THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain

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France and Germany; enemies of knowledge

FT.com / Technology - France to oppose Google book scheme.

Having lived in countries with weak enforcement of intellectual property rights I am by no means of the trendy "Pirate Party" persuasion. There's a reason you can't buy CD's or download MP3s of Russia's rock bands, to give a trivial example. It's because, thanks to widespread piracy, they don't make records. They can only make money from live concerts. That's a loss to us all; one of many such. Envy of the likes of Madonna (whose oeuvre apparently represents the most valuable IP asset on the planet) should not blind us. Ensuring that creative people benefit from their efforts is good for us all.

France and Germany's governments, however, are taking this too far. Google's project to digitise the world's libraries and make their content available online will, when realised, revolutionise intellectual life. It's potentially the biggest thing since Gutenberg. In the US, creative lawyers and judges have found a way to compensate authors still in copyright for their contributions without (such is the genius of the Common Law) any government involvement. Google is looking to find a way to do the same across the world.

Google does not always live up to its motto "do no evil". It cooperates with tyrannical regimes in censoring the internet for example (arguing it's better their populations have half a loaf). On this occasion, however, it is trying to be a benefactor. Imagine the ability to search all of world literature in the same way you can search the trivial burblings of bloggers!! If that doesn't move you, you are an idiot (or a French or German politician). But I repeat myself.

Remember Chirac's hamfisted efforts to create a state-owned French rival to Google because he couldn't bear the thought of the world's main online portal being American? I have no doubt from the tone of the French pronouncements on the subject that they are motivated by the same crude, envious anti-Americanism. These fools will one day be remembered as the 21st Century equivalents of the church officials who suppressed Galileo's writings.


Why does the devil have all the best tunes? (Musings on Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged")

the new adventures of juliette: Atlas Bugged.

I smiled to read the recent comments on Atlas Shrugged by one of my favourite bloggers, Juliette. Click on the link above to read why Ayn Rand's writing infuriated her so much that she wanted;

"...to attack her cast of smug, annoying assholes with a length of two by four..."

I sympathise entirely. I have been reading the book for months, which is a sure sign of its imperfections. Yet it is a hugely important book, which everyone should read.

Juliette correctly summarises the attractions and the irritations of reading Rand;

"First, the good. Ayn Rand's prose style is way, way better than I was expecting. In fact, I'd say that she is, technically, an extremely good writer."

That's true, but she's a hopeless novelist, and for precisely the reason Juliette nailed in the first quote. Rand cannot create a convincing character. Having slogged painfully through 1168 pages, I admire her as a thinker but I cannot begin to imagine why she chose this vehicle for her thoughts. In truth her heroes are all her and therefore sound exactly the same. Give me a piece of dialogue from Atlas Shrugged in a year's time and I will not be able to tell you who said it. If Rand had chosen to express her ideas in music, the result would have been a new police siren.

Great writers create living, breathing characters. Sherlock Holmes is as real as you or me and will outlast both us and his author. Dickens populated a small town with his characters, each of them - even the minor ones - a recognisable individual. John Irving is the greatest living author in English precisely because he creates magnificent characters we can love, hate and care about. Rand should have written philosophy books or, dare I say it, pamphlets. I can praise her no more highly than to say she could have been the Tom Paine of her era, rather than a failed Dickens. The world needed another Common Sense far more than it needed Atlas Shrugged. Had she written it, she might have spared millions in the 20th Century the horrors of oppression and poverty.

Why, dear reader, do I recommend above (with unaccustomed emphasis) that you should put yourself through this literary torture? Why, for that matter, does this book continue to sell so strongly (about 600,000 copies a year in America) for all its defects? Because it is unique. It is missing the founding assumptions underpinning every other book I have read. 

