Saturday, December 24, 2016

The culture of rock and roll

Reposted from my Google+ Collection, The Decline of the West...

"[As rock and related forms of music] have become mainstream, the values and attitudes associated with the broader culture of rock and roll have also gained widespread acceptance, changing societies and cultures in subtle or not so subtle ways."

I raised this point in my most recent Electric Agora article but didn't elaborate on it, concentrating more on the music itself and its uneasy relationship with traditional Western musical styles.

Actually I like certain types of rock music, particular songs, etc., but I don't really relate very well to the rock and roll culture. As I said in response to some questions from Dan Kaufman in the comment section of the EA post, I didn't really want the discussion to be focused on my personal views and motivations, etc. but I readily admitted to having contrarian and conservative tendencies. The supposedly rebellious youth culture which I experienced was surprisingly conformist, and I kicked against it – or at least resisted it – to some extent. For example, I have never been interested in experimenting with drugs, and alcohol just makes me feel bad.

Another reason I'm ambivalent about rock is because it has destroyed many local musical traditions and contributed to the erosion of linguistic and geographically-defined cultural diversity. One of the commenters on my article talked about his experiences driving from Amsterdam through France to Italy in the 1980s and 90s and the way there was less and less rock on the car radio the further south you progressed. These regional differences are not so evident today. Rock and derivative forms are everywhere.

Though most rock music is not overtly political, it was from its very origins associated with rebellion and a conscious rejection of tradition. And it is currently being exploited in Europe and elsewhere by the left – and (ironically perhaps) also by the radical right – as a kind of recruiting tool.

Far more significant, however, is the way rock culture has combined with digital technologies to change general values and attitudes. You can't quantify this sort of thing but there is little doubt that the cultural identity of Western countries has been radically changed over recent decades and links to a two-and-a-half-thousand year history have been progressively broken. Who these days is familiar with Greek myths and legends or learns Latin or knows anything much about Western political or cultural or intellectual history? Rock music and the culture of rock and roll may be more of a symptom than a cause but it has undoubtedly played a role in this transformation.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Signs of cultural decline

I have previously* made reference to Daniel Kaufman's provocative critique of Western self-improvement fads. His key examples related to Werner Erhard's est program and its successors. Having no direct experience with these movements I can't really comment meaningfully though I've noted that – whilst I personally am averse to these sorts of programs – some of the underlying ideas do look at least interesting and are not obviously misguided.

I am in strong agreement, however, with Kaufman's general remarks about cultural impoverishment.

Cited below are the final two paragraphs of his piece which make a number of telling points. I especially like the bit about "broadcasting the obvious". And the notion of these fads being symptomatic of a "national emptiness or sadness" is also worth taking seriously.

This last point (deriving from a perception of a deep and general malaise; cultural decline, if you like) is hard to put into words that don't sound histrionic or at least very subjective, but that doesn't mean that such judgments have no basis in reality.

"Of course, self improvement, in the ordinary sense, is a part of the human condition, and an inability or unwillingness to change or evolve over the course of our lives is undoubtedly problematic. Marriage and parenthood and middle age have led to my changing and developing in myriad ways, as has my relocation from New York to the Lower Midwest. I’ve had to begin paying more attention to my physical condition; to moderate some of my more reactive tendencies; to let more things go, rather than fight them all out; and to give up who knows how many personal prerogatives that I would have insisted upon, when I was younger, single, and childless, roaming the hedonistic mecca that was 1980’s and 90’s Manhattan. There is nothing special about this – indeed, it is boringly common. It isn’t the result of a program or a project or a plan. It requires no explicit philosophy or discipline. There is no need to meditate or visualize or take special views or whatever the hell the current Self-Improvement crowd would like to suggest is necessary. The result is not “enlightenment,” but growing up and eventually, growing old. This means, alas, that there is nothing to tweet or blog about, no reason to set up a website or to write a book chronicling “the journey”… unless, that is, one wants to broadcast to the world the bloody obvious, and why on earth would anyone want to do that?

"It’s depressing to realize that the American memory is so stunted, so addled, that these fads have to be unmasked every decade or so and the same criticisms made over and over again. EST [the program developed by Werner Erhard] came upon hard times and was repackaged, in subsequent decades, into the “Landmark Forum,” which was even more successful than the original. Guru after guru has been revealed to be a crook, a fraud, or a pervert, but the parade of such characters and their mobs of credulous, adoring fans continues on, unabated. That Americans continue to exhibit an unending thirst for this sort of thing suggests that for all that has changed, we still have not escaped the grip of the malaise that arose in the wake of the 1960’s, the collapse of the counterculture, and the disintegration of America’s families. The retreat into cyberspace is only the latest and most radical manifestation of this national emptiness and sadness, and we can expect that as it deepens, the Cult of the Self will only grow stronger, easily overwhelming the few voices that rise up in opposition to it, and with no obvious end in sight."

* See my Google+ collection Language, Logic, Life. I also maintain the collection The Decline of the West: Observations and reflections (which is more political). You can follow all my Google+ activity via my profile or just follow a particular collection.

Friday, October 28, 2016

American exceptionalism and foreign policy

[This is a shortened version of my latest Electric Agora essay.]

I have previously drawn attention to the neoconservative elements of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy orientation and spoken of the dangers (as I see them) of a resurgence of such policies. At the time I wrote my previous piece on this topic (before the first TV debate), the polls were narrowing and the trend favored Trump. Subsequently, things have not gone well for the Republican campaign.

Assuming Clinton does win, I sincerely hope that she changes tack on foreign policy because – given the epochal changes currently underway in the geopolitical and economic spheres – I just don’t see how neoconservative-style policies, based on an essentially imperial vision of America’s role in the world and coupled with a deeply adversarial approach to Russia and China, could possibly play out in a benign way.

