Dr. David Cowan
A Book for the Weekend: An eclectic blog of book discussion published on a Friday, so readers may be inspired to peruse the book over the weekend. These are books I have bought, and photographed holding myself, so unpaid and unbiased apart from the personal biases all readers have!
To start this series of books for the weekend, I’ve chosen a book about Oxford, since I was born there and earned my Bachelor and Master degrees there. Professor Carey remains an Emeritus Professor of Oxford in English Literature, and passed through a number of the colleges in his day. He was a student making his way in the Oxford of the 1950s, before I was born, but I found myself comparing notes as I went along between my own school and university days in Oxford and elsewhere.
Carey’s journey in many ways was a standard one of undergraduate to graduate to lecturer to Fellow journey in the one place. Mine sadly has been more wayward, traveling through universities at Glasgow, Oxford and St Andrews, as well as seminary in Cambridge. His journey seems to fit the times in which he was raised, a time of greater certainty in spite of emerging from a war that tore apart a continent and parts of the world. My journey has perhaps been more deconstructed and postmodern. Carey’s journey, however, has the fascination of introducing us to the many interesting people, and eccentrics he has worked and socialized with in his decades at Oxford, and in the literary salons of London in his latter years; if this does not sound too prosaic a way of phrasing it.
His early life at school and doing the required National Service reflects the social attitudes of post-War England. However, this is a memoir that takes his journey in tandem with his love of, and work in, English literature. He discusses his past in constant dialogue with his life of literature, and we are all the better for it. The central part of these memoirs, as the title indicates, is his Oxford years. Carey’s Oxford is one that is so familiar, yet distant. Many of the traditions are similar, but the eccentricity of his student days are quite far away from today’s industrious students and dons. The dons we meet in Carey’s early years are the eccentrics and intellectuals we perhaps dream of in this city of spires, rather than the perspiring academic administrators of today’s Oxford. Of course, I steal this line and make it my own. The phrase originates from Frederic Raphael’s much to be commended book on Cambridge called Glittering Prizes, which refers to Oxford as the city of dreamy spires and Cambridge as the city of perspiring dreams.
The similarities in Carey’s memoirs are the feelings of any student entering Oxford and able to feel the connection to centuries of scholarship and endeavor. It is there when Carey enters Schools (the University examinations building) to sit his final exams, loosening the shackles of nerves to sit them. It is there when he sits his viva voce, an examination in the form of a discussion between a group of tutors and the student in full academic dress. He tells a tale of being bemused by this form of approval given by Oxford. I recall my own Master’s viva in similar ways. Earlier in the morning I had coffee with Senator Gary Hart, who was writing his DPhil at the same time, and whom I got to know a little. We met for coffee at the Oxford Union, he felt he ought to give me some encouragement before “the event,” and we chatted about Oxford. He explained, rather amusingly, his experience of Oxford administration. Gary said being American, he wanted to be organized and investigated for himself what was needed to submit his DPhil, as his supervisor had never made the slightest mention of what was required administratively. After chasing round the labyrinth of Oxford administration and gathering the necessary paperwork, his supervisor one day off-handedly handed him the necessary form and said he “ought to do something about it.” Hart recalled being told that if you need to ask how to do something in Oxford, then you probably don’t belong there. He said he was being typically American, and this was typically Oxford.
Another personal Oxford insight is when I submitted my dissertation, I had computer malfunction, because the computer I used at my home was different from the one in the Theology Faculty Office where I went to print it off. I had to reformat the whole thing. The problem being it had to be submitted in person at Schools by noon on the dot, where I would be given a green slip as a receipt it had been duly submitted. I only managed to meet the noon deadline by sprinting from my College on the other side of Oxford to the Schools on the High (how the High Street is called in Oxford). I barely made it, and then walked calmly back to College for lunch, where I sat down next to the Fellow of my College who also happened to be the Chairman of the Board of Examiners for my dissertation. He told me that he would be “popping round” after lunch to collect it. Oh, if only I could’ve taken it to lunch and handed it to him, but then it wouldn’t be Oxford.
