Saturday, March 30, 2013


One of the first things you learn in adult education is not to patronise your students. You may be popularising but you are not dumbing down. Watching a documentary on Pompeii the other night it struck me that one of Nick Cohen's favourite moans about the quality of BBC TV drama could easily be applied to their historical documentaries.

There seems to be a standard formula. First, take a ten minute script and turn it into a one hour programme. Then take a presenter and send them somewhere pretty and warm to be filmed. Add a thirty second clip of actors in costume running around screaming, then repeat it several times. Include a computer generated recreation of an event or building and repeat that several times. Actually, repeat everything several times on the assumption that the attention and retention spans of the audience are roughly equivalent to those of goldfish. Finally, do a facial reconstruction of an ancient dead human and mouth platitudes like, 'wow, this is a real living person.'  (No it isn't. It's a waxwork. And anyway most of the audience will have died of boredom by then and will have started channel-hopping for repeats of Father Ted).

The documentary had one thing to say, which was that the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum were killed by a heat blast and not smothered by ash. Interesting, but that was it. A bit of explanation why helped us along for a few more minutes. But even that explanation was simplified (and repeated several times) on the grounds that the audience will be a bit too stupid to understand much else.  And they are all like that; deeply, deeply patronising.

Remember this:

That's what documentaries used to be like.  And you tell that to young people today ...

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tuesday, March 19, 2013


Early in the crisis, a wise ex-colleague wrote to say that "Savers will pay for the mess. They are the only ones that have any money left."
That comment was relayed by Buttonwood in the Economist yesterday.

Aditya Chakrabortty also quotes the words of a friend:
A friend of mine has a mid-level job at the European Commission. Over the past few years, through Greece and Ireland and Portugal and Spain, he has kept up a resolutely chipper air. This weekend, as details of the Cyprus deal came out, he sent me this email: "Is this what the European financial system has come down to? A direct appropriation of savings because it cannot cure its systemic problems. It is not just the banks that are bankrupt. It is the whole bloody model that has run its course and we are in denial."
It was a bad idea too far. They hit savings, not income. They were punishing virtue with theft. The Cypriot Parliament looked out and saw their own angry citizens, then they scanned the horizon and saw Greece, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Ireland. And what else could they say, but 'no'.

Who knows what will happen next. The fear of contagion for the EU, especially after the Italian elections, is not economic. Instead, they must worry about how disobedience might become a habit now that a precedent has been set.

This is a long running saga, going way back into the 19th Century to the ideas of the people that I write about. There were contrasting views amongst reformers and radicals. On the one hand there was an eclectic bunch of mutualists, cooperators, radical liberals and democratic socialists. On the other sat the Fabianism of the Webbs with their belief in the benign rule of a technocratic elite. The Fabians had social science and rationality on their side. They were meritocratic elitists, managerialists one and all. The others believed in self-determination, liberty, devolution and democracy. In the struggle between coherence and the disparate messiness of the libertarian left, coherence won out. Later, the EU enshrined technocracy at its heart. It has one major flaw. What if the technocrats are idiots?

The democrats bit back today, not through the election of anti-political clowns, but through a simple act of denial. The consequences are uncertain, but we have just had a reminder that democracy is present only when people have the power to refuse.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The crisis returns

It is bad economics and bad politics. There was always a better option.

But let's be provocative. What can one say in favour of the Cypriot raid on bank deposits?

First, it is progressive. The rich pay the most. The very poor pay nothing, as they are usually too poor to save.

Second, what is the worse crime? Taking 7-10% of people's bank deposits or 50% of the incomes of the already poor?

Of course it isn't as simple as that. As a wealth tax it is inefficient. The wealthy will have much of their money in assets not cash and will be more than able to absorb the cost. It is more likely to hit older people. Small savers will often have scrimped and sacrificed to build up some reserves for later in life from already highly taxed incomes. They may have sold assets to fund their retirement or to support their children and grandchildren. To be denied the gratification that they had deferred is a harsh irony. Their inclusion, along with the wealthy, is unjust and quite possibly illegal. Deposits up to €100,000 are supposed to be guaranteed. As for the shares of equivalent value given in compensation, I don't think that many financial advisors would suggest selling at the moment.

But it isn't just that. Why else is there real anger? Certainly, there is the shock of hitting the one area of wealth that was seen to be immune. And we don't like retrospective taxation. It comes far too close to theft for anyone's liking. But then there is also a sense that thrift is virtuous. Taxing virtue is not moral, especially as it is done to recapitalise the banks broken by the immoral gamblers of the financial world. The feckless are to be repaid by the thrifty.

