Nov 222011
 

From the Mail:

Some universities, such as London Metropolitan, have slashed more than 60 per cent of their courses, including philosophy, performing arts and history.

Much as I’m not in favour of direct state funding of university degrees, nor am I remotely in favour of the apparent belief, held by just about everyone in the western world, that the purpose of learning is to make one an economically viable unit.

‘Go to university so you can get a job and… pay taxes, god damn it!’

No, I’m sorry. That is not the purpose of knowledge, learning, or education, as far as I am concerned. It’s important to be ‘economically useful’ solely so that one can support oneself; whether this requires learning is a matter of circumstance.

It is particularly dreadful that the welfare state and the state funding of tertiary education, and the cost that involves to the taxpayer, has resulted in this pathetic narrative about education—learning how to think, process information, and make independent analyses—being reduced to the question of whether or not what you learn helps you get a job.

To the point where universities are axing degrees that accomplish precisely the goals a university degree should accomplish.

When the taxpayer doesn’t have to subsidise ‘economically non-viable units,’ one doesn’t have to be over-concerned with how people enlarge their brains and their understanding of humanity.

I would be interested to know what degree courses London Metropolitan University will be retaining. Presumably, given the jobs possessed by people I know, courses like ‘Working in the Public Sector’ and ‘How to Add No Value in Human Resources’?

But perhaps that’s uncharitable. I do know people doing productive work, who all seem to have degrees in, y’know, philosophy and history.

Or no degree at all—and have become complete humans all on their own, without the subsidy of the state, or the help of London Metropolitan ‘University.’

Jesus.

UPDATE: Okay, so I’m told that wasn’t the clearest post I’ve ever produced.

Here’s my deal.

Knowing various stuff and supporting oneself independently are separate things. State subsidy of knowing stuff, and state subsidy of those who can’t support themselves, have conflated these concepts.

You don’t always need to know some stuff in order to support yourself. Likewise, lots of people who do know some stuff can’t support themselves. (Cf. OccupyLSX.) The two do not need to be linked.

Axing history and philosophy degrees does not mean that university graduates will, therefore, be able to support themselves, even if they are paying £6k more for the privilege of studying. All it means is that a significant contingent of people will no longer know stuff to do with history or philosophy. Whether this assists in their economic viability is neither here nor there; what it does mean is that particular knowledge will be systematically lost.

Now, you can choose to assess the value of that knowledge economically, as everyone seems to be doing currently.

On the other hand, you can say, ‘Hey, people should be able to support themselves. Quite apart from that, at least some people should know some stuff about what it’s meant to be a human being up to this point. But being able to support oneself doesn’t mean one has to be completely focused on being able to support oneself.’

One of the greatest things about our society becoming ever wealthier is the growth of leisure (Cf. just about every blog post by Tim Worstall). Leisure is, essentially, the opportunity to think about what it means to be a human being. If we’ve reached the point where thinking about being a human is so devalued that we’re not even providing the opportunity to people willing to spend their money (i.e. leisure) on it, then we might as well all work ourselves into the grave right now.

Honestly, what good is having wealth and leisure time otherwise?

Disclaimer: I have two degrees in history. And yes, I work and pay taxes. The reason I got my job in the first place was, incidentally, due to blogging. Maybe universities should be offering that as a degree course.

Nov 132011
 

I have Tim Worstall to thank for raising my blood pressure on this fine Sunday afternoon and distracting me from some work I’m supposed to be doing. His reaming of this article by Naomi Klein in The Nation is brief, but extensive enough to hint that she might be saying some stuff that I particularly hate.

There is a run-of-the-mill Left position, that revolves around general ideas of environment, equality, and government involvement that I can sort of tolerate, even if I don’t agree with it. And then there is the crap spouted by people like Naomi Klein, who seem to view themselves as the best thing since sliced Marx, and in that tradition of philosophising about a new world order. This group also includes Madeleine Bunting.

And if there’s one thing that really gets my goat, it’s assholes holding forth about overturning the current “narrative” and bringing about a completely new social and economic “paradigm.” Especially when it’s actually a really old one.

I’ll declare my interest and say this is partly because the current narrative isn’t so bad (for me), but there’s another facet, and that is the blind outrage I feel when someone talks about junking the collective effect of the individual, diffuse, organic behaviour of billions of people. You can’t get different results without changing the inputs, and the natural way to do this—making a case, hoping it’s reasonable, and watching it become a trend if it is—isn’t good enough for the Kleins and Buntings of this world. There will be no grass-roots, bottom-up behaviour change, even though this is how it has only and ever worked. No, instead we shall have planning. Lots and lots of planning.

