"The function of words, then, is to be sensible marks of ideas." ~ John Locke

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Sensible Marks of Ideas

Monday, 28th Jul. 2014


12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Sun, 15:26: One of my favourite inspirational quotes is "Don't dream it, be it." There again, that one didn't work out too well, did it?

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Monday, 21st Jul. 2014


12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Sun, 20:38: The plastic-wrapped suitcases on the carousel remind me of hobbits trapped by giant spiders.

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Sunday, 13th Jul. 2014


8.41 pm - Bringing a Knife to a Gunfight

Of all the arguments that I hear about the current carnage in Gaza, this one is the worst: "Israel has tanks, aircraft, a navy etc. and the poor Palestinans only have stones and home-made rockets." So, if you only have stones and home-made rockets, why are you attacking a country that has enough military hardware to bury you six times over and a reputation for using it at the slightest provocation? That's called bringing a knife to a gunfight. Let's not forget how the occupied territories got occupied in the first place. Unwilling to accept partition, various Arab governments decided they could walk in and be having tea in Tel Aviv in a day or two. (Note: any time a general or politician says "We'll be doing X in Y by Z," put them in a padded cell.) This was, of course, a Bad Idea, but at least those guys thought their superior numbers and moral righteousness were more than a match for Israel's superior discipline, modern military technology and the knowledge that if they lost they would be wiped out to a man, woman and child. This time round, it is sheer insanity.

There are plenty of reasons why what Israel is doing in Gaza is wrong, but "It's not a fair fight" certainly isn't one of them.

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5.35 pm - I'm So Excited (and/or Nervous)

Travel still makes me slightly nervous, even a day or three before the event. I have no idea why this is the case, given that I love planes and trains. I think I assume that I'm going to miss the plane, despite the fact that I have never missed a plane in my life. I recently read that saying "I'm excited" when nervous has been scientifically proven to reduce nervousness, so am trying this whenever I feel nervous by mentally singing the Pointer Sisters' "I'm So Excited". This also puts me into a goofy 1980s time-warp. OTOH, I'm pretty sure this exercise wouldn't work on Turks, who have the same word for "excited" and "nervous" (heycanlı). Just to confuse matters further, the Turkish word that translates literally as "nervous" (sinirli) actually means "annoyed" or "bad-tempered".

Anyway, everything is sorted, and I'm flying back to dear old Blighty tomorrow. Tally-ho! (Maybe that's what I should say instead of "I'm excited.")

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5.15 pm -

Happy birthday ironed_orchid!

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Thursday, 10th Jul. 2014


5.39 pm - Words you are told you're using wrong but are probably using correctly

Once in a while someone posts a list of words they think people are using wrong, often based on nothing but their own prejudices, vaguely-remembered rules from school and misused etymology. 25 Common Words That You’ve Got Wrong is a particularly egregious case. (Now tell me I've used "egregious" incorrectly.)

3. Ultimate
What you think it means: The one, the only. The best.
What it really means: The last item of a list.


"Ultimate" can mean "best, greatest, etc." given its meaning of "Lying beyond all others" (OED).

5. Peruse
What you think it means: To skim or browse.
What it really means: To observe in depth.


"Peruse" is listed in the OED in the sense of "browse". You may prefer the earlier meaning, but that doesn't mean that people who use the word in its modern sense are any more wrong than people who use the word "naughty" to mean "mischievous" rather than "amoral" (the Elizabethan sense) or "destitute" (the medieval sense).

8. Nauseous
What you think it means: To feel ill.
What it really means: To cause feelings of illness.


The OED has an entry for "nauseous" as "affected with nausea; having an unsettled stomach" but marks it as "US", which to us Brits means "wrong", so I could concede this point.

11. Terrific
What you think it means: Fantastic, good.
What it really means: Horrific, to inspire fear.


This is another case of assuming that an older usage is more correct. However, "Terrific" has been used to mean "great" since 1871, so it's hardly new-fangled; meanwhile, the sense of "causing terror" is marked as obsolete in the OED. It might fit the law of etymological parsimony (which I just invented) to try and resurrect the original sense, but I fear it is a lost cause.

12. Effect
What you may think it means: To cause something to change.
What it really means: An event that causes a change.


Now this is getting really obscure. While there is a sense of this word that means "Operative influence; a mode or degree of operation on an object" (OED again), an event that causes a change is generally known as cause, and the change that occurs is generally known as an effect. The author goes on to say "If it’s a noun, it’s an effect. If it’s a verb, it’s an affect." Apart from the fact that "an affect" implies a noun here, this is not a bad rule for the normal uses of these words, but we shouldn't forget that "effect" is sometimes used perfectly correctly as a verb (meaning to cause to exist) and "affect" can be a noun (meaning feeling or emotion). So as I somewhat sadistically tell my students, you can say "The researchers affected the effect" or "The researchers effected the affect."

