Splinters: August – short essays on the here & now
This month: Nothing but the truth...
UNALIENABLE RIGHTS... Searching for the Amazonian...
Safe spaces for dangerous conversations...
Whatever happened to Dunkirk spirit? Part Three.
This month's splinters:
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by Christos Tombras
On the morning of June 17, a number of curious photos of Boyko Borisov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, leaked to the press. One had Borisov snoozing in bed in the early hours of some morning, with a gun handy on his bedside table. In another, stacks of 500 euro notes were visible from inside the drawer of the bedside table, now ajar.
No-one would be very happy to have their sleeping pictures leaking to the press, even with no gun and no cash. Understandably, Borisov was furious. In a hastily organised press conference he tried to put the blame on his main political adversary, Rumen Radev, an ex-Commander of the Bulgarian Air Force, now President of the Bulgarian state. Borisov alleged that Radev used a drone to stalk him (the two are neighbours in an affluent neighbourhood of Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia).
Responding to the allegations, Radev admitted that he does indeed have a drone. He’d rather not comment on Borisov’s “paranoid fantasy”, though. “My imagination”, he said, “has its limits”.
It was not clear what had happened. Speculation continued for some days, but eventually the whole story died down under the avalanche of other news coming from Bulgaria. After a whole month of peaceful but persistent protests in major Bulgarian cities, the survival of Borisov’s government is now less than certain.
The thing is, nobody remembers the pictures.
Anyway, I was not planning to write about Bulgarian politics. My focus, as promised last month, was going to be truth. I just thought I’d take Borisov’s photos and the relevant speculation as a starting point.
So, what’s the story? Who took the pictures?
Difficult to say. The high tensions between the two men, Borisov and Radev, were no secret. And Radev has a drone, that was no secret either. If it was just a case of finding a person who has both the appropriate technology (namely, the drone) and a possible motive, then we could say we have a suspect.
But, do we?
For example, let’s say that we have established that President Radev has both the equipment and necessary know-how, plus a strong motive to take pictures that would somehow embarrass Borisov. Is this enough to conclude that Radev is the person behind the leaked pictures? Have we found truth?
No, not really. At most, we have formulated a hypothesis. A plausible one, maybe, but still just a hypothesis.
Further questions readily follow. For, even if a drone could conceivably be instructed to enter a bedroom and take pictures, we would need to assume further that it would have to be an advanced, silent drone, or that Borisov sleeps a very very deep sleep indeed. Or both. Still, it would be difficult to explain the picture with the money. Was this also taken by the drone? We would need to assume that we have a very industrious drone, indeed, one equipped with the necessary intelligence and dexterity to open drawers and photograph their interiors.
A bit far-fetched. We cannot but conclude that, apart from any drone, there must have been at least one more person involved, someone with a camera and access to Borisov’s premises. Which then makes our initial hypothesis of the drone-operating President a bit less believable.
The plot thickens.
As soon as you look at it, truth reveals itself to be a much more complicated and multifaceted problem than we originally thought.
At first you think you only have to keep your biases at bay, and keep your eyes open to evidence. But then it turns out that you need something more than eyes. You need an interpretative framework which would help you formulate a hypothesis about all that you see.
Your hypothesis, then, would need to be refined; you would need to make sure that it contains as few extraneous assumptions as possible and that it takes little for granted. You would trim it, so to speak, with Occam’s razor.
Even then you would not be done. You’d also need to make sure that your hypothesis works well vis-à-vis a network of further, not directly related hypotheses that were already at your disposal, describing your whole world in a way that makes sense to you. You would then have to check that combined network for internal consistency. It would only be then that you would be able to claim that you are approximating some aspect of truth.
So, is our job done then? Is this all that it takes? Collecting evidence with no bias; formulating hypotheses using Occam’s razor; and checking for consistency with everything else that we (think we) know about the world?
Would that be enough to help us avoid the pitfalls of relativism?
Hmm.. It would be good if things were so simple. Unfortunately, they are not.
We speak about truth but we have not yet been careful enough to define properly what the term means.
What is truth? Why do we care at all?
This is still an open question.
by Leonie Rushforth
On July 8, 2019 Pompeo, US Secretary of State, established the Commission on Unalienable Rights, tasking it with providing him with advice on human rights ‘grounded in our founding principles’. The commission’s members are his appointees, trusted neo-liberal philosophers, academics and lawyers with proven track records, for example, in undermining women’s reproductive rights.
