About Charlie Whitaker

Charlie is an architect living and working in London. Increasingly, he is also a philosophy graduate of Birkbeck, University of London. When he is not doing his real work, he puzzles needlessly over news stories and current events.

Instrumentality (in architecture)

A repeated message in current architectural writing is to warn against ‘means-end thinking’, or ‘instrumental thinking’. For example, we might decide that we want to live in a home that has a constant temperature of 22 degrees centigrade, or that ‘has a view to the south-east’, and with these ends in mind, we go about arranging them; we find the means, whatever those are. And this—it’s said—is a bad way of doing things. The warning extends to architectural types; to think of whole buildings as objects serving our purposes—a research facility, a learning resource centre, a shopping mall—is also to practice ‘means-end thinking’. The cost—it’s said—is twofold; the resulting construction will not be worthy of its inhabitants, and worse, we risk “spoliation” of the environment. Instead, architects should aim at a simpler, more direct relationship with places, with people and with customs of inhabitation. Not housing, schools, factories, but dwellings, and gathering places of the community. Not needs met, but people addressed—so to speak—‘in their fullest being’ (my phrasing). Here’s an example of the message, from Dalibor Vesely:

“Architecture has probably never abandoned completely its humanistic role, though in modern times this role has mostly been improvised. That approach may no longer suffice in a changing world increasingly dominated by instrumentally oriented expectations. To preserve its primary identity and humanistic role in the future, architecture must establish credentials on the same level of intelligibility as instrumental thinking, while at the same time it must integrate and subordinate the instrumental knowledge and the technical potential of human beings to their praxis. This is, in essence, my aim in broad outline …” (Vesely, ‘Architecture in an Age of Divided Representation’ (2004), p. 5)

We got here, as I hinted at before, via Heidegger. How? Heidegger’s core project is to provide an alternative to the traditions of metaphysics. Most people—and, you’ll be reassured to learn, four out of five living philosophy specialists, by their own self-reports—believe that there is a world of things with independent existence outside of the mind that experiences and recognises these things: this is realism; the world is real. Most people, but not all people. There is an alternate view, which is that the things of experience are things of the mind, and we should be sceptical of the existence of—or at least of the appearance of—what some might take to be a mind-independent world. There are several variations of this line of thinking in philosophy, sometimes termed idealism, or anti-realism, depending on the version, and all of them tending to have a sophistication which I can’t tackle here.

And there are complications. We also like to predicate of objects that we encounter in experience; for example, we say ‘I see the roof is shiny’ or ‘you’ll find the path is bumpy’ in the confidence that many things are shiny or bumpy: that those things are alike in those ways; they have properties. There is then a range of views about what properties are. When we predicate, do we refer to something somehow in the object, to something mental that groups objects together, or do we invoke something we might call a universal; something external to the mind, and whose location cannot be given?

Heidegger’s approach is to suggest that there is a difference between things existing—mere existence, we might say—and those same things having a certain graspable or connectable kind of being. Things—for Heidegger—have this special kind of being only when experienced by us with purposive engagement; he collectively terms such things ‘equipment’ and describes the special kind of being as ‘readiness-to-hand’ (zuhandenheit). As examples, Heidegger determinedly points to everyday objects, when we use a hammer—when we engage purposively with a hammer—the hammer is ‘equipment’ and has zuhandenheit. As a metaphysical position, this is not realism—in this picture the existence of things is in a certain way conditional on our experiencing them—but it is not idealism either; things retain a mind-independent mere existence. To put it in Heidegger’s terms, beyond our engagement with them, things continue to have ‘presence-at-hand’ (vorhandenheit) as things ‘in’ the world (as the desk is ‘in’ the room, and the room is ‘in’ the university). We may still relate to such things that are only ‘present-at-hand’, but our doing so is a sort of reduction; we come to consider such things, in our detachment, as objects, and ourselves as subjects. When we treat things as ‘present-at-hand’—as only objects of our curiosity—we achieve for ourselves only a less authentic way of being; full authenticity is only found in engagement, in connection with the ‘ready-at-hand’.

Which is all fine. In a way. The philosopher Rudolf Carnap, in a sharply critical piece of 1932 (‘The Elimination of Metaphysics Through Logical Analysis of Language’), argues for much tighter control of expression in philosophical writing than he sees in Heidegger (whom he names). For Carnap, a term such as ‘being’, in philosophical writing at least, must be understood only through its role as an ‘existence quantifier’; a thing x is (or is not)—this is the quantifier—and has property F (or does not have it). Existence is not to be predicated of something; there are not kinds of existence, or kinds of being. My intent is not to try to come to a judgement on this. For my purposes, what is more interesting in Carnap’s essay is what he follows with:

“The metaphysician believes that he travels in territory in which truth and falsehood are at stake. In reality, however, he has not asserted anything, but only expressed something, like an artist. [But] Lyrical poets … do not try to refute in their poem the statements in a poem by some other lyrical poet.”

And I think the implication of egotism in Heidegger is right. Heidegger takes himself to be getting at something of crucial importance. His metaphysical picture is to give a foundation to sciences: “basic concepts determine the way in which we get an understanding beforehand of the area of subject-matter underlying all the objects a science takes as its theme, and all positive investigation is guided by this understanding”. Indeed, his metaphysics is meant to overturn wrong thinking generally; an incredible ambition. In a jarring passage in Being and Time he writes (my emphasis):

“It would be unintelligible for Being-in-the-world to remain totally veiled from view, especially since Dasein has at its disposal an understanding of its own Being, no matter how indefinitely this understanding may function. But no sooner was the ‘phenomenon of knowing the world’ grasped than it got interpreted in a ‘superficial’, formal manner. The evidence for this is the procedure (still customary today) of setting up knowing as a ‘relation between subject and Object’—a procedure in which there lurks as much ‘truth’ as vacuity. But subject and Object do not coincide with Dasein and the world.”

