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Everyday philosophy

Beware of Baracks bearing gifts

By Nigel Warburton   April 2009

The gift is never free, observed the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss. His point was that gifts—be they Christmas socks or a freshly killed goat—are always tied up with reciprocity, self-esteem and obligation.

Perhaps the unfortunate Gordon Brown had Mauss in mind when considering his recent offering to Barack Obama. Brown, the overeager suitor, out-spent and out-thought his American counterpart. His gift: a penholder made from timber from the anti-slavery sloop HMS Gannet, sister ship to HMS Resolute from which Obama’s Oval Office desk is carved. It was a present rich in moral and historical symbolism. Obama, in return, handed Brown…

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