There are different views on this, of course, and I am not entirely sure of my position. On NATO, for example, I tend to the view that it should have been gradually scaled back or unwound after the demise of the USSR and that its expansion eastwards (in spite of assurances given to Gorbachev that this would not happen) and current activities have made the likelihood of large-scale war more rather than less likely. Charles Moore, a British neo-conservative who has a very dark view of Putin’s ultimate intentions, has made a case recently for NATO’s continuing importance in constraining Russia. There is no simple answer here. Perceived weakness and confusion on the part of Western powers will no doubt be exploited by hostile forces. But it is also true that alliances which operate as vehicles for hegemonic powers can be very problematic.

The word ‘realism’ can mean many different things, depending on context. Often it is used rhetorically and lacks substantive meaning. In international affairs, however, it has a generally accepted meaning. It comes in different flavors, but its key defining elements are clear enough. Realism in international relations is associated with strong skepticism about all forms of ideological thinking; an acute awareness of the dangers of the unforeseen consequences of military interventions; and generally modest expectations about what can be achieved on the international front.

As I understand it, there are competing factions within the Obama administration, some (like Obama himself, perhaps) not so committed to neocon-style policies and some more committed to hawkish intervention. I think the election of Hillary Clinton will give comfort to the latter group, and there will be a policy shift in that direction.

Someone asked in the course of the discussion of my earlier piece whether I really thought that the Chiefs of Staff would accept a presidential order to do something likely to trigger war with Russia or China.

It would depend on the circumstances. But it seems obvious enough that to the extent that the US follows neocon-like policies, the prerequisites for a big war (as distinct from more limited, regional conflicts) are more likely to be in place. The worst situations arise when countries fall readily into blocs and particularly if the blocs are very large and very few. We know this from the Cold War. At times we were very close to the brink of a global catastrophe. It would be so, so stupid and reckless to return to such a state of affairs. But many of the neocons seem to want just that.

I happen to think our future is bleak, whatever happens with this election and whatever policies the new administration adopts. But a major nuclear war is by no means inevitable and in my opinion is less likely in a multipolar world in which political leaders see their role more in local and regional than in global and ideological terms.

The Cold War was about power blocs, but it was also about ideology. The old Marxist-Leninist, Maoist and related ideologies have faded from the scene. I say it’s time for all of these overarching narratives to be dropped, including the idea that America has some kind of imperial destiny (or responsibility) to fulfil.

For years I bought into this narrative to some extent. But for a state to fulfil this kind of imperial role effectively, its strength and dominance and underlying economic health must be unquestioned. The state in question must also be widely trusted and respected. Arguably these conditions applied to the United States in the not-too-distant past. But today?

In America – and even to some extent in Britain – both neoconservatism and liberal interventionism are associated with the idea of American exceptionalism: that the United States has a special status amongst the nations, moral as well as military, and that from this status flow certain unique rights and responsibilities relating to global order and governance. In the past this myth has facilitated some very unfortunate actions – and maybe some good ones as well. But in current circumstances it can only be extremely dangerous.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Geopolitics and the US presidential election

"Could fear of Trump rattle Stoics, while fear of death finds no purchase?”

Dwayne Holmes was alluding to self-styled Stoic Massimo Pigliucci's readiness – in the face of the possibility of a Trump presidency – to endorse over-the-top, emotion-driven political analysis. There is certainly a lot of panic in liberal and progressive circles.

Here Holmes summarizes his own take on the upcoming election:

“We are down to haggling over whether it is a moderate pro-business southern Democrat (aka conservative) or extreme right wing ... reality TV star [and] pro-business conservative who sits in the office. Both are hawks (with Trump more blustery but less hawkish) …”

He is right in that Trump is certainly less hawkish in terms of foreign policy. Trump is not a neocon.

On the issue of conservatism and the left/right divide you’d have to say that these terms are getting more difficult to apply in the normal way. This is partly because across the Western world a lot of people – including many traditional conservatives, classical liberals and previously apolitical folk – are becoming disgusted with the status quo and so are voting or threatening to vote for candidates outside the mainstream or otherwise in quite radical ways (e.g. Brexit).

Hillary Rodham was a keen Goldwater supporter before she went to Wellesley College and was introduced to left-wing thought. She wrote her senior thesis on Saul Alinsky. But she certainly seems to have moved away from Alinsky’s ideas (apart perhaps from his ideas on lying). She is a neocon and supported by neocons. But many conservatives now clearly hate the neocons and are strenuously resisting their foreign policy prescriptions.

Why is it that President Dwight D. Eisenhower's prescient warnings about the American military-industrial complex (often now conceptualized in terms of the broader concept of the deep state) are only now becoming mainstream in conservative circles? The reasons are complex but certain things stand out.

For one thing, the recent track record of American interventions has been quite disastrous. But, more importantly, associated with these failures has been a loss of confidence in America's future prospects in terms both of prosperity and (partly as a consequence of this) of geo-strategic power. The centre of gravity of the world's wealth is reverting to a more normal historical pattern, balanced between the Eastern and Western hemispheres. There even seems a real prospect that the West is entering a period not just of relative decline in economic and social terms but of actual decline. And, of course, those overseeing this difficult period – the promoters and implementors of recent and current financial, monetary and foreign policies in the West – have lost or are rapidly losing credibility.

My main concerns regarding this election are geopolitical. Clinton’s general foreign policy orientation (and she has form on this front, remember) strikes me as a greater danger to world peace than Trump’s.

And if she has serious health problems (as appears increasingly likely), that would only add to the danger/instability. I could easily imagine a situation in which, if her health holds out until the election and there are no more ill-timed coughing fits or physical stumblings and she manages to get elected, that she would be not be at all inclined to step aside in favour of the Vice-President even in the face of very serious health concerns.

There is at least one precedent of this happening in America: Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke and stayed in office. And there have been many cases in other countries. Some occurred in the old Soviet Union. There was, for example, Leonid Brezhnev who had severe arteriosclerosis which affected his speech and other aspects of neurological functioning. His immediate successors were almost as bad but didn't take so long to die.

