"All things are wearisome, more than one can say." - Ecclesiastes 1:8

Sunday, August 29, 2010

On secrecy and conspiracy theories

The 'leading think tank' Demos has released a paper [pdf] in which it is argued that secret services should become less secretive in order to combat wild conspiracy theories that serve as a 'radicalizing multiplier' in the world of violent or potentially violent millenarian Islamist sects in Britain today.

I'll resist the temptation to make a couple of the obvious cheap jokes at the expense of Demos because they are at least trying to address an issue that my experience as a teacher has led me to believe should be taken very seriously indeed.

Nevertheless, their report is unsuccessful because it does not address the central issue. Of course there is a relationship between the level of secrecy surrounding an organisation and conspiracy theories.

We've seen this since ancient times. For example, the early church celebrated the Eucharist with the 'love feast'; the bread and wine simply formed part of a larger meal to which all and sundry were invited.

But as Paul complained in his second letter to the Corinthian church, some were apt to drunken behaviour that was inappropriate for the solemnity required of the sacrament - so the custom developed for the Eucharist to be celebrated in private.

From here grew the wild stories where suspicion and hostility at exclusion eliminated any appreciation of symbolism or metaphor: they were literally eating flesh and blood.

Other examples illustrate the point while showing that the correlation is not always strictly proportional. Freemasonry is secretive and has been the subject of numerous conspiracy theories but not to the same extent as Jews - who for the most part are exclusive only in the sense that they, uniquely amongst the monotheistic salvation religions, decline to proselytize.

Conspiracy theories, then, cannot be considered purely a function of secrecy so reducing it or eliminating it altogether is not going to solve the problem. In any event, there is obviously by definition a limit to which a secret service can be 'transparent'.

I'm not claiming to provide a satisfactory alternative; I only mean to restrict myself to the observation that if Demos' diagnosis is faulty, its proposed cure is unlikely to be successful. For example, the report says:
"More broadly, conspiracy theories drive a wedge of distrust between governments and particular communities. Conspiracy theories - such as those that claim 7/7 or 9/11 were ‘inside jobs’ - demolish the mutuality and trust that people have in institutions of government, with social and political ramifications that we still don't fully understand."
While conspiracy theories are bound to re-enforce this suspicion and division, I'd suggest that this is almost completely the wrong way round: the disposition to believe conspiracies is a symptom and not primarily a cause of the mistrust. How this should be addressed, I'm not competent to say but with regarding the belief in conspiracy theories as a phenomenon in their own right, I'd make the following observations drawn from my teaching experience and leave whatever relevance they might have outwith this narrow experience to others:

1) One should never ever engage with the details of an individual conspiracy theory because by doing so, one unavoidably surrenders part of what you claim - that while obviously conspiracies can and do occur, the conspiracy theory of society is intrinsically irrational. The problem with the Demos report is that it is a species of this mistake. It doesn't deal with each case but it does treat the problem of conspiracies as they relate to intelligence services, whereas the problem is deeper and wider than this.

2) The underlying hypothesis behind all conspiracy theories is essentially the same - and it is this that should be challenged. It is that a small clandestine group of malevolent and powerful people are manipulating global circumstances to their benefit. Apart from anything else, it is based on a fundamental misapprehension of how societies and economies work. Or to put it more plainly, the bigger the conspiracy, the more people have to be involved - which in turn increases the likelihood of said conspiracy being discovered. I dare say there may have been some conspiracy behind the assassination of JFK. On the other hand, why hasn't the gunman from the grassy knoll been on Oprah yet? Those who deny a large number of people would be required to conduct a large conspiracy have moved into the realm where they impute superhuman powers of malevolence to the subjects of their conspiracies. Here some historical context might not go amiss - which brings me to the next point...

