Archive for March, 2009

Minority politics

The death this weekend of Janet Jagan (1920-2009, pictured speaking to the UN), former President of Guyana (1997-1999), is a reminder that the election of President Barack Obama in the USA last November was not the first time that a democracy has elected a national leader who was a member of an ethnic minority.  Born Janet Rosenberg, Janet Jagan was a ruthless Chicago pol, although far to the left of Young Bazza.  Indeed, since no ethnic group in Guyana has a majority, one could argue that every leader which that country has elected democratically (which, sadly, is not all of Guyana’s leaders) has been an example of a majority electing a leader from a minority.

And there are other examples, if one widens the definition of ethnicity:  Britain currently has a Scottish-born Prime Minister, its second Scottish-educated PM in succession, and disproportionately many Scots Cabinet Ministers.   Both Britain and Australia have in the past elected as leaders people whose first language was not English, and both did so around the same time:  Lloyd George in Britain (PM 1916-1922), and Billy Hughes in Australia (PM 1915-1923), were second-language speakers of English, both having Welsh as their mother-tongue.  Australia’s current Deputy Prime Minister (and this week again Acting PM), Julia Gillard, is also Welsh-born.   One of Australia’s most influential politicians in its first two decades, and founder of Canberra as the national capitol, was King O’Malley (1858-1953), who was almost certainly born in the USA.  Both Australia and New Zealand had several Cabinet Ministers in their first decades born in the other country.  And the Australian state of New South Wales has had a Premier born in Hungary (Nick Greiner, Premier 1988-1992), and Sydney a Lord Mayor born in Poland (Leo Port, 1975-1978).  Australia currently has a Federal Minister for Finance born in Belgium (Mathias Cormann).

And Britain, as perhaps befits a former colonial power, has had a succession of Cabinet ministers from abroad (although not all of these have been elected).  Lloyd George offered a position in his cabinet during WW I to American businessman, Herbert Hoover (who declined the post).  In both world wars, the British PM established an Imperial War Cabinet, in which the dominions were invited to be represented, although not all took up the invitation.  In recent years, Britons have seen Ministers who were born or raised in Australia (Patricia Hewitt), Dominica (Baroness Patricia Scotland), Kenya & South Africa (Peter Hain), Ghana (Paul Boateng), Guyana (Baroness Valerie Amos) and Yemen (Keith Vaz).   Malcolm Rifkind, Defence Minister and Foreign Minister under John Major (1992-1997), spent part of his early adult life in Africa (in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia), as Major himself did also (in Nigeria).

“Only in America!”, as Yogi Berra might say.

POSTSCRIPT:  Writing this, I forgot Bill Skate, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea from 1997 – 1999, and Julius Chan, Prime Minister 1980-1982 and 1994-1997.  Both men were of mixed race ancestry.   And there was also Paul Berenger, Prime Minister of Mauritius from 2003-2005, a Christian leader in a majority Hindu nation, and Guy Scott, briefly President of Zambia (2014-2015).  These have been the only Caucasian leaders of African nations post Independence.

POSTSCRIPT 2 [2012-03-14]:  And one could also mention the leaders of various places who were members of religious minorities, and whose elections sometimes excited controversy:  JFK in the USA is the most famous.  Before him, we had various Jewish premiers in predominantly Christian dominions:  Julius Vogel (PM of New Zealand, 1873-1875), Vaiben Solomon (Premier, South Australia, 1899), Francis Bell (PM, New Zealand, 1925), Roy Welensky (PM, Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland,  1956-1963), and John Key (PM, New Zealand, 2008-current).

And here is a list of people who served in more than one Parliament or Assembly.


On prophecy

They know not what to make of the Words, little time, speedily, shortly, suddenly, soon. They would have me define the Time, in the Prophecies of my ancient Servants. Yet those Predictions carried in them my authority, and were fulfilled soon enough, for those that suffered under them . . . I have seen it best, not to assign the punctual Times, by their Definition among Men; that I might keep Men always in their due distance, and reverential Fear of invading what I reserve, in secret, to myself . . . The Tower-Guns are the Tormenta e Turre aethera, with which this City I have declared should be battered . . . I have not yet given a Key to Time in this Revelation.”

