23 August 2019

Put not your trust in princes — or committees

Charles McCreery points out that princes, like committees, can be capricious, and that relying on them as sources of support can be hazardous, as Richard Wagner discovered.

One disadvantage of being financed by someone else’s money and not your own is that the patron may always decide to cut off his patronage. At one stage King Ludwig became impatient with the length of time Wagner was taking to complete The Ring and decided to stage the first, completed half in his own theatre in Munich. Wagner resisted this premature staging of his truncated work in every way he could, but the king had the last word. ‘These theatre people must learn to obey my orders, not Wagner’s whims,’ he said. ‘Pereat the whole lot of them.’ What is more to the point, he threatened to withhold Wagner’s allowance if he persisted in his opposition. Wagner, who had certainly not been saving out of his royal income, could only retire in dudgeon to his house in Zurich.

Needless to say, a committee is just as likely to change its mind about supporting someone as is an individual. In fact, to the extent that it is more susceptible to outside pressure (being accountable to some collective entity for its funds), it may be expected to be even more unreliable.

By contrast, Coleridge and Wordsworth both benefited from more enlightened patronage.
However, there is one form of patronage that is not open to the objection that it may be cut off at any time, and that is where the beneficiary is given capital rather than income. In 1798 two members of the Wedgwood family decided to give Coleridge an annuity of £150 a year so that he would not have to enter the Unitarian Ministry to obtain an income and could continue working at literature. The Wedgwoods had ideas about improving the human condition and decided that Coleridge was the man to help them do it, apparently because of his powers as a thinker rather than as a poet.

Wordsworth benefited from a similarly antisocial act of generosity, albeit on a rather more modest scale. When he was twenty-three he formed a friendship with a young man of private means called Raisley Calvert. Calvert suffered from consumption, and aware that he was gravely ill, determined to make a will bequeathing a legacy to Wordsworth sufficient to enable him to live without a profession. As Wordsworth put it, the purpose of the bequest was:

‘to secure me from want, if not to render me independent [and] to enable me to pursue my literary views or any other views with greater success [...]. I had had but little connection [with Calvert], and the act was done entirely from a confidence on his part that I had powers and attainments which might be of use to mankind.’

From The Abolition of Genius, available from Amazon.

09 August 2019

psychiatry, Christianity, Marxism — unholy trinity?

A review* of a book by Cass Sunstein (populariser of the Nudge idea) serves to remind us of the Left's suspicion of individual volition, and its liking of the notion that people can be compelled to realise their 'true' desires.

Commenting on Sunstein's idea that the government can help you achieve your goals, law professor Samuel Moyn accuses Sunstein of having a simplistic view of individual preferences.

For a long time, Western philosophy has rejected a blind trust in human desire. The Christian tradition asserts that sinful inclination lurks most where people claim to be making free choices, and many modern social theorists — notably, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud — have insisted that people's conscious desires can be ascribed to ideology and rationalization. [...]

The main problem in today's society is not, as Sunstein maintains, that the state tends to transgress its bounds and overregulate; instead, it is that in the state's absence, private coercion often holds sway, allowing powerful forces like the "free market" and structural injustice to reduce humankind to servitude [...]

Note the idea — implied but not stated — that a vanguard of community representatives (elected? unelected?) could, and would, help an individual to achieve what he really wants, rather than using their power to (say) move him even further away from his goals.

Curiously, scepticism about motives, here applied to private individuals, is rarely applied to agents of the collective. They are somehow endowed with a greater degree of rationality, greater ability to avoid being manipulated, etc; as well as being unusually benevolent or altruistic.

* via Arts & Letters Daily

26 July 2019

Mediocracy: the eBook

Mediocracy is now available as a revised edition eBook.
This is a fixed-format eBook (i.e. not reflowable). It is suitable for tablets, Kindle Fire etc, but may not be suitable for phones with small screens.

