Monday, 23 October 2017

Greg Miliband does Movember

The world, it seems, continues to go down the proverbial plughole. The President of the United States is not fit to lead us out of a plastic bag; Theresa May could not negotiate the sale of coats to the Eskimos; actual Nazis are in parliament in Germany again; #MeToo is dominating social media because basically every single woman I know has a personal story about sexual harassment and/or abuse; an EU member state is brutally repressing an independence movement; North Korea could, at any moment throw its toys out the pram and launch a nuclear strike; and the majority of Puerto Ricans still do not have power and there are severe drinking water and food shortages. As if that was not enough, it's getting darker, climate change means our weather is becoming more volatile and stupid people still have access to social media.

It really isn't going well, let's be honest. Which is why we need a saviour. Someone who can turn this all around and make it better. Someone who has plenty of actual work to be doing and therefore plenty of procrastinating to do. The hero we need. The hero we deserve. Someone with a striking similarity to Ed Miliband but who would never get caught eating a bacon sandwich and lose a bloody election that basically led to Brexit and Trump (don't @ me). That's right, we need everyone's favourite Miliband brother, Greg. Greg cannot solve all the world's problems but after his unsuccessful election campaign (still won as many UK parliamentary elections as Nigel Farage) he's back. And he has a plan.

In order to bring a little bit of joy to the world, I am going to be doing Movember this year. To give you a little bit of context, I will be starting Movember this Wednesday, a week early, because, frankly, I need the headstart. I cannot promise that you will be able to tell the difference but either I will look comical with my awful "beard" or my distinct lack of facial hair will be relatively amusing. I can promise not to constantly post photos of my unshaven face though I may post my justgiving link every so often.

Please donate if you can.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Antisemitism has gone mainstream

There was one major difference between the Labour conference in 2016 and the Labour conference in 2017. If you heard that the Jewish Labour Movement's amendment aimed at tackling antisemitism and other forms of discrimination passed through the conference, you could be forgiven for thinking that the difference was the amount of antisemitism at the conference. You would, of course, be wrong. It was a lot worse. The only difference this year is the antisemitism is mainstream. It is not on the fringes anymore (well, not only on the fringes), it is now in the main conference hall. And what's worse? Having discovered that rampant antisemitism is not as unelectable as they feared, the so-called moderates have embraced Jeremy Corbyn and the hard left's grip on their party. For example, Tom Watson, who last year made Corbyn gloriously uncomfortable when he pointed at a heckler, looked back at his leader and proclaimed, "I don't think she got the unity memo Jeremy," could not have crawled further up his backside this year. 

The passing of this amendment should have been a watershed moment. Instead, the head of the Holocaust Educational Trust has been forced to write another op-ed in the Times to confirm the Holocaust did, in fact, actually happen and no Ken Loach, it is not up for historical debate. Instead, Ken Livingstone took back to the airwaves to, and I promise I am not making this up, claim that being offensive to Jews is not antisemitism. In a year of events where you have to laugh because otherwise, you would cry, Ken has outdone himself and everyone else. Somehow. Instead, the head of the Unite Union, Len McCluskey has decided that Jews make up antisemitism claims for political gain. Someone called for the Jewish Labour Movement to be expelled and to allow Holocaust denial under free speech. Jews were accused of running to the newspapers to make up antisemitism claims. I could go on. I do not want to, it's too depressing. 

The worst part of it all, however, is the only thing standing between this antisemitic rabble and power is a Conservative Party so intent on self-destructing the Jews of this country may as well give up and move. The question has to be asked, once more, at what point do those who are not antisemitic leave the party and distance themselves from this nonsense lest they become part of the problem? Because it shows no signs of changing.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Un-deterring nuclear deterrents

The Guardian is a frequent recipient and an infrequent publisher of my letters. The latest war of words (let's hope it's a war of words) between two world leaders who share both a desire for the destruction of the world and, it seems, a hairdresser has resulted in my latest, which I publish here in case the Guardian decide that I have graced their letter page once too often:

"Sir

It is good to see, in the wake of North Korea's latest threat, that the USA's vast nuclear deterrent is working beautifully. As the world spirals closer to a nuclear Holocaust, I am sure the residents of Guam are reassured that Trump will blow hundreds of thousands to smithereens should they all be killed. At what point are we able to finally say what we must have known all along: it is not a nuclear deterrent because it does not deter but, rather, is a nuclear retaliatory system that no one would ever actually use.

