Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The ICC and cricket boards are not serious about spot fixing

Alan Bull in The Guardian


If the ECB wants to demonstrate how serious it is about tackling spot-fixing there are better ways to do it than shouting down the people who are presenting the evidence.

Seems like it was Mark Wood’s bad luck to draw a short straw last week. The day after al-Jazeera released the second part of their investigation into spot-fixing in cricket Wood was put up to talk to the press. He said the accusations reminded him of “the boy who cried wolf”. Maybe Wood always used to fall asleep before his parents made it to the end of the book. Right now, five months after the first part of al-Jazeera’s expose, we are still waiting to see whether the danger they are shouting about really exists, but Wood, like everyone else in English cricket, will hope this story does not end with everyone looking the other way while the wolf eats up the sheep.

Al-Jazeera’s second film was more grounded than the first. It’s built around the fact that its source, Aneel Munawar, accurately forecast the score in 25 out of the 26 passages of play in 15 different international matches. Al-Jazeera says independent analysis shows the odds he could have done that by guesswork alone are 9.2m to one. The case is not perfect; the one big problem with it is al-Jazeera’s lawyers do not seem to trust it enough to let its journalists release the names of the players involved. But there is enough evidence there now that the story should not be swiftly dismissed.

Which, unfortunately, seems to be what some of the authorities want to do. The England and Wales Cricket Board said al-Jazeera’s information was “poorly prepared and lacks clarity and corroboration”. The tone of its response was all wrong. If the ECB wants to demonstrate how serious it is about tackling spot-fixing there are better ways to do it than shouting down the people who are presenting the evidence. The ECB’s statement seemed to put it on the other side of this problem to the journalists working to expose it. Since then the conversation around the investigation has turned into a slanging match about which side is more credible than the other.

Al-Jazeera did not help by throwing back blows of its own. “The ICC, together with certain national cricket boards and their supporters in the media, has reacted to our documentary with dismissals and attacks on the messenger,” it said. “We are particularly struck by what appears to be a refusal from certain quarters to even accept the possibility that players from Anglo-Saxon countries could have engaged in the activities exposed by our programme.” That attitude may have been common once and there may still be lingering hints of it around now. But anyone who holds it is a fool.The Spin: sign up and get our weekly cricket email.

At this point the question is not whether people are spot-fixing cricket matches but who is doing it and how often. In the last 10 years bowlers, batsmen, and captains, umpires, coaches, groundstaff and administrators have been caught and banned for fixing, and they have come from England, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. You should not need any more evidence that this is a universal problem. But, if you do, Cricinfo published some last week. It was the story of a corrupt approach made to the Canadian wicketkeeper Hamza Tariq at the 2011 World Cup.

Tariq explains how a friend of a friend invited him out for drinks. The man was a cricketer, which is how they got to know each other. When they went out a second time the man brought three more friends along. They bought Tariq dinner and drinks, and offered, later in the evening, to fix him up with a woman. It was only later, after an officer from the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit intervened, that Tariq realised they were grooming him. Tariq was a fringe player from an associate team but last I looked the weaknesses those fixers were trying to identify and exploit – fondness for drink, money, sex – are pretty common in countries where they play Test cricket, too.

That 2011 World Cup, it seems now, fell right in the middle of an era when spot-fixing was rife. Mohammad Amir, Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, Mervyn Westfield, Lou Vincent, Danish Kaneria: all those cases happened in 2010 and 2011. It was also around that time, al-Jazeera says, that Munawar first became involved in fixing.

It also says the ICC has known about Munawar ever since, which is one reason why it is reluctant to hand over all the information it has but would prefer to give it to Interpol instead. “We have become increasingly concerned at the ICC’s ability and resolve to police the game.”

It is not the only one to say this. Remember, Brendon McCullum criticised the ACU’s “very casual approach” in 2016. The head of the ACU, Alex Marshall, argues the unit is much stronger now and the sport has never invested so many resources in fighting corruption. But then, at the same time Marshall is saying that, the Pakistan Cricket Board has appointed Wasim Akram to its new cricket committee. Akram, you may remember, was one of a number of cricketers investigated by the Qayyum report into fixing in the 1990s. The Qayyum report concluded he “cannot be said to be above suspicion”.

The PCB chairman, Ehsan Mani, was able to justify the appointment by arguing that other players who were named in the Qayyum report were allowed to carry on working in international cricket. And he is right. One of them, Mushtaq Ahmed, was England’s spin-bowling coach for years, even though Qayyum concluded “there are suffici
ent grounds to cast strong doubt” on him, too. At this point indignant words do not do much to demonstrate anyone’s commitment to taking the problem seriously enough.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

In death, Khashoggi did what all his columns could not.

Irfan Husain in The Dawn

SCHADENFREUDE is a wonderful German word used to express mirth at somebody else’s woes, just as Charlie Chaplin used to giggle when a passerby slipped on a banana peel and fell on his backside.

This is how the world currently feels towards Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or, as he likes to be called, MBS) as he wriggles in the spotlight following Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal murder. Riyadh’s early denials caused only open derision and disbelief among even supporters of the kingdom.

The problem with one person wielding absolute power and control is that when something goes badly wrong, it becomes hard to pretend he knew nothing about it. So when all we got from Riyadh for the first fortnight were blanket denials about any knowledge or responsibility for the gruesome events in its consulate in Istanbul, we responded with hoots of open incredulity.

Recently, the Saudi government released a chilling photograph of Jamal Khashoggi’s son, Salah, shaking hands with MBS while King Salman stands beaming in the background. Salah is clearly grief-stricken, while MBS has a cold, hard expression. Khashoggi’s son had been under a travel ban for a year.

While Turkey’s President Erdogan has been piling on the pressure, few expect King Salman to sideline his favourite son anytime soon. The best that can be expected is for him to be relieved of some of the portfolios he has accumulated.

Ever since Khashoggi’s assassination made headlines around the world three weeks ago, the story has completely monopolised the 24/7 news cycle. Apart from the shock and horror over the sickening nature of the crime, journalists and politicians alike saw an opportunity to flay the ruling family of what is widely seen as a rotten kingdom.

Turkish intelligence sources have revealed that the audio tape they possess of the torture Khashoggi suffered includes a segment that indicates that his fingers were chopped off while he was still alive. This, apparently, was the reason a bone saw was part of the Saudi hit-squad’s kit, and this savage amputation was intended to send out a signal to other dissidents who dared to use their fingers to write against the crown prince. Apparently, in backward tribal societies, any offending organ is hacked off to teach everybody a lesson.

Given the massive fallout from the crime, why did the Saudis think they would get away with it? The bumbling antics of the killers to cover their tracks would not have fooled Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther fame. We had a joker who pretended to be Khashoggi walk out of the consulate in the journalist’s clothing, but wearing joggers instead of the black leather shoes Khashoggi actually wore as he entered the consulate.

The reason MBS and his inner circle went ahead with their ham-fisted plot was that they didn’t think their cover-up would be questioned. Used to eliminating domestic opponents without having to justify themselves to anybody, they genuinely thought the rest of the world was an equally lawless zone. Also, MBS — and Saudi money — had been welcomed with open arms around the globe, so he probably thought his actions, no matter how grotesque, would be swallowed.

But three weeks later, the furore continues unabated despite the hundreds of millions of dollars the kingdom has spent on public relations. Even Republican senators who once supported Riyadh without reservations have been revolted at Khashoggi’s murder. One threatened to “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia”.

All this bad publicity has taken the sheen off the grand investment conference in Riyadh dubbed ‘Davos in the desert’. Many important political figures from the US, the UK and France bailed out, while key business leaders decided to stay at home. The reality is that MBS is currently toxic, and nobody wants to be associated with him.

It is ironic that tens of thousands of Yemeni lives failed to achieve what one journalist’s death did: call the world’s attention to a cruel, repressive regime that has no respect for human rights. In death, Khashoggi did what all his Washington Post columns could not: shine a revealing spotlight on MBS and his nasty, wilful ways.

