The ghost of Christmas past

CP Snow once said that most ancient British traditions dated back to the second half of the 19th century. The same idea recently popped up in the London Review of Books, with Stefan Collini referring to the

second half of the 19th century, the palaeolithic age of so many British cultural institutions

. Christmas provides an ideal illustration of this.

All the central features of Xmas date back, more or less exactly, to this period, including Christmas pudding, mince pies and cake, Christmas cards and Santa Claus. Although Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Carol, tiresomely readapted every couple of years since, presents a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is much more accurate to see him as The Man who invented Christmas and his book as a work of invention.

If Christmas was pretty much fixed by 1900, its become immovably solidifed since then. Even the complaints about Christmas (commercialisation, losing the true meaning, secularisation, the loneliness of people with no family, the misery of people forced to endure family gatherings and so on) haven’t changed in decades.

The Australian Christmas is, of course, a bit different, but it’s equally stable as one merges into another and no-one can recall if it was 104 in the shade in 1966 or 106 in the shade in 1964 (I’m quoting from memory from The Complete Book of Australian Verse

The only new(ish) complaint has been about multiculturalism, with the inclusion of the Jewish Hanukkah in a generalized ‘holiday season’, particularly in the US, and the downplaying of explicitly Christian aspects in various public celebrations. But even this is old stuff by now.

Its arguable that Christmas is the rule rather than the exception. Despite the claims of postmodernism and the breathlessness of books like Future Shock, increasingly large areas of opur culture seem to characterized by stability amounting to stasis rather than change. Trends in popular music, for example, used to have a half-life measured in weeks; now, it’s more like decades. Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century (take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today. Go back to 1800 and the change is dramatic).

I’ll have more to say on this general topic in the New Year. But having celebrated the Solstice in a seasonally appropriate way with seafood and cold beer, I’ll be tucking in to the Christmas pudding and brandy sauce tomorrow, so don’t expect anything more from me until at least Boxing Day.

Rules of evidence

The NYT has an Op-ed piece by Ruth Wedgwood supporting the detention of Jose Padilla as an enemy combatant and criticising an Appeals Court decision that he should either be charged or released. Wedgwood doesn’t mention many of the more disturbing aspects of the Padilla case such as the fact that he is being held incommunicado and that the government disclaims any obligation to announce the arrest/disappearance of enemy combatants, even US citizens on US soil.

But what struck me was the central claim that such processes are necessary because

Federal rules of evidence do not permit the consideration of intelligence reports as proof for criminal convictions, no matter how reliable the informant

. Wedgwood doesn’t spell this out, and it seems surprising to me that there exists such a general principle. I’d be interested to hear from anyone better informed regarding the US legal system on this topic.

Supposing this is correct, my immediate reaction is that it would be better to relax the rules of evidence in terrorism cases than to accept indefinite detention without trial. However, I’d be interested to hear the views of others on this.

Political correctness at the PC

Nick Gruen alerted me to this piece by Ross Gittins, excoriating the Productivity Commission’s report on housing affordability. I had only seen the press reports and was struck by the absence of any reference to the cut in capital gains tax, the biggest single factor in converting a boom to a bubble. Ross says

Despite all the fine words and careful analysis in the body of the report, it was no accident that the media’s headlines focused almost exclusively on the recommendation that the premiers abolish stamp duty.

It was no accident because the report was structured to produce that response. And it was no accident the Boss [Costello] exploited it for all he was worth.

After the PC had shut down any talk of doing something about negative gearing and the half-rate capital gains tax, and excused away the federal tax system’s $18 billion annual subsidy to owner-occupiers, its brave call for the abolition of stamp duty was the only significant proposal left. ….

This report is intellectually dishonest and cowardly. It’s idle for the economic rationalists to keep carrying on about the politicians’ “reform fatigue” when, in the face of someone as terrifying as Peter Costello, the bureaucratic leaders of the movement have lost their bottle.

It’s a great read, and I know the economists of the PC well enough to recognise that Gittins has hit them where it hurts most, particularly in that last para – it will be interesting to see if there is a public response.

Jefferson and Thurmond

One of the most striking historical facts I’ve learned this year is that George Washington freed all his slaves in his will despite opposition from his family, including his wife Martha. It’s surprising and revealing that this fact has never been part of the standard account of Washington’s life.

It is also one of the facts leading me to an increasingly negative view of Thomas Jefferson. The parallel between Jefferson’s unacknowledged slave children by Sally Hemings and the more recent case of Strom Thurmond is striking. (Jefferson was, quite literally, the first Southern Democrat). Until now, I’ve tended to vaguely excuse Jefferson’s actions here as a case of personal inability to resist the thinking of the times, but Washington’s example undermines this.

I think you can go from the personal to the political here as well. The course leading to the Civil War was set when the Northern States adopted emancipation around the time of the Revolution and the Southern states did not. Jefferson advocated gradual emancipation in Virginia at this time (1783), but he didn’t fight hard on the issue after this. Given Washington’s personal evolution on the issue, it seems plausible that a determined effort by Jefferson in the years after Washington’s death, during which he was president for eight years, could have achieved a peaceful end to slavery.

Trial by combat

The Australian courts, tiring of incomprehensible economic and legal arguments about competition law, have reinstituted the ancient and honourable tradition of trial by combat, and they want it a l’outrance.

At least that’s what I infer from this para in Saturday’s Australian Financial Review.

The judgement showed it is very difficult to prove the substantial lessening of competition needed for a breach of Section 50 – blood literally has to be spilt on the floor (emphasis added)