Thursday, August 31, 2006

Potentially illiberal

Blair's at it again - announcing yet another crackdown (we need a crackdown on the number of crackdowns, in my view). This time he's promising to tackle 'menace' children. If the beeb account of this latest wheeze is at all accurate, he has with this one plumbed new depths of illiberalism:
"Tomorrow's potential troublemakers can be identified even before they are born, Tony Blair has suggested.

Mr Blair said it was possible to spot the families whose circumstances made it likely their children would grow up to be a "menace to society".

He said teenage mums and problem families could be forced to take help to head off difficulties".
Not only should it be taken as given that the state should intervene - it should do so in anticipation of what people might do in the future. I suppose this is already an easily identifiable characteristic of the Blair regime but this suggestion has extended the principle to previously unfelt levels of creepiness.

Criminalising thought is one thing. Suggesting the state should intervene in people's lives before they've even got to the stage of thinking about doing anything wrong really is beyond the pale.

I've never liked the way 'potential' is used in social policy discourse. We get it in the educational sector a fair bit; lots of vacuous talk about helping 'each child to reach their potential'. Whether this is a good thing or not rather depends on what the child in question has the potential to do, doesn't it? In educational managerial land, though, to ask such a blindingly obvious question means you are branded as an incurable cynic and quite possibly even a 'roadblock to reform'.

And on the negative connotation I recall some 80s feminists going on about how all men were potential rapists. I also recall some men being so craven they would be actually willing to concur with this meaningless tosh.

All human beings have potential but while we can only identify this with any degree of certainty in retrospect, it would be reasonable to assume that it is the experience of the overwhelming majority to never become the social incarnation of all they are capable of. In some cases this must surely be a loss to humanity - but in others? Thank goodness for thwarted potential.

Given this vast resevoir of possibility out there, it is surely outrageous that the supposed existence of potential should serve as a basis for government intervention? Retrospective legislation has long been recognised as essentially illiberal - how much more this insidious notion of prospective social policy?

Blair's 'we'll make sure you eat your greens before you're even born' initiative was announced against the background of constant speculation over when he plans to step down. His 'aides' were reported as saying, "people are more interested in problems like anti-social behaviour than in talk about when the prime minister will quit."

I can't claim to speak for 'people' but personally I much more interested in when Blair's going to quit. Because if one is concerned about liberty, it is essential that this Prime Minister should not reach his potential. Because a true liberal can never agree with the aphorism that 'prevention is always better than cure'.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The lessons of Versailles

In the context of the relationship between foreign policy and terrorism, Norm refers to an article that used the historical example of the Treaty of Versailles to show that linking the two does not amount to an apology for fascism. This Norm accepts but goes on to highlight some of the problems with David Clark's reasoning in relation to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

As well as largely agreeing with what Norm says here, I have a couple of narrower problems with the way the history of Versailles is used in this type of argument. For instance, while it is certainly true that a connection with the Treaty and the rise of fascism is made in schools, even at this relatively simplistic level the understanding that students are at least supposed to be able to attain is rather more subtle than that possessed by the average Comment is Free contributor.

For instance, while it is indeed common-place to follow JM Keynes' view that the Treaty was imprudently punitive and essentially unjust, it is also common-place to invite students to draw rather different conclusions about what should have been done vis-a-vis the Nazi regime than that people like David Clark do in relation to Iraq and the Middle East in general.

Because they tend to suffer from what could be termed the 'rewinding of history fallacy' - which essentially argues that the solution to the problem of fascism is to return to the historical 'root cause' injustice and rectify this. My concern here is with the narrow question of whether Versailles can be used to illustrate this argument or not - and will leave readers to decide for themselves what if any comparisons can be made with the present situation.

I personally don't think it can be used in this way. Even though school-children understand that while Versailles may have been unjust in various ways, they tend not to conclude that addressing the Nazi's grievances was the solution here. There are a number of good reason for this:

1) The history of Appeasement contradicts this. Germans may well have had good reason to object to the injustice - and the hypocrisy - of the terms of the peace. But one of the most common historical conclusions drawn is that the course of history from 1933 would have been rather different, and better, if the Treaty had been enforced nevertheless. Or in other words, few people today would doubt it was rather a mistake to wait until the invasion of Poland before anything was done to stop Hitler.

2) Because understanding that the Treaty was unjust did not lead the British government to formulate a more appropriate foreign policy. Quite the opposite. I think probably most historians would argue that the attempt to avoid a confrontation with Germany by allowing for Hitler's unilateral 'rectifications' of the Versailles settlement was a mistake rooted in a basic misunderstanding of the Nazis - this mistake being the simple one that they were not the least interested in living at peace with their neighbours or indeed the rest of humanity.

3) When making a connection between Versailles and fascism, school-children are taught that this forms part of a wider set of circumstances that created the conditions for Nazism and gave it it's character. Amongst the many others was the long history of Christian anti-Semitism in Europe and in Germany there's the specific contribution that Martin Luther gave to this most ancient of prejudices. It would be refreshing if some of our journalistic amateur historians would draw a few more historical comparisons from this than they do at present - to say no more than that.

4) The point that understanding the past does not provide a simple guide on how to act in the present has already been made. But even within the narrow terms of the Versailles as the root cause of Nazism discourse some students of history, including myself, wonder whether rather too much is made of it anyway. While unjust and punitive, my own view is that rather too much of the German nationalist right's victim-based argument is accepted into the historical narrative. For instance, students should be reminded that some of the lost German lands included those taken from France and Denmark in the 1860s. They should also be aware that in attributing weight to the punitive nature of the peace on the character of the Nazi regime, one has the relevant example of Brest-Litovsk to consider. And students should also be reminded that it was not just the Jews who were falsely-blamed for the hyper-inflation of the 1920s. While the reparations imposed on Germany were both politically unjust and economically imprudent, I don't think economic history vindicates the view that these were responsible for the destruction of the German currency.

This last example is a way of making the wider historical point. Understanding that the Treaty of Versailles made a contribution to the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s does not only not serve as an apologia for fascism - it should not allow us to conclude that Germany was in some way incapable of incubating its own problems without outside interferrence. As if an entire nation is but material that responds mechanically to a certain set of international circumstances.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

New York Times article blocked

For UK readers, that is, for fear that this would be prejudicial to the forthcoming trial of those charged with the recent alleged plot to blow up civilian aircraft.

I'm not sure about this idea that the preservation of the presumption of innocence requires jurors to be isolated from media stories that presume guilt; it doesn't seem very realistic in the internet age.

And if the Home Office is concerned about this, wouldn't they be better employed re-considering the recent legal innovations where the presumption of innocence has been more explicitly and formally compromised?

New bouncy castle for Sheridan

Ok, a new political party:
"Tommy Sheridan has distanced himself further from the Scottish Socialist Party by announcing details of a new party to be launched this weekend.

Solidarity - Scotland's Socialist Movement is to be led in its first few weeks by the former SSP leader and SSP MSP Rosemary Byrne."
Funny. I'm sure I saw him on the telly before the trial declaring his intention to re-stand for the leadership of the SSP. "It's my party", he explained - stamping his feet. Well, practically.

