The other night, I encountered* a homeless man named Ian chilling on the sidewalk outside a branch of NatWest with his bull terrier, Tyson. He greeted me in friendly fashion as I walked up and did not ask for my spare change.

This may sound ridiculous, or condescending, or both, but that fact had me asking him if I could give him some money – I didn’t want to offend his pride. He said yes rather appreciatively, so I gave him all the cash I had on me, and as I was in no hurry to be anywhere, I sat down next to him for a bit of a chat.

We talked for a while about Tyson and the fact that there are no bad dogs, only bad owners. Ian clearly loved his dog, and Tyson was as good-natured a pet as I’ve ever encountered. He sniffed my hand for a bit, then came over to lean on me in that way dogs do so I could rub his back.

Our conversation eventually led to how this man had ended up with two blankets outside of the NatWest, and it was a sorry tale indeed. He had lost his council home when his wife had left with their son – single men are automatically bumped to the bottom of the social housing queue. He was turned away from several shelters – homeless people without drugs or drink problems are at the bottom of shelters’ priority list. Unable to find a legitimate place to sleep, he had taken to spending his nights in car parks and loading docks when he couldn’t beg enough during the day to hire a spot in a hostel, though even that was difficult because most of the hostels don’t allow dogs. When he did manage to beg sufficiently during the day, the police sometimes arrested him for begging, and he was forced to spend his takings on court fines.

That day, he told me, he’d been trying to acquire enough money to buy a sleeping bag – though not by begging, which was why he hadn’t asked me for my change. He was hoping for people’s unprompted generosity, and hampered by the fact that he couldn’t explain his need, for fear of being arrested, unless somebody actually asked him.

‘What about work?’ I asked him.

‘I’m looking,’ he answered, ‘but I don’t have an address. Nobody wants to hire someone who can’t even give a shelter as their address.’

‘What a perverse situation,’ I said, and he nodded in agreement. ‘But there’s an election on,’ I added, aware this was small comfort. ‘You have the vote, you can try to vote for people who will fix that stuff.’

‘I can’t,’ said Ian. ‘You can’t vote if you don’t have an address. And I wouldn’t vote for any of them anyway. I’m tired of politicians saying they help people when all they ever do is make things worse.’

We talked for a little while longer, and I told him I wished there were more I could have done for him. Even as I said it, I was aware of how feeble that statement was. I could have given him more money – enough for him to buy a sleeping bag the next day. Enough to make him comfortable for food and drink for a few days at least, provided nobody robbed him in the night. Had we been anywhere near a shop, I would have bought him some food myself there and then, as I’ve done for other homeless people. And all of that would have helped at least a little bit.

But it wouldn’t have gotten him into a shelter, or found him a job, or protected him from police who find it useful to arrest beggars. And it certainly wouldn’t have restored the franchise to him, the franchise which every British person treats as a natural right. This most vulnerable of individuals, because he has no home, is denied even the tiniest bit of power the vote brings with it. That vote, which so many people have but choose not to exercise, is denied to Ian and people like him because they have no home.

I know he said he probably wouldn’t have used it anyway. I’m also aware that he could have been lying to me through his teeth about his circumstances (though for what it’s worth, I don’t think he was). But even in the midst of all the perverse incentives this man was facing, his disenfranchisement struck me as the most significant. There are hundreds of thousands of homeless British people. Presumably many of those are prevented from exercising this most basic privilege of citizenship.

People told me afterward that the electoral register is linked to addresses to prevent voter fraud. I’m sure that works really well, what with people who have more than one address getting more than one vote. Nevertheless, I find I can’t really countenance a system of electoral fraud prevention that effectively restricts the suffrage of a giant bunch of British citizens.

Can anybody explain to me how this squares with the whole ‘social justice’ thing? Does anybody know if the electoral commission, or any of the parties, have a plan to fix this, or even consider it an issue?

Or is the British body politic perfectly happy with this property-based ‘universal’ suffrage?**

*In Leicester. I swear.

**Please note that I am not making an argument about who, objectively, should have the vote, or whether it should indeed be somehow rooted in property or other kinds of economic activity.

UPDATE: RC informs me that homeless citizens can register to vote by making a ‘declaration of local connection’ at their local Electoral Registration Office. This seems reasonable, but it is clearly not common knowledge amongst the homeless. Also, it occurs to me that people who are eligible to vote but aren’t registered can be liable for a £1000 fine.

We’re going to burn you in effigy! Slim down, or next time we’ll put you in there when we light it on fire. For the sacrifices of those caught in some offence are more pleasing to the gods, but if the supply of such people runs out, we will not hesitate to sacrifice innocents.’*

Can we expect to see Jamie Oliver officiating as Chief Druid?

Hat tip to Longrider, Leg-Iron, and Ambush Predator.

*Adapted from Caesar, De Bello Gallico VI.16 for maximum absurdity value.

I am coming late to this, I realise, but in case you were not aware, LabourList decided it would be a sweet idea to post, on Easter Sunday, an article by Christian Socialist Andy Flannagan called ‘Ten Reasons Why Jesus Might Vote Labour.’ Apparently the original version was an ‘old draft’ and the post has since been updated ‘in its full context’, so I don’t know what nonsense it might have contained when it was first posted – but the nonsense it currently contains is enough to be getting on with, really.

Many of readers here are, of course, not Christians, so I will try not to be too theologically tedious*; but we all hold certain ideas and principles quite dear, so I hope you can sympathise with my incredulity that Labour have attempted to co-opt Jesus, and with my desire to point out just how pathetic and mistaken are their justifications for it. (Imagine, if it helps, how furiously you would want to fisk an article called ‘Ten Reasons Why Libertarians Might Vote Labour’ in which absolutely no mention was made of the central principles of libertarianism.)

I’m not exactly taking issue with Flannagan’s characterisation of Jesus; he lists nine of Jesus’s qualities or beliefs that are, as far as I know, reasonably accurate (and heavily paraphrased by me to strip out Flanagan’s politics-speak):

1. Jesus identified with the poor and the marginalised.
2. Jesus believed the kingdom of God was more important than any earthly kingdom.
3. Jesus promoted working for ‘the common good.’
4. Jesus is central to the story of creation and redemption.
5. Jesus warned against the hypocrisy of speaking for him while acting against him.
7. Jesus affirmed the dignity of work.
8. Jesus was passionate about families.
9. Jesus asserted that all were equal in God’s eyes and image.
10. Jesus believe there was such a thing as society.

[I've omitted no. 6 because the insertion of the concept of trickle-down economics into the early Roman empire is an absurdity.]

Indeed, these are all true. But Jesus was not a social worker. Jesus was, according to Christians, the Son of God, and according to most Christians, true God from true God, of one being with the Father. I would expect the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement to be at least as well versed in the theological tenets of Christianity as any Catholic child who goes to Mass regularly enough to have learned the Nicene Creed. Why is this relevant? Because Jesus’s teachings, whatever they may suggest to us about the proper ordering of human interaction, were ultimately eschatological: that is, concerned with the final outcomes of death, judgment, and the destiny of the human soul. His advice is to individuals: how to purify the soul in anticipation of meeting God. Actions, such as caring for the poor, working for one’s sustenance, and treating others as equals, are merely the outward manifestation of a genuinely held personal belief that the most sinless soul is the one that wishes only good, wishes no harm, and accepts God’s love as a gift given in spite of our imperfections, not because of our good works.

Good actions that are driven by the desire to perfect an earthly society, rather than the individual soul, are the hallmark of the non-Christian. I am not saying this is a bad thing; far from it, actually. But advocating good works for the sake of perfecting society is not a religious attitude, and Christianity is a religion, not a charity club. And the desire to perfect the soul before God is what differentiates a Christian from a nice person – and we all know the world is full of nice people who are not Christians.

So this characterisation of Jesus and Christianity as being focused on improving society actually strips both of their essentially religious nature. Doing good works is wonderful, because it makes life on earth liveable; but the distinguishing feature of Christianity is that of the perfection of the soul in preparation for death on earth; and each of us dies alone, and will face judgment alone in front of God, with Christ co-substantial and co-eternal at His right hand.

But, of course, that is only part of the religion that is Christianity. I’ll say again, Jesus was not a social worker. Jesus was and is the path by which Christians perfect their souls. Again, I would expect the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement to understand this, especially since he makes special mention of Jesus’s central role in redemption. For if you are a Christian, Jesus is the Redeemer, God’s gift to humanity of His mercy, and Jesus’s death was the Atonement in advance for our imperfections. Before Jesus, God punished wrong acts, as a manifestation of inward imperfections, immediately and directly on earth. The Old Testament is full of examples of this; God was above all a just God. After Jesus, God ceased to punish wrong acts on earth; the God of Christians, the God of the New Testament, is a merciful God, who forgives you your imperfections for the whole of your long life, knowing that the entire length of your life is necessary in order for your soul to pursue perfection. That punishment, which before Jesus He would have visited immediately, was taken by Jesus in your place, in advance, to provide you with the free will to pursue perfection at your own pace, in the ways which are open and suited to you as an individual.

The road to perfection, therefore, is to wish good and thus to do good, to wish no harm and thus to do no harm, and with gratitude to accept the free will granted by Jesus’s self-sacrifice and to use that free will to pursue closeness to God. To focus, as Flannagan does, only on the good of society and others as what Jesus taught, is to obviate Jesus’s absolutely central role in individual redemption.

Now, I understand that for many non-Christians, the idea of anyone’s (even Jesus’s) suffering punishment, for not believing in a God whose existence is unproved and not believing in a soul whose existence is unproved, is barbaric. I understand that many non-Christians accept that there is only one life, to be lived on earth, and that there are only right acts and wrong acts, and that right acts improve this one life and wrong acts damage it. I love that this is so, because it makes everyone’s life on earth better and harms nobody else. Thank God for the non-Christians, because they will not accept that life is a vale of tears, and in their non-acceptance, they ensure that life is not a vale of tears. In their way, they pursue perfection too.

For non-Christians, then, actions are all. For Christians, however, actions are a by-product of the state of the soul. I would expect anyone, like the Director of the Christian Socialist Movement, who presumes to speak as a Christian authority to recognise this. But it seems that for such people, Christianity is now a brand to be decontaminated, and apparently that means downplaying its ‘barbaric’ theology and promoting only those aspects of it which are, in fact, not ‘Christian’ at all, but practically universal among humans, be they Muslims, atheists, or even Druids.

For this reason Flannagan’s ‘reasons’ why Jesus might vote Labour are worse than just a cynical ploy to reconcile his beliefs with his politics; they are also completely devoid of any specific Christianity. Tim Montgomerie, who I’m told is also a Christian, attempts a fisking and falls neatly into the same trap. To the contrary, he cries, Labour’s policies as Flannagan has interpreted them are not in line with Jesus’s teachings as above! For every Labour policy that Flannagan asserts is totally Jesus-compatible, Montgomerie points out one that is totally Jesus-contradictory within the same sphere. But like Flannagan, Montgomerie ignores the fact that in Christianity, actions are a by-product and the soul is all. The only real way to measure how Jesus-like Labour’s policies are is to ask, ‘Has doing this helped to perfect the soul?’ As government policies have everything to do with society and nothing to do with the individual soul, the only possible answer is ‘No,’ regardless of which party’s policies are in question.

***

So how would Jesus vote, if he could vote in this election? (He couldn’t, of course, being a non-European immigrant.)

Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, he said. If Caesar, in the guise of democratic duty, requires your vote, you vote. Fortunately, Caesar does not quite control how we vote; so if you feel compelled to render unto him a ballot, you may at least choose from the options on it that which best fits your conscience and your pursuit of spiritual perfection.

But Jesus has no conscience. Jesus, being of one substance with God, is already perfect. For him, there is no party or candidate who is a ‘best fit.’ To him, all parties are imperfect, all parties are wholly worldly; none are concerned with the redemption of the human soul. The choices available offering no avenue for individual spiritual perfection, and Jesus in need of no such thing anyway, I doubt you would find him at the ballot box at all, much less voting according to the conscience of Andy Flannagan or Tim Montgomerie.

*Sorry, I failed.

The snowballing response made her the de facto coordinator of Coffee Party USA, with goals far loftier than its oopsy-daisy origin: promote civility and inclusiveness in political discourse, engage the government not as an enemy but as the collective will of the people, push leaders to enact the progressive change for which 52.9 percent of the country voted in 2008.

Hooray! A new group which urges Americans to trust the government, the majority, and the progressive impulse. Way to fill a huge gap in the ideological market!

