Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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( 'Nother Solent is this blog's good twin. Same words, searchable archives, RSS feed. Provided by a benefactor, to whom thanks.
I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

The Old Comrades:

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Saturday, February 28, 2004
It's ALIVE!!! What happens when a Constitution gets out of control.

Friday, February 27, 2004
More on sick jokes. I was going to send Anne Cunningham of One Sided Wonder a note saying, "you might be interested in this post." Then I saw I didn't need to - she had already commented and recounted an experience of her own. (Given that her blog often touches on the ins and outs of human behaviour this is not a particularly amazing coincidence.)

Perhaps I can tempt Anthony Cox back into his triangular arena (see post below) with a few thoughts on when it is and when it is not beneficial for people to have an accurate perception of how common forbidden behaviour is. As he has often observed, we really, really, really want doctors to 'fess up about mistakes. That way we get a chance to put the healthy kidney back or whatever and, just as important, we can predict likely mistakes and hence forestall them. Only honesty isn't likely if the reward for it is crucifixion in the press, four different malpractice suits and an exemplary jail sentence.

I have been told on good authority that the late night conversation of pilots has more near misses than the dodgems at the fair. Openess about that might be helpful, too. But how about when we move away from honest error and into misbehaviour? Do we want pilots to confess to each other when they fly drunk? OK, OK what we really want is for them to come to the flight deck sober as I'm mostly sure most of them do. But given that drunken flying does sometimes occur, do we want them confessing it? Might that not remove some of the inhibitions that stop Captain So-and-so reaching for the whisky bottle? "What the hell," he might say, "everybody's doing it."

Sexual behaviour is enormously influenced by people's guesses as to what is normal. The promiscuous and the abstinent each believe the other group to be lying.

[Oh, drat. I was going to bring this back round to taboo-breaking humour and cheapening public discourse, but I've just remembered I've got to go off and do stuff. To Be Continued if I don't forget what I was going to say. ]

Black Triangle to close? Say it ain't so!

Come the glorious day when David Farrer sweeps in as Scottish First Minister this is what he will do.

Today is National Doodle Day. Honest, I heard it on Radio Essex. Normally I do not concern myself with National Excuse for a Press Release Days of any sort, but this one is the perfect excuse for a blog post and that's quite different.

Isn't this page of doodles by Engels lovely? As I say in the comments, I have more in common with him than I ever knew: I always doodle heads facing left as well. "I always doodle" is no exaggeration; I must have drawn tens of thousands of leftward-facing faces over the years. Mostly female, perhaps because it's a female face I see in the mirror. Mostly young, or coming out as looking young, which is not quite the same thing. Not all are beautiful or happy looking by any means - though, again, this is probably because one tremor of the pen can make a smile come out as a smirk or disrupt the eveness necessary for beauty. A slight majority of my faces are non-white, either black or Oriental or unclassifiably mixed-race. I don't think there is any deep political or psychological reason for this. I have always liked drawing faces and can still remember my flush of pleasure when I first got the epicanthic fold right. There is great pleasure in tracing the curve of an upper lip that is different, but not utterly different, from one's own. Sometimes while drawing what I know is essentially the same doodle as I have done on dozens of past occasions I wonder why I am not bored. The answer is that we are deeply programmed to find the human face interesting.

Thursday, February 26, 2004
Good riddance. I see that Ann Winterton has lost the Conservative party Whip after making a heartless and racist joke about the recent drowning of twenty Chinese cocklers at Morecombe Bay.

Serves her right. I've lost the link where I read it, but someone present said that the contrast between people waiting to drown and the bright comfort of a dinner party was horrible. He was embarrassed for their hosts. (The occasion was a dinner meant to foster better Anglo-Danish relations. If the Danish Press is reporting all this, I rather think it failed in that aim.)

You know what? Sicko jokes fill a void. Once upon a time sex jokes were what we did when we wanted to prod at taboos. Now that sex is no longer shocking enough, jokes about murder and tragedy have replaced sex jokes in that role. I'd prefer some return of the sex taboos.

The first sicko joke I ever heard was about the IRA murder of Lord Mountbatten; more precisely it was about the simultaneous murder of a fourteen year old relative in the boat with him and another boy. That was in 1979. I suspect that that was an early one, i.e. that the sick joke phenomenon is relatively new. (I distinguish it from black humour, honoured since ancient times.)

Child though I was, I was genuinely and bitterly outraged by Mountbatten's murder. Yet I laughed at the joke. I've laughed at similar since. So have you, probably.

Late at night, in the warmth of the circle after a party or a night at the pub, I have heard humane and respectable people of both left and right repeat and laugh at really atrocious sick jokes and racist jokes. (If I have more often been the audience than the comedian that is mainly because my memory for punch lines is poor.) The worst racist joke I ever heard came from a Labour councillor who did, I am convinced, genuinely strive against racism in the other 99.99% of his life. That was the point. He laughed most at what was most forbidden.