3) Karl Popper said that the conspiracy theory of society came from not believing in God and then asking, "What is in His place?". This is part of it - the religious mindset; whenever something happens, there must be some intelligence behind it. But this needs to be qualified: whenever something bad happens, there must be some malevolent intelligence behind it. It comes from not believing in the devil, and then asking, "What is in his place?" It's this propensity to demonise that has to be addressed. The imputation might be to MI5, or the CIA, or to George W Bush, or the state of Israel - but they follow a pattern set by the prototype conspiracy theory found in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don't know what to make of the fact that so many people don't seem to recognise this - although I'm sure there's a depressing lesson about the state of our historical education in there.

This is arguably the world's most resilient conspiracy theory. That it owes its origins to a Russian secret service plot is an irony which serves to demonstrate that the secrecy of secret services is an insufficient explanation for this ancient malady that seems to be increasingly afflicting the contemporary mind.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Being unfamiliar with this author...

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

...I would have no idea whether this is a good thing or not - but a surprisingly consistent result from this site.

Via: HC who got the same. Maybe it only gives one result - can someone else try it?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

On being progressive

I can't be bothered with the word or people who use it to describe themselves for two reasons:

1) It is a term used by people who used to be left of centre, no longer are, but are rather reluctant to admit it. Rather than acknowledging they've moved further to the right in old age, they prefer to pretend that these concepts of left and right no longer have much meaning. "It's not me who has shifted - it's the world around me that has changed." Amongst the many shortcomings of this analysis, it strikes me as being rather egocentric.

2) As a consequence of 1), the term has become so elastic, it seems there is no meaning that it will not bear. This is certainly its fate in the hands of our Deputy Prime minister - here whining about the IFS's 'partial' study of the budget.

The thing is, when it comes to fiscal policy, the term is still useful because it has a very narrow meaning. If the proportionate burden of a tax increases as income rises, it is 'progressive'; if it does the opposite, it is 'regressive'. It's as simple as that. Unless you're Nick Clegg, that is - in which case the whole picture gets a little more confused.

So, if you watch the clip embedded in the beeb piece above, you'll hear him complaining about the failure to take account of the Coalition of the Self-Righteous' plans to get people off benefits [emphasis his].

It would - I think you'll agree - be difficult to take any survey that produced findings based on what a government planned to do seriously - especially when these plans include objectives that have had a history of failure when attempted by previous administrations. Governments are always promising to get people off benefits - but usually any explicit effort to do so has only succeeded in shifting people onto one form of state sponsored subsistence to another.

Two of the biggest examples in my life-time have been the withdrawal of unemployment benefit and income support from 16-18 year olds and the series of reforms under Major, which included the 'rebranding' of unemployment benefit as 'Jobseekers' and the new restrictions on people's eligibility to it. The result of the former was a huge increase in the staying-on rate in education and receipt of the EMA; the latter saw a colossal increase in invalidity and incapacity benefit claims.

The only real shift I have ever seen from 'welfare to work' has been as a result of old-fashioned economic growth. Here governments can do little except avoiding making things worse. Whether this one will pass this meagre test of competence remains to be seen but like many observers, I don't rate their chance of success particularly high. In the interregnum, they are planning yet another drive towards reinforcing the ideal of 'less eligibility'. In my opinion, this is bad enough in itself because it fails to acknowledge a simple reality: unemployment - and periodic high unemployment - is an intrinsic feature of a capitalist economy, simply because it has no mechanism to prevent it.

But what adds insult to injury is the way in which its advocates insist that this attempted return to the Victorian era should be described as 'progressive'. Why can this lot not just say that equality forms no part of their concept of 'fairness'? Arguing with enemies that attempt to obfuscate this, as Tim Montgomerie does here, is becoming a little tiresome. They should come out from the shadows of their own convoluted prose where their professed concern for 'fighting poverty' would be seen for the indifference and contempt that it actually is.

And finally...

...a bedtime story.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

On bashing the Lib Dems

Jackie Ashley thinks it is a bad strategy. Lessons on strategy are a wee bit difficult to take from someone who was one of the key cheerleaders in the liberal press for Gordon Brown's bid for premiership. It also wouldn't do any harm to take account of the context in which the bashing is being done. For example, Ed Miliband was preaching to the faithful who - rightly, in my view - pretty much despise Nick Clegg.

