Thursday, August 22, 2013


The August full moon against the church tower.

After the perfect sunset.

This is a beautiful place.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sweet reason

There is so much data out there, both anecdotal and gathered through systematic study. Anyone who has struggled with their weight would be able to confirm it. Diets do not work permanently; the weight always goes back on. Dieting leads to an unhealthy obsession with food. You can never lose weight beyond a certain point; and that point is never quite low enough. People are different; there are many who guzzle all day and sink the pints at night who remain disturbingly slim. Your shape changes with age. All of these point to explanations for obesity that are both more individualised and more complex. Yet in the popular imagination we are locked into a simplistic, moral narrative. Fat is the product of sin. We haven't left the medical model of the Middle Ages. And so I read this long article about recent research into obesity with increasing interest.

David Berreby swiftly disposes of the moral dimension in both its punitive and profitable manifestations:
Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite.
Followed by:
Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies.
But then he raises an awkward fact:
Consider, for example, this troublesome fact, reported in 2010 by the biostatistician David B Allison and his co-authors at the University of Alabama in Birmingham: over the past 20 years or more, as the American people were getting fatter, so were America’s marmosets. As were laboratory macaques, chimpanzees, vervet monkeys and mice, as well as domestic dogs, domestic cats, and domestic and feral rats from both rural and urban areas. In fact, the researchers examined records on those eight species and found that average weight for every one had increased. The marmosets gained an average of nine per cent per decade. Lab mice gained about 11 per cent per decade. Chimps, for some reason, are doing especially badly: their average body weight had risen 35 per cent per decade. Allison, who had been hearing about an unexplained rise in the average weight of lab animals, was nonetheless surprised by the consistency across so many species. ‘Virtually in every population of animals we looked at, that met our criteria, there was the same upward trend,’ he told me.
Unless laboratory mice were secret sinful binge eaters who had obtained the keys to the cage and could open a fridge, clearly there is something more going on. Berreby gives us an overview of some of the latest theories including a kind of anti-imperialist study of obesity by Jonathan CK Wells, described by Berreby as "the only one I’ve ever read that references both receptor pathways for leptin and data on the size of the Indian economy in the 18th century".

This is all fascinating stuff and should make people pause before engaging in self-punishment or buying into the latest, expensive diet fad. But it won't. We are locked into persistent moral explanations that are fundamentally religious in form. For the wages of sin is weight. Sin can only be forgiven through repentance and suffering. That suffering leads us to eternal bliss - being thin. Only it doesn't. So we have to repent and suffer all over again, whilst the naturally slim gaze down on us with the inherent superiority of the elect and condemn us for our moral squalor.

This way of thinking is pervasive. It is inherent in the economics of austerity and approaches to the Eurozone crisis (see my previous post). All of which brings me to one of my historical subjects, something that I want to write more on - the Freethought movement. Its nineteenth century manifestation saw it as the incubator of radicalism as it sought to remove religious and dogmatic thinking. It is intriguing that by the end of the century many radicals abandoned it and became enamoured with mysticism in what James Webb called the "Flight from Reason". Annie Besant's defection from the National Secular Society to Madame Blavatsky's weird cult, Theosophy, is a prime example. It is from there that we can trace many of the arcane features of modern ideas, from New Age romantic lunacies to the egregious conspiracy thinking of the various 'truth' movements infecting the Internet. Seemingly radical, most of these are deeply reactionary.

Seen in this way, fat is more than a feminist issue. Our thinking on obesity illustrates much deeper concerns about the way we see the world and about our political as well as our personal lives. There are medical and social reasons for attempting weight loss, just don't expect it to last or make you happy. Only being happy can do that. And one of the best ways to be happy is to abandon the sense of shame, guilt and sin that is our intellectual heritage and that can prove so profitable to those bright-eyed evangelists who wish to sell us some nonsense masquerading as salvation.