John Lacy, explaining to his followers among a millenarian French Huguenot sect in Britain in 1707 why his prophecies had not yet been fulfilled, cited in Schwartz 1980, p. 99.


Hillel Schwartz [1980]:  The French Prophets: The History of a Millenarian Group in Eighteenth-Century England (Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press)

A salute to Zdenek Mlynar


Continuing our series of heroes, I would like to honour Zdenek Mlynar (1931-1997).  Mlynar was an idealistic Czech communist who, as the principal author of the Action Programme of the Czechoslovak Communist Party (KSC), was the key theoretician of the Prague Spring in 1968.  Mlynar had earlier been selected by the party to study Marxist theory and law in Moscow in the 1950s, where he was a fellow student and friend of another young, idealistic communist, Mikhail Gorbachev.   Upon his return to the CSSR, Mlynar worked within the KSC to increase democracy, both internally within the party and in public life, becoming one of the reformers around Alexander Dubcek in the mid 1960s.

After the invasion of the CSSR by forces of the Warsaw Pact in 1968, Mlynar refused to submit to the reimposition of stalinism (during the so-called “normalization” period), and was expelled from the KSC.   After co-organizing and signing Charter 77, he was forced into exile.    In contrast to the courage and integrity of Mlynar, of Vaclav Havel and of their fellow members of the the Czechoslovak opposition, the man who is currently Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, kept quiet during this period.

After departing Moscow in 1955, Mlynar and Gorbachev met again next in 1967.   When Gorbachev visited Prague in 1969, he was not permitted to see Mlynar.  They did not then meet again until 1989.    Mlynar was married to Rita Budinova (later Rita Klimova), the first post-Communist Ambassador from Czechoslovakia to the USA.

Archie  Brown has noted that the reformers of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1968 were the same generation as those who reformed communism in the USSR twenty years later.  In both cases, the reformers were people who were born in the 1920s and 1930s, and who thus came of age after the imposition of communism.   Also, in both cases, the reformers were true believers in socialist ideas, and neither cynics nor opportunists.  Unlike the situation in Hungary, Poland, and the DDR between 1945 and 1989, change to communism in the CSSR and the USSR came not from below but from above.

Past entries in this series are here.

Footnote:  Not only were the reforms of Gorbachev driven, leninist-fashion, from the top.  Charles Fairbanks [2008, pp. 64-65] has argued that there may be a direct link between the ideas of left-Stalinist Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948), and Gorbachev’s reforms, via Finnish and Soviet politician Otto Kuusinen (1881-1964), politician Yuri Andropov (1914-1984), and economists Aleksei Rumyantsev (1905-1982?) and Aleksandr Yakovlev (1923-2005).  Rumyantsev was editor of the international journal Problems of Peace and Socialism in Prague during the period leading to the Prague Spring; the journal’s Russian editorial staff in this period had been selected by Kuusinen and Andropov.


Charles H. Fairbanks [2008]: “The nature of the beast”.  Chapter 6, pages 61-75, of Gvosdev [2008].

Nikolas K. Gvosdev (Editor) [2008]:  The Strange Death of Soviet Communism:  A Postscript. New Brunswick, NJ, USA:  Transaction Publishers.

Mikhail Gorbachev and Zdenek Mlynar [2002]:  Conversations with Gorbachev on Perestroika, The Prague Spring, and the Crossroads of Socialism.  New York, USA:  Columbia University Press.  Translated by George Shriver, with a Foreword by Archie Brown.

Zdenek Mlynar [1980]:  Night Frost in Prague:  The End of Humane Socialism.  London, UK:  C. Hurst and Co.

The decade around 1664

We noted before that one consequence of the rise of coffee-houses in 17th-century Europe was the development of probability theory as a mathematical treatment of reasoning with uncertainty.   Ian Hacking’s history of the emergence of probabilistic ideas in Europe has a nice articulation of the key events, all of which took place a decade either side of 1664:

  • 1654:  Pascal wrote to Fermat with his ideas about probability
  • 1657: Huygens wrote the first textbook on probability to be published, and Pascal was the first to apply probabilitiy ideas to problems other than games of chance
  • 1662: The Port Royal Logic was the first publication to mention numerical measurements of something called probability, and Leibniz applied probability to problems in legal reasoning
  • 1662:  London merchant John Gaunt published the first set of statistics drawn from records of mortality
  • Late 1660s:  Probability theory was used by John Hudde and by Johan de Witt in Amsterdam to provide a sound basis for reasoning about annuities (Hacking 1975, p.11).

