Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Kerosene is nothing but perfume to me.

Many writers had commented that 17880067George Orwell’s “1984” had made its way back into the best sellers lists on Amazon and elsewhere. The general opinion was that the concerns with “fake news” and fears about the growth of the popularity of right-wing populist politicians had driven this resurgence of interest in a great classic. It is excellent that this book is being re-read as it is an excellent warning about the dangers of limiting free speech and a clear exposition of how those who control language and discourse also control thought and opinion. However, an interesting article suggested that this book was not the best guide to the recent events, to which we are witness, but rather another dystopian classic, Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451″, held that distinction. It was for this reason I reread the book.

This book has not aged at all in the 55 years since it was published. It is still a fresh, fast-paced exciting read today and I can imagine if feels even more urgent now than it did then. It describes a frightening future when literature is banned, thought and discussion discouraged and, as an alternative, an overstimulating popular culture full of noise and movement is provided (with adjunctive psychotropic drugs as needed). In this future the duty of the fireman is to find and burn books.

Unlike “1984” in this future the  state has not forced these changes on an unwilling public but rather has promoted the changes as necessary and beneficial, as a means to protect a diverse community from distress and harm.

‘Now let’s take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities.’

‘It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God.’

‘Coloured people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace,’

It was also seen as a way to ensure the avoidance of distress of all. Choice requires decisions and decisions can be difficult and promote conflict, best to avoid them. Any discomfort, no matter how integral to the human condition, could be used as an excuse to restrict choice and action.

‘You can’t build a house without nails and wood. If you don’t want a house built, hide the nails and wood. If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.’

‘Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after death a man’s a speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn them all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.’

Indeed in this nightmare of a future all we need is pleasure and fun and just enough knowledge to allow us to be productive.

‘School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies all about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?’

‘So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your dare-devils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex.’

This is a libertarian novel, one which clearly promotes the individual over the group, one which warns against conformity, no matter how enjoyable, and promotes responsibility and cooperation with our fellows. There is no wastage in this novel, each page carries the story forward, either adding to the adrenaline rush of the chase or offering interesting and challenging insights into our society. We are often warned that if we ignore history we may repeat our mistakes and this is true. But when we also have warnings as clear as this, about our future dangers, we really have no excuse if we end in trouble.

‘But remember that the Captain belongs to the most dangerous enemy of truth and freedom, the solid unmoving cattle of the majority. Oh, God, the terrible tyranny of the majority. We all have our harps to play. And it’s up to you now to know with which ear you’ll listen.’

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Will it never end ? Quebec’s terrorist attack.

Another atrocity, six innocent men gunned down, while at their devotions, 19 others injured and 5 remain in a critical condition. Again we are witness to innocent people, slaughtered as thy try to get on with their lives and again we know that wives have been left widowed and children fatherless for no reason.

This time, it seems highly likely that a young man with right-wing nationalist views (Alexandre Bissonnette) is responsible for this horror. If it is he, we will no doubt discover that he, like Dylan Roof and  Omar Mateen and many others before him, was a warped young man unable to tolerate those he disagreed with, unable to tolerate those different to him. It is no surprise that these people choose their targets by features which mark out their group as different to his group; the white supremacist attacking those performing their religious duties while the jihadist identifies those participating in banned activities.

Terrorists from both groups are much more similar than they would like to imagine, both see themselves as warriors defending their group against the others or avenging wrongs done by the other group. While these are extreme members of their groups, this tendency to see politics and life in terms of groups is a major problem. It does not matter if the group is defined by religion or race, nation or class, heritage or any other  tribal banding, viewing the world in this manner distorts our society.

Humans are intrinsically social animals. We don’t survive in isolation and instinctively seek out our fellows. Despite what dystopian films and novels may tell us, in good times and bad we band together to cooperate, help and trade. We find ways to be with others that is mutually beneficial. It is important to recognise that xenophobia and fear of others is commonest in people who have little contact with other groups. When we have to opportunity to mix and mingle we find ways to make this benefit both ourselves and the others and fear quickly dissipates. When we are left to our own devices we create an emergent order which is beneficial to all. This only goes wrong when we are grouped and ruled.

This is not simply the old story of “divide and rule” but rather “categorise and control“. When we are encourage to see ourselves as members of groups ( American, Christian, Black, Lesbian, Working Class, Welsh, Jewish, Islamic, Aryan, etc) we are encouraged to see the differences we have with others. We are encouraged to view others as being not only different but wrong and potentially threatening. We are encouraged to feel under threat and in need of protection. And in responce to this perceived threat, there are usually a group of people (politicians, clergy, kings,  inspired leaders, etc) who will guard us and look after our interests. These are the people who benefit from this grouping, they now hold the power (and usually a great deal of the wealth) as they control how we may and may not interact to preserve our group. All their power comes from controlling spontaneous  activity by individuals  and disappears if people are allowed to interact freely.