Cheerybles_smallThe intellectuals of our civilisation are nurtured on anti-capitalism, from the noble characters who sneer at "trade" in the classics, to the Marxist slant of much modern literature. Even my beloved Dickens was also beloved by Lenin. His industrialists are only good men when, like the Cheerybles, they are providing deus ex machina solutions to social problems. They are never good for what gave them the power to be good. They are never good for what they are truly good at. If a novelist portrays a capitalist or industrialist sympathetically, it is by way of making excuses for him, which - of course - implies there is something to excuse. Ayn Rand sees no need for excuses. Quite the contrary. Her heroes are, startlingly, heroes for being great industrialists. The book is a hymn of praise to the contributions made to civilisation by those its intellectuals most despise; the ones who create the wealth and leisure which make an intellectual's life of the mind possible.

If you really can't face, like Juliette, the grind of reading the whole thing, I have a solution. Read a summary of the plot. The book opens with the question, "Who is John Galt?" Cheat. Find out who he is from Wikipedia. Then turn to page 1009. At that point John Galt hijacks a Presidential broadcast to deliver a three hour speech (which, implausibly, the nation listens to, understands and acts upon). Forget about how unrealistic this is as a plot device. Just read it for what it truly is; an exposition of Ayn Rand's political philosophy. Even that will involve some work, but I promise it will be worth your trouble.

It was hard to read Atlas Shrugged, but I am very glad I did. I commend it to you.


American Vertigo, by Bernhard-Henri Lévy

200pxalexis_de_tocquevilleBhl I have just finished reading American Vertigo by Bernhard-Henri Lévy, the philosopher and writer whom I heard speak in Paris earlier this month. It made an interesting contrast with the similar (and yet very different) collection of reportage by Ryszard Kapuscinski I read immediately before it.

Levy is famous for rejecting Marxism, but is of the broad anti-capitalist left. Like me, he was a Maoist in his youth (to both our shames). However, he lacks leftist prejudices. In consequence, even when he infuriates me, he does it in a way which makes me reconsider the ossified thinking of my middle age and fret for my youthful (post-Maoist) flexibility of thought. He seems, like many in Europe, to be clambering over the rubble of Socialism to find an ideological position which will give the same mother’s-milk comfort as Marx’s discredited doctrine; the same “one size fits all” answer for which fools have craved and which knaves have peddled since humanity first formed a thought.

He is too intelligent simply to adopt another idol, now that the old one has been proved a fake to all but the most simple-minded. Not for him (at least not yet) the cretinous simplicities of Green thought as a new justification for total state power. Yet, for example when writing of Hurricane Katrina, (which happened on his American journey) he has an instinctive preference for centralisation; observing that the levées maintained or certified by the Federal Government were the ones that held the longest (as if that spoke for superiority of all central power, rather than for the rottenness of a particular local government).

His original idea was to write a book which would be a modern version of de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Toward the end, he confesses that, growing up in a France where “...the last word in fashionable thought was Mao Tse-tung,” he had considered de Tocqueville second-rate.

Time of course, would change. With the collapse of grand political theories, the decline of the materialist visions of the world and their rigid, simple mechanisms, the need, above all, to reflect on the failure of socialism, on the desirability of the idea of revolution itself, and on the possibilities of democratic renewal, French intellectual attitudes would change and grow closer to a form of thinking that was to break our sterile deadlock with the inheritors of the ideas of Auguste Comte and Karl Marx

He carried de Tocqueville’s book on the journey and believes he saw confirmed, in modern American reality, many of the “extraordinarily far-sighted” insights of his precursor.