20. Plethora
What you think it means: A lot of something.
What it really means: More than is needed.


Plethora can mean simply "a very large amount, quantity, or variety" (OED); it makes no more sense to limit it to an excessively large amount than it would to limit it to the original sense of an excess of one of the humours in early medicine.

23. Can
What you think it means: What is permissible.
What it really means: What is possible.


Ah yes, that favourite of sarcastic English teachers: "Yes, Turner, you can leave the room, but you may not." In fact, "can" has always been used for permission, and indeed is used in this way in many languages other than English. It makes sense, because in many situations your ability to do something depends on permission to do it.

25. Obsolete
What you think it means: Old, out of date.
What it really means: Not produced, used, or needed.


"Obsolete" really does mean "outmoded, out of date" (at least if those people at the OED know anything about English).

People who write articles on the misuse of words should read a good dictionary before publishing.

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12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Wed, 13:53: Google is uncannily accurate not because they read your email but because search results come from the Akashic records.

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Tuesday, 8th Jul. 2014


12.08 pm - My tweets

  • Tue, 11:50: Where there are two hypotheses for the same data, the simpler one is more likely to be true, and the other is more likely to be retweeted.

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Wednesday, 2nd Jul. 2014


3.39 pm -

If user comments are anything to go by, the new Facebook and Twitter buttons are an abomination that will suck us in and deliver our data to Marc Zuckerberg, the NSA and assorted stalkers. Me, I love them, and am glad I decided to spend more time in LJ, because the one thing I've always wanted was a way to see what was going on with FB and Twitter without getting sucked into them, and this is exactly what the new LJ Feed does. And people, if developers work really hard to provide extra functionality on a piece of software that you don't even pay for, it's really rude to rip into them because you happened not to want that particular function. Don't like? Don't use.

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Monday, 30th Jun. 2014


12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Mon, 10:39: Equality of opportunity is useless without at least some equality of outcome. Inequality of outcome produces inequality of opportunity.
  • Mon, 10:40: RT @xor: Next Facebook randomly assigns users as "prisoners" or "guards"

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Saturday, 28th Jun. 2014


11.39 pm - Don't Give Up Your Day Job

Since quite a few of my friends are musicians, from time to time things turn up in my social media feeds about the (usually sorry) state of the music business. Some of these posts are thought-provoking, some even have good solid ideas, and some are just whining. "Technology Didn’t Kill The Music Industry. The Fans Did" tends toward the last. Its basic argument goes: Every musician has a right to make a living from their music; fans' expectation of free music has made this impossible; therefore, music fans are ungrateful bitches. Let's break it down a little.

"The ideology behind music freemium has destroyed the working class musician and independent labels." I saw some working class musicians today, as it happens. They were a Turkish band playing rock-n-roll standards at an American base for an early 4th July celebration (they were very good, BTW). When I was playing music in Leeds in the 1980s, I also had a lot of friends who made a living playing pubs and clubs or doing session work in local studios. That's who working class musicians are, not people who have deals with indie record labels. Independent labels replaced the tyranny of the major labels with their own, much hipper, kind of tyranny. For bands who were fortunate to look and sound right for a certain trending niche market, they were probably a good thing, and there were a few that enabled some really good music to get heard that otherwise wouldn't (4AD springs to mind). But I don't lament their passing. There's a Turkish saying: "If you're going to drown, drown in a big sea." If you have to suck up to someone to get your music out, better to suck up to some EMI suit "Welcome to the Machine" style than have to lick the arse of a snotty art school graduate in tartan trousers. Fortunately, if all you want to do is get your music to an audience, you don't need either any more.

"Only 1% of artists are successfully making a living from their music … most artists are literally starving." This has always been the case. Making a living from music isn't easy but certainly not impossible. If you can play an instrument well enough, people will pay you to play it. If you've got a good voice, there's still a chance that you can use it for fun and profit. If you know about music technology, you can make a living using it, selling it, or teaching people to use it. If you can write a good tune, there are still people around who will pay good money for original compositions. But if you want to make a living from your music, then 1% might even be a high estimate. Does this writer think that before the Internet any bunch of kids with a stash of good songs could make a living out of their music? When I was trying to make it as a musician in Leeds back in the '80s, the BBC estimated that there were 200 bands in that city (they called it "A Town Like New Orleans", which would have been true if New Orleans were cold and full of Goths). Some of these bands were very good. Maybe two or three of them managed to make a living out of their music; the rest had day jobs or got by on student grants (we had them in those days) or social security. Nobody literally starved, though, unless they were doing so much amphetamine they forgot to eat.