In the same way, while gratuitous Liberal bashing might not be an entirely sensible electoral strategy (although might be more popular than some seem to think?), it is emotionally desirable. So I'm going to do some here - a context that doesn't have much to do with electoral considerations. Long way of introducing the following: wondering if anyone saw this from earlier this month?
"A real car crash of a press conference this morning from the Tories and the Lib Dems on their first joint party outing.


The most audacious line was from Huhne: "It gives me no satisfaction that Labour are not willing even to talk about tackling the deficit. But they know what we know: the unavoidable cuts that are coming are Labour cuts..."
Bad enough from anyone but as a number of people have already pointed out, Huhne has a background in economics. Wrote a business column in the Sindy and everything. We shouldn't be so beastly to such as these in case we might want to deal with them in the future? In this case, I'm with the tribalists.

Minimum price of alcohol again: Nutts gone nuts?

His 20 point plan, which includes raising the price of alcohol, might be draconian - but it certainly isn't insane as some people seem to be suggesting.

I would stress I find the case for minimum-pricing not proven - largely motivated by the fact that I really wouldn't appreciate paying more for my regular dose of bottled anesthesia for the soul than is absolutely necessary. But some people nominally in my corner aren't exactly helping me keep the faith. There's a fair amount to agree with in this post by the Heresiarch but really...
"Of course alcohol can be abused by solitary addicts, but it is the most social of all intoxicants. The cultivation and enjoyment of alcoholic drink is a golden thread running through history - indeed, has been fundamental to human existence. Euripides, in a passage that inspired St Paul's description of the Last Supper (quoted at every celebration of the eucharist), wrote this:

"The blessing that Dionysus, Semele's son, procured
and gave to man is counterpart to that of bread:
the clear juice of the grape. When mortals drink their fill
of wine, the sufferings of our unhappy race
are banished, each day's troubles lost in sleep.
There is no other cure for sorrow. Dionysus,
himself a god, is thus poured out in offering
to the gods, so that through him come blessings on mankind."

That's why David Nutt is wrong."
Yeah - but if Euripides had ever stood in taxi rank outside Central Station in Glasgow on a Friday night, I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking that he may have come to a slightly different view.

Anyway, is it really right to say that alcohol is the 'most social of all the intoxicants'? Who goes home after a hard day's work and takes ecstasy on their tod?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

BST all the time?

I think I have a vague recollection of this being tried before and David Cameron, apparently is thinking we should do away this clocks going back in the winter carry-on.

Whenever anyone suggests this, I keep reading about an 'outcry' or a 'backlash' in Scotland. I have to say, I wasn't aware of anyone having any strong feelings on the matter until I read this:
"The strongest signal came on Thursday, but has angered many - who argued that Scottish children will have to travel to school in the dark, which could cause a spike in the number of traffic accidents.

Angus MacNeil, Nationalist MP for the Western Isles, told the Daily Mail: 'David Cameron needs to wake up to the impact these proposals would have on people in Scotland.

'Plunging Dundee into darkness to boost tourism in Torquay is simply not acceptable and would make a mockery of Mr Cameron's Respect Agenda.'"
Because presently Dundee is bathed in light, is it? Not buying it myself. Scottish winter? Darkness covers the land, thick darkness the people. You go to work in the dark, and you travel home when it's dark. And this is a school day, we're talking here. When the time of year arrives when it's actually light when you get home, I'm always a little appalled at how squalid my house has become - not having seen the goddamn thing in natural light during the heart-breaking near eternity that is the Scottish winter.

I'm very far from being outraged, so they can stop this bi-annual buggering about with the bloody clocks, as far as I'm concerned. Anyone else living here got an opinion on the matter? I mean, in the land of horizontal rain, visibility at lunchtime is often pretty dismal. I was once told it's for the benefit of dairy farmers but I interviewed a representative sample of five-hundred cows prior to writing this and 8 out of 10 of them said their owners were talking mince and that they personally didn't give a toss one way or another.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

On the mimimum pricing of alcohol: arguing with myself - help needed

David Cameron has been making broadly sympathetic noises in favour of local minimum pricing schemes for alcohol. That one of the reasons he gave for this was that he seems to think that you can get twenty cans of Stella for a fiver has been the subject of much - ok, just a little - mirth in the blogosphere.

