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Mark English
Interested in applying reason where reason can be applied; in avoiding unnecessary work; in language; in life. Philosophy PhD (Monash).
Interested in applying reason where reason can be applied; in avoiding unnecessary work; in language; in life. Philosophy PhD (Monash).
Mark's posts

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A lot of nonsense is talked about “destiny.” I’m referring here to the idea that individuals or groups can be seen to have some kind of pre-existing or pre-ordained path to fulfillment that they may discover and embrace.

Certainly, given an individual, say, at a particular stage of life, there are choices he or she may make – relating to profession or love life, for example – which will have consequences for his or her future happiness. But to talk of destiny is to poeticize and possibly metaphysicalize matters. There’s no harm in this, some might say.

I’m not so sure about this, being of the view that we make better life decisions if we try to free ourselves from certain kinds of quasi-religious and Romantic myth, which still maintain a grip on mainstream Western culture. My point applies not just to personal matters and individual “destinies” but also to the political realm – to notions of ethnic or national identity.

The idea of destiny goes back to the classical world, of course, where it was tied to religious and metaphysical ideas regarding fate (or Fate). But it was picked up and developed during the Renaissance and especially during the Romantic period, when it was repackaged in more modern form and applied in a wholesale way to nations and ethnic groups. National groups came to be seen as the bearers of some kind of group soul or “genius” and so to be subject to destiny in the same way as individuals are sometimes seen to be.

As this process occurred, local patriotisms gradually gave way (or at least ceded ground) to more active and activist forms of patriotism and nationalism. The much-anthologized sonnet “Heureux qui comme Ulysse…” by the 16th-century humanist Joachim du Bellay typifies the former approach and gives expression to the author’s deep emotional attachment to his native Anjou. A hymn to the French language and local culture, it is essentially untranslatable. But it typifies the sort of natural attachment that people often feel to their childhood haunts and the culture and traditions associated with their early years...

[See the link for the rest of the article, and the comment thread in which Daniel Kaufman, misrepresenting (as I see it) what I am saying, gives his take on Zionism. I respond to Dan's criticisms and Dwayne Holmes comes in in my defense. Fascinating discussion.]

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The linked article looks at some of the main foreign policy issues which are at stake as the Trump Administration takes shape. One topic which came up in the discussion thread was the make-up of President Trump's team and whether Steve Bannon will retain the degree of influence he has exercised in the Administration's first weeks. Jared Kushner's role is also touched on.

The Cold War was the most dangerous time ever for the planet. Why would we want to return to a situation where superpowers or power blocs are poised for all-out war with one another? And yet that seems to be where neoconservative policies have been leading us.

It's unrealistic to think that we can avoid global tensions and conflict but not unrealistic to see the Cold War as something of an historical anomaly, driven as it was by the myths and ideologies of a particular time. It does not, I would suggest, represent some kind of necessary pattern to which we will inevitably revert.

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A correspondent from Florida talked about her Lancashire ancestors: "... [M]y ancestry includes English people named Abram (and originally Abraham) from the North Meols area. When I took my DNA test there were no Eastern European genes, but there was Iberian."

North Meols, Lancashire, is, on the face of it, not a very likely place to find Jewish families, being a rural area with strong Norse connections. But the name Abram/Abraham is usually of Jewish origin and the Iberian DNA supports this.

One of the main points I have made in previous posts is that I believe that the extent of Jewish immigration into Britain from Spain and Portugal has been seriously underestimated.

There is arguably little surviving documentary evidence of these migrations, but genetic research is providing new data which will enable us to build a much more accurate historical narrative, one which may well change the way many of us perceive our cultural and ethnic identities.

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[Extract from my latest EA piece...]

P.D.Q. Bach was the youngest and oddest of J.S. Bach’s many children. His best known work is probably the dramatic oratorio, Oedipus Tex, featuring the “O.K. Chorale.” Another of his works is the Pervertimento for Bagpipes, Bicycle and Balloons. Peter Schickele, Professor of Musicology and Musical Pathology at the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople, who rediscovered P.D.Q. Bach, also invented a range of unusual instruments to perform his works, like the “dill piccolo” for playing sour notes and the “tromboon” (“a cross between a trombone and a bassoon, having all the disadvantages of both”). He also invented the proctophone, a latex glove attached to a mouthpiece (and “the less said about it, the better”). “The überklavier, or super piano – with a 15 octave keyboard ranging from sounds that only dogs can hear to sounds that only whales can make – was invented in 1797 by Klarck Känt, a Munich piano maker…” P.D.Q. Bach wrote a work for this instrument (The Trance and Dental Etudes).

