Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Who owns your planet?

Yesterday my son asked me which was the biggest company in the world. I only had a vague idea, so we looked up the Forbes 2000 for 2006. I have a pretty jaundiced view of big business, but even I was shocked by the results. Here are some highlights (I have uploaded a spreadsheet to here):

  • Companies that make their money out of handling your money – banks, insurance companies, investment houses, and so on – make up 44 of the Top 100 and 13 of the Top 25. Only 12 of the Top 100 are oil and gas companies, though 6 are in the Top 25.
  • Although the money companies make only about a third of the Top 100’s total sales and profits – meaning that they are a little less profitable than average – they control 82% of all the Top 100’s total assets. I’m not sure how this is calculated, given that a lot of these assets are going to be shares in other companies, but this is an astonishing stranglehold on our collective wealth.
  • Of the Top 100, 35 are from the USA, 7 from Japan, 50 from Western Europe, 3 from China, 2 from Canada, and one each from Australia, Russia, Brazil and Korea. In other words, with the exception of the sole Brazilian representative, if a major company is not from a core industrial capitalist country, it is from a profoundly undemocratic country. In other words, the vast majority of the people in the world are completely unrepresented even in the most indirect sense that their governments might intervene.
  • The highest ranking company that is not from the USA, the European Union, Switzerland or Japan is Samsung Electronics, from South Korea. It comes 48th. It is also the only company not from USA, Western Europe or Japan that is not either in money or oil.

What bothers me about this is the sheer concentration of power and unity of interests. Companies of this magnitude are comparable to whole countries in the rest of the world, and with the backing of their respect governments, a lot more powerful. They are also concentrated in two particular sectors. Oil and gas are among of the most socially and environmentally destructive industries in the world. In the case of the US companies, George W. Bush’s Cabinet is currently awash with their representatives, and the Bush administration’s record on the environment is unutterably dire.

And the money industries are concerned solely with, well, money. They have neither goals nor measures nor interests that are more human than that. Perhaps I should not be so pessimistic. Just this evening I heard an representative of Lehman Brothers (themselves major players in capital markets and in investment banking and management) saying that they would now recommend companies that face up to the implications of global warming and other environmental threats. As I have argued elsewhere, even capitalism can be persuaded to take issues like technical efficiency, human need, environmental impact and even ethical obligation into account when it makes more money than the waste, pollution, incompetence, cheating and murder.

It’s not that capitalists personally prefer either – it’s just that, if they aren't constantly proving their economic value, then they lose their livelihood. Like you and me, really. However, the only measure businesses really apply is their profitability. At the same time, the higher up you go in business the more effectively you are insulated from the problems your company creates or from any version of reality in which the realities of technical efficiency, human need, environmental impact or ethical obligation are visible in terms other than profit.

On the other hand, today McKinsey published a survey of US CEOs,who say that 'a comprehensive understanding of public issues and a strong network of peers with a similar interest make it easier for them to play a leadership role, while time constraints keep them from playing an even larger role'. Should we be pleased? As the Forbes data shows, these people exercise immense power, so perhaps we should welcome their greater involvement in wider spheres.

But two things should make us pause at such a prospect. Firstly, who voted for them? Even by the minimal standards of representative democracy, they represent no one but their shareholders, who in turn are often other companies whose interests are represented by other CEOs - so it's not only absurdly narrow but also conveniently self-serving. And secondly, what do they represent? Society as a whole? The interests of the population at large? Anything but.

To quote Adam Smith - the first and greatest prophet of business - the captains of industry are 'an order of men, whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who generally have an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it'.

I don't mind hearing their 'technical' advice about how to run a capitalist business. But the very idea that they should have any more say in the government of society - or receive any more respect - than anyone else makes my skin crawl. Meanwhile, here in England the government hands out peerages - which is to say, the right to participate directly in the government of this country - to individuals whose main contribution to the political process is to have bribed the right party.

Opium of the people

Some time ago the listeners of one of BBC Radio 4’s flagship intellectual programmes, In Our Time, voted Karl Marx, by an ‘electoral tidal wave’, the greatest philosopher of all time.

Speaking as an unreconstructed leftie, it was an extremely satisfying moment. Right there in their greatest bastion, Britain’s middle classes were voting for the very nemesis of their world. Plainly they either don’t understand what Marx actually said or they are none too happy about the world they live in. A bit of both, I suspect.

It was especially pleasing to hear the programme’s presenter, Melvyn Bragg, stutter and sway as he tried to come to terms with this appalling denouement to his pet project. But he failed. All through the special programme on Marx that followed he seemed to be unable to come to terms with – or even allow much discussion of – the idea that Marx might still be so utterly relevant to his audience’s lives. As one of the great symbols of Tony Blair’s far more appalling New Labour project, in which even England’s peculiarly pale and uninteresting excuse for a socialist political party has finally been put to sleep, it was a pleasure to hear Melvyn Bragg so far out of his comfort zone - not to mention his intellectual depth.