The construction “no sooner was … than it got interpreted” (admittedly here in translation) is surprisingly flat footed in the context of the—mostly—spare and measured aesthetic of Heidegger’s prose; I think it reveals a competitive motivation to his project. A big mistake has been made, Heidegger seems to say; it must not only be commented on, it must be reversed.

And so we get to building. There is also wrong thinking—Heidegger comes to say after an interval that includes a world war and the rise and fall of fascism in Germany—in the way which we build. And there is a better way to build; it can be done, he says:

“Let us think for a while of a farmhouse in the Black Forest, which was built some two hundred years ago by the dwelling of peasants. Here the self-sufficiency of the power to let earth and heaven, divinities and mortals enter in simple oneness into things, ordered the house. It placed the farm on the wind-sheltered mountain slope looking south, among the meadows close to the spring. It gave it the wide overhanging shingle roof whose proper slope bears up under the burden of snow, and which, reaching deep down, shields the chambers against the storms of the long winter nights. It did not forget the altar corner behind the community table; it made room in its chamber for the hallowed places of childbed and the “tree of the dead”—for that is what they call a coffin there: the Totenbaum—and in this way it designed for the different generations under one roof the character of their journey through time. A craft which, itself sprung from dwelling, still uses its tools and frames as things, built the farmhouse.”

By ‘dwelling’ and ‘entering in simple oneness into things’ Heidegger intends his own metaphysic of zuhandenheit: purposive engagement, craft; not our habitual subject-object, or means-end thinking. We may doubt the accuracy of Heidegger’s description; it seems touristic, we may say. What are these houses really like? What has been left out? But it’s the phrase “by the dwelling of peasants” that strikes. Are these real people? Who were they? How does he know of them? What does he know of them? What reports do we have of their thinking? Is the house itself taken to be evidence of that? If not, then what is?

Let’s say that such a house, either as Heidegger describes it, or as we might find one, is evidence of the thinking—of the way of being, to put it in Heidegger’s terms—of its builders. If this is right, then it seems that to do as they did will be to be as they were, at least to a degree. Yet to do as they did asks us to take note of features of the house; these gables, those windows, those beams, etc. But which features are the correct ones to take note of? Are we sure that none of what we see was put into place by means-end thinking? The real history of Black Forest houses suggests that earlier examples were built with living rooms facing the hillside, and not facing out, over the valley, as we might naturally expect. At some time, a switch was made and later examples do have valley-facing living rooms. But why was this done? Can we be sure that no Black Forest farmers simply had the thought that it would be nice to look out at the valley and asked themselves what would have to happen to bring that about? I suggest that we cannot. (And, if this is what happened, I can see no way to respectably denigrate the motivation of those people: if it seemed good to them to have that end in mind, in a very similar way to how it might seem good to us to have it, then all power to them.)

Heidegger, of course, presents his example and then immediately disavows it:

“Our reference to the Black Forest farm in no way means that we should or could go back to building such houses; rather, it illustrates by a dwelling that has been, how it was able to build.”

So what should we build? We stand outside the craft tradition attributed to the Black Forest farmers. What is our own craft tradition supposed to consist of? We will know, Heidegger suggests, if we adopt the metaphysic of zuhandenheit. But note that the farmhouse—Heidegger’s example—now has no real role to play here. We can understand the hammer easily enough; the farmhouse is a much more complex affair. It is probably unsafe to assume that any of its features will guide us; we are instead reliant on first principles: Heidegger’s metaphysics, if we choose to go that way. Some architectural writers seem to work back from ‘Building, Dwelling, Thinking’—finding the picture there attractive—to some of Heidegger’s other writing, coming to support his normative demand—i.e. we should reduce our tendency to means-end thinking—assigning that demand extra weight ‘because Heidegger’ (i.e. it comes from authority) and only perhaps as a last step internalising a Heideggerian metaphysics. It might be better to work forwards: is Heidegger’s metaphysics convincing to you (is it better than alternatives; is it worse, even, than anything; is it—as Carnap seems to think—somewhere between psychology and fiction); if it is convincing, does it give any weight at all to Heidegger’s normative demand as applied generally, and if so, what does this mean for building specifically? If you find his metaphysics unconvincing (or just of no moral consequence), it is still open to you, as a designer, to pursue something we could call a ‘mindfulness approach’, or even a ‘psychology of Heidegger’. In this, we would pay careful attention to things of the world on the grounds that (occasional) simple, direct engagement with things of the world is a good, happy and productive thing. But contra Heidegger, we needn’t think that our mindfulness signifies any great truth. Heidegger objects:

“… this characteristic [of zuhandenheit] is not to be understood as merely a way of taking [things], as if we were talking such ‘aspects’ into the ‘entities’ which we proximally encounter, or as if some world-stuff which is proximally present-at-hand in itself were ‘given subjective colouring’ …”

We are not to give things subjective colouring, he says, except that we can; this choice is open to us.

And we can go further, again without internalising any particular metaphysics; we can agree that means-end thinking is often unsatisfactory, and sometimes destructive. Here, though, I think much more caution is needed. We do not live and work in a world made only by us, or by those near to us; we live in enormous societies with many technical specialisms. Some of these (many of them, even) apply to building. For example, someone has researched the role of radon gas in health, and found out that it collects in basements, and can be mitigated in a certain way; it is very hard to see the ‘means-end thinking’ that has been done here as anything other than beneficial. Similarly, someone has researched the performance of materials as applied to structures, or to fire resistance, with lessons for the way we build. Beyond individual buildings, someone has researched the effects of certain approaches to town planning, to transport planning, also with lessons for the way we build. Even as we retain traditions—if we retain them—we may choose to modify them: rationally, instrumentally. Or we may choose to abandon them: again, rationally, instrumentally. It is a big stretch to call into question or demote  all ‘means-end thinking’ (and still more of a stretch to insist that we all pay serious attention to the phenomenologically-grounded world view of one twentieth century writer): it surely depends on the means, and on the end.

