Thursday, December 26, 2019

The TERF War hotting up again

It seems that the TERF War is hotting up again. What is the TERF War? It is a vicious fight to the death between the old school feminists, now labelled Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs), and the trans lobby. What’s interesting about it is that it’s not just a power struggle within the Coalition of the Fringes, the sometimes uneasy coalition of victim groups who comprise the modern Cultural Left and dominate allegedly leftist parties like the Democrats in the US. This is an existential struggle in which neither side will, or can, back down.

The issue is nothing less than the existence of women. The position of the trans lobby is also the position of the LGBT lobby as a whole and is now the official party line of the Cultural Left (and is accepted by a large segment of the Political Right). That position is that biological sex is irrelevant. Sex is infinitely fluid. If you have male genitals but you put on a frock you’re as much a woman as anyone who was born a woman. If you have female genitals and you announce that you are a man then you are as much a man as someone born a man. It is also an essential part of this ideological position there are dozens if not hundreds of genders.

The problem for the TERFs is that they cannot possibly accept this. If your sex is something you can choose and discard at will then feminism collapses entirely. Feminism is based on the premise that there are two distinct sexes, male and female, and that the female sex has been (and still is) oppressed by the male sex. It is a crucial element in old school feminism that sex is something you’re born with. If you’re born a woman then you are part of that half of society that is exploited and oppressed by the Patriarchy. If you’re born a man you’re an oppressor. The TERFs therefore have absolutely no choice. They must take a stand on the reality of biological sex differences. That is the hill on which they must fight and if necessary die. Any retreat means abandoning feminism.

Old school or Second Wave feminism has still not recovered from the bloodletting of the Feminist Sex Wars that raged from the 70s to the 90s, a vicious struggle between the anti-porn anti-prostitution faction and the so-called sex-positive feminists. That war ended in total victory for the sex-positive feminists.

There are several fascinating aspects to the TERF War. One is that the TERFs are largely (although not exclusively) lesbians. They’ve learnt that being a lesbian is no protection from being labelled as a hateful Nazi bigot if you happen to get on the wrong side of the trans lobby. In fact old school lesbians (who are so deluded that they think they’re women) are now increasingly marginalised within the LGBT lobby that they played such a large part in creating. The hatred between the trans activists and the lesbian TERFs is breathtaking in its intensity.

And as was pointed out in the discussion on the recent Terf or Trans post on Oz Conservative it raises questions about the future of the old school feminists within the Coalition of the Fringes. They are in fact actively hated by many of the other members of that coalition. Is there a chance they might jump ship? More interestingly still, is there a chance they might find themselves expelled from the Coalition of the Fringes? What makes this an interesting question is that although the actual political power of the old school feminists is almost zero on the other hand when it comes to raw numbers they’re a very significant slice of that coalition. And they are politically very disciplined. They wouldn’t have to actually jump ship. If they simply decided, en masse, to stay at home on election day the results could be interesting. It’s hard to see the Democrats, or the British Labour Party, surviving such a defection.

Of course there’s also the fact that there are a lot women who are not lesbians or TERFs but are still rather uncomfortable with the militant trans agenda. Women like J.K. Rowling (an ardent SJW) who is currently being vilified as a hateful transphobic bigot for her bizarre belief that the human species is divided into biological men and biological women. These are women who in general have totally supported the SJW agenda but they are not surprisingly less than thrilled about being told that women don’t really exist.

So the TERF War could get kind of interesting.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

the collapse of morality on the Right

Following on from my previous post, another change which may explain the apparent leftward political shift of women is the collapse of the Right as a moral force.

Men have no great difficulty in basing their voting behaviour on self-interest. They may despise a particular party but will still vote for it if they believe they personally will be better off. Women in general have more difficulty with this. They like to think they’re voting for a party or a candidate that stands for something moral and good.

Even fifty years ago one could convince oneself that the political Right stood for something moral and good - stability, social order, social cohesion and at least a vague belief that society needed some moral rules. The Right appeared to be pro-family, anti-drugs, they appeared to accept some kind of welfare state as necessary, they appeared to be willing to ameliorate some of the worst excesses of capitalism, they appeared to be patriotic.

That’s all changed. If the Left has changed out of all recognition since the 60s, so too has the Right. The elections of Thatcher and Reagan were watershed moments. The mainstream right-wing parties became explicitly the parties of corporate profit and individual selfishness and greed. Never again would a mainstream right-wing political party in the Anglosphere even contemplate taking a moral position on anything.

The parties of the “Left” on the other hand now seem to stand for the moral and the good. In fact of course their ideas on what is moral and good are distorted and bizarre (and in practice often extremely immoral) but at least they seem to have a moral stance.

The mainstream Right now stands for nothing other than greed. It has abandoned even the pretence of morality. It’s another possible reason that women appear to have moved leftward - women are never going to be entirely comfortable with political ideologies based purely on open explicit selfishness.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

sex and politics

It seems to be an article of faith among the dissident right that women are politically more left-leaning than men. Half a century ago it was an article of faith on the Left that women were politically more conservative than men. Sex and politics seems to be a complicated business.

Of course it has to be said first of all that the political parties for which women are more likely to vote today are not really left-wing at all but clearly there’s something going on. Maybe women are more likely to favour the status quo? That’s possible but I think there’s more to it. I do think it’s likely that women favour stability. Fifty years ago parties of the Right seemed to offer stability. These days, whatever it is that right-leaning parties offer, it certainly isn’t stability. Fifty years ago the parties of the Right also seemed to stand for strong government, which women tend to like, while today it’s the parties that identify themselves as leftist that seem to be the ones favouring strong government.

The disparity between male and female views on politics become more marked when we look at fringe political ideologies. Consider libertarianism. Are there any women libertarians? I’ve never encountered one. Which is hardly surprising. Rugged individualism, the struggle for survival, the survival of the fittest, complete selfishness, the fetishisation of individualism - the world that libertarians dream about has little to offer anybody but it offers nothing whatever that is likely to appeal to women.

The alt-right is also very much a Guy Thing. It’s not that some of the beliefs of the alt-right could not be sold to women, but they certainly are not going to be sold to women while they’re packaged the way the alt-right packages them. And the whole style of the alt-right is something that is mostly going to attract young men.

It’s also noticeable that on the alt-right there’s a certain unwillingness to admit that women may have a point about some things. Anyone who has ever had the misfortune to live through a period of instability will agree with women that there’s a lot to be said for stability. Silly talk about civil war also turns to turn women off. Women have a fair idea that the chaos that the alt-right seems to want will be very bad for women, and also very bad for the men that women love.

Political movements that have achieved some degree of success are usually those that appeal to women as well as men. I’m very sceptical that the dissident right will ever achieve anything anyway but it’s certainly not going to enjoy any success if it is unable to attract a reasonable degree of female support.

Monday, December 9, 2019

free-market communists in space

One of the odd things about science fiction as a genre is the attraction it holds for libertarians. Or perhaps it’s the odd attraction that libertarianism has for science fiction writers.

When you think about it though it does make sense. Science fiction is all about creating imaginary universes. If you don’t like the laws of physics you just ignore them. Faster-than-light travel might be impossible but if you want faster-than-light travel in your story you just pretend it’s possible. It’s a game of make-believe. And libertarianism is of course a game of make-believe. Libertarianism could never work in practice but libertarians just pretend that it would work.

Which brings us to Ken MacLeod’s 1995 cyberpunk science fiction novel The Star Fraction. MacLeod is an interesting figure. He was a Trotskyist activist back in the 1970s. When the Left ceased to exist he had to find some kind of ideology that would offer the same attractions - a better and more just society. Perhaps he’d done too many drugs in the 70s because he seems to have invented a kind of amalgam of libertarianism and Trotskyism.

The hero of the novel is a security  mercenary who is a good and loyal communist. He hates socialism and he loves capitalism. Because capitalism apparently equals freedom and will therefore magically bring about an ideal communist world. This will happen because, well just because.

It’s no coincidence that the characters in the story smoke a lot of dope. Because if you really want to believe that libertarian capitalism will achieve communism you have to smoke a prodigious amount of dope.

The novel appears to be set around the middle of the 21st century. Like most of MacLeod’s work it deals with multiple futures - Britain is a multiplicity of different statelets, even including a fundamentalist Christian one (which surprisingly isn’t mocked or derided quite as much as you’d expect). This idea of nation states fragmenting into semi-independent quasi-state entities has popped up quite a bit in science fiction since the 80s and of course it’s an idea with a certain appeal to some modern right-wingers. It’s interesting to see the idea approached here from a left-wing perspective.

Of course it has to be noted that MacLeod is most definitely not a conventional left-winger.

One of the more interesting ideas in the book is a rogue computer virus that is a kind of self-contained revolutionary program, but the question is what kind of revolution? This is a question that exercises the hero of the story quite a bit. Being a good communist he think the Party should control the political program. This is a program that seems to have the ability to control the Party.