Peter Schickele was one of a string of 20th-century musicians/composers/performers who made a living out of making (or trying to make) music funny. Maybe you really have to know the language to appreciate it, but I’ve never been attracted to musical parodies...

Musical jokes and novelties remind me of slapstick or physical comedy. It has its place; it can be done well. But it’s not really something I am drawn to...

Songs can be funny, yes. But it’s the words that are funny. Like many of Dave Frishberg’s lyrics... 'Peel me a grape' [for example]: “Pop me a cork, French me a fry, crack me a nut… keep standing by… Show me you love me, kid glove me… Never out-think me, just mink me; polar bear rug me, don’t bug me”, with the chorus, “I’m getting hungry, peel me a grape.” Dated and contentious in certain ways – and yet, I think this woman still exists. I know she does...

Many older songs were not political (or at least considered political) when they were written, but have become so. “Peel me a grape” may be descriptive of a certain continuing reality but will probably offend many feminists. It will also anger animal rights advocates due to the references to mink coats and polar bear rugs. Frishberg certainly didn’t do things by halves...

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"Even in moments of tranquility,” noted Clive James, “[motor racing commentator] Murray Walker sounds like a man whose trousers are on fire.” Quite so. He was all high-octane excitement and (in his later years at least) confusion. But it was glorious confusion.

“I’m in my usual state up here in the commentary box,” he once said. “High tension, heart beating like a trip hammer, whatever that is.”

Looking through various things, he is reputed to have said you can see a strange logic at work (or perhaps at play). I can’t resist citing a few of these examples with my own (minimal) commentary.

Some of the statements involve an unusually high level of semantic redundancy. For example: “That’s history. I say ‘history’ because it happened in the past.” Well, yes. At least that is clear. He will certainly not be misunderstood.

Or again (only slightly more informative): “With half the race gone, there is half the race still to go.”

Or: “And that just shows you how important the car is in Formula One racing.” Like the horses in horse racing, I guess.

Sometimes the redundancy has a certain Zen quality about it: “He can’t decide whether to leave his visor half open or half closed.”

Walker also seems to be struggling with deep issues relating to free will: “Schumacher wouldn’t have let him past voluntarily. Of course, he did it voluntarily, but he had to do it.”

The curiously fixed and yet seemingly relative nature of time fascinates him: “Even in five years time, he will still be four years younger than Damon Hill.”

Other remarks seem to affirm the basic principles of classical logic, in this case, the law of excluded middle: “Either the car is stationary, or it’s on the move.”

But often a first clause is seemingly undermined by a second: “The lead car is unique, except for the one behind it which is identical.” Sometimes this habit almost suggests a commitment to a form of dialetheism: “Well, now we have exactly the same situation as at the beginning of the race, only exactly opposite.”

He also seems to be working with a non-standard form of arithmetic: “There are seven winners of the Monaco Grand Prix on the starting line today, and four of them are Michael Schumacher.”

Sometimes his speculations seem to involve unconscious or mystical forms of knowing: “I’ve no idea what Eddie Irvine’s orders are, but he is following them superlatively well.”

There is a certain Gödelian quality to some of his musings: “I should imagine that conditions in the cockpit are totally unimaginable.”

Others are suggestive of the strange visual creations of M.C. Escher. Or rather, he speaks as an inhabitant of Escher-land might speak when viewing the banal realities of the real world, as if they were something new and strange: “The circuit is interesting because it has inclines and declines. Not just up, but down as well.”

He was relentlessly optimistic. For example: “There’s nothing wrong with the car, except that it’s on fire.”

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"[As rock and related forms of music] have become mainstream, the values and attitudes associated with the broader culture of rock and roll have also gained widespread acceptance, changing societies and cultures in subtle or not so subtle ways."

