The woe of Brexit

Dot writes: it’s been a whole month since I last posted. In that time I’ve written and given a conference paper, the boys have finished school for the year, Frank has learned to ride a bike (go Frank!), Ken has made a huge amount of beer, the UK has voted to leave the EU, and I’ve listened to some more records. I started to write a post partly about Brexit and partly about the records. It’s getting so long I’ve decided to publish it in two parts – so here’s the miserable political part.

I’ve chewed over the Brexit vote so relentlessly and extensively on social media and in conversation – it’s been a big topic both at work and at the conference I attended – I feel exhausted. I can’t go back over it all again here. But I will say that I started, when the referendum was announced, as a mild Remainer – generally thinking the European project was, on balance, a force for good, a force against insularity, and the only way small European countries could have a voice loud enough to shout against super-powers like the US and China. I was very unhappy with the brutal economic policies enforced against Ireland and Greece in the wake of the global financial crisis, but I still felt that it was better to be part of the EU than not.

As the campaign progressed my views sharpened. I registered for a postal vote, which I hadn’t done for UK general elections. I wanted my voice to be heard on this: it was about not just economic welfare and international power, but values of inclusiveness and co-operation, and indeed my own identity as a British person living in an EU country. I also became more acutely aware that Brexit could have grave consequences for Ireland. The Irish economy is closely linked to the British one; more seriously, the open border between the North and the Republic, and heavy EU investment in the North, are two of the lynchpins of the Northern Irish peace process. Northern Ireland has receded from British consciousness, I think, but there are still bomb scares, there are still marches: this is a place with an incredibly painful history in recent memory. I can imagine people saying that Ireland shouldn’t be able to blackmail Britain with its history of violence. Well, Britain bears a heavy responsibility for that history and will have to continue to deal with its consequences.

When I saw the news on the morning after the referendum, it was with a sinking feeling of inevitability, the same depressed, believing disbelief I felt on the day after the general election that returned the Conservative Party to government. Of course. Of bloody course. I should have known that this would happen. I should have known that the majority of people in Britain would not be like me; that I don’t share their assumptions, their approach, their prejudices (I have my own prejudices); that I just don’t get it; that I don’t belong, or rather that I belong to a minority – leftwing educated people with an international outlook. I had thought carefully, read up extensively, and voted in accordance with my convictions and my understanding of the issues. Other people had – well, they’d come to a conclusion that just seemed wrong. I knew many of them had thought about it at length and were not simply racist or casting a frivolous protest vote, but to me their conclusions were, clearly, wrong. Then I felt increasingly angry. Because now we all have to try to clean up the mess. And it is a mess, a dreary stupid mess. It is the fault of the politicians who should never have submitted such an insanely complex issue to a brute plebiscite; they have been atrociously irresponsible.

No, the sky hasn’t fallen. The pound has fallen a long way, the major UK political parties have fallen to ugly squabbling, Britain has fallen in reputation in the eyes of the world, but the world turns on (getting rapidly hotter, of course, and that’s another thing everyone is going to ignore again while they try to work out the endless legal, political and economic ramifications of this idiotic event). Nonetheless everything has got that bit meaner, that bit more depressing. Ugly fissures of hostility are exposed. And I feel decreasing hope that we will tackle any of the truly huge and urgent issues we face – global warming above all, but also inequality both within countries and internationally. It is ironic that what was surely in large part a gesture of anger from the poor within Britain will probably result in further austerity visited on the poor.



Floods in Britain and Ireland

Ken writes:

England seems to have been hit by heavy floods recently and obviously it has occurred this time in an area that matters. (I don’t watch news on television, normally, but I caught the scrolling headlines on Sky news recently while waiting for someone at the airport). Ireland too has been hit by heavy flooding in Cork and Limerick. Dublin hasn’t been affected as far as I know, and we’re sitting pretty at 31m above sea level.