Like most of MacLeod’s work the book is packed with ideas. Some are, it has to be admitted, quite silly (although no more so than the ideas you’ll find in the works of right-wing science fiction writers of an earlier generation, such as Poul Anderson). But others are genuinely provocative and intriguing. It's not as good as his later Newton's Wake but The Star Fraction is an odd little science fiction novel but quite interesting from a political point of view.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

quotes for another day

"The great charm in argument is really finding one's own opinions, not other people's." - Evelyn Waugh

"An artist must be a reactionary. He has to stand out against the tenor of the age and not go flopping along." -  Evelyn Waugh

"You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic. Without supernatural aid I would hardly be a human being." - Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh: How do you get your main pleasure in life, Sir William?
Sir William Beveridge: I get mine trying to leave the world a better place than I found it.
Waugh: I get mine spreading alarm and despondency and I get more satisfaction than you do.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

social attitudes and the arty set

Since the end of the Second World War social attitudes have changed dramatically. They have changed so dramatically and so fast that it’s naïve to think that this has been entirely a natural development. It has been, to a very large extent, manufactured. Manufactured consciously and deliberately. But how and why?

Right-wingers blame the commies, or the Cultural Marxists (they mostly seem to think that commies and Cultural Marxists are pretty much the same thing). On the dissident right opinion is divided. Some think it was the commies. Some think it was an international Jewish conspiracy. Some think it was the Freemasons. Or immigrants. These are not very satisfactory explanations so I’m going to propose an alternative explanation. It was the Romantics. Before you start taking up a collection to buy me a tin-foil hat just bear with me for a moment.

The Romantic Movement emerged at the end of the 18th century and flourished until the mid-19th century but it never really went away. Many of the assumptions and attitudes of the Romantics became permanent fixtures of western culture. One of the most dangerous was the cult of the Creative Artist as Outsider and Social Rebel.

Lord Byron provided the template. Byron was also the first true celebrity. He was famous for his poetry but mostly he was famous for being Lord Byron, Poet Superstar. He was the first artist or poet to live a rock star lifestyle. Byron also added an essential element to the newly emerging Artist as Social Rebel cult - sexual deviance and sexual promiscuity. The Creative Artist had to break the social rules and the easiest and most obvious rules to break were those governing sexual morality.

Those who followed in Byron’s footsteps were inevitably hostile to tradition in general and to Christianity in particular.

But something else happened during the 19th century and accelerated dramatically during the first half of the 20h century. The worlds of art and literature and the theatre went from being fringe worlds to being very influential and very powerful worlds. In the 1790s a bestselling author like Ann Radcliffe could expect to sell maybe 5,000 copies of her latest novel. By the 1950s bestselling authors were selling millions of copies of their novels. While this may have benefited mostly the writers of popular fiction yet another development was happening. The massive expansion of education meant that millions of people were being exposed to the works of the writers of literary fiction.

And the world of the theatre was supplemented by the world of the movies. A play might reach thousands of people. A movie would reach millions. Public museums and the emergence of rock star artists like Picasso and Pollock and Warhol created a mass audience for the visual arts. Pop music increased the reach of the arty crowd even further.

The arty/literary/theatrical/cinematic world was now immensely powerful and immensely influential. It was a world that was in a position to promote agendas, if it chose to do so.  And it most certainly did choose to do so. It was a world still very much dominated by the cult of the Creative Artist as Outsider and Social Rebel. It was inevitable that the agendas it was going to promote were going to be based on breaking social rules. It was even more inevitable that these agendas were going to be based on attacking traditional sexual morality.

Social attitudes towards sexual morality did not change. They were actively and deliberately changed. The arts/entertainment world played a huge rôle in this. It wasn’t a communist plot and it wasn’t Cultural Marxism. The idea of Cultural Marxism was that the Cultural Revolution would prepare the ground for a political revolution. That idea was effectively abandoned decades ago. The Cultural Revolution became an end in itself.

It also wasn’t a Jewish plot. Of course there were Jews involved since Jews gravitated towards the arts/entertainment world.

Mostly the Cultural Revolution and the manufactured changes in social attitudes that have accompanied it were driven by the heirs of Byron - misfits who see themselves as courageous social rebels and persecuted outsiders. Misfits with an aura of glamour. Misfits out for revenge.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

removing politics from politics

In the past few years we have witnessed a frightening rapid shift in popular views on issues such as immigration. Open borders is now on the political agenda in a big way. Belief in immigration restrictionism is increasingly a marginal belief.

The shift is equally dramatic on all social and cultural issues. Added to which support for freedom of speech is declining rapidly.

What’s really interesting is that there is pretty much no debate or discussion at all on economic issues. Economic issues are now things that you simply don’t talk about.

There is no actual political debate at all. We live in a post-politics age. Everything now is a moral issue. Opposing immigration is morally wicked. Questioning feminism is morally wicked. Expressing doubts about the tranny stuff is morally wicked. Expressing anything less than absolute support for homosexuals is morally wicked. Questioning affirmative action is morally wicked. Expressing even mild scepticism about racial oppression is morally wicked.

But questioning the current neoliberal economic order is something that cannot even be imagined. It would be like questioning the existence of gravity.

The real achievement of the neoliberals has been to remove politics entirely from politics.

Saturday, November 16, 2019

is meritocracy a good idea?

Ideas that are taken for granted tend to worry me. One idea that is certainly taken for granted by most right-leaning people is that meritocracy is a good thing. Within the dissident right meritocracy is increasingly linked with IQ fetishism. People with high IQs are regarded as being better than people with low IQs, so therefore when it comes to areas such as employment, university admission, immigration, recruitment to the bureaucracy and even politics it is assumed that if we can select the best and the brightest the results will be as close to optimum as it is possible to get.

Mainstream conservatives are reluctant to talk openly about IQ but broadly speaking they share the assumption that rule by the best and the brightest is a very good thing. Believers in meritocracy do not necessarily see it purely in terms of IQ of course. They will talk about hard work and possibly even thrown in terms like creativity and talent although they probably won’t be able to give a satisfactory definition of those terms. But it’s clear that they see meritocracy as a system that rewards the best and the brightest and it’s clear that they see intelligence as a very major component of being the best and the brightest.

Most people on the Right see meritocracy as being one of those sacred values, along with freedom and democracy, that should never be questioned.

But is meritocracy really such a great idea?

For one thing there is no actual connection between freedom and democracy and meritocracy. Imperial China was to a large extent a meritocracy. The key to advancement was to pass the civil service exams and the better your result in those exams the better your chances of advancement. And the exams were extremely fair. Imperial China was a very successful advanced civilisation with a high degree of stability and social cohesion. But Imperial China clearly was neither democratic nor free.

Meritocracy probably is a good idea in some fields. It’s reasonable to assume that a nuclear physicist or a mathematician with an IQ of 160 will achieve more than a nuclear physicist or a mathematician with an IQ of 120. But is meritocracy a good thing in other fields? Will a bureaucracy made up of the best and brightest produce a successful society? Would we necessarily be better governed if our politicians were selected from among the best and the brightest? Will selecting immigrants on a meritocratic basis give us immigrants more likely to make a positive contribution to society?

I’m not convinced. In most areas of life it seems to me that there are other qualities that are at least as important as being among the best and the brightest. It’s nice to have bureaucrats who are honest. It’s desirable to have immigrants who are prepared to show some kind of loyalty to their adopted homes. It’s a good thing to have a society in which broadly speaking those who hold positions of power and influence are more concerned with the good of society than with their own wealth and personal advancement. I’d rather have a prime minister of average intelligence who sincerely wants the country to be a good place to live than a brilliant prime minister who puts his own career first. I’d prefer to have honest policemen than smart policemen.

Meritocracy may in fact be something that tends to dissolve social cohesion rather than enhancing it. To me it seems to be part and parcel of the cult of individualism that has done so much harm to our society. Maybe meritocracy isn’t so great after all.

Friday, November 15, 2019

China, Britain and the Opium War

I’m reading Frederic Wakeman’s 1975 study The Fall of Imperial China, which is fun since my knowledge of Chinese history is close to non-existent.

At the moment I’m reading the sections of the book dealing with China’s unfortunate 19th century encounters with European imperialism, in particular the wars waged against China by Britain.

I don’t accept and never have accepted the idea that colonialism was pure evil, or that it was motivated entirely by wickedness. The motivations of colonialism were various and complex. The end results were sometimes disastrous, sometimes beneficial.

But having said that, it has to be admitted that the behaviour of the British towards China was breathtakingly cynical and represents one of the most shameful passages in British history. The Opium War really was exceptionally evil. Not just profiting from the drug trade, but creating the drug problem from which they went on to profit. And was there ever a more vicious politician than Lord Palmerston?

History is always fascinated but it’s not always inspiring!