But at the end of the day, money talks and bulls---t walks. Although Germany has blocked future arms sales, the US and the UK have no such sanctions in mind. In fact, Trump has clearly said that Saudi arms sales are too important to forego. Western greed is what MBS is counting on. For well over seven decades, US-Saudi relations have been built on the sale of oil and arms, and despite global revulsion over Khashoggi’s killing, politicians and arms manufacturers have little shame or morality.

So after a few weeks, it will probably be business as usual.

Friday, 26 October 2018

We don’t want billionaires’ charity. We want them to pay their taxes

Owen Jones in The Guardian

Charity is a cold, grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.” It is a phrase commonly ascribed to Clement Attlee – the credit actually belongs to his biographer, Francis Beckett – but it elegantly sums up the case for progressive taxation. According to a report by the Swiss bank UBS, last year billionaires made more money than any other point in the history of human civilisation. Their wealth jumped by a fifth – a staggering $8.9tn – and 179 new billionaires joined an exclusive cabal of 2,158. Some have signed up to Giving Pledge, committing to leave half their wealth to charity. While the richest man on earth, Jeff Bezos – who has $146bn to his name – has not, he has committed £2bn to tackling homelessness and improving education.

Who can begrudge the generosity of the wealthy, you might say. Wherever you stand on the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny global elite, surely such charity should be applauded? But philanthropy is a dangerous substitution for progressive taxation. Consider Bono, a man who gained a reputation for ceaselessly campaigning for the world’s neediest. Except his band, U2, moved their tax affairs from Ireland to the Netherlandsin 2006 in order to avoid tax. Bono himself appeared in the Paradise Papers – a huge set of documents exposing offshore investments by the wealthy – after he invested in a company based in Malta that bought a Lithuanian firm. This behaviour is legal: Bono himself said of U2’s affairs it was “just some smart people we have … trying to be sensible about the way we’re taxed”.

And he’s right: rich people and major corporations have the means to legally avoid tax. It’s estimated that global losses from multinational corporations shifting their profits are about $500bn a year, while cash stashed in tax havens is worth at least 10% of the world’s economy. It is the world’s poorest who suffer the consequences. Philanthropy, then, is a means of making the uber rich look generous, while they save far more money through exploiting loopholes and using tax havens.

The trouble with charitable billionaires

There’s another issue, too. The decision on how philanthropic money is spent is made on the whims and personal interests of the wealthy, rather than what is best. In the US, for example, only 12% of philanthropic money went to human services: it was more likely be spent on arts and higher education. Those choosing where the money goes are often highly unrepresentative of the broader population, and thus more likely to be out of touch with their needs. In the US, 85% of charitable foundation board members are white, and just 7% are African Americans. Money raised by progressive taxation, on the other hand, is spent by democratically accountable governments that have to justify their priorities, which are far more likely to relate to social need.

What is striking is that even as the rich get richer, they are spending less on charity, while the poor give a higher percentage of their income to good causes. That the world’s eight richest people have as much wealth as the poorest half of humanity is a damning indictment of our entire social order. The answer to that is not self-serving philanthropy, which makes a wealthy elite determined to put vast fortunes out of reach of the authorities look good. We need global tax justice, not charitable scraps dictated by the fancies of the elite.

Shane Warne - The Interview

CBI crisis shows Modi has lost grip on administration

Monday, 22 October 2018

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On Sabarimala - Why are rational, scientific women upset?

By Girish Menon

“I do not wish to join any club that will accept me as a member” quipped Groucho Marx once. I will pass on this wisdom to women of menstruating age whose efforts to enter Sabarimala have been stopped by their own sisters, male priests and political activists.

In essence the Indian Supreme Court has decided in favour of allowing all women to worship at Sabarimala as failing to do so could be interpreted as discriminatory and in violation of every Indian’s fundamental right to equality guaranteed by the constitution.

The recent violence is testimony to the failure of the Indian state as it could not ensure protection to those women who wished to worship at Sabarimala. This is a replay of Ayodhya 1992 when a mob destroyed the Babri Masjid in violation of court strictures.

I have read reports that those opposed to the Supreme Court verdict in the Sabarimala case have now filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. This is a welcome move and should have been the first step in their protests instead of physically stopping women from entering the temple.

In a democracy the legislature is superior to the courts. So it should have been up to the political activists to pass legislation that suits their political views. However, such legislation will always be of secondary status to the fundamental rights of every Indian which can only be curtailed under special circumstances, if at all.


Tradition has been quoted as the main argument to defend the practices of Sabarimala. Leaders of most denominations use this argument to protest against demands for reforms. This argument gains most momentum because of the historical failure to pass a uniform civil code bill that applies to every Indian uniformly.

In the case of Hindus, The Paliyam Satyagraha in Chendamangalam in 1947-48 enabled a break with tradition as lower caste Hindus were hereafter allowed to enter temples. Thus tradition is only a convenient term to fight against reform and modernity.

Uniting all Hindus

The demographic changes in India along with news of rapidly growing Islam and Christianity in many parts of the world give momentum to the BJP argument that ‘Hinduism is in danger’. Under such circumstances can the BJP afford to alienate Hindu women who clamour for the right to worship at Sabarimala?

In the book The Global Minotaur the author Yanis Varoufakis defines the term aporia

        that state of intense puzzlement  in which we find ourselves when our certainties fall to pieces ; when suddenly we get caught in an impasse, at a loss to explain what our eyes can see, our fingers can touch, our ears can hear. At those rare moments, as our reason valiantly struggles to fathom what the senses are reporting, our aporia humbles us and readies the prepared mind for previously unbearable truths.

For Indians the moment of aporia has arrived. Now maybe the best time to introduce the uniform civil code and ban religious conversions. Else the charge of India turning into a ‘Hindu Pakistan’ may become a self fulfilling prophecy.

On the other hand, why would modern, rational women with a scientific bent of mind and a claim that ‘God does not exist’ fight for rights to worship Ayyappa is something that I have found hard to understand.

The pilgrimage’s progress

Janaki Nair in The Hindu

The rules of worship are made, unmade, and remade over time and Sabarimala is no exception

I remember seeing the ‘birth’ of Ayyappa on stage during a Kathakali performance. Following the drama of Bhasmasura’s destruction by Vishnu as Mohini, Shiva’s fear turning to gratitude, the two ‘male’ gods retreated behind the curtain drawn across the stage. The curtain trembled to the clash and roar of cymbals, drums and singing, before being lowered to reveal an image of Ayyappa. We were overawed by the performance and did not think of raising questions about the ways of the gods. I remember too, in the late 1960s, participating in the ‘kettanara’ rituals (the placing of the bundle of offerings and some items for sustenance on the pilgrim’s head before he sets off on the pilgrimage) of young cousins departing for Sabarimala on foot. The ritual involved all the women in the household. The young men were unshaven, in black, had donned the mala, and were ready to walk the long route barefoot after having observed their 41-day vrathams. I was overawed by the faith of the young ‘Ayyappa’, the women, and was too young to raise any ‘why nots’.

Shortcuts and compromises

In the 1960s, the young ‘Ayyappa’ would have been among the 15,000 or so who made that arduous journey. No longer. In the past five decades, as the numbers have burgeoned to millions, Lord Ayyappa has been witness to, and extremely tolerant of, every aspect of the pilgrimage being changed beyond recognition. Let us begin with the most important reason being cited for prohibiting women pilgrims of menstruating age: that they cannot maintain the 41-day vratham. Yet, as we know from personal knowledge, and from detailed anthropological studies of this pilgrimage, the shortcuts and compromises on that earlier observance have been many and Lord Ayyappa himself seems to have taken the changes in his stride.