I’ve read some interesting things about it. For example, Jonathan Freedland writes in the Guardian that it is basically inconsistent for David Cameron to say the UK Government will spare no expense to help the victims of the floods but at the same time impose policies of austerity.

And George Monbiot has some interesting things to say about the causes of flooding. I admit I’m inclined to believe him. He says, essentially, that flooding downstream is the inevitable consequences of policies that discourage land use practices that would soak up the excess water upstream. Farmers have an incentive not to leave hill country forest and bog land to soak up water which means it all ends up in the rivers.

I also read in the Telegraph, that planning permission had already been granted for new developments on the flooded plains themselves.

Surely if these extreme weather events are going to become more likely then citizens have a right to governments who will make decisions based on science and realism rather than investor greed, folly and political expediency.


Dot writes: I’ve been rather mobile in the last few weeks, with two trips across the Irish sea to conferences so far this month, one by plane and coach to Leeds and one by boat, car and train to London. The conferences themselves have issued in a lot of feverish note-making for my book (which is much clearer in my head as a result; I wonder how long it’ll take me to actually write it?). The travelling, and the visits to old friends accomplished along the way, have involved catching up but also comparison. I took a day-trip to York at the end of the Leeds conference and was reminded what an enormously beautiful place it is and what a wrench it was to move away. London makes Dublin seem very small and sleepy (though this may also have to do with the way half Dublin’s rush hour traffic has mysteriously disappeared in the unusually sunny weather). London is in-yer-face huge, busy, booming, and casually stuffed with world class museums, architecture historical, modern and monumental, theatrical offerings of every variety, umpteen universities etc etc – though I did not, in the three days I was there, manage to find a reasonably attractive floppy hat. But these days I always feel relieved to get back to Ireland. Some of it’s relinquishing the strain of travel and returning to my family. Some of it, however, is about Ireland itself.

Places change when you leave them. They change both objectively and subjectively: objectively because time passes and things are built and made over and moved around, and subjectively because one’s sense of normal alters. I grew up in the country and found my first months living in a town claustrophobic and chaotic. The town was Oxford, as it happens, hardly the most grittily urban place, but I remember how I’d go for a long walk up Port Meadow every week just to get away from the buildings. Now when I return to England I find it all a bit much. It’s too crowded, too built-up, and too hectically full of stuff. Everywhere is full of signs telling you to do things or (more commonly) not do things. Every opportunity is an opportunity to buy something. It’s all very shiny but it’s a constant pressure that I feel lifting when I get back to Ireland. Dublin is a city of a million people, but you can always see the hills and you’re never far from the sea, and life is still that bit slower here.

I find myself repeatedly having the same conversations, at the conferences and with the old friends. Basically, they all boil down to: can you believe this government? Who voted for this crowd? Specific focuses are their attitude to the universities, their parcelling off of the NHS, cuts to this that and the other. At least in Ireland the government is cutting things because the IMF is telling them to. I know the current government in Westminster is a coalition and doesn’t have an overwhelming mandate from the people, but at the same time one still feels like a person standing on a sandbar as the tide comes up, the tide being the waves of all the people who just don’t care about the things I care about – like public services, the arts, intellectual inquiry, education for citizenship rather than just for jobs. My friend Suzanne, who was born in the US, says she feels in Britain that at least it’s better there than in her home country. She has had cancer treatment over the last few years and is a big fan of the NHS. But as an academic, despite the brutal funding cuts, pay cuts and staff freezes that we have experienced in the last few years in Irish Higher Education, I feel lucky to be where I am and not in Britain. At least we are spared idiocies like the REF and some measure of the galloping managerialism afflicting our colleagues across the sea.

