-out culture as non productive, and for a man with a legacy of compromise and negotiation, it’s easy to see why the practice of pointing figures at everyone else’s ideological flaws would rankle.

Sitting with a classmate of his daughter’s, on a stage before supporters, he noted that what’s happening today on college campuses as well as in discourse is not actually helping anything. He said that the mindset that has young people thinking “the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,” doesn’t actually change anything, but instead entrenches a mindset that is antithetical to getting any real work done. ...  Continue reading

by Freddie Sayers
Wednesday, 30
October 2019

What about Workington Woman?

Today’s report out from Onward on the ‘Politics of Belonging’ has received widespread coverage and rightly so: the central idea that our society isn’t now clamouring for more freedom, but more security, is spot on.

It’s striking how Will Tanner and James O’Shaunessy, the report’s authors, have presented what is really an existential question that goes to the heart of the culture wars (more freedom or more belonging?) in think tanky terms that the media feel comfortable talking about. It’s based on polling, talks about voters’ needs rather than bemoaning the ills of society, and is presented by Onward, an outfit that is considered safely ‘soft centre-Right’. ...  Continue reading