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Mark English

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In a recent interview Louis-Vincent Gave talked about the impending showdown between China and the United States, suggesting that China has a better than even chance of success in their attempts to combat the hegemony of the US dollar.

At the heart of China's strategy is the Belt and Road Initiative (see below) which Gave presents as a straightforwardly imperial project. The Roman Empire was at its core a road-building exercise, the roads being designed to facilitate trade and tie the regions into a mutual dependency relationship with the imperial hub. In the Eurasia region, increasingly at any rate, all roads lead to Beijing.

Gave also mentions the new Shanghai oil futures contract (which is priced in renmimbi but is also tied to gold). After six months of operation it now accounts for 14% of the global market. It is just one of many instances of international trading structures being set up which bypass the US dollar.

The United States has only been able to sustain its increasingly debt-dependent government spending programs because the current US dollar-centric global financial system created an artificial demand for US Treasury securities. Rising yields, even at a time of turmoil in emerging markets, would appear to indicate that demand is waning. Gave admits that he expected yields to fall as safe-haven assets like US Treasurys were sought. He believes that rising US government deficits have spooked investors to the extent that US government debt is no longer seen as the safe-haven asset it once was.

If these trends continue over the medium term, US standards of living will inevitably fall. They have fallen a lot already, putting stresses on the social fabric and on political institutions.

Many senior politicians and bureaucrats are aware that America's prosperity has been dependent for decades on the privileged status of the US dollar. There is a real risk that they will seek to defend the monetary and financial status quo by military means.

The concerns of the Chinese leaders are slightly different. They know that time is on their side and so would be less likely to initiate military conflict. They are aware, however, that if their domestic economy falters, social cohesion is at risk. They know they are in an economic slowdown at the moment but apparently believe that it will be manageable.

#dedollarization #SWIFT #China #UnitedStates #dollar #yuan #RMB #BRI #renmimbi
China's so-called Belt and Road Initiative can be seen as an over-ambitious attempt to plan and control economic forces, as a Machiavellian plot to project Chinese power and create an empire or, more reasonably I think, as an intelligent response to recent economic and geopolitical changes. These changes present China – as the main rising economic power – with an opportunity to bring about a fundamentally new economic and political order, at least in the Eurasian region.

How it all pans out will obviously depend on the level of international cooperation, but early indications are that most countries in this vast region see benefits for themselves in the plan and are keen to join the process.

The BRI is all about creating trade-related infrastructure linking the Far East to the rest of the Eurasian land mass and adjacent areas. This map illustrates the main economic corridors involved.
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The Skripal poisoning saga is a useful test case for deciding to what extent (if at all) the mainstream media is complicit in promoting a false narrative designed to demonize and isolate Russia.

Immediately after the poisoning story broke, and before any proper investigation could plausibly have taken place, the British government publicly announced that the Russian government was directly implicated in the attempted murders. This struck me at the time as very odd, as did some aspects of the official story (which was clearly endorsed and supported by the media) as it developed.

There have been many twists and turns in the Skripal saga. The extremely strange and unexpected RT interview with the two suspects moved the story on in a dramatic way. The big question at the moment relates to the Bellingcat claims about one of the two suspects being a decorated GRU Colonel, Anatoliy Chepiga.

The Russians are refusing to comment directly at this stage, but are suggesting (see linked article) that the suspect merely resembles Chepiga. (Their ears look different to me, but what would I know?)

Bellingcat has connections to the Atlantic Council. If it turns out that the mainstream media narrative (which has incorporated the Bellingcat claims) proves to be false my distrust of the media and official Western sources will be increased. If, on the other hand, the mainstream narrative turns out to be substantially correct, I will soften my stance -- and possibly reconsider my position more generally.