In light of the above it may make sense that I’m investigating applying for Irish citizenship. However, it’s not really out of a desire to wash the dust of my native country from my feet in disgust. I will never cease to be English or consider myself Irish, though I love Ireland and feel at home here. The real reason, in fact, is that I now only seem able to engage with the public life of my own country in these dimensions of comparison (ooh! isn’t it big!) and jeremiad (it’s gone downhill since I left). I’m not caught up in the detail of it. It’s Ireland where I am personally and constantly affected by political processes, where I’m following the arguments from day to day in the papers and making my own small contributions through my engagement with my students and colleagues (and voting – let’s not forget voting). It’s Ireland, in fact, where I’m behaving like a citizen, rather than just a gossip. So I think it might make sense for this English woman to see about getting an Irish passport.

Bullshit Advertising

Ken writes:
On Bullshit
I picked up a copy of Harry Frankfurt’s little pamphlet ‘On Bullshit’ recently. Frankfurt attempts to characterise bullshitting, to say what it is and to distinguish it from other sorts of speech act such as lying. And I think he does a pretty good job.

To start with, a liar is someone who intentionality tells someone else something that is false or that they believe to be false. They misrepresent in two ways. They misrepresent what’s going on in the content of what they say and they misrepresent the state of their mind, in that they give out that they believe something when in reality they don’t. In this second way, but not the first, they resemble bullshitters.

A bullshitter, Frankfurt tells us, is someone who pretends to be trying to say something true and germane on a subject but in reality doesn’t care whether what they say is true or not. They don’t care about what they’re talking about, but they want to be perceived as someone who does.

The fact about himself that the bullshitter hides, on the other hand, is that the truth-values of his statements are of no central interest to him; what we are not to understand is that his intention is neither to convey the truth nor conceal it. This does not mean that his speech is anarchically impulsive, but that the motive guiding and controlling it is unconcerned with how the things about which he speaks truly are.

Frankfurt speculates that people bullshit when they are called upon to speak about things about which they are ignorant or more cynically when they don’t really believe there are facts of the matters in question at all. Frankfurt thinks that too much bullshitting desensitises a person to the truth in a way that lying does not, for the liar has to think there are facts in question (which they want to obscure from you). Bullshitting, on the other hand, is dangerous because people who do it too often start to cease to value truthfulness.

It occurs to me that a lot of advertising could be called bullshit by Frankfurt’s definition. I don’t mean advertising that is primarily informative, like ‘there’s a sale on toilet paper at Tesco’s’ etc. I mean advertising where there is very little to differentiate one company’s product from its competitors’ so they talk about the qualities of the product, I presume, as a way of getting people to think about the company.

…Our product is made from carefully selected ingredients, from locally sourced, independent sustainable farms, guided through the process by expert team of master blenders, made with passion, the traditional way, using the latest technology, and our patented process, to extract the maximum taste and freshness, to give you exactly the product you expect, that crisp dry thirst quenching sweetness you love… and so on and so on

Some of the descriptions have no substantive content like ‘made with passion’ or ‘the traditional way’ ‘extracting maximum taste and freshness’. Some are true but really mean something more commonplace, like ‘using the latest technology’ which means in our factory or ‘carefully selected ingredients’ which means ‘we choose the cheapest raw materials consistent with the defined specifications of our product.’ ‘locally sourced’ means something, of course, but local to where? the and how nearby counts as local? And some are arguably truth-valueless because they related to subjective, or observer relative phenomena like taste that varies from person to person, but no person is specified.

Harry Frankfurt (2005) On Bullshit Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Beer and the Budget in Ireland

Ken writes:

Ireland’s budget for 2013 was announced yesterday and they put 10 cent (€0.10) on the price of a pint. In Ireland duty is levied per hectolitre per cent alcohol by volume (as it is in the UK). The previous rate was €15.71 per hectolitre per cent ABV. Guinness is 4.2%ABV so, at 176 pints to the hectolitre, the exchequer took 37.49 cents per pint. The increase takes it up to 47.49 cents or roughly and increase of 26.7%. At this rate we are still doing better than the UK where the duty is presently £19.51 per hectolitre per cent ABV or about €24.04. Given that beer in pubs is considerably cheaper in the UK than in Ireland (they’re paying about €4 per pint; we’re paying €5), it is the publicans we need to get cross with. Even with the increase, the duty on a pint comes to less than a tenth its total cost.