Not all those who reach the foot of the 18 steps that have to be mounted for the darshan of the celibate god observe all aspects of the vratham. A corporate employee, such as one in my family, may observe the restrictions on meat, alcohol and sex, but has given up the compulsion of wearing black or being barefoot. I recall being startled when I saw ‘Ayyappas’ clad in black enjoying a smoke in the corner of the newspaper office where I once worked; I was told that it was only alcohol that was to be abjured. My surprise was greater when I saw several relatives donning the mala about a week before setting off on the pilgrimage, a serious abbreviation of the 41-day temporary asceticism. Though this has meant no diminution in the faith of those visiting the shrine, clearly the pilgrim’s progress has been adapted to the temporalities of modern life.

Lord Ayyappa has surely observed that the longer pedestrian route to his forest shrine has been shortened by the bus route. From 1,29,000 private vehicles in 2000 to 2,65,000 in 2005, not to mention the countless bus trips, this has resulted in intolerable strains on a fragile ecology. In other words, pilgrim tourism, far from being promoted by women’s entry to Sabarimala, had already reached unbearable limits.

One of the most vital practices of this pilgrimage enjoins the pilgrim to carry his own consumption basket: nothing should be available for purchase. Provisions for drinking and cleaning water apart, the sacred geography of the shrine was preserved by such restrictions on consumption. But like many large religious corporations such as Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, the conveniences of commerce have pervaded every step of the way, with shops selling ‘Ayyapan Bags’ and other ‘ladies’ items’ that can be carried back to the women in the family. In addition to the gilding of the 18 steps, which naturally disallows the quintessential ritual of breaking coconuts, Lord Ayyappa may perhaps have been somewhat amused by the conveyor belt that carries the offerings to be counted. Those devotees who take a ‘return route’ home via Kovalam to relieve the severities of the temporary celibacy would perhaps be pardoned, even by the Lord, as much as by anthropologists who have noted such interesting accretions. And in 2016, according to the Quarterly Current Affairs, the Modi government announced plans to make Sabarimala an International Pilgrim Centre (as opposed to the State government’s request to make it a National Pilgrim Centre) for which funds “would never be a problem”.

The invention of ‘tradition’

Lest this be mistaken for a cynical recounting of the countless ways in which the pilgrimage has been ‘corrupted’, let me hasten to say that my point is far simpler. Anyone who studies the social life and history of religion will recognise that practices are constantly adapted and reshaped, as collectivities themselves are changed, adapted and refashioned to suit the constraints of cash, time or even aesthetics. For this, the historians E.J. Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger coined the term “the invention of tradition”. Who amongst us does not, albeit with a twinge of guilt, agree to the ‘token’ clipping of the hair at Tirupati in lieu of the full head shave? Who does not feel an unmatched pleasure in the piped water that gently washes the feet as we turn the corner into the main courtyard of Tirupati after hours of waiting in hot and dusty halls? And who does not feel frustrated at the not-so-gentle prod of the wooden stick by the guardian who does not allow you more than a few seconds before the deity at Guruvayur? All these belong properly to the invention of ‘tradition’ leaving no practice untouched by the conveniences of mass management.

But perhaps the most important invention of ‘tradition’ was the absolute prohibition of women of menstruating age from worship at Sabarimala under rules 3(b) framed under the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Act, 1965. Personal testimonies have shown that strict prohibition was not, in fact, always observed, but would such a legal specification have been necessary at all if everyone was abiding by that usage or custom from ‘time immemorial’? It is a “custom with some aberrations” as pointed out by Indira Jaisingh, citing the Devaswom Board’s earlier admission that women had freely entered the shrine before 1950 for the first rice feeding ceremonies of their children.

Elsewhere, the celibate Kumaraswami, in Sandur in Karnataka where women were strictly disallowed, has gracefully conceded space to women worshippers since 1996. “The heavens have not fallen,” Gandhi remarked in 1934 when “a small state in south India [Sandur] has opened the temple to the Harijans.” Lord Ayyappa, who has tolerated innumerable changes in the behaviour of his devotees, will surely not allow his wrath to manifest itself. He will be saddened by the hypermobilisation that surrounds the protests today, but would be far more forgiving than the men — and those women — who make, unmake and remake the rules of worship.

Friday, 19 October 2018

The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve?

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Guardian

Michael Young was an inconvenient child. His father, an Australian, was a musician and music critic, and his mother, who grew up in Ireland, was a painter of a bohemian bent. They were hard-up, distractible and frequently on the outs with each other. Michael, born in 1915 in Manchester, soon found that neither had much time for him. Once when his parents had seemingly forgotten his birthday, he imagined that he was in for a big end-of-day surprise. But no, they really had forgotten his birthday, which was no surprise at all. He overheard his parents talk about putting him up for adoption and, by his own account, never fully shed his fear of abandonment.

Everything changed for him when, at the age of 14, he was sent to an experimental boarding school at Dartington Hall in Devon. It was the creation of the great progressive philanthropists Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, and it sought to change society by changing souls. There it was as if he had been put up for adoption, because the Elmhirsts treated him as a son, encouraging and supporting him for the rest of their lives. Suddenly he was a member of the transnational elite: dining with President Roosevelt, listening in on a conversation between Leonard and Henry Ford.

Young, who has been called the greatest practical sociologist of the past century, pioneered the modern scientific exploration of the social lives of the English working class. He did not just aim to study class, though; he aimed to ameliorate the damage he believed it could do. The Dartington ideal was about the cultivation of personality and aptitudes whatever form they took, and the British class structure plainly impeded this ideal. What would supplant the old, caste-like system of social hierarchy? For many today, the answer is “meritocracy” – a term that Young himself coined 60 years ago. Meritocracy represents a vision in which power and privilege would be allocated by individual merit, not by social origins.

Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organised. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree, but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. Occasionally, we will allow for exceptions – for positive discrimination, say, to help undo the effects of previous discrimination. But such exceptions are provisional: when the bigotries of sex, race, class and caste are gone, the exceptions will cease to be warranted. We have rejected the old class society. In moving toward the meritocratic ideal, we have imagined that we have retired the old encrustations of inherited hierarchies. As Young knew, that is not the real story.

Young hated the term “welfare state” – he said that it smelled of carbolic – but before he turned 30 he had helped create one. As the director of the British Labour party’s research office, he drafted large parts of the manifesto on which the party won the 1945 election. The manifesto, “Let Us Face the Future”, called for “the establishment of the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain – free, democratic, efficient, progressive, public-spirited, its material resources organised in the service of the British people”. Soon the party, as it promised, raised the school-leaving age to 16, increased adult education, improved public housing, made public secondary school education free, created a national health service and provided social security for all.

As a result, the lives of the English working class were beginning to change radically for the better. Unions and labour laws reduced the hours worked by manual labourers, increasing their possibilities of leisure. Rising incomes made it possible for them to buy televisions and refrigerators. And changes, partly driven by new estate taxes, were going on at the top of the income hierarchy, too. In 1949, the Labour chancellor of the exchequer, Stafford Cripps, introduced a tax that rose to 80% on estates of £1m and above, or about £32m in contemporary inflation-adjusted terms. (Disclosure: I’m a grandson of his.) For a couple of generations afterward, these efforts at social reform both protected members of the working classes and allowed more of their children to make the move up the hierarchy of occupations and of income, and so, to some degree, of status. Young was acutely conscious of these accomplishments; he was acutely conscious, too, of their limitations.

Just as happened in the US, college attendance shot up in Britain after the second world war, and one of the main indicators of class was increasingly whether you had been to university. The middle-class status of meagerly compensated librarians reflected a vocational requirement for an education beyond secondary school; that the better-paid assembly-line workers were working-class reflected the absence of such a requirement. Working-class consciousness – legible in the very name of the Labour party, founded in 1900 – spoke of class mobilisation, of workers securing their interests. The emerging era of education, by contrast, spoke of class mobility – blue collars giving way to white. Would mobility undermine class consciousness?

