Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Confessions of a Leaver in Oxford

Brexit and the intolerant backlash

Despite having voted last week in line with the majority of the voters in the UK to leave the European Union, I find myself in a distinct minority in my workplace and among the people I know. Furthermore, I find the reaction to the vote from many of the most vocal elements of the remain camp quite disturbing. There is a widespread refusal to respect the result of the referendum. The majority of voters are being accused of being ignorant and ill-informed, or motivated by unacceptable opinions. Open prejudice against the working classes and the old is rife. And the attempts to discover and flag up a tiny number of minor racist incidents in order to brand all leavers as racist are unforgivable.

Britain has certainly shown itself in the past few days to be a less tolerant place than most people thought, but it's the remain camp who are demonstrating that intolerance, with their shocking refusal to accept the democratic will of the people, or to face up to the rejection of their cultural values by the majority. A lot of people need to calm down and think very hard about what sort of 'liberal', 'tolerant', or 'progressive' citizen hate the majority of the people.

Brexit is a rational response to the immigration debate

I am in favour of unrestricted migration. I believe we need to have an open debate about what sort of society we want to be, with all opinions allowed to be voiced, so that I can argue for a more open and dynamic society. We need to create a society and an economy that can grow, and that people want to come and join. I am therefore opposed to Fortress Europe, which imposes racist immigration controls on non-Europeans, and is responsible for the ongoing deaths of hundreds of migrants around Europe's borders. Yet, even if I had the power, I wouldn't want to impose an open door policy on an electorate who don't agree with it. We need to go out and have the debate, win the arguments, and stand for elected office on a pro-immigration ticket before we can start changing the rules.

The British people have been told by all major parties in all recent elections that controlling and reducing immigration is right and proper, and this viewpoint is rarely challenged. When they fail to control and reduce immigration, the blame is put on the EU. And when people try to raise the  issue, they are often branded as bigots and racists. The opinions and concerns of vast swathes of the population outside of the metropolitan elites have been ruled beyond the pale. Let's look at that again. Politicians of all major parties have told us that:
  • immigration is problematic and should be controlled;
  • we can't control immigration because of EU rules on freedom of movement;
  • the issue is not up for discussion;
  • but you can vote on whether we stay on the EU or not.
Follow the logic and there only seems to be one way to make a rational vote. To be a voter for leave does not mean you are stupid, under-informed, or racist. In fact, a vote for leave was rational in light of what passed for debate in the campaign.

Brexit can be good for higher education

There is much talk at the moment about a possible negative impact on universities. The focus on the benefits of freedom of movement in Europe ignores the concomitant restrictions on links with non-EU countries, leading to such disgraceful scenes as American graduates locked up and deported after completing their PhDs in the UK (

I very much hope that we can continue to pursue successful collaborations with European colleagues, but, to the extent that we were reliant on certain EU-related funding streams for that, we may now need to start participating in the process of building new arrangements. If we need public funding for that, we need to persuade voters about the merits of our research. That's where we need to put our energy, rather than trying to find ways to ignore or overturn the referendum result so that we can keep the status quo.

Since the referendum, I have continued to work with colleagues in Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, the Netherlands, German and Poland, and also with those from Norway, Switzerland, Israel, Japan and South Africa, to name but a few of the contacts I have had this week, and I know that, despite the scare stories, these contacts and collaborations will continue irrespective of the political arrangements between Britain and the EU.

I'm confident that Brexit offers at least as many opportunities as threats for universities, for cultural institutions, for business, for the City, and for everyone else, with the possible exception of Nick Clegg.  We've made a good start, with a positive vote to leave the EU, and the consequent fall of Cameron and the laughable opposition. But it is only the start. If the will of the people is to prevail, we need to reject the bad losers and the doomsayers. Unfortunately, we are still saddled with the same out-of-touch political class and their cheerleaders. Few of those so clearly rejected by their voters last Thursday will have the self-respect to do the honourable thing, which would be to resign their seats and seek re-election. And we still have an unelected House of Lords full of Blair, Clegg and Cameron appointees, even further out of kilter with the electorate. Nationalists in Scotland and elsewhere are even more shrill in their rejection of the democratic result of the referendum (as well as the last one). So the victory is not yet won.

The unlikely Brexiteer

Yes, I live in Oxford, work in a university, speak several European languages, travel widely and frequently in Europe, and work on projects funded by the European Commission. As a result, people assume that I voted to remain. I didn't, and, what's more, I'm thrilled by the result, and have no regrets. I'm not the only one (see, although it sometimes feels that way around here.

