Jul 242010
 

In all the la-de-da with John Demetriou about my previous post, I totally forgot that I’d read another piece about American rage etc. only recently, one which I found pretty compelling.

It is, of course, the work of the genius Mencius Moldbug, a superior man loftily unaware of the petty squabbles on these here blogs, and in fact he wrote his explanation before either JD or I donned the mantle of trying to address recent developments in the United States. An excerpt:

When gentlemen look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to help the underclass, those whose plight is no fault of their own. When peasants look at progressivism, they see a movement whose purpose is to employ gentlemen in the business of public policy, by using the peasants’ money to buy votes from varlets. Who, in the peasants’ perception, abuse the patience and generosity of both peasants and gentlemen in almost every imaginable way, and are constantly caressed by every imaginable authority for doing so.

Not only had I read this two weeks ago, I even remarked on it in a discussion with sconzey in the comments to this post. I do urge you to go an read the whole thing, and then read the whole of Moldbug’s blog. It will take a long time, but it’s worth it.

I can only blame this omission of mine on my recent birthday; truly, it seems forgetfulness does come with advancing age…

May 072010
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 252010
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feb 212010
 

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.

Feb 072010
 

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

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

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

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

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

Gordon Brown clearly does not see things my way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘power back to the people’

‘democratically accountable’

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

‘change’

‘power redistributed away from the centre’

‘fair access to all’

‘improving public services’

‘lasting peace and shared prosperity’

‘neighbourhoods’

‘diversity’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgive me if I’m a bit doubtful.

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

1. A democratically accountable House of Lords.

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

But:

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

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

3. Electoral reform, from FPTP to AV.

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

I am sure this is true.

However:

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

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

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

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

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

4. Transparency in public decisions and documents.

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

Excellent.

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

5. Make public services more responsive to individual users.

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

Great.

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

No, because:

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

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

6. Strengthening local government.

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

Quite right.

But:

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

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

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

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

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

7. Codify Britain’s unwritten constitution.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jan 122010
 

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…’

Oct 052009
 

Charlie Brooker:

I’m fairly certain I recently passed a rather pathetic tipping point, and now own more unread books and unwatched DVDs than my remaining lifespan will be able to sustain. I can’t possibly read all these pages, watch all these movies, before the grim reaper comes knocking. The bastard things are going to outlive me. It’s not fair. They can’t even breathe.

Clearly, some sort of cull is in order. It’s me or them. I pick them. My options need limiting.

Here’s what I want: I want to be told what to read, watch and listen to. I want my hands tied. I want a cultural diet. I want a government employee to turn up on my doorstep once a month, carrying a single book for me to read. I want all my TV channels removed and replaced by a single electro-pipe delivering one programme or movie a day. If I don’t watch it, it gets replaced by the following day’s selection. I want all my MP3s deleted and replaced with one unskippable radio station playing one song after the other. And every time I think about complaining, I want a minotaur to punch me in the kidneys and remind me how it was before.

In short: I’ve tried more. It’s awful. I want less, and I want it now.

Charlie, you sad bastard. Discover some self-control, for Christ’s sake, stop being such a baby, and limit your fucking options yourself.

Mar 202009
 

Harvard’s conference on Law and Mind Sciences, entitled ‘The free market mindset: history, psychology, and consequences.’ Via the Cato Institute. Especially this bit:

• 2:35 – 3:00: Jaime Napier, “ The Palliative Function of Ideology”:
In this research, we drew on system-justification theory and the notion that conservative ideology serves a palliative function to explain why conservatives are happier than liberals. Specifically, in three studies using nationally representative data from the United States and nine additional countries, we found that right-wing (vs. left-wing) orientation is indeed associated with greater subjective well-being and that the relation between political orientation and subjective well-being is mediated by the rationalization of inequality. In our third study, we found that increasing economic inequality (as measured by the Gini index) from 1974 to 2004 has exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conservatives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer against the negative hedonic effects of economic inequality.

Or maybe it’s because they spend less of their time bitching. *shrug*

H/T Samizdata.net.

Mar 152009
 

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.’

Mar 082009
 

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.