It wouldn’t be Carey’s Oxford either. Carey takes us on a journey through literature, with a large helping of John Donne, one of his specialties. He talks about literature he had to study and the literature he chose to read. As such, it is also an interesting intellectual autobiography. He references the left-wing nature of intellectual life in the 1950s, especially in his Balliol years. He almost quaintly refers to the friendly way in which discussions of political difference could take place and end with a friendly joke. Far from the divisive political differences today. It reminded me of my early undergraduate days at Glasgow University, where students on opposite sides of the house could drink and eat together during and after debates, though being Glasgow this usually meant “liquid chips” in the evening, which is Glasgow parlance for Whiskey instead of food. I think it was around that time in the early 1980s the division started, and I’m not convinced it came from either the Left or the Right; it seemed an unhappy coalescence of the attitudes on both sides of the house.
Carey captures life’s moments well. Moments like being able to read literature for fun and selecting at whim, after years of reading what one has to in order to fulfill the ordinances of a degree. Who in any subject of study has not felt this sense of elation at the end of their formal studies? He also captures some wonderful figures who worked at or passed through Oxford, ranging from the Inklings to WH Auden. He recalls, with obvious joy, the story of Hugo Dyson, one of the Inklings, who railed against JRR Tolkien after several readings of his Lord of the Rings, “Oh not another fucking elf!” He also has a wonderfully insightful discussion of the great Austin Farrer, who arrived at Keble College while Carey was a fellow there. He recalls as well some of the students that passed though his rooms, including the author Ian McEwan. Ian, who attended the same state boarding school as I did a generation before me, called Woolverstone Hall. Ian was awarded a Third by Oxford, but Carey thought he deserved a First and wanted him to stay up for a DPhil, but Oxford made what Carey calls “a crass assessment of his abilities that only Oxford could have made.”
He also captures the battleground, and often vindictiveness and petty spitefulness, of the Oxford (and I can vouch, Cambridge) High Table, including the Master who ignored him for three years at High Table. Oxford can be a small world of dons living in an even smaller hermeneutic of ever-decreasing circles, as they seem at times incapable of recognizing their academic provincial qualities, as the McEwan story suggests, whilst they explore the grand horizons of their subject areas for generation after generation of students. Not that Carey is above all this himself. His discussion of a Keble College bursar, whom he dismissively insults by referencing his having a “second” in Law, suggests he wanted to indulge in a little High Table spitefulness of his own. However, Carey does absolve himself by treating us to an amusing tale of a prank by students on the said bursar who was entertaining in the Senior Common Room. The students managed to build a small wall to block the only exit to the building where the SCR was situated, thus preventing the drunken party from leaving in the early hours of the morning after much downing of port.
Carey doesn’t complain much about the negatives in his life or the things that one might regret or disapprove of as he looks back at his early years in Oxford. He seems to have borne these things with decent humor and forbearance. He reminds his reader on a number of occasions that he is an atheist, but God is hard to avoid in the history of English literature, and he has a good-natured tolerance of it rather than the vitriol of some more recent Oxford atheists, such as Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. Politics is not the only area where it is difficult for people to converse and disagree in our modern times.
His extended disquisitions on Milton, whose Christian Doctrine he translated, and George Orwell, whom he hero-worshipped, are wonderful discourses to read. The literary world of England in the 1960s and 1970s, with wistful references to The Listener magazine, make one crave for such an intellectual time again in this day of social media. The remaining chapters focus on his life as a reviewer and writer himself; so, less the Oxford Professor in situ, and more a life outside the Oxford walls.
Like any good teacher, Carey makes you want to read the books he discusses, if you haven’t already. This makes The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books something of an Oxford tutorial, where a don can inspire and guide you to read and think for yourself. If you ever wanted an Oxford education, or want to have such a tutorial, Carey’s memoir is a pleasant walk through both English literature and the quads and meadows of the University. If you know or have known Oxford, then it is a pleasant, and sometimes less than pleasant, reminder of things past.
The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life in Books
Faber & Faber (2014)
Dr. David Cowan
There is nothing like a first trip on the German Autobahn for a child hailing from the British Isles. Providing much amusement on long journeys are the legendary signs “Ausfahrt” and “Einfahrt.” These are the German words for exit and entry, but from British children on the school trips to juvenile British adults, they are an excuse for a host of fart jokes.