And then, of course, there was the sad case of the bloated-looking and alcohol-fuelled Boris Yeltsin in post-Soviet Russia.

Clinton would be more Brezhnev than Yeltsin, you'd have to say.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

No more politics?

[This piece was posted earlier today in my Google+ collection, Social and Political Reflections.]

I'm beginning to question the wisdom of writing about and giving my personal views on politically contentious issues. For one thing, speaking out is socially disadvantageous. In fact, I have more than once lost a good friend because they read something I wrote with which they strongly disagreed.

There is, of course, a downside to most activities. But where, I am wondering, is the upside here? What is the point of my sticking my neck out on political themes? It's not as if I really expect people to be persuaded to my point of view.

On the other hand, it may be that such ideological reflections do have a point and purpose, albeit one which is difficult precisely to discern or define. It may be in fact that they have more significance than just about any other form of discourse because they are centrally concerned with human values (and so with the motive force of human actions). Even if something I say makes only the slightest difference to how you see the world, your subsequent thoughts and actions will be different from how they would have been without that influence, will they not? The difference may be miniscule, but in complex systems – brains, societies – even small differences can sometimes become very significant.

I suspect, however, that contentious values-based issues are best approached obliquely rather than head on. Perhaps very obliquely.

I never was much into polemics (which nonetheless has its place in the scheme of things); my style has been more 'thinking out loud'. Only now I am reconsidering what to 'think out loud' about.

I am usually careful in a casual social context not to be too outspoken. When you talk to a person or group you tailor what you say to that audience, taking account of their responses, etc.. But with written communication, you don't have that kind of control.

When you write something and make it publicly available the audience is largely invisible and its nature unknown. Moreover, you don't usually get a chance to correct misunderstandings or clarify, something which happens as a matter of course in normal conversational exchanges.

A crucial thing about social and political values is that they are largely subjective. We may feel that our point of view is totally compelling. It is compelling to us. But objectively speaking?

Though some aspects of social and political value systems can be set out and objectively assessed, in the end no objective assessment can rank competing systems or – except in the case of hopelessly implausible systems – make definitive judgments. Ideology is just not the sort of thing that can be laid out clearly or definitively assessed.

In the light of these considerations, I am – as an experiment – adopting a new strategy of self-censorship on contentious ideological matters. The intention is to refrain from expressing political views and to keep the focus on the non-ideological side of things.

How will this decision affect my personal sites? It will mean that I will probably be posting mainly to my other general collection – Language, Logic, Life – in preference to this one, and reposting most or all of that material to (the Blogger blog) Language, Life and Logic.

My other blog, Conservative Tendency, finds itself at least for the time being, like this collection, in limbo.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Jonathan Miller's view of life

I said I might follow up on Jonathan Miller, having posted a couple of weeks ago a segment of an old TV interview in which he talked about his Jewishness. There he was basically saying that he asserts it only in the face of anti-Semitism, and also that he was not religiously Jewish. (Apparently, he gave up on the religious side of things as he was preparing for his bar mitzvah, which in the end never took place).

When he was interviewed by Ben Silverstone in 2006, Miller was saying the same things about his Jewishness as he had been a quarter of a century earlier. But it's clear that he had become more embittered over the intervening years, convinced that he had not been given his due (as a director, say) as well as exhibiting more regrets about giving up the practice of medicine.

A number of things struck me, most notably his commitment to the ideas (mainly his views on religion and social issues, I suspect) of Bertrand Russell. Miller's father (who later became a noted psychiatrist) had studied philosophy at Cambridge before World War I and Jonathan inherited his father's library which included works by Russell.

Miller -- I think unfortunately -- made a bigger deal than Russell did of rejecting religion. For Russell this was primarily a personal decision whereas Miller sees religion as an evil social force which must be actively resisted.

I am also out of sympathy with Miller's left-wing social and political views. His children were sent to the local comprehensive, described by his son as a "war zone".

Russell had some decidedly dodgy ideas on education, and made (or lent his name to) some extreme political statements, particularly in his old age as a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and associated groups. But generally I think his social and political views were more nuanced than Miller's.

I won't talk about Miller's activism on behalf of the Palestinians and against Israel. I have never lived in the region and I prefer to steer clear of these sorts of discussions. Both sides have done bad things.

In three main respects I am on the same page as Miller: I share his respect for scientific knowledge and achievement, his rejection of metaphysics, and his fascination with ordinary human behaviour.

Miller says: "On the whole, the best works of literature simply address the tiny, quotidian questions - what happens when you get up? What stops you not going to bed earlier? In neurology, you’re also looking at the peculiar, anomalous ways in which patients do what they do: deficits, failures to say what they wished to say. In both neurology and theatre, subtle observation of what appear to be negligible details turns out to be the name of the game: that’s where the payload is."

I agree. Certainly there is no way we can get answers to those old, traditional metaphysical questions about purpose and meaning. The best we can do is muddle through, understanding the little we can and cherishing, if possible, the uncertainty and fragility of human life.

At the time of the interview, Miller was directing a production (in Michael Frayne's strange but wonderful translation) of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard.

Chekhov, he points out, was a doctor also. Miller also mentions Flaubert in this regard (but not Somerset Maugham who -- though he too was trained as a physician and was an acute observer of mundane human behaviour -- was probably not ideologically sound from Miller's point of view, being rather conservative). Frankly, I think medical training is much less relevant to observational capacities than Miller is making out.

According to Miller, great literature is simply about "what it's like to get from one end of a life to another". This sounds about right. Seriousness and triviality are inevitably intertwined.

The Cherry Orchard, Miller explains, "ends with a short scene depicting the aged footman, Firs, locked into a freezing house, left alone, apparently to die, after the departure of the entire Gayev household for the winter."

In Michael Frayn’s translation, Firs’s final words read...

