Sep 202010
 

Back on Independence Day, I wrote a post that featured a quotation from the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

In the comments, my dad totally called me out, because my quotation omitted the phrase ‘by their Creator’ that appears between ‘they are endowed […] with certain unalienable rights.’

Ctrl+C, as I said, was not my friend, and neither was Wikipedia, which is where I Ctrl+C’d from.

Turns out, as many of you may have seen floating around the series of tubes, that Obama did the same thing in a recent speech, and omitted ‘by their Creator’ from his quotation.

Now, if I omitted ‘by their Creator,’ and Obama omitted ‘by their Creator,’ and I got my quotation from Wikipedia, then perhaps Obama

No. Surely not. Surely the President of the United States, the renowned scholar of American and constitutional history, the guy whose brain (his supporters would have you believe) is even greater than the cranial contents of the awesomely intelligent William J Clinton, is not sourcing his speech quotations from… Wikipedia?

Just sayin’.

Feb 072010
 

The Prime Minister’s speech at the RSA on Tuesday deserves a good kick up the metaphorical backside, for it is an excellent example of how the language of liberty and change has been appropriated to describe actions which are entirely contrary to the principles of liberty, self-government, and human rights – and, of course, change.

Many people have assured me that, without government, there are no rights (‘Look at Somalia!’), and to a certain practical extent, I believe this to be true. If one’s right to life can be trampled upon by someone else with impunity, that right is de facto non-existent. Some government or authority is necessary to guarantee that others cannot infringe my rights – what is known as the rule of law. But that right is equally non-existent if the government itself can trample upon it with impunity, which is why I advocate a limited government without the power to infringe rights. There is naturally room for argument about what system of government best enables that ideal, and about the nature of its limitations and how they are guaranteed. But the ideal itself is sound.

It goes without saying, then, that rights supplied by the government, either through provision or financing, are not what I consider to be ‘rights’ at all, but entitlements; and that a government in the business of providing entitlements is ipso facto approaching the opposite end of the scale from my limited-government ideal, whatever else its virtues may be.

Notwithstanding the question of rights versus entitlements, another advantage of limited government is its inability to change itself. Not only does this confer stability, which is certainly an important consideration, it means that the government has not the power to grant itself more power. However small a remit the government might start out with, if it has the wherewithal to arrogate more and more aspects of public (and private) life to itself, it will not stay a limited government for long. So in addition to safeguarding the rights of the people, a truly ‘limited’ government must not contain within itself an easy mechanism for expansive self-alteration.

Only under the auspices of a government weak in all aspects except the rule of law can a people be both in word and in practice free. That, my friends, is liberty.

Gordon Brown clearly does not see things my way.

His speech, called ‘Transforming Politics,’ displays a curious mixture of impotence, brazenness, and lies.

Impotence, because he is the Prime Minister, and most out of all other Britons has the power to transform politics – yet he insists that the people in their diffuse millions must do this, people whose jobs, families, and responsibilities lie outside the realm of politics, people whose sole real political power is a single vote, warped and distended and subject to pressures far more numerous and dislocated than an individual’s choice of candidate. Gordon Brown has his hand on the tiller; he gets on with the job at hand; he single-handedly saved the world’s banking system. Why, then, is the hand he wraps round the lever of the nation’s political culture so weak?

If he truly wanted to transform politics, he with his executive orders and compliant cabinet and virtual stranglehold on his parliamentary party could do so. There is nothing to stop him. He claims to know what the people want, and he unquestionably has the power to make it happen – why insist that nebulous public action be a necessary condition?

Politicians, and Gordon Brown is no exception, must find it tremendously hard to imagine what they would want from politicians, were they regular people on the street. They have entered the rabbit hole; they are incapable of stepping outside of their own frame of reference. Ask any man or woman in the grocery store or the bus queue, and they will tell you: politics should be practised by decent people who are not obviously fraudsters, liars, confidence tricksters, or panderers, who realise that their job in a democracy is to represent the will of their constituents and advocate for policies that are beneficial, practical, and above all reasonable.

Ask a politician what sort of person should be practising politics, and who the hell knows what answer you’ll get. It might be the one I mentioned above. It might be ‘whoever knows what’s best.’ The honest answer (which you’ll never get from a politician, obviously) is either ‘me’ or ‘whoever can get the votes.’ This is not unfounded supposition; it is revealed preference.

Brazenness, because he appears to believe that if he repeats well-worn memes often enough, someone, somewhere, might derive meaning from them. How many times have we heard the following:

‘power back to the people’

‘democratically accountable’

‘giving people… rights to control the services they depend upon’

‘change’

‘power redistributed away from the centre’

‘fair access to all’

‘improving public services’

‘lasting peace and shared prosperity’

‘neighbourhoods’

‘diversity’

Brown endlessly repeats the buzzwords and key phrases, empty assurances that nobody disagrees with and which therefore mean nothing. Brown’s key speech about transforming politics is a repetition of all that his Government has been saying for the past decade. And he does not imagine his listeners will pick up on the obvious contradiction: change and transformation are in reality more of the same.

