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

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Of truth, reason and persuasion

I have left instructions that Paul Simon’s song “the Boxer” should be played at my funeral. Apart from the bit about “the whores on Seventh Avenue” I think it’s a good broad brush account of how my life has felt to me. It contains remarkable wisdom in the line;

A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. 

That a 16 year old Jewish kid from Queens was wise enough to know that still surprises me. I first heard the line when I was about that age myself and it should have been a helpful gift, but I was never able to internalise it usefully. I only ever remembered it too late; when my desire to believe something had led me astray.

One of my daughters once told someone “People have Dad wrong. He’s not a cynic. He’s a disappointed idealist.”  Time after time I have trusted when I shouldn’t and ventured where angels fear to tread because I was not as wise as young Mr. Simon. The will-o-the-wisps of my hopes and dreams led me through Life's swamp. I’ve been lucky and have no complaints. My regrets, such as they are. are actually about my more cautious moments. Inspirational hopes and dreams lead men where dry calculation never would and – up to a point – that may be a good thing.

in my brief career in student politics, I heard wise old sorts in the Conservative Party say things like “the facts of life are Tory” and “Tory at 20, you have no heart. Labour at 30, you have no brain.” Slightly advanced by Ricky Tomlinson*, my own trajectory confirmed the latter at least. My career as a business lawyer certainly confirmed the former — at least when the Tory Party was still Conservative and based its policies on the facts of economic life. 

So it’s not surprising that wave after wave of youngsters falls naively for the puffery of the snake oil salesmen of the left. Why, however, are there mature individuals who can’t see what poison Socialism is?

Partly it can be accounted for by the wisdom of the young Paul Simon. No-one wants to hear that the "facts of life are Tory" – especially if life is not going well for them personally. If the market values your labour less than you do yourself, it's obviously easier to believe that the market is wrong than to do something about improving your value to it. If you've trained for a dead industry, it's easier to demand that the state keeps it moving – zombie like – than to accept your mistake and retrain. Yet there is so much evidence that Socialism doesn't work. More than half of mankind lived under Socialist planned economies in the 20th Century. The empirical results of this monstrous experiment were uniformly terrible. Tens of millions died. Billions were impoverished economically, morally and in terms of liberty. 

This is recent history. Many of the people who lived through it are still alive. As this article shows, (behind a pay-wall but you can still read a couple of articles a month for free) young people who listened to their family's experiences learned the ideological lessons. They did so even when they belonged to identity groups courted by the left in its attempt to foment divisions and hatreds to be "resolved" by their panacea;  state violence to constrain free choice and free expression.

My childhood was awash with my family’s forlorn recollections about the hardships they endured under communism in Poland: the chronic scarcity of food, medicine and other basic necessities; outright hostility to basic liberties. And if we didn’t like it, too bad: they killed anyone who tried to leave.

Yet there are leftists in Poland today. Indeed there are statist authoritarians of both right and left who believe (though their grandparents are there to tell them otherwise) that an inexplicably virtuous state directing the masses will make them more moral, more patriotic and more productive than they would choose to be themselves. It would be funny if it were not so damned tragic. I lived in Poland from 1992 to 2003 and delighted in the fact that I met no-one, ever, who was inclined to believe such nonsense. In what is, perhaps, another example of my "hearing what I wanted to hear and disregarding the rest", I told myself the Polish nation was inoculated forever against the virus of statism. I was wrong. The ideological hog cycle may be even shorter than the economic one

Confirmation bias is another explanation of people's ability to ignore evidence. We are seeing it daily in the never-ending national shouting match over Brexit. Every twist and turn just leads each side to exclaim "See! I told you so!!" It is all (even for someone so enthusiastically anti-EU that his late wife once demanded he make a New Year's resolution to shut up about it for 12 months) so damned boring that I have stopped watching the news or reading my daily newspaper.

Not too long ago, we saw the British Left praise Hugo Chavez's socialist experiment in Venezuela as an example to us all. Now it has ended, as all previous experiments did, in shortages, hardship and oppression, the very same people "hear what they want to hear and disregard the rest". It wasn't socialism after all. Mistakes were made. There was external interference by agents of capitalism. There was sabotage. All the excuses, in fact, that the Stalinists used to explain the stubborn divergence of tractor production statistics from reality. 

It seems that every fact is Janus-faced to those informed by ideology or faith. The closest the left has come to acknowledging this was in developing the doctrine of post-modernism, This denies the very existence of truth and argues that all "facts" are mere social "constructs" shaped by the class, ethnic or other identity of the people positing them. How that can be true, when there is no "truth" is a question for longer-lived humans than I expect to be. I need time to have some more fun before I die, thank you very much.