“My life’s gone by, and it’s just as if I’d never lived at all. I’ll lie down for a bit, then… No strength, have you? Nothing left. Nothing… Oh you… sillybilly…”

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Jewish identity and assimilation

[Latest post in my Google+ Jewish Identity Collection:]

Jonathan Miller is one of those multi-talented people whose stars shone brightly for a time but then faded, leaving a sense, perhaps, of promise unfulfilled. I know that Miller has expressed some regrets about the course his life has taken. He sees himself, I think, primarily as an intellectual and a man of science rather than identifying fully with the areas in which he has spent the most time working and for which he is mainly known (entertainment and the arts).
At the time he gave this interview [see video] his star was shining bright. The excerpt deals specifically with the theme of Jewishness. Miller defends Jews who, like himself, choose to assimilate. Though a number of his statements are strong and unequivocal, I'm not sure that his overall position, as expressed here, is entirely clear or consistent (especially on the issue of "solidarity"). But then perhaps a degree of ambiguity and even inconsistency is inevitable when we are dealing with the thorny issue of Jewish identity.

I agree with most of the points that Miller makes. Assimilating Jews are all too often seen by other Jews as betraying their heritage. I understand the reasons for this but, like Miller, I think it's nonsense to talk about betrayal.

I don't know the details, but all of my most recent Jewish ancestors took an assimilatory path. On what grounds could we deem their decisions to be wrong or unfortunate? They made their choices on this and many other (often more important) matters: it just seems inappropriate for others to pass judgment.

If one believes in the basic tenets of Judaism (however they might be understood), then – sure – it may seem unfortunate that someone born into this faith decides to renounce it. I know that Judaism is not a creedal religion like Christianity is, but (as I see it) it only really makes sense as a religion if it is seen to incorporate certain beliefs (for example – and most importantly – that the God of the Bible is real in more than a mythical, symbolic or psychological sense). Miller also sees the issue in these terms apparently. He says he can't accept "the creed".

If you set aside Judaism there are still of course many valuable things which could be seen to characterize modern Jewish culture (or, more accurately, cultures). Intellectualism, respect for learning and education, a certain kind humour... One could easily extend the list. But I don't see how one could find in such things a compelling, unifying force, something strong and coherent enough to hold all those with Jewish ancestors together as a people going forward.

A shared history of oppression? Yes, Jews have often suffered discrimination and oppression, but these experiences varied from place to place and from time to time. And not all Jews suffered in this way. It is not a defining feature of being Jewish (as being associated with Judaism is).

It would be interesting to know if Miller's views changed as he got older. I may follow up on this.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Assimilating Jews in England and Ireland

A few more thoughts on Jewish migration to Britain [from my Google+ Collection, Jewish Identity]. My focus (for personal reasons) is on those who made the move before the middle of the 19th century.

One point I want to raise relates to a topic that came up recently in a comment on my blog post 'English Jewish surnames'. A commenter mentioned that his/her gentile great-grandfather had been lodging with a Jewish family in Birmingham and married a daughter of that family. They moved to Hertfordshire and became Christian spiritualists.

My speculation is that assimilating Jews were often drawn to nonconformist or marginal sects rather than mainstream churches. The 19th-century novelist George Eliot had a sympathetic interest in Jews, and explicitly wrote about them in Daniel Deronda. But I am also thinking of an earlier book of hers, Silas Marner. The book doesn't mention Jews or Judaism but the main character is obviously being presented as a Jew. I won't go into detail but he is described as having an alien appearance and as belonging to a slightly weird, quasi-Christian sect and as being unfamiliar with the rituals of the Church of England. He is a weaver by trade. (Jews were often involved in textile-related businesses, including weaving.)

Another point... Russell is a Norman name and one would normally expect families with this name to trace their roots back to the Norman invaders of the 11th century. But, in following up some Russell ancestors of mine, I came across a reference (in a book called The Families of County Dublin) to some Russells who lived in Dublin in the 18th century and who were merchants and weavers. Significantly, they were neither Catholics nor Episcopalians (the majority of Irish people were Catholic and there was a large Episcopalian minority). These Russells were Quakers.

There were also some notable Russells who were very active in Cork, merchants most of them. At least one was a draper. Some had links with Lisbon and one at least had business interests in (and travelled to) Brazil. This suggests to me that they were Sephardic Jews who had Portuguese roots, and that they may have simply adopted the name Russell and may not have had any connection to the Normans at all. (Russell is sometimes said to be a possible Sephardic name, but I don't have reliable information on this.)

Alternatively Portuguese Jews could have married into an established Russell family of that region, but I have found no evidence of this.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The case of the missing cuff-link

In their manifesto, the people behind the libertarian website Zero Hedge argue that anonymous speech plays an essential role in maintaining our freedoms. I wouldn't disagree with this, but I am a bit ambivalent about some aspects of online anonymity and the widespread use of pseudonyms. They have a place, but anonymity and pseudonymity are arguably being overused today and are all too often providing cover for wild and/or irresponsible and/or careless and/or crass content and commentary.

Strangely enough, however, the craziest articles at Zero Hedge are not from 'Tyler Durden' so much as from reprinted content from certain named, usually well-known – and often slightly unhinged – conspiracy theorists.

The site itself is fun. And useful, so long as you take most of what is said with a grain of salt.

And don't bother reading the comments. Unmonitored (as befits a libertarian site), but generally tedious and vulgar.

Here however is a little gem from a recent thread. It's witty, and could be seen – in an oblique and enigmatic sort of way – to be relevant to some of the wacky thinking (especially the technical analysis) that you often see on the site. Just two sentences from Vladimir Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark...

"A certain man once lost a diamond cuff-link in the wide blue sea, and twenty years later, on the exact day, a Friday apparently, he was eating a large fish – but there was no diamond inside. That’s what I like about coincidence.”

Beautiful, no?

Monday, June 27, 2016


[Just up on my Google+ Collection, Social and Political Reflections...]