So what's changed? After all, he did win his defamation case, didn't he? Yet obviously the 'cabal' has grown to the extent that Sheridan is no longer confident that he can re-take the party. Now I wonder why that it?

George Galloway, Tommy Sheridan - the more people see of them, the less they like them. Up here we know this because they were made in Scotland and we see what they are made of up close and personal. Deranged London-based Trots take note: you could save yourself further embarrassment if you paid a wee bit more attention.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Rolling your own at the Rolling Stones

Like many of Glasgow's elderly community, I could be found at the Stones gig at Hampden on Friday. It's more an exercise in nostalgia than anything else. While Mick Jagger has more energy than I ever had, it involves no exaggeration to say Charlie Watts and ol' Keef aren't quite as sprightly as they used to be.

Still, it was pretty damn good: got in for free, there was a bar you could actually get to and you could sup your beer, have a puff and speculate that while you can't always get what you want - sometimes you'll find you get what you need.

Nobody, including the copious police and security guards, seemed to give a fuck - which was good.

Keef, as I see has reached the national media, got carried away with the atmosphere and in a moment of frenzied hedonism sparked up a fag in the enclosed public space you can see in the photo.

But the ever vigilant Glasgow City Council has received news of this reckless endangerment to the public health and they assure us they have people investigating the matter:

"A city spokesman said: 'This has been brought to our attention and we will be looking into it. Glasgow city council takes its responsibility for enforcing the smoking ban very seriously.'"
The older I get, the less I understand. How it is possible to utter something like this, never mind intend to carry it out, without shortly afterwards asking yourself, "But what has become of me?", is completely beyond my comprehension.

"If found guilty of smoking, Richards would have to pay a £50 fine. The manager of any premises who allows others to smoke can also be fined £200."
If found guilty of smoking! Whether the 'city spokesman' had a damn mind to lose in the first place is I think highly questionable.

Hampden Stadium, Glasgow. Clearly some very large cigarettes have been lit here. Alert the authorities!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

The price of Muslim blood

According to Kitty Ussher MP the Muslim community in Burnley have been asking why it seems the blood of Muslims seems cheaper than that of Jews and Christians?

An honest answer to this rhetorical question would have to include the observation that 'Muslim blood' has no fixed price but varies according to who is shedding it.

Christians shedding Muslim blood provokes outrage, although this too can vary. It is a much more serious matter, for example, if the 'Christians' in question are American rather than Serbian.

But of course this is nothing like as grevious than the most serious of all - this being the context of the article - when it is Muslim lives being taken by Jews.

On the other hand, Muslim lives being taken by other Muslims isn't anything like as serious. The pro-Nasrallah 'left', for example, are not only a little less than - how to put this delicately? - forthcoming in their condemnation of Jewish civilian casualties; they seem unpeturbed by the fact that Arab Israelis were also amongst the victims of Hizbollah's rocket attacks.

In other situations interest in the phenomenon of jihadis killing their own co-religionists is limited to the question of whether and to what extent Israel, the US, Britain and the West in general can be held responsible for it.

But even with this connection it really has to be on the telly for anyone to take much notice. For example, the thousands of Shia Muslims slaughtered by Saddam Hussein in southern Iraq and by the Taliban in central Afghanistan were much less important than the lesser number of Shia killed during the Israeli bombing of Lebanon - the latter being on the telly and involving Jews.

Where no explict link can be made to Western foreign policy and/or Israel, those who are usually so promiscuous in the use of the terms 'ethnic cleansing' and 'genocide' slip into semantic argument mode in the case of Darfur, for example. Here Muslim blood is indeed very cheap.

But if you are an indigenous Christian in Iraq, Pakistan or Indonesia I'm afraid you should expect only quieter voices to ask the question as to the price of your blood - the louder ones being those who have no constituency that is sufficiently interested in your plight.

Reflections on genuflections

Both Marcus and Mr Eugenides have linked to the bizarre story of Artur Boruc the Celtic goalkeeper who has been cautioned by the Procurator Fiscal for crossing himself at a Rangers-Celtic fixture at Ibrox.

While Mr Eugenides is quite correct to dismiss the touchingly naive notion that this was a simple act of religious devotion, he's probably wasting his time. I was going to make sarcastic comments about those who seriously imagine an issue of religious freedom is at stake here but on reflection I suppose the uninitiated really can't be expected to understand the primal sectarian animus that is the raison d'etre of Glasgow's Old Firm.

But there's still an issue pertaining to liberty, of course. It's the one that should be familiar to us by now; whether one should uphold the right of people to antagonise and offend the sensibilities of others.

Since I'm rather opposed to the modern notion that the over-sensitive have an extra layer of human rights, I'm inclined to agree with those taking issue with the Procurator Fiscal's action in this case, albeit for slightly different reasons. Boruc's right to genuflect at Ibrox should be defended on the same grounds as those newspapers who published the Mo-Toons - the content and intention being secondary concerns for those of us who believe in the priority of liberty.

The responses from some quarters have been depressing and pathetic. I've been imagining a more realistic and refreshing set of responses from all concerned. Rangers FC would admit that the 'root cause' of the offence lies in the fact that not a few of their supporters simply hate Catholics. The 'bhoys' along with their patrons in the Scottish Catholic Church would drop this cant about 'religious freedom' and combatting bigotry in Scottish football, turning instead to the path of recovery, which begins - as any alcoholic will tell you - by admitting that you too have a problem.

But this is a fantasy because we live in a country where someone can be secular, agnostic and almost completely indifferent to football, and will with all sincerity say he doesn't care what team his son grow up to support - as long as it isn't Glasgow Celtic. That's how deep it goes, people. I appreciate this is incomprehensible to those liberals who labour under the illusion that one's allegiances are always an outcome of one's own choices.

Update: Ruth Kelly pitches in:
"I must say I am surprised because this has traditionally been a country which has valued religious diversity - and cultural and racial diversity as well - and where there has been freedom of expression, both to express religious symbols but also other cultural symbols as well."
I must say I'm surprised that a Minister of the Crown is so poorly informed.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Book meme thingy

Apologies for light posting. It's all change at the McGlumpher household what with a new job for me and school for the boy. I'm vertical before 7 o'clock these days. In the morning. It's unnatural, I tell you.

Anyway, here's a book meme from Norm:

1. One book that changed your life - I don't think I can claim to have read a single book that has changed my life as such but one changed my view of political ideologies more than any other was Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.

2. One book that you've read more than once - There's quite a few but Catch 22 is one of my favourites.

3. One book that you'd want on a desert island - The King James Version of the Bible. I know this, along with the complete works of Shakespeare are taken as givens on Desert Island Discs but we're bloggers; you can't take it as given that we read books at all.

4. One book that made you laugh - No. 2 above but most recently, Is it just me or is everything shit?

5. One book that made you cry - It'll sound bizarre but one section of No. 1 above reduced me to tears. It's difficult to explain. I was at university at the time as as anyone who has read politics will tell you, many of the 'canon' are fairly turgid and I just wasn't expecting anything on the reading lists to have that kind of effect. The section in question apparently had the same effect on Marie Antoinette but she had the excuse that it was actually about her. I was just tired, I guess.