Once in our groups we are encouraged to view all problems in terms of this. It leads to partisan and transactional politics. Our group is always right, the other always wrong. Our problems come from the malevolence of the other group. While watching the coverage of Quebec I noticed on social media the cheerleaders of each group swinging into action. Those on the alt-right ecstatic when it looked as if a muslim might have been involved (erroneously), the progressives cock-a-hoop at having another timely white nationalist terrorist just in time for the fight with Trump about closing borders. Our politics have descended into this. We are unable to discuss issues without this being along the lines of our group identities. This means we fail to develop and change as quickly as we might otherwise be able.

The Quebec tragedy will end up being defined as a battle between those fearing islamophobia and those fearing islamofascism. Left to their own devices, followers of different faiths would cooperate happily and beneficially. When they are individuals they find a way to coexist in a way that benefits all, it is only when they are pushed into groups that hatred such as this arises. It is leaders who lead us down these dark alleys of discrimination and violence.

Remember the men who lost their lives in Quebec, remember them as real people like you or I, remember them as fathers or sons like you or I, remember them as individuals.  Don’t think that their religion makes what happened to them explicable in any manner, nor does it explain their murderer’s actions.  Don’t force them into a group and don’t let yourself be forced into a group. When we stay as individual units we remain individually responsible and recognise that we have the same rights as everyone else. Maintaining this is our only hope of preventing future tragedies. The first step in murder and maltreatment is making the victim an exemplar of a group rather than an individual. The second step is removing our own individual responsibility by passing it to a higher authority.  Don’t be pushed to take these dangerous steps.

 

 

Looking at the balance sheet after Trump’s Victory

Looking at the balance sheet after Trump’s Victory

There was an excellent article on  Bleeding Heart Libertarians site discussing some attitudes to the recent election of Donald Trump. I would encourage anyone of a libertarian  bent to read this as it is both well written and important. It concerns the fact that many libertarians seem to be offering some support to Donald Trumps election, though largely on the basis that his victory was the lesser of two evils, and that on balance he may do more good than harm.

But when one looks at the ‘on balance’ argument it falls down quite quickly as the benefits he may bring are minor and the disadvantages are often very major :-

A small tax cut, or freezing the minimum wage are, in my view, an order of magnitude less morally important than authorizing torture, suggesting Muslim registries, closing the border to refugees, ignoring the Constitution and the rule of law, revving up the US war machine, trying to muzzle the media, building a wall, undoing decades of peace and prosperity-enhancing global trade, threatening to send troops to Chicago, and so forth.

Also there is an apparent moral problem with how these gains and losses are distributed which we can not avoid :-

Notice that almost everything on the “plus” side of the ledger are policies that primarily affect Americans. School choice, ending the ACA, deregulation at the FDA or Labor, and even tax cuts are policies that pretty much exclusively affect Americans. On the other side, torture, trade, immigration, refugees, and war are things that have major effects on citizens in the rest of the world. Dammit, libertarians, they count too. The liberal vision has always been a global, cosmopolitian one, and there are no grounds for saying the interests of Americans trump (as it were) those of the rest of the globe.

Part of this problem may arise from the fact that, for many libertarians, their dislike of the left is greater than the importance they apply to their liberal principles. But joy, or schadenfreude, at Clinton’s loss should not blind us to the nature of the man who won.

Too many libertarians hate the left more than they love liberty. One response I’ve heard to my pushing back on their take on Trump is that “well Obama/Clinton was/would have been worse!” No, actually he wasn’t and I don’t think she would have been. Yes, they might have expanded the regulatory state, but there would be no revival of torture, no wall, no registry, no trade war, no attempt to muzzle the media, etc.. Trump is a tin-pot dictator wannabe (and startingtobe), without an ounce of knowledge or respect for constitutional limits on government, who threatens the foundational institutions of the liberal order. Obama was not.

 

via Liberalism in the Balance – Bleeding Heart Libertarians

Burkini Madness

Burkini Madness

The left-right political axis is of little value when it come to many issues of moral principle. Pragmatism on both sides often usurps moral consistency. The issue of personal liberty, the freedom to think and speak as one wishes, has often been seen as a moral principle that defines one side or the other. But the evidence that this is correct is very poor, both sides tend to support liberty when it supports their cause and suppress it when it is inconvenient.

Historically those on the right stressed duties over rights, and the placed more importance on obedience than on  freedom of thought and word. In the past these issues (subjugation of liberty to king, nation or church) had been the greater threat to peoples’ freedom. This lead to many feeling that it was an issue which delineated the two groups – the left fighting for liberty and change the right reacting to preserve order and the status quo – the progressives trying to expand liberty against the repression of reactionary and conservative forces.