"As a content creator of music, why should I have to pass around the collection plate or hold out the tip jar and jingle it to capture your attention? What if artists told fans that they would have to work at their jobs for free? Do you think they would go quietly in the night to the land of acceptance? Hell no, they would be in outrage, so why do they expect artists to just take one for the team?" This ignores two very obvious truths. The first is that musicians have been living off the equivalent of tips for a couple of millennia. Do you really think the composer of "Watkin's Ale" lived off the royalties? For most of history musicians got paid per performance and composers got paid per composition. The really lucky ones found relatively secure employment with a rich patron. The decades when you could write a couple of platinum albums and get rich off the royalties were just that—a couple of decades, a blip in music history. Secondly, there is a crucial difference between being paid for making music (or painting pictures, or writing poems) and being paid to work in a factory or an office. How many people do you know who count "production line work", "typing" or "telemarketing" among their hobbies? Most musicians work for free because it's the kind of thing people do for free. If you're one of the working class musicians mentioned earlier, you expect to be paid because those jobs are pretty gruelling—it's the difference between cooking for a dinner party and cooking for a restaurant. I'm not saying art bands (for lack of a better word) don't put in a lot of hard work, but it's the kind of work that is actually a lot of fun to do. If you get paid for it, that's a big plus, but the fact that you spend several hours a week rehearsing and performing should no more guarantee you a job as a professional musician than spending several hours a week training and competing guarantees you a living as a professional athlete. It's a paradox: if you love music enough to want to do it professionally, you should love it enough to do it for free.

Before the flames start, I should emphasise that I'm not saying that musicians shouldn't be paid, or that fans should never pay for music. Hell, I still buy CDs sometimes, and a couple of times I've paid for music online even though I could probably get the same music free just because I wanted to support the people who were making it. (Incidentally, while trying to find a copy of Cinnamun Beloved's The Weird Moment to buy, I found that they'd just put the album online for free download.) But the author does make one good point, which is that these days this thing is the equivalent of putting money in a tip jar. We can try to get the Googles and Spotifies of this world to come up with better deals for musicians, but in the end, most creative people are going to depend on donations, patronage and day jobs. My solution is a guaranteed minimum wage for everyone, but that's a whole other topic.

Afterword: If you are a talented and energetic young musician and you want to make a living out of music without selling your soul, play heavy metal. I'm not joking. Thanks to the combination of real skill and an incredibly loyal fan base, plenty of metal bands still make a living out of performing, and they deserve every penny of it.

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12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Fri, 13:23: RT @TNG_S8: All missions are put on hold until Worf locates his contact lens. The crew nervously waits in silence as he angrily crawls the …
  • Fri, 15:44: We should go back to wearing togas. It might take a little longer to get dressed in the morning, but ironing would be so much easier.

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Friday, 27th Jun. 2014


12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Fri, 07:34: "We are unashamedly a niche band. Admittedly our niche is quite big." ~ Bruce Diskinson http://t.co/sUQxIfjqFr via @guardian
  • Fri, 08:00: Iraqis were better off under Saddam, Syrians under Assad and Libyans under Gaddafi - I'm starting to dig this Thomas Hobbes guy.

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8.54 am -

Hey ho, I announce on Dreamwidth that I'm fed up with their technical problems and am going back to posting in LJ, then I find out LJ has been having technical problems. So basically, it's the Internet. So in the future, if you want to read my words of wisdom, please send a stamped addressed envelope.

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Thursday, 26th Jun. 2014


8.18 pm - The Triangle of Cultures and the Squiggle of Civilisation

I'm cycling down the road, tryin' to lighten my load
I got seven social theories on my mind.
Four are revolutionary, two are metaphysical
And one's left my brain behind.

This corny Eagles pastiche is one of the few things that stayed in my mind after attending the Parallel Cultures conference sometime in the 1970s. The other thing was a talk about a view of societies which rejected the normal one-dimensional left-right view, and even the currently popular two-dimensional left-right/authoritarian-libertarian view with a triangular model. I couldn't remember the name of the person giving the talk, and the academic in me hates mentioning ideas without citing them properly, so eventually I found the article the talk was based on by trawling through scanned editions of Undercurrents, which was an alternative technology and radical politics mag I was fond of in the day. The fellow's name was Woody (no surname), and the article, in case anyone's interested, was "Towards an Alternative Culture" (Undercurrents 11).

Woody's diagram
Woody's diagram
The three points of Woody's triangle are tyranny, alienation and sociality. The tyranny end of the triangle is self-explanatory. The closest we can imagine to a society on the pointy end of the tyranny angle would be 1984 or, for a more benign example, Brave New World. A society approaches tyranny through relationships of coercion and control, and while no government can hope to control all the actions of all its subjects, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot had a good stab at it. It is not a particularly modern phenomenon, though; in fact, one of the best examples is China's short-lived Qin dynasty.

