French Roma catatactic sandwich

Gypsy catataxisFrance has deported more than a 1,000 Roma in the last month, after President Sarkozy  decided that 300 illegal gypsy camps should be disbanded. He views the camps as sources of illegal trafficking , child exploitation, prostitution and crime. The decision was triggered by a riot in the town of St Aignan. Dozens of Roma attacked a police station after a gendarme killed a 22 year old from their community.   Cynics believe Sarkozy’s hardline but populist stance is an effort to raise his low approval ratings in the polls.

However, the EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has called the French actions “a disgrace” . She has urged the European Commission to take legal action against France since EU law bans discrimination against any ethnic group or nationality.  Inevitable comparisons have been drawn with the round up of Jews and Gypsies by  the Vichy government in the Second World War.

This is a catatactic sandwich. There are four hierarchical levels involved: citizen, nation, state and supranational entity. In this, the Roma are a ‘nation’ in its traditional sense: a group of people who share a culture, language and ethnic origin. The Cherokee nation is another example. Though the words nation, country and state are often used interchangeably they have distinct meanings. A country is the land that belongs to a nation. The State is the government of the nation and the country. We are habituated to think in terms of the sovereignty of the “nation state”, where the nation and the state are a single entity. The more multicultural we become, the more inappropriate this is. There are now many nations in each state.

The Roma are unusual in that they are a nation with no country. They are believed to have left north-west India  a millennium ago and migrated throughout Europe. They are most concentrated in Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Turkey but have communities in every part of Europe.

The French government claims it is acting against citizens who are in the country illegally. The EU believes France is discriminating against an ethnic group or nation. So level 3 thinks it is fixing a level 1 problem while level 4 thinks laws are being broken on level 2. That is the catatactic sandwich.

Its one step more complicated because the EU also has laws about the free movement of EU citizens. In other words, level 4 also has oversight at level 1. Unlike Britain, France requires citizens of Rumania to have special work permits.  This special exception to the EU rules expires in 2014. So in three years time, Bulgarians and Rumanians will be free to work anywhere in France. Any deported Roma can legally come straight back again.

It seems the future will be one of united nations and disunited states.

Theory of everything explains nothing

Stephen Hawking’s new book “The Grand Design” has been all over  the press in the last week. His last book  “A Brief History of Time” published in 1988 ended with the door left open for God the Creator. This book slams that door shut. It concludes that God is not required to explain the creation of the universe. The laws of physics can do this perfectly well without the need for a divine creator. He writes “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist”. The book puts forward M-theory, a multifaceted collection of string theories, as the ultimate theory of everything.

There is an old joke that goes like this: A man walks into a bar. The bartender asks him what he wants. “Nothing,” he replies. “So why did you come in here?” “Because nothing is better than a cold beer.” This joke is the backdoor entrance to the long standing philosophical debate about whether nothing is in fact something or literally no thing at all.

We can rephrase the question mathematically like this: is zero a number? Hawking’s book says that you don’t need God to explain how to get from zero to one. That is a perfectly logical numerical sequence. But where do the numbers come from? Who created those?

“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the whole world.” That is the opening sentence of Robert Kaplan’s exquisite book “ The nothing that is” which is a far more illuminating read. It is a history of the concept of zero. The number zero is something that we all take for granted, but imagine how hard it is to do simple addition without it. The Romans had no zero; what is MCMLXXIII plus CLIV?

How do you create something out of nothing?  How do you take the first step on the catatactic ladder? Hawking says God is not required in the explanation. It is hard not to feel that he is being a bit of a kill joy.  Science aims to explain the magic, to illustrate the workings of the conjuring trick. Where is the fun in that?  Don’t you feel a twinge of regret when something is explained?

The rational response is that only the truth matters. I would say two things in reply. First the enigmatic line on Keats’s urn “Beauty is truth, truth beauty “. The second is this: sometimes the truth is that which can not be put in words. Wittgenstein’s last line of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus sums it up quite wellWhereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”