“Inspiration lurks around every corner”


November 17, 2016

“Inspiration lurks around every corner”

By Ooi Kee Beng

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One of the first things that any undergraduate learns is that when writing a scientific text, he or she must provide references. In fact, without such references, a text is not considered scientific.

This referencing behaviour is meant to show that the student has been reading the correct material; and that he has been digesting the words so thoroughly that he can now include the thoughts in his own writing. Now, what a Malaysian student will end up doing is provide references to books and articles written by professors based in faraway universities and colleges.

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Dr. Ooi Kee Beng, ISEAS (Yusuf Ishak Institute, Singapore

My argument is not with this jarring asymmetry in global knowledge. It has always been the case in human history that in every period of time, knowledge is concentrated and generated at certain centres much more than at others. At the moment, much first appears in the English language and in countries using that language. What’s more, the spread of new knowledge is also strongly overseen by a global network based on that language.

Sanskrit, Latin and Chinese, among others, have played that role before. But none has the global reach and the amazing speed and width of dissemination that English today commands. The soft power that America enjoys today – and no other culture comes close to the reach of its soft power – is not merely of its own doing; it rides on the back of hundreds of years of English imperial strength and colonial mastery, during which the English language and its cultural preconditions penetrated the farthest reaches of the world.

My concern is with a serious side effect of the sharp imbalance in knowledge generation in our times. What happens is that people outside the English-speaking world are left nursing a lack of confidence, not only in themselves but also in those in close proximity to them. Their behaviour where the transfer and generation of knowledge are concerned becomes rather warped.

In writing a scientific text, for example, it is much more probable than not that a Third World person will refer an idea or train of thought to a known person from a distant land even when that idea may have come to him through some other more immediate and personal channel. This is because he had learned to assume that he gains more points among his peers by referring to the politically and academically correct person; and that his own ideas are merely approximations of that bigger idea expressed better by others.

But if we contemplate the matter and observe what actually happens in our daily life, we should realise that inspiration comes most of the time from proximate impulses and from individuals in our surrounding.

Given the habit of referring distantly, the chances of us giving credit to those around us are also diminished, and complimenting things and people in our immediate surrounding – for referencing someone is indeed a high form of compliment – is rendered suspect.

The competition among students and scholars of showing that they know something that their peers have as yet not gotten around to knowing cultivates in them the tendency to be stingy with praise and to be secretive about their immediate sources of inspiration.

This is an impoverishment of the soul and of our culture; where we withhold praise and admiration from those close to us and give generously of the same to distant and often dead persons.

Note that I am merely using academic referencing to initiate a debate on a more general matter. In my experience, inspiration can come from anywhere at any time, but if I were to inform people around me of personal epiphanies, I would not get as good a hearing as I would if I referred whatever idea I just had to some distant knowledge authority.

Perhaps this explains why prophets always come from distant lands speaking exotic languages; and sometimes bearing superior arms. Those who dare to be prophets in their homeland are forced to flee into exile or are crucified in one way or another.

Catholic hymns are sung in Latin, Japanese Buddhists chant in Chinese, and Muslim thoughts are preferred in Arabic. In the secular sphere, Coolness wears an American accent. Indeed, we seem tobe talking here about something generically human.

We tend not to join clubs that will accept us as members. Since you know me, you cannot possibly be a significant person. But I am being far too categorical here; I am not being generous. Come to think of it, there are two ideal types of people. There are those who cannot imagine that people they come into contact with can be important; and then there are those who treat all coming into their orbit as meaningful and significant. Most of us are sometimes the one, and sometimes the other.

My basic point is that, epiphanies are always waiting to happen and inspiration can come to us at any time and place. We just have to let this take place by not imagining that profundity dwells far away, and are foreign to us.

We just have to realise instead that inspiration lurks around every corner, and is present at every meeting.

This article is republished in Merdeka for the Mind: Essays  on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century by Dr Ooi Kee Beng (Petaling Jaya: Strategic Information and Research Centre, 2015). pp 9-11.

 

 

Islamisation and its Freudian discontents


October 27, 2016

Islamisation and its Freudian discontents

by Azly Rahman

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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I am back. I took a few weeks hiatus from this column to wrote a few literary essays, chapters from my memoir of growing up in the “sewel but sober and sensible seventies” – the best of times of the times of P Ramlee – as well as writing a long essay on the key novels of Salman Rushdie.

I spend days listening to the music of Pink Floyd and reading a collection of essays from the book ‘Pink Floyd and Philosophy’. These however did not keep me away from thinking about the issues in Malaysia, viewed from a global perspective.

