...a view across the lake
Welcome to my web-site. On it you will find some observations on life under the heading 'Point of View' and various thoughts on philosophical topics. I add to them when I can.
I have also included a selection of extracts from newspapers of the 19th century. They shed an extraordinary light on how life was lived by ordinary people.
As a bonus there are some photos of Prague and also of Annecy, its lake and the surrounding mountains. Annecy is a beautiful mediaeval town in the French Alps.
I should be happy to hear from you with your comments (email@example.com), but in any event hope that you will enjoy your browsing.
All material on this page and that linked to from the A Point of View, A Point of View - archive and Philosophy pages are © Paul Buckingham 2005 - 2019
extracts from A Point of View -
I was fascinated to read a 4 page spread in Hello! about Ariana Rockefeller, the well-known philanthropist and heiress of the immensely rich Rockefeller family. It took a while for the garage to balance my new tyres and I’d finished the Daily Mail provided in the reception area. In the profile she told the reporter how important a work ethic was to her, something which she’d learned from her family, and how much time she spent dealing with her philanthropic organisations. When in New York, she lives not in her own house or apartment, but in a huge suite at the Mark Hotel - “the most boldly lavish hotel in New York City”. She is quoted as saying: “They make my favourite cocktail as soon as I walk into the bar. They save my favourite table in the restaurant for me. They do everything for me. You can’t put a price on that.” The $57,000 a night apparently charged for the penthouse suite by the Mark may be a clue as to how the system functions. Poor little rich girl; nice to be cosseted for love, not money.
The Rockefellers' wealth came from oil and started to be amassed in the 19th century. Their company Standard Oil became a byword for monopolistic practices, effectively preventing others from competing with it. The Supreme Court ultimately ordered its break-up, holding that it was bad for the people of the United States. The founder, John D Rockefeller, had retired in 1897 and but retained his shareholdings and, ironically, became the richest man in the world in 1911 following the court’s decision. There was a break-up bonus. The family is mainly now known for its philanthropy, but also for being as ‘rich as Rockefeller’, a more modern substitute for Croesus.
There are any number of institutes, foundations, museums, theatres and opera houses which bear the family’s name because of their donations over the last century or so. We were always rather dismissive of the reliance of the arts in the USA on private funding. It all seemed a bit tacky. Since the financial crash, however, our arts here in the UK have had to rely increasingly on private philanthropy from a variety of donors rather than taxpayer funding. At the same time, however, questions have been asked about the provenance of the money offered as a means to achieve temporal glory. The Rockefeller’s money came from extreme monopolistic practices designed to ensure that the family profited at the cost of the spirit of free enterprise which was supposed to be the foundation of the American dream. Is it not the case that the origins of the money are based on the sort of grasping immorality which would be condemned at any phase in our world’s history?
And now we have the Sacklers and Oxycontin. The Sackler family has been known in the philanthropic world since they started to make serious money from their drug company, Purdue Pharma. Unfortunately, it seems that their star drug, a slow release form of Oxycodone, an opioid prescribed widely in North America for pain relief is highly addictive. It is said to be more addictive than Heroin, but the regulatory authorities say that it was marketed aggressively with no warnings to that effect and so they are being sued by individuals and even by the State of Oklahoma. It started to become very popular in the late 1990’s and the Sacklers’ fortune took off in a big way as a result.
They have followed in the footsteps of the Rockefellers in setting up a philanthropic foundation which has made major gifts to Universities, museums, theatres etc., all bearing their name as a mark of the good they had done. No more. We now find that all the main trusts which have benefited from their largesse are turning down further gifts. The way has been led by the National Portrait Gallery whose ethics committee delayed its approval to a £1,000,000 donation after demonstrations organised by a photographer, Nan Goldin, outside Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim and the threat that she would withdraw a planned exhibition at the NPG. Who knew that such organisations even had ethics committees? In response the Sackler Foundation has confirmed that it is suspending all giving.
The connection between art and dodgy money is though hardly a recent phenomenon. Throughout the centuries, or even millennia, art has been fuelled by the rich and powerful. Whether rich people wanting art by the best artists so that they could display their status in the world, or indeed the Church taking a similar line, but apparently to display the glory of (their) god. The best architects have been used for similar purposes, with Monarchs promoting the construction of imposing edifices in order to display their power, not only to their long-suffering subjects, but also as a warning to visiting foreigners not to mess with them.
These days, architects design ever higher and more costly skyscrapers with a view to letting magnificent office suites to prestigious companies and selling luxurious apartments with magnificent views to the uber-rich – regardless of their moral status. And of course, no-one objects when works of art are sold, sometimes by museums, at stratospheric prices, to oligarchs whose money is of very dubious origin. No, the problem seems to arise, at the moment at least, mainly in connection with the source of gifts to those organisations whose object is to promote art or education or other charitable aims. Dubious money cannot be used for such purposes – unlike in times gone by.
But what about the question of the moral rectitude of the artists themselves? They are after all a very mixed bunch, from paedophiles to thieves to fascists to murderers. Pretty much every crime known to man has been committed by one or other of the great artists. It’s true that Michael Jackson’s estate is finding it more difficult these days to get in the royalties from his back-catalogue, but when do we stop listening to Benjamin Britten because of his serial ‘infatuations’ with adolescent boys, or Wagner whose rantings were so appreciated by Hitler or stop looking at paintings by Caravaggio who murdered his love rival? The usual response is that great artists are rarely good people. The art, once produced, stands on its own. But surely the same thing could be said about the artistry involved in making money and the money itself once made? I do not think that we can logically justify the distinction.
Obviously money which can be shown to have been obtained by criminality cannot be accepted, which is essentially what is alleged in the case of the Sacklers. But we don’t ask about taxpayers’ morality before taking their money. So why do we impose higher standards when applying what is in fact an informal taxation system on the super-rich by way of philanthropic donations, a process based on the caressing of their egos - even if the rest of us roll our eyes at their posturing? If we persist in demanding higher standards from those funding the arts than from the artists; if we demand the highest ethics from donors before we will take their money to relieve the poor of the world and those made homeless by natural disasters and war, then who will actually suffer? It won’t be the plutocrats of this world.
Sadness isn't sadness;
"We (women) are just as obsessed and infatuated as men. We love music just as hard. It's just that we don't exhibit that obsession, that love, through an alphabetised record collection. You want to know how I store my records? I put the ones next to each other that I think would be friends. I suppose that you could call that emotional; I call it womanly."
I guess that you could say that it's unlikely that the Arctic Monkeys would have much in common with Bach, although I would imagine that Schoenberg and Shostakovich would have quite a lot to talk over. Obviously though this idea has much wider application. And, as such, it calls into question the liberty of our woman librarians who, despite I believe being in the majority must, one assumes, have been forced by their male colleagues into filing books in alphabetical order rather than placing together books which would feel comfortable with each other.
One could for instance imagine the works of Molière and Shakespeare having discussions late into the night about the difficulty of using verse in plays or, maybe, the books commenting on gritty contemporary life written by Emile Zola and Charles Dickens discussing whether publication in weekly episodes was the way forward to maximise profits. Religious books would certainly need to be classified by religion, but also by the sect they represented, otherwise there would be war on the shelves, with books attempting to burn others of contrary view. Works by narcissistic academics, who had been sworn enemies for years, would need to be kept forcibly apart to preserve the peace and tranquillity of the library. The Mills and Boon books, however, would go away together in pairs for romantic week-ends and then would come back, some still together, perhaps with their newly-born short stories, and others who will never speak to each other again. Ever! And so the shelves would need to be completely re-organised every week.
This same idea could equally apply to many other things in life. Why do we have houses numbered in strict sequence? Why not group numbers according to the colour of the woodwork or whether the windows have been replaced with double-glazed units? Now, I appreciate that we men have the reputation of being obsessed by lists much more than women. After all, there are very few women who engage in train-spotting, and how many are able to recite all the winners of the FA Cup for the last 40 year? Or indeed would want to? But there are also many men for whom such activities are not central to their lives. And there are just a few women who are obsessed by other things, such as their handbags or the lives of the stars.
Of course, the whole question of storing things is now under attack. Marie Kondo, the Japanese author and advocate of minimalism has a Netflix series which is called ‘Tidying Up’. She wishes us to remove the clutter from our lives, saying that there are numerous benefits to be derived from doing this. Apparently there are psychological advantages – we become more contented and less prone to depression, although I’m not quite sure where where the evidence is for this. I assume, however, that if we take her advice we can all downsize and so put some money in the bank as well. She suggests deciding within 30 seconds whether or not we truly love the item in question. If we do, then we should keep it but if not it should be binned. A bit extreme? What would happen if the first object that I wanted to put in the bin was the bin itself? After all, I’m not a great lover of bins.