The triumph - which in his time hadn’t fully played out - of equality over liberty. The tyranny of the majority, which he  [de Tocqueville] was the first to point out and which isn’t any less fierce than other forms of dictatorship

Perhaps the passage that resonated most with me, however, was one which caused me to doubt my dream for a freer life there, in retirement, than I can hope for in my almost-lost England. Levy believes he saw, in “malls, mega-churches and leagues of virtue” the social tendency which his precursor observed;

...risks turning into a dictatorship whose immense, protective power, as ‘absolute’ as it is ‘meticulous,’ as ‘ordered’ as it is ‘provident and kindly disposed,’ ‘seeks only to keep them in perpetual childhood’ and eventually removes from them even ‘the bother of thinking’ and  ‘the troubles of life’

Perhaps Levy worries too much. Those of us who have seen modern states and churches in action in a number of countries can only smile at the idea of their being “meticulous” or “provident.”

At the end of the book, Levy compares himself to Kerouac (whose On the Road is one of my favourite books). In doing so he, again, displays characteristics which differentiate him from his most comfortable ideological companions. As one who loves the motor car above all other creations of Man (even, pace DK and Mr Jobs, the Macintosh) I smiled broadly to read the following passage;

While flying in an airplane abolishes time and distance, while it puts you in immediate touch with a point of arrival that is never really foreshadowed, while the train itself is, in Proust’s words, a ‘magical’ vehicle that transports you as though by enchantment, with almost no effort or gradation, from Paris to Florence and elsewhere, this journey, this long enduring journey by car, this ground-level journey that spares you nothing of the tectonics of space and hence of time, allows the traveller to experience a mode of the finite that alone can allow him to come to terms with the finitude of landscapes and faces ... Finally by playing remorselessly on this yearning for freedom that, in most modern modes of travel, lingers only as an improbable memory, this kind of journey has the additional merit of offering a reminiscence, a kind of condensation, of the great founding myths of the American nation; land promised and refused, lines of escape, shimmering horizons, the wall of the Pacific, the American dream - the last chance in this world to have even a whiff of the rite-of-passage experience that for centuries was the discovery, by each individual, of America.

Cars are liberty on wheels and one should never trust a man who doesn’t love them. Levy may have made me doubt that I can find my freedom in modern America, but that passage reinforced my dream of spending my retirement exploring its vastness in a delightful little coupé or convertible, with a camera and a MacBook on the back seat to record (and probably blog) my adventures.

I came to love France (rather than just her comestibles, which I cannot remember not loving) by my annual holiday drive to the Cote d’Azur. No-one ever learned to love a country by flying over it or riding its public transport. Levy, for all his criticisms, clearly loves the America he came to know by riding what Kerouac called “the white line in the holy road”. His criticisms should be listened to all the more respectfully for coming from a loving heart that laughs at those people, so well-represented in the blogosphere, namely;

...the monomaniacs who, when war is ravaging Darfur, when hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are dying of hunger in Sri Lanka or Niger, when the neo-Talibans are humiliating the women of their Afghan villages, when the Pakistani Islamic fundamentalists prefer to burn women alive and call it a crime of honour, when the incompetent and corrupt leaders of the poorest countries bleed their own people dry and sacrifice them for their mediocre interests - when confronted with all this, can do nothing but repeat, like mindless machines: ‘blame the United States!’

This is a great book. BHL is no de Tocqueville, but I commend it to you. For a less friendly review, you might like to read this one, by Garrison Keillor, who - missing the point as comprehensively as I miss the point of his humour - concludes petulantly;

Thanks for coming. Don't let the door hit you on the way out. For your next book, tell us about those riots in France, the cars burning in the suburbs of Paris. What was that all about? Were fat people involved?

That may be the first time Keillor has made me laugh.


The banality of tyranny

Barbed_wireI am reading Imperium by the late Ryszard Kapuscinski. It is a collection of reportage about Kapuscinski’s journeys in the Soviet Union. I do not blog about Russia. I am a guest here and it would not be polite. The Soviet Union, however, is a different matter. Thanks to the courage of Lech Walesa, the integrity of Karol Wojtyla and the political skills of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, it is no more. Not to mention the key contribution of Socialism itself, which collapsed there (as it always must) under the weight of its economic idiocy.

