Using your common sense: applying for a job

19% of employers have rejected a candidate for a job on account of their online activity. 56% would be put off hiring someone who used bad spelling and grammar on social media; 26% would be put off by signs of vanity, such as excessive displays of selfies. (YouGov)

Am I the only person who is disturbed by the above statistics? Why would 44% of potential employers even consider employing someone who “used bad spelling and grammar” on social media? Certainly, signs of vanity and self-promotion would put me off. Inspecting a potential employee’s output on Facebook is a good way of getting a feel for the sort of person an applicant is. If you don’t want to be judged by someone else, then don’t go on social media at all. Duh!

Long live regulations!

People of a right- wing disposition complain about the scores of rules and regulations put out by government. Let them stop and ponder the following:

If ruthless people stopped breaking the normal rules of civilised conduct there would be no need for any regulations at all.

If bankers stuck to lending to deserving businesses and individuals instead of trying to make fortunes in a week, there would be no call for regulations.

If companies paid a living wage, offered civilised things like pensions, decent holidays, safe environments, good terms of employment, no one would waste their time drawing up regulations governing employment.

One could wrire a book along these lines. In short, if we all acted with thoughtfulness and consideration towards our fellow citizens, in the spirit of Epicurus, we could have a government without rule-makers. The complainers are pointing their fingers in the wrong direction.

Cultural appropriation

Themed balls
Trinity Hall is a Cambridge College. Students there organised a Japan-themed ball, for which they were severely criticised. Students at Pembroke College cancelled a party themed on Around the World in Eighty Days, for which they had also been taken to task for “cultural appropriation”. These criticisms are riddled with irony. The idea that when we imitate something we are seeking to appropriate it, rather than appreciate it, is absurd. (Letter to the Time, author unknown)

Cricket was originally a white Anglo-Saxon sport but it is now far more popular in Asian countries, so are they guilty of “cultural appropriation”? Adopting and developing a great passion for cricket is a tribute to its founders, and today it is a wonderful sport that is shared between countries, cultures and ethnicities. It has been globally elevated, not appropriated by anyone. The notion of “cultural appropriation” is an example of a more sinister politically correct mentality that is beginning to seep into our whole society. It must be refuted by intelligent people who truly value assimilation and integration as the way toward a more peaceful and harmonious society. (Mike Kemp, Truro, Cornwall 19 March 2016 The Week)

Jesus College, Cambridge
A large brass cockerel was taken by “vengeful Brits” in 1897, during a punitive expedition against the oba (king) of Benin, during which they pillaged a fortune in magnificent bronze sculptures, including the cockerel. The said cockerel was bequeathed in 1930 to the college (whose coat of arms features three cocks), and was proudly displayed in the dining hall – until last week, when Jesus’s students, inflamed by recent campaigns to right colonial-era wrongs, voted to return it to Nigeria. Even though the college obtained the bronze “entirely legitimately”, the authorities have now removed it from the hall, and are looking into the question of repatriation. I don’t blame the students – “idealism, like drunkenness, is an inevitable consequence of studenthood” – but, really, the dons should know better. (Tony Allen-Mills in The Sunday Times)

Editor’s note: such shenanigans never occur at Oxford, a large, respectable and august university, where the students are diligent, where they have better things to do with their time, such as “appropriating” thoughts and ideas from all over the world, thinking about them and critiquing them. This is what they are at university to do.

I personally have “culturally appropriated” the thought of Epicurus, or tried to. It would be nice if more people did the same. Epicurus wouldn’t complain.

Trump Tower: It tells you a lot, without speaking

I am in the middle of two weeks of jury duty, or, at least, standing by for jury duty. Yesterday I wasn’t required (white, old and looks like he might be rude to the judge about the number of incarcerations in the US, maybe?). In any event, I had half the morning off, so, feeling adventurous, I visited the Trump Tower hotel on my way home and announced that I would like a coffee.