Jeremy Bentham, perhaps the most pragmatic of all English philosophers, is said to have died regretting the great error of his life. which was to assume that it was only necessary to show Man what was right in order for him to embrace it. We who aspire to be rational must learn not to despair when Man cleaves to the irrational. In winning people over to the cause of Reason we must work with, and not merely scorn, their foibles. Were any religious people persuaded to renounce their faith by the late, great Christopher Hitchens' (probably correct) characterisation of their views as the product of "wishful thinking" for example? I have a close friend who is religious and, when I fear he is making a mistake, I rack my brain for the teachings of my long-ago Sunday school to construct a theological argument for him to act differently. Sometimes it works – at least a little better than telling him his faith is "wishful thinking" would! I care about him enough to shape my arguments to his beliefs when I want to help him. Perhaps I should extend that courtesy to others? How far though can I extend a courtesy that costs little when dealing with a kind and (mostly) rational man before I am respecting the monstrous views of barbarians?

If there is no Truth, life is just a pointless frolic. Yet, as Professor Peterson tells us convincingly in his books and videos, all the research suggests that the search for meaning is what makes us happy, not (pace the Founding Fathers) "the pursuit of happiness" per se. We don't need there to be Truth or Meaning to be happy, but we do need to be looking for both. Post-modernism is quite literally a counsel of despair and I suspect is only meant to dispirit most of us into inactivity while its hypocritical proponents get on with their quest to rule the world. 

Where, gentle reader, do you stand? Is there truth? Should it be sought? Can it be found? To the extent that it requires others to accept it in order to improve the world, how best can one persuade them?

*In the linked post, I said I couldn't be sure that it was Tomlinson. My father has since read that post and confirmed that it was.

 


Live at the Apollo with Dr Jordan Peterson

I attended Dr Peterson's event at the Apollo last night. I say "event" because I don't know what else to call it. It was actually a lecture on philosophy but "lecture" seems the wrong word for an address to five thousand excited (and mostly young) people who gave him a rockstar reception. If it were still the 1960s, I might call it a "happening".

Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report introduced him and observed that "tonight it feels like we are winning". It was certainly inspiring to me, having tried my humble best for years to defend the values of the West, to be in a room with so many like-minded people listening raptly to a man doing an oh-so-much better job of it.  The dominance by the Leftist establishment of the public arena from the media through politics to the comedy for which the Apollo's stage is most famous has made me feel at times as though my few gallant readers and I were hiding in a forlorn, shrinking ghetto of ideas. Last night my adrenaline surged as I realised Western civilisation is alive, kicking and beloved. So I don't envy Dr Peterson his success where I have failed. Rather I am relieved by it - in every sense. I am relieved that we are not doomed and as a sentry on the borders of Western thought, I feel that I and my intellectual popgun have been relieved of duty by a Rambo armed to the teeth. I am happy to be to him one of the true friends he advises people to seek out. I delight in his success and I hope he has much more.

I am reading his book at present. I am both loving it and finding it hard going. He lays out twelve rules for life and justifies them with essays that cover prehistory, mythology, biology (human and other), religion, the ideas of the great philosophers and the wisdom of the great psychologists. It draws upon his extensive personal study, his experience as a clinical psychologist and his background in academia, where he has laboured long in obscurity among the cultural Marxists and malevolent identarians. 

His talk last night was hard going too. In introducing the Q&A Dave Rubin commented that each talk so far on the tour has been different. This is no scripted, rehearsed event to promote a best-selling book. Peterson is an experienced educator who simply thinks aloud in the presence of his students, drawing upon his extensive learning. He does so at a intellectual level rarely attempted today in dumbed-down Britain. He makes no concessions to his audience. None. And they react as if they had been dying of thirst in the desert and he had happened by with a glass of water. 

Rubin asked him about this week's article by Bari Weiss in the New York Times in which Weiss coined the phrase the "Intellectual Dark Web" and listed him as a member. He thought it amusing and said he was waiting to see how that idea developed. He had given some thought to what the IDW members had in common, however, and concluded that, in contrast to the condescension of the Left,  it was "assuming the intelligence of their audience". He certainly did that last night. The audience stayed with him for an hour and a half as he wrestled with the great truths of being human; nodding and murmuring and sometimes cheering their approval and laughing at his occasional highbrow jokes. Gentle reader, though we have doubted ourselves in the teeth of our enemies' sneers, we are not the fools they take us for. There are millions of us longing – not for sound bites or dog whistles crafted by the likes of Alistair Campbell, nor for the kind of "Leftism Lite" offered by Conservatives in name only – but for a higher level of principled discussion based on an intelligent appreciation of our civilisation's core ethic; the "sovereignty of the individual".