(Cross-posted from my architecture and planning blog: groupbuilding.net)

OuiShare: a modern cult

Always hopeful for something – some event, something – to add to the gaiety of life in this interval consisting of things that do not add to the gaiety: Trump, Brexit, unaffordable housing. Nothing for ages and then, all of a sudden: OuiShare. Two OuiShare ‘connectors’ visited my workplace earlier this week, to ‘facilitate’ with us (I had not invited them; somebody else had). What is OuiShare? Well, you may remember that in Season 5 of Mad Men, Paul joins Hare Krishna, and no one sees it coming:

Cults of the 1960s piggybacked on popular novelties of their era: trips to India, sex, alternatives routes to transcendence. The passage of time has left Krishna followers looking perhaps a bit more distinctive than they’d ideally like, but look at what the Beatles were wearing back in the day:

At root, cults have an offer, and the offer is always warm, inviting, positive. Who could not want? A modern cult of the 2010s will naturally ally itself with modern positivity: technology, sustainability, the sharing economy, entrepreneurship, diversity, companies without hierarchies, a world without borders, a better politics. Enter OuiShare, with its heart-shaped logo:

“OuiShare connects people and accelerates projects for systemic change. We experiment with social models based on collaboration, openness, and fairness. Our mission is to build and nurture a collaborative society by connecting people, organizations and ideas around fairness, openness and trust.”

You think, yes, all good, now can you be more specific? How do you ‘experiment with social models’? Is it with software or something else? Who do you experiment on? Do you have examples, case studies, peer-reviewed papers? Is there ethical oversight? Are you partnered, perhaps, with any universities? And this is where the cultishness starts to shine through. There aren’t any case studies or journal papers, there are no higher education affiliations, there is no ethical oversight; there are only vague ‘our values’ statements, the Ouishare ‘magazine’, uninformative think pieces on Medium, links to TED talks (by others), pictures of young happy people being sociable. You enter this reflecting chamber for a while only to stumble out a while later having grasped nothing. It becomes a relief to turn to your favourite news site and see simple reports; facts and events. Brexit. Trump.

Cults have hierarchies; circles of involvement. They have novices, initiates, and somewhere at the centre, a founder and his or her close circle. OuiShare has this feature. ‘Friends’ are people who might give them a mention. ‘Members’ have signed up, but only minimally; they have given personal details and possibly a small monetary contribution. ‘Connectors’ are fully involved; these are OuiShare’s foot soldiers who carry recruiting, event organising and fundraising obligations in addition to whatever business consultancy services they manage to sell; as far as I can tell, they are treated as independent freelancers even though – and perplexingly – invoicing is handled centrally. Many of their activities are scripted. You become a Connector when you satisfy a recondite ‘333 rule’. ’Core Connectors’ run the organisation, although OuiShare – note – is a flat ‘emergent organisation’ with no hierarchy. Or is it? There is some doubt as to whether the Core Connector role exists.

Cults also feature obscure terminology and revealed concepts. This, for me, is where OuiShare is at its most fascinating and entertaining. Trendy and more or less meaningful language – ‘OuiShare is in permanent beta’ – is juxtaposed with a word you’d likely have to look up: ‘stigmergy’. Some terms appear unique; for instance: ‘lazy consent’ (a moderately sinister voting system bespoke to OuiShare). During their visit, our Connectors had us engage in an obscure ‘1-2-4-All’ process: first you think of an idea on your own – perhaps ‘something you feel is holding back the company’ – then you find a partner colleague to compare notes; then the two of you merge with another pair to make a four and agree an idea to promote; finally, the whole group comes together to discuss the ideas that made it through. (Is this really as democratic as it might at first seem? Who cares, it has a nice numeric mnemonic and we’re on a schedule; let’s go to the next activity, everyone.) Taken as a whole, the mix of terminology – from familiar to never before heard – does useful psychological work. Your interest – ‘I’ve heard of that; it sounds exciting but I’m not sure I fully understand it’ – presents itself for exploitation. As it happens, here are some friendly explainers to help. ‘Well, it means …’ And so on into the mysteries of the organisation.

Where the French-originated OuiShare stresses technology and collaboration, the US-based Ashoka Changemakers stress social entrepreneurship and the environment. The offer is, well, change:

“We analyze the current landscape of a problem by defining the core problems, and mapping them against patterns and trends emerging from the work of leading social entrepreneurs. We take this information from the frontier of knowledge and assemble it, producing a Discovery Framework that serves as a mosaic of strategic opportunities for moving the needle on systems change. We support this with a communications strategy that includes calls-to-action and compelling visuals, deployed through traditional and social media, to activate large-scale changemaking.”

Although less obviously cult-like than OuiShare – there is arguably such a thing as beneficial ‘social entrepreneurship’ – the Ashoka Changemakers nonetheless reveal a model of endless recruitment and expansion. If they disburse stipends to social entrepreneurs, at the same time there is also a price list. For $7,500 they will visit your university campus and conduct a ’360 degree campus scan’:

“… an empowering experience and structured process to assess the changemaking ecosystem at your institution, catalyze deeper commitment among your allies, generate new insights and ideas about what could work at your institution, and get feedback, recommendations, and comparative institutional case studies from Ashoka U.”

Three further steps (with associated costs) will bring your campus to the stage where it can be honoured as a ‘Changemaker Campus’. Perhaps all campuses will one day be Changemaker campuses?

