28 May 2010

weekend notes #8

• The Bigotgate episode, though ludicrously blown out of proportion by the media, and illustrating the complete lack of privacy in a mediocracy, does seem to confirm one of the key tenets of the mediocracy thesis: that the dominant ideology, while ostensibly based on the interests and wishes of ordinary people, actually bears little relation to what ordinary people really think. It is invented by the elite, policed by the elite, and used to keep other members of the elite in their place.
Unlike some, I have tried to avoid expressing this paradox of pseudo-egalitarianism by employing crude word associations such as “liberal” and “Nazis”, though I realise my strategy is probably not commercially optimal.

Much of the ideology of mediocracy conflicts so blatantly with common sense that the mass cheerfully ignores it, or pays it no more than lip service. The fact that the mass does not take up the received wisdom with the ideal level of enthusiasm is accepted as unavoidable. Members of the intelligentsia, on the other hand, are required to (and do) take mediocratic ideology very seriously indeed. If they fail to, they are liable to find themselves ejected from their positions and their livelihoods threatened. This suggests that it is primarily the intelligentsia at whom the ideology is targeted.
Will a government dominated by a party that has tried to imitate the Labour strategy of having “Big Ideas” (though its own have been more like Sketchy Musings) generate a less top-down ideology than its predecessor? We shall see.

• I gather that several ‘independent’ enquiries have ruled that Professor Jones and his colleagues at the Climatic Research Unit did nothing immoral, unprofessional or otherwise censurable. Everything was above board. That is as it should be, of course. Confidence in our marvellous, world-class university system must be maintained. It is now our third most important export after (1) pop music and (2) historical curiosities* – financial services having got a little tarnished recently. The little darlings from overseas, with their premium rate tuition fees, must not be frightened off.
After all, this is what independent enquiries are for: to soothe our troubled brows.

• The content of the Daily Mail goes downhill from day to day. I know this is partly because British society goes downhill from day to day, and the Daily Mail is merely a daily mirror, but sometimes I do wonder. The other day the Mail printed a big colour photo of a well-endowed old lady out shopping without her bra. “Ha ha ha” the Mail wrote, “look at what happens when an old lady with big assets doesn’t wear a bra. Ha ha ha.” Can Lord Dacre really be endorsing this sort of thing?
What makes reading the paper bearable by now are the pretty pictures of the columnists. Like a memory of pre-Blair Britain, these never age but remain perennially fresh. Also it has a marvellously progressive entertainment section, which regularly reports reprovingly on how scandalously little sexual experience some celebrities have had. It is useful to be kept abreast of changing moral standards.

• Poor, foolish Germany. In some ways it is still paying the price for Hitler. Not so long ago, the soundness of its currency was the envy of the world. Now, shackled to countries with a professional culture as different from its own as chalk from cheese, it is getting in a terrible mess. I remember propaganda leaflets produced by the Bundesbank prior to the beginning of the euro experiment, reassuring doubters with phrases like “stark wie die Mark” (remember the Mark?). One of the main arguments for getting shackled was always the line about avoiding another military conflict. At least, that was the rationalisation. Eurosceptics may postulate the real motive to have been a desire for more interventionism. Whatever merits are still invoked by europhiles, the supposed answerability of the superstate to its ‘electorate’ has by now surely been established as more or less non-existent.
Here is one position in the international league tables which Britain can be relatively proud of: the insularity rankings. Relative wariness of shacking up with other countries has meant less enthusiasm for transnational collectivism, and has kept the UK out of a currency union which always owed more to ‘cooperative’ hysteria on the part of the elite than to common sense, let alone to economic analysis.

• It is mildly gratifying to find one is having an effect on the English language. When I first met Celia Green over twenty years ago, she was fond — as indeed she still is — of using the word tendentious, since it rather neatly describes the hidden ideological component of so much of modern cultural output, particularly when such output seems to be being objective and analytical. (The whole cognitive bias field, fast becoming something of a religion, is a good example.) At the time, the word had fallen into disuse. I cannot recall anyone else using it, either then or since. Until lately, that is, when I was alerted by The Week that it has started to become trendy again.
Why have we all become obsessed by Swedish detectives? Like millions of others, I’m hooked on Stieg Larsson’s best-selling books about the diminutive, bisexual supersleuth, Lisbeth Salander. I’ve not yet read about Kurt Wallander, another unhappy Swedish investigator, but I’m sure I will: so far, more than 20 million of Henning Mankell’s books about Wallander have sold worldwide, and the TV series, starring Kenneth Branagh, is a huge hit. Yet Mankell, as Jake Kerridge says in The Times [it was the Telegraph, actually], is a “brazenly tendentious” writer who admits he wrote his first book to address the tension between native Swedes and immigrants. Larsson is equally tendentious: his leading characters, says Boris Johnson in The Daily Telegraph, have the same “pale-eyed sincerity” as Wallander. **
Only one problem: this usage is iffy. A statement or a theory can be said to be tendentious, not a person.

