Monday, 16 March 2015

I Am Not As Other Men

Last year the results of an experiment were published that demonstrated that Americans are irrationally prejudiced against atheists1. Participants were described the life of an evident psychopath who in his youth tortured animals and in later years murdered homeless people. They were then asked if it was more probable that this person grew up to be 1) a teacher, 2) a Christian teacher, 3) a Muslim teacher or 4) an atheist teacher.

The results were that almost half the people surveyed went with an atheist teacher (with lower figures for a Christian teacher and even lower for a Muslim teacher).

The problem is that all those answers are wrong - categorically and unarguably wrong. It must be more probable that the person was a teacher. Given that there are some teachers who are not atheists, it is clearly more likely that the person (that any person) is a teacher of unspecified religion rather than an atheist teacher (or indeed a teacher of any other faith). Even if you hold the strange opinion that all teachers are atheists then options 1) and 4) become equal. It cannot be more probable that the person is an atheist teacher.

It's an example of what is known as the Conjunction Fallacy2, an example of Cognitive Bias3 that occurs in many situations.

In Britain it affects political opinion, as a recent survey reveals.

Now when it comes to economic policy, I reckon I'm a tad to the right of the UK population as a whole - which puts me way to the right of most people I discuss politics with. I should emphasize that this is only with regard to economics - on social policy I'm reliably informed that I have opinions so liberal they make David Cameron feel physically ill4.

That said, I think that I am on the right because of my opinions, not the reverse. I have made no decision that I am right wing and therefore adopted opinions favoured by the right. Indeed, in the past those same opinions have put me slightly to the left of centre.

And as most of us do, I'd always thought that most other people think like me. Not that they come to the same conclusions as me, obviously, but that they base they're alignment on their opinions and not vice versa

A YouGov survey conducted last week demonstrates that I was wrong5.

Participants were asked the same question regarding various public services ranging from hospitals to banks. The question was whether the service was best run by the public sector, the private sector or that it doesn't matter as long as standards of service are maintained. 

The answer is no-brainer. It doesn't matter as long as standards are maintained. That's assuming that people actually want good public services, which for the most part I'll take as read. But given that assumption, the answer is just as clear as that the psychopath is more probably a teacher.

Seems I'm in a minority, however. Our survey said:


The immediate conclusion we might draw from these results is that 18% of the population want hospitals run by the private sector, but I see something far more depressing. What we can read from that first line is that 92% of the population do NOT want standards to be maintained in hospitals. Given the choice between standards and observance of political dogma they chose their own flavour of dogma.

Now you might disagree with my interpretation, you might say that what people are saying is that they favour public hospitals because that's the best way to maintain standards. That may be how people are thinking, but if so it's another fine example of the Conjunction Fallacy. Only if you have absolute certainty that your way of doing things is the way that maintains standards do the two options become equivalent. That's a megalomaniacal degree of certainty. And even then, it only makes the two options equal, so the answer should be 'don't know'.

I've tried to think of other explanations. Maybe the participants were just too busy to think about it and defaulted to a dogmatic response? But the problem is that here the pragmatic answer is the easy answer: we want what's best. It's only in the real world that things get difficult, when asking for what's best prompts the difficult follow-up question: and how are we going to achieve that? If people aren't even prepared to think in the easy case, what hope have we in the difficult?

I can't make sense of it, and yet it makes sense of much of my experience of politics. I'd always assumed that people were like me, that even when we disagree on policy our starting point is what is best for the country. But it turns out that that isn't the case - when  asked directly, most people favour dogma.

What's missing from the survey is a more direct, neutral question: Do you favour a) whatever maintains standards or b) an ideological solution. I suspect in that case more would favour option a), but if so it would only tell us that people don't recognize their own opinions as ideological.

There was one further breakdown of the data, however, looking at the tendency to choose the pragmatic option (maintaining standards) broken down by party support:



In all cases but one, Conservatives were more likely to choose the pragmatic option than Labour voters. It's not great news for them - the pragmatists are still a minority - but it still seems to be a significant difference.