I suppose though that she is talking about such things as trinkets, clothes and shoes, the ephemera of life. Even here, though, it seems to me that there is a problem. I have no particular love for my socks or indeed my shirts, but they are necessary if I wish to go out in the British climate. What should I do? In fact, though, Miss Kondo does not seem to have persuaded many people actually to throw things out. Ironically, what she has achieved instead is an increase in tidiness, but only through inadvertently persuading us to purchase and use more things - the sale of storage boxes was up by 47% and baskets by 24% last month and demand for stackable shoe racks has risen by more than 500%.
What has been rather more controversial is her demand that we limit ourselves to 30 books – this on the basis that we don’t need or read more than this number. I have to confess that I don’t read time and again all of the books I have, but, just like the Guardian writer quoted and her CDs, I have an emotional attachment to them. It would certainly take more than 30 seconds to decide whether or not I loved them or could bin them. I have, of course tried Kindle, but like many others, I do not think that it has the same feel or indeed convenience. Not being able actually to see the last page is for some reason something which I find problematic. I suppose that I need the end actually to be in sight. Whatever the reason, the result is that the sale of books has in fact gone back up and the number of downloads has decreased.
Something similar has happened with vinyl discs and even cassette tapes, but to a much lesser extent . The reality, however, is that, these days, I no longer need to concern myself about the order of my CD collection. It is becoming less and less important as more advanced technology takes over - everything now can be on your phone or tablet. And that is good for both men and women of whatever persuasion. For although it can list the music in alphabetical order, pieces can equally easily be grouped together in any other way - so that, for instance, they can feel good about each other. Or, there is always the shuffle option - where pieces are played completely at random – ideal for those anarchists who wish to lose all order from their lives.
|A Christmas Story
It had been a restless night, and suddenly I awoke with a feeling of premonition. At that moment, the radio came on and the sonorous chimes of Big Ben could be heard, as if portending something of great moment. As they stopped, the Radio 4 newsreader began the midnight news-bulletin with words which shook me to the core. She said “the Government has decided that Mr Paul Buckingham, the well-known philosopher of Coleshill, someone generally accepted to be a person of great wisdom, has been given the responsibility of deciding whether or not the concept of Father Christmas should be abolished. He will announce his decision in 24 hours time.”. I was at first utterly at a loss to know what to do, but then, having decided that I should accept this responsibility in the national interest, I started to think over the questions which it raised.
There is first of all the patriarchal aspect to all of this. The hero of Christmas is a man. Mother Christmas is sometimes mentioned, but only as a helper and has nothing like the same status as Father Christmas himself. It was reported in the Times at the end of November this year that Egloshayle Parish Council in Cornwall has just attempted to overcome this by advertising the post of Father Christmas on a non-gender specific basis. They have not though stated whether the successful candidate will be ‘Father’ Christmas or ‘Mother’ Christmas. Obviously a bearded man self-identifying as a woman would be an ideal candidate, but this to me seems unduly restrictive. Indeed, bearing in mind that the entire title, whether Father or Mother Christmas could be seen as an implicit criticism of anyone who is not a parent, whether because too young or because they did not wish to or could not be a parent, it would seem that a less judgemental title would be appropriate in any event. Perhaps ‘Non-binary Christmas’? This would deal both with the difficulty of gender specificity and also that of implicit criticism of those who have not had children. Clearly though, I mused, the abolition of the concept in its entirety would deal with all of this confusion at a stroke.
Then there is the difficulty in any multi-faith (and no faith) society that the word ‘Christmas’ implies a relationship to the Christian faith. This could be dealt with by the use of a different word, perhaps ‘Present-giver’? It would sum up the nature of the role whilst not implying any connection with a particular faith (or no faith). So then, if we decided to continue with the concept of someone distributing gifts on 24th/25th December, we would have a possible alternative name for Father Christmas - “Non-binary Present-giver”. I think that trips off the tongue very nicely.
But what about the concept of giving gifts at Christmas, or perhaps we should say, ‘Present Giving Day’? Is it something we in fact wish to see continue? After all, it is only of benefit for good boys and girls (and others who are not defined by such binary descriptions). We know that those who have been naughty, of whatever gender (or none), are not entitled to receive any presents from Non-binary Present Giver on Present Giving Day. But who is to judge the degree of naughtiness which would entail such non-entitlement? After all, every child is to some extent naughty and to some extent nice. Is it reasonable to give one person, the Non-binary Present-giver, the responsibility for making such judgements? Should there not be instead a committee of all ethnicities and faiths (and none), with a non-ageist profile, drawn exclusively from British society and charged with responsibility for determining the relative nice/naughty quotient of each child? And, as a matter of natural justice, as moral standards change over the years, surely the criteria for such a judgement should be set out in advance of the relevant year, so that children could know against what particular standard they would be judged. Ad hoc judgements affecting British children by a citizen of a foreign land, should surely no longer be tolerated.
Then there is the question of the effect on trade of the import, without customs control, of presents. These will all apparently have been made by foreigners, people of diminutive stature, the payment rate for whom is shrouded in mystery. The International Labour Organisation is yet to comment on this, but there is no record of payment ever having being made for their labours. Obviously this would be fine post-Brexit, when we would no longer be bound by EU minimum wage regulations but, until then, it must be regarded as an anti-competitive practice. We also need to address the question of whether we have a free-trade agreement with Santa Land. Certainly, until we do, flying presents in over the chimney tops, but under the radar is not something of which we can approve.
Indeed, the concept of requiring chimneys for the delivery of gifts in this period of accelerating global warming is hardly in keeping with the government’s carbon reduction strategy. Of course, these days, children (and adults) are apparently looking less to receive gift items in the physical sense and instead are wanting experiences which they can enjoy after Present Giving Day. This is no doubt something to be encouraged in so far as the activity does not in itself entail a significant carbon footprint. But by the same token the very idea of giving the man, woman or non-binary other of the family a day at a motor-racing track pretending to be an F1 driver must be frowned upon. Likewise, surely we should no longer encourage days of pampering at a spa where temperatures are held at artificially high levels at great environmental cost in order, apparently, to allow participants to sweat out their very many health-threatening impurities.
Time was moving on and I had to come to a conclusion on this vexed subject. After much agonising, I had just made my decision when, to my astonishment, I received a telephone call from the Prime Minister to see what conclusion I had come to. I am a person endowed with wisdom and knowledge such as others do not possess, and so I told him: “No chance Boris, I don’t want to be lynched the next time I set foot outside the house. As far as I’m concerned you can hold a referendum. The people can decide and then live with the consequences.”. That should work.
What a nightmare!
(Present Giving Day, 2018)
|Conspiracy theories - the business model|
What is really happening in the world? Of course, for enlightenment, we cannot depend on the traditional press and their fake news. Our friend Mr Trump tells us that all the newspapers and media outlets (apart from Fox News obviously) are in the pockets of the super-rich and, obviously, these billionaires have their own agenda. This is even more clear now when, thanks to the internet, we know that the super-rich are a part of the 'deep state', the group of characters that truly control the world - also known as the "Illuminati". There are those who pour scorn on such an idea. Fortunately though, there are others ready to defend the truth about this state within a state.
Despite the accusation that he is only a conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, the famous American radio host and owner of the websites InfoWars, NewsWars and Prison Planet, continues to convey the truth, with President Trump's explicit televised endorsement. In addition to warning us against the conspiracy by the deep state against the present President, he also insists that this hidden government controls the climate and that multidimensional extraterrestrial demons are conquering the world. Which all sounds very reasonable. And, of course, amongst the demons are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Alex Jones tells us that both of them really give off the smell of sulphur and that, even when surrounded by hundreds of people, it is only Barack Obama who is surrounded by flies. All the proof we need of his true demonic nature!
Obviously, though, telling us these truths costs a lot and therefore Alex Jones appeals for funds, with much success, to his listeners and those who read his websites. At the moment you can donate between 25 and 1000 dollars with a click on the "Donations" page. He says:
"In twenty years we have grown incredibly here at Infowars. Now we reach the next level. We are about to launch satellite syndicated TV shows all over North America and we need your help to achieve this. Please join us in this cause to free the minds of North Americans and donate what you can so that we can spread the word on an exponentially larger scale.”
He also sells goods on his sites that are linked to his message. And it's a message of the horror to come, when the third world war takes place, sponsored by the Illuminati. And this time it will be a nuclear war with more than just a couple of atomic bombs. From his site therefore you can buy a variety of food supplements and vitamins and even toothpaste (without fluoride of course). The products aren't perhaps advertised with the same aggressive tone as the rest of his site but, when you dig down, they do not disappoint. There is a section dedicated to survival, with titles such as 'Nuclear and Biological', 'Emergency Radio', 'Outdoor Survival Tools', and 'Freeze dried”. There is also 'Emergency Survival Food': here you have the choice of plastic boxes containing a balanced diet of freeze-dried foods. For a quantity sufficient for 72 hours after the nuclear war we are asked to pay 20 dollars and for an amount which would last for a year, 2 160 dollars, a reduced price compared to the usual one of 2 500 dollars. All products have a shelf life of 25 years, but making a claim under the 25 year guarantee could be a difficulty - if the difficulty only came to light after a nuclear war. And it does not indicate where non-radioactive water will come from to reconstitute the food. Details!