The unresolved issue if the world’s record-breaking, hideously-linked case of the 1MDB. The ongoing drama of PAS, UMNO, Amanah, and the opposition parties. The continuing push for the Sharia Law add-on of the hudud. The story of the insanely massive amount of cash found in Sabah as it relates to corruption in the Water Department. The seeming helplessness of the Malaysian people in their struggle to demand for better and cleaner governance.

The failure of the Mahathirist slogan of ‘Bersih, Cekap, Amanah’ (Clean, Efficient, Trustworthy). The continuing saga of the Dr Mahathir Mohamad-Najib Abdul Razak-Anwar Ibrahim triangulating vendetta in the tradition of Mario Puzo’s la Cosa Nostra.

And today, I read about the story of the young father who jumped off the Penang Bridge in an apparent suicide for personal and political reasons, it seems. A Muslim who ended his life, leaving a wife and two young children – leaving this world after asking for forgiveness from God as well. A suicide note written both in despair and in great confidence.

At the global level, I thought of these: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – both will be warmongers of the new age of Russian-American authored Armageddon. World War III. New weapons of mass destruction. Aleppo, Syria. The battle for Mosul. The new Saudi Arabia after the fall of the empire of oil. The Saudi attacks on Yemen. The new Saudi Arabian venture: finance, tourism, and arms manufacturing.

Then there are also these global bogeymen called Al-Qaeda and IS – the invisible and elusive armies of Islam it seems that are keeping the American and the Russian war-machine going.

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All these in my mind as song after song from classic Pink Floyd albums play on. “Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb?” asks Pink Floyd in the lyrics and I thought of Aleppo and the total destruction of once-beautiful Syria. Just like the total destruction of the once-beautiful and learned Baghdad. Destroyed by the Americans in their tens of trillion-dollars war.

I thought of these. I thought of this thing called ‘Islamic philosophy’ I thought existed. I had these questions:

Is Islamic philosophy totally dead? Murdered by the Charlotte Cordays of the theocratic-hypocritical imams of its own creation? As we know from the history of the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday murdered the scientist and revolutionary-philosopher Marat, signifying the beginning of the political war between the Jacobins and the Girondins.

How could it be possible for Muslims, whose daily confessions include saying that “God is closer to you than your jugular vein”, be creating governments that help “society be closer to Nature”, to philosophies of sustainability, rather than be destroyers of it?

Progress mistaken to be monopolising of licences

How could such a spiritually-cognitive dissonance be the leitmotif of many an Islamic government when the religion itself is supposed to preach, amongst others, ecologically sustainable plans for national development rather than surrender to Das Kapital – or capitalism – spiced with Quranic verses calling for the advancement of the ummah through economic progress, yet progress here is mistaken to be the monopolising of the licences to rape and plunder Nature – cutting down trees, destroying rainforests, desertifying fertile lands, throwing indigenous peoples out of their traditional lands (because they are not Muslims and therefore spiritually incomplete as human beings), and to do everything that tak

In short, what manner of a French-Revolution that Islamic societies, such as Malaysia, such as the state calling itself “the verandah of Makkah” (serambi Makkah) that is allowing the rape of Nature to happen whilst the idea of Islam as a religion of peace (at peace with Nature) is being made the agenda of global dakwah?

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Public Display of Piety in Malaysia by UMNO Malays

Help us understand this:How do Muslims remedy this situation? Resolve this contradiction? Reverse this trend of Islamisation? Could it be that Islam as a religion does not have a praxis (applications of the principles of Philosophy to social needs), demanding Nature to be preserved and the dignity of human Nature be upheld?

This could be an improbable claim but judging from the way Islamic governments engaging in destroying rainforests, building weapons of mass destruction, allowing leaders to live like Pharaohs and Croesus (Firauns and Qaruns), and bombing each other to the seventh level of Hell (as in Saudi Arabia and Yemen) – it looks as if Islam is devoid of a Lao-Tzian/Daoist philosophy of living and statecraft much-needed in this world already destroyed by the excesses of Western Civilisation which pride itself in a strange descartian pride of controlling and destroying Nature through the growth of Empires, colonisation, Imperialism, and now post-Imperialistic post-Apocalyptic regimes engaged in all forms of state-sponsored terrorism, sanctioned as well by an underlying philosophy of false Judeo-Christianity.

