I’m off to Boston tomorrow, to attend the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association for the first time since 1999. (Well, I’ll be spending most of my time hanging around in bars and seeing old friends). British sociologist Alan Carling went to the 1990 conference in San Francisco, and described it like this:

… but you have to hand it to US academics: they sure know how to organize a conference that feels like a serious business convention. There were actually men and women there in suits, especially those silver-sheeny ones in a mottled semi-reflective material that looks as if they descend from a job-lot of curtain lengths delivered by UFO somewhere over Colorado circa 1955… By dressing below this level, it was possible to regard oneself as a marginally dangerous intellectual presence, or at any rate a marginal one. (In the UK, by contrast, it is physically impossible to dress so low as to be the worst-dressed person present at the Annual Conference of the British Sociological Association).

From his essay, “Rational Choice Marxism and Postmodern Feminism: Towards a More Meaningful Incomprehension” in Rational Choice Marxism, ed. Terrell Carver and Paul Thomas, Pennsylvania University Press, 1995, p.301.

Fifth Anniversary

As the media gears up for an orgy of pointless comment on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the death of Diana — now dubbed, scandalously, the most significant date in twentieth-century British history, according to a poll conducted by the History Channel — it is more pleasant to travel back to a story from the previous week’s newspapers.

For on the August Bank Holiday Weekend of 1997, the young, thrusting, brand new Leader of the Conservative Party, William Hague (pictured right), visited the Notting Hill Carnival with his partner Ffion Jenkins, in order to be photographed with a whistle around his neck, drinking from a coconut, and generally hanging out with the kids, in order to show a commitment to multicultural Britain and having fun, two things with which the Conservative Party wasn’t – and isn’t – generally associated. (Around the same time, Mr Hague was also photographed in a log flume wearing a baseball cap).

This particular incarnation of the People’s William was, of course, swiftly abandoned, in favour of a more thuggish persona, a shorter haircut and increasingly harsh policies on immigration, asylum, lauranorder and other issues, as both Government and Opposition strove to outflank one another on the right on most questions of social policy in the period from 1998 until finally (and predictably), Mr Hague was swallowed whole, thoroughly chewed up, and spat out onto the dustbin of history by New Labour at the General Election of 2001.

An interesting moment, though, in the political history of the present, and from whose vantage point, of course, the Notting Hill jaunt now falls exactly at the midpoint of the ten-year-long, continuing saga with no end in sight of the political impotence of the contemporary Conservative Party. For after virtual level-pegging between the two major parties in the opinion polls through the Summer of 1992, in the wake of the surprise victory for John Major in the General Election of that year, the Tories began their general collapse in September, amidst Michael Heseltine’s closure of the pits on the one hand and the pound falling out of the ERM on the other. (Between July 1990 and September 1992, the Tories were never below 34% in the Gallup poll; after that they were never above it for at least the next seven years, probably longer [the numbers I have in front of me only go up to December 1999], and the only time they have pulled ahead of Labour was during the freak politics of the fuel protests in 2000, and even then for one month only).

To end back where we started, at least for the moment: I thought everyone had heard this joke, but apparently they haven’t, and it does survive repetition: What’s the difference between Diana and Lot’s wife?

Diana turned into a pillar of concrete.

Call for Papers

Dominic writes to his friends [23.8.2002]: I don’t know if you caught this excellent call for essayists. I am sure that you all have powerful and important things to say about ‘human conveyance devices’, as the advert so elegantly puts it.

Call for Essayists

The National Building Museum, a private, non-profit educational institution dedicated to exploring and celebrating architecture, design, engineering, construction, and urban planning, is currently producing an exhibition and catalog titled “Up, Down, Across: Elevators, Escalators, and Moving Sidewalks.” We are seeking two essayists for the catalog who can write about the social, cultural, and/or architectural impact of these human conveyance devices. There are two suggested topics for which we would like to receive essays:

  • A Timeline of Human Conveyance in Film and Television; using the two media discuss how close confines and vertical movement create a unique social sphere in which the opportunities for interaction are unlimited.
  • Human Conveyance’s Impact on Urban Design; what elevators, escalators, and moving sidewalks have meant, and will mean to urban planning and designWe would, however, also consider other topics on the subject. If you are interested, please submit a one-page description of your proposed essay to the email address below by September 10, 2002. The essayists will receive compensation and have their work published in a museum catalog that will be distributed worldwide.
  • Any takers?

    Occasionalism Now!

    Being the kind of person who, rather than using my own mind, prefers to follow authority, I thought it was time to revisit the great seventeenth-century philosopher and Oratorian Nicolas Malebranche’s list of eleven reasons why we prefer to follow authority, rather than to use our own minds:

    First, the natural laziness of men, who do not want to take the trouble to meditate.Second, the lack of a capacity for meditating, into which we have fallen for lack of application to it during youth, when the fibres of the brain were capable of all kinds of inflections.