Friday, November 8, 2019

Kim Philby's My Silent War (book review)

Harold “Kim” Philby was the most famous spy of the 20th century, and arguably the most successful. A few years after defecting to the Soviet Union he wrote his autobiography, My Silent War. He wasn’t sure that the KGB (for whom he still worked actively) would allow the book to be published but in 1967 a series of articles in the British press revealed so much about his career that there was no longer any point in suppressing his memoirs. My Silent War was published in both the Soviet Union and Britain in 1968, and was a major success.

It’s not just fascinating for its insights into Philby’s extraordinary career. It’s also a vastly entertaining account of the reality behind the espionage business. Philby was a man of considerable wit and charm and this comes across in the book.

Of course it’s almost impossible for any reader to approach this book without confronting the issue of betrayal. For some the fact that he was a KGB agent who successfully infiltrated the British Secret Intelligence Service (the SIS or MI6 as it’s more commonly known) simply makes him a traitor. But there are many different kinds of betrayal, and many different kinds of loyalty. You can betray a friend, or a lover. You can betray a country. You can betray a religion, or a political ideology. Philby certainly betrayed his country but he never betrayed his political beliefs. Having become a communist at the age of 21 he remained steadfastly loyal to those beliefs, beliefs which he believed would in the long term be in Britain’s interest anyway. You can certainly believe that Philby was wrong, but there’s no doubt that he sincerely believed he had made the morally correct decision. For Philby also class loyalties trump national loyalties and it’s probable that for many people in Britain at the time it was his perceived betrayal of his class that was most disturbing.

Philby was recruited by the KGB (or at least it’s predecessor as the organisation underwent several name changes) in 1933. He worked as a journalist and was a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War and in the early stages of the Second World War. He candidly admits that he wasn’t a particularly useful agent. In fact the KGB had pretty much written him off as a dead loss. That all changed when he managed to get himself recruited (largely by his own efforts) by the SIS. He was recruited by a chap named Guy Burgess.

Amusingly, when he sent his first reports back the Soviets thought he must have joined the wrong organisation. They could not believe that the farcical comic-opera outfit he described could actually be the famous British Secret Intelligence Service. But, sadly for the British, it was indeed the SIS. To be fair they became marginally more professional as the war progressed.

Philby did more than get himself recruited. He rapidly became a rising star in the bizarre secret world of British intelligence. By the early postwar period he was head of Section IX, in charge of operations against the Soviet Union.

Depending on your point of view it’s either depressing or amusing that the picture painted in Our Man in Havana by Philby’s friend and fellow SIS member Graham Greene of the SIS as a bunch of absurd bungling amateurs was very close to the truth. Mind you, Philby’s opinion of the CIA was even lower and he regarded the FBI as a complete joke. On the other hand he considered MI5 to be efficient and professional.

When he wrote the book Philby was still working for the KGB so obviously he had to be extremely reticent about KGB methods and about revealing hints as to the identity of still-active KGB agents in Britain. So if you’re hoping for revelations about the inner workings of the KGB you’ll be disappointed. What you do get are extraordinarily interesting insights into the workings of British and American intelligence agencies, and into the precarious world of the double agent. Philby’s problem was that he had to advance himself into a senior position in the SIS so he had be an efficient SIS officer, whilst at the same time he had to do whatever he could to ensure that SIS operations were unsuccessful.

Even if you consider Philby to be a bad man you’d have to admit that he was a brave, intelligent, resourceful bad man. He displayed extraordinary coolness and quick thinking even in situations that seemed hopeless. When his cover seemed to have been irretrievably blown after the defections of Maclean and Burgess he kept his head. He knew he was very strongly suspected but he gambled (correctly) that there was no evidence against him that would stand up in a court of law. So although his escape plan had been carefully worked out he waited for a decade to put it into action.

One thing that is rather amusing is that the success of the Cambridge spy ring was made possible by class prejudices. When it was discovered that there were major security leaks from the British Embassy in Washington the British intelligence services wasted years investigating menial embassy staff because it was unthinkable that the leaks could have originated with Donald Maclean, who was after all a gentleman and had been to the right schools. This class prejudice worked in Philby’s favour as well.

Philby offers no apologies for his conduct. He made his choice and he stuck to it. I emphasise that I'm not in any way arguing that he was right. But whatever you might think of him My Silent War is essential reading for anyone with an interest in the subject of espionage. And it’s incredibly entertaining.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

problem solvers and dreamers

A reply to a comment of mine on another site has lead me to propose a new theory of politics. Of course nothing is really new, so it’s probably an old idea that needs reviving.

The commenter described my approach to politics as hardheaded, as opposed to the softheaded approaches that are all too common. The way I’d put it is that those with an enthusiasm for politics can be divided into two camps. Not left and right, liberal and conservative, socialist and capitalist - these categories aren’t really relevant any more. The two camps that are relevant are the Daydreamers and the Problem Solvers. You could call them the Ideologues and the Pragmatists but I think that could lead to misunderstandings. So I’ll go with Daydreamers and Problem Solvers.

Daydreamers respond to political problems emotionally. They either respond with sentimental slop or with anger and hated. Because they see things through an emotional lens they’re more interested in assigning blame than fixing things. And, again because they’re emotion-driven, they’re incredibly prone to wishful thinking. Social Justice Warriors are an obvious example, but nice white church ladies, squishy “conservatives” and the alt-right are also Daydreamers. And, obviously, libertarians.

Problem Solvers try to respond to political problems by looking for solutions that have worked in the past. Of course simply trying to turn the clock back won’t work (that’s Daydreamer thinking). But you can learn from the past and you can pick the things that seem like they might work today. If there’s no appropriate solution from the past that can be adapted then Problem Solvers will look for new ideas that appear to be based on an actual understanding of the real world. The test they apply is whether, putting emotion and ideology to one side, the solution looks workable. Problem Solvers are also flexible. They’ll cheerfully borrow ideas from communists and capitalists and anyone else. They’re not looking for ideological purity, they just want results.

A good way to understand these two radically different mindsets is to consider how they’d react if they discovered their car wouldn’t start. Their approaches both to diagnosing the problem and fixing it would be quite different. An SJW Daydreamer would assume that the car wasn’t working because of Donald Trump. An alt-righter would assume that his car had been sabotaged by the Jews, or maybe the blacks or maybe the Freemasons. A libertarian would blame the government. They would all respond with anger and emotion.

A Problem Solver by contrast would take a look under the hood.

Nice white church lady Daydreamers would try to fix the car by making it feel more included. SJW Daydreamers would form a healing circle around the stricken car, and organise a march to protest anti-car bigotry. An alt-righter would announce that the problem can’t be fixed unless we send all the immigrants back. Before mass immigration cars always worked perfectly. Squishy mainstream conservatives would announce that tax cuts will fix the problem. Libertarians would do nothing - they’d just wait for the invisible hand of the market to make the car go.

A Problem Solver would resign himself to getting his hands dirty and grab a spanner and get to work.

There’s nothing wrong with emotion but it’s not a very good basis for sound policy. It’s also not a very good basis for choosing a candidate on election day. Problem Solvers might not reach us in an emotional way but they do tend to, you know, solve problems.

Friday, November 1, 2019

film review - Our Man in Havana (1959)

I’m continuing to indulge my obsessions with spies and with Graham Greene, so now a review of the 1959 movie adaption of Our Man in Havana.

Greene had been appalled by the 1958 film adaptation of his novel The Quiet American. He felt, quite correctly, that it entirely missed the point of his novel. If any more of his books were going to be adapted for the screen he was going to make very sure he did the job himself. So when Carol Reed directed the film version of Our Man in Havana in 1959 Greene wrote the screenplay (he would also write the screenplay for the 1967 film of his later book The Comedians).

Greene has a well-deserved reputation for being dark and pessimistic but Our Man in Havana caught him in a playful mood. It’s certainly a very cynical spy story but it’s wickedly amusing, bitingly satirical and remarkably good-natured. The tone of the movie perfectly reflects that of the book.

The film follows the plot of the novel with extraordinary faithfulness. Mr Wormold (Alec Guinness) sells vacuum cleaners in Havana. He does reasonably well but he has a daughter. Milly is a charming schoolgirl but daughters can be very expensive and daughters obsessed with horses are even more expensive.

So it seems like a stroke of luck when he is approached by Hawthorne (Noël Coward). Hawthorne is the Caribbean station chief for the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). And MI6 needs a man in Havana. Hawthorne feels that Wormold is ideal spy material (which seems to indicate that Hawthorne is a not a very competent spymaster). Wormold has no interest in being a spy but the $150 a month plus expenses (tax free) that MI6 is offering would buy a lot of horse feed so he accepts the offer.

The problem is that MI6 expects Mr Wormold to supply them with actual secret  information, gathered by his sub-agents. Mr Wormold does not have any secret  information, nor does he have any sub-agents. He is worried about this until his old friend Dr Hasselbacher make an inspired suggestion. Why not just make the information up? Why not just invent the sub-agents as well? This proves to be a most inspired idea.

The real trouble starts when London, excited by the extraordinarily valuable intelligence he is supplying, sends him an assistant. So now he has to persuade this assistant, Mrs Severn (Maureen O’Hara), that he really is a spy.