But this enthusiasm for Marx was by no means a flash in the pan. I can’t cite any evidence, but I distinctly recall hearing a year or so back that the most popular courses at London University were on Marx and Marxism. More budding In Our Time listeners in the pipeline, no doubt. Watch out, Melvyn.

But what exactly is it they are looking for right now? Indeed, what does the average member of England’s middle classes know about Karl Marx that they would vote for him? What does the average student know about him that would actually drive them into the lecture theatres?

Having done my bachelor’s degree (1976-1979) in psychology and sociology, Marx was an unavoidable item on the agenda. But as this was the 70’s and I had had the good sense to be 16 in 1968, I already knew a little about him. And of course he was regarded as an entirely contemporary thinker, though usually for all the wrong reasons. Most of the Marxists I knew had vaguely pro-Soviet leanings. I even knew one couple who were outright Stalinists, and spoke in that strange mechanical lingo of ‘dialectical materialism’ that is so unlike Marx himself. He could be a pig to read, but there are whole chapters of Capital that read like magical incantations: an immanent power flows through them like a terrible force. You read them and your skin tingles and your heart leaps. Really.

But only a tiny fraction of Karl Marx’s immense outpourings on history, capitalism, calculus, the Tsarist Secret Service and so on has entered into popular consciousness. Given the man’s impact on the world, this is hard to explain. Perhaps it is the often extreme tedium of his literary style - Volume II of Capital is excruciating - or perhaps it is the fact that, in many circles, quoting Marx has about the same respectability as quoting the Devil. At the very least you find yourself being looked at as though you’ve just made a joke in very poor taste.

However, Marx had many moments of sheer literary genius, so it is inevitable that some small nuggets should have crept into everyday rhetoric. Unfortunately, most of these prove to be fools’ gold, at least for would-be Marxologists, being either unoriginal to Marx or fundamentally misunderstood. In fact it is hard to identify any one remark with any one writer, given that the era all but breathed revolutionary rhetoric. Marx himself attributed ‘The dictatorship of the proletariat’ to August Blanqui (1805-1881), ‘workers of the world, unite!’ is a thoroughly un-Marxist translation of Marx's actual words, and ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ is very likely borrowed from the anarchist Michael Bakunin (1814-1876). Finally, ‘The workers have nothing to lose... but their chains’ was probably original, but co-authored with Engels (altogether more readable than Marx, though intellectually much less brilliant). It is also from the Communist Manifesto, which is probably the worst piece of Marxism Marx ever wrote, so Karl might have been grateful if history had consigned it to ‘the gnawing criticism of the mice’, as he did the much better German Ideology.

Still, it is especially ironic that ‘religion is the opium of the people’ is so well known, since it always seems to have been understood in a sense which is almost the opposite of Marx’s original intentions. But then I suppose a dialectician must expect his best phrases to be turned on their heads. Nowadays it is taken as a straightforward denunciation of religion, whereas Marx was surely trying to express the equivocal relationship between religion and human existence. To put this famous remark back into context:

Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call them to give up their illusions about their condition is call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is therefore in embryo the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo. (From the Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right.)

This brilliant, terse, pungent summary of the materialist view of religion is typical of Marx at his best. The method it uses is also typical of Marxism in its mature form: a revelation of the dynamism of history and consciousness, sweeping up everything in its path, both driven and undermined by the inexhaustible tension between moral consolation and political action. Writing like this, Marx has a startling way of showing that fireworks and analysis can go hand in hand. Which only makes it all the greater shame that, at his worst, Marx is stunningly dull and obscure. However, in this case it is clear that the object of Marx’s criticisms is not religion as such. For him religion was mainly a symptom of underlying structures and processes that produced the things he really did abhor - oppression, ignorance, fear, alienation. He sympathises with the underlying need, even if he does deplores the way religion fulfils it.

Perhaps it is just as well that Marxism can only be comprehended by going beyond the rhetoric and into serious research. Perhaps this shields it from the toy Marxism of so much modern day revolutionism, which takes the title of socialist even while depriving socialism of all humanity. In fact, along with ‘democracy’ and 'nationalism', ‘socialism’ spent most of the 20th century as little but a substitute for ‘true religion’ as the indispensable rhetorical device of Western politics. Where a century or two ago the crucial justification of revolution (or reaction) was that it would refurbish the faith to its ancient purity, today it promises the rule of the people in some form. What then does it matter that Marx is misquoted, any more than that the Sermon on the Mount is subverted by hypocritical churches? It's not as though the people who misquote him would be any more likely to institute a socialist society if they got the words right.

