Via @Athena_PR, this:

Nadine Dorries: We should shut down social media networking sites during a public disturbance

I don’t think I’ve written much about Nadine Dorries, but I’ve read the on-going rhetoric wars over her between Dizzy and Tim Ireland, and I know of the bogus ‘hand of God’ scandal. But I was willing to give her—and her party—the benefit of the doubt in some respects until I read this blog post—this blog post—condemning the very web-based social communication that the post itself embodies.

Let us consider: why would Nadine Dorries want to write a blog post for ConservativeHome? First, because it has a large audience to whom she can suck up. Second, because writing a blog post that reaches a large audience is easier than the hard slog of doorstepping, campaigning on the ground, and connecting in person with individuals. Third, because writing a blog post is a crap-ton easier than going on the media rounds, being interviewed by journalists who jealously (if inconsistently) guard speech privileges and who love nothing better than wrong-footing a politician.

So we’ve already identified a host of practical (if cynical) reasons why social media is good for Nadine Dorries.

But curiously, it is this same social media (ooooh, watch out) whose restriction she advocates via the medium of social media.

She says:

During 7/7, mobile networks were instantly closed down.

The justification for this, as I recall correctly, was to stop the overloading of networks, which would interfere with emergency response systems. Leaving aside whether or not that makes sense, what Nadine actually says is that:

The precedent to prevent those who present a threat to the safety of civilians from communicating with each other is already set, even though possibly not officially acknowledged by the intelligence services.

So, she acknowledges that the justification given at the time was a lie, and that the actual purpose was to stop ‘civilians from communicating with each other.’

What did it stop? More terrorist attacks, that had been planned and coordinated in advance by people meeting in person? Maybe. More likely, it stopped ‘civilians’ from contacting their loved ones to make sure they were safe, to find out where they were, to help each other, to advise each other, to mourn together, to make plans to meet up and feel the comfort of one another’s company. I’m not at all convinced that interrupting communications networks in the aftermath of disaster is a good response; nor do I believe that causing definite worry and pain to the innocent is negligible when compared to the possibility that further terrorists might be inconvenienced.

Presumably, however, Dorries does: deal with it, you civilians, it’s for your own good.

She carries on:

To compare the intention of a democratically elected, heavily scrutinised Government, to restrict social media use during a public disorder in this country, with the autocratic, secretive regimes of others such as Iran and China, is simply not a sustainable argument.

It is a sustainable argument, actually, when one isn’t tilting at straw men. The intention behind the shutting down of a speech channel by government, and the nature of that government, are immaterial. Whatever the intention or the government, the outcome is the same: a speech channel is shut down. Dorries should know, due to her Christian advocacy, that Christ is not concerned with the roots, but with the fruits. And as we all know, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

I for one do not give a stuff about the government’s intentions, or its democratic legitimacy. What I am concerned with are the outcomes of its policies. It is possible for an autocrat to lead a blissful society. And it is possible for a democrat to preside over a dystopian one.

But hark! To Dorries, this sort of statement is not hypocrisy, for as she says of another suspiciously grassy figurine:

A peaceful demonstration, voicing a desire for freedom of speech, or free and fair elections in other countries cannot be compared to mass criminality or violent social disorder, which is what we saw take place here during the riots.

Allow me to deconstruct this for you in simple symbolic logic, if I can, for it makes little sense, but I’ll give it a go.

Oppressive regimes = bad.
Violent disorder = bad.
Social media = ?

Where are social media in this argument? Nowhere. What Dorries is saying is that condemning oppressive regimes whilst condemning disorder is not hypocrisy. Well, duh. In other news, comfort is good and pain is unpleasant, and the pope shits in the woods. What has this got to do with anything?

I think I would like Dorries better if she was prepared to talk the talk and walk the walk. If one is going to address the criticism that shutting down social media makes the British government no better than China or Iran, one should really go all out and just admit something along the lines of, ‘You know what? China and Iran have their problems, but this is one issue they have bang to rights. Having one or two things in common with them doesn’t make us fascists, too. After all, Hitler liked dogs and watercolours.’

She’d still be wrong, but at least she wouldn’t be a mealy-mouthed, lying, self-deluding, patronising hypocrite.

And there’s still more to come:

The argument put forward this morning by Andrew, on the Today programme, that a Twitter message may have saved a person in a burning house is false and unprovable. It just didn’t happen. What saved a person in a burning house was screaming out of a window.

Does anyone really think that an individual when sat in the middle of a burning building, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter and post a message which says ‘help, help’?

Well, maybe. I can’t speak for this Andrew chap. He strikes me as something of a dimwit. Of course nobody tweets ‘Help, help.’ But maybe what they tweet is, ‘Hey you guys, is there any rioting near Brixton station? I usually go home past it.’

And maybe what they get is, ‘Yes, there is: find a different way home or you might get hurt.’ So there you go: social media can prevent harm as easily as it can contribute to it.

Conversely, rather than saving lives, the overwhelming use of social media during the riots was seriously harmful. It disseminated information so quickly that it undoubtedly helped to spread the riots across a wider area. This resulted in the tragic loss of life in Birmingham and chaotic disruption in other major cities.

This is a total exaggeration. How many people were involved in the riots, vs how many uninvolved people were helping each other through social media channels? Given the numbers rioting were, you know, small in the grand scheme of the online population, I have to call bullshit on this one.

Especially when one considers the fact that, in the grand scheme of riots, this was pretty paltry. It sucks that people died, and that others’ livelihoods and homes were destroyed. But come on, they had way bigger riots than this in 1381 when barely anybody could write, let alone use Twitter. Social media didn’t facilitate widespread, destructive social upheaval. It partially facilitated shitty little riots, characterised mostly by looting, undertaken largely by people with criminal backgrounds.

You know what else social media facilitates? Widespread communication of condemnation of itself, by hypocritical assholes like Nadine Dorries. The tool that allows rioters to reach a wide audience of fellow rioters is the same tool that allows fascist scum like Nadine Dorries to reach a wide audience of fellow fascist scum. Funny, that. I guess social media can be used for good and evil. But just because Dorries is polluting the series of tubes with her authoritarian wickedness doesn’t mean I think the series of tubes should be switched off.

In proposing to close down social media networking sites when threatening public disorder starts to break out, this Government is acting responsibly in using such a measure as an exercise in damage limitation.

It’s also acting to disrupt a much wider-ranging exercise in damage prevention. Everything has a cost.

We must also remember that Twitter and Facebook were used to spread false rumours, to disrupt vital life saving services such as the Fire and Ambulance services…

Ooh, yet again, the justification that the emergency services need these networks to be clear in order to do their life-saving jobs. As Dorries has already admitted the falseness of that justification with respect to the closing of mobile networks on 7/7, it’s not a particularly effective piece of rhetoric here, but let’s return to something, shall we?

Does anyone really think that an individual when sat in the middle of a burning building, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter and post a message which says ‘help, help’?

Does anyone really think that emergency services personnel when sat in the middle of a riot zone, would calmly remove a mobile phone from a jacket pocket, select Twitter or Facebook, and check for a message which says ‘help, help’?

Finally:

To the Libertarians who are constantly arguing against the use of CCTV and the very temporary shutting down of social media when necessary, you have to ask yourself this. Is your political principle really more important that the families who lost sons, the shopkeepers who lost their business and the children who have been burnt out of their homes?

My answer: yes.

Because the failure to prevent rioting negatively affected a few thousands, while the failure to protect my principle negatively affects everyone on this planet. Don’t make Stalin’s mistake in thinking that a few thousand horrors is a tragedy, but a few billion is merely a statistic.

I think what bothers me the most here is not that Dorries believes these things, for I’m sure she’s not alone and I know a lot of people sympathise with her views. What really gets my goat is that she is a representative of the Government of this nation; and her well-paid advisors, her party’s well-paid advisors, and the Government’s well-paid advisors appear to have no objection to her advocacy, on a very popular and highly-read social media forum, of the shutting down of social media in technology-based, 21st-century Britain, all in the name of the possible prevention of criminal behaviour that is barely on a par with the kind of social disorder and criminal behaviour that persisted in eras when social media wasn’t even a gleam in your mother’s eye.

I can only assume, from this and from Cameron’s recent waffle, that the Conservative party endorses this kind of bullshit, and that its supporters and voters endorse it as well. And if this is what passes for democratically elected, heavily scrutinised, first-world, free-world governance, then I fear deeply for democracy, elections, scrutiny, and the civilised world.

Dorries notwithstanding, I’m extremely unlikely to support the Conservative party ever, but you entryists out there (and I know there are fuck-tons of you, because you’ve tried your entryism on me), take note: if you don’t stand up and condemn what Dorries and Cameron are saying, you will earn for yourselves many enemies. And if you, by your silence, permit Dorries, Cameron, and their ilk to follow through on this ragged rhetoric with actual policies, you will earn for yourselves so much implacable hatred that you will consider rock bands claiming they will dance when you die to be an expression of positive affection, and moan about how easy Thatcher had it.

[I wanted to leave this as a comment over at John Demetriou's original post, but his implementation of Blogger rejects comments of more than 4,096 characters.]

JD, unlike your usual rants, this post is dire. I don’t mean that to be harsh, but you’re coming at this from an angle of misunderstanding that makes your ‘I don’t understand’ claims all too believable.

For one thing, you refer to ‘Americans’ and ‘the American people’ as if there is one collective American mind, and you find its schizophrenia puzzling. Perhaps for the sake of simplicity, it might be better to think of Americans as two collective minds: those who voted for Obama, and those who didn’t. For all sorts of reasons, he is and has been a polarising figure. And so you have two poles, rather than the single mad hive-mind you say is so bizarre. It is one pole that exhibits ‘curious rage’ against Obama, not ‘the American people.’

For another thing, you massively overstate Obama’s popularity during the election and at the beginning of his term. You assert that he ‘won by a landslide’ and was the subject of ‘hero worship,’ ‘hagiography,’ and high approval ratings. In fact, he did not win by anything like a landslide. He won with 53% and 28 states.

By comparison, in 2004, George W Bush won with 51% and 31 states. In 1988, George H W Bush won with 53% and 40 states. And in 1984, Ronald Reagan won with 59% and 49 states. And that wasn’t even as impressive as the 1972 election, when Richard Nixon (Nixon, of all people!) won 49 states and 61% of the vote.

Obama has had nothing like the electoral success other presidents have managed. Your perception of hero-worship and hagiography, just like your perception of rage and hatred, comes from one pole of the American populace.

Furthermore, your understanding of the role of US president is woefully incomplete. You say that ‘Bush inherited an excellent, albeit imperfect, set of books from Clinton and very quickly wrecked it.’ As if either Clinton or Bush had anything whatsoever to do with the books or quality thereof. Congress controls the cash, and the Congress that delivered Clinton a budget surplus was, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress that fucked it all up for Bush. And the Congress Obama has been working with is, in composition, almost exactly the same Congress Bush was working with during his last two years in office. The state of the books in the US is entirely unrelated to the views and actual quality of the president.

You also say that Obama is hated ‘for having the temerity to actually carry out what he proposed to do.’ Again, the president does not ‘do’ things. He does not draft legislation, propose it, debate it, or vote on it. He merely signs it once it’s made its way through Congress. (Or not, as the case may be, but I don’t think Obama’s actually used his veto yet.)

So any carrying out during Obama’s term has been done by Congress. And what they have carried out bears little actual resemblance to the platform on which he campaigned. Sure, the health care bill, but what about everything else? What about the war, the ‘middle-class tax cuts,’ the great repeal of the Bush administration’s incursions on civil liberties? Neither he nor Congress have done any of those things, which were major selling points among Obama’s supportive node. Surely you don’t think the whole election revolved around the question of a healthcare bill?

A healthcare bill which you describe thus: ‘The timing…was perhaps ill-judged, even from a social democrat perspective, but this was one of those once-in-a-thousand-years opportunities, politically, to achieve this ambition.’ For a once-in-a-thousand-years opportunity, Obama and his Congress sure did fuck it up, didn’t they? Instead of doing thorough research, either before the election or after it, and determining the best possible way to ensure universal, affordable healthcare, they cobbled together a travesty of a bill, full of unrelated pork to get various hold-out politicians onside, that when all is said and done, could serve as an exemplar of what every rent-seeker (in this case, the insurance industry) hardly dares even to dream. That’s not even to mention the costs this bill imposes, both to individuals and to the body politic, which have been revised upward continually since the passage of the bill. And the bill fails to achieve even its basic objective, which is to ensure that the poor and low-paid have access to affordable, customised insurance and care.

Is it any wonder that a significant number of Americans are horrified and disgusted by it?

All of this is a far cry from, ‘Hey, you all voted for him, he did what he said he’d do, so what’s the big problem?’

Finally, you assert that les Americains sont fous because ‘their media and overall educational standards are so lacking in substance.’ This is, basically, not true. Unless by ‘their media’ you mean Fox News, and by ‘their overall educational standards’ you mean ‘those five schools in Kansas where they teach intelligent design.’

Or perhaps you just mean the rednecks, Tea Partiers, and Christians are poorly educated. Maybe you can confirm or deny.

What I don’t understand is why you are displaying so much contempt for a bunch of people who, for the most part, share your opinions. These are people who didn’t vote for Obama (as presumably you wouldn’t have, did you have the opportunity) and who loathe what he stands for and what he’s supported as president. Sure, some of them have authoritarian tendencies, but they’re with you on at least 50% of stuff. If you were in their position, wouldn’t you be angry? They didn’t want him, they didn’t vote for him, and his presidency is riding roughshod over their cherished conception of what the United States is.

I never expected you to take this position, I must say. That you would present Americans who disagree with their president and his Congress, and who display that disagreement with words, ideas, and peaceful legitimate protests, as ‘wild, irrational…mad and retarded’ comes as a great surprise to me.

And a serious disappointment.

UPDATE: JD rebuts here.

Great words from Mr Civil Libertarian:

Politics and ethics aren’t easy bedfellows. That’s because there’s nothing ethical about politics. Politics as we know it consists entirely of: Using the force of the state (which is unethical) to coerce (which is unethical) otherwise peaceful citizens into a) giving up their preferred way of life (unethical), b) giving up their justly acquired property (unethical), c) obeying the rules of a small section of society under threat of severe punishment (unethical), and also d) committing violent, coercive acts against citizens of other Nation States that they can claim no possible right over (VERY unethical).

There’s very little politics can do that is ethical, since ultimately, the power of politicians comes, not from namby-pamby “social contracts” (which you never knowingly signed, cannot rescind, and cannot see the terms of) or from any sort of “God given right”, but ultimately from the use of, or the threat of use of, violence against you. What Lucas, as a Member of Parliament, does, is work as yet another embodiment of this established violence. That’s her job. That’s her role. To claim she is “ethical” makes a mockery of ethics.

American commentary on the UK elections has me practically in stitches from laughter. This might have to become a series.