6. One book you wish you had written - Herzog by Saul Bellow.

7. One book you wish had never been written - By a strange coincidence the same one as Norm's choice - the Magus by John Fowles. It was given to me as a present by my ex-partner. She kept asking me if I'd read it. I thought it was a pile of crap and could barely get beyond the first fifty pages but I didn't want to be rude because we were at the beginning of the relationship so I kept trying to finish it. Eventually politeness gave way to necessity. I wasn't prepared to spend any more of my limited life-span trying to wade through that adolescent drivel.

8. One book you're currently reading - The People's Act of Love by James Meek. Haven't got very far - keep falling asleep. Did I mention how tired I've been?

9. One book you have been meaning to read - The Count of Monte Cristo.

10. Five people to tag - Hmmm, only if they want to/can be bothered but how about Paul, Chris, Snoops, Hak and Kate?

Oops - Marcus has tagged Chris already. Ok Will, finger out...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Sheridan: the conspiracy widens

From the Herald:
"Detectives yesterday received a formal complaint from a woman who spoke against Mr Sheridan in his successful defamation action against the News of the World.

Helen Allison claims that she was both threatened and offered money to stay away from the High Court in Edinburgh 48 hours before she was due to appear."
Well, by testifying against the Great Leader, she was obviously involved in the evil bourgeois conspiracy so we can ignore this story.

Same with the report in the dead-tree version of the Scottish Sun that reports while Sheridan has refused to take a lie-detector test, some of those who testified against him have done and passed.

Clearly either the story is false or, more likely, those conducting the lie-detector tests are embroiled in the vast and ever-growing conspiracy against comrade Sheridan.

Because the idea that he's just a lying creep is inconceivable - isn't it?

Monday, August 21, 2006

School leavers 'unfit for work'

CBI again, complaining that too may employees lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, citing bad grammar, spelling and mathematical skills as symptoms of an educational system that isn't functioning properly.

This much I'd probably agree with, but that's about all. Certainly not with, or not only with, their rather limited view of what education is for. And probably not on the reasons behind some of these problems.

Which I won't bore you with except to say I really don't think this culture of consumer choice - which the CBI tend to be very enthusiastic about - hasn't done education many favours. It's the problem of psuedo-markets. Distribute school places according to ability, the price mechanism or stick with the comprehensive system are the choices that government has. But they avoid this and just end up buggering about at the margins.

I don't see how it helps. The government seems to think that in the absence of selection or fees, choice should be facilitated by allowing the successful school to expand and the failing ones to collapse.

But even in the limited choice we have in the present system, there are already signs it is unsustainable. For instance, I'm presently in Europe's biggest school. It's insanely big. I reckon you'd have to go to Brazil or somewhere to find a bigger school. Does Brazil have big schools? I wouldn't know but they've got a lot of people so one of this size might be appropriate.

In a country like Scotland, on the other hand, it's just plain silly. I mean, how much bigger is this one supposed to get? Plus it selects according to religious confession. This limits its size, which is good - but it doesn't make much sense, does it?

And why does no-one in the CBI or the government twig that the slippage of education standards is related to the extent to which successive administrations have accumulated power to the centre and attempted to micro-manage not only schools but the classrooms too?

Anyway, all the walking I'm doing getting lost in this goddam building is knackering me so posting will be a bit light for a few days.

Meanwhile there's a couple of unrelated but interesting posts on inheritance tax from Chris Dillow. If you like that sort of thing. Which I do. Back later. Away to get some zzzzzzzzzzz.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Internationalism and the free-rider problem

Chris Dillow uses this idea to explain why various governments, whilst they may profess a desire for peace in Lebanon, are reluctant to commit troops to a UN force in Lebanon. This is because they think peace in Lebanon is like street-lighting - a common benefit that one can't be excluded from, which gives them a disincentive to contribute towards it personally.

It's an interesting idea. On one level I'd agree with the comparison and argue that what Chris has identified here is the fact that the international order as represented by the UN simply doesn't function in the manner that so many people seem to assume. National and local governments overcome the free-rider problem by pre-empting the market through taxation and then providing the 'public good'.

The behaviour of the UN shows that the Security Council simply cannot do this because it does not have any power except that which is conferred on it by nation-states. It has none of its own. This is why I don't understand much of what is written about the UN. It's not that it's malevolent or useless. It's just that people expect too much from it, is all.

But there the analogy ends because peace in the Middle East is unlike the public good of street-lighting in the sense that a number of the significant actors involved don't see it as a benefit that they cannot be excluded from; they do not recognise it as a benefit at all. Some prefer darkness.

Seeing the signs

But not understanding them. For example, on the gentleman's conveniences in Waverley station in Edinburgh the sign read:
"Female toilet attendant on duty".
What am I supposed to do with that information?

Against U2

Jangly inconsequential guitar (splendidly deconstructed by Bill Bailey). Industrial, soulless and linear songs infused with the pretentious political posturing of grown men who call themselves 'Bono' and 'the Edge': this is the evil that is U2, ladies and gentlemen. I'm so happy I'm not alone.

I can't find it on the website but in the dead-tree version of the G2 there was a U2 entry in the "all-time best heckles", or something:
Bono: "Every time I clap my hands, a child in Africa starves to death."

Glaswegian voice: "Why don't you stop doing it, then?"
Evokes a feeling of city nationalism.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

A case of the pot

Calling the kettle black?

David Cameron, devolution and Scottish nationalism

I've been wondering if today Scottish independence is more likely than at any point in my life. Although collectively the nationalist parties increased their share of the vote in 2003, I'm not arguing that this has much to do with the behaviour of the parties in Holyrood or their performance in elections.

Rather, there are two longer term factors at work that might eventually break the Union. One is the Devolution settlement itself, which is unstable. I enjoyed Oliver Kamm's description of Tam Dalyell's "remorseless pedantry" in an article that pointed out that Spain has no equivalent of the West Lothian Question. Yet it seems the internal dynamic of devolution leans towards assemblies accumulating more powers to themselves rather than less, with or without a politician as persistently tedious as Dalyell. In Scotland's case, any answer to the West Lothian Question must inevitably lead to a greater constitutional separation amongst the countries of the UK. Even the Tories have accepted that turning the clock back is not a realistic option.

And while I think Kamm is right about devolution and the West Lothian Question, it is no longer Dalyell who is pressing the issue. The other major factor pushing the UK towards a greater degree of separation is the fact that David Cameron, leader of the Conservative and Unionist party, is apparently at best a rather half-hearted Unionist. The benefits for the English Tories are obvious and no-one should doubt that this is why the question is being pressed. There is no evidence that English voters are any more pissed off with Scots MPs voting on English-only matters than they were in 1999. Rather it has reached the media now because they see an opportunity to attack Gordon Brown and to secure a majority in Westminster on matters pertaining to English legislation.