I spent a lot of money to be in Dr Peterson's presence (£55 for a ticket plus an £8.50 "booking fee") but, given all the many hours of his lectures that are available for free at his YouTube channel, no-one needs to feel unlucky if they can't afford to do the same. Rising rapidly from obscurity because of the stand he took on Canada's "compelled speech" law making "misgendering" a trans person a "hate crime", he has become the most important public intellectual of our age. He says that, though of course there is a political dimension to the subjects he's discussing, his objectives are not political.

He says his career has been about talking to and educating people one by one to help them live better lives. That's how he set out to give his life meaning and it is still the rộle in which he is most comfortable. Besides, as he joked, "I don't think five thousand of you would have come out tonight to listen to Justin Trudeau." He is a brilliant, humble man who says (and I believe him) that he is both astonished and grateful that in the last eighteen months he has been able to help people on a scale he had never imagined. Asked how he was coping with his sudden fame his response was cool and telling. "I have always been a careful man," he said, "but I have learned to be even more careful now that there are people waiting to pounce on any error". 

The enemies of the West who have marched through and seized control of our academic institutions hate and fear him. They will defame him at every turn. Rubin asked the audience last night to make a video to post on their Twitter and Instagram feeds using the hashtag #12rules of Peterson's answer to his question about that defamation. There will be dozens of technically-superior versions out there, but you can find my video here. I hope it will encourage you to watch many more over at his site. 

Dr Peterson's message is that we should all seek to find meaning in our own lives, for our own good and for that of our loved ones and our community. It's tautology to speak of false idols because all idols are false. He declines to be our political leader but he is a wise teacher to whom we can all look for guidance. I commend him to you wholeheartedly. 


An unexpected encounter with a monster

I went to a series of talks on Sunday at Birkbeck College. They are part of the Weekend University programme established by Niall McKeever — an excellent initiative that I commend to you. They were about the psychology of behaviour change and I thought they might help me in my quest to establish healthier habits as I seek to address my long standing weight problem.

I did glean some useful ideas but one price I paid was to sit, horrified, through the presentation of Dr Paul Chadwick of the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change. I don’t doubt the quality or value of Dr Chadwick’s research. He seemed very intelligent and competent. I am sure as a clinical psychologist he can be very effective in helping people who want to change their behaviours. But from his anecdotes it seemed that CBC’s main focus is on assisting government agencies such as Public Health England and the NHS in changing behaviours non-consensually.

I listened aghast as he spoke at length about what “we” need to do to change the behaviour of the stubborn “people” who are so stupidly resistant to doing “the right thing”. Who, I wanted to ask, is included in this “we” of whom you speak? All I could tell from his smug, arrogant, flippant demeanour is that it was emphatically *not* the addition of me or anyone I care about that makes it the first person plural. As for this mysterious “we’s” right to determine “the right thing”, that was a given; something his fine mind never apparently questioned — not even when a programme of behaviour change (for example the government’s “Sure Start” policy) turned out to have unintended results.

The truly scary thing to a classical liberal like me is just what a nice chap he seemed to be. I don’t doubt his good intentions or his good humour. If he were my son, I would be proud of him. Which raises the terrifying question; just how far has our society slipped that a clever young man like him, full of scientific rigour and desire to make a better world, only addresses moral questions accidentally? He did address the question of volition but only in terms of avoiding a “backlash” (his word) if measures had not been the subject of “consultations” (in the formal public sector sense) with “stakeholders”.

He doesn’t mean to be a monster and I don’t want to see him as one, but in his presence my blood ran cold. I was afraid of him. I was even more afraid of the way the earnest folk in the room laughed as he joked about the unintended consequences of various programmes to clean up the act of the idiotic, self-destructive great unwashed, I realised that I might be the only one there who included himself in the category of “the people” to be shaped as opposed to the smug elite doing the shaping.

No one seemed remotely concerned for the freedoms of those on the receiving end of Dr Chadwick’s mind bending, “nudging” and manipulation — the benighted mugs who ultimately pay to have such well-shod professionals sneer about them behind their backs.


THINK - The Economics of Change | Institute of Economic Affairs

THINK - The Economics of Change | Institute of Economic Affairs.