He also says that the mass school shootings, including the 2012 attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School, which left 20 children dead, were actually a trick involving child actors. It was sponsored by the Obama administration to provide a pretext for introducing firmer restrictions on firearms. Given the incalculable benefit that Mr. Jones brings to the world, it is surprising therefore that Facebook, Apple, Spotify, Twitter and YouTube have finally decided to banish him and his organisation from its platforms. They cite a failure to follow their rules. Without doubt it is all a conspiracy against him by the Illuminati. But it will limit not only the main source of truth on the internet, but also a considerable source of money for Mr. Jones - and this at a time when some parents of the children killed at Sandy Hook have sued him for libel. The trials will be before juries, and juries are known for their generosity when they decide in favour of a grieving parent!
We have not only Alex Jones who transmits the truth to a world hungry for that commodity. We also have Alex Wakefield, the former doctor who, a few years ago, published his research on the danger of contracting autism for children vaccinated with MMR vaccine (against mumps, measles and rubella). The General Medical Council in Great Britain decided that his research was so full of errors that even he he could not actually have believed the truth of his conclusions. So they removed his name from the medical register. It does not seem, however, that this has made much difference. He is now a hero of the 'antivax' world movement. These are the people who believe that vaccination is an attack on freedom of choice, something that is unjustifiable given the risk of the accompanying autism.
They believe that there are in fact non-contaminated vaccines which do not cause autism, but that these are reserved for the rich. In a population in which less than 95% of people are vaccinated, there is a strong risk of the rapid spread of the diseases we try to prevent. And unfortunately we now see this in action. There is an increase in the number of cases of measles in this country, and therefore in the number of deaths from the disease. But there are even more in Italy where the anti-vax movement has the support of the M5S political party. The celebrity of the former doctor Wakefield has given him an adoring audience, ready to pay for the dissemination of his nonsense at conferences, by means of a film (pay per view) and in his books.
But the lie is not only spread in this obvious way. We see that Russian 'Trolls' support the film made by Wakefield, and not just in the chatrooms. They have posted on the internet, for example, a story that says that after the vaccinations of children in a Mexican village, 75% of those children died or went to hospital. This kind of disinformation however is not new. In 1983, some Russian agents planted a fake report in an Indian newspaper. It claimed that the AIDS virus had been developed by the US government. It was made to hit African Americans and the gay community of the United States. That this was a successful strategy was confirmed by a survey in 2005. It found that almost half of the African Americans interviewed believed that HIV was "man-made".
Why is Russia acting this way? It seems that it sees this confusion as a political advantage. Not only when the government was communist, but even now under Putin, the government is working to destabilize the Western Democracy. Obviously for a weak country economically, trying to weaken the influence of the most powerful 'enemy' in emerging countries is a very useful strategy. It means that they can have a burgeoning relationship with those countries and so use their relatively unregulated banking systems to launder money. As usual - follow the money!
Evolution, democracy and politics
Having lived for the vast majority of our existence as a species under a system of government which depended on a chief of some type – a tribal chief, a king or a dictator – we live now in an era in which democracy is the most widespread political system. It seems to have taken over. I am though concerned about its longevity and how firmly rooted it is.
It is worth noting that the original UN constitution made no reference to democracy until the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the cold war. It was only in 1999 that the UN’s Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man was modified to include:
“the right to full participation and other fundamental democratic rights and other liberties inherent in any democratic society.”
The result? Almost every government now proclaims itself to be a democracy. This is hypocrisy for many, but they think that they ought to pretend because it is the preferred international model. They can often lie with impunity because it is difficult to show that a country is not in fact a democracy. But as we know, a democracy doesn’t exist simply because there is an election from time to time. There need also to be the conditions required for a genuine form of participation in those elections. This requires not only a voting booth, but the liberty to vote against those in power without fear of the consequences – and so freedom of opinion and expression and the rule of law. Thus a country can easily say that it is democratic when in fact the real exercise of democracy is prevented in order to allow the sort of corruption which we see in Russia and numerous other countries at the moment.
But we can see from recent events in Western countries, even those with a strong tradition of democracy, that democracy can go wrong. Difficulties emerge in part because of the party system. A major party is resistant to the normal pressures of natural selection, even when it no longer actually responds to the wishes of the people and the circumstances of the times. This is in contrast to the position of independent MPs who are much more easily removed. Parties will have money, investments and a party structure, all there to assure the continued existence of it and its philosophy in their darkest moments. So then it has an inertia which is difficult to stop. Its self-belief creates an impression of invulnerability. In turn, this discourages the formation or the growth of other parties or the departure of its supporters to join a new party, for fear of finding themselves in the political desert. Obviously even a party (or an organisation) with a long history, like the dinosaurs, can finally disappear. But the process is not straightforward. Normally it follows a period of tension which stretches the elastic until it finally breaks. It is similar to the evolutionary process of ‘Punctuated Equilibrium’. Dinosaurs dominated the world for almost 200 million years until a catastrophic change in the climate suddenly removed them. In turn, this allowed some other little animals to replace them, which had not until then made much progress: primitive mammals, our ancestors. The dinosaurs never made it back.
And it might just be that we are now in a state of change in the political climate which will initiate yet another era. Recently we have seen political earthquakes in Europe. In Germany, Austria, Italy, Poland, Hungary and other countries we have seen the growth of extremist parties which, until now, were at the margins or simply did not exist. In France, miraculously, a new party of the centre won. But elsewhere the traditional parties have not succeeded in recognising and suggesting solutions for the problems perceived by the voters to be important. And so democracy suffers. It suffers because when there is not a choice which speaks to the voters, they have a tendency to lose their faith in the system and not vote, because it’s not worth the bother, or they vote for extremist parties as a protest. Disenchantment with democracy has also arrived in the UK. According to a series of surveys, the proportion of our fellow-citizens who support an authoritarian leadership of our country - a ‘strong man’ - has increased from 25% in 1999 to 50% now. Those under the age of 25 are much more critical of democracy than the corresponding age group was 20 years ago.
Supporting the idea of an authoritarian form of government indicates another element of the problem for democracy – the people and their credulity. As we have seen, when the traditional parties don’t provide policies which are attractive to the masses, it benefits the extremist parties, or as I prefer to think of them, the unrealistic parties. In Italy, for example, the extreme right wing party, the Lega, is proposing to deport 600,000 immigrants shortly after taking office. Quite how, they haven’t explained, but it gave them more votes than Berlusconi’s party. The other winner from the Italian election, M5S, Beppe Grillo’s party, considers that Italian citizens are so well informed about and engaged in political matters that they can be relied on to vote digitally from their homes in place of MPs – a sort of continuous referendum. In numerous countries in Europe, the extremist parties doing remarkably well are supporters of nationalism in a barely concealed racist form.
In the UK, we have seen a resurgence of nationalism in the form of the demand to ‘take back control’, as the answer to all of our problems. At the same time, we have a Labour Party of the extreme left. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are both admirers of Lenin and Trotsky and all things Communist. They want to nationalise most things because they are against the profit motive, except perhaps for the sale of the vegetables grown in Jeremy’s allotment. According to McDonnell, in an interview on the Today programme last week, they would make massive ‘investments’ in infrastructure in order to achieve fairness as between the different areas of the UK. Who would decide what this fairness consisted of in the various contexts and how much to spend in order to attain such a vague objective is not clear.
And when the electors in the various countries realise that they’ve been duped?
But there is yet another factor when considering democracy: the European Commission. We criticise countries such as China and Russia which allow their authoritarian heads to remain in power indefinitely. It makes corruption and a complete disregard for the good of the people far more likely. But the European Commission doesn’t exist solely in order to implement the wishes of elected representatives, as would a normal bureaucracy. It proposes laws. It upholds what it defines as the values of the EU and any suggestion of change is met with resistance. It is in fact a self-perpetuating part of the government of the EU and has been in office since the beginning. And we can see from the attitude of many people in the EU that they regard it as not representing their interests and not to have democratic legitimacy. The irony is that, at last, and in no small measure because of British efforts, the overweening power of the Commission is now being reduced - just as we're about to leave!
Perhaps we shall arrive at a stable political destination over the next few decades. It is not, though, only the destination but also the confusion during the transition which may be difficult. We shall see a variety of parties and ideas which will fight for supremacy in a form of natural selection. We cannot even be sure that our new-found democracy will continue to be the dominant system. Being nice doesn't always beat brutality in the evolutionary struggle.