What this seems to show is that moral discourses are inescapable in economics. The attempt to render it a technical subject alone runs the risk of abject moral (and technical) failure. It is good to see that the 19th Century term, political economy, has made a comeback. It implicitly includes the human impact of policy in its calculations. The failure of the well-heeled technocrat is seeing poverty, unemployment, desperation and all the ills of austerity as technical indicators and not as real lives.

Of course, there have also been many trying to turn the crisis into a morality drama of the indolent south against the industrious north. This sophistry has been pervasive. But just as there are various competing policy options there are different moralities that should be at play too. There are alternatives. How about a sense that economics should be based on a sense of the implicit and equal worth of all people? Making the well being of all, rather than the protection of institutions, the first priority would have led to different policies. And they may well have proved more successful.

Made in Germany.

And the risk of a run on the banks.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Truth and lies

In my last post I wrote about how John Stuart Mill saw truth emerging from the conflict of ideas. What he had in mind was doctrine and belief. I think he would be astounded to discover the battles that are now waged against empirically verified reality, something that he no doubt assumed would be accepted by all. If we are not to live in a fantasy world, the duty to contest in these cases is not a way of exploring truth, but of defending it against distortion and deliberate campaigns of disinformation.

Mill was a true Victorian liberal. He envisaged civilised debate between rational people and a respectful, thoughtful exchange of ideas. And in this spirit we should welcome this new film (and web site) on climate change denial.

Greedy Lying Bastards gets it about right.

In one sense that is a little unfair as many deniers are horribly sincere. But who dreamt up the misinformation that they believe and endlessly repeat? Someone had to distort and manipulate data and it had to be deliberate. When every single claim made has been subjected to rigorous scientific analysis and all, yes all, have been found to be utterly wrong, the expensively maintained communications machines that produce and endlessly repeat this guff must know it to be false.

Phil Plait gets it right writing about the "blatantly untrue, ... ridiculous and obviously false statement" that there has been no warming for the past sixteen years:
The difficulties in debunking blatant antireality are legion. You can make up any old nonsense and state it in a few seconds, but it takes much longer to show why it’s wrong and how things really are.
When financial interests team up with wishful thinking, we are in trouble. It is about time to drop polite respectability and call a lie precisely what it is.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

In praise of free speech

I have been meaning to put up a review of Nick Cohen's polemic on free speech, You Can't Read This Book, for some time. With a brief hiatus at a hectic time, this is the moment for me to post some comments on the book. A regular reader of Cohen's journalism will be familiar with many of the examples he gives and the case studies with which he illustrates his main themes. These include religious extremism and the manufacture of offence, Britain's egregious libel laws, the suppression of free speech in the workplace and its contribution to the financial crash, as well as the ludicrous case of the prosecution of Paul Chambers for a joke tweet. Gathered together as part of a coherent whole, they tell a damning story. The book has garnered a big batch of complimentary reviews and quite rightly so. If you want an overview of the contents, go to those (or better still, actually read it), instead I want to highlight some broad points that particularly struck me.

There are four main strengths. First, the book is readable. If I were still teaching the modules on political thought that I used to deliver as part of our part-time degree programmes at Hull, it would be a set text. There is a premium to be placed on accessibility for getting people thinking about abstract political ideas and Cohen delivers. Secondly, he has no illusions that there is a technological fix for free speech. The Internet is just as potent a weapon for surveillance as it is for free expression. Cohen argues for the supremacy of politics over technology. Third, he includes the workplace as well as the public sphere, using the memorable phrase, "Every time you go into your workplace, you leave a democracy and enter a dictatorship." The damaging impact of managerialism is a worthy target of his scorn. But the final strength is down to his decision to avoid a conservative trap, political correctness.

There is a real reason why political correctness is not a free speech issue. Partly, this is because it is a form of institutional custom rather than criminal law, but the main point is that it falls into the category that Cohen takes from Mill, the one that sees him still argue for the prohibition of hate speech, that of preventing harm to others.

