The perverse case, vigorously made

There was a passing line in this Spectator piece, which otherwise says little of Oxford, that caught my eye over the weekend:

On questions of literature, where Raine could claim more authority, we have some expected material. Don Paterson is done over; Raymond Carver is ingeniously declared to be a less brilliant writer than his editor, Gordon Lish; the wonderful Derek Walcott is savaged. These are all quite entertaining essays— though twice as long as they need be — and are fine examples of what Oxford used to specialise in: the perverse case, vigorously made.

That’s my emphasis. I don’t know anything about the Oxford of old and little, to be honest, about the academic life of Oxford today. But I do study PPE, a course allegedly famous for challenging students to think, so…what do I think? Is the PPE course still, to the extent it ever was, embodied by that neat phrase – the perverse case, vigorously made?

There’s a good prima facie case against this slightly vain assertion. PPE-ists, or at least the ones I know, arrive with firm opinions and leave, three years later, with the same opinions.

Don’t get me wrong – we get smarter over our course, to varying degrees. But that manifests in terms of developing stronger arguments for and a more impressive rhetoric behind those same political positions. The opinions don’t change or, at best, as in my case, they become hopelessly blurred, leaving you to wallow in the centre-ground. Put simply I have yet to encounter a PPE-ist, or any Oxford student for that matter, who matriculated as a leftie and graduated as a Tory – or vice versa.

The perverse case, vigorously made. Actually, if I think about it, we often make the case for perverse conclusions. Mountains have rights. Taxation is theft. Markets always clear. But it’s rare that these conclusions really affect us. In order to be credible so many qualifications have to be added so as the render the conclusion somewhat less perverse than the original headline-grabber suggests.

More to the point, what’s specifically Oxford about taking arguments to their logical extremes in order to test them out? That’s just good scholarship.


Best of the web: the law of solitude, Sun+ and, of course, Mandela

‘Best of the web’ is my weekly semi-regular attempt to squeeze something useful out of my (nerdy) procrastination. See last time’s here.

The law of solitude

David Allen Green, Financial Times (blog post)

Old-fashioned liberals will enjoy this piece.

Imagine you are in a room by yourself. There is no form of communication with the outside world. There is no telephone and no internet access. There is not a window or other way of catching anyone’s attention. Nobody is within earshot. You are quite alone.

What crimes, under English (and Welsh) law can you then commit? Quite a lot, as the author describes, the implication being that more than a few of those activities shouldn’t be criminalised.

News UK is reborn by putting a digital smile on Wapping’s face

Roy Greenslade, The Guardian (blog post)

I like Greenslade’s blog a lot. There is a rarely a development in the journalism world which you’ve noticed that Greenslade doesn’t provide shrewd commentary on. More to the point, there are plenty of developments which you haven’t noticed that he provides shrewd commentary on.

This post focuses on The Sun’s first update about the success of Sun+, its paywall protected digital service. The market-leading tabloid has, in the first four months of Sun+, picked up 117,000 subscribers.

That’s much less than the 300,000 subscribers the Sun allegedly needs in order to compensate for the (huge) drop in online ad revenue that occurred after the Sun went behind its paywall, as well as the millions it has shelled out to show Premier League highlights. However, it took the more up-market Times and Sunday Times publications a year to reach that figure. Talking speculatively, it looks likely that Sun+ will break the 300,000 mark by 2015.

Nelson Mandela obituary

David Beresford, The Guardian

In a market saturated with Mandela coverage this week, the Guardian’s obituary stood out for me.

Best of the Web: Bill de Blasio, Robert Caro and Thanksgiving in Mongolia

‘Best of the web’ is my weekly semi-regular attempt to squeeze something useful out of my (nerdy) procrastination. See last time’s here.

The 99% Mayor: Bill de Blasio’s promise may also be his problem

Chris Smith, New York Magazine

Bill de Blasio’s campaign first caught my attention when I saw this advertisement, which proved hugely effective.

Smith writes:

de Blasio ran probably the most surgically focused mayoral campaign in modern New York political history, relentlessly repeating a few key phrases—“a tale of two cities” … “income inequality” … “end the stop-and-frisk era”—that played brilliantly to the hopes, angers, and guilts of the city’s liberal, Bloomberg-fatigued Democratic-primary electorate…..The stakes are high—not just for the continued vitality of New York, but as a test of whether progressive values can deliver a more equitable city.

American politics has seen its fair shared of populist right-wingers; can a candidate who was elected as a populist left-winger truly govern as one? If so – if De Blasio is able to redistribute income, raise taxes and get re-elected in 2017 – what purchase will that have with other Democratic politicians nationwide?

Thanksgiving in Mongolia

Ariel Levy, The New Yorker

Levy is a foreign correspondent who, a few years ago, suffered a miscarriage in Mongolia. The piece is moving, harrowing but – and this is where the elegance of the writing shows its worth – light, almost, in parts.

I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.

‘Unholy storm mov[ing] through my body’ and ‘my baby was as pretty as a seashell’ don’t belong in the same paragraph, right? How can you feel one emotion, of sheer anguish, one second followed by another, of pleasant curiosity and benevolence, the next? But it works.

Robert Caro’s Big Dig

Charles McGrath, The New York Times

Another one for US politics buffs. This is an interview from last year, but I stumbled across it recently and took an interest because I’m reading the first volume of Caro’s five-volume biography of LBJ at the moment. The last instalment, covering LBJ’s presidency, is yet to be published. The books have taken Caro four decades to research and write. McGrath says, “In his years of working on Johnson, Robert Caro has come to know him better — or to understand him better — than Johnson knew or understood himself”. He’s right. The level of detail is, in a commendably unonerous way, unreal. I was amused by the fact that The Power Broker, Caro’s Pulitzer-winning biography of Robert Moses, had 350,000 words cut from it by the editor, Robert Gottlieb (the book came in at a snip: 1,336 pages).