If there is one defining characteristic of a cult, it may be an economic one: a cult expands faster than its payroll. It must do so, or face hard economic limits to its influence. Given that cults do indeed exist – and do expand, or try to – we can ask: what does it cost us? Perhaps an organisation that seems cult-like – such as the Ashoka Changemakers – may on balance be benign. Others, such as OuiShare, may threaten little more than time wasting or make-work for their followers. Not all cults are destructive and not everyone will be asked to drink the Kool-aid.

I’ve yet to witness OuiShare’s second visit to our firm. If they do come – perhaps once more with their anonymous photographer in tow – I look forward to what will be revealed. The thought brightens my day quite a bit, actually.

Wielding hammers

Paul Lewis:

Nearby a group of young men emerged from Haringey and Enfield magistrates court wielding hammers. They had shunned the temptation of the looted stores to break seven windows in the courthouse.

They burned the probation office too. As you will have heard, there have been riots in Britain; in several cities simultaneously. Police forces have been bussed around the country in a whack-a-mole style effort to put the rioting down. They’ve not had any obvious success, but the rioting has now stopped, and it’s time for explanations. OK, the cynical among you might sneer, but the explanations are necessary if there’s going to be politics, and there does need to be politics, for the alternative to politics is rioting (something nicely expressed here).

The British political right – that is, the current administration – has already decided on its explanation: moral decay. If pushed, they’ll extend this explanation chronologically by dragging in the preceding generation; parents have decayed morally; the rioters are those with bad parents. Actually, I think the Tories et al. are on the money with their moral decay claim: it’s probably true that some time before the riots, attitudes for some were a certain way, and that those attitudes then changed, hence the new behaviour. If you want, call this moral decay.

Trouble is, you’re nowhere further forward with explaining the riots. Saying ‘it’s moral decay, that’s what it is’ equips you with nothing in the way of a guide to action. For that, you need some reasonable theory as to what will block – more or less – the development of pro-riot attitudes. The likely Tory response here – if they respond at all – is more prison. More convictions and longer sentences: ‘criminals whimpering in the dock’. A possible second Tory front is education: school reform. Finally – and probably most egregious – there are the proposed benefit withdrawals. The simple, practical effectiveness of all of these is highly questionable; further, such policies promise social exclusion (life history: expelled from school, denied housing, banished into jail) rather than a fix. Having said that, I won’t get into what the alternatives might be. However, I think it’s worth saying this: if you’re going to debate social policy with Tories, you will need some theory as to what caused the riots. Here, I think some people generally opposed to the right-wingers are tempted to stick – sceptically – to moral decay style non-explanations of their own. I’ve picked up three versions so far. Here they are, very roughly:

(1) Rioters just hate the police. Always have, always will. But rioting in some form has always offered this possibility; the rioting isn’t novel in its police-baiting aspect. And rioting is not a constant. This doesn’t happen every summer. So what’s changed?

(2) Rioters are just indulging in a stupid, dangerous sport, like the Pamplona bull runners. They’ve discovered just how much fun it can be to run from a Jankels armoured car. They would have done it before, if they’d known about it. This falls foul of the same objection as (1); rioting has always – I’d guess you’d all agree – offered the possibility of thrills. It also doesn’t explain the looting of certain sorts of shops, the targetting of a magistrates court, the arson at a Sony warehouse full of CDs and DVDs. There’s information there, albeit in some hard-to-recover form.

(3) The riots are just a new way to steal, like ram-raiding was in the 1990s. Innovation in thievery explains what’s going on. This doesn’t explain the non-thieving (but criminal) behaviour we’ve seen. Looters who’ve taken their loot onto the street and promptly smashed it. Rioters who’ve torched the shops they were in the process of stealing from (arson has been somewhat rare, thankfully).

Those are the reductions I’ve seen. All of them attempt to give the riots their full explanatory basis in the attitudes of certain people; that is, the rioters. I don’t think it’ll work, and as I’ve said, it’s not enough for policy. Not if you don’t want to concede that using tougher / better police tactics and getting rid of those who have rioted by imprisoning them are the only answers.

Value chain TV

Back in the 90s, a colleague who’d joined our office from America demanded to know what, exactly, got made in Britain. Nothing got made or done here; that was his basic position. At the time, I thought the best answer was to point to things like aerospace, pharmaceuticals and chemicals. Not so many internationally recognised consumer goods, true, but then a sensible person surely has to realise that certain things such as washing machines – whatever the nationality of the brand – tend to get made and sold locally owing to transportation costs. Now if I’d been smart like Newsnight’s Evan Davis, I could have gone a bit further and eulogised stage one of the value chain: activities such as research and design. These things happen in Britain too. Davis has made a whole BBC television series that describes the value chain in the clearest, simplest terms. I wonder if his examples aren’t a bit dated (ARM, Glaxo) but it probably doesn’t matter: I think it’s good to have the idea spelled out.

Compare and contrast with another BBC series that’s supposed to be about business. Yes, that would be The Apprentice. Now you might object that this is really just an entertaining reality show that trades on the self-destructive antics of eager twenty-somethings, but I’d point out that there’s clearly a strong normative component to the show as well. Sir Alan is the voice of the no-nonsense business-minded serious person. His two advisors are practically schoolteachers. They hover over the apprentices and their default attitude is one of disapproval; you can see it in the set of their chins. Now, every few episodes the apprentices get sent to a Soho consultancy for twenty-four hours in order to get something made. Supposedly the apprentices design things during this time period. An iPhone app, say, or a new perfume. Of course, it’s actually the professionals at those consultancies who do the designing; the timescale being ultra-short, they roll out some basic, reheated product. This is as you’d expect: real design is much, much harder; the difficulty of it underpins the possibility of making money at it. The problem with The Apprentice is that there’s next to no recognition of the reality. The Apprentice view of stage one value chain activity is that you do it by marching into the design studio and ‘giving a steer’ to the creatives, who will then work all night. At the end of the all-nighter, the delegator gets to pluck the fruit; the designed product.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Sir Alan’s company is not so much about computers these days.