There's some fair enough comment here from Paul Sagar; how can someone so out of touch with reality assess, for example, the impact that various cuts in government expenditures are going to have? But I'm wondering how much mileage there is in this line? That this Etonian toff doesn't know how the shoe pinches in on a par with "Doctor Writes Prescription" in terms of news-worthiness and rather distracts from the point: is minimum-pricing of alcohol a good idea or not?

Now, like a lot of bloggers who have commented on this issue, I've tended to be sceptical because as well as being our national sport, drinking happens to be my hobby and I don't particularly appreciate the prospect of being financially penalised for the sort of shit other people do when they're pissed - like setting fire to themselves, starting fights or thinking it's a good idea to drive or operate heavy machinery.

But I've been having heretical thoughts lately - and particularly since last Saturday's visit into Glasgow city centre. The SNP picked up on Cameron's remarks because they've been pushing this idea for some time. It's sympathy for the devil but the reason they've been pushing it is because we have a serious problem here.

The question is whether increasing the price of alcohol would either work and/or be justified? Unsure - but another reason for my growing agnosticism over the issue is that some of the arguments that are used against it are unconvincing. For example:

Price increases won't make much of a dent in the demand for alcohol.

It depends on how much it increases, surely? The thesis that the demand for alcohol is inelastic is implausible. Maybe the 35 to 50 pence range people have been talking about wouldn't make much of an impact but are we being asked to believe that an increase to between 1 and 2 quid a unit would have no significant impact on consumption? I find this unlikely. Whether it would be justified would be another matter, which brings me to one of the other arguments made against it...

Price increases would hit the poor

Dave Semple makes this point here. The answer to this is, of course it would - but one should make the argument against inequality - not against using the price mechanism to limit the supply of a product that unquestionably causes a great deal of social harm. And to whom does it cause the most harm? The poor, of course - when were things ever otherwise?

Price increase penalise those who cause no harm by drinking

My own favourite. But arguably this happens already anyway. We pick up the tab for extra policing, emergency services and health services. Arguably minimum pricing, while being a blunt instrument, at least targets the people who actually use the product, which is more than can be said for the present situation.

Having said all this, I'm unconvinced with my own arguments against my own arguments for a couple of reasons:

There's a limit to what even price increases can achieve simply because it is not the only variable that determines levels of alcohol consumption. Never mind 'culture' and all that - it's too nebulous. Broadly speaking, people in richer countries drink more simply because they have more disposable income and it is very difficult for duty to keep pace with this without being intolerably draconian. The UK's duty, for example, while falling in real terms over the years, is still relatively high. The primary reason why people drink more than they did twenty years ago is because on average they are richer than they were twenty years ago.

Moreover, there are a number of other European countries that have a) a higher standard of living than us, b) higher rates of alcohol consumption than us, c) lower duty than us but don't seem to have the social problems we do, which brings me to the final point: it is essential that people are clear about what they mean when they talk about the problems associated with alcohol. Sure there's a lot of health problems but the one that concerns most people - the one that impressed itself on me recently - is one of public order. Or to put it bluntly - our city centres are a disgrace. Our A & E departments on a Friday or a Saturday night are a fucking disgrace. I wouldn't have thought that limiting consumption by price alone is going to address this situation. How it should be done would involve a range of measures but there's one that tends to be overlooked: you can limit the supply of alcohol simply by making it more difficult to buy and to consume. Look at tobacco consumption in the US before dismissing this out of hand.

In short - dunno. What do you lot think?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

For voluntary education?

The suggestion that choice in public services might not be all it's cracked up to be, which Catherine Bennett does here, has elicited predictable responses from those libertarians who have set their faces like flint against collective action - unless the collective action in question happens to be carried out by firms.

Neither Ms Bennett's article, nor the responses, interested me in particular - but it reminded me of a question that I'm sure I've asked before but to which I have never received an answer: why is education compulsory at all?