And in the service of what, precisely? Why, a new paradigm that overturns capitalism and delivers an earthly paradise of low-carbon equality of wealth. The infuriating thing about this is reading how they propose to do it, and losing one’s temper about the fact that it makes no sense.

Let’s start with Klein’s thesis.

The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits, including the limits of human intelligence.

That would not be a “new civilisational paradigm” but a very old one: the one humans lived in for many thousands of years, the rhythms of their lives attuned acutely to the natural cycles of growth, rains, harvest, dormancy—or else growth, drought, famine, and death. Many people in the world still actually live this way, and not only does it suck, we in the first world acknowledge that it sucks because we call these people “poor” and try to help them not have to live attuned to the cycles of nature.

This is mainly because, while human intelligence might have its limits, inability to overcome the cycles of nature isn’t one of them.

Not that any of this really matters, because Klein doesn’t want to do this really, and nothing in her “planning” would achieve it, or is even designed to achieve it. Her six-point plan bears no resemblance to anything remotely “natural.”

It’s not even as sensible as my colleague’s ten-point plan for when he becomes dictator of India. That one starts like this:

1. Remove all restrictions on trade.
2. Legalise prostitution.
3. End all licensing laws.
4. Introduce the death penalty.
5. Put all corrupt people to death.
6. etc.

So let’s look at Klein’s plan. With the rhetorical crap stripped out, it goes like this.

1. Create a huge government deficit by building massive green infrastructure.

Yeah, okay. That’s just run-of-the-mill leftism, but we’ll come back to it.

2. Every community in the world to plan how it will stop using fossil fuels.

My favourite part of this is how collective lifestyle imposition is described as “participatory democracy.” I guess it doesn’t occur to Klein that people don’t require participatory democracy when they are free to make their own individual decisions. It’s only when some group is trying to force its shit on everyone else that the twin charade of “engagement” and “consultation” is invoked. Seriously, whenever you hear that you’re about to be consulted or engaged with, abandon all hope, because it means some decision about you has been made without you and you’re now about to be told what it is.

2a. This planning should focus on “collective priorities rather than corporate profitability.”

Somehow this is something to do with making sure those people whose current jobs are entwined with fossil fuels don’t end up left without a job.

This makes no sense. For one thing, there is nothing more capitalist than a job. A job is what you do to earn money (sometimes also known as capital), with which you buy the stuff you need to live. You can’t sweep away capitalism and keep jobs. It just doesn’t work. A job is not some kind of intrinsically good way of keeping oneself from growing bored with leisure. A job is work someone pays you to do. And jobs are not the same thing as work; this is why we don’t call hoovering and dusting “housejobs.”

Let’s also address the problem of “profitability.” You know, the one where “profit” is the positive difference between outgoings and incomings. You know, the one where that difference—that profit—is what the government takes a slice of (“tax”) to get its money to build lots of lovely infrastructure?

2b. Re-introduce labour-intensive agriculture in order to create jobs.

Labour-intensive agriculture is otherwise known as peasant farming, and peasant farming is not a job. It’s work. It’s the work one does not to have money with which to buy food, but to have food to eat. It’s back-breaking work that is harder than a job, less fun than a job, and less rewarding than a job. It is another old paradigm that we’ve actually spent some centuries now trying to get away from. We’re still trying to help third-world subsistence farmers get away from it. Returning to it is a shitty idea, and a really stupid plan for achieving a really stupid thing.

3. Rein in corporations’ ability to supply and burn fossil fuels.

That’s all well and good, but there’s nothing here about what happens to all of the other corporations where there’s no fuel. I work in a web software company. The other day, some builders over the road accidentally cut the power cable, and for two hours, the entire neighbourhood went dark. Our whole company was paralysed—no routers so no internet, no phones. Within ten minutes, the place was like something out of Boccaccio, with employees sitting in dark rooms telling stories about other power cuts they’d endured. Imagine that all over the world, and it’s only a matter of time before hundreds of millions of people start contemplating peasant farming as the only alternative to eating each other.

4. End non-local trade.

Wow, again, we’re back to the fucking Middle Ages. Thank you very much for coming to dinner, Ms Klein. Have a turnip. No, really, that’s all we’ve got. A turnip. We have to source our food locally, you see. Perhaps you would like a bit of the salted rat I’ve been saving up for our meat during the winter? What do you mean, that’s a protected species?

5. End “growth” in the first world.

Hey! You there! Yes, you with a good idea for streamlining this process! Stop it right now.