24 March 2018
|Definitions and Transsexuality|
In 2002, as the executor of my late brother’s will, I received an offer from two chaps for the purchase of his house in Birmingham. The buyers were the proprietors of a pub at the centre of the gay scene in Birmingham. We established a good relationship with them during the sale process and they kindly invited us to the house after completion in order to celebrate their move with their friends. It was a house with three floors and a big cellar where my brother had kept his vintage wines and ports at the right temperature. But during our visit, what was interesting was the third floor, because it was there that the buyers had put all the clothes which they used for their drag act. There were yards of rails from which hung the most amazing of clothes, decorated in diamanté and feathers. Very showbiz. It was like something out of ‘La Cage aux Folles’. Heather was very envious. They would have been very striking on stage but, dressed as women in their day to day lives was not what they did. They wouldn’t have given a very convincing impression as women – from their build, they were obviously men and when we met them in connection with business, that was how they dressed. So then whether or not they were transsexual I cannot say, but they had obviously not ‘transitioned’.
It seems that transsexuality is now a particularly delicate subject. There is a determination by a vociferous part of the transsexual community to be seen simply as women, even though they are not, whether genetically or by their experience of life. But these distinctions are not apparently important. We have now various self-proclaimed spokespeople for the movement. They insist that we recognise as women every person who self-identifies as a woman. And this regardless of their genes, their secondary sexual characteristics or even if they have decided to live in any real sense as a woman. Thus after or before a transition and with or without the intention to make a transition. And this self-identification is apparently to be for all purposes. Obviously this is something which produces a series of difficulties.
Putting to one side for a moment the always difficult question of redefinition of a word which is fundamental to our lives, there remain various practical problems. These include the difficulty of which many women, including Germaine Greer, have spoken – how to distinguish between those who claim to be women in this new sense of the word simply to enter into spaces reserved for women for malign reasons, and the others who are genuine in their desire to be considered as women. At the moment, there is a debate in the Labour Party regarding who should be entitled to be on the list of candidates reserved for women – an attempt to increase the number of women in Parliament in town councils up and down the land. If self-identification as a woman is the only criterion for being included in the list, then obviously the system is open to abuse. It’s very problematic when there is no right even to question those who make such a claim. Apparently, we are to adopt this approach in order to avoid upsetting in any way any ‘real’ transsexual. It would be ‘offensive’. In order to impede any straying from the one true way, the militants have prescribed that not to accept that all who say they are women are so is, in itself, a manifestation of transphobia. Another redefinition of a word – this time the word ‘phobia’. What exactly this now signifies I am not sure, but obviously it signifies ‘against’ in some way, rather than the normal meaning of ‘fear’.
So then, if I were to decide to apply to be a Labour candidate, I would have the right to be considered for inclusion on the women's list if I used the correct form of words. No-one could contest my status or motives. Likewise, if I wanted access to a sauna reserved for women, it would be totally acceptable. It seems to me that all this tells us that the transsexual community does not understand the real and practical difficulties experienced by women – women in the traditional sense - or that perhaps for them they are less important than achieving this version of the transsexual agenda. I have the impression that they are being selfish. They seem to be far too absorbed by their own situation and unwilling to look at the full picture.
To insist that those who obviously are not the same and who don’t have the same social problems are, nonetheless, a part of the same group is at the root of the problem. But it is only a sub-set of those with a wish to obfuscate or not admit the truth or to con an individual or an entire population. The Ministry of Truth created by George Orwell is the most famous proponent of this approach. Big Brother would have been proud of our flexibility with words, our capacity to use words to signify whatever a particular group wanted them to mean in order to promote their interests. We shouldn’t though forget that in Orwell’s dystopia there was something-else which also relates to actions taken by transsexual militants and many other populists across the centuries. The Ministry of Truth insisted on two minutes of hatred every day – a period in which the members of the party had to watch a film of the enemies of the Party and at the same time express hatred for them. This was reinforced from time to time by a week of hatred. Orwell had seen these methods used by the populists in Germany, Russia and by Generalissimo Franco in Spain. A more recent example is that of the campaign run by the Apprentice President. We learn from Trump’s campaign that hatred in combination with lies and obfuscation is very potent.
It is disturbing that people wanting to do good in the world, such as environmentalists and militant transsexuals use the supposed ‘moral superiority’ of their cause and so, by extension, of their supporters to induce hatred against those holding a different opinion. Those opposing them become defined as ‘the enemy’ and so, it seems, there can be moral justification for hating them. That those with even something good to say, who presumably are concerned for the future of the world, feel justified in copying the methods of the megalomaniacs is not very encouraging.
23 January 2018
|Brexit - the divorce settlement
Well, now we have the 'divorce agreement' signed by Santa Teresa on Friday 8th December 2017. The agreement has the approval of Remainers and also the leading Brexiteers (apart obviously from Farage and Arron Banks). The leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, has said that she is rejoicing. But what have we actually accepted? Well it seems that rejoicing is indeed in order, because we've taken back control. With the conclusion of this agreement, we now know quite clearly that:
Goods and services
a. We're definitely leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market and so can adopt any regulatory framework we like;
b. Unless the Irish government and the Northern Ireland Assembly agree otherwise, we're going to maintain alignment (i.e. comply) with all the regulations required for membership of the Customs Union and the Single Market. And, of course, there is no Northern Ireland Assembly at the moment to give its agreement - just MLAs being paid to kick their heels while they argue over whether Irish should become an official language of Northern Ireland, as it is in Ireland itself.
a. We will have complete control of our borders and so will not accept free movement of people between the EU and the UK;
b. In order to avoid a border between Ireland, Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the common travel area will continue in force for the whole of the UK and Ireland, thus preventing our imposing any controls on travel to the UK by nationals of other EU countries via Ireland. Of course, once they're here, then we'll be entitled to hunt them down mercilessly so that we can deport them - again and again.
I don't know how it took them so
long to come up with such an intellectually coherent
and straightforward solution.
Of course, just after the ink had
dried, we had comments from Michael Gove and David
Davis which gave a slightly different slant to it
all. Michael Gove made it clear that the final
agreement, whenever that may come to fruition, will
not not in fact be the final word. If the electorate
don’t like it, then they can express their views
through the ballot box at the next general election
so that the incoming government can change it all.
He was writing in the Daily Telegraph, a long time
opponent of the EU, with an elderly readership who
are mostly in agreement with the editor of their
newspaper. So then they should not lose hope
that their real desire, a hard Brexit, may
ultimately be achieved. Of course, they are by
definition dying out at a greater rate than the
younger generation who are mainly Remainers, so
there is hope for the country yet.
David Davis told us what was always
obvious to anyone who understands how the
legislative process works: that the divorce
agreement is not legally binding. He said it
was a statement of intent. So then, if we
didn’t get an acceptable trade deal, the EU could
whistle for the payments that the UK had agreed to
make. This was in stark contrast to the position
taken by Philip Hammond, the Chancellor of the
Exchequer, who had said that it was inconceivable
that a country such as the UK would not make
payments which were legally due from it. This was an
echo of what Teresa May had said in her Florence
And now (12th December) we
have the EU demanding that we enshrine the
divorce agreement in legislation because of the
comments made by Davis – even though he tried
yesterday to row back from them by saying that
when he said it was a statement of intent, that
meant it was more binding than a legal
obligation! Like a little child found with his
hand in the sweetie jar denying that he was
after sweets. What Parliament will make of a
Bill incorporating the carefully crafted wording
of the agreement, I don’t know, but of course
they can always hold their noses and pass it
anyway knowing that it won’t make a scrap of
difference. As was implicit in what Gove said –
it really doesn’t matter what Act is passed,
because it can always be repealed later on with
a bare majority.
actually legally due from the UK to the EU is,
though, a matter of much debate. The relevant
House of Lords select committee came to the
conclusion that nothing was legally due from us
upon leaving the club. So then, we haven’t a
clue as to what any of this means and are
unlikely to know even when it’s all over,
because it will never be all over, if the
Brexiteers have their way, until every UK
citizen has a bull-dog and the UK itself has
floated off into the mid-Atlantic, well away
10th December 2017 (revised 12th December)
|Memes, Dodos & Donald Trump
That ideas spread is not a new insight. But it was given new impetus in 1976 by Richard Dawkins’ book ‘The Selfish Gene’. In this, he coined the word ‘meme’ which he defined as "an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture". He saw it as analogous to a gene and so subject to the same evolutionary pressures as them. In particular, he said that they were subject to natural selection based on their fitness to survive. Now, as we know, fitness to survive in organisms is not a quality which is easy to recognise in advance. There are so many variables that we normally take the easy path and simply recognise that such fitness must have existed in those organisms which have in fact survived.