Once a group of us were discussing sick humour. Some subjects, we all agreed, were beyond the Pale - the Holocaust, for instance. Someone promptly told a joke (despite its setting, less cruel than most of those I have discussed here, being some way along the road to that fine destination, the true political joke) about a German commandant letting one prisoner go free from a concentration camp. We laughed. Of course we did.

Am I saying sick jokes are OK then? No. It would be better to turn away. I am saying that in some circumstances they present an all but insurmountable temptation. All sorts of motives flow together: braggadocio, peversity, the heady liberation of a temporary Saturnalia, the exchange of tokens of intimacy ("we can trust each other not to tell"), the commission of a shared crime as an initiation rite. And, that great corrupter, the fear that if you don't laugh you will be seen as a prig and a killjoy.

I can't quite analyse or defend this but I feel that Mrs Winterton's offence was substantially worse because she was not, whatever she says, in a truly private situation. I don't merely mean that she was more likely to get caught; there was something actually worse about that sort of joke made outside the magic circle. For one thing, the relatives of the dead might get to hear about it, but as well as that it breached some primal wall.

(Everyone, please note: though I am interested in the phenomenon I truly don't want to hear or repeat the actual jokes.)

ADDED FRIDAY: after a night's sleep I have hit upon the reason why I find it nastier that such jokes are made in a speech. When people huddle close and make that sort of joke in whispers they acknowledge the wrongness of what they do even in the act of doing it. If one makes that sort of joke sitting up and smiling brightly, it is as if you are saying that it is all right to mock the recently dead; that the taboo is pointless.

My spies are everywhere. Continuing the university theme, a former pupil of A C Grayling at Oxford saw my criticism and has leapt - well, walked languidly - to his defence, saying that he was a good tutor and adding, "He was actually quite popular - being generally thought a good talker with a lovely voice! That doesn't prevent him being an idiot of course."

The same correspondent adds Van Eyck to the list of famous Belgians.

About that article in Jewbusters, formerly known as Adbusters...

It brings back memories of the "No platform" debate in British universities in the late 1970s and early 80s. It started off as a movement whereby Student Unions, overmighty in those days, bound themselves to deny racists and fascists a platform to speak at university meetings. That was, of course, very much against the spirit of freedom of speech that once prevailed in the universities (mock not, my children, for this was long ago), but at least it originally referred to real racists and real fascists. Not for long, though. Soon R & F was taken to include Zionists. Soon after that Zionists was taken at some universities to include any Conservative MP who supported Israel and, if I recall correctly, some Labour ones as well. Yet worse, it included societies of Jewish students.

That much is common knowledge. What follows is my speculation, for I certainly wasn't involved in such matters, never having being a hack in the British university sense of the word. Whatever the details, a practical question must have arisen: how do you find out which Conservative MPs support Israel? I remember that the decision was made locally for each university, some going further than others, which means the decision-makers for each university would have been committees of student politicians, usually aged between eighteen and twenty-one, few of whom would have had the time or desire to follow the careers of individual MPs. A common consequence of their excusable ignorance and inexcusable arrogance was that, since Jewishness and support for Israel overlap, their first step in their task was often to find out which MPs were Jews. They didn't have the internet to help them but they did have Vacher's Parliamentary Companion which gives potted biographies of each MP. Messrs Vacher and Dod neglect to tell us who the Jews are, but I assume - how else can they have done it? - that someone in each committee was given the task of combing the list and putting the traditional asterix next to each suspect.

Sit you back. Imagine the dialogues that must have taken place when an invitation to speak was submitted to the young guardians of morality:

"The Conservative Students' Association want Davidson to speak."

"Davidson? Never heard of him. But he sounds a bit... you know. Damn, why can't they show his picture in profile? Better check him out against the list."
Eventually it got to the stage where to save themselves the trouble and possible embarrassment of putting little stars next to certain names the students doing the deciding in some universities would just ban all Conservatives, or all manifestations of Jewish identity. This step belatedly awoke the slumbering sense of fair play of the left-wing but moderate mass of students and the whole 'no platform' movement was gradually dismantled in a series of referenda and votes at various universities, and where not formally reversed, quietly allowed to lapse.

So they all lived happily ever after, then?

What do you think this is, a fairy tale? The saga of "no platform" might make a heartening story were it not for the fact that the baton of censorship was not dropped but merely passed on, from students to university authorities, who nowadays enforce speech codes with all the enthusiasm of their student predecessors and with more power at their disposal. In many cases the censors are probably the same people, wretches who became addicted at an early age to the delights of exercising power in a small closed world and have never broken free. I have the impression that the "no platform" policies have come back as well.

Liberty is indivisible. Freedom of speech and freedom from persecution for minorities are not antithetical but supporting concepts. Freedom of speech is "the merciless confessional that a people makes to itself, and it is well known that confession has the power to redeem" as Karl Marx, engine of destruction though his other ideas turned out to be, argued so well.