Wait, though. Don’t we already have a group like that? Hmm, now, let me think, what’s it called…

…oh yeah. The government.

The non-existence of intellectual property demands the existence of copyright. Observe:

Let’s begin from the assumption that there is no such thing as intellectual property – only physical property.

Pretend I have written some music, played it, and recorded it onto a CD at a material cost to myself of some £3000 and 40 hours of labour time. My CD is physical property only, and my estimation of its worth is £3000, plus let’s say £120 for labour (at £3 an hour, that’s a bargain), plus an ideal, though small, profit margin of 8% – a grand total of £3370.

I could make 337 copies of this CD, which would also be my property, and sell them for £10 apiece – fine. But it’s not in my interest to do so unless I sell all 337 copies at once. Because once I’ve sold the first copy, which is after all only physical property, the new owner of that CD can duplicate it and give it away for free, thus making my £10 copies less attractive in the marketplace and therefore less likely to find willing buyers.

Possibly my solution here is to invite pre-orders. Once 337 people have pre-ordered and pre-paid – and the £3370 is comfortably in my bank account – I can send out all of the CDs at once. Fine.

But suppose more than 337 people order a copy of my CD. Very well; I shall make more copies and make those available for pre-order and pre-payment too. In fact, I will make as many copies and sell as many pre-orders as the market demands; but nobody will receive their CD until that demand is exhausted and the profit guaranteed (by its presence in my bank account), because the minute I actually hand over the first disk, everything on it ceases to be my property and can be made available for free.

My other option is to make no additional copies of the CD, and to sell my single existing copy for £3370. (This is, for example, what happens with unique pieces of art.)

Essentially, therefore, if the CD and everything encoded on it is purely physical property, I have absolutely no incentive to make it someone else’s property until I have received the compensation I desire. This is not so much a problem if I sell it as a single entity to one buyer for £3370 (although I think few people would pay that amount for a music CD).

But if I want to sell copies of it at reduced cost to multiple buyers, it makes sense for me to hold onto all copies until I have as many confirmed buyers as possible. This could end up being ridiculous; there could be a time lag of literally years between when the first buyer pays me and when I send him his copy.

Buyer #1 obviously does not want to wait years; in fact, since he has already paid me for his copy of the CD, it is now his property, and I have no right to withhold it from him. But if I send it to him immediately, the CD and everything on it becomes his property, and he can duplicate it and give it away for free, meaning people will be less likely to buy copies from me, meaning I am likely to make a massive loss. In fact, if I sell him his copy for £10, he makes his property available for free, and nobody buys copies from me, I have made a loss of £3360.

But wait! There may be another way. Let us say that I agree to sell a copy of my CD to Buyer #1 as long as he agrees not to make the material on it freely available for x number of years, x being the time during which I reasonably predict demand for my music CD to exist. This will naturally involve a reduction in price to compensate him for voluntarily restricting his use of his property, but fine. If I can get all of my buyers to agree to the same terms of sale, they will get their property, and I will get my money, and all will be happy.

And lo and behold, we have just invented ‘copyright’: the agreement by which the buyer gets his purchase of property at a discounted price in return for not making that property freely available for x number of years. This enables the seller to compensate for that discounted price by making up the difference in volume of sales.

Since we have copyright, as a good way to satisfy both buyer and seller with respect to their property and money, I therefore conclude that intellectual property does not exist.

I’m feeling bitchy today regarding the following subjects. Feel free to have a go at me in the comments if you like, as this will soothe and satisfy the argument-demon that’s taken up residence in my psyche.

Today’s Pet Peeves

1. People who ‘don’t get’ the left wing.*

Seriously, not getting something and not agreeing with something are not the same thing. Occasionally a left-wing proposition I’ve not yet been exposed to knocks me upside the head and my disbelief splutters out – but even a few minutes’ careful thought makes me ‘get’ it.

And even when individual propositions may be confusing, one should always keep in mind the fall-back position, that to be left-wing is easy. The left wing is the fashionable, the powerful, the self-styled intellectual faction of our modern West. It self-represents as the pinnacle of both reason (‘we are right’) and emotion (‘we are good’). It self-represents as the melding of the ideal and the utilitarian, working on the best possible principles to achieve the best possible outcomes. Not to be left-wing is to choose deliberately an uphill battle against a force which claims a monopoly on both morality and praxis. Not to be left-wing is what most people ‘don’t get’, as I’ve been told on a number of occasions.

Nothing the left wing does need be supported by any universally-accepted logic for, like America, because it claims to be good, even its seemingly illogical behaviour must also be good, because nothing that comes from good can be evil or wrong. (This is, it should be noted, a complete inversion of the once widely-accepted proverb ‘By their fruits you shall know them.’ Instead, we shall now know them by their roots, and if the roots are sufficiently good, the quality of the fruits is incidental and not really worth investigating.)

To expound a left-wing proposition is to align oneself with the prevailing majority conceptions of both power and right. There are many left-wing propositions that have value, of course, and one must recognise those if one believes in either truth or justice. But even left-wing propositions that appear to have no intrinsic or objective value whatsoever can be ‘got’ when advocated by some individual, for the reasons mentioned above.

In short, one should begin by investigating the logic, for this is only fair; if no logic is to be found, the fact that being left-wing is easy and makes you look good should be the motivation ascribed to those doing the proposing. Adopting left-wing attitudes is an adaptive behaviour, because nobody who wants to get anywhere gets anywhere these days if they fail (or worse, refuse) to adapt in this way. Is simples.

2. People who announce their departure and reappearance in internet forums.

‘Hey, guys, things in RL are getting really hectic. Don’t expect to see me for a while.’

‘Hey, guys, I’ve sorted out RL and I’m ready to jump back in. What’d I miss? Oh, and a shout-out to X, Y, and Z – thanks for thinking of me while I was gone!’

Why do people do this? Common courtesy, I suppose, the way you might excuse yourself from the dinner table to visit the toilets. However, much of the time this behaviour strikes me as some kind of self-imposed exile/martyrdom, of the view that to absent oneself totally is preferable to reducing one’s participation to a few remarks here and there when the time for it can be spared. Or, maybe, it belongs to the school of thought that says one must slice the trivial out of one’s life in order to focus on the nontrivial. Which seems rather bizarre to me, because to focus with such intensity on the nontrivial would appear to invite more stress than taking the occasional break to waste time on the series of tubes.

3. People who ‘don’t get’ the right wing.*

Frequently, I hear right-wing beliefs or attitudes ascribed to one or more of the following personal flaws:

(a) being ill-informed or uninformed
(b) stupidity
(c) suggestibility
(d) callousness

If I’m going to pay the left the courtesy of listening to its propositions and trying to understand their underlying premises, I think I (being, after all, frequently labelled ‘right-wing’) may with some justice expect the same courtesy. I am perfectly willing to admit to being uninformed (but rarely ill-informed), but I am not particularly stupid or suggestible or callous.

As I have mentioned in other posts, quite often the apparent paradox of the intelligent, decent, sensible right-winger makes people’s heads asplode. Enough already; stop looking for the source of our ‘delusion’ in our parents’ politics or corporate sponsors. At least allow us the initial assumption that we came to our beliefs through reasoned analysis. While this may not always prove true, at least it’s a respectful place to start.

4. Blogs without search functions.

Argh. ‘Nuff said.

5. People who dislike immigrants on grounds of ‘preserving culture.’

The intense dislike some individuals exhibit regarding unchecked immigration into their space is not particularly difficult to understand when expressed in economic terms. Increases in the supply of labour drive down wages, whether these newcomers are skilled or low-skilled or unskilled, and of course if one happens to live in a generous welfare state, an influx of people who receive the state’s bounty but do not greatly contribute to the coffers will chap the hide of the long-suffering taxpayer.

But leaving aside the economic implications of immigration, there is also a strand of anti-immigrant feeling that revolves around preserving the indigenous culture from the influence of, if not exactly ‘weirdos’, then people whose culture is demonstrably or perhaps worryingly different.

But culture is neither static nor necessarily good. Without wishing to be relativist, I think I can safely assert that the culture of a particular people or place is neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but simply is, as a result of various events and trends that have taken place over time amongst that people or in that place. It seems a futile desire to wish to ‘preserve’ that which is always changing (even in the absence of weirdo immigrants), largely as a result of the evolving values and desires of the so-called indigenous people.

For example, let us consider Britain. If one listens to ‘reactionaries’ like Peter Hitchens, British culture has become less stoic, more saccarchine; less entrepreneurial, more dependent; less law-abiding, more criminal, since the death of dear Churchill. Is this the result of immigrants? Or the result of changing attitudes amongst the British themselves? Did the influence of immigrants cause the British to exhibit massive and public grief when Princess Diana died? (Hitchens identifies this as a particularly undignified episode.) Has the influence of immigrants created the dependency on the state exhibited by so many?

Frankly, I do not think so. British culture has its failings as well as its virtues. To wish to preserve its virtues is laudable; but to defend its failings because they are *native* failings is ridiculous. And really, I was under the impression that ethnic nationalism had gone out of style in the West. Just because one doesn’t advocate murdering the weirdos doesn’t mean one is free from the taint of ethnic nationalism. The difference between disapproving of foreign influence and violently eradicating foreign influence is really just one of degree.

6. Republicans/Conservatives.

The function of the Republican party in the United States and the Conservative Party in Britain is to disguise the fact that the country is ruled by what is essentially a one-party statist blob. Superficially, R/Cs may differ from Democrats/Labour on such issues as abortion, gay marriage, the role of family, etc – but the keen observer will notice that regarding all of these superficial issues, the solution on both sides is statist intervention of one form or another. Abortion – legal or illegal? Gay marriage – legal or illegal? Whatever the outcome, it will always be determined by some fiat legislation or judicial decree. Rarely does either side say, ‘Hey, these things are not for the government to decide.’

This political ‘dichotomy’ appears particularly schizophrenic to those of us who are neither centrists nor moderates, but occupy the ‘fringes’ (read: consistent factions) of the left and right. This is how we get complaints that, e.g., New Labour are in fact Thatcherite, and New Tories are in fact New Labour.** Actually both groups are ridiculously inconsistent in their ideologies, but at least Democrats/Labour do not pretend to be in favour of a limited state. Republicans/Conservatives do, but their actions when in charge rarely bear this out.

Furthermore, Republicans and Conservatives, by their insistence that they are materially and ideologically different from the Democrats/Labour, facilitate the claim of the left that right-wing hegemony carries on apace and the demon capitalism continues to oppress the working man. Whenever Republicans or Conservatives win elections, the cry from the left goes up: ‘See! There is still much work to be done in eliminating this wealthy-elitist scourge from society!’ They imagine themselves to be heirs of their 1960s forbears, struggling against an Establishment that is ranged against them in every possible sphere with powerful weapons.

In fact, they are the Establishment, and every protestation by Republicans/Conservatives that they offer a real alternative allows the left to pretend that they are still fighting The Man.

Which leads me to my next peeve…

7. Baby-boomers.***

There appears to be some justice in the common belief that the baby-boomers, having got into power since the 1960s, reordered society to suit themselves and pulled the ladder up behind them. Baby-boomers rule the Western world: they are the politicians, the bureaucrats, the professors, the journalists, the managers and CEOs, the head teachers, etc. All of the levers of actual power are in their hands. They direct policy and opinion and continue to shape the world according to their views. In their minds this is right and just, both because they possess ‘experience,’ and because they represent a considerable voting block in our much-revered system of democracy. They possess both seniority and numbers, which as we know are the accepted, legitimate reasons for allowing people to have what they want.

In an honest world, this would not be much of a criticism. But we live in a curiously dishonest world, wherein baby-boomers hold all of the power and then complain that the youth are disaffected and disengaged, unlike themselves when they were ‘the youth.’ In fact, most of the policies advocated by the baby-boomers in power seem deliberately designed to keep ‘the youth’ dependent on them, which is a perfect recipe for further disaffection and disengagement.

Let us consider recent proposals in Britain dealing with ‘the youth.’

(a) Compulsory education or training to age 18. This keeps ‘the youth’ under the control of the state (read: baby-boomer run) education system until legal adulthood.

(b) Sending more of the population to university. This keeps ‘the youth’ under the control of the state (read: baby-boomer run and operated) education system until well into adulthood.

(c) Government-provided work and training for graduates who can’t find jobs. This keeps ‘the youth’ (who are now into their twenties) dependent on the state (run by baby-boomers) for sustenance and the acquisition of skills.