What did I personally find in Marx? A while ago an old friend of mine asked me whether spending two decades in business had altered my assessment of Marx. Yes, I said, it had. I am now even more convinced he was right than ever. What I found in Marx is the greatest and most fearless theorist of human freedom of all time. No, Melvyn, not the greatest philosopher of all time (at least among Westerners, I think that one goes to Hegel), because philosophers sit in university libraries and think deep thoughts. Marx did all that and then took it out of the library (the British Library in his case) and into working class politics, newspapers and dozens of great political tracts.

That’s what I want to do when I grow up.

What’s in a name?

What a silly line, even if it is Romeo and Juliet (Act II, ii, 43).Still, I’ve had my doubts about Shakespeare ever since I discovered Hamlet wasn’t a farce. Like ‘Fine feathers... ’, which sometimes do make fine birds, names can be critical. Imagine being blessed with one of the following:

  • Mrs Belcher Wack Wack
  • Newton Hooton
  • Goody P. Creep (undertaker)
  • Preserved Fish, Jr
  • Mrs Screech (singing teacher)
  • Larry, Harry and Jerry Derryberry (not, alas, brothers)
  • Gaston J. Feeblebunny
  • I. O. Silver
  • Zezozose Zadfrack
  • Mr Vice (890 arrests, 421 convictions)
  • Cardinal Sin (Catholic Primate of the Philippines)
  • Virginia May Sweatt Strong
  • T. Hee
  • B. Brooklyn Bridge
  • Concerto Macaroni
  • Cigar Stubbs
  • I.C. Shivers (ice man)

– all recorded and authenticated in John Train’s Remarkable Names of Real People. And some choice names from my own (mostly unauthenticated) records: Brain (... ) and Head (1861-1940) were eminent neurologists. The head of the Motor Industry Research Establishment used to be a Mr Morris. One of my sisters was at school with a Miles Inigo Gapper and his sister Flavia, and one of my children’s cookery teachers is called Mrs Eatwell. Really. (I also have a colleague named Max Loosli who wanted to name his consultancy business Loosli Managed Projects, but that's a little contrived.)

It’s hard to imagine going through life with this sort of burden and getting out alive. Anyone named Quasimodo is surely destined for bell ringing and bad posture. Mr Train also reports that the early Puritans favoured names such as Fly Fornication, though he does not say whether this was intended as an exhortation to rectitude or the most ambitious perversion ever conceived. Anyway, eat your heart out, Charles Dickens.

Just as bad are names that sound like a prize-winning petunia.

But it’s not all negative - names may have the most tonic effects. As Mr Train points out,

General Ulysses Grant... what panache! Led by a Hiram - the General did in fact start life as Hiram - the boys in blue would have cracked; Gettysburg would have gone the other way. Under President Oscar Lincoln the Union would have sundered.

Maurice Bonaparte? Melvin Churchill? However, that is not to deny that whenever names are deliberately manipulated, the intention and the consequences are almost always bad. Of course, if I’d been born Marion Morrison or Archibald Cox, I dare say I’d have changed it to John Wayne or Cary Grant. But more than mere aesthetics, these are ideological names ‑ WASP names. Issur Danielovich Demsky changed his name not to some other Lithuanian Jewish name more manageable to Hollywood tongues, but to Kirk Douglas.

All in all, parents should be licensed before being allowed to name their offspring.

Campaign for the Rectification of Names (or Telling It Like It Is, as we used to say around 1972). Why don’t we have one? See Fung’s history of Chinese philosophy.

Ministry of Defence. Peace keeping. Military intelligence. Airline food. Free enterprise.

Neither a borrower nor a lender be

The trouble with this familiar old saw not that it is misquoted or misunderstood, but that it is such dangerous advice. Nor is it improved, as many quotations are, by being restored to its original context:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;For loan oft loses both itself and friend,And
borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry. (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act I, scene
In an economic system like capitalism, unsated by the most extravagant waste and debt, this would be unorthodox advice to say the least. But then, most proverbial wisdom on this topic has a wonderful irrelevance in the modern world. For example, ‘waste not, want not’. Debt is the drug of system too, and a mortgage on the future. OK on the individual level, but it mortgages the whole of future society too – under capitalism. Planned obsolescence as conquest of time by making it effectively pass faster. Fashion as socially approved form of whim. Conspicuous consumption.

The successive crises of over-production of the kind to which capitalism is so prone are only exacerbated by beggaring our children. Brave New World homilies to waste as fundamental truths of consumer capitalism. It expands the basis of production, and thus of sales and profit. But it adds nothing to our objective well-being. Individual indebtedness in Britain.Indebtedness of the Third World. Debt as basis of power over Third World and quiescence at home.

The gap (and indifference) between profit, technical excellence and human need.

Elementary, my dear Watson

It's strange where lessons in management can be gleaned from.

