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Sina Odugbemi's blog

Quote of the week: Angus Deaton

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"Globalisation for me seems to be not first-order harm and I find it very hard not to think about the billion people who have been dragged out of poverty as a result. I don’t think that globalisation is anywhere near the threat that robots are.”

- Angus Deaton - Senior Scholar and Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Economics Department at Princton University.

Quoted in Financial Times print edition December 24, 2016 "Lunch with the FT Angus Deaton" by Shawn Donnan.

Quote of the week: Janan Ganesh

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"In every grand office, there are people who got there through the expensive cultivation of unremarkable talent."
 

- Janan Ganesh, the principal political columnist for the Financial Times. Previously, he was a political correspondent for The Economist. He regularly appears on BBC1's Sunday Politics television show, and he wrote a biography of George Osborne, the UK chancellor.
 

#7 from 2016: Joseph de Maistre’s prophecy: Is violence unavoidably human?

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Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2016. This post was originally published on August 4, 2016.  

These days, every day brings news of a fresh outrage somewhere in the world. As the body count grows, empathy fatigue has set in. And the perpetrators of violence must have come to the same conclusion because they are finding ever more imaginative ways to kill innocents and stupefy the rest of us. The question is: is the ubiquity of violence a passing phase in a world that is allegedly getting more civilized? Or is violence simply a part of fundamental human nature? Each day, as the news alerts on my iPhone bring fresh news of horrific killings somewhere in the world, as I get really, really fed up with it all, someone has been coming to my mind. His name is Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), a conservative political philosopher that I studied in graduate school several seasons ago now, and one whose ideas have stayed with me. Last weekend, I went to re-read one of his classic texts: Considerations on France (1796).

The work was a reaction, a fierce and uncompromising one at that, to the French Revolution, much like Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But, as often happens with the leading figures in the history of political thought, a particular historical event prompted reflections on the nature of man and the judicious organization of political communities.

#9 from 2016: What is the serious conservative approach to politics?

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Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2016. This post was originally published on May 19, 2016.  
 

The word ‘conservative’ has lost all meaning these days, which is both sad and depressing. It is now used as short hand for all manner of romantic reactionaries (who want to go back to some Golden Age), bigots, racists, obscurantists, buffoons, and carnival barkers. Yet modern conservatism is a serious and intelligent approach to politics espoused by some of the finest and deepest minds in the history of political thought. I always say that when I studied political philosophy in graduate school I went into my studies as a political liberal, and while I came out more convinced of the justness and soundness of liberal constitutional democracy, the thinkers that had impressed me the most were mainly conservative political philosophers, particularly David Hume, Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre and James Madison. An encounter with these minds is a bracing experience. You do not survive it without your mental architecture being somewhat rearranged.

In what follows, I will attempt a restatement of modern (because it is also, like liberalism, a product of the Enlightenment) conservative political thought as I understand it, and try to indicate why I deeply respect this approach to social and political challenges even if I don’t always agree with it.

Quote of the week: Marina Abramović

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"A few days ago I woke up and I looked at the Guardian and I read the critic saying that my work was honest, remarkable. Then I read the New York Times, who said the complete opposite. Oh my god, did you see that one? This said I was pretentious, outrageous, masochist - completely pretentious and fake. My life has always been too hot or too cold, never in between, and these two articles were exactly like that."

- Marina Abramović is a performance artist. She is based in New York. Her work explores the relationship between performer and audience.

Quoted in Financial Times Weekend print edition December 3, 2016 "Lunch with the FT Marina Abramovic" by Jan Dalley.

Photo credit: By Manfred Werner / Tsui [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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Quote of the week: Tony Blair

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"The world's going to integrate more. It may integrate fast or slow, but it will integrate. Because technology, travel, migration, trade are bringing the world closer together. If you take a step back and you look at the broad sweep of history, this is actually a great time for humanity in many ways. You've had more people out of poverty than ever before in human history."

- Tony Blair -  Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from 1997 - 2007.

Quoted in NewStatesman November 24, 2016 "Tony Blair's Unfinished Business" by Jason Cowley.