Trump Tower is the converted old Post Office headquarters, and it shows. The inner atrium is a great well that reminded me of a Victorian railway station. There are no platforms, but you nonetheless expect a train to arrive at any minute. Indeed there was some sort of strange horizontal metal arrangement suspended from the top of the nine floors that reminded me of railway lines. After an initial struggle to tell the waiter that all I wanted was a cappuccino-and-no-I-am-not-a-resident, I was seated on a hideous plush sofa and could observe the gigantic American flag hanging on the wall, four versions of Fox News, complete with the necessary blondes, on massive screens behind the bar, totally incongruous and fussy chandeliers, and the Louis IXX gilt chairs (yes, I know there was no Louis IXX, but does Trump and his architect?). I did a mini-tour, locating Ivanka’s beauty salon. I think she must be in South Korea preventing the next nuclear war, because she wasn’t there.

At length the cappuccino arrived. It was the worst cappuccino I have ever had in my life. No taste at all, and the bubbles looked as if they came out of a fire hose. When I finished I had to pay, with tip, $13.00. This is the most expensive coffee I have ever had. The question is whether taking $13.00 from me constitutes a Presidential conflict of interest, in which case readers can look forward to the worst cappuccino in history actually getting into the legal history books. The adventure should have made me grumpy about wasting time and money. Instead it set me up with as much Epicurean ataraxia as I needed for the rest of the day because everything falls into place. I am now convinced that we can add bad taste to the other misdemeanors.

Epicurus and Islam

This is the first in a new series of posts titled, Epicurus and Modern Philosophy. Robert has done an excellent job of covering the issues of the day, but given that Epicurus was a philosopher, I wanted to write a series of posts on the biggest ideas affecting the modern world- from a Epicurean perspective, of course. These will be political philosophies, economic models, or merely teachings from wise people. But today, I thought I’d start with a religion, and given that the nature of Islam is so contentious in today’s political and national security debates, I believe I should start with it first. For the most part, these posts will run every fortnight, with a more usual post on the weeks when a Modern Philosophy post is not due. Finally, I’d add that next week’s post will also be different, because I’ll be covering a emotional, yet quintessentially Epicurean issue, so look out for that!

There’s a certain tendency on much of the political Right to ascribe the primary cause of terrorism to Islamic doctrine. For these anti-Islam conservatives, the violence contained in the Qur’an, the Hadith, as well as in the Prophet Muhammad’s life, proves that Islam itself must take responsibility for the actions of its extremist adherents. They argue for explicitly anti-Islam policies, such as state-enforced monoculturalism, restrictions on immigration and even travel for Muslims, and in some extreme cases, deportation for the Muslims already living in the West- all in the name of national security.

Having taken international relations modules (amongst other things) at Exeter University for two years now, I have spoken to no academic or professor who shares this view. The consensus amongst international relations scholars is that parts of the political Right overemphasise Islamic theology when explaining why Jihadi terrorism occurs. For instance, why is Jihadi terrorism such a modern phenomenon despite the fact that Islam has existed for hundreds of years? Rather, political and socioeconomic factors- the increase in anti-Western sentiment, nationalism, poverty, and disillusionment with peace as an ineffective means of political reform- are far more effective at explaining terrorism. The question of whether Islam itself is a religion of peace is neither here nor there. The fact is that most Muslims are peaceful people, and deserve the right to be presumed innocent as much as anyone else. Any attempts to curb the rights of the civilian Muslim population as part of a counter-terrorism strategy are likely to be ineffective as best; they are likely to reinforce the impression that Western policymakers are prejudice against Muslims, fuelling a violent backlash amongst a small minority.

However, just because most Muslims are peaceful and have as much of a right to migrate as everyone else, doesn’t mean that Islam is Epicurean or even liberal. Fundamentally, Islam is about submitting oneself to God, a perfect supernatural being. The God of Islam demands absolute obedience, with the threat of hell for those who resist his will. This leaves little room for individual discretion when making moral decisions- if its God’s will, it must be done. So if you were a Muslim, you couldn’t decide for yourself that sex outside marriage may not be so bad. If God forbids it, it cannot be done. I personally find this a frightening way of thinking. It places faith in the infallibility of the divine above the reasoning of the individual, thus robbing the individual of the right to make decisions for themselves and take responsibility for them. Having the obedience to rules be at the heart of a belief system makes the life of the individual unfree. This is reflected in wider society: Islamic societies and cultures tend to be authoritarian and patriarchal, with those who command and those who are commanded.

