Dangerous Nonsense

It was Benjamin Franklin’s opinion that “Nothing is of more importance to the public weal, than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtueand I would hazard that very few people would disagree with him. Assisting our people to grow and develop is a key function of every society and it is the reason that education and academia are held in high regard. For over a decade I worked in a University Department of Medicine as a lower level academic and teacher and found this, initially, the most rewarding aspect of my career. Working with students to develop their understanding of medicine, to enlarge their store of knowledge, and to help them develop skills in critical thinking was the most satisfying post I ever held. Possibly even more satisfying than my time in clinical work. I was aware that was I helping train some doctors who, being much more able than I, would go on to help many more patients than I ever would myself.

Towards the end of my spell in the academic world I had started to become a little disillusioned. Fads and popular theories came and went without adequate critical appraisal and I feared the traditions of intellectual independence and rigour in analysis were starting to weaken under pressure from political and financial interference.  I stepped sideways back into the NHS for last working years but continued to watch what was happening to my Alma Mater and education in general. It has not been  pleasant or reassuring to observe what has followed.

The first onslaught appeared to be on academic freedom and on the idea of free speech. Lecturers were boycotted or banned if they held contentious opinions. A movement to de-platform speakers caught many off-guard and seemed to reach a pinnacle when Germaine Greer was banned by feminists from speaking on campus as her views on transgender issues are not currently mainstream. I’d recalled my university days, as both staff and student, as days of debate and discussion, often heated, often noisy, but always free and ultimately enlightening. I felt, increasingly, that we were failing our students with the growth of ‘safe spaces’, ‘trigger warnings’ and the avoidance of discussion.

This coddling was worrisome but much worse was to follow. As I had said, I had seen fads come and go. Usually when critical analysis was brought bear on the current pet theory it started to wither and retreat. However, now that debate is curtailed many theories last longer without proper scrutiny and start to establish themselves as the orthodox view without being having been based on good scientific enquiry. There are now many statements made that are accepted as fact and are now sheltered from questioning. These statements, have just be believed, it is increasingly heretical to question them.

For example take the problem of rape. Here is a terrible crime that concerns us all. We need to find every means at our disposal make this less frequent. Any initial reading on the subject will lead one to encounter the statement that “Rape is about control and power” not sex. In scientific terms this is quite an easy theory to test as it is falsifiable and testable. Unfortunately, on the times when good studies are undertaken about rape they tend to repeatedly reveal that, in a sizable proportion of cases, the driving factor in the crime was the sexual urge. None the less, you will find it very difficult to find anyone who doesn’t repeat the mantra “it’s not about sex, it’s about power” when discussing how we might deal with the problem with rape. This is to our shame as it is a missed opportunity; the task force set up by Obama found (The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) found that using this understanding (that rape is sometimes driven by sexual drives) there are means to reduce its frequency. This is surely what we all want and it is a grave error if we uncritically continue with a theory that reduces our ability to understand this issue and tackle it.

In many other areas statements are made with religious authority : concerning obesity – one can be fit at any weight;  concerning racism – once can not be racist towards white people; concerning transgender – every child with gender dysphoria is starting on a permanent path of transition; concerning intelligence – genetic factors are of little importance. These statements fly in the face of prior, tested and scrutinised, claims but flourish while they are guarded from criticism. Like the religious authorities of old, our current academic priesthood brook no questions and cloud their statements in jargon and obfuscation. Alan Sokal the physicist recognised this a generation ago when he hoaxed the editors of “Social Text” with his nonsense paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity to Social Text“.  Unfortunately, this broadside failed to slow down these changes which continued to expand and affect more academic departments.

Thankfully the struggle continues. Three academics have taken the hoax and multiplied it. They submitted a number of clearly broken papers with clearly implausible, indeed frankly unbelievable, findings to  a number of journals. As long as they wrote  including the current shibboleths and mantras they could get almost anything accepted for publication: Pages from Mein Kampf (replacing references to jews to white men) was accepted by a gender journal, an article watching dogs in a dog park was accepted as confirmation of rape culture in America, and an article suggesting men should masturbate with sex toys anally to reduce their transphobia and homohysteria was felt to be a valuable advance in our understanding of society. Their article in Areo magazine is a long read but well worth it. It is scarcely believable what they managed to have published, although perhaps it is telling that the paper published  in Gender, Place and Culture on “The feminist post-humanist politics of what squirrels eat” was not a hoax (with academic work of this quality it is hard to tell).

