Thursday 21 April, 2022

The shards of geological time

Maghera, Co Donegal.

Quote of the Day

”Between two evils, I always pick the one I never tried before.”

  • Mae West

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Finbarr Furey | Nearer my God to Thee


First time I’ve heard him play this. Short and sweet.

Long Read of the Day

Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

And why it’s not just a phase.

You need to make an appointment with this long, long essay by Jonathan Haidt. It’s the most sustained attempt I’ve found in non-book form to try and encompass the overall impact of social media on democracy. Admittedly, its prime focus is American democracy, and it may be that that dilutes its relevance for other countries and cultures. But it’s definitely worth your time.

Here’s how it opens:

The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.

Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?

There have been all kinds of pushback against the essay — see, for example here. To date, I haven’t found them convincing, or willing to take his on argument on its own ground.

New York Times has a new pontiff

Nice Politico column by Jack Shafer:

The New York Times crowned a new pope this morning, Joseph Kahn, making him executive editor starting in June. Like the modern Vatican, the Times doesn’t wait for its maximum leader to die before appointing a new one. There will be no coronation mass for Kahn as he takes the top editorial position at the paper in June. Nor will he be bestowed a papal tiara or deliver a pontifical blessing. Having served as retiring Executive Editor Dean Baquet’s understudy since 2016, he will move in, Baquet will move out, and the Times will have turned. Executive editors come and go. Only the Times remains.

As the new pope of the Times, Kahn will wield astonishing power. He will order and kill stories with kingly authority. He will determine not only his paper’s news agenda but that of journalism’s lesser priests, who will await his news judgment before expressing their own. He will hire and make careers. He will fire and break them. He will become a permanent resident in the minds of the paper’s 1,750 newsroom staffers, who will spend half their workdays wondering what he wants and how to please him.

But unlike Rome’s top priest, it seems that the Times pope doesn’t flex absolute power over his institution.

Imperial delusions

Buried deep in the collective psyche of Middle England (and of its ruling elites) is a bad case of Imperial nostalgia, or at any rate a conviction that, on balance, the British Empire had been a civilising force in the world. It’s one of the reasons why the risk of Brexit never really went away. (After all, joining the EU in 1973 was an implicit acceptance that Britain was ‘just another country — like Italy’, as one anti-European MP put it to me back then.) And of course this Imperial nostalgia is completely baffling to anyone coming from a country which has been the supposed beneficiary of this ‘civilising’ process. We in Ireland had 800 years of it, and we are still living with the results in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Brexiteers’ casual indifference to the Good Friday Agreement.

All of which is a reason for welcoming Caroline Elkins’s book,  Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire. I’ve only read the reviews of it yet — it’ll go on the list of books I’ll bring to Provence in the Summer. But in the meantime, Sunil Khilnani’s terrific (and not uncritical) New Yorker review essay gives one a pretty good impression of the ground Elkins covers.

Here’s how his piece opens:

At the height of the British Empire, just after the First World War, an island smaller than Kansas controlled roughly a quarter of the world’s population and landmass. To the architects of this colossus, the largest empire in history, each conquest was a moral achievement. Imperial tutelage, often imparted through the barrel of an Enfield, was delivering benighted peoples from the errors of their ways—child marriage, widow immolation, headhunting. Among the edifiers was a Devonshire-born rector’s son named Henry Hugh Tudor. Hughie, as he was known to Winston Churchill and his other chums, pops up so reliably in colonial outposts with outsized body counts that his story can seem a “Where’s Waldo?” of empire.

He’s Churchill’s garrison-mate in Bangalore in 1895—a time of “messes and barbarism,” the future Prime Minister complained in a note to his mum. As the century turns, Tudor is battling Boers on the veldt; then it’s back to India, and on to occupied Egypt. Following a decorated stint as a smoke-screen artist in the trenches of the First World War, he’s in command of a gendarmerie, nicknamed Tudor’s Toughs, that opens fire in a Dublin stadium in 1920—an assault during a search for I.R.A. assassins which leaves dozens of civilians dead or wounded. Prime Minister David Lloyd George delights in rumors that Tudor’s Toughs were killing two Sinn Féinners for every murdered loyalist. Later, even the military’s chief of staff marvelled at how nonchalantly the men spoke of those killings, tallying them up as though they were runs in a cricket match; Tudor and his “scallywags” were out of control. It didn’t matter: Churchill, soon to be Secretary of State for the Colonies, had Tudor’s back.

Imperial subjects, of course, sometimes found their own solutions to such problems. A hard-line British field marshal, atop the I.R.A. hit list, was gunned down in Belgravia in 1922. Tudor, worried he would be next, made himself scarce. By the following year, he and his Irish paramilitaries were propagating their tactics for suppressing natives in the British-controlled Mandate of Palestine, Churchill having decided that the violence-prone Tudor was just the fellow to train the colonial police. A letter from Tudor to Churchill that I recently came across crystallizes all the insouciance, cynicism, greed, callousness, and errant judgment of empire. He opens by telling Churchill that he’s just commanded his troops to slaughter Adwan Bedouins who had been marching on Amman to protest high taxes levied on them by their notoriously extravagant emir. This tribe was “invariably friendly to Great Britain,” Tudor writes, a touch ruefully. But, he adds, “politics are not my affair.”

He also assured Churchill that “the Palestinians would be easier to pacify than the Irish”.

You get the idea.

My commonplace booklet

What is this ‘poison pill’ that the Twitter Board is devising to stop Musk taking over the company?

Useful explainer from Quartz.

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