Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

What I'm Reading This Week #4

This week is a bit of a medley, with some ethics, a bit of foreign policy, and bits on China, Kenya and the Tory party. I've also been doing a lot of other reading (notably still working my way through Prisoners of Geography, which is excellent; as well as having read the entirety of Naomi Alderman's The Power in one day because it was that good.

  1. Barry Lam, "Is it moral to respect the wishes of the dead above the living?" https://aeon.co/ideas/is-it-moral-to-respect-the-wishes-of-the-dead-above-the-living

    We don't allow people to vote after their death, because we consider death to nullify all rights we had over the future political direction of our state. But we allow people a lot more leeway in how wealth is dealt with posthumously. In the US, inheritance can be conditional on marrying within a faith, or naming a school after you. Tax-sheltered trusts for descendants are protected even from creditors. Charitable trusts can be left with incredibly specific conditions on what the money can be spent on. Universities, hospitals and libraries often have the majority of their spending capital tied up in endowments which can only be used for certain purposes. Honouring the wishes of the dead ties up trillions of pounds and plausibly results in massive intergenerational economic injustice. We honour them in part because of moral duty, as the article suggests, but I would argue that there are also incentives bound up in this: if we tell people that their wills will be executed faithfully after their deaths, we change the decision-making calculus they have during life. We might be far more likely to just spend our money on a worldwide cruise rather than leave it to our children or charity if we didn't have the guarantee that it would be spent as we wished.

  2. The Weeds, Trump's "the buck stops somewhere else" foreign policyhttp://www.stitcher.com/podcast/voxs-the-weeds/e/50497732

    Contains a deep dive into the current situation in Qatar, as well as the Middle East more generally construed. There's some nice bits on the status quo in Afghanistan and the way in which it should probably be considered a failed war, as well as an analysis of the problem with Trump's lack of engagement with the wars that the US is fighting (specifically, that it essentially abrogates the principle of civilian control of the military and means that e.g. the MOAB was dropped without any knowledge from civilian command). It's illuminating and an easy listen.

  3. Fraser Nelson encapsulating the Tories' current soul-searching: https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/06/what-are-the-tories-for/#

    The Tories have failed to promote a positive campaigning vision for Britain. They haven't won a convincing majority since 1987. They've primarily campaigned, since then, on how much worse all the alternatives are, rather than any of their own supposed positive traits. That means that they're quite lost. Theresa May is still in power because the factionalism that would result from deposing her would eat the party from the inside out and result in an even more broken party, but that doesn't meant that she's actually doing much. Nelson makes the case for campaigning on the "conservative principles" of individual freedom and social cohesion, freedom from incompetent government and the ability to make the best of life for oneself. In this way conservatism is, for him, a movable feast that doesn't need to be associated with the traditional conservative values of homophobia/racism/sexism etc, but instead with what amounts to classical liberalism. This, to me, shows how far the political discourse in Britain has shifted leftwards with respect to social values: it's no longer possible to win an election campaign with the kinds of Toryism prevalent until the 1990s; rather, in order to win (by Nelson's lights) they would have to appeal to free market individualism blended with skepticism of government and a desire for social stability. Given that the ravages of austerity have primarily resulted from precisely this kind of suspicion of government and the desire to roll back the frontiers of the state, I'm uncertain that Nelson's Thatcherite vision (minus Section 28 and the associated toxic penumbra of conservatism) holds water as an electorally appealing strategy.

  4. The FT on "the dark side of China's national renewal": https://www.ft.com/content/360afba4-55d1-11e7-9fed-c19e2700005f?mhq5j=e1

    This article essentially proposes that the translation of Xi Jinping's "China Dream" is one that emphasises the rejuvenation of the Chinese "race", rather than just the Chinese "nation". This, in the FT's opinion, refers to the Han Chinese who make up more than 90% of China's population. But moreover, it incorporates anyone with Chinese ancestry or blood, no matter how long ago they left the nation. 

    It's worth noting, on the side, that this has strong parallels with the concept of "ethnic Russians' mobilised by Putin, which is a politically malleable concept: ethnic Russians can be anything from just Russian speakers to people with Russian ancestry, and the claim made over the safety and community of those people is one that is used to political effect, rather than being grounded purely in sentimentality (see Tim Marshall's Prisoners of Geography, Chapter 1). 

    The concern is that this rejuvenation necessitates the co-opting of Chinese worldwide to promote traditional Chinese culture and values, as well as the political positions of the PRC (e.g. opposing Taiwanese independence).

    Importantly, the context in which this takes place is one in which China is still seen, internally, as recovering from the Century of National Humiliation, in which China was continually subjugated by outside powers. That renders the slogan of rejuvenation as one that demands to "Make China Great Again", and the race- and nationalism-based connotations of that shouldn't be ignored.

  5. Here's an article about politics in Kenya, and the way that it currently pivots around ethnicity: http://theconversation.com/how-kenya-could-move-away-from-the-politics-of-ethnicity-77980

    The essential gist is that politics in Kenya has always been based on ethnicity as an artefact of the political arrangements around the time of independence, when nationwide political movements weren't allowed to be formed under colonial policy. That meant that the political parties which formed were largely regional, and thus tribal. Kenya has 42 ethnic groups, and the 5 major ones make up two thirds of the country's population. 

    The solution proposed is essentially a power-sharing one (common in post-colonial states and other emerging democracies). Power-sharing deals usually create more executive positions beyond just the President and Deputy President, and say that all parties or ethnic groups must be represented in these roles. That means that political mobilisation would likely become motivated less by ethnicity, and more by attempts to fix socioeconomic problems and ideology.

    I think it's a reasonable take, and it's definitely worth bearing in mind that the majority of states in the world are either post-colonial or otherwise post-conflict or emerging democracies, meaning that power-sharing agreements and attempts to facilitate stable democratic institutions is really important. I think it's probably quite relevant to the recent Trinity Open semi-final about the African Union guaranteeing democratic principles and institutions in its member states: one of the things teams often struggle to do is conceptualise exactly what this might look like, and power-sharing is one good example of this.

Three Minute Thesis - Video and reflections

Three Minute Thesis - Video and reflections

Does raising taxes drive out the rich?