Thing is, while I'm a Unionist myself, even I have started to wonder if something like fiscal autonomy might not be a good idea. Jack McConnell once criticised the SNP for playing the "politics of identity", which is true of course. However, given the present constitutional settlement, they don't have much choice. Beyond claiming to be able to manage the slice of the fiscal cake that Holyrood gets from the Treasury better, in order to distinguish themselves from the status quo, parties have little alternative to banging on about the the nature of devolution itself. Fiscal autonomy would allow the parties to place themselves more traditionally on a left-right axis.

I don't really know how it would work, beyond some kind of federal tax system. But the problem with this is the same one that has been apparent since the Scottish Parliament was set up. Devolution is not a matter just for Scotland because it has implications for the rest of the UK as well.

Castro, liberty and equality

Steven Pollard finds the soft Castro adulation amongst sections of the left irrational and then goes on to argue that the roots of it lie in the belief he attributes to the left of the 'ends justifying the means':
"The roots of such bizarre hero worship are complex, but for all its apparent incompatibility with a Left which claims to promote freedom, equality and prosperity, there is a linking thread. Whether it be Robespierre, Stalin, Castro or al-Qaradawi, all their actions stem from the same certainty that the broader Left holds: that the ends it seeks are so incontrovertibly proper that the means are justified for the greater good."
There's a couple of problems with this. One is Pollard's view that the 'end justifies the means' is irrational. He doesn't justify this. This leads me to think what he really means is that it is politically wrong. Fair enough, except as Norm has also pointed out, it is entirely false to attribute this type of means-ends rationality exclusively to the left.

Proper conservatives believe that the first virtue of the state is order and consequently believe all kinds of unpalatable things are justified to achieve this end. Hasn't Steven Pollard ever read Hobbes or Machiavelli or even Roger Scruton?

I don't think this has much to do with attitudes to means-ends justifications; the answer is much simpler. While historically the left has advocated the expansion of liberty and equality, they have not done so in a way that gives equal weight to both. Political freedom and economic equality are not the same thing and there has always been a strand on the left that has believed that in the event of a collision between these two goals, priority should be given to equality. These are the people who fawn over Castro. They rarely express it in those terms, preferring instead to insist that equality and liberty are one and the same thing. It's a division on the left that dates from at least the Russian Revolution.

The other strand of the left believes the priority of liberty and this is the view I favour. I don't care how good Cuba's education system is supposed to be. I dare say it produces highly literate and articulate people but what's the point of that if you can't read what you want or say what you think? So that you can better understand party releases, so that you can praise the Leader more fluently?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Some stuff

Blowing yourself up is no easy matter, you know. The will is not enough - there's logistical problems to overcome. For example, you'd be wrong to doubt Dr Azzam Al-Tamini's resolve; it's just that he has visa difficulties. Can't get a visa, baby-sitter lets you down, taxi doesn't show: there's always something, don't you find? From Mr Eugenides (scroll down).

Will has a long and erudite post on the relationship between Chavez and Castro.

We all know that Europeans are rubbish at breeding. Now the BBC brings news that the Germans, apparently, are the worst of all. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing will depend entirely on your prejudices.

We Scots, on the other hand, are just downright careless. Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing will depend entirely on your prejudices.

Speaking of Jocks, here's a new one for the side-bar. He's from Springburn, so deserving of your sympathy.

Chris Dillow on immigration:
"Sometimes, I worry that dead tree columnists might not have a full grasp of the Heckscher - Ohlin - Samuelson model."
That's the sort of stuff our Chris worries about. He'd find the relative ignorance that the rest of us enjoy much less stressful - but once you know what the "Heckscher - Ohlin - Samuelson model" is, I guess there's no going back.

Finally, apparently we younger siblings find it easier to be amusing than our older brothers and sisters - according to this survey. It's because we had to compete with them for attention, y'see. Also, men find it easier to be amusing than women.

All this rings true in my case, what with my older sister having rather captured the "being perfect in every way" market in the contest for parental attention.

"Oh so you think you're funny, do you?" It's all relative, m'dears. Older sis is much less funny than me. And my parents were very easily amused.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Does Britain have enough scientists?

In the narrow sense of having enough scientists to sustain the British economy's competitiveness, that is. The CBI are quite certain that we do not and argue that our home-grown scientist deficit threatens Britain's long-term growth prospects:
"Britain is in danger of running out of scientists because of flaws in its secondary education system, business leaders warn today. Thousands of potential physicians, biologists and chemists are being lost because of a "stripped-down" science curriculum, a lack of specialist teachers and uninspiring careers advice, the Confederation of British Industry claims.

In the longer term, the British economy is under serious threat as its world-class science base is eroded while it faces strong competition from new, as well as traditional, international rivals."
This is something I have no opinion on because I don't know anything about it really. All the stuff about science teaching and careers advice being a bit crap is entirely believable - but given that the CBI say this shortage is already happening, I'm unclear what impact this is likely to have on economic growth. The report says, "some British businesses are recruiting from overseas... Competitors such as China, India, Brazil and parts of eastern Europe produce hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers each year." From an economic point of view, does it matter that British companies procure their scientists and scientific research from overseas? I have no idea, although it isn't immediately obvious to me why it should.

But if we assume for the sake of argument that it does matter that Britain doesn't produce enough scientists, there's a surprising - to me, anyway - possible factor behind this: it seems that the countries of the EU 25 are in general more irrationalist and less favourably disposed towards science than either the United States or China. For example, barely a majority in Europe believe that the "benefits of science outweigh the harm", compared to over four-fifths in the United States. And with regards irrational beliefs, it is Europeans who are much more likely to believe that astrology has a scientific basis than either Americans or Chinese.

This rather flies in the face of the comfortable liberal stereotypes of rationalist Europe and fundamentalist America and it raises another intriguing possibility - that some irrational beliefs are more conducive to scientific development than others. While a much higher proportion of Americans believe in God and regularly attend religious services than Europeans, it seems that this is not because Europeans are more rational but that they are more pagan. They are also more suspicious of science. Whether there's a relationship between the two, I wouldn't know. Worth thinking about, though.

Two pieces of garbage

One from Max Hastings. Bush, he says, artificially lumps Islamist groups in Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iraq when in reality they have interests that are "diffuse, complex and nuanced".

Bush sees an ideological and strategic unity where there is none, says Hastings. He then proceeds to indulge in a little homogenization of his own, pontificating about how "Muslim radicals", "ordinary Muslims", "Palestinians" and "Iraqis" view the world. There is indeed a "common strand" amongst the various Islamist groups, he concedes but rejects with absolutely no argument whatsoever the idea that a particular ideology has anything to do with it.

Rather this is understandable anger, which he claims (falsely as it happens) has legitimized Al-Qaeda in the eyes of "ordinary Muslims" in a way unimaginable four years ago.

Here's the summary: radical Islamist groups are completely dissimilar and should be understood as such. Ok, they're not entirely different but the extent to which this is true is the extent to which we made them like that.