Lies, because he represents himself as a champion of the people against an outdated, unfair, and ossified constitution – which was equally outdated and ossified thirteen years ago when Labour won a landslide of seats under its unfair auspices. If the need for constitutional reform is so obvious now, it was equally obvious then, yet Labour did nothing. If, as Brown says, the choice is between ‘a new politics, where individuals have more say and more control over their lives,’ or ‘a discredited old politics, leaving power concentrated in the hands of the old elites,’ why were the British people not presented with this choice thirteen years ago, when it was no less real and pressing?

Constitutional reform is the last refuge of the desperate. With little prospect of a democratic mandate under the current system, acutely aware of his general unpopularity but clinging on to power with determined and bloody fingertips, the constitutional reformer sets out to circumvent imminent oblivion in the only way left to him: changing the rules in the middle of the game. It isn’t that the rules don’t need changing; it’s that he hadn’t the will to change them when he was winning. Now that he is losing, he suddenly apprehends that the same rules which used to give him unfair advantage will now deliver unto him unfair defeat.

What were once unfair rules must now become fair, before the game is over, while he still has the power to change them. He is a creature of the immediate; he will not bide his time until the next game.

Does Gordon Brown believe we will not notice this? And if we do notice it, does he expect we will trust in his party to deliver the constitutional change that best suits the people rather than what best suits the Labour party? He, with his parliamentary majority, his executive authority, his supine monarch, his cowardly cabinet, his draconian whips, his placemen in the upper house?

And so he promises us change for our own good, change that will empower the people and enhance their liberty, change dressed up in the beautiful language of freedom and democracy, concealing the meretricious reality beneath: that this government has great power, too much power, and cannot be stopped from infringing the people’s rights or changing itself to accrue yet more power. If this were not so, Brown’s constitutional reforms would be a pipe dream. And yet we are supposed to believe that the endpoint of this vast exercise of authority is to reduce that authority.

Forgive me if I’m a bit doubtful.

And yet it’s all so plausible, which is how he gets away with it. What reforms, specifically, is he proposing?

1. A democratically accountable House of Lords.

…a modern democracy cannot tolerate power to initiate and revise legislation being held for ever by those without a mandate from the people.

Quite right. While there are certain advantages to having an upper house that is not susceptible to the whims of the populace, such a chamber is manifestly not representative of the will of the people.

The cynical interpretation: an undemocratic upper house is also not susceptible to the whims of the Commons and acts as a bulwark against hasty, radical change and as a brake on the tremendous power of the Commons. More than in practically every other Western democracy, the majority party in the elected legislature of Britain wields almost unchecked authority. The unelected, (theoretically) non-partisan Lords is one of the few impediments.

But, I hear you say, the upper house in the United States, the Senate, is elected and partisan, and still gets the job done! To which I reply, the lower house in the US, the House of Representatives, has nothing like the power the House of Commons wields. The majority party in the House of Representatives is not the Government, and its leaders constitutionally lack executive authority.

Only when executive authority in Britain is separated from the majority party in the Commons does having an elected House of Lords make sense. While the majority party in the Commons continues to control both the legislature and the executive, making the Lords both partisan and elected will only strengthen that control, not weaken it.

So does Brown propose to reform the Commons in accordance with this prognostication?

No.

2. Increase parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account.

…parties should elect their own members of select committees in a secret ballot; select committee chairs should be elected by a ballot of the whole house; and non-government business should be managed by members of parliament, not the executive.

Quite right. Parliament is in theory sovereign; it should also be so in practice.

But:

…the proper role of parliament is, indeed, to scrutinise the executive and it should be given all the necessary tools to do so.

Parliament should, at this moment, deny Gordon Brown the ability to give them these tools. For tools which can be given can also be taken away. And once it is statutory that Parliament scrutinises the executive at the will of the executive, the legitimacy of that will is forever enshrined in the constitution. When power is granted, it is just as important to examine the implications of the granting as the actual power. This reform serves only to cement further the control of the executive over the operation of the sovereign legislative body.

3. Electoral reform, from FPTP to AV.

The alternative vote system has the advantage of maintaining the benefit of a strong constituency link…

I am sure this is true.

However:

The first past the post system maintains a clear link to a member of parliament’s constituency and it has usually given governments a clear mandate to govern.

If this is true, why change it? We don’t fix what isn’t broken. FPTP maintains the same strong link to the constituency as AV would; in addition, it has the advantage of usually conferring a clear mandate to govern. What does AV offer that overcomes this obvious advantage of FPTP?

…it also offers voters increased choice with the chance to express preferences for as many of the candidates as they wish.

Ah. AV allows a major party candidate to slide into office as the second preference of those who voted first for a smaller third party. The alternative-vote system will clear up that nasty problem of marginal seats while having little negative effect on elections in safe constituencies. To complete our journey through cynicism, all we need ask is: what is our biggest third party, and which major party are its voters more likely to prefer as their second preference?

Hands up all those who voted Lib Dem in 2005 because they hated Blair the war-monger but couldn’t stomach voting Conservative.

4. Transparency in public decisions and documents.

Over and above our commitment to transparency through FOI we are committed to progressively reducing the time taken to release official documents – ensuring the public have access to public papers far quicker than ever before.

Excellent.

