Monday, December 31, 2007

Threatening behaviour

Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation, has written an open letter to the Home Secretary, in which she says that her members are “angry and bitterly disappointed” that the police pay rise isn’t being back-dated. She continues:

I want to take this opportunity to offer an olive branch. It’s not too late to change course and stop this situation escalating. You know the mood of police officers, the public and many of your political colleagues. I can assure you, we have no intention of letting this go.

From what I hear, the pay claim seems reasonable. But this letter is some “olive branch”: we’re angry, so do what we want and we won’t cause trouble.

A graduate of the Middle East School of Compromise, Negotiation and Peacemaking?

Rhetorical questions

Why is political language so bad? I don’t mean politicians being rude about each other, but rather the rotten quality of their prose.

George Orwell’s marvellous essay Politics and the English Language discussed this in 1946, arguing that political language consists “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness”. He scorns the overuse of abstraction, the tactical deployment of meaningless words to evoke approval or disapproval as desired, the blending of dying metaphors with needlessly complex phrases that pad sentences out, and other rhetorical devices:

This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing. As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.

This is important not just to language obsessives, because “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”. Throwing off bad verbal habits allows us to think more clearly, “and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration”.

Orwell suggests a few guidelines for clear, honest writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never us a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

(I am sure I regularly break each of these, and without avoiding barbarousness.)

Six decades on, the essay is still well worth reading, and has at least as much validity as it did then. Take these extracts from the party leaders’ new year messages.

David Cameron:

In place of Labour's hopeless surrender to violence on our streets, with overcrowded prisons and police tied up in red tape, we will offer the hope of civilised communities which are safe for everyone, based on radical police reform and more prison places in prisons which actually reduce re-offending.

Gordon Brown:

With important legislation making long-term changes in energy, climate change, health, pensions, planning, housing, education and transport, 2008 will be a year of measurable changes in public services. A year for stepping up major long-term reform to meet challenges ranging from globalisation and global warming to the great unfinished business of social reform in our country.

Nick Clegg:

2008 will be a momentous year for the Liberal Democrats. We have before us an unparalleled opportunity. We must reach beyond the stale two-party system to the millions of people who share our liberal values, and change Britain for the better. Let us show what that means in the local elections that face us this spring. Putting British families back in control of their everyday lives will be at the heart of everything we stand for.

You see the clichés, self-important but empty. Surrenders are always hopeless, reform is always radical, changes are always for the long term, there are always challenges that need meeting, opportunities are always unparalleled, and the two-party system (which is only a ‘two-party system’ because the other parties consistently can’t attract more support) is always stale.

Brown – in this case and generally – is probably the worst offender on jargon. His intellect is undeniable, but his speech patterns too often seem mechanical. Clegg seems to be most like a human being, probably owing to his inexperience, but the culture is already permeating him. He comes across a bit like a student hack or Question Time audience member trying to sound like a proper politico, because he thinks that’s how you have to play the game.

Cameron (and Tony Blair, whose model he follows) reminds us of more recent linguistic turns in politics. In contrast to the verbose and over-complicated language Orwell decries, we’ve seen since the 1990s a style that shortens sentences, very often to the point at which they lack verbs. The aim of this is to evoke feelings and connote possibilities rather than to make definite statements. Sentences are starved of concrete meaning rather than bloated with gibberish.

Alongside this has been an increase in what I’ll punningly call demotic possession: calculated use of the vernacular to make the speaker seem like an ‘ordinary bloke’ (it’s usually men).

Blair was a master of this: his ‘you know’s seemed natural, and the fact that he could get away with “I am a pretty straight sort of guy” in the face of a party funding scandal that would have crippled John Major demonstrates the power of this technique. The aim is to get the public to judge you more on your (apparent) character than on your actions. If they think you’re ‘one of us’, they’ll be more likely to excuse your failures. (Bill Clinton and George Bush both managed this well.)

Cameron borrows heavily from Blair in style as well as strategy, but can’t quite pull it off so well. His ‘actuallys’ and ‘incrediblys’ seem deliberate attempts to sound earnest, as if he’s working to conceal a comfortable nonchalance. He compares superbly with previous Tory leaders, but unfortunately for him, we’ve heard this act done much better before.

Politicians abuse language far too much, no doubt very often without realising that’s what they’re doing. They should do better. So, for that matter, should I. Happy new year.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Honderich on consciousness

I’m very amused (and slightly rueful) to read of the “academic spat” between philosophers Ted Honderich and Colin McGinn. Honderich has proposed a theory of consciousness in a recent book, and McGinn has reviewed it scathingly:

"This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad," begins Colin McGinn's review of On Consciousness by Ted Honderich. "It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent."
The ending isn't much better: "Is there anything of merit in On Consciousness? Honderich does occasionally show glimmers of understanding that the problem of consciousness is difficult and that most of our ideas about it fall short of the mark. His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous…"

Harsh. But possibly fair.

For a calmer discussion, see Stephen Law, who perhaps tactfully describes Honderich’s view as “ingenious and radical” but not, in the end, adequate. He also suggests that the theory as explained is hard to understand.

Honderich summarises his view as saying that:

to be perceptually conscious is only for an extra-cranial state of affairs to exist -- for there to be a spatio-temporal set of things with a dependence on another extra-cranial state of affairs and also on what is in a particular cranium.

(A Wikipedia piece (caveat emptor) notes that in a collection of 11 critical reviews of Honderich’s work, “The theory baffled most of the 11 philosophers.”)

I know the feeling.

In 2000, as a PhD student, I wrote a paper on Honderich’s approach to consciousness. Certainly he’s developed his thinking since then, but I took a very - brutally - critical view. I was drawn to his theory not because I thought it was important or interesting, but because I was angry that one of philosophy’s big names could get away with getting such empty, circular, obscurantist drivel published.