Alienation is the state where all social relations are based on competition between isolated individuals or mutual avoidance. Woody saw this as a kind of nightmare version of the Conservative dream of "property owning democracy" (which is probably overstating the case), and it bears a resemblance to what some right-wing libertarians advocate, but as he pointed out, no society based solely on this principle could actually exist, because without any cooperation, even at a family level, people just wouldn't survive. (I suppose you could imagine a high-tech version where AIs took care of our needs, allowing us to live in glorious isolation, but when you bring in AI you can have pretty much any society you can imagine, depending on how the AI is programmed.) A more realistic way of looking at alienation would be Hobbesian anarchy, a "war of all against all," where life is famously "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." Hobbes saw this as the original condition of humanity, which again is overstating the case; in fact, the closest you get in the real world is when societies are severely disrupted by forced migration, famine or war, the most infamous example being the Ik, described by Colin Turnbull as being "as unfriendly, uncharitable, inhospitable and generally mean as any people can be," and even then some authors have since claimed that Turnbull's account was inaccurate and exaggerated. We can say that a society approaches the alienation corner to the degree that its relations are based on unbridled competition, and retreats toward the centre to the extent that such competition is softened by rules. Although Woody might disagree (especially since he had a different triangle for primitive societies), I think we can see this gradation in the famously violent Yanomamö, where relations with non-Yanomamö tend toward extermination or avoidance, relations with other Yanomamö villages are based on raiding (primarily to abduct women, but also for prestige or out of mutual fear), and relations within the village are largely limited to formalised, non-lethal violence.

Social vectors
vectors
So far we have nothing new; indeed, the tyranny-alienation side of the triangle looks remarkably like a pessimistic view of the left-right spectrum. What makes it different is the third angle: sociality. Just as we move toward tyranny through coercion and to alienation through competition, we move toward sociality through cooperation and mutual aid. Again, the tip of the triangle is only found in fiction, such as the anarcho-communist society of Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed (and even there, she is quick to point out the elements of tyranny and alienation that inevitably creep back into the system). Iain Banks's Culture depicts a galactic civilisation built on the principle of sociality (scattered with other forms of society for people who want them), but the Culture is largely run by massive sentient computers, and as I said, if you have AI, you can have anything you want (or anything the AIs want). The Culture is a wonderful ideal to aim for in the long term (and I strongly recommend you read Banks's books if you don't already know them), but are there any practical examples of societies moving in that direction?

Here I part company with Woody, and suggest that this is what Western society has been doing over the past 200 years, with the obvious exception of the disaster of the mid-twentieth century, when millions of people decided that good old-fashioned tyranny was the way to go. This is where the squiggle of civilisation comes in: imagine something like an inverted question mark inside the triangle. Pre-state societies are hard to place here,
The squiggle of civilisation
The squiggle of civilisation
especially because of the multi-layer problem I mentioned earlier: relations within tribes, clans or villages may be based on sociality or even tyranny, while those between groups are more likely to be based on alienation—it all depends on the size of the group you're looking at. I'm going to set the bar for "society" somewhat arbitrarily at 100,000 people, which pushes most pre-state societies toward the alienation corner while still stopping way short of Hobbesian anarchy. Until recently, intellectuals tended to underestimate the amount of violence in hunter-gatherer bands and neolithic farming communities, but even if we dismiss the Yanamamö and Ik as extreme examples, even the "peaceful" !Kung still manage a murder rate equivalent to Detroit, and on average your chances of meeting a violent end in a pre-state society were at least ten times, and maybe fifteen times greater than they are today. That doesn't mean primitive societies were bad places to live in—many white settlers who were captured by native tribes and lucky enough not to be tortured to death refused to return to their own society when they had the chance—just that with all that killing going on, we can't regard these cultures as paradigms of sociality. Neither can we say that they were tyrannical, because if there's one thing a good tyrant does, it's stopping feuding.

Wherever you place primitive societies, it's clear that the transformation of tribes into kingdoms started a swing towards tyranny, because that's what kings are about. On the other hand, the early kings weren't that good at it, at least in Europe (I mentioned Qin Dynasty China as a very early example of tyrannical society; ancient Assyria might be another). However much the king may tyrannise his immediate inferiors, however many slaves were impressed to build his monuments, out in the sticks life probably went on not that differently from pre-state societies. People co-operated more or less, and feuded quite a bit, since they had for the most part to make their own justice. As the Chinese saying puts it, "the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away." We start to see a real increase in state power in the late middle ages and renaissance, which kicks off what Norbert Elias calls "the civilizing process." State power became centralised, meaning that roads became safer to travel, cities grew, and barons had to spend more time as courtiers and less as warlords; this in turn led to an increase in peace, commerce, learning and good manners. The first kings of England were illiterate; Elizabeth I translated books from and into French, Italian and Latin. Civilisation is not a state but a process of increasing collaboration: "more people pooling resources in new ways" (Marc A. Smith). Even as the vertical ties in society became weighted toward the top, the horizontal ties increased in strength and number: landowners formed parliaments; craftsmen formed guilds; merchants formed corporations. The lurch toward tyranny thus also brought an increase in sociality as we moved not only towards but also up the left side of the triangle.