I have no problem with this, actually; it’s one of the few pieces of wheat in all of this chaff. But it is only a small step in the right direction; the government of this nation needs to realise that all public business – everything done in the name of the people with the democratic authority of the people as its claim to legitimacy – must be open to the people. All documents should be official, and all documents should be public. All meetings, committees, hearings, inquiries, and the record of their business should be accessible to the electorate. Everything done in the name of the people and by right of their democratic authority belongs to the people.

5. Make public services more responsive to individual users.

Public services will not only be more personal in future but they will be more interactive – with the ability of the citizen enhanced to make their views known directly and influence the way our communities work.

Great.

Just one problem. At the moment, public services are accountable to the government. The government, as properly elected representatives of the people, oversees their operation, officially assesses their quality, and controls their funding. The government is the middleman, the mediator, between the public and the public services. The best way to make the public services directly accountable to the public is to remove the middleman. Will the government now allow the people to directly oversee the operation of public services, to directly assess their quality, and to directly provide and control their funding?

No, because:

…we do not rest our case on the delivery of better services to people merely on aspirations or targets: we are offering personal guarantees to citizens about the rights they can expect and enjoy.

The government will still be the mediator. As mentioned above, whatever it is in the power of government to grant, it is also in the power of government to take away. And so more and more authority gathers at the centre. Rights which are granted by government are not rights at all, but entitlements; and entitlements granted to the people are as far from being ‘subject to people’s direct control’ as it is possible to be.

6. Strengthening local government.

Local government should be free to innovate and to be creative in delivering better public services.

Quite right.

But:

…we inherited a situation where local government had been starved of funding and had very little power over decisions taken that affected their communities.

This is an implicit admission that he who controls the funds controls the power; and by starving local government of funds, central government had also starved it of power. Nothing in Gordon Brown’s proposals mentions giving local governments responsibility for raising their own funding. As long as local authorities must rely on the central government to pay for whatever it is they deliver, they will always be at the mercy of central government’s demands, no matter how ‘free to innovate’ they may theoretically be.

In fact, Brown skirts around this issue with admirable vagueness (if vagueness is the sort of thing one admires):

It is true that in the past local government has had too many streams of funding from a multitude of central government sources. Our total place reforms are potentially transformative in the better use of resources: they will allow local government and its partners to reach across all the funding coming into an area and enable better choices to be made at a local level about how this money is spent.

I’m not even sure what he means. What are ‘total place reforms’? How reassuring is that word ‘potentially’? What he appears to be getting at is that although the funding will still come from central governments, it may no longer be hypothecated, so local authorities will have more say in how to spend their hand-outs. I’m at a loss as to why he needs such an elaborate circumlocution to make that point, unless it is his desire to gloss over the fact that central government will still control the extent of local spending.

7. Codify Britain’s unwritten constitution.

…I have asked the Cabinet Secretary to lead work to consolidate the existing unwritten, piecemeal conventions that govern much of the way central government operates under our existing constitution into a single written document.

The various arguments for and against written constitutions are numerous and complex, and it may well serve the British people to have a definitive document; others will know better than I whether this is the case.

In the summer I announced that we would consult on the question of codifying our constitution as part of the consultation exercise on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

For those of you who have not read the consultation document on the British Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, allow me to draw your attention to some of the key points contained in the Ministry of Justice’s green paper.

First, the government considers that the key constitutional question in need of answering is

of the relationship between the citizen and the state and how this relationship can best be defined to protect fundamental freedoms and foster mutual responsibility as this country is going through profound changes.

The impetus for this kind of constitutional codification is explicitly the presence of change and crisis. Gordon Brown believes that ‘if we are to decide to have a written constitution the time for its completion should be the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta in Runneymede in 1215.’ That gives us five years, during a time of change and crisis, for formulation, deliberation, debate, revision, judicial scrutiny, and finalisation. Enforcing an arbitrary time limit on a process that requires deep scholarship, consultation, bipartisan agreement, and lengthy deliberation during a time of change and crisis when that process cannot even command the government’s full attention is a recipe for disaster. (And the time limit is essentially arbitrary. There is no pressing need for a codified constitution by 2015. The year just happens to be the anniversary of something vaguely historically relevant on the popular connotations of which Brown would like to capitalise.)

Second, the codified constitution being mooted is not the lofty, concise document the United States enjoys, which merely sets out the fundamental rights of the people and the operation of their government. No, the British version will contain much more:

How individuals should live together, what rights and freedoms we should enjoy in relation to one another and against the state and how they should be balanced by the responsibilities we owe each other are among the most fundamental questions in politics. They are not abstractions, removed from the practical politics of jobs and housing and healthcare and education, because they concern the constitutional arrangements which determine how power is distributed in our country. They determine how every other question in our public life will be answered. They are not just about the historic protections of the individual against the state and balancing liberty and security. They are also about the frustrations that can arise in daily life, especially when using public services, and reflect the key role for town halls in tackling these frustrations by making information easy to access and involving local people in the decisions which affect them. They are about getting support to combat anti-social behaviour and to tackle the discrimination and prejudice many of our people still have to endure. They are about the smoking ban, the hunting ban, and taking action to prevent climate change.

This constitution is to be about everything a Briton encounters in his public life – except, apparently, the structure of his government, which is nowhere mentioned.