The consumer organisation Beoir, which aims to support Ireland’s indigenous craft breweries released this pre-budget representation. I’m a member of Beoir and am disappointed with the position it takes. Last year it asked for microbreweries to be granted the right to sell their produce at farmers’ markets and at the brewery (neither of which happened). Those are still worthy causes, because anything that promotes local small scale enterprise is good. Microbreweries create more jobs relative to the amount of beer they produce than large breweries. The campaign against a minimum price of alcohol, on the other hand, protects the supermarkets against independent alcohol retailers and pubs, and focusses on the bottom of the quality spectrum ignoring the danger of across the board price rises.

Eating Meat

Ken writes:

OK, here’s where I stand now on eating meat. We probably should eat less meat than we do, because, especially red meat, is not healthy in large amounts. But eating meat is not per se morally wrong. Some kinds of raising meat are morally wrong and environmentally wasteful, so we shouldn’t support them financially.

The permissibility of eating meat depends on the good treatment of animals. Only if you can say that a life of domestication is better for them than no life at all is it OK to raise them to kill them, and after a point you can’t credibly say a life of domestication is better than no life at all. For example, I don’t believe the life of broiler chickens is worth it for them (raised in sheds with little or no natural light; no individual space; debeaking; pumped full of chemicals; bad diet).

But I think there’s no question that the lives of sheep and cattle raised outdoors on pasture (as the are in NZ, the UK, Ireland and many other countries) is better than no life at all. They have their needs met. They are provided with food and shelter. If they get sick, they are given treatment. They are given freedom to live the sort of life they are capable of living. They can express their natural behaviour. They have the company of their own kind. Their lives are contented until the day comes when they are taken to the slaughter house. There are a couple of bad things that happen to them before that, for example, mother cows have their young male calves separated from them, and bulls may not actually get to mate with any cows, but compared to no life at all, they still benefit from domestication.

The relevant comparison is between a life of domestication and no life at all. We humans wouldn’t keep them around for charity. We wouldn’t care for them and ensure they had enough to eat and adequate shelter without an associated benefit for us. Obviously, the life of a cow in a ‘retirement home for cows’ that gave them all the benefits of domestication without the final end would be better for the cow, but that is not an option on the table. If there was no such thing as domestication, the lives of animals might be OK, or might be nasty brutish and short, but there would be far fewer sheep and cows than there are under the current arrangements. Potential sheep and cows that might otherwise have a pretty good life all things considered would miss out. They would have no life at all.

(Now, you could come back and argue that this reasoning might justify raising humans as food or for a life of slavery, because it would be better for them than no life at all, but there’s no comparison. The lives of such humans would not be fulfilling for them and would not give them the opportunity to realise their potential. They would be lives of suffering in a way not analogous to the domestication of animals simply because animals can’t suffer in the same way. They’re simpler creatures. So the argument can’t be turned back on humans).

I think factory farms and grain fed cattle are cruel and wasteful of resources. About the only thing that can be said in their favour is that they make cheap meat available for the poor, but then again, people shouldn’t eat so very much meat in the first place.

Another reason why I don’t think vegetarianism or veganism is the moral position is that I’m convinced that it is simply not possible to feed humans without killing animals, even if you don’t kill animals in order to feed humans. Providing grain for food and ale requires killing the pests and vermin that also want it. We’re in competition with them and they don’t know how to share. They’ll eat it all and have more babies, if we let them. Raising sheep and cattle on pasture involves less killing per calories of food obtained than arable agriculture because a single cows provides thousands upon thousands of calories. The individual lives of individual mice mean just as much to them as the life of the cow does to the cow. You can’t say the cow’s life should be worth more just because it’s bigger. So it seems to me the killings per calories comparison has a certain moral moment to it.

p.s. I should say that the person who did most to set my mind at ease on the permissibility of eating meat is a former colleague of mine Shane Glackin, who is now teaching philosophy at the University of Exeter. Most of the above is due to him.