A second process starts unevenly in the late 17th century and picks up momentum in the 18th and 19th, moving us away from the left side while still maintaining some upward momentum. Absolutism peaked in the 1700s (think Louis XIV, and Frederick and Catherine the Great) but already it was starting to be undermined by events like the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution, with democratic revolutions and reforms continuing through to the modern age. At the same time capitalism replaces mercantilism. We could argue that capitalism simply replaces political tyranny with economic tyranny, but I think they are actually two quite different things (albeit both unpleasant). Capitalist society gives us a fair amount of alienation (both in the sense used here and of course in the Marxist sense) but it still has more sociality than people notice, and not just because commerce requires cooperation as well as competition. The 19th century saw robber barons but also trade unions, political and educational associations, the cooperative movement and the beginnings of socialism. At the same time, as Pinker points out, we see a gradual increase in sympathy for people outside our immediate social group. As these factors push us towards sociality, we wind up with modern social democracy, progressivism, rights movements and all those humanising processes the right likes to deride as "political correctness" and "the nanny state". We're still nowhere near the top point of the triangle, but in Scandinavian social democracy we're probably closer than we've ever been. Sure, we don't have workers' control over the means of production, but we haven't had that since "means of production" meant something like "bow and arrow". Unlike Woody (and my youthful self), I'm not counting Catalonia 1936-1939 here because it was too short a period to say whether it was a workable system, and the situation was complicated by the fact that everyone was trying to kill each other. That's not to say that Sweden is as good as it gets, just as good as we've got so far.

I can think of a number of objections to this model, and I'm sure my good readers can think of more. Firstly, as I mentioned, the squiggle ignores the cataclysm of the mid-twentieth century. However, I think Pinker may be right in regarding this lurch toward tyranny (not to mention mass killing) as an aberration rather than a trend. Even if we lump in the Cold War, we are only talking about half a century, which is a very short time. At the beginning of the 20th century it looked like peace and progress were inevitable, which is just how things looked at the end. So either the whole fascism-communism-war-genocide thang was a lurch off course which we fortunately managed to correct, or this century is going to turn out really badly. My guess is that the first view is closer to the truth, and if we are propelled into another orgy of mindless destruction, it will be for different reasons (like ecological devastation, for example). Secondly, we could object that even if Western societies moved up the triangle, this ignores imperialism, so the gains of the 18th to 21st centuries are built on sand. Congratulating ourselves on the state of modern European civilisation is like 18th-century aristocrats celebrating their culture while ignoring the miserable peasants who made it possible—laughing all the way to the guillotine, in other words. There is some validity in this argument, but it kind of falls outside the scope of this essay, since I'm only looking at relations within societies (defined by the admittedly arbitrary 100,000 mark). I suppose you could say I'm trying to have my cake and eat it by regarding tribal feuding as intrasocial and imperialism as intersocial, but in any case, old-fashioned imperialism is almost dead, and neo-imperialism is much more like capitalist relations within a society, and may progress in the same way. As developed and developing countries become more interdependent, and developing countries emerge from absolute poverty, we may see more of a world society, though "Sweden all over the world" is too much to hope for for the conceivable future.

What of other places that seem to be going backwards? Some cases of bucking the trend in different ways are the Middle East, some African countries and the USA. As I write, Syria and Iraq are in the grip of sectarian violence reminiscent of the Thirty Years War, with fanatics eating their victims' organs and playing football with severed heads, and Muslim countries in general seem to have been regressing more than they progress, the Arab Spring notwithstanding. Again, I can cop out of the criticism by saying I'm only talking about Europe here. I could also speculate that the similarity to the Thirty Years War is more than coincidental, and the political culture of the Middle East is somewhere in the 17th century, with a mixture of centralised states and petty principalities being challenged by religious zealotry. I rather like that hypothesis, but I have to admit I don't understand the Middle East, even though I live there. As far as I can tell nobody really understands it. As for the conservatism sweeping the Islamic world in general, I think a lot of that is a panic reaction against being thrust into the modern age. The historical pattern of sub-Saharan Africa has of course been distorted by colonialism and its aftermath, and most of the mess we see at the moment is because of failed states. Finally, as a result of its colonial history, the USA veered further toward alienation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than did Europe, replacing the old feudal inequalities with a free-for-all that resulted in even greater inequalities. In contrast, rights-based progress has kept pace with the rest of the developed world, or even led it.

In any case, my argument is not so much that societies have to develop according to the pattern I have described, just that Western Europe did and some other countries have followed, and that this is overall a good thing. The advantage of the model for me is that it helps me make sense of my own political ideas. For many years I thought of myself as an anarchist, but became fed up with anarchists' obsession with the evils of the state, as though in the absence of government, people would magically start being nice to each other. As the squiggle shows, there are times when even with its manifest flaws, it's better to be oppressed by a government than by your neighbours. Anarchists tend to downplay the dangers of the bottom right corner; anyone who attributes all the flaws of human societies to government should spend some time with the Yanomamö. On the other hand, socialists tend to be naive about government, seeing state authority as a neutral tool rather than a vector in itself that if allowed to gather momentum will push us into the bottom left corner. Although I prefer social democracy to any of the other political systems on the menu at the moment, it doesn't go far enough. When pressed, I tend to describe myself as a mutualist, not in the strict nineteenth-century sense, but in a necessarily wishy-washy way. Finally, the model may even explain my passionate love of Free Software: if alienation is lone hackers and tyranny is Microsoft, then sociality is Linux.