Why do libertarians not follow through the logic of their position and advocate an end to compulsory education? It is, if you think about it, fantastically authoritarian. The argument that it is compulsory because minors don't know their own good won't do because the present legal position is that parents who refuse to educate their children are punished.

You might be surprised at how many teachers, members of a most conservative profession, ask themselves this question. One of the most conservative teachers I have ever met suggested to me that because the means of compulsion had been so delegitimized by liberalism, the greater good required that some element of volunteerism should be introduced to the system.

I'm not saying I agree with him but it's by no means absurd. 'School choice' for most people in these Islands isn't going to amount to much in reality. Even in big cities, transport difficulties would mean at best a choice of four or five schools for most people - and in small towns and villages? Two if you're lucky. So what happens if both of them are shit?

Surely the libertarian position should be that people shouldn't be compelled to educate their children at all? Yet none, to my knowledge, advocate this - which rather tends to reinforce the impression of essentially conservative people in the proper sense of the word dressing up their preferences and prejudices in the language of choice and liberation.

Not that I'm advocating this myself, you understand - but if we play a little thought experiment, I would suggest two possible outcomes from a policy of voluntary education:

1) It would make hardly any difference at all. The overwhelming majority of parents want their children to be educated and do well and even if they don't, they have jobs to go to, or half-grammes of heroin to score, and they can't be doing with children getting under their feet while they're trying to go about this.

2) It would make hardly any difference but it would be a tiny bit of leverage for the school afflicted with indiscipline. Any teacher will tell you that at the present time it is not education that is compulsory, only attendance. What's the point in enforcing the latter when the former isn't taking place?

This would redress the balance between 'parent-power' and the schools. I get more than a little exasperated with people who seem to imagine that the former is an entirely benign influence on our educational institutions. Those of us who have actual experience of education will be able to recount to you stories of parents who believe that their little darlings can do no wrong - despite copious, comprehensive and compelling evidence to the contrary. To be able to say to them that neither they nor we are legally obliged to continue with this present arrangement would truly be a beautiful thing.

Via: S & M

Monday, August 09, 2010


I doubt I can add anything original to the debate/furore surrounding Ms Gopal's appalling screed for Comment is Infuritaing but like most bloggers my view is that while novelty is certainly desirable, its absence isn't going to deter me from venting my spleen. So here it is. Let me try it from this angle...

Operation Active Endeavour is NATO's only active anti-terrorist operation invoked under article five - the clause in the original settlement that commits member states to the duty of 'mutual defence'. Its original purpose was to patrol the Mediterranean to detect and deter terrorist activity, with an obvious and explicit focus on the transport of WMD. NATO claim, and most observers agree, that one of the unexpected side-benefits of this has been that the enhanced security has had a positive impact on trade and economic activity.

Now, if and when Operation Active Endeavour is terminated, I think I should be able to ask the question, "What will become of the vessels accustomed to safe passage?", without the following assumptions being made: that I think this was the original justification for this operation; that I think this is a sufficient justification for the continuation of this operation; that I assume all acts of piracy or trafficking have been eliminated by said operation.

And so to the war in Afghanistan. Ms Gopal considers it positively immoral for the hacks working in Time Magazine to draw anyone's attention to the Stone Age brutality of the Taliban towards women - because the only possible motivation that anyone could have for doing such a distasteful thing is to shore up support for an increasingly unpopular war.

I have to say I am growing more than a little tired of those internet sages who describe the war in Afghanistan as 'unwinnable'. The actual situation is this: regardless of whether the war in 'winnable' or not, Washington and London have decided that this country is not worth the blood and treasure that has been spent on it. It is in realisation of this that Time poses its question and it should be permitted to ask it without the avalanche of sneers from people who despise the system that made their miserable lives possible.

The analogy with the Mediterranean operation isn't quite fitting because one assumes that while the people who were originally the targets of Operation Active Endeavour aren't necessarily the same as those engaged in acts of piracy, those hacking the noses off young women are one and the same as those whom the ISAF are currently fighting in the battlefields of Helmand.