Either these people do not understand what growth is, or they don’t understand what humans are. Humans are problem-solving creatures. “Growth” is not using more resources to make more profit. “Growth” is solving problems. Often, it is solving the problem of “how do we do this thing with fewer resources?”

Klein obviously doesn’t understand this. To her, use of resources is to be minimised, except when the resource is human labour—use of that is to be maximised.

I mean, am I going crazy in the rare sunshine, or does anyone else see that we’re going backward here? The whole reason we use “stuff” is so that we don’t have to use people, because back when we had no “stuff,” we had things like 30-year lifespans from toiling in the fields, and slaves.

It’s like she’s saying we should use less stuff so that we can use more people, because it’s good for people to be used, because it means that they have work, and it’s good for people to have work, because it means that they’re not being underused.

It’s so recursive that she’s in danger of suggesting that jobs need humans in order to live.

6. Tax people and corporations.

We’re back to the whole “profitability” thing again. Now that we’ve spent some time using participatory democracy to make sure nobody cares about profit, and some more time ensuring that we stop using resources to make things, and still more time ensuring that no one makes money from using or supplying fossil fuels—where is the money, precisely, that the government’s going to take in tax? When everywhere is a co-op or a peasant farm, producing only what people need locally, where is the excess capacity that the government can take in tax?

This is the whole problem with this stupid obsession with the evils of profit. Profit is what the government taxes. Therefore, no profit, no tax. No tax, no government infrastructure projects or green subsidies or anything else the government is supposed to pay for because the private sector won’t do it because there’s no profit in it.

Jesus.

Klein sums up:

There is no joy in being right about something so terrifying. But for progressives, there is responsibility in it, because it means that our ideas—informed by indigenous teachings as well as by the failures of industrial state socialism—are more important than ever. It means that a green-left worldview, which rejects mere reformism and challenges the centrality of profit in our economy, offers humanity’s best hope of overcoming these overlapping crises.

Yeah, okay. There’s nothing in your “plan” that didn’t come straight out of the playbook of 1381, only in 1381, the peasants were revolting because it was such a shitty fucking plan and they didn’t like living under it.

More to the point, it makes no sense. The whole point of this “new paradigm” is to stop climate change and, as an added bonus, improve equality and “participatory democracy.”

But go back to the first premise—climate change should be stopped—and take a moment to ask again why that is so. Climate change is bad because it will destroy our way of life. It will kill a bunch of people outright in floods and storms. It will reduce the land area we have to live on, and reduce how much food we can grow on it. It will make many of the natural resources we depend on unavailable. It will make miserable, cramped subsistence farmers of us all.

And the way we’re supposed to avert this disaster is… to do it to ourselves first? What a pile of complete nonsense.

As Klein herself admits, the dangers of climate change are being used as a pretext to re-order the entirety of human life according to the “progressive” plan of using up excess wealth in order to maximise human work.

That is the most backward, fucked-up, and human-hating plan ever dreamed up. Anyone who backs it has a perception of life on earth so diseased and warped that they’re barely recognisable as human beings themselves.

Aug 182011
 

Hey everybody.

Even if you were inclined to vote for me, DON’T. For I see via Dick Puddlecote, this:

3. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents and based on UK politics are eligible. However, this does not mean blogs hosted outside the UK, or blogs with contributors who don’t live in the UK aren’t eligible.

I am not a UK resident. So don’t vote for me, or your ballot might be disqualified. Okay?

Fuck me, even fucking bullshit popularity polls appear to be run by the fascist anti-foreigner Home Office.

Jul 292011
 

Even though I am, as this blog demonstrates, overtly political, one thing I have always tried to keep away from, as a general rule, is imputing political messages to music that isn’t overtly political. For one thing, it’s pretty difficult to know what was in the lyricist’s mind at the time of inspiration, and for another, openly attaching political significance to art can be extraordinarily divisive, whether it’s the audience or the artist doing it. (Let’s just say I lost some respect for J K Rowling when I discovered she’d given £1m to the Labour Party.) People are protective of their art as they are of their politics; to find that a revered artist has repellant views sometimes feels like betrayal.

One of our goals in creating Heaven Is Whenever (now, sadly, defunct) was to create a kind of haven for all of these political people we were connected to where they could engage with each other about something they could love together. Bringing politics into Heaven Is Whenever was verboten.

I was reminded of this today when I happened upon, through pathways measureless to man, this article at the National Review called, cringeingly, ‘Rockin’ the Right.’ What, the author asks, are the 50 best conservative rock songs? And then he proceeds to appropriate a bunch of songs for the American right wing, most of which are far from overtly political.

