07 October 2008

Midweek review

• Why is Labour desperate to get more and more people to go to university? All kinds of phoney motivations are cited — e.g. a wish for a 'fairer' society, wanting everyone to have the chance to be creative. Of course, there is the standard leftist desire to keep rearranging the lego pieces of society — "you don't want to do it like that". Robbing Peter to help Paul, if only to reduce Paul's resentment. But could it also be because the government wants as many people as possible to be exposed to the leftist ideology embraced by most universities these days? Indoctrination in schools is one thing, but having the same ideology reinforced by accredited experts is probably thought to reduce the risk that anyone will dare to question it.

• My book on medical ethics, about to be reprinted, was "too extreme" to be given much serious attention when it came out, apparently because I argued that decisions about treatment should be in the hands of patients, not in those of doctors or other agents. Mary Warnock, on the other hand — described by the Telegraph as an "influential medical ethics expert" and "veteran Government adviser" — presumably represents the 'moderate' bioethical consensus, or at least more so than I do. According to which it is apparently reasonable to suggest that the elderly should be encouraged to kill themselves, or to let themselves be killed on the say-so of an advocate appointed by them.

If you're demented, you're wasting people's lives — your family's lives — and you're wasting the resources of the National Health Service ... there's nothing wrong with feeling you ought to [die] for the sake of others as well as yourself. *
"Nothing wrong with feeling you ought". How about being encouraged to feel you ought? In The Power of Life or Death I implied that people might be allowed to commit suicide if they wish, but that giving the power to end lives to doctors is dangerous. Apparently this is more extreme than the idea that people should be killed if society thinks they have become useless. The phrase "allowed to die" is highly tendentious, incidentally; it's easily used as a euphemism for allowed to be killed if others think best (whether by omission or commission).

• Celia Green reports on the recent discovery of some unpublished fragments of wisdom from Ludwig Wittgenstein.

• Why is gold so politicised? It's just an investment, for goodness' sake. Sometimes it's a good thing to be in, sometimes it isn't. Sometimes it creates euphoria, or greedy upside projections; sometimes it's gloomy and is forecast to go to zero. Just like equities. Yet somehow gold gets mixed up with ideology. As usual, the right-wing version is the more explicitly recognised: those crazy 'gold bugs', the ones who live in Alaska** with their shotguns and moose head trophies, and don't trust the US government. But the left-wing version is just as puzzling. Why do members of the il-liberal elite tend to hate gold? Somehow it represents something they dislike. Financial Times writers, especially those on the Lex column, can barely control their disdain when they refer to it. Does gold somehow symbolise deep-seated mistrust of the state, and is this regarded as unsophisticated and on a par with being a petit bourgeois ufologist?

• Possible heuristic: the more that celebrities support a given intellectual product, the more dubious it is. I am not wishing to cast aspersions on rugby player Johnny Wilkinson's intelligence, but the fact that he derived comfort from quantum physics makes me more, not less, sceptical about the Copenhagen interpretation. Mr Wilkinson reveals that thinking about Schrödinger's cat and so forth helped him “to realise that I was creating this destructive reality”. For more nonsense about the far-out links between QP and hippy philosophy, see the movie What the #$*! do we know. Though, funnily enough, I actually have time for Capra's The Tao of Physics; it has a few interesting ideas.

• In March I suggested that fiat money might be coming under pressure, for which I was mocked by a certain highbrow blogger who shall remain nameless. Now I read that things with the the Icelandic króna, which has been under a cloud for some time, have got so bad that Commerzbank say they would "not be surprised to see [it] lose its function as a medium of payment". Iceland's population is about the same as Coventry's, so we're not exactly talking about the currency failure of a major OECD nation. Still, I wonder if it's a sign of things to come.

• Short-term, we have one possible ray of sunshine: via Worden Brothers I discover that CNBC, which tends to be a contrary indicator, is 110% bearish right now. Its guests are entirely composed of "pros with trembling teeth who can see utterly no way out." As Don Worden says, "It's when the smart and experienced guys become convinced that Armageddon has arrived that a buying opportunity is not far away."

• Television, goodish and bad. The BBC's Tess of the d'Urbervilles managed to avoid being over-laden with class-warfare ideology, which is surprising considering it lends itself so well to it. Tess in this version is rather gorgeous, and more 'normal' than Nastassja Kinski in Polanski's movie. This is less distracting for the viewer (in some ways) but also undermines the story's dynamic, given that the audience is supposed to be a trifle ambivalent about Tess rather than totally on her side. According to Hardy, that is. The BBC's Merlin, on the other hand, is in the rehabilitation-for-the-proletariat mode of Robin Hood but even more so, and (unlike the latter) completely unwatchable as far as I'm concerned. At least The Tudors, which suffers from the same effect, has a bit of glamour, but Arthur and Merlin in this seem to be just two ordinary geezers into beer and birds. If Hollyoaks characters were squeezed into medieval costumes and talked a bit posher, with some Buffy supernaturalism thrown in, I don't think I could tell the difference. I quite like Samantha Who?, the first American sitcom for some time that is actually funny rather than merely sneery or PMI***. Ugly Betty might have been interesting at least — though probably not funny — if it hadn't ruined its own premise by casting someone in the title role who was clearly not ugly.

• Regular readers will understand what I'm critical of when I refer to "rehabilitation for the proletariat". However, given that some people seem prone to misinterpreting I had better clarify. Quoting from the book's entry on accessibility:
Accessibility of culture is an oxymoron in a mediocracy. Mediocratic high culture is not accessible ... nor is it intended to be. Mediocracy proclaims its rejection of elitism. What it actually rejects is not elitism but a particular kind of culture ... Demanding accessibility is a useful way of degrading or eliminating such culture. To the extent it is retained, the old bourgeois culture must be cartoonised in order to fit with egalitarian ideology.
Rehabilitation is supposedly for the benefit of the mass but is really done to serve an ideological agenda. It accords with the preferences not of the mass, but of the cultural elite (e.g. television producers). If 'bums on seats' were really the determinant, I suspect the version of Merlin we'd get would seem a bit popularised, but hardly as prosaic and flat as the current one. My complaint has relatively little to do with the highbrow-vs-lowbrow debate. Even trashiness can be entertaining, provided it's done well and is ideology-free.

• According to some research just published in Science, religious belief tends to reduce dishonesty and increase altruism. I foresee a repeat of the 'belief in nationhood' effect, which works as follows. First, the phenomenon (national pride; religious belief) is destroyed, in line with the received wisdom that it is pernicious. After some time has passed, the elite comes round to the view that it is socially desirable after all. Since at that point it no longer exists spontaneously in anyone's head, the view is taken that people should be re-indoctrinated with it in schools. Never mind that it will be impossible to recreate: having another subject for compulsory lessons will satisfy the elite that they are doing good. Or, more cynically, it will serve as a second legitimising device for destructive impulses, on the reverse trip.

• This is odd. A few weeks ago I mentioned Nicholas Crafts' article in the FT in which he warned about the risks of over-reacting to the financial crisis with excessive regulation. Now he has an article in the New Statesman headlined "It was a failure of regulation" which clearly implies we need more. I'm not saying he is being inconsistent, but is it possible that being mentioned non-disapprovingly on an ideologically incorrect website made him feel a need to defend his pro-'liberal' credentials? The only significant point of commonality between the two articles seems to be disapproval of Gordon Brown.

* Life and Work, October 2008, pp.24-25
** no reference to Sarah Palin intended
*** post-modern 'ironic', i.e. thinking the mocking of cultural references is a sufficient condition for humour