Worse follows. Much worse. Someone else, someone from the other side, is also convinced that he is a real and very dangerous spy and they start taking very serious steps to remove Mr Wormold and his espionage network from the scene. The whole situation is of course farcical but the farce isn’t so funny when people start to get killed. It’s still played for comedy but now it’s black comedy.

Carol Reed was the ideal person to bring the novel to the screen. He was a stylish director and had shown a gift for combining ironic cynical espionage tales in his earlier masterpiece The Third Man which of course was also written by Graham Greene. Quite a few of the visual flourishes that gave that movie its distinctive display make a re-appearance in Our Man in Havana (lots of Dutch angles for example).

Graham Greene, having been an actual MI6 agent himself, understood the absurdities and the deceptions (and self-deceptions) of the game of espionage. The movie captures the feel of the novel perfectly. It’s cynical but in a delightfully amusing way. It’s witty and lively and combines a light-hearted tone with some truly savage satire. The superb cast certainly helps. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

science fiction and the search for meaning

I’ve been a science fiction fan, intermittently, for many years. Recently I’ve been wondering why the genre attracts me, and others. I’ve been pondering the idea that it’s a substitute for religion.

Back in the days when religion was alive and thriving people would look up at the night sky and see it as evidence of God’s benevolence. God had put the stars up there, attached to some kind of celestial sphere, for a purpose. He had put the Moon and the Sun up there for a purpose. It was all good.

By the beginning of the 20th century we were starting to comprehend the vastness of the universe. It was not comforting. It was immense but essentially meaningless. When people looked at the night sky they were looking into the void. Science fiction provided a much more comforting answer. The universe was teeming with life. Those stars were suns, almost certainly with planetary systems, and they were home to countless fascinating and advanced civilisations. Some might be hostile but that was OK, we’d either overcome them or turn them into friends. After all, even the Klingons became our allies. And many of those alien civilisations would be wise and benevolent and they’d offer us exciting new technologies and knowledge.

And we would expand into the galaxy ourselves. We’d create interstellar empires (but good empires not wicked colonial empires) or interstellar federations. We would become almost god-like with our vast scientific knowledge and technological miracles. It was all good. The universe had meaning after all. The stars were our destiny.

Of course it was not just science fiction writers but also the more speculative scientists doing this, but those two groups overlap to some extent.

Then came the actual space age. When the Soviet Union put a man in space in 1961 it seemed like a real triumph for humanity. Then he Americans put men on the Moon, Another triumph, and more would surely follow. Mars would be next. And then the stars. Nothing could stop us. We would surpass God.

But the Moon turned out to be a dead rock and unmanned spacecraft sent to Mars indicated that Mars was a dead rock as well. And we didn’t go to Mars.

And lurking in the background was the grim reality of the speed of light as an absolute limit. Science fiction writers knew about this but they ignored it. Some way would be found to get around it.

But we probably won’t find a way to get around it. And so far we’ve found zero evidence that the universe is teeming with life. In fact we’ve found zero evidence that there is any intelligent life in the universe at all apart from ourselves. Of course it is possible that there are lots of advanced alien civilisations out there but once you start giving serious thought to the distances involved (distances in space and time) and the almost certain impossibility of faster-than-light travel, and once you really think through the ramifications of that, it becomes evident that even if alien civilisations exist it is very very unlikely we will ever be able to contact them.

We convinced ourselves that we could live without God, but can we live without aliens as well? Can we deal with being effectively all alone in the universe?

Saturday, October 19, 2019

trusting the intelligence community

Spies have been on my mind recently.

One of the most curious, and amusing, things about our modern world is the strange new respect being shown to the “intelligence community” with once widely despised organisations like the FBI, the CIA and MI6 suddenly being regarded (by mainstream opinion) as paragons of integrity and virtue.

Even people who claim to be on the Left have become admirers. In fact people claiming to be on the Left have become the most ardent admirers. From the 1950s until very recent times the one thing that united the New Left and the remnants of the Old Left was their belief that the intelligence community consisted of malevolent bunglers. And of course they were correct.

Obviously what has happened is that the self-described Left of today is in fact now the Establishment, and of course the intelligence community serves the Establishment.

The bigger question is, can anyone actually trust spies? I use the term spies in the broadest sense, to include both espionage and counter-espionage operatives. The fact is that spies are people whose lives are based on lies and deceit. If you’re no good at lies and deceit you’re no use as a spy. Spies are also people who are good at seeing patterns. Sometimes the patterns are really there and sometimes they’re imaginary but while spies are good at spotting patterns they’re not good at distinguishing the real from the imaginary.

But it’s worse than that. Espionage is a profession that attracts cranks and misfits. It attracts the mentally unstable. Some are brilliant misfits. Some are just misfits. It also attracts those with political axes to grind. Normal well-adjusted psychologically healthy people do not join the intelligence community.

All this is bad enough but there’s the additional problem that if you’re an agent for an intelligence organisation you have to demonstrate your continuing usefulness. If you don’t have any real intelligence of value to offer then there’s the temptation to concoct intelligence that is pure fantasy. And counter-spies are not above concocting imaginary conspiracies. If they happen to have political axes to grind then the temptation to make stuff up is even greater.

Both popular culture and official history have fostered the idea that espionage attracts the best and the brightest, and that the work of the intelligence community is absolutely vital. At least once per book a fictional spy will save Civilisation As We Know It. Sadly the reality is that more often than not spies are either dishonest or delusional, or both. Their achievements are usually minimal.

Defectors are even worse. A defector is, by definition, a traitor. Or at best, a defector is someone with loyalties that are flexible, often to the point of non-existence. They are loyal until they get a better offer.

To trust spies and counter-spies is mere foolishness. Even if some are trustworthy you can never know which ones are trustworthy and which ones are not. The wisest course is to trust none of them.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

more quotes

"The truth has never been of any real value to any human being - it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths." - Graham Greene

"Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm." - Graham Greene

“Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.” - Graham Greene

"A petty reason perhaps why novelists more and more try to keep a distance from journalists is that novelists are trying to write the truth and journalists are trying to write fiction." - Graham Greene

"It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes." - Graham Greene

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana (book review)

Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana was published in 1958, providing another example of Greene’s ability to set his stories in places that were just about to hit the headlines (in 1959 Castro came to power).

Our Man in Havana is a spy story. It is the cynical, humorous and absurd tale of Jim Wormold, not exactly one of the shining lights of the British Secret Intelligence Service. Mr Wormold lives in Havana. He sells vacuum cleaners. He is moderately successful but unfortunately he has a daughter. That’s not unfortunate in itself but the daughter, Milly, is at the age at which daughters become very very expensive. Even worse, Milly has now conceived a passion for horses. She must have one. There is simply no way Mr Wormold can afford the upkeep on a horse as well as a daughter.

So it seems like a stroke of good luck when Mr Wormold is approached by Hawthorne. Hawthorne works for MI6 and he’s in the process of setting up an espionage network in Cuba. Hawthorne believe that a vacuum cleaner salesman is the perfect cover for a spy. Mr Wormold knows nothing of the world of espionage and has no interest in politics but the $150 a month plus expenses that Hawthorne offers him interests him quite a bit. So Mr Wormold becomes MI6’s man in Havana.

Initially Wormold is a bit worried by the fact that he nothing about the world of spies and knows nothing about recruiting agents but then he realises that it doesn’t matter. The network of agents he’s supposed to recruit don’t have to actually exist. The information he sends back to London doesn’t have to be real. It just needs to sound convincing. Pretty soon he has a whole network of imaginary agents and he’s sending off detailed reports to London with lots of disturbing information, none of it rel. He’s even sent them drawings of high-tech weaponry at a new top-secret military installation. The fact that these sophisticated weapons look a bit like parts of a vacuum cleaner somehow gets overlooked in all the excitement.

The head of MI6, C, is convinced that Wormold is  the most valuable agent they’ve ever had. The more fanciful his intelligence reports become the more certain C is that they must be true.

Things are going very nicely for Mr Wormold. Until somebody starts trying to kill his agents. Which is very disturbing since those agents don’t actually exist. Fiction is becoming reality.

Graham Greene of course had been a real-life spy for the British. He knew the incompetence and stupidity of MI6 at first hand. He knew that much of the intelligence provided by spies was simply fantasies concocted by the spies. The more intelligence you provide the more likely it is that the intelligence agency for which you work will continue to pay you. The intelligence doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be the sort of thing that the intelligence agency wants to hear.

Greene had converted to Catholicism in 1926. After the Second World War, and probably not coincidentally after his stint with MI6, Greene’s politics became steadily more leftist although it’s important to keep in mind that he was an old school leftist with nothing in common with the leftism of today. And while his Catholicisjm seems to recede into the background a little it’s also important to remember that he saw no conflict whatsoever between left-wing politics and Catholicism.