Kapuscinksi, like all the best reporters, has a knack of shedding light by acute observation of  tangential fact. This passage (written in 1989) is an example:

...the surface of the Imperium measures more than twenty-two million square kilometres, and its continental borders are longer than the equator and stretch for forty-two thousand kilometres.

Keeping in mind that wherever it is technically possible, these borders were and are marked with thick coils of barbed wire ... and that this wire, because of the dreadful climate, quickly deteriorates and therefore must often be replaced across hundreds, no thousands, of kilometres, one can assume that a significant proportion of the Soviet metallurgical industry is devoted to producing barbed wire.

For the matter does not end with the wiring of borders! How many thousands of kilometres of wire were used to fence in the gulag archipelago? Those hundreds of camps, staging points, and prisons scattered through the territory of the entire Imperium!

How many thousands more kilometres were swallowed up for the wiring of artillery, tank and atomic ranges? And the wiring of barracks? ...                                                             

If one were to multiply all this by the number of years the Soviet government has been in existence, it would be easy to see why, in the shops of Smolensk or Omsk, one can buy neither a hoe nor a hammer, never mind a knife or a spoon, such things could simply not be produced, since the necessary raw materials were used up in the manufacture of barbed wire.

And that is still not the end of it! After all, tons of this wire had to be transported by ships, railroad, helicopters, camels, dog teams, to the farthest, most inaccessible corners of the Imperium, and then it all had to be unloaded, uncoiled, cut, fastened.

It is easy to imagine those unending telephone, telegraphic and postal reminders issued by the commanders of the border guards, the commanders of the gulag camps, and prison directors following up on their requisitions for more tons of barbed wire, the pains they would take to build up a reserve supply of this wire in case of a shortage in the central warehouses.  And it is equally easy to imagine those thousands of commissions and control teams dispatched across the entire territory of the Imperium to make certain that everything is properly enclosed, that the fences are high and thick enough, so meticulously entangled and woven that even a mouse cannot squeeze through.  It is also easy to imagine telephone calls from officials in Moscow to their subordinates in the field, telephone calls characterised by a constant and vigilant concern expressed in the question “Are you all really properly wired in?”

As I imagined so many engaged in banal tasks of oppression, I remembered sitting before an archivist at the museum in Oswiecim (Auschwitz) at the side of a Jewish friend. Before us lay typed documents, which the archivist had found. On them was the name of one of my friend’s relatives; a woman whose fate had been unknown. She had been taken by train from Berlin to Auschwitz. There was no record of her admission to the camp, which suggests she was selected for immediate gassing. She was young and strong and - by the evil logic of the National Socialists - could have been usefully worked to death. On the banal document was the likely reason why that had not happened; the name of her infant daughter, of whom my friend’s family had not known. A baby could neither be enslaved, nor marched to the gas chamber alone. And so her mother had to carry her to both their deaths.

I remember focussing on the neatness of the typed documents. I had a mental image of a secretary in Berlin, sitting erect at a typewriter, carefully preparing a list of fellow-humans to be transported to their deaths. What went through her mind as she put on her coat to walk home that night? Had you asked her, she would probably have said she was doing important work for the greater good of her country, “the Reich” or some other political abstraction. The Soviet factory workers making barbed wire would probably have given similar answers. I am certain they no more thought of prisoners suffering and dying in the gulag, than my imagined secretary thought of a murdered child dying in her mother’s arms.

They say “the Devil is in the details.” Sometimes, so is God. Statists, Socialists, right-wing paternalists - all those who think of humanity in terms of classes, races and masses - need constantly to be confronted with such stories and images. They claim to love humanity; everything they do is for “Society” or “the greater good.”  These are the merest of abstractions. A good human loves and cares for other humans around him; for actual, individual specimens with all their faults and weaknesses.

Next time you hear an appealing abstraction weighed against the interests of an individual or a family, please picture a man making barbed wire to imprison his uncle or my neat little secretary typing a death list. They served abstractions too.