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Friday, 13th Jun. 2014


11.19 am -

Happy birthday ironed_orchid!

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Thursday, 29th May. 2014


12.17 am - Reflections on the Reaction in Europe

One of my favourite songs by The Cassandra Complex is "Nightfall (Over EC)". It's a dark 1980s vision of the EU (or EC as it was then) disintegrating into religious and ethnic chaos.

The hills are alive with the sound of gunfire
Kill them all, God will know his own
Night falls over Western Europe
Night falls, and we're alone.

Ironically, the lyrics were penned by one of the most pro-European people I know; in those days Rodney Orpheus was dividing his time between England and Germany and insisting on the band being paid in ECUs, the predecessor of the Euro. But it's an understandable feature of the EU that people should worry about it. Pro-Europeans worry that it will fall apart; anti-Europeans, that it will become an oppressive superstate dominated by gay socialist Muslim bureaucrats. It's in the nature of things to come together and fall apart, and the more recently it came together, the more people will worry that it is about to fall apart. Nobody worries about the impending break-up of France, for example, because France has been around for over a millennium and screw the Corsicans.

All this is of course leading into the recent victory of far-right, anti-EU parties in the European elections, an event you'd think they would refuse to participate in. Come to think of it, the fact that a party whose raison d'etre is withdrawal from the EU thinks it's a good idea to run in elections for the European Parliament is a pretty good sign that the EU is not some monstrous totalitarian superstate. (You can probably generalise this rule: any country in which you can run for election on the platform "This place is a shithole and we don't want to be part of it" is probably not such a bad country to be part of.) These parties range in nastiness from Finns, which "has repeatedly rejected accusations of racism and homophobia" (because this is, after all, Finland) to the Hungarian Jobbik, whose leader called for a national register of Jews on grounds of national security. In the middle, we have the traditional "don't like anything foreign" UKIP and Front National, and, more interestingly, parties whose anti-immigration stance seems to be based more on religion than race, such as the Danish People Party and the Dutch Party for Freedom. No prizes for guessing which religion they don't like.

This brings me to what really interests me, which is why relatively normal people would vote for these parties. Europe has had its share of nutty Nazis since, well, the Nazis, but in a way, WWII was a watershed which defined subsequent Nazis as nutty. Before then, we should remember, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and belief in the superiority of the white race were normal. They might not have been universal, but they were commonly held attitudes that could be safely expressed in the company of people who do not pick their noses in public or settle disputes with broken beer glasses. What is alarming many people is the thought that these attitudes may become normal once more.

I won't deny that such a danger exists, but I'm not so sure we should all pack up and move to Portugal just yet. Back in the '70s, when I first got involved in politics, it looked like there was a real fascist threat, what with the rise of the National Front and its more openly Nazi twin, the British National Party, not to mention an ugly spate of racist attacks. A friend of mine even wrote an article claiming the newly formed Social Democrat Party might be a manifestation of soft fascism. I joined the Anti-Nazi League, marched, handed out leaflets, listened to reggae … the usual stuff. The fascist threat never materialised, despite the fact that prevailing attitudes in the late '70s were way more fascist than they are now. Now I'm not saying that we were wrong to worry or to take action, and it may be in part because so many people took action that the 1980s didn't turn into the third Reich. Or maybe it was because Margaret Thatcher captured the lawful evil vote, I'm not sure. But if fascism didn't sweep over the UK and the rest of Europe in the 1970s, there's no reason to think it's about to do that in the 2010s when conditions are if anything less favourable for potential fascist dictators, or even just moderately nasty fascist parties. Remember those politically correct Finnish fascists? I have seen the future of fascism, and it is bland.

Of course not everywhere is as polite as Finland, as worrying as Hungary or as wacky as Greece (where both the fascist Golden Dawn and the hard left Syriza did well). Let's go back to the interesting middle ground, if you can talk about fascism as having a middle ground. The "I'm not a Nazi but you have to admit things have gone too far" parties owe a lot of the support to the traditional "They're taking our jobs" vote. This is particularly true of UKIP, the political descendants of the people who were complaining about Irish navvies taking all the railway jobs back in the 19th century. (And by "railway jobs", I don't mean driving trains, I mean digging tunnels.) A good sign that politicians are playing the jobs card is if they complain about Poles, because other than working hard for less money, there's not a lot else you can find to complain about when it comes to Poles. Unless you're an old-fashioned Nazi who despises the inferior Slavic race, you can't really be racist about those pale, blond Poles, can you? If a right-wing party dumps Poles in with Somalis, then either they're not really all that racist, or they're doing a good job of confusing the race issue.