(d) Parent training courses. This sends the message to ‘the youth’ who have dared to reproduce that despite their biological fitness for the job, they are mentally and emotionally unfit to raise offspring without guidance from the state (i.e. baby-boomers, those proven experts in child-rearing).

All of these policies could not make more perfectly clear the belief of baby boomers that ‘the youth’ of today are unfit to make decisions for themselves, support themselves, or support other humans; and yet still the baby boomers complain that ‘the youth’ don’t take responsibility for themselves and agitate for their own benefit. But why should they? They’ve been told they’re not competent to do this, and even the few who truly desire power (those who have somehow evaded the systematic demoralisation perpetrated on them) are content to wait, having accepted the baby-boomer creed that power comes automatically from seniority and numbers. Those people will simply wait until the baby boomers are all dead; the rest of us will continue to be disaffected (if not always disengaged) by the fact that the generation now holding power obviously think we are too stupid and childish to govern ourselves.

The cry of the baby boomers: ‘You can’t do anything without us! But why aren’t you trying anyway?’ Maybe it’s because, however stupid and childish we may be, we have at least learnt the futility of bashing our heads against brick walls.

*To my left-wing friends and acquaintances: Obviously I consider you exceptions to these unfriendly stereotypes, as I know you possess genuinely-held beliefs about the betterment of mankind and none of you have ever implied that I was stupid, ill-informed, suggestible, etc. for disagreeing with your desired methods of achieving this laudable aim.

**Consider the following symbolic logic: New Labour = Thatcherites (i.e. Old Tories); New Tories = New Labour; ergo New Tories = Thatcherites (i.e. Old Tories) and it becomes perfectly clear why the ‘fringes’ are screaming ZOMG THEY ARE ALL THE SAME!

***To my baby-boomer friends, acquaintances, and parents: Obviously I consider you exceptions to this unfriendly stereotype, as none of you are in positions of actual power and you all seem to be as frustrated with your generational compatriots as I am.

NB: The un-updated version of this post was reproduced in its entirety on Infowars. Without permission, I might add, and without linking here. Since they have not bothered with this common courtesy, I must ask you all to believe the conspiracy theory that THEY SUCK. And, ha, in light of the contents of this post, I must disclaim that I have anything to do with Alex Jones, his website, or his political views. That is all./NB

Thanks to the author of the Bleeding Heart Show, I have got my hands on a copy of Sunstein’s white paper entitled Conspiracy Theories (2008). I’d like to draw your attention to some interesting features.

According to the introduction of the paper, polls suggest that roughly one-third of Americans subscribe to a ‘conspiracy theory’ about the September 11th attacks in NYC, whether it be that the government knew about it in advance, conspired in it themselves, or covered up Israeli involvement. In most illuminating fashion, the paper then states:

When civil rights and civil liberties are absent, people lack multiple information sources, and they are more likely to accept conspiracy theories.

And in the footnote:

we assume that low civil liberties tend to produce terrorism, a hypothesis that is supported by the mechanisms we adduce.

These are both impeccable reasons for ensuring that the government does absolutely nothing to curtail domestic civil liberties. Unfortunately, the US and the UK have adopted the opposite strategy. Do I begin to hope that Cass Sunstein will be able to sway the Obama administration away from the apparently disastrous policy of restricting civil liberties in response to terrorism?

Carrying on, we find a definition of conspiracy theories for the purposes of the paper:

We bracket the most difficult questions here and suggest more intuitively that a conspiracy theory can generally be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role. This account seems to capture the essence of the most prominent and influential conspiracy theories.

Hmm. Except that sometimes powerful people do plot and plan whilst concealing their role in events. In fact, this sort of behaviour by powerful people is not at all rare; we have special government departments for doing just that abroad. It would be enchantingly naive to think such machinations did not also take place, at least a little bit, at home.

Sunstein’s good, though; he identifies this problem:

Of course some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true. The Watergate hotel room used by Democratic National Committee was, in fact, bugged by Republican officials, operating at the behest of the White House. In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, administer LSD and related drugs under Project MKULTRA, in an effort to investigate the possibility of “mind control.” Operation Northwoods, a rumored plan by the Department of Defense to simulate acts of terrorism and to blame them on Cuba, really was proposed by high-level officials (though the plan never went into effect).

But wait!

Our focus throughout is on false conspiracy theories, not true ones. Our ultimate goal is to explore how public officials might undermine such theories, and as a general rule, true accounts should not be undermined.

But… but… how does a person not in possession of an unelected, unaccountable high-government job know the difference? How does the average American twerp distinguish between false theories that public officials rightly undermine, and true theories that public officials undermine in the name of security? After all, public officials have been known to do just that. How do we know whether a public official is telling us the truth or lying to us? Perhaps Sunstein will tell us…

He sort of does, in fact, when he discusses the distinction between justified and unjustified false belief. For example:

…the false belief in Santa Claus is justified, because children generally have good reason to believe what their parents tell them and follow a sensible heuristic (“if my parents say it, it is probably true”)…

I posit that the belief (true or false) that politicians lie to the electorate is also a ‘sensible heuristic.’ It has been known to happen rather more often than is comfortable to the electorate. Politicians wishing to disseminate true information to dispel conspiracy theories are caught in a trap of their own devising: they are the Boy Who Cried Wolf. People would be far more willing to trust the establishment if the establishment were more trustworthy, and if its members were not caught lying, misrepresenting, prevaricating, and peculating so depressingly often.

Sunstein goes on:

A broader point is that conspiracy theories overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies, who are assumed to be able to make and carry out sophisticated secret plans, despite abundant evidence that in open societies government action does not usually remain secret for very long. Recall that a distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is that they attribute immense power to the agents of the conspiracy; the attribution is usually implausible but also makes the theories especially vulnerable to challenge. Consider all the work that must be done to hide and to cover up the government’s role in producing a terrorist attack on its own territory, or in arranging to kill political opponents. In a closed society, secrets are not difficult to keep, and distrust of official accounts makes a great deal of sense. In such societies, conspiracy theories are both more likely to be true and harder to show to be false in light of available information. But when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily keep its conspiracies hidden for long.

I quite agree with this piece of analysis; nevertheless it appears to break a fundamental precept of logical argument: namely, it begs the question. Where is the proof that America is a free society? Its conspiracy theories are false. How we do know its conspiracy theories are false? Because it is a free society. Minus 10, Mr Sunstein; see me after class.

He goes on:

This is not, and is not be intended to be, a general claim that conspiracy theories are unjustified or unwarranted. Much depends on the background state of knowledge- producing institutions. If those institutions are generally trustworthy, in part because they are embedded in an open society with a well-functioning marketplace of ideas and free flow of information, then conspiracy theories will generally (which is not to say always) be unjustified.

Let us use Sunstein’s own reasoning. I put it to you that the widespread prevalence of true conspiracy theories, as mentioned above, mean that the knowledge-producing institutions of the US are NOT trustworthy and that there is NOT a free flow of information in American society. Ergo even the false conspiracy theories are justified.

On our account, a defining feature of conspiracy theories is that they are extremely resistant to correction, certainly through direct denials or counterspeech by government officials.

Yes, because of the aforementioned ‘sensible heuristic’ that, on the balance of probability, government officials are liars. When you do not trust the messenger, you do not believe the message.

…the self- sealing quality of conspiracy theories creates serious practical problems for government; direct attempts to dispel the theory can usually be folded into the theory itself, as just one more ploy by powerful machinators to cover their tracks. A denial may, for example, be taken as a confirmation.

Quite.

Okay, look. I have made an effort in good faith to read this paper and give Sunstein a fairer hearing, but stuff like this:

Perhaps conspiracy theories are a product of mental illness, such as paranoia or narcissism. And indeed, there can be no doubt that some people who accept conspiracy theories are mentally ill and subject to delusions. But we have seen that in many communities and even nations, such theories are widely held. It is not plausible to suggest that all or most members of those communities are afflicted by mental illness. The most important conspiracy theories are hardly limited to those who suffer from any kind of pathology.

is beyond the pale. I don’t care that he dismisses the ‘individual pathology’ claim; he’s still making a major mistake.

That mistake is to lay the responsibility for false beliefs and conspiracy theories entirely on the shoulders of those who hold them, and absolve the establishment of any responsibility for the phenomena. Indeed, for Sunstein, conspiracy theories are a problem which government officials must solve, seeking out ways to promote the right sources of information and improve people’s ‘crippled’ epistemologies.

And isn’t that always how it is for people like this? The Herd have a pathology! Government must fix!

Until people like Sunstein realise that it takes two to tango, they’re never going to reach their solution, whether it be through nudging, taxes, prohibitions, bans, thought crimes or any other ridiculous measure that fails to take into account that public officials are part of the problem. So, the government wants people to believe the information it gives them, to trust them, to feel that society is open and transparent free? Public officials, I’ve got your solution right here:

STOP LYING TO US.

UPDATE: I am not alone in my suspicion. Glenn Greenwald at Salon.com says virtually the same thing:

It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders. Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

It is this history of government deceit and wrongdoing that renders Sunstein’s desire to use covert propaganda to “undermine” anti-government speech so repugnant. The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned — rationally — to distrust government actions and statements. Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is. In other words, people don’t trust the Government and “conspiracy theories” are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.

In my own reading of Sunstein’s 2008 paper, my head asploded before I got to the part where he proposed that government insert covert information-disseminators into ‘extremist’ (i.e. anyone who believes what he labels a conspiracy theory) groups and that government pay so-called ‘independent’ experts to bolster its informational claims. And yet here it is, straight from the horse’s pencil:

What can government do about conspiracy theories? Among the things it can do, what should it do? We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help. Each instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).

Government counterspeech, government financial solicitation of support – ‘cognitive infiltration’ of groups of anybody who hold what the government deems a false, dangerous, and unjustified view.

But fear not, brave readers!

Throughout, we assume a well-motivated government that aims to eliminate conspiracy theories, or draw their poison, if and only if social welfare is improved by doing so.

Oh. That’s perfectly all right, then. No badly-motivated government that aims to suppress views if and only if their power is thereby entrenched would ever use these same fucking strategies.

Honestly, how sinister can Sunstein get? Is it not enough that he holds an unelected and unaccountable position of almost unimaginable power and is also tipped as a potential Obama Supreme Court nominee? Does he really have to advocate this kind of government thought-control, however benign he might think his methods and however justified (‘THE GREATER GOOOOOOOD’) he might think his reasons?

Why can’t people like Sunstein just leave us the fuck alone?

A thoughtful post from Megan McArdle, in which she ponders Paul Krugman’s assertion that Paris, Frankfurt, and London don’t look poor (which, to be fair, in places they don’t):

But the standard of living in any given profession is much lower. Preserving London’s dazzling antique architecture has meant that most of the people I knew had much longer and more expensive commutes than their American counterparts would. They lived in smaller quarters that were hotter in summer and colder in winter. At any given professional level, you found British people doing things that only much poorer Americans would do, like bringing lunch, hanging their clothes to dry, or going without cable (though the Americans I knew said the cable wasn’t worth it anyway). People in Britain are not poor. But they have a noticeably lower standard of living than Americans do. If they were doing it in 1960′s vintage apartment buildings and tract homes, it would be quite obvious. When I lived there, I literally could not afford to eat meat regularly or take the tube to work, and as a consequence wore holes in my shoes. (In fairness, I was being paid in dollars and the exchange rate was awful–but I wasn’t the only one walking to save money.)

I don’t want to sound as if I’m saying Britain’s a terrible place–it’s lovely, and I miss it. But the amount that people are able to consume is much less than the amount Americans are able to consume, and many of the things they forego make real difference in things like personal comfort.

Leaving aside cable television (I also hear it’s not worth the money) and hanging the clothes to dry (most London flats are probably too small to contain a tumble dryer), on some levels I agree with McArdle, that Americans have in general more personal comfort than the average Londoner. Owning and operating a car is cheaper and more convenient in the US; utilities are cheaper, as are their installation; commutes are shorter for those living in cities with comparable public transport to London; houses and flats are generally cheaper; etc. And that’s only comparing cities to cities. Americans in the suburbs and out in the country pay even less for all of that stuff, and they have roomy houses with all mod cons and big lawns for children to play on.

But this is not to say that living in the US is idyllic. Even though the standard of living I’ve experienced in Britain is a bit lower than how it was in the US, there are certain trade-offs that mean I enjoy living here much more.