It's possible to be anti-racist, pro-immigration and pro-Brexit. It's possible to love Europe but reject the EU. In fact it's essential if you care about democracy and freedom.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Buy my vote

Not literally, obviously. That would be illegal and unethical. But which party is going to do something for me and make my life better? What would I get out of voting for you? Say that you'll do the following and I'll vote for you.

Give me more freedom

Police are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on persecuting journalists for doing their jobs and pursuing ex-celebrities for historic actions which are being re-defined as crimes. What sort of society tolerates spending vast resources on trying to put journalists and old DJs in jail?

Police are increasingly investigating speech and thought crimes, egged on by the twitter mobs. 
I want to live in a society where we are allowed to say and think anything. More tolerance doesn't mean locking up people for expressing view that some people disagree with or take offence at. It means letting them express those views. And arguing with them if you disagree.

Stand up for economic growth

I'm not going to vote for a party that is more concerned with imposing austerity than allowing the economy to grow, and not interested in how we redistribute a pie that is not big enough. We can only avoid austerity and make our country a better place if the economy grows. All of the parties have policies which hinder economic growth. Give up the crazy green ideas, and invest in infrastructure and housing. Build houses where people want to live in them, build more and better roads, build a national high-speed rail network, and build more runways and airports.

Stop trying to 'save' the NHS

A lot of the problems with the NHS could be solved if compassionate healthcare for the sick was prioritized ahead of education and social work. The argument that preventative medicine is more effective and more cost-effective is spurious. If preventative medicine means the loss of our autonomy and happiness, then I'd rather suffer a few ailments. This isn't the real choice anyway. Most of the preventative measures are entirely misguided, based on politic priorities (blaming the public and the poor for ill health), bad science (eating less fat), or miniscule risks (most cancers). The biggest contribution we could make to our health, happiness and wellbeing would be to stop worrying about ourselves and our bodies and our diet, and stop paying professional scare-mongers and busybodies. And the public could respond by stopping putting our creative eneriges and altruism into ostentatious attention-grabbing stunts to raise money for the NHS ('sponsor my triathlon for the cancer ward') and do something more grown-up and useful, more focussed on actually doing good than making yourselves look good.

End foreign aid

Why do we look to the government to do good work? When did their brief extend beyond keeping the country running to dealing with all of the world's problems and trying to run other countries? The government should stick to running the state, and the state should interfere in as few areas of human activity as possible. We have an enormous number of charity organizations, and we can choose for ourselves which to give money to. I don't trust the government to manage my money and make my ethical choices for me.

It's not just that we don't need the government to decide the priorities. Behind the veil of foreign aid, lies the naked promotion of the interests of the rich world and the imposition of anti-growth economics ('sustainable development') the latest illiberal fashionable political issues ('promoting civil society'). People in poor countries would be better off without our interference, which destroys local production and development, and reduces their freedom and autonomy. And let them come here if they want to. There's plenty of room and plenty of work to do.

I'll keep my tax money, thank you very much, and give to a charity that promotes freedom and growth in the third world or at home.

So who will buy my vote?

It's pretty clear that Labour won't stop promoting equality ahead of growth, the Liberal Democrats won't stop increasing the role of the nanny state, and the Greens won't stop opposing all growth and all fun. That doesn't leave a very attractive roster. The Tories might talk about growth, rolling back the state, opposing the excesses of European bureaucracy but they can't help themselves from interfering in our private lives, reducing our freedoms and pursuing fashionable agendas in search of votes. They just don't get it when they try to build the 'big society' from the top down.  UKIP  are a breath of fresh air, with their the refreshing willingness to buck the current illiberal, authoritarian, "you can't say that" climate, and say the unsayable. But I don't agree with their policies on immigration, or with their opposition to building infrastructure. So I'll have to wait for a party to come along that can persuade me.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Marek Edelman (died October 2009)

Over a period of months, Marek Edelman saw 400,000 people walk past him and go to their deaths. He was a messenger at the ghetto hospital, and stood at the place where the Jews were assembled in Warsaw to be deported to the death camps. His job was to save a handful of individuals classified as too sick to be transported to their deaths, according to the insane logic of the time. He was in fact one of the very few in the Warsaw ghetto who had a pass to go the 'Aryan' side, and could have escaped at any time, but he used this opportunity to deliver reports between the resistance groups inside and outside the ghetto. Many of the detailed wartime reports informing the Allies about the ghettos and the death camps were delivered via his hands.