When he wrote this novel Greene seems to have been going through one of his upbeat phases (he was prone to frequent bouts of extreme depression). Wormold is more sympathetic than most Greene protagonists (you can’t really call any of Greene’s protagonists heroes). He’s a timid little man but he’s not a hopeless alcoholic and he hasn’t given in to despair or nihilism. He knows little about raising children but he’s managed to be a reasonably good father. He’s a nice guy. He isn’t very honest but he has no wish to do any harm to anybody. He thinks the espionage stuff is all very silly but if MI6 are foolish enough to pay him money he’ll take it. Even when he gets himself into deep trouble he doesn’t give in to despair. Whether he can extricate himself from the mess might be extremely doubtful but at least he’s going to try.

Despite the fact that Wormold never does any actual spying Our Man in Havana manages to be an enjoyable and exciting spy thriller. It’s also superb satire, and very funny. Greene’s contempt for spies is palpable and as in The Quiet American there’s an awareness of how much harm can be done by bungling intelligence agencies but it’s combined with genuine amusement.

A wonderful book. Very highly recommended.

quotes for the day

"It's always darkest before it becomes totally black." - Mao Zedong

"To be attacked by the enemy is not a bad thing but a good thing." - Mao Zedong

"Politics is war without bloodshed while war is politics with bloodshed." - Mao Zedong

"As for the imperialist countries, we should unite with their peoples and strive to coexist peacefully with those countries, do business with them and prevent any possible war, but under no circumstances should we harbour any unrealistic notions about them."  - Mao Zedong

"We should support whatever the enemy opposes and oppose whatever the enemy supports." - Mao Zedong

"No matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat." - Deng Xiaoping

"Democratic regimes may be defined as those in which, every now and then, the people are given the illusion of being sovereign, while the true sovereignty in actual fact resides in other forces which are sometimes irresponsible and secret." - Benito Mussolini

"It's good to trust others but not to do so is much better." - Benito Mussolini

"We deny your internationalism, because it is a luxury which only the upper classes can afford." - Benito Mussolini

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Newton’s Wake (book review)

Newton’s Wake is a standalone 2004 novel from Scottish science fiction author Ken MacLeod.

MacLeod (born in 1954) is an interesting figure. He started out as an old school leftist with Trotskyist leanings. When the Old Left crashed and burned he started to use science fiction as a way of exploring political options. Some of the options he has explored are fascinating, like the communists in The Star Fraction who believe passionately in capitalism. Some of the options are daft (like anarcho-capitalism). His attempts to reconcile Trotskyism with libertarianism are somewhat bizarre. His sympathetic view of populism leads to some surprising results. Not many people see parallels between Trump and Jeremy Corbyn. His hopes for a leftist populism might be optimistic but might well be fruitful. MacLeod’s political speculations are always at the very least interesting.

Newton’s Wake begins in 2367 with a team of Carlyle combat archaeologists led by Lucinda Carlyle emerging from a wormhole gate to find a rather surprising planet. The first surprise is that the planet Eurydice is home to an advanced human civilisation. The second surprise is a gigantic structure apparently carved from diamond, but was it carved by nature or by human agency? To the Carlyles it looks suspiciously post-human. Which means it is likely to be both dangerous and profitable.

There are four main human cultures, scattered over various planets and co-existing uneasily. There are the Americans, subsistence farmers who (as we will learn) have good reason to fear post-human technology. There are the North Koreans, communists but happy to do business with the other cultures. There are the technologically sophisticated Knights of Enlightenment, a mix of Chinese, Japanese and Indians. And then there are the Scots, which means the Carlyles. The Carlyles started out as gangsters. Now they’re very rich and very powerful anarcho-capitalists, they control the wormhole network, and morally they’ve degenerated slightly from their gangster days.

These four cultures don’t just represent competing economic and political systems. They also differ markedly in their attitude to the two most pressing technological and philosophical problems of the day, how to deal with the legacy of the Singularity and how to deal with the problem of death.

The Singularity is what happened when the Americans launched their retaliatory nuclear strike against the Europeans. The computers coördinating the American strike suddenly upgraded themselves into full-blown artificial intelligences, they upgraded their new human servants into post-humans and they created the war machines that went on to ravage Earth. Three-and-a-half centuries earlier the galaxy is still littered with post-human tech. Some of this tech is very useful indeed. All of it is potentially extremely dangerous. The Americans avoid such tech. The North Koreans approach it with extreme caution, if at all. The Knights of Enlightenment believe that post-human tech can be studied and understood, and utilised, as long as you’re careful (and they’re very careful). The Carlyles believe post-human tech is there to be looted and sold.

The problem of death has been solved. Sort of. You just upload your personality and your memories and if you die your personality and your memories are downloaded to a new body. The Carlyles are quite happy with this. The Knights and the North Koreans think it’s nonsense. If you’re dead you’re dead. Having a copy of yourself walking around after you’re dead is no consolation at all.

The Eurydiceans have now complicated matters because nobody knew they existed. And Lucinda Carlyle has complicated matters much more comprehensively by awakening whatever it is that’s in that strange structure on Eurydice.

The two primary themes, post-humanism and the question of death, intersect more and more as the story unfolds.

On one level this is a delightful tongue-in-cheek satire. And it’s very funny. Laugh-out-loud funny at times (the excerpt from Shakespeare’s famous play The Tragedy of Leonid Brezhnev, Prince of Muscovy, is hilarious). MacLeod exercises his considerable wit at the expense of left-wing politics, right-wing politics, folk music, religions both secular and spiritual, art, the entertainment business and science fiction. It’s a glorious romp. But there’s a serious science fiction tale here as well. In fact as the book progresses it veers more and more in the direction of old-fashioned big-ideas science fiction speculating on the nature of mind, the nature and purpose of the universe and the rewards and pitfalls of pushing technology to the limit.

Newton’s Wake is a dazzling exercise in style and wit and adventure. It really is great stuff. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 4, 2019

food and the new morality

We live in a world which has abandoned the idea that there is such a thing as sexual morality. If you dare to suggest that maybe adultery is destructive to both individuals and to society, that maybe easy divorce has been disastrous for child-rearing, that slut culture might not be a healthy lifestyle choice, that unlimited porn might have social consequences or that the male homosexual lifestyle might be unhealthy you are dismissed as a fascist and you’re in danger of social ostracism.

But people like having moral rules, and they love enforcing moral rules on others. If there is no sexual morality people will find other things to be moralistic about.

One of those things is food. What you eat is no longer a matter of personal preference. It is no longer your own business. It is everybody’s business. Making the wrong food choices is a moral failing and it is society’s business to correct those failings. If people won’t eat properly the government should step in and force them to do so.

People are amazingly moralistic about food these days. Having promiscuous anonymous sex with hundreds of partners a year is good and moral and virtuous but eating pizza is a mortal sin.

And even thinking about eating foods like french fries is morally wrong. You have committed a sin in your heart.  And it can lead you down the slippery slide into even greater sins, just as fantasising about eating pizza.

It’s important to understand that whether a food item is healthy or unhealthy is not the point. It’s now fairly clear that most of the advice we’ve been given on diet over the past half century is unscientific nonsense. It doesn’t matter. Some food choices are simply immoral.

There are a couple of easy rules to keep you on the straight and narrow. Firstly, ask yourself if a particular food is delicious. If the answer is yes, then it's morally wrong even to think about it.

Secondly, ask yourself if a particular food is quick and easy to prepare or buy. If the answer to that question is yes, then it's wrong!

Thirdly, ask yourself if a particular food is popular among among bad people (such as working class or poor people). If the answer is yes then that food is automatically on the index of forbidden foods.

Fast food being delicious, convenient and popular with non-middle class people is of course as morally wrong as you can get.

You are what you eat. If you eat the wrong foods you’re a bad person.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

the coming economic implosion?

There’s a widely held belief in alt-right circles that it doesn’t matter much how bad things are because within the next couple of decades there’s going to be a complete economic implosion and the whole social and political structure will collapse anyway.

The economic implosion will come about largely as a result of out-of-control national debt. Because governments can’t just keep printing money and expanding credit forever, can they?

I’m a bit sceptical about all this. I suspect that the government can pretty much do whatever it wants to, including printing money and expanding credit forever. They’re the government. They have the power. They can back up that power with force. Military force if necessary.

Of course I might be wrong. I’m no economist. I don’t understand how the economy works. But then economists don’t seem to understand how the economy works either. When an economic crisis hits the people who are most surprised are usually economists.

I’m also not entirely convinced that an economic crisis on its own would bring down the entire social and political system. The economic crisis of the 1970s was extremely severe but it failed to bring about social or political collapse. The 2008 crisis didn’t even shake the foundations of the system.

Of course an economic crisis combined with some kind of political crisis might be a different story. Had the Oil Crisis happened in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War the foundations in the U.S. might well have been shaken quite a bit. If an economic crisis were to hit Britain right now, right slap bang in the middle of the political/constitutional crisis over Brexit, things could get quite hairy.