These issues are depressing but I am glad to say that at least some humour can be had at their expense. As you would expect, when the Emperor wears his new clothes he manages to garner a laugh from those who are still able to think independently.

 

I still have hope that it is in nature of youth to rebel and to question authority. I hope that these attacks are the beginnings of a revolt against this new clerisy that has taken charge of our institutions. It is very dangerous to allow those in power to away our ability to question and reason independently. Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognised this as he watched, and lost his life fighting against, the rise of fascism when he wrote in his article “On Stupidity” :-

“On closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … The power of the one needs the stupidity of the other.

The process at work here is not that particular human capacities, for instance, the intellect, suddenly atrophy or fail. Instead, it seems that under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

The fact that the stupid person is often stubborn must not blind us to the fact that he is not independent. In conversation with him, one virtually feels that one is dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords, and the like that have taken possession of him.

He is under a spell, blinded, misused, and abused in his very being. Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also be capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.”

 

There should be a law against it.

There should be a law against it.

My social life has changed. When I was young and energetic it often involved travel, excitement and fun. I recall evenings of humour, laughter, risks and the promise of passion. Now that I am old this has largely gone. My social events are now much more stolid and staid events. They increasingly consist of groups of people bemoaning the state of the world and the behaviour of those in it. Now I enjoy a moan and groan as much as the next carnaptious codger, and am no stranger to “in my day” or “when I was a lad” rants, but I have been rather concerned by a trend to accompany all these observations of current annoyances or inadequacies with a call to legislate against them. All problems, it seems, could be solved by a piece of legislation ; puppy farming to pollution, racist language to rioting, surly service staff to sexual impropriety, all we need to do is to draft the appropriate legislation and hey presto, problem solved. Really, there just should be a law against it!

Now I find this zeal for legislation rather strange. The people calling for these laws are clearly so upset by the behaviour that they witness that it has made them blind to the obvious. They bemoan the behaviour of others that they find shameful or abhorrent and stress that, during their lives, they have never done such a thing. That, during all the great many years they have lived, they have ensured that they never fell into such antics and there needs exist a law to protect people from making such errors. But during their illustrious lives there was no law against it. They managed to behave well without the cordon of law to protect them from error. They managed to get to late life avoiding killing, assaulting, cheating or conning their friends and family.

If they did not and had indeed lived a life of irresponsible abuse and debauchery, leaving a wake of victims and damage behind them, then perhaps we could respect their calls for new laws. If it were murderers and rapists calling for tougher legislation them perhaps their experience should guide us. If criminals start to say that an inadequacy of laws is the problem we should prick up our ears. But it is not, it is well meaning and well behaved people who are living proof that one does not need law to live well who make these statements. They managed to see actions were wrong and avoided them but feel others will not be as morally capable, as they are, and need laws to guide them. No law constrained their behaviour but others need laws to hold their desires and impulses in check.

The vast majority of us live our lives trying to live well. We try and pick a way through life which benefits us and our fellows. We have a moral code within us, of which we are to greater or lesser extent aware, which guides our actions and informs us of what we believe to be right or wrong. This internal code is in play for the vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of the time we only require the law for the very small number of times that this fails. Our internal code is much more important to us and ultimately takes priority over any law in any event. We know this code and it is always available to us, so it is this that we use as our guide. We do not use a lawbook to guide us, except when we are entering very strange and uncharted territories. We can enter into nearly all situations and deal with them if we have a clear internal moral view of the world.

Rather than making more and more calls for legislation we should look at this another way. If we feel people are prone to behaving badly we must presume that they don’t share the same code as ourselves. If they have a moral code but it differs from ours we should listen and find out why. Perhaps they are right, and it is we who need to change. (When the abolitionists or pacifists broke the laws and transgressed what was the common moral code they were not in fact wrong. The majority was in the wrong as time came to show). If it is not that they have a different code, but rather that they have no, or an inadequate code, then law is still not the answer. The answer is surely to try and rectify this deficit. But here we are in very dark and treacherous waters as we are in the area of moral instruction – teaching people, especially the young, how to be good and moral people.