Martin Jacques' exercise in ahistorical homogenization, on the other hand, is a much more sinister one where he talks about the Israeli "mentality" and sense of "racial superiority":
"Indeed it is impossible to explain Israel's attitude towards the west on the one hand and its Arab neighbours on the other without understanding its racial character and motivation."
This for Jacques is the "root cause" of the problem. Their "long-term future", Jacques argues, "lies in viewing their Arab neighbours as equals and seeking to live with them in peace".

The notion that Israel's Arab neighbours have an obligation to recognise their right to exist is mentioned in the usual "of course" throw-away manner.

The idea that the vile anti-Semitism being pumped out from the regimes and Islamist movements in the region might just be indicative of a failure to see Jews as equals isn't something Jacques considers worth mentioning.

Perhaps this tells us something about the Guardian "mentality"?

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The zeal of the converted

Following the publication[pdf] of the names of those accused of plotting to bring down ten passenger aircraft, their friends, family and acquaintances have - as far as one can tell - tended to express some degree of surprise and even incredulity at the suggestion that the person they knew would be involved in such an activity.

This, for example, was a neighbour's response to the arrest in Pakistan of Rashid Rauf, one of the key suspects:

"Rukshana Bi, 34, a mother of four who lives near the Rauf family in Birmingham, said she did not believe they had links to terror: 'They're good people. The dad is good, the mum is good. I've never seen any problems. I've been living here for five years and they've only been good religious people. I can't believe it.'"
Sometimes this sort of response is greeted with scepticism, particularly when it comes from close family members. This may be justified in some individual cases, I wouldn't know, but I believe there is reason to think in general that it is not.

Friends and family, neighbours and acquaintances may recall young Muslim men who became more pious, displaying the outward disciplines of religious devotion. But what I think has happened to those who have already immolated themselves in the name of their faith is that while they may claim the religion of their fathers, they have in fact went through the psychological and sociological process we refer to as 'conversion'. And what is conversion if not the repudiation of one's past?

We normally associate this with people either turning from atheism or agnostism to a particular religious confession, or moving from one confessional group to another. In the case of the alleged terrorists in this most recent case, two of them are formal converts to Islam. But I'd argue that this process of conversion is the experience of all the potential bombers - because it's essence lies not in a change of formal ideology, or not only this, but in the transition from indifference to devotion.

This can and does happen within religions. All the salvation religions have within them groups that are characterised by the degree of their exclusivity. The least exclusive is the ecclesia. That it in practice rejects the notion that one can properly distinguish the saved and the damned in this life can be demonstrated by the fact that ecclesias always and everywhere confer the tokens of salvation on those not yet old enough to give mental assent to a belief system - through baptism or circumcision and other rituals of consecration that are performed at various stages of childhood.

The conversion experience is, more often than not, a movement away from this form of traditional piety towards one of exclusivity. The nature of the sect or cult that the convert attaches themself to will vary but the exclusivity is always and everywhere based on the belief that one can distinguish the saved from the damned. This is expressed in a variety of different ways - through the manner of dress, diet, the practice of religious devotion, the pursuit of ideological cleanliness - but what always distinguishes the sectarian or cultist from those in ecclesias or denominations is their willingness to submerge the historical personality - along with all of its worldly attachments - into the group. The furthest this identification with the group can possibly go is the complete annihilation of the individual - in other words, suicide.

That the objectively pro-jihadist left haven't grasped the political implications of this goes without saying - but they're not the only ones. Chris Dillow rightly points out the futility of Blair's call to "mobilise the Islamic community" to defeat terrorism. It carries an assumption of homogeneity that doesn't exist. During the height of the Troubles, no-one imagined the Moderator of the Church of Scotland capable of restraining the UVF - or even the lesser task of getting Ian Paisley to give his foul mouth a rest.

Cult members never listen to the spokesman of the ecclesia because it is intrinsic to the existence of the former that they claim to represent the authentic expression of the latter. Therefore, pointing out that the "extremists" are a minority at odds with "mainstream" Muslims isn't something that should be repeated for any merely reason; it should be stated because not only is it is true, making the distinction is a matter of strategic importance. In political terms, ecclesia is to cult what conservatism is to fascism.

That this is not perhaps the general view is maybe a consequence of the fact that Islam tends not to divide itself into formal sects in quite the way that protestantism has done, this being the historical example that most of us are familiar. It may also be a consequence of the habitual way some on the left have always conflated what could be properly described as 'fascist' with what is conservative and authoritarian. Or if you've given up even the pretence of having a conversation, you could always put it down entirely to 'Islamophobia'.

People losing their damn minds: the director's cut

That, as everyone knows, means it goes on much longer than it should. I'm referring of course to the on-going madness that is the SSP's internal politics. Katherine Trolle, one of the evil-doers responsible for tarnishing Tommy's halo, has given an exclusive interview to the Observer:
"Before leaving for Edinburgh airport, she scanned Tuesday's Daily Record. When she reached pages 4 and 5, she sighed heavily. Under the headline 'I am fit to lead' was a photograph of Sheridan lifting weights, doing sit-ups and jogging with a reporter. 'Oh, Christ Almighty,' Trolle said. 'How could I ever have been so stupid?'

She read out one of his quotes: 'Being fit and healthy is vital for me and for my family. The fitter I am, the harder I can fight those who tried to destroy me.' Shaking her head in disbelief, she said: 'I think I am actually beginning to feel quite sorry for him.'"
Me too. Mental illness is no laughing matter. Tommy is going to need our support. There's much much more evidence of some fairly radical damn mind loss. For instance:
"Since successfully suing the News of the World, the Sheridans have hardly been out of the media, with talk of book deals and festival shows to follow. They sold their story to another tabloid and completed their transition to full-blown media celebrity couple when Sheridan agreed to pose topless for photographer Harry Benson."
I'm happy to say a Google search has, on the first page at least, failed to come up with the offending picture.

Katherine Trolle, who is Danish, said she did not have enough words in English "to say what I think of Tommy Sheridan." I think I do. However, what I do not have is two hundred thousand pounds, so I better not.

Anyway, apparently six more comrades have joined the 'gender-obsessed cabal' that was clearly out to assassinate the career of the Great Leader:
"[S]ix of Glasgow's most influential grassroots members, all of whom previously shared the same platform as the former SSP leader, said they felt compelled to come forward after Sheridan branded lifelong socialists 'scabs' and threatened to destroy them. In a letter to the Socialist Voice newspaper, they said they could no longer stand by and watch the 'grotesque, Orwellian' situation."
My, I had no idea that quite so many people were embroiled in this nefarious plot. It's almost unbelievable.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Connecting the dots

In Martin Bell's join-the-dots game, explains why it's the government's fault that British citizens should want to blow up civilian aircraft:
"Alone among the countries of Europe, Britain pursues a foreign policy indistinguishable from that of the United States.

Alone among the countries of Europe, Britain has not pressed for an immediate ceasefire in the month-long Middle East conflict.

Alone among the countries of Europe, Britain has played a leading part in waging a war described by the United Nations as illegal.