Third, this constitution will deliberately not include some of the things we have come to consider fundamental rights. Consider, for instance, this passage:

Additional protections in relation to liberty of the person or fair trials may not be necessary as the belief in their fundamental nature is already so deeply entrenched, culturally and politically, and there is no fundamental threat to them. At this stage, the Government does not propose the inclusion of the principle of habeas corpus or a right to trial by jury in any new Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, but it remains open to all arguments for and against as part of an informed public debate.

The Government does not propose to include habeas corpus, fair trials, and trial by jury in the written constitution as, apparently, there is no threat to these rights and no current need to protect them. You may draw your own conclusions about the wisdom of that plan.

Fourth, the proposed constitution is not intended to have legal effect – that is, the rights or responsibilities codified therein are not intended to be enforceable by an individual in court. It is not intended to have the statutory force of an Act of Parliament. In fact, its purpose would be only this:

A non-statutory declaration could be readily amended and updated over time. Its effect would be intended as primarily political and symbolic rather than legal. The fact that a charter or declaration might not have statutory force or was otherwise not justiciable would not mean that the exercise or the text itself lacked force. It could still carry great legitimacy in the wider sense of that word, by the strength of the consent behind it, and by the way in which it helped to set standards, as yardsticks of the behaviour we expected of others and of ourselves as members of UK society.

In short, Brown’s ‘written constitution’ would be a poorly-drafted, cumbersomely huge, non-traditional, non-justiciable framework setting out the minutiae of Britons’ lives without holding the government to any definitive principles of action or, even, guaranteeing its legal responsibility to protect the rights listed therein, let alone enforce the many entitlements also included.

(There are numerous other problems with this proposed ‘constitution,’ which you may identify by reading it yourself provided you accept the risk to your blood pressure.)

The rest of Brown’s speech is a clever call for his political opponents to agree with him. This, truly, is the language of politics: for if they disagree with him, they would entrench privilege and unfairness at the expense of the people; and if they agree with him, there is no need for them at all.

The not-so-clever part of his peroration is the constant call for change. Change, by definition, would be something different from what we have now. And what we have now, what we have had for thirteen years, is Labour. I have to wonder at Brown’s motivation for reminding us all of that. And for enumerating a deliberate and concentrated program of attacks on the existing checks and balances on the Government’s power that are, at the moment, the only institutions and processes in the country that limit the majority party’s near-incalculable power over public life and protect the few fundamental liberties remaining to the people of Britain.

Jan 122010
 

Via CNN I see that President Obama has considerately taken into account the date of the season premiere of LOST in deciding when to hold the annual State of the Union address:

Fear gripped the hearts of fans when it was announced that the president wanted to push back the annual State of the Union address – typically held in late January – to February 2, which everyone should know by now is the premiere of the ABC drama’s final season.

Crazy talk! Doesn’t he know people have been dying to find out what happened to the castaways?

But White House press secretary Robert Gibbs assured viewers Friday he “doesn’t foresee a scenario in which millions of people that hope to finally get some conclusion in ‘Lost’ are preempted by the president.”

This non-news was not, I confess, particularly interesting to me, until I started reading the comments beneath it.

And boy, is America unhappy.

Remarks seem to be conforming to the following general categories:

(1) “Americans are pathetic. I can’t believe LOST is more important to some people than what the president has to say.”

(2) “Obama is pathetic. I can’t believe he’d change the date of his speech to suit a bunch of sheeple LOST fans.”

(3) “Politics and politicians of any stripe are pathetic. LOST will be more interesting and more factual than the heard-it-all-before SOTU.”

(4) “You’re all pathetic. Ever since the SOTU has been televised, presidents have taken into account conflicts with the normal viewing timetable.”

(5) “Everything is pathetic. LOST? State of the Union? Who gives a shit.”

The general malaise and negativity displayed in these 470 (yes, 470 comments) is breathtaking. In full awareness of the fact that this is anecdata, I’m still going to postulate that the Change which Obama hath wrought has been, on the whole, not so good. By far the most illuminating of the comments are the ones that express a deep and weary scepticism about why the date of this regular address is in question in the first place. The State of the Union is traditionally delivered in late January; the suggestion of postponing it until February (and thus creating a conflict with the LOST premiere) has led many people to believe that Obama wishes to be able to extol a successful healthcare reform bill therein. As far as I know, this sort of manoeuvring is rare; the whole point of the SOTU is to describe, duh, the state of the union at regular intervals. It loses much of its impact if the president gets to decide to describe the state of the union whenever he judges that state to be most positive.

Not to mention that Obama has been, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the most speechifying presidents I can remember, having addressed the nation in this way at least three times that I can think of already in his first year of office. I realise these speeches have been topical, rather than holistic, but when you put them all together, we’ve had his words on education, healthcare, and the on-going wars in the Middle East. Possibly the economy as well, though I don’t remember that specifically. I think Americans are pretty up-to-date on the state of their union.

