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Sunday West: November 27
Can Britain be like California? Yes, but in a bad way
Good morning. I hope all my American readers had a nice Thanksgiving. I assume you took the opportunity to harangue your older relatives about systemic racism and white supremacy, which I understand from reading American media is what you’re supposed to do these days.
On that subject, it was hilarious to see, before the dreadful England-USA game, the English players taking the knee while the Americans remained standing. I can’t imagine what American fans watching it must have thought; maybe how the British feel when they learn that Norman Wisdom is huge in Albania, or a member of the royal family is worshipped as a god in the South Pacific. I’ve written before about Britain’s enthralment to American politics and history — my children were taught about Rosa Parks before almost any British historical figure — and I’m planning soon to run a series on it. What’s so perverse is that, while there is so much to admire and emulate in American culture, we focus in on imitating its worst, most toxic aspects.
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This week I wrote about how the West’s campaign of sexual minority rights in Qatar resembles that of their Protestant forebears; on a similar Qatar theme, on how liberal Americans like to be scolded by writers living in repressive theocracies; and, following Britain’s record-breaking immigration figures, a FREE post about how the sheer scale of migration is much bigger than people really imagine.
Elsewhere in the world.
I am unironically pro-Bono, so to speak, in that I admire the U2 singer for his unwavering campaigning on behalf of the needy. It’s a very Irish thing, that desire to help the world’s neediest, something that has often been channelled into the Church, and Bono (and Bob Geldof) represents the best of that tradition. So I loved this recent Ian Leslie piece on how Bono managed to persuade the Bush administration to spend record-breaking amounts on Aids treatment, a masterclass of persuasion for a righteous cause. Thanks to Bono, millions of our fellow humans are alive who might not be otherwise. For all his amusing pomposity, that’s something to take with you when you go to the next place.
In Surrender, Bono recounts advice from Warren Buffett: “Don’t appeal to the conscience of America. Appeal to its greatness. That’s how to get the job done.” The Oprah appearance took place a year after 9/11. Bono talks about much he loves America and how shocking it was for Americans to learn that others hate it. If American drugs save African lives, he says, it will be harder for extremists to turn Africans against us. His best answer comes when Oprah asks the hardest question: there are millions of women watching, worrying about what to put on the table for dinner this evening - what does all this have to do with them? Bono smiles and says, “You don’t have to explain to a mother that the life of a child in Africa has the same value as her child. You might have to explain that to men, but not to women.” The audience erupts with delight (including the men).
Bono was working the problem from both ends, seducing the masses and the elites at the same time, in TV studios, on arena stages, in the Oval Office and in back-offices. His entanglement with elites represented a significant risk to his reputation. He was constantly in danger of making himself very unpopular with fellow activists and with some of the public, not to mention his own bandmates.
This risk paid off. Early in 2003, President Bush made an announcement: $15 billion for AIDS relief. Until Covid-19, it was the largest ever public health intervention against a single disease, and it went overseas. Prudence Mabele’s time had not been wasted.
Another great piece by Rian Chad Whitton, on our attempts to create a new Silicon Valley in Britain.
On one level, it is a little sad that our leaders keep making this comparison, even as the gap between the real valley and Britain widens ever further. In 2018, California’s GDP became larger than the UK’s. This is not by government efficacy. California’s energy utilities are a disaster. The state cannot build a relatively basic high-speed rail network. California ranks 43rd in child literacy by state and 50th in adult literacy. Its success is attributable to Silicon Valley, which contributes about 20% of the state’s GDP, and the legacy industries that preceded it, such as aerospace. Having been there many times, it is amazing how much dysfunction and awful politics can be papered over by intellectual property licenses and advertising revenues. It is also alarming how the greatest density of talent on the planet cannot organize to stamp out open-air drug markets.