The rail network, though many Britons complain about it, is infinitely superior to what exists in the US. For my occasional journeys, I have no trouble getting where I want to go, and most of the time I get to do that travelling in a seat with a nice book. When I was commuting by train, I had the leisure of catching up on my marking with a cup of coffee, something I would never have been able to do if driving. I must also commend the London bus system and the Oyster Card.

High Streets (and their equivalents) are excellent, too. Being able to walk to the bank, the grocery store, the post office, and the corner shop is the height of convenience. I have never been able to do that anywhere I lived in the US; even when I lived in a small university town with a respectable sort of high street, the grocery store was miles away. Pubs, too, are fantastic. Most Americans have no access to anything like a pub; certainly few of them live within walking distance of a drinking establishment. Most of them have to drive if they want to go out for a drink; and in many states, if you want to drink at home, you have to purchase your booze at a state booze-purchasing place. Pennsylvania was particularly bad for this: beer could only be purchased in cases of 24 at the state beer store, and wine and spirits could only be purchased at the (separate, and sometimes all the way across town) state wine and spirits store.

Living spaces are smaller in Britain, of course, but this is not generally a problem for the childless, at least. And if few of your clothes can be put in the tumble dryer anyway, as is the case with mine, you really don’t notice the absence of the dryer.

I’m well aware that many people in London are far less well off than I am (when I’m working), and may have a very different perspective from mine, but quite often I also consider this: without the need for a car, or car insurance, or car payments, or gasoline, or health insurance payments, I already have more disposable income living in Britain. And when I consider as well that I actually pay a smaller proportion of my income in direct taxes here, then those small reductions in standard of living matter a great deal less.

DISCLAIMER: I have not seen Avatar.

DISCLAIMER 2: I mean no disrespect to those who truly suffer from depression or other mental illness.

More from CNN, this time on the curious phenomenon some viewers of James Cameron’s Avatar have experienced: namely, obsessive depression.

James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.

A user named Mike wrote on the fan Web site “Naviblue” that he contemplated suicide after seeing the movie.

“Ever since I went to see ‘Avatar’ I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it,” Mike posted. “I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in ‘Avatar.’ ” [You mean, like, heaven? There's an app for that. - Ed.]

WTF? That’s really creepy. The only film I’ve ever been remotely obsessed with was Interview with the Vampire – when I was thirteen, brimming with emo angst, and enthralled with the idea of, y’know, being immortal and witnessing multiple eras of human history. As in, the complete opposite of poor Mike.

This sort of reaction to a film, however awe-inspiring it might be, is not normal. That there are numerous people who share this guy’s feelings of futility and longing for the non-existent is even more worrying. Symptomatic of our ‘broken society’ – or just a sign that humans have a lot of leisure these days?

Within the fan community, suggestions for battling feelings of depression after seeing the movie include things like playing “Avatar” video games or downloading the movie soundtrack, in addition to encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm and to seek out positive and constructive activities.

‘Encouraging members to relate to other people outside the virtual realm.’ Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty good idea.

I wonder if there isn’t an element of extra-instinctive self-loathing involved in this phenomenon. There are lots of people who find the human race in general and many of its achievements despicable. Maybe the same people are the ones who find themselves so seduced by Cameron’s facile utopia that they stop being able to cope with reality. After all, if you hate your species (and, by association, yourself), you’d probably find a world entirely lacking in human influence pretty appealing. Never mind that the idea of nasty, war-mongering, nature-destroying aliens is equally as probable as pure, peaceful, nature-loving aliens.

But then, if these people had any remaining faculty for distinguishing between the probable vs. the improbable vs. the reality, they wouldn’t be depressed because they don’t live in a world of cat-people aliens that James Cameron made up in his own derivative, lamesauce head.

P.S. Am I the only one who finds the picture used to illustrate that article disturbing? All of the people have glowing demon-eyes and the livid complexion of cadavers. I sort of expect their mouths to be forming the word ‘BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAINS…’

I have never had quite the problem with Gramsci that some of the writers of the Libertarian Alliance blog have – as I mentioned to David Davis (not that one, the other one) at the LA conference a few weeks ago. And I admit to feeling rather dubious when Melanie Phillips popped up as a defender of liberty against these insidious underminers of culture.

I didn’t actually get around to reading her article until today, however, when I happened across David Osler’s reaction to it on Liberal Conspiracy. Presented with an argument by somebody I tend to disagree with, and a refutation by somebody I tend to disagree with, I was intrigued: which of them would I agree with?

The answer is, predictably, neither.

Here’s Phillips’s redux of Gramsci:

This was what might be called ‘cultural Marxism’. It was based on the understanding that what holds a society together are the pillars of its culture: the structures and institutions of education, family, law, media and religion. Transform the principles that these embody and you can thus destroy the society they have shaped.

This key insight was developed in particular by an Italian Marxist philosopher called Antonio Gramsci. His thinking was taken up by Sixties radicals  -  who are, of course, the generation that holds power in the West today.

Gramsci understood that the working class would never rise up to seize the levers of ‘production, distribution and exchange’ as communism had prophesied. Economics was not the path to revolution.

He believed instead that society could be overthrown if the values underpinning it could be turned into their antithesis: if its core principles were replaced by those of groups who were considered to be outsiders or who actively transgressed the moral codes of that society.

So he advocated a ‘long march through the institutions’ to capture the citadels of the culture and turn them into a collective fifth column, undermining from within and turning all the core values of society upside-down and inside-out.

So far, so uncontroversial. When you remove the qualifiers – Gramsci was a Marxist taken up by ‘Sixties radicals’ who was opposed to particular values – he’s actually right. What holds a society together are the pillars of its culture; undermine them and replace them with the values held by the moral ‘outsiders,’ and you change the society. This happens all the time, now and throughout history, and usually it happens deliberately. Undermining the pillar of the Roman Catholic church certainly overhauled European society in the 16th and 17th centuries; undermining the pillar of totalitarianism caused the fall of the Soviet Union (which, incidentally, appears to have inspired Phillips’s writing of this article). Gramsci was stating a simple truth about one of the ways in which society evolves.

This is why I don’t have a problem with Gramsci; for if you accept the fact that our previously liberal, free-market oriented society has been undermined from within and replaced with restrictive redistributionism, then you also must accept that the only way we’re going to change that is also to employ Gramsci’s plan and undermine the current value systems of society. Essentially, cultural ‘Marxism’ can be used by anyone, for any purpose, and (and this is what makes Gramsci’s insight so valuable) ought to be, as it’s both more gradual and more peaceful than other common methods for change, such as violent revolution. It also means that the ‘winners’ don’t usually have to enforce their values at the point of a gun, as they’ve succeeded in persuading the ‘losers’ to accept those values on their own initiative.

So Gramsic’s ideas are actually useful; it’s only sets of values that are good or bad.

And as I suspected would be the case, I don’t entirely agree with what Phillips sets out as a good set of values.

The nuclear family has been widely shattered. Illegitimacy was transformed from a stigma into a ‘right’. The tragic disadvantage of fatherlessness was redefined as a neutrally-viewed ‘lifestyle choice’.

Education was wrecked, with its core tenet of transmitting a culture to successive generations replaced by the idea that what children already knew was of superior value to anything the adult world might foist upon them.

The outcome of this ‘child-centred’ approach has been widespread illiteracy and ignorance and an eroded capacity for independent thought.

Without wishing to go too much into my own strange ideas about family, I will say that fatherlessness and illegitimacy are not the problem. Single-parent households are the problem. Having two mothers, or two parents who are unwed but live together, is not a tragic disadvantage. Being raised by one parent is, if you believe the statistics. Nor is the removal of ‘stigma’ the problem; coercively funding this lifestyle choice through taxation is. I don’t think any child should face being stigmatised for choices that weren’t his own, and I wish that every child born could have the kind of healthy, non-deprived upbringing we all want for our own children. But the reason we have single-parent households is because the state subsidises them, not because we’ve removed the stigma and destroyed the appeal of the nuclear family.

Likewise, education has not failed because we tell children they are all little Einsteins; it’s failed because we tell them they aren’t. Capacity for independent thought hasn’t been eroded, but the desire for it has. Free thinking leads to culture’s not being transmitted, as free thinkers are able to reject the moral contradictions in any and every culture and argue for their abandonment. The key to transmitting the culture you want to impressionable children is to deny them an outlet for their free thought and prevent them from accessing ideas that might result in the rejection of that culture. Children are smart; they perceive things in ways adults don’t. But we’re not in the business of educating them to perfect their thinking; we’re in the business of teaching them memes. And with a curriculum developed centrally by government-directed education ‘experts,’ this should be no surprise.

Law and order were similarly undermined, with criminals deemed to be beyond punishment since they were ‘victims’ of society and with illegal drugtaking tacitly encouraged by a campaign to denigrate anti-drugs laws.

The ‘rights’ agenda  -  commonly known as ‘political correctness’  -  turned morality inside out by excusing any misdeeds by self-designated ‘victim’ groups on the grounds that such ‘victims’ could never be held responsible for what they did.

Feminism, anti-racism and gay rights thus turned men, white people and Christians into the enemies of decency who were forced to jump through hoops to prove their virtue.

Again, here it is not the theory that is wrong, it is the practice. What causes crime? Isn’t it a good idea to eradicate those causes? We’d end up with fewer criminals down the line. What’s happened is that we’ve put the cart before the horse, and started trying to pretend criminal behaviour can be mitigated before the causes of it have been eradicated. The same with the ‘rights’ agenda Phillips dislikes: it is absolutely true that there has been historical oppression of minorities, and as a society we started to recognise that that was inexcusable. But now we’re over-compensating by granting those historical minorities entitlements not available to the rest of the population.

And let us not be ridiculous: men, white people, and Christians have been the perpetrators of many acts inimical to decency. Their virtuousness is not a given. We should all have to prove our virtue, majority and minority alike.

This Through The Looking Glass mindset rests on the belief that the world is divided into the powerful (who are responsible for all bad things) and the oppressed (who are responsible for none of them).

Well yes – that’s right, isn’t it? People without power to do things are, y’know, without power to do things. Right after this paragraph would have been a great opportunity for her to continue, ‘But the world is divided into individuals, who are responsible for their own actions, and even the oppressed are capable of harming others, while the powerful are capable of benevolence.’

She doesn’t say that, however, because she doesn’t actually believe in individual responsibility, viz. ‘illegal drugtaking’ above.

This is a Marxist doctrine. But the extent to which such Marxist thinking has been taken up unwittingly even by the Establishment was illustrated by the astounding observation made in 2005 by the then senior law lord, Lord Bingham, that human rights law was all about protecting ‘oppressed’ minorities from the majority.

What the fuck? That is what human rights law is all about! It’s about saying, ‘I am a human being, I have certain inalienable liberties, and not even a democratically-elected majority can deprive me of those liberties, because those liberties are protected by the rule of law.’ If that’s Marxist, then I’m a fucking Marxist too. Sign me up.

However, the terrifying fact is that they form a totalitarian mindset that replicates the way communist societies clamped down on any other than permitted views. Thus the intolerance  -  or even arrest  -  of Christians opposed to gay adoption and civil union, or the vilification as ‘racists’ of those opposed to mass immigration.

This mindset also led to the belief that a sense of nationhood was the cause of all the ills in the world, precisely because western nations embodied western values. So transnational institutions or doctrines such as the EU, UN, international law or human rights law came to trump national laws and values.

Okay, these are both true. But that doesn’t really support Phillips’s premises, except insofar as we’re not clamping down on what she thinks are the right views to clamp down on (Christian views okay, pro-drugs views bad; Western national laws and values good; non-Western national laws and values bad).

But the truth is that to be hostile to the western nation is to be hostile to democracy. And indeed, with the development of the EU superstate we can see that the victory over one anti-democratic regime within Europe  -  the Soviet Union  -  has been followed by surrender to another.

For the republic of Euroland puts loyalty to itself higher than that to individual nations and their values. It refused to commit itself in its constitution to uphold Christianity, the foundation of western morality.

Also true. But democracy is not a perfect system (although it tends to be better than anti-democratic ones), and I for one am pretty pleased that we are not constitutionally bound to uphold Christianity and its moral system – at least as practised throughout most of history, or even as practised today, when it tends to manifest as ‘bend over and take it – self-sacrifice is the highest virtue.’

My essential problem with Melanie Phillips is that she appears to have no problem with cultural ‘Marxism’ in principle, just that it’s been deployed to undermine her own particular values. And as her particular values appear to be stigma, indoctrination, the tyranny of the majority, and white Christian nationalism, I’m kinda glad she hasn’t got her way.