As a child growing up in England, the first political campaign I was aware of was the 1970 Election. The Conservative Party candidate Edward Heath, on his way to victory and Number 10, said that further European integration would not happen “except with the full-hearted consent of the Parliaments and peoples of the new member countries.” I was too young to vote in that election or the subsequent referendum on Europe, but the adult population of Britain voted for Europe and have has been half-hearted and uncomfortable with the relationship ever since.
I don’t intend here to rehearse all the familiar arguments about exit or remaining, the ausfarht or einfarht of it all. Instead, I want to highlight two aspects. First, why Britain got into this mess; second, the brake Britain wisely kept on Europe.
The European Union was set up as an economic arrangement initially to form the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951 and then the European Economic Community (EEC) in1958. The gang of six countries involved were Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. The objective was to create a single market for free movement of goods, capital, services and people between member states.
In terms of free trade and mutual interests, this is a good idea. The problem has been mission creep, where a federal political union has been evolving and there has been increasing ceding of sovereignty to “Europe.” The economic argument has been overshadowed by the political ambition.
You have to remember that Britain always talks about Europe as a different entity, so we have “Britain and Europe.” I recall chatting to MEP Dan Hannan one time in Washington DC, and he told me off for referring to Europe inclusive of Britain, suggesting I had obviously been in America too long. Actually, I had been working in Europe too long. Europeans talk of Europe, including Britain, though often with a coy smile.
My experience of dealing with Britain while working in Europe was one of seeing a difference between the Anglo-Saxon mindset and the Continental mindset, and rarely the twain met. There seemed almost a cute innocence about the British, and in particular London, attitude and incomprehension toward Europe as a mindset and a unity. These have all been factors in keeping a distance between Britain and Europe, calling to mind on occasion the famous 1930s headline “Fog in Channel, Continent cut off.”
This is why we have the problem today, the mindsets of the two are different and they have seemingly come to the inevitable end of Britain’s tolerance of European integration for reasons of mission creep and geographical expansion. Britain wants its sovereignty and sanity back.
Quite apart from the mindset issue, Britain has always maintained a brake on European integration and dominance. It is called “The Pound.” By keeping its control on the currency levers, Britain achieved two things. First, it prevented the Euro becoming the strong currency it aimed to be, potentially a global replacement for the US Dollar. Second, it maintained a degree of economic control and gave it an exit, or ausfarht, route in practical terms should it want to BREXIT.
If we stand a distance from the current battle, these are the two dynamics I would look at for signals as to how this is going to turn out, leaving us with two questions matching these two dynamics. First, is there some way that those who want to stay can assure those who don’t and the neutrals that Britain can maintain sovereignty and greater political control in the future? Second, can the Pound remain the practical brake on the Euro and continental European aspirations? To stay something must change to reverse the direction of Europe from a British perspective.
As a Brit in North America, I am often asked my prediction as to what will happen. It is hard to say, the steam built up by BREXIT is more powerful than in past ructions. However, this may just be a letting off of steam by Brits frustrated by the continent. In other words, I suspect it may just be an ausfahrt in the childish sense rather than the German sense, and the Brits will stay and grumble about the stench left behind.
Dr. David Cowan
Some years back, I preached a sermon at a Cambridge University college on one of what I call the Economic Parables, which later became my book Economic Parables: The Monetary Teachings of Jesus Christ. These are parables where Jesus talked about economic things. Our economy is quite different from the economy in the time of Jesus. However, the church has frequently become involved in economic questions and offered a theological or moral view on a range of topics. One of the most popular topics in church moral anguish circles today is the so-called “minimum wage.”
After the sermon, as is the custom, I was invited to High Table. This gives the preacher an opportunity to eat, and the guests an opportunity to dine with the preacher. This night I did not get much of a chance to eat. Two of the guests kept me very occupied. One was on a board of the Church of England on social matters, the other worked in an inner city area with poor kids. The subject, you guessed right, was the minimum wage, that de rigueur topic in conversations about capitalism today.
The committee member guests demanded I should support the minimum wage; the one who actually worked with the poor had a somewhat more realistic view of the matter. I responded that naturally I did, but it depends what definition one uses. They asked me then what definition I meant, to which I replied the minimum wage is the minimum at which someone is prepared to work, and the minimum an employer will offer. This, as you can well imagine, did not go down too well.