Having recently read all the Sherlock Holmes stories (not for the last time, I suspect), I can assure the reader that Holmes never utters the words, ‘Elementary, my dear Watson’. ‘Elementary’ sometimes, and ‘My dear Watson’ often, but never together. Conan Doyle's son used it in an attempt to prolong Holmes’ career, though not to any enduring effect.

Of course, that should not stop anyone ‘quoting’ Holmes/Conan Doyle to that effect. It is a very good phrase. In John Lennon’s case, it has even been embellished - twice:

Harrybelafonte, my dear Whopper

Ellafitzgerald my dear Whopper (both from A Spaniard in the Works, Jonathan Cape, 1965)
As Umberto Eco has observed, William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349) was clearly an ancestor of Sherlock Holmes (fl. 1887-1927). When the famous detective asserted that:

How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. (Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four)
… he was only reiterating his philosophical forebear’s famous dictum that one should always prefer the hypothesis which calls for the least number of assumptions. Or, in Ockham’s own words:
Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem
- which is to say, entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily. It’s an attractively simple, all-purpose principle, a sort of intellectual Swiss Army knife, and it’s interesting that such otherwise dissimilar figures as Holmes and Ockham should agree on this issue. Not only did they live six centuries apart but, as nominalist philosopher/amateur coiffeur and consulting detective/cocaine addict respectively, their experience could scarcely have been more different.

At first sight it seems that this most striking convergence must surely betoken a profound truth. Surely such a preposterous yet consonant mésalliance can only rest on a deeper meaning? But does their agreement indicate a verity spanning half a millennium and more, or merely a prejudice so commonplace that only the most foolhardy - or the most brilliant - would think to challenge it? Mere endurance is not evidence, one way or the other. After all, slavery was considered the natural order for millennia.

What should we do when ‘impossible’ turns out to be only the name of that part of reality for which our prejudices have no place, to sustain which we therefore have to introduce ever more - and ever more incredible - assumptions? Should we be whipping out that Swiss Army knife again when the situation really calls for is an intellectual linear accelerator? Is the principle of parsimony merely a principle of false economy?

For example, there is the question of cosmology. Leaving aside the obvious facts that the Earth is flat, stands still, and the Sun rotates around it once a day (to which either may have subscribed), Holmes and Ockham would both have taken a dim view of Copernicus. In fact according to Watson, Holmes was unaware that the Copernican revolution had ever taken place, so their intellectual alliance is obviously all the closer. And one cannot help but feel that Ockham would have felt much the same, if not about a heliocentric universe as such then certainly about the rather radical re-jigging of the cosmos Copernicus was proposing.

In assessing the change wrought by Copernicus, it is important to recognise why his theory was so appealing. First and foremost, Copernicus’ solar system did not work any better than Ptolemy’s, and indeed was in most respects an attempt to save the Copernican fundamentals such as a closed space, the circle as the perfect form of celestial motion, the epicycle and the eccentric as basic explanatory tools, and so on. Indeed, Copernicus’ account predicted the position of the stars rather worse than Ptolemy's. Nor was it more economical: not only did it call for exactly the same suite of spheres and epicycles but now there were 48 of the latter instead of just 40.

In fact, the only major difference was that the solar system was now centred on the Sun rather than the Earth. No basic change in the fabric of the heavens, no shift of method. Only a change in the arrangement of things. Of course this was pretty reasonable, given the appalling implications of a truly unbounded space combined with the lack of stellar parallax. In other words, there were almost no additional ‘entities’ or assumptions, yet what was needed was the complete re-conceiving of the universe - something which both Ockham and Holmes would have reviled.

Thus, the entire history of astronomy between Ptolemy’s atlas of the Heavens and Copernicus setting to with a chain saw consisted precisely of the kind of minimalist thinking Ockham called for - the same structure exactly, only with more or less epicycles. The problem is that possible/impossible is not the only dimension of knowledge. It might be so, if we already knew all the dimensions of reality, and could therefore derive every possible truth from first principles. But we don’t, so we must respect Holmes’ and Ockham’s right to believe what they please, but concur with Aristotle that:
A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. (Poetics, 24, 1460).
For, as an only marginally less prominent philosophical figure has explained:
The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something which works in all respects than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that. ’... The [impossible] merely supposes that there is something we don’t know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The [improbable], however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and its specious rationality... If it could not possibly be done, then obviously it had been done impossibly. The question is how? (Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul, p. 132)
As usual, fiction is so much more truthful than mere fact (leaving aside the debatable conclusion...). ‘The facts’ are so often little more than a rag-bag, picked over now and then as circumstances dictate; great fiction, on the other hand, is deduced with geometric precision from a central truth, a overriding vision of the inexorable logic which underpins the merely correct.