These questions preyed on Young. Operating out of a community studies institute he set up in Bethnal Green, he helped create and nurture dozens and dozens of programmes and organisations, all attending to social needs he had identified. The Consumers’ Association was his brainchild, along with its magazine, Which?. So was the Open University, which has taught more than 2 million students since Young founded it in 1969, making it the largest academic institution in the UK by enrolment. Yet education mattered to him not just as a means of mobility, but as a way to make people more forceful as citizens, whatever their station – less easily bulldozed by commercial developers or the government planners of Whitehall. Late in life, he even set up the School for Social Entrepreneurs. Over the decades, he wanted to strengthen the social networks – the “social capital”, as social scientists say these days – of communities that get pushed around by those who were increasingly claiming a lion’s share of society’s power and wealth.

What drove him was his sense that class hierarchies would resist the reforms he helped implement. He explained how it would happen in a 1958 satire, his second best-seller, entitled The Rise of the Meritocracy. Like so many phenomena, meritocracy was named by an enemy. Young’s book was ostensibly an analysis written in 2033 by a historian looking back at the development over the decades of a new British society. In that distant future, riches and rule were earned, not inherited. The new ruling class was determined, the author wrote, by the formula “IQ + effort = merit”. Democracy would give way to rule by the cleverest – “not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.” This is the first published appearance of the word “meritocracy”, and the book aimed to show what a society governed on this principle would look like.

‘Education mattered to Young not just as a means of mobility, but as a way to make people more forceful as citizens, whatever their station.’ Photograph: Getty

Young’s vision was decidedly dystopian. As wealth increasingly reflects the innate distribution of natural talent, and the wealthy increasingly marry one another, society sorts into two main classes, in which everyone accepts that they have more or less what they deserve. He imagined a country in which “the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts”, and in which the lower orders know that they have failed every chance they were given. “They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”

But one immediate difficulty was that, as Young’s narrator concedes, “nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring”. And when you have inequalities of income, one thing people can do with extra money is to pursue that goal. If the financial status of your parents helped determine your economic rewards, you would no longer be living by the formula that “IQ + effort = merit”.

Those cautions have, of course, proved well founded. In the US, the top fifth of households enjoyed a $4tn increase in pretax income between 1979 and 2013 – $1tn more than came to all the rest. When increased access to higher education was introduced in the US and Britain, it was seen as a great equaliser. But a couple of generations later, researchers tell us that higher education is now a great stratifier. Economists have found that many elite US universities – including Brown, Dartmouth, Penn, Princeton, and Yale – take more students from the top 1% of the income distribution than from the bottom 60%. To achieve a position in the top tier of wealth, power and privilege, in short, it helps enormously to start there. “American meritocracy,” the Yale law professor Daniel Markovits argues, has “become precisely what it was invented to combat: a mechanism for the dynastic transmission of wealth and privilege across generations.”

Young, who died in 2002 at the age of 86, saw what was happening. “Education has put its seal of approval on a minority,” he wrote, “and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams at the age of seven or before.” What should have been mechanisms of mobility had become fortresses of privilege. He saw an emerging cohort of mercantile meritocrats who can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves.

The carapace of “merit”, Young argued, had only inoculated the winners from shame and reproach.

Americans, unlike the British, don’t talk much about working-class consciousness; it is sometimes said that all Americans are, by self-conception, middle class. But this, it turns out, is not currently what Americans themselves think. In a 2014 National Opinion Research Center survey, more Americans identified as working-class than as middle-class. One (but only one) strand of the populism that tipped Donald Trump into power expressed resentment toward a class defined by its education and its values: the cosmopolitan, degree-laden people who dominate the media, the public culture and the professions in the US. Clinton swept the 50 most educated counties, as Nate Silver noted shortly after the 2016 election; Trump swept the 50 least. Populists think that liberal elites look down on ordinary Americans, ignore their concerns and use their power to their own advantage. They may not call them an upper class, but the indices that populists use to define them – money, education, connections, power – would have picked out the old upper and upper-middle classes of the last century.

And many white working-class voters feel a sense of subordination, derived from a lack of formal education, and that can play a part in their politics. Back in the early 1970s, the sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb recorded these attitudes in a study memorably titled The Hidden Injuries of Class. This sense of vulnerability is perfectly consistent with feeling superior in other ways. Working-class men often think that middle-class and upper-class men are unmanly or undeserving. Still, a significant portion of what we call the American white working class has been persuaded that, in some sense, they do not deserve the opportunities that have been denied to them.

They may complain that minorities have unfair advantages in the competition for work and the distribution of government benefits. Nevertheless, they do not think it is wrong either that they do not get jobs for which they believe they are not qualified, or that the jobs for which they are qualified are typically less well paid. They think minorities are getting “handouts” – and men may feel that women are getting unfair advantages, too – but they don’t think the solution is to demand handouts for themselves. They are likely to regard the treatment of racial minorities as an exception to the right general rule: they think the US mostly is and certainly should be a society in which opportunities belong to those who have earned them.

A still from an Open University maths lecture, first broadcast in January 1971. Photograph: Open University/PA

If a new dynastic system is nonetheless taking shape, you might conclude that meritocracy has faltered because, as many complain, it isn’t meritocratic enough. If talent is capitalised efficiently only in high tax brackets, you could conclude that we have simply failed to achieve the meritocratic ideal. Maybe it is not possible to give everyone equally good parenting, but you could push more rigorously for merit, making sure every child has the educational advantages and is taught the social tricks that successful families now hoard for their children. Why isn’t that the right response?

Because, Young believed, the problem was not just with how the prizes of social life were distributed; it was with the prizes themselves. A system of class filtered by meritocracy would, in his view, still be a system of class: it would involve a hierarchy of social respect, granting dignity to those at the top, but denying respect and self-respect to those who did not inherit the talents and the capacity for effort that, combined with proper education, would give them access to the most highly remunerated occupations. This is why the authors of his fictional Chelsea Manifesto – which, in The Rise of the Meritocracy, is supposed to serve as the last sign of resistance to the new order – ask for a society that “both possessed and acted upon plural values”, including kindliness, courage and sensitivity, so all had a chance to “develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life”. Even if you were somehow upholding “IQ + effort = merit”, then your equation was sponsoring a larger inequality.

This alternative vision, in which each of us takes our allotment of talents and pursues a distinctive set of achievements and the self-respect they bring, was one that Young had learned from his schooling at Dartington Hall. And his profound commitment to social equality can seem, in the mode of schoolhouse utopias, quixotic. Yet it draws on a deeper philosophical picture. The central task of ethics is to ask what it is for a human life to go well. A plausible answer is that living well means meeting the challenge set by three things: your capacities, the circumstances into which you were born, and the projects that you yourself decide are important. Because each of us comes equipped with different talents and is born into different circumstances, and because people choose their own projects, each of us faces his or her own challenge. There is no comparative measure that would enable an assessment of whether your life or my life is better; Young was right to protest the idea that “people could be put into rank order of worth”. What matters in the end is not how we rank against others. We do not need to find something that we do better than anyone else; what matters, to the Dartingtonians, is simply that we do our best.

The ideal of meritocracy, Young understood, confuses two different concerns. One is a matter of efficiency; the other is a question of human worth. If we want people to do difficult jobs that require talent, education, effort, training and practice, we need to be able to identify candidates with the right combination of aptitude and willingness and provide them incentives to train and practice.

 Michael Young in 1949. Photograph: Getty

Because there will be a limited supply of educational and occupational opportunities, we will have to have ways of allocating them – some principles of selection to match people to positions, along with appropriate incentives to ensure the necessary work gets done. If these principles of selection have been reasonably designed, we can say, if we like, that the people who meet the criteria for entering the schools or getting the jobs “merit” those positions. This is, to enlist some useful philosophers’ jargon, a matter of “institutional desert”. People deserve these positions in the sense in which people who buy winning lottery tickets deserve their winnings: they got them by a proper application of the rules.

