Saturday, 28 February 2009

Why Tony Grayling pisses me off

People like Tony Grayling really piss me off. The magisterial presumption of a guy who's never done anything in his life but write about old dead guys becoming a prophet of what governments need to do to keep their people safe in a security environment one rather suspects he's not exactly totally in the loop about, just kinda sorta takes my breath away and makes me forget to punctuate and prune my sentences.

Don't get me wrong. I am not a neo-con, although I do admire the earlier works of Leo Strauss. What I deplore is evidence-blind faith in an area where you really need to know your shit. Philosophy professors telling the FBI how to run law enforcement is like philosophy professors telling brain surgeons which bits of your grey matter to scrape away. Are you comfortable with that? I don't think so.

Anyway, Grayling wrote this and I responded thus:

Grayling mentions Locke's defence of liberty, but not Locke's defence of life, the first in his triad of life, liberty and property. The priority of place Locke gave life is easy to understand: given that life is a necessary prerequisite for the enjoyment of liberty and property, one would think it reasonable for Grayling to support laws necessary to protect our lives even at the expense of some of our liberty.

Precisely how Grayling is in a position to gauge the level of threat, and consequent calibration of policy to meet it, is unclear.

Would he deny he suffers from an evidence-gap, that he indulges in arm-chair philosophising, rather than evidence-based opinion?

His opinion would be worth rather more if he had ever tested his words of wisdom by taking real work in a national security field or at the (very) least, sought to inform himself by conducting serious empirical research interviews with national security officials.

Has he done so?

Something lazy, all too lazy and self-satisfied about his piece.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Sex and morality; government and taxes

I was disturbed by this Sunday Times story when I saw it in someone's shopping basket during the ritual Sunday morning supermarket shop. Racing home I read it on-line - not having bought a newspaper, except for train journeys, for several years - and it prompted the following reflection:
The government is effectively trying to tell parents how to raise children. This will horrify some, reassure others. It's essentially similar to the Great British Smacking Debate. Interventionist, statist liberals will invariably think that the social consequences of allowing unfettered parental freedom are simply too great, and can be measured (crudely) in the number of teenage pregnancies and knife-crimes littering Daily Mail front pages.
Conservative liberals, NIMBY 'my home is my castle' types - with whom I often self-identify - will usually find this a shocking encroachment of their freedom to live as they choose, and raise their children according to their values.
I sympathise with the liberal interventionists on some things, e.g., howsoever much a militant father wants junior to be a fully-fledged toddler-commando, replete with bare-knuckle training and cot-based automatic weapons fire, I think it is legitimate to save children and society from manifestly unsuitable parenting. That's a no-brainer for most people.
Morality and taxation
On this issue, however, I'm with the instinctive knee-jerk liberal brigade. Prescriptive sex education is something you get in religious schools and communities as well as households. The government is effectively saying, 'we know you believe this stuff, but we think you'll fuck your kids up by indoctrinating them with it.' Not the classiest nor the most demonstrably consensual use of conservative tax-payers' tax pounds. It's illegal not to pay tax, and then you find your money used against you and your way of life. That must suck.
As tempting as it must be when you suddenly find yourself with the power to spend other people's money to tell them what to do, I's appreciate it if governments interpreted their role in a morally narrow, neutral and consensual manner. Government should protect us, provide our infrastructure and services, and basically nothing else.
Government as neither Answer nor Problem
A pamphlet like the one reported in the Times, in which the government takes one side of a contested debate between groups of its own citizens, is only going to alienate one group and cause the other to ask for more, and more divisive use of government power to enforce their moral code on others. And the more we all see Government as the Answer or the Problem, the more we fail to see that we ourselves can do a lot to shape our lives and those of our communities.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Why we live in an age of nuclear proliferation

James Forsyth has this prescient little piece on Iran's nuclear ambition. I remember when James and I were contemporaries at Cambridge; this was simply not on the mainstream radar, but the signs were there for anyone to read.

The simple truth is that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime has never been an effective mechanism for preventing state-based proliferation of nuclear weapons. To the best of my knowlege, neither we, nor any of the P5, have ever taken seriously our Article VI commitment to nuclear disarmament.

British and American attitudes to nuclear proliferation are shaped from within our respective national contexts of being nuclear powers. If we lacked nuclear weapons but Iran had them, we would be doing our level best to acquire them as fast as possible. Mutatis mutandis, Iran's position is intelligible.

We lack credible policy levers to prevent Iranian nuclear armament. We should, therefore, cut our losses, accept that we live in an age of state-based nuclear proliferation, and focus our policy on convincing Pakistan and Iran that their selfish national interests are aligned with our commitment to ensure that non-state terrorists do not acquire nuclear material.

