23 August 2009

Sex and the singularity

• New Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow is said to have discovered the joys of socialism at the same time as, or perhaps as a result of, discovering the joys of sex. I had not in my own case observed an association between these two activities, but perhaps others are constituted differently from oneself? If there is a link between them, it might help to explain the otherwise mysterious obsession with sex by the il-liberal elite. Their relentless emphasis on the topic in education, the arts and most other areas of culture goes well beyond any possible purposes of titillation, and seems to have more to do with conveying a reductionist worldview.
Incidentally, the attempt to link, as in Bercow’s case, a person’s intellectual position to their sex life has become a common mediocratic cultural phenomenon. It is a convenient way of dismissing what someone has to say, and a way of belittling individuals in general, as well as heroism, genius, liberty, and other bourgeois ideas. No wonder sex is so important a concept in a mediocracy. People are not necessarily having more fun with it than at any other time of history, but they are now endlessly reminded of the fact that they are, like everyone else, ‘sexual beings’.

• Teenagers in Sheffield have been advised by the NHS that they have a "right to sex". This 'right', however, seems fairly empty unless no-strings sexual partners are also to be provided to them by their local authority, which seems unlikely at present, what with cutbacks and everything. Perhaps it is similar to the new right of parents — recently announced by Mr. Balls — not to have their children's scheduled classroom activities disturbed by the yobbish behaviour of other people's children. It is not clear what powers that right confers, except perhaps an implied greater willingness on the part of teachers to read letters of complaint.

• Postscript to Trivialised. It seems to me there is a parallel between (a) the way public figures are nowadays regarded, and how this feeds back into their behaviour; and (b) the position of men in mediocratic society.
A few years ago when I was on a short holiday in Cornwall with my then girlfriend, we visited the Monkey Sanctuary near Looe. When we were given the introductory spiel for visitors by one of the keepers, I was struck by the way she (the keeper) referred earnestly to the head male member of the group on show. "Please do not make fun of George, he takes his role as troop leader very seriously." I found it interesting that in this context there was some recognition of the idea that males may be genetically programmed to play a leader/provider role, and that it may be painful for them if they are either prevented from playing it or made to feel they are not performing it well. It seems we extend even to monkey society sympathies about hardwired gender roles which are no longer regarded as valid for our own species, at least not if you take your cue from what is written in highbrow books or newspapers. Although, come to think of it, the proletarian version of maleness is still presented as a relatively acceptable image, even by supposedly upmarket newspapers. It is the old-fashioned bourgeois version which is now treated as something akin to the crinoline or the bustle.

Although mediocracy is broadly hostile to maleness as being too individualistic, it is relatively tolerant of the proletarian version. Aggression, crude sexuality and yobbishness may be notionally criticised by mediocrats, but in practice they are condoned because they are compatible with the mediocratic ethos. The type of masculinity disapproved of more is that which believes in private rather than community rights, in individual responsibility rather than state support, and which does not think the self should be subordinate to the group. (Mediocracy, p. 121)
Belittling the concept of maleness has reached levels where even mainstream commentators regard it as okay to acknowledge the phenomenon, in spite of the risks of being ridiculed when daring to stray into this territory. William Leith recently noted that modern children’s books are "full of bad male stereotypes — deadbeat dads, absent fathers, idiots, wimps and fools", adding that "symbols of male inadequacy are so deeply embedded in other parts of our culture ... that nobody notices it any more". For someone dependent on income from writing, this already seems a little risqué. To go further and suggest it might be socially beneficial if culture were to treat the male role a little less sneeringly would be courting real danger, and Leith chickens out at the end of his article by concluding it is all the fault of men themselves.
... what if men take risks that don't come off? What if they build systems that don't work? We've seen a lot of that recently. The sad truth, I think, is that men — who, frankly, have been pretty disastrous for the world in the past century or so — have messed up. And everybody knows it. And this fact has seeped into every part of our culture.
So maleness is ridiculed by the new dominant ideology, pathetically tries to reassert itself in dubious ways — e.g. by starting ill-conceived wars, behaving yobbishly at soccer matches, or making movies which glorify sadistic criminals — thus giving its critics yet more excuse to condemn it.
Do not get me wrong; I am not meaning to suggest that the psychological position of women has correspondingly improved. It is one of the achievements of mediocracy to generate change from which no individual ultimately benefits. Particular social groups may be temporarily exploited to serve as sources of legitimacy for developments which, eventually, damage them as much as those who are the ostensible targets for hostility. Everyone becomes fair game for ridicule — though perhaps some would defend this by pointing out that eventually all are, without bias, equally ridiculable.

Trivialised PS #2. The expenses scandal conjures up a possible parallel from 46 years ago. At that time, an organisation with which I have links was supported by Cecil Harmsworth King, Chairman of IPC which owned the Daily Mirror. In those days, men such as King had considerable influence over newspaper content. The Mirror played an important role in bringing about a change in government on the back of the Profumo scandal. Celia Green recalls a meeting she had with King in which he boasted to former colonial governor Sir George Joy about how he had personally been instrumental in bringing down the Conservatives, how they had been in power too long, the country needed change, and so on. He said he had known what was going on because his journalists had kept tabs for him on the location of Profumo's car.
Perhaps the Daily Telegraph, which set the ball rolling with its exposé, was hoping for a repeat of the same effect. Possibly support has moved partly from Brown to Cameron as a result of the disclosures, simply because it makes voters a little bit more tired of the status quo — though there does not seem much reason, on the face of it, to suppose anything important will change under the New Conservatives. But anyone hoping the revelations would generate a coup of the kind the Profumo Affair stimulated seems in for disappointment. No one significant has resigned. The Tories seem in as much disarray as anyone else. Concern about the economy is likely to prove more important than disgust with politicians' 'greed' at the next election.
Incidentally, I would not get too smug about impending Tory victory. By that time we may see one of the most impressive-ever feats of mediocratic policy: expansion of the global money supply at a pace never before seen generating an economic miracle of stunning proportions — if perhaps short-lived.* (Mediocracy: the age of folly writ large. From "we will have no more boom or bust" to "doubling the money supply will not produce runaway inflation").