I suspect that much of the negativity and cynicism stems from the fact that Obama has gone about his presidency in entirely back-asswards fashion. Having campaigned on a platform that consisted largely of reversing the mahoosive mistakes of the Bush administration, once in office, he immediately set out to… not reverse any of them. Patriot Act? Still there. Guantanamo? Still there. Wars? Still there. Bailouts and stimuli? Still there. Discontinuing these things, while difficult, would have been popular on both sides of the political divide, as well as with the mythical ‘independent’ voters. Obama would have been seen to be cleaning up the mess and providing himself with a fresh slate, correcting the massive loss of civil liberties and doing his best to get the country back on its economic feet.

Instead of pursuing these popular campaign policies, however, he has spent the vast majority of the last year shilling for his Congressional party members and their ridiculous healthcare reform. A task as huge as the overhaul of the nation’s health infrastructure should have been begun cautiously, slowly, and thoroughly, with cost/benefit analyses, input from providers and consumers, multiple scenarios of best practice, and above all, genuine bi-partisan contribution. What Obama has allowed to happen, however, is the creation of a massive, cobbled-together bill based on the barest minimum of research into the health market, the barest minimum of input from the industry as a whole, and containing almost innumerable lines inserted solely to get this or that special interest group onside, or this or that senator. The legislation is a gigantic fucked-up mess that appears designed, not to represent a unified vision of healthcare or emulate best practice elsewhere in the world, but to prove that the Democrats in Congress have done something, dammit, and it looks plausible if you stand back from it and squint a bit.

And Americans are not impressed. Yes, healthcare needed reform. Yes, Obama promised to do it. But did it have to be done so quickly, and in so slipshod a fashion, and at the expense of so much good he also promised?

Few presidents have had as unsuccessful a first year as Obama; even fewer have been almost the sole authors of their own failure. I do not envy the man, but I do not pity him, either. If Americans are unhappy, it is because Obama misjudged them; it is because he believed his initial popularity meant he didn’t have to conform. Ultimately, I think, Americans do not want a cult of personality. They want what they have always liked best: a competent, steady leader, with a sure hand on the helm and an appropriate sense of solemnity for the huge responsibility he bears. Obama has lurched from crisis to panic to embarrassment, and while he’s handled it with fairly good grace, he may at last be discovering that, to Americans, only Mr President deserves respect and confidence. Barack Obama will receive the same when he remembers that they come, not in response to his personal charms, but by grace of the office he holds.

Nov 132009
 

Delivered at the Students for Liberty conference last weekend in Philadelphia by Dr Alan Kors, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania. My brother was there, and he and a friend of his provided the link.

This paper brought me to tears.

Some highlights:

The intellectual manifestation of this pathology was and is a collective delusion that ignores both history and ethology. It is a belief that goodness, stable order, justice, peace, freedom, legal equality, mutual forbearance, and kindness are the default state of things in human affairs, and that malice, disorder, violence, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty are the aberrations that stand in need of historical explanation. Getting the defaults precisely and systematically wrong, Western intellectuals fail to understand and appreciate the form of society that has given us the ability to alter them. The pathology is also the demented belief that evolved successful societies may be redrawn at will by intellectuals with political power and that the most productive human cultures are almost wholly dysfunctional.

Rousseau and all the Marxisizing intellectuals who have cast their darkness over the past one hundred years and more have had it all backward in this domain. It is not aversion to difference that requires historical explanation —aversion to difference is the human condition. Rather, it is liberal society’s partial but breathtaking ability to overcome tribalism and exclusion that demands elucidation, above all in the singular American accomplishment. Tyranny and abuse of power have also been the human condition. It is, in contrast, the limitation of power and the recognition of individual rights that demand historical explanation. It is not slavery that startles, because slavery is one of the most universal of all human institutions. Rather, it is the view of self-ownership, liberty, and voluntary labor that requires historical explanation, the values and agencies by which the West identified slavery as an evil, and, to what should be our wonder, abolished it. Western intellectuals write, dramatically, as if it were relative pockets of Western poverty that should occasion our astonishment, when in fact the term until recently for almost infinitely worse absolute levels of poverty was simply “life.” What generally remains unaddressed by our secular intellectuals is the question of what values, institutions, knowledge, behaviors, risks, and liberties allowed the West to create such prosperity that we even notice such relative poverty at all, let alone believe that it is eradicable. Tragically, the very effort to overturn the evolved systems and values of the West has produced the most extreme examples in history of, precisely, malice, disorder, violence, coercion, legal inequality, intolerance, and cruelty.

There is no revivification of the principles that separated us from the socialists in power. “You put private property ahead of people” remains a potent malediction, as if we had not learned sufficiently and amply that the former is essential to the well-being, dignity, liberty, and lives of the latter. “You put profits ahead of people” remains of equal force, as if we had not learned sufficiently that profits are the measure of other people’s satisfactions of want and desire. Indeed, it is precisely to avoid the revivification of classical liberal principles that our teachers, professors, information media, and filmmakers ignore the comparative inquiry that the time so urgently demands.