My interlocutor followed the popular conception of the minimum wage, which as a moral concern has a 125-year pedigree. It goes back to Pope Leo XIII and his exposition of a “just” wage in his encyclical, Rerum Novarum in 1891. He defined the just wage as an amount needed to support a thrifty and upright worker plus his family, and he offered the prescription that a just wage be sufficient to allow the worker to save and acquire property of his own. Having raised a moral flag, he left economists and policy-makers to fight amongst themselves as to how this should be implemented, and they’re been fighting ever since.
The problem with the just wage theory, as Pope Leo XIII discussed it, is that it derives from an error in the thinking of Karl Marx, who didn’t worry about such things as his own living wage, he had Engels for that – rather like public sector workers have government and academics have tenure. Marx believed “the capitalist” compels “the worker” to produce an amount greater that his pay in wages. Marx called this addition “surplus value,” and is he wrote the source of the capitalist’s profit.
So, while many in the church seem happy enough to dismiss the resurrection as myth, and thus not requiring belief, they are happy to cling on to secular myth, such as the Marxian myth that “profit” is a species of “surplus,” and demand the people in the pews pledge allegiance as a moral duty or face ridicule. In the 20th Century and now into the 21st, the just wage has become a central doctrine to the modern church and it fights mightily for it. Thus doctrines of Christ’s divinity and the notions of the family get dumped on a regular basis, and the “social justice” doctrines come to the fore.
Walk into many mainstream churches now and one is increasingly likely to hear a sermon about the minimum wage or other social dogma rather than core Christian doctrine. Even entering churches, one is often invited into a “Social Justice and Peace Center” rather than a place of worship. What one does has supplanted what one believes, a triumph of Pelagianism. The dogma of the minimum wage is one that is conflated in the preaching of justice and peace, it is about the minimum wage, living wage, and just wage. Yet, justice, in the classical sense, means to render to each what each is due. In this sense, a just wage is rendered according to the contribution of the worker and their needs.
So, what are the needs? Well there is the cost of living. This depends upon where one is. Manhattan is more expensive than Gary Indiana, which is more expensive than a village in Bangladesh, for instance. Another need is the aggregate income of the household. Is the worker the sole breadwinner? A joint-income earner? Who is dependent on the household income? Another is to what extent can we separate needs form desires and wants, not easily achieved. And so on. Rising wages are a good thing, but the question is how this is achieved, to which the answer is not the minimum wage
The problem is that much of the thinking about minimum wage is done on two extravagant horizons. First, society, which is a big tent with a definition that depends upon whom one is talking to, and second, the individual, who is the person you’re actually talking to. The moralist concern, however, for the former is quickly outed as the selfishness of the latter. This is because, the individual complains about the big wage earners and says, “Look at what they’re earning!” while muttering under their breath, “but don’t touch mine.” Like much welfarist thinking, it promotes a selfishness in society, because it is always about others and not themselves.
The problem ultimately is an economic one, as the economist Wilhelm Röpke stated in A Humane Economy, linking the minimum wage to an estimated living wage leads to “a wage-price spiral in which rising wages and prices keep pushing each other up, especially and most effectively in the presence of the fatal system of a sliding scale of wages determined by the cost-of-living index.”
This means everyone’s wage needs to go up; it is not the simple arithmetic of taking big bonuses from top earners and transferring it to the lowest earners. The economy of the firm and society is much more complicated than this. Of course, the big earners or the 1%, make great headlines, but they are treated as if they are all the same people. In fact, this so-called 1% is a shifting population, as rewards such as stock options, for instance, are only paid out in certain years ann inflate the numbers, and often are never paid at all. Yes, some individuals do stay in the 1%, and of course not all of them are bankers, they are the celebrities and politicians that many social advocates seem to fawn over.
Ultimately, the economy is about how humans organize to deal with scarcity, and it is a task bedeviled by desire. As human beings we have different desires, beliefs and much else in contrast. Some workers only desire to go to work and earn a living, it is a necessary evil. While for others they desire a career, their work is part of who they are. In different ways they sacrifice other choices in life. The market is just such a place in which we all act out our choices, all limited to a greater or lesser degree, in part by family origins, natural endowment and pure luck.
