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.
[more]

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.


Disinformation

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, 99% self-financed.

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.
And:
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.
And:
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.

22 February 2019

The Ideology of the Elites

Now also available in paperback.
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Excerpt:

The intervention reflex
A point of confusion for some libertarians – as for others with enthusiastic views about the right way to run the world – is the false dichotomy between "everything is fine" and "collective action is required". It is possible to hold a third position, namely that:
(a) the world is imperfect
(b) a legal framework which upholds private agreements is a good thing, because it helps to exploit the benefits of exchange
(c) major market failures may require collective action (defence is an example of a market failure; education and medicine are not)
(d) beyond providing a safety net, addressing imperfections by means of government action is to be avoided, if for no other reason than that it invariably involves some form of coercion.
     There is a tremendous psychological pressure in contemporary society to jump from “something less than ideal is happening” to “the state must intervene”. In fact, it is more than a pressure, it has become an unconscious automatic connection. [more]

08 February 2019

new book

The Ideology Of The Elites

An edited collection of material written during the period 2006-2015.
Essays on liberty, censorship, academia, universities, philosophy, the Right, politics, the 2008/09 meltdown and economics.

For some, a trip down memory lane. For others, an introduction to pseudo-egalitarian ideology, as espoused during the Blair/Brown and Cameron eras.

Personalities making an appearance include: Nick Clegg, David Willetts, Mario Draghi, Niall Ferguson, Paul Krugman, Simon Cowell, Boris Johnson, David Davis, Alain de Botton, HM The Queen, Terry Eagleton, Curtis Yarvin, A C Grayling, Daniel Finkelstein, Peter Oborne, Matthew d'Ancona.

from Amazon UK
from Amazon US

01 February 2019

democracy in America

Something seems to have gone seriously wrong with the political process in America. Half the country voted for Donald Trump. The other half appears to spend much of its time pouring vitriol on the man.

The Washington Post is devoting resources to keeping a "fact checker" on Mr Trump. Apparently he has made 8158 "false or misleading claims" since entering office. The metric for this is not made clear — no comparison is given with previous Presidents — rendering the number more of a propaganda than an informational device.

I regularly come across US-sourced narratives alleging "authoritarianism" and "anti-democratic" in relation to their current regime, but with little in the way of convincing evidence to back it up. The term hysteria to describe some of what has been written, including on mainstream outlets, would not be inappropriate.

Many of the narratives piously condemn "hatred", but most of the hatred I encounter is hatred towards their own President, and towards those who support him.

18 January 2019

raw Beethoven

Got access to a trial subscription of Amazon's Music Unlimited. Their library has massively expanded since I last looked; seems like most recordings ever made are there now. Like a kid in a candy store. Loads of good stuff, some not so good.
Good. Alfred Brendel playing Liszt, especially the Années de pèrelinage. The apotheosis of Romanticism.
Not so good. Glenn Gould. Playing Bach. I'm thinking, I would literally rather hear this played by a computer.

Of course, computerised renditions of classical music, particularly Bach, have been with us for some time. The original one dates from 1968, Switched-On Bach by Wendy (formerly Walter) Carlos, and now curiously almost unobtainable. But there are good examples on YouTube, just search for "synthesiser Brandenburg".

Via Amazon, I discover there are now computerised renditions of Beethoven sonatas, by an outfit called Berlin Virtual Symphonics working in association with Edgar Höfler. BVS seem to have started life as composers for computer games. I find these robotic versions very appealing; they lay bare the genius of the music without distraction by frills or personal interpretation. Sure, personal interpretation can be nice, and Brendel does it very well, but there is something to be said for stripped-down Beethoven.

The thing works remarkably well (except for trills, which sound like bad data on a CD), presumably because piano sound samples have reached the point of being close-to-perfect. There must have been a lot more to it than merely scanning the scores, and I congratulate BVS and Mr Höfler on an excellent job.

Long-time readers will know that I take a particular interest in Chopin players. Having got bored with Rubinstein's interpretation of the Nocturnes, I scanned the Amazon catalogue for alternatives. A lot of them are pleasant enough, but the only one that pressed my buttons, in a good way, is by Turkish pianist Fazil Say. Highly individualistic, sometimes a little fast, but faithful to Chopin's Slavonic bittersweet. Mr Say's performances of Mozart are also refreshingly different, and a real joy — though, judging by Amazon reviews, not everyone's cup of tea.

Mr Say is a prize-winning composer, and his moving Istanbul Symphony is worthy of serious attention — a comment I rarely feel tempted to make about post-war orchestral compositions. Incidentally, Say seems to have aroused the wrath of the Turkish government for certain comments deemed to be critical of Islam; you can read about it on Wikipedia.

04 January 2019

Brexit: to deal, or not to deal

Should the UK try to have a deal with the EU in place before its departure from it, an event currently scheduled for 29 March? Listening to the warnings of official experts, one would think that not to do so is courting major disaster. Official experts also warned that Brexit per se would be damaging to the UK economy, but so far those warnings seem to have been off the mark.

