New and noteworthy – 11 April 2019

A democratic black hole in Europe; London’s foundlings; how movies trash the environment; the poignant insignificance of life as lived; and morality for everyone

April 11, 2019

How to Democratize Europe
Stéphanie Hennette, Thomas Piketty, Guillaume Sacriste and Antoine Vauchez
Harvard University Press

“The government of the euro area,” argue the authors, now operates “in a sort of democratic black hole.” This has led to “a form of generalized indifference toward whistleblowers and other discordant voices”, including the many economists saying that Greek debt will inevitably need to be renegotiated. It has also meant “a significant lack of responsiveness to the very pointed signals” sent by national electorates, including the rise of far-right populism. One possible solution is the proposed International Treaty on the Democratization of the Euro Area, which has already been much debated. This book assesses both the challenges and the options.

Orphans of Empire: The Fate of London’s Foundlings
Helen Berry
Oxford University Press

In 1741, Thomas Coram opened the London Foundling Hospital. Its archives – which Helen Berry estimates take up shelves “the equivalent of seventeen double-decker buses” in length – are an extraordinarily poignant resource for the lives of poor children otherwise almost impossible to reconstruct. Orphans of Empire draws on them alongside “the accounts of clerks, court scribes, and commentators” (and a rare autobiography by a former foundling called George King), while also putting them in the context of empire and “the social, economic, and political forces that were behind the establishment and funding of the Hospital’s mission” for its first hundred years.

Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies
Hunter Vaughan
Columbia University Press

Hollywood’s dirtiest secret is nothing to do with sex tapes or drugs scandals but the immense damage done – to the Great Barrier Reef, for example, natural dunes and even sea urchin populations – by the blockbusters we all love. We seldom stop to reflect on what Hunter Vaughan calls “the amount of dirty energy necessary to fuel our Netflix binges”. Although films can obviously have a powerfully green message, it also remains true that “the worst thing a filmmaker can do for the environment is to make a film about the environment”. We can and should continue to enjoy the cinema; yet this sobering polemic urges us to pay far greater attention to “the hidden resource costs” behind the “entertainment spectacle”.

13 March 1911
Adam Smyth

13 March 1911 marked the birth of literary scholar Adam Smyth’s maternal grandfather. This haunting collage of extracts from private journals and newspapers, he writes, pays tribute to “the earliest date over which I can reasonably lay any personal claim”. Captain Scott was planning a “large seal-killing party” in the Antarctic. Arthur Conan Doyle was fretting about atrocities in the Belgian Congo. The Duke of Devonshire opened an exhibition about tuberculosis in Nottingham. Yet at the same time babies were being born, pets were up for sale, criminals were up for trial, chauffeurs, housekeepers and picture framers were all looking for work…Alongside the big public events, Smyth reveals the poignantly insignificant fragments of life as it was actually lived.

A Decent Life: Morality for the Rest of Us
Todd May
University of Chicago Press

Most of us are not “moral monsters”, argues Todd May; nor do we “strive to be moral saints”. The different schools of traditional moral philosophy put the stress on intentions, consequences or “virtue ethics”, yet none is very useful for the vast majority of people who want to be decent without aspiring to total altruism. A Decent Life explores what this might mean in practice with regard to our relations with family and friends; the strangers we run into; nonhuman animals; and the political sphere. It concludes with Nine Rules for Moral Decency, including “Enjoy reading philosophy, even when it advises you to be better than you can reasonably be.”

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