Raphael Levy"

I have written about the UK's own nuclear deterrence before. In that post, I, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, argue that we do not need a nuclear deterrence because everyone hates the US more than us. My point, however, was a serious one. North Korea's latest string of threats seems to suggest that maybe I was right. They also prove a more important argument I was making: a nuclear deterrence is not a deterrence. It does not deter. North Korea, so far, have not been deterred. They have called Trump's ludicrous bluff - as if threatening a state with nuclear annihilation that you would not follow up on is really a smart move - and continue to threaten with menace. A nuclear deterrent must deter. It is completely useless and utterly barbaric if its role is retaliation.

I also asserted that no one would ever use nuclear weapons in retaliation, but if anyone would it is the bumbling moron currently inhabiting the White House. I fear I may be correct. I look forward to arguing with people about our moral superiority, Western values, that North Korea 'deserved' it and so on as innocent civilians die. I look forward to that solving the problem. I look forward to sitting in the comfort of our armchairs whilst real people have to deal with loved ones dying because we were too arrogant to de-escalate this decades ago. We may be right and North Korea wrong, but nuclear war does not care. It will only determine, as with all war, who is left. None of us benefits from a retaliation to an undeterred North Korea. None of us.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Anger and Criminal Punishment

Whenever I read the statement from the person that Brock Turner sexually assaulted, something inside me burns with rage and I cannot quite stop myself from crying. It is painful to read what she said, to read what she went through. I normally make it to about the bit when she says that she used to freeze spoons to have something to put on her eyes that had puffed up so much from crying all night that she could not see. I cannot help but be filled with anger, an emotion I do not normally feel. Why am I telling you this? Because I just finished my M.Phil thesis on anger and criminal punishment in which I argue, to put it briefly, that anger has no role to play in criminal punishment. Or, at least, it should have no role to play. That I feel angry should be irrelevant. That judge and jury feel angry should be irrelevant. Yet, I most recently read her statement just after I submitted the thesis in which I make that argument as I was procrastinating before my viva and I felt nothing but anger at the injustice of his sentence, at the pain she and her family endured, at the entire damn thing.

I was angry. Upset. Distraught. As I always am when I read it. Angry at I am not quite sure what. At Brock. At the sentence. At the world we live in. That it happened. Everything.

"When I see my sister hurting...when she feels more guilt than you, then I do not forgive you."

And it made me stop and think. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe anger is a worthwhile emotion. Maybe Nussbaum's book on Anger and Forgiveness is all very well and good but is answering a different question. Maybe my entire thesis and its premise was misguided, missed the point. After all, we cannot help getting angry. And, more importantly, things should anger us. We should be angry at what this person went through. Brock Turner's actions, lack of remorse and decision to pursue this in court for a year should make us angry. If you can read her words without anger, then you might be part of the problem. I am not going to lie, for the first time that term, natural stress and self-deprecation aside, I thought I had seriously screwed up and I was concerned. Not because my argument was not good, not because there was no philosophical merit to what I was arguing but because I was...Just. Plain. Wrong. If you are not angry, you're probably not paying attention.

Maybe I was just wrong. But then you carry on reading.

"And now we both have a choice. We can let this destroy us, I can remain angry and hurt and you can be in denial, or we can face it head on, I accept the pain, you accept the punishment, and we move on."

Move on. Or remain angry.

Remain angry. Or move on.

Move on.

I had argued for moving on. That anger was pointless and harmful. It feels natural, sure, but what does it achieve? Where does it get us? And in some ways, it was reassuring to read that she, the victim, the one who understands what it means to actually have to make that choice every day of her life, clearly saw moving on as the better option. Maybe I was not (completely) wrong.

But I still felt angry. And I still felt that was entitled to feel angry and that the last thing I needed was some pompous philosopher who has lived his sheltered life telling me that I should ignore my anger for the greater good. Because what does my anger achieve? Because harsher prison sentences make things worse, not better. Because actually, it's inequality that breeds crime. Yeah, really? Brock Turner had a swimming scholarship to one of the best universities in America. He was not underprivileged. He was not a victim of a system that discriminated against him at every turn. He was, if anything, the beneficiary of a system that discriminated in his favour at every turn.

Every. Damn. Turn.

So I imagine the last thing this person wanted or needed (or much less deserved) was that philosopher telling her that anger won't make it better. That victim statements like hers might actually be damaging. That if only, as Nicola Lacey and Hannah Pickard advocate, we treated Brock with compassion, concern and consideration, as if he were a patient in a clinic, he'd learn his lesson much better.