Now our diplomacy is sidelined. Our voice is an echo. Our moral authority scarcely exists. Our people are the targets of terrorism and the threats of terrorism, wherever they are, and whether they travel by underground or in the air."
Our diplomacy irrelevant, our voice but an echo; yet simultaneously the absence of our intervention is responsible for the war in Lebanon? Woe unto us - we are surely undone.

But also a little confused since an operation of this nature would have obviously taken more than a month in the planning, surely?

Lebanon is irrelevant to this but since he brought it up, shouldn't his attempt to connect the failure to conform to international law with terrorism include the fact that the military wing of Hizbollah has no right to exist (pdf) - in the interests of consistency?

There's also the problem that Martin Bell is either unaware of what countries constitute Europe or of what their foreign policies are, or both.

Which is not to say that had his chronology and geography been more accurate, his argument would have been much more appealing because no doubt it would carry much the same sickly mixture of piety and self-loathing.

Norm has more; Marcus has breaking news of people losing their damn minds.

[Cross-posted @ DSTPFW]

Thursday, August 10, 2006

On finding things new

There's a quite sweet example of this in response to the defeat of Senator Joe Lieberman in the Connecticut primary election in CiF:
"[M]any incumbents who blindly supported George Bush will find their careers in peril come November. But there is another, far more important implication to Tuesday's results. The rules have changed. The power center of American politics is shifting back towards the people.

How it is fueled - by technology, by candidates like Ned Lamont, by a growing community of citizenship, or by a combination of all of these - does not matter. The rise in people-powered politics, which began in the 2004 presidential campaign, continues to gather steam.

It is something that endorsements and money cannot control, and if that makes incumbents who count on such things uncomfortable - good. Democracy and the nation will be better for it. May the people win." [Emphasis mine]
It's an epoch-making event, a grassroots cyber revolution making all things new. Which it isn't, of course. For the Democrats, as Oliver Kamm has pointed out, it's a traditional default position they fall into from time to time whenever they forget that elections are never won when political parties make the mistake of thinking that the electorate is as animated by partisan oppositionism as they are.

More generally, it is rather naive to assume that being the incumbent is something that always confers an advantage. It ignores, as someone pointed out in the comments below the piece, the long tradition of populist campaigns in American political history. But more generally it ignores the way the mythos of American democracy has been woven into the political culture. Christopher Hitchens coined the term "plebian elitism" to describe the way in which Congressional and Presidential candidates adopt the mantle of the Ordinary Joe, the outsider uncorrupted by the money and patronage of the Washington establishment - almost without regard to how wealthy and blue-blooded they may in reality be.

Incumbency and money obviously doesn't guarantee re-election but the idea that the challenger in this case has done a 'new thing' and escaped the influence of the latter is completely fanciful, as is the idea that someone as obviously ambitious as Mr Lamont would be indifferent to these endorsements.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

How evil are you?

I'm 28% evil, according to this - and 6% more evil than Bill from who's blog I nicked this particular silly test.

Motoring annoyances

People who don't stop at pedestrian crossings.

Maybe they've bought into the strange way transport terminology is used and think the "pedestrian" belongs to another species altogther, rather than something they become on the rare occasions when they park their asshole-mobiles and actually walk somewhere.

I propose the death-penalty for BMW drivers who charge through pedestrian crossings while wee old people or mothers struggling with their children are waiting to cross. This would be both a revolutionary and a utilitarian outcome, in my view.

Chavez hyperbole

I appreciate this really belongs to the 'bear shits in woods' class in terms of newsworthiness. I also appreciate Chavez isn't exactly the world's most subtle politician and can hardly be credited with a gift for understatement but this is ridiculous and offensive:
"Mr Chavez rounded on Israel at the weekend, accusing the Jewish state of committing a "new Holocaust".

"Israel has gone mad. It's attacking, doing the same thing to the Palestinian and Lebanese people that they have criticised - and with reason - the Holocaust. But this is a new Holocaust."

The Venezuelan president has also angered Israel by showing support for Iran, which backs Hezbollah and has called for Israel's annihilation.

During a visit to Tehran at the end of last month, Mr Chavez said Venezuela would "stand by Iran at any time and under any condition"."
Under any condition?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Litigation and free speech

Good piece from Helene Guldberg in response to Sheridan's victory in his defamation case:
"Galloway and Sheridan have unfortunately given the UK’s anachronistic libel law - a law that grew out of a dissatisfaction with the old aristocratic ways of dealing with defamation through duels - a new lease of life. (The Scottish libel law is based in large part on England’s libel law, though with some minor differences.)

They, of course, see things differently, depicting themselves as brave working-class heroes fighting against the mighty media empire. Sheridan even accused the News of the World of endangering his unborn baby’s life with its lies. But it is far from brave to sue newspapers for libel. As claimants, the odds are clearly stacked in their favour, whether or not what was said about them was true - which is why the vast majority of claimants win their libel cases."
And without passing judgement on the two illustrious politicians mentioned above, the reason a majority win is because in defamation and libel cases the burden of proof lies with the accused.

Suffice to say while there are some people who think this principle should be extended in English law, I think this would be unwise.

Demand for rethink as English passes fall

Kevin Schofield writes in the Scotsman:
"THE number of pupils passing their Higher exams has fallen for the first time in three years, as results revealed a significant drop in the proportion of those gaining pass marks in Higher English."
Call the grammar police. Have standards slipped since the Scotsman's education correspondent was at school?

People lose their damn minds if...

Like Edinburgh City Council, they have way too much time on their hands:
"WHEN Mel Smith abandoned his plans to light up a cigar on stage, he thought he was finally complying with Scottish smoking regulations.

But the comedian is now facing a new investigation by council officials amid allegations that yesterday's photocall - when he posed leaning out of his dressing room window, puffing on a cigar - was against the rules."
He's facing "allegations" that he still contravened the smoking ban because while the part of him that actually emits the smoke wasn't inside the goddam building, the other half of him was indeed in an "enclosed public space".

Edinburgh City Council deems this worthy of an "investigation".

It may be just nostalgia on my part but I'm sure I can remember a time when we were less stupid as a nation.


Monday, August 07, 2006

Sex, lies and factionalism: civil war in the SSP

The Observer reports that when the verdict in Tommy Sheridan's defamation action against the News of the World was announced, the assembled press pack were "astounded".

I think it would be fair to say they weren't the only ones. I suppose it's possible that the jury believed Tommy's egotistical tale of a conspiracy against him that was so wide-reaching and elaborate that SSP co-founder McCombes was prepared to be jailed to protect a forged minute - but I doubt it. More likely, the view of the jury would have been similar to the majority of people I've spoken to since the verdict was announced. I can make no claim that they are representative but I've yet to find a solitary individual that believes Tommy Sheridan told the truth in court. But he still won. While there's no way of knowing how the jury came to their decision, if this jury - as the legal fiction would have it - was representative of the 'ordinary person', I'd suggest the following factors came into play.

For one, while Sheridan himself never used the privacy defence, there's a strong feeling against the NOTW and papers of their ilk attempting to destroy a politician through revelations about their alleged extra-curricular activities. That this was an English paper having a go at a Scottish politician probably didn't help.