Take this, for instance, in Slate magazine (emphasis mine):

Our American campaigns have become decadent spectacles of horrifying length and expense characterized by 30-second attack ads, a class of parasitic professionals, and a running media freak show.

By contrast, Britain’s feel pure. They are swift (four weeks!), substantive, and not entirely driven by fundraising. Spouses are treated as human beings and allowed their own lives. The electorate is informed and engaged. The candidates are more spontaneous and accessible.

If there is one thing I’ve noticed about the ‘candidates’ in this election, it’s been their spontaneity and accessibility. Brown, for example, was so spontaneous that he called a little old Labour lady a bigot live on air. My local Labour and Conservative candidates were so ‘accessible’ that, in what was really four months of campaigning, not four weeks as Jacob Weisberg seems to think, I received one leaflet apiece from them. Not a single candidate’s supporters here actually doorstepped us; I only managed to talk to the one Lib Dem guy because I opened the door while he was… delivering a leaflet through the letterbox.

Substance, too, has been a running theme of this election: Brown has it, or so Mandelson would have us believe. But the ‘substance’ has been, more or less: Vote for me, I’m not as bad as the others! Yeah, that’s real substantive.

I don’t know what evidence Weisberg has for thinking that the British electorate is more ‘informed and engaged’ than the American one, especially since he wrote the article before the election and thus before voter turnout was known. American voter turnout in 2008 was about 61%; UK voter turnout this time round was 65%. That’s not a gigantic difference.

Later in the same article, Weisberg admires the intellectualism (he read Waiting for Godot!), atheism (his wife is a man of faith!), and multiculturalism (Dutch father! Spanish wife! Bruges and Brussels!) of Nick Clegg, whom he ‘laid eyes on’ once in Birmingham. On that occasion, Weisberg reports, Clegg failed to answer a direct question from a voter (‘Clegg replies, before going on to rephrase what he’s already said’) because evidently she wasn’t listening hard enough the first time, then ‘patiently tries to bring her around’ when, having been asked what she thinks, she tells him it’s his job to answer the questions, not hers. But that’s all right, because Clegg ‘handled a tough customer well.’ Um, what? Clegg treated her like she was an idiot. No wonder the Lib Dems lost seats.

Weisberg’s attitude toward Cameron, however, is nothing like so enthusiastic:

I’d seen Conservative Party leader David Cameron twice before, both times in off-the-record press conversations, and both times I came away with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found his case for modernizing the Conservatives well put. In the United States, the Republicans have gone in just the opposite direction, moving closer to the most extreme positions of their base and purging themselves of any sort of moderation. Under Cameron, the Tories acknowledge the value of government and the necessity of taxes, not to mention the threat of climate change and the equality of gay people.

One has to wonder, now the count is in, whether ‘modernizing’ the Conservatives to be left-wing has helped them as much as remaining actual Conservatives might have done. And once again, an American reveals an implicit belief that somehow Conservatives equate to Republicans and Labour equate to Democrats. An American conservative, knowing the legends of Margaret Thatcher, would gasp in outraged horror at Cameron’s free bus pass and eye test guarantee. Weisberg might twig Blue Labour, but he clearly doesn’t understand American conservatives at all – not least because he seems to think that American conservatives are the same thing as Republicans.

On the other hand, I was put off by Cameron’s focus on what historian Daniel Boorstin once described in a visionary book of the 1960s as “The Image.” He seemed more focused on the rebranding of the Conservatives than on the contents of the package.

Weisberg cannot make up his mind: he likes the Tory rebranding (yay, modernizing!), and yet he doesn’t like Cameron’s focus on the Tory rebranding. What, does he think that should have been understated? Does he really believe that a party that wants to get elected should understate the very aspect they reckon is likely to get them elected?

Oh, and also, unlike Nick Clegg whom Weisberg ‘laid eyes on’ once, during his several meetings with Cameron, he felt Cameron was inaccessible. Press access was, apparently, limited – limited to three meetings per random foreign journalist, I suppose. And even though Cameron ‘takes… questions seriously’ and is ‘relaxed, fluent and cogent’ when he speaks to voters, he is somehow less engaging than Nick ‘I Said That Already’ Clegg.

Oh, and also-also, Weisberg gets in a dig about the Contract With On America. Because obviously that worked out so poorly, what with six years of record prosperity following its implementation.

Finally, Weisberg moves on to Brown. Brown reminds Weisberg of a character in a novel who is half blind, angry, and unable to deal with other people. The character turns out to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

At a vast, Andreas Gursky-like Tesco supermarket in Newcastle, I watch [Brown] move briskly down an aisle, bumbling through encounters with people to whom he has nothing to say. Upstairs, in the employees’ lounge, he mistakes me for a Tesco worker and reaches out to shake my hand—even though I’m standing behind a barrier in the press section and had been chatting with him just a few minutes before in the second-class compartment of the train from London.

A second-class carriage? My God, how did they stand it? Folks who ride in standard class are a totally different type of person from them!

But wait, a heckler is yelling something about Gillian Duffy. Amazingly, the Special Branch officers are doing nothing about a possibly unhinged man menacing the prime minister—the luxury of politics in an unarmed country. A woman not more than 5 feet tall tugs at the protester’s sleeve. Eventually, he is dragged out, trailed by the press, as Brown continues his speech as if nothing has happened.

Ah yes – for all his admiration of the British way of doing things, Weisberg still seems to believe that armed bodyguards should be ‘doing something’ about a perfectly legitimate heckler. My God, drag him out of there! Apparently Weisberg remains blissfully ignorant of how that sort of thing went down last time Labour did it. ‘It’s a shouty old man! Quick, beat him up!’ Contrast Weisberg’s attitude toward this random heckler with his description of, quite obviously, another heckler (emphasis mine):

Julian Borthwick, who has blemished yet another day on the campaign trail for Gordon Brown, is an unexpected character. Nicely dressed in a hounds tooth tweed jacket, the 38-year-old academic says he is not a Conservative, not highly political, and not ordinarily given to interrupting politicians. He was having lunch at the museum with his parents when the prime minister interrupted them by arriving with his entourage. After listening to Brown’s speech for a few minutes, he became furious enough to begin shouting. In particular, he was appalled by his promise of subsidized broadband Internet access for the North, which, he says, already has excellent connections. Despite his poor manners, Borthwick has a point: Why is Labor promising new benefits of marginal value when austerity should be the order of the day?

I guess hecklers become a lot less menacing when you know they’re tweedy academic types ‘not ordinarily given’ to heckling. Julian Borthwick has a mild case of the bad manners, rather than being a ‘possibly unhinged’ and working-class trade unionist as mentioned earlier. Weisberg, you snob.

Not to mention the fact that Weisberg’s section on Labour revolves almost entirely around Gordon Brown’s inability to act like a human, mixed with anecdotes about members of his audience and people who chastised Weisberg for getting his press pass from the Grauniad. Julian Borthwick gets more of a hearing than any criticism Weisberg might have of Labour’s policies. Presumably this is because he has no criticisms to offer. After all, Labour are practically the same thing as Democrats, and look how awesome they are!

If this brief, intense visit showed me the pleasures of British politics, it has also underscored the miserable job that the next British prime minister faces. Simply put, he will inherit a government that is much too large in relation to the country’s post-crisis economy. He will have to cut services, reform pensions, and scale back commitments, ultimately reducing spending from current levels by about 12 percent, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. He will literally decimate the government, reducing it by a tenth. America faces a dire fiscal prospect as well, but we have a better chance of solving part of the problem through stronger growth and have more ability to raise taxes.

Ahahahahahaha… oh, sorry. America has a better chance to recover because it has more ability to raise taxes? I beg to differ. Not because Congress couldn’t jack up taxes – they could, obviously – but because America will recover better, not through taxes, but through the fact that its private sector, unlike Britain’s, thriveth mightily.

That’s Weisberg, then: huge admiration for British politics despite its useless and insulting party leaders, its voters who heckle and refuse to listen, and its dire prospects for the future. Yup, there’s loads of stuff there to admire.

And now, of course, I shall make the obligatory defence that, no, I don’t hate Britain and I’m not a racist against the British. There are things I really admire about Britain – why the hell else would I be here? – but its political system is not one of them, except insofar as it provides me with copious entertainment. Oddly, what I like best about Britain is what Weisberg seems to like least: its individuals. Most of the British I know are among the most interesting I have ever encountered. Weisberg’s respect is reserved only for the idea of Britain which exists inside his head. Individuals, where he mentions them at all, Weisberg mocks and derides.

Apart from Julian Borthwick, who presumably is spared this treatment because, at the museum, he had a copy of Waiting for Godot bulging from the pocket of his tweedy jacket.

UPDATE: I’ve had an email from the mods telling me, among other things, that I nearly crashed their site because of everybody voting multiple times. This is considered unfair. Be told.

It appears that the mods over at publicservice.co.uk did not appreciate the free traffic yesterday’s pollbomb gave them. One of the mods has left this remark on the poll feedback site:

It would seem there are people out there who spend so long in their blogging basements that they a) have lost any understanding of democracy and fair play and b) consider their actions to be revolutionary and even relevant when in fact they are risible and, well, bordering on the just plain silly…

The actions by such people don’t do anything other than allow them to snigger to themselves (and each other) which is all very satisfying for them, I’m sure. But the whole point of a poll is for people to express their honest opinions which will hopefully be of interest to people who actually do have something worthwhile to say. Bombing polls is ridiculous and pointless, much like the sites that advocate it and relish in it. And the whole premise that there is a public vs private battle like a City vs United thing is nothing short of lame and shows extremely shallow thinking. For those of us who have operated (and still do) in both sectors, we know this is simply not the case.

So to the rest of you out there who do believe in democracy, intelligent debate and discourse, please keep voting and sending in your opinions. We do value them and we will not abandon any poll simply because someone thinks it’s clever to attempt to sabotage it (but sitting at 43-57 at the time of writing they haven’t even managed to do that) for the sake of a collective online giggle.

This is standard practice for humourless precious types, I’m afraid. Let’s examine whether the mod’s own comment meets the test of ‘intelligent debate and discourse.’

1. Insults:

  • ‘risible’
  • ‘silly’
  • ‘ridiculous’
  • ‘pointless’
  • ‘lame’
  • ‘shallow’
  • unintelligent
  • think it’s clever [implying that it's stupid]

2. Baseless accusations:

  • no understanding of democracy and fair play
  • dishonest
  • lack of belief in democracy
  • ‘sabotage’
  • ‘for the sake of a collective online giggle’

3. Derision:

  • not ‘revolutionary’ or ‘important’
  • nothing worthwhile to say
  • opinions of pollbombers not valued
  • ‘ridiculous and pointless’ pollbomb failing anyway

Is anyone out there surprised by this method? You shouldn’t be. It’s straight out of the Righteous Manual of Pious Outrage.

In light of this unprovoked nastiness and accusation, I moseyed back over and left my own comment. Knowing that they censored DK straight into the aether, I reproduce my words in full here.

Hi there! I’m the ‘plain silly’ blogger who started the pollbomb. I know the assumption by the moderators here is that I’m shallow and think myself ‘quite clever.’ I’ll omit pointing out the essential hypocrisy of such swipes and merely explain my motivation.

On the ‘about us’ part of [the publicservice.co.uk] site, you will find these statements:

‘We are THE provider for all your public sector information needs’

‘We continually strive to build on our reputation as a key source of news and analysis on public sector matters’

Given the self-proclaimed prominence of this website and its parent company in providing the public sector with THE information it needs to know, perhaps you could explain to me why you judge it unfair that some of us should choose to send an informative message to the public sector by voting in your poll.

If, as you claim, the poll ‘won’t die any kind of quiet death,’ then I hope that when you disseminate the results to your public sector clients, you report very clearly the following:

1. Numerous people took time out of their busy days and evenings to bring traffic to your site and participate in a survey to which you presumably wanted answers.

2. Many of those same people felt strongly enough about your question to leave comments explaining why they voted in the way they did.

3. There is a significant amount of resentment felt by private sector workers toward public sector ones. This is not because we assume all public sector employees earn huge amounts – far from it. We know nurses and policemen are generally not highly paid. The resentment stems from the fact that private sector employees are forced by law to fund public sector entitlements which they themselves could not afford and which reduces their capacity to afford other things too.

This is why we ‘ridiculously’ chose to ‘sabotage’ your poll, and why we hope that as THE provider of public sector information needs, you pass along the message.

And a message to the moderators of this site: given that you are censoring responses, I will also be publishing this reasonable and non-abusive (unlike your own) comment elsewhere.

We shall see whether they are truly in the market for ‘honest’ input.

Back in the days when I was a callow undergraduate, many of my close friends were devout Christians, as indeed were many people on campus. There were days when I could go from sunrise to its set without ever encountering a pair of wrists naked of the near-ubiquitous What Would Jesus Do? bracelet.

WWJD? was supposed to remind His followers that they should strive to imitate Christ in all their words and actions. Although I never sported the WWJD? jewellery, I was always impressed by its effectiveness and simplicity. There was no uniform consensus about what, specifically, Jesus might do, but at least you could be sure that none of these WWJD? subscribers believed stealing your stuff, plagiarising your work, or snaffling your boyfriend was Something Jesus Would Do. That made campus culture rather pleasant. And of course the WWJD? bracelet was a perfect tool for social accountability, as none of its wearers ever wanted to do things that would cause non-believers to point sardonically at the bracelet with cocked, disbelieving eyebrow.

This came to mind today while I was reading Gordon Brown’s piece on CiF, entitled ‘Markets need morals.’ Why? Because it seemed to me as if he had publicly donned a What Would Adam Smith Do? bracelet. Observe:

I have long been fascinated by Adam Smith, who came from my home town of Kirkcaldy, precisely because he recognised that the invisible hand of the market had to be accompanied by the helping hand of society. He argued that the flourishing of moral sentiments comes before – and is the foundation of – the wealth of nations. In other words, markets need morals.

Somewhere along the line, Gordon Brown realised that Adam Smith holds the same position in the minds of sensible economists as Jesus holds in the minds of campus Christians. When in doubt, the sensible economist turns to his bible to discover What Would Adam Smith Do? And if the answer may not be found therein, the economist will use his knowledge and understanding of Adam Smith to speculate on what Adam Smith might have done. Like Jesus, Adam Smith operated according to a set of general principles from which we may derive his likely conclusions about modern questions of economics.

So Gordon Brown has looked at the condition of Britain today and consulted his WWASD? jewellery. And he has determined that the foundation of wealth is the moral character of the wealth-creating society.

But is he right? Or has he confused Hume’s is and ought?

I am not an expert on the WWASD? question, but I think Smith was simply stating an is. The operation of the market and economy is simply a reflection of the moral values of the society. If a society views freedom, free will, and mutual self-interest as moral goods, its economic exchanges will tend to be free, voluntary, and mutually beneficial, because the moral code to which the people adhere will inform how and why they make economic exchanges. If a society views security, equality, and the common good as moral imperatives, its economic exchanges will reflect those principles instead. The state, which like it or not has the power to regulate economic exchange, also reflects the moral values of its people, and will regulate economic exchange so that it conforms to the prevailing moral character.