The Commission’s first report has just been published. It makes clear that not all rights are equally unalienable:
Foremost among the unalienable rights that government is established to secure, from the founders’ point of view, are property rights and religious liberty. A political society that destroys the possibility of either loses its legitimacy.
Announcing publication of the report, Pompeo expanded:
“It’s important for every American, and for every American diplomat, to recognize how our founders understood unalienable rights. Foremost among these rights are property rights and religious liberty. No one can enjoy ‘the pursuit of happiness’ if you can’t own the fruits of your labor! And no society can retain its legitimacy — or a virtuous character — without religious freedom.”
American trade imperatives, fundamentalist Christian precepts, and American foreign policy are to be fused more explicitly and, we might expect, more violently. Pompeo continues:
Never has knowledge of our founding principles been more urgent. As President Trump has recognized, we face many mighty challenges from abroad. Ruled with an iron fist by the Chinese Communist Party, for instance, China seeks to remake the world in its autocratic image and subordinate other nations to its hegemonic ambitions. We can’t confront Beijing or other gross human rights violators throughout the world without understanding the roots of our foreign policy, through the lens of our Founders’ intent.
So we must look through the dark glass of the founding fathers’ vision – invoked everywhere in this document and subtly, wilfully misrepresented – in order to obscure the real interests directing US foreign policy. The strange combination of these two images, roots and lens, lays bare the sleight of hand disguising the assertion of the primacy of contemporary US foreign policy.
The vision of the ‘founding fathers’ as expressed in the Declaration of Independence nowhere mentions property rights or religious liberty. It does memorably declare that the primary rights are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.
In 1840 Matthew Jardine of Jardine Matheson, the primary exporter of Bengali opium into China following the British government’s lifting in 1833 of the East India Company’s monopoly on trade with China, employed the lawyer Samuel Warren to write a propaganda pamphlet on the case for war against the Qing emperor, determined to control the influx of opium into the country. Warren writes over one hundred pages in defence of the British right to trade where and however it pleases and in condemnation of Chinese attempts to limit rampant opium addiction:
‘Our men of war are now, it is to be hoped, far on their way towards China, which shall be “our oyster, which [we] with sword will open.” Then may we extract from the Emperor an acknowledgement of the heinous offence – or series of offences – which he has committed against the law of nature and of nations, and read him a lesson, even from a barbarian book, which will benefit him and all his successors.’
The warships arrived and the first opium war was fought in order to prise open further the oyster of China’s markets and to secure the highly profitable passage of opium into them. One of the Chinese concessions in the treaty of Nanking at the end of the war was Hong Kong, which thereafter became the banking home of the opium trade. A further element was the right granted to Christian missionaries to live and work in five coastal cities, where they became associated with the expansion of the opium trade. In 1860, after the second opium war was fought to defeat China’s efforts to control opium addiction once again and to complete the opening up of Chinese markets, the whole country was opened to the missionaries, and the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank (its contemporary subsidiary HSBC) was founded to manage the vast sums of money being made. Warren and Jardine could not have imagined that among the Emperor’s ‘successors’ would be the Chinese Communist Party and that it would be Mao who, after what became known as China’s ‘century of humiliation’, would finally and successfully ban opium production and use in China.
During his visit to the UK in July, Pompeo arranged for this statement – apparently made in private and asserting that the director of the WHO, Ghebreyesus, had been ‘bought by China’ – to be leaked to the press:
I'm saying this on a firm intelligence foundation, a deal was made... There was a deal-making election and when push came to shove, you get dead Britons, because of the deal that was made.
A British aircraft carrier is currently far on its way to the South China Sea to join US warships patrolling the area.
Searching for the Amazonian
by Iain Galbraith
The door bell rings. Could that be the Amazonian? I leap out of bed and rush out of the flat without my face on (luckily remembering my mask), plunging straight into the long corridor with its eternal red carpets and oily green walls. I hurry but don't run. After some time I reach one of the smaller staircases to ground level, but at the bottom of the stairs I find red and white warning tape barring my path. The builders have removed the bottom steps and there is now a drop of about one and a half metres to the ground. No problem. I duck under the tape and jump. I land perfectly and am about to continue on my way when I hear a voice behind me. What are we going to do now, it bellows. I look back up the staircase and see two portly men in black suits but without heads (thanks to the staircase ceiling). Well, says the other, I'm sure I don't know, but the bloke in front of us just jumped. Ok, says the first, let's do that. I decide to help them and the first speaker bends down and hands me his umbrella. I see his face now, because he is not wearing a mask. It's Boris Johnson again. I don't recognize the other. One of his ministrators, I suppose, with a sergeant’s stripes.