The last, and perhaps the most important aspect of the question to consider, is wealth itself. To use an analogy, do we see wealth as a pie to be cut, or do we find ways to make more pies? Socialism tends to see a pie, whereas the market sees multiple pies. How do we create this wealth, in other words more pies? Well, we don’t do it by thinking like Marx and church campaigners there is a greedy big capitalist, like the Wizard of OZ, behind the economic curtain. It is the entrepreneurs and small businesses which are the engine of wealth, and the minimum wage forces them either to reduce the workforce or go out of business, it is pretty much as simple as this.
The economist Frank H. Knight, the subject of my book Frank H. Knight: Prophet of Freedom out next month, was one of the pioneers of the orthodox view today that profits come from entrepreneurial activity where profit is earned by forgoing current consumption, by taking risks, and by organizing production. He argued, the ultimate source of wealth is the entrepreneur, and the risks they take.
Hence, the internet, iphones and designer sneakers desired by protesters at Occupy Wall Street and the rest of us do not come about by everyone holding hands round a factory and singing Kumbaya. All this talk of socialistic solutions in America, and elsewhere, is killing the one thing that creates the wealth and built America in the first place: the entrepreneur. Without wealth, our fights over justice become much more problematic than wages, it becomes a war on scarcity, and we can look to many parts of the world to see how that turns out. This blog is dramatically entitled “The Immorality of the Minimum Wage,” because the policy is the worse moralism of all, self-indulgent good intentions leading to dangerous economic consequences.
Dr. David Cowan
Many celebrities have died of late, the latest being Prince. These are talented people who have had varying levels of success in their life. In no way is this blog to be an attack on the memory of the singer/songwriter, whose greatest legacy in my opinion is Sinead O’Connor’s rendition of Nothing Compares to U and the amazing video that went with it. What I do want to question is the way we grieve today
The death of Prince led to an outpouring of grief by the political, entertainment and media complex which overshadowed the tragic death of a family of 8 in Ohio, muting even the anti-gun lobby, as its chief spokesman was busy annoying the Brits and the rest were too busy shedding purple tears. We have since had the mindless execution by ISIS supporters of Canadian John Ridsdel, by beheading.
It seems to me there is something of an anatomy to the death of a celebrity. The classic example is the death of Princess Diana. The Sunday Times newspaper in London the week before she died had a major feature article on why she was a spoiled Princess; it really was a full scale attack on her. The edition the Sunday after she died had her raised to sainthood. Tony Blair and his spinmeisters took the opportunity to politicize the death. The same night as she was killed there were investigations into the killing of an entire village of women and children in Algeria, but hey, that’s not news.
It seems to me we lose proportion. Social media and 24-hour television overdose on the story, and the celebrated life is stripped of all the downside, such as the fact they were vilified (Diana) or were attempting a comeback (Prince). In the meantime, life in all its pain and glory goes on, often underreported, while anyone saying the wrong thing or pointing out inconvenient truths is instantly vilified.
The loss of Prince hard on the heels of David Bowie, led celebrity human rights campaigner Bianca Jagger to tweet what a tragic year this has been so far. I tweeted back to her that surely every year is a tragic year, with many dying in poverty, loneliness & anonymity, with no-one to care for them or about their demise. Added to which is the daily private grief of “ordinary” people. Do we really need to overdose on these deaths? Many of the people tweeting platitudes last week probably hadn’t even listened to Prince in over a decade, if at all in some cases. What does this say?
It does trouble me a little that the various deceased celebrities had control over their destiny, and they had wealth. Yes, money doesn’t buy happiness. Yes, in some cases they obviously had psychological problems. Yes, sometimes it has just been the death that comes to all of us, whether it is too soon or at a natural time. However, what troubles me more is the way this overshadows the fact that there are many people, like the Algerian villagers and the Canadian citizen, who had no choice. Their death tell us so much more about the root of our human tragedy and the way we grieve today.