Marek Edelman, together with a handful of young street toughs and political activists, formed the Jewish Combat Organisation (ZOB) and led the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. He was the only commander to survive, and he wrote the definitive report of what happened, the pamphlet entitled 'The Ghetto Fights' [1]. A few hundred young people fought thousands of heavily armed Germans as they moved in to liquidate the ghetto and kill the few thousand remaining there. Against all the odds, they fought on for weeks, district by district, street by street, house by house, room by room. The other leaders of the ZOB committed suicide in their bunker as the attackers closed in on them. Edelmann continued the fight, and led a small contingent out via the sewers. He refused to allow some non-combattants to accompany the group, and those left behind died. As they waited for almost two days in the narrow fetid tunnel, he sent a small group away to find another exit. Then their helpers arrived and opened the manhole cover, and the small group was never saved.

Marek Edelman survived the Warsaw Uprising, fighting with the red and white armband of the Home Army. When Warsaw was destroyed, he walked to the second largest city in Poland, Lodz, and signed up for a medical degree. Marek Edelman was not a Zionist, and had no wish to leave his country.

Marek Edelman believed in God, but he believed that God was trying to kill people. He took it upon himself to protect those in danger and to save the few that he could, whether by taking up arms or treating his patients. Edelman became a cardiologist, and saw many of his patients die. He became a innovative and daring surgeon, developed radical new heart surgery techniques and saved many lives. His mission was to shield the fragile flickering flame of human life from a vengeful and murderous deity.

Marek Edelman refused the label of hero, and chose not to speak about his experiences for several decades. He refused opportunities to take revenge, or even to condemn the Germans. He was asked to give evidence against J├╝rgen Stroop, commander of the German troops in the liquidation of the ghetto, but said that he's never seen the man before, and did not have evidence to contradict Stroop's statements. Stroop was condemned to death in any case.

Marek Edelman rejected the implication that those who had gone quietly to their deaths were somehow less heroic. When he did finally speak, he claimed that to take up arms was not heroic, but that they had simply chosen the means of their deaths, and he had somehow survived. He explained how those who had been seen as heros in the ghetto at the time were the doctors and nurses who had killed their patients to save them from execution by the German troops. In an interview in the 1970s, he described how, as the Germans surrounded the ghetto hospital, the doctors and nurses gave lethal doses of poison to their patients. A doctor delivered a baby and handed it to a nurse, who knew what to do. She smothered the baby. Edelman says that this nurse was a hero. She survived and became a leading paediatrician after the war. The interviewer does not press the point, but knew that Edelman's wife, Alina, was a nurse in the ghetto who later became a paediatrician.

Marek Edelman lived through the disgraceful anti-semitic purges in Poland in 1968. He lost his job, and his wife and daughter emigrated to France, but he simply took up a post in another hospital in Lodz.

In the 1970s he joined the Workers' Defence Committee and was involved with several political groups opposing Poland's Communist regime. He took part in the Polish Round Table Talks of 1989 as a member of Solidarity. He did not wish to stay active in party politics, but continued to work as a cardiologist into old age, and continued to speak out controversially on many issues. Marek Edelman was never a pacifist. He welcomed NATO's air strikes against Serbia, claiming that another Holocaust must be stopped. His analysis of what was happening in Bosnia, and the supposed remedy, were deeply controversial and problematic. But his willingness to go against the grain and take unpopular positions, his ability to raise and go to the heart of extremely uncomfortable issues, and his outright bravery should be an inspiration to us all.

1. The Ghetto Fights by Marek Edelman etext

Thursday, 28 June 2007

John Sinclair 1933-2007

I first met John under the best of circumstances. It was at the idyllic surroundings of his Tuscan Word Centre, and I had four days of exposure to his ideas, his barbed criticisms of my work, and his unrivalled hospitality. I could also add that it was my first visit to Italy, and that I'd also just fallen in love, and my partner, a close colleague of John's at the time, had ensured a place for me on the course, all of which added to the glamour and excitement of the trip.