Johnson's umbrella is meant to be Winston Churchill's. That's what they say. But this one has a small button near the top, and I recognize, as if it were yesterday, the ricin-shooting umbrella that killed Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian diplomat, on Waterloo bridge in 1978. Some of these people hang water-buffalo or wildebeest heads over their mantelpieces. Others, umbrellas. Trophy hunters! Like the serial murderer in some Scandi-noir thriller. Iain, he says, as I steady him after his leap. Prime Minister, I reply. But I have to get away to meet the Amazonian, and hurry into the vast concourse which you might recognize as St Pancras, or Grand Central NY, or Kaufhaus des Westens with all but the ground floor blown out, ditto GUM in Moscow, with Shokov's roof but minus the galleries.
At one end of the concourse are enormous glass doors and I can see the crowds outside. Perhaps the Amazonian is out there too. I spring down the steps onto the big square. Everything, every shop, is made of tropical wood; even the ground is. What's this? A blue plaque on the side of a booth saying: T.S. Eliot spent the night here in 1929. Not much time to ponder this news as I head back to the concourse, since I have evidently come to the wrong end of the building. On my way back into the gigantic interior I meet K. coming out. She claims to have bought a coffee for 50 euros in Café St. Mungo. This is a person I have always suspected of extravagance, but I say nothing, and she continues: But I wouldn't go there if I were you, Brits are not allowed. Is that what it actually says? I ask, worried. No, it's in French, silly. It says, Défense d'entrer aux personnes qui heurtent le point. So that's what we do is it, "hurt the point"? Surely only the English, I ruminate. I must find the Amazonian.
And here he is, or rather, there they are. Seven from the Kichwa tribe in the Sarayaku region of the Amazon in Ecuador, on their own in a corner of this global concourse. They are fighting the oil companies who want to exploit their ancestral land. KEEP OIL IN THE GROUND, says one placard, and PROTECT THE PROTECTORS OF THE RAIN FOREST and BLACKROCK AND JPMORGAN CHASE: STOP INVESTING IN COMPANIES DESTROYING THE AMAZON AND THE CLIMATE! DISINVEST FROM CHEVRON! All this because I searched for the ‘Amazonian’. Does Google invest in Chevron and BlackRock, I wonder, and was I indirectly doing so too by googling ‘Amazonian’? I vow to support Amazon Watch.
Has someone rung the doorbell again? I leap out of bed and go to the front door. It isn't a parcel from Amazon but the man to fix the rain pipe. The price he names makes me reach for the wall for support while I catch my breath. Rainwater, surely this is what we need most. Invaluable. Chevron wants to purchase our air? While I am considering the price and asking myself where the word ‘Chevron’ has come from he suddenly unbuttons his shirt to reveal a line of white tissue down the middle of his chest. “There's a pig's heart valve in there now,” he informs me, dabbing his finger at the horrific scar in the jungle of his chest hair. “They've given me 5-10 years. Four of them gone already." I pay the price.
Safe spaces for dangerous conversations: notes on teaching
by Samir Gandesha
My self-understanding as a university professor and teacher owes much to the “Junior Year Abroad” program at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the mid-1980s. A cosmopolitan atmosphere at the LSE bristling with irrepressible energy, conflicting ideas, political disagreement and debate, immeasurably broadened my narrow horizons and was to have a lasting impact on my approach to teaching.
I was exposed to the often radically conflicting perspectives of teachers spanning the political spectrum. The tutor assigned me was the political philosopher Kenneth Minogue, then a senior advisor to Margaret Thatcher, who would subsequently go on to preside over the influential neoliberal Mont Pellerin Society, founded by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman.
My own nascent approach to politics could not have been more different from that of Minogue’s, who routinely took serious issue with my views, was always intimidating and occasionally rudely dismissive. To an extent, the experience was upsetting – it was not an experience I would ever put my students through. However, I will say it was not at all damaging or, indeed, lacking in value. In retrospect, it helped me to grow; as a young intellectual and as a person, it was a provocation to respond in kind, and sharply.
