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?