You don't understand me but I'll love you still

This week: how to think about US policing, what we learned from Domgate, and faint glimmers of hope on Covid-19.

Last week's New Statesman column was about Covid-19 and the psychology of "near misses", a concept I borrowed from critical risk industries like aviation. Using a study on the Challenger space shuttle crash, I argue that Sars was a near miss that the UK and other Western governments ignored because it happened so far away. My next column, out next week, is on the uses of anger. It's about the protests in the US, and was also inspired by The Last Dance, the documentary series about Michael Jordan, who used anger as fuel for his achievements. I loved the series. If you did, and even if you didn't, I highly recommend this profile of Jordan at 50 by the great American sports writer Wright Thompson - a masterpiece of the form.

Roland Fryer is a much-awarded economist, currently on suspension from Harvard for sexual harassment claims. He's still doing research though, and while his new paper isn't published yet, he outlines its disturbing and counter-intuitive case in this video. After high-profile incidents of police malpractice like Ferguson, the federal government often investigates the police department concerned. That's good and necessary; it's been established that departments which have been investigated subsequently make fewer police shootings. But Fryer uncovers another effect. Following external investigations of a high-profile event - one associated with a viral video and protests - the police in that city become much less pro-active about chasing criminals (perhaps because they are scared of committing errors, we don't know). The result is that the murder rate goes steeply up. The victims are overwhelmingly black, but they do not capture public attention because the spotlight has moved on. "It pains me that black lives are lost and nobody talks about them," Fryer says. (Another study on a similar effect here.) No easy answers to this but perhaps one implication is that it seems horribly counter-productive to demonise all police on the basis of these appalling incidents. The deep problem of American racism is that so many black people are trapped in bad neighbourhoods. Nowhere needs good policing more than the places where black people are most at risk of death from violence. Later in the same video, watch the former police chief of Milwaukee, Edward Flynn, he starts here. Watching the many videos of US police incompetence and malice has been infuriating and sad. In 2018 I spent time with the Memphis police department to witness de-escalation training, for my new book. I was hugely impressed by how much the cops there cared about building trust with their community, and how bloody hard and scary the job is. They're working in neighbourhoods with high levels of crime, drug use and mental illness - and guns.They leave for work every day knowing they might not get home alive. In 2016, the Memphis police chief Michael Rallings defused a Black Lives Matter protest by joining hands with the protesters. Cops like him will more furious than anyone about Floyd and the aftermath. (Oh and finally - this is quite something for a police chief to say.)

This is - all being well - the last Ruffian you'll receive from the TinyLetter platform. Like everyone else with a newsletter I am being inexorably drawn towards Substack which apparently offers a better service. So, keep an eye on your spam boxes for the next one, I don't want to lose anyone in the transition. However - and this important - for now please share the same sign-up link - - when recommending The Ruffian, which I hope you're all about to do. I will take your email addresses to the new platform - unless of course, you'd rather I didn't, in which case let me know, or unsubscribe.

I really enjoyed this long blog post on Covid-19 from the perspective of cultural evolution. It wanders around somewhat but what makes it great are all the many links to fascinating studies. Just to take one: I had no idea that the advice to finish a course of antibiotics, even if you've recovered already, is no longer considered scientifically robust (at least by some scientists).
DOMGATE What have we learnt? That this prime minister has an unusually strong dependence on one adviser, so strong that he is willing to sacrifice public trust in his government to keep him (compare to Blair firing Mandelson - twice). This is not totally inexplicable or irrational; Johnson sees Cummings as indispensable to his government's political and economic project. But he may be underestimating the extent to which said project depends on the political capital he has now expended. It's much, much harder to make reforms when the public has a low opinion of you (and when your MPs have acquired the habit of rebellion, and a wide section of the press is out to get you). The incident itself may well be largely forgotten in a year or four years' time. But there is a multiplier effect to screw-ups as big as this one. They reset the frame through which people interpret news about the government. Each subsequent mistake or mishap meets a harsher response than it would do otherwise. This applies most obviously, of course, to the handling of the pandemic. Johnson has gone from holding a commanding position above the fray (reinforced by his illness and the powerful speech he made on recovery) to a presenting a smaller, more embattled, somewhat hapless figure. If, in a year's time, it is clear that the UK suffered worse than most countries from Covid-19, the public's judgement on him is likely to more unforgiving than it would be otherwise. That Cummings himself has handled this so clumsily should also lower our estimation of his likely effectiveness in government (I've always suspected he is a first-rate campaigne, fundamentally unsuited to governing). Finally, we've learnt that Johnson lacks confidence in his own ability to lead a government. On that point at least, voters are likely to become aligned with him.

Cooking this week, as I dutifully put in a bay leaf as instructed by the recipe, I thought, why am I doing this? I mean, what do bay leaves actually contribute to a recipe? Are they free-riding on the other ingredients' hard work? It is all a ruse? When they get together do they laugh at humans? Pondering this on Twitter led someone to send me this superb work of investigative journalism.


  • This, by Kai Kupferschmidt for Science, is the most interesting article I've read recently on C-19 and provides a good summary of where a lot of research seems to be converging. The emergent wisdom is that the spread of the virus is heavily skewed towards certain events, with about 20% of cases responsible for 80% of transmissions. These super-spreading events tend to involve crowded indoor spaces, especially when some kind of heavy breathing is involved (Zumba is more dangerous than Pilates!). This implies it may be possible to keep the spread down in a more targeted way, without lockdowns. In fact that's exactly how Japan has dealt with it, successfully so far (see the 3Cs). It also means - dare I say it - the virus could maybe possibly just fizzle out with modest control measures, as Justin Fox explains here. Especially if some people have immunity due to having had a cold.

  • This May 4 post, by an economist, is holding up well so far, early days of course.

  • Some doctors in Italy believe the virus has weakened in potency.

  • Another possible factor in Japan's relatively good performance to date: the language they speak.

  • "Biden is in one of the best positions for any challenger since scientific polling began."

Two of the greats have passed away, Little Richard and Billy Preston. The former was one of the greatest of all, a Jewish black kid who came out of nowhere and dented the universe. I was struck, listening to this excellent BBC radio documentary about his life, by how early, swift and devastating his impact was. Tutti Frutti came out in 1955 - boom. By 1957 he'd renounced rock n'roll for gospel. That was enough to change the world - to inspire Elvis and the Beatles and many others. He came back to rock later and played Brighton and Hamburg, supported by The Beatles, then on the point of fame (he coached McCartney on his 'whooo'). Also in Hamburg with them: Billy Preston, who became good friends with all the Beatles. When they started to get on each other's nerves at the end of the sixties they drafted him in to raise their spirits (that's his organ on Let It Be). There's a great late life Preston performance of one my favourite songs, That's The Way God Planned It, on Jools Holland's show (watch out for the dialogue between his organ and Holland's piano in the middle).