I raised this point in my most recent Electric Agora article but didn't elaborate on it, concentrating more on the music itself and its uneasy relationship with traditional Western musical styles.

Actually I like certain types of rock music, particular songs, etc., but I don't really relate very well to the rock and roll culture. As I said in response to some questions from Dan Kaufman in the comment section of the linked post, I didn't really want the discussion to be focused on my personal views and motivations, etc. but I readily admitted to having contrarian and conservative tendencies. The supposedly rebellious youth culture which I experienced was surprisingly conformist, and I kicked against it – or at least resisted it – to some extent. For example, I have never been interested in experimenting with drugs, and alcohol just makes me feel bad.

Another reason I'm ambivalent about rock is because it has destroyed many local musical traditions and contributed to the erosion of linguistic and geographically-defined cultural diversity. One of the commenters on my article talked about his experiences driving from Amsterdam through France to Italy in the 1980s and 90s and the way there was less and less rock on the car radio the further south you progressed. These regional differences are not so evident today. Rock and derivative forms are everywhere.

Though most rock music is not overtly political, it was from its very origins associated with rebellion and a conscious rejection of tradition. And it is currently being exploited in Europe and elsewhere by the left – and (ironically perhaps) also by the radical right – as a kind of recruiting tool.

Far more significant, however, is the way rock culture has combined with digital technologies to change general values and attitudes. You can't quantify this sort of thing but there is little doubt that the cultural identity of Western countries has been radically changed over recent decades and links to a two-and-a-half-thousand year history have been progressively broken. Who these days is familiar with Greek myths and legends or learns Latin or knows anything much about Western political or cultural or intellectual history? Rock music and the culture of rock and roll may be more of a symptom than a cause but it has undoubtedly played a role in this transformation.

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My latest Electric Agora piece, a personal (and not altogether positive!) take on rock music and the wider culture of rock and roll, prompted some entertaining discussion (see link). Here's an extract from the article...

The general process of the individual’s early exposure to music works not unlike early exposure to particular foods (which is said to powerfully influence food preferences for life). It reminds me also of the way goslings fixate on and follow whatever moving thing they first see upon hatching. The ethologist and writer Konrad Lorenz was mother goose to a batch of them: they used to follow him around. In somewhat similar fashion, the music we hear at vital stages imprints indelibly on our brains and is granted privileged access to our emotional centers.

The point is, this says very little about the music itself but a lot about our early environment. People often don’t get this simple truth: that what they grew up listening to and liking will likely sound very ho-hum (or worse) to anyone whose musical background was different.

An interesting twist on this relates to the conscious use of music as a repellent. I’ve heard of various cases but only witnessed one myself. The city in which I live has a very large number of people camping on the sidewalks and sleeping in doorways, etc. One popular night-time sitting and sleeping location was at the entrance of the central city branch of a major bank, close to the ATMs. Not good for business. So they piped Italian opera through their speakers. It had the desired effect.

Clearly, many of the factors that lead us to be attracted – or not – to certain musical forms are quite extrinsic to the music itself: sociological rather than musical. It depends on one’s upbringing whether certain music is, say, cool and sexy – or repulsive. (Opera is sexy for some.)

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I received an email recently from John Pyke who had some interesting things to say about the surnames Pyke, Pike and Mosely. He had wanted to post a public comment but presumably didn't want to open a G+ account. I will be posting (with his approval) his email as a comment on my post English Jewish Surnames Revisited.

From his original letter: "... My surname Pyke clearly comes from the very English Pykes of Devon/Dorset (g-g-father, also John, migrated from Lyme Regis) but there are also the more famous Jewish Pykes – Geoffrey the inventor of Pykecrete and his cousin Magnus of TV fame. I wonder what Jewish name their ancestor abandoned when assimilating? (Only partially assimilating, because their granddad although going by an Anglo name played a leading role in the London synagogue, I found somewhere). Bios of all of them in the Palgrave Dictionary of Anglo-Jewish History, but no sign of how far back they had been Londoners and what name earlier generations had had.