Political and financial predictions are notoriously – and necessarily – unreliable, but we often have to make them and act on them. This is especially so for those who depend on investments for a large part – or all – of their income.

Predictions about the direction of stock market indices, property prices, interest rates, etc. are much harder to get right than predictions about the outcomes of elections or referenda. The former (like typical referenda and many elections) may involve a simple binary choice but – unlike elections and referenda – they are not tied to a timetable. So bubbles and other market distortions can persist for long periods of time. Timing is crucial for investment, but the best one can hope for in this regard is to get one's timing approximately right. [1]

Political risk is one of the things that makes financial predictions so problematic – and we are seeing a lot of it about these days.

Politics, one might say, is an unfortunate necessity. [2] Really, it's just about – or should be about – the boring business of organizing an institutional and legislative framework which allows large numbers of people to live together in a reasonably cooperative way. But it's also a very human thing, being utterly dependent on basic human attitudes, especially trust: trust in one another, and trust in the powers that be.

Recent events have amply demonstrated that both the US establishment and the EU establishment have lost the trust of (a majority of) the people. Add to that social divisions – the result of economic hardship and cultural changes (arguably compounded in some jurisdictions by large-scale immigration) – and you have a recipe for trouble. [3]


[1] I have been expecting a bear market in stocks for more than two years now. It may finally be upon us. But I have been dead wrong about Treasury bills and bonds, etc. (yields just keep dropping!). I know there is supposed to be an inverse relationship between stock and bond prices but (like many others) I see a bubble in both.

[2] The phrase is in my mind because a short commentary of mine on a fascinating episode of an old Canadian television panel discussion series is about to appear at The Electric Agora. The main question the panel addressed was: Is spying an unfortunate necessity?

[3] I know the immigration issue is a sensitive one, and there is a lot of xenophobia about, but it is wrong to accuse everyone who questions the wisdom of large-scale immigration of bigotry or racism. This is part of the problem, in fact. Many years ago Enoch Powell was forced out of British politics when he argued strongly against his country's immigration policies. The subject was taboo and it still is in certain circles. Why can't we just talk sensibly about these things?

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The US presidential contest; Brexit

[This is the latest post in my Google+ Collection, Social and Political Reflections.]

A couple of things I am following at the moment are the US presidential election process, and the UK referendum on membership of the EU.

I see Hillary Clinton as morally compromised and dangerous both to America and the world. I tend to agree with something Marc Faber said some months ago: Trump may destroy America, but Clinton will destroy the world. Actually, I think you could say America is already well past the point of no return. I am thinking of debt (especially sovereign debt but also consumer debt), the precariousness of the dollar, and demographic and cultural changes. Certainly the old Protestant values of thrift, hard work and self-reliance on which the country was built are rapidly disappearing.

My analysis of Donald Trump is very much in line with Scott Adams' analysis: Trump is a master communicator and he will probably win the presidential election.

I'm am also watching the UK referendum closely. When Boris Johnson first announced his decision to support the Leave campaign, I thought it would be enough to swing it. As I said then, it has been clear for a long time (if not from the very beginning) that the EU was all about a federal Europe. People were deliberately misled on this, but now there is no excuse: anyone with half a brain knows that continuing membership would entail a progressive loss of national sovereignty. Some, wary of nationalism, think this is a good thing. But I would say nationalism can be a positive force, and that it has a role to play in maintaining social cohesion within (if not between) the countries of Europe. God knows, most of the other cultural (especially religious) traditions which tied people together in benign and productive ways are dead or fading fast.

To my mind NATO (and American interventionism generally) is a far greater danger to peace than patriotic feelings.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The tiger in the window

I have now begun a third Collection on Google Plus, called Language, Logic, Life.* No more are planned.

The new site has a similar name to my other blog but is not intended to replace it. 'Language, Life and Logic' is a play on the title of A.J. Ayer's account of the philosophy of the Vienna Circle and the blog has a more or less philosophical focus. The title of the new site lacks this oblique reference to Ayer, and logic is deemphasized slightly, with 'life' getting the more significant final slot. In other words, the new Collection is intended to be slightly more open than LL&L and will include lighter material as well as more serious stuff.

My latest post there illustrates the lighter side: just a snap and few words of commentary. As follows...

A striking Hermès window display (Collins Street, Melbourne)... I had thought that 'paper tiger' was a long-established English expression, but it seems that its use in English (and French as 'tigre de papier') only dates from relatively recent times – prompted mainly by its use in speeches by the Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong. It is a phrase which has very deep roots in traditional Chinese culture.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Cold War reflections

Here is the text of my latest post in Social and Political Reflections.

Because of renewed tensions between the US and Russia, people talk about a new Cold War, but the current situation is entirely different from the situation which pertained for forty years or so after World War 2, culturally as well as in terms of the geopolitical strategic balance.

The Cold War was clearly a very dangerous time in terms of the risk of a massive nuclear war. But in some other ways maybe it wasn't so bad – compared, that is, to now. It was certainly a more ordered and culturally sophisticated time, quite different from our own.

John le Carré worked for both MI5 and MI6 (i.e. the British Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service), and his early novels draw heavily on these personal experiences. The tone of the books is dark, but not overwhelmingly so. They depict a shadowy, brutal and morally ambiguous secret world but always against the backdrop of ordinary life, and specifically of the strangely reassuring middle-class world of post-War England and Germany.

A link is provided to an old blog post of mine which was prompted by my reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Introducing my new Collection on social themes

Here is the text of the first post in my Google+ Collection on social and political themes.* [Conservative Tendency continues as usual, but my two new Collections (Social and Political Reflections and Jewish Identity) can be individually followed and so will allow readers to focus on only one or both of these areas as they see fit.]...

Social and political territory is difficult to map in part because it is always dependant on context and point of view and in part because it is always in a state of flux to some extent.

What's particularly interesting about the present time is that things seem not just to be changing (and changing rapidly) but changing in potentially fundamental ways.