In a secular society we are rather afraid of ideas like this as it carries ideas of religious authority. It is perhaps why we shy away from the idea of helping children, and others, learn what is right and what is wrong. We prefer to say that “it all depends” and there “is no absolute right or wrong” and hope that everything will work out for the best for everybody. But one could argue that a secular society need to consider moral instruction even more carefully as does not have any Divine guidance to call upon. But perhaps this is precisely why there are increasing numbers of grumpy old people collecting in groups, looking at society and lamenting the changes they see and clamouring for “a law against it”. Perhaps I must blame this change for my poorer social life.

It we want a better world we need better people. If we act by making more and more of our moral code external to us (by defining it in law) our own moral faculties will atrophy and weaken through disuse. We should aim to make ourselves better as individuals so there is less need for law rather than allow our baser natures to be our guide and relying on other to keep us in check by regulation as this is the way to totalitarianism and there can be no law against that!

Drifting towards the rocks.

Drifting towards the rocks.

It is increasingly apparent that the left has abandoned its originators. It was through the struggles of the working class that many of the present left wing organisations were born. These movements had their roots in the organisations formed by the working class to protect their interest and promote their advancement. The trade unions were the stalwarts of the Labour Party in Britain, and to a degree remain important today, but few on the left today have more than a vague awareness that the other strand which pushed the development of the left was Christian thinking. As Morgan Phillips, when General Secretary of the Labour Party said “the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism“. In any event, any link between the Labour Party and working class organizations and culture has largely atrophied and disappeared. Now, like many organisations on the left, is more concerned with identity politics and intersectional theory than with any class struggle.

Thoughts on this subject were stirred last night MV5BMzc1MDY3NDIwMV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzkwNzU0MzI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,674,1000_AL_when I went to see the Swedish film “The Square” which won the Palm D’or Award at Cannes. I’d heartily recommend this film to anyone who has not yet seen it as it is a biting, vicious satire which is genuinely funny but also very thought provoking. Although the main target is the “Art World” it also takes aim at the progressive elite who run our charities, government quangos,  health boards, government enquiries and generally wield a large part of the day-to-day power in our society. These people talk the talk of inclusion, accessibility, sharing and caring and empowering the powerless, but rarely do they walk the walk. As the film reveals they often have a deep seated fear of the poor and have much more interest in satisfying their own needs. In the film they create art to show they care for their fellow man but fail to recognise their fellow man in need when they pass them in the street.

On the left the politics of identity and intersectionality may have been able to help some groups. Although the womens’ struggle and the fight against racism seemed to be being fought with success before this new theory took the high ground, and it is arguable how much added benefit these theories have had in advancing the causes of women and minorities in western societies. Sometimes the focus on cultural issues, and cultural identity, has indeed been counterproductive when one considers the struggles of women, or homosexuals,  in Islamic countries where a blind eye has been turned to horrific events and support has been denied to those struggling for liberation. But there has been also an unintended negative  consequence of these theories. Now there is a problem of what to do with white working class men and boys.

These individuals have found that ‘class‘ does not count in the hierarchy of victimhood. Poverty and powerlessness do not, in themselves, interest the left. Their struggles are no longer what drives the progressives and their culture no longer has any interest to them. When they think of white working class men they think of brutes, loud scary people with opinions they reject, the wrong ideas on Brexit and immigration. often with attachment to old fashioned cultural constructs and morals. They just don’t fit. In the world of the media and the arts they have all but disappeared. Working class men make up a third of the population but they will not be seen in our plays, films or television series except as in small roles as bigot No#1 or possibly as a wifebeater. In between the programmes on television, the adverts will show every demographic possible with the exception of white working class men. They are an embarrassment which will hurt sales, best to hide them away.

We have a culture that despises them, as Frederick Mount in his book “Mind the Gap” reported they have been “subjected to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which has persisted through many different governments and several political fashions”. They have no political project promoting their aims and therefore is is no surprise  that as a group they are suffering badly.   In education, according to the 2016 report by the Sutton Trust, white pupils on free school meals achieve the lowest grades of any ethnic group. In employment and housing they are also steadily failing. These effects should have been anticipated.

The final, probably unintended, consequence of these changes should worry us all. These people who have a proud tradition of fighting for equality and for the moral good have shown themselves able to transform society. Their rejection by the left and progressive movements creates a vacuum. We can hope that new movements will form and pick up the struggle for social improvement. However, recent experience in Europe and America makes me fearful that other political movements will move to fill this vacuum. I fear it is easy to sell a project based on hate and anger to a group that has been marginalised, alienated and held in contempt. Vengeance is a powerful motivating force !