"Then, though I don't think my Pyke ancestors were the least bit Jewish or related to the London ones, the family story is that g-g-mother Mary Mosely who married a Heath from Devon was Jewish. If the surname was originally Moses or something similar, how ironic that they should pick the good English locality name Mosely to sound more English – but then it was a century before Oswald so how were they to know?"

Oswald Mosely, in case you're wondering, was an English fascist leader. In my reply I noted that Hecht is a Jewish surname – and the German word for pike (the fish).

John Pyke replied (in part): "As to Pikes, I did find a page on that said that a Jew from Amsterdam called Snoek had a heap of sons all called Pike who were living in England so yes you probably should add it... And if Mosely is not on your list you should add it too, and note the irony. Though I must say we have no proof of Mary Mosely's Jewishness or any sign of her ancestry. [A distant cousin] had also heard that she was supposed to have been Jewish so I presume that the story had come down from a Heath of an earlier generation, and is most likely true."

I will also be adding a few other names (or snippets of information related to names that are already there) to my list. Here are the details:

Horwich, Hurwich (from the town Horovice in Bohemia?); Gordon (from Grodno, Lithuania or from the Russian word gorodin, for townsman); Halperin (from Helbronn, Germany); Heller (from Halle, Germany); Hollander (from a town in Lithuania settled by the Dutch); Hendler.

In due course I will post an updated version of the list.

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I recently set out my views on logic and truth, drawing in particular on something Karl Popper wrote on the subject. It's a bit dry and boring – unless perhaps you have a particular interest in questions like: What is logic? Where does it come from? What 'authority' (if any) does it have? Can knowledge be objective?

I am opposed (as Popper was) to the view that everything is relative. I think that perhaps human values are relative, but knowledge of the world can be seen to be objectively based.

I was particularly pleased that the essay prompted a good discussion. (Daniel Kaufman, by the way, is a Missouri-based academic who co-founded The Electric Agora. He and I disagree on a few things, as you'll see from the discussion.)

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In my latest piece for The Electric Agora I talk about parallels between Donald Trump's stated policy positions and those of Enoch Powell in post-World War 2 Britain. Here is the first half of the article (see link for the full piece)...

Contributors to The Electric Agora have – not surprisingly – been giving their reactions to the result of US election. The other contributors are US citizens, so my perspective is different. No call for introspection or soul-searching. Certainly no cri de coeur. If I say, “He’s not my President,” it’s just a simple statement of fact.

Moreover (and this is probably more significant), I do not identify with the left or with progressivism, as most contributors and commenters here seem to do. On the ideological front, I see myself more as a skeptical conservative than as a progressive (as the term is generally understood), but my skepticism extends to political labels. Any label is provisional and potentially misleading. If you want to know someone’s political orientation you need to know where they stand on this and that particular question – if they stand anywhere at all. Speaking for myself, there are many important issues on which I have no strong views. (It is an unfortunate feature of the present political and social climate that uncertainty or agnosticism on certain issues is seen as tantamount to heresy.)

Two essays I wrote in the lead-up to the election were very critical of Hillary Clinton’s neoconservative foreign policy orientation. We’ll never know now whether those fears and predictions about what a Hillary Clinton presidency would entail were justified or on target. They will not be empirically tested. (Thank goodness, I say.)

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Donald Trump succumbs to those same – still-powerful – neoconservative forces. But, even if he does to some extent, his heart will never be in the imperialist and interventionist camp to the extent that Hillary Clinton’s apparently was. I take comfort from this, if only because I see the neoconservative position as being ideological to the core and consequently blind to important empirical realities.

Enoch Powell [1912-1998] was a prominent and controversial figure in post-World War 2 British politics. During that period, geopolitical questions inevitably involved the issue of Communism. Nonetheless, the general thrust of this passage from a speech Powell gave in 1967 criticizing Britain’s attempt to maintain its global reach and role beyond a time when that was appropriate applies equally to the United States today, in my opinion:

"In our imagination the vanishing last vestiges… of Britain’s once vast Indian Empire have transformed themselves into a peacekeeping role on which the sun never sets. Under God’s good providence and in partnership with the United States, we keep the peace of the world and rush hither and thither containing Communism, putting out brush fires and coping with subversion. It is difficult to describe, without using terms derived from psychiatry, a notion having so few points of contact with reality."
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