Gordon Brown has misread this idea as an ought: economic exchanges ought to conform to morality. Our moral code demands good outcomes for all, so our market must be designed to produce good outcomes for all. But Gordon Brown has gotten his cart and horse mixed up. The fact of the matter is, the condition of our ‘market’ does currently reflect our moral character.

What does our society consider moral goods these days? Allow me to make a list.

  • freedom
  • security
  • free will
  • regulation
  • self-interest
  • the common good
  • hard work
  • work-life balance
  • purchasing power
  • anti-consumerism
  • a minimum standard of wealth for all
  • a maximum standard of wealth for all

If this seems a rather schizophrenic and internally contradictory list to you, as it does to me, then it should come as no surprise that, as Adam Smith’s is predicts, our economic conditions are equally schizophrenic and internally contradictory. Particularly difficult to reconcile are the ideas that we want to generate enough wealth for all to have a decent standard of living, but we encourage people to purchase less, consume less, work less, invest less, and spend less. On the one hand, material wealth is vital because we consider those with little of it poor, and poverty is a moral evil. On the other hand, material wealth is wicked because we consider those who pursue it greedy and destructive, and greed and destruction are moral evils.

‘Give the poor purchasing power!’ we cry. ‘They are deprived of their material needs!’

‘We are purchasing too much and becoming soullessly materialistic!’ we cry. ‘We do not need stuff!’

And so we end up with a moral culture that sets a minimum level of wealth below which there is poverty (a moral evil) and a maximum level of wealth above which there is greed and consumerism (moral evils). Then we demand of the ‘market’ that it confine itself to the space in between.

Economic exchange proceeds accordingly. Some economic actors direct all of their considerable effort toward generating enough wealth to avoid the lower limit. Unfortunately, this drives certain sectors above the upper limit, so we require other economic actors to direct their resources toward driving wealth-generation down again. Back and forth, back and forth, boom and bust, extreme wealth and extreme poverty, like a giant economic pushme-pullyou.

And Gordon Brown says ‘markets need morals.’

Gordon, the market has morals. It has our morals, and it reflects them accordingly. And your ‘enabling state’ reflects them too: it encourages business, it restricts business; it removes wealth, it grants wealth; it helps individuals at the expense of the community, it helps the community at the expense of individuals; it seeks wealth, it condemns wealth generation.

And you complain that the results are imperfect? The results are a perfect reflection of our moral values.

So to return to the question – What Would Adam Smith Do? – I doubt he would argue that we should change effects to fit causes. If he could see the flawed reflections of our moral code, he would advise us to search out the flaws in our moral code.

WWASD? He would say to us, ‘Stop putting garbage in, and you’ll stop getting garbage out.’

I return to my theme of today’s youth with the news that the new generation has obviously imbibed wholesale the baby-boomers’ intractable conviction that everything which is ‘good’ should be compulsory, and everything which is ‘bad’ should be banned. This rigid dichotomy has found its way into the state-school interns at the Times (and really, with all of that black-and-white ideology fed to pupils in state schools, what else did we expect?).

Make politics lessons compulsory, says sixth former,’ and he means it. Why?

By the time a student leaves sixth form/college, they are of voting age. They have the power in their hands to shape the form of their next government. This gives them the power to shape their own future and bring about change. The right to vote is incredibly important, as I am sure will be seen in the coming months as the General Election approaches.

But how well does school prepare the next generation about the UK political system?

Answer: Astonishingly poorly. Nowhere in my school career have I discussed UK politics, the parties and their policies, the voting system or the way the government works. So when most of us leave school, 18 years old, we have not even learnt about what each party represents or why it is important to vote.

I highly doubt this is true. My own anecdotal experience suggests that even students as young as 12 are aware of the parties, their leaders and policies, and generally how the government works. But that’s neither here nor there. A widely-acknowledged democratic deficit exists in this country; you’re not going to repair it by force-feeding teenagers propaganda that denies this reality.

Pupils do have the chance to choose government and politics or economics at A level, but those who are already interested will be the ones choosing these subjects. The question is, how can young people get the opportunity to learn about, generate interest and engagement in and discuss these issues without having to have a qualification in it?

Schools should have compulsory lessons, from the beginning of secondary education about the different parties, their policies, about ideologies like capitalism and communism. Current affairs should be discussed and taught about in schools to help pupils learn about the injustices and problems that face this world. It would teach the younger generation that change and reform are possible, and they can be at the forefront of it.

Much as I enjoy the idea of teaching such a class, I’m sorry, but no. Quite apart from the obvious problem that it would be nearly impossible to avoid bias in this context, there’s no reason whatsoever to make the ridiculous claim that voting ought to be based upon knowledge of ideologies, injustices, and world problems. The thought-police are not quite yet standing at the ballot box to make sure you’re voting for the right reasons (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOOD’) rather than because you quite fancy a particular candidate, or because a particular party has promised to give advantage to your faction. Voters are not required to adjust their motivations to satisfy the trite concerns of people who blog for the Times.

Would it be nice if voters were, in general, better informed? Certainly. Would that stop them voting for assholes? Hmm…

I believe that there are great problems with education system as well – inequalities which bring advantage to some, but disadvantage many more.

Different students learn in different ways, and this need is not currently addressed across the curriculum.

Standard cant. Actually, I’m with the kid here. Inequalities have brought advantage to him by getting his colourless rambling into the Times, which is totally unfair. Every student in the country should get a piece in the Times. Equality of outcome, my friends, equality of outcome.

Sarcasm aside, the education system is really quite shambolic. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that, unlike Pridesh Raichura, most of his peers have twigged their powerlessness and couldn’t care less about politics. Presumably these peers will go on to do something useful with themselves. Pridesh Raichura, on the other hand, has a bright future ahead of him in the Establishment.

A lot of the time, lessons involve sitting in front of the interactive board and the teacher lectures away expecting students to take in all the facts. Occasionally, they may throw in a video to watch, or if you are lucky, you may get to discuss something in pairs!

However, some people simply do not learn that way. A more hands-on approach to teaching is needed and teachers must start thinking outside of the classroom.

Many lessons are spoon-feeding sessions, where facts are shoved to the pupils, who are expected to memorise them and regurgitate the answers come exam time. There is very little teaching where teachers make the students think creatively and try to solve the problem or work out the facts for themselves.

Especially at GCSEs and A levels, where teachers have to teach from the set syllabus – they just spill out all of the information related to the syllabus, and expect students to absorb.

WORD. But here’s the problem: teachers teach this way because compulsory teacher training teaches them to teach this way. Some of the best lessons I’ve ever taught have been literally outside the classroom. When working on a unit about Greek and Roman education, I used to take the students outside and stroll around with them in the open air, inviting controversial discussion topics and critiquing their arguments. They always seemed to enjoy it. But government has provided a list of things students must know, and ‘talking with my elders about interesting stuff’ ain’t on that list. The list is actually quite huge, however, and Pridesh would have us add to it with compulsory politics lessons, so that’ll leave even less time for Socratic debate in the classroom.

The piece finishes in much the same vein – which means, as you’ll notice, that our sixth-form friend hasn’t really made much of a case for forcing the youth to study the political system that systematically disempowers them. ‘Ooh, people might not vote, and if they do they might vote weird’ is not much of an argument for inflicting yet another pointless but compulsory subject on 11-18-year-olds.

However, lobbying the state for another control order is much easier, and much more likely to succeed, than lobbying it to reform the electoral system, present real alternatives to voters, or recover the people’s sovereignty from the EU.

But it’s all right, everything is all right. You see, Pridesh has won the victory over himself. He loves… well. You fill in the blank.

When I heard about the dude in Texas who flew his plane into an IRS office, my second reaction was, ‘Well, crap.’ Mostly because I knew this would hurt the cause of anti-tax, limited-government advocates everywhere. We would all be tarred with the same brush, and the mildly irritating, deliberate misinterpretations of that movement in the US (see, for example, this ethnography of the Tea Party, lush with contempt and condescension) would become either (a) outright denunciations of hypocrisy and extremism, or (b) even more explicit in their belief that anyone expressing suspicion of government is a tinfoil-wearing lunatic. Or both.

And indeed, this is precisely what has happened. To the point where some other wanker at the New York Times has written an opinion piece about it – which neatly combines views (a) and (b) as expected.

I don’t doubt that Tea Partiers are on balance on the right, and if their movement ever crystallizes into a political party that will be its location. But until the requisite winnowing happens, a person with Stack’s fuzzy ideology wouldn’t feel terribly alone at a big Tea Party.

I emphasize that I’m talking about his ideology, not his penchant for flying planes into buildings. Still, some of the ingredients of that penchant — a conspiratorial bent, a deep and personal sense of oppression, an attendant resentful rage — can be found in the movement, if mainly on its fringes. There are some excitable Tea Partiers out there.

Yup, all there. Tea Partiers are simultaneously lame and dangerously crazy. Just on the fringes, though! Wouldn’t want to make sweeping generalisations or anything!

Oh wait:

…I’m not sure how purely conservative the Tea Party movement is anyway.

Yes, it mobilized against a liberal health care bill and the stimulus package, but it also opposes corporate bailouts. Sure, Tea Partiers hate taxes, but that alone doesn’t distinguish them from many Americans. On social issues the Tea Partiers include some libertarians along with a larger number of family-values conservatives.

And when you move to foreign policy, things don’t get more coherent. Though some Tea Partiers are hawks, many follow Ron Paul’s lead, combining a left-wing critique of military engagement with a right-wing aversion to the United Nations and other multilateral entanglements.

In the end, the core unifying theme of the Tea Partiers is populist rage…

Apparently this guy thinks that opposing government intervention (health care bill, stimulus package, corporate bailouts), government intervention (in foreign countries in illegal wars), and government intervention (allowing the global government of the UN to determine the policies of individual countries) is a ‘squishy,’ ‘inchoate,’ and ‘undefined’ ideological position.

And apparently the core unifying theme of the Tea Partiers, who couldn’t be more direct about their core unifying theme – opposing government intervention – is actually populist rage. Truly, there are none so blind as those who will not see; and there are those who will never see, even when they have all the info at their disposal, because they would rather view the Tea Party as lunatics with conspiracy nuts on the fringes, with terrorists on their fringes, than as a legitimate electoral bloc with a valid point to make.

My, how times are changed. It used to be the privilege of the left to distrust the government and suspect it of base motives. I guess now that the left are the government, that once-noble perspective is no longer tenable.

Mind you, our ex-hippy overlords seem particularly distraught that the voice of the new generation is a weak one. A couple of days ago, I wrote in the comments to this post that it was a key feature of the baby-boom generation to strangle the life out of today’s youth and then demand to know why it wasn’t trying to breathe.

And lo, what should be in the newspaper on Monday but the results of a poll showing that today’s youth are ‘more boring’ than their parents.

Having been told from birth to shun smoking, drinking, sex, drugs, and pretty much anything else that could be interpreted as either exciting or ‘interesting,’ the yoof turn out to be rather hard-line Puritans. Quelle surprise. And for this, the baby-boomers have the nerve to complain that their kids are no fucking fun.

***

Oh, and the plane-up-the-IRS man? He’s called Joseph Stack, and you can Google his suicide note. You’ll discover there that, far from being a general anti-tax weirdo, he was the victim of a long a vigorous shafting by the revenue. I’m sure it appealed to him to couch his rage in ideological bombast, but it couldn’t be more clear that this ‘terrorism’ was nothing more than revenge served up to the nearest target. And hey, nobody is forced to work at the IRS giving it up the backside to faceless Americans who can’t understand the impenetrable tax code.

I guess complicity really is all around us.

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.

Apart from his stupid name, the first thing I really learned about Ed Bollocks is that his modi operandi are, primarily, lying and intimidation. Which tactic is he employing in his most recent Guardian piece, I wonder?

True Statements:

The Tories and their media friends want the election to be a referendum on the government.

That’s what an election is, no? That’s certainly what Labour wanted the elections in 1997, 2001, and 2005 to be: first, a referendum on the Conservative government (which many people hated), and then a referendum on the succeeding Labour governments (which Balls and the rest of his party claimed had been so successful that there was no need for change). Is it really necessary to cry foul now?

[The Tories] don’t want any scrutiny of their policies and they don’t want the election to be a choice.

Of course. None of the main parties wants any scrutiny or choice. That’s why they’re all working so hard to pump out the blanket statements, bland platitudes, and vague reassurances (as we shall see in the rest of Balls’s piece).

False Statements:

That’s why [the Tories] dismiss talk of policy differences or dividing lines as “false”, “partisan” or, ludicrously, as “class war”.

But it’s only in the last few weeks that the Tories have called this “class war” in a bid to stop any scrutiny of their policies.

Oh – so it was the Tories who came up with this ‘class war’ movement? Not to mention I have trouble imagining the Tories really want to publicise their policies as not being different from Labour’s and not as dividing lines. This statement is rubbish.

And, while the leaders’ TV debates will inevitably draw the attention, I hope we will see the cabinet and shadow cabinet debating too.

I bet this is the last thing Balls hopes for, if for no other reason than that he is supremely un-telegenic.

Now, as in 1997, our education policy is driven by the core New Labour idea of opportunity and aspiration for all, not just some; improving standards and expanding opportunity in every school, not just a handful in each area.

Balls to that one, too.

[The Tories'] proposal is that, regardless of local need, those parents with time on their hands should be given taxpayers’ money to set up and run a new school for their children, including those now in private schools.

Misrepresentation. From what I understand, their proposal is that, actually, anybody with ‘time on their hands’ could set up and run a new school – meaningfully, this includes teachers, who not only know how to do such a thing better than random parents, but many of whom would also love the chance to free themselves from the shackles of state-school regulations, paperwork, and bureaucratic oversight. Many private-school teachers would jump at the opportunity, too.

Hyperbole:

And this year, Britain faces the starkest choice for decades – on the economy, public services and our relations with Europe.

Sure, sure. Every election is the starkest choice for decades, every election is the most important since the last big crisis. And yet some party or other wins every election, and shit always happens, and we always need another election. Give this overblown idea a rest.

Tory education policy is an elaborate con trick on millions of parents and pupils. Just like the Tory assisted places scheme, or the “pupil passport” proposed by Cameron in 2005, they want to take resources from the many to fund the education of a few.

Yes, that’s exactly what the Tories want to do! Screw 90% of the electorate; they’re only out to help the richest decile! Because, obviously, that’s a great strategy for winning elections. Seriously, what is this man on? And why does he imagine it’s perfectly fine for the minority (whatever kind of minority) to suffer for the good of the majority?

Oh yeah – because that’s the political philosophy his ‘core’ supporters cherish:

This, after all, is the tragedy of political decision-making: sometimes some people just have to lose and it’s up to the political decision-maker to choose which.

All politics is struggle and conflict; the sacrificing of some values and people in favour of those you prefer.