We need a progressive movement that includes everyone, particularly the majority of working class men and women who make up our society. We need to stop defining ourselves into smaller and smaller groups and trying to create our power bases and start defining what we want a good society to look like. We have to start to think we can change society and that we all have something to gain in the future. As Vance wrote in Hillbilly Elegy “We hillbillies need to wake the hell up.” – we all do  – because if we don’t Trump, Orban, and Le Pen are only the first glimpse of our future. We still have a chance to stop it.

 

The Death Of Stalin

The Death Of Stalin

We try to go to our local cinema in the town on a fairly regular basis as we wish to give it our support. Like many small communities we are loosing many of our services as they are concentrated in the cities and larger towns where the economies of scale make them viable. So we go regularly, not because we are film buffs (though we do enjoy cinema), but to try and keep up the audience numbers. It will be another thing certain to disappear in the near future.

The car and personal transport led to the decline of public transport systems; the railway has long gone and the bus services are very rudimentary. Shopping malls and internet shopping have decimated the local towns shops. Internet banking is now taking the banks and building societies away from the small towns and, at the moment, plasma televisions, film streaming and on-demand viewing are banging the last nails of the coffin of our local cinema.

Therefore on a cold Friday night in January we joined the six others who made up the audience to see the latest film on offer. Including the two staff on the evening the number of people just, and only just, made it into double figures ! The cinema itself is pleasant, the seats are comfortable, the screen is large, the sound is state of the art and the prices are reasonable. The film we saw was also very good, but  I fear our hopes of saving our cinema are rather forlorn.

The film was saw was The Death of Stalin by Armando Iannucci. This is a comedy and political satire based on the events surrounding the death of Stalin and the consequent scramble for power after his demise. The script is historically accurate and the tensions and power-plays of the time are used to good comedic effect. In the early part of the film the difficulties of knowing Stalin are well shown, how do you live with a paranoid psychopath who has total power ? The feelings of tension and fear that this would engender are skilfully drawn. The acting is first class and it was a wise move to forgo using Russian accents as it left a natural feel to the performances and allowed some excellent comedy turns (especially Jason Isaacs as General Zhukov). It was a pity there were only eight of us in the auditorium to enjoy it.

However, after the film I noticed I had a nagging doubt. There had been nothing amiss with the acting, direction or production and, as I said above, the script was extremely funny. The anxieties of some of the characters was revealed but there was a huge gaping hole in the story. The experience of Soviet citizens living through this nightmare. Although there were scenes which alluded to the terror, these were slight and almost dismissed at times. The assassinations, the firing squads, the tortures, the secret police, the destruction of families, the corruption and the sexual abuse were there but only on the edge of the frame.

While recognising that this was a comedy I can see why many would say that there is no need to spend time on the horrors of totalitarianism. But would we have made a film of this nature about the difficulties of power battles in the Nazi high command ? Would we have had a comedy character for Mengele ?  Lavrentiy Beria was at least Mengele’s equal. Stalin introduced him as “our Himmler“, at the Yalta Conference, and he would not allow his daughter to be alone with this known sadist, rapist and mass murderer. This man was the head of the dreaded NKVD which organized the terror which engulfed Russia and he was also responsible for the ethnic cleansing which followed after the Second World War. Is this really a suitable subject for a skit?

It is surprising that we have quite clear double standards when we look back at the atrocities in our recent past. We have no difficulty in condemning the horrors of Nazi Germany but seem to have a blind spothouse-of-terror-2084 when we remember the horrors which arise from the left field : the horror of the Gulags, the horror of the cultural revolution in China, or the horror of the killing fields in Cambodia. The totalitarianism of the left has not been kinder than that of the right nor has it been less industrious. They are equally responsible for mass murder and abuse. The House of Terror, established in 2002 by Maria Schmidt in Hungary reminds us of this fact lest we forget. So, although I concur that this is a well-made and successful satire, I was left feeling uncomfortable as I am not entirely convinced that life under Stalin was a laughing matter.

 

 

The limits of tolerance

The limits of tolerance

There has been much talk over recent weeks about the potential threats to our tolerant society and concern about the possible threats from growing fascist groups. However, much of this has been both wrong and counter-productive.