I said that his view was “quite unlike anything else in the literature” and that his articles were, “for the most part, maddeningly cryptic”. I called it “unhelpful” that he didn’t offer a definition of what he was trying to explain (‘consciousness’ is one of those terms that covers a lot of things). I argued that his theory proceeded:

in a circular manner. It has no explanatory power, and so cannot help us to understand how it is that consciousness can exist… or even to characterise its nature informatively.

The politest conclusion I could bring myself to write (him being a bigshot professor, me being a lowly postgrad) was: “Honderich’s approach is a bold and imaginative move, but ultimately it proves unsustainable and unilluminating.”

What I actually thought was that Honderich’s bad writing concealed the fact that his thinking was even worse. At the time, I couldn’t find any responses to him in the journals or online. I should have published my paper. Oh well. Nice to find out I was ahead of my time…

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

IDS: from Quiet Man to Silent Knight?

In a CiF piece, Yvonne Roberts refers, twice, to an individual called “Sir Iain Duncan Smith”.

Probably a simple error, but just possibly a surprising leak from the New Year’s honours list?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Pre-holiday nonsense: my media top five

As one of the nation’s least underrated bloggers, I often find that people come up to me in the street and ask: “Big Issue?” To this I naturally answer: “Well the liquidity crisis affecting global markets is a matter of great current concern, although in the long term I suspect that Russia’s political development as Vladimir Putin’s presidency draws to a close will prove to be of more significance.”

Thus am I able to vouch personally for the great improvements to hospital A&E facilities wrought by this splendid Labour government.

Slightly less often, people come up to me in the street and ask: “Tom, at this time of year one can hardly swing a cat without hitting a spurious media list of the ‘highlights of 2007’ – or, for that matter, without attracting the approbation of the RSPCA – but what, to turn the tables a little, would you rate as the media highlights of the year?”

I tend to reply: “Hmm, I see you have the same implausible manners of speech as me. That’s either gratifying for me, horrifying for you or grounds for one of us to sue the other.”

“Hold on, now, Tom,” my interlocutor interlocutes. “You’ve got three or arguably four options there, and you introduced them with ‘either’, which is properly used only for two alternatives. And I’m also unconvinced that ‘interlocutes’ is a real word. You have standards to uphold, you know.”

“Look,” I reply, “I used ‘interlocutes’ in the text surrounding our dialogue rather than actually in the conversation itself. For you to take me up on that is an act of reckless, wanton deconstruction, and if you don’t start behaving yourself I’ll be forced to rewrite your lines to make you look like an idiot.”

“You do realise that I’m just a narrative device, don’t you?”

“Only an idiot would say that. Ha! Now, you mentioned something about the media highlights of the year. As you’d expect, I have strong and demonstrably correct opinions on this, but if I were to tell you what they are, then doubtless you’d just scurry away, set up your own second-rate blog and post butchered versions of them passed off as your own. And then where would I be?”

“Reduced to writing an over-complicated blog post about very little, in which you try and fail to mix showing-off and faux self-deprecation by applying layer after layer of strained irony? By the way, I’m so glad the Spice Girls have reunited. It’s almost as good news as the fact that Robert Mugabe’s survived another glorious year in government.”

“See what I mean about making you look an idiot? Anyway, what I’m going to do, rather than answer your question right here, in this non-metaphorical street that we definitely really are standing in having an actual conversation, is to scurry away, write the idea up, and then post it myself.”


The Official Freemania Top Five Media Highlights Of 2007, In Ascending Order Of Highness And Lightness

(5) Novels
I’m very taken with the notion of a novel. As the name suggests, this is one of those famed ‘new media’, and I am a little wary of passing judgement so soon. And yet the novel seems a splendid thing. Novels are much like true stories of events in people’s lives, but the remarkable innovation is that these stories are about people who don’t actually exist and events that didn’t really happen.
It is a disgrace that in 21st-century Britain, your life chances depend on whether you are born into reality or into someone’s imagination. Novels are a bold attempt to push the wholly legitimate concerns of fictional characters up the agenda. I have heard great things about novels in 2007, and fully intend to read one during 2008.

(4) Television
Along with work and a dwindling group of people who can tolerate my company socially, television is what prevents me from blogging more often. This alone should convince you of the merits of this medium. But there’s more!
TV has been proved by social scientists to have two remarkable effects on family life. First, if a household has a number of sets in different rooms, family members can be protected from each other’s presence. This has resulted in a substantial drop in parental stress, child embarrassment and bitter divorces. Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically in light of the first, if a single set is viewed communally by all household members, the shared experience of watching the same programmes creates a very real rapport. Thanks to TV, family members now have more in common than ever before, and can when necessary converse more easily without fear of broaching fraught subjects such as their own lives.
Little wonder, then, that David Cameron has proposed tax breaks for married couples who watch television, and insists that “to fix a broken society we don’t need a big government, we need a widescreen”.

(3) Pantomime
For a combination of deranged overacting, boisterous singing of preposterous lyrics, ridiculous costumes, wafer-thin characterisations, plot lines that are somehow both predictable and incoherent, and sheer audience enthusiasm, you simply can’t beat opera. If you’re on a budget, though, and/or a bit dim, pantomime is an excellent alternative.
Many of the world’s most talented celebrities see a panto role as the crowning glory of their careers, only to be attempted when they’ve successfully retired from their primary vocation. These people become such rapid panto stars that their previous work is quickly eclipsed; this is the only possible explanation for the need for the publicity posters to explain who they actually are.
If you have young children, panto is one of the few things you can do with them that may exhaust them more than it does you.
(Some might argue that panto is more a genre than a medium. Oh no it isn’t.)