Whether a complete economic implosion would actually change things for the better is another story. Total social and political collapse is fascinating to read about, not so much fun to live through.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Quiet American (book review)

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American was published in 1955. It was a major critical and popular success in Britain. In the United States it provoked outrage. This was Greene’s Vietnam novel.

Thomas Fowler is an English reporter. He insists that he is a reporter, not a journalist. A reporter merely reports. He is not involved. Thomas Fowler does not wish to be involved in anything. He likes Indo-China because he thinks there’s a better chance of dying there than in England.

Alden Pyle is an earnest young American. He’s not one of those noisy Americans. He is a quiet American. Pyle supposedly works for an American Economic Aid Mission although everyone knows that he is an intelligence agent for the CIA. Pyle is the ideal choice for such a mission. He knows nothing whatsoever about Indo-China, or about anything else. But he does know that freedom and democracy are important. He doesn’t know why they are important, but he has no doubts. The French are clearly fighting a losing war to retain their Indo-Chinese colony but if the French lose the communists will take over and freedom and democracy will be threatened. If only there was a Third Force which could be backed by the Americans then freedom and democracy might yet be saved. That is Pyle’s job.

Pyle is an innocent which is why Fowler fears him so much. Fowler knows that Pyle’s meddling is going to get a lot of people killed for nothing but he knows that there is no way to convince Pyle of this.

There is one thing that Fowler does care about - his Vietnamese girlfriend Phuong. And Pyle is likely to be a menace on that front as well.

The novel does not reflect well on the Americans. It also does not reflect well on the French. Or anybody else for that matter.

For this is Greeneland. It’s a world in which failure is not merely inevitable, it is to be welcomed. Thomas Fowler is a typical Greene hero - he longs for death, he longs for oblivion, he believes in nothing. He loves Phuong but he never really believes he can keep her. Love is just another form of betrayal anyway.

But this is not just Greeneland. This is postwar Greeneland. Even in the Thirties Greene saw hope as a foolish illusion. The Second World War rekindled his interest in the world but it did not restore his faith in human nature. And it did not restore his faith in Britain. He was certainly not the only Englishman to experience post-WW2 disillusionment. The difference is that for Greene disillusionment was his natural state of mind so the failures and miseries of postwar Britain came as no surprise. It was simply what he expected.

Thomas Fowler is not just a typical Greene hero, he is a symbol of the new post-war Britain - pessimistic, morally and spiritually adrift, cynical and apathetic. Alden Pyle is the very symbol of postwar America - naïve, ignorant, well-meaning and terrifying dangerous. Pyle is a man with a mission. He’s going to win Vietnam for freedom and democracy. The fact that he understands absolutely nothing about the country or the situation is not going to deter him from his mission. The fact that he might be horribly and disastrously wrong never even enters his mind.

This was the beginning of America’s Vietnam disaster. The disaster was inevitable right from the start. Greene had his faults but he was remarkably clear-sighted about postwar politics. Everything Greene feared, not just in Vietnam but throughout the Third World, eventually came to pass. Innocent illusions were going to lead to a great deal of misery.

Greene was not exactly a cheerful man but he had  sense of humour. There’s a lot of black humour in this book. Greene of course was a Catholic, but perhaps not a very orthodox one. He was also a leftist, but also not a very orthodox one. Greene probably could never have been an orthodox anything. There’s a central conflict in this novel between engagement with the world and non-engagement. Fowler wants to avoid engaging with this world which is probably not healthy. Pyle is very engaged with the world, which is even less healthy.

The Quiet American is a spy story of sorts. It’s a love story of sorts. It’s a mystery story of sorts. It’s a political novel of sorts. It’s a satire, of sorts. Mostly it’s a Graham Greene novel  with all the idiosyncrasies, ambiguities and complexities that that entails. It’s a great book. Highly recommended.

Friday, September 20, 2019

politics - the reality and the appearance

What matters in politics is not the reality but the appearance. For example we hear a lot about how undemocratic and unaccountable the EU is. And of course it’s quite true. It is undemocratic and unaccountable. But is it any different really from other contemporary political systems?

Take Britain. The political system observes the forms of democracy but in practice the first-past-the-post voting system is absurdly undemocratic. Or take the United States, with its rigid two-party system that effectively makes it impossible for the dominance of the two major parties ever to be challenged.

And how accountable are political leaders in general? Yes, they can be voted out of office.  They then collect a fat pension (a very fat pension) and in Britain even the most abject failures as prime minister have a good chance of getting a peerage. H.H. Asquith led Britain into the First World War which makes him a major contributor to the destruction of western civilisation. As a reward he was made an earl.

One of the reasons that democracy is in trouble is that bad or incompetent leaders do not pay a genuine price for their nation-wrecking. I’m not suggesting that we should hang failed prime ministers (although I admit that the idea of doing so occasionally, to encourage the others, does have a certain appeal). But there have been plenty of western political leaders for whom a few years breaking rocks in a prison yard would have been a fitting fate. And knowing that leaders who make an unholy mess of things might actually face punishment would have a most salutary effect not only on politicians but on the general public. The postwar disillusionment and nihilism of the 1920s might have been less severe had the bungling idiots who led the way to war paid the price for their folly.

Don’t get the idea that I’m defending the EU here. It really is a bureaucratic nightmare. But modern politics on the whole is in practice pretty much a sham.

Monday, September 16, 2019

beyond good and evil - politics today

Religion is, among other things, concerned with good versus evil. In a post-religious age the struggle between good and evil is transferred to the field of politics. No matter how rational we like to think we are we see politics as a struggle between the White Hats and the Black Hats, the good guys and the bad guys.

The problem is that in politics today there are no good guys. Perhaps there never were. But there certainly aren’t any today. Modern politics is more like a struggle for power between rival organised crime gangs. The apparent ideological differences between political rivals are more like different approaches to organised crime. It’s like the gang war between the North Side Mob and Capone’s South Side Mob.

The bigger problem is that ordinary people have not yet realised this. They still think that at least some politicians are on the side of the little guy. They’re still looking for heroes.

Democracy these days at best offers us a choice of which mobsters we’re going to be exploited by.

Take Brexit. Starry-eyed Leavers thought that leaving the EU would mean a return to traditional Britain. The Britain of cricket matches on the village green, a pint of bitter at the local pub, cod and chips, plucky little Britain standing up to Hitler, decency and common sense.

In fact Brexit is a dispute between two rival gangs of globalists. You can call them the Brussels Mob and the Washington Mob. You can have a choice between the globalism of bureaucracy and the globalism of deregulation and law-of-the-jungle free markets. The globalism of Tony Blair and David Cameron or the globalism of rootless cosmopolitans like Boris Johnson. Some billionaires will be better off under one brand of globalism while other billionaires will find the other brand of globalism to be more congenial. Ordinary people will still get screwed either way.

There’s no good vs evil in modern politics. Just internal disputes among the bad guys. Just because Tony Blair was a Black Hat doesn’t make Boris Johnson a White Hat. They’re both Black Hats. Hillary Clinton was a Black Hat, but so is Donald Trump.

I’m not saying that there is no such thing as good and evil. I’m just saying that it’s naïve to see politics in those terms.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

why it’s almost impossible to sell nationalism

Back in 2016 there was much excitement on the dissident right at the supposed revival of nationalism. The Brexit referendum and the election of Trump, the increase in support for nationalist parties in several European countries and the apparent determination of eastern European countries like Hungary to defy the globalists on immigration seemed to promise a nationalist tide that would sweep across the West.

It hasn’t happened. The nationalist tide has receded. Very little, if anything, was achieved. Brexit remains in limbo. Trump’s only solid achievement has been tax cuts for the rich. The globalists have gone beyond a mere support for high immigration levels - they are now openly advocating complete open borders. A belief in the total abolition of national borders has now gone mainstream. The nationalist parties in western Europe remain politically irrelevant. Eastern Europe seems certain to succumb to the siren songs of globalism, consumerism and feel good liberalism.

The reason is that supporters of nationalism seriously underestimated the emotional appeal of internationalism. The alternative to internationalism is nationalism, and nationalism means Hitler. That's how a very very large number of people see it. It's a pure emotional response. And it's a very powerful very visceral emotional response.

Supporters of nationalism are motivated by a strong and genuine belief that nationalism is a good thing. A morally good thing. But supporters of internationalism are also motivated by a strong and sincere belief that nationalism is morally wrong and reprehensible and dangerous and will lead to disaster.

Of course the people pulling the strings behind the scenes are in most cases motivated by a cynical desire for gain and for power. But the foot soldiers on both sides are running on pure emotion. That's why so few people change their views on this issue. Rational debate with either side is futile.

Supporters of nationalism are also often blind to the unpleasant fact that nationalism has not always been in practice such a good thing (just as supporters of internationalism are unable to see that there are valid arguments in favour of nationalism). Neither side has any interest in listening to the arguments of the other side because both sides are equally blinded by emotion.

There is also of course a class element. Nationalism is seen as one of those wicked beliefs that working-class people hold and the working class today has zero political or cultural power. There is not a single significant political party in the West that represents working-class people.