Now, if we’re talking about ‘Bloody Sunday’ or ‘Irish Blood, English Heart’ as being political, that’s one thing.

But in this case, we’re talking about the following:

‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ by the Beach Boys—Pro-marriage, yay, conservative! This song is a conservative rock anthem? What?

‘Heroes’ by David Bowie—East Berlin is bad, yay, conservative! Yeah, okay, if you ignore the fact that Bowie was dressing up like a Nazi during this era and going on stage in the persona of a fascist. Oh, wait…

‘Brick’ by Ben Folds Five—Anti-abortion, yay, conservative! I don’t think this dude has listened to the rest of the words to this song. Incidentally, I ran into Ben Folds once or twice while I was at university. Given this place is often referred to as ‘the People’s Republic of Carrboro,’ I can’t say I feel his lyrics were all that conservative in their intent.

‘The Battle of Evermore’ by Led ZeppelinWhat? The basis for this judgment appears to be, solely, the line ‘The tyrant’s face is red.’ Therefore Robert Plant was against communism. Or something. Incidentally, I have actually met Robert Plant, who in his own words ‘doesn’t do it for the money.’

‘Janie’s Got a Gun’ by Aerosmith—Pro-guns, yay, conservative! I may be wrong, but isn’t this song about a girl who shoots her abusive father? Possibly there is more critique here of traditional family values?

‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Iron Maiden—Old poets, yay, conservative! Seriously, Coleridge was an opium addict. I’m pretty sure that songs based on poems based on opium dreams don’t have a place in the conservative heuristic.

It’s a shame he’s picked these as some of the top 50 conservative rock songs, because they really detract from the first four or so in the list, which I would say probably have some vaguely conservative message.

Yes, even ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ though certainly this does not begin to resemble what passes for conservatism in America. True story: I once had a student who wrote a phat term paper about this song. When I was teaching history in the US, I used to assign term papers on subjects of historical interest. Because I am not a fascist, I didn’t choose the topics for them.

(Why? Because I had a history teacher who did that to me when I was in school. He had these file cards with topics written on them, and he put them all face down on a table, swished them around, and made us pick one blind. Imagine my dismay when I turned over the card: ‘Pinochet? What the fuck is that?’ And this was in 1997 or so, when there was no internet to speak of and I couldn’t find a damn thing in the family set of World Book Encyclopedias from 1977. I had to trek all the way to the state fucking library and read newspapers on microfilm. Contrast this with my best friend, who picked ‘The Tudors.’ This deep injustice still haunts me.)

This one kid, he was not the brightest, but he loved music: proper music as well, not the Britney Spears and whatever that his classmates were listening to. He came to my office hours after I gave out the assignment, wanting to know what on earth he should do his paper on, because he didn’t really ‘get’ history. After some discussion, it came out that he was really into the Who, and into this one song.

‘Write about something to do with that,’ I suggested lamely.

Two months later, he handed in this masterpiece, all about the post-war consensus in Britain, the principle of democratic choice, and the long decline of Empire—as an exegesis of ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again.’ To this day, it is one of the two best pieces of work I have ever seen from a student.

(The other was a short video about the career of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. There is an unsubstantiated theory that Sulla disguised himself as a German to spy on the invading tribes in 104-103 BC. To depict this, the student playing Sulla turned his back to the camera for a moment, and turned around again wearing a Hitler moustache. This was his interpretation of ‘disguising oneself as a German.’ Hilarious.)

So yeah, I can seem some politics in some of these songs, sometimes even conservative politics.

Ultimately, however, I deplore this article and this idea. Much of the reason music is evocative is because each of us, as individual listeners, can read into it that which is meaningful to us. Appropriating music for political purposes (see also: Labour Party Conference, ‘Sit Down’) robs us of that meaning. When I listen to ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again,’ I don’t want to think of the personal judgments of John J Miller at the National Review.

I want to think of that kid I taught who loved listening to the Who.

Jun 192011
 

Guest post by Trixy

We’re still fighting in Libya, still racking up the costs, still insisting we’re doing it to protect civilians and not for regime change. No, definitely not regime change, because that’s what Tony Blair did, the war monger, and this coalition is nothing like him, right?

Well, one thing’s for sure, and that’s that neither of them have or had a legal mandate from the United Nations Security Council to invade another country. Blair and his team may insist that they did, but for those of us who can, and who chose to, read the documents from the Security Council at that time, we know he was pulling a fast one. The US Ambassador John Negroponte insisted that UNSCRs 687 and 1441 were sufficient for war, and yet the Council were told by others that the latter was ‘not a smoking gun,’ and another resolution would be required before military action could legally occur.