Desert dialectic

Rowan Williams:

[we have seen a] quiet resurgence of the seductive language of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor”.

Iain Duncan Smith:

With respect to the Archbishop of Canterbury I have never ever spoken about the deserving or undeserving poor. I don’t believe in that concept. All I say is that the system itself has created an undeserving group, that’s what it has created.”

I’m struggling to understand what IDS is saying here. One way we might read him is this: nothing intrinsic to a population group makes that group undeserving; welfare allocation on its own – and nothing else – determines desert. But this takes away desert as a justification for policy: people are going to be getting pie – or not – just because IDS says so. Imagine if this were the stance with respect to taxes: George Osborne says the top rate is going to go up to 60%, well … because, that’s why. And when it does, you’ll deserve it. Or how about this: low Conservative tax rates have created a deserving group: the low taxed. You wonderful people, you.

In response, IDS might say: yes, of course our policies need to be justified, but that justification needn’t have anything to do with who gets what. When I say that welfare recipients are ‘undeserving’, I’m only saying that people oughtn’t to receive welfare because welfare has bad consequences. It has bad consequences if fifty people receive it or if fifty million people receive it. But what are the bad consequences of welfare? Here, IDS might say that when people choose welfare instead of work, they become apathetic and unhappy: welfare erodes self-esteem just as cigarettes erode your lungs. But someone making this sort of argument has to face the possibility that all kinds of unearned wealth have similar bad effects. Inherited wealth, for instance, or windfall profit. And that’s not a place any respectable Tory wants to go. But perhaps IDS can steer the discussion away from such difficult topics by arguing that welfare is bad because it, uniquely, has bad consequences for everyone. Our over-generous handouts are making the public debt unmanageable, and we won’t be caring about who gets what if the entire country goes under. However, if welfare is rejected for a reason like that, then it’s open for people to argue that welfare should be increased as and when things change for the better. Who knows what the future will bring. Take Alaska’s Permanent Fund, for instance. The Alaskans never saw that coming. Yet somehow I seriously doubt that IDS envisages a future of share and share alike, should the nation be so lucky as to run into big patch of oil, or something.

So what else could IDS say when it comes to explaining his position on welfare? All that’s left – it seems – is an argument that appeals to justice. That is, it’s simply unjust that some people get benefit when they’ve never had any intention of working: the responsible people lose out; they’ve lived carefully, they’ve never been slackers, they’ve carried the load. But then Rowan Williams’s accusation sticks.

On being partisan, while unsure of your own party

The all-you-can-eat reasons buffet is open at the Telegraph. Charles Moore says that tuition fees are unfair on students in general:

The poll tax went wrong because it came in, for many, at punitively high rates, with more losers than gainers. You got the bill long before you got the benefit of better-run councils. Tuition fees may incur the same problem. The loss is certain, the gain uncertain. From the autumn of 2012, the fees will almost triple to £9,000 per year, a sum that less than 10 per cent of the population (and virtually no students) could pay out of post-tax income. So most students will incur debts amounting to more than £30,000.

While also being unfair to those students who happen to have wealthy parents:

If you are a citizen of Bahrain or Brunei or Brazil, you can get your child into a pretty decent British university without his or her grades getting more than a cursory glance, because you will be paying the full fees, for which that university is desperate. That option is not open to British students – an anomaly which Mr Willetts was trying to address with his “gaffe” this week.

In conclusion, a one-two combo of special pleading and mincing:

The Conservative part of the Coalition has made a point of not sucking up to those who Mrs Thatcher used to call “our people”. That may be acceptable as part of the “we’re all in this together” theme of recession. But once “our people” start to feel positively persecuted, they will take their electoral revenge. You cannot build the Big Society – let alone a Tory election victory – by disrespecting the leading 15 per cent of its citizens.

A third of whom can’t afford the £9,000 p.a. tuition fees out of their post-tax income. You also have to ask: what’s the mechanism of this ‘electoral revenge’, exactly? Voting Lib Dem? Voting for UKIP? Labour? Is he still the editor?


When I look out my window, I see no bunting and no sign of any street party. We’re all republicans round here, then. If I were to take a trip into town, to where the royal wedding procession is going to be, I’d likely find a ratio in the order of 3:1 of foreigners to Brits. Still, it’s a morning for reflection. Over at Stumbling and Mumbling, Chris argues (and surely only for the sake of argument) that the monarchy is a good thing. Let me reflect on that for a moment. No, the monarchy isn’t a good thing. Here are my reasons.

1. The monarchy is not politically neutral. Even if the monarchy isn’t explicitly of the political right, whether in custom or belief, royal arrangements and traditions are such that they can be taken advantage of by the ruling party. Best advantage from them is had by a right wing ruling party. Neutral royals with a minimum of clout would have made sure that former Labour prime ministers remained on the wedding guest list, and were visible on the day. Neutral royals would have insisted that the wedding cause only a minimum of disruption to national life. Instead, the wedding is happening on a Friday and the government has declared it a holiday. It certainly looks as though the British Conservatives have an interest in our stopping work to watch what’s going on with the royals; if the monarchy were politically neutral, the ruling party wouldn’t bother much with them. As it is, we find David Cameron saying things like this.