I’m not so happy that the pillars of society I do value have also been undermined – individual responsibility, equality under the law, and the protection of inalienable rights – but at least I’m not bitching about the mechanism that was used to accomplish it. I’m hopeful that I, and like-minded people, use the same mechanism to turn things round again.

Winning the ideological battle is, in large part, a result of being able to frame the terms of debate. Gramsci recognised this, and he was right. It’s the difference between asking, ‘Should we redistribute wealth?’ and ‘If we were going to redistribute wealth, how should it be done?’ The first question wonders if redistribution is a good thing; the second question assumes that it is. The second question is framing the terms of the debate. That’s how the enemies of liberal society have been getting away with their policies for decades; we, as liberals, ought to take a page out of Gramsci’s book and do the same thing. No more of this ‘Should the scope of government be reduced?’ We should be asking, ‘If we’re going to reduce the scope of government, where should we start?’

Ron Paul did this to great effect when he went on the Colbert Report a couple of years ago. I’m having trouble finding a link, but what happened was this: Stephen Colbert announced that he was going to start reading out the names of government departments, and he wanted Ron Paul to raise his hand at each one he would abolish. Ron Paul said something like, ‘Well, I’d rather just keep my hand up, and put it down if you say the name of one I’d like to keep.’

That’s framing the debate. Colbert assumed that all government departments are necessary except for those one might like to abolish; Ron Paul insisted on the assumption that no government departments should automatically be maintained.

UPDATE: Commenter Celteh has provided a link to this video. And I discover that I’m wrong; it’s Colbert who says, ‘Keep your hand up, and put it down when I read the name of a department you’d like to keep.’ The point about framing the debate still stands, of course, but I should remember to give Stephen Colbert the credit he deserves.

This is where David Osler’s reaction to Phillips comes in; his allies have been so successful in framing the debate that he no longer recognises that the debate has a frame at all. He could have made the objections to her that I just did: that she’s just not happy with her pet pillars being undermined, that she has no respect for individual liberties or the rights of minorities, but he doesn’t do that. What he actually seems to believe is that society is exactly how Phillips has always wanted it, and that he and his political allies have been fighting a losing battle against the forces of exploitation and oppression. There must be some sort of psychological term for looking at your victories and calling them defeats, but I don’t know what it is.

After basically accusing her of plagiarism (and what do I know, he might be right), he says:

Our basic problem is that we are ‘hostile towards western civilisation’ and thus seeking to bring it down. We just can’t help hating freedom, thanks to our ‘totalitarian mindset that replicates the way communist societies clamped down on any other than permitted views’. This is tantamount to reconstituted ‘communist ideology’ that is actually worse than full on Stalinism, being ‘even more deadly’ as an ‘active enemy of western freedom.’

Got that, folks? Forget the Red Terror, forced collectivisation, the Great Purge, Hungary 1956, the Cultural Revolution, the suppression of the Prague Spring, and Cambodia in the Year Zero. Political correctness is ‘even more deadly’.

This is from a guy writing on the same website that will allow commenters to call Daniel Hannan a ‘cunt’ for daring to criticise the NHS whilst claiming that his ideas are too patently false to bother debating (’cause that’s not clamping down on un-permitted views). And this is from the same guy who called a rape victim a ‘starstruck teenybopper’ and an ‘LA Lolita’ on a website that supposedly prohibits misogynistic comment.

There could not be a better demonstration of the ‘what we say is okay, what you say is outrageous’ mindset than David Osler writing at Liberal Conspiracy.

But hey, LC isn’t putting anybody into camps or massacring them, so they don’t hate freedom or prohibit views and debates.

Indisputably, there has been an erosion of social cohesion in Britain since the 1970s. But the primary reason is not the clandestine machinations of closet Gramscians, but the abandonment of social democracy for exactly the kind of inegalitarian society driven by the very market forces that Phillips applauds for ‘carrying the torch of liberty’.

And if feminism, anti-racism and gay rights really are that wicked, with what should they be replaced? Presumably the return of the traditional mother and wife, penalty-free racial discrimination and a retreat to the times of hush-hush homosexuality.

According to David Osler, we’ve actually abandoned social democracy, and the free market actually erodes liberty and equality. And the only alternative to special pleading is, apparently, 1950s-style sexism, racism, and cultural oppression.

These people just do not get it; just because some people are ‘less oppressed’ than they used to be doesn’t mean others aren’t more. We’ve exchanged one world in which some people are demonised and unfree for another world in which other people (market apologists, as you can see) are demonised and unfree. But the demonisation and lack of freedom continues. Osler doesn’t see this, of course, because he’s actually partially succeeded in his aims. But like a child, he complains that he and his ‘mates’ have been on the back foot for thirty years.

Whatever anyone thinks of society today, it is the creation of Thatcherism and Blairism, which are both essentially variations on a neoliberal theme. Lenin would not – as Phillips crassly concludes – be smiling if he could somehow see it from his mausoleum. But Hayek certainly would be.

Any real liberal will tell you that Thatcher and Blair were just as much the enemies of freedom as Lenin and Marx; and Hayek, after weeping silently from the great beyond for the past 17 years, is now spinning in his grave at this bastardisation of what he’d be smiling at. Hayek, smiling at Britain in 2009? David Osler, you are both ignorant and blind.

In short, Phillips already lives in the kind of country that is the only conceivable outcome of the brand of rightwingery she herself represents; she might at least be that little bit more graceful about it.

Yeah, she does; and you live in a country that is one of the milder forms of the brand of leftwingery you yourself represent; you might be a little more graceful about it, and thankful that it hasn’t turned into any of those hideous tragedies you mentioned above. Because you’ve both gotten exactly what you wanted: a culture of liberty and individual responsibility demolished, and a society of restriction, coercion, and collective punishment raised up in its place. The two of you are a hell of a lot more alike than you are different.

And poor Gramsci is probably sitting there next to Hayek saying, ‘I know, man. WTF.’

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

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.

As a comment on this article about rape prosecutions, I find this:

As a lawyer, it disturbs me that a politically correct state is seeking to tell jurors what they are permitted to think about human behaviour. The insoluble problem with prosecuting rape is that the act is not unlawful in itself, but is made unlawful purely by the state of mind of the participants.
Feliks Kwiatkowski, Haywards Heath, England

Now, rape is obviously one of those difficult issues, but logic is generally not, so here we go:

First, juries are always told what to think about human behaviour, at least while they are in the jury box. They are always instructed to decide their verdict on the basis of the admissible evidence. All this article is saying is that the rape victim’s dress, level of physical resistance to the rapist, and the time elapsed between the rape and the formal accusation are no longer admissible evidence on which the jury can base their verdict. This is already the case with most other crimes: how one looks, whether one resists, and how long one takes to report it when one is the victim of theft are not considered evidence either.

Second, of course the act – penetrative sex – is not unlawful in itself. Nor is the transfer of cash from one individual to another. It is the state of mind of the participants that makes the actions a crime – namely, it is the absence of willingness or choice on the part of one party that makes the sex rape, and makes the receipt of cash theft. This is not an ‘insoluble problem’ in the case of theft, nor is it a problem in the case of rape.

The difficulty with rape, which this commenter, being a lawyer, ought to be able to articulate more clearly, is not that it is classified as a crime for bizarre reasons, or that the judges in rape cases can instruct the jury how to arrive at a verdict.

If we think in terms of theft: I cannot actually prove that a mugger has robbed me at gunpoint if nobody saw it happen. It’s my word against his that I didn’t give the money to him willingly and of my own choice. My mugger may have been accused or convicted of theft before, which supports my claim a bit, but then again he may not. My mugger may be a total stranger to me, which supports my claim a bit, but then again he may not.

With rape, again, if there are no witnesses, it’s the victim’s word against the alleged rapist’s, and the victim cannot prove the sex was not willing and done out of choice. The alleged rapist may have a record, but he (or she) may not; the alleged rapist may be a stranger to the victim, but he (or she) may not.

The difficulty with rape, therefore, is not in the act of sex itself, or the legal obligations of judge and jury, or even in the nature of the evidence when considered in comparison to other roughly analogous criminal situations. The difficulty is in perception, both of the victim and the accused, and of rape itself as a crime.

Most people are willing to take the word of a victim of theft. The punishment for theft is lighter as well. But many people, whether they will admit this or not, are innately sceptical of a rape victim’s claim, especially if the person they claim has raped them is a friend, family member, or other acquaintance. ‘Maybe it was a misunderstanding,’ they think. ‘Maybe the unwillingness wasn’t made clear enough at the time.’ The punishment for rape is harsh. There may also be an awareness that there is no recompense for rape; victims of theft can get their money back, but what is it exactly that a victim of rape has lost? One can argue that they have lost a sense of personal sovereignty and safety, but this is true of mugging victims also, and is equally intangible in that case. There is, too, the perception that thieves will continue to be thieves, but that rapes are unique to their situations. And so many people will give the accused the benefit of the doubt – not entirely unreasonably – in a way they wouldn’t do if the crime were theft – because conviction does very little to help the victim and does enormous damage to the convicted.

One person I’ve discussed this with has suggested that the problem is in the nature of consent: society (and the legal system) views all sex as consensual unless otherwise clearly stated at the time. Remaining silent is presumed to be consent as well. The solution: all sex should be presumed to be non-consensual unless otherwise stated. This is, after all, how we treat other issues of bodily sovereignty, for example organ donation. (Although I’m aware there’s a move afoot in the UK to change that.) This is also how we treat theft: if I agree to the exchange of that money, all I have to do is not call the police and make an accusation of theft. If a person agrees to have sex, all they would have to do is not call the police and make an accusation of rape. Then, if a rape occurs and goes to court, the various attorneys can get into the problem of thorny evidence, etc, but at least the victim will be spared the necessity of having to prove a negative.

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.

I do so love parables. What is this one about, do you think?

Indulge me this little fable of our times…

There once was a man, a young man, a man afflicted with a passionate desire. He wanted nothing more in all the world than to play music on the violin. He never had much time for music as a child, but as he grew up and hit his teenage years he found himself seized by a powerful and unsettling urge to play the violin. Nothing but a violin would do. This was not like him, so he thought, and he worried about how others would react to him should they find out that he harboured this forbidden desire.

The society he lived in did not much care for music, and treated it rather strictly – as something to be played only by chartered professionals who owned their own instruments. It was not despised, by and large, though some fringe lunatics certainly did despise it, and when kept within certain bounds it was generally accepted. It was certainly not something to be discussed outside the auditorium or the concert hall, however, especially with those too junior to acquire an instrument or seek accreditation. Furthermore, in a cruel twist of fate, the violin in particular was deeply frowned upon, especially for boys. Nobody wanted their son to grow up to be a violinist, though daughters were actively encouraged to take up the instrument. Boys were not allowed to seek accreditation for a violin charter, though many who wanted to kept playing on the fringes of society, outside the official remit of the state musicians’ guild. There was prejudice, but it seemed to be getting more tolerable…

I’d provide a link, but…meh. Not going to happen.

Opposition to the death penalty is discriminatory, when there are differential benefits from its application, between different groups in society. The obvious example is the possible introduction of the death penalty for discrimination. Discrimination by ethnic origin is well-evidenced on the labour and housing market in western societies, for instance. Existing anti-discrimination laws have made no impact: enforcement is minimal and limited to extreme cases. Introduction of the death penalty would, through its strong deterrent effect, reduce discrimination – and therefore benefit minorities.

If there is a case of discrimination, and if the death penalty can be applied, then there is a conflict of interest between the victim and opponents of the death penalty, including Amnesty. Some victims may also reject the death penalty, and some may even prefer to suffer discrimination, rather than see someone executed as a result of their complaint. But suppose the victim is a Somali woman refugee in a western European state, discriminated by a racist employer. What if she does approve the death penalty? What if she did complain, and what if she wants the perpetrator to be executed, in order to deter similar discrimination in future?