The book is priced at £4.99, but is available at a reduced price of £3.99 until 31 August. It is also available free to read with a Kindle Unlimited subscription.

on Amazon UK
on Amazon USA

Libertarians should be pleased to have Boris Johnson as Premier. Apart from David Davis, Mr Johnson is the only senior Westminster politician I am aware of who appears to have a strong belief in the importance of liberty.
When Boris Johnson was my MP I wrote to him asking what he was doing to block the New Labour government's attacks on civil liberties. He sent me a polite reply, and a copy of a debate in which he had asked hard-hitting questions about the issue in Parliament. I was impressed by his questions, and by the effort he made to address a constituent's concerns.
Several things seem clear about Mr Johnson. He is polite. He is hardworking. Most notably, he has principles, one of them being a commitment to liberty. I suspect he may also be the most intelligent PM we have had for some time.

12 July 2019

The Expanse

New sci-fi series don't come along that often, so I felt obliged to check out Amazon's The Expanse and offer my two cents.

It's unremittingly gritty, rather like a zombie movie without zombies. Nevertheless it holds the attention — though it lacks the pizzazz of, say, early Star Trek or the Alien movies. There is a hint of vintage Doctor Who, except the special effects are of course several notches higher.

There are other knowing references. At the dazzling secret centre of the plot (when we finally get there) there's an echo of one of the Star Trek movies — to avoid a spoiler I won't say which one. For rock fans there is even a possible link to an old Rush song, Cygnus X-1, though perhaps the writers were referencing Don Quixote directly in naming the starring ship Rocinante.

Inevitably perhaps, it's the female characters who are the interesting ones, rather than the men. British actress Dominique Tipper provides solid watchability — and cuteness, once we're allowed to see past her character's tough shell.

But it's Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo who is the real revelation. Oozing charm and psychological depth, she lights up the screen, providing the glamour without which the series might easily have sunk under the weight of its tattoo-sporting blokeyness.

28 June 2019

feminism and the philosophy of Either/Or

Some people want to explore ideas, and debate issues, without being restricted by taboos. Others simply want to fight an ideological war — in which case they are likely to regard free speech as an unwanted distraction.

Unfortunately, many of the most vociferous of those who describe themselves as "feminists" seem to fall into the second category.

Feminism has become too broad a church for it to be possible simply to categorise oneself in terms of whether one believes in, or supports, "it". The same is true of equally vague concepts such as "liberalism" or "socialism".

There is a mild version of feminism, which goes something like this:
"Many women are more capable, and more keen, than the majority of men. Their gender should not act as a handicap to their career progression."
Most people would probably give their assent to this — which is not to say disagreement with it should be taboo.
There is also a strong version of feminism, which says:
"There are no statistical differences between men and women, at least none that ought to matter. Therefore any difference in average outcome reflects injustice, and society should do something about it."
Fewer people would endorse this version.

These are just two out of the many different positions that have been described as feminism.

But some feminists seem not to want such distinctions to be made. A person who indicates they may support the mild, but not the strong version, is liable to be accused of being anti-feminist (and possibly misogynist).

So e.g. Dominic Raab voicing a mixed attitude to the concept of feminism generates reactions like the following, from Harriet Hall in the Independent:

We have to acknowledge that rape is a misogynist crime; that the gender pay gap and all the complications surrounding it are a result of sexism; and that the bloody, inhumane act of FGM is purely to control women. The only people who benefit from a reluctance to utter the name of the one movement that seeks to protect women, are the men who oppose it.
Hall goes on to condemn Raab's opposition to positive discrimination, and asserts that feminism "can't be sugar-coated to soften the message and appease the patriarchy". She concludes: "Sorry, Dominic Raab, you have only two choices: you’re either a feminist or a sexist – there is no in between."

Whom does the refusal to explore in detail the meaning of "feminism" serve? Presumably, those who want to pursue a programme based on the strong version.

It has become disreputable to sound negative about feminism in any way. This can be more easily exploited by extreme feminists if there is no identification of different levels of feminism.