Which is why I maintain that Kalle Lasn, peace hero and Jew-baiter, has the political right to write as he does... and I have the right to marvel at a living mind so dead to to history that it could plod through the process of filtering out the Jews from "a carefully researched list" of neocons (word has it that the Jew part was more carefully researched than the neocon part); necessarily involving the scrutiny of every name for Jewishness - the ferreting out of family details - the adoption of some policy to decide the case of mischlings; and not pull back from sheer shame. Did his finger even tremble as he typed his little stars?

Tuesday, February 24, 2004
...Not Hercule Poirot, he's fictional, but you can have half of Mark Steyn. Mark Steyn is half Belgian. This is so weird. Not that I dislike Belgium: some benign blind spot in their overarching regulatedness allows them very liberal gun laws, so we go there to play bang bang. Furthermore, (ignore me if I've said this before) happy the land where if one should faint from hunger in the street one would find one had landed on a café chair and a waiter was even now bringing croque monsieur and an amusingly shaped glass of the best beer in the world. But, gun laws apart, the Country of the Good Europeans is somehow not the place I had envisaged as supplying 50% of Mr Steyn's genes.

Incidentally: Van Dyck, Bruegel, Eddy Merckx, Hergé, King Leopold (the Congo one), Rubens, Jean-Claude Van Damme... I did that without checking here. Except for the spelling of Merckx, of course.

Monday, February 23, 2004
You say this guy is a professional philosopher? A.C. Grayling sits in for Richard Dawkins in this Times article about how triff science is compared to nasty religion. I gather foreign readers will be unable to access Grayling's article after a week, so I shall summarise it. Science = cool stuff about remote galaxies, sensawunda, happy cooperation. Religion = Bible belt Americans, Afghan child brides.

Blimey, the rot in the universities must be worse than I thought. Are his students or his colleagues or whoever is supposed to argue back at him when he tries out next week's column at High Table permanently drunk or what? Because for some reason he thinks this sort of thing constitutes conclusive argument:

It is said that we shall know a thing by its fruits. A striking fact about the adventure of science, whenever it escapes the attentions of those who pervert it to making war rather than progress, is how well it serves mankind.

Think of X-ray machines, social science research into human welfare, the appliances of leisure that fill our homes with colourful entertainments and music: it is hard not to make comparisons between a world ameliorated by these things and any world shaped by taking as true the bleak and desperate ignorances of ancient legends.

Wowee, what an amazing conclusion: when the most spectacularly nasty warlike uses science has been put to are defined out... there are only nice peaceful uses left over!

Just don't mention the war. On second thoughts, stuff Godwin's Law: I will mention the war because it is thunderously relevant. Anyone who can write a sentence like that and leave his flank wide open to the mention of Zyklon B isn't being argued with enough. And did he really never stop to consider the pyramid of skulls left behind by a certain well-known political philosophy officially dedicated to scientific atheism?

As it happens I wholeheartedly agree with Grayling's view that science has brought us many benefits, and broadly agree with his view that "Everywhere that religion has ever held temporal power, the result has approximated Taleban-style rule." So why can't I re-write his last paragraph thus:

It is said that we shall know a thing by its fruits. A striking fact about the adventure of religion, whenever it escapes the attentions of those who pervert it to an instrument of power rather than faith, is how well it serves mankind.

Think of the origin of the concept that the welfare of strangers should matter, the great ideas of free will and and moral choice that underpin our culture, the religously-inspired art and music that permeate our lives: it is hard not to make comparisons between a world ameliorated by these things and any world shaped by taking as true the bleak and arrogant ignorances of modern materialism.

QUICK UPDATE: Andrew writes:
Hmm, you don't REALLY think that the only reason I try to be nice to people is because of some old guy up the sky with a big white beard? Do you?

Perhaps you are not being argued with enough...

As I said to Andrew, I meant "historical origin" and there will one day be a full post on this, and it will deal with Christianity vs Paganism as well as religious vs atheist. Two quick points in the meantime:

- I'm not claiming that no Stoic or Buddhist ever saw the need to be nice to strangers or that no atheist sees it now. I am claiming that the reason our modern Western society is saturated with the idea of universal basic benevolence (so much so that we can hardly believe that people can think otherwise even when they say so clearly) is, historically, Christianity.

- My re-write of Grayling's paragraph wasn't meant to be the whole of my own view. It was meant to show that I could make a case no worse than his by swapping a few nouns.

The remorseless Davids Medienkritik tracks the Forbes/Lewincamp affair into German waters. For those of us who didn't know our Forbes from our Lewincamp, Tim Blair explains. I guess the German media will be telling us how the Pentagon suppressed the truth about global warming some time next week.

The Pile of Washing That Ate Milwaukee is in my room.