"I did this thing where I waited until the sun came up and I felt safe enough to sleep. For three months, I went to bed at six o'clock in the morning."

I compromised. Because I had a viva the next day where I was due to defend my thesis that anger is misplaced in criminal punishment. My thesis that anger is an unhelpful backward-looking emotion. My thesis that anger is not only pointless but actively harmful and damaging, both to the victim and the criminal and to society's aims of lowering crime. That I am angry does not mean that the judge can be angry. That anger is a natural response does not mean that it should guide sentencing. That someone is deserving of anger and harsh punishment does not mean that that should be the answer. The question, as I ended my thesis, must be, "How can we make this situation better?" The answer is difficult and complicated.

"The damage is done, no one can undo it."

Nothing can undo it. No punishment, no amount of anger. Nothing. Our commitment, surely, therefore (regardless of what satisfies our intuitions about criminals, about our desire for anger and justice) must be fighting for the world where there is nothing to be undone in the first place. Being angry about it after the fact helps no one.

I remain unconvinced. Though it is completely immaterial now, I still am unsure of my thesis. Not because of the quality of its argument or depth of its research. I just am concerned that I am a little bit wrong. And by a little bit, I mean completely. With a tinge of irony, that makes me a little angry.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Great Cambridge Cover Up

I avoid the Jewish Chronicle. This stems back to their ludicrous decision to apologise for an advert they ran during the last Gaza escalation. I blogged about it here. Today, an article that attacked me personally appeared on its pages. An article that is a damaging, offensive and baseless attack on a Jewish Society that I am proud to have served. The article can be found here. Disclaimer: I am not responsible for the nonsense you will read should you click on that link. I recommend you take it with a pinch of salt. I wrote a letter in response. I publish it here in case they decide not to publish it or publish it with edits:

"Sir

I read Shlomo Roiter-Jesner's article (Cambridge Jewish Society let us down over antisemitism complaint, May 17th) with interest. I was a member of the JSoc leadership (vice-president Lent 2017) that, it is alleged, offered no support in response to this incident but I write, I should emphasise, in a personal capacity.

I can assure you that Cambridge JSoc took the incident seriously. What might be confusing Mr Roiter-Jesner is the fact that he then, in the national press, accused Christ's College of attempting to cover up the incident. This was a serious (and baseless) accusation that hurt his cause and threatened the excellent relationship Jewish students, who benefit from a number of Kosher kitchens, Kosher food at formal and in hall, the provision of ovens and so on across Cambridge colleges, and the University. A number of students and the JSoc leadership at the time took the decision that such an accusation was damaging, needless and false. The victim of antisemitism is obviously to be believed. The individual who accuses an institution (which has already made provisions for its Jewish students) of a cover up is not afforded the same right - with good reason.

It is a shame that the JC decided to further this individual's publicity stunt that has culminated in a horrendous, offensive, serious, damaging and (crucially) categorically false claim against the Jewish Society at Cambridge. Your readers should be reassured that there is a vibrant and flourishing Jewish Society at Cambridge that will do its utmost for its members. I will be sad to leave it at the end of the year and can only hope that this article filled with untruths and misleading nonsense does not deter Jewish A Level students from applying.

Raphael Levy"

The JC should be careful with the nonsense it chooses to publish. Publishing falsehoods attacking Jewish Societies that have a difficult enough job attempting to cater for its immensely diverse membership is not the way forward.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Greg Miliband: Sensible Policies for a Sensible Britain

As the third and to this point unknown Miliband brother I have decided to launch my political career with common sense policies that will appeal to hard-working and not-so-hard-working families and individuals; the rich and the poor (or lazy, depending on whether you are a Conservative or not); the foreign and the not-so-foreign (for more help on this one, decide how racist you want to be); right-wingers and left-wingers, goalkeepers and centre forwards and Beyonce, who I hear is very intrigued by this election. In keeping with the time honoured tradition of our family dating back precisely one election, the formal unveiling will take place with the policies chiseled onto large stone tablets (none of this side of a bus nonsense) but for now this post will have to suffice.