• Is there reason to panic about the UK government's indebtedness? It depends whom you read. Tim Congdon, who seems a relatively neutral commentator, does not sound panicked but notes that the deficit for 2009-10, excluding debt interest, will be
roughly 9-10 per cent of GDP, which far exceeds the previous highest figure (of under 6 per cent in 1993) in the postwar period. Even apart from this, the medium-term fiscal position is in one respect much worse than in the early 1990s. Two types of public expenditure, on health and pensions, are heavily influenced by demographics. In the early 1990s the baby-boomer cohorts of the population were of working age and would remain so until roughly 65 years from 1947 (the year in which the birth rate peaked), that is, until 2012. From 2012 onwards the baby boomers become elderly, and will put upward pressure on health and pension expenditure, as well as ceasing to contribute significantly to tax revenues.
All this might be less worrying if we lived in a society in which there was room for the ruling party – whichever that turns out to be – to get away with serious cutbacks, let alone win an election on promises of such cutbacks. Neither the electorate nor economic 'experts' were best pleased the last time such medicine was tried. This time around, it is almost inconceivable that the British people (such as they now are) would put up with the kind of retrenchment that is called for. Unless, that is, the retrenchment is imposed on them by market forces — which in some ways would clearly be worse, since it would be more extreme.

• I recently came across an economic analysis of UK government debt which was (a) produced by a think tank affiliated with one of the major political parties, but (b) said to be "non-partisan". An interesting conjunction of concepts. The report, not surprisingly perhaps, concluded that the approach proposed by each of the other two main parties was defective.
The analysis was clever and persuasive, but one did wonder how much the policy implication of the report was one that had been arrived at before the analysis was carried out. It reminded me of the economic consulting industry, of which I have some experience. There too, clever people labour to produce analyses which favour the position of a client, the main difference from think tanks being that the client is typically a corporation rather than a political party or other interest group.
The use of the phrase "non-partisan" made me think about the relevance of this term to problems of political economy. Some may doubt whether it is even possible to be unbiased when discussing policy issues. In my experience, concepts such as 'balanced' can easily be used as a cover for positions which essentially reproduce a biased consensus. No doubt there was at times a concept of balance within e.g. communist Russia — used by some to advocate a compromise between, say, extreme Stalinists and less extreme Stalinists. Similarly, it is hard to see how the "Third Way" of Mr. Tony Blair, Professor Anthony Giddens and others, often portrayed as a moderate course between Left and Right, differs significantly from socialism in substance. The state is expanded, ostensibly to benefit 'ordinary people', at the expense of capital owners. The secondary question of the extent to which ownership of enterprise is interfered with or eliminated seems to me a matter of detail.
The report, incidentally, concludes that to help reduce the debt, it would be "fair" to abolish the capital gains tax exemption on private residences — a suggestion which relies on a distinctly partisan concept of ‘fairness’.

• I think this blog may be having some influence. I keep thinking I notice echoes of things I have written, particularly (though not exclusively) in the columns of right-wing journalists. A phenomenon I had not previously observed, at least not to the same extent. Of course, it may be some kind of cognitive bias on my part. If not due to cognitive bias, I am not sure how I am supposed to react. Am I meant to be flattered that well-known writers read what I say, while resolutely refraining from mentioning me or my organisation? Or is it meant as a sly signal, along the lines of "Haha little fish, you will be absorbed and ignored"? Whichever, I can only go on doing what I am doing, time and energy permitting, and hope that someone among the mediocracy-blog-reading elite is sufficiently principled to give Oxford Forum some positive publicity or other assistance. No need to email me with estimates of the likelihood of this happening.
Celia Green has said, commenting on my observation that journalists have no incentive to cite someone with no significant social status:
Actually I would put the case more strongly. In the case of a statusless person who has been unfairly deprived of their rightful position in society, all and sundry behave as if they had a moral obligation to keep him down and out.
This is, of course, true. I should add — and this part of it came as more of a surprise to me — that this behavioural pattern is largely shared even by people who claim to be on the side of the individual as against a biased pro-state establishment.

• Critics of President Obama’s NHS-style reforms of the American medical system who wish to inject an element of intellectual analysis into their tirades may like to take note of my book The Power of Life or Death (foreword by Thomas Szasz), which is still in print. At the time, it was more or less the only book to apply — without pulling punches — free market and libertarian arguments to the ‘medical ethics’ debate in general, and the euthanasia debate in particular. Fourteen years after it first came out it is still the only such book as far as I am aware, and the relevant issues have barely changed. There is still a medical monopoly with the same lack of respect for patient autonomy, and the same tendency to put the state's interests above those of its clients.
An Oxford philosophy professor denounced the book as the kind of thing you get when good arguments are applied to “bad ends” — which must be as good an endorsement as one is going to get from a pro-intervention establishment. At least, this was reported to me by someone who attended the professor’s lectures a few years ago.

* This is a speculation, not a prediction.