Hat tip: John Angliss

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Southern comfort

As someone who spends a lot of time in southern Europe and who has learnt to appreciate the benefits of the siesta, I enjoyed this piece from Ed Vulliamy in praise of the Mediterranean lifestyle. It was romanticised certainly, but I like this observation:
And so our August holidays on cobblestones and land where the vine grows become very weird, as people go to play at the way of life their leaders – maybe even they – are destroying. Many of those from Britain, America, Germany and elsewhere this weekend setting off to savour the southern life are the politicians, bankers, lawyers, managers, civil servants, thinktank "brains" – newspaper columnists indeed – who have decided, generally if not individually, that our Anglo-American way of capitalism is the only way to go. Fuelled, it sometimes feels, more by some combination of cocaine, Red Bull and Viagra than aromatic coffee, a cool aperitif and an afternoon snooze.
Once again, we are back in the land of Eurozone crisis as morality drama. The lazy, laid-back latin lifestyle may be pleasurable, but has to be abandoned, regrettably, in favour of adopting the superior northern work ethic. It is easy to think like this as one sits in a comfy chair by the sea, sipping wine and enjoying the fresh food, but only as long as you ignore the early mornings, late nights and relentless hard work that those feckless Med-types have to put in to provide you with your leisure.

The reality is that this is another manifestation of what Michael Young satirised in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy. Young saw meritocracy, a term he coined, as dangerous because it justified material inequality on the basis of the supposed superior qualities and virtues of the privileged. Reducing poverty simply became a matter of reforming the poor to be more like 'us'. Poverty was the result of their failings. Young rejected this. He saw inequality as mainly the product of class, family, inheritance, luck, power and exploitation. Young's point was that the whole idea of meritocracy was a self-serving fiction that encouraged those that initially benefitted from social mobility to pull the ladder up behind them as they felt that their good fortune was solely the result of their personal qualities and not the institutions that supported and promoted them. This way of thinking undermines rival concepts of social solidarity and informs a punitive policy of economic reform as a response to crisis.

August is a tired month. The grass is crisp and dry; trees and plants show the strain of their summer growth and are beginning to take on an autumnal look; waiters and shopkeepers have heavy bags under their eyes as they ceaselessly serve weary workers refreshing themselves in the late summer sun. But most of all, Greece, together with much of southern Europe and Ireland as well, are exhausted by the battering of austerity and its manifest failures. It is time that the austerians took a little nap, ate a leisurely lunch and thought, 'no, I can't be bothered; let's give them a break.' 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Culture and crisis

‘ can you live in a country that doesn’t care about lies?’
Two longer pieces, both worth reading in full. First, is George Szirtes' Guardian article on the attempt to control culture in Hungary by its proto-fascist government.
In a country where party politics has always sought to control the cultural field, the aim of such war is to wipe out, or at least quarantine, the opposition, its ideology, its language, its notions of independence, and – in the case of the current administration – to impose an all-consuming patriotic line whereby only one version of Hungary is allowed to exist.
Secondly, Roy Foster writes a coruscating account of the Irish economic crisis and its consequences where he notes:
In Ireland’s past history, a coming change has often been heralded first in the cultural sphere. This is most obvious in the early years of the 20th century, when innovations in drama, literature and Gaelic revivalism presaged a wider radical critique of the status quo, eventually displacing constitutional nationalism altogether. In the view of WB Yeats, who was centrally involved, the ‘long gestation’ of the Irish revolution was grounded in a seismic shift of literature and art.
And here lies hope. Foster concludes,
The answers are not coming from the politicians, nor from any other sector of the shellshocked Irish establishment. It seems likely that the questions will be raised, and responses floated, from elsewhere, from what Yeats called ‘the cellars and garrets’, where artists and social radicals mingle on the margins of respectable life. Whether the evident anger that fuels them will be transmuted into the mainstream of Irish life, or find its own outlet, remains to be seen.
And there is hope for Hungary too, unless those cellars and garrets are to be replaced by prison cells.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The silly season

It is August. Nothing happens. The papers reflect this in stories about turtles disguised as hamburgers. This is the only way to explain the following two items:
The proportion of people prepared to back the Tory team for economic competence has soared to 40% from 28% in June.
Presumably this is based on a staggeringly impressive growth rate of 0.6% and the start of an artificially manufactured property boom of the type that got us all in the mess in the first place.