Institutional desert, however, has nothing to do with the intrinsic worthiness of the people who get into college or who get the jobs, any more than lottery winners are people of special merit and losers are somehow less worthy. Even on the highest levels of achievement, there is enormous contingency at play. If Einstein had been born a century earlier, he might have made no momentous contributions to his field; a Mozart who came of age in the early 20th century and trained on 12-tone rows might not have done so either. Neither might have made much use of their aptitudes had they grown up among the Amazonian Nukak.

And, of course, the capacity for hard work is itself the result of natural endowments and upbringing. So neither talent nor effort, the two things that would determine rewards in the world of the meritocracy, is itself something earned. People who have, as The Rise of the Meritocracy bluntly put it, been repeatedly “labelled ‘dunce’” still have capacities and the challenge of making a meaningful life. The lives of the less successful are not less worthy than those of others, but not because they are as worthy or more worthy. There is simply no sensible way of comparing the worth of human lives.

Put aside the vexed notion of “merit”, and a simpler picture emerges. Money and status are rewards that can encourage people to do the things that need doing. A well-designed society will elicit and deploy developed talent efficiently. The social rewards of wealth and honour are inevitably going to be unequally shared, because that is the only way they can serve their function as incentives for human behaviour. But we go wrong when we deny not only the merit but the dignity of those whose luck in the genetic lottery and in the historical contingencies of their situation has left them less rewarded.

Yes, people will inevitably want to share both money and status with those they love, seeking to get their children financial and social rewards. But we should not secure our children’s advantages in a way that denies a decent life to the children of others. Each child should have access to a decent education, suitable to her talents and her choices; each should be able to regard him- or herself with self-respect. Further democratising the opportunities for advancement is something we know how to do, even if the state of current politics in Britain and the US has made it increasingly unlikely that it will be done anytime soon. But such measures were envisaged in Young’s meritocratic dystopia, where inheritance was to hold little sway. His deeper point was that we also need to apply ourselves to something we do not yet quite know how to do: to eradicate contempt for those who are disfavoured by the ethic of effortful competition.

“It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit,” Young wrote. “It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.” The goal is not to eradicate hierarchy and to turn every mountain into a salt flat; we live in a plenitude of incommensurable hierarchies, and the circulation of social esteem will always benefit the better novelist, the more important mathematician, the savvier businessman, the faster runner, the more effective social entrepreneur. We cannot fully control the distribution of economic, social and human capital, or eradicate the intricate patterns that emerge from these overlaid grids. But class identities do not have to internalise those injuries of class. It remains an urgent collective endeavour to revise the ways we think about human worth in the service of moral equality.

This can sound utopian, and, in its fullest conception, it undoubtedly is. Yet nobody was more practical-minded than Young, institution-builder par excellence. It is true that the stirrings of Young’s conscience responded to the personal as well as the systemic; dying of cancer in a hospital ward, he worried whether the contractor-supplied African immigrants who wheeled around the food trolleys were getting minimum wage. But his compassion was welded to a sturdy sense of the possible. He did not merely dream of reducing inherited privilege; he devised concrete measures to see that it happened, in the hope that all citizens could have the chance to develop their “own special capacities for leading a rich life”. He had certainly done exactly that himself. In the imaginary future of The Rise of the Meritocracy, there was still a House of Lords, but it was occupied solely by people who had earned their places there through distinguished public service. If anyone had merited a place in that imaginary legislature, it would have been him.

That was far from true of the House of Lords he grew up with, which was probably one reason why his patron Leonard Elmhirst declined a peerage when offered one in the 1940s; in the circles he moved in, he made clear, “acceptance would neither be easy for me to explain nor easy for my friends to comprehend”. So it is more than a little ironic that when Young, the great egalitarian, was offered a peerage in 1978, he took it. Naturally, he chose for himself the title Baron Young of Dartington, honouring the institution he had served as a trustee since the age of 27. As you would expect, he used the opportunity to speak about the issues that moved him in the upper house of the British parliament. But there is a further, final irony. A major reason he had accepted the title (“guardedly”, as he told his friends) was that he was having difficulties meeting the expense of travelling up to London from his home in the country. Members of the Lords not only got a daily allowance if they attended the house; they got a pass to travel free on the railways. Michael Young entered the aristocracy because he needed the money.

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Why You Will Marry The Wrong Person

Alain de Boton

The danger in talking past each other

Tabish Khair in The Hindu

Gossip plays a crucial role in one of our greatest epics. I am talking of the Ramayana, and what Sita has to undergo as a consequence of, yes, gossip after she has been rescued by Rama. Of course, distrust of gossip is also stressed by other religions, including Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Islam goes so far as to consider gossip to be the moral equivalent of sibling cannibalism.

The more things change

But, alas, we seem to have forgotten – and new technical developments have encouraged us to forget. Because if there is something that social media reminds me of most, it is not conversation, not discussion, not even argument; it is gossip.

Conversations, discussions, even arguments are basically reciprocal. You know who is talking and who is listening. You know where the words are coming from, and hence you know what they are intended for, or can at least guess. Being reciprocal, they have limits, both temporal and spatial. But gossip is not reciprocal; it circulates endlessly. It mutates and infects like a virus; it is alive and dead at the same time. In this, again, it resembles social media.

Gossip has no fixed source or end. There are no limits to gossip; the more outrageous it is, the more it tends to spread. In this again, it is like ‘information’ on social media. Actually, given the way in which Twitter and Facebook work, it pays to be outrageous and polemical. The more people you offend, the more visible your posts get — the more your ‘gossip’ circulates. So-called polarisation is inevitable in such a situation. Gossip is also embedded in polarisation of the sort that social media basically enables — because it can be faceless and highly mobile, two essential characteristics of gossip.

There is a convincing argument, which I have made in my column earlier, that digitalised communication makes it easier to evade difference, and to stereotype and ridicule it. In other words, it is easier to avoid facing the other on computers. At its simplest, this can be explained with reference to an ordinary conversation: in a conversation (unlike in gossip), one faces the other, and this face-to-face interaction often modulates both the positions despite differences. Healthy politics depends on such conversations, which include but also absorb arguments. When polarised arguments end the conversation, we move from politics to war: one can argue that countries can exist in this state of war internally too.

Disturbingly, in digitalised interactions one need not engage with the other; one can simply ‘unfriend’ a person one disagrees with (as Donald Trump regularly does) — or only accept Facebook friends one agrees with. Once again, this aids political polarisation, which is not really a serious and respectful engagement with differences but a kind of gossiping about it. More so because one does not really read social media postings much of the time, given the non-contemplative and distracting nature of the medium. Like gossip, one repeats it or ignores it depending on what one already believes.

Lost engagement

If reading was just a mechanical act — which is what it appears to be much of the time on social media — then perhaps political polarisation would be the inevitable state of human communication. But that is not so. Reading involves the kind of personal investment and deep attention that goes beyond the mechanical. It calls for time and effort. It forces the reader to enter other – different – spaces. Hence, Facebook, Twitter and other digital media posts (and responses to them) are not acts of reading: these are incredibly flat activities. They lack depth. They do not enable a conversation. At best, they resemble gossip: talking in a one-sided, flat manner about someone who is not present and, hence, cannot engage you in a discussion.

Real conversation requires depth, consideration and contemplation. It sets out to accomplish an understanding – and hence a change on both (all) sides. That is also what real reading does. Reading on social media — and much of digitalised reading – does not resemble a conversation. It resembles gossip — and is just as superficial, incidental and shallow.

It is true that gossiping is considered to serve at least three crucial purposes. Scholars often define these in terms of social bonding, the creation of cooperative reputation, and indirect reciprocity. But here again, a degree of nuance is necessary. Gossip creates social bonding in terms of innuendo, prejudice, prejudgment (which is etymologically the source of ‘prejudice’), etc. Such ‘social bonding’ is negative – and definitely detrimental to democracy. Something similar can be said of ‘cooperative reputation’ – the words ‘cooperative’ can be replaced by ‘coercive’ in the context of gossiping. And ‘indirect reciprocity’ in the case of gossip is not an engagement with the other; it is a framing and dismissing of the other. Gossip, by its very nature, takes place behind the victim’s back.