Nonsense:

Do we guarantee one-to-one tuition for children falling behind, and education and training up to 18 for all young people? Do we stop treating vocational qualifications as second class? Do we give parents more information on how local schools are performing by introducing new school report cards?

With a national shortage of teachers, the barriers to entry into the teaching profession being raised ever higher, and powerful teachers’ unions, where is the country going to find one-to-one tutors and teachers to guarantee a further two years of education to everybody? How is the country going to pay such people? How will the government force employers to consider vocational qualifications as ‘first class’? In what way is a ‘school report card’ different from a league table? How is such a thing going to make one bit of difference when most parents can’t choose their child’s school anyway? Labour have not considered these questions; these policies are plainly unfeasible.

But we would never forgive ourselves if we allowed the Tories to emerge from [the election] claiming by default a mandate for their policies to wreck our economic recovery and frontline public services.

Actually, I think the Labour party would adore to lose the next election, and see the Conservatives reap the unpopularity from the disaster Labour have sown. They will crow as the country falls to ruin and blame it entirely on Tory policy. They will campaign in four years’ time as the party who presided over boom and prosperity, hoping that everyone forgets they caused the national budget collapse, and they will absolve themselves of all responsibility for whatever pain and austerity the British people face over the course of the next five years.

Our country faces hugely important choices. And on education, the Tories have made theirs: to pursue a reckless free market experiment with the state system, and to cut the frontline schools budgets relied on by millions to give an inheritance tax cut to the wealthiest few.

Ah, all the evil keywords: reckless, free market, cut the frontline, tax cut, wealthiest few. Yes, the Tories’ Swedish plan is a reckless experiment that has worked so poorly in Sweden that, if we were to try it here, we’d have to cut inheritance tax and favour the wealthy few over the ‘millions’ of poor.

The sad thing is, Balls doesn’t seem to realise that, after twelve years of Labour education and redistribution policy, many people are still poorly educated, and most people are still ‘poor’ (i.e. not rich). Nobody was talking about one-to-one tuition twelve years ago, because there weren’t that many pupils falling behind. Nobody was talking about extending education for a further two years, because 16-year-old school leavers could still get jobs. Nobody was talking about school report cards, because parents weren’t so dreadfully dissatisfied with their local state schools. And now these things are on Ed Balls’s to-do list, not because schools have got so much better under Labour, but because they’ve got so much worse.

He says Tory policy won’t work; fair enough, maybe it won’t. But Labour policy is trying to mend the giant rents they themselves have made since 1997. And that’s not exactly a great advertisement for the Labour party.

This from Bob Ward: ‘Climate change denial is the new article of faith for the far right.’

Illustrated by a photograph of Nick Griffin.

‘No evidence of research misconduct,’ George Monbiot guilty by implication of joining the ‘climate change denial lobby’ because he called for the resignation of Phil Jones, ‘hysterical witch hunt…desperation’ etc.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hysterical atmosphere created by the emails has encouraged more of the denial lobby to emerge from the shadows. The British National party leader, Nick Griffin, gave a speech in which he claimed that climate change was a leftwing conspiracy, in much the same way as Lord Christopher Monckton has in his recent speeches in the United States. Monckton and Prof Ian Plimer then helped the UK Independence party to launch its own declaration of climate change denial this week. Suddenly climate change denial has become a new article of faith among the far right.

I’m much less interested in this piece for its arguments about climate change than for the tone of its debate.

Humans are very good at creating word associations and reading their connotations, and the chain of association Bob Ward appears to want his readers to follow is this:

Climate change denial = Nick Griffin = racism = evil.
Climate change denial = Nick Griffin and UKIP = far right = fascism = evil.

Thus by the imposition of Nick Griffin into our tautological exercise, the transitive property eventually gives us climate change denial = evil. (Leave aside for the moment that somehow UKIP has become part of the ‘far right.’) Now, Bob Ward never says this directly, but nevertheless these are the associations he wants us to make. It’s not so much that he thinks climate change denial is wrong-headed and happens to be supported by Nick Griffin; it’s that climate change denial is wrong and anyone who supports is complicit with an evil racist fascist.

I’d like to try Bob Ward’s strategy myself.

Now, according to the BNP’s website, that party (and, obviously, its leader Nick Griffin) advocate:

Power should be devolved to the lowest level possible so that local communities can make decisions which affect them.

We will implement a Bill of Rights guaranteeing fundamental freedoms to the British people.

According to the Labour party website, it advocates:

Ensuring a fair say for all by devolving power away from the centre and to local people; giving councils more power to promote local democracy to increase citizen involvement and improve services by making them more responsive to local needs and ambitions.

A green paper to examine the case for developing a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.

So.

Power to the people = Nick Griffin = racism and fascism = evil.
Labour Party = power to the people = Nick Griffin = racism and fascism = evil = climage change denial.

Using Bob Ward’s Griffin Tautological Principle (reductio per Griffinum), I think I’ve just proved that the Labour Party are all climate change deniers and that local democracy and rights are a fascist evil.

Bob Ward is guilty of a tremendous number of argumentative fallacies, the worst of them being false attribution. Because Nick Griffin is a racist fascist (and therefore evil) does not mean everything he says is wrong or distasteful. The fact that he is a racist fascist has absolutely no bearing on the climate change debate. If climate change denial is wrong, it is because it is contrary to truth, not because it is a belief held by certain unpleasant people. If the ‘far right’ are wrong, it is not because some of them deny anthropogenic climate change. Deliberately conflating these propositions, in order to associate a view the author disputes with an unrelated view many people dispute, is dishonest, manipulative, and lazy.

If climate change admitters, or whatever they call themselves, want to win more flies, they should stop implying that ‘deniers’ are evil by association, and try honey instead. There are many ways to sweeten the pill of dealing with climate change. Most people would be happy to change their behaviour if it meant a better life in the short run as well as the long run. Finding out how to make that possible shouldn’t be impossibly difficult. But, as a commenter on Ward’s piece points out, the admitters are manifestly against that:

Is it any wonder that many people think climate change is a left wing conspiracy when the proponents of the AGW theory make statements such as these:

  • “We need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination… So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements and make little mention of any doubts… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest.” – Stephen Schneider, Stanford Professor of Climatology, lead author of many IPCC reports
  • “Unless we announce disasters no one will listen.” – Sir John Houghton, first chairman of IPCC
  • “We’ve got to ride this global warming issue. Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, we will be doing the right thing in terms of economic and environmental policy.” – Timothy Wirth, President of the UN Foundation
  • “No matter if the science of global warming is all phony… climate change provides the greatest opportunity to bring about justice and equality in the world.” – Christine Stewart, fmr Canadian Minister of the Environment
  • “The only way to get our society to truly change is to frighten people with the possibility of a catastrophe.” – emeritus professor Daniel Botkin
  • “Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsiblity to bring that about?” – Maurice Strong, founder of the UN Environment Programme
  • “A massive campaign must be launched to de-develop the United States. De-development means bringing our economic system into line with the realities of ecology and the world resource situation.” – Paul Ehrlich, Professor of Population Studies
  • “The only hope for the world is to make sure there is not another United States. We can’t let other countries have the same number of cars, the amount of industrialization, we have in the US. We have to stop these Third World countries right where they are.” – Michael Oppenheimer, Environmental Defense Fund
  • “Global Sustainability requires the deliberate quest of poverty, reduced resource consumption and set levels of mortality control.” – Professor Maurice King

http://www.informationliberation.com/?id=27941

Now, I haven’t sourced those quotes, so I’m just taking this person’s word for it that they’re genuine. The real kickers come from Maurice Strong, Michael Oppenheimer, and Prof. Maurice King. They appear to welcome the collapse of industrialisation, the continued poverty of the third world, and global poverty in general, as a consequence of mitigating climate change. Is it any wonder, then, that ‘deniers’ are so obdurate? Admitters are looking forward to the collapse of society and impoverishment of the human race, whilst calling those who disagree with them evil (and labelling them with a frankly inflammatory word that is obviously meant to associate climate change ‘deniers’ with Holocaust deniers).

Anyone who thinks climate change is ‘all about the science’ is either lying to themselves or lying to everybody else. This issue is no longer about science or truth. And the more acrimonious the debate becomes, the less the truth even matters, because even if it could be demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt, the people who ended up being on the ‘wrong’ side would, out of pride, stubbornness, and resentment, refuse to believe it.

And the onus for stopping the acrimony is, I’m sorry to say, firmly on the admitters. As long as they keep insulting, belittling, and misrepresenting everybody who doubts their claims, and drooling expectantly at the thought of poverty and the demise of the industrialised world, they’re never going reach a ‘scientific’ consensus, let alone a social one.

On Brad Friedman’s piece about how Fox News is faux news:

I am so sick and tired of hearing the Publicans moan about the “liberal media”. They keep using this as an excuse for the existence of FOX ‘news’. Here’s the deal: The reason that the media tends to have a somewhat progressive slant is that educated and intelligent people tend to be Dems.

We have never seen an actual breakdown, by IQ, of political ideologies in the US, but it doesn’t take a whole lot of supposing to figure this out. People who are incapable of comprehending situational outcomes, such as the Iraq Occupation, are the type of people who cheer the loudest for such reckless and immoral behavior. So far, this is all just common sense. Honestly, look into the crowd of a daytime talk show or monster truck rally, you’re not going to find a whole lot of professors out there.

So everyone should have an equal voice, right? Well, how about this? We should let everyone in the US, regardless of IQ or education, be anything they want to be. That means newscasters, doctors, chemical engineers, nuclear engineers, etc. That’s freedom, right? So lets make a law that there has to be an equal cut for both sides of the isle, oh wait a minute, that would be communism. You see, I get so confused when I try to grasp these Publican concepts with only a third of my actual IQ.

A possibly faulty syllogism: educated people may tend to be Democrats, but do Democrats tend to be educated people? In other words, most intellectuals may be Democrats, but are most Democrats intellectuals?

I wonder what we would find if we could actually discover the average IQ of Republicans vs. the average IQ of Democrats (of course, IQ is not the same thing as level of education). Which party, on average, is more intelligent?

And here we run into the problem with equating one’s own beliefs with intelligence and one’s opponents’ beliefs with stupidity. It’s an argument not worth having, because one way or another, if you espouse it, you will encounter significant cognitive dissonance when someone whom you know to be intelligent still disagrees with you.

I’ve unintentionally provoked this reaction from people on more than one occasion, when they ask me, puzzled, ‘How can you be so smart and still hold these stupid political beliefs?’ The question leads to much speculation: has she imbibed her father’s ideology wholesale? has she simply chosen not to think critically about this one aspect of life? is she just being contrarian for the sake of it?

Oddly enough, it never leads to speculation that thinking people who disagree with you politically are automatically idiots is a fallacy.

I do not think my political opponents, as a group, are stupid. Some of them may well be stupid as individuals, but I don’t assume that stupidity is at the root of their disagreement with me. It would be nice if they granted me the same courtesy.

P.S. This isn’t intelligence-related, but ‘both sides of the isle‘? Seriously?

P.P.S. I suspect that political ideologies with fewer adherents (e.g. libertarians, actual communists, etc.) would top the average-IQ chart of political ideologies – just to get that in there before someone accuses me of secretly thinking it – for a couple of statistical reasons. First, the samples are smaller, so the distribution of IQs is likely to be spread more narrowly. Second, these smaller groupings tend to be ‘extremists’ of one sort or another, and most self-labelled ‘extremists’ appear to be men. And men, as we are told, dominate the right-hand end of the IQ curve.

I’ve yet to see any evidence that the American polity is avid for more sophisticated public policy discussion. Frankly, they seem a lot more interested in plausible enemies and improbable free lunches, which is the level on which both parties are mostly campaigning.

Megan McArdle

American political debate consists almost entirely of Us and Them scare tactics in which talk show hosts appear to be the face of party policies more than the politicians themselves. Imagine, if you will, a Britain in which Jeremy Paxman thinks Cameron is Hitler and Melanie Philips thinks Gordon Brown is a Communist, and that is all people know or want to know about either of the main parties. That’s basically America at the moment. Reason does not hold sway, to say the least.

I admit it freely: I do not understand what the hell this comment piece is trying to say.

What’s wrong with human rights?

Sample:

But unfettered criticism of human rights could also have have certain pitfalls. In a context where the movement remains marginal to power, it could inhibit progress and demoralise those working within the framework.

Any takers, then? I’d welcome an interpretation that makes more sense than my own Labradoresque cocked-head puzzlement.

P.S. Is it indicative of other readers’ bafflement that, although this was posted on CiF yesterday morning, only one person has commented?

Working class kids are dumb.

This seems to be the view of John David Blake, who lays into the Tories’ recent statements on education with particular zeal, in ‘The Terrifying Face of Tory Education’. (‘Terrifying’! Really!) He is, as he says, a history teacher, so he knows all kinds of shit about shit.

As it happens, I too was once a history teacher, so I too know all kinds of shit about shit.

Let’s see how his shit and my shit compare, shall we?

A quick low-down on personal backgrounds first, though, since that matters a great deal to Mr Blake. He used to teach at a grammar school! *gasp*

Now, first off, a confession – probably best to get this out of the way: I spent two years working in a grammar school. Gnash your teeth if you wish…

But don’t give him too hard a time, y’all. At least grammar schools are still funded by the state, so he was earning an honest living off the toil of the taxpayer, just as every honest man should. I, on the other hand, have always worked in private, fee-paying schools, taking no penny of my salary from the taxpayer, unless perhaps indirectly by teaching the children of government employees.

You might say, actually, that Mr Blake has combined the worst of both worlds: living off the sweat of others whilst teaching only the privileged, well-behaved and brightest of the country’s children. In his eyes, one of those is a sin. Three guesses which.

But backgrounds are important to Mr Blake; a sticking point for him is that Tory education policy was dreamed up and announced by some guys who were educated in selective, sometimes expensive schools and then went on to university at Oxford – thus disqualifying them from any credibility:

Baker, Gove and Willetts seemed inordinately fixated, for a group all of whom were educated at Oxford after (respectively) public, private and grammar school educations, on the notion of “real skills”. Since “real skills” clearly aren’t currently being taught in schools (otherwise why the need for the new technical colleges?) I can’t help but wonder what the phrase actually means. Did Baker pick up no “real skills” at St Paul’s? Did Gove’s have no “real skills” as President of the Oxford Union? (part 2)

Yeah, those guys have no idea what they’re talking about. ‘Cause nobody who has ever been involved in Labour’s education policy went to selective schools (*cough*VernonCoaker*cough*) or Oxford (*cough*EdBalls*cough*KevinBrennan*cough*) or was president of the Oxford Union (*cough*MichaelFoot*cough*) or all three (*triplecough*TonyBenn*cough*).

But the ad hominem strategy was never going to be a good way to prosecute an argument, so let’s move on to Mr Blake’s problems with the policies.