UNSCR 1973 was for the protection of civilians and to maintain peace and security in the region. The latter is the reason that force can be used, under Chapter VII articles in the UN Charter. So is the bombing and killing of Gaddafi necessary to achieve this, without capture and a trial? Airstrikes destroy in a way that a crack team of soldiers performing a raid don’t. Sophisticated missiles can target but not so well as an SA80 MkII or an M16. So will Gaddafi find himself the victim of yet another airstrike in the name of supporting a group of his opponents whom we know nothing about, with whom senior figures in the Ministry of Defence are nervous of being involved? Will Gaddafi’s final moments be as a non-speaking extra in Pirates of the Caribbean: ‘The Naughty Dictator’ as his body is dumped into Davy Jones’ locker?

The details of what is going on and what will happen are being discussed in COBRA and the bowels of the MoD.

And what we’re hearing about now is Syria.

Hague has ruled out military action, yet the UK and France last week presented a draft UN resolution condemning Syria’s suppression of protests. China and Russia fear, understandably given recent history, that this is the first step towards yet more international intervention by the men in Disruptive Pattern Material. And certainly the calls for the end to violence must ring hollow in the ears of not only the Syrians, who see another group of civilians appearing worthy of ‘protection,’ but also those relatives of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre who had heard such platitudes before.

For whilst Mladic faces trial for genocide, War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity after 16 years of evading discovery, we are reminded of what peacekeeping forces not only allowed, but were forced to allow to happen. And we should remind ourselves of why the murder of 8000 Muslim men and boys occurred in this ‘safe area.’

The answer comes down to our rules of engagement, which did not permit the use of weapons to protect civilians. And Mladic and his men knew that, and thus made a mockery of any ‘peacekeeping’ which UN forces were supposed to be undertaking.

So what I am expecting from William Hague, if he does go back on his promise of no military intervention (something few would be surprised about if he did, I suspect), is fewer words and more action. It’s a tough call for the international community not to look like hypocrites, and if we know one thing about politicians, it’s that they value their reputations/egos very highly.

What we need, if we are going to shoulder the cost of more troop deployments and continue to view ourselves as being in the company of World Policemen, is more permissive rules of engagement. Otherwise Hague, Cameron and their successors are simply offering false hopes and empty posturing to a scared population. And we are wasting our money.

Of course, given MoD cuts, farcical procurement policy, and the ongoing war in Afghanistan, whether we should be getting involved in Syria is a question for another day. But another day soon.

Jun 152011
 

Ann Coulter is probably one of the most hated political figures in the United States, just behind George Bush and just ahead of Rush Limbaugh. In her ideology she exudes what the Republican Party probably ought to be if it ever wants to be credible again, and is a bone fide conservative, and in her contempt for left-wingers she is inflammatory and scathing. She is therefore loathed by left and right.

I love reading her stuff. So do some surprising other people—’the right-wing Judy Garland‘ is not an accidental handle.

I love her even though she sometimes takes a shot at libertarians, as in her most recent column. And even though I love her, I’ve gotta fisk her.

She takes issue with Ron Paul for advocating that the government ‘get out of’ marriage but carry on with providing health and social care benefits for ‘children and the elderly’ because so many of them are currently ‘dependent on the government.’

In one sense I agree with her; I think Ron Paul is being a bit weird here in the context she points out. Marriage, says Coulter, is a contract on which many, many legal attributes depend. Adoption, child custody, health insurance, inheritance, medical proxy, etc etc. Fair enough.

On the other hand, she’s missing the point and tilting at a massive straw man. I can’t speak for Ron Paul, but I do know a good bit about what libertarians think, and that tends to go something like this:

Contracts, and the ability to enforce them, are a basic pillar of civilised society. In the absence of Rothbardian private justice, one of the legitimate functions of government is to arbitrate and enforce contracts. Marriage, whilst for many people religious in nature, is just a particular type of contract in the eyes of the state. It carries implicit agreements about child custody, insurance, inheritance, and so forth. There is nothing special about marriage that should make it any different to any other type of contract—in the eyes of the state.

Except that in the US, for some reason, there is a strange moral attribute to the marriage contract. Homosexuals cannot enter into this contract with each other. They are specifically and specially debarred, in a way that is utterly exceptional in a country that usually only refuses to recognise your right to contract if you are (a) a child, or (b) non compos mentis. There is nothing, even, to stop a gay person from marrying someone of the opposite sex. It’s only each other they can’t contract with in this way.