(2) Photography
Photography is very exciting. Literally for decades, artists wanting to create visual representation were forced to resort to drawing or painting a scene by hand. This was a slow and difficult process, and even those with the greatest expertise would produce pictures that were clearly inexact. In sport, close races often led to violent disputes, as the artists charged with making ‘sketch-finishes’ typically had to ask the runners to go back and cross the finish line again, in order to get the shadow right.
Now, with photography, any talentless fool can create an accurate photo of any scene in just a fraction of a second. Never again need visual art be constrained by the limits of individual interpretation and subjected to the tyranny of ‘creative skill’! And I’m not kidding that you can photograph any scene: bride and male cousins, best man and bridesmaid, groom and pregnant exes, happy couple and ambivalent parents, Amy Winehouse falling out of a taxi… the possibilities are endless.
Remarkably, boffins have developed a technique that allows the taking of photos in black and white rather than colour. Political and religious leaders are already using this method to simplify complex issues.

And this year’s winner is…

(1) Newspapers
Newspapers are quite remarkable. They’re a bit like blogs, only more portable and expensive. And you can wrap fish and chips in them. They contain factual reporting, some of which is accurate, as well as opinion pieces, some of which are coherent. These are mainly written by people called columnists, who are a bit like bloggers (although more self-absorbed and less able to publish their own material); some pieces, though, are known as ‘leaders’, which are written anonymously, presumably as their high levels of platitude and pomposity are a potential source of embarrassment to their writers (doubtless trainees).
There are a variety of newspapers, and you can pick one to suit your IQ, prejudices, arm span and taste in advertisements. Some take pride in covering global issues, whereas others focus mainly on national events. ‘Local’ newspapers operate at the level of a small town or village, and for the truly parochial and incurious reader there is the Daily Mail.

Think I’m a bit demob-happy. Merry Christmas!

How Maggie helped Billy

There was something odd in the Guardian yesterday:

Billy Bragg would have had to work hard to succeed in any era, and especially in the 1980s, when his socialist politics and punk antecedents were deeply unfashionable.

Especially in the 1980s? No, no, no. For political music to succeed, it has to be part of the opposition, the resistance, the counterculture. I can’t think of a better decade for a socialist, working-class musician to have been working in than one in which a right-wing government was gutting industry and sending unemployment and poverty soaring.

Songs of protest can catch on. Songs of government support? No. I had my iPod on shuffle as I walked in to work this morning and Billy’s ‘There is Power in a Union’ popped up. Far from his best, and more than a tad dated, but still utterly electrifying.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Poverty and simplicity

Don Paskini takes issue with Tory MPs Greg Clark and Jeremy Hunt for misrepresenting Labour’s approach to poverty in a pamphlet of theirs.

In the same vein, I don’t accept their claim that “the Conservative Party is developing a deeper understanding of the subject than New Labour has ever manifested”. They argue that “Government policy revolves around a simplistically defined poverty line”, but “measures of relative income are… not sufficient” because there are “other important indicators of deprivation” that the Government ignores.


The Department for Work and Pensions publishes an annual report called ‘Opportunity for All’. In this years’s edition, as in every year’s, it discusses 59 different measures of deprivation.

I think you can guess what I’m going to do now. There are four categories of indicator, and progress under Labour on each is given in brackets. As you’d expect, it’s a mixed bag, but the mix is mostly positive.

Children and young people
  • Children in workless households (insufficient data)
  • Relative low income (better)
  • Absolute low income (better)
  • Persistent low income (better)
  • Teenage conceptions (better)
  • Teenage parents in education, employment or training (better)
  • Proportion of children in disadvantaged areas with ‘good’ level of development (insufficient data)
  • Key Stage 2 (11-year-olds) attainment (better)
  • 16-year-olds’ achievement (better)
  • Schools below floor target (better)
  • 19-year-olds with at least a Level 2 qualification (insufficient data)
  • School attendance (no change)
  • Looked after children: education gap (worse)
  • Looked after children not in education, employment or training (insufficient data)
  • Stability in the lives of looked after children (better)
  • 16–18-year-olds in learning (no change)
  • Infant mortality (worse)
  • Serious unintentional injury (better)
  • Smoking prevalence for pregnant women (better)
  • Smoking prevalence for children aged 11-15 (better)
  • Obesity for children aged 2-10 (worse)
  • Re-registrations on Child Protection Register (better)
  • Housing that falls below the set standard of decency (better)
  • Families in temporary accommodation (worse)

People of working age
  • Employment rate (better)
  • Disabled people employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Lone parents employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Ethnic minority people employment rate (insufficient data)
  • People aged 50 and over employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Lowest qualified people employment rate (insufficient data)
  • Working-age people in workless households (better)
  • Working-age people without a Level 2 NVQ qualification or higher (insufficient data)
  • Long periods on income-related benefits (better)
  • Relative low income (no change)
  • Absolute low income (better)
  • Persistent low income (no change)
  • All adults smoking rate (better)
  • Manual socio-economic groups adult smoking rates (better)
  • Death rates from suicide and undetermined injury (better)
  • Rough sleepers (better)
  • Use of Class A drugs by 16–24-year-olds (no change)
  • Frequent use of any illicit drug by 16–24-year-olds (better)

People in later life
  • Relative low income (better)
  • Absolute low income (better)
  • Persistent low income (better)
  • People contributing to a non-state pension (worse)
  • People making continuous contributions to a non-state pension (no change)
  • Healthy life expectancy at age 65 (insufficient data)
  • Receiving intensive home care (better)
  • Receiving any community-based service (insufficient data)
  • Housing that falls below the set standard of decency (better)
  • Fear of crime (better)

  • Employment rates in deprived areas (insufficient data)
  • Crime rates in high-crime areas (better)
  • Housing that falls below the set standard of decency (better)
  • Households in fuel poverty (better)
  • Life expectancy at birth (worse)
  • Attainment gap at Key Stage 2 (11-year-olds) (better)
  • Road accident casualties in deprived areas (better)

Simplistic my arse.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Prudes vs nudes

Vote for taxpayer-funded nudity on the internet!