And from time to time a revolution occurs that reminds us that, beneath the seeming self-evidence of the possible and the impossible there is a more or less hidden framework of concepts which determine what can even exist for us while thinking and reasoning in that mode. And there is no guarantee that the Universe is confined by the concepts which currently confine our minds. Thus, Copernicus’s universe was not merely unknown to Ptolemy; he might well have found it inconceivable. Likewise the relationship between Newton and Einstein and, I suspect, Darwin and quite a few eminent neo-Darwinians.

In short, intellectual history is the history not of intellectual accumulation but of intellectual struggle. And that struggle is not only a struggle to wrest truth from the Universe, but also a struggle to prise the beams from our eyes. Hence the transmutation not only of one scientific method into another, but also of base common sense into science - and, perhaps, science into some form of reason for which science and morality, politics and art are all one. Same for cognitive development.

Now what has all this to do with management? It really comes down to the all but universal management mantra that ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it’. I suspect that this really originates from Lord Kelvin, who once write that:
When you can measure what you are talking about and can express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.
Ah, Kelvin. The man who used the latest thinking in physics to prove that Darwinism was impossible. But what is wrong with his emphasis on measurement? Well, as John Maynard Keynes put it:
Am I right in thinking that ... the statistical method ... essentially depends on ... having furnished, not merely a list of the significant causes, which is correct so far as it goes, but a complete list?

For example, suppose three factors are taken into account, it is not enough that these should be in fact verae causae; there must be no other significant factor. If there is a further factor, not taken account of, then the method is not able to discover the relative quantitative importance of the first three.

If so, this means that the method is only applicable where [one] is able to provide beforehand a correct and indubitably complete analysis of the significant factors. The method is neither one of discovery nor of criticism.
In other words, Kelvin is assuming what he should be proving, namely that he knows what he is measuring, rather than using measurement to decide what he is looking at. And that is exactly the fallacy of “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” – the view that we already know how things work, and measurement will only add to the precision of our knowledge. And indeed it will – but it won’t add anything to its accuracy unless we understand the things we are measuring. Which is precisely what we think we are using measurement to do...

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A judgment of Solomon

Where better to begin a study of proverbial wisdom than with the man who seemingly had it all? Here's the text (from 1 Kings iii, 16-28):

Then came there two women... unto the king... And the one woman said, O my lord, I and this woman dwell in one house; and I was delivered of a child with her in the house. And it came to pass the third day after that I was delivered, that this woman was delivered also... And this woman's child died in the night; because she overlaid it. And she arose at midnight, and took my son from beside me ...and laid it in her bosom, and laid her dead child in my bosom. And when I rose in the morning to give my child suck, behold, it was dead: but when I had considered it in the morning, behold, it was not my son, which I did bear.

And the other woman said, Nay; but the living is my son, and the dead is thy son. And this said, No; but the dead is thy son, and, the living is my son...

Then said the king, ...Bring me a sword... Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one, and half to the other.

Then spake the woman whose the living child was, O my lord, give her the living child, and in no wise slay it. But the other said, Let it be neither mine nor thine, but divide it.

Then the king ... said, Give her the living child, ... she is the mother thereof.

And all Israel heard of the judgment which the king had judged; and they feared the king: for they saw that the wisdom of God was in him, to do judgment."

You can't help feeling that Solomon would have cut an unforgettable figure as a social worker. Had the women between whom he judged expressed their love of their child in any way but as His Majesty’s view of mother-love dictated, the child would have been chopped in two. But of course that is precisely what proves Solomon’s wisdom - the fact that he was right. However, if that is the case, I can only hope that he was not so much wise as infallible.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Undo undo...

Am I alone in pressing a mental Ctrl-Z or Esc key when something goes wrong in everyday life? I don't mean metaphorically - I really do press the key in my head in order to fix breakages, undo something I just did, and so on – even when I break a glass or say something I shouldn’t have.

It's beginning to worry me. Does anyone else out there have this problem?

Monday, January 15, 2007

Suffering fools gladly

Of course, the norm is not to suffer fools gladly. It is even the subject of boasts and admiration - we often have at least a sneaking regard for those who do not suffer fools gladly. After all, fools are fools. However, the Bible, where the phrase originated, looked at it quite differently:

For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing you yourselves are wise. (Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, xi, 19)

Perhaps Paul was being ironic, although humour was never his strong suit. Of course, folly is not always what it appears. When the Earl of Rochester proposed the following (premature) epitaph for Charles II:
Here lies a great and mighty king,
Whose promise none relies on;
He never said a foolish thing,
Nor ever did a wise one
His Majesty replied,
This is very true, for my words are my own and my actions are my ministers

But there are still more telling reasons for seeming folly. Zen masters’ method with madness in it. It appears foolish because it is we who are too sophisticated - or rather, too primitive - to appreciate its utter logic.