Arriving home in Vancouver at the end of my time in the UK, I read Minogue’s newly published book and wrote an earnest six-page refutation of Alien Powers: The Pure Theory of Ideology, which I sent him. He graciously took the time to write a lengthy response, while adding the subtle rebuke that the study of law might be a better option for me than political philosophy. Ultimately, however, I was encouraged by the exchange. I was learning to rise to the challenge of engaging with ideas I stridently disagreed with in a forceful and reasoned way. And my response was taken seriously.
This formative experience has stayed with me ever since, convincing me that the idea that students are not capable of parrying and indeed thrusting against views that they find objectionable fails to treat students with the dignity that is their due as human beings.
Today’s “student-centered” classroom tends to emphasize safety above all other values. This takes the form of safe spaces, trigger or content warnings, and an exaggerated emphasis on students’ comfort that I suspect flows from the idea of the student-as-consumer.
I am in no way opposed to safety as a rule; however, I hold the view that if this erodes an equal emphasis on the importance of the classroom as a space in which students (and professors) can challenge and be challenged in turn, the university’s pedagogical mission is undermined. Too often, the emphasis on a vague notion of safety becomes inimical to learning – students thinking critically for themselves – which entails, among other things, being gently nudged out of one’s comfort zone.
So, my overarching conception of teaching philosophy is to create what I would call a safe space for dangerous conversations. I mean danger in the way Nietzsche uses it in The Gay Science, where he suggests that “The secret for harvesting from existence the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment” is to “live dangerously.” “Send your ships into uncharted seas!” and “Live at war with your peers and yourselves” are the injunctions that follow. To live thus is to embark on the voyage from the familiar to the strange, to constantly challenge others and oneself in a project of self-transcendence and self-transformation. Yet, as Nietzsche reminds us elsewhere, this charting of “new seas” can only be properly undertaken in a spirit of comity and friendship.
I want to be clear that by the idea of “safe spaces for dangerous conversations”, I do not mean spaces in which students from certain marginalized groups or communities – working class, Indigenous, LGBTQ+, ethnic minority, and so forth – are rendered vulnerable to attack by students from dominant or privileged groups. To the contrary. As someone who has experienced the brutalities of racism, mutual respect is the non-negotiable starting point for all of my teaching and public-engagement work.
My spaces require a relaxed environment characterized by good humour, and therefore a trusting context. Here students can be gradually exposed to, rather than sheltered from, ideas deeply at odds with core and deeply-held metaphysical, religious, political, and moral beliefs, without this entailing a threat to their innermost senses of selfhood. Being so challenged either provokes us to give up a previously held view or, indeed, helps us to better defend it. Either way, the effect is deeply intellectually enriching. This is the secular and rational equivalent to the monotheistic idea of a “test of faith.”
Such an approach to teaching and learning is antithetical to the idea of education understood narrowly as “training,” as the rote acquisition of skills or as a means to a job or career. Students may indeed need to acquire such skills in the course of their degrees at university, but ultimately this is secondary to the importance of their formation and development as persons and as citizens. Students who can speak and write more effectively, who are better able to ask critical questions of themselves as of others, will be better prepared for entry into any career. To put it slightly differently, the extrinsic or external goods of education follow from their intrinsic or internal goods, not the other way around.
When students are able to take more responsibility for their learning in this way, when the conversation seems to flow in its continuity rather than appearing episodic; when responsibility is shared between myself and the students, rather than being mine alone; when the endeavour is genuinely communitarian and collaborative rather than individualistic; an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust tends to prevail. Such an atmosphere is integral to the safety of the public realm in any robust democracy.
Whatever happened to Dunkirk spirit? Part Three
by Rosemary Bechler
'A study in cross-class consensualism; an enterprise which honours the group rather than the individual; and a war film which plays down heroics' – Leslie Norman, Director, on Dunkirk.
At the centre of Professor Summerfield’s complex and nuanced account of the two decades of contestation over the meaning of Dunkirk which saw it acquire “such a formidable position in national memory”, is the film, Dunkirk (1958).