Photo credit: Müller / MSC [CC BY 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

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What is this thing called ‘populism’? : Jan-Werner Müller hoes the weeds

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One of the most astounding features of public debate and discussion is how many times this occurs: a word acquires wide currency, even notoriety, yet its boundaries remain limitless and, very often, nobody really knows what it means. Because of current events around the world, right now the best example of such a word is “populism”. For instance, I read a special section in Foreign Affairs recently titled ‘The Power of Populism’ and after reading several of the essays I still could not make out the precise  meaning of the concept. Right now, what seems clear is that being called a ‘populist’ is not a good thing. It suggests that you are somehow a demagogue, and that you have something to do with getting large numbers of people worked up, and that you are generally up to no good.

In search of conceptual clarity, I recently acquired and read a new book by Jan-Werner Müller, a professor of politics at Princeton University. The book is titled simply: What is Populism? (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016). It is a short, lucid, and exceedingly intelligent book.  Müller starts the book by demonstrating the ‘conceptual chaos’ around ‘populism’. The concept, he shows, is deployed fairly carelessly. It is a contested concept. He goes on to demolish what he calls definitional dead ends, that is, suggestions in public debate and discussion that populism means one or all of the following things:
  • A particular psychological cast (you can fill in the terms of abuse you have heard!);
  • A particular class of citizens (like those famous non-college educated voters!);
  • A particular set of daft or simplistic policies; or
  • A particular style of politics (boorishness, incivility or the famous paranoid style etc.).

Blog post of the month: In the custody of angst

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Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. For November 2016, the featured blog post is "In the Custody of Angst" by Sina Odugbemi. 
 


It has been building up for months… as events and data points have mounted. Now, in the global circles that I move in both physically and intellectually what people are experiencing can be summed up in one phrase and one phrase only: utter bewilderment. People are asking: What is happening to the world? Universities, schools, workplaces are organizing counselling and venting sessions. Families, particularly extended families, are being sundered by divisions over preferences in public affairs. The feeling persists that global affairs might have taken a dark turn, perhaps irretrievably. People look at the future with dread. They look at the global calendar of significant mass decisions and ask plaintively: Where is the next shock going to come from? Others, in utter despair, have given up all hope. They forecast a series of dominoes falling…and crashing.

In other words, we now have multitudes in the overmastering claws of angst. Existentialist philosophers describe angst as an unavoidable and ever present disquiet or dread or anxiety about life, the individual life. For, each human being on earth knows that tragedy is potentially just around every corner. There is so much about our lives that we cannot control and we know only too well that life can suddenly go awry. However, in this essay I use angst in a connected but slightly broader sense, as in the top definition of the word that Google offers: “a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically an unfocused one about the human condition or the state of the world in general.”

The question is: why are so many people angst-ridden? I would argue that we have to look beyond particular events since the condition has been created by a series of political developments and decisions around the world.

A good place to start is the stubborn belief in human progress. Now, in the history of ideas the doctrine of progress has had a rough journey. (For a good survey please see this). Many Enlightenment philosophers believed that with the rise of Science and the spread of Reason not only would human life would improve materially, human beings and human life would get better, saner, ever more civilized. It took the World Wars and the pogroms of the 20th century to discredit the idea. But then came 1989 and the seeming triumph of liberal constitutional democracy. The idea of progress escaped the tombs. Only the environmentalists kept warning us that humanity was hurtling towards catastrophe because of the unstainable impact of humans on the environment. Then came the Paris Accords and that pessimism was tempered somewhat.

But I have always felt that the true plinth of the idea of progress is an unvarying one: our deeply ingrained optimism. Which is why movie makers (Bollywood, Nollywood or Hollywood) concoct happy endings even when the logic of the story makes the denouement silly.

Quote of the week: Zadie Smith

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"I'm always aware that I'm not writing for the 19th-century reader, I'm writing for a cyborg. A person who has the internet, this enormous database they carry around with them. If you're sitting around describing the sixth arrondissement of Paris, that's crazy, they can look it up in a second."

- Zadie Smith - novelist, short story writer, essayist, and a tenured professor in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.

Quoted in Financial Times Weekend print edition November 12, 2016 "Lunch with the FT Zadie Smith" by Jan Dalley

Photo credit: By David Shankbone (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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