A resistance to allowing counterarguments to be aired is comprehensible — though not admirable — if people fear this would undermine a programme they believe is morally correct. Unfortunately, many important topics nowadays seem to be treated in this fashion, allowing politics to override data or analysis.

It's a question of priorities. Are you predominantly concerned that people should be able to think about a topic, or predominantly wanting people to come up with the answer you 'know' to be correct?

14 June 2019

‘scientific’ planning

The rejection of liberty in favour of 'rational' planning goes back a long way. The following is a quote from the Introduction to a book entitled The Great Victorians, published in 1932.

Up to a few years ago we were too near the Victorians to get any nourishment from them. In a sense we were in the same mood as the early leaders of the Reformation, who could see nothing but faults in the system that had reared them. [...] Even before the war, England was being led out of the land of laissez-faire economics and into the land of scientific planning. Since then laissez-faire has been definitely abandoned. Spiritually we have left the old Churches long ago, and are busily building the new.*
'Scientific planning', which was to prove popular with a range of intellectuals from H.G. Wells to Bertrand Russell, soon turned out to have a dark side, as Hayek warned twelve years later:
In order to achieve their ends the planners must create power — power over men wielded by other men — of a magnitude never before known. Their success will depend on the extent to which they achieve such power. Democracy is an obstacle to this suppression of freedom which the centralized direction of economic activity requires. Hence arises the clash between planning and democracy.**

* Massingham (ed.), The Great Victorians, Pelican Books, 1937.
** Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (condensed version), Readers Digest, April 1945.

31 May 2019

Aloa Snow

Here's a debut novel that deserves more attention: See Her Run by Peggy Townsend.
Quirky and full of atmosphere, it's a mystery thriller that generates edginess while being low on violence or horror.
A heroine who is cool, without being annoying.
With exotic looks; at one point she's described as looking like the secret lovechild of Amy Winehouse and Alice Cooper.
Plus, it's set in Frisco, probably the hippest city on the planet.
The follow-up is already out: The Thin Edge, also very readable.

17 May 2019

a strange kind of election

I have (as requested) received a postal form for exercising my right to vote. However, I am not clear about the nature of the election.

On the face of it, I am being invited to choose a representative who will sit in the European Parliament. I am not certain how much influence an MEP has. The European Parliament may seem to echo, in concept, the UK Parliament and other, similar European bodies, but the analogy is an imperfect one. The European Parliament does not have legislative initiative, and very much plays second fiddle to the European Commission.

Irrespective of question marks over the pointfulness of MEP elections in the first place, it is not clear to what extent this particular one is simply about selecting an MEP. The 2019 European election was not supposed to take place in Britain at all, being obviated by our exiting the EU. This exit has not happened and it now seems uncertain whether it ever will.

Now that the election is having to take place after all, some of the campaign literature seems to be suggesting that its real purpose is to send a signal about which British party at Westminster one prefers — for the purpose of delivering Brexit, or possibly of preventing it.

There is also a suggestion that the election could be used to send a signal of somewhat larger scope: a kind of protest vote at the failure of the political class to act in accordance with the electorate's wishes — primarily in relation to Brexit, but perhaps also with regard to social and economic policy in general.

03 May 2019

The Ideology of the Elites

Amazon UK
Amazon US

Any colour, so long as it's left

What should one do if an ideology, to which one does not subscribe, has become so dominant that one’s own viewpoint ceases to receive significant representation? You could either (a) buckle under and change your views; or (b) accept you have become a minority which will be increasingly marginalised.

22 April 2019

new article: on the Roger Scruton affair

New article on the website:

One law for the Left, another for the Right

About the sacking of Sir Roger Scruton.
Also about John McDonnell and the Esther McVey episode.