The NHS

We will still have one.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

The European Union

All of us know that Brexit means Brexit, which means Brexit. A Greg Miliband government proposes to carry out the clear will of the people by moving the UK to the Caribbean. The EU can visit on weekends and holidays.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Electoral reform

Ever since the old cruelly robbed the young of a future in the European Union by disgracefully choosing to vote in a democracy despite the fact they will all be dead soon, it has been clear to us at GMHQ that people should not have to live in a democracy with other people that disagree with them. Therefore, a Greg Miliband government will allow all parties to pick and choose which parts of the electorate's vote will count. The tyranny of the majority that disagrees with you will be no more. As a famous man once said, "It is not worth an intelligent man's time to be in the majority. By definition, there are already enough people to do that." Clearly what he meant was that if we were smart, we would all abolish the majority and follow the minority instead and that is exactly what a Greg Miliband government would do.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Education 

We do not need an education policy as we will just wait for the NUS to tell us what to do. They seem to have it covered. In fact, this might apply across the board...

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Trade

Ever since it was decided that colonising other countries was not the best way to go about having access to all the stuff they could produce that we could not, international trade has been the chosen method of achieving the same goals.  However, many countries do not play fair and insist on having more things that we need than we have that they need. To address this obvious imbalance a Greg Miliband government will suspend all broadcasting of anything related to the Royal Family in countries that do not just simply give us stuff for free.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

The Environment

97% of scientists agree about climate change. This would be 100% if they came to the UK on any given Wednesday when the climate is prone to change hourly. Therefore, something must be done. A Greg Miliband government will end climate change by covering the UK with a massive glass dome allowing us to control the weather. People will have to find a new way of making awkward small talk.

We will also make government greener by painting the nuclear red button green.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Immigration

Keeping the weather constant and ending all rain will have the knock-on effect of giving people fewer things to moan about for no good reason. Therefore, a Greg Miliband government proposes to increase immigration and take in more Syrian refugees so at least the racists will have something to moan about.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Foreign Policy

The Israel-Palestine conflict has gone on for too long. Many people have died and dying is bad for people because they are dead. It will be a priority of my government to stop this. We propose to move all the people in Israel to Palestine and all the people in Palestine to Israel thus solving the conflict.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Jobs

To combat the very real problem of immigrants taking jobs away from ordinary people, a Greg Miliband Government proposes to abolish jobs. Or ordinary people. Whichever is easier.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Transport

Getting from place to place is important. We propose to make this easier by moving towns and cities closer to each other.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Energy

We constantly hear that we are too dependent on Russia's gas, who could at any moment turn off the tap. We propose to combat this by beating them to it and turning off the tap ourselves.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Scotland and Indyref 2

A once in a generation vote obviously means that there will be at least two votes in each generation. We propose to grant Nicola Sturgeon her wish for a second referendum providing a) they agree to take Alex Salmond back and b) they agree to ensure all future leaders of Scotland have fish-based surnames. Ed Fish-Balls has our backing.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Nigel Farage

Someone has to stop him. Therefore, a Greg Miliband government will deport Nigel Farage to Germany to live out the rest of his days drinking their beer and eating their sausages, crucially forbidden to leave their country.

Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.

Miscellaneous

  • This is a very hard word to spell. A Greg Miliband government will change its spelling to 'Other Stuff'.
  • The culinary trend away from plates has gone too far. A Greg Miliband government will force at least 90% of all meals to be served on plates in all restaurants. Obvious exceptions include soup and ice cream (which must be served in cones with a small chocolate flake). 
  • Oat and raisin cookies look too much like chocolate chip cookies leading to inevitable disappointment. We propose that all oat and raisin cookies be made bright green to avoid confusion. This is part of our 'go green' policy.
  • Donald Trump has rewritten the political handbook. We propose to beat him at his own game by conducting our entire relationship going forward by employing Gary Linekar to reply to all of his tweets on twitter.
  • Slogans seem to be very important. We propose to run under the slogan of 'No More Slogans' and leave the Philosophers to work out whether we run under a slogan or not.
  • We apparently do not have much money. We propose to solve this problem by selling Norwich to the French. 
Sensible policies for a sensible Britain.


Thursday, 2 February 2017

Importing Meaning via Meaninglessness

Paradoxes litter the History of Philosophy and, indeed, wider culture. Zeno's paradoxes of movement are some of the earliest. Achilles, like Usain Bolt but without the trademark pose, is - it is argued - shown to be unable to either finish (or indeed, even begin) the 100m. Because to finish the last 50m, he must first run 25m but to run 25m he must first run 12.5m and so on until he has a seemingly infinite (and impossible?) number of tasks to complete. Russell's set paradox popularised by asking whether the barber who shaves everyone who does not shave themselves, shaves himself is a more recent example. Paradoxes can force us to rethink our common assumptions (*obviously* we can move and run 100m. Some of us do it for a living), but ultimately, we might be tempted to say that it does not matter whether the statement 'this statement is false' is false.