To argue that this shouldn't have been attempted in the first place, or that it should no longer be done now, is one thing. It is quite a different matter to suggest that the freedom that is at stake - for girls to go to school, for example - is as trivial as a bikini wax.

NB: In the interest of deterring superfluous comments, I should clarify:

1) I supported the invasion of Afghanistan.

2) I have never, ever, accused anyone of being a fascist for taking the contrary view.

3) I haven't changed my mind about 1).

Anyone unhappy about any of the above, particularly 1 and 3, is cordially invited to kiss my ass.

See also: Shiraz Socialist, Norm, Flying Rodent, and Chris Dillow.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Cameron announces big government ghettoization plan?

The demand for 'social housing' exceeds supply so to try and ease it, the Tories want to, in effect, allocate said housing according to a means-test. The thinking behind this is that presently council and housing association properties are occupied by people who don't need them whilst those who do languish on a housing waiting list. Hence this idea of temporary tenancies.

Might seem not entirely unreasonable but there's at least two problems with it:

1) It would further homogenize council estates. Someone getting a job when they had been previously unemployed or getting a promotion or something has positive externalities in the form of extra dosh to spend on local services, for example. Under Cameron's plan, one presumes, as soon as a person's income rises above a certain threshold, they'll be punted out. It could surely serve as a disincentive and would therefore produce less, not more, 'social mobility'?

2) Central government, yet again, seems to be throwing its weight around rather a lot in the 'Big Society'. Cameron claims that it would be for councils to decide whether they would implement this scheme but one wonders how those deemed to be distributing scarce resources inefficiently might fare in future allocations of central government funds. The notion that 'council tenants could be forced to downsize' reinforces this impression. Kinda grates when it's coming from someone who doesn't appear to know how many homes he owns.

For the 'mixed economy'

David Cameron has intimated that the cuts are not a short-term measure to reduce the deficit but will remain in place at the top of the economic cycle too. It's part of the whole 'Big Society' initiative, which assumes - in a way that they haven't quite been honest enough to spell out - that the state has 'crowded out' the bounty of volunteerism that lies dormant in this land, waiting to be unleashed, like some kind of Anglican Prometheus, if only the dead weight of the evil welfare state can be made to wither and fall under the sword of righteous budget cuts.

Here's an argument that is designed to appeal to no-one, being as it is conservative with a small 'c'. Because regardless of where one stands on the political spectrum - these days it doesn't do to be anything other than 'radical'. Or 'progressive'. Both, if you can manage it. It's one for the interregnum - that space between this present darkness and the collapse of capitalism under the weight of its internal contradictions/the advent of that last great untried utopia - the completely free-market [delete according to preference]. How should we arrange things in this brief interlude in human history that has lasted for, ooh, nearly two hundred years?

I have a suggestion, which I'll be self-indulgent enough to introduce by the way of personal anecdote. My father was an academic who specialized in Soviet education. In this capacity he visited the USSR several times. I was invited to to come along when I was about sixteen or seventeen, which I declined on the teenage grounds that a house free from parental control for a week was preferable to what seemed then an unappealing foreign holiday. How was I to know that freedom from parental control would prove to be a more enduring feature of my existence than the Soviet Union? Anyway, I asked my mother what it was like. She described it as, 'public opulence amidst private squalor'. Glorious public buildings and trains that run cheaply and on time - but the people traveling on them can't get a decent pair of jeans for love nor money - unless the money in question was US dollars or British pounds.

This is what you get if the state is too large. And if it's too small? America I have been to. The reverse is the case: private opulence, public squalor. My sister lived in California for five years. America's richest state had the parents of publicly educated children exerting themselves in various fund-raising activities because their local schools couldn't afford to employ PE teachers.

The alternative? While we're waiting for the End of History, I would say the compromise that continental Europe has settled on is the best. Not private squalor and public opulence nor its opposite but something in-between. I appreciate it isn't very fashionable to make this argument but in the midst of all this rhetoric that promises us 'newness', I'd be very suspicious of anyone who has forgotten to say that there is nothing new under the sun.
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