This is what it’s all about:

The NHS is asking patients whether a new interactive body map should be correct in every detail - or whether the genitals should be left off.
The state-of-the-art body maps have been developed for the NHS Choices website. The maps, to be launched next month, allow users to strip away the dummies' skin to explore information about diseases and treatments.

I say yes: because sometimes naughty bits get ill too.

It’s mildly dismaying that they feel the need to consult rather than just doing it, but I guess they’re only covering their arses – so to speak – in case the bone-headed prude brigade starts shrieking.

I’m sure that we as a nation are mature enough to accept this. It’s possible, though, that the prudish minority will rush to vote no and the rest of us won’t bother.

You can vote here. (Looking at the censored versions currently on show, I can guarantee there’s really no danger of mistaking them for actual human beings. More like crash test dummies after a session in the gym.)

How to address a middle-class audience

Deborah Orr, of the Independent, clearly knows her readership:

Yet in reality there are few people – unless they have a vested interest – who give a stuff about welfare reform. It's complicated, tedious and it doesn't bear too much examination…

I don’t know whether any of the few people in the country who receive benefits would be reading this fine newspaper, but if so, I hope they don’t feel left out.

(Imagine reading ‘there are few people – unless they have a vested interest – who give a stuff about breast cancer research. It's complicated, tedious…’)

This is a far cry from the Times’s grimly telling headline about the Cantle report in 2001 – ‘Blacks lead parallel lives warns race riot report’ – but it’s in the same territory, by suggesting a demographically exclusive conversation.

It’s a pity that a columnist of the liberal left seems to assume that people claiming welfare are to be talked about, rather than talked to.

Cameron’s illegal funding hypocrisy

Two weeks ago:

David Cameron has demanded to know who knew about Labour's proxy donations, saying it is "incredible" that top Labour officials did not know the law. It "beggars belief" that Gordon Brown knew nothing about the donations, he added, and said the PM was trying to "spin his way out" of the row.

David Cameron's constituency party has admitted receiving more than £7,000 in invalid donations, it has emerged. The Witney Conservative Party has voluntarily forfeited the cash to the Electoral Commission because the benefactors were not British voters.
…Tory aides said the incident was a "genuine mistake".

Hopi is on fine form:

So in every statement the Conservative party has made since then about accepting donations from illegal sources, at every PMQs, at every interview, they have known they their Leader’s own party had done exactly what they accused others of doing.

It “beggars belief” that Cameron thinks he can get away with this.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The party that offers the most leadership

Having been the last blogger* to attack Menzies Campbell before he resigned, I’d like to be the first** to shake my head in scorn at new leader Nick Clegg and to demand that the Lib Dems bring back Vince Cable. Whatever happened to him?

* Possibly
** Or near enough

Mind your language

Polly Tonybee today manages to forget her own argument in the space of a sentence. She’s discussing Labour’s use of the word ‘progressive’ and the attempt, by a couple of Tory backbench imps, to claim it as their own. She thinks the word is vacuous:

"progressive" fails the political test: if any party can use it, forget it. Would any party call itself regressive? Labour should now quietly set this word free and find others that stand for something real. "Fairness", for instance, resonates with authentic policies that separate Labour from Conservatives.

Um... would any party call itself unfair?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Abuse of office

John Major has risibly accused Labour of being systematically sleazy in a way that his government was not

He acknowledged that "lots of people misbehaved" when he was prime minister, but said they did so as individuals rather than members of the government. It was not institutional sleaze, he said.

All I could think of on seeing this was the arms-to-Iraq affair that was investigated by the Scott Report. I just want to note the parliamentary debate that followed publication of the report, which was highly critical of ministers William Waldegrave and Nicholas Lyell.

The government contemptibly decided to give shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook just a couple of hours in advance of the debate to read this colossal document – relating to abuses of government power – while ministers had had far longer to dissect it and prepare their defences. Cook still skewered them marvellously.

The debate took place in February 1996, when John Major’s slim Commons majority was in a state of advanced collapse. A government defeat would certainly have cost Waldegrave and Lyell their jobs, yet despite this obvious vested interest, Major still allowed them to vote to save their own skins. Thanks to this decision, they won by a single vote.

Another episode that springs to mind is the matter of politically motivated election timing – no, not this year but in 1997. Major prorogued Parliament unusually early – well before its formal dissolution – which halted the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey.

This meant that Downey’s potentially humiliating report into the cash-for-questions scandal couldn’t be published until safely after the election. Major could easily have timed the prorogation so that voters went to the polls knowing the truth, but he chose to hide behind his executive powers.

People often thought of Major – and still do think of him – as basically decent but surrounded by a few bad apples. Dull is not the same thing as decent, though. He went to some lengths to see no evil, and to try to make sure the public couldn’t see it either. To downplay and conceal corruption, and to protect one’s corrupt allies, is itself a form of corruption. Let’s not treat this self-serving has-been as a noble elder statesman.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Helicopters for Darfur

Credit to Gordon Brown for his role in pushing through Security Council resolution 1769 a few months ago.


The UN has pledged to send an international peacekeeping force to Darfur but it is being held up largely because no country has yet donated any of the 24 helicopters needed for the operation.

Even more credit would be due if Brown could take a lead and help out here.

You might want to sign up:

This petition is to ask Gordon Brown to set an example to the international community by immediately providing 5 of the helicopters required.

Bush and Barney: we’re on Candid Camera!