12 April 2019

Brexit will never happen

I dislike being wrong, so I rarely make predictions. But I believe it is now unlikely that Brexit will happen. And it now seems clear that, in spite of its apparent dance of ineptitude, the House of Commons may have had a coherent strategy all along:

1. Dither, prevaricate and wrongfoot one another, in a way that ensures no exit route is agreed.
2. Continue in this manner for a sufficient number of years until:
3. A stage is reached when it starts to seem unreasonable not to hold a second referendum, given that the composition and viewpoint of the electorate can no longer be presumed to be the same. (Perhaps 4-5 years after the original one?)
Here is the important bit:
4. Before the second referendum takes place, ensure the outcome of 2016 can never be repeated, by changing the legislation.

We must bear in mind that most of Westminster profoundly disagrees with the result of the referendum. Most MPs seem fairly convinced that leaving the EU would be wrong.
   And judging by this Report from the Media/Culture/etc Committee (see sections 4 to 6) MPs are of the view that the result was obtained by foul means, not fair. This impression is reinforced by the recent movie Brexit: The Uncivil War. If the movie is to be believed, the Vote Leave campaign used dodgy methods involving the internet, including innovative approaches such as "microtargeting". (At least they are presented in the movie as being dodgy.) The Committee’s Report also raises a question mark over the £425K Leave campaign spend by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. Then of course there is the conspiracy-theory hypothesis that Russia contributed millions to the LeaveEU campaign (see para 260-267).

The government this week proposed legislation to police the internet, issuing a White Paper on "Online Harms". This would make internet companies legally responsible for "harmful" content. Directors of companies like Google and Facebook could be hit with substantial fines, and even criminal penalties, if they fail to remove content that falls foul of the rules.
   Much of the proposal is ostensibly aimed at relatively uncontroversial areas, such as grooming, bullying, suicide and so forth. But what is being rolled into this is something far more vague: preventing "disinformation", an ill-defined term.


7.25 When the internet is deliberately used to spread false or misleading information, it can harm us in many different ways, encouraging us to make decisions that could damage our health, undermining our respect and tolerance for each other and confusing our understanding of what is happening in the wider world. It can also damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament. [...]

7.27 Companies will need to take proportionate and proactive measures to [...] minimise the spread of misleading and harmful disinformation [...]

7.31 Importantly, the code of practice that addresses disinformation will ensure the focus is on protecting users from harm, not judging what is true or not. There will be difficult judgement calls associated with this. [...]

Unless we see a lot more in the way of defining and narrowing the "disinformation" concept, there are likely to be many ways of criticising the government, or querying services such as state education and medicine, that could potentially be caught. Consider all the possible statements or opinions that might be interpreted as:
- giving "misleading information" which might
- "encourage" us to make decisions that "could damage our health" (alternative health websites?), or
- "could undermine our respect for each other", or
- "confuse our understanding of what is happening in the wider world", or
- "damage our trust in our democratic institutions" (might these include the NHS, or the state education system?).
What if I want to argue that economic forecasts, e.g. by the Bank of England, may well be incorrect, because they have often been incorrect before? Or that compulsory state education is harmful and should be abolished? Or that a doctor should not necessarily be trusted, because NHS doctors are influenced by a concealed public-interest agenda?
   The beauty of the new regime is that the government would not be responsible for controlling content, so that any immediate blame for restricting free speech would fall on the relevant internet company. Google can already remove blogs it doesn’t like, without warning. All it would take is a quiet word in the ear of a Google executive, and several dozen freelance writers might wake up to find their blogs no longer existed.
   If in any doubt, which option is a Google executive likely to pick, faced with the risk of criminal liability and jail?

The Online Harms White Paper does not go into the issue of political campaigning in any detail. However, the aforementioned Committee Report supports

the recommendation from the [Information Commissioner’s Office] that inferred data should be as protected under the law as personal information. Protections of privacy law should be extended beyond personal information to include models used to make inferences about an individual. We recommend that the Government studies the way in which the protections of privacy law can be expanded to include models that are used to make inferences about individuals, in particular during political campaigning. [Link added.]
I am no internet expert, but I imagine this is getting at microtargeting, and I suspect it means we will soon see proposed legislation about online campaigning.