#AnatoliyChepiga #AtlanticCouncil #Bellingcat #GRU #media #mediabias #neoconservatism #Novichok #poisoning #Russia #Skripal #SergeiSkripal #YuliaSkripal #Skripals #UnitedKingdom #Putin #VladimirPutin
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Bertrand Russell [1872–1970] was committed to a view of the world based on evidence and reason and was an energetic advocate for science and for a scientifically-oriented philosophy. It was recently claimed (in response to an article of mine at The Electric Agora) that he made a fetish of science. I don’t think he did.

Certainly, as an adolescent, Russell found comfort in the certainties of mathematics; and it takes a particular kind of mentality to be so concerned about the foundations of mathematics as to devote many years to attempting to elaborate a sound logical basis for the discipline. This is not just one man’s story however: there is a broader social and cultural context to take into account.

Russell’s long life spanned a remarkable period of European cultural and intellectual history. One of the things that made it so remarkable was the way that scientific advances in a range of areas – especially historical linguistics, textual criticism, natural history, mathematics and physics – mattered for the general culture. There was a sense that the world had changed irrevocably since the early 19th century; that it was no longer business as usual. Too many established truths had been shown not to be truths at all. Given this intellectual upheaval, it is no wonder that the new world sensed or foreseen by many thinkers and artists of this time was a disturbing and disorientating one.

What distinguished Russell and the thinkers with whom he was most closely allied from most philosophers of the time was their commitment to scientific methods and their openness to the very real possibility that their various projects might fail. They were intellectual pioneers; explorers, not dreamers. And they were bound in a very productive way to the spirit of their time.

The grand plan to create an explicit and complete logical system which could encompass arithmetic was demonstrated – by Kurt Gödel in the early 1930s – to be impossible. But, as Karl Popper pointed out, this is precisely how science works and progresses: by bold conjectures and refutations. Without the prior work by Giuseppe Peano, Gottlob Frege, Russell and others, Gödel would never have come to devise his remarkable proof. And it’s not as if Frege’s and Russell’s work was successful only in this negative sense. After all, their technical achievements helped to lay the groundwork for – and even shaped in certain ways – the revolution in digital computing as well as providing fruitful ideas in specific areas (such as formal linguistics).

I certainly don’t want to mount a defense of Russell’s logical atomism. I see the whole project of trying to construct a perfectly clear and perspicuous language (even if it is meant only for scientific purposes) as being doomed to failure. Russell’s own views changed over time and in his later works he defends an approach to human knowledge which is (in my opinion) eminently defensible.

Russell was drawn to a correspondence view of truth. It seems to me that there are indeed objectively existing states of affairs – in both ordinary and scientific contexts – to which most statements refer and against which their truth or correctness (or whatever term might be appropriate) depends. I see this view (or something very like it) as a prerequisite for science and scholarship as those pursuits have traditionally been understood.

Sure, such a view has been challenged by various forms of idealism and radical epistemologies over the years. It is currently under sustained attack. Is it worth defending? Absolutely. How one sees these matters has serious intellectual, cultural and even political consequences.

Critics of scientific realism have dominated the arts and humanities for decades. Richard Rorty was one of the most prominent. They take their inspiration from various sources, including the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein.

In his youth, Wittgenstein worked with Bertrand Russell and then subsequently had dealings with the Vienna Circle before taking a rather different direction from the late 1920s on. But the main elements of his thinking remained the same: his distrust of metaphysics, for example. He even came to fault his earlier work (which was heavily influenced by Russell) as being too metaphysical.

Though Russell’s earlier work may have incorporated some questionable assumptions, his basic orientation was, like Wittgenstein’s, hostile to metaphysics. Certainly he was strongly opposed to Hegelian thinking and other forms of philosophical idealism.

Where Russell and Wittgenstein differ, there are some issues on which I side with one, and some issues on which I side with the other. But with respect to the status of science and scientific knowledge I am very much in Russell’s camp.