Can a successful white middle-class lawyer (a typical supporter of Amnesty International) legitimately deny the woman the implementation of her preferences? Isn’t that simply another discrimination – “white middle-class lawyers count for more than Somali women”? Amnesty’s answer would presumably be, that they are not appealing to individual preference, but to universal rights. However, that’s simply another way of saying “Our views are superior”. The rights can’t be shown to exist, they are simply claimed to be universal and binding. The value preference of the privileged group (non-immigrant ethnic majority) is imposed on the weaker minority, using this appeal to universality.*

Now, as any fule kno, there is a very good argument for limiting capital sentences, if you are going to have them at all, only to the most destructive and physically damaging of crimes. There are very good reasons, as chappie claims elsewhere in the post, for believing the death penalty to be a deterrent to crime, but a simple thought experiment flags up his error:

You are a bigot who lives in a country where discriminators, rapists, murderers, etc., can be executed. One day, a dark-skinned lady applies for a job you have advertised. So incensed are you at her presumption that, momentarily unable to control yourself, you call her a filthy name and assure her that you would die before you gave a job to a pathetic dark-skinned specimen like her. As she stares at you, affronted, you realise that you have now opened yourself up to prosecution for discrimination with a possibility of capital sentence. In your panic, an idea blossoms: you can silence her! After all, the state can only kill you once; and if she’s not around to inform on you, maybe you’ll never get caught at all. What have you got to lose? So you throttle her and bury the remains in a landfill. Problem solved.

The moral of the story is: the death penalty, if applied to minor crimes, will deter neither those nor the more serious ones. It is only an effective deterrent when applied to the most serious of crimes, and then only because they can’t be covered up using worse ones.

I leave you with the words of a far greater mind than mine:

One day when I was dining with him there happened to be at the table one of the English lawyers, who took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, who, as he said, were then hanged so fast, that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet; and upon that he said he could not wonder enough how it came to pass, that since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left who were still robbing in all places. Upon this, I who took the boldness to speak freely before the Cardinal, said, there was no reason to wonder at the matter, since this way of punishing thieves was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual…

St Thomas More, Utopia.

*[For further context, this is the same chappie who petitioned the Dutch government to censor the websites of LPUK and the Adam Smith Institute on the grounds that both groups seek to subject others, against their will, to freedom - as well as to exclude Drs. Madsen Pirie and Eamonn Butler from the country (ha! not possible under EU law) because 'they obstruct the work of the financial regulatory authorities.' In the case of lpuk.org, at least, he was unsuccessful.]

It is an oft-cited fact that, in the United States, one is completely free to say whatever one pleases with two exceptions: one may be prosecuted for shouting ‘Fire!’ in an enclosed space – if there is no fire and if damage to person or property results; one may be prosecuted for stating one’s intent to harm the President – but only if credible evidence is uncovered that suggests one’s intent was in earnest (otherwise, those wish-fulfilling fantasists who made that documentary about the assassination of George W. Bush would have been thrown in prison for the duration of his presidency).

My understanding of freedom of speech in Britain is a bit different. Lacking a codified Constitution like the United States’, this whole freedom-of-expression thing has long been a part of tradition, common law, and more recently, human rights legislation. But the caveats on it seem to come thicker and faster than those in the US. For example, one is not permitted to advocate the abolition of the monarchy in print.

(Or so I’m told. I never would have known this had, several years ago, I not encountered a leaflet taped to a bus stop that did exactly that; a nearby genuine British person shook his head sorrowfully and opined that it really ought to be taken down before it got somebody into trouble.)

One is also not permitted any speech which is an incitement to violence. Nor, it seems, any speech which is an incitement to hatred. I quote this article in full because, although it is from The Sun, it is clear, concise, and fascinating:

A BID to halt legislation banning gay jokes which stir up hatred was defeated yesterday.

MPs from all parties tried to include a defence of “free speech” into the Bill which makes it a criminal offence to incite hatred over sexual orientation.

But their attempt was defeated in a Commons vote by 328 to 174.

Campaigners had said the Bill would limit freedom of expression. Some comedians even claimed it could lead to them being prosecuted.

Critics of the Government’s move included Blackadder star Rowan Atkinson, who said it could stifle creativity for writers and comedians.

But ministers said if the “free speech” amendment was accepted it could provide a loophole for people wishing to incite hatred.

Now, a ban on speech that incites violence is possibly understandable, though I don’t agree with it. But there is a material difference between violence – initiation of force against another’s bodily integrity – and hatred, which is an emotion or state of mind. I grant that hatred may lead to violence; I grant that there are certainly crimes motivated by hatred. But to outlaw speech that incites hatred is equivalent to outlawing speech that incites boredom, or frustration, or joy – these are states of mind, and those who hold them can never be proven guilty of doing so, for how does one prove the possession of an emotion or state of mind except through the actions that betray it? And the action of initiating force against another person’s bodily integrity is already illegal.

It was already a crime to incite violence, regardless of whether the speaker participated in the violence himself; now it is a crime to incite an emotion, regardless of whether the speaker holds it himself. These laws make the speaker, regardless of intent or participation, responsible for the feelings and actions of others.

And, giving the situation some thought, I begin to realise that there is no better way, really, to force the citizenry to change, if not its views, then at least its expression of them. In the glory days, when we were free to say what we thought as long as we did not act on it, we relied on social ostracism to eradicate the airing of distasteful views. Social ostracism is a powerful tool, but not, it seems, powerful enough, for there were still some eccentrics wandering round spouting bigotry in contravention of all behavioural norms. Caring nothing for the opinions of society, therefore, they must be made to fear legal sanction for their unpleasantness instead. And this has been done very cleverly indeed. If the law were made against expression one’s own hatred, well, there would be martyrs to it everywhere, for to take on oneself the penalty of an unjust law has in it something of nobility, however repugnant the views for which one is willing to accept punishment. But because the law censures you for what others do, it is much more sinister, and much more nebulous, and much more difficult to stand against bravely.

And so we shut our mouths and keep our opinions to ourselves, not because we dislike the idea of going to prison for our own actions, but because we fear the prospect of going to prison for the actions of others.

How is this justice? How is this freedom? How is it possible that, in a civilised society, we are answerable at law for the opinions and behaviours of individuals not ourselves, over whom we have no provable influence and certainly no control? Each of us has, if not legally, at least morally a responsibility to avoid sins of omission; if I witness a mugging, I have a duty, it can be argued, to try to stop it, or to assist the victim. But if a mugging happens out of my sight and hearing and knowledge, I cannot be held accountable for omitting to help. On the other hand, it seems that if the mugger overheard me on the Tube telling a joke about homosexuals, or saying wistfully that Jews deserve to be robbed, I am as responsible for that crime as the mugger himself, if he can finger me as the one who incited his behaviour. Even if he doesn’t mug his victim, but merely spits and calls the victim an unkind name, I am made a criminal, even if the action that damns me happened out of my sight and hearing and knowledge.

Who knows what our stray remarks may lead others to do? And while most of us recognise the justice of being imprisoned for our own behaviour, very few of us see it in being punished for someone else’s. Therefore we remain silent.

But ministers said if the “free speech” amendment was accepted it could provide a loophole for people wishing to incite hatred.

Free speech is a loophole in the minds of our ministers. Rather than being a right which the government must not infringe, it is a loose end to be sewn up. We are only free to speak that which is not prohibited at the whim of each successive Parliament. We are made criminals not only by what others do, but by what others might do. This government has achieved what enemies of freedom have advocated for decades: each man is truly his brother’s keeper, and will pay the price for his brother’s folly.

…if you will, a piece of legislation that contains the following provisions:

(a) Prohibited Activities- A participant in an approved national service position under this subtitle may not engage in the following activities:

‘(1) Attempting to influence legislation.

‘(2) Organizing or engaging in protests, petitions, boycotts, or strikes.

‘(3) Assisting, promoting, or deterring union organizing.

‘(4) Impairing existing contracts for services or collective bargaining agreements.

‘(5) Engaging in partisan political activities, or other activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office.

‘(6) Participating in, or endorsing, events or activities that are likely to include advocacy for or against political parties, political platforms, political candidates, proposed legislation, or elected officials.

‘(7) Engaging in religious instruction, conducting worship services, providing instruction as part of a program that includes mandatory religious instruction or worship, constructing or operating facilities devoted to religious instruction or worship, maintaining facilities primarily or inherently devoted to religious instruction or worship, or engaging in any form of religious proselytization.

Pretty fucking horrifying, no? What on earth, I can hear you wondering, is an ‘approved national service position,’ and what about it makes it necessary for law-makers to remove from its holders freedom of association, the right to petition the government, the franchise, and the right to practise a religion?

Well, my dears, I shall tell you: it’s our old friend Compulsory Volunteering, passed in the US House yesterday in a bill called Generations Invigorating Volunteerism and Education Act, or, cutely, simply GIVE.

The text of this bill is, like all the pieces of loo roll that pass for legislation in Washington DC, so abstruse that in my current germ-weakened state, I can make neither head nor tail of most of it. The bit quoted above, however, seems pretty straightforward. How, in the name of all that is holy, can Congress justify denying FOUR fundamental, Constitutional rights from people who are taking part in national ‘service’?

And please, no bombarding me with reasonableness. I’m sure that ‘activities designed to influence the outcome of an election to any public office’ isn’t intended to mean voting, but fuck me if I can think of a more archetypal example of an activity designed to influence the outcome of an election.

As it happens, the GIVE Act (what a stupid fucking name) is something of an amendment to other national ‘service’ acts passed in other decades by other asshat Congresses, and there is already an organisation, the Corporation for National and Community Service (its website has a .gov domain and everything!) that administers this crap. They’ve been really quick on the ball to express an opinion of GIVE (something the MSM, I note, have largely overlooked):

The U.S. House of Representatives today passed the most significant overhaul and expansion of national service programs in 16 years, acting on President Obama’s call to increase service opportunities for Americans of all ages to help address the economic crisis and usher in a new era of service and responsibility for our nation.

“Service is a fundamental American value, in every neighborhood and every community,” said U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee and a co-sponsor of the bill. “With President Obama’s leadership and support, today the House took a key step toward launching a new era of service that will rebuild and strengthen our country for years to come.”

“The American spirit is one of giving back – to our neighbors, our communities, and our nation. All across this country, citizens are devoting their time, skills, and resources to make our country a better place. And through the GIVE Act, we can nurture that spirit of selflessness, leveraging both individuals and organizations to achieve national goals,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, the House Education Committee’s Ranking Republican member.

“At this time of economic crisis, there is a convergence of a great need to help our neighbors and a great appetite by Americans to serve,” said the Corporation’s Board Chair Alan Solomont. “Service can be a solution to many of our nation’s toughest challenges. We are grateful to the House for passing this bipartisan legislation to expand high-quality service opportunities for Americans of all ages.”

Is this some kind of bad prank? On the one hand, we’ve got Reps. George Miller and ‘Buck’ McKeon (may their loins rot) claiming service as a fundamental American value (since when?); on the other, we’ve got Alan Solomont praising the House for offering Americans more ‘high-quality service opportunities.’ What the fuck? Replace the words ‘service opportunities’ with the word ‘toaster’ and you get a sentence that makes a hell of a lot more sense.

I suppose my main points are these: (1) this Act has a stupid name, (2) this Act cancels out fundamental freedoms in the name of service to the common good, (3) this never would have passed if it weren’t for the fucking joke of a community organiser running the nation these days, and most importantly (4) what the US does, Britain quickly imitates. We go to war in Iraq – you go to war in Iraq. We pass illiberal laws to ‘deal with’ the ‘terrorist threat’ – you pass illiberal laws to deal with the terrorist threat. We stimulate our economy with fuckloads of debt – you stimulate your economy with fuckloads of debt. Our mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming – your mad leader thinks he’s the Second Coming. We press our citizens into rightless compulsory voluntary servitude… you get the idea.

I shouldn’t wonder if there’s not something similar knocking around in Parliament right now, waiting for its five minutes’ worth of debate before being rammed into law by a maniacal, overpowerful, unelected, self-important, self-destructive executive.

Atlas Shrugged is all over the blogs and the news recently, and with good reason. The authoritarians, statists, and socialists among us appear to clutch at every possible opportunity to ridicule the novel, and Rand herself, with the sort of viciousness that suggests they derive pleasure from being overtly nasty about a dead woman and her philosophy.

Their viciousness also suggests fear, or at the very least resentment, that Atlas Shrugged exposes the flaws in their ideology. Why else would they need to insult its author, misrepresent its message, and claim that it is poorly written? (Because, let’s face it – it’s not poorly written. Have these people ever cast a judgmental eye over, for example, Dan Brown? Jesus.)

The Guardian leapt upon the stick-pins-in-the-effigy-of-Rand bandwagon yesterday:

Of all the scary things you can get a graph to show, surely the most terrifying is a surge in sales of Ayn Rand novels.