Few people with status give us (Oxford Forum) any kind of support, even a costless link from their website or blog. It is therefore hard to know what the position of the elite is towards us – even those members of it who are supposedly swimming against the current. Many of them, I imagine, simply pretend we don’t exist. Thus we go on operating on a shoestring budget.

Of course, if the Brexit movie gives a realistic picture, the attitude of Conservatives (even conservative ones) to mavericks is highly ambivalent. For most Conservatives, a cosy relationship with the establishment – even if only a tiny subsection of the establishment – seems to be paramount; they would sooner convert to leftism than start associating with dissidents.

05 April 2019

Does the Left want to pwn language?

In the end we shall make thoughtcrime impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
The word "Marxism" usually refers to a political ideology that promotes a particular system of rule. But Marxist ideology is not just about government or economics; there are aspects that deal e.g. with psychology, or history. Theorists like Terry Eagleton, who (echoing the pronouncements of Lenin and other communists) assert that literature must always be seen in relation to its sociopolitical context, represent an example of Marxism in a purely cultural setting.

So the phrase "cultural Marxism", to mean the presence of Marxist ways of thinking in academic and other cultural output, is perfectly natural and potentially useful.

The fact that the phrase appears to be popular with a certain type of antisemitic conspiracy theorist is regrettable, but irrelevant to whether the phrase is legitimate. In the 1970s, terrorist group Red Army Faction appropriated the term "urban guerilla" to justify murdering people, without this resulting in the term becoming taboo.

Yet there seem to be elements among the Left who want to prohibit use of the words "cultural Marxism" altogether, and are willing to use the strategy of guilt-by-association to achieve their end.

Conservative MP Suella Braverman recently made a legitimate reference to cultural Marxism in its non-conspiracy sense. It was clear no antisemitic implication was intended. For journalists from the Guardian and the Independent to report this as if it verged on the shockingly offensive is disgraceful and irresponsible.

As often seems to be the case these days, free-speech-opponents react to extremism by wanting to penalise non-extremists. Perhaps those on the Left who like to exercise censorship should consider the possibility that by making it difficult to express any viewpoint that deviates from theirs, they are partly responsible for the very extremism they claim to deplore. There are many reasons why a viewpoint becomes expressed in the form of extremism, but one of them is surely an unwillingness to give space to non-extremist versions. The more that schools, universities and the media try to banish conservative and libertarian viewpoints, the more we are likely to see grotesquely distorted versions of those viewpoints appear on dodgy websites and other underground platforms.

Mrs Braverman was brave, and correct, to use the phrase "cultural Marxism". The right way to 'de-Nazify' the phrase is not to ban it but to employ it freely in its natural sense.

I urge readers to do the same. Discuss the topic of cultural Marxism (i.e. the possible presence of Marxist ideology in contemporary culture) freely, without being influenced by potential disapproval. Argue that it does not exist, or argue that it does. But don't submit to the scare tactics of the Left. Use your right to free speech — or lose it.

Among ideologies, Marxism should arguably be regarded as on a par with Nazism. It is responsible for death, torture and suffering on a comparable scale. If it is rife in universities, or embedded in the mindset of media folk, we ought to know about it.

22 March 2019

Political Elite: 1  Electorate: 0

Is there a solution to the divergence between what voters want and what the political class chooses to deliver? Someone to whose views I give some weight has suggested the Social Democratic Party. This is a splinter group which formed around the time when the bulk of the SDP merged with the Liberals to form the Lib Dems.