There are those rare moments of epiphany, and I think I’ve just had one. It was when I saw that George Bush has released a Christmas video of a story in which his dogs, Barney and Miss Beazley are appointed “Junior Park Rangers”. They engage in assorted antics, including being congratulated by “country music star Alan Jackson and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair”.

It’s just weird beyond words.

And this is what I suddenly realised: Bush isn’t really President. The last seven years have just been a big joke.

We should have been alerted to this when he won the election despite getting fewer votes than Gore, on the grounds that vote-counting was stopped by the woman in charge of (a) running Florida’s voting and (b) Bush’s Florida campaign, which was then approved by a court dominated by judges appointed by his dad, his dad’s old boss and Richard Nixon. Does that sound even remotely plausible?

Afterwards, rather than running the country, he spent half the time sitting around his ranch, clearing scrub and playing golf. He wouldn’t have done that if he’d really been President.

Then, on being told of the biggest terrorist attack in his country’s history, he sat around in a classroom reading ‘My Pet Goat’ for seven minutes before doing anything. That’s just taking the piss!

He smashed the Taliban in order to capture Osama bin Laden and then, before ‘smoking him out’, got fed up and invaded another country after going around telling everyone that Saddam was really behind 9/11? And people believed him? The Democrats and the media must have been in on the joke as well.

They must have been – otherwise, do you honestly believe that somebody could get away with shredding civil liberties in the most famously freedom-loving country in the world just by giving the law a tortuous name so that its acronym was the USA PATRIOT Act?

And then, having smashed Saddam’s feeble little army to bits, he couldn’t even secure a cheap and reliable flow of Iraq’s oil but still managed to get all his opponents saying the war was ‘all about oil’? That’s showmanship.

Appointing and then being forced to sack or withdraw a string of incompetent cronies? This is just a frat boy having a laugh with his mates!

A pretzel? The President of the USA was almost killed by a pretzel? Come on!

And when asked at a press conference “what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?” even the stupidest and least self-aware of dogmatic morons could have come up with better than this (imagine lengthy pauses between, and during, most of the sentences):

I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it. John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just -- I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet.

I hope I -- I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.

And then, then… he got re-elected! Comfortably!

No, this can’t possibly be true. The Bush ‘Presidency’ is surely the finest practical joke ever played on America and on the world. So, where’s the camera?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Blame where credit’s not due

Norm asks, in the light of a survey reporting results that he finds odd:

Why should people be more inclined to think that the foreseeable negative side effects of a policy are intended, whereas the foreseeable positive side effects aren't? Supposing there are both negative and positive side effects of the very same policy - side effects because incidental to the policy's main objective - can those who initiate the policy sensibly be blamed for the former while being given no credit for the latter?

I think the first question is quite separate from the second. The first is about the asymmetric attribution of intention (which I agree is hard to justify), whereas the second is about the asymmetric attribution of blame/credit.

If (in the example discussed) a company adopts a programme in order to boost profits, which also has the effect (irrelevant from the company’s point of view) of benefiting the environment, then we may certainly be glad of this side-effect. But those responsible care nothing for the environment, so praise would seem utterly misplaced.

On the other hand, if the company adopts a programme in order to boost profits, which also has the effect (irrelevant from the company’s point of view) of harming the environment, then we may regret this side-effect. But blaming the company is, I think, more intelligible here than giving credit would be in the previous case.

Here’s the reasoning: in the former case (intended profit plus incidental greenery), all the consequences are good, so there’s no doubt that this is worth doing on any perspective. It’s not a contentious action at all. But the profit motive constitutes the full explanation, so no green credit is due.

In the latter case (intended profit plus incidental pollution), the consequences are mixed, so a cost-benefit analysis clouds the overall quality of the action – at least, from the point of view of those asked to pass judgement. The company notes the expected resulting pollution but doesn’t rate it as a cost. This is where the blame can get some purchase: it’s in the fact that the company chooses to rate environmental effects as irrelevant.

This factor also exists in the former case, and so blame for it there should be as legitimate as in the latter, but (a) in the former it doesn’t result in any actual harm, and (b) the respondents weren’t asked to evaluate the fact that the company in general doesn’t care about the environment.

Blame given in the latter case reflects not so much a perceived link between specific intentions and consequences (present in the latter but absent in the former) as it does the company’s more general eco-apathetic attitude. The desire to dish out this blame will flare up more strongly when the attitude causes harm.

Algiers: kill them, we deserve it

We all know that America had it coming on 9/11. Everyone understands that the July 2005 carnage in London was inflicted by Blair’s bombs (rather than, say, Mohammad Sidique Khan’s or Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s). And it’s a matter of indisputable record that the Madrid train bombings of March 2004 were the punishment due to people that had elected a Government happy to play second warmongering poodle to Blair and Bush.

But you may not yet have realised that the bombings in Algiers this week were also the fault of the domineering, neo-imperialist West. You silly things.

At time of writing, the death toll stands at 31. There were two bombs:

Targeting symbols of the international community and the Algerian establishment, one bomb tore apart buildings containing the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees and Development Programme. The second attack occurred minutes later when a car packed with explosives was driven into a bus full of law students outside the Algerian Supreme Court.

I’m not completely sure how the butchery of law students is our fault – probably something to do with the villainy of imposing our concepts of legal process on indigenous societies – but bombing the UNHCR is very obviously the justified come-uppance for the West’s brutal support for refugees in north Africa and our repulsive multilateral humanitarian internationalism.

Luckily, Adrian Hamilton of the Indy is on hand to explain that:

in a substantial part of the developing world [the UN] has come to seem an instrument of western oppression and US hegemony – a club of the big boys intent on bullying smaller countries in the interests of Washington and its European allies.
… When al-Qa'ida North Africa… blew up the UNHCR offices in Algiers, it was to show that it… had the power and determination to bring down a symbol of western presence.