First, creating new grammar schools. Mr Blake deploys the common complaint that they take away bright kids from other schools, thus depriving the dim kids of the company of their intellectual (or perhaps just hoop-jumping) superiors:

Obviously, where grammars continue to exist they cause problems (especially, say, Kent, which has an appalling record of educational achievement and has been run by the Tories since the dawn of time) – they can drain the brightest kids away from other schools, they often gobble up resources unfairly… (part 1)

I could almost buy this, except for the fact that bright kids do not exist to help dim ones, nor should we be treating them as if they ought to. ‘Brightness’ is not catching; the only benefit bright kids have for dim ones is that their general attitude toward learning and work ethic might inspire. The hope that this might happen is not a particularly good reason to keep bright kids in classes with slower learners, or more disruptive pupils, than themselves, mostly because the influence tends to flow in the other direction: weak or difficult pupils inhibit the learning experience for the bright ones far more than the bright ones enable it for the weak and disruptive. I mean, should doctors force healthy people to hang around the wards in the hope that their positive attitudes might improve the attitudes of the sick? After all, healthiness is no more catching than brightness.

As I say, I could almost buy that, except Mr Blake then carries on to say this:

…[grammar schools] generally result in a divide between middle and working class children in education (which often mirrors a racial divide).

Now, anyone may correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of grammar schools was that they took in the bright kids irrespective of background. This was sort of the point of them: any kid bright enough, working class or no, could attend. Grammar schools divide the bright from the dim; apparently they also divide the middle class from the working class. By analogy, then, Mr Blake thinks the working class are dim. If they can’t get into grammar schools, and all you need to do to get into grammar schools is be bright, then working class kids must not be bright. Or ‘ethnic’ kids, for that matter, since grammar schools cause (?) highlight (?) a racial divide.

This attitude of Mr Blake’s is frankly insulting.

I do not think it remotely true that the working class, or the non-white, cannot benefit from grammar schools. All you have to do is be clever, and cleverness knows no class-based or racial boundaries. The problem at the moment, of course, is that there aren’t enough grammar schools to service all the bright kids. The other problem, one which is nothing to do with the education system per se, is that children from deprived backgrounds, of whatever race, tend not to be brought up in environments in which learning is prized. Either nobody bothers to tell them that education can improve their minds and lives, or they are actively discouraged by immediate peers and role models from pursuing it in the first place. Send grammar school representatives into these areas to recruit, and the class/racial divide such schools cause (?) highlight (?) will disappear. The ‘problem’ of separating the bright from the weak will persist, of course.

The only way grammar schools would become a massive issue in education again is if someone proposed building dozens of them in every local authority in England and Wales.

Which is effectively exactly what Kenneth Baker is proposing.

Hurrah for Kenneth Baker. One issue solved: there will be enough grammar schools to service the bright kids. Now just send them out to recruit.

And, incidentally, don’t include behavioural history as part of the selection process. My own experience as a teacher – and this is anecdotal of course – is that most of the behaviour problems in schools are caused by bright kids who are bored out of their fucking minds. Personalise their education, allow them to pursue their scholastic interests, and put them in small classes where they can get lots of attention from the teacher, and bingo. No more bad behaviour.

Then there are the proposed vocational diplomas:

Diplomas force children at 14 to choose between academic and vocational education – the decision to study GCSEs or Diplomas is the defining issue around which everything else is then shaped in their lives, because it determines how many other GCSEs they can do, which in turn affects what they can study at Sixth Form (can they do A-levels if they decide the diploma isn’t for them? Well, possibly, but not the “hard subjects”), which shapes what, if anything, they are able to do at university level.

This is just silly. Why the hell do we have FE colleges, if not to enable people to go back and do GCSEs and A-levels after they have done something else for a while? Education does not have to stop at age 16 or 18 if a person doesn’t want it to. What’s to stop somebody from doing a vocational diploma as a teenager, working for a while with it, then going back on their own time to do some GCSEs and ‘hard’ A-levels? Nothing.

But of course, this is not really about learning. This is about evil Tory LEAs stuffing all the ‘difficult’ kids into vocational schools where they don’t bring down the league table ranking:

[Baker] wants each local authority in the country (about 100 of them) to set up separate schools which will take children with an interest in vocational work – so popular will these schools be, said Baker, that soon local authorities will want more of them. And indeed, which local authority run (as most of them are today) by Tories wouldn’t want a school into which you can legitimately dump at 14 every difficult child in every other school in your area?

This strategy would apparently isolate kids from everybody who knows them and make sure they know their place forever:

Take them out of that environment and put them into a new school where no one knows them and everyone has an incentive to keep them just where they are for as long as possible and these children will be cut off from the higher levels of academic achievement throughout the rest of their school career at the age of 14 (and, let’s be honest, if that happens, very few of them are going to go back in their own time later in life). Worse, they will be earning qualifications which, the history of educational qualifications in Britain would suggest to us, are less likely to be highly regarded by universities or employers (the reason we have a GCSE today was because employers were only interested in the “academic” O-level not the “second-class” GCE). Students will be divided by outcome; and not the outcome of the same set or a similar of examinations, but at different qualifications entirely, within a system which is already set up to favour those who follow the traditional route.

Oh, I see: they won’t go back to school later in life, after being sequestered in the vocational schools to keep them out of the classrooms of the privileged middle class kids. They’ll, like, not go to university! Or get jobs!

Again: silly. They’ll get jobs. Maybe not hugely remunerative ones, but they’ll get them. They won’t go to university, but hey, lots of people don’t. It’s not for everybody. It helps if you want office jobs, or academic jobs, but not everybody wants those.

And if we’re being honest with ourselves, if employers insist on job candidates having GCSEs these days, it’s probably because that’s one of the few ways to confirm that an applicant is functionally literate and numerate (and even then you can’t be sure). If we had fewer problems at the pre-secondary level – if kids could definitely all read, write, and ‘rithmetic by the age of 11 – employers would likely have less of a box-ticking mentality about the GCSE.

The US model is a good one to look to: although vocational schools are few and far between, they offer the core curriculum alongside the vocational skills. Half the day is spent doing English, maths, history, and science, and the other half in the workshop. If that was done here, kids in vocational schools could get GCSEs easily. It might take them an extra year or two, but they’d have them by the age of 17 or 18.

This has nothing to do with improving education for the least well-off in society; this is about saving Home County parents from having to send their children to school where working class kids also go. That’s Kenneth Baker’s offer: build a new sink school, local authorities, and the rest of your schools will drained of the poor, the problematic and the needy. Wave goodbye to the black and the backwards, it is Grammar schools for everyone (who already votes Tory).

And your argument, Mr Blake, has nothing to do with children’s needs, despite your protestations about pastoral care and attention. It has everything to do with class warfare, in which the person who appears to hold the lowest opinion of the working class is not Kenneth Baker, but you.

Moving on, we get into the arena of ‘real skills’, which we’ve already seen Mr Blake doesn’t think well-educated Tories are fit to judge.

Leaving aside their rather optimistic faith that the only thing required to turn around our most disaffected youngsters is some time with power tools, or the fact that they were just making jobs up out of thin air (not everyone who leaves the new technical schools will be guaranteed a job unless the government starts interfering with the economy in a fashion that “David” and “George” are not going to be happy with), what we seem to be talking about here is a vision of education which relates solely to the things you can do practically at the end of it. I have real problems with this, largely because as a History teacher, I find that when people say “skills” they mean “things that will obviously make you money” rather than “things that will allow you to assess, understand and work to alter yours and other people’s place in the world”. (part 2)

So: the Tories want to fix education so that people can better themselves; Mr Blake thinks the purpose of educating a child is so that he can better other people. Who’s right?

A good education is not something that can be shared, in the sense that, once you’ve got one, you can’t siphon off a little bit to someone who hasn’t. In that respect, education is very much a selfish endeavour: you want the best possible one you can get, which will accrue to you the greatest possible benefit. But ‘benefit’ is a fairly subject value; some people feel benefited by ‘making money’, others by ‘assessing, understanding, and working to alter their and other people’s place in the world.’ But ultimately, it’s up to the individual to judge that. In fact you might say the purpose of education is to provide the individual with the critical skills necessary to make that judgment.

But the Tories just want to educate you so that you can ‘ make you money’, those evil bastards. This from the guy who was just whinging about people being ‘guaranteed a job’! Make up your mind, Mr Blake! Should they be guaranteed a job (and thus make money, how horrid), or should they assess, understand, etc? Or, perhaps, they should somehow be getting non-paying, world-altering jobs. I dunno. I’m confused. You complain that these kids won’t get jobs, but then you say education shouldn’t be focused on enabling them to make money. So somehow education should be focused on enabling them to get jobs that don’t make money. I don’t get it.

But this allows us to move into another of Mr Blake’s critiques, which is that the Tories aren’t promising jobs. Leaving aside for the moment the absurdity that anyone should be guaranteed a job (is this a new human right?), he says:

Unless someone gives building firms, engineering firms and others a great deal of money, there aren’t going to be any jobs for these young people to go to. The banks haven’t got any money, and David Cameron is ideologically opposed to government giving any money…

Excuse me, but the people who should be giving these firms ‘a great deal of money’ are their customers.

Finally, Mr Blake carries on to rail against fee discounts for university students who repay their student loans early:

…when our bright, articulate working class youngster gets to the dreaming spires, or the solid red brick, or the upcoming 1992 university, she will discover rich people will be getting their university places for cheaper than she is.

Willetts, a beaming smile on his face, guaranteed that 10,000 new university places would be provided by giving students who paid back their debts early a discount on their fees. (part 3)

I must admit, I don’t really know how this policy operates, given that the fees are paid at the set rate before the student begins to pay back his debts. Perhaps he will be given a discount on the repayment interest rate. But it was my understanding that all (English) students at all British universities pay exactly the same amount of money in tuition and fees. Getting a cheaper interest rate on your student loans hardly translates into ‘getting [your] university places for cheaper’.

Government-funded student loans represent a market failure anyway. The reason we have them is because banks don’t like to give out loans to people with no collateral who are likely to default. The government absorbs that risk via the taxpayer – but still attempts to obviate the risk by garnishing a person’s salary for repayments as soon as he ceases to be a student and gets a job.

Now, one could argue that since we want to encourage people to go to university, whether they are rich or poor, these are reasonable government policies. But surely it would be better for students to borrow from a private lender, with the state acting as guarantor, than for the state to lend the money and then garnish wages.

It was also my impression that student loans were means-tested, so this complaint is a little odd to me:

There are student now who manipulate the student loans system by taking out loans they are entitled to, sticking the money in a high interest savings account, and then getting through their university with handouts from mummy and daddy. Now, fantastically, they’ll actually get to keep not just the interest from that cash, but some of the money too. It’s like a lottery only rich people can win.

If there are ‘rich people’ getting student loans, maybe it’s time to change the way those means are tested. They do it in the US – it’s called the FAFSA. It’s pretty harsh. Even some people who are low on means indeed have trouble getting government aid. Of course, they take a different view of paying for university in the US; grants are swell, loans are tolerable, but if you expect to go to uni for fucking free you’d better get a scholarship. Most American university students I knew worked at least part-time throughout their course (including me). British university students appear to take their government money, pay their rent, and spend the rest on beer. There is no shame in tending bar or waiting tables whilst studying – and I’m sure many British uni students do – but give me a break. If the government is stupid enough to give you a loan you don’t need, and you stick it in the bank to collect interest, good for you. The fact that not everybody can do that is no reason to start bitching.

Meanwhile, those students who do have to pay something but really need the loans face the prospect of not claiming their discount. But, you cry, presumably they can go into high paid jobs? Then they can pay it back faster. Well, possibly … although one would think the Milk Round is going to be a little curdled for a while, and besides, why should the decision to enter teaching, or medicine, or nursing, not be a reason for a discount on your fees, whilst a decision to enter banking or corporate law saves you money? It is an absolutely naked piece of government welfare to the class from which all three of these men, and their leader and their shadow chancellor, are drawn.

The government has every reason to incentivise people to go into high-paying jobs. That lovely welfare Mr Blake and Don Paskini like so much doesn’t come cheap – it requires money. To put it bluntly, for every graduate who pays off his loans early by getting a high-paying job, the government expects to soak him for the maximum possible tax and National Insurance contributions. These people are the wealth creators (well, not from lawyers, obvi), and government can hardly hand out generous welfare without access to some, y’know, wealth. Doctors, nurses, and teachers are not wealth creators; they are at best wealth enablers, ensuring that people are healthy and knowledgeable enough to go out and create some; they are at worst wealth drainers, as some teachers especially are so bad at it that they simply suck up taxpayers’ money without even giving their kids some decent book-learnin’.

But as it happens, this is kind of something I agree with Mr Blake about. If the government is going to mandate the same tuition fees at East Buddhafuck Polytechnic as at Oxford (’cause to do otherwise would just be another example of the Tories fucking over the poor kids by making only crappy universities affordable to them), then the amount the students are made to pay back should be the same across the board, too.

On the other hand, the policy doesn’t really sound to me like aid for the Tory class. Mr Blake spends a bit of time pointing out that they don’t have any ‘real skills’ because they’ve worked in politics and its subsidiaries all their adult lives. From what I’ve heard, that career path doesn’t pay very well until you claw your way up the ladder. Conversely, lots of normal (read: non-toffs) people leave university to get productive jobs, found companies, etc. ‘Discounts’ for those who go into the paid professions, rather than the work-for-peanuts ass-kissing professions, seems to me like it might help working-class graduates rather than hurt them.

But as Mr Blake reminds us, this isn’t about class warfare, despite the fact that he thinks working-class kids are stupid, badly-behaved, and likely to go into low-wage jobs if they manage to get as far as university:

And what [Cameron's] men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate for power, uncaring of how they get it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people kept them out of power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people Labour never gave you.

Hmm. Change a couple of words, and that paragraph would read:

And what Brown’s men are is spivs. Men on the make. Bright, articulate, desperate to cling onto power, uncaring of how they do it, and determined to look out for their own. They don’t give a damn about you or anyone like you, and for ten years that total indifference to the real concerns of the British people has been demonstrated whilst they’ve been in power. But they’ve worked it out at last: they’ve dressed their education policy up, like their health and benefits policy, as the reforms for working people the Conservatives would never give you.

This is obviously not about the substance of the Tories’ proposed educational reforms; it’s about the Tories themselves. And why should the voter give a good goddamn where the Tory leadership went to school thirty years ago? All a voter should care about is whether the policies will work. I don’t think they will; they’re so milquetoast that I doubt they’ll have any effect if enacted. Cameron’s men aren’t being radical enough.

This is about hatred for the Tories, in their incarnation of The Privileged, and finding every way possible to insinuate that they’ve got it in for people who aren’t like them. To what end, I ask you, would they do this? Is it really in the Tories’ interests to foster an ill-educated, poverty-stricken underclass who would (a) simply have to be supported on benefits anyway, and (b) never ever vote again for the party that robbed them of all chance at social mobility? Perhaps Mr Blake thinks this is just the beginning, and eventually the Tories will strip away the benefits too, so that everybody who’s ‘not like them’ will starve to death, thus ridding the country of an inconvenient burden?