The death of a celebrity says something important about out contemporary communication age. It is about story, about narrative. There is a desire to be part of a story, so people insert themselves into the story by tweeting or going to the site of a death to lay down flowers and soft toys, perhaps to get on TV themselves. In this way people can feel they have become part of the story; very postmodern. It is the last service performed by the dead celebrity.
This blog is not to insult memories or to belittle the true grief people feel, and certainly not that of the people who were actually close to the deceased. They need to grieve. The point here is that what these celebrity deaths signify is the deep spiritual yearning that we have as humanity. It shows we have a spiritual side in the rough and tumble of a troubled world, and that we still seek an outlet for our emotions and yearning. The communications age has simply produced its own spaces of grieving, and its own liturgy.
The church and other places of worship used to give us the space and liturgy to do this, but secular society has given them a peripheral role today. In fact death seems to be the last place of remaining relevance for churches in secular society, because we haven’t in fact found a real replacement. We still don’t know how to grieve as humanity, and the liturgy remains unfulfilling.
Dr. David Cowan
Donald Trump can win the presidency, for reasons that are just part of today’s America. This is no way an endorsement. I cannot bring myself to endorse any of the candidates. Indeed, I would rather leave the post vacant.
There are 3 steps to Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Step 1: Populism? No. Salesmanship
There are frequent outbreaks of commentary on populism in this election cycle, and we are hearing the term a lot, but what does it mean? In truth, the term is something of a misnomer. It refers to a situation in politics that highlights the supporting of the rights and power of the people in opposition to a privileged elite. However, a more nuanced understanding is that populism is an elite group that has identified itself with a set of popular notions and concerns and offered to something about it all if elected, which is how they seek to get elected.
Given the possibility of a Trump v Clinton race, there can be no finer definition of the privileged elite at work in such politics, supported by vast political machines that are themselves the political elite. Populism is a movement from below, as the people rally. The Tea Party was populist but Mr. Trump is not, quite the reverse.
What we have in Mr. Trump is a master salesman, and what does a salesman do? A salesman asks what the customer wants and then sells it to them. This has been Mr. Trump’s modus operandi all along, and it will continue to stay so, which brings us to step Two.
Step 2: Society restored
Mr. Trump has figured out what a particular customer base wants, which is a certain kind of society restored. This customer base is comprised of those Americans who are concerned about progressive change, the loss of American identity and are socially conservative. He has used hyperbole effectively to rouse them in the same way advertising whips up business to buy products. He has a very effective communication strategy in what is a communications age.
Step 3: It’s the Strategy Stupid!
Mr. Trump did not get to where he is by being stupid, but many commentators get lots of print and airtime to demonstrate their stupidity. Commentators have become part of the audience, getting involved in the popular mood rather than standing outside and trying to figure out what is going on. This problem is endemic in modern 24-hour journalism, where the reporters are as much the audience as anything else.
The Trump strategy is itself a 3-step process.
First, create a base by taking the low hanging fruit, and to do this he had to use soundbite messaging to get the response needed. With the help of 24-hour news media he achieved this, and with the help of Right and Left leaning media at that. The Left fell into his narrative and helped to promote his “sales,” which is a classic modern communication technique.
Second is what is going on now. He is adjusting his message to try and broaden his appeal within the party that he needs to nominate him. He already has the base from step 1, and they’ve bought the message, done deal as Mr. Trump might say. Now he needs to appeal to a different market segment, so different language and a different communications strategy is needed to succeed.
Assuming he is successful, and I believe he will be, he will take the third step. Mr. Trump will seek to amend his language and communication strategy to reach the most difficult market sector: the great American electorate that is not already sold on Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton. This will be the challenge, and here he draws on something else, his fame.
In a society obsessed with social media and reality TV, he will have some easy pickings, and they are the uncommitted he will go for. This is the chance for the kids brought up on reality TV to associate with fame. As candidate Mr. Obama sold dreams well to the youth, in fact so well as President Obama he has disillusioned them. Maybe it’s time to buy the salesman rather than the product he’s selling, step up President Trump.
Which leaves one question. What does Mr. Trump actually believe? Let’s put it this way, a successful Chevy salesman wants to drive a Ferrari, not a Chevy. To put it more crudely, the salesman doesn’t have to buy his own bull. So, the answer to what Trump believes? What does that matter? The elite want power, not right.