The old distinctions between the left and right, for example, are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain – or even make sense of.

A lot of rethinking is called for, that's for sure. And such rethinking is what this new Collection is all about. Over time I will post here new pieces (usually brief and informal) of my own, various things I have written in the past (possibly revised, or at least with an explanatory gloss) and links to pieces which I come across.

We need to be skeptical of political ideology, of course. But we can't escape ideology in the more general sense of a value-laden perspective on the world which guides our social and political judgments and actions.

We can, of course – and sometimes we must – just go with our intuitions.

But some intuitions are better than others. And my strong sense is that the intuitions and opinions of those who think critically about these matters, who recognize alternative perspectives and are interested in – even if they find fault with – the opinions of others, are likely to be both more interesting and more in touch with social and political realities than the intuitions and opinions of those who are not interested in other views.

We need, I think, to engage not just with the thoughts of our immediate contemporaries but also with past thinkers. An historical perspective is often crucial in social and political matters.

Recently at The Electric Agora I had a brief and friendly exchange with someone whose political views (judged by the normal standards) are diametrically opposed to mine. The exchange occurred in the comment thread of a piece I wrote entitled Mixing but Not Matching. He described his own disinclination to follow trends and suggested that it was due in part to personality type. Here is the comment I made in response to his:

'I agree that we seem to see many things similarly, and that much of this is a personality thing and also cultural [rather than being based on a particular ideology or a conscious decision]. Not running with the pack isn’t really based on a decision, is it?

I still think there are decisions to be made, however, and also that there are facts of the matter concerning the nature of human psychology and the scope and limits of social behaviour (even if these facts are difficult to describe or apply directly to political or social thinking). Like you, I don’t see this knowledge as necessarily being scientifically-derived in a strict or even a general sense. It can be intuitive to an extent and/or based on historical knowledge.

As you put it, “we piece together our personal, social, and political beliefs out of experience, deep and wide reading, analysis and, in the end, judgments concerning the viability or consistency of differing positions…” '

I don't know that we can do much more – or better – than this.

* The URL is:

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A new Collection on Jewish themes

I am setting up a couple of Collections on Google+, one titled Social and Political Reflections, and the other titled Jewish Identity. These Collections are not intended to replace Conservative Tendency which will continue to operate as normal.

Here is the text of something I posted today direct to Jewish Identity*:

I want to explain what is driving my interest in Jewish identity, history etc..

Ethnic identity is a very vague and often slippery concept. Some people have a relatively clear and simple connection with a single ethnic group but most of us have a lot of flexibility in terms of how we can choose to see or define ourselves in ethnic terms. I am not Jewish but, as so many of the thinkers and writers and filmmakers who have influenced me were Jewish, I have long felt a certain cultural affinity with Jews.

Consequently it came as a pleasant surprise for me to realize a few years ago that a good many of my ancestors were in fact Jews. (I won't try to quantify the proportion: smallish but not insignificant, I would say.)

There are, then, genetic links; moreover it is even possible that certain cultural peculiarities and preoccupations within my father's family were built on forgotten memories. This would be in addition, of course, to the strong – and quite pervasive – historical and religious Hebraic influences on the wider culture.

At any rate, certain family matters now seem to make more sense to me than they did in the past; I only regret that my father died before these things began to fall into place in my mind and I began to take an interest in them.

It took a while for the penny to drop because, at first glance, all my ancestors appear to be boringly British, certainly since about 1800.

I came to learn, however, that some of the names of my recent ancestors, though seemingly British, can indicate Jewish origins, and putting this together with family stories about ancestors coming from France and other clues suggested that a number of lines on my father's side trace back to Jewish communities on the Continent.

In some sections of my family tree, there are small clusters of obviously Jewish names mixed in with the Anglo-Saxon or Norman. My guess is that such patterns would be quite common for people of English ancestry and that similar considerations would apply in respect of many other European peoples.

Of course, some long-established English families have names which indicate Jewish origins, but origins so distant as to be virtually irrelevant from a personal or genetic relatedness (at least in terms of autosomal DNA) point of view. Such families have been Christian for centuries and intermarried with non-Jewish families and so are not in any meaningful sense Jewish. 'Moyse' [deriving from the French form of Moses] is an example from my own family history. The name in our case appears to trace back to a particular merchant (presumably Jewish) associated with a very old building near the centre of an English market town. But, as I say, this was so long ago it is insignificant from a genetic (autosomal DNA) relatedness point of view even if it is an important reminder that Jews have been an integral part of English (as of general European) culture for hundreds of years.

At the moment I am particularly interested in finding out more about the relatively undocumented waves of immigration into Britain which occurred during 17th and 18th centuries.

I have Irish as well as English ancestors, but these lines are less suggestive of a significant Jewish element. There are a couple of interesting Irish possibilities but (as with the English examples) I won't go into detail here.

My intention is gradually to bring together in this recently-opened Google+ Collection my old posts (possibly revised and updated) on Jewish themes, some new posts and external links. We'll see how it goes anyway...


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Joe Blank

E. John Winner talks in a recent post at The Electric Agora about his family surnames. His maternal grandfather (probably Jewish) had lived in various parts of Eastern and Central Europe before coming to America. Here is the story from Winner's essay:

'Nobody knows the name my mother’s father was given at birth. Family legend has it that when he arrived at Ellis Island, the first U.S. official he met could not pronounce his name and left the space on the list blank. The next processing official then wrote down “Joe Blank.” Eventually, by the time he needed to sign a marriage certificate, he was known as “Joe Blanchard.” Now, both “Blank” and “Blanchard,” while not common, can be found as surnames in Eastern Poland. However, there are a couple of problems here. Between Ellis Island and his marriage, he was known as “Blankodoff,” which is not found as a surname anywhere. Further, my grandfather was not Polish. According to the 1925 census, he was Romanian. By the 1930 census, he was Austrian, and in 1940 he was reporting as Russian. To his children, he was Ukrainian, but to his wife he was Hungarian. Since he could speak all of these languages fluently (the only language he had difficulty with was English), there was no linguistic or inflective means of pegging him to any one of these countries. It was generally assumed that he had lived in each of them at some time or other in his youth — a rather shady youth that included some military service, and left him with a pile of money, enough to buy a large farm in Steuben County, New York. (He later lost it all in investments thanks to the Crash of ’29.) We don’t even know exactly when he was born; he was 35 in 1930, by 1940 he was 49. The obituary has him dying at age 79, but my grandmother insisted he was 96. (He had bought her as his bride for 500 acres bottom land, when she was 15, the marriage certificate forged to make her 18.)'