In all these respects, much of what exists on social media is not conversation or even argument. It is sheer gossip — in content, context and structure. We ignore this aspect of social media when it fits our prejudices, even though we know that gossip, especially when it is not recognised as gossip, can cause much damage. Or at least we Indians should know this: we have the latter part of the Ramayana.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

The secret joys of schadenfreude

Tiffany Watt Smith in The Guardian

Recently I went to my corner shop to buy some milk. I found myself pausing by the celebrity gossip magazines. My first instinct, just in case someone was listening in on my thoughts, was to think: “Ugh, who buys these terrible magazines?” Then I picked one up. There was the cellulite, the weight gained and lost, the bingo wings circled in red. My favourite story was an interview with a pop star, or perhaps a model, who lived in a luxury mansion. I’m the sort of person who usually curdles with envy on hearing about someone’s luxury mansion. But this was different. The story was about how she was lonely. Tragically lonely following a break-up.

I looked about and took the magazine to the till. There was a warm sensation working its way across my chest. I felt lucky. No, that’s not it. I felt smug. This is a confession. I love daytime TV. I smoke, even though I officially gave up years ago. I’m often late, and usually lie about why. And sometimes I feel good when others feel bad.

The Japanese have a saying: “The misfortune of others tastes like honey.” The French speak of joie maligne, a diabolical delight in other people’s suffering. In Danish it is skadefryd; in Hebrew, simcha la-ed; in Mandarin, xìng-zāi-lè-huò; in Russian, zloradstvo; and for the Melanesians who live on the remote Nissan Atoll in Papua New Guinea, it is banbanam. Two millennia ago, the Romans spoke of malevolentia. Earlier still, the Greeks described epichairekakia (literally epi, over, chairo, rejoice, kakia, disgrace). A study in Würzburg in Germany carried out in 2015 found that football fans smiled more quickly and broadly when their rival team missed a penalty, than when their own team scored. “To see others suffer does one good,” wrote the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “This is a hard saying, but a mighty, human, all-too-human principle.”

There has never really been a word for these grubby delights in English. In the 1500s, someone attempted to introduce “epicaricacy” from the ancient Greek, but it didn’t catch on. There could only be one conclusion: as a journalist in the Spectator asserted in 1926, “There is no English word for schadenfreude because there is no such feeling here.” He was wrong, of course.

‘It’s part of many of our cherished communal rituals, from sports to gossip’: model Siobhan at Hired Hands; make-up Grace Ellington; nails Naima Coleman. Photograph: Ilka and Franz for the Observer

I’m British, and enjoying other people’s mishaps and misery feels as much part of my culture as teabags and talking about the weather. “For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?” proclaims Mr Bennet in that most quintessentially English of novels, Pride and Prejudice. Nothing unites us more strongly in self-righteous joy than an MP caught cooking the books. We’re even not averse to schadenfreude at our own expense: as George Orwell once remarked, the English are unique for celebrating not military triumphs, but disasters (“Into the valley of death rode the 600...”).

We know how to enjoy failures. But ask us to name this enjoyment, and our language falls into a hypocritical silence. It averts its gaze and squirms. And so we adopted the German word. From schaden, meaning damage or harm, and freude, meaning joy or pleasure: damage-joy.

No one likes to think about their flaws, but in them so much of what makes us human is revealed. Enjoying other people’s misfortunes might sound simple – a mere glint of malice, a flick of spite. But look closer and you’ll glimpse some of the most hidden yet important parts of our lives.

When I pay attention to the pleasures I might feel in others’ disasters, I am struck by the variety of tastes and textures involved. There is the glee at incompetence – not just of skiers faceplanting in the snow, but at screw-ups of implausible magnitude: when Nasa lost a $125m Mars orbiter because half the team were using imperial measurements and the other, metric. Then there is the self-righteous satisfaction I get when hypocrites are exposed: a politician accidentally tweets a picture of his erection (he meant to send it directly to his intern). And of course, there is the inner triumph of seeing a rival falter. The other day, in the coffee shop, a colleague asked if I’d got the promotion I’d gone for. No, I said. And I noticed, at the corner of his mouth, the barely perceptible twitch of a grin before the tumble of commiserations. Oh bad luck. Ah, their loss, the idiots. And I was tempted to ask: “Did you just smile?” But I didn’t. Because when he loses out – as he sometimes does – I know I experience a happy twinge, too.

Sometimes it is easy to share our delight, reposting memes of a disgraced politician’s resignation speech. Far harder to acknowledge are those spasms of relief which accompany the bad news of our successful friends and relatives. They come involuntarily, these confusing bursts of pleasure, swirled through with shame. And they worry us – not just because we fear that our lack of compassion says something terrible about us – because they point so clearly to our envy and inferiority, and how we clutch at the disappointments of others in order to feel better about our own.

When my brother took his kids on a fabulous summer holiday to America, I felt bad because I never take my kids anywhere since it’s too much effort and too expensive. And then I saw his Facebook status: it rained.

  Whoops! Careful you don’t slip up. Photograph: Ilka & Franz for the Observer

Today schadenfreude is all around us. It’s there in the way we do politics, how we treat celebrities, in online fail videos. But these heady pleasures are shot through with unease. Moralists have long despised schadenfreude. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called it “an infallible sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness”, the worst trait in human nature. (He also said that anyone caught enjoying the suffering of others should be shunned from human society. Which made me sweat a bit.)

I have come to believe that Schopenhauer was wrong. When the word schadenfreude first appeared in English writing in 1853, it caused great excitement. This was probably not the intention of RC Trench, the archbishop of Dublin, who first mentioned it in On the Study of Words. For Trench, the mere existence of the word was unholy and fearful, a “mournful record of the strange wickednesses which the genius of man has invented”.

His fellow Victorians adopted the word for a range of pleasures, from hilarity to self-righteous vindication, from triumph to relief. In the 1890s, animal-rights campaigner Frances Power Cobbe wrote a manifesto entitled Schadenfreude, identifying the emotion with the bloodlust of boys torturing stray cats for fun.

We still associate many different pleasures with this word, unclear perhaps exactly what it means in the original, or where its perimeters lie. But looking at how the word has been used in English it is possible to identify repeated themes. Schadenfreude is usually thought of as a spectator sport – opportunistically enjoying someone’s misfortune rather than gloating at pain you’ve caused yourself. We usually think of it as a furtive emotion, and no wonder. We might be worried not just about looking malicious, but that our schadenfreude exposes our other flaws, too – our pettiness, our envy, our feelings of inadequacy.

Another feature of schadenfreude is that we often feel entitled to it when the suffering can be construed as a comeuppance – a deserved punishment for being smug or hypocritical, or breaking the law. So we relish our moral superiority (usually only at a safe distance). In 2015, US pastor Tony Perkins said that floods were sent by God to punish abortion and gay marriage. And then his own house flooded and he had to escape in a canoe. Even the ever-impartial BBC enjoyed this story, posing aerial pictures of the flooded house next to his controversial “God is trying to send us a message” interview.

Schadenfreude is usually thought of as glee at discomforts and gaffes rather than at tragedies and deaths. But this rule isn’t hard and fast, and context matters. We are willing to see celebrities, or people from the remote past, endure horrors that would dismay us if they were happening now or to our friends. All emotions are what psychologists call “cognitive” – in other words, not simply reflex reactions to external triggers, but complex processes requiring us to appraise and judge our relationship with the world around us and tailor our responses accordingly.