Which is odd, since one of the most common accusations thrown by the left is that is that it is the right who are ideologically driven. It seems that if there is a difference, dogmatism is slightly more a feature of the left.

But that's a digression. Being pragmatical doesn't mean that you come up with better policies, but it does at least give you a chance. If you can't even admit that you'd prefer good standards to the implementation of an ideology, what contribution are you really making?

I'll always place myself firmly in that minority cyan block in the middle of the chart. And if, like most people, you don't place yourself there, then what's the prospect of any discussion between us?


Tuesday, 21 October 2014

What Have the Russians Ever Done for Us?

Igor Stravinsky

Name some great composers of the twentieth century. Chances are a few of them will be Russian: Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Stravinsky, Shostakovich. For me, the last two are particular favourites.

Dmitry Shostakovich
Igor Stravinsky was twenty-four years older than Dmitry Shostakovich, but perhaps a bigger difference between them was that Stravinsky never lived in the Soviet Union, while Shostakovich spent his entire adult life there. By the time of the Revolution, Stravinsky was already famous and travelling the world. The two composers did not meet until 1962, when the totalitarianism of Stalin had begun to thaw under Khrushchev and the eighty-year-old Stravinsky at last felt it was safe to visit his homeland. A banquet was arranged at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow in honour of Stravinsky, with Shostakovich in attendance. Aram Khachaturian, another great Russian – well, Georgian – composer, witnessed their meeting:

They were placed next to each other and sat in complete silence. I sat opposite them. Finally Shostakovich plucked up the courage and opened the conversation:

‘What do you think of Puccini?’

‘I can’t stand him,’ Stravinsky replied.

‘Oh, and neither can I, neither can I,’ said Shostakovich.1

I find it hard to disagree with them. However entertaining Puccini’s music is, it is only the climax of a West-European and specifically Italian style that had developed over the previous century. The Russian’s were doing something quite new.

Alexander PushkinAnd it wasn’t just in music. Name some great novelists – of any century. You’ll probably start off with quite a list of English or English-speaking writers, but after that it won’t be long before you get to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and not much longer to Bulgakov, Pasternak, Gogol and Nabokov (whom you might already have listed, since he wrote novels in both English and Russian). If you allow the constraints to expand a little you might also include Chekov as a playwright and Pushkin as a poet. And that’s just to list the household names (my household, anyway).

This blossoming of literary talent occurred over the shortest of periods. To go from Pushkin to Tolstoy is almost to go from Chaucer to Shakespeare. From one of the first to use his native language (as opposed, in both cases, to French) to the archetype of writing in that language. It was a transition that took Britain over two centuries, but took Russia scarcely three decades. And Britain has rarely been in the same league as Russia with regards to composers. As for artists, perhaps Britain does better overall, but just as our music has no Stravinsky, our art has no Kandinsky.

First Abstract Watercolour - Vasily Kandinsky, 1910

Like Shostakovich, Vasiliy Vasilievich Kandinsky was in Russia at the time of the Revolution, but was able to leave in 1921. He settled in Germany – until the Nazis closed the Bauhaus, where he taught. He moved to France, soon to find himself once again under Nazi rule when they invaded. He died just four months after Paris was liberated. Long before that, in 1910, he produced a painting which he appropriately titled First Abstract Watercolour. It was just that – the first truly abstract painting. Kandinsky went on to produce many others, and founded an entire art movement.

Kandinsky equated painting with music and tried to imitate music’s inherently abstract nature. He called many of his works compositions and experienced art and music synaesthetically. Early in his career he wrote:

Colour is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul. 2

Composition VII - Vasily Kandinsky, 1913

Stravinsky and Kandinsky knew each other in Paris in the 1930s, though unlike the artist, the composer left France for America before the German occupation. It was long after the Russian Revolution, and longer still after each man’s personal revolution in his own field of art. The 1910s were a decade that changed the world in many ways. Politically the impact of the First World War and the Russian Revolution cannot be underestimated, and we shouldn’t forget the Xinhai Revolution in China or the Easter Rising in Ireland. The sinking of RMS Titanic is still remembered today and marks the apogee, and therefore the endpoint, of mankind’s blind faith in technology. Kandinsky produced the first abstract painting in 1910, but it was in 1913 that Stravinsky’s revolution became violent.

Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) was first performed at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées on 29th May 1913. The fact that it caused the audience to riot is well-known, and not entirely overstated. But the production itself was revolutionary, both in terms of its music and its choreography. The première has been described as ‘the most important single moment in the history of twentieth century music’3. The whole of the production team was made up of Russian émigrés: Stravinsky, the composer; Vaslav Nijinsky, the choreographer; Nikolai Rerikh, the set designer; Sergei Diaigilev, the producer. None of them died in the country of his birth. It was in the Russian Empire that their talents first went unrecognized, but in the Soviet Union that they knew they would not be free to express themselves as artists.

Dancers from the première of The Rite of Spring

But art did flourish in the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, though the lifestyle of those who produced it was precarious. The Soviet leader regarded himself as an expert on every aspect of Russian life – military, economic and cultural. In each field he was arbitrary. In 1929 Mihail Bulgakov found himself unable to make a living when the Soviet government banned the publication of his novels and the production of his plays. But at the same time Stalin intervened personally to protect Bulgakov from arrest. And yet when Bulgakov wrote to Stalin, asking for permission to leave the Soviet Union on the grounds that he was not able to practise his profession, the dictator refused. He died in 1940, but it was more than two decades before many of his major works were published. When they were it became clear why they had been regarded as so dangerous – although he was not always critical of the regime.

Joseph Stalin
Music did not convey so obvious a message. As Kandinsky had observed, music is by its nature more abstract than literature – harder to identify with a political opinion. Dmitry Shostakovich’s work was at first found to be favourable by the authorities. His opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, was initially described as a work that ‘could have been written only by a Soviet composer brought up in the best tradition of Soviet culture.’4 But that was before Stalin had seen the opera. Soon after he did, articles criticizing it began to appear in Pravda, and Shostakovich’s earlier works began to be critically reappraised. The same year, 1936, Shostakovich completed his Fourth Symphony. As with Bulgakov’s works, the symphony wasn’t performed until decades later, in 1961 – but at least the composer was alive to witness it. He was luckier than many around him; this was the era of the Great Purge, when many were arrested and executed, including his brother-in-law.

But Shostakovich was no fool. He changed his compositional style and his Fifth Symphony was a huge success. An official review praised him for ‘not having given in to the seductive temptations of his previous erroneous ways.’5 During World War II he wrote his Seventh Symphony – titled Leningrad. One of its first performances was in the city after which it was named, at the time under siege by the Nazis, the scores smuggled in to be performed by the city’s starving orchestra. It is still regarded as a memorial to the 25 million Soviet citizens who died in the war.

St Isaac's Cathedral, Leningrad, during the siege

But despite his success, Shostakovich was once again denounced in 1948, along with Prokofiev and Khachaturian. With Stalin’s death he gradually came back into favour. In 1960 he joined the Communist Party, but only so that he could become General Secretary of the Composers' Union.

It would be a preposterous exaggeration to claim that all of Russian culture can be compressed into a period of less than two centuries, but from the viewpoint of the West, it can seem like it. From – to choose a couple of arbitrary points – the birth of Aleksandr Pushkin in 1799 to the death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in 2008 one could pick almost any decade and find a great work of art produced by some Russian or other. Most of it was produced by individuals whose lives were oppressed by a totalitarian regime, or who had fled such a regime for the freedom of the West. Russia now is in a strange place politically – more liberal than it has ever been, and yet still authoritarian by the standards of the rest of Europe. In the past it has been the birthplace of revolutions in every field of culture which have swept the world. It’s difficult to see much hope for the prospect of another, but Russia – that riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma – can always surprise.

1. E.Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered
2. Hajo Düchting, Wassily Kandinsky, 1866-1944: A Revolution in Painting
3. Thomas Forrest Kelly, First Nights – Five Musical Premiers
4. Dmitry Shostakovich (compiled by L. Grigoryev and Y. Platek), Shostakovich: About Himself and His Times
5. E.Wilson, Shostakovich: A Life Remembered