#BertrandRussell #19thcentury #20thcentury #Europe #culturalhistory #intellectualhistory #KarlPopper #knowledge #KurtGödel #language #LudwigWittgenstein #metaphysics #philosophy #postmodernism #science #scientificrealism #truth #epistemology

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In his account of his relations with the novelist, D.H. Lawrence, Bertrand Russell mentions more than once that he felt that Lawrence was possessed of a kind of insight into human nature deeper than his own logical mind would allow. There may be something in this. Lawrence had some very weird ideas, but his writing displays a deep understanding of human relationships and the emotional side of life.

In his autobiography, Russell wrote of the “devastating effect” certain criticisms which Lawrence once made of his social and political views had on him. These events occurred in 1915.

"I was inclined to believe that he had some insight denied to me," Russell wrote, "and when he said that my pacifism was rooted in blood-lust I supposed he must be right. For twenty-four hours I thought that I was not fit to live and contemplated suicide."

Though unquestionably a very influential and successful thinker, Russell had nagging doubts about the nature of his general outlook and particularly about the limitations of his perspective on social and human matters. All too aware of his intellectualism, he looked to Lawrence to articulate “a vivifying dose of unreason.” And Lawrence duly obliged...
More on Russell and Lawrence
More on Russell and Lawrence
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Our Walter Mitty culture...

In a recent piece [see linked article] I quoted Daniel Kaufman as claiming that modern culture is too much focused on the individual's experience. We are beginning to treat the value of any thing or activity as lying solely in the experience that is engendered by it. On this view, what is valuable about playing tennis is not the playing itself, but the experience one has in doing so; what is valuable about charitable activity is not the activity itself, but the experience that one has in engaging in it; and so on. This leads to an impoverished view of ourselves. Essentially we are cutting ourselves off from reality.

What matters is not just the experiences but what we are actually doing (and how well we are doing it). And, as Dan points out, most of us care about whether we really are good tennis players, or successful professionals, or whatever.

Virtual reality technologies are bringing these issues to the fore in a quite dramatic way however.

Previously dreamers – epitomized, for example, by James Thurber’s Walter Mitty – were seen as dreamers, and were laughed at or pitied. Mitty had a domineering wife and found satisfaction and fulfilment only in his fantasies (where he was a fearless wartime pilot or an assassin or a brilliant surgeon). It was all very silly and funny, albeit in a dark kind of way.

Are digital technologies creating a world in which Walter Mittys will be the norm?

#postmodernism #WalterMitty #reality #virtualreality #realism #JamesThurber
Experientialism and Reality
Experientialism and Reality
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I wrote an earlier post incorporating material from some emails I received from a resident of East Anglia about the the Jewish presence – past and present – in England and Wales which dealt with affinities between dissenters and Jews. That post was mainly about Wales; this one is focused on East Anglia.

My informant – who has Jewish ancestors himself and whose home town is near the Norfolk/Suffolk border – talked about the demographics of his area, alluding (for example) to former East London families who were resettled there in the 1950s. But his main interest is in long-standing residents of the wider region. Noting the history of towns in the area as wool and cloth trading centres closely tied to the Hanseatic League of northwestern and central Europe, he spoke of "classic medieval Semitic faces" resembling (as he put it) "the church gargoyles, which I have always believed to be an early example of anti-Semitism, as are most [...] representations of Satan."

These speculative and impressionistic observations raise interesting questions about the identification of Jews with the demons of conventional religion. But most forms of anti-Semitism are less extreme than this, and stereotypes vary from time to time and from place to place. The medieval view was different from modern stereotypes. (In the Middle Ages, Jews were normally depicted as having red hair, for example.)

My East Anglian informant notes that historically there was a high proportion of nonconformists (or dissenters) in the local population. Amongst them at one time was my great-great-grandmother, Caroline Sturgeon, who was born in the village of Coney Weston in Suffolk.

Was Sturgeon originally a Jewish name? I suspect so, but my evidence is circumstantial. The fish in question is mainly known as a source of caviar, but the flesh is also eaten. Sturgeon flesh was popular, especially amongst European Jewish communities, despite doubts concerning its kosher status. There was, in fact, a bitter dispute about the fish between orthodox and conservative Jews during the 19th century.