The Failings of Grayling (Part 2)

In fairness to Professor Grayling, this post could be written about most British academics. I only single him out because I have been reading one of his books,  “The Meaning of Things.” I read it in response to his rebuke that I had judged him harshly on too little data. He is, alas, neither better nor worse than the average British academic.

Consider, for example, Roger Scruton's observations based on an academic career partly at the same college as Grayling;

By 1971, when I moved from Cambridge to a permanent lectureship at Birkbeck College, London, I had become a conservative. So far as I could discover there was only one other conservative at Birkbeck, and that was Nunzia—Maria Annunziata—the Neapolitan lady who served meals in the Senior Common Room and who cocked a snook at the lecturers by plastering her counter with kitschy photos of the Pope.

One of those lecturers, towards whom Nunzia conceived a particular antipathy, was Eric Hobsbawm, Hobsbawmthe lionized historian of the Industrial Revolution, whose Marxist vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools. Hobsbawm came as a refugee to Britain, bringing with him the Marxist commitment and Communist Party membership that he retained until he could retain it no longer—the Party, to his chagrin, having dissolved itself in embarrassment at the lies that could no longer be repeated. No doubt in recognition of this heroic career, Hobsbawm was rewarded, at Mr. Blair’s behest , with the second highest award that the Queen can bestow—that of “Companion of Honour.” This little story is of enormous significance to a British conservative. For it is a symptom and a symbol of what has happened to our intellectual life since the Sixties. We should ponder the extraordinary fact that Oxford University, which granted an honorary degree to Bill Clinton on the grounds that he had once hung around its precincts, refused the same honour to Margaret Thatcher, its most distinguished post-war graduate and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. We should ponder some of the other recipients of honorary degrees from British academic institutions—Robert Mugabe, for example, or the late Mrs. Ceausescu—or count (on the fingers of one hand) the number of conservatives who are elected to the British Academy.

While Grayling is intelligent and articulate the abiding impression left by his book is that he is unremarkable in his thinking. His opinions are as groomed as his flowing locks. There is no cliché out of place. Had he spent his life shaping his views to qualify as one of “the Great and the Good” of our Establishment, this is precisely where he would have arrived. One can predict his view on almost any given subject without effort.

Continue reading "The Failings of Grayling (Part 2)" »


The failings of Grayling (Part 1)

Ac_grayling_140x140 I have just read Professor A.C. Grayling's book The Meaning of Things. The book is a collection of his pieces published as "Last Word" columns in The Guardian. If you feel ideologically out of place in modern Britain you should read it. It will not make you feel less alienated, but it will explain a great deal.

You would not know it from reading this book, but those of us who fear for liberty in Britain owe Professor Grayling a debt. In the very heart of our darkness (the Guardian's Comment is Free columns) he has written strong words against New Labour's attacks on civil liberties. He has exposed the Right Honourable Anthony Charles Steven Lynton Blair's twisted thinking on ID cards and the Database State. He has articulated what so many of us in the British political blogosphere feel in our wrenched guts, which is that New Labour is an enemy of individual freedom. Only an academic could be surprised by that. Almost a century of history has taught the rest of us that those who despise carrots inevitably favour sticks.  Yet an English academic capable of writing the following is worthy of our respect:

But no amount of giving away hard-won, long-standing civil liberties is going to defend us against the tiny minority of criminals and lunatics who can, if determined enough, do us harm. The right response to them is not to hide away behind generally ineffective laws that restrict our freedoms but to assert our freedoms boldly and to live them courageously.

He is also sound on the subject of free speech, as this quotation from an online interview at Three Monkeys Online (in which he was asked about the imprisonment of David Irving for holocaust denial) shows:

I have no time for revisionists and Nazi apologists, and in so far as Irving is such (and is provenly at least the former), I have no time for him. But it was quite wrong to put him in prison for his unsavoury views. The freedom of free speech results in our hearing plenty of things we do not like, but the right way to combat bad free speech is with more and better free speech, not with the law and certainly not with imprisonment or censorship.