Fascinating stuff. And probably not all that unusual really.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The spirit of the time

Just about every afternoon I have a (usually) quiet coffee at a bar that serves a cinema complex. Today something was up: I have never seen a crowd like this queuing for a film here. Quite a buzz. A movie had touched on something important; it was showing simultaneously on two screens. What was I missing then?

Embrace of the Serpent (Spanish Film Festival). Checked a few reviews. Predictably enough, it is highly political, screamingly anti-colonialist, utterly Romantic (in the original Rousseauian sense), a little bit psychedelic – and very, very spiritual.

Not my cup of tea.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Obama's warning

US President Barack Obama has responded to Boris Johnson's journalistic musings concerning the President's personal feelings about Britain. Johnson had been angered by, and was responding to, the President's strong endorsement of the campaign to keep Britain in the EU.

In his article, Johnson suggested that President Obama, on account of his family background, and specifically his Kenyan heritage, may well have less than positive feelings about the UK and its imperial past. He referred to a story that a bust of Winston Churchill had been removed from the Oval Office at the beginning of Obama's tenure.

The mainstream media came out strongly against Johnson, with accusations of racism, and various sources claiming that the removal of the bust was not Obama's decision at all.

Obama's subsequent comments confirm however that it was his decision.

"When I was elected as President of the United States my predecessor had kept a Churchill bust on the Oval Office. There are only so many tables where you can put busts otherwise it starts looking a little cluttered," he said.

“I thought it was appropriate and I suspect most people here in the UK might agree, that as the first African American president it might be appropriate to have a bust of Martin Luther King in my office to remind me of all the hard work of a lot of people who had somehow allowed me to have the privilege of holding this office.”

He claims to have warm feelings about Winston Churchill. "I love the guy," he said.

But his remarks also contained a warning about trade links with the US should Britons vote to leave the EU.

The Independent reports:

He said the US would rather the UK remained in the bloc, and said a unilateral free-trade deal between the two countries would not be a high priority for America.

He added that he was merely offering advice to a “friend” and that it was up to the British public which way they voted. [Britain votes on 23 June on whether to stay or leave the bloc.]

Sounds like a threat to me; and a curious one, given that the Obama administration will no longer be in place when decisions about a bilateral deal with a post-Brexit Britain would need to be made. [In the event of a vote to leave the EU, there would be an extended transition period during which Britain would remain within the trading bloc.]

In a piece written immediately after Boris Johnson's initial announcement of his support for the leave campaign, I suggested that his popularity and mainstream credentials could possibly swing the balance of probabilities towards Brexit. But the polls seem to indicate that a majority of Britons still favour remaining in the EU.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Stagflation on the way?

Whilst not necessarily endorsing Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's general approach to economics (too Keynesian for me), I always find his analyses worth reading. In a recent article he sounds a warning about equities and a stalling US economy, addressing the big question about how long disinflationary forces will persist.

What is clear is that the Fed and fellow central banks can do precious little to reverse a chronic decline in productivity. In this respect, we have reached the limits of central bank action.

Fed chief Janet Yellen is in a horrible predicament. She can keep running the economy 'hot' - and by her own admission real rates are 1.25pc below their 'neutral' or Wicksellian level - in a bid to build up momentum.

But in doing this she risks falling behind the curve on inflation, or more accurately 'stagflation', since that is where the US seems headed. She can pick her poison from one side or the other of the 1970s Phillips Curve - jobs or prices - but pick she must. “The longer the Fed dithers, the higher rates are eventually going,” said Paul Ashworth from Capital Economics.

Yellen has a revolt on her hands in any case. The heads of the Atlanta, St Louis, and San Francisco Feds have all been talking up the inflation threat. Even the ultra-dovish Boston chief has gently cautioned markets to expect more than the one solitary rate rise priced in by futures contracts for this year.

The Fed may succeed in stretching this cycle until 2017. But sooner or later it will have to grasp the nettle, and then we will discover how much monetary pain can be taken by a dollarized global economy with post-QE pathologies and total debt ratios some 36pc of GDP higher than in 2008...

There has been a lot of talk about stagflation recently. It seems like it may indeed be coming.

The scariest statement here is the remark by Paul Ashworth: "The longer the Fed dithers, the higher rates are eventually going."

And dithering they have been for years now.

For a slightly different perspective, emphasizing the current global deflationary situation and competitive currency devaluations (but equally critical of the role of central banks), note the latest – very bearish – views of Bob Janjuah of Nomura.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Conservatives in the closet

In a recent piece for Bloomberg View, Megan McArdle recounts her experience as a student of the humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. It's a sad and oft-told tale of shameless political bias on the part of academics.

... “Conservatives can safely study ancient history but not modern American history, economics but not sociology,” writes my colleague [Virginia Postrel]. “Literature, largely a politics-free zone until the 1980s, has become hostile territory.” This resonates with me, and not just for ideological reasons.

The politicization of the humanities was well under way when I was an English major in the early 1990s, and my education suffered as a result. This wasn't because I was so oppressed as a conservative, but because in roughly half my classes, there was no easier route to an A than to argue that some long-dead author was a sexist pig, racist cretin or homophobic jerk. Being, like so many college students, not overfond of unnecessary labor, I’m afraid I all too frequently slithered along the easy path to the 4.0.