The state is not there to enshrine the religious or moral connotations of marriage; in fact it doesn’t do so for straight people at all. Straight people can contract marriage in front of the state without ever getting close enough to sniff a priest or a rabbi or an imam.

So why should gay people be denied this same legal status? The US government isn’t trying to pretend that gay people are as incapable of consenting to agreements as children or the mad; it isn’t trying to pretend that straight marriages always and everywhere carry a moral or religious weight. It’s either (a) bowing stupidly to pressures from people who would use the government to impose a moral sanction, or more worryingly (b) sees nothing wrong with making arbitrary exceptions to normal jurisprudence when it suits.

The exceptional treatment homosexuals receive in the context of this one contract is not only hypocritical and wrong, it is dangerous to the body politic.

I would guess that this sort of thing is really what Ron Paul is getting at.

However, obviously in Coulter’s mind he is some kind of pansy jackass for saying, essentially, ‘It’s not the state’s place to disbar consenting mindful adults from entering voluntarily into contracts with one another, but I don’t think at this stage I would eliminate Medicare and Social Security at a stroke, because it’s some old folks’ only income and some children’s only health insurance. I’d sort of prefer a different approach.’

The idea that Ron Paul is ‘pretending to be [a] Randian purist, but [is] perfectly comfortable issuing politically expedient answers’ is ridiculous. So is that idea that all libertarians are like that. I know a lot of libertarians but not many who even pretend to be Randian purists.

Furthermore, this?

I make the case that liberals, and never conservatives, appeal to irrational mobs to attain power. There is, I now recall, one group of people who look like conservatives, but also appeal to the mob. They’re called “libertarians.”

Is hilarious. The mob? Please. There is no irrational mob in this universe that finds libertarians appealing. There isn’t even such a thing as a libertarian mob. When libertarians gather together, they don’t chant slogans together or march in unison. At the Rally Against Debt, as large a gathering of libertarians as I personally have witnessed, someone tried to start the slogan-chanting thing. About 3 people joined in for a round, then got bored. The speakers, far from being cheered like messiahs, received polite applause. The closest thing to a mob was the three ‘anarchists’ (left-wingers) chanting in the pen, where the police had put them in case a fight started. They needn’t have worried. Libertarians don’t fight with left-wingers, they fight with each other. It’s the only ‘mob’ you’ll ever see where the crowd hears a rousing speech and says to one another, ‘You know, I’m not sure I agree with him. He misses Friedman’s point about the fact that…’ and then argues all the way to the pub, where they’d all much rather be anyway.

As much as I like Ann Coulter, she doesn’t seem to understand the libertarian perspective at all. And it’s a shame, not because I think she should agree, but because I think if she could be as accurately nasty about us as she is about left-wingers, her occasional potshots would be a lot more entertaining.

Apr 122011
 

Let me be the first to admit that I don’t know Laurie Penny, nor have I ever met her.

I discovered tonight that she was an undergraduate at Wadham College, Oxford—at the same time that I was a student at Wadham.

I was not surprised to find this out, and I’ll tell you why.

Wadham is known for being the ‘left-wing’ college at Oxford. It famously hosts Queer Bop, originally a celebration of all types of sexuality, and the quad around the college bar is officially called Ho Chi Minh Quad. All Wadham bops, by college statute, conclude with the playing of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by the Specials. Whilst I was in attendance, the Wadham SU banned Coca-Cola products from the college on ethical grounds and forbade the serving of beverages in glass receptacles, preferring biodegradable plastic on the assumption that it was more environmentally friendly.

I have read many of Laurie Penny’s columns. They read the way many conversations at Wadham sound. People who deploy the same language, the same ideas, and the same arguments are a dime a dozen at Wadham. There is a miasma of youthful optimism about the place, somewhat at odds with its transmission of privilege and its well-preserved Jacobean splendour. Laurie Penny appears to have Wadham in her veins in the same way some Americans bleed red, white, and blue.

The funny thing is, Wadham is known for a lot of other things too. Its Canadian law students. Its South African MBAs. Its British science students. Many of these people are Rhodes Scholars, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians. They take what they learn at Wadham and use it to help victims of human rights violations, disease-stricken populations in the poorest parts of the world, and small businessmen in chaotic nations who want to improve the standard of living in their communities.

Wadham also has its complement of true socialists who, although they come from middle-class backgrounds, would never blog (‘bourgeois’), would never write for the New Statesman (‘selling out’), and would never go straight from protesting with the so-called working class to hobnobbing with media personalities at champagne receptions. Sure, they read the Guardian (for the crosswords, mostly) and fix bruschetta for starters with eggplant casserole for the main course (when they can afford it, otherwise they eat beans), but they don’t pretend to be one with the down-trodden or think there is anything glamourous about smoking roll-ups. When they can afford it, they would rather have Gauloises.