I’m sure Mr Blake doesn’t actually think that. What he also doesn’t think is what has actually happened: that social mobility has worsened under Labour, educational achievement has worsened under Labour, and enough people realise this that they’re likely to vote for the very party that supposedly fucked everybody over back in the eighties.

Finally, Mr Blake is invoking the kind of political cant that was the standard 25 years ago. Is he appealing to new voters, young voters, the very people who would be most affected by some of these policies? No – a voter turning eighteen next spring will have been born in 1992. Too young to remember how evil the Tories were. Too young to know anything but thirteen years of Labour government. The only people these days for whom ‘toffs! class warfare!’ is going to work as an electoral rallying cry are the ones who were bitching and moaning around the place in 1984 and who think all Tories are exactly like Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact she’s been out of power for twenty years.

If you want people to take your criticisms seriously, Mr Blake, then make some serious criticisms. Don’t stand or fall on the ancient reputation of the Conservative party and a bunch condescending remarks about how haaaaard everything is for the, by your implication, stupid and unemployable working class.

Madeleine Bunting, 28 June 2009:

Powerful, grand narratives legitimise power, win our allegiance and frame our private understandings of how to measure value and create meaning. They also structure time – they fit the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future. This is what all the grand narratives of communism, socialism, even neoliberalism and fascism offered; as did the grand narratives of religion. Now, all have foundered and fragmented into a mosaic of millions of personal stories. It is a Tower of Babel in which we have lost the capacity to generate the common narratives – of idealism, morality and hope such as Sandel talks about – that might bring about civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose.

Curtis argues that we are still enchanted by the possibilities of our personal narratives although they leave us isolated, disconnected, and at their worst, they are simply solipsistic performances desperate for an audience.

Madeleine Bunting, 30 September 2009:

I can launch my own catalogue of complaints against Gordon Brown as well as the next columnist, but I’ve no appetite right now to join what increasingly sounds like a mob lynching. There is something about the assembled chorus of received wisdom which makes me go contrary; group think rarely produces good judgments.

I dunno, Maddy: perhaps that grand narrative you were looking for all along, that ‘group think’ you now distrust, is the ‘received wisdom’ that Gordon Brown is a colossal fuck-up. It certainly seems to have, in your words, won our allegiance and brought about ‘civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose.’

Be careful what you wish for…

H/T the Heresiarch.

A piece by Simon Jenkins on Comment is Free got me thinking this evening about third-party voting and why (or why not) people might engage in it. Jenkins’s essay is a particularly interesting example of this political question, because he essentially demands the existence of a third party he would not actually vote for, but which he would expect other people to vote for, so as to create some sort of actual choice in what is currently, for all intents and purposes, a two-party system:

I want a Liberal party, a proper one. I might not vote for it, but I would like one around: a party that believes unashamedly in the supremacy of the individual, whose freedoms are protected by government against government, in personal risk and identity, in a safety-net welfare not an all-encompassing one.

His problem is, of course, that the Liberal Democrats do not truly present a third alternative, sharing, as they do, many policies with Labour and the Conservatives.

Clegg trooped yesterday to the Liberty fringe at Bournemouth, to preach his opposition to ID cards, control orders and detention without trial. But the Tories also oppose these.

The party is a fair-weather friend to personal freedom. It has not been protesting at the responsibility-sapping inanities of health and safety laws. It does not campaign in defence of church ladders, the right to swim, or the freedom to photograph children. It is in favour of those most useless of nanny state inventions – asbos – and even wants them supplemented by “acceptable behaviour contracts” between state and parents.

The party is nowhere on the classic libertarian agenda, let alone an anarchist one. It does not oppose seat belt and helmet laws, or support risk thresholds, naked streets and shared space. I can find no sign of opposition to stringent planning. The party appears in favour of enforcing wind turbines. It cheers on each health scare, from foot-and-mouth to swine flu, as if it were a slave to the beef lobby or the pharmaceuticals industry. It never pleads the cause of letting people look after themselves. To Nick Clegg, “something” must always be done.

Today’s Liberal Democrats are yesterday’s collectivists ill-disguised: witness their grimly uncritical support for regional government and for ever greater European integration.

Jenkins wishes, instead, that there were a party that

…would champion smallness in everything. It would back families against neighbourhoods, neighbourhoods against councils, councils against regions, regions against Whitehall and Whitehall against Brussels. It would stage a bonfire of controls and regulations. Smallness and autonomy are the only guarantees of personal and institutional freedom, with a commensurate rise in responsibility.

However, let us remind ourselves that he asserts initially, ‘I might not vote for it, but I would like one around‘.

Some of the commenters point out to him the existence of LPUK and UKIP, all to the good.

But I find myself instead asking, ‘What is the point of wishing for the existence of a party you expect other people to vote for, but would not vote for yourself?’ He wants a true opposition party to exist, but is not willing himself to take the electoral risk that would allow such a party to gain momentum or a more powerful voice.

This is a classic example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma that crops up in the present electoral system. In Britain, what we have is Duverger’s principle illustrated on a massive scale: our single-member district plurality system means that two parties dominate, and a vote for a preferred third party often translates into a vote for the least preferred of the two major parties. This principle was all over the news in the US in 1992 (when people who voted for Ross Perot were accused of thereby diminishing the Republican vote count) and again in 2000 (when people who voted for Ralph Nader were accused of thereby diminishing the Democratic vote count).

In this sort of electoral system, it is not rational for an individual to vote for his first preference if it is a third party, simply because he perceives that doing so will hamper the chances of his second choice winning, and therefore contribute to the victory of his least preferred party – i.e., ‘If I vote for the Lib Dems, it will take away a vote for Labour, allowing the evil Tories to win.’ If most potential third-party voters make this rational decision, the third party will not win, but neither will the least preferred party – meaning that most potential third-party voters end up casting their ballot for their second choice, the compromise between the party they prefer and the party they despise.

The only way to avoid this, as the Prisoner’s Dilemma illustrates, is if potential third-party voters unanimously agree to cooperate and vote for that third party. Only with unanimous cooperation can they hope to achieve their desired outcome, rather than a least-worst compromise. This outcome almost never happens, however, precisely because of people like Simon Jenkins; if one person defects, the most rational decision for everyone else is to defect, too. It is one of those curious instances wherein rational action produces a less favourable outcome.

If this is rational action, then, how can libertarians – who are almost all potential third-party voters – overcome the electoral dilemma?

Since unanimous cooperation is not impossible, we could certainly try to create a voting bloc in which everyone promises to vote for the preferred third party. Assuming everyone followed through on his promise, such a plan could work. On the other hand, what if the number of unanimous voters is still not large enough to put the third party into power? If that were the case, it would again become more rational to defect, since even unanimous cooperation would not result in the preferred outcome. The only way to overcome this problem, then, would be to ascertain before balloting the number of potential third-party voters who might be persuaded to cooperate.

This is why PR finds so many advocates amongst potential third-party voters. Not only does it allow us to know how many people prefer the third party as their first choice, it protects that (presumed) minority from seeing their vote metamorphose into an advantage for their least preferred choice. The critique I hear levelled most often against PR is that it rarely returns a legislature with a clear majority party – often it results in coalition governments. There is something to be said in favour of coalition governments, however: quite often they are unable to accomplish much, which for a minarchist is no bad thing. But that, ultimately, is still the least-worst compromise: what a voter implicitly wants is for the party he votes for to hold a majority. I do not want a coalition government that does comparatively little; I want a libertarian-majority government that does practically nothing at all.

The electoral Prisoner’s Dilemma is something that I would guess all non-centrists bemoan; it is very difficult to achieve unanimous cooperation, and even if you could, it might still fail to deliver the preferred outcome. What, then, can we do?

James Hanley, at Positive Liberty, gets right to what I think is the heart of the matter: the single vote with which we are endowed in populous countries is, statistically, ineffective. In that case, then, ‘winning’ can no longer take priority of place in our decision-making process. The secondary value of voting is to exercise our democratic power in what is, essentially, the only mechanism left to us as individuals for doing so. It is only by voting for our first preference that we actually fulfill the democratic function of the individual:

There is one final critique of Scott’s argument that, on a personal level, I can’t ignore.

Otherwise, the voter truly misses out on democracy; he is merely a statistical deviation, instead of being part of a current of public opinion… Your argument is…potentially damaging to the notion of democracy.

I admit that I just don’t get this. I can’t make the same kind of definitive technical argument I have above, as we’re in much fuzzier territory here, but it strikes me as being a very collectivist notion of democracy. If I vote Libertarian because that is my true preference, how am I missing out on democracy? I get the point that I am a statistical deviation – .32% of voters cast votes for the Libertarian candidate in the 2004 presidential election, so it’s accurate to call us deviants, from a statistical perspective at least – but I did vote, and I did engage in argumentation and debate about the candidates, so it seems to me that I didn’t miss out on democracy at all, but was quite engaged in practicing it. And how an individual following their conscience and casting a statistically insignificant vote could endanger democracy is, to me, wholly unfathomable.

It seems a strangely collectivist notion of democracy, in which the individual is only a real participant if he sublimates his own beliefs and desires and joins in with one of the prevailing mass movements. And that, it seems to me, is the greater danger to democracy, because then we can demand that people set their conscience aside, that they do not oppose the mass but surrender themselves to it. We then end up with a Roussean society, which requires

…the total alienation by each associate of himself and all his rights to the whole community [and] since the alienation is unconditional, the union is as perfect as it can be, and no individual has any longer any rights to claim. (The Social Contract, Ch. 6.)

I am not accusing Scott of advocating that, as nothing in his post suggests that’s what he meant. But it seems to me to be the necessary conclusion of his premise, that the individual is not participating in democracy if they are not persuaded to join a major voting bloc.

Whether it is rational for an individual to vote third party and whether it is democratically legitimate to do so are very separate questions. The answer to the first is a clear “yes,” but the answer to the second depends on our understandings of democracy. My understanding of democracy is that it is a constraint on the state (or at least more likely to constrain the state than is autarchy), and that it constrains the state by allowing each individual to follow his or her own conscience when casting a vote. It certainly includes – with absolute necessity – the right to try to persuade others and to try to create a voting bloc, but the refusal to join a voting bloc comports with my understanding of democracy. And while it might be said that my vote is, consequently, a futile gesture, my vote’s inability to change the outcome means it is no less futile when I cast it for a major party.

One can argue about whether the individual has a democratic function – in fact, there are many libertarians, particularly in the US, who insist that voting in any way whatsoever for anybody merely puts the stamp of legitimacy on what is a fundamentally illiberal system of governance (in other words, any attempt at democracy always becomes the tyranny of the majority, in which the rights of the minority are trampled upon by force in the name of the common good) – but if you believe voting is ‘a right that should be exercised‘, as many people do, then prioritising that democratic function when winning is perceived to be impossible cannot fail to be at least a little bit seductive.

And who knows – maybe libertarians do have the critical mass needed to win a majority, and we just don’t know it yet. But we’ll never find out if we allow ourselves to remain trapped in the Prisoner’s Dilemma of settling for second best.

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.

It is often stated, particularly on libertarian blogs, that the ‘social contract’ is a pile of utter bullshit, an ‘agreement’ to be bound by laws, customs, and a system of government to which none of us has consented, all of us having been born well after said laws, customs, and systems were consented to by our ancestors, or putative representatives thereof. By what right did our ancestors and their representatives bind their posterity?

None.

But if there really were a social contract, one we could enter into or not enter into as we chose, what might it look like?

I, (name in full), hereby affirm my agreement that all human beings are endowed with certain absolute rights; that these rights are to life, liberty, and property; that all human beings should be equal under the law with respect to these rights; that individuals cooperate among themselves to secure them; and that they do so freely and of their own accord.

Therefore, as a mentally competent adult over the age of 18, I hereby agree to the terms of this contract for citizenship in the Free Territory of __________ on my own behalf as well as that of my minor dependents—consenting to be guided in my affairs by the Ethic of Reciprocity, which I state as follows: I will not do to any other citizens of _______ what I would not want them to do to me. Beyond so restricting my actions, it is agreed by my fellow members of _______ that I am free to conduct my affairs as I please, engaging in such activities with my fellow members as may be mutually agreed upon, either formally or informally.

Furthermore, insofar as I might accuse others members of violating my absolute rights or others might accuse me of violating theirs, I agree to conflict resolution under the auspices of a firm chosen by lot from a list of at least three such firms, each of which must be approved by the Association for Conflict Resolution. I also agree that should the parties enter into arbitration, the loser must pay the legal fees of both parties; that insofar as either party refuses arbitration, the protections afforded that party by his citizenship are forfeit; that the forfeiting party is thereby placed in a state of nature vis-à-vis the citizens of _________, who are thereby entitled to take such actions as they deem necessary to resolve the dispute.

Lastly, it is understood by all citizens of _________ that I have the absolute right to cancel my citizenship at any time for any reason and that, should I in fact choose to do so, I will submit my cancellation in writing, recording it so as
to be available for examination and verification by the citizens of _________.

Signed this _____ day of ___________, in the year ______ of the Common Era, as witnessed below by (name in full), who, as a citizen in good standing of ________, has signed a replica of this document, both of which are available for
examination and verification by any other citizen of _________.

Signature of witness _____________________________

From an excellent essay by DG White called, ‘Gold, the Golden Rule, and government: civil society and the end of the state’ in Libertarian Papers Vol. 1, No. 32 (2009).

I have only two problems with it, really. One is academic navel-gazing: if this journal purports to be in any way scholarly, the authors of its articles have to stop citing Wikipedia pages. I know that sources with a URL are the most ideal for journals that publish online, so I can understand the necessity for this, but even assertions linked only tangentially to the primary argument of an essay need to be supported by authoritative citations.

The second is more philosophical, and related to something I’ve been pondering for a while now. This article doesn’t make its argument from first principles. And nor do many libertarians. In my own Adventures in Political Discourse (i.e. arguing with statists), I’ve discovered that, more often than not, we cannot reach agreement because we are arguing from wildly different given premises. For example, the essay begins,

Without money, there can be little in the way of economic specialization, or what is commonly known as the division of labor. And without the division of labor, there can be little in the way of civilization.

Other libertarians, who are presumably the readership of this journal, are not going to take issue with these statements. In a reductio ad absurdum, economic specialisation is good, and division of labour is good, and civilisation is good, because we can live like kings in stupendously cheap luxury unknown throughout most of human history, thus freeing up our own time, labour, and resources to continue production that allows us to continue living like even better kings, or to pursue pleasure and leisure as we choose. All well and good.

But not everybody holds those views. Perhaps they don’t value living like kings, or having time to pursue leisure and pleasure; then specialisation and division of labour will not be a priori goods, and therefore neither will money.

To convince those who disagree with us, we must argue from first principles: either by proving to opponents that our first principles are the correct ones, or demonstrating that even from the first principles they hold to be true that our way is still the better way. We are doing neither.