On balance globalism is at this point in time a much more dangerous and existential threat to civilisation than nationalism. But the emotional appeal of globalism/internationalism is much stronger than the emotional appeal of nationalism. And nationalism has very little appeal to the young because it’s old-fashioned and must therefore be obsolete. It is an iron law that the young always believe that they are the first generation in history to be truly enlightened and virtuous. Selling nationalism is not going to be easy.

Friday, September 6, 2019

more musings on conspiracy theories

I probably need to elaborate a bit on my recent conspiracy theories post.

First off, I certainly don’t advocate deplatforming or persecuting people who believe in conspiracy theories. There are some conspiracy theories which seem to me to be completely nuts (like the Faked Moon Landing theory) but I’m not going to tell people they can’t believe something simply because I think it’s crazy.

I also do not disbelieve all conspiracy theories on principle. I just think that if you’re going to be sceptical of “official” versions of events then you need to apply the same scepticism to alternative versions. You need to approach all explanations of events in the same way. Is it plausible? Could such a conspiracy have been possible? Is there a sufficiently strong motive to explain why official agencies would take the risk of exposure in order to promote a false version of events? How many people would have needed to be involved?

Does the conspiracy theory actually explain the known facts? Does it do a better job of explaining them than the official version? Is there at least some evidence to suggest that the official story is dubious?

Some conspiracy theories clearly fail the plausibility test. The Moon Landings Were Faked theory is a great example. It would have required the involvement of thousands of people in a number of different countries (since the Apollo missions were tracked by tracking stations across the globe). It would have been insanely risky - there’s just no way such a conspiracy could have been kept secret. It involved events that took place much too publicly. The payoff for such a conspiracy would not have been worth the risks. The official story is a better explanation of the known facts. So it’s reasonable to conclude that  it’s probably nonsense. Pretty much the same arguments can be used in respect of the 9/11 Truther conspiracy theories - they’re ludicrously complicated and the chances of pulling off such a conspiracy successfully would have been too slim.

You also need to ask whether a conspiracy theory seems appealing because it fits your pre-existing prejudices. If it does then you need to exercise an even higher degree of healthy scepticism. If you already think the Russians are evil and that Vladimir Putin is literally Hitler then you’re vulnerable to seeing Putin’s hand behind just about everything. If you already think that the Freemasons or the Jews or the Communists are enemies of civilisation then you’re vulnerable to seeing almost everything as a Masonic, Jewish or communist plot.

I do agree that the conspiracy theory label can be, and is, used to discredit political opponents. That’s one of the reasons it’s a good idea to steer clear of the crazier conspiracy theories - there’s no point in making it easy for your enemies to discredit you. I’m intrigued by Ron Unz’s idea that it’s possible that the crazier conspiracy theories may be being pushed by the C.I.A. in order to discredit the plausible conspiracy theories. He may be on to something so that’s another reason for caution.

There’s no doubt that some conspiracy theories are true, or are highly likely to be true. There are quite a few things that I firmly believe that most mainstream opinion would consider to be conspiracy theories (feminism being a corporate plot to weaken unions, identity politics being a plot to destroy the Old Left).

You just have to be cautious and sceptical about both official versions and conspiracy theories.

Friday, August 30, 2019

how conspiracy theory minded are you?

You can now do an online test of your propensity for believing conspiracy theories. It doesn’t test belief in specific conspiracy theories but is intended to measure your overall tendency to see the world in conspiracy theory terms.

I’m told the average American college student scores 2.2. My score was 1.8 which apparently makes me less inclined towards conspiracy theories than the average set subject.

Mostly I have little time for these online psychological tests but this one is quite intriguing. We seem to live in a society in which people increasingly see the world as an interlocking network of conspiracy. It’s something I personally try to avoid.

Of course if the conspiracy theorists are right then this test itself is probably part of a vast CIA mind control experiment!

Here’s the link to the test. Enjoy.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

politics is religion

There is a theory that all political beliefs are in fact religious beliefs. Our political beliefs reflect our underlying beliefs about The Way God Meant Things To Be. In this case I’m not necessarily referring to people who believe in a personal God like the Christian God but also to people who hold vague pantheistic or similar beliefs, beliefs that there’s some underlying moral order to the universe. I suspect that most people, even those who consider themselves to be atheists, do have some such beliefs even if they’re not consciously aware of it.

We either believe that there’s a Way God Meant Things To Be, or that there’s a way that things are meant to be that is in tune with the Natural Order of Things, or is in tune with some vague intelligence that controls the universe. These beliefs may simply reflect our own personalities as formed by genetics or culture or upbringing. These underlying religious or quasi-religious beliefs then form our political beliefs.

People who believe in free markets do so not because they have a profound understanding of economic systems but because they think that free markets are virtuous and are in accord with The Way God (or the Natural Order) Meant Things To Be. People who believe in socialism do so not because they have a deep understanding of economics but because they think that socialism is virtuous and is in accord with The Way God (or the Natural Order) Meant Things To Be. People who believe in democracy do so for the same reasons. The same applies to people who believe in Open Borders, or Social Justice.

We hold certain political views because they are satisfying to us in both an emotional and a religious manner.

Which is why it’s just about impossible to change people’s political views by arguing with them. There are no political debates. There are merely individuals and groups proselytising for their own essentially religious beliefs.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The joys of hypocrisy

Hypocrisy has always been with us but it has really blossomed over the past few decades.

Some prime examples are the people who believe passionately that the government should be spending immense sums on mass transit but who have have never caught a bus or a train in their lives. There are people who are True Believers in the coming Climate Change apocalypse but they don’t seem to think that their beach houses in Malibu will be affected by rising sea levels. There are the passionate antiracists who live in towns that are 98% white.

There are libertarians who seem quite happy to enjoy the benefits of living in a society with a government rather than heading off into the wilderness to put their beliefs in rugged individualism into practice. There are American libertarians who are very happy to make use of America’s impressive national highway system, paid for by the taxpayer.

There are Zionist Jews who don’t want to give up their apartments in Manhattan to move to Tel Aviv. Liberals who think that intolerance is evil and believe that people who disagree with them should be sent to prison. People who think everybody should be free to love whomever they like but they’ll go berserk if their boyfriend decides to put that into practice by loving a younger hotter woman.

There are conservatives who claim to be horrified by the degeneracy of popular culture and particularly the degeneracy of Hollywood but they’ll still take the family to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster, oblivious to the fact that they’re funding the degeneracy of which they claim to disapprove. And they’ll still keep their cable TV connection, even as they complain about the anti-conservative propaganda on cable TV.

You can’t avoid a certain degree of hypocrisy. One man’s hypocrisy is another man’s flexibility. But it is healthy to at least be aware of one’s own hypocrisies.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

national goals

People need to have some sort of purpose to their lives. Nations need a sense of purpose as well. That sense of purpose can come from religion or from a political ideology. But it can come from something more straightforward.

I‘ll use Australia as an example. The Second World War, in an indirect way, provided Australia with a sense of national purpose. Australia found itself at war with Japan and Australians felt themselves to be in mortal danger. For a country with a small population the problems were particularly acute. It was not an actual lack of military manpower that was the problem. The problem was in providing the troops with the means to resist an enemy. Specifically the problem was modern weaponry like tanks and fighter aircraft which could not be obtained from allies like Britain and the U.S. because those countries were intent on building up their own strength. Australia was forced to design and build its own tanks and fighters. This was done but there were problems. Australia simply did not have aero engines suitable for modern fighters.

Australia drew certain lessons from this. If we were to be able to defend ourselves we needed a large modern industrial base. That would require a larger population, hence the aggressive drive to attract immigrants from Britain and southern Europe. A larger population would not however be enough. The government would have to take steps to ensure that the necessary industrial base was developed. The objective as to achieve a measure of self-sufficiency. Australia should have a manufacturing sector capable of producing the complex products needed in the modern world. This would include military aircraft (built under licence) but also consumer goods such as washing machines, refrigerators, cars and light aircraft. A manufacturing sector capable of producing such products would be the basis, in time of crisis, for the production of the weapons needed to defend the country.

On strictly economic grounds it made little sense. We could import all that stuff much more cheaply than we could manufacture it. If the only goal was to become rich it was probably not the best way to go about it. But becoming rich was not the only goal.

Of course there were other considerations. Manufacturing provided good well-paid jobs. Full employment was considered to be important. Even the conservative parties thought that full employment and decent wages were good things. Money was a fine thing and profits were a good thing but government was about more than money and profits.

Turning Australia into a modern relatively self-sufficient nation with a strong manufacturing sector and high-tech capabilities, rather than a nation dependent on exports of primary produce, became a national goal of sorts. It was at least something.

Then in the 70s and 80s we turned out back on such goals. We began to dismantle our manufacturing sector. We could get rich by digging stuff out of the ground and selling it, Self-sufficiency was old-fashioned. Greed was much more modern and up-to-date. Who needs national goals?