Unfortunetely, however, the principle of liberty has never been high on the left’s agenda.  Trotsky warned of this in 1924 when he said “To be sure, a revolutionary dictatorship means by its very essence strict limitations of freedom.” and Lenin likewise with his pithy statement “It is true that liberty is precious; so precious that it must be carefully rationed. ”

Indeed, in  recent years the major threats to issues of freedom and liberty appear to have come from the left-hand side of the political spectrum. Issues of “hate speech”, “hate crimes”, various types of”denial” and silencing people in held to be dprsking from positions of “provilege” have, at times, seriously threatened our ability to be free in our thoughts, words and deeds. It has been particularly distressing to those of us who come from a liberal or left background to watch the left abandon these principles and allow the right to take the moral high-ground.

But the issue of the “burkini” seems to be a return to form for the repressive right. There have been attempts to blame this illiberal ban on ‘aggressive secular forces’. They argue that this is “laïcité” flexing its muscles; putting pressure on all religious groups to protect the secular state. Or it has been argued that this is attempts by the progressive forces to protect women from oppression by the burqa; assisting them in their fight against an islamic patriarchy.

Neither of these motivations are honest or credible. It is clear from the anger in the debate, and the content of the rhetoric, that the focus is on the islamic symbol itself. Not behaviour, not gender, not modesty but symbolic islamic dress. The intention of these local laws was to cause discomfort to those who followed Islam, nothing more and nothing less.

It is understandable that there is anger after the recent terrorist attacks in France and is should be no surprise that beaches of the South of France have become the battle ground following the truck attack in Nice. There is a desire to hurt those who are seen as having hurt us. This is ‘god-sent’ to the racists who now have a seemingly acceptable focus for their hatred and it will prove a fertile recruiting ground for them.

This is the main problem with this type of anger and desire for revenge, it is blind and counter-productive, it punishes the innocent and misses the guilty, it drives more to believe the propaganda of the terrorist and it divides our society when it needs to be strong in the face of attacks on its moral values.

No-one can consider that forcing French muslim women to dress in a manner they feel immodest will improve society nor will it assuage the anger that gave birth to it. We arrive at this travesty of a situation because we have ignored a basic moral principle. We are free to think and act as we will as long as we do not harm any other person. As John Stuart Mill put is “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

This is an inviolate right and not a possession of either the right or the left in politics. Only Libertarians, Liberals and Anarchists give this the focus it deserves. Holding to prionciples such as these guides us past horrible mistakes such as the “burkini ban” and in the past this was widely recognised. Laws to control our behaviour should be rarely used, individuals behave better than states and come to better, more creative, solutions. Indeed even Lenin saw this when he realised “While the State exists there can be no freedom; when there is freedom there will be no State.

 

 

Men should weep.

Men should weep.

istvan reiner

I often come across photographs on the internet which unsettle me. However, I do not think any had the effect on me comparable to that of this simple portrait of a young boy. I found it very moving and although I know it may upset others I felt I needed to share it.


It is the portrait of Istvan Reiner, a Hungarian boy, who was born in 1940. His parents, aware of the gathering holocaust did all in their power to try and protect him even going as far as to change their faith and become protestants. It was all to no avail, he and his grandmother were taken to Auschwitz, and there murdered.

When I look at Istvan’s face he is a beautiful young lad with a warm and appealing smile. He has big eyes full of happiness and pleasure. He is playing, pretending to be a bus or train ticket inspector and having fun thinking of his future adult life. It is a face full of promise. In his face I can see my children and my grandchildren playing the same games, I can even see echoes of myself and my brother when we were boys.

It is difficult to comprehend how someone could take this little boy and snuff out his life and future, but they did. It is hard to believe that people looked at his face and saw something terrible and threatening, but they did. It is terrible to think that people looked at Istvan and saw something worthless and in need of disposal, but they did.

Two factors seem to be required to create this special type of horror.

Firstly, it requires that people are able to see others as different and worthless. Common denominators to define this have been race, religion or nationality. Once we start to see people as Jews or Muslims, as Scots or English, or blacks or whites, rather than as people, we take a step on the path to reducing them. Instead of seeing the face of Istvan, a happy young boy, we see a jew boy, a black or an arab – a problem rather than a delight.

Nationalism and racism always carry this risk and they reduce us as people, while at the same time making us think other people are worth less.  By thinking less of humanity, humanity becomes less.

Secondly, it requires a strong state. It requires a state that takes responsibility away form the individual, usually at the same time as taking their freedom and liberty. People working for the state, and following orders, are able to commit the most heinous acts. When normal individuals, like you or I, have our freedom and responsibility removed we can become brutes in the herd. The writings of Hannah Arendt and Eric Hoffer  should warn us of the dangers of totalitarianism, regardless of whether it arises from the left or right side of the political spectrum.

While we try to deal with this wave of nationalism and racism which prevails we should remember Istvan and other like him and remember we are playing with fire. No matter what excuses you give yourself – it’s antizionism not antisemitism, anti-religion not racism, it’s class war not nationalism – you are dancing on the edge of the abyss. Take a second to think again about your antipathy and remember the words of the Burn’s poem  .. ..

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.