More on this later…

H/T HrothgarOfHeorot

Dick Morris on Fox News:

The Democratic Party is composed of building blocks, interest groups. Republicans aren’t. They’re just a group of people who think the same on issues. But Democrats are blacks, plus Hispanics, plus women, plus young people, plus labor unions, plus the elderly. And when one of those blocks turns against what the Democrats are doing, the party gets scared to death.

Ha! Ahahaha!

Democrats = interest groups consisting of blacks, Hispanics, women, young people, old people, and labour unions.

Republicans = a group of people who think the same on issues. But who are neither black, Hispanic, women, young people, old people, or labour unionists. Which leaves middle-aged, white, white-collar men.

‘Cause that’s not a building block or interest group at all. Just a group of people who think the same on issues.

[bella goes away, shaking head in bemusement]

Last Sunday, Madeleine Bunting wrote a piece for the Guardian that is simultaneously the most vicious and most thought-provoking essay I’ve read these many years. Tim Worstall, as usual, tipped me off, taking issue as he did with Bunting’s aside that neoliberalism and fascism have been destructive in contradistinction to communism and socialism, and while he is right to point up the hilarity of that assertion, it is but small beans in comparison to the rest of what she says.

She begins:

The certainties that have dominated the last quarter of a century – that the market knew best, achieved efficiency and produced wealth – have collapsed. Few would disagree with him, but the clarity of that conclusion is matched by the confusion about what comes next.

There is, within this statement, an apparent confusion about what, exactly, a market is. There shouldn’t be, because Bunting could reference a cosy view of life in the pre-modern era, where a market was a place where exchange occurred (village square, local goods stalls, bescarfed women with basketsful of eggs, etc.), but she doesn’t do this. And she is wrong not to, because that is what a market is even today: a space where information about exchange takes place. A market is a tool, an amorality: a perfectly-operating market is efficient, because it permits potential exchangers to learn the value of what they wish to exchange, and it does produce wealth, because that free information allows the parties to an exchange to maximise their mutual benefit. A perfectly-operating market, however, does not know best, because a market is a tool, not a party to exchange itself.

What has collapsed, and Bunting could have pointed this out easily, is the informative value of the imperfect market in which exchange has recently been taking place. This is, by and large, a corporate, capitalist market heavily interfered with by the state in the form of regulation, taxation, and subsidy (amongst other things). Such a market does not convey correct information – its worth as a means of conveying value is approaches nil, because true costs (in particular) are obscured by strictures outwith the market itself. This is not necessarily a bad thing – even the most strident advocates of free markets often admit the need for certain external strictures, especially in pricing externalities, QED – but more often than not, interference in the functioning of the market is performed imperfectly in the pursuit of goals many of us disapprove (public money being used to bail out corporate institutions being one, whether it’s the automobile companies or the banks or the shareholders of both; asymmetrical information in the operation of the banking system; etc.). It is the failure of this type of market that has given the lie to whatever ‘certainties’ we might have cherished for the last quarter of a century; but this is no more an intrinsic flaw in markets per se than the existence of greed is an intrinsic flaw of money (which is simply another tool in the process of exchange).

Bunting is right to ask, ‘What comes next?’, even though this question is a non-sequitur in the case of market fundamentalism, since what she goes on to explore has very little to do with the collapse of the politico-corporate market. But never mind that; what does come next?

In his last Reith lecture, on Tuesday, Sandel will call for a remoralisation of politics – that we must correct a generation of abdication to the market of all measures of value. Most political questions are at their core moral or spiritual, Sandel declares, they are about our vision of the common good; bring religion and other value systems back into the public sphere for a civic renewal.

So, in the absence of certainties about ‘the market,’ we need a new certainty, a new way of measuring value, though Bunting never addresses the obvious question: ‘Measuring the value of what, exactly?’ It becomes clear throughout the rest of her piece that ‘value’ is being used as a positive abstraction, standing in for some nebulous idea of satisfaction + happiness + equality + prosperity. ‘The market’ has failed to deliver that mixture; what, in its place, can do so?

But never mind that, either, because she’s not going to explore it. Instead, we return to the tired memes of ‘the common good’ and ‘civic renewal.’ There is an a priori assumption here that questions of politics, whether it be government or simple collective action, must have an answer that is geared toward achieving a common good. This assumption may not be such a mistaken one; I’m sure many people share the view that collective action exists exclusively to achieve collective good. What constitutes ‘the common good,’ however, is highly debatable, and is probably at the root of all political differences. If there were a set of easily-identifiable and self-evident commonweals, we would not need so much variety of political choice. (Whether or not we really have, at least in the UK of today, such a huge variety of choice is another question I’ll leave others to explore.)

The same objection applies to the belief that political questions are moral or spiritual. No one has yet, despite centuries of philosophers’ attempts, managed to identify a universal morality or spirituality, any more than we’ve identified a universal ‘common good.’ Morality – the distinction between right acts and wrong acts – is not absolute, even if we think it ought to be – even if some of us think there are absolutes – because there will always be intelligent minds who disagree, and whose reasoning contains no obvious flaw that can be corrected.

Bunting does seem to recognise this problem, at least on some level, because she focuses the rest of her argument on civic renewal; and it is easy to see why, since ‘few indeed’ disagree that civic engagement has ossified:

The problem is a near sense of desperation as to how this is to come about, as current prescriptions offered by all political parties are emptied of meaning and credibility. Meanwhile, politics is in danger of becoming a subject purely for a small technocratic coterie dominated by highly complex financial regulation and arcane detail of parliamentary reform. It’s a politics of credit derivatives and standing committees, which is a foreign language to 90% of the electorate.

The sense of the end of an era is even more pressing in the UK than in Sandel’s America because it has coincided with the final discrediting of a form of professionalised, careerist politics. But to general bewilderment, even twin crises of this magnitude are not prompting political engagement; the paradox is that they may generate anger but are not generating action. The possibility of change – of radically reforming the institutions that have so betrayed trust – is slipping between our fingers. Bankers resume banking their bonuses, politicians revert to party rivalries to elect a Speaker unlikely to command the crossbench support necessary for reform. And we are left pondering what it is that brings about change – crises are not enough, outrage is not enough.

This is a fairly good summation of the problems facing the demos. Crises have occurred; comfortable systems have been discredited; there is outrage but no action. I commend the author.

She does not, then, do what I would do, which is to ask, ‘Why is there no action, when there is obviously such a need for it, and a fertile ground in which it can take root?’

The reason she ignores this is because, in asking why no action is taking place, we encounter a new, and much more troubling, set of problems.

There is a perception that systems for acting do not work. We live in a democracy, and the legitmate mechanism for action in a democratic society is the vote, by which the demos choose their proxies in government on the basis of specific platforms; the proxies are expected to carry out these platforms or be replaced by new proxies. The demos is the master of its government; between elections, it can direct policy through petition, protest, and (though this is itself a problem) lobbying.

In this particular democracy, most of those avenues for acting have been closed. The demos has been ignored: government has taken action without its approval, from bailing out banks to nationalising rail lines to giving Fred Goodwin a pension (if you like) to setting up unelected quangos to regulate government behaviour (IPSA) to creating a surveillance state to cracking down on protestors… and the list goes on. Much of what the government (and remember, it is supposed to respond to the demands of the demos) has done in the past let’s say quarter of a century (since that is where Bunting starts) has shifted power away from the demos, and this is one of the factors that has so depressed civic engagement. The legitimate avenues for action are closed: action in the face of these developments would be akin to beating one’s skull against a brick wall.

To give Bunting a bit of credit, she does not suggest that democracy itself is an unassailable system of governance; as the Devil’s Kitchen has pointed out, democracy has many faults.

A necessary (but not sufficient) condition for change to occur, one might argue, is the belief that change can happen. There appears to be, instead, a desultory fatalism here which Bunting does not address, summed up in part by the uniquely democratic aphorism, ‘No matter who you vote for, the government always wins.’ As long as the entrenched institutions, whether government or corporate capitalism or what you will, continue to barricade the legitimate mechanisms by which change can occur, they grow ever more monolithic and unchallengeable. In such circumstances, righteous outrage at crises and failures will turn inward, because short of fomenting a destabilising revolution, ways of reducing the unaccountable power of such institutions are not truly present.

There are many who would claim that it is the complacency of the demos itself that has allowed this situation to come about: for even unaccountable monoliths are not entirely maleficent, and there will always be those who benefit more than they would do in the absence of such institutions. Unanswerable corporate capitalism has permitted many people to enrich themselves tremendously, often at the expense of others; a powerful and paternalist government has protected many people from the consequences of their own failures, often at the expense of others. There are also people who have enriched themselves without exploitation, and people who have been protected by the state from the consequences of others’ failures. It is the complacency of those who have benefited that has put a cork in mechanisms for change; appeals to self-interest have worked, and I would guess many people who have no experience of any of what I have just said still gamble that, one day, they might do. They don’t want to reduce the monoliths because they judge the possible future benefits of them to be greater than the actual present costs.

But the safety, comfort, and benefit that monolithic institutions provide comes at the price of being unable to alter them easily or indeed limit their acquisition of further power, even when they turn against you.

Having omitted the why of civic disengagement, Bunting still tries to present a solution, and this is where we discover (a) that her omission was deliberate, and (b) the true viciousness of her argument.

Battening on to some documentary-maker’s assertion that ‘what is paralysing the collective will’ is ‘the dominance of individualism,’ she says:

“What we have is a cacophony of individual narratives, everyone wants to be the author of their own lives, no one wants to be relegated to a part in a bigger story; everyone wants to give their opinion, no one wants to listen. It’s enchanting, it’s liberating, but ultimately it’s disempowering because you need a collective, not individual, narrative to achieve change,” explains Curtis.

His analysis is that power uses stories which shape our understanding of the world and of who we are, and how we make sense and order experience. Powerful, grand narratives legitimise power, win our allegiance and frame our private understandings of how to measure value and create meaning. They also structure time – they fit the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future. This is what all the grand narratives of communism, socialism, even neoliberalism and fascism offered; as did the grand narratives of religion. Now, all have foundered and fragmented into a mosaic of millions of personal stories. It is a Tower of Babel in which we have lost the capacity to generate the common narratives – of idealism, morality and hope such as Sandel talks about – that might bring about civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose.

The solution to disengagement, apparently, is a collective grand narrative. In her own words, then, let’s explore what a grand narrative might have to offer.

(1) Grand narratives legitimise power.
Rather than reducing the power of monolithic institutions, they entrench it. This is precisely the opposite of what the demos appear to desire, which is a return of power to the civic level, not a legitimisation of the transfer of power away from it.

(2) Grand narratives win allegiance.
They put a high gloss on failed, unaccountable systems in order to provide the illusion that those systems are both palatable and good. The allegiance here is an adherence to someone else’s vision, an abdication of self-determination in favour of a purpose imposed from the outside that may suit neither the individual nor the collective will.

(3) Grand narratives frame our understanding of value and meaning.
In other words, they change what we desire, rather than fulfill it. This is not changing the systems to suit the demos; this is changing the demos to suit the systems.

(4) Grand narratives structure time, fitting the present into a continuum of how the past will become the future.
They provide a comforting but impossibly teleological illusion of human development. As Bunting points out, this is what religions and modern political systems do. Historians (and I know whereof I speak) are fond of imposing teleological interpretations on the past: Marxist historiographers are particularly prone. Overlaying a narrative on the past implies that there is, or has been, an end toward which all human action has tended. Religions, similarly, overlay a narrative on the future, assuming a state of perfection or enlightenment toward which religious principles are the most perfect route. Although many religions place a great premium on the perfection of the individual soul, reaching the end state requires a collective effort, just as modern political systems do. But do we really want our political systems to share common characteristics with religion? In many major religions, those individuals who do not work in service to the collective goal, or do not achieve perfection individually, suffer punitive judgment; should our politics operate in this same way? Or should they instead operate according to mutual benefit, common agreement, and compromise? The religious edifice is built upon the idea of revealed truth, and access to that truth is controlled by the spiritual elite. Do we want our political edifice to be built upon revealed, unchallengeable truths, access to which is controlled by the political elite?

Throughout history, the mechanism whereby religion has maintained social control and its grand narrative is the restriction of information. Do we really want to emulate this in the political sphere? Ignorance may indeed be bliss, but to impose ignorance on the demos for any purpose whatever, no matter how noble it may appear to be, must be one of the summits of evil.

Bunting’s desire for a grand narrative is not about ‘civic renewal and a reinvigorated political purpose’; it is about retaining the monoliths whilst finding a way to ensure that the demos happily accepts, and even supports, their power. This is the insidious reason for why she does not address the root of disengagement and inaction: she does not want action, she wants acquiescence.

Curtis argues that we are still enchanted by the possibilities of our personal narratives although they leave us isolated, disconnected, and at their worst, they are simply solipsistic performances desperate for an audience. But we are in a bizarre hiatus because the economic systems that sustained and amplified this model of individualism have collapsed. It was cheap credit and a housing boom that made possible the private pursuit of experience, self-expression and self-gratification as the content of a good life. As this disintegrates and youth unemployment soars, this good life will be a cruel myth.

There are plenty of people around trying to redefine the good life – happiness economists and environmentalists, among others – and Sandel’s authority adds useful weight to their beleaguered struggle against the instrumentalist values of the market that have crept into every aspect of our lives. But Sandel’s call for remoralisation seems only to expose how bare the cupboard is – what would it look like? What reserves of moral imagination could it draw on for a shared vision, given that the old shared moral narratives such as religious belief and political ideology have so little traction?

Individualism, contrary to what Bunting seems to present here, is neither fragmentary nor dependent on consumerism. She is right in presenting it as a struggle for ‘experience, self-expression, and self-gratification,’ but this must be as defined by the individual him- or herself, often without regard for the much-vaunted ‘common good.’ And indeed, no attempt at ‘the good life’ succeeds completely, but the ability to make the attempt, and define ‘the good life’ for oneself, must exist; that, for most people, it does not is but another aspect of that fatalism that has muted the outrage.

And shared visions, shared moral narratives, are bad, not least because nobody has yet found one that can be shared by everybody. A shared vision is an illusion held in common that works only for those willing to be directed (or deceived) by it, and there are many. Understanding this is what led to Nietzsche’s philosophy of perspectivism. He was writing in the context of the grand narrative of Christianity, but the essence of perspectivism is that there is no universal truth, no universal reality: instead, there is only the personal perception of reality, and individually unique epistemologies as numerous as the number of individuals themselves. Many people have criticised this view as relativist, and indeed it is, but Nietzsche also allowed for ‘formal’ truths, which are developed organically through the intergration of many individual perspectives. Perspectivism is perhaps the closest we have come toward the repudiation of the grand narrative as a concept; grand narratives are possible, but only in the presence of wilful or imposed ignorance and the denial of the discrete, individual consciousness.