2. The monarchy is illiberal. The royal wedding explicitly promotes the norm of marriage: that’s obvious. But the monarchy as a whole also promotes the norms of heterosexuality, male primogeniture, patriarchy, religious worship, military service, and – last but not least – fixed, titled status distinctions. All of these norms are bound up together in a picture of an ‘ideal life’, as lived by one family. This goes against the liberal idea that we each have a right to choose which values to take up, and which to drop. Titles and status aside (any head of state will have a title and high status) we can ask whether the royal family could at least display a pluralism of values. Could there be a openly gay Prince of Wales and an avowedly atheist Queen Mother? I think the answer is no, and not because that’s what the Windsors are like: I don’t think any family, royal or not, is capable of a pluralism of values to the degree that’d be needed. Compared to the society within which each is embedded, all families are small, insular and parochial. As a consequence, it’s doubtful that a liberal society can tolerate the very notion of an exemplar family. Yet this is what the British monarchy is usually taken to be.

3. The monarchy does something terrible to the Metropolitan Police, who seem to think today is all about the nation coming together to celebrate. In fact, they’ve announced their intention to firmly sit on anyone who looks as though they’re doing something other than celebrating. This, of course, is not how they should be carrying on: a liberal polity would make this clear to them.

4. The monarchy encourages us to accept class divisions. This goes along with the illiberalism, but there’s also clearly something up with the whole spectacle of the monarchy. It’s not just that the royals are rich and upper class, it’s that we seem content to gaze on their wealth and high status. Ordinarily, you might think to ask: why don’t the houses in my street look more like Buckingham Palace? Why aren’t my circumstances better? And is there something I can do about it? If you’re having a royal wedding street party today, you’re probably not thinking any of that: you’re bound up in the spectacle. And that might be the idea. Chalk one up for the thesis of false consciousness.

5. The monarchy discourages human flourishing. Prince William and Kate Middleton are young, active and attractive. In the royal wedding, we see two people in their prime making plans to spend their lives together. Setting the issue of chauvinism of physical appearances aside for a moment, why shouldn’t we celebrate what we see? Well, one national newspaper said that if Kate Middleton hadn’t gotten engaged to whom she did, she would have spent her life in “peaceful anonymity”. But why should that be so? Why couldn’t Kate Middleton have an accomplished life in her own right, and a famous life at that? The monarchy promotes the idea that some people are to receive certain rewards while the rest of us get to watch. This goes beyond simple allocative unfairness. William and Kate’s material blessings are conditional on their acceptance of extraordinarily rigid career constraints. These two people simply won’t get to do the things of which they’re capable, yet they’re to be considered high achievers nonetheless. Their failure is to count as success. This can’t be considered an encouragement of human potential. Specifically, William will be doing token military service for a few more years: after that, he’ll be attending state and establishment social events. He’ll occasionally attend the openings of public works, which could be seen as a limited positive. Kate will be having kids: in fact, she’ll be spending her life in “peaceful celebrity”.

6. The monarchy is excessive. No country with a presidency would close the streets and line them with soldiers for the marriage of the grandson of the serving president. It could all be done with very much less.

7. The monarchy does something terrible to the British media. Have you seen?

Update: I didn’t intend to single out heterosexuality as the norm promoted by the royal family; something has to go first in the sentence order, after all. But it seems to have gotten the attention over here.

Update 2: Here’s a video of Charlie Veitch getting arrested in Cambridge the day before the royal wedding. He was released 23 hours and 45 minutes later, without charge. It turns out that the Metropolitan Police co-ordinated its efforts with other police forces to make a series of pre-emptive arrests (around a hundred?). They detained others on the day of the wedding itself. Altogether, the arrests seem to have been a tactical move aimed at keeping would-be protestors in custody during the wedding, with police powers to detain people without prosecution as the means. However, if no law is being upheld and no crime is being prevented, the effect is simply to stifle expression of public dissent. This is wholly inconsistent with the democratic right to freedom of expression. Since the arrests were regionally co-ordinated, it’s reasonable to assume that the tactic was decided on by police at a high level. It’s also reasonable to assume that they were acting with the connivance of the British government. If that’s so, then the British government has in fact adopted a policy of suppressing dissent. It seems confined to street protest so far. I’m not sure they’d dare push it much further, but we’ll see. Who knew that they cared so much about royal weddings?

Update 3: And here’s another video, this time of the Metropolitan Police doing their thing in support of freedom of speech, in Soho Square, on the day of the wedding. Soho Square is quite some way from the Mall, incidentally. But six guys with a guitar and a megaphone: a threat to the regime? Really?

Velma and the cloud of krypton

Jim Gutshall:

It was coming up 441, when you’d come up the road, you could taste it. Up there around Wickersham Road. And right around the Hoover farm. It must have been that it hit the high spots. I can’t really say anything else other than the metallic taste. My main thing was that taste.

Ruth Hoover:

That night we had little red spots on our arms where we didn’t have sleeves on. … We saw on TV that night where they said, “Take a shower if you think you had any exposure to anything. To fallout.” I was so scared and I was just glad to be out of there. We never did take a shower until the next morning. I was so emotionally exhausted, all we did that night was just lay there and watch for the news on TV. We talked about it later, that we had little red spots on the arms. We talked to our doctor. He said that it definitely should have been washed immediately. We should have scrubbed it. But, time will tell if anything happens to us. There was quite a few over in Goldsboro (who said they saw the powdery substance). There might have been a couple of people on this side of the river (also). But it was really fine. It wasn’t as large as paper trash or anything like that. It was real fine. 