The world can, and probably must, live with a nuclear Iran. In contrast, I don't think the world is well served by the self-serving but ineffective NPT status quo ante.

The next UK General Election

Becoming increasingly desperate about my lack of readers, I have taken to posting on other, better and better-read bloggers' sites. I posted this in response to Paul Waugh's piece on the jockeying for position ahead of Gordon Brown's exit. Apparently Jack Straw has been ranked first in a recent poll of one thousand would-be voters:

Things won't look brilliantly hopeful regardless of who's in charge. Consider:
First, some stats

Labour won in 2005 on about 35.2% of the popular vote (to the Tories 32.3%). That was how close Blair and Howard were. Labour still won, despite a controversial war, because Blair promised not to stand again, the economy was okay, and the opposition still couldn't persuade the electorate to give them a chance.
Now some analysis

At the next election: the economy will not be as good; the opposition are likely to be more palatable to the electorate; and the Labour party is unlikely to get a big boost by its leader promising not to stand next time around.
And finally, a prediction

Conclusion: the Tories will most probably score more of the popular vote than Labour. Will that mean a Tory majority? I don't know, I'm not sufficiently anoraky to know the ins and outs of the constituency breakdown of the national vote. Answers..?

Rendition, torture and moral hazard

I just posted the below in the comments section of Iain Dale's seminal blog, prompted by a very interesting, thoughtful and enjoyable link to a student radio interview of Hilary Benn:
Thanks Iain for this informative and enjoyable link, and to your readers for several illuminating comments. Your post prompted me to read more into the background of the issue, and I feel I understand it a good deal better.
Why I don't support torture and rendition

I confess to being agnostic on rendition and torture: It would take a lot to convince me that the UK should be complicit, and nothing I have heard has yet persuaded me that we need to compromise our commitment to treat people humanely in order to protect ourselves from attack.
Why I might support it

I cannot, however, confess an unshakeable commitment to the human rights of actual terrorists, in possession of mission-critical intelligence that would save innocent lives. If - and it's unlikely the evidence could be presented in an open forum - I could be shown that methods of torture had a proven track-record of extracting such intelligence in a proportionate way (i.e. with extremely low yield of bad intelligence, extremely low (though not zero) incidence on torturing innocent people, and a strong track record of averting disaster) I must admit I would probably support it.
And why that doesn't make me feel good

I find that admission troubling, and am fully aware of its implications, but hypothetically I'd rather live in a country where my government was willing to make that kind of morally difficult choice, than one in which they exposed us all to greater risk, in the face of clear evidence that they could keep us all safer by victimising a small number of guilty individuals who were intent on ending our lives and bringing down our society.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

PR or first past the post?

The Israeli election generated, amongst other things, these two posts from Alex Massie and Matthew Yglesias respectively. Both Messrs Massie and Yglesias observe pertinently that the precise configuration of an electoral system is less important than the quality of the men and women who make that system a reality. As Alexander Pope versified, 'Of forms of government let fools protest/Whatever is best administered is best.'

Some electoral arrangements are obviously worse than others - would you have liked to count and report opposition results in Saddam Hussein's Iraq? - but usually this has more to do with externalities, i.e. people, than quirks of systems.

For what it's worth, I prefer systems, like the multi-member constituency model, which try to reduce the 'wasted vote' side-effect of the Westminster Model. It must suck to be a Lib Dem in a rock-solid Tory or Labour constituency. Suck more than usual, that is.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

coherence, history and over-simplification

Do read this from last week's Spectator. It's an exceptionally earnest but not desperately convincing little piece by someone described as "the historian Lisa Hilton", perhaps because we might mistake her for another Lisa Hilton who doesn't write about history, or maybe because the description of her as an historian will add weight to her case.

The Historian laments the government's failure to give children "any coherent understanding of the forces which made the world they inhabit". The thrust of the article is that government is dumbing down the teaching of history. I would reply to The Historian that, on the contrary, overt willingness to describe "the forces which made the world they inhabit" as amenable to "coherent understanding" is engaging in the classic over-simplification exercise that has perenially been the preserve of school history teaching. I'd like to see schools teaching children to deal with incoherence: it would be at once more salutary for everyday life and more historically fastidious. But maybe The Historian Lisa Hilton also believes that Whigs were onto something. I feel we should be told. Oh dear, oh dear.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

A decade of Euros

Although I am tempted to point to Jenny McCartney or Dominic Lawson from the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times, respectively, as examples of much fairer and more balanced appraisals of the Thatcher strand, I think it's time to tie this one off and move on. Instead, check out Michael Boskin's retrospective on the Euro's ten-year anniversary, from the excellent Project Syndicate website.
Those were the days...