• I know that most libertarians hate to think of themselves as like stuck-in-the-mud conservatives. They like to project an image — to themselves and others — of being, in their own way, just as forward-looking as leftists (or as forward-looking as leftists like to think they are). So the fact that I talk so much about the negative attributes of modernity (mostly the state-induced aspects) may put some off. For example, in Think Tank Pt.1 I used the word “old-fashioned” three times, to refer to things I broadly approve of.
But one cannot be too rigid about these things. Different circumstances require different approaches. If the social developments of the last fifty years have, on balance, largely been negative, then the obvious thing is to point to what we have lost, rather than trying to find new and different ways. (The fetishisation of change — doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it’s different.) The fact is that, looking at the ethos of fifty years ago, and the ethos of Britain today, liberty was more compatible with the former. By today’s standards, liberty is old-fashioned. Look what happened to Mr. Davis when he tried to stand up for it: pilloried by all sides.

• A priority for the newly empowered Conservatives — especially given that one of the rationalisations for getting into bed with a socialist party was supposed common ground on civil liberties — is re-appraisal of the pointless and highly illiberal plan to force seventeen-year-olds to prolong their education. This scheme, like so many New Labour initiatives, was driven by ideology rather than practicality, but even if it had made sense it would not have been ethically acceptable. Tory pre-election timidity is no longer necessary, and the plans should now be given short shrift. Another potential cost saving, surely?

• What kind of people read this blog? You might get a few surprises if you saw the list. One group, however, is of particular interest. These are people who, like myself and my colleagues, have fallen foul of academia — or earlier, of the education system. They are too bright, too autonomous, too idiosyncratic, or some combination of these. On the face of it, they are obvious candidates for joining in our efforts to pursue academic research outside the established system, which has become rotten and ineffectual. (Which is not to say we are not seeking eventual reinstatement in the academic world. We are.) Some toy with the idea of joining, and some form a temporary association with us. But many are either not enterprising enough, or not wise enough, to grasp the nettle and have a go. Their own preferred strategy tends to be one of two types. Either they try to hang on to the feeble advantages which they think they can extract by staying inside the system. This tends to be a losing strategy, because what caused them to fall foul of the system continues to handicap their progress, and I have not known of any who made it to prominence. Or you get rebels who think they can go it alone and ‘do their own thing’. These people sometimes manage to do something a bit individualistic for a while, but soon they too fall into obscurity and are never heard from again. I sympathise with these rebel types, but I can say from experience that DIY-ing it is not a realistic option. Trying to do something cooperative with others that goes against the grain is chancy enough but at least has some hope. Doing it on your own is guaranteed to lead nowhere. I invite both kinds of people to come and find out about us by doing some voluntary work for a few weeks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

• I think many people are reluctant to get involved with us, even on an exploratory basis, not so much because they do not want to get their hands dirty (although you get that as well) but because they are worried by the idea of doing something that society does not approve of, and by the possibility that contact with us may affect them in some way that will make it harder for them to return to the world of socially approved careers. This is unnecessarily paranoid, and in any case we do not see ourselves as outside the system except accidentally and temporarily, though this is a distinction which many seem to have trouble getting their head around.

• One person who fell foul of the American academic system, and started writing an intellectual blog, once loftily remarked to me that he “preferred to organise rather than moan”. Personally, I prefer to do both. I realise that by moaning I am breaking a taboo. But whose interests does observing the taboo serve? Not mine, but those of the people who created a society in which individuals like me are screwed. Not moaning would entail preserving these people from criticism, which does not seem right.
It is instructive, incidentally, to note what is acceptable to moan about in a mediocracy, and what not. A humorous book about declining standards in punctuation is applauded, but a sequel about the general rudeness and aggressification of social life is snubbed (too close to the bone). Accusing MPs of being creepy scum has become perfectly respectable — and is of course now a staple feature of the tabloids — but criticising doctors and educationalists for their power-loving and liberty-hating self-promotional activities is considered impolite.

• A reader writes, in connection with Climategate:
Many sensible people agree that Leftist political bias is rampant in the social sciences, but naively believe that the "hard sciences" are "objective and non-political". Thus they were shocked when Climategate demonstrated that the "hard sciences" are as politically polluted as the social sciences.

My own view is that academia is corrupt and rotten from top to bottom, hard and soft sciences alike. The solution is not a matter of weeding out a few bad apples — the whole barrel will have to go. An academic version of denazification or post-communist lustration is required. Unfortunately, you can't get rid of all the Nazis (or Communists) until Nazism (or Communism) falls. The liberal regime is solidly in place, and therefore the academic establishment that supports liberalism is regrettably secure.
I confess I had to look up “lustration” which apparently means “purification by expiatory sacrifice, ceremonial washing, or some other ritual action”.
I do not have much to say in response to this, except that what has gone wrong with mainstream academia is much broader than merely political bias. I would, however, tend to avoid using the description ‘liberal’ without scare quotes. There may still be a small component of genuine liberalism (tolerance of different viewpoints etc) in the outlook of the category of persons picked out by this adjective, but it is overshadowed by the anti-liberal inclinations of that group. Hence my use of the term “il-liberal” which may be a bit clumsy but makes the point. Some now use the term “classical liberal” to describe the original position. One person I know has adopted the approach of reverting to the original use, so simply uses the l-word to describe what is essentially a libertarian position. A brave attempt to reclaim the term, and remove it from those who currently derive phoney kudos from the positive historical associations of the concept, but I fear it may be an uphill struggle.

* I mean relics from the ancient past, e.g. monarchy, castles, Eton, dreaming spires and so forth.
** Jolyon Connell, The Week, 13 March 2010.