But I have to say that on first acquaintance I found him somewhat arrogant, as well as deliberately and pointlessly controversial, and I didn't agree with him on some key points about the design and analysis of corpora. Not to mention the fact that he appeared to fall asleep every time I starting speaking. Having said that, I had a wonderful and stimulating time in Tuscany, and met several people whom I still value as colleagues and friends.

In subsequent years, I was invited back several times to teach on TWC courses, meeting many more wonderful people, hearing the same talks from John and Elena, and also reflecting on his ideas in my work, and slowly realising their value. I will treasure for ever the opportunity that he gave to me to take part in his hugely influential work at the TWC in training a new generation of scholars in his ideas. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to work with him for a short time on the TELRI project, through which I saw the enormous impact he had on corpus and computational linguistics in Central and Eastern Europe, and the huge esteem in which he was held in many countries.

Which is not to say that I came to agree with John about everything. I will now forever regret not having completed in John's lifetime and received his response to an unfinished paper under the working title of 'There is no degree zero of text encoding' in response to his appeals to eradicate markup and maintain the integrity of electronic text.

In 2001 I applied for a job at the Oxford Text Archive, but was unable to attend the interview because I was teaching at the TWC. Oxford kindly allowed me to have a telephone interview, which I conducted from John's office. I was fortunate enough to get the job.

When I came to work in Oxford, I soon received a query from Birmingham about whether I could track down in the archive a copy of John's 1963 spoken corpus which had been collected and analysed for the OSTI report. Birmingham University Press wanted the corpus, or a sample of it, to print in the republication of the OSTI report. Unfortunately, the copy of the corpus which we held in the OTA appeared to be incomplete. As far as we could work out, what is likely to have happened is that a deal would have been made with John in which he would deposit a copy of this corpus in the archive, and in return the OTA would scan some documents for him for his next corpus-building project. OTA texts were normally collected in this way by some sort of barter process in those days. But John liked to drive a hard bargain. It appears that he must have only given us half the corpus, without anyone at the OTA realising at the time. Unfortunately, this subterfuge rebounded on him 20 years later when he found that he no longer had a copy and wanted it back. If nothing else, this now stands as an excellent cautionary tale in the field of digital preservation. (The half-corpus is freely available now from the Oxford Text Archive, catalogued as the Lexis corpus, catalogue number 0163).

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to invite John to talk at the first event I organised in Oxford, a seminar on corpus building, and to have him contribute a key chapter to a book which I edited, Developing Linguistic Corpora: a Guide to Good Practice. John not only completed his chapter ahead of the deadline, he contributed exactly the type of chapter I wanted, and was also on hand to chivvy me periodically about the delays in publication. This chapter will stand, I hope, as a summary and testament to his views on corpus design (available free online at

Whenever my email client told me I had mail from John, I opened it with trepidation, wondering what inactivity or backsliding I was to be taken to task for this time. He was a spiky character, although I found his views always stimulating and his criticism constructive. His uncompromising attitudes and strong work ethic were a constant inspiration.

After John attended a PALA conference in Istanbul in 2003 as a keynote speaker, he confided in me that he was horrified that, to his mind, no-one was following an authentically empirical and evidence-based approach to stylistics, and typically he had no hesitation in pointing out that I was as guilty as anyone. But his criticism led to the proposal of a practical and constructive organisational solution, namely a project to invite PALA members to write a short analysis of a poem, in which every interpretative assertion is backed up by clear linguistic evidence - a project which, to my shame, I was not sufficiently well-organised to have put into operation in time for him to be able take part.

After struggling for some years to find a text which adequately presented his theories and methods, I was extremely pleased to see the appearance of Trust the Text in 2004. John's death is a great loss to scholarship, but this work, along with the republication of English Collocation Studies, stand as great testaments to his work. We can also look forward to the posthumous release of several papers currently in press from the highly productive final period of his life.

Yet another recent successful initiative of John's was to get the agreement of the Scottish ministry of education to make corpus resources available to every child in Scottish schools. A corpus and an analysis tool have been developed for this project. When he recently unveiled the tool, I was astonished to see that rather than simply presenting the data to the student for them to conduct their own data-driven analysis and learning, the tool will pre-process the concordance lines, find typical examples and present only these to the user. After years of training from John and Elena to read concordances to find patterns in the co-text, I was horrified. The user won't have the opportunity to see for themselves repeated patterns of usage in the corpus. I think this is a big mistake. But I have learned to expect that, once more, I will be wrong and he will be proved right, and that this project will start another revolution the teaching of English.