But paradoxes go far beyond their use in Philosophy and Logic. In fact, humans seem to be slightly obsessed with them; we often seem to use them to give things more meaning. The most common example of this is when it comes to love. Notoriously hard to define or explain, we resort to self-contradictory definitions in an attempt to find meaning. We hold that, on the one hand, loving someone makes us happy. Consider Victor Frankl in Man's Search for Meaning:

"Love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire...the salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved."¹

This is probably a definition of love, and what it is to be in love, that we can relate to. Perhaps we think it is slightly too far, but are we not happiest - or at least should we not at least be happy - when we consider the person we love? Haruki Murakumi might not disagree, but he would at least add: 

"Anyone who falls in love is searching for the missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who's in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It's like stepping inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven't seen in a long time."²

Already two definitions of love, two attempts to look at what love might be and two completely different contradictory answers. Love is both something that simultaneously makes us happy and sad. And it is not that sometimes love makes us happy and sometimes sad, but that specifically the same thing (thinking of those we are in love with) harbours these opposing emotions. Love is, as James Baldwin puts it, "...a battle, a war..."³  and, yet at the same time, Dostoyevsky argues that hell is, "...the suffering of being unable to love."⁴  

Yet somehow this makes sense. Somehow these contradictory definitions giving rise to an apparent paradox do not diminish our understanding of love but enhances it. Love, by its very nature, is paradoxical and cannot be explained. It both makes us happy and sad, at the same time for the same reason. Its presence is suffering in the form of war and its absence is suffering in then form of hell. Somehow this in itself explains love. Love is made more not less meaningful by its paradoxical nature. Paradoxically. It is not just that we have multiple definitions of love, contradictory as they might be, and the resulting contradictions give love meaning. It is that if we could define it; if all this paradoxical happy-sad pontificating was simply our overcomplicating of the matter, then we would lose and not gain meaning. We would be disappointed with this result. Somehow love's meaning depends upon its paradoxical definitional nature. All this time, we have been defining love or, at least, attempting to but Susan Sontag tells us, "Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love."⁵ So maybe love is not just difficult to define and therein lies its meaning, but love is actually undefinable and therein lies its meaning. 

It is more simple than that too. And it goes beyond love. We import paradoxes into our lives to increase, not decrease, meaning all the time. We like paradoxes. A deafening silence is a nice example. The idea that sometimes the loudest cries are those we cannot hear. The paradox is what gives the metaphor its meaning. This should be meaningless, you cannot hear silence (and it certainly cannot be loud), but the contradictory meaning is the source of its meaning. Frankl, again in Man's Search For Meaning, speaks of hope. He writes that the woman condemned to death will, in the moments leading up to her execution, suddenly have a powerful feeling that she will be rescued. In moments of extreme hopelessness, humans will have powerful feelings of hope. This is seemingly contradictory, there is no reason for hope in these situations but at the same time, having hope gains its meaning, somehow, in those situations where seemingly to have any would be absurd. 

At this point, you might turn around and accuse me of romanticism. You would not be the first. "Of course," you might protest, "If one is a romantic, one believes this sort of nonsense. Love is love, we have a definition of it and let's just move on." Perhaps you have a point. Perhaps all of this is needless romanticism. But I am not sure. Either we are all, at heart, somewhat romantic without realising or, there is a romanticism to be found even in the absence of meaning. Tim Minchin exemplifies this quite nicely in his address to the University of Western Australia. He says, at the beginning of his speech, that there is no meaning, yet by the end insists that he is not a nihilist.⁶ This might seem paradoxical; nihilism is the rejection that life has meaning. What might seem paradoxical further is to argue that it is specifically life's lack of meaning that we need to embrace to gain meaning out of life. If life lacks meaning, we may as well fill it. This is the only option we have. We may as well embrace the lack of meaning and try and have a meaningful existence. What else can we do?


¹ Frankl, Victor [2004] Man's Search for Meaning. London: Rider
² https://www.brainpickings.org/2013/01/01/what-is-love/
³ Ibid
⁴ Ibid
⁵ Ibid
⁶ http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional-address/