There was also the small matter of the paper's case. While it's difficult to understand how the jury came to the conclusion that all of the NOTW's witnesses were lying, they did have the admissions from Anvar Khan and Fiona McGuire that some of the evidence had been fluffed-up in the interests of selling a tabloid story. Given this it is perhaps unsurprising that the jury gave Sheridan the benefit of the doubt. Underlying this would have been the understanding that while the NOTW can afford to lose 200k, Tommy Sheridan certainly could not.

Then there was the extraordinary performance of Sheridan and his wife to consider. Gail did a Mary Archer, Sheridan wept as he spoke of his love for his wife and child: dull stuff like evidence can't compete with this.

But I'm left wondering if the jury considered that it was not only Sheridan's reputation and livelihood at stake here. Sheridan has won his case but the SSP have surely lost. This is only the beginning of the divisions and in-fighting that originate with Sheridan's decision to sue for defamation. Now Sheridan, having effectively accused 11 of his MSP colleagues of perjuring themselves in court, intends to wrest control of the party from the 'cabal' - which includes McCombes the party's co-founder and their convener Colin Fox, whom Sheridan supported for the leadership - he claims was out to destroy him in the first place.

Fox's response to the result made the whole case even more surreal than it was already. He insists he told the truth in court yet simultaneously welcomed Sheridan's victory, reportedly saying he would be 'relaxed' about Sheridan telling "fibs" to defeat the Murdoch paper. Given that he is a member of Holyrood's justice committee and considering he himself is likely to face a police investigation for perjury, this is a truly bizarre position for the leader of a political party to take.

Maybe it's the infamous Scottish "I kent yer faither" attitude on my part but unlike my friends Will and Hak Mao, along with many other people I know, I just don't "get" Sheridan at all. He was right about the poll tax and he was right about warrant sales. I would say he's right about drugs except I don't quite understand how support for "cannabis cafes" is consistent with a ban on smoking in public places, which all the SSP, including Sheridan, voted for.

And that isn't the only part of the SSP platform that doesn't make any sense to me. The party favours a policy of "nationalisation without compensation". We can only assume the party adopts this stance out of admiration for Castro's Cuba. Indeed, Sheridan is so enthusiastic about the dictatorship he wanted to be married there. He didn't, as it turned out. In this, as in so many other areas, his wife Gail has proved to be much the more sensible and canny of the pair.

They also favour something called the "Scottish service tax" to replace the council tax. The problem with this is it is to be collected nationally through PAYE - a policy that represents the effective abolition of local government in Scotland.

On top of this, the SSP foreign policy is the usual package of hostility towards the USA and Israel combined with a policy of appeasement towards Middle Eastern dictators. Sheridan who denounced the illegality of the Iraq war also adopted a position of opposition to regime-change in Afghanistan, despite the unanimous decision of the Security Council to mandate the invasion. Which is not to say that there weren't good arguments to be made against both of these but clearly UN legalism wasn't one of them.

But of course this had nothing to do with policies and that has been the problem with this whole trial. It represents a victory for the politics of celebrity and the politics of identity. It is Sheridan's charisma alone that unifies the disparate and inchoate strands that make up the pro-Sheridan "SSP majority" - this being the group who will in due course move to have Sheridan re-installed as leader and have the "scabs" and "traitors" who testified for the NOTW expelled from the party. You can only believe they have betrayed the working class if you accept Sheridan's vainglorious self-image as the personification of the proletariat. And only those willing to ignore evidence can convince themselves that people like McCombes or Rosie Kane somehow represent the bourgeoisie.

But people do - and this is the politics of charisma, pure and simple. Only allegiance to the leader unifies the incoherent political alliance that stands behind Sheridan. He is a nationalist politician, yet a large chunk of the "SSP majority" includes the London-based SWP and the Committee for a Worker's International.

And it is also the politics of identity. National identity and class identity. But that "class" in this context has nothing much to do with Marxian concepts can be seen in the way Sheridan and his supporters behave. Only this can explain the ludicrous notion that someone like Alan McCombes is "middle class" - for class here is not a matter of one's relationship to the means of production but rather one of allegiance and culture.

Here I have to declare an interest. I've known people like Sheridan all my adult life and while I don't worry about it becoming a reality, I have no doubt at all that I wouldn't fare very well in an "independent Scottish republic" with someone like Tommy Sheridan as President for Life.

Because people like Tommy Sheridan hate people like me. I could claim this is because I refuse to defer to them, because I argue with them and ask them questions that they can't answer. But is would be a false self-flattery. The truth is it is because I'm not one of them. They know it, I know it, and they know I know it. I was born in the wrong town, I have the wrong accent and the wrong attitude; not loyal enough, not macho enough. Despite the fact that I too have to sell my labour for a living, to them I am The Other. From experience I have good reason to believe they hate me for it. This is why, his personal charms notwithstanding, I decline to call Tommy Sheridan "comrade". He represents the politics of personalisimo - and I take it personally.

Update: Following his defamation victory Sheridan said, "It's time to put our differences behind us and re-build the Scottish Socialist Party".

No, of course he didn't. He said it's time to rip it up and start again. I particularly liked this bit:

"He spoke of his determination to regain control of the party he co-founded eight years ago. And he warned that, without his leadership, the SSP are doomed.

Sheridan said failure in his leadership challenge would mean the SSP had condemned themselves to "virtual oblivion" and he would quit the party."
So you better take heed, comrades - if Tommy doesn't get his way you should understand that his threat to take his ball home is to be taken seriously.

Who was it that coined the term 'cult of personality' again?

Update #2: Forget the Scottish media, seems you have to go to New York for some sharp comment.

Update #3:

A win for machismo - from the Guardian.

The SSP executive's take (pdf):

"A few years ago, the CWI issued a press release denouncing Tommy Sheridan as a "neo-Stalinist" because of his support for Cuba. This was an absurd and unjustifiable attack. Yet ironically, the CWI and others, including especially the SWP, have today bought into a concept of socialism which contains disturbing elements of Stalinism.

In the 1930s the choice before the Communist movement was presented as either for Stalin, or for Hitler. Either for the GPU (later renamed the KGB), or for the Gestapo. Either for the Soviet Union, or for fascism. This was backed by hysterical demagogy and vicious character assassination of all dissidents. In the frenzied
conditions of the 1930s, it was also backed up by mass violence, terror and torture.

Conspiracy theories were concocted purporting to prove that old Bolsheviks were in the pay of Hitler, and had plans to carry out mass murder by poisoning the Soviet Union's water supply. Europe's left intelligentsia - the artists, writers and academics - overwhelmingly sided with Stalin against the dissident left, even during the Moscow Trials when grotesque confessions were extracted from broken individuals.

The cultural elite had been mesmerised by the power and charisma of Stalin, and were convinced he was the only hope for socialism. They believed what they wanted to believe. In comparison to these events, the troubles of the SSP are trivial and the behaviour of Tommy Sheridan petty and pathetic. Yet events in the SSP in the past few months have revealed a glimpse of the same psychological processes that in the past, under much more grave conditions, led to tyranny."