    Third, our lack of love for abstract truths, which are the foundation of everything we can know in this lower world.

    Fourth, the satisfaction one receives from the knowledge of probabilities, which are very agreeable and very moving, because they are founded upon sensible notions.

    Fifth, the stupid vanity that makes us hope to be esteemed as scholars, for we call scholars those who have read the most.

    Sixth, because we imagine without reason that the ancients were more enlightened than we can be, and that there is nothing to do at which they have not already succeeded.

    Seventh, becuase a false respect mixed with a stupid curiosity makes us admire those things farthest removed from us, the oldest things, those from the farthest or most unknown countries, and even the most obscure books.

    Eighth, when we esteem a new opinion, or a contemporary author, it seems their glory effaces our own because we are too near to it; but we have no comparable fear of the honour rendered to the ancients.

    Ninth, truth and novelty cannot be found together in things of the faith. Because men do not wish to make the distinction between truths that depend upon reason and those that depend upon tradition, they do not consider that one should learn them in completely different ways. They confused novelty with error and antiquity with truth.

    Ten, we are in an age when the knowledge of ancient opinions is still in vogue, and hardly anyone who uses his mind can be placed above evil customs by the strength of his reason.

    Eleven, because men act only for interest, and this is what causes even those who have disabused themselves and recognise the vanity of such studies nevertheless to continue applying themselves to them; because honours, dignities, and even benefices are attached to them, and those who excel in such studies always have more of these than those who are unaware of them.

    Lightly adapted and abridged from Nicolas Malebranche, The Search after Truth, translated by Thomas M. Lennon and Paul J. Olscamp, Ohio State University Press, 1980, pp.138-9.

    Balliol Wall

    These deserve another outing: some of the highlights from the graffiti written on the walls of Balliol College, Oxford, in November 1968.

    Christian Science is holy water with which the priest consecrates the heartburnings of the aristocrat. Marx.

    Akamantophioia is a carnal sin.

    Balliol wall is the people’s organ. Contributions welcome.

    Tomorrow has been abolished owing to lack of interest.

    These walls have a greater circulation than the Cherwell.

    Berkeley saw Balliol as an idea in the mind of God. Help God to forget it.

    Kropotkin is alive and rampant and living in Balliol – more than can be said for Balogh collaborator.

    This space reserved for non-political graffiti and lectures in political orthography

    Down with Marshallian marginalism!

    Doctor the Proctors

    Balliol is a bit like New College

    Writing on walls is a Freudian masturbation substitute

    This wall does not exist. It is a figment of your bourgeois imagination.

    Remember Belshezzar!

    Who the hell cares about the Pareto optimum?

    Bring back the cod piece

    Positivism out, dialectics in

    Rehabilitate Trotsky!

    What is the function of functionalism? Functioning

    Join the society for the demolition of Balliol

    Decompose natural products

    Stop Ewart Jones messing about with polyacetylenes

    Faithfully preserved by Russell Meiggs and published in the 1976 Balliol College Record.

    Tom wrote [31.8.2002]: What? Interestingly, it’s a single-google, in that the only result here is your blog. I can only construe it as a rather lame gag hidden behind difficult spelling – or is there something much deeper hiding here?

    Counting the Units

    Booze is bad for you, or so the Government tries to tell us with its claims that men should only drink 21 “units” of booze a week, preferably fewer, and women 14.

    But here are the rules which enable us all to live long and prosper in a happy oasis of our own self-deception…

    We start with two traditional rules:

    (1) Drinking at lunchtime doesn’t count.
    (2) Doubles poured at home count as singles.

    To which we can add:

    (3) White wine doesn’t count, either.
    (4) Nor does Guinness (since it’s good for you).

    and Raj reports a new and, to my mind, excellent rule:

    (5) “Desserts with excessive quantities of Marsala in them shouldn’t belong on the list either. It’s food after all.”

    What else? (Dan – what are your rules?)

    Jo wrote [22.8.2002]: Interestingly, Guinness is so good for you that it actually counts as negative points.

    Monthly Update

    Welcome to August. And time for a monthly update of what people have been looking for when they stumble across the Virtual Stoa. Intriguing highlights from recent visitors include:

    microwave detection
    Lord St John of Fawsley
    flask and sandwiches images
    Anti Union logos
    Alan Dershowitz regicide
    free pictures of gay orgies in pools
    Manny Ramirez and marriage articles
    bedford sex orgy

    I hope the last searcher found what s\he was looking for, but alas, there’s nothing on the Bedford scene here.