And so it is with memes. Who would have thought that gin would becomes so popular again? Gin was known as “mother’s ruin” in the 18th and 19th centuries, the preferred drink at golf clubs and amongst the upper middle classes in the 20th century and increasingly out of fashion in the 21st century. But since 2010 it has had a resurgence with the production of a swathe of craft gins popular with hipsters. Apparently the effect is a result of the influence of one part Downton Abbey and one part James Bond - shaken not stirred. And who would have imagined that vinyl discs and valve amplifiers would make a come-back? They are technically inferior in all respects to CD’s and modern transistor amplifiers yet have acquired a reputation amongst many aficionados as having an ‘authentic’ sound which, despite all measurements (and basic physics) to the contrary, are regarded as somehow superior by those who choose to believe in them. Yes, it’s a sort of religion. They are redolent of an earlier, analogue time when you could see and understand how things worked far more easily, even if they didn’t work very well. And that seems to be comforting to a certain section of the community, particularly those with more money than sense, because they are very expensive.
So then, the survival of a meme does not depend upon its rationality. After all, we humans are the ones who make or break them. And we are not totally rational. But neither is it the case that a meme which succeeds in Coleshill will grow and prosper in other parts of the world, such as Coventry or Birmingham. Memes can be very localised. All they need is a suitable habitat, however small, to survive in. In this, they are just like various animals and plants which used to be found exclusively on remote Pacific islands. The Dodo was one of these, living an untroubled life on Mauritius, until its habitat was invaded by humans and the fauna (particularly the rats) which they brought with them. Humans down the millennia have formed groups, associations and even nations, which have enabled them to follow ways of life different from the rest of the world. Villages and towns have their different customs. As nation states developed, we have seen different countries associated with different religions and very different ways of living.
Nowadays, though, we seem to have gone one step further. We are able to create relatively isolated ‘habitats’ for groups of people without their having actually to live in one place. To achieve this we have technology. There are television channels and radio stations devoted to particular points of view and, of course, the internet, all of which enable groups of like-minded people to live in a bubble in which they find the comfort of conformity. If we were talking needle-point or even horse-racing, then not much harm would come to the wider community as a result. But when it comes to extreme political views then that is rather different.
Professor Trump, the great philosopher, has decided that all points of view are equivalent and supports free speech for all as a consequence. This includes racists and anti-racists alike, marchers echoing the views of the Nazis and those opposing them. We find that ‘White lives Matter’ in the same way as ‘Black Lives Matter’. Of course ‘All Lives Matter’ would be a good rallying call for a nation where everyone mattered as much as everybody-else, but I don’t think that the white demonstrators would be very happy if their lives mattered only as much as those of their black colleagues. The reality is that black lives matter far less than those of their white counterparts, hence the rapid spread of this particular meme following the unjustified shootings of various black people in the USA. But the white version has spread in the racist community as one might expect. From what I have seen, their cheer-leaders, Fox News and Breitbart, are unable or unwilling to see what is going on and instead encourage division in American society. Why? What do they get out of it? We can reasonably surmise that the people in charge hold 'altright' views, but they also make a lot of money out of their followers with their subscriptions and the advertising on their web sites. So then, the meme will be encouraged to survive whilst this continues. They have given what might otherwise have had to grow on stony ground a specially protected and well-nourished habitat.
But that is not the only encouragement to racial violence. There is the matter of comments on the internet – twitter, Instagram etc. Around the world, these provide fertile ground for people of extreme views. But extreme views are not new. They have always been expressed. Indeed I have a book of very inflammatory religious pamphlets written by the Reverend Thomas Edwards and printed in 1641, just before the Civil War. It is called "Reasons Against the Independent Government of Particular Congregations". He was Presbyterian and it is a polemic against other forms of Protestantism. It contains a major attack against religious tolerance and “pretended Liberty of Conscience” and was addressed to Parliament. A few years later in 1647, he found himself on the losing side of an attempt to take over Parliament. He and his co-conspirators had in fact succeeded in their attempt for about a week until Oliver Cromwell’s army stepped in, at which point he ran off to Holland where shortly afterwards he died of fever. Whatever we may think of his views and actions, though, at least he published under his own name, which is mainly not the case with people on the internet. I do wonder if people would be quite so keen to say the things they do if they knew they could be identified and prosecuted for what they say. The Director of Public Prosecutions has in fact just announced a tightening-up of policy with regard to hate speech on the internet. It is now to be treated just like hate speech used in the street. In addition, the government is now proposing that the likes of Twitter etc should be treated as publishers and so responsible for what is seen on what, until now, they had tried to say were mere neutral 'platforms' for people to use. I’m surprised it’s taken so long to get to this point. I would like to think that we are at least trying to do something to discourage the continued survival of memes damaging to our society. We don’t want to see the Trumpian meme take root here.
August 2017 (revised December 2017)
|"The past is a different country, they do things differently there”|
In his novel “The Go-between”, Leslie P Hartley wrote: “the past is a different country; they do things differently there”. I don’t know anyone who has read his book, but this phrase has become very well known – because it tells us a truth. Our morality has changed very much, not just over the course of millennia or centuries, but even over the last few decades. I’m reminded of this because this year we have seen the homosexual community celebrating the 50th anniversary of the passing of a law to decriminalise the practice of homosexuality in private between consenting adults. But if we look more closely at the effect of this Act of Parliament, we can see in retrospect that 1967 marked only the beginning of a slow change which would take a long time to unfold. This initial change in the law was the result in part of the Wolfenden Report of 1957. The report was summarised by the commission producing it as follows:
"Unless a deliberate attempt is to be made by society, acting through the agency of the law, to equate the sphere of crime with that of sin, there must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which is, in brief and crude terms, not the law's business....The law's function is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others... It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens, or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour."
In fact, the recommendations of the commission were ignored until 1967 when the labour government decided to implement them. The reason given at that time was that the criminal law should not penalise homosexual (men) because they were already “the object of ridicule and derision”. The comments of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary at the time, captured very well the attitude of the government: “... those who suffer from this disability carry a great weight of shame during the whole of their lives...”. During the debate, Lord Arran, one of the sponsors of the bill, in an attempt to minimise the criticism of the proposed law said:
“I ask that [the beneficiaries of this law] show their gratitude by conducting themselves in silence and with dignity...any form of ostentatious behaviour, now or in the future or any form of public ostentation would be unacceptable and make the sponsors of this bill regret having done what they have done.”
So then not exactly a ringing endorsement of the right to live differently. Indeed it was only in 2000 that finally the law abolished any difference in treatment between homosexuals and heterosexuals. And now, after 50 years, it’s almost obligatory in this country to be homosexual or at least to have friends who are out and proud!
But the world in general remains very divided. We see very obvious distinctions between the countries in Europe and even more in the world as a whole. Mainly we see this in ex-communist countries and those which are predominantly Muslim. There is still a major difference in attitude in countries with a majority of either catholic or evangelical Christians, such as in countries in Africa or South America. But also in the UK. In Ulster the law itself is different. It does not for example permit abortion except in very extreme cases where the mother is virtually at death’s door. It certainly does not permit marriage other than between a man and a woman. This is principally thanks to the attitude of the party which holds the majority of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the DUP – the democratic unionist party - the party now in alliance with the Conservative government. It was founded by Reverend Ian Paisley, a so-called Christian, who in today’s terms would be regarded as a ‘hate preacher’. The Church which he founded was and is fundamentalist in the worst sense. Paisley died some years ago, but his spirit lives on in the professed morality not only of his church, but in the manifesto of his party and in the opinions of its members. Creationism is not a part of the manifesto, but is widely subscribed to by the party faithful. In fact the party is similar in many respects to the Republican party in the USA - its members are not convinced, either, of the probability that man is the cause of global warming, despite all the evidence.
In contrast, in Southern Ireland, a country which was more catholic then the Vatican until a few years ago, there is now a prime minister who ticks all the boxes – his father is Indian, his mother is Irish and he himself married his (man) friend two years ago after a change in the law to permit it - despite the fact that he is Catholic.
Clearly, therefore we have a problem reconciling the very diverse opinions of what is moral, or even in deciding what morality actually is. Obviously for someone who is not religious, even the concept of morality is a bit of a problem, but it is a word and as such has a meaning which is generally accepted. And the concept is not confined to religion, but is used in a neutral way to indicate the type of behaviour which is generally accepted by society and is considered to be for its benefit. But it seems to me that we have to accept that there should be exceptions even for behaviour which is generally accepted. If that behaviour were based on an error of fact, for instance, would it not be sensible to oppose it? In the past, homosexuality was regarded as a wicked and perverted choice. Now we see it mainly as a product of genetic difference, perhaps pushed along by early upbringing. And we also now see that psychopaths are such as result of their genes rather than being ‘evil’ in the sense of being inhabited by the devil. Indeed, a psychopath may never commit a criminal act – he may instead become the CEO of a listed company.