Developments in the use of symbolic algebra in Italy in the 16th-century provided the technical basis upon which a formal theory of uncertainty could be erected.  And coffee-houses certainly aided the dissemination of probabilistic ideas, both in spoken and written form.   Coffee houses may even have aided the creation of these ideas – new mathematical concepts are only rarely created by a solitary person working alone in a garret, but usually arise instead through conversation and debate among people each having only partial or half-formed ideas.

However, one aspect of the rise of probability in the mid 17th century is still a mystery to me:  what event or phenomena led so many people across Europe to be interested in reasoning about uncertainty at this time?  Although 1664 saw the establishment of a famous brewery in Strasbourg, I suspect the main motivation was the prevalence of bubonic plague in Europe.   Although plague had been around for many centuries, the Catholic vs. Protestant religious wars of the previous 150 years had, I believe, led many intelligent people to abandon or lessen their faith in religious explanations of uncertain phenomena.   Rene Descartes, for example, was led to cogito, ergo sum when seeking beliefs which peoples of all faiths or none could agree on.  Without religion, alternative models to explain or predict human deaths, morbidity and natural disasters were required.   The insurance of ocean-going vessels provided a financial incentive for finding good predictive models of such events.

Hacking notes (pp. 4-5) that, historically, probability theory has mostly developed in response to problems about uncertain reasoning in other domains:  In the 17th century, these were problems in insurance and annuities, in the 18th, astronomy, the 19th, biometrics and statistical mechanics, and the early 20th, agricultural experiments.  For more on the connection between statistical theory and experiments in agriculture, see Hogben (1957).  For the relationship of 20th-century probability theory to statistical physics, see von Plato (1994).

POSTSCRIPT (ADDED 2011-04-25):

There appear to have been major outbreaks of bubonic plague in Seville, Spain (1647-1652), in Naples (1656), in Amsterdam, Holland (1663-1664), in Hamburg (1663), in London, England (1665-1666), and in France (1668).   The organist Heinrich Scheidemann, teacher of Johann Reincken, for example, died during the outbreak in Hamburg in 1663.   Wikipedia now has a listing of global epidemics (albeit incomplete).



Ian Hacking [1975]:  The Emergence of Probability: a Philosophical study of early ideas about Probability, Induction and Statistical Inference. London, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lancelot Hogben [1957]: Statistical Theory. W. W. Norton.

J. von Plato [1994]:  Creating Modern Probability:  Its Mathematics, Physics and Philosophy in Historical Perspective.  Cambridge Studies in Probability, Induction, and Decision Theory.  Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press.

Writing as thinking

Anyone who has done any serious writing knows that the act of writing is a form of thinking.  Formulating vague ideas and half-articulated concepts into coherent, reasoned, justified, well-defended written arguments is not merely the reporting of thinking but is indeed the very doing of thinking.   Michael Gerson, former policy advisor and chief speech-writer to President George W. Bush, has a nice statement of this view, in an article in the Washington Post defending President Barack Obama’s use of teleprompters, here.  An excerpt:

“For politicians, the teleprompter has always been something of an embarrassing vice — the political equivalent of purchasing cigarettes, Haagen-Dazs and a Playboy at the convenience store.

This derision is based on the belief that the teleprompter exaggerates the gap between image and reality — that it involves a kind of deception. It is true that there is often a distinction between a president on and off his script. With a teleprompter, Obama can be ambitiously eloquent; without it, he tends to be soberly professorial. Ronald Reagan with a script was masterful; during news conferences he caused much wincing and cringing. It is the rare politician, such as Tony Blair, who speaks off the cuff in beautifully crafted paragraphs.

But it is a mistake to argue that the uncrafted is somehow more authentic. Those writers and commentators who prefer the unscripted, who use “rhetoric” as an epithet, who see the teleprompter as a linguistic push-up bra, do not understand the nature of presidential leadership or the importance of writing to the process of thought.