Altogether more dangerous is method with madness in it - economic apologetics, scientism, etc.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

My country, right or wrong

This bizarre, odious and possibly insane sentiment originated with a slightly more innocuous toast by Stephen Decatur (1779-1820), an American patriot of the post-Revolutionary period (when it no doubt seemed very sound). In 1816 he proposed thus:

Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be right; but our country, right or wrong. (Quoted in A. S. Mackenzie, Life of Decatur, ch. 14)

Carl Schurz [?] made a better stab at it:
Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.

But ‘my country, right or wrong’ (only the other side of vox populi, vox dei) is all that has come down to popular consciousness, and to provide countless little reactionaries with a rhetorical flourish to their vulgarity, in response to which GK Chesterton replied:
"My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober".

Nor do all Americans share Decatur's views:
You're not to be so blind with patriotism that you can't face reality. Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it. (Malcolm X)

And in general, to a European ear, so much of American ideals and ideology is barely intelligible. As GK Chesterton also said:
There is nothing the matter with Americans except their ideals. The real American is all right; it is the ideal American who is all wrong.(New York Times, 1st February, 1931)

The ideal American certainly seems to live on a very different planet from most real Europeans. He (and the ideal American is a he) still believes in Old Glory, the unity (more or less) of his country (E pluribus unum) and that no Presidential candidate is worth a vote unless they can command an occasional tête à tête with the Almighty:
It is inconceivable to me that anyone would think that he could do this job, the Presidency, if he couldn’t call on God for help and have faith that he’d be granted that help. (Ronald Reagan, Time, 15th May, 1976)
To which the Almighty replied (through his amanuensis, Edward Sorel):
Go figure it!? The devil gets H. L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw, Sam Clemens, Billie Holliday, Gershwin, Porter, Schubert... and... and I... I keep getting dreck like this!!! (From Superpen: The Cartoons and Caricatures of Edward Sorel)

[Add Sorel cartoon of US Presidents talking to God.]

Such sentiments seem more than a little bizarre this side of the Pond. Still, the mere fact that Americans believe amazing things is not the only reason Europeans are so prone to discount and patronise American culture and thinking. On this side of the Atlantic, anti-Americanism is the acceptable face of racism. In any case, the Old World seethes with equally reactionary sentiments; we are simply too sophisticated, if that is the word, to say what we mean. After all, it is only a decade or so since Anthony Blunt was pilloried for preferring to work for a country in whose future he sincerely believed - the Soviet Union - rather than an ugly and decadent Britain busy appeasing Hitler. Of course, he would have fared at least as badly in the United States, not only as an enemy agent but also as a ‘premature anti-fascist’, as they used to say at the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Apparently you can object to mass murder too soon for the US Congress.

Americans despise Europeans because they have no money. Europeans despise Americans because they have no culture.

[Johnson and Bierce on patriotism.]

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Carrying the can in Iraq

Last night, George W Bush finally admitted two things the world has known for a long time: that the war in Iraq isn't being won, and that he is responsible.

Then he spent the rest of his speech proving that, whatever he intends doing about the first admission, he didn’t mean a word of the second. Or perhaps that he didn’t understand what the word 'responsibility' means. That would not be very surprising – it’s not hard to name politicians (business leaders, etc.) who had admitted that they were ‘responsible’ for something or other, and then completely failed to act accordingly.

The only proper response to failing to meet this responsibility is resignation.

What is Mr Bush responsible for? Thousands of unnecessary deaths. Raising the threat of terrorism around the world to unheard of levels. Making fear and horror the daily routine for millions of Iraqis. Bereaving thousands of America’s spouses, children, parents and friends. Alienating most of the world’s Muslims from everything America stands for.

And what excuse does Mr Bush have for this catastrophic failure? Was he taken by surprise? Did his advisors not warn him? Had he not been planning this war for years?

One might ask next, is there any likelihood that he will do better in future? No, though if he had not evaded the Vietnam draft in his youth, he might have more of a chance. But his new escalation and his ‘new’ strategy look like something straight out of the Saigon Manual Of How To Lose A War.

But that’s not the point. Why should he have a second chance? Because the American political system only allows for one presidential election every four years? What kind of reason is that? If even one more Iraqi or one more American so much as stubs their toe because of that quaint and monstrously anti-democratic arrangement, it would be unforgivable. The man should go – along with his entire cabinet – and go now.

But at least Mr Bush is consistent. After all, the entire American strategy for Iraq is rapidly degenerating into an immense abdication of responsibility. Just today Condoleezza Rice insisted again that the role of the American forces in Iraq is now to ‘support’ the Iraqi government. It is, the White House claims, the Maliki government's Iraq's plan that will be followed, and Maliki government's responsibility to deliver. This is incredible, preposterous and, even by the White House’s negligible moral standards, outrageous.