In reality, much of the difference which we see in the morality of the past as compared to the present is the product of a different understanding of the facts. For instance, when there was a strong belief in the existence of witches it can reasonably be said that it was morally justified to burn them at the stake to protect society. From our present position we can criticise the methods used to demonstrate the guilt or innocence of someone accused of witchcraft, but much of life in that era was based on superstition. It was a world in which people in general were not exactly well-educated and interference in daily life by the devil and his minions was accepted as a fact. To imagine therefore that a witchcraft trial should involve the presumed characteristics of witches – for example not sinking if thrown into a pond or an incapacity to recite the Lord’s Prayer without hesitation – would make sense. And for this reason one can say that the trial process was morally justified, however absurd or cruel it may seem now. Certainly the people of that time would have been convinced of their moral justification simply because they were, in their understanding of the facts, safeguarding their society. But the horror now produced by such methods underlines even more the need to be sure of the facts before condemning someone for his actions or for his character. Objectivity is fundamental even for morality - however strange such a concept may be.
|Diversity and Inclusion - a concern|
It all started with the Race Relations Act 1965. It was quite revolutionary for its time and made unlawful a new category of behaviour which for millennia had been regarded as perfectly acceptable - looking after your own at the expense of the incomer, the foreigner (in the widest sense). For the first time, the law banned racial discrimination in public places. For the first time, also, it made illegal the encouragement of an emotion - hatred - on the grounds of “colour, race, or ethnic or national origins”. Of course, as a moral statement, it had something of the magician’s ‘smoke and mirrors’ about it, as controls on immigration remained. So then we were against discrimination, but only for those already here or for the relative few permitted to come here by our immigration laws. Which meant that most of the world was in fact kept out of our newly-benign regime. But although our new-found morality began and stayed at home, the Statute was criticised by some for going too far - they saw it as being little short of the introduction of ‘thought crime’.
However things did not stop there. Although a major change, it was shortly afterwards criticised for failing to address those areas of life where discrimination was in fact most prevalent - employment and finding somewhere to live. This led to the passing of the 1968 Race Relations Act, which made unlawful any discrimination with regard to employment, housing and advertising. From 1970 onwards, the scope of the circumstances under which discrimination was to be regarded as illegal was extended to such things as disability and sex discrimination of various sorts. Following the issuing of a Directive by the EU, all of the old law, with an extension to include ‘harassment’ in respect of any of the ‘protected characteristics*’, was incorporated in the Equality Act 2010.
These days, large organisations, such as companies and universities, feel they must be seen to be taking steps to stop people having grounds for a complaint of discrimination. This is because they believe, rightly or wrongly that most of us now do not like to see discrimination take place and, more pertinently, it will potentially cost them a lot of money in compensation. But. But in trying to right a wrong, we do seem to be going far too far. It seems that on the coat-tails of action to prevent discrimination as defined in the legislation, entire new moral codes have been created which govern peoples’ working hours. This is so in many organisations and, although it may not have the force of law, it can have a similar effect upon your life if you fall foul of it. And this really is very close to being thought crime. Let me explain by reference to the Warwick University Dignity policy (which I came across by chance):
“The University expects all members of the University to recognise their responsibilities and to:
On the surface the rules sound unexceptionable - let’s be nice to each other. But failure to abide by the code can lead to serious consequences, because there are complaint procedures which can be followed. And if you examine the code more closely there seem to be some inherent contradictions.
Let us start with the superficially admirable requirement to “value difference in others and the contribution they make”. This is an unqualified requirement, but in what sense can it be said that difference is always to be valued? I know people who are clearly racist. I don’t mean people who aren’t always very careful in the way they speak about ‘others’, but who really do think that people of other races or skin colour are lesser beings. As a young lawyer, I used to have clients who were violent and other who were thieves. Later on, I had clients who were so devoted to money that you would count your fingers after having shaken hands with them. Are those ‘differences’ to be valued or perhaps, instead, resisted? Would we value the ‘contribution’ made by such a person? I don’t think so.
Perhaps though the policy means that we should value differences and appreciate the contributions made by people who are ‘not very different to us’, who hold what one may regard as ‘main-stream views’. But none of that is stated or indeed capable of definition. And I doubt that that is the intention. I imagine that the policy is actually aimed at people who are, for example, Moslem in a Christian country, or people who are members of other minorities such as being homosexual or feel that they are of the wrong gender. So what happens to that other minority who believe that homosexuality is a sin or that Muslims are going to hell – because they are Muslims? Does everyone get equal air-time? It seems not from the no-platforming which has become fashionable in the academic world. Previously respected, but controversial public figures, such as Germaine Greer, have been no-platformed as they don’t hold the ‘right’ views even though they have been in the forefront of bringing about what many would regard as beneficial change in our society. But no, naïve students want to put their fingers in their ears. And do those who no-platform run foul of the Dignity policy – and if not, why not?
Then there is the question of playing sport. If a student receives a yellow or red card during a game of football, what then? Will students who play rugby be expelled from the University if they fail to display courtesy and good manners in the middle of a ruck or a scrum? They’ll probably all go for a drink together afterwards, but it is surely asking quite a lot to expect them to behave in accordance with such a code in the middle of such a physical game.
And if others have ‘different styles and expectations’, how is this to be managed? To see people with different styles is interesting, but having ‘different expectations’ implies that we may expect different outcomes from our encounters, depending on our backgrounds. Should we adopt the expectations of the minority or the majority? If I go to France, I try to adapt myself to the customs of the people who live there and I certainly don’t expect them to adapt themselves and their way of living to me. It would be naïve to think that they would.
Then it seems that all in the University should “work and study on a cooperative basis”. Why? Why should I always share my insights with my fellow students or fellow academics? Am I not entitled to plough a lone furrow in order ultimately to gain recognition from the wider world for my brilliance?
So if I were a part of academic life at Warwick University or any of the many others which adopt a similar set of policies, would I be entitled to bring such nonsense to the attention of the authorities with a view to asking for change? Well no, actually. Why? Because I would not then be demonstrating “a commitment to upholding the University's policies on diversity and inclusion”, and so could ultimately be thrown out if I failed to recant. I suppose that I could console myself by thinking that I was following in the footsteps of Galileo Galilei, but it seems sad that such Institutions, formerly places where robust debate could take place, are now places of group-think where no debate may take place on certain topics. We seem to be becoming too anxious to protect people from what until recently had been regarded as only minor upsets or annoyances in the way others behave. We have somehow adopted a highly exaggerated view of the ‘harm’ which can be caused to others. But where change is necessary in society, this most usually comes about by debate and a degree of discomfort, not by keeping silent and conforming. I worry for the future of such a supine generation.
* "protected characteristics" are defined as:
Disability, Gender Reassignment, Marriage and Civil Partnership, Maternity, Paternity and Adoption, Race, Religion or Belief, Sex (Gender Equality) and Sexual Orientation.
Certainly, there are many who argue that equality is something to be aimed at, although when you ask people if they really mean equality or less inequality, they are likely to choose the second. Defining how far to take the lessening of inequality then becomes an exercise in the measuring of the length of a piece of string. The concept of inequality, however, was given fresh impetus when this year's wealth comparisons were issued by Oxfam. They told us that the 8 richest people in the world (all men) have wealth equal in value to the bottom 50% of the world’s population. Last year it took the top 64 wealthiest people to achieve this rather strange form of equality. So then the world is becoming less equal. It’s a striking comparison.
But the figures can be criticised in various ways. Some say that they lack relevance. If for instance you bought old masters as an investment, you could die of hunger while being their owner unless you could somehow make them income producing. Again, If we take Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook as an example, then we know that a very large proportion of his wealth lies in his shareholding. This gives him an eye-watering income, but the value of the shares is not actually money in the bank - unless he sells them. There is nothing very much he can do in the mean-time with their potential value except receive income in consequence. And so it is really the income produced by assets which is important.
There are also those who argue that such figures are simply misleading. According to 'The Economist' the world’s least wealthy include over 420 million adults whose debts exceed their assets, leaving them with negative net worth. The vast majority of this is down to the use (or misuse) of credit cards and so the vast majority of this net debt is owed by people in high-income countries. There are, for example, over 21 million Americans with a combined wealth of minus $357 billion. Only people with relatively good prospects, by global standards, can be so poor. The wretched of the earth could never borrow so much. If all of the people with sub-zero wealth are excluded from the comparison, the poorest half of the remaining population would have a combined wealth equivalent to the richest 98 billionaires rather than Oxfam’s top 8.