Whatever deal is struck, and whenever, one thing seems clear. Our politicians must be more than usually careful what they sign up to.

Any gaps or other uncertainties in the wording of an agreement are liable to cause problems down the line for the UK. The European Commission appears to have few scruples about exploiting such uncertainties, and interpreting legal wording 'creatively', if it thinks this would further EU interests. And it is probably not much good expecting support from the European Court of Justice in such a scenario; the Court's track record strongly suggests it will take the Commission's side.

The Commission's case against Ireland/Apple, which has generated a demand for an extra €13 billion of tax from Apple, provides a useful illustration of its approach to matters of law. The fact that there are few meaningful checks on the powers of the Commission means it is able to put its own interests above respect for legal principles such as legitimate expectations.

In the Apple case — currently going through the appeals process — the Commission is applying the law on state aid in a highly innovative way. If this is accepted by the courts, it will significantly change EU law but without the change having had prior approval from member states. Worse, the Commission is applying the change retrospectively, violating one of the key elements of the rule of law.

For details of the case, and its implications, see my article Legal opportunism and the collusion of powers.

21 December 2018

Dead Level

Some of the murders are a bit grisly for my taste, but I have otherwise enjoyed Damien Boyd's D.I. Nick Dixon series of crime thrillers. Not least because they contain nuggets of factual information, e.g. the use of "Bronze Commanders" in the forces. I particularly liked Death Sentence which made the Falklands War seem real to me in a way the newspaper stories never did.

Another in the series, Dead Level, is interesting because it goes into the human-vs-animal insulin question in some detail. It seems that the insulin which sufferers of Type I diabetes have to inject to stay alive is normally "human insulin" — though the "human" reference is misleading since the stuff is manufactured in the lab using microorganisms. A significant proportion of diabetics seem to get unpleasant side effects from this type of insulin, and do better with the animal variety which is extracted from beef or pork. However, it appears that many are not made aware of the possibility of a choice, being given the absolute minimum of information, and as a result some suffer needlessly.

The InDependent Diabetes Trust, which makes a fictionalised appearance in the novel (as the good guys), has an interesting article about this. The article advises not abdicating your own judgment by simply assuming that experts must be right, especially when those experts are driven by considerations other than your preferences. Dead Level follows the standard convention of fiction that when doctors turn bad it is due to financial motives, but there are other reasons why medical professionals can be dangerous to your health.


The diabetic community cannot survive without this life-saving drug. We therefore form a captive market and, as any economist will tell you, this creates a perfect opportunity for experts to manipulate and exploit us. Have our gurus the time or inclination to guide us through this jungle of short, medium, long-term and mixed insulins? Do they explain the scientific jargon and help us make a free and informed choice? [...]

Three clues will help us make up our mind. The first is not to abdicate in favour of the care team or encourage them to steal our melody. The second clue is not to make a decision until you have in front of you a complete list of all insulins on the market, both animal and 'human'. Thus fortified, you and your helpers can work out what is possible for you. An informed, rather than an imposed, choice will result. The third clue is not to believe what the printed instructions tell you about the strength and duration of action of each kind of insulin.

I prefer to use the term "preferences" in relation to patients. As I pointed out in The Power of Life or Death, the phrase "best interests" is often misused, for example when doctors or judges claim it is in a patient's best interests to die — even when the patient didn't express a wish to do so. The modern state-remunerated doctor may well be incentivised to keep his patients in the dark, and may indeed feel morally justified in doing so.

07 December 2018

credits where credits are due

It's that time of the year again for putting one's hand in one's pocket, to make a contribution to a deserving cause.

I refer of course to Wikipedia.

Eight years ago I suggested that Wikipedia would emerge as the most useful product of the internet, and I stand by my forecast. (Facebook? Twitter? Guardian's Comment Is Free? Ahem.)

Of course Wikipedia isn't perfect; it has some flaws, and sometimes needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. It suffers from occasional biases, depending on the topic — though it doesn't seem to me to have an overall bias in any particular direction.

Its open-editing model has worked extraordinarily well, something that would have been hard to predict twenty years ago. (I wouldn't have guessed it could, before seeing it in operation.) Founder Jimmy Wales deserves enormous credit for having had the vision to see the model through to fruition.

If Wikipedia had ads it would be worth billions, but it remains steadfastly non-profit.

Here is a link for making a donation to parent body Wikimedia:
https://payments.wikimedia.org/index.php?title=Special:PaypalExpressGateway&appeal=JimmyQuote&ffname=paypal_ec&recurring=¤cy=USD&amount=0&payment_method=paypal&uselang=en

Honourable mention: Internet Archive, which contains a ton of useful stuff and, like Wikipedia, provides its services to the public for free. At the time of posting this, an anonymous benefactor is matching donations to Internet Archive, dollar for dollar.