Could this be because Rand’s wordy masterwork foretells the collapse of capitalism? That is indeed what happens in the book: machines break, production dwindles, society collapses into riot. And the novel knows exactly where to point the finger: it’s all the fault of big government, which is choking the free market under layers of anti-business law. Rand’s novel is also clear as to who can save us. Its hero, John Galt, is handsome and virile, a brilliant inventor, and the leader of a revolutionary vanguard composed of all the world’s great talents in industry and science, finance and the arts; eventually he will be joined by the beautiful Dagny Taggart, her body “slender”, her daddy’s railroad the biggest the world has ever known. Soon, more and more of these “superior minds” abandon the “second-handers” – also known as “mediocrities”, “parasites” and “mindless hordes” – to join Galt in his mountain hideaway. When Galt and Dagny at long last get together, the sign of the almighty dollar is traced upon the earth.

Ha! That crazy Rand and her anti-government paranoia. We all know that big-government regulation is what saves us from the collapse of society – I mean, if there had been more regulation, we wouldn’t be in this banking crisis right now… And good grief, her characters? Handsome, beautiful, brilliant? Physical beauty is an accident of birth, and brilliance and success are the products of society, of course. Or one’s daddy. How dare such people withdraw their productive genius from the very society, however composed of mediocrities, to which it is owed?

(I begin to believe that Jenny Turner has not, in fact, read the novel.)

Crazy and, it seems, the recipient of her just desserts:

Atlas Shrugged was Rand’s fourth and final novel. After it, she devoted herself to what her fans consider her “philosophy”, and to building the movement she called objectivism, which was, briefly, a presence in 50s American culture before imploding in feuds. Rand was, at her height, quite a figure – bob-haired, Russian-accented, dressed in a cape with a dollar-sign brooch, smoking a cigarette in a long holder – “When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind – and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression,” she wrote in Atlas Shrugged.

Since Rand’s death in 1982 – from lung cancer – her heirs have carried the movement forward, with a growing presence in academia…

You see, not only was her ‘philosophy’ not a real philosophy (thus the derisive quotation marks around it), she was also one of those icky smokers. Ugh.

According to Noam Chomsky, Rand was “one of the most evil figures of modern intellectual history”. But this is surely an overstatement, given that during Rand’s lifetime, personal muddle and inherent ridiculousness limited her capacity to do harm. Slavoj Zizek gets closer to it when he writes that, though artistically “worthless”, her work has a lastingly “subversive dimension”. By taking “capitalist ideology” to extreme conclusions, Rand shows up its “fantasmatic kernel” – the babyish fantasies of power without consequence that, one could argue, caused the banks to sink themselves in the sub-prime mess in the first place.

The question, then, isn’t so much why Rand now? It’s more whether Randianism can have a long-term future, now that capitalism no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself.

Aha, yes – I thought we’d get around to this. Unbridled free markets of the sort Rand advocated have failed; capitalism has made a fool of itself; her ideas are inherently ridiculous.

Would somebody mind please explaining to me why, after the disasters that were Soviet Russia and Maoist China, and the on-going jokes that are Cuba and Venezuela, people refuse to admit that the unfree, centrally planned market is ‘inherently ridiculous’ and ‘no longer seems to need any help when making a fool of itself’? Why do criticisms of failure apply to free markets at the merest hint of an economic downturn, but not to bizarre socialist experiments that result in actual, devastating economic collapse?

Here’s the odd thing: the Guardian published an article about Atlas Shrugged last Tuesday as well. A very different article indeed, entitled ‘Greed is good: a guide to radical individualism‘:

Rand and her books were the embodiment of right-wing libertarianism and laissez-faire capitalism, which advocated the complete deregulation of business and finance and opposed any form of state welfare. She described her philosophy as “objectivism” or “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute”.

At its heart is a mystery story: about why so many of the world’s most brilliant brains are disappearing and about who invented a new kind of motor. It tells the tale of Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and Hank Rearden, a steel magnate, and their struggles as society collapses at the hands of an oppressive government and its parasitical bureaucrats. In the book, the best minds in terms of business, science and the arts are, in effect, on strike – the book was originally called The Strike. It espoused the essential Rand philosophy of “rational self-interest”.

Throughout her writing life, she promoted the idea expressed in the book: “Until and unless you discover that money is the root of all good, you ask for your own destruction. When money ceases to become the means by which men deal with one another, then men become the tools of other men. Blood, whips and guns or dollars. Take your choice – there is no other.”

That is a vastly more realistic summary. Anybody have phone numbers for Jenny Turner and Duncan Campbell? Perhaps we should introduce them to one another.

Maybe the discrepancy is more to do with the section of the paper in which they are writing. Campbell’s article is filed under News->World News->United States, while Turner’s appears in Culture->Books->The week in books. And as we all know, Rand’s novel as a piece of literature is ‘artistically worthless’. Why, even ‘very distinguished old butch dykes‘ who teach literature in the universities don’t acknowledge it! And so, because literature students, those paragons of intellect and utility, have not read it, it must be a fad.

Rand never pretended that her beliefs were easy ones to swallow; much of the novel revolves around the difficulty the two main characters, Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, have accepting it. They fight until they last possible second to succeed in a world which punishes them for their success, which demands the products of their success whilst at the same time requiring their self-sacrifice and destruction.

And to many people, I think, that is what the world seems to want these days. People rabbit on about social responsibility, reducing inequality, and eradicating poverty without ever acknowledging that the productivity and profit-motive they condemn are the very things which make global prosperity possible. And that’s not even taking into account those occasional types who seem to loathe the idea of prosperity! The human race has spent the last three thousand years fighting its way out of the filth and misery into which it was born to reach a state of being in which literally anything is possible. We had the minds to do it three thousand years ago; what we didn’t have, until the last couple of centuries, was the leisure to think. And people condemn thinking as bad, and progress as evil, because it leaves others behind. Sacrifice is preferable to gain; a low quality of life for all is preferable to a shitty quality of life for some.

And because ambition cannot be stopped – because the Dagny Taggarts and Hank Reardens of the world have not yet learned to withdraw their sanction – it must be stifled, through regulation and legislation, and everyone must be made to believe that freedom and movement and reckless, momentous change are frightening.

Left-leaning friends of mine have often asked how, as a Christian, I can approve of selfishness and dislike the concept of sacrifice. Did not Christ sacrifice himself? Did he not say that, if you have two coats, you should give one to the man who has none?

I could embark here upon an exegesis of how I interpret Christian philosophy, but I’m not going to, because it’s not necessary. Even Christ, whose understanding of economics was pretty meagre, never demanded sacrifice without the promise of reward. The right acts and charity he advocated are, in one way, their own reward, because performing them makes us feel good. But he also promised the reward of paradise which, if you believe in such a thing, is a pretty good incentive, no?

What these socialist murderers of their own posterity desire is for us all to sacrifice without reward, metaphorically to throw ourselves in front of a bus because it might save a stranger, to produce without incentive and achieve without reward, to see the good of our fellow man as better than and separate from our own good, to give without enjoyment and receive without gratitude, and to continue doing so until we reach the only possible state of equality that exists: death.

And in a way, Atlas Shrugged is the most depressing book ever written, because we will all keep fighting – none of us can withdraw sanction – and there is no Galt’s Gulch. And so we struggle on and watch as human achievement collapses around our ears, and on every side the blame is entirely our own.

‘If the things I said are true, who is the guiltiest man in this room tonight?’
‘I suppose–James Taggart?’
‘No, Mr Rearden, it is not James Taggart. But you must define the guilt and choose the man for yourself.’

Because I cannot be arsed to read the news while there is work to be done, I find that a lot of what alerts my ‘blog-post dammit’ sensors comes from other blogs, and today is no exception. By David Davis (no, not that one) at the Libertarian Alliance, I was entirely brought up short by a singular piece of commentary:

And, to round off, what a load of feminazi crap from Rowenna Davis at the Grauniad, about the “bloke-o-sphere.” Thanks to “And there was me thinking” for hat-tipping me off to this fem***z* august woman journalist. Perhaps it’s that males are just more intellectually and literarily creative? We can’t fabricate babies, you lot have to do that for us (and yourselves, don’t forget that, ever): so we write more, and harder, and faster, and with more exquisitely crafted anger feeling instead. The pen is mightier than the p**** I guess.

Many eons ago (a couple of years in reality), I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the wonders of University Challenge, that exquisitely British quiz programme hosted by the even-more-exquisite Jeremy Paxman. During the course of several rounds of filming and, later, numerous Monday evenings spent shouting trivia at the television set in tandem with some of the brightest young minds in the country (‘Wadham-Harris!’), it became apparent to me that females made up rather less than 50% of the contestant pool. On our own team (of which I was not a member, lest you accuse me of delusions of grandeur), there was one female, who answered precisely two starters-for-ten in the entire course of the team’s progress. I remember asking my then-boyfriend, the captain of our team, why women were so under-represented in the competition.

To give him his due, he considered the question carefully rather than, a la David Davis, leaping to the defence with accusations of feminazism. Eventually, he said something along the lines of: ‘To be successful on University Challenge, one has to be aggressive and take risks. If you don’t know the answer, you have to come up with a plausible guess and run with it. Those tend to be male traits, I suppose.’

Much later, or perhaps it was around the same time, I asked him why it is that females, on average, perform much better in school, but males perform better at university. His response was similar: ‘When you think about the university examination system, you know that most of it consists of writing rather long essays in answer to rather vague questions. What achieves good marks doesn’t seem to be simple repetition of facts. Instead, errors of fact are overlooked if an answer is bold enough or has enough flair. Men, I suppose, tend to be rather bolder and more given to flashes of insight.’

My own experience as a teacher would seem to support his conclusions. When I taught history in the US (in a mixed school), my best students were male. Even when they misreported the circumstances of historical events, their essays often displayed a deeper understanding of the material and a more rigorous level of analysis than those of the females.

What does this mean for women in the blogosphere, then?

A quick survey of my own blogroll (which is rather more extensive than what you will find in the right-hand sidebar), reveals that there are two women on it: one, Megan McArdle, is an MBA who writes for the Atlantic, and the other is a feminist. This is not to say that I’m not aware of other female bloggers: David Davis tips his hat to one, Dennis often features another, and who hasn’t heard of the lovely Trixy? And yet those five women represent the sum total of my conversance with the female side of the interweb-commentariat. Of the two on my blogroll, I read Megan McArdle to keep up with the American libertarian world, and I read the feminist because she is angry and sweary and uses neologisms like ‘empornulate.’

Rowenna Davis (no relation to David) says:

Second, it’s worrying because – like any forum – virtual spaces develop institutional cultures over time. The House of Commons building might be gender neutral, but fill its chambers with mainly men for hundreds of years and sexism begins to looks like part of the furniture. So too with cyberspace. Unlike parliament, the internet was not made exclusively for men, but mainstream political blogs are starting to become defined as such.

In such a context, it’s hard to stay true to yourself online. When editing LabourList, I felt the need to turn up the aggression, to be more cutting than I would like to be and less willing to compromise. Online, I felt a similar pressure that Thatcher may have felt in the Commons – the need to compensate for my femininity in a world dominated by aggressive masculinity.

Her choice of the words ‘aggression’ and ‘aggressive’ certainly hearkens back to my ex’s remarks and suggests that the blogosphere, like University Challenge and university exams, is a realm in which success is achieved by having the loudest, most insistent, most incisive voice.

Rowenna Davis goes on:

But facing that world alongside other female bloggers gave me hope. I was lucky enough to have commentators like Sadie Smith tweeting alongside me, and blog-readers like Grace Fletcher-Hackwood questioning the male-dominated blogroll. While editing, I saw first-hand that – given a critical mass – the internet can work for women as well as against them.

But changing the content for one day is not enough. If women don’t keep up a lively presence online, the “blokeosphere” will rule. Ultimately, the internet is what we make it. This poses a challenge to mainstream political blogs – who have a responsibility to make space for female voices – and to women, who have a duty to fill them.

It’s rather heartening to know that ‘mainstream’ political blogs, of which I read precisely none according to what this woman’s definition probably is, suffer the same dearth of oestrogen as the libertarian blogs I frequent. Whilst I don’t support the idea that any internet community has ‘a responsibility to make space for female voices,’ I do agree that women, if they want their voices heard, need to enter the space and start making waves.

The delightful Tim Worstall mentioned a related problem recently when he ridiculed Mary Honeyball MEP for contradicting her own argument about gender quotas, and let’s be fair, the woman is a stupid ass:

It took all-women shortlists to raise the number of Labour women MPs to 27% of the parliamentary Labour party. Compare this with the Tories – who, incidentally, oppose quotas – of whom only 9% are female. Quotas do work, and I do not believe we will get significantly more women elected representatives without them.