But we can go further. Although we imagine that, ignoring those with large debts, the vast majority of the bottom 50% must nonetheless be in the undeveloped countries, this may not be true. In today’s Western society, we can see that many people have little or no actual wealth even if they do not have negative wealth because of credit card debt. If you rent a house then you have no stake in it. If you own a house, then it saves you the cost of renting, but unless you rent it out, then it has no realisable value until you stop needing to live in a house at all and so can sell it without buying another. Which means that most people will only achieve house-based wealth after their deaths. If you buy goods, whether on credit or not, then it is almost certain that they will not be resalable at anything like the same price. By the time you have taken delivery of them, the value of the item bought will be negligible and so our purchases are only rarely ‘investments’ i.e. made in order to produce wealth. We are paying to have food, a roof over our heads, the mains services we require and the hundred and one other things which we want in our lives. But none of these give us any increase in our net wealth. We work to fund all these things from our income, although at the same time we may try to make investments in pensions so that at some time in the distant future we can get off the tread-mill. So then, there is little difference in wealth terms between many people living in the West and those living in sub-Saharan Africa - who may at least have some goats which they can sell.
From an income point of view, however, there is a considerable difference and that difference explains the extraordinary life-style which we have in the West as compared to the developing countries, whether we are billionaires or not. At the moment, because of the Oxfam wealth data, the parties of the left are telling us that inequality has markedly increased, but the Gini index is telling us something different. The income distribution in each country is measured by the World Bank and published as the ‘Gini index’ (after the Italian statistician Corrado Gini). A figure of 0 indicates complete income equality in that state and 1 indicates that just one person has all the income. The Gini index can of course be the same for countries of wildly differing average income levels - all it measures is income distribution within a country, which could in theory be the same in Great Britain as in the Gambia. Although in this country there was a rise in income inequality after 2003, since 2008 there has been a trend downwards and now we’re back down to the fairer income distribution we had in 2002 - (0.358), the earliest year for which I can find data. We are though still above, for example Germany (0.292), France (0.294) and Italy (0.325). but we’re more equal than the USA which is on 0.396.
Another factor of course is the cost of living. The mere fact that I have an income twice as great as someone in another country or another part of this country does not mean that I can buy twice as much. For a start, I have to pay local taxes and housing costs. What I will want to buy or will be available in the shops may well be different and either cheaper or more expensive than the equivalent in that other locality. My personal cost of living is partly down to my life-style choices and partly down to where I live. It’s more expensive to live in London than in Liverpool. So then, the whole idea of equality is far more complex than first appears from the simplistic figures often put forward by well-meaning protest groups and political parties.
Now clearly we would all want to show sympathy to the poorest of this world, but perhaps I should also express some concern for rich people, because I do not think we know how much they suffer for their status. The pressure upon them to behave like other rich people is immense. This pressure comes from our innate desire to keep up with the Joneses (or in their case the Gates and Zuckerbergs) or, somewhat lower down the pecking order, simply to maintain a celebrity profile. I think here of the Kardashians and the Beckhams whose celebrity, rather than their ability or intelligence is their source of wealth. So then, they have to conform to the stereotype for such people or risk losing their fans and so the value of their endorsements or brands.
But what does this mean? Well it means that although they have a fantastic income, they have to spend it on high value items. Their cost of living is immense. They cannot live in mid-value houses, but have to buy numerous properties worth tens of millions of dollars. They have to buy jewellery, not from H Samuel, but from Tiffany’s. The furniture in their houses has to be designed for them by artisans and their walls adorned with works of art which they may or may not appreciate, but which are in fashion - and so cost a lot. As for cars, they cannot drive a Ford Focus, but more likely will have to own a fleet of Aston Martins. And when it comes to boats, they become bigger, more elaborate and more expensive each year. Maintaining them, paying the crew and writing off the depreciation each year must bring a tear to the eye of even Sir Philip Green and his lovely tax-efficient wife. In fact there is a whole industry of poorer people feeding off the super-rich, giving them what they aspire to have and charging them huge amounts of money in the process. It costs a vast amount to be wealthy. Poor things.
25 January 2017
|The end of illness – thank you Facebook!|
It seems that as a result of a donation of $3 billion from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Ms. Chan, we can anticipate the end of disease. To be precise, they say that their goal is "to treat, prevent or manage" all the diseases to which we are subject by the end of the century. They are promising to spend $3 billion - over the next ten years. But last year they said they had decided to bequeath 99% of their fortune (estimated at $55 billion) not to their children, but to charitable purposes able to benefit humanity in general. I suppose therefore that this promise must be taken into account in their grand vision. But since they are not exactly old, we shall have to hope that they will have a fairly short life expectancy - for the greater good, of course.
Clearly, $3 billion over 10 years is not much in the great scheme of things. In fact it is not much more that his total annual remuneration from Facebook. And through the ten-year period it is much less than the taxes that Facebook would pay if they did not engage in complex tax avoidance. But the Zuckerberg family prefers not to give money to various governments in tax. They have decided instead to make their own decisions as to how their money is spent. And so they are spending this donation, in the first instance, on the creation of a research centre at the University of California, modestly called - "The Chan Zuckerberg BioHub". They have the intention of bringing together experts everywhere. It will be a centre of excellence where they can do fundamental research to find how the human body works. An important part of this will be the creation of new tools seen as necessary to do so and therefore the experts will be a mix of both scientists and engineers. Maybe a bit like the group of friends in 'Big Bang Theory'. Or perhaps more like the immensely important Francis Crick Institute recently opened (2016) in London - the largest biomedical laboratory in Europe. Obviously, Zuckerberg and Chan see the existing international cooperation between so many universities and charities in so many countries and hundreds of billions of dollars spent each year by the pharmaceutical industry as something of an irrelevance and so put in the shade by this new initiative.
The idea of defeating disease is a very old dream. It is a dream that we have never believed can become a reality in our lifetimes or even in the foreseeable future. But maybe we should look more carefully at the evidence. According to a recently published book "Progress" by a Swede, Johan Norberg, we have seen incredible progress in our ability to fight disease. I say it is 'incredible' because, mostly, people are not willing to accept such good news. But according to the research that he has done, research along the lines of the book "The Better Angels of our Nature" by Steven Pinker, the progress we have made in just two hundred years is extremely impressive. It informs us that by any measure - food, poverty, health, longevity, infant mortality, and even violence - life is much improved for the vast majority of humanity. During the two centuries after the Enlightenment, science and agrarian and industrial progress have together created a very noticeable difference and this improvement is continuing and accelerating. But this is not how we see the world. According to various surveys, when asked about extreme poverty or famine in the world in comparison to the situation 200 years ago, 75% of respondents thought it had actually increased over the years. In fact, of course, it is now half of what it was. Only 5% of the British and 6% of Americans think that the world has improved. As noted by Norberg, "...there are more Americans who believe in astrology and reincarnation than in progress." Progress, however, over these two hundred years has been spectacular. In 1815, life expectancy in Europe was only 33 years and almost half of the British population lived their lives in abject poverty, a poverty seen now only in sub-Saharan Africa. Famine was normal and not a shocking news item. Yes, six hundred thousand people did die in the twentieth century as a result of famine, but in the nineteenth century the figure was 30 million. What a difference!
1815 is, of course, a long time ago. But we don’t have to go back that far. In 1980 only one half of the world’s population had access to clean water, but now it's 91%, with all the improvements in health that such a change has brought. In this twenty-first century, i.e. the last 16 years, global mortality from malaria has fallen by 60%. Polio is almost defeated and would now be defeated except for the resistance to vaccines by idiotic religious leaders, particularly in Pakistan. The epidemic of Ebola was not allowed to spread in the way that black plague did in centuries past. Indeed after a hesitant start by the authorities, Ebola is now very much under control. And even survival times after cancer - a disease that changes its genetic make-up in response to treatment - show a considerable improvement. So in general we have made a lot of progress to free us from the worst effects of disease. And it is clear that philanthropy has had a significant role in making this change. But it has been in partnership with private enterprise and the state - not least because of the grant of tax exemptions to encourage philanthropists.
However, there is another factor – the other side of the coin. Fortunately, along with the reduction in infant mortality and increases in life expectancy, we have seen a decrease in the birth rate. But according to experts, there will still inevitably be a peak population of around 10 billion, which means 40% more mouths to feed than today. I'm not convinced, therefore, that to concentrate exclusively on the defeat of disease is very wise, even if it is feasible. It may be that conquering disease will result in a further minor reduction in the birth rate, but we shall inevitably see an increase in the number of people who survive into old age. And they will not be productive. So it seems to me that there is a problem, a problem that can be solved only with a world war, mandatory euthanasia on an incredible scale or, what we must all hope for instead – a major increase in food production. For this we shall need a program of genetic modification of crops and possibly of animals. But this sort of programme is not at all popular among ecologists and liberals in general, and therefore does not have the same 'cachet' for the super-rich and their philanthropy.