Professor Grayling took me to task for lack of intellectual rigour when I set out my first impressions of him after hearing him speak at my daughter's school. He commented that:

Evidently you don't read widely enough, listen hard enough, or take enough care over the assumptions you make.

I have tried and will continue to try to respond positively to that rebuke. It is taking a while. I am no aristocrat of academia. The people pay no tithe so that I may read, research and think without distraction. I have a business to run, a heavy schedule of travel and a family with which I like to spend time. I have read more of his writing however and in the light of the articles cited above, I accept that it was entirely wrong to describe him as;

an apologist for New Labour's and now Blue Labour's despotic approaches to government.

I did not, indeed, take enough care over the assumptions I made when writing that. I apologise unreservedly.

Professor Grayling balks at the extremes to which the Rt Hon. Anthony C.S.L. Blair has taken New Labour thinking. Having read The Meaning of Things, however, I fear he must take his share of the blame. He has, together with so many fellow-academics with "a permanent list to port', helped fertilise the intellectual soil in which Blair's political bindweed has flourished.

TO BE CONTINUED


Andrea Levy

My wife and I were drinking coffee in our hotel in Barcelona this week, when a journalist, translator and interviewee settled down on a sofa nearby. My wife recognised the interviewee as British author, Andrea Levy. My wife had read Ms Levy's 2004 book, A Small Island, which the interview was clearly to promote (perhaps it has just been published in Catalan?). She thought is was quite good as social history, if not very well-written.

We were minding our own business, but couldn't help overhearing the interview, by a Catalan journalist. As it progressed, we became more and more irritated.

Ms Levy's book is based on her parents' generation's experiences as new immigrants to Britain in the 1950's, including - inevitably - their experiences of racism. I am sure they had some. Equally inevitably, Ms Levy was asked about her own experiences of racism. She can't be blamed for the question, but her answers were disappointing.

She talked of being the only black girl in an otherwise all-white school, but couldn't come up with a single concrete example of anything bad happening to her. To her credit (thank you, Andrea) she didn't make anything up. However, we had a real sense that she was disappointed that she couldn't trash her former schoolfriends more powerfully than by hinting at their sense of her being different. Pathetically, she mentioned that she "wasn't that dark," as if her schoolfriends would have shown their true racism if she had only been blacker.

Moving on to contemporary racism, she commented - even more pathetically - that racists are so subtle now that sometimes she thinks "is it just me?" How desperate is she to cling to the idea of racism, that she is unprepared to give the benefit of the doubt? Frankly, Andrea, if you can't tell if they are racist, it probably is just you. Imagine how tense they must feel, knowing that you are straining every nerve to detect racism on their part! Any slight sense of unease you may detect might reasonably be attributed to that, don't you think?

She waxed lyrical about establishing a separate identity of "Black British." Frankly, that took the weevil-infested biscuit. What is on offer in Britain is the chance for anyone who wants it to become British, pure and simple. Our national identity is not of the "blood and soil" variety. It's a club. Sign up, join in and you will be welcome.

I have friends descended from Poles, Germans, Hungarians and Russians. All of them are utterly English; thoroughly steeped (as is Ms Levy) in our language and culture. None of them feel the need to establish a separate identity. If we Britons had ever sought to impose a separate identity on them, we would no doubt have been accused of racism. I am sure their ancestors endured a bit of mockery when they first arrived, with curious accents and a weak grasp of how things worked in England. But that did not stop them becoming full members of the club.

I accept Ms Levy, without reservation, as my fellow-citizen. I am happy she is a prize-winning author and - presumably - a financial success. All I would ask is that she would do the same for me, despite my skin being lighter than hers and despite my family having had the poor taste to live in Britain since before the Norman Conquest.