Only 26% of MPs are female, meaning that Westminster does not have enough women for them to form a critical mass – estimated to be around 30% – where they can bring about changes.

Only by getting more women into parliament will some of the structural barriers that prevent more women from being elected be removed. Female MPs are role models who raise women’s and girls’ aspirations. Quotas are a short-term measure that will ensure long lasting democracy and equal representation.

Although women comprise, as is often cited, half of the population, women do not comprise half the population’s representatives. I don’t want to get into the issue of quotas, which are a silly idea in any situation (vide Tim, supra) and already discredited more than ably over at Musings on Liberty, but it’s interesting to see how Honeyball attacks democracy in the name of…democracy. Democracy is not only choosing for whom one wishes to vote, but choosing whether or not one wishes to stand for office. When more men than women wish to stand, and more people prefer to vote for men over women, that is democracy, however much it might offend the sensibilities of equality-seekers.

And why do we have this confluence of more men running and more people voting for men? Perhaps it is because politics, like University Challenge, university exams, and the blogosphere, is a realm in which success is achieved by having the loudest, most insistent, most incisive voice. If a majority of men and women believe that women possess those traits in insufficient quantities, then women will neither stand for office nor receive votes.

The question, is seems to me, is: why are aggression and flair considered primarily masculine, rather than feminine, traits? We all know women who possess them, and we all know men who don’t. Are women employing these characteristics in other spheres of their lives? Is David Davis right in suggesting that women divert their strenuous efforts into the creation of babies?

I don’t know the answer. I know that I am not a person who is much given to flair. I am rarely loud. I do not craft my anger into exquisite, invective-filled blog posts, and other people’s pens are indeed mightier, as David Davis says, than my pussy. I am not aggressive. So maybe this blog is doomed to fail, I will never have a career in politics, and Gail Trimble truly is the man.

What I do know, however, is that whinging on about what women are entitled to, whether it be space in the great political debate, seats in Parliament, or exams tailored to fit their character traits, is a counter-productive waste of time. Women are entitled to be treated as human beings, with all attendant rights and liberties. No more, no less. And the more we focus on dragging down men to pull ourselves up, the more harm we do to our primary, legitimate, and above all imperative goal.

Dennis, whilst ducking for metaphorical cover, accuses me in the comments of poor showing lately, and I must admit this is true. A backlog of tedious marking sapped most of my energy this week (although I did make a move into the GTD realm, which was oddly satisfying), the last of which was expended at a school charity event in which I competed for the three-legged race title with Mr Smug Git. (Yes, we won.)

As for the weekend, most of things that would have gotten my goat have been rather more ably ranted about by others, whose rage acts as a sort of catharsis, after the reading of which I feel like a boat that has passed through the rapids and now drifts lazily through shallow eddies: calm and purged of the evil humours, the recipient of successful emotional phlebotomy.

David Davis (no, not that one) at the Libertarian Alliance has flagged up a trio of AQA science GCSE papers, the questions on which make even me, with my liberal-arts mind, feel like a scientific genius. With my superior knowledge of the ins and outs of the public exam system in this day and age, I can reveal that after 12 March, the January 2009 papers will be available on the interwebs. I was fortunate enough to invigilate one of the biology papers, and thus I can provide a sneak preview of one or two of the questions therein:

Paper 1, Question 5 – Explain how agricultural activities are contributing to global warming.

Paper 2, Question 4 – Importing tomatoes may be more damaging to the environment than consuming tomatoes grown in Britain. Explain why.

I have it on good authority that even science teachers think this stuff is bollocks.

Next, Vindico has written an excellent post about Jade Goody as a bulwark against Marxism. She is indeed someone who has improved her circumstances in life, and without hypocrisy or the wibble that comes with following the state-prescribed Route Out of Poverty. Jade Goody is unapologetic and unashamed, and when people call her trashy, ugly, or unpleasant, a red haze of anger descends over my eyes. She is a human being – and no worse than most – and my regard for her includes empathetic horror, eye-watering pity, and the heart-wrenching fellow-feeling for a woman exactly my own age who is facing imminent non-existence. I cannot imagine anything worse, and I wouldn’t wish such an end on my worst enemy, let alone on a woman who has cleverly capitalised on the innate voyeurism of the British public to lift herself out of squalor and build herself and her children an enviable fortune.

Finally, the Devil levels blistering attacks upon, amongst others, Margot Wallstrom and Gordon Brown, essentially for their seeming inability to recognise that the realities inside their heads and outside them do not correspond. For all the fact that she is a woman herself, Margot has some damned funny ideas about women, and I object vociferously to her presumption to speak for us all. If I take what she says about women’s concerns at face value, I discover to my amazement that I am actually a man, caring nothing, as I do, for things like shared wealth and the preservation of the environment. She stands for all that I hate about the feminist movement: namely, this idea that women deserve some sort of special treatment to make up for the fact that they are women. Fuck that. If feminism has any legitimate goal, it should be that women are treated as human beings, with all of the attendant rights and liberties that any human being deserves. Continuing to differentiate us as a group and using that differentiation as an excuse to deprive other people of their rights and liberties is not only counter-productive, but insidiously evil.

Upon Gordon Brown’s delusions I shall not comment; the Devil has already done so, and with better invective than I could hope to produce.

On a different note, there is this theory tiptoeing around the blogosphere that the government wants us to riot this summer so that they can invoke the Civil Contingencies Act. There is some proof that the inflammatory baiting of our dear leaders is having an effect; I report a conversation witnessed on Facebook, of all places:

Status: John proposes a medieval-style riot in which we lynch the bankers (this must not, repeat not, turn into a pogrom).

Commenter: Hmph. That’s exactly what the government wants you to do.

John: By God, I’ve been programmed. I knew I should have worn the tin-foil hat. KILL THE BANKERS. KILL THE BANKERS. SPARE THE BUREAUCRATS (who do a difficult job in trying circumstances). I’m just a drone controlled by The Man. Tragic.

Yup – there’s the problem with all of us, right there: not enough love for the bureaucrats, who do a difficult job in trying circumstances. Send the love, y’all! They work their asses off, 10-4, four days a week, to fix the mess we’ve made. While you’re at it, why not pick your own bureaucrat to sponsor and send him (or, more likely, her) a nice fruit basket?

Jesus.

The scene – bella and flatmate are discussing full-serve toilets, as featured in today’s Guardian.

Me: Those toilets don’t sound so bad, the way you describe them.

Flatmate: And you know what – the Japanese-style ones, they’re like Continental toilets in that there’s a little shelf for inspecting your output. It’s weird; there’s like this little Viking longship poo sitting there, and then you press the button, and whoosh, it sails out. I feel like I should salute as it goes past.

Me: [dies laughing]

I suppose not much is happening in the great wide world today (apart from the ‘special relationship’ and those poor cricketers), because these were the top stories in the Telegraph this afternoon:

Gordon, only a new face can help you at this stage.

Everything you always wanted to know about your navel (but were afraid to ask).

South Korea and Springfield Lake: what do they have in common?

As I sit here and listen to an enterprising builder outside whistle an excellent rendition of Grieg’s ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King,’ my thoughts turn to halls, and kings, and naturally thence, to the Middle Ages.

With my intellectual cap on, as opposed to my professional one, I am a medieval historian and have collected degrees in the subject in the same way that others might collect da Vinci sketches (i.e. expensively). In the hallowed drinking establishments of the world’s foremost institution of learning, I have pondered with fellow medievalists what it might have been like to live during the Middle Ages.

And, despite speculations about the scholarly aestheticism of monastic existence, or the bellicose excitement inherent in noble birth, we decided that it would have been utter shit.

So why – and I have seen this flagged up on Tim and the Landed Underclass already today – are there people, bred in luxurious modernity, who want us to go back to it?

Monty Don, the former BBC Gardener’s World presenter, said the UK could run out of food “within weeks” because the country is so dependent on imports and it was essential for the country to grow more of our own food.

He urged businesses around the country to follow the lead of the National Trust: “If every household, business, office or factory dug up a patch of land there would literally be millions of allotments made available. This is just the start of something really big.”

I will tell you when we really will run out of food, and that is when we stop depending on imports. In the Middle Ages, when importing food was impractical due to the obvious problem of it rotting in transit, local growing conditions meant the difference between a full belly and death by starvation. With the succession of overly-dry and overly-wet summer growing seasons Britain has experienced in the past four years, had we relied entirely on local produce, we all would have starved.

The other problem with eating only local produce is, of course, that delightful as these shores may be, we’d all be eating nothing but turnips and parsnips from November to March. A four-month diet of root vegetables might solve the nation’s obesity problem, but the incidence of malnutrition (particularly things like scurvy) would soar to fifteenth-century levels.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, Director General of the National Trust, said it was not just the recession driving demand for land to grow food but the desire to “reconnect” with the soil.

“More and more people want to grow their own fruit and vegetables,” she said. “This isn’t just about saving money – it’s really satisfying to sow seeds and harvest the fruit and veg of your labour.”

Oh, indeed – it’s very satisfying to till the soil and eat the fruits of one’s labour, as long as one doesn’t have to do it from sun-up to sun-down eight months out of the year, and as long as the fruits of one’s labour are sufficient to keep body and soul together. As the Landed Underclass points out, subsistence farming is hard on the body and, unless one has the luxury of farm-labourers and a horse-drawn plough, unlikely to generate enough produce for actual, y’know, subsistence.

But perhaps in addition to sharing allotments, we will all have the privilege of access to the village horse. It might even be better to have a system wherein the municipality’s food is grown entirely on common land, the care for a strip of which is allocated to every resident. Then we can all reconnect with the soil, and our roots, and our ancient heritage. While we’re at it, we can reconnect with bathing in the freezing rivers and defecating in buckets!

Christ, haven’t these people learned anything? If living off our own fucking local food was so great, our ancestors wouldn’t have escaped in relief from doing it as soon as conditions made it possible. Pardon me while I descend into teleological historicity, but isn’t one of the purposes of chronicling human development to avoid past mistakes, rather than to do the same stupid shit all over again?

Inspired by Surreptitious Evil.

My Political Views
I am a far-right social libertarian
Right: 7.82, Libertarian: 8.17

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My Culture War Stance
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Right, I’m rather pleased with all of that.

I am famous amongst a small circle of adherents for neglecting to top up, refusing to answer, failing to charge, and forgetting to carry my mobile phone. It is one of those old-time jobbies with a green and black dot-matrix type screen, and does not possess any picture-taking, mp3-playing capabilities or other fancy gadgetry. I also do not have voice mail, nor do I answer text messages. That small circle of adherents knows that the best way to contact me is by sending an email, which, although I check ye olde inbox regularly, I will not necessarily respond to in a timely manner.

This is because I like being alone; I enjoy the pleasure of my own company; and I do not like being reachable at any moment of the day or night at someone else’s convenience. Selfish? Perhaps.

But I achieved my formative years in an era not long distant but certainly before the advent of such technologies as email, SMS, instant messaging, and the iPhone. I learned to amuse myself outwith the presence of other human beings and developed a keen enthusiasm for self-analysis and introspection.

Think about it: when was the last time you were on a train, plane, bus, or date and didn’t either (a) fiddle with your communication device of choice, or (b) witness someone else doing same?

And most of the people reading this blog will be adults, who know what life was like before wireless technology connected us all. Imagine being a teenager! They have no memory of such an existence. I witness this every day, usually when one of my students’ mobile phones blurps during a lesson. ‘Who could possibly be unaware that you’re in class right now?’ I enquire. ‘Oh, it’s just a text,’ they answer; ‘it’s for me to read later.’

This recent elimination of alone-time from the western lifestyle is the subject of an excellent essay in the Boston Globe, flagged up by the much-underrated West Virginia Rebel. The author argues, without any tiresome Luddite hatred of progress, that our capacity never to be alone does not necessarily eliminate loneliness.

I do not think it can be a good thing that there are entire generations of people being brought up without the ability to appreciate solitude or the joys of their own mind; much of the growth that brings about emotional maturity is achieved during those hours we spend alone with our own thoughts. By failing to acquire this skill, are the younger generations denying themselves the pleasure of contemplating the deeper mysteries of human existence?

[I say all this, of course, as a confirmed evader of unplanned communication, but there is one piece of modern technology I despise being without, and that is my iPod. A couple of weekends ago on a train journey to London, I realised I had forgotten to charge it, and the usually-pleasant hour-long journey became a hellish nightmare of undesired eavesdropping into other people's conversations. The mobile I could drop down a privy without a backward glance, but give up the iPod? Never.]

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