Indeed, it is precisely because of the lessons that would be taught by knowledge and truth that no revision of the curriculum occurs. For at least a generation, intellectual contempt for liberal society —as a civilization, a set of institutions, and a constellation of ideals —has been at the core of the humanities and soft social sciences. This has accelerated, not changed, despite the fact that now there is no intellectual excuse for ignoring certain verities. We know that voluntary exchange among individuals held morally responsible under the rule of law creates both prosperity and an unparalleled diversity of human choices. Such a model also has been a precondition of individuation and freedom. By contrast, regimes of central planning create poverty and occasion ineluctable developments toward totalitarianism and the worst abuses of power. Dynamic free-market societies, grounded in rights-based individualism, have altered the entire human conception of liberty and of dignity for formerly marginalized groups. The entire “socialist experiment,” by contrast, ended in stasis, ethnic hatreds, the absence of even the minimal preconditions of economic, social, and political renewal, and categorical contempt for both individuation and minority rights. Our children do not know this true comparison.

...

As for the mea culpas, we await them in vain from those who claim not to have known or who still choose not to learn. When Eisenhower heard that the German residents of a nearby large town “didn’t know” about a death camp whose stench should have reached their nostrils, he marched them, well dressed, through the rotting corpses, and made them help dispose of the dead. We lack his authority. Milan Kundera, the dissident Czech novelist during the Communist period, stated the moral reality with reference to its only appropriate genre, tragedy. Take the extreme case, he suggested. What about those with good intentions? he asked in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. What about those who didn’t know, and who acted in good faith? Kundera wrote of Oedipus:

Little did he know that the man he had killed in the mountains was his father and the woman with whom he slept his mother. In the meantime, fate visited a plague on his subjects and tortured them with great pestilences. When Oedipus realized that he himself was the cause of their suffering, he put out his own eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes. . . . Unable to stand the sight of the misfortunes he had wrought by “not knowing,” he put out his eyes and wandered blind away from Thebes.

How not to be tempted by this? For me, I would offer one indulgence. Let the socialists, fellow travelers, apologists, and revisionists acknowledge the dead, bury the dead, teach what they have learned, and atone for the dead. Otherwise, given the enormity of what has occurred, let them indeed be forgiven only when they have put out their eyes and wandered blind away from Moscow, Beijing, or Thebes. Let Western intellectuals repeat the phrase of “Requiem,” a work written during the Stalinist terror by Anna Akhmatova, the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century: “I will remember them always and everywhere, I will never forget them no matter what comes.”

Sep 212009
 

The BBC has posted a link to part of an interview George Stephanopoulos had with Barack Obama in the wake of the Jimmy Carter ‘People oppose Obama because they’re racists’ declaration.

In the bit of the video that you can watch, Obama actually says something that surprises me, not because it’s not correct, but because it is – Obama has demonstrated in under two minutes that not only does he understand why so many people oppose his policies, he’s also willing to say so when it would be easier not to:

Obama:Now, there are some who, setting aside the issue of race, actually I think are more passionate about the idea of whether government can do anything right. And I think that – that’s probably the biggest driver of some of the vitriol –

Stephanopoulos: That, are you going to raise their taxes.

Obama: It – well, it goes beyond taxes. Anytime there is a president who is proposing big changes that seem to implicate the size of government, that gets everybody’s juices flowing.

Leaving aside the indelicacy of mentioning flowing juices – whatever he means by that – it’s quite obvious that Obama understands the conservative position vastly better than his supporters, including Stephanopoulos by the way, who are busy ejaculating accusations of racism and greed all over the place rather than taking issue with the fact that many Americans simply do not agree that the federal government has any legitimate role in the provision of health care, however unfair or unworkable the current system might be. When Stephanopoulos opines that such people are only interested in the number on their tax returns, Obama rightly corrects him. It’s not all about taxes.

Every now and again, Obama says little things that like this which indicate to me that he may actually be willing to engage with the meaningful criticisms of his policies – that he may actually acknowledge that the size of the state, and the extent to which it interferes with people’s activities and behaviour, is a topic worthy of reasonable debate. And I feel a little bit of this much-vaunted ‘hope’ well within my breast, because I very rarely encounter anyone from the other side of the political divide who is willing to debate that without resorting to calling me an anarchist (‘We need government to rein in people’s baser natures! Hobbes said so!’), a hater of democracy (okay, so this one’s kind of true), or a tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoiac (‘Bitch, please – this idea that governments want to turn us all into serfs is just a crazy conspiracy theory. Run off to your log cabin in the mountains with your shotgun, why don’t you’).

Then I remember that Obama said this, too, and the tiny, fragile, puppy-dog-eyed bit of hope curls up and dies.

Obama: But I don’t want the folks who created the mess – I don’t want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don’t mind cleaning up after them, but don’t do a lot of talking. [crowd cheers madly] Am I wrong, Virginia?

[crowd shouts ‘No!’]

Sep 082009
 

Continuing with the recent philosophy that learning has to be justified by national utility, President Obama gave a televised speech this morning aimed at schoolchildren. Most classrooms in American schools have television sets (books? why are you asking about books? this is multi-media learning), and so I reckon, though I cannot be sure, that all state schools were required to show this broadcast, on what is for many children their first day of the school year.

As a teacher, I cannot over-emphasise what a massive pain in the backside I would have found it to spend even fifteen minutes of precious class time on frivolous speeches. The curriculum is too vast, and the school year too short in comparison, to give up even a moment of it. For purposes of comparison, consider that, four years ago when Pope John Paul II died, I was a Catholic teaching in a Catholic school and I still resented the single day the school closed for mourning.