Now Islam is far from unique in demanding full obedience to the supernatural: Christianity and Judaism do too, and even polytheisms encourage their followers to obey the gods, though the reward and punishment system tends to be far more sophisticated than the heaven/hell afterlife. Equally, the socially conservative (by Western standards) values of Islam are largely shared by Orthodox Jews, practising Catholics or dedicated Hindus. My frustration with the debate concerning Islam is that there are many on the political Left who claim that this isn’t the case: that virtually all Muslims are Western-style liberals who love feminism and gay rights. That simply isn’t the case at all. For instance, all beaches in Spain are currently clothing optional- you can enter any of them completely naked legally, should you choose to. Now suppose there was a very large influx of Muslim immigrants into Spain, so that Muslims were now the majority religious group. Would that law permitting such widespread nudity survive? I have my doubts. Again, the same could be said for many other conservative religious groups.

The point is that for too long, much of the Left believes the Islamic world can be just as liberal as the West, given time and enough of our money. This is a delusional fantasy, as recently shown by Turkey’s (albeit narrow) embrace of an executive presidency led by an authoritarian strongman, Recep Erdogan. The reason why the West has become more liberal is because Christianity has declined, and the Christians that remain have largely compromised and secularised their religion to the point where it would be longer recognisable to the Christianity our forefathers practised even just a century ago. The only way for the Islamic world to become as liberal as the West in its social attitudes and political practises, is if Islam reduces in its popularity and influence on public policy. But that isn’t going to happen. Unlike in the West, the Islamic world is not becoming more secular- much of it is actually becoming more Islamic. And unlike Christianity, Islam has no major tradition of secularism anyway. From its founding, Islam has been used as a political ideology as well as a religion. Conversely, most Christians see at least some value in secularism. Jesus saw a clear distinction between church and state, as evident by his desire not to get involved in political affairs. Most Muslims will always want Islam to play a prominent role in government, even if they don’t necessarily support an Iranian-style theocracy. The desire for Western-style secular government is scarce amongst Muslims, especially those living outside the Western world.

In conclusion, the point of this post was not to dissuade Muslims from adhering to their religion. I have a great respect for the Islamic world and its people. I don’t believe it is inherently prone to violence, and its rich history and culture shows that there is hope for what is currently a troubled region. Going forward, I am hopeful that Islam will make a success of itself. But I don’t accept the absurd logic of Western liberals, that Islam will be a success on the West’s terms. The Islamic world is not the West, and can take pride in that. We have different ways of thinking: the West is very much based on individualism, which Muslims understandably reject as being antithetical to God’s will and a harmonious society. Therefore, we should stop pretending we share the same values, and work to build a better world with our differences in mind.

Soldiers have to act morally, too

Upstanding conservatives believe that each of us must take personal responsibility for our actions – with one exception. Soldiers, it seems, can flout the law, because their job is so uniquely stressful. This was the argument put forward by lawyers for Sergeant Alexander Blackman, who in 2011 shot dead an injured, unarmed Taliban fighter, with the words: “Shuffle off this mortal coil, you c***.”

Thanks in part to the energetic campaigning of the right-wing press – his murder conviction was reduced to manslaughter, and his prison sentence slashed. It’s not just “lefty civilians” who feel “squeamish” about this judgment. As I discovered when I taught a course in leadership ethics for the British Army, most soldiers take the law very seriously indeed. They know that “it is precisely the law, and its underlying morality, that distinguishes soldiers from murderers”. Turning Blackman into a “poster boy for military honour” is an insult to the vast majority of those who serve their country without crossing that line. “Everyone in Helmand was stressed. Not everyone shot their prisoners.” (Giles Fraser, The Guardian)

When I myself was in the British Army no time was given to teaching us what we could or couldn’t do. It was left to the individual, specifically the officers, to say what was acceptable when dealing with the local population (in my case the Cypriots). We were 19 yesr olds, thrust into a dangerous place where you could be killed by a bomb or injured by demonstrating school children throwing bricks. The temptation to respond in kind was considerable. No one mentioned the law or even told us to “win hearts and influence people”, and yet my men never fell legally or morally out of line in respect of the Cypriots. Moderation was the watchword. Epicurus might have been proud of us, I hope.