Guns, guts, glories – destruction of the colonies. Civilising mission. The Crusades. The Conquistadors and the Cross – these are prelude to the anti-humanism of the teachings of the Jesus at The Sermon on the Mount – of the reminders of the Beatitudes. These are ignored and hence, the new world of a strange brew – religion, capitalism, a truncated version of Weber’s protestant ethics and the ghosts and spirits of capitalism roaming the modern world ruled by cybernetic-terroristic technologies.

Is this the world we created? A nightmare of Cartesian absurdities? Help explain these.

 

Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s UP


October 26, 2016

Bob Dylan and The Nobel Prize–What’s Up?

by Adam Kirsch

www. nytimes.com

In the summer of 1964, Bob Dylan released his fourth album, “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” which includes the track “It Ain’t Me Babe.” “Go ’way from my window/Leave at your own chosen speed,” it begins. “I’m not the one you want, babe/I’m not the one you need.”

That fall, the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre played a variation on the same tune in a public statement explaining why, despite having been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he would not accept it. “The writer,” he insisted, must “refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if this occurs under the most honorable circumstances.” Mr. Dylan was talking to an imaginary lover, Sartre to an actual Swedish Academy, but the message was similar: If you love me for what I am, don’t make me be what I am not.

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We don’t know whether Mr. Dylan was paying attention to l’affaire Sartre that fall 52 years ago. But now that he has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, he seems to be following in Sartre’s footsteps. Indeed, Mr. Dylan has done the philosopher one better: Instead of declining the prize, he has simply declined to acknowledge its existence. He hasn’t issued a statement or even returned the Swedish Academy’s phone calls. A reference to the award briefly popped up on the official Bob Dylan website and then was deleted — at his instruction or not, nobody knows. And the Swedes, who are used to a lot more gratitude from their laureates, appear to be losing their patience: One member of the Academy has called Mr. Dylan’s behavior “impolite and arrogant.”☺ There is a good deal of poetic justice in this turn of events.

For almost a quarter of a century, ever since Toni Morrison won the Nobel in 1993, the Nobel committee acted as if American literature did not exist — and now an American is acting as if the Nobel committee doesn’t exist. Giving the award to Mr. Dylan was an insult to all the great American novelists and poets who are frequently proposed as candidates for the prize.

The all-but-explicit message was that American literature, as traditionally defined, was simply not good enough. This is an absurd notion, but one that the Swedes have embraced: In 2008, the Academy’s permanent secretary, Horace Engdahl, declared that American writers “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” and are limited by that “ignorance.”

Still, it’s doubtful that Mr. Dylan intends his silence to be a defense of the honor of American literature. (He did, after all, accept the Pulitzer Prize for “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power.”) No one knows what he intends — Mr. Dylan has always been hard to interpret, both as a person and as a lyricist, which is one reason people love him. But perhaps the best way to understand his silence, and to praise it, is to go back to Sartre, and in particular to Sartre’s concept of “bad faith.”

Bad faith, Sartre explains in “Being and Nothingness,” is the opposite of authenticity. Bad faith becomes possible because a human being cannot simply be what he or she is, in the way that an inkwell simply is an inkwell.

Rather, because we are free, we must “make ourselves what we are.” In a famous passage, Sartre uses as an example a cafe waiter who performs every part of his job a little too correctly, eagerly, unctuously. He is a waiter playing the role of waiter. But this “being what one is not” is an abdication of freedom; it involves turning oneself into an object, a role, meant for other people. To remain free, to act in good faith, is to remain the undefined, free, protean creatures we actually are, even if this is an anxious way to live.

This way of thinking is what used to be called existentialism, and Mr. Dylan is one of its great products. Living like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone, is living in Sartrean good faith, and much of the strangeness of Mr. Dylan’s life can be understood as a desperate attempt to retain this freedom in the face of the terrific pressure of fame. In a profile in The New Yorker in that same year of 1964, Mr. Dylan was quoted as saying that he didn’t “want to write for people anymore” but rather wanted to “write from inside me.”

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To be a Nobel laureate, however, is to allow “people” to define who one is, to become an object and a public figure rather than a free individual. The Nobel Prize is in fact the ultimate example of bad faith: A small group of Swedish critics pretend to be the voice of God, and the public pretends that the Nobel winner is Literature incarnate. All this pretending is the opposite of the true spirit of literature, which lives only in personal encounters between reader and writer. Mr. Dylan may yet accept the prize, but so far, his refusal to accept the authority of the Swedish Academy has been a wonderful demonstration of what real artistic and philosophical freedom looks like.