Governing is a craft, not merely a talent. It involves the careful sorting of ideas and priorities. And the discipline of writing — expressing ideas clearly and putting them in proper order — is essential to governing. For this reason, the greatest leaders have taken great pains with rhetoric. Lincoln continually edited and revised his speeches. Churchill practiced to the point of memorization. Such leaders would not have been improved by being “unplugged.” When it comes to rhetoric, winging it is often shoddy and self-indulgent — practiced by politicians who hear Mozart in their own voices while others perceive random cymbals and kazoos. Leaders who prefer to speak from the top of their heads are not more authentic, they are often more shallow — not more “real,” but more undisciplined.

. . .

The speechwriting process that puts glowing words on the teleprompter screen serves a number of purposes. Struggling over the precise formulations of a text clarifies a president’s own thinking. It allows others on his staff to have input — to make their case as a speech is edited. The final wording of a teleprompter speech often brings internal policy debates to a conclusion. And good teamwork between a president and his speechwriters can produce memorable rhetoric — the kind of words that both summarize a historical moment and transform it.”

Anyone (and this includes most everybody in management consulting) who has tried to achieve a team consensus over some issue knows the truth of this last paragraph.   The writing of a jointly-agreed text or presentation enables different views to be identified, to surface, and to be accommodated (or ignored explicitly).   Just as writing is a form of thinking, developing team presentations is a form of group cognition and group co-ordination.

The rain in Spain is mainly declaimed

Through painful experience over many years, I have learnt to avoid any movie with a script written by David Mamet.   Hailed as a great American playwright and screenwriter by many, he appears to have – sadly – a tin ear for human speech and dialogue.   His film characters do not converse or speak as we humans do.  Rather, in some variant of a weird, artificial language I call americantheatrespeak, they declaim:  their words are enunciated clearly and loudly, with neither pauses, nor stumbles, nor mumbles, nor muttering, nor cross-talk, all the while speaking in entire sentences and paragraphs, pre-composed and uttered with a formality that would provoke laughter if you heard anyone actually speak like that.   It is not how we human beings speak, except sometimes in formal settings such as courts of law and important congressional or parliamentary sessions.    After seeing Montgomery Clift, with his pauses and false starts and mid-sentence hesitations and on-the-fly mods, how could anyone think to write movie speech of the stilted, unnatural style of Mamet’s?   In The Misfits, Arthur Miller wrote dialogue for Clift that played to his superb abilities, so we know it is possible for a theatre playwright to write natural-sounding speech for film.   As I said, Mamet must have a tin ear.

I now learn I am not alone in this assessment of Mamet.  Adam Gopnik, in a New Yorker article about Damon Runyon, also notes Mamet’s formal, unnatural, language.   Gopnik, however, admires it, for no compelling reason that I can see.    Perhaps americantheatrespeak works OK on the stage, and people who see a lot of theatre don’t notice it when used on film.  Yet, against that, Clift was New York’s leading theatre actor before he ventured onto film.   But on film this style of speech is a disaster, as Mamet’s 2004 film Spartan demonstrates; no, Virginia, it is not the wooden acting or the unexplained gaps in the plot that make this film unwatchable, but Mamet’s stilted, wooden dialogue.   Ditto for the other scalps on his film pelt:  House of Games, Glengarry Glen Ross, etc.   Someone else seems to be writing (or de-Mametizing) the script of The Unit, although even here (unlike, say, The Wire), people rarely pause, mumble or cross-talk.

POSTSCRIPT:  Thinking some more about this, the issue arises because of what Gopnik calls film’s arch-naturalism.  Concepts that could work perfectly well as theatrical productions often fail on film, as, for example, the black backdrops and absurdism of Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Wittgenstein, which was irritating in the extreme.   We have a problem suspending disbelief for film, a problem we don’t usually have for the theatre.   Perhaps the cause, as some film theorists have noted, is that films are akin to dreams, and dreams don’t require us (at least, not consciously) to do work ourselves to imagine whatever is missing from the production.  We are happy to do this work when watching theatre (and when reading books and listening to the radio), but are less so for watching films or TV.


Adam Gopnik [2009]:  “Talk it up:  Damon Runyon’s guys and dolls.”  The New Yorker, 2 March 2009, pp. 66-71.