Military extravagance

Some while ago, in the Washington Post, Walter Pincus, an expert on the American military and a prominent critic, raised once again the scandal of the long-standing  division of command in the military, something even Eisenhower couldn’t overcome.  The rivalry between the three arms of the military is such that they constantly duplicate each other’s efforts.  If one gets a fancy new plane the others want something similar (but bigger and faster).  This costs the taxpayer untold amounts of money.  Each arm of the services its own elaborate management and intelligence arms.  And yet no one will point out the great untold story: these armchair generals are lousy at winning wars!  Aside from the first Gulf War, can you remember a case where the US actually won a war?  Certainly not Iraq or Afghanistan.  But if you say so you are in danger of being considered unpatriotic.  Unpatriotic?  Actually, patriotism is ensuring that you have good soldiers, sailors and airmen capable of strategic and tactical thought, fast on their feet and original of mind, not bureaucrats waiting for buggin’s turn. Patriotism is about doing the job and at a reasonable cost. And now Trump wants to increase the military budget?

Epicurus seems to have despised both politicians and the military, such as it was. He lived at a time of constant war and was disillusioned with the uselessness of it and the incompetence of military types. The awe and respect afforded to top generals in the US, despite their collective track record, is remarkable. Perhaps it’s because most civilian leaders are even less worthy of respect. But one day the public will wake up to what a huge waste of money and resources the overfunded military really is.

Is this Putin’s real agenda?

Scott Pruit, US Environmental Protection Agency chief, made headlines for his recent denial that anthropogenic carbon dioxide is the primary control knob for Earth’s climate. Of course, the truth is that growth in CO2 emissions is the main contributor to the climate change we see. Without emissions abatement it seems inevitable that pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere will be catastrophic for most, if not all, nations.

Pruitt’s appointment makes that reshaping less likely. This is not about the science. It is not about economic priority setting nor conflicting values. It is not about a desire for small government, the primacy of individual freedom or myopic belief in capitalism. The only fact that matters is that solving the climate issue means killing the fossil fuel industry – arguably the most influential on the planet.

Zero-carbon technology is now cheaper and easier to install. Renewables promise individual freedom through energy self-sufficiency. The world economy is at a crucial inflection point, and the US is well placed to ride the storm and capitalise on the next economic revolution. But vested interests dominate the landscape and US policy could delay the revolution.

The Russian economy is, on the other hand, a basket case. Apart from oil and gas, it produces little anyone wants to buy. Clean energy is likely to put its economy in a death spiral.

Serious questions have been asked about the role of Russia, the world’s fifth largest greenhouse gas emitter and the largest oil producer, in the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps it’s time to expend more effort asking why it wanted him in power.
(The above, edited, article, by Owen Gaffney, appeared the New Scientist under the headline “Putin’s real prize?”)

Trump might (have) genuinely wanted a reset with Russia, and it suited him to have the Russians interfering with the election, undermining Hillary. Putin, for his part, as the article above suggests, wants a climate change denier in the White House. Protecting his oil revenue is his biggest objective, even though Trump said he wanted to reduce energy prices by promoting fracking, which is hardly in Russia’s short-term interests. The financial stakes are huge, not only for Russia, but also for the Americans, mostly of Republican persuasion, who have financially fed off the largesse of the oil industry and have sublimated their better instincts and their morality in favour of accepting jobs and cash from Exxon and others. It’s a sordid story, illustrating why Epicurus warned us against too close an involvement with politics. Meanwhile, what were those Trump supporters doing talking on the phone to the Russians, overheard by most of the West’s secret services?