I thought some of you might like to watch in full the talk at the IEA's "Think" conference last year that was referenced in my previous post. Dr Stephen Davis, the IEA's Director of Education, talks about driverless cars, 800 year life-spans and (which I forgot to mention, but is fascinating in its own right) "vertical farming".  

Apparently, and here's a fact to confuse a libertarian, the war on drugs has led to advances in horticulture. Driven underground, those cultivating illegal drugs have developed techniques that could lead, if more widely applied, to mankind feeding itself using 10% of the land currently being farmed. Great areas of the planet could be returned to prairie, steppe or forest. Of course it's also possible that we will simply feed ten times the number of humans from the same land and/or (I suppose, deviating imaginatively from Dr Davis's script) use these techniques to colonise other planets.

Libertarians foxed by the idea that suppressing an activity can enhance its efficiency will take cheer from the fact that these advances have only become available because several US states have legalised cannabis – at least as "medical marijuana". As the marijuana farms become public, other growers can both marvel at and copy the innovations the former criminals made in secret. 

 

Enjoy! 


Relativistic Baseball and other "What ifs"

Relativistic Baseball.

I learned all my science from the back of the Economist, the late lamented Tomorrow's World, the plotlnes of Star Trek and the pages of DC Comics. That has served me well enough to bluff myself through a legal career (including a phase acting for computer scientists in Cambridge), but I have always had more of an unsatisfied holy curiosity about the subject than most arts and social sciences graduates. 

05

I think the linked blog is going to be a useful and amusing supplement to my other sources.

Hammond Meets Moss

BBC - BBC Four Programmes - Hammond Meets Moss.
Hammond_crash Sw71cp
Having complained recently about the poor quality of most modern British broadcasting, let me mention an intelligent show I watched last night. I am a Top Gear fan but have always thought the Hamster (how to put this kindly...?) more charming than thoughtful. Most of his programmes apart from Top Gear have supported this theory. In this case however he surprised me.

Exchanging reminiscences with Sir Stirling Moss about their respective brain-damaging high-speed crashes, 44 years apart, he managed to shed (with the aid of a number of neurologists) a fair amount of light on the workings of the brain. It's on the iPlayer for a while and I commend it to you. I rather suspect that so personal was the subject that the production staff couldn't persuade Hammond to condescend to the viewer in Auntie's usual infuriating, Blue Petery way. Indeed, Mrs P. noticed that he didn't even have his usual laddish accent. To be precise she said, puzzled, "he sounds posh." She is more of a Hamster fan than I am, so she would know.

Ironically, since this really was - in a sense - "car crash television", I found it compelling. Listening to two interesting men intelligently discussing life-changing personal experiences in a scientific context was my idea of a good programme. What's yours?


Equality does not equal fairness

The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-checking the Left's New Theory of Everything: Amazon.co.uk: Christopher John Snowdon: Books.

Cold Capitalists
I am reading Christopher Snowden's book, The Spirit Level Delusion, which sets out to rebut - graph by graph, statistic by statistic - the thesis of Wilkinson and Pickett's work The Spirit Level. These books are both worth a read (the latter - it seems - more for its influence than its accuracy).

The Spirit Level has been embraced by socialists of all parties as proof that equality makes everyone happier, healthier and kinder - and that redistributive taxation is therefore good for all. As someone who has lived in the former Soviet Union, it only proves to me (a) how short human memories are and (b) the truth of Paul Simon's youthful insight that;

"...a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest..."

Let me cite one paragraph from Snowden's counterblast, referring to the chart clumsily reproduced above. The further right the country, the more "unequal" it is, apparently;

"Equal and unequal countries donate part of their GDP to good causes in their own way. More egalitarian countries use money from high taxes which is given away as politicians see fit. Low tax countries allow people to give to charities and causes as they see fit. But although one system relies on compulsion and the other relies on charity, it is the voluntary system that generates the greatest sums. As shown ... the amount France gives to charity amounts to just 0.14% of GDP, twelve times less than the USA (1.73%). Even if we add the 0.39% France gives in foreign aid, it is still a quarter of the American total of 1.91%. When the contribution of individuals is combined with that of the state, it is clear that less equal countries are at least as philanthropic as the rest and often more so."
Next time you feel inclined to dismiss libertarian advocacy of volunteerism as mere camouflage for uncaring stinginess, please consider that the state is as inefficient at generosity as at everything else. These statistics don't even address how much it costs to deliver state, as opposed to voluntary aid. I am prepared to bet the wastage on administration is much, much greater; leaving even less for the deserviing recipients.