What has happened to Iraq’s political, military, economic and social systems in the last 3 years? They have been comprehensively trashed by a war the US Government started and an insurrection that was provoked by anger at the American treatment of Iraq as an occupied country, enabled by the vacuum created by disarming the Iraqi police and army, and fuelled by the millions of weapons the American authorities allowed to slip into the hands of anyone with a few dinars to buy an AK-47.

But now the Iraqi government – whose writ scarcely runs outside the Green Zone – will assume responsibility for solving Iraq’s appalling problems. Having created a situation in which the most powerful military and political power on earth cannot govern the country effectively, the job has been foisted on Prime Minister Maliki’s government – a group of isolated and secondary politicians without the power or authority to make any substantial difference to the situation without massive American support, but who receive that support only to the extent that they do exactly what their American ‘allies’ tell them.

Since when did organ-grinders do what the monkey tells them?

There is a simple principle of responsibility. Ought implies can. You can only be asked to take responsibility for doing something you can do. The Maliki government can’t bring peace to Iraq. It probably can’t even slow down the insurrection. The only reason they have had this impossible role forced upon them is that the American forces in Iraq and the US Government can’t either, and cannot bear the responsibility any longer. But that does not mean that the responsibility is really Maliki’s and not Bush’s.

Hopefully the world will not let Mr Bush forget that simple moral fact.


It is hard to be too disgusted with the idea of a Judas.

But surely even Judas is not beyond forgiveness? Indeed, forgiving Judas is surely one of the great tasks every Christian faces. Not because, without his betrayal, Christianity would never have begun. That is merely a historical nicety. Far more than that, Judas’ betrayal both is the essence of sin and highlights the essentially desolate nature of sin. After all, what does Judas do once he has committed his act of betrayal? He hangs himself. Where better then to bring a philosophy of forgiveness it its historical archetype and logical conclusion?

Has the entire role of Jesus of Nazareth been misunderstood? If I may borrow a conundrum originating with Jorge Luis Borges, who is the real Son of God (Three Versions of Judas, in Labyrinths, Penguin Books, 1970)?

But the real problem for Christianity is not to forgive Judas but to forgive God. Who has betrayed humanity more completely than God?

More generally, I have long thought that the Bible was lacking in moral judgment. Of course, one has to sympathise with God’s predicament. It must be especially tough being divine in the face of modern technology. Imagine trying to manifest yourself over the phone, only to be put through to an answer machine. Imagine announcing the Second Coming by TV, only to have half the population video you instead and then record a soap opera over you without even bothering to watch.

Nor does Creation exactly reek of any deep concern with its inhabitants. At this very moment, a million children are crying with tooth ache. The state of the world, even on this small, quite non-cosmic level, would make Caligula blanch. If a camel is a horse designed by a committee, the Universe was surely designed by a committee of camels. (Actually, the idea of the universe as designed by a committee does solve one enduring theological conundrum - how the three persons of God can have a single substance.) Far from embodying divine wisdom, the universe is really the expression of perfect unwisdom, only made wise by humanity.

So now that he has built the universe, what does God do to fix the bugs. Not a lot. Even for those who believe in miracles, it’s hard to be impressed by the rate at which the problems are repaired, and like any badly repaired machine, it’s quite normal for the repairs to create new bugs.

But then it’s hard to think of any case where God has even tried. He reminds me the dreadful murder of Kitty Genovese. She was the victim of a vicious attack in New York in 1964, during which, although she was assaulted repeatedly over a period of half an hour, at least a dozen people who heard or saw parts of the murder failed to report it to the police. The Genovese case has become the paradigm of ‘bystander behaviour’.

But as with everything else, God has to go one up on mere mortals. God is the ultimate bystander. God never gets involved. If we can ignore the murder of a woman on a cold and ugly night, he can ignore the murder of millions. It was God who ignored the slaughter of children in Auschwitz. It is God who allows children to starve all around the world. Yes, I know, human beings did these things, but if I had had the power to undo Auschwitz with absolutely no effort or risk and did not do it, what would the world have thought of me? Well, that’s exactly what the world should think of God.

Next to forgiving God, forgiving Judas is a push over. And of course, if we are in God’s image, one can just as well reverse the relationship: he is in ours. As Voltaire put it,

If God created us in His image, we have more than reciprocated.

Or as an eminent American critic of religious institutions suggested:

Let’s get serious: God knows what he’s doing, he wrote this Book here, and the Book says he made us all to be just like him. So if we’re dumb, then God is dumb, and maybe even a little ugly on the side...

Chorus: Dumb all over... A little ugly on the side... Dumb all over...