I remember my friends arguing back and forth about the issue of UK entry in the immediate aftermath of the live launch of the Eurozone in '99. (Yes, I had, and still have, those kinds of friends.) None of us were economists but were pretty fastidious in reading up on the basic issues. We knew enough to know that the economics didn't point to one side or the other - after the Humean fashion of reason being the passions' slave. As much as it was an expedient for New Labour to present the issue in purely economic terms, the decision whether or not to join has clear political implications. When a (not so very far into the) future government decides on the issue, it must be frank in avowing the clear political motivation that drives its opting for the one option over the other. The basic battle line is between sovereigntists and partisans of the economy of scale.
Small is beautiful, except with Lindsey

In most areas of my life I buy heavily into the 'small is beautiful' line of argument (I can think of only two counter-examples, and Lindsey Lohan is simply irrelevant to the issue at hand). I sympathise with those, non-ideological voices raised in favour of greater government ability to tailor policy to the precise circumstances of the British economy. There's no way to avoid the argument that Eurozone strictures make this more difficult, especially if - assuming it survives another ten years - the Eurozone moves closer to fiscal as well as monetary union. However, the shock of recent events, and a sober reflection of the economic past, leads away from bespoke to off-the-peg monetary policy.
What globalism entails

It isn't just that sterling's depreciation exacerbates the UK's present woes, although membership in a wider, stronger currency would have mitigated this. My uneducated intuition is simply that the more global our challenges, the more globally-coordinated and executed our response must become. US citizens punch above their weight, relative to EU citizens, because they pool their resources. That's one very significant reason why the US possesses more tools to help itself that the EU. I sure as hell don't espouse world government as a noble, still less realistic aim, but greater assimilation of smaller units into larger, regional blocs seems to me to be the way to go.

This needn't impoverish our descendants' cultural inheritance: Scots and Welsh have managed to preserve a fierce cultural identity under centuries of rule from London. (Though the relative failure of the British union, as exampled by devolution, gives pause for thought for any more ambitious, continental union.)
Deliberate Democracy

I continue to believe that the issue could be resolved in something approaching a significant British majority, if not consensus, in favour of greater integration, if and only if the sting and passion of sovereigntism is removed from the national debate. This is practically impossible, given the mode and medium of national political debate, conducted as it is by polemically minded journalists and politicians. If we could ever wrestle control of this debate away from polemicists and deliver it to open-minded, empirical and scrupulous souls - a kind of Deliberative Democracy promoted by some academics - we might find a very different and more laudable national response. The nation might then decide one way or the other; but I would have infinitely greater respect for the decision, qua informed decision.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Morality as a 2nd Language

Whilst lots of newspapers and blogs continue to vent steam over Carol Thatcher, there was an interesting addition to the Guardian's long-running strand of negative stories about the Roman Catholic Church.

Liberal cradle-Catholics like myself are often awkwardly grateful for the Graunaid's dogged persistence in printing bad news about our faith. It's pretty clear that the Guardian as a community would be extremely pleased if the last bishop was strangled with the entrails of the last pope. I can't share that sentiment. But I am grateful that their secular motivation leads to the publication of stories which wouldn't ordinarily see the light of day in a relatively popular newspaper.

Catholicism and Holocaust denial

Bishop Richard Williamson doesn't sound like a nice man. My only evidence for this is the Guardian's allegation that Williamson denied the fact of gas-chambers in concentration camps; challenged the numbers of Holocaust dead; and also, by the by, claimed that the US planned 9/11 and that there really is a Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. WTF? Seriously, what has got to go wrong in the neural pathways of someone's brain to make it misfire like this? Maybe Williamson was dropped as a baby, beaten as a child, or suffered some other socially transformative episode. Either way, the man is weirdly and wickedly screwed in the head.

It is unfortunate that such moral degenerates can hold exhalted positions in religious or indeed any other organisations. From a Catholic point-of-view, Williamson's reported remarks fan the all-too-familiar flames of Catholic anti-Semitism. Hard questions need to be asked of any faith, meant to be devoted to peace and love, which has such a chequered history in this regard.

Lowest common denominator editorial policy

I would have liked to have seen the article focus more on the issue of excommunication - distinct and separate from the racism - and the divisions within the Catholic fold. But I guess most people are more interested in freak-show tales of turpitude. Especially those involving bishops.

How about some Good News?

In my experience, there isn't anything innate to Catholicism nowadays which makes these views likely. For every Williamson there are millions of regular decent guys. But of course, reporting on millions of regular decent guys, each of whom lives a decent life wouldn't exactly fit the Guardian angle on the Catholic Church. Sad, but true. Stories like these, and all other awkward truths, deserve to be told. But there are lots of positive and laudable tales to be told; is it too much to ask that editorial balance leans the other way, from time to time?