Friday, February 13, 2004
You've heard of Dances With Wolves. I'm Skis With Weasles. See you in a week.

Thanks to everyone who wrote in about Snell's Law. You put me to shame. I didn't mean derive from first principles, with "Fermat's Principle of Least Time and some differential calculus (plus a sneaky rearrangement and the knowledge that
csc^2(x) = 1 + cot^2(x) )" as David Gillies put it, just the diddy little geometry of how it works.

Thursday, February 12, 2004
Wal-Mart and Snell's Law. I have been reading a fascinating post plus comments in Body and Soul.

The post proper was about why "Jeanne D'Arc" does not go to Wal-Mart. I have never had the pleasure of going to a Wal-Mart, but, oh, for an extra hour to tell you all why I think it is a splendid and moral act to come home loaded with goodies from cheapo British chains such as Peacock's, Lidl (better salmon than Fortnum & Mason) and the one in Bishop's Stortford with the name I forget, Buy-U-Rite or something equally ghastly, where you can get one fleece top for £3 or two for a fiver. So nice for poor people, I always think.*

I haven't got the hour.

... But perhaps I have a few minutes. Jeanne links to a paper from Oxfam arguing that Wal-Mart etc are driving down working conditions. In response, let me also quote Oxfam. In this Observer article, which I urge you to read even though it is in glacial PDF format, Kevin Watkins the head of policy at Oxfam, speaks of "unprecendented progress". His complaint was of gains spread unevenly, not of there being no gains. He was commenting on a UN report that said that since 1970 world infant mortality had halved, access to safe water quintupled, adult literacy risen from 47% to 73% and life expectancy increased by eight years. These changes didn't happen by magic. They started happening when people in developing countries stopped following the model of East Africa and started following the model of East Asia.

My interest in the post was all the greater when the comments veered off into education issues. I found much to agree with. The correspondents, all left-wing, were as angry and frustrated about dumbing down in education as ever a Joanne Jacobs or, come to think of it, a Natalie Solent. One or two talked about their grandfathers' textbooks, full of algebra and Latin. Most of the commenters also showed a disdain for 'education' that is merely intended to turn out workers equal to that of an Alice Bachini or a Brian Micklethwait.

More is spent and less achieved in American education than in past generations. Something must have caused the decline, spanning many decades and both Republican and Democrat administrations. Ever thought of blaming the NEA? This is a serious question. (Although the mention of the the NEA is shorthand for an entire establishment.) Everything I know about British education in the last few decades and all I have read about the parallel history in the US suggests to me the classic story of a special interest gaining and keeping a stranglehold. In time the stranglehold has exhuasted the strangler almost as much as the stranglee, but he dare not let go.

That dumbing-down has happened in Britain, too, I know from personal and family experience as a former teacher married to a teacher. In the course of my current work I have had cause to examine several GCSE, AS and A-Level syllabi (or 'specifications' as they call them now, which avoids the elitist Latin plural), both in my own subject of physics and in the humanities. An example, plucked from the air: when I sat O-Level physics at the age of sixteen one had to derive and use Snell's Law of refraction. Today's seventeen or eighteen year-olds doing AS/A2 level physics need only use it, not derive it.

Perhaps, you may say, the benighted seventeen year-olds, though deprived of their sense of Snell are learning something else of equal or greater use?

They are learning something else. Again, here I select but one example out of many I could have employed. Section 17.1 of the AQA syllab... specificatiabub directs that the aspiring Einsteins shall be examined on the "spiritual, moral, ethical, social and cultural issues" related to physics. Then there is Section 17.2, the European Dimension; Section 17. 3, Environmental Education; and finally Section 17.4, Avoidance of Bias.

Hot diggety damn as our American cousins ought to say even if they don't really. Regular readers will know that I am far from indifferent to spiritual, moral, ethical, social and cultural issues; nor to environmental ones, though my conclusions in all of these areas might not be those approved by the authors of the specification. (I am indifferent to the the European dimension.) These matters are important but they are not physics. In the context of an exam ostensibly about physics they are just easy marks. One can find out the opinions one is expected to reproduce in an afternoon. And reproduction of received opinion it must be; there is no time in an examination mostly concerned with electrons or Hooke's Law to explain original political opinions or justify controversial ones.

What a gift for the middle-class student I once was, tempted to idleness when it came to computation but who could supply unlimited quantities of eloquence without breaking into a sweat. But prends l'éloquence et tords-lui son cou!, - it is a cruel trick to play on the inarticulate pupil who needs physics (real physics, physics physics) a damn sight more than I did. It is unfair to employers, too, whose interests are not overriding but are nonetheless owed common honesty. They think they are getting someone who can select a material to use to clad an optical fibre with a refractive index chosen so as to minimize multipath dispersion and what they actually get is someone who can waffle convincingly about why people tend to pay no attention to warnings about naturally radioactive radon gas in their cellars. (I paraphrase a question from a 2001 paper.) Worse yet, the new employee may think he knows more than he does. (Or she. Bleah, just lost five marks for "avoidance of bias".) That sort of thing kills people eventually.