Marie Holowka:

So, I finally got up after struggling there maybe five minutes or so. I walked to the house. I opened the door. I stumbled into the house. I said to them, “Did you hear anything about Three Mile Island?” They said, “No, we didn’t.” I said, “You know what happened to me. I fell down three times before I could come to the house.” I was just something like a drunk. We stayed in the house. It was blue. You couldn’t see anything or nothing. And we were scared. Everything was blue. Everywhere was blue. Couldn’t see the buildings or anything. It was just heavy blue all that time. We closed up our doors. We stuffed rags underneath the door so this wouldn’t come in. But I think it was all the way in. And we stayed there. It was a warm day. It was a hot day. It was so hot. We shut all the windows and all the doors and we stayed inside. And about nine [a.m.] we listened to the local radios. But they wouldn’t say anything. They were only playing Dolly Parton’s music.

From Three Mile Island: The People’s Testament, by Aileen Smith, 1989.

Aaron Datesman at A Tiny Revolution takes the last of these reports and tentatively puts forward a physical explanation: the Holowka farm had been blanketed in radioactive krypton, the emitted gamma rays colliding with atmospheric nitrogen to produce blue light. One of the messages Datesman wants us to take away is that nuclear accidents have hard-to-predict and hard-to-track outcomes. Uncontained fission products may turn up some distance from the site of the accident, in patches, and in harmful concentrations. There are no systems in place for measuring the spread of radiation over large areas; in any case ‘radiation’ refers to three physical processes (alpha, beta and gamma decay), each of which affects human health differently.

And Holowka’s story is terrifying. But then, it would be. It has classic ghost story ingredients: an isolated, rural setting; a malign, home-invading, luminous ether which suffocates its victims. In his retelling, Datesman adds a sucker punch: a plausible explanation that makes things worse. Normally, with a ghost story, you have a rational ‘out’. Someone plays the role of Velma from Scooby Doo, explaining that the floating lights are just illuminated balloons, or something, and the fear is instantly dissipated. Datesman’s role, by contrast, is to make that same explanation intensify the fear; this time, the rational position doesn’t lead to an out: our world really is like this. There really are ground-hugging poisonous clouds that glow, and will kill you.

It’s not that there are no comforting explanations available, and in this next bit I’ll have a go at providing some. Of course, unlike someone who knows some physics and who—in a pinch—can quantify, I can offer only endoxa, shuffled around. Marie Holowka had a stroke; a transient ischaemic attack. She lost consciousness for a while, then—the blood flow to the part of her brain that processes vision having been impaired—she ‘saw’ blue. No one else reported seeing blue. Ruth Hoover and her sister were sunburned: it was unusually sunny for early spring, and they were just outside for too long. And fallout was something they’d been told about since high school. There’d been an accident at the nuclear plant: yes, you’d expect to see fallout. In reality, some ashes from a neighbour’s fire had been picked up on a breeze. Similarly, Jim Gutshall was the reteller of an urban myth: that radiation ‘tastes like metal’. Everyone in the neighbourhood of Three Mile Island got to hear that same story that year. The local doctor had a stream of people coming to him saying they’d had a funny taste in their mouth.

These, then, are my outs, my Velma stories. If you’re an advocate of nuclear power generation, should they also be your outs, your stories? I tend to think not. Plausible, anecdotal reassurance falls far short of what’s needed. Saying that the worried are irrational isn’t warranted. Datesman is right to point out that we are not systematic in how we measure and report radiation. A quick survey of news reports on Fukushima-Daiichi shows significant confusion over the units involved. Milli-sieverts are reported as micro-sieverts, or vice versa (one is a thousand times greater than the other); the odd reference to grays, rems and curies gets thrown in. Some people are sceptical about the informativeness of the official radiation counts; the suspicion is that they’re cherry-picked. But say the reports are honest. Are they sufficient? Nuclear plants may have radiation-measuring devices at ‘the main gate’, but what’s happening a hundred metres beyond the main gate? At a thousand metres? At ten kilometres? Although there are radiation sensors in various places (aircraft carriers, universities, EPA monitoring stations), there’s no grid of radiation sensors emplaced in the terrain. Could there be? The official response to a lack of reliable, fine-grained information—in the context of a known accident—is to announce an evacuation zone. This may be sensible, but how can it possibly be reassuring? It’s surely the opposite: an evacuation zone is meant to be alarming; you’re meant to take heed, and leave. So say you do leave. At what point is it safe to go back? At Three Mile Island, the official evacuation zone was a five mile radius from the plant, and evacuation was voluntary. After a while—it can only be—most of those who left went back. Did they go back because they were assured it would be safe from then on? Core meltdown at Three Mile Island occurred in March 1979: a release of radioactive krypton—a dense gas, heavy enough to settle on dwellings—was authorised in July 1980. There was no second evacuation. There is some good news: this planned release was to some extent monitored. The US Environmental Protection Agency describes how they went about tracking it:

On a large wall-map of the area surrounding Three Mile Island, EPA scientists plotted the trail of the krypton. The map is divided into 16 pie-shaped wedges radiating out from the power plant, with colored dots showing the location of permanent sampling sites. Other markers show the placement of the mobile sampling units, which were kept constantly informed of changes in the direction of the plume by radio contact. … EPA’s two teams were stationed on the east and west banks of the Susquehanna opposite the power plant. A monitoring team from the Nuclear Engineering Department at Pennsylvania State University took measurements at locations further out to provide an independent check of EPA’s samples. The data obtained by Penn State researchers also served as an assurance that the krypton plume was dispersing as predicted and not touching in high concentrations at remote locations.

Assuming this is how it all actually happened—that any findings of high radioactivity during the single authorised release would have been broadcast promptly—Pennsylvanians of July 1980 had a way to assess risk. You’d hope this was the case: it’s hard to see any other way of making the planned Three Mile Island krypton release acceptable, short of a second, compulsory, evacuation. But what about unauthorised, unplanned releases? In retrospect, it’s widely believed that there were several. Marie Holowka says she saw blue on the morning of the accident. On that day—March 28, 1979—there was no EPA tracking. On that day, no one was expecting Kr-85 (or Xe-133, say) to be floating around Pennsylvania.