Why I believe in the Welfare State

Dot writes: yesterday in the free paper they give out on the train there was a letter headlined “Why should I pay for your children?” It was a reaction to the scare headlines about how the next budget will drastically cut child benefit (this story may of course be a diversionary tactic to make us accept some other, marginally less nasty measure; or it may not). Today several people wrote in to offer the obvious rejoinder that today’s children will be paying tomorrow’s pensions, though there was also a letter from a pensioner saying that he didn’t see why people who raised children with no help on single incomes should be reduced to penury to assist the modern young etc etc, a typically depressing instance of somebody not wanting anybody else to get anything they didn’t get themselves, and ignoring the fact that pensioners have actually faced comparatively few of the cuts inflicted in recent years. (A plan to means-test the medical card for pensioners was shelved under a storm of protest a few years ago. The thing about old people is that they vote.)

I absolutely hate this assumption that whatever YOU get has been taken off ME, and if YOU happen to need it, well then, you’re just feckless. I think it’s based on two things. No, three things. (1) Fear. We’re all feeling the pinch and we’re just hoping someone else is in line for the pincers this time. (2) The difficulty in imagining a diverse body of citizens as all part of a unit with us and all worthy of our concern. Most of us really only care genuinely about people very like ourselves; which is human but wrong. (3) The pernicious myth of the self-sufficient individual.

Martha Nussbaum (whom I like, as regular readers will know) writes in Hiding From Humanity about the link between pathological shame and an inability to accept one’s human weakness and mortality. The truth is that we are all needy and we all depend on each other. This is true even of the most thrusting hero of business, for what would he (it’s usually he) be without the people who make his clothes, clean his toilets or indeed work for him? OK, he pays lots of taxes, but he can only do so because of people who pay fewer taxes. However, what really bugs me is the assumption that on the one hand there are the responsible people who look after themselves and don’t need help, and on the other there are lazy scroungers. Were we lazy scroungers when we were small children? Are we going to be lazy scroungers when we’re old and frail? If Mr Business Hero’s business goes under because of an economic downturn, is that his fault? If he gets pancreatic cancer, is that his fault too? All of us have periods of dependence; all of us get to take at some times and pay back at others. Some people do depend more than others, and yes, some people are pretty morally contemptible about it. But I’d still rather there were a safety net, because I could easily be the one falling. Even if there is an underclass of useless scumbags (there is – sorry, I’m not that liberal), I’d rather they were living on benefits than gaining their sustenance alternately from crime and the prison system.

Attitudes to healthcare especially puzzle me, particularly with respect to the astonishing hostility to ‘socialized medicine’ in the US, because surely public healthcare is something that absolutely everybody, rich or poor, will benefit from. You pay something into the healthcare kitty, and you can more-or-less guarantee to get something out. You are likely, at the very least, to get born at some point and to die at some point, both of them more comfortably if with the help of trained attendants. Some illnesses are down to ‘life-style factors’, but many aren’t, and moralising illness is an enormously dangerous route to go down. Public healthcare schemes have to face difficult questions about what to fund, but it’s surely better for such questions to be tackled in terms of the good of the greatest number rather than returns on insurance premiums.

What we need to reclaim – or discover – is the sense that the state is us. Not just that the state’s money is ours (and that it is spending it on THAT useless lazy fecker), but that we, the people, decide together what we need and how we can support a healthy, happy society. It must be said that the political classes don’t encourage this attitude, but it needs to be fostered, and not in some crappy cop-out Big Society way. The drift to the right in the UK, I think, has become part of a feedback loop: people don’t trust or feel connected to politicians, so they elect right-wing politicians who reflect their sense that the state is an oppressor and should be shrunk, and who shrink it by making it less socially-orientated, increasing people’s sense that politicians are just rich people who take care of their own kind.

Forward, comrades!