The other strand is Islamophobia, typified by Geert "I don't hate Muslims, I hate Islam" Wilders' Party for Freedom. Another good example is the Danish People Party, who, after they got some criticism from the Swedes, came out with this revealing reply: "If they want to turn Stockholm, Gothenburg or Malmö into a Scandinavian Beirut, with clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes, let them do it. We can always put a barrier on the Øresund Bridge." We're talking about Holland and Denmark here, two of the most civilised, tolerant countries in the world. They are certainly not the kind of places where honest-to-badness fascist parties are likely to get many votes. True, even Geert Wilders is seen as an embarrassment by most Dutch, but the fact that there is an Islamophobic backlash at all in the Low Countries and Scandinavia speaks volumes. Since they are not strongholds of fascism, my guess is that we are looking at something different here.

Generally speaking, lefties have been unable to deal with Islamophobia because their reaction is to just scream "Islamophobia!" and lump it in with racism, when it is obviously something different. If we want to deal with people's fears of Muslims and stop them flocking to parties who pander to those fears, then we need to understand them, and an attitude that says "You only think like this because you're a bad person" isn't going to help. When British people reacted against the arrival of Kenyan and Ugandan Asians in the 1970s, it was easy to claim they were just being xenophobic, because these immigrants/refugees were generally hard-working, law-abiding, polite people whose only fault was to have brown skin, wear different clothes and smell of curry. (If you're about to screech "RACIST!" at me for that last one, that's part of the problem: anti-racists are all too ready to brand simple facts as racist prejudices. If you eat a lot of curry, you really do smell of curry (particularly fenugreek) just like smokers smell of cigarettes, people who eat a lot of garlic smell of garlic, and I smell of funky Turkish spices when I've been eating sucuk or pastırma.) If you don't like Punjabis, chances are you're either a white supremacist or a Gujerati. Moreover, most of the immigrants were Hindus or Sikhs, and most of the Muslims were not the kind of Muslim anyone would object to. Islamophobia had yet to be invented because if you were racist, they were all wogs, and if you weren't, you didn't care much about other people's religious beliefs.

Ah, those were the days, when racists were racists and had skinhead haircuts and Doc Martins. Now it's more complicated. Pia Kjærsgaard, who came out with the Scandinavian Beirut comment, doesn't fit the type. She may well be racist deep in her heart, but she's survived two legal attempts to convict her of racism. Her anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim stance would still work even if she weren't in the teensiest bit racist. That wouldn't make it right, but it does mean we have to take it a bit more seriously. First, just as we had to distinguish between general anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism, we need to prize apart the Islamophobic rhetoric from the general anti-immigrant rhetoric. Remember the Poles: if you get in a huff about Polish immigration, you're not necessarily racist, because Poles are by-and-large white, and you're not necessarily Islamophobic, because Poles are by-and-large Catholics. (On the other hand, if you hate Poles and Irish with equal vehemence, you may just have a problem with Catholics.) You may of course be all of these things, but that doesn't stop them from being different types of bigotry. Give Joe Bigot the choice of living next door to a recently-arrived family of Poles, Bosnians or Iraqis. My guess is that he'd choose them in that order: Poles may be foreign, but at least they're white; Bosnians may be foreign and Muslim, but at least they're still white; Iraqis are foreign, Muslim and brown, so Joe would probably prefer to live next door to a nest of vampires. Islamophobia and racism often coexist, but people who equate them are clearly wrong. When the Boston bombers turned out to be Chechens, nobody said, "Oh, they're white Muslims, that makes it OK."

Having made a distinction between Islamophobia and racism, we also need to separate the paranoid conspiracy theorists who go on about "Eurabia" and the death of Western culture from ordinary people who are just scared of religious nutters. Let's apply the neighbour test again. Who would you rather live next door to: (a) a family of liberal-verging-on-agnostic Muslims; (b) a family of Christian Dominionists? If your answer is "a", you're a normal person; if it's "b", not only are you Islamophobic, you may well be the kind of person other people would be scared to live next door to.