Bunting goes so far as to identify a possible grand narrative, which she does not like:

A new grand narrative will emerge, Curtis believes, admitting he is an optimist. But perhaps there is another aspect to our predicament. That the new grand narrative has already emerged and it is one of environmental catastrophe. Perhaps this reinforces the sense of political paralysis. That the only grand narrative on offer is so terrifying – of a world rapidly running out of the natural resources required to sustain extravagant lifestyles and burgeoning population – that it disables rather than empowers us to achieve political change. Terrified, we retreat into private stories of transformation – cosmetic surgery, makeovers of home and person – because we see no collective story of transformation we can believe in.

Fatalism rears its head again in the idea of a coming catastrophe that paralyses the will to change. I argue that this is merely an effect, not a cause, of civic disempowerment; it is again the belief that the changes we try to achieve are but minute struggles against the overarching immovability of monolithic institutions.

She finishes:

Every other modern narrative – communism, socialism, even those that were destructive, such as neoliberalism and fascism – laid claim to a version of the kingdom of God, a better world that would nurture a better human being. They were all narratives of redemption and salvation. All that we have now is apocalypse, and it is paralysing. How then can we build hope?

The kingdom of God, a better world and a better human being – what place have these ideas in political discourse? They are entwined with the desire for a grand narrative. This teleological view of human progress is the most paralysing of all views. Even if the goal is unknown, or not yet understood, it imparts a sense of finality and destiny that petrifies the individual and the collective mentality. We are moving toward x, perhaps diverging down erroneous paths, but the desire to reach x exists, and we must all surrender to it. If there is a goal, and we do not share it, what hope can there be for the dissenters? ‘Better human being’ returns us to the world of the moral absolute, a non-reality, and ‘narratives of redemption and salvation’ are especially frightening. Redemption is for those who have transgressed; salvation is in the gift of a higher power. Will we set up human arbiters of sin and human judges of righteousness in our new narrative? I repeat, what place have these ideas in political discourse?

It is a funny thing that ‘apocalypse’ does not mean what Bunting thinks it means. She infers from it chaos, destruction, collapse; but at its root, it is αποκαλυψις, an uncovering, an unhiding, a revelation. And perhaps what she hates about apocalypse is that is has uncovered mutable truths; it has removed certainties and replaced them with the understanding that certainty itself paralyses. The absence of a grand narrative is a state of being to be celebrated; it is both energising and liberating, bringing as it does the knowledge that we are not bound to a shared reality, a vision imposed on us by others. We as individuals can create our own meaning and give our own existence its purpose – and that purpose is whatever we choose, based upon whatever values we wish to hold. We can fight for self-determination even in a society that ritually denigrates the individual, ascribing its success only to the existence of the collective, and demanding gratitude and service in return. The paralysis is proof that that society is dying.This apocalypse is good, and recognition of our own paralysis is a vital step toward freeing ourselves from the tyranny of those who would make us pawns in their ‘narrative’ of social transgression and secular salvation.

From a comment on Tim Worstall’s piece in the Guardian:

…Prof. Guillebaud, emeritus professor of family planning and reproductive health at University College, London is arguing that sex is the primary cause of increasing populations…

No! Surely not…?

I am not a fundamentalist homobigot,’ says author, ‘but gay marriage will ruin society.’

As kinship fails to be relevant to gays, it will become fashionable to discredit it for everyone. The irrelevance of marriage to gay people will create a series of perfectly reasonable, perfectly unanswerable questions: If gays can aim at marriage, yet do without it equally well, who are we to demand it of one another? Who are women to demand it of men? Who are parents to demand it of their children’s lovers–or to prohibit their children from taking lovers until parents decide arbitrarily they are “mature” or “ready”? By what right can government demand that citizens obey arbitrary and culturally specific kinship rules–rules about incest and the age of consent, rules that limit marriage to twosomes? Mediocre lawyers can create a fiction called gay marriage, but their idealism can’t compel gay lovers to find it useful. But talented lawyers will be very efficient at challenging the complicated, incoherent, culturally relative survival from our most primitive social organization we call kinship. The whole set of fundamental, irrational assumptions that make marriage such a burden and such a civilizing force can easily be undone.

Sounds good to me. Bring on teh gays! So where’s the problem, then?

Oh. Right:

There is no doubt that women and children have suffered throughout human history from being over-protected and controlled. The consequences of under-protection and indifference will be immeasurably worse. In a world without kinship, women will lose their hard-earned status as sexual beings with personal autonomy and physical security. Children will lose their status as nonsexual beings.

Women are sexual beings first, personally autonomous second, and physically secure third. This is our hard-earned status, achieved for us by the institution of marriage. Tell me, Mr Reasonable Not-Bigot: where is the institution that places women as personally autonomous beings first and, I might add, only, leaving the sexual nature and physical safety up to the individual decisions of the woman herself? And your view of children is decidedly weird, too: far from being autonomous human individuals, they are mere ‘nonsexual beings’ only, tiny mobile It-objects running around, the protection of whose genitals is a matter for society to enforce through the rigid kinship system marriage imposes.

I particularly enjoy this facet of his disquisition:

But without social disapproval of unmarried sex–what kind of madman would seek marriage?…Few men would ever bother to enter into a romantic heterosexual marriage–much less three, as I have done–were it not for the iron grip of necessity that falls upon us when we are unwise enough to fall in love with a woman other than our mom.

That’s right. After stating that ‘Marriage, whatever its particular manifestation in a particular culture or epoch, is essentially about who may and who may not have sexual access to a woman when she becomes an adult, and is also about how her adulthood–and sexual accessibility–is defined,’ he then shows us that, actually, marriage is a nice check, too, on the out-of-control humping men would engage in if there were no sanctions for doing so.

The author’s view of humanity is loathsome. Women are not sex toys, children are not objects, and men are not mindless dick-pistons. Jesus.

This article is the best argument in favour of gay marriage I have ever encountered. I say again, bring on teh gays. They’re a hell of a lot pleasanter than this knob.

A tip of the millinery to Old Holborn, who flagged up a lovely example of how not to write that appeared in today’s Guardian. On a normal day, I would have seen this myself, my mild masochistic instincts kicking in with the morning coffee at work, but it’s been a shitty day, and I found that I just couldn’t face the Grauniad until I was home and on the outside of a generous glass of wine.

I’d like to open up a prodigious can of whoop-ass on Blunkett’s piece, but unfortunately, I can’t seem to figure out what the hell he’s saying, and the title of the piece (‘Protecting liberty’) doesn’t appear to reflect the content. Perhaps the Grauniad subs put the title of a David Davis op-ed on by mistake.

Take, for example, the following paragraphs:

If, in the name of liberty, we allow individuals to act in a way that damages the wellbeing of the whole, it will inevitably mean the breakdown of mutuality, thereby changing the very nature of our society.

We need principles upon which we can base actions that, in the name of protecting freedom and decency, may otherwise become oppressive, intolerant of difference and self-destructive.

Slicing out the subordinate clauses and adverbial phrases, I find that he has said, ‘If we allow individuals to act, it will mean breakdown. We need principles.’

I also note the peculiar word choice of the opening clause: ‘If, in the name of liberty, we allow…’ Oh, the irony!

Moving on:

Three areas in particular strike me as urgent. Firstly, the use of powers outside those originally intended. It has almost been forgotten that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 brought in proper restrictions and oversight over what had previously been a free-for-all. Years later, we have the absurdity of local officials trying to use the powers to tackle dog fouling, or waste management misuse.

Not quite – we have the absurdity of local officials succeeding in using the powers to tackle excretion management. But why does he mention RIPA anyway? This is all he says about it; why does it concern you, D? Where’s the ‘urgency?’ Should RIPA be amended? Do you still possess the capacity to make a definitive statement you can hold to for longer than five minutes? Do you?

Secondly, data sharing. This is an area of major public concern even where the data held is simple – for example, what has previously been taken for granted on driving licences, or passports. Greater clarity on why, when and with whom data can be shared is urgently needed. Clause 152 of the coroners and justice bill needs to be examined thoroughly. It’s not simply whether intentions are benign – undoubtedly they are – but whether powers are likely to be misused.

Come on, D! What data is on driving licences and passports? Do you even know? The data held on passports has changed since you were home secretary, hasn’t it? Who, in fact, ‘takes for granted’ what information is held where? A bit of specificity would have worked well here, methinks. Note, also, his failure to articulate whose intentions are benign, and whose powers might be misused. Perhaps he is under the impression that if he omits the words ‘the government’s,’ that piece of reality will cease to exist.

There is a misconception that the database for biometric passports and ID cards might be misused. That’s why I’m coming to the conclusion that we may have to consider simply making passports universal. If people wanted an easy-to-carry card, as with EU travel documents, they would be able to buy one voluntarily (with ID cards remaining compulsory for foreign nationals).

Translation via excise: ‘The database for biometric passports and ID cards might be misused. This will be compulsory for foreigners.’ Our data, apparently, merits no particular consideration.

I remain to be convinced that a centralised solution is either practical or desirable.

He remains to be convinced – not: ‘I am not convinced.’ This is what we language-type people call periphrasis, lit. talking around the point. Prevarication is a kind of periphrasis – are you prevaricating here, D? I wonder.

Last week’s meanderings by Stella Rimington and the report by the self-styled International Commission of Jurists are so dismissive of the genuine threat that new forms of terrorism pose as to be counter-productive to a meaningful debate. We are not a “surveillance state” – only those who have lived in a police state can appreciate just what that term means.

So what you’re saying is, we won’t be considered a surveillance state until someone who’s lived in a police state confirms the similarities? But who determined that place to be a police state? And the one before it?

A mere ten seconds having a look at Wikipedia could have alerted him to the unfortunate stupidity of his remark; that authoritative worthy says of a police state (emphasis mine):

The classification of a country or regime as a police state is usually contested and debated. Because of the pejorative connotation of the term, it is rare that a country will identify itself as a police state. The classification is often established by an internal whistleblower or an external critic or activist group. The use of the term is motivated as a response to the laws, policies and actions of that regime, and is often used pejoratively to describe the regime’s concept of the social contract, human rights, and similar matters.

Er…whoops. Bad strategy there, D, to mention both the internal whistleblower and the external critic right before you assert that they’re unqualified to classify Britain as a police state.

And Blunkett rounds off the opus with this incomprehensible gibberish:

The strength of our democracy is that we are able to challenge those who presuppose their knowledge of the threats faced, as sufficient justification for protecting mutual interest at the expense of individual freedom. That is when we should assert ourselves, lest the mistakes of the past allow those in power to abuse their position.

Juxtapose that with this earlier paragraph, which I repeat for your convenience:

If, in the name of liberty, we allow individuals to act in a way that damages the wellbeing of the whole, it will inevitably mean the breakdown of mutuality, thereby changing the very nature of our society.

After justifying the protection of mutual interest at the expense of individual liberty by claiming it will prevent the breakdown of mutuality, Blunkett asserts himself to challenge…himself. Well done, D. Masterful. Masterly.

Poor word choice, internal contradiction, weak research, deliberate obfuscation, and the total absence of a thesis: at the end of it all, I can’t figure out whether Blunkett has written (a) a shitty and ill-expressed defence of civil liberties, or (b) a shitty and ill-expressed apologia for those who would violate them.

Melanie Phillips, author of such calmly objective columns in the Daily Mail as ‘To place children with two gay men when an adoptive mother and father are available is a sickening assault on family life‘, is seemingly incapable of catching a point even when lobbed at her underhand at 20mph with a wiffle ball. Witness today’s column, entitled ‘Drugs no worse than horse-riding? The folly of these ‘experts’ simply beggars belief,’ in which she attacks everything about the recent statements by Prof. David Nutt, head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs except (a) what he actually said, and (b) his funny name.

Let’s take a quick look at the Outrage-O-Meter. Sarcastic questions with tone of faux incredulity? Check.

Has April Fools’ Day come early this year?

Hyperbolic language? Check. [Emphasis mine.]

Yet the Advisory Council will this week propose the downgrading of ecstasy from category A to category B — having apparently learned nothing from the debacle over cannabis, the downgrading of which contributed to an explosion of all drug use.

More astonishingly still, Professor Nutt has said that ecstasy is less dangerous than horse-riding.

In an academic paper, he ridiculed concern about the effects of ecstasy by comparing it to ‘equasy’ or ‘Equine Addiction Syndrome’.

And:

You really do have to scrape your jaw off the floor. Not only will such trivialisation of ecstasy cause grave distress to parents whose children have died from taking the drug, but it knocks the ground from under the feet of parents terrified that their children will start taking it.

Cherry-picking or misrepresentation of facts and/or statistics? Check.

The only reason there are not many more deaths from ecstasy is that unlike horseriding, it is illegal.

And the ill-effects of ecstasy are not limited to death. Professor Nutt says horseriding can lead to brain damage — but fails to say that ecstasy almost inevitably harms the brain.

Pardon me while I laugh myself silly at the linguistic inexactitude of the phrase ‘almost inevitably.’

Faulty syllogisms? Check.

His co-director, Amanda Neidpath, who advocates the bizarre practice of ‘trepanation’ (boring a hole in the skull) as a protective measure against dementia, told a meeting of the World Psychedelic Forum that the Beckley Foundation’s projects included investigating the ‘possible beneficial use of micro-doses of LSD to improve cerebral circulation’.

Goodness me, micro-doses of LSD! Give ‘em an inch, and soon we’ll all be trippin’. Because something is an illegal recreational drug does not mean it hasn’t got its legitimate uses, just as because something is a legal pharmacological treatment for illness does not mean it isn’t dangerous.

Unsubstantiated claims? Check.

The Advisory Council is riddled with ‘harm reduction’ advocates who, believing it impossible to prevent young people from using illegal drugs at all, are therefore reluctant to admit the full extent of the harm they actually do.

For substantiated claims, and a very thorough analysis of UK drug policy and the role of the Advisory Council, see Unity’s excellent piece at the Ministry of Truth.

Hysterical blaming? Check.

The single most important reason why Britain’s drug problem is now out of control is that a critical mass of defeatist police officers, spineless politicians, global legalisation lobbyists with bottomless pockets and the ‘great and the good’, determined to prevent their drug-taking offspring from acquiring criminal records, all talk down the risks of drug use and talk up legalisation.

And finally, graceless and inapropos classical allusion? Check.

Horse-riding it isn’t; but there’s an Augean stables here which cries out to be cleaned.

In her ill-informed, righteous indignation, Ms Phillips echoes Home Secretary and total whore Jacqui Smith, who also missed the boat entirely.

The boat, point, and plot being that Prof Nutt was not making a claim about the empirical dangers of ecstasy. He was making an observation about contemporary British views regarding risk: namely, that some extremely risky behaviours are not only legal but even encouraged, whilst others that are statistically no more life-threatening are stigmatised and criminalised (an argument elegantly proffered, with emphasis on Home Secretary and total whore Jacqui Smith’s hypocrisy vis a vis compliance with law, by the pithy Mr Eugenides).

Is it really so much to ask that the journalists who are meant to protect and promote our traditional liberties not be blithering, propagandising, disingenuous morons?

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