Maybe we did become rich. I’m not convinced. We’re supposedly a rich nation but in the 60s most Australians could afford to buy a house and today they can't. And maybe when you give up on having national goals you give up something that matters. And you’re not a real nation any longer.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

They Live (1988) - movie review

John Carpenter’s They Live came out in 1988 and it’s an odd mixture of political satire, action movie, paranoia movie and 1950-style monster movie. It’s also surprisingly interesting from a political point of view.

We start with Nada, an ordinary working class guy desperate to get a job. He finds a place to live, in a shanty town in Los Angeles. There’s a very strong sense of unease. We get the feeling that this is not quite our world. There’s an incredible gulf between rich and poor. There’s massive unemployment and poverty and there’s homelessness on an enormous scale. The police behave more like an occupying army than a police force.

TV is everywhere. Even in the shanty town there are TV sets. TV programs focus on the lifestyles of the rich and on conspicuous and extravagant consumption. The shanty town dwellers have nothing but they watch TV shows about people who have everything.

Something is wrong. People know that something has gone wrong but they have no idea what it is. The unease gradually changes to outright menace. The church across the road from the shanty town is raided by the police who start shooting people and then demolish the shanty town. The police have lots of helicopters. They watch everything.

Nada is puzzled that the church across the road is hosting choir practice at 4 o’clock in the morning. He takes a look around. lt turns out that there’s no choir practice going on - that’s just a tape that’s playing. He finds a hidden compartment behind a wall, filled with boxes. He’s  no thief but his curiosity is not going to let him leave without taking one of the boxes with them. He’s disappointed to find that it contains nothing but sunglasses. Then he puts one of the pairs of sunglasses on and everything changes for him. They’re not ordinary sunglasses. They allow the wearer to see reality. What everyone is seeing is not reality but a kind of hypnotically induced dream state. Reality is very different.

The advertising posters don’t actually advertise anything. They carry messages and the messages are relentless - obey, consume, keep sleeping, conform. Even worse, the people of L.A. aren’t all humans. Many are monsters, clearly aliens. The rich people are mostly aliens. The poor people are all humans. Earth has been occupied by invaders from outer space. Their intention does not appear to be to massacre us but to exploit us for profit.

The influence of the classic 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another movie with interesting political subtexts, is obvious.

Nada and Frank intend to fight back. They find a resistance group but the aliens know all about it.

The movie was intended as a response to the 80s in general and to Reagan’s economic policies in particular. Despite this it’s a movie that doesn’t seem dated. It’s possibly more relevant today than it was in 1988. As Carpenter puts it in the accompanying interview, in many ways the 80s never ended. Consumerism and social control are arguably much bigger problems today than in 1988. The aliens obviously represent the ruling class, interested in ordinary people solely as a source of profit. There’s nothing subtle about the satire here. It’s delivered with a sledge hammer.

This is very much a left-wing movie. This is not a movie that can be given a left-wing interpretation. It absolutely nails its colours to the mast. It is overtly and defiantly left-wing. What’s incredibly interesting is that it is also in every way a very socially conservative movie, and a very old-fashioned movie. Even more interestingly for a movie made in 1988 it doesn’t look back to the 60s as a golden age - it actually looks back to the 40s and 50s, and even earlier to the New Deal era.

As is made clear in the 2013 interview with Carpenter included in the DVD he made a deliberate and conscious choice to tell the story from the point of view of the working class, and to have a hero who is very much working class. This is extremely important since this makes They Live left-wing in the Old Left sense rather than the New Left sense. It was made at a time when the organised Left in the U.S. (and in the Anglosphere as a whole) was already losing interest in class and economic issues and beginning to embrace identity politics and social rather than economic radicalism. Whether Carpenter consciously identified with the Old Left or not (and his expressed admiration for New Deal socialism suggests that he was at least unconsciously taking this stance) this is pure Old Left stuff.

The hero is a white heterosexual working class man. His buddy Frank (who becomes his indispensable ally and partner in resisting the aliens) is a black heterosexual working class man with a wife and children. This is also significant. To the extent that this movie addresses the issue of race it is colour-blind (which was the completely orthodox view but is now apparently considered to be politically incorrect). What matters about Frank is that he is a normal heterosexual working class guy with a family.

This is a very heterosexual movie. A modern SJW would undoubtedly condemn it as being outrageously heteronormative. Everybody in the movie is heterosexual. It is simply taken for granted.

It’s also interesting that the two protagonists are old-fashioned gentlemen. They treat women with respect. When Nada meets Holly, despite the circumstances (he has to kidnap her at gunpoint) he still behaves like a gentleman. He doesn't try to take any sexual advantage of the situation and he doesn’t physically harm her in any way. He’s the kind of guy who is interested in marriage rather than casual sex.

This is a movie that attacks consumerism and free-market capitalism from a very left-wing perspective but while the movie is leftist in an economic sense it’s culturally very very conservative. The two heroes just want to get decent jobs that pay enough to let them get married and raise families. They want to live essentially 1950 lifestyles. That’s their idea of the American Dream, and the movie clearly approves of their aspirations. It’s rather depressing that such an overtly left-wing movie with such a clear-cut social conservative message could not be made today.

It’s very much worth a look.

Monday, July 22, 2019

China in Disintegration (book review)

James E. Sheridan’s China in Disintegration (originally published in 1975) covers the fascinating but fiendishly complex republican period of Chinese history, from the Revolution which overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911 to the final victory of the Communists in the Civil War in 1949.

The republican period cannot be understood without taking a brief glimpse of the catastrophic history of China in the 19th century. The treatment of China by the western powers, particularly the British, was truly appalling (the Opium Wars are among the most shameful chapters in all of British history and it’s surprising that the Chinese do not hate the British more than they do). It seemed likely that it would end with China being entirely dismembered and looted. This put the Chinese in a very difficult position - it seemed that they would have to westernise in order to survive but westernisation might well have meant the end of Chinese civilisation anyway.

It’s the dilemma that has faced every civilisation when confronted by the West - either surrender to westernisation or face destruction.

All of which explains why the successful Revolution of 1911 marked the beginning of revolution rather than the endpoint. Anti-imperialism continued to fuel revolutionary impulses while the country was hopelessly fragmented and in a state of near-anarchy. There was no way that the Manchus could simply be overthrown and replaced by a western parliamentary democracy. Firstly the country was going to have to be re-unified. By 1916 China had been carved up into semi-independent warlord states with no effective central government.

Secondly the country was going to have to be strengthened to the point where it could defend itself against the encroachments of imperialist powers. That would require industrialisation. How that industrialisation was going to be handled was open to debate.

Civil war was more or less continuous from 1911 to 1949, complicated greatly by Japanese invasion in the 30s. The conflict that really counted was the one between the Kuomintang (or Nationalist Party) and the Chinese Communist Party. The Kuomintang had many advantages but they were a sort of broad tent revolutionary party divided into leftist, centrist and rightist factions. The big problem for the Communists was that classical Marxist thought considered the peasants to be either an irrelevance or a hindrance to a revolution. China however was a peasant society. The genius of the Chinese Communist Party is that it was able to turn itself into a party of the peasants.

The Kuomintang on the other hand remained essentially a party of the urban middle class, its only interest in the peasants being in squeezing taxes out of them. The Kuomintang was fairly corrupt and generally incompetent and Chiang Kai-shek was increasingly dictatorial so despite holding a very strong hand the Kuomintang played that hand so badly that they managed to lose.

Sheridan is certainly sympathetic to the Communists but he still manages to give us a fascinating account of a bewildering but important period in the history of a great nation. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 15, 2019

ideologies and human nature

One’s political ideology seems to a large extent to reflect one’s views of human nature. Which I guess is logical.

Libertarians believe that people are naturally virtuous, hard-working, thrifty and responsible. It’s only the evil of government and rules and regulations that corrupt people. Get rid of governments and rules and everyone will become a rugged individualist. When reality tells them that this just isn’t so they simply ignore reality.

Liberals believe that people are naturally virtuous, hard-working, thrifty and responsible. It’s only oppressive structures like religion and patriarchy and institutional racism/sexism/homophobia that make people wicked. Get rid of those oppressive structures and everyone will be free and happy as autonomous individuals. When reality tells them that this just isn’t so they get angry and start blaming Nazis or racists or sexists. Then they introduce lots of laws to force people to be free and happy as autonomous individuals.

Conservatives believe that everyone has the ability to be a billionaire and that this will happen if only they can keep cutting taxes on billionaires.

Alt-rightists believe that all white people are naturally virtuous, hard-working, thrifty and responsible but it doesn’t work in practice because of the Jews and/or the blacks.

Traditionalists believe that people are naturally weak, vicious, selfish and self-destructive but that religion will make them reasonably happy and well-behaved.

Socialists (not modern fake leftists but actual socialists) believe that people are naturally weak, vicious, selfish and self-destructive but that the state can make them reasonably happy and well-behaved.

On the whole I think traditionalists and socialists are more grounded in reality.