Don't misunderstand me. I do not wish that children or adults should not be taught about ethics, philosophy or politics. But since circa 1950 it has not been the case that we have gained a golden age in the teaching of political philosophy at the cost of a decline in physics. Or a golden age in history and geography teaching at the cost of a decline in maths. Teaching of all these subjects has become less rigorous. Why that is so is a post in itself, but broadly I think it's because teachers themselves pushed for and got 'reforms' that turned out to be harmful and now they can't admit it. There's a point here about national systems having too much inertia, too.

*And if you are wondering, yes, there have been times in my life when I was poor. Of course, education makes poverty less of a hardship, as do warm fleece tops for £3; and likely to be temporary, as does a job making them for 20p.

EU investigators say EU money used by Arafat for terrorism. Via Gene at Harry's Place.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004
Does racial segregation arise naturally, or does it have to be enforced? Read this post on the subject from David Bernstein of Volokh Conspiracy

That ties into Kieran Healy's email in reply to my earlier post, which if I were not so vague and disorganised I would have posted days ago. Here it is:

You might be reading a bit too much into my post ... It's not really about affirmative action. The main point was fairly simple --- just that there's a tremendous amount of empirical evidence that, the elegance of the tipping model notwithstanding, racial segregation in housing markets has been driven by different mechanisms from the one Schelling identifies. I've known people to become entranced by tipping explanations with lovely emergent outcomes even though the empirical data suggests, e.g., that there's a well-entrenched system of redlining by realtors that prevents minority buyers from being shown houses in predominantly white neighborhoods, or that bank managers consistently assess the mortgage prospects of otherwise identical white and black families differently. And so on.

The question of what to do about this issue is difficult.

[Italics indicate that Kieran is quoting me] Firstly, what he said implies that people of different races tend to integrate so long as they are protected from coercion and denied the power to coerce.

I'm not sure that's true, actually. I don't think my view of people is quite that optimistic. In any event, it's a context-sensitive point. It
depends partly on the kind of beliefs people have about race, say.

Secondly, once the principle of letting social relations be controlled by force is allowed then, surely, it's just the chance of place and era that decides whether the law demands integration or separation.

I'm not sure I understand your point here. Are you saying that whether the law substantively demands racial integration or segregation is morally irrelevant and what really matters (and what's bad) is that we're allowing ourselves to have laws of this kind in the first place?

[No. My argument was a version of the one that says, "Don't allow Tony Blair / President Bush any powers that you would not also be willing to see in the hands of Michael Howard / President Kerry." - NS]

He thinks that Schelling-style models sell because they allow people to acknowledge a problem without admitting guilt. I think that what is popular these days is whatever allows a gin-like soaking in immanent guilt and keeps guiltmongers in clover.

Hmm. I don't know. I had a particular case in mind when I wrote that comment. Being a devout ex-Catholic myself, I'm not much of a fan of guilt. I suspect that pitching policy debates in terms of guilt and guiltmongers isn't very productive --- either for the guiltmongers or those who might want to shrug off responsibility by giving others that label.



Lots of food for thought here. Both Kieran Healy and David Bernstein provide some good arguments from different directions against libertarian ideas. I don't know enough about US history to answer (Though "that was then, this is now" might be a start.) This humble blogger is, as ever, gloriously and supremely right, but she can't summon up arguments to prove it just yet.

On another point, as a ramshackle Catholic of sorts (actually I think I might be turning Anglican, but that's another story) I must correct the impression I gave that I am always against guilt. Guilt is good when you have something specific to be guilty for and when it leads to repentance, restitution if possible and better ways in future. Wallpaper guilt is a waste of life.

So shall I stop henceforth all this self-obsessed agonizing about how awful I am at answering emails? Heavens, no. You must allow me my little hobbies.

PolitiX has moved.

Anne Cunningham has issued a second post on the drawbacks of being adored.

Where escapes me, but somewhere I once came across a very good article about how awkward it can be for very small children to have an over-devoted friend at playgroup or in the reception class of school. Unlike Anne, I'm not talking about crushes here, and certainly not about anything sexual; just a little chum who follows you about all the time.

Saying "I don't want you around me so much" without being cruel is hard enough for an adult or teenager. Anne commented earlier on the feeling of not having an approved script for such occasions (unlike bereavement, for example). It's twice as hard for a little kid who can draw neither upon personal experience nor upon the examples provided by fiction or popular culture, meagre though they are.

"Why I Left the Anti-War Right." Anthony Gancarski explains how he finally chucked his column for after months of weird emails from anti-semites right and left. The last straw was when his column dissing Michael Moore was spiked because it might annoy the left.