So, the UN seems a certain way. And, of course, we move swiftly from perception to justified perception:

the Third World perception of it as an instrument of the West has some basis to it. If you take the Middle East, the succession of resolutions on Palestine, never implemented and almost universally ignored, the relentless pinioning of Saddam Hussein through sanctions and then enforced regime-change, the current pursuit of Iran through sanctions and threat, are all seen expressions not of international concern but western self-interest. And the same is true of much of Africa, where the blue helmet has come to represent western ideas of order rather than local concerns for justice.

Marvellous. There’s only one “Third World perception” of the UN, and the bomb-makers get to say what that is.

A couple of problems with this analysis: the “succession of resolution on Palestine” were indeed passed at the UN; the lack of implementation is a matter for the individual member-states, who decide what resources and will to expend on any given course. The “enforced regime-change” in Iraq was emphatically not enforced by the UN. And the various UN missions in Africa – including this civilian office in Algiers – are there with the consent of the local governments.

True, there is contention over the proposed UN force for Darfur, but that’s due to the noxious Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s recalcitrance. There are lots of refugees there, too. I bet they resent the UNHCR for creating the whole mess.

There’s a US embassy is Algiers; no doubt security there is better, and an attack would have been harder, but it might possibly have been an even better symbol of “western oppression and US hegemony”. On the other hand, if what you want to do is to reap a hefty body count and attack a symbol of international cooperation and peaceful assistance to the dispossessed, then the UNHCR makes excellent sense. As for the law students, well, we all know how annoying they can be. Maybe some of them were even women, with ideas above their station.

Nick Cohen’s words of two years ago remain depressingly true:

When confronted with an ideology which mandates indiscriminate killing on an industrial scale, it is natural to seek rational explanations of the irrational; to pretend that Islamism is merely a reasonable, if bloody, response to legitimate concerns which could be remedied if we elected wiser leaders.
Yet the masochism - 'Kill us, we deserve it!' - the subliminal dislike of democracy and the willingness to turn al-Qaeda into the armed wing of every fashionable campaign from sustainable tourism to the anti-war movement will in the end disgrace the liberals by making them ridiculous.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Considered analysis of new government flagship policy strategy

In launching the ten-year Children’s Plan, it’s hardly surprising that the minister saying this:

We want to move away from the 'No Ball Games' culture of the past

is none other than Mr Ed Balls.


Monday, December 10, 2007


I’m very sophisticated, don’t you know. And liberal. So I definitely don’t laugh at Viz. Certainly not out loud.

(Via Mick.)

Word games

A question for you.

Someone I work with, who is perhaps an even bigger language geek than I am, suggests that ‘deceptively’ is a confusing word to use because it can easily be construed as having either of two contradictory meanings. For instance:

The pool was deceptively deep

Could be taken to mean either of the following:

(1) The pool was deeper than it looked – i.e., its real depth deceived onlookers
(2) The pool looked deeper than it was – i.e., its ‘depth’ was just a deception

Now, I’m immediately sure which of these two is right, and I don’t think it’s that ambiguous. But if there’s one thing life has taught me, it’s that I have no idea how other people think.

Which – don’t look anything up – of (1) and (2) would you understand it to mean? How confident are you?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Where the heart is


The Tories have launched a review aimed at speeding up the way homes are bought and sold in England and Wales. The party has recruited property expert Kirstie Allsopp to help come up with ideas to make the process less expensive and stressful

Well, OK. If they want to help me, they can start by kneecapping the guy I’m trying to buy a flat off. Then they can firebomb the freehold management company. And, most of all, they can take the estate agent out and shoot him. That would ease my stress, or at least distract me from it. Do that, and I’ll happily cast aside all my principles and vote Tory.

The property market really teaches you the meaning of hatred.

Wanting a worthy foe

Philip Stephens slightly misses a trick in discussing Russia’s desire to be treated as a world superpower:

Mr Putin sees conflict as a way to command respect. To be at odds with the US, this rather paranoid logic says, is to be its equal.

But this isn’t paranoia; it’s the simple application of an old dictum:

You can always judge a man by the quality of his enemies.

Picking arguments with America is a pretty standard way of boosting one’s political status: Hugo Chávez loves doing it, as do Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Osama bin Laden, George Galloway and a host of others who fear that merely pushing their own agendas won’t be enough to win them kudos. Does Putin really want to be in the company of such a rabble, though?

(After that quote about enemies came to mind, I wondered where I’d heard it. I was delighted to discover who said it.)

Cack-handed Maggie, and other stories

Last night I was at the Kowalsky Gallery (Great Sutton Street, London) for an exhibition run by the Design and Artists Copyright Society. A friend of mine works there and helped to get this lovely little collection of political cartoons, photos and other art together.

There’s work by Steve Bell, Ralph Steadman, Gerald Scarfe and others; there’s a delicious photo of a deeply scornful old woman in a television shop, pointedly ignoring dozens of screens behind her on which poor Iain Duncan Smith is delivering his 2002 ‘quiet man’ speech; there’s a remarkable picture of the poll tax riots in which a young woman holding a baton is about to go at a policeman bracing himself behind a shield.

Maggie Gets Her Hands Dirty, May 1983 by Roger Bamber
© Roger Bamber 2007.

My friend also unearthed this wonderful photo of the greatest female prime minister Britain has ever had. If you remember the 1983 general election, you may recall Thatcher doing a photo-op at a farm, cuddling lambs and the like. At one point, though, she enthusiastically stuck her hands into a pile of what she thought was oats… but turned out to be something much less appetising.