Now, there is no-one who will criticise a philanthropist for an attempt to abolish disease. It comes into the same category as YouTube images of kittens. but someone who promotes genetic modification in order to abolish huger is likely to be labelled a Frankenstein. And I'm sure that would not be an attractive outcome for the Zuckerberg family. Even worse, it would of course have a major effect on the price of Facebook shares and so to the fortune ultimately left to good causes. So does that mean that it will be left to the tax-payer to pick up the cost of this essential but unpopular research? In which event, we'd better make sure that the Facebooks of this world actually pay some tax!
|Anger and the post-truth era
Anger is a strange emotion. It is a reaction to what we perceive as a wrong done to us or to someone for whom we care. Anger wants to inflict some sort of payback, revenge. That this is not always possible or even desirable is something which we have to learn as children and probably then again as adults. Some people are more inclined to feel or show anger than others. Some make a virtue of its control. Others are proud of their unwillingness to control it. Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, argues that anger makes little sense. She says:
And her argument is right as far as it goes. After the event, payback does not put things right. It cannot. But I think that she misses the point. After all, here we are with a significant emotion for which we must presume evolution has selected. Why would it do so if it had no benefit for the individuals involved or for the society of which that person is a member? Rightly or wrongly, we may justify our anger as a fair response to a provocation. But whilst that may be what we see as producing the anger, the evolutionary benefit surely comes from the fact that anger exists and not the intellectualisation of its raison d’être. Surely the point is that if we are thinking of doing something unfair or damaging to someone-else, we will have to take into account their probable angry response, whether rational or irrational. In the days before the state took over administration of payback, there was a very real likelihood that the person damaged or his family and friends would react violently towards the perpetrator even for a small offence. And of course for the upper classes there was the duel. So then, we may see anger as a long-standing deterrent to the unjustified action in the first place, even if incapable of rational justification once the wrong has actually taken place - and even if it was always a blunt instrument: sometimes literally...
Of course, these things tend to get out of control, with vengeance leading to counter-reprisals. Which is why, in most democratic societies, we have decided to hand the whole thing over to the state to exact a suitable punishment, one which can indeed be more empirically directed for the benefit of society than the vengeance of old. That is not to say that low-level wrongs, ones falling short of criminality, have been outsourced to the State. We retain the right to ostracise people who have done us wrong and encourage our friends to do the same. And, of course, there is the delight of spreading malicious gossip about them. Or so I am told.
But it seems that anger is making a comeback. Despite the fact that we are now living in what would only 50 years ago have been seen as a paradise, some politicians are doing their best to stir up anger about every aspect of our lives. The other day, I heard part of Any Questions on the radio. One of the participants was a Corbynista who was determined that the country was in a dreadful state, with teachers leaving the profession in droves, the imminent collapse of the NHS, half the population dependent on food banks and unfairness everywhere. She wanted us to feel her anger that there was nothing which was good in this Tory led UK, except perhaps the willingness of the Labour Party to put everything right. One may perhaps argue that there can be a rational benefit to anger – that it can generate a wish to put right the problems that some people suffer in our less than perfect society. There are though other emotions which can drive us forward which are more controllable and less potentially destructive. Concern for someone-else does not have to entail anger. The blatant use of anger to whip up support for a political project is always worrying as it inevitably glosses over the facts in favour of arousing what is basically an irrational emotion. It goes with intemperate language – for example the hard left’s characterisation of all Tories as ‘Tory scum’ - and a corresponding willingness to distort the truth.
It is the almost complete parting of the ways between truth and politics exemplified in the Trump campaign which is both deeply worrying and deeply dispiriting. There is simply no attempt to verify any of the malicious ‘facts’ spread by Trump or to correct obvious errors even when pointed out. As long as they whip up anger, that is seen as sufficient. And of course we saw something very similar in connection with the Brexit campaign. We were told that £350 million per week was actually paid to the EU when the amount handed over was substantially less than that and the net figure even smaller. And then there was the suggestion that it could all instead be paid to to support the NHS if we “took back control”. It was obviously deceitful. But not obviously enough. For those who already wanted to leave the EU, any justification, whether real or imaginary or a downright lie was enough. Why? Because many studies have shown that we have a great tendency to accept as true what we want to believe. We will go out of our way to find reasons to believe what we want to believe. Religious leaders have played on this for aeons when telling us how to achieve eternal life.
Political leaders in democratic societies though have mostly assumed that telling obvious lies will come back to bite them, because they will be discovered by their opponents and their erstwhile supporters will inevitably turn against them. But the internet has shown us how scant is the regard for truth. The comment sections of any web site will be full of complete rubbish, all held very strongly to be true and showing a degree of anger which we do not normally encounter in normal life. And I think that the Trumps and Boris Johnsons of this world have realised that lies do not, at least straight away, come back to haunt them. They have come to see that a significant section of the population welcomes having their views pandered to by their demagoguery and will refuse to listen to truth even when it hits them between the eyes. Instead, the claim that a cherished view is untrue is seen as being all part of an establishment plot, a conspiracy, to keep them in their place. Their leaders tell them so. And they don't even realise that they are being conned. But the result is that an unholy alliance of savvy demagogues and their credulous, angry conspiracy-theorist followers, is making real progress towards ruling the post-truth world.
The responsibility of Herman Goering for the horrors of the Third Reich was second only to that of Hitler. He was after all the second in command and clearly took pleasure in his work. But not only in his work, he also enjoyed the collateral benefits which accompanied it. Although Hitler had the first choice of the spoils available to him as invader of the various European countries, an invader without scruples, Goering came second. Yes, he was a man made of hatred and egoism, but he had another side to him of which we don't hear much. He considered himself to be a great connoisseur of art. In every country which was invaded, there was a huge collection of art available, whether from museums or private collections, from which he was able to make a selection.
Usually it was sufficient just to walk in and take what he wanted or, when something famous had 'gone missing', then he could use the methods of persuasion for which the Nazis were famous in order to make it reappear. Hitler had the first choice, but there was still loads left over for Goering. Normally. Towards the end of the war, Hitler had acquired 2 paintings by Vermeer, whilst Goering had none. Goering wanted a picture by Vermeer so desperately that he was even prepared to pay for one. He found an art dealer in Holland called Hans van Meegeren who said that he would be able to find the desired object. After a few months, Meergeren showed Goering an exceptionally fine example of Vermeer's work and Goering paid him a price equivalent to 8 million Euros in today's money.
After the war, the Allies discovered Goering's collection of paintings, including the painting by Vermeer. Van Meergeren was arrested and accused of treason by reason of his collusion with the enemy. After 6 weeks of being held in prison, Van Meergeren confessed to his crime. But it was not the crime of which he was accused. He confessed instead to forgery. Offended by the incredulity with which this confession was received, he offered to paint, in his cell, another Vermeer more beautiful than the Vermeer “which I painted for that disgusting Nazi”. There was a condition: he wanted to be provided with alcohol and morphine ”because it's the only way in which I can work”. He painted another perfect 'Vermeer' and then confessed that there were lots of famous paintings in museums which were in fact his work. Having served a sentence of 1 year for forgery, he was released and became a national hero in Holland for what he had done to Goering.
Goering was interrogated at Nurembourg and obviously was a complete psychopath. But even for him one may feel a tinge of compassion when he was told that his most favourite painting was a forgery. His biographer wrote that Goering “had the look of someone who, for the first time, had discovered that there was evil in the world”. He committed suicide shortly afterwards.
But the forgery was incredibly good. It was not possible to tell it apart from a real work by Vermeer. Why then is a forgery worth nothing as compared to an original? The obvious answer is snobbery. To possess an original work of art means that I am not a member of the masses who, by definition, could not possibly afford such an object.
But is this the whole explanation? Some psychologists have conducted experiments to determine the true nature of our motivation. They asked what price a group of people would be willing to pay for something which had belonged to someone whom they all adored – George Clooney. The object? A Pullover worn by gorgeous George. The average price offered was $132 dollars.
But then the researchers re-offered it on the basis that it was subject to a condition that the buyer cold never reveal its origin or resell it. The price offered dropped by 8% to $122. It seems that the 8% was the proportion of its price attributable to snobbism.
In the third part of the experiment, the researchers again offered the pullover, this time on the basis that the buyer could reveal that they owned it and who it had belonged to, but that the pullover would be washed before the sale was concluded. Even with the right to boast about the pullover, but without the true essence of George clinging to it, the price dropped by 20% to $105.
So all this suggests that the desire to possess an original is not only down to snobbery, but something more profound in our nature. It seems that we see an object differently according to its history and we value it accordingly. An object is not only an object but, for example in the case of a painting, it is also the relationship across time with the artist.
We know from our own experience that this is so. If someone breaks in and steals our possessions, it is not by any means just their market value which is of importance. Their sentimental value is of equal, if not greater importance. We cannot simply go out and buy something with the same history, something which has accompanied us perhaps throughout our lives or even those of our predecessors. The original may not have had the essence of George or had the beauty of a Vermeer, but its loss still leaves an emptiness which cannot be filled, however good the replacement. Which is in part, I suppose, what makes us human.
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