But Obama’s speech was not simply frivolous; it was a collection of egotistical bromides couched in terms no child could fail to understand: if you don’t do well in school, you’ll never have a comfortable life, and the nation will be doomed. How do you mean, egotistical, I hear you ask?

I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.

Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”

I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.

So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.

But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.

‘I, I, I. I’m you, American schoolchildren. I’m Everyman.’

Except that, of course, if you’re a kid, you’re thinking hmm. The president is telling me he goofed off and got in trouble and wasted time, and yet he still became the president. So clearly there’s no penalty.

And Obama puts the weight of a huge responsibility on these children’s shoulders. They’re not to have an education so they can be open-minded, well-rounded, happy people, oh no. They’re to have it so they can be of economic and civic benefit to the country:

And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.

And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.

You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.

We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.

So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?

‘Your mind exists to serve others. Your talents exist to serve others. Your achievements will go toward serving others. Because the absolute height of existence, the pinnacle of morality, the one necessary and sufficient incentive any human has or should have, is to serve others.’

There is a lot of talk about not ‘quitting on yourself’ in this speech, but no definition, unless it’s that quitting on yourself means you won’t be able to make money (lawyer, architect) or devote yourself to other people’s welfare (doctor, nurse, police officer, scientist, teacher, soldier, job-creator). I’m not saying he’s wrong – it’d be difficult to do any of those things without an education – but there is no talk of the personal satisfaction of setting goals and achieving them; the rewarding of curiosity; the simple joy of learning a skill and putting it to use, whatever the skill, whatever the use; the opening of the mind to ways of finding pleasure in any activity or experience. There is no focus in this speech on how you can use what you learn to give your life meaning – there is only offered the prospect of future usefulness.

And Obama is a bit out of touch with the heroes of today’s youth:

Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

As much as I might find Michael Jordan impressive, he is not even a hero of my youth, seeing as he had retired from basketball before I left high school. He also – let’s face it – is not really the poster child for education; he dropped out of university to play professional basketball and finished his BA in tiny chunks in the years thereafter, finally ending up with a degree in geography. Funnily enough, this little nugget about Jordan’s perseverance comes right after the part in the speech where Obama says:

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.

Kids are not stupid. They will perceive the contradiction. On the one hand, Obama tells them they’re unlikely to succeed in those professions where an education is not necessary. On the other hand, he uses as an example of success and a role model one of the very people who did just that. Hmm.

That said, Obama does offer one piece of good sense:

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new.

Unfortunately, he follows it with this:

And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.

The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.

Argh.

Jun 302009
 

Via the delightful Mr E, I see that Ed Balls, Minister for Fucking Up Your Children and Families, has got himself into trouble on multiple counts:

First, he told some great big whoppers on the radio about Labour’s budget bringing the national debt down, when in fact their very own budget shows the national debt rising. Fraser Nelson illustrates with some pretty graphs.

Second, when Balls got wind of Nelson’s article, he demanded it be taken down, practically causing Nelson to bust a kidney from laughter in the process.

Nelson says:

Balls was deploying the “false proxy” – one of the tools he and Brown use to mislead the public. The Brown/Balls spin technique is all about the gap between their verbal and financial positions. Debt is a classic case in point. Most people understand “reducing the national debt” to mean, well, reducing the national debt. Brown and Balls would claim to do this, when in fact they were increasing the national debt – but by slightly less than the growth of the economy. Orwell would have great fun with Brown and Balls – they have invented statistical doublethink. A way of describing ‘up’ as ‘down’.

Pretty sneaky, Balls. Pretty sneaky indeed.

Apparently, one of the things Balls said on the radio this morning was the following:

We have acted in the downturn, that will mean that the economy is stronger, we’ll have less unemployment, less debt. Therefore we will be able to spend more on schools and hospitals. The Conservatives have opposed these plans, the national debt will be higher with the Conservatives.

In the mind of the Man Who Would Be Chancellor, spending more = less debt and opposing spending = more debt. Excuse me while I ask, WTF. ‘The national debt will be higher with the Conservatives’? I grant that may well end up being true, but only because Labour have spent the last 9 months spending non-existent money like an overpaid benefits claimant in Asda.

Okay, wait, that was classist, wasn’t it?

Spending non-existent money like a teenaged geek with a stolen credit card in the Apple Store.

Whatever the simile, Balls has just proved that the level of political discourse is no better here than in my native land: ‘We rock, and the other guys are totes poo-heads. Am I right or am I right?’

One thing that is different, however, is the unbelievable fact that people win elections in this country by promising more public spending. Some of the electorate evidently want to wrap themselves in the cotton wool of this promise so badly that they’re happy just to hear it as bullshit, never mind it actually happening:

We don’t care if the commentators or the economists turn against us. This is all about shoring up the base in the northern heartlands, which we lost in the European elections. We don’t want or need them to understand the nuance of the argument. We just want them to hate the Tories again.

The equation being, of course, that the British hate spending cuts, and thus hate the Tories, yea even unto the Day of Judgment, Amen.