Photographer Roger Bamber snapped her, but he was working for the Sun, who were disinclined to depict their heroine covered in the same substance that she was dragging the country through. It wasn’t published, and I do believe she went on to win that election. I was six at the time and had more important things to worry about.

The ‘Politics Pays Back’ exhibition runs until 31 January. Viewings seem to be mainly by appointment, but it’s definitely worth a look if you have the opportunity.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

You can’t handle the truth!

News just in:

Five senior judges are to be trained in how to handle the media so that they can explain controversial sentencing decisions

It would be madness, of course, to suggest that reporters be trained in how to handle court cases so that they can explain controversial sentencing decisions.

Life stories and the illusion of fate

Some people believe in fate, that the overall course of their life was somehow ‘meant to be’. This is often a pretty inchoate belief, and it takes many forms: it may be couched in terms of god’s plan, or a vaguely Buddhist-ish sense of karma, or an unreflective notion of one’s place in ‘the great scheme of things’, or - perhaps most commonly - a sense of a purely personal destiny driven by one’s own will. More people, while not endorsing any of this, often feel that such a notion has at least some intuitive appeal.

However people might make sense (or not) of the idea, the common strand is that, looking back, they see a continuity of narrative making so much sense that it’s hard to imagine how things could have progressed otherwise (give or take smaller details). I’m talking here about people who feel this way from the personal experience of their own lives, not from anything they may have absorbed from one belief system or another – although that will obviously colour the form the belief takes.

I think I understand why people find this sort of thing plausible. I think that such attitudes are due to a few common cognitive biases.

There’s a nice parallel with the Whig interpretation of history. On this view, history (particularly British) is essentially a story of progress. Critics say – rightly – that this approach mistakenly treats the current state of affairs as the pinnacle (or part of an ongoing upward march) of achievement, and imagine that things were always going to work out this way.

A series of events – X to Y to Z – becomes seen as a causal sequence such that X was bound to lead to Y, which in turn guaranteed Z. This isn’t quite a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, as there’s a clear sense in which the earlier state of affairs did indeed cause the later state. Rather, the problem is that some factors get paid too much attention and others are ignored or misunderstood. Might P, rather than X, have caused Y? Would Y have brought about Z in the absence of Q and R? And so on.

History is viewed through the prism of what we now know, and so it’s hard to see the past other than in terms of the present. The best-documented events take a prominence in the narrative that can lead a reader to imagine that these are the causally vital ones; but in fact, quality of documentation reflects what information has been available and which events have subsequently had the most study.

And the current standards by which we judge things might not have inevitably developed and advanced with the great march of history – they just are, by definition, the ones that happened to win out.

An individual’s life is a bit like that.

It’s easier to recall and to focus on things that make sense in the light of your current situation. So you’re a mountaineer, and even as a nipper you liked climbing trees? But back then you also liked playing football and building forts – it’s just that those facts don’t ‘fit’ so smoothly. We tend to seek and interpret evidence to support our own preconceptions – and ignore or explain away things that point the ‘wrong’ way.

We see connections and patterns so easily, whether they’re real or not. And things that strike us in that way tend to stand out. Have you ever thought about someone you’d not seen in ages, only for them to then phone you? It’s the sort of thing you remember. Have you, though, ever thought about someone who didn’t then phone you? Of course you have, many thousands of times. But how many of those times readily come to mind?

We overestimate how able we are to steer the course of our own lives. Chance occurrences large and small push us one way or another without sticking in the mind or being properly grasped or even being noticed in the first place.

Certain things from our past get rehearsed more than others, and so form a more prominent part of our ‘life story’ – understood as a meaningful, directional narrative rather than a mere chain of events. Looking back, we judge that things were more predictable in advance than they really were.

Maybe you had a certain career in mind from an early age, and indeed that’s what you now do. Maybe you were sure when you first met someone that they were special, and indeed you’re now happily married. That sort of thing can give an impression of things being meant to be, but really that’s the wrong conclusion to draw. Many people have confident ambitions that fail or get replaced with others; many people feel it’s love at first sight and then never see that person again, or go off them quickly. The initial feeling becomes irrelevant, and is forgotten or disregarded.

The fact that some things do work out the way they were initially planned only shows that if determination endures, it can pay off. This doesn’t explain why, in such a case, it happened to do so.

And, when our own decisions are indeed instrumental in shaping our future, a good chunk of that process is because, once we choose a path, that becomes part of our ‘story’, part of our sense of identity. Ownership breeds retrospective endorsement: sure, we chose it because we wanted it (though perhaps not that strongly, and we may not have fully known why); but we can come to buy into it more and more simply because it was us that chose it.

Exceptions to this come in the case of decisions that work out badly, which we deftly persuade ourselves to shrug off as bad luck. Mishaps need not obscure a tale of progress.

The greatest bias is that we see our past selves through now-tinted glasses.

Our ability to empathise with others is always limited by the fact that when we imagine ourselves in their minds, we bring too much of our own minds with us. Thinking back to what we used to be like is the same: we overestimate how much our past selves were like our present selves. But a sense of continuity here eases the intelligibility of the narrative, and that’s perhaps the key thing.

We’re suckers for a good, clear story with a strong lead character. Our present affinity with our past selves (mis)casts us as having been that character right from the start. (Of course we’re still the same person, but we change more than we notice over long periods.) This is what we were always like; it was always going to work out this way.

That’s the illusion of fate.

In a way, it’s parasitic on the truth: it’s not that our lives have been journeys specifically bringing us to our current positions. Rather, our current positions – the people we are now – could only have been arrived at through the courses that our lives have actually taken. So the link between journey and destination (or at least current position) is real, but we may see the causation the wrong way round.

A poem lovely as a tree

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Alfred Joyce Kilmer, the poet best known for writing that corny anthology staple, ‘Trees’.