What's more, some of our Sturgeons had very unusual Old Testament-based given names.

There are still Sturgeons in the area, and Hinderclay church has Sturgeon burials. Winfarthing churchyard was also mentioned as having a lot of Anglo-Jewish names. ("Perhaps as trades people there were sufficient funds to afford the burials skewing the apparent ratio proportions to general population.")

One reason for the relatively high proportion of nonconformists amongst the local population in past centuries was that the immigration of professional weavers from Flanders and Wallonia was encouraged. They mostly belonged to nonconformist Protestant sects and many would have had Jewish origins. They were known locally as "strangers". (See the history of Strangers' Hall in Norwich.)

I referred in my previous post to George Eliot's novel, Silas Marner: The Weaver of Raveloe. The main character – from the North of England – travels to the Midlands. He is presented as having an alien appearance and as belonging to a dissenting sect. And his mother's given name was Hephzibah.

Richard Cobbold's Biography of a Victorian Village was recommended to me. It describes the Suffolk village of Wortham circa 1860 and includes details of each family and their means of living.

According to my informant, most of the shop surnames in his area were English names which are known to be commonly indicative of Jewish origins. (Most of them, he said, appear on a list which I published some time ago.)

And so to the East Anglian names he happened to mention in his letters (apart from Sturgeon)...

"Bird names Crow(e), Bird, Swan, Heron, Starling, Dove, Finch and Wren are in my experience wholly Jewish."

Also noted as local families claiming Jewish ancestry were Raven, Eagle, Sparrow, Partridge and Crane.

Harries was also mentioned as Jewish and Simmonds (which is another name in the East Anglian branch of my family) as probably Jewish.

My correspondent also listed some other East Anglian names which (he said) might be worth looking at. I haven't had time to check them yet, but my first thought is that most of these names would probably not have any significant Jewish connections. But I may be wrong. The names are: Bradbury, Bradley, Bush, Clarke, Comer, Flowerdew, Fuller, Hines, Ives, Leeder, Mills, Oakes, Potter, Scoggins, Strudwick, Ward and Wright. Also mentioned were three other bird names: Drake, Gosling and Nightingale.

If you have any thoughts on any of this, please don't hesitate to comment or send an email (engmar3 at gmail dot com).
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A correspondent with Jewish ancestors who lives in East Anglia and has family connections with Wales has provided some fascinating information about the Jewish presence in England and Wales as well as offering some speculations about the significance of particular surnames. This is the first of (probably) several posts summarizing the main points of our discussion.

One recurring theme was the possible links between Jews and nonconformists (or dissenters from the established Church of England). My correspondent told of an encounter with a Welsh-born woman who had been raised "chapel" (i.e. as a nonconformist Christian) but who was, in effect, a crypto-Jew. Crypto-Jews were common especially amongst Sephardic populations, but I was surprised that the phenomenon persisted in Great Britain until well into the 20th century. This Welsh woman had been outwardly conforming to the standard (Christian) culture of her environment, but was well aware of her Jewish origins. She recalled that after Sunday school at her chapel, the pastor (who was obviously Jewish himself) had given her extra lessons so that she could "carry the torch" of Jewish lore, religion and identity to the next generation.

It is well-known that some synagogues were built in the Welsh chapel style; but it seems that even some Christian chapels had strong Jewish links.

Some of my ancestors were Pembers. George Hawkins Pember was not a direct ancestor but he came from precisely the same part of England as my Pembers – the cathedral city of Hereford (which is, as it happens, only 16 miles from the Welsh border). G.H. Pember was a theologian and religious author associated with the Plymouth Brethren. A scholar of Hebrew, his focus was on Old Testament prophesies etc.. I suspect that the Pembers were originally Jewish and that the name may derive from the Jewish name, Pemper. This is speculative however.