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Swimming pool annoyances

People who do backstroke when the pool's really busy.

What's that all about? "I'm going to do backstroke now so it's for everyone else to look where they're going", is it?

Selfish bastards.

They don't even have the grace to swim in a straight line.

Sorry but it's been annoying me.

Speaking of the end of the world...

Saw Frankie Boyle the other night in Glasgow doing a preview of his routine for the Edinburgh Festival. Outstanding. Best three quid I've spend in twenty years. On the end of the world:
"So the best tennis player in Britain is Scottish? I'm not up to speed on my Nostradamus but isn't that one of the harbingers of the apocalypse or something?"
Damn straight. If he ever wins Wimbledon - or if we ever have a Pope from Lanarkshire - put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye, for surely this present age and all its things passeth away?

The disadvantages of "climate porn"

From Simon Retallack in CiF:
"Climate change is most commonly constructed through the alarmist repertoire, as awesome, terrible, immense and beyond human control. It is described, using an inflated or extreme lexicon, a quasi-religious register of death, as being accelerating and irreversible."
I'd like to stake claim to being an early victim of this sort of "climate porn". Despite the demonstrable incompetence of the human race at predicting the future, I remember in the mid-seventies soothsaying was big business. There was two strands to this. On one side stood the optimists who still imagined a Tomorrow's World future where it was assumed that technological change would supply all mankind's needs, regardless of how trivial. On the other side were the environmentalists, who were saying more or less what they are saying now. Which is, basically, "we're all fucked".

Now I was of an impressionable age so I believed all of them - and wasn't old enough to understand that these visions were contradictory. To this day, I'm still a bit pissed-off about it. I want to know from the optimists: where's the jet-pack you assured me I'd be travelling to work on by now? As it is, I'm still crawling along the M8, about to have a "Falling Down" moment any day now. Or maybe even more annoying - where's the CD's that don't jump? Telling us they wouldn't jump because they didn't scratch like vinyl. Liars.

Same with the fluffy harbingers of the apocalypse. I'm not advocating "climate change denial" - I'd just like to make the observation that there are still whales, air to breathe, trees - shit like that. I expected then that all of them would be gone by now.

To project this to the present day would of course be irrational. After all, just because the enviro-prophets were wrong then, this doesn't mean they are wrong now. However, what is more rational, I think, is to consider the possibility that environmentalists tend to prefer the more pessimistic amongst the scientific predictions of climate change because they wish to impress on people the urgency of the problem in order to influence people's patterns of consumption.

I have no doubt this is done for the best motives but in doing so, the original problem identified by Simon Retallack kicks in: it has the opposite effect because the more apocalyptic the environmental predictions are, the less likely people are to see changes in their own behaviour as being worthwhile. Or to put it another way, is there really much point in me re-cycling my (admittedly copious) empty glass bottles if we don't have the United States, Russia, India and China on board with the whole carbon-emissions thing?

I'm probably just rationalising my prejudices - but who doesn't? And there's something else the art of prophecy as practiced today shares with the 1970s. Then as now, people projected into the future in an attempt to answer the question that political circumstances couldn't help presenting to them: what will the world look when the oil runs out?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Against "inner"

I don't mean practical things like the inner-tubes of tyres and stuff or where it has a clearly-identifiable meaning, like Max Weber talking about "inner-worldly asceticism" and things like that.

But there are occasions when the use of the word should definitely trigger "inner" alarm bells.

Like when people go on about "inner-peace". It's perhaps cynicism on my part but in my experience, folks do this as a sort of last resort - after all the more practical and exterior avenues of happiness have been exhausted.

And as for people getting in touch with their "inner-child" - all I can say is that this should surely be banned in enclosed public spaces?

Now we have Blair claiming to have "inner-confidence". I mean, would he care to share what this internal confidence is actually based on? Has he been getting in touch with his "inner-straight guy" again?

There's more here.

After Castro?

John Harris repeats some of the usual bollocks about Cuba:
"One thing should certainly be borne in mind. Cuba may look forlorn, all peeling buildings and pockmarked roads. Its economy may have long since tumbled into creaking anarchy. But unlike the old states of eastern Europe, the revolution has a few genuine jewels to defend: chiefly, its education system, and globally-acclaimed healthcare.

[Cuba has] a health system that emphasizes preventive care, locks doctors into the local populations that they serve, and is built around a simplicity from which the British NHS - particularly in its ever-more fragmented, Blairite incarnation - would do well to learn. The country's health indicators speak volumes: Cuba has an average life expectancy of 77.3 as against the USA's 77.4. The two countries' rates of infant mortality and maternal morbidity are similarly close. Their respective health spends, however, underline the Cuban miracle: in the states, the annual figure is $5711 per head; in Cuba, it's $251."
Most people taking issue with this sort of soft-left support for the decaying Brezhnevian dictatorship in Cuba try to make the case that Cuba's health care system, or its social services in general, are not all they are cracked up to be.

But this misses the point. Health indicators like longevity, infant mortality etc. tend to be more closely related to GDP per capita, rather than health care spending per capita anyway - but what if Cuba's health system is all it's cracked up to be?

Same with education. I don't understand why John Harris suggests Cuba's supposedly good system is "unlike the old states of Eastern Europe", anyway. I was under the impression that they were often rather good, although my impressions admittedly come from a very partial source. My late father, an academic who specialised in Soviet education, and was generally pro-Soviet politically himself, liked to tell the (possibly apocryphal) story about a Russian sailor eliciting gales of laughter from Liverpudlian dockers because he asked them what their favourite Shakespeare play was. He also used to make much the same kinds of points about the Cuban system that the objectively pro-Castro Guardianistas are still making to this day.

Provided you're not a homosexual, a political dissident, or something else the Cuban state finds undesirable, I dare say Cuba - replete with its fabulous education system and its "globally-acclaimed health care" - is a relatively benign dictatorship in which to live, what with the sun, the sea and Ry Cooder popping in occasionally for a wee jam.

But Cuba is a dictatorship nevertheless, and I wish people like John Harris would be honest enough to say they believe this is preferable to a democractic system that could produce a government that might be less disposed to such benevolent gestures like "locking doctors into the communities they serve" and the like. And if they don't, they should stop banging on about the wonderful welfare benefits of despotism - shouldn't they?

Teachers call for parenting lessons?

A report from the Scotsman claims, "Teachers want compulsory lessons to be given to teenagers in school on how to be good parents."

Well, I certainly didn't call for that and I don't know anyone who would. Generally speaking we hate that kind of stuff. Why on earth would anyone think teachers are better placed than anyone else to teach "parenting skills" for goodness sake?

Anyway, turns out it isn't "teachers" at all but the Professional Association of Teachers, a union with about four members who have a no strike policy.

I'll not be joining that. If anyone even suggests I should take a class teaching adolescents how to "parent", I'll be downing pencils and manning the barricades, let me tell you. I didn't go to university to learn how to change goddam nappies. I didn't need to. I mean, it's not exactly rocket science, is it?

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