Sometimes we judge wrongly, and our schadenfreude leaves us feeling morally awkward. There is an episode of The Simpsons in which Homer’s infuriatingly perfect neighbour Ned Flanders opens a shop, The Leftorium. Given the chance to imagine three wishes, Homer fantasises that Ned’s business collapses. First, he sees the shop empty of customers, then Flanders turning out his pockets, then Flanders begging the bailiffs. It is only when Homer imagines Flanders’s grave, Flanders’s children weeping beside it, that he stops himself. “Too far,” he says, and quickly rewinds to the image of the bankrupt shop.

These questions about how and why we enjoy the pain of others – what is acceptable, what is “too far” – have featured in some of the greatest works of philosophy and literature for over 2,000 years. But arguably the urgency to understand schadenfreude has never been so great as today.

In December 2008, a reader of the New York Times lamented that we are living in a “golden age of schadenfreude”. Similar phrases have appeared since on blogs and in op-eds. Truthfully, we can’t ever know whether we are actually experiencing more schadenfreude than before. It certainly seems a more obvious feature of our collective lives, since what used to be hidden or else communicated in fleeting sniggers by the water cooler is now preserved forever in “likes” and “shares” in the digital aspic.

There has been an explosion of research. Before 2000, barely any academic articles were published with the word “schadenfreude” in the title. Now even a cursory search throws up hundreds, from neuroscience to philosophy to management studies. What is driving all this interest? No doubt it is partly motivated by our attempts to understand life in the internet age, where sniggering at other people, once often socially inappropriate, now comes with less risk. Just as important, in my view, is our growing commitment to empathy. The capacity to attune ourselves to other people’s suffering is highly prized today – and rightly so. Putting ourselves in another’s shoes impacts on our ability to lead others, to parent, to be a decent partner and friend. And the more important empathy becomes, the more obnoxious schadenfreude seems.

It is not just Victorian moralists who recoil from it. Today’s humanists find it awkward, too. Schadenfreude has been called “empathy’s shadow”, casting the two as fundamentally incompatible. Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has pointed out that psychopaths are not only detached from other people’s suffering but even enjoy it: “The Germans have a word for this,” writes Baron-Cohen. With all this swirling around, it’s little wonder that even when schadenfreude feels right, it also feels very wrong.

Yet schadenfreude has its benefits – a quick win which alleviates inferiority or envy; a way of bonding over the failure of a smug colleague. But it is also a testament to our capacity for emotional flexibility, our ability to hold apparently contradictory thoughts and feelings in mind simultaneously. Dostoyevsky knew that schadenfreude and sympathy are not either/or responses, but can be felt all at once. When, in Crime and Punishment, Marmeladov is brought, bloodied and unconscious, into the St Petersburg tenement where he lives following an accident, all the residents crowd round. They experience, wrote Dostoyevsky, “that strange sense of inner satisfaction that always manifests itself, even among the victim’s nearest and dearest, when someone is afflicted by a sudden catastrophe; a sensation that not a single one of us is proof against, however sincere our feelings of pity and sympathy”.

We may well be living in an age of schadenfreude, and fear that this emotion is leading us astray. But as with all emotions, condemning it only gets you so far. What we really need is to think afresh about the work this much-maligned emotion does for us, and what it tells us about our relationships with ourselves and each other.

Schadenfreude may appear antisocial. Yet it is a feature of many of our most cherished communal rituals, from sports to gossip. It may seem misanthropic, yet it is enmeshed in so much of what is distinctly human about how we live: the instinct for justice and fairness; a need for hierarchies and the quest for status within them; the desire to belong to and protect the groups that keep us safe. It may seem superior and demeaning, yet it also speaks of our need to appreciate the absurdity of our attempts to appear in control in a world forever slipping out of our grasp. It might seem isolating and divisive, but it testifies to our need to not feel alone in our disappointments, but to seek the consolations of being part of a community of the failed.

Schadenfreude, exquisite and utterly shabby, is a flaw. But it is a flaw we must all face up to if we truly want to understand life in the modern world.

Shobhaa De explains all what you wanted to know about #MeToo

What price the wisdom of Luke Johnson, when his own company Patisserie Valerie tanks?

Catherine Bennett in The Guardian

The Patisserie Valerie chief should look to himself before lecturing others again

Self-styled ‘risk-taker’ Luke Johnson at a branch of Patisserie Valerie in London.

‘Unfortunately,” Luke Johnson wrote recently, “financial illiteracy permeates society from top to bottom. Too many ordinary people do not understand mortgages, pensions, insurance, loans or investing.”

Johnson, the entrepreneur whose biggest asset, Patisserie Valerie, now needs bailing out, was being generous. Even after the 2008 financial crisis confirmed that corporate incompetence warranted unwavering public scrutiny, too many ordinary people remain equally ignorant about the operations and capabilities of business leaders, even those, like Mr Johnson, whose influence extends far beyond his imperilled patisserie company.

Some of us, inexcusably, even struggle with the basic jargon of “black hole”. As in: “The owner of Patisserie Valerie has been plunged into financial crisis after it revealed a multimillion pound accounting black hole.” Is it the same sort of black hole that astonished managers at Carillion, following a “deterioration in cashflows”? Or an industry synonym for the “material shortfall” disclosed by the Patisserie Valerie board, “between the reported financial status and the current financial status of the business”.

Either way, does the black hole’s existence mean that Mr Johnson must also be financially illiterate? Or is that question better addressed to Patisserie Valerie’s finance chief, Chris Marsh, with whom Johnson has worked since 2006? Marsh was arrested by the police, then released on bail.

Regrettably, at the very moment when an ordinary person struggles to comprehend how £28m in May became minus £10m by October, and why one creditor, the HMRC, should be pursuing an unpaid tax bill of £1.4m – and what that tells us about the company’s leadership – it appears that Mr Johnson is taking a break from his weekly newspaper column. Its absence is the more acute, now that its author, expert on subjects such as red tape, Brexit and other people’s incompetence, has also fallen silent on Twitter; and his popular personal website seems, at the time of writing, to have vanished. With luck, it won’t be too long before he is sharing details of his mercy dash on Evan Davis’s The Bottom Line: “Providing insight into business from the people at the top.”

Happily, as others have noted, some of Mr Johnson’s earlier columns have addressed related issues such as, recently, “a business beginner’s guide to tried and tested swindles”. Watch out, he warns, for non-payment of creditors, dodgy advisers and attempts to overcomplicate things, so as to baffle the many people – unlike himself – who “do not understand the technicalities of investing or accounting”.

Inevitably, that widespread ignorance makes it hard to judge how much of Johnson’s wide-ranging, pre-existing advice, which has recently focused on Brexit, we can safely discard as, if not consistently hilarious, worthless. His chairmanship of Patisserie Valerie has, after all, repeatedly been cited, in the same way as Dyson’s profits and Tim Martin’s pubs, as the main reason to listen to him deprecate the EU, with his own achievements (pre-black hole), proving that “this is a great country in which to do business and prosper”.

Although Johnson is no different from other business celebrities, such as Dyson, Branson and Trump, in having parlayed business success into guru status, he has, more unusually, further set himself up as a kind of entrepreneur-moralist, with a biblical line in rebukes. Here he is, against – I think – overpaid government regulators: “Political leaders who want to foster world-beating companies must act decisively and, as with any transformation, slash off the gangrenous limbs without mercy.” Critics of rich people are warned: “Envy is a ruinous trait – as well as one of the deadly sins – and a sordid national characteristic.”
Like any half-decent moralist, he alternates rants with hints for personal salvation, through thrift, reliability and, again, financial literacy: “I am surprised how many senior managers I meet cannot read a cashflow statement.”

By way of authority, even Johnson’s less scorching capitalist homilies are littered with references to the usual suspects – Napoleon, Samuel Smiles and Marcus Aurelius – less usually, the scriptures and “the 19th-century philosopher Herbert Spencer”, not forgetting, shamelessly, Ayn Rand. “Those who possess willpower,” Johnson echoes, “seize the day and actively control their destiny.” Less gifted individuals are dismissed as lazy idiots, fools, inferiors who will never get the chance to close down a chain of well-regarded bookshops or, as now, bail out their own patisseries.