(Frank Zappa, Dumb All Over, from the album, You Are What You Is)

It’s lucky that God no more has free will than the rest of us; heaven only knows what he might have got up to. Cataracts, indeed. Nor is he much more effective on the social and historical planes: any religion which has still only acquired a minority holding in humanity’s conscience after 2,000 years of sustained marketing by some of history's finest fanatics and delivers human happiness with the efficiency of the Plague is surely due for an overhaul.

There is no reason to worship God just because He is omnipotent, because He is our creator, etc. It may be Calvin’s opinion that one cannot help but worship one’s creator -

How can the idea of God enter your mind without instantly giving rise to the
thought that since you are his workmanship, you are bound, by the very law of
creation, to submit to his authority? (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, I, p. 41, transl. H. Beveridge, 1949)
- but that is surely to deny our integrity as responsible beings. After all, that’s how God made us - if we were made in the image of God, surely it was in his moral image. (Or if it was in his physical image, did He have acne when He was a teenager like me?) But in that case, we are as responsible for our acts as God is for his. What then is there to worship? By the same token, how can our sins be taken from us? On the other hand, is God as morally responsible as [?]

God does not exist, but even if he did, there would be no reason to ‘believe’ in Him. And even if he were worthy of belief, that would be no reason to worship him. I believe in democracy but I don’t worship it. And even if he were worthy of worship, there is no reason to think he is a Christian. After all, no one else is. Finally, even if He did exist, were a Christian and were worthy of belief and worship, then the entirety of human history cries out that he really is an Almighty Shit.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

A majority is not a mandate

We have a major political split in our house. Half the voters here believe that it is our duty to vote. The other half believes that one should not dignify as ‘democratic’ a process that allows us only to chose between one bunch of manipulative hypocrites we heartily despise and another bunch of manipulative hypocrites we despise even more. Admittedly there are only two of us in all, but I can’t help feeling we are a microcosm. And if democracy is government of the people by the people for the people, we both think there’s still a long way to go before we can seriously call ourselves a democracy.

But so what? I wouldn’t be exactly the first person to bemoan the superficiality of parliamentary democracy. But will I be the first to wonder how we got into a situation where a deeply unpopular party can win by a landslide? Like Thatcher, Blair has a massive majority, but did either of them have a mandate? Not that I can see. But if we all go out and vote for people we don’t like, don’t trust and don’t believe in (and poll after poll says we do), will that stop them saying they have a mandate to hand over yet more of the family silver to big business, the US government and an equally unloved, undemocratic European Union?

And that is exactly why so many people will stay at home on polling day: we can endure them running the country – is there a choice? - but we really can’t stomach the self-congratulation.

But what democratic system could distinguish between a majority and a mandate without becoming horrendously complicated? How about this: instead of voting for the single candidate of your choice, how about voting for every candidate – but vote by giving them each a score. And while we’re at it, how about negative scoring for the ones we really hate? That way we can say exactly how much – or how little – we like them. Love the Tories, hate Labour? +5 and -5. Despise Labour, but hate the Tories? -2 and -5. Don’t really mind the current government, but prefer the Lib Dems – a little? 0 and +2.

It is a tantalising prospect. How many candidates would win by getting the lowest negative vote? Would whole elections be won and lost because one side seemed a little less revolting that the other?

It gets rid of a lot of other problems too. No excuse for not voting now. No need for protest votes or tactical voting or not voting for the Lib Dems because they’ll never get in – in this system, there are no wasted votes.

It’s an amazingly simple solution. We wouldn’t need to change anything about voting except the instructions on the form. Counting the votes would take no more than a calculator. We would know exactly what the electorate thought of the elected. And so would they. Democratic heaven.

It is that simple – and potentially quite devastating in its implications. Which is why no one in the political system would dream of implementing it. That would take modesty, honesty, principle, and courage – the very opposite of what it takes to top the greasy pole these days. But what a prospect – politicians who had to admit that they were, at best, the least bad option. It might even encourage people to vote like they mean it.

Mr Tony flies to Wonderland

Tony Blair’s entirely characteristic blooper about not giving up long-haul flights for his family hols should have surprised no one, but there was one detail of his belated response that should have caused almost as much furore as his original crass statement.

This was his claim that he would offset the associated carbon emissions (would that he could offset a few more of his emissions) by donating money to environmental projects, cutting back elsewhere, and so on. This misses the point of the current environmental crisis completely.

Like so many public figures pronouncing on the environment, he seems to think that managing the environment is like being on a diet – it was rather naughty to eat that chocolate, but don’t worry, I’ll cut back on the roast potatoes on Sunday. But it’s the wrong metaphor. Until we show any signs of dealing with our current level of environmental damage, we should treat flying (and a good deal else) more like poisoning. Until we have got our current environment damage under control, the real problem is to reduce our impact, not to ‘offset’ it elsewhere. One day we may have that luxury, but we are currently so far from real environmental management that the whole notion of offsetting actions is self-deluding.