It has been wrong as there has been no real growth in neo-nazi numbers, no true rise in racist beliefs and generally we are a more mixed society which doesn’t have real concerns that its people come from any various backgrounds. Our past history, often dreadful on account of its racist biases and bigoted attitudes, has not been undone but there has been general steady progress. What modern society considers appropriate and acceptable behaviour now is greatly different to a generation ago. To imagine that a few dregs, washed out from under stones, indicates we are heading back to the 30’s is puerile and wrong. It is also counter-productive for the simple reason that it magnifies the effect that this small group of odious people. They have made a mark much bigger than they could ever have hoped for on their own, and this is largely due to the work of the, so called, “Antifa“.

But Antifa have not just acted as the publicists for these loathsome groups they have also advanced the very cause that they purport to oppose. The best way to counter odious ideas is to demonstrate that they are wrong, to make those undecided aware that those ideas are erroneous and to make the convinced aware that most people do not share their opinion and find them despicable.  The chubby young man below now knows this and also knows he is a figure of ridicule. The likelihood of him being a successful recruiting agent for his views have been destroyed by the expression of counter opinion.

599329463d1d1.image In the UK it is arguable that the thing which stopped the National Front (a local extreme right racist and fascist party) which had been gaining popularity in elections (local and national) was the appearance of their leader, Nick Griffin, on the BBC’s “Question Time“. When he, and his party, were exposed to scrutiny and tackled in debate their bubble burst and they faded away from significance in UK politics. Defending and promoting free speech is the best safeguard against fascism.

Karl Popper, in “The Open Society and Its Enemies was aware of the “paradox of tolerance“. He knew that” We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant”  recognising the great dangers that can sometimes exist in a tolerant society :-

Less well known is the paradox of tolerance: Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. — In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant

He was clearly aware that there were lines that could not be crossed in a tolerant society if we wished to keep it tolerant. That line was the refusal or denouncing of argument – the blockage of free speech – and the use of violence (fists or pistols) to answer arguments. Antifa’s actions cross these lines, they do not permit other groups to state their ideas and use violence to suppress their expression, they strike at the core of our tolerant society. They also do this so inexpertly that they give ammunition and succour to the enemies of the open society. When Antifa attacks groups simply because they are on the right, not because they are fascist (as happened in Boston for example), they give strength to their enemies who can claim moral superiority and they also alienate their natural supporters (such as Noam Chomsky ).

These activists really should think about their actions. If you find yourself dressed in a black-shirt, in a militaristic gang, waving banners, and making threats of violence in order to intimidate your political opponents  and silence their arguments then you are not part of the solution – you are the problem, the fascist is staring back at you from the mirror.

antifa-berlin.jpg

 

Dodging a bullet ?

Dodging a bullet ?

The was a collective sigh of relief when Macron won the French election yesterday. There was a general feeling that a bullet had been dodged and normality has been restored. There have been some congratulatory reports that the French have turned the populist tide that had caused so much consternation with the Brexit referendum in the UK and Trump’s victory in the USA. But is this the case ?

It is clear that Macron won comfortably  by nearly 2:1. However, this misses a number of other factors. Firstly the turnout was poor  compared to previous French elections and there was the lowest turnout since 1969 and this as amplified by 9% of voters voting “Blank” finding themselves unable to support either party. Secondly, as was the case previously with Chirac, many voted for Macron, holding their noses, as they wished to defeat Le Pen rather then support Macron, and, thirdly, nearly 11 million French voted for the Front National. If one looks at the distribution of this vote it shows a clear divide in France between the more prosperous metropolitan areas supporting Macron and Le Pen’s support in the rural areas and ‘rust belts’. In addition to these problems there are the additional details that Macron has to form a government without the backing of an established political party which is unknown ground.

Then there is the problem of Macron himself. He presented himself as the outsider, the agent for change, the new broom. However, his background and policies are clearly those of the EU ‘business as usual” form. He had difficulties introducing these when he was the minister of the economy in  Hollande’s government. He has plans to reduce corporation tax, reduce  the number working in the public sector, promote greater EU integration and reduce the deficit. His policies will please companies and corporations and be regarded well, but are unlikely to be well received by those at the bottom. They will do nothing to improve the lot of those who currently feel disadvantaged and left behind. If the French economy  does not continue to grow, and grow substantially,  then those 11 million who voted for Le Pen will not have found a saviour in Macron and might find their numbers grow.

It is clear that the bureaucrats in the EU and the large companies and corporations who benefit from the EU (through rent seeking and stifling competition) feel they have dodged a bullet. However, it may be that they dodged this bullet by pushing a public sector worker in front of it, and it is in no way certain that the gun won’t be reloaded.