Most of these people, of whatever degree, profession, or political persuasion, go quietly off to satisfy the demands of conscience, duty, and pleasure.

Laurie Penny, whatever her conscience may demand of her, certainly represents what Wadham College is. I’m not so sure she represents what Wadham College becomes. She has certainly worked very hard to communicate a message, but I don’t know if it’s the message she intended. Like many people from Wadham, she seems to want to improve the world in a certain way. But what she seems to do is reinforce the belief that privileged people from privileged educational backgrounds can, as long as they say the right things, engender trust among the lower classes whilst taking their place among the elite.

Laurie Penny is maybe 25 years old. She is the author of widely-circulated newspaper columns, and she is the subject of them. She is a student, a protester, a squatter, and a voice for those without a voice. She is a well-known name and represents a well-known point of view amongst the nation’s intelligentsia. She is one of them, and she is one of us. But stacked against everything else that comes out of Wadham College, what is Laurie Penny really doing?

She is travelling an extremely well-trodden road bearing the placard of thoroughly-explored philosophies. And the destination, reached so many times before, has benefitted no one except the travellers themselves.

Mar 132011
 

Because of what I do for a living, I have a pretty decent understanding not only of how the NHS has worked throughout the past couple of years, but also of how it is envisioned to work under the reforms now being discussed in the Commons.

And I do not see that these reforms amount to selling off the NHS piecemeal and having sick people dying in the streets.

What I see, primarily, is two things.

First, a step is being eliminated in the commissioning process with the abolition of the PCTs. This doesn’t mean that GPs themselves, with all of their other workload, will also be sending the commissioning paperwork to the secondary care providers; it means that the PCTs will be, in effect, split and absorbed into the newly-forming GP consortia. These consortia are groups of GPs who have voluntarily banded together because they share a geographical area or a particular patient demographic and thus have excellent collective knowledge of the populations whose health they deal with. These GP consortia are already consulting deeply with their PCTs and, from what I’ve heard, most plan to absorb not only the function but also many of the staff.

This restructuring, therefore, allows voluntary groups with similar knowledge to take responsibility for commissioning the healthcare appropriate to that knowledge and to those patients. This is a massive improvement on the PCTs, which are region-based and have no frontline exposure to the population and patient groups in their regions.

Second, all NHS trusts are being compelled to become, or join, foundation trusts. For those not familiar with foundation trusts, they are locally-established and locally-accountable, fiscally independent hospital or healthcare trusts. They are governed, ultimately, by a membership consisting of local people, and they are required to demonstrate the involvement of that membership in major decisions. This makes foundation trusts both more democratic and more responsive. Some of the best trusts in this country—such as Guy’s at St Thomas’s—are foundation trusts and have been since the Labour government brought in the concept.

Every other part of these reforms is incidental and, incidentally, is what seems to have the “Save the NHS” and “N4S” (Not 4 Sale) campaigners so worked up. OMG, there will no longer be a cap on private-patient income for foundation trusts! So what? FTs can’t make those kind of changes without the agreement of their membership. And if the membership wants the FT to take more private patients, who are you to stop them? OMG, care might be given by non-NHS providers! So what? GPs are not technically part of the NHS; neither are care homes, many mental health centres, many home carers, and so on. Provision doesn’t have to be done by NHS bodies, and there is no proof whatsoever that private providers will give a lower standard of care, or that NHS commissioners will choose the cheapest private providers at the expense of patient wellbeing.

In fact, lately there have been a lot of, erm, questions (let’s be nice about it) surrounding the quality of care the NHS itself provides, particularly when it comes to (a) old people and (b) hospital-acquired infections, and therefore I see no reason to cling so tightly to this idea that NHS provision is automatically a good, or better, circumstance for patients.

In the end, none of these reforms alter the vital fact that the NHS is still free at the point of use for everyone, which I believe was the object in the first place: that sick people would have access to care regardless of income. However the back-end management works, this salient fact will still be true, and there is good reason to believe that these reforms, particularly the commissioning reforms, will help to improve that care, as the people responsible for looking after these sick people will have a much better understanding of their patients’ needs, both individually and as part of a particular community, and thus be much able to direct both budget and resources where they are needed, instead of distributed evenly across the board without reference to patient and community health profiles.

Mar 032011
 

Sean Gabb, director of the Libertarian Alliance and prolific author and commentator on British politics and society, has written a novel of mayhem, adventure, and alternate history: The Churchill Memorandum.