Sunak has spent some time in the valley, but based on his imitative comment I am not sure he understands what makes it successful. Silicon Valley’s success is defined by relatively small communities of very smart, ambitious, and secretive people building new traditions of knowledge, and with it, new markets. The ideology is built on eschewing competition and imitation and seeking monopoly status through platforms. Copying these novel developments is, by definition, near impossible. I believe the UK can effectively copy the negative aspects of Silicon Valley; the internal conformity, the gradual bureaucratization, the bloated workforces, the mad hype cycle, and diminishing levels of dynamism. But I think if a small country like Britain wanted to be a comparable center of innovation, the markets, technologies, and institutions would have to be novel. Just applying web 2.0 to banking and plastering ‘silicon’ onto every roundabout, alley, and cul-de-sac is an exercise in futility.
At First Things, Dan Hitchens of R.H. Tawney.
Where other writers saw their ideals blown to bits in the trenches, Tawney’s were only confirmed. Life was communion with one’s fellow man, whom one encountered as a creature of God. As death wrapped itself around him, what he felt above all was loneliness, and when the doctor arrived with bandages, morphine, and a few gentle words, Tawney sensed a touch of divine compassion. From now on human fellowship would be his theme. As he had written in a pre-war notebook: “Every human being is of infinite importance and therefore . . . no consideration of expediency can justify the oppression of one by another. But to believe this it is necessary to believe in God.” Capitalism was before anything else a spiritual disaster, which “stunts personality and corrupts human relations by permitting the use of man by man as an instrument of pecuniary gain.”
Back in January 2021, one of the bleakest months of recent years, Alana Newhouse wrote a widely-shared and praised piece for Tablet called Everything is Broken. Now, coming to theatres near you: Everything is Broken 2: Brokenism.
For the last 200 years, American society has been central to global Jewish survival and success. And central to the Jews’ successful integration into American society were many of the institutions currently undergoing radical change. The great public schools, private universities, media companies, publishing houses, law firms, and national corporations—these were the stepping stones to acceptance and success for Jews. What Jewish mother isn’t proud of her daughter or son, the lawyer or doctor, with a degree from Harvard or Yale or Princeton? It’s no wonder that if you walk around Ivy League campuses these days, you see Jewish names like Milstein, Schwarzman, and Bloomberg on so many newer buildings standing proudly alongside older buildings with names like Witherspoon, Harkness, and Eliot. Who cares about the student flyers advertising Israel apartheid week or a few mezuzahs knocked off doorposts? We made it, and we are grateful. Many of us are invested in the credentialing institutions of American life not only because we benefited from them ourselves, but also because we want others—not just our own kids, but kids of other races and religions and from other countries—to have that same privilege.
Perhaps more than many of us want to accept, however, Jewish success in America came not from some big-hearted, multicultural tolerance (which didn’t exist) nor from our ability to “pass” through prejudices and censors (we couldn’t), but from a commodious idea of what an American can be.
Jewish achievement, Jewish survival, and Jewish identity all depend not on radical acceptance—the idea that we have to be celebrated, not just tolerated—but on the specifically Jewish insistence on radical difference. Jews are called upon to eat, dress, pray, work, grieve, marry, and learn in distinct ways that, throughout history, have often made us objects of distrust and hatred. Yet we are required, as Jews, to be willing and able to sit by ourselves—even, if need be, to endure tremendous discomfort. The freedom to be different, while also being accepted as Americans just like anyone else, has for us been the great miracle of this country—and the reason it has been one of the brightest spots in our four millennia of existence.
Another black pill: Poland-based Ben Sixsmith compares the current state of his homeland to his adopted home.
Institutions often seem to work better as well. I can generally visit a GP on the day I call. Britons often have to wait for more than a week. Maternal mortality is higherin the UK — and infant mortality is about the same, despite Britain being much richer overall. Actually, Polish life expectancy as whole is just a touch shorter than British life expectancy, despite the nation having a lot more smokers.
Polish kids have ranked higher on the PISA education rankings than British kids — ranking, indeed, the third highest in Europe in science and maths, and the fourth in reading comprehension. Poland is a more peaceful place than Britain, with murder and rape generally being rarer (granted, statistics in the latter case are famously difficult to trust). Terrorism, for reasons I leave to the reader, has been almost non-existent in Polish society.
Thank you, Ben.
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