Templeton Prize for an Advocate for People with Disabilities

At a joyful and moving ceremony last night at St Martin-in-the-fields, the extraordinary Jean Vanier accepted The Templeton Prize. I have heard a number of people say that after meeting him they wanted to become a better person. I now understand why.

Over a half century ago, he visited a horrid psychiatric institution in France, and a resident with intellectual disabilities asked him “Will you be my friend?”.

What would you have done in this situation? I think I would have engaged in an awkward interaction and then moved on. Vanier in contrast invited two residents to come live with him, initiating a movement that now includes 147 communities in 35 countries. In L’Arche communities, people with and without intellectual disabilities share their lives. Perhaps the most striking — indeed radical — aspect of the Vanier’s vision was his expectation that those without intellectual disabilities would benefit as much as those with them. It’s a complete departure from the typical medical model in which designated experts apply clinical techniques to designated helpees.

At 86, Vanier remains a marvelously eloquent, funny and inspiring speaker. This is his answer to the eternal question: What does it mean to be fully human?

The Lesson of Scotland: Give the People Something to Vote For

Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon, happy warrior

The scale of the electoral slaughter in Scotland yesterday was truly astonishing. The Scottish National Party (SNP) didn’t just take almost every single Labour seat, they took them by swings that have no precedent in electoral history. Turnout was over 80% in some constituencies! Even a 20-year old SNP candidate was enough to sweep aside a seasoned Labour politician. Forgive me for quoting myself regarding what things were like on the ground:

I ran into a Scottish friend recently, a diehard Socialist and Nationalist, who was not in the least discouraged by the recent negative vote on independence. “It was like the old days” he told me, with excitement in his voice “People standing on street corners talking about politics, complete strangers debating each other in the pub about the future of Scotland, the whole country came alive!”. Thinking about the default cynicism and political disengagement in most of the developed world, I had to admit that it sounded vivifying.

The unmistakable difference between Labour Party and SNP supporters this year is how many more of the latter were voting positively. When I asked my friends who supported Labour why they did so, they could almost never speak even two sentences without attacking the Tories. Some couldn’t even get two words out without mentioning them,

Q: “What do you like about Labour?”

A: “The damn Tories…”.

Q: “I know you don’t like them, but what would your party do if it won?”

A: “We’d kick out the damn Tories!”

In contrast, my SNP supporting friends rarely mentioned either of the major parties in explaining their votes. Instead, they talked about what they dreamed a Scottish nation could become under SNP rule, almost always with a smile on their face and hope in their voice.

Parties can certainly win elections entirely by saying what they don’t stand for, who they are against, and how they are not as bad as their opponents. But if all you have going for you is such negative voting motivations, you are completely ill-equipped to handle an opponent whose support comes not from what they aren’t, but from what they are. The positive vision of the SNP drew a huge number of people into the political process who had previously been disengaged and energized long-time voters who were used to pulling the lever while holding their nose with the other hand.

In the U.S., we all bemoan the level of political alienation in the electorate and the negative tone of our politics. The SNP experience shows that there is a possible solution: Candidates and parties that give people something to vote for rather than merely vote against.

The Presidentification of U.K. Politics

A small but irritating sentence from the FT:

On most projections Mr Cameron is expected to win more seats than Mr Miliband, although the race is tight.

In fact, any sensible projection would have Cameron and Miliband winning the same number of seats: One each.

In the U.S. System, the nation does indeed vote on one individual versus another for the top job. But in the Westminster system you vote for a party. Unless you happen to live in his/her constituency, you do not vote for or against a prime minister at all. Further, the party you voted for can throw its PM out of office at any time and go right on governing, and even if they keep their leader, s/he has (unlike a president) little independent power apart from the party. But between the UK’s wrongheaded adoption of our tiresome televised candidate debates and the relentless focus of the press on the party leaders’ personalities, families and lifestyles (even, their eating habits), you’d think the British public are about to vote for the next President of the United Kingdom.

How Oxford University Became Such an Argumentative Place

Oxford

The following anecdote from Oxford University has been recycled many times in debates about campus PC speech codes, most recently by Judith Shulevitz:

At Oxford University’s Christ Church college in November, the college censors (a “censor” being more or less the Oxford equivalent of an undergraduate dean) canceled a debate on abortion after campus feminists threatened to disrupt it because both would-be debaters were men. “I’m relieved the censors have made this decision,” said the treasurer of Christ Church’s student union, who had pressed for the cancellation. “It clearly makes the most sense for the safety — both physical and mental — of the students who live and work in Christ Church.”

Andrew Sullivan was one of many other people who also picked this story up and decried how close-minded Oxford “kids these days” have become.

Knowing the history of British Universities (I have been a professor at two of them) I can affirm that this sort of thing never would have happened at Oxford 200 years ago!

Because Oxford didn’t admit women then. Or Jews for that matter. Or Blacks. Or poor people. Or, well, you get the idea.

Of course those of us who spend our days on campus should try to be civil to each other, listen to each other and learn from each other, and it’s a public service to point out when we fail to meet those standards. But the idea that universities today are shutting down debate to an unprecedented extent is risible. For centuries after it was founded, Oxford stifled debate on campus by only admitting a narrow, like-thinking subset of society. When the university quite rightly opened its gates to more a diverse range of students, huge disagreements that were always present in society at last became visible on campus too.

Labour’s Scottish Message vs. Ramsay MacDonald

With Britain’s two main parties running neck and neck in a race in which neither is expected to get an outright majority of seats, each is trying to persuade minor party voters to “come home”. For example, to help stanch Labour’s Scottish losses to the Scottish National Party, Labour advocate Jim Murphy is arguing that a vote for the SNP is a vote for the Tories:

It is a simple fact that the single biggest party gets to form the next government.

I couldn’t square this claim with my recollection of UK political history (more on that in a moment), so I consulted Southampton University Professor Will Jennings, who blogs at the excellent site Politics Upside Down. I asked Will what David Cameron could do if the Tories didn’t get a majority, but eked a few more seats than Labour (say 290 vs. 286) because the SNP managed to grab a number of seats (say 40) that otherwise would have gone to Labour. If Labour and SNP wanted to form a majority coalition of 326 seats, could Cameron stay on anyway on the basis of his being the single biggest party?:

the incumbent government has the right to attempt to form a government. However, the government would still need to command a majority in a vote of no confidence, and that would depend on the arithmetic of the opposition parties. So if the Conservatives won with the seat permutation you suggest, it would quickly become apparent they would lose a vote of confidence, and would have to step aside for an alternative government.

Ramsey MacdonaldI was grateful to Will for confirming my suspicions, which funnily enough come straight from my recollection of the founding of the Labour Party by Scottish politicians, most notably Ramsay MacDonald. Having read up a bit over the weekend, I can now relate the intriguing story.

The MacDonald-led Labour party secured 191 seats in the 1923 election, well behind the Conservatives’ tally of 258. Under “Murphy’s Law”, this would have ensured a Tory government with Stanley Baldwin as PM. But H.H. Asquith of the third place Liberal Party threw his 158 seats behind Labour, which meant that Baldwin couldn’t possibly win a confidence vote in the Commons. Thus, despite coming in a distant second in seats, MacDonald became Labour’s first Prime Minister.

A vote for the SNP in Scotland is thus..a vote for the SNP in Scotland.