Happy 200th Birthday Penang Free School: Fortis Atque Fidelis


October 21, 2016

Happy 200th Birthday Penang Free School: Fortis Atque Fidelis

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The PFS Class of 1959 and I offer our sincere congratulations on the occasion of the 200th Anniversary of the founding on October 21, 1816 of our alma mater today. Owing to heavy commitments at The University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, I am unable to be with you in Green Lane to join the celebrations.

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I was indeed fortunate to have been an Old Boy of the School, which gave me a good beginning and for that I thank my teachers, many of whom have passed on, for their hard work and dedication, in particular our Headmaster John Michael Hughes, and his colleagues Howe, Davies and Williams, Captain Mohamed Noor, Ambrose, Ong Poh Kee et.al.

I am also privileged to have made some wonderful and kind friends like Lim Say Chong, Sheriff Kassim, Kadir Sulaiman, Muthulingam, Goh Thong Beng,  the Din Brothers (Rahim and Zainuddin), Ali Ibrahim,  the late Anis Isa, Loo Quek Shin, Zain Yusuff, Khoo Soo Ghim and Khoo Soo Ghee (not brothers) and many others .

I thank these guys for making life at the PFS unforgettable. It has been great fun and that’s what life is about (to quote Bing Crosby). Here’s to you, guys.–Din Merican

Memorial held for Founder of 200 year-old Penang Free School

By Balvin Kaur- 21 October 2016 @ 9:39 AM

http://www.nst.com.my

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A memorial ceremony in honour of Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, the founder of the 200 year-old Penang Free School (PFS), was held at the Protestant Cemetery in Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah here today. The event was attended by around 130 people, including PFS students, teachers and alumni, who took turns laying wreaths at Hutchings’ final resting place, which is marked with a marble tombstone with an epitaph that reads ‘Founder of Penang Free School 21 October 1816.’ The service was conducted by Bishop Charles Samuel and assisted by Reverend Ho Kong Eng, who is also an alumnus the school.

Alumnus Ho Chu Hor, 38, said the commemoration is held annually in conjunction with the school’s anniversary. However, he said, it is grander this year, as it is the school’s 200th anniversary. Ho said it was important to honour Hutchings, who had played a key role in improving education standards in Penang.
Hutchings was born in 1782 and died in 1827, aged 45. He founded the school, which was the first English-medium institution in Southeast Asia at the time, on October 21, 1816. The school was initially located at Lebuh Farquhar here, but was moved to the present location in Jalan Masjid Negeri.
(File pix) Former students of Penang Free School going through an exhibition on the school’s history.

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A memorial ceremony in honour of Reverend Robert Sparke Hutchings, founder of the 200 year-old Penang Free School (PFS) in 1966. It is held on October 21 annually.

The World Bank: Right Part of the Time and Wrong On Occasion on Malaysia


October 18, 2016

The World Bank: Right Part of the Time and Wrong On Occasion on Malaysia

by Dr Lim Teck Ghee

The World Bank’s occasional economic reports on Malaysia can generally be relied upon to offer sound analysis on the country’s economic development that is different from those emanating from our national sources. They provide a more critical perspective on entrenched policies or proposed new ones by stake players who should be independent and should not be beholden to the Malaysian government or any interest or lobby group.

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Two recent reports should be of interest to our policy makers. The first which came out in June this year affirmed the importance of leveraging on trade agreements and partnerships for the nation’s continuing economic prosperity.

The Economic Monitor report noted that

  • Malaysia is one of the most open economies in the world, with a trade to GDP ratio of 148% (from 2010 to 2014) compared to 58% in developing countries in East Asia and Pacific.
  • About 40% of jobs in Malaysia are linked with export activities.

Most Malaysians are aware of the importance of trade. But we have also seen the rise of uninformed and often xenophobic sentiments targeting the Trans-Pacific Partnership when it was being negotiated by the government. The Bank’s opinion on this and other similar agreements needs to be reflected upon.

In essence the Bank argues that implementation of new regional trade agreements can help Malaysia carry out key economic reforms and accelerate the country’s transition to high-income status. It notes that the new generation of regional trade agreements – including the Regional Cooperation Economic Partnership, Trans-Pacific Partnership and European Union Free Trade Agreement – will shape trade and investment over the next decade.

It also calls for commitment to these agreements which goes beyond tariff reduction This is because not only will they have a significant impact on attracting investment, and further open up market access for the country’s exports of goods and services; they can also be used to push for deeper reform in competition policy, services trade and support to SMEs that would otherwise be difficult to initiate.