Truth to tell, I reacted to his sudden conversion with some suspicion. Many people, I said to the page, had their moment of truth when the rubble of the World Trade Center hit the ground - and yours came when a rejection slip hit the mat?

Still, changes of heart do happen that way sometimes: after months of vague doubt, some trivial little thing brings it all into focus. That's why we have the metaphor of the straw that broke the camel's back. is, well,, a place where Buchanan and Pilger are literally on the same page.

Read Airstrip One for sharp anti-war argument and correct anti-EU argument.

(Starting link via NZ pundit who also links to Justin Raimondo's reply.)

Look who the Guardian chose to pronounce on complex issues of public governance.

Look how little comment it all caused.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004
Anyone can and everyone should lambast lefties for groupthink, and the subject of this post by Bjørn Stærk, one of those tiresome psychiatrists who dresses up his personal political opinions in a psychiatric robe that's too big for them, can consider himself well and truly lambasted. However the post doesn't stop there. It makes more general observations about politics -
I would expect to find a high level of groupthink in any government. It's the nature of politics to separate people into groups that think alike. At the top of the hill, with enemies on the outside and enemies on the inside, forced as you are to make unpopular and risky decisions, prestige, greed and fear combine to create excellent conditions for groupthink.
- and about how to learn -
At the very least it's good sense to ask someone to explain their views in simple terms before you yourself attempt to explain their views in complex terms.
- that you may find useful however you vote. You might even find ammo for a few well-aimed shots at me and my blogging buddies.

The heirs to Hogarth. I'm told today's Independent cartoon shows George Bush with his knuckles dragging on the ground. How challenging. Speaking truth to power fearlessly as ever, eh, Indies? But maybe they are a little bit fearful of speaking truth to internet because I can't find it at the Independent's website. Anyone out there seen it?

If the cartoon turns out to be a lovable gem of wit and good-humoured raillery, containing, moreover, a subtle political message well-calculated to gently tease the settled assumptions of the average Independent reader, I'll take all my nasty sarcastic comments back. But, just guessing, I think it will turn out to be a 2004 version of the sort of thing that was already stale when Bernard Levin visited an exhibition subtitled "Artists look at contemporary Britain" back in 1987:

Would you really believe ... that, asked for a comment on contemporary Britain, Alain Miller and Keith Piper can offer nothing but huge pictures of Mrs Thatcher? Piper portrays her with a kind of halo made of missiles; ooh, the originality of it, the wit, the courage, the trenchancy!

... Sandle shows us a kind of Gestapo cellar where the police (no doubt instructed by Mrs Thatcher) torture everybody in sight and then has the wonderful cheek to say 'I'm exposing myself, I'm leading with my chin', as though he didn't know that he will have every poodlefaker in the business swooning, cheering and commissioning.

- from All Things Considered.

Monday, February 09, 2004
Hony soyt moi. I am horribly behind on the email again. Rather than pretend to be out so as to avoid guilt feelings, I shall do something more positive. I shall tell you about another sensible copper. Following on from Chief Constable Brunstrom who said the drug war was a waste of time, we now have Peter Joslin, former Chief Constable of Warwickshire, who says a surfeit of speed cameras is losing the police the support of the public. That's one way of putting it. They express themselves more freely in Emborough.

Sunday, February 08, 2004
A right ful wlonk post from Sasha Volokh reminding me of the wonky glories of Law French which I think should be revived immediately. Also worthy of revivification is the fourteenth century dialect of Cheshire, so unfairly eclipsed by the boring London speech of Chaucer. One of my favourite* passages from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is this, starting at line 2020:
...To thonk.
He had upon uch pece,
Wypped ful wel and wlonk,
The gayest into Grece;
The burn bede bryng his blonk.
It's something about each piece of our hero's armour being polished full and nobly until he was the best-looking knight this side of Greece. Then some chap brings his horse, which is what "blonk" means, not "white" like all you clever-clogs thought.

And what of "wlonk" you cry? (If sober. If drunk "whlat of wonk" or "lot of plonk" is the best you can manage.) It means noble, fine, glorious. A wlonk blonk is a splendid horse, but this admirable adjective cries out to be used in a modern context. For instance a wlonk wonk is a person whose excessive studiousness does not detract from his essential nobility. A wlonk wonk would never bonk anyone...

...Listen, chum, it was a humorous word meaning "hit on the head" until I was eighteen. HONY SOYT QUI MAL PENCE as the poet puts it in rather peculiar French and not Latin like these guys appear to think.

*Thus I imply that I know more than one. And so I do. I know the whole next line: While the wlonkest wede he warp on himselven.

Thursday, February 05, 2004
If you want an upbeat Big Vehicle Disaster story with Religious Overtones, 30% violent, 20% puzzles, 20% to do with feelings and 30% to do with how things work and set in Ancient Egypt you can find it here. You really can, even though I thought I'd chosen a sufficiently ridiculous combination to give no results. Actually, I still got most of the same ones when I specified an aeroplane disaster set in Ancient Egypt with 0% violence and chases, so I guess the poor programme just does the best it can.