I am reminded here also of George Eliot's novel, Silas Marner, which I have written about previously. The word 'Jew' isn't mentioned but Silas is depicted as having an alien appearance and he has stereotypically Jewish traits. He is a weaver, and (as I will be discussing in a subsequent post) Jews were strongly associated with the textile business. He doesn't attend church and is totally unfamiliar with the rites and rituals of the Church of England. He is portrayed as belonging not to a specifically Jewish community but to a weird religious sect on the fringes of society. The author later wrote the novel, Daniel Deronda, which explicitly deals with the problems faced by Jews in Victorian times.

[The photograph is of Llanelli Synagogue which was built in typical Welsh chapel style.]
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For some time I have noticed animal shapes and animal faces traced in red ribbon which had been threaded and tied into chain-link (wire-mesh) fencing around the city. I only recently realized that these were part of a campaign for veganism and animal rights. I mentioned this campaign in a previous post.

These images certainly represent an interesting form of self-expression or persuasion: gentle and oblique. I saw a young man creating one of them quite late one night. It was cold. He was alone and working very fast. Within 24 hours his images had been ripped to shreds by a person or persons unknown; new ones appeared just the other day. (See photo.)

For now I am just observing, but there are some big issues behind this odd campaign which I still intend at some point to write something about.
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There is a tendency (I have it myself) to see speaking as “conveying” something from one brain or mind to another. According to this view, a string of words encodes something (a message?) which is sent via some channel (sound waves, squiggles on a screen or paper…) from the speaker or writer to others whose senses and cognitive processes take in and decode this thing-that-was-sent, this meaning-thing, this message. You could see the initial coding as like the wrapping up of a parcel. The parcel is then sent and received and unwrapped (decoded). So that the very thing that was sent is received.

But, of course, this is not how linguistic communication actually works. For one thing, this model fails to account for the misunderstandings which are endemic but all too often unnoticed in ordinary social communication. Increasingly I have come to see linguistic communication as something of a “surface” phenomenon, often papering over (as it were) huge differences in the way individuals see the world; or sometimes (as in many comment threads) creating divisions and dichotomies which are largely linguistic and which fail to reflect in a clear or accurate way the actual differences and divisions which lie behind the disagreements in question.

You could see language – certainly in its mundane social uses – as a set of games we play which facilitate and enhance social interaction – and manipulation.
Language and Meaning
Language and Meaning
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Bertrand Russell is much less read these days than he was during his lifetime but he is still very highly regarded for his pioneering work in logic and mathematics; less so, it must be said, for his general views on science and the nature of human knowledge.

In a recent piece, I set out some views on the nature and scope of science which are pretty much in line with Russell's. I emphasized what I see as an unbridgeable gulf between science and human values. This idea is often ignored or strenuously resisted by those seeking to impose their values on others or merely looking for some confirmation or objective validation of strongly felt moral, social or political convictions.

In a not dissimilar way, philosophers and other academics often speak as if their intellectual expertise gives them some special insight into substantive moral or values-based social or political questions. It doesn't. No form of intellectual expertise does that.

No one (I am saying) can be an expert on questions of value, on moral priorities, for example, or on how one should live. These are just not the sorts of question to which the methods of science, or of any rigorous empirical, formal or practical discipline – and so, by extension, the notion of expertise – can be applied.

Do some people have more insights than others into human psychology etc.? Of course. Many playwrights and writers of fiction do, for example. But these insights are based on complex, culturally-generated systems of value, not on some rigorous discipline which can be made explicit and learned by others.

And, of course, judgments about which particular writers and thinkers are insightful and worth reading will differ. My list will be different from yours, possibly very different. But this should be no surprise as we naturally gravitate to those who share our basic value systems – and ignore or disparage those who don't.

Where do our values come from? Mainly from the general culture: language, customs, manners, attitudes, etc.. The arts play a role also. And, of course, biology, which accounts for many individual differences.

There are also certain basic biological “values” that we share with other animals (like sex and enjoyment of food) and others relating to more sophisticated social instincts that we share with our closest mammalian relatives. But, for us, these drives are culturally enhanced or modified.
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