Friday, 6 February 2009

Logic as a 2nd Language: Part II

You really must take a look at this post by Matthew Syed in The Guardian. Someone should really tell poor Matthew that tests, like the Implicit Association Test, of instinctive, unconscious reaction should really not be taken more than once, and definitely not with the intention of writing the results up, second time around, to be incorporated in a consciously, all too consciously written op-ed!

More about 'golliwogs'

Matthew promises to prove that use of 'golliwog' is wrong, by adducing as evidence the undeniable truths that ethnic minorities suffer from discrimination, poverty and underachievement. He also adduces the very probable truth that his father was under-promoted at work. However, whilst all these things are true, they don't add up to any kind of case against that word in particular.

This isn't something that can sustain any more argument; the simple truth is that some people will never accept symmetry between the word used by Ron Atkinson and the word 'golliwog'; some people will; and some, predominantly older people, will not see any particularly great problem with either. Lots of different groups, each with different opinions. Quot and tot, as a Roman might have said.

Legislation for the nation!

The legitimate question is how we should legislate or act in such a divided society. My own view, for what it's worth, is that a community-of-meaning which happens to enjoy the power to enforce its own views about language with sackings or pieces of legislation, ought to realise the essentially arbitrary and very probably transient nature of its own supremacy and act with equanimity. We should all be able to exercise a wide degree of freedom in our choice of language. There is a legitimate place for laws against discrimination, but the bar for sanction simply must be higher than the one-off use of a contested word without apparent malicious intent.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

The BBC, Golliwogs and communities of meaning

I'm guessing logic isn't Jay Hunt's first language. To see what I mean, check out this radio interview in which Hunt (BBC One Controller) tries to justify the sacking of a television presenter, Carol Thatcher (who is, coincidentally, the daughter of a former Prime Minister of Great Britain...guess which one?), on the grounds that Thatcher said something that a bunch of other people didn't like; she said it in a public place; ergo her employer is perfectly justified to sack her. Hmm.

Now let's take a reality check: Thatcher is not accused of having denied the Holocaust, or of vile, nasty racial abuse of another person in the room. If she had done either one of these things I would be quite content to see her sentenced to several years in prison. (I am not someone who thinks David Irving got a bad deal.)

However, Thatcher isn't even accused of using what most people in this country - especially the majority of people her age (if that isn't an unkind thing to say about a woman of her years..?) would regard as foul and abusive language. In fact, she is accused alleged to have used the (to me) entirely inoffensive, cute and cuddly, reminder-of-my-childhood word 'golliwog.'

Apparently, if you listen to the egregiously self-righteous interview, the fact that this happened in a BBC Green Room is significant and makes things worse (according to Hunt, BBC Green Rooms are places invested with numinous, quasi-religious signification as 'Public Places').

Here's the thing

Two things bother me about this. One is peripheral and not really germane: I like the word 'golliwog', it reminds me of Marmelade jars, my high-chair and being two-years-old. It just doesn't convey a negative connotation to me, my dog or anyone else we know. The second thing is related to this first thing, but I think it has a sociological significance wider and deeper than me and my dog.

Communties of Meaning

I guess my fear is simply this: no-one told me I could be sacked from my job - okay, if I had a job - for using this, or any other now-verboten word. What else could I be sacked or imprisoned for saying? Is there a list on-line? Can I see it? Maybe someone should go out and buy www.saythisandyou'

It's not that I condone the usage of Really Bad Words: I have been called a 'fcuking yid' in my time and I haven't enjoyed it. This may be news to some people, but it's not exactly nice to be the victim of anti-Semitism, even when - like me - you're not jewish. What I find troubling, and socially divisive, is the existence of diverging communities-of-speech. What I mean by this is that one group of people will grow up together, socialise together, and use the same words with the same expectation of being understood and accepted. Another group of people will have different shared understandings, and thus different ideas about what's acceptable and unacceptable. This is particularly true across generations (young and old), between social groups (rich and poor), and anywhere else you'd expect to find a qualitatively different argot.

The problem is when one of these groups has the power to sack, sanction, prosecute, fine or imprison (or maybe even burn-at-the-stake) members of the other groups, simply because their verbal frame-of-reference is different or their radar-of-offense is differently calibrated. This is especially worrying when there's very poor communication of what is, and is not, deemed appropriate by those in power at any given time. It's effectively the 21st Century PC equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition, mutatis mutandis. Neither were good ideas, but I guess we should be thankful that zealots of political correctedness can't use mediaeval punishments against those who do not share their finely-calibrated, poorly-publicised but extremely-powerful community of meaning.