Sounds like something from 1984. Julia, Winston Smith's girlfriend, used the next version on of this where you can write novels to spec rather than just find them.

But let's admit it: it is rather fun, isn't it? And it corresponds rather well to the way people do search for "the sort of thing I like." I always used to check the last page at the library to make sure it wasn't one of those grungy life-is-meaningless books. I can depress myself, thank you. I don't want books doing it for me.

Actively enforced and collectively sustained. Kieran (Healy) of Crooked Timber has posted about walking to school, and very interesting it is too. However I'd like to home in on something he said just in passing:
Neighborhood racial segregation, for instance, has historically been actively enforced and collectively sustained, and is not simply the unpleasant byproduct of innocuous choices.
I assume that Kieran favours laws against racial discrimination and supports affirmative action. (Confession: I have only the vaguest recollection of him ever talking about it. I'm just guessing his opinions based on the fact that he writes for Crooked Timber.¹) Yet here he is arguing for the libertarian view of such matters, though he may not know it. Firstly, what he said implies that people of different races tend to integrate so long as they are protected from coercion and denied the power to coerce. Secondly, once the principle of letting social relations be controlled by force is allowed then, surely, it's just the chance of place and era that decides whether the law demands integration or separation.

Then a few lines later, he does it again. Comes up with a very interesting side-issue, I mean, and one which seems to me to have consequences at odds with the socialist position. Here's the quote:

(In my experience, although they may not describe the empirical process properly, Schelling-type models are good rhetorical tools for motivating people to admit that there might be a problematic pattern of racial or gender discrimination in their organization. This is because they give you the ability to say "There is this collective problem but it wasn't caused by any of us making choices that were racist/sexist/whatever." Very handy.)
This comment is full of insight². Like Kieran I suspect that Schelling's tipping model, though it may be true, would still appeal even if it were not. He has it the wrong way round, though. He thinks that Schelling-style models sell because they allow people to acknowledge a problem without admitting guilt. I think that what is popular these days is whatever allows a gin-like soaking in immanent guilt and keeps guiltmongers in clover.

¹Ashamed by my slackness, I have now scanned back through Kieran Healy as far as December, which sounds like it ought to require a medical consent form. I still don't know what he thinks about affirmative action. However I can fairly say that he has not read many books.

²Characteristically so.

You know your blog has arrived when someone calls it a farrago of lazy-minded tripe from a milk-toothed boy and that's the nice bit. Robert Hinkley emailed me proudly to say that he'd made it to the blog big time.

Vote Cuthbertson. Will I still be saying that in 2034? In my voting email I told the Guardian votemeisters that if they should suddenly decide to switch - as being Guardianistas they might - from first-past-the-post to STV, my second preference would be for Harry's Place. It was a hard choice, but the prospect of Concom doing a Martin's Law was just too tempting.

A senior policeman says that drug prohibition does more harm than good.

He said that, despite billions of pounds and thousands of officer hours, the number of addicts and "recreational users" of illegal drugs in the UK has multiplied at an alarming rate.

Mr Brunstrom compared the current situation with alcohol prohibition in the USA in the 1920s, which was an "unmitigated disaster".

I don't approve of senior policemen sounding off about politics even when I agree with them. But since he has, isn't it interesting that he has? I hope that Chief Constable Brunstrom has colleagues who have come to the same painful realisation and are telling their political masters so.

Kris and Iain Murray's son George is one day old today!

The Luddite's Lament. First they came for the tiller's job... Madsen Pirie has caught the tone exactly.

It is true that the spinning jenny and other inventions of the industrial revolution caused many families to have a hungry winter after the breadwinner's job was lost. Set against that the hundreds of hungry winters avoided over hundreds of millions of human lives since then, so that nowadays the whole notion of "hungry winters" is of purely historical interest to those of us living in countries where industrialisation has taken hold. Scroll up one post to see Alex Singleton's take on the people who work assiduously to bring them back.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004
Pour encourager les autres, says Mark Steyn, that's why I wanted to invade Iraq.

Moi aussi.

Not that it was my only reason for wanting war. I also thought Sadders had WMD and was distinctly surprised to discover he didn't. As was he, apparently. It's a funny old world.* And, completing my trio of reasons for war, I thought it would be kind of neighbourly to pull the modern Caligula's hands off the collective neck of the Iraqi people. Scratch that 'and'. That was number one reason. When your neighbour is killing his wife you don't worry about property rights.

However, returning to reason two, the encouragement of the others. If I were arguing against Steyn I would now gleefully point out that the phrase as originally used by Voltaire referred to the execution of Admiral Byng; an innocent man cynically killed to make those in power look tough. And Saddam was innocent of the charge that he had WMD, wasn't he? And George Bush had to look as though he was doing something tough against terrorism, didn't he?