By lumping together racists, paranoid Islamophobes and ordinary worried people under the general heading of "Anders Breivik", leftists encourage these groups to actually come together. Someone will probably still scream "RACIST!" at me, but I have to say it: people often have good reasons for straying towards Islamophobia. My wife, on learning the word, said "Oh, that's what I am," and she's a Muslim. Of course she was being a little tongue-in-cheek; what she really meant was not so much Islamophobia but Islamistophobia, but that word doesn't exist, and would be tough to spit out if it did. I've touched on reasons for Islamophobia before ("Are Muslims the New Catholics?"); the point is that while some of them are clearly kooky, some of them come from real fears and real cultural incompatibilities. Ironically, most of the cultural incompatibilities (the "clan wars, honour killings and gang rapes" mentioned earlier) have nothing to do with Islam as a religion and everything to do with the mentality of tradition-bound, survival-oriented communities accustomed to living with minimal oversight from the state. This is something they have in common with American urban gang culture; it's just that Pakistani villagers and Kurdish tribesmen have been doing it longer. It is also one of several cultural divides within the Muslim community, who are actually united only by a common religion that they take very different views of. Again, we need to differentiate: Islamophobia rests on a view of Muslims as a uniform mass; like the orcs besieging Minas Tirith, they may sometimes look a bit different from each other, but they're all basically orcs. This is of course nonsense, but it's the kind of nonsense that is hard to combat, especially when it's often the nuttiest Muslims who take it upon themselves to act as spokesmen for the rest. A sad example is the Happy British Muslims video, which was doing a great job of combating Islamophobia until all the mad mullahs starting denouncing it for showing music and dancing, which they claimed, without a shred of evidence, are against Islam. The worst was a supposed "halal" version, which was the same thing without the women. One of the problems with Islam is that anyone can put on a turban, give himself a title like "sheikh" and claim that this or that is Islamic or un-Islamic. The same problem applies with Protestantism, especially in its free-market American varieties, but generally people in the West are sufficiently well-informed about Christianity to recognise the nutty stuff.

These are not problems we are going to solve any time soon, especially with progressives sticking their heads in the sand, refusing to accept that immigration can sometimes cause problems and demonising those who point them out. But they may be problems that will solve themselves in the long run. At the moment the EU is trying to cope with massive economic imbalances between its member states which should even out over the years. I'm not saying that Romania is ever going to be as rich as Luxembourg; all that is necessary is for the gap to close enough so that migration between member states is restricted to people who actually want to go and live in another country. When the standard of living in Poland is comparable to England, some Poles will go back to Poland while others will stay in England because they like it there, and eventually being Polish in England won't be that different from being Polish in America (which used not to be that desirable). Non-European immigration is going to take longer to sort out, but as I said, a lot of the things people find scary about these people are the results of coming from places which have radically different cultures because they're several centuries behind on the urbanisation-industrialisation-democratisation timeline. Like I said, Ugandan and Kenyan Asians had few problems adapting to life in Britain (other than racism and lousy weather) because they were middle class, largely urban, well-educated and familiar with British culture and values. A lot of them probably exemplified British culture and values much better than the average Brit. The Pakistani and Bangladeshi villagers who came over a few years later had a much harder time, not just because they were Asian or even because they were Muslims but because they were villagers, with a culture that would have given them problems in Islamabad, let alone Leeds. Ditto Turks in Germany: the educated urban ones had no problems with the German lifestyle; the ones from the backward areas did. Such cultures take time to change, but generally what makes them change is economic security and education. The important thing is to avoid ghettoisation, as happened in France, while at the same time avoiding those cultures becoming mainstream. Racism is not acceptable in polite society, but then neither is sexism or homophobia, and no amount of respect for other cultures should change that. That requires a tricky balance: "Yes, you can have halal meat in the canteen. No, you can't segregate public baths. Yes, you can demand schools teach about religions other than Christianity. No, you can't insist that they stop teaching evolution. Yes, you can teach your culture to your children. No, you can't beat them if they rebel against it. Yes, you can have arranged marriages. No, you can't force anyone into one." It's not going to be easy, but sooner or later it's got to happen.

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Thursday, 8th May. 2014


8.38 pm -

[personal profile] ironed_orchid's post about alleged misbehaviour by a famous philosopher brought to mind a couple of unrelated questions about academic ethics that I still haven't managed to solve.

  1. One reason given for banning faculty members having sexual relations with their students is that it could lead to their raising the grades of said students. But surely someone who was sufficiently immoral to ignore the principle of fair grading would lack the moral fibre to resist the temptation to sleep with their students.
  2. One reason given for maintaining the tenure system is that it means academics cannot be fired for holding unpopular opinions. Does this mean it's OK to fire non-tenured academics for their opinions?

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12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Wed, 20:45: I just saw the phrase "Comics come of age" again. Come on, they were saying that in the 1980s, so comics should be having a mid-life crisis.
  • Thu, 08:30: .@chearn73 @BBCRadio4 @MoAnsar Catholics are not Christian - they are rejected by every school of Protestant thought.

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Wednesday, 7th May. 2014


12.00 pm - My tweets

  • Tue, 19:48: If you want critical thinking, don't ask for a 5-paragraph essay on a topic the student knows nothing of. That requires uncritical thinking.
  • Tue, 19:56: RT @qikipedia: The word 'Abracadabra' was first used in the 3rd century as a cure for malaria (via the QI podcast at http://t.co/D7uEc7j9Iz)
  • Tue, 22:27: My last tweet got retweeted to 64000 people. I really should try to make this one witty and perceptive.
  • Tue, 22:30: We're living in the information age and they can't find 234 kidnapped girls? OK, one or two, difficult, but 234?

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