Looking at the SDP's website, there are some promising signs. For example:

The scale and vehemence of the reaction against the result of the 2016 EU referendum by Britain's cultural and political elites was striking. The evident disdain of the Westminster class for, among others, many elderly and low income voters revealed that the powerful only tolerate democracy when their view prevails.
We consider the progressive desire for people to shed their national identities and unite in a pan-European or universal civilisation to be a recipe for conflict and hopelessly utopian — as unrealistic and harmful as the dismal communist project.
Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends. From government to the police, from universities to schools, the politicisation of Britain's institutions in the service of fashionable ideology is leading to a loss of faith in the pillars that uphold our society.
However, the acknowledgment of specific areas where things have got out of hand does not amount to acceptance that there is a more general problem with top-down ideology. I.e. with the notion that the elites should arrange for things to be aligned with their idea of what people ought to want, rather than with what people do want.

Other signs suggest that the SDP is simply another political movement in the usual mould. This is likely, after all, given that its original roots are in the Labour Party. The solutions they offer include opposing "neoliberalism" and "individualism", and having a stronger state.

A weak, inept state, fearful of powerful global corporations, cannot serve its citizens properly. We believe the state has wrongly ceded key parts of its rightful domain to global capital and has lost confidence in its own capacity for direct provision and intervention in the service of the nation. [...]

Natural monopolies — the utilities requiring universal delivery to citizens — should be returned to public ownership and operation or be subjected to significantly more effective regulation.
They acknowledge decline of the family as a problem, but think the solution lies in more support from the state. They note that "many of our problems stem from decades-long shifts in attitudes", but blame individualism rather than rejection of bourgeois values.
A widespread values and virtues-led cultural renewal is needed, aimed at improving citizens’ happiness, health and well-being. Government — along with civic society — must play its role.
In other words, the government must still impose a top-down ideology, just a different one.

The first significant word a visitor to the home page encounters is "communitarian". This term usually implies a brand of collectivism. Collectivism, the supposed promotion of the 'interests of the community', is the standard excuse for ignoring what voters say they want. If democracy means implementing the wishes of a majority of individuals then politicians have little reason to depart from what voters communicate to them. If, on the other hand, democracy is taken to mean promoting the interests of the community as a whole, then — apart from having to make the right noises just before elections — politicians are free to believe they should act according to their own lights, to some extent regardless of voters' stated preferences.

08 March 2019

a convenient hate figure

The following is an extract from Georgi Markov's The Truth that Killed, a memoir describing life under Communist rule. Markov, it will be recalled, was a Bulgarian dissident who was assassinated in London in 1978, using ricin delivered by the point of an umbrella.

Markov is referring to the show trial of Traicho Kostov, a Bulgarian politician who fell out of favour and was subsequently executed. The extract may have some relevance to current affairs.

While [Kostov] was being tried, an orgy of meetings was organized throughout the country, at which everyone called Traicho Kostov the most disgusting names. In the hospitals we were driven from our beds to attend meetings which ended with the chanting of demands for 'Death! Death!' Few things have filled me with greater horror and revulsion than these orgies of human hatred and vileness. And the Bulgarian newspapers which at the time poured their rivers of filth over Traicho Kostov never found the slightest courage to apologize later. [...]

I had the feeling that [the activists'] violent hatred of Traicho was for them a personal organic necessity. They had this need to hate, and Stalin satisfied it. When the news of [Traicho's] hanging was announced, there were some who started dancing. An insignificant doctor, who within a year would rise to be the head of the government hospital, walked along the corridor of the sanatorium declaring that this was the happiest day of his life. This was no fanatic madness, but rather a necessity dictated by his servile instincts.

For it is noteworthy that all these comrades hated Traicho Kostov publicly. They hated him when others could see and hear them. They hated him because such hatred was richly remunerated, it was rewarded like a heroic deed. Do not think that the great majority of them believed in his guilt. [...] I could see that they knew Traicho to be innocent, but they seemed to be engaged in a mad competition in which everyone lied to everybody else claiming that he was guilty. The 'enemy' mania raged with a murderous force. Perhaps many were intoxicated by it because it liberated them from all human inhibitions.