I don’t know Sean Gabb personally, but I have read other works on his recommendation (notably those of Richard Blake), so when the review copy of his novel arrived, I dove into it with great anticipation and devoured it in one afternoon, taking assiduous notes between incredulous outbursts of ‘He just… did he really just do that? WTF?’ Anyone who has read the novel will probably recognise this frequent reaction.

Even though this was several weeks ago, I waited to publish this review because I had a feeling, which turned out to be correct, that the novel would be somewhat controversial. In that interval, Gabb has been accused of being, variously, anti-American and an English national socialist, all because in his novel the United States is a fascist horrorville and Hitler wasn’t a mass murderer. As an American myself, I’m rather more sensitive than others to whiffs of anti-Americanism, and I didn’t get any as I was reading. I certainly don’t think Gabb is an apologist for Hitler or the Nazis. And I suspect that to make these sort of assumptions about an author based on the characters or settings in his novels is to indulge in more than one cognitive bias.

Sometimes, a novel is just a novel.

Or, in this case, a crazy drug-trip into an alternate universe where Hitler dies in a car accident in 1939, the pound sterling is still sound money in 1959, and Winston Churchill ‘did nothing big after Gallipoli.’ Be thankful for this back-cover exposition, because you, the reader, are a genius. If you know nothing about Europe of the Second-World-War era, expect to spend half your reading time delving around the murkier recesses of La Wik.

Our hero is half-caste Anthony Markham, historian of the feeble sideshow that is Churchill in this universe and unwitting possessor of a document that numerous plotters, including Germans and Indians who smell persistently of curry, desperately want to get their hands on.

Why do I characterise the book as a crazy drug-trip when others have described it as ‘Hitchockian’ and ‘noirer than noir’ (which I’ll also buy)? It’s hard to say without giving too much away, but here are a few bullet points to whet the appetite, or bring smiles to the faces of those who have read it:

  • Chekhov’s Buttcheek.
  • Alan Greenspan is shot within hearing of a bunch of air commuters, and nobody bats an eye.
  • CS Lewis as archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Goering is giving nukes to the Jewish Free State.
  • Having been framed for murder, our main character goes on the run—and promptly murders someone. Not even an important someone, so this doesn’t count as a spoiler.
  • Who the hell is actually behind this convoluted plot, anyway?
  • Michael Foot’s acid baths.

The importance of the titular document is wholly drowned in the gunfights, the multi-transport chases and escapes, the sheer insanity of staid types you once knew and loved such as Harold Macmillan—who, incidentally, tries to corral the main character just as said hero has been mistaken for a Labour Party candidate in a town hall meeting and is delivering a triumphant speech:

‘Brothers, let it never be said that the Labour Party was at all exclusive in its welcome to speakers. You’ve heard me put the socialist case for our national future. If you want to hear the other side, be aware that our Foreign Secretary—Harold Macmillan himself—is standing just outside this room, and is waiting to answer all your questions in person.’

Cue the mob.

Markham’s publisher’s daughter and a mysterious Major who doesn’t officially exist are also part of the dastardly plot, and Enoch Powell turns out to be the shadowy badass whom all the plotters fear.

Y’all, this book is further down the rabbit-hole than Alice, and I dearly wish that instead of a review wherein I praise the author for his audacity and imagination, I was publishing verbatim the notes I took. You would not believe this book.

That said, there are some deep author-avatar moments, and without doubt Gabb can create characters who are horrifyingly realistic. Markham, protagonist and first-person narrator, is a remarkably unsympathetic character, callous and cowardly by turns and buffeted along by events entirely out of his control. His attempts to take refuge in a sense of loyalty or duty to his country are constantly shown up as stupidity by people who possess neither, and his actions neither drive the plot nor resolve it. Much like real people, in fact, warts and all. And the realism is necessary in light of the fact that most of the other players stepped straight out of a Bond film.

More importantly, the more you hear from Markham, the more you realise that despite having access to his internal monologue, you do not know this guy at all. There is no mention of friends, family, background, previous life, or romantic involvements (apart from whoever gave him Chekhov’s Buttcheek.) His thoughts revolve around two things: nebulous politics and immediate circumstances. He’s like a random guy in a pub telling you a random story, and when you stagger out you’re none the wiser.

To me, this makes him possibly the most unreliable narrator in fiction. This is what really makes the novel worth reading, though of course it is exciting and inventive as well. But I feel compelled to draw your attention to the fact that the insanity all starts in chapter six, and when you remember what Markham does at the end of chapter five, well…

…that’s my theory. And I’m sticking to it.