The Bank rightly warns that the transition will not be easy and proactive measures will be needed to ensure wider benefits under the new regional trade agreements.

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Notwithstanding the problems and difficulties, it is important for our policy and decision makers to get the Bank’s message and stay the course of this road of reform if we want our economy to grow and become more resilient.

Reducing Vulnerabilities the Wrong Way

The latest Bank report – a newly released East Asia and Pacific Economic Update entitled “Reducing Vulnerabilities” – focuses on current global economic uncertainties; the risks that come from external developments as well as touches in its country chapter on Malaysia on our own home grown financial crisis arising from 1MDB which “could impact investors’ sentiments and divert the Government’s focus from needed reform, while an unanticipated sharp adjustment among households to a higher cost of living or a more pronounced softening in labour market conditions could also affect private consumption”.

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To alleviate the impact on the bottom 40% population, the Bank is recommending targeted measures “to support the most vulnerable households”. This, in its view, could include the introduction of “unemployment benefits [which] could help to improve matching in the labour market and provide support as the labour market softens” (https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/25088/9781464809910.pdf; p.128).

Bank guidance on this issue is clearly off the mark if not plain wrong. Firstly, the nation’s finances are in no position to support a social welfare system providing benefits to the section of the population that is registered as unemployed or do not currently have a job. For now and the foreseeable future, the nation needs to exercise financial prudence and discipline in spending. In fact, the Bank itself has noted in the same report that recent increases in the minimum wage and public sector salaries would be difficult to sustain as the necessary fiscal consolidation continues.

Any social welfare or social protection system that is being proposed needs to be sustainable, financially viable and well targeted. In Malaysia it is especially important to ensure that the new proposed system does not become a political football and/or is open to wide scale fraud and abuse. Both negative possibilities are very likely given the present state of politics and governance in the nation.

A stronger and more rigorous defence of the proposal for the introduction of unemployment benefits by the World Bank with empirical data proving its case is necessary if it wants this policy recommendation to be taken seriously. For now, the advocates of this policy in the Bank may be comforted by the fact that a de facto unemployment benefits system already exists in Malaysia through the use of the civil service to employ hundreds of thousands of otherwise unemployed and unemployable school leavers, graduates and others primarily from the  Bumiputra community.  Poor Indians have been left out leaving them marginalized from the mainstream.

Such a system has been ongoing for at least the last 20 years and makes Malaysia a role model for countries in this field of racially targeted labour market intervention.

 

Excellence: A Point of View


October 18, 2016

Excellence: A Point of View

COMMENT: Everyone in Malaysia talks about the pursuit of excellence and some pretend to know what it means, especially  our mediocre politicians in power and men in the public service who are tasked to implement our national education policy and Blue Ocean Strategy.

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We employ snake oil consultants  and experts to write glossy blueprints and reports at horrendous cost to taxpayers but fail to execute them.  We create institutions like Pemandu to promote Najib’s deformation agenda, and Permata for bright kids, while our Chief Secretary to the Government makes himself advocate-in-chief of the Blue Ocean Strategy concept to suck up to Najib Razak. In reality, we do not know what excellence is, what it takes and how to get there.

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Excellence is a simple idea if we are serious about it. All we need to do is change our attitude. Talk is cheap. Stop it and start taking action.

Malaysia has an attitude problem and it is our greatest obstacle to our future as a people and a nation. Where to begin? It has to be first fixing our education system to become a nation of high achievers and second we must stop playing politics  with the education of our future generation. But we are not doing that because UMNO politicians are afraid of  smart and pushy Malays in particular.

I wish to share with you A C Grayling’s thoughts on Excellence. This philosopher is endowed with the ability to communicate with ordinary men and women in clear and concise language. Read his article and share your comments.–Din Merican

Grayling on Excellence

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he described the pursuit of excellence in the fostering of culture as “getting to know, on all matters that most concern us. the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy but to produce an enculturated society which would live up to the ideal in Aristotle’s noble dictum about the educated use of our leisure.

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From China to France, every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles–superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive–creams off the outstanding minds and subjects them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a  price worth paying for social equality (or in the case of Malaysia where mediocrity is a means of political control, added by Din Merican). But there is the danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – fall prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world, money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America money is needed to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

The rich and the well connected are not the kind of elite an  education system ought to be fostering. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term ‘elite’ to connote these elites of injustice; but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides fail our highest expectations- if, in short, they are not elite after all, in the proper sense of the term.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world– most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies–the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. The latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains.

But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

The Meaning of Things–Applying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 2001) pp.160-161