I think that I shall never write
A tree-themed poem quite this trite.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Relatively speaking

Nicholas Blincoe writes about attacks on moral relativism. He argues:

Our fear and dislike of relativism is surprising when one considers science and economics. Modern physics is all about forces and vectors, which can only be expressed in terms of relative measurements (whether "miles per hour" or E=MC squared).
…demographics, of course, is a maths question: it is the science of comparing population levels relative to one another. Far from placing demographics beyond debate, it is only relativism that puts it up for debate in the first place.

And he asks:

Why are we happy to contemplate a logic of relations in every field aside from ethics?

I can’t think of an occasion when I’ve seen such a spectacular misrepresentation of a word. It’s hard to know whether this is a joke. I’ll assume that it isn’t.

Relativism is not to do with whether things are related or comparable to one another. Yes, a population of 1 million is smaller than a population of 2 million, so the former is small ‘relative’ to the latter. But the numbers involved, and the nature of the comparison, are absolute and not dependent on context or attitude. The standards by which both populations are measured are the same.

A relativistic approach judges different groups by different standards. Imagine someone who suggested that a population of 1 million Jews was a larger group than a population of 2 million Arabs, as Arabic culture treats life cheaply.

It would be laughable, were it not so atrocious.

Imagine someone – a white, Western liberal, say – who would have nothing but contempt for a white, Western man who advocated violence (lightly and occasionally) against white, Western women. Then imagine this individual straining to paint a reporebate such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi in a good light:

Within the context of Arabic Islam, he has been remarkable in arguing in favour of female education and employment; he has even declared they can be judges and has called for more women to become Islamic jurists. But of the notorious verse in the Qur'an which allows for the "beating" of wives by their husband, Qaradawi says he accepts it as a method of last resort - though only "lightly".

That’s moral relativism. And it’s absolutely awful.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Child poverty: swimming against the tide?

Never mind discs. Forget about donors. Ignore Gordon Brown’s difficulties in speaking like a human being. There’s a potential crisis for the government brewing, although depressingly few people seem to think it’s much of an issue.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual report [PDF] on poverty and social exclusion:

the strategy against poverty and social exclusion pursued since the late 1990s is now largely exhausted. … ‘Doing nothing new’ no longer means, as it did a few years ago, slow but steady progress. Instead, it essentially now means that nothing changes.

Child poverty rates have been more or less stagnating since about 2003; the latest figures are for 2005/06, which recorded a fall of 600,000 children living below the official poverty line (60% median earnings after housing costs) since the 1998/99 baseline.

Tax credits, though, continue to have a substantial effect:

tax credits have been lifting a million children a year out of poverty since 2003/04. The comparable figure for the early years of the decade was around 0.6 million a year. In the late 1990s, the predecessor benefit Family Credit lifted about 0.3 million a year above the poverty line.

This figure of a million fewer in poverty is larger than the 600,000 I mentioned because the latter is a simple comparison of numbers across years, while the former is comparing against a calculation of what things would be like now without tax credits.

The trouble is that other economic factors are pushing more families into a position of pre-redistribution poverty:

At the same time, however, the number of children in working families who either are, or would be, in poverty but for tax credits, has risen steadily… In short, as the number of children helped by tax credits to escape poverty has increased, so too has the number needing tax credits in order to do that.

Another new report, from the Commons Treasury Select Committee, suggests that there is some recent progress that hasn’t yet showed up in the figures:

The Government's proposals in the 2007 Budget… are expected to mean that child poverty will be 200,000 lower than it would have been had no changes to tax credits or benefits been announced in that Budget.

The committee adds that the Chancellor expects further measures, announced in the pre-budget report this autumn but obscured by the inheritance tax idiocy, to lift 100,000 more children out of poverty (I’ve not seen an independent audit of this claim).

Barring a surge in employment (particularly among lone parents) or a big rise in benefits, the target of halving child poverty by 2010/11 would seem beyond reach.

True, this deadline and the 60% poverty line itself are arbitrary, but stalling progress is stalling progress. It can be argued, though, that focusing on such a threshold may lead to perverse results, with a focus on those just below it rather than those in the direst poverty.

In light of this possibility, the committee recommends that the Government should prioritise “measures concerned in particular with the very poorest households”, and I think they’re right.

Looking more broadly at the income distribution, the JRF notes (figure 6A) that, from 1996/97 to 2005/06, the richest 10% of people have done well in terms of income rises. The second- and third-poorest deciles have also done well, with those in the top half (barring the top tenth) doing progressively less well. An equivalent graph for 1979-97 would show a very straightforward ‘the more you start with, the richer you get’; there is very substantial redistribution going on.

However, the bottom 10% have had, by a good distance, the smallest income rises over the decade. These people are where attention is most desperately needed.

For me – and I glumly know I’m in a minority on this – child poverty is the single most important political issue there is. I’m proud of what Labour has achieved here, and I’m frustrated by what it hasn’t yet achieved. I don’t want to end up growing less and less proud, and more and more frustrated.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Bolivar! (or ‘Please, sir, I want some more power’)

Hugo Chávez’s attempt to amend the Venezuelan constitution has been narrowly defeated by the voters. Good. The proposals were an odd hotch-potch of measures to increase his own personal power and various leftist economic initiatives. There was no reason to bundle all these things together in a referendum, other than to use the latter as a bribe to get poorer voters to accept the former.

A gaggle of UK ‘Chávistas’ (Livingstone, Pinter, Benn, Loach…) wrote in the Guardian on Saturday:

We call on the international community to respect the outcome of the coming referendum and support the sovereign and democratic right of the Venezuelan people to self-determination.


Chavez himself seems to be accepting defeat in a conciliatory manner. I wonder whether any of his Western media fans will start bemoaning malign international influences for tipping the balance.