Political correctness, as it was termed by its enemies, is rooted in the recognition that language is an instrument of exclusion. The cries of 'it's political correctness gone mad' are expressions of resentment at the opening up of privileges to people drawn from outside establishment circles. Anne Norton put it beautifully in her demolition of Allan Bloom's prolonged whine, The Closing of the American Mind.
Bloom wishes to recover a world in which very ugly men – men who stutter and drip gravy on their shirts – become objects of desire. 
Though abused by zealots and, at times, made ridiculous by fools, political correctness is simply a form of etiquette that allows people to feel comfortable and to thrive in institutions that previously did everything in their power to exclude them, not least through sneering and demeaning language.

The most important point that Cohen makes, one that shouts out from the pages of his book, is that censorship is one of the most potent weapons that can be used by the powerful to secure their power. It is the foundation stone of tyranny. The first targets of the oppressor are the press, education and culture (read George Szirtes on Hungary for graphic examples of the far right in action). Not least of the evils that flow from censorship is that legal restrictions on free speech instantly create 'thought crimes,' making political opposition a criminal act. As a result, the fight for freedom of speech is central to the struggles of the oppressed. Anyone familiar with British labour history would be aware of the resistance to the Stamp Acts (aimed at preventing the working classes from reading the radical press by placing a tax [stamp] on newspapers to make them unaffordable), of the struggles of Richard Carlile against the laws of blasphemy and seditious libel, and of the free speech battles between socialists and the police over mass meetings in Trafalgar Square. Free speech was a central demand of the working class movement.

Yet there is a paradox in all this. Freedom of speech means allowing the expression of noxious views, of paranoid conspiracy thinking and of a whole range of lunacy. It is distorted by the inequitable ownership of the media and the power of wealthy interests. Yet, this is not an argument against the general principle of the right to free speech. Instead, we need to think more about another of Mill's utilitarian justifications.

Cohen uses Mill in making his argument, but concentrates on the harm principle. What interests me, and I have blogged on this before, is Mill's dialectical epistemology, the idea that truth can only emerge through free debate and that very same clash of ideas can prevent active belief from ossifying into dogma. So, he didn't just advocate the right to free speech, with its associated duty to ensure that it is respected, he argued for the necessity of challenge, a duty to contest. Though we may not criminalise the views of others, however obnoxious, we do not have to promote them, to stand by idly whilst they are expressed, nor wash our hands of our duty to actively oppose them. Tolerance does not mean passivity. And Cohen is certainly not passive. Instead he ends the book with a call for,
… a political commitment to expand the rights we possess to meet changing circumstances, and a determination to extend them to billions of people from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe who do not enjoy our good fortune.
And in writing this, he is standing in a long tradition of radicals who sought to challenge injustice and exploitation, as well as oppose the power of the oligarchs who would silence them.

Friday, March 01, 2013

In praise of the internet

Imagine the scene. It is the late 1950s. A small plump boy in grey shorts and too tight school blazer is standing alone, lost, in the playground of a new school. All around him the energetic games of the popular and included swirl noisily. Then, from out of the crowd, a tall boy steps forward. "Would you like to play?" It is from these moments of intrinsic kindness that friendships begin and lives are shaped.

Another boisterous boy is part of the crowd and we three band together, unknowing that friendship had in this case begun even earlier. Our mothers recognised each other at a school sports day and we learnt from them that we had been playmates as toddlers.

And as we grew through the anxieties and earnestness of adolescence and young adulthood, we still played. Sometimes we kicked a football around in the local park, at others the pleasures were more grown-up; drink, parties, girlfriends. But then we drifted, as most do. Adult life and ambitious dreams pulled us in different directions.  Slowly and inexorably, friendship became an island of memories slipping gently over the horizon.

I am tired of reading jeremiads about how the internet is fracturing human relations, leading to isolation and obsession, destroying our concentration spans, and so on - interminably. As a communications tool it is the best humanity has come up with yet. It places a research library on every desk. OK, it is also full of barking mad conspiracy theories, malign politics, masturbatory aids and cats - I'll give you that. Yet there is something special about it too.

A chance conversation elsewhere led to a number of searches and suddenly a whole network of friends has been re-established. It could not have happened without the internet. And then, some thirty or more years after we had last parted, the tall boy stepped forward from cyberspace and said, "would you like to play?". The gang of three, one now living in a different country, are meeting up this weekend. Three sixty-year old children, without the grey shorts but with the same noisy boisterousness, will be wallowing in beer, football and cringe-making nostalgia.

So, just for once, let's celebrate the internet and the way it can bring people together; perfect strangers and old friends. It is a richer world with it. And come on, you would have found another way of prevaricating if it wasn't there, wouldn't you?