And they will be dancing in the streets of Athens tonight:
Greece recession eases but not enough to boost tax revenue
Fabulous news. This means the economy SHRANK by only 4.6% in the last quarter; a triumph for the policy of austerity.

What was that phrase about the tyranny of low expectations again?

Monday, August 05, 2013

War in History

Keith Lowe has reviewed three academic books exploring the experience of soldiers in the Second World War (on American GIs in France, Allied deserters and one based on the diaries of troops who fought in the Pacific war). He starts by insisting that the dominant view of the War is that it was a 'good war'.
Since that day, the vast majority of books, films and TV programmes about the war have perpetuated this fairy tale. In the US the second world war is still called “the Good War” and the men who fought it are known as “the greatest generation”. The Allies are portrayed as a “band of brothers” who fought their way fearlessly into the devil’s lair and lived to tell the tale. The Axis powers, by contrast, are defined by the atrocities they perpetrated: the Rape of Nanjing, the Myanmar railway, the Holocaust. Everyone else – Jews, prisoners of war, the French resistance, and so on – is given the role of the damsel in distress: violated, rescued, and ultimately grateful.
Here we have the mocking tone aimed at those beguiled by an illusion, whilst, despite some important disclaimers, preparing the ground for an exercise in moral equivalence. Of course this view is a travesty of reality and perhaps that is why it doesn't exist outside the realms of popular fiction and the deceptions of the political propagandist. Most of the topics examined have been subject to serious historical (and literary - Slaughterhouse Five and Catch 22 to name but two) reappraisal for many years. It is a classic straw man.

Lowe is quite clear that, "Serious historians have always been sceptical of such mythmaking" and "that No credible historian is ever likely to question the value of the central Allied aim to bring down the Nazi regime". These reservations are welcome, but his review still promotes the myth and invites us to conclude that the books are trying to say that 'they were really all as bad as each other'; a view that he only partly distances himself from.

I think that there are two reasons why we should not be caught in this trap of moral equivalence. The first is that the behaviour of some armies, regardless of private reservations, was qualitatively and quantitatively worse than that of others. Compare the "tsunami of male lust" launched by GIs in France with the mass rape of Germans by the Russian Army, for example. That is even before we get on to the issue of the level of participation of Nazi troops in the holocaust.

Secondly, Lowe quotes from Aaron Moore's study of the Pacific War as seen through the diaries of participants.
Likewise the idea that the Japanese had a monopoly on cruelty is also revealed as a myth. Moore recounts dozens of instances of American soldiers acting every bit as brutally as the Japanese, including hacking prisoners to death, beheading them, and keeping dried Japanese ears or fingers as gruesome mementoes of combat. As Moore baldly states: “in this regard Americans were no different than their counterparts in East Asia.” In fact, the legendary Japanese refusal to surrender was largely due to fear of torture by the Americans rather than out of any particular fanaticism.
This passage obscures a critical issue; whether such cruelties were the result of soldiers' personal response to the horrors of combat, or whether they were the systematic product of ideology and policy.

Ultimately, the review falls into a trap of its own making. War is not good. The experience of war brings out examples of abhorrent brutality, desperate fear, extraordinary courage, sadistic revenge and, at times, acts of breathtaking virtue, such as those who risked their lives to rescue Jews. But it is not good. This is not how we should be evaluating war. No, the critical issue is not whether a war was good, but whether it was necessary.

Historical examination of the actions and motivations of individual combatants make for compelling history. They delve into human behaviour under the most extreme conditions and they show what we can expect to occur in any war. But they do not tell us anything like as much about the necessity of a particular war. Ultimately, the macro consequences of what would flow from the victory of one side or another matter more for our judgement than the horrors implicit in the practice of war. Seen in this light, our picture of the Second World War as a necessary war remains undisturbed.