That Johnson should, on the back of this stuff, and the cake shops, have risen to yet greater prominence as a notable Vote Leave backer, his blessing sought by Theresa May, is perhaps no more absurd than, earlier, was David Cameron’s promotion of the Topshop brute, Philip Green, or elevation of JCB’s Anthony Bamford (previously fined by the EU). The myth of the disinterested entrepreneur-consultant seems ineradicable.

In Brexit, Johnson and his like-minded entrepreneurs have, however, discovered a yet more rewarding platform on which to portray their regulation-averse interests as a purely patriotic project.

Entrepreneurs, Johnson has written, on this favourite subject, are “the anarchists of the business world. Their mission is to overthrow the existing order.” Every entrepreneur is “a disruptor and a libertarian”, or would be “if the state sets a sensible framework and gets out of the way”. He explains that the word “chancer” properly describes risk-takers like him, who are willing to make mistakes, probably through excessive impetuosity, or as others might think of it, recklessness. “Probably the most common and devastating mistake I’ve made,” he wrote, “is to choose the wrong business partners.” As for abiding by the rules of the game: “It is the nature of risk-takers to be in a ferocious hurry to become successful, which frequently means cutting corners.”

Thus, even before last week’s disclosures about Patisserie Valerie, Johnson’s own columns amounted to the best possible case for ignoring the entrepreneur lobby on Brexit – indeed, on every subject other than their own, risk-taking genius.

Wednesday, 10 October 2018

How would Corbynism work in government? Here’s a clue

Aditya Chakrabortty in The Guardian

What will a Corbyn government actually do? Brexit aside, British politics has no bigger known unknown. The prospect fills the rich with fear and the left with hope. Both sides assume that Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn will be defined by his radicalism, yet in one corner of Britain an arm of the state is already ruling in his name. And the early results are sobering.

In the north London borough of Haringey, the Blairite council leadership was deposed by Labour members a few months ago and replaced with avowed leftwingers. Said the new council leader, Joe Ejiofor: “Over the next four years, it will be up to us to show everybody what this mythical beast the Corbyn council does.” The title may not have been of his making, but by God was he going to wear it. “It is for the many, not the few.”

Everybody cheering that May morning knew what he meant. No more slinging families out of their homes to clear way for multinational developers. No more machine politics and trampling over communities. No more of the politics of contempt.

It was the willingness of the previous leader, Claire Kober, to hand swaths of the borough over to giant building companies that forced her out of office. The Corbyn councillors know they’ll be judged on how far they protect locals from a predatory property industry, which is why they have cancelled the terrible Haringey Development Vehicle. But a real case study of the possibilities and pitfalls of Corbynism in government can be seen right now, in the battle over a small market in Tottenham.

Everyone’s first impressions of Seven Sisters market are terrible. No signs welcome passersby, and the front is almost truculent in its tattiness. But venture inside, and, as another Guardian contributor wrote of a visit: “Within a minute of arriving it was obvious to me that it is irreplaceable.” Because it is magic: a warren of stalls, customised with wooden balconies and eaves, where nearly all the shopkeepers are from Latin America. They sell Colombian coffee and Argentinian meat and films from back home. The soundtrack is a babble of Spanish and salsa. Latin Americans, among them Corbyn’s wife, Laura Alvarez, flock here from across the capital.

“Without this market, the community would have a mental breakdown,” says Vicky Alvarez, who runs a hairdresser’s. In a city that brags of its openness to the world, here’s a corner that bears that out. In a nation of shopkeepers, here are migrants grafting to realise their dreams. About 80 families rely on the so-called Latin Village for their living. Generations of kids have been raised here, playing in the plywood warren. Alvarez says, “We are like meerkats, watching over each other’s children.”

It may take a village to raise a child, but it has taken migrants to raise this village. I remember when this place was semi-derelict.

Anywhere else, the Latin Village would be a prize attraction – but Haringey has decided it should be knocked down and handed over to Britain’s biggest private residential landlord to redevelop. Grainger’s plans include nearly 200 homes, not one of which will be at council rent. The architects’ drawingsshow a Costa and a “Pasta Express”. It is BlandTown, and Labour signed off on the lot. The politician who has done most for the largely Corbyn-supporting traders is a Tory: Boris Johnson, as London mayor, decreed that the indoor market had to be protected.

‘Everyone’s first impressions of Seven Sisters market are terrible.’ Photograph: Alamy

Like many of the headaches that await Prime Minister Jez, this was one Ejiofor’s team inherited. The complication is that a key part of the land, which sits right above a tube line, is owned by Sadiq Khan’s Transport for London (TfL). Yet the Corbyn council has made the issue worse. It needed someone in charge of regeneration who was allergic to the charms of property developers, but the new leader has instead appointed Charles Adje. Just a few years ago Adje was suspended as a councillor for covering up an official note warning against giving a licence to an especially controversial developer. Asked about this, the council says Adje “made an error of judgment”.

Within weeks of becoming leader, Ejiofor received a lawyer’s letter from traders in part detailing their problems with the man who owns the lease to the market. Jonathan Owen was last year reprimanded by TfL for phrases such as “bloody illegal immigrants”, and declaring at a meeting that “if I wanted to, I could get rid of 90% of the traders here”. The official investigation I have seen notes that he has apologised for the behaviour. He remains in place, paying £60,000 a year for the lease while taking what stallholders conservatively estimate is £340,000 in rent from all of them. The traders have previously offered £100,000 to manage the lease themselves, but TfL took the lower bid.

Very little of that money seems to have been reinvested in the market: carpet tiles are broken and filthy and the electrics keep breaking, so the cafes and butchers’ foodstuffs rot. Questioned about this and other issues, Owen offered no comment. When traders asked last month whether the drains could be unblocked, Owen’s reply was: “When was the last time you cleared the drains in your house?”

This is the Corbyn council’s first big test, and handling it ought to be simple. They’re supposed to take the side of the people, not builders. Their manifesto promises: “Where we have to regenerate parts of the borough, we will bring residents with us.” At a meeting this summer opened by Corbyn ally Chris Williamson, Labour members across the borough voted to stop any demolition of Latin Village, and to save it as a “cultural asset”. Ejiofor’s team has a mandate; it’s just not upholding it. 

Rather than taking up the traders’ case, Ejiofor and Adje have fobbed them off. Instead of Haringey cracking down on the market manager, last month it sent an enforcement officer to hassle traders. A pregnant woman running a nail bar was found without a licence, and told to close the shop. In a complaint that I have seen, she said she had felt “embarrassed and humiliated” in front of customers and neighbours. Days later, she miscarried.

This small story carries big lessons for all those hoping for a radical alternative in national government. Ask Haringey cabinet members why they have handled this so badly, and they complain about having a plateful of poison pills left by the last lot. One says: “It’s so difficult to shift the bureaucracy.” Any Corbyn administration will face both of these problems, multiplied a hundredfold.

None of the above is intended to damn a council leadership that’s only five months old and which has some good ideas about cutting council tax for the working poor. Nor is it meant to put on the frighteners about a Corbyn government. But any new Labour administration will be judged on how much change it makes for the people it claims to represent, and how far it represents the social movements whose energy it draws upon. This is the age-old tension of Labour in government, and it will be felt especially keenly by a social-movement politician like Corbyn.

Locally or nationally, no radical government will have it easy. Money will be tight, and Britain has political and economic structural problems that will take decades to put right. Which is why the case of the Latin Village is so instructive. A council must be able to pick the right side in a fight as small as this. It ought to be able to follow some basic principles. Let traders run their own market, and invest in the Latin Village as a local gem. A bit of imagination, a dollop of willpower, lashings of principle. The Corbyn council should learn from this case. Its supporters expect better; the traders deserve better.