Generally, the cause of nuclear power generation is blighted by a mix of real danger and imaginary danger, a mix of good information and bad. The responsibility for this is almost always placed on the public and the press. But in such a situation, a non-specific fear of nuclear power generation is surely rational: we, as people who happen to live near nuclear power plants, nuclear waste processing facilities and nuclear weapons factories, have only the most limited and coarse-grained information, no ready way to weight it, and the cost to us of getting it wrong seems very high. Lumping all the non-experts together and blaming them is a poor response: the official information is bad. If not outright inconsistent, it’s ad hoc and tainted with the narratives associated with nuclear deterrence. State (or state-licensed) nuclear power generation is as matter of historic fact closely tied to state production of nuclear weapons and the emergent security state which monitors for dirty bombs and / or suitcase bombs. There’s an attendant diversity of information, whether it’s the old and crude ‘Duck and Cover’ or ‘Protect and Survive’, or something more modern, like this from the US DHS (note: uses rem as its units). The state, or some part of it, attempts to to equip its own citizens with a reasonable survival plan in the case of accident, terrorist attack, or all out nuclear war. There are attempts at systematicity, and the language tends to the moderate. At the same time the same state (or some part of it; perhaps some other part) wants people to know that fissile material can be deadly: deterrence depends in part on spreading this perception. For example, here’s Kissinger (albeit in 2009, long after leaving office):

The danger posed by nuclear weapons is unprecedented. They should not be integrated into strategy as simply another, more efficient, explosive. We thus return to our original challenge. Our age has stolen fire from the gods; can we confine it to peaceful purposes before it consumes us?

So we all know that nuclear is dangerous: we’ve been told. So when is it safe?

This is not another government initiative

So the Big Society is going to get one last push. It was felt to need one. Paul Mason (BBC Newsnight’s economics editor) said:

I’m finding it common among non-politicos these days that whenever you mention the “Big Society” there’s a shrug and a suppressed laugh – yet if you move into the warren of thinktanks around Westminster, it’s treated deadly seriously.

Mason sees this as evidence of a “complete disconnect between the values and language of the state and those of the educated young.” As if determined to prove him right, David Cameron comes out with this piece of third term Blair-speak:

For too long, our country has failed to have a proper debate on how we can make our society stronger and give people more power. Now it is happening. And not just in the thinktanks of Westminster and newspapers of Fleet Street. The big society has been a topic of discussion on a wider basis – from being on the agenda at the General Synod to being debated in front of a live television audience.

It’s pretty obvious that the Big Society has had no positive impact at all on people’s lives generally. The potholes on my street are not being fixed by armies of volunteers. I haven’t knocked on my neighbours’ doors in an attempt to get a new district charity up and running, and no one has knocked on mine. We came up with chairs and quiche for the Big Lunch, yes, but that’s something different.

There have been changes, though. Existing charities have had their state funding cut – they’ll have to re-apply for ‘contracts’ – so for those who volunteered to help out with things some time ago, the Big Society is about being told to do less. It’s the same for local authorities. And I think this is the point. British politicians have their pet projects; the Tories especially. John Major had his national sports academy, Blair had his city academies. And I think you could make a case for privatised rail. These things are still going (with the exception of Railtrack, which got re-nationalised). It’s possible that the Big Society bank will still be going in twenty years’ time. ‘Pet project’ suggests harmlessness: it’d be better to describe these projects as exercises in patronage, where the degree of harm is to do with things like size, take-up, and complexity. Sport: harmless; arguably good. City academies: mostly harmless. National rail infrastructure: decidedly bad.

There’s nothing new about patronage, nor is there anything new about the conditions that traditionally attach. The patron must be satisfied that the recipients are deserving: that they won’t go against the patron’s own ideas about how these things should be done. With the Big Society, the patronage avenues – the scope of the ‘charters’ and the ‘contracts’ – have been defined through the obsessions of the Tory press over the last few decades. Schools. Health and Safety. Local Authority social work. Now, some of the right sort of people, with the right ideas, will be allowed to set up their own state funded substitutes. But perhaps they’ll improve things, and should be allowed a chance? Not if you believe that giving things a chance should be a matter of majoritarian decision-making, and at a local level where possible. Without an acknowledgment of the role of local democracy, the attempt to paint the Big Society as ‘localism’ just doesn’t wash. Big Society advocates talk about empowerment but fling mud at the institutions of local representation: they describe elected council leaders as ‘fat cats’ and local authorities as places where ‘power is trapped’. Established charities don’t fare much better: they’re described by Shaun Bailey – Cameron’s ‘ambassador’ for the Big Society – as ‘civic unions’. The attitude looks well entrenched; the main thing stopping Michael Gove doing end runs around local authorities on schools is the constitutional limit to that sort of behaviour. So I think the death of the Big Society is best understood as the death of a rebranding exercise, not as the end of a policy. The erosion of existing local institutions and the establishment of things like free schools will continue until there’s a change of national government.

(Note: the Americans have something similar: the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.)

(And see also this, at Next Left.)

To slip under the European bailout umbrella

Or in German: unter den Eurorettungsschirm schlüpfen. It’s the tenth-placed expression in the German Language Society’s list of the most important German words and expressions of 2010. Cyberkrieg also made the cut (fourth place). In first place: Wutbürger, or ‘enraged citizen’. All of which we’ve covered on Fistful recently. No one can say we don’t have our finger on the world spirit. I have to say I admire the work of the GfdS here: I feel much better knowing that all it takes for a terrible thing to seem almost humorous is to discover there’s a community of language users that’s fond of giving the terrible things their own special names.