Whereas the Americans, as far as I can still tell, adore spending cuts, and have hitherto gigantically mistrusted anybody who doesn’t advocate them. Now, obviously, I’m well aware that Americans are being lied to also – no American government has managed actually to cut spending since, like, EVER – but the difference lies in the lies we wish to be told.

(Did you see what I did there?)

Americans want to pretend the government is spending less of their money than ever on less and less stuff. The British want to pretend the government is spending more of their money than ever on making the current stuff super-awesome.

I wonder what proportion of the US population pays income tax, versus what proportion of the British population pays income tax.

I bet it’s a smaller proportion here in the UK. Anybody have the data? I’m willing to be corrected.

May 192009
 

Independent regulation of all remuneration of MPs – that’s it?

(1) How fucking embarrassing. The governors of our nation admit they cannot be trusted to govern themselves.

(2) Is it really possible to have ‘statutory independent regulation’? I mean, who is going to choose these regulators? From what funds will they be paid? From public funds? In which case, are they really independent?

(3) If they will be paid from public funds, how much hiring and paying and funding of this new, presumably civil service, branch of the state is going to go on? When this came up in a discussion with libertarians on Saturday afternoon, a figure of £600,000pa was posited. Small change in terms of spending, but surely part of the whole scandal is that public money is being spent not only too much, but unwisely!

(4) Brown’s little press conference would have been a hell of a lot better without his autoencomium. His own Bill of Rights and Duties (ugh), and New Labour’s devolution, reform of the House of Lords, etc., etc. Nobody cares or wants to hear that sort of boasting in this situation.

(5) Someone has asked what the definition of ‘breaking the rules’ is, under which MPs will not be able to stand in the next election. Brown has no answer. I suspect that since the running excuse is that all these expenses were within the rules – and, indeed, it appears many of the most obnoxious ones were – we will see bunches of these bastards standing again, more’s the pity. (That, or Brown intends to use this ploy to neutralise his political enemies.)

(6) Brown has no response to a remark about how the public are saying that, if they did this stuff, they’d go to jail; the example given is of a shoplifter offering to return or pay for his booty. Brown’s claim: not an equivalent situation, because Hazel Blears acted within the rules. No ‘discipline’ for her then. Aha.

(7) A radio reporter-type has said Brown should call a general election. His response: it is the system at fault, not the Government, since ‘all parties must take responsibility for this.’ Never mind that the real reason for an election is the total collapse of public confidence in government. When the government cannot govern – as it appears not to have done over the past three weeks – a new democratic mandate is needed. Brown must be hugely delighted on the inside that the European elections are happening so soon, as it means the public will take out their justified rage and exercise their democratic privilege there – where it will have no effect on Labour’s continuing grasp-of-dead-hand hold on the UK. Once the voters have vented their spleen on MEPs, perhaps their disaffection will be purged! (He hopes.)

(8) A question about the Tamil protestors. Brown defends freedom of assembly. [Stopped listening; laughing too hard.]

(9) Brown keeps smiling – what the fuck has he got to smile about? He’s also leaning on the lectern in a way that, I’m sure, Obama the Orator never would. This bizarre body language actually makes him look… bored.

Speaking of which, I’m bored now too. Most of the snide questions I was droolingly anticipating have been asked, and Brown is now wittering like a madman: a maximum of words, a minimum of meaning, and enough use of the passive voice that, if this were transcribed into Latin, the page would be littered with -turs.

Make that turds. Which represent exactly what Brown, his speech, all other MPs, and the whole rotten edifice of this state are worth.

Feb 042009
 

The British high court, in a hearing about Guantanamo Bay ‘guest’ Binyam Mohamed, has ruled that:

Evidence of how a British resident held in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp was tortured, and what MI5 knew about it, must remain secret because of serious threats the US has made against the UK…

Serious threats, eh? Pre-emptive strikes? Nuclear weapons? No more Krispy Kreme?

Er, no:

…they had no alternative as a result of a statement by David Miliband, the foreign secretary, that if the evidence was disclosed the US would stop sharing intelligence with Britain.

Now prominent bloggers are calling on British politicians to ‘give the Hugh Grant speech’ from that work of cinematic genius, Love Actually, and crying ‘bullying.’

The US is under no obligation, at least as far as I’m aware, to share with Britain the intelligence it gathers. That it does is something of a courtesy, and even more of a recognition that it serves the interests of both nations.

But there are things that manifestly do not serve the interest of the US, for whatever reason (noble or no), and the public discussion of the shoddy way in which it has probably treated suspected terrorists is apparently one of those things.

The British judges don’t get it:

“Indeed, we did not consider that a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence contained in reports by its own officials … relevant to allegations of torture and cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, politically embarrassing though it might be,” they said.

And the dig about democracies governed by the rule of law is a delightful piece of irony considering the allegations ‘that Britain was complicit in torture’.

Whatever the opinion of the judges might be, the US thinks the matter important enough to warrant a ‘threat’ not to share its intelligence. That Britain wants that intelligence badly enough to subvert its own judicial process doesn’t mean the US has ‘bullied.’ There is a choice there, however unpalatable it may be.

UPDATE: My flatmate, who is smarter than me, says there is an obligation, and it’s called NATO. To which I say, when have treaties ever stood in the way of what the US wants?