To make this “the most important film in Ealing’s history ” Sir Malcolm Balcon, head of Ealing Studios, “struggled to achieve agreement about the representation of the evacuation.” The contestation hinged on whether or not “Dunkirk was to be remembered as an expression of the ‘people’s war’”, and it had begun “not in 1958 but in 1940”, with Churchill’s ‘fight them on the beaches’ speech on June 4, 1940, and JB Priestley’s first BBC Postscript on the following day.
Churchillian accounts in Times editorials and cinema newsreels portrayed the evacuation as a triumph above all for the Royal Navy, nation and empire. If the civilian crews in ‘Operation Dynamo’ received a mention, it was to insist on the subordination to naval command of the “motley collection of ships involved”.
This was in stark contrast to “the enthusiastic elaboration of small-boat rescue in a succession of wartime broadcasts, publications and films” kicked off by J.B.Priestley’s evocative Postscript, rather popular with the Americans whose support Churchill was wooing. Here the civilian contribution was given pride of place not only as a heroic victory, but as the threshold to the ‘people’s war’. Hollywood films like Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, which topped British box offices in 1942, had a very different flavour from In Which We Serve, directed by Noel Coward and David Lean in the same year, where national unity was the product, not of voluntary civilian participation, but military and naval cooperation and the beneficial effects of social hierarchy.
Arthur D. Divine who published an influential eye-witness account of the evacuation entitled Miracle of Dunkirk in the mass-circulation Readers Digest, bridged the two positions, emphasising the overall control of the Royal Navy, but also praising the civilian boat owners. In 1956, it was Divine who replaced R.C. Sherriff, author of Journeys End (1928), as an accredited scriptwriter for Dunkirk.
Divine added a second civilian boat owner to the Dunkirk cast-list of foot-slogging soldiers which, consistent with Ealing’s ‘from below’ approach, focused on ordinary people “who converge on the sands of Dunkirk, where they learn something about themselves, the enemy, and the failings as well as the virtues of their own nation.”
The treatment set it apart from the hugely successful British war films of the 1950’s which sought to restore British military and masculine prestige after the Suez disaster of 1956. Dunkirk “placed masculine war heroism in a realist social context” using black and white film, into which they spliced wartime newsreel and documentary footage, supplemented with realistic reconstructions that required the considerable use of naval and military ‘facilities’.
Balcon also needed Army support for the Royal Premiere he wanted. All was nearly derailed in 1957, when the military adviser vetting the script for the Imperial General Staff declared that Ealing’s ‘from below’ strategy overemphasised “the chaos and the stragglers”, resulting in a “travesty of a major campaign.” Divine duly attempted to maintain his favoured status at the War Office by writing to distance himself from the script, in particular deriding the two civilians and the central character, Corporal Binns.
Nevertheless, after further reassurances and amendments, this intense exercise in synthesising conflicting narratives culminated in the film whose crowning glory is the working class Cockney Corporal Binns who becomes a leader of men on the road to Dunkirk. As played by John Mills with his unique ability as an actor to cross class boundaries – he had recently played a naval commander and an army captain – Binns is the ‘English everyman’ as a nation comes together, refusing to accept defeat.
“Will no one rid me of this turbulent Priestley?”
The BBC has an Archive on 4 which looks into Churchill’s role in “shoving” JB Priestley’s Postscripts “off the air”, as George Orwell put it, despite their drawing peak audiences of 16 million in the darkest days of 1940 and again in 1941, second only to the popularity of Churchill himself. Churchill let it be known that he, like many in his party, would like an end to the broadcasts, writing directly to the Minister for Information, Duff Cooper, that Priestley’s war aims were in fact “utterly contrary to my known views.”
What was it that so alarmed the Conservatives in 1940/41? We get a taste of Priestley’s anticipation of the Beveridge Report from his Postscript of October 6, 1940:
“We are at present floundering between two stools. One of them is our old acquaintance labelled ‘Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost’… the other stool, on which millions are already perched without knowing it, has some lettering round it that hints that free men could combine without losing what’s essential to their free development, to see that each gives according to his ability and receives according to his need.”
Priestley was no communist. But his war aims were passionately spelt out in ‘A Plan for Britain’ in January 4, 1941, alongside other intellectuals and progressive politicians who set out the social and political changes they deemed necessary in employment, social security, planning, education, health care and leisure, if the land was to be fit for heroes this time around. Which suggests we might do no better than to turn, not to Christopher Nolan, but to Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ‘45’ for the next tantalising sighting, flawed yet profound, of the Dunkirk promise.
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