Enough already! I had better drop that role before I start talking about Halliburton and the Caspian Pipeline and tying up my trousers with string.

With the execution of Byng we see the strategy of looking tough at its worst. His execution rebounds "To the Perpetual Disgrace of Public Justice" as his memorial says. However I do not believe that strategy is necessarily wrong. It depends on the time and place. It depends on whether the victim of the policy is personally decent like Byng or personally monstrous like Saddam. It depends on whether there is any Public Justice to be perpetually disgraced. Among civilised people living under the laws the man who thinks that his prestige demands that he respond to a blow with equal or greater force is a boor and quite possibly a criminal. Among savages or noblemen, wolves or sharks, the very same actions may be a vital necessity. As far as they are concerned not to respond to assault is to declare yourself prey. A supine daimyo in medieval Japan, like his counterpart in medieval England, was not just dishonoured but probably doomed.

There is a sense in which all the players in the Great Game of Nations are savages (or noblemen if you prefer). Despite recent pretences most of them, when push comes to shove, recognise no law higher than themselves. In some ways I think that's a good thing. However the savagery I had in mind was not that nominal matter of functional anarchy among nation-states but the literal savagery of Islamofascism, a belief-system inseparably bound up with contempt for weakness. Once they had drawn blood, as they did in 2001, there was a moment of supreme danger. Would the pack attack? If the response had been as feeble as it was to earlier outrages then, exhilarated, first one wolf then another would have joined in. Well, though we will not pass out of danger in my lifetime, that first test has been passed. Put crudely, militant Islam has been part-way shocked back to its senses. Looking round at Afghanistan and Iraq now, its average supporter will not feel that the attacks of September 11 2001 advanced their cause. The frenzy having passed we are back to ordinary lawlessness.

ADDED LATER: I covered some of the same ground in a posting last September.

*Now that everyone takes perfectly seriously the hypothesis (advanced from first principles on this blog by my regular correspondent ARC before it became fashionable) that Saddam thought he had WMD because his scientists found it prudent to keep saying, "Yes Excellency, the weapons await only your word" rather than "Awfully sorry Mr Prez, but I personally haven't got two spare uranium nuclei to rub together", am I the first to suggest that some of said scientists may have deceived their master in the hope that events would turn out as they have?

The facts don't demand that explanation: given that Uday would torture footballers who missed a penalty, it's easy to see that the simple desire to live until morning would keep Iraqi scientists lying to Saddam. However a scientist is alert to cause and effect. Some of them may have perceived that the best hope of rescue lay in (a) making the Americans think Iraq had WMD so that they invaded (which entailed making Saddam think Iraq had WMD) and (b) making sure that Iraq did not really have WMD, to ensure that when the invasion came Saddam lost.

Monday, February 02, 2004
Go, Ryanair, you scumbags. I am no friend of Ryanair. Yet I'm with the airline on this case, blogged by Perry de Havilland, where a man suffering from cerebral palsy and arthritis sued them for charging him for use of a wheelchair.

Ryanair is a low cost airline, the IKEA of the skies. That's what they do. Their service is crap. Who but a fool doesn't know this, and know that the low cost and the crap service are two sides of a single extremely low denomination coin? Who but a fool, said I, but in this case the fool had his case backed by the powerful fools and the foolishness has become the law of the land.

You and I might prefer to travel with an airline that didn't dump you with a yawn when you miss a connection, and which had sufficient class and flexibility to provide wheelchairs, not to mention sufficient acumen to see a customer who has hit a difficulty or who has requirements slightly out of the ordinary as an opportunity to make future sales rather than as a piece of dirt fouling the production line. However the world clearly contains enough cheapskates to keep Ryanair going and that's their decision, daft as it is.

Disability is indeed a misfortune. Here are some other turns of fortune that may make international travel more irksome or expensive: being old and doddery, being poor, living far from transport connections, hating airline food, being frightened to fly, being very fat, being busy, having several young children. Should the State equalise travel costs, for instance, between those living all too near an airport like me and those in the Outer Hebrides? I jest but somewhere out there someone is drawing up a plan for just that. (The Back End of Nowhere Discrimination Act 2007: ending the postcode lottery in air travel!)

Ryanair lost. However it has taken a sweet little revenge: they are to impose a 50p levy for wheelchair provision on every ticket and, crucially, they are going to make it explicit. You know if I didn't hate Rynair so much I'd quite like them sometimes. The BBC says, "By so publicly linking the cost of assisting disabled travellers to increased ticket prices, it is a decision that is likely to anger disability campaign groups. " Indeed, though disability campaign groups might feel a certain embarrassment when stating their exact objection to Ryanair's small gesture towards educating the public on costs and stimulating better-informed debate.