It's no wonder that academics have lost the general respect they once had. Far too many are mere ideologues and certainly not professionals serving the public. The only surprise is that the public has put up with this situation for so long.

And, as McArdle points out, in certain subject areas the few conservative academics left standing must keep their conservatism well hidden.

Every time I write about bias against conservatives in academia, I can count on a few professors writing me to politely suggest that I have no idea what I’m talking about. Sometimes they aren’t so polite, either. How would I know what goes on in their hiring meetings, their faculty gatherings, their tenure reviews? They’re right there, and they can attest firsthand that there ain’t no bias, no sir!

But none of them can explain why, if that bias doesn’t exist, so many of their conservative and libertarian colleagues feel compelled to hide in the closet. Deep in the closet, behind that plastic zip bag of old winter coats in mothballs, and sealed, with many layers of packing tape, in a box marked “Betamax Tapes: Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon 1981-1987.”

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Some thoughts on political idealism and America's role in the world

From time to time I will be posting either here or at Language, Life and Logic (as appropriate) essays or extracts from my essays or selected comments from The Electric Agora. My latest piece, Science and Disenchantment, was published there a day or so ago. I may repost it here after the comments have closed in a couple of weeks.

For now, here is something based on an exchange that took place earlier this month...

Commenting recently at The Electric Agora, David Ottlinger accused me of "defeatism" because I expressed reservations about his optimistic and idealistic ideas about the possibility and scope of democratic debate and public advocacy.

Here is a (slightly revised) extract from my response:

... The thing is, you seem to want to speak for 'reason' or some such, to rise above the fray. But my gut feeling, at any rate, is that in the end one has to bite the ideological bullet and – well, join the fray (if one wants to be an activist, that is). But then, unfortunately, you leave the high ground of reason behind for something like rhetoric. (Like that opinion piece [an article by Conor Friedersdorf criticizing outspoken conservatives] you referred me to: it was nicely done, but quite polemical and tendentious.*)

I am not a natural activist. That may be why you see me as defeatist, but I've got nothing against activists – at least not against those who are not engaged (as many of them are, as it happens) in trying to undermine the things I hold most dear.

You obviously hold certain things dear, not just abstract ideals but some good things about the culture you grew up in and are committed to. I too can see some good in American culture, but simply don't share your belief that the political structures can be made to work again as they once did. The economy, as I see it, is also a problem.

Regarding the New Republic article [a piece by Heather Hurlburt defending military humanitarian interventionism]: the issues are difficult, and have (as the author suggests) been made more difficult by previous flawed interventions. Part of the tragedy is that the US, by over-reaching and over-promising and by its perceived hidden agendas and very mixed motives, is rapidly losing respect in the world. Not so long ago you could still see it (or at least I could) as the cavalry riding to the rescue. Not any more. That myth has soured.

What I see now is a rapidly fading superpower with looming budgetary and social problems trying to maintain its geopolitical sway in a changing world and, to that end, involving itself in various far-away regions like Ukraine, for example, and the South China Sea (as well of course as the Middle East). NATO expansion (was it really necessary?) has arguably exacerbated tensions in Eastern Europe and pushed Russia in an unfortunate direction. American activities in the Western Pacific/South China Sea could be seen as an attempt to retain a role the U.S. once had and which China is now seeking to take up. These are dangerous times.

Which brings me back to that article. Was the author suggesting that the US should send troops into Burma?!

I don't deny that there have been effective humanitarian military interventions in the past and that there will be more in the future. But one important determinant of success is that the flag of the intervening power should inspire respect and trust.

* For example, you can't just dismiss the notion (as Friedersdorf appears to do) that immigration alters the ethnic balance of a country and that these changes (in America and most other Western countries) have generally been encouraged by and worked to the benefit of the left.

And this is an earlier comment of mine on that thread (which prompted David Ottlinger's reference to the article by Heather Hurlburt):

[Quoting him] "... I believe you severely underestimate the extent to which we are dependent on experts to make determinations about serious issues."

My views on expertise probably differ from yours more on the issue of 'moral expertise' than in other areas.

"The question of whether economic history since 1960 is more consistent with monetarism or Keynsianism or whether the history of various military interventions is more consistent with limited interventionism or isolationism is just going to be too complicated, way too complicated, for voters to make determinations on without experts."

Or even with the assistance of 'experts': because in a sense there are no experts here. Let me explain.

Macroeconomic theory is a contested area, and moral and ideological commitments clearly come into it. I think it was Wilhelm Röpke who said that inflation is a 'moral problem'. And this goes to the heart of my response. In decisions concerning choices between various economic approaches or frameworks both factual (relating to whether descriptions and predictions map onto the real world) and moral/ideological factors come into play.

Similar factors apply to judgments about military interventions. There are practical questions about consequences, and then the moral dimension. To a large extent the question of whether to launch a military attack on Iraq and kill its leader (or do the same in Libya) could be seen as a moral problem. And moral problems simply cannot be dealt with in an objective or fine-grained sort of way like we deal with technical or scientific problems. I must confess that before the Iraq war, I was undecided about it: it was only after the event that it became clear to me that it had been a mistake. The predictions of the advocates of intervention were all proven to be wrong. And I think most people don't need the help of experts to see this. There were no WMD. Iraqis did not embrace democracy and live together in prosperity and harmony. Likewise the disastrous intervention in Libya.

Other 'interventions' in the past have been arguably even more clearly morally flawed. Take the Allied bombing campaigns in Europe towards the end of World War 2 directed at civilian targets (e.g. Dresden) or the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I don't think we need to call in the experts here. I know where I stand.

I also know where I stand on economic questions (though I am not an economist). It may be that I have chosen to believe the wrong set of experts. Time may tell. General predictions have been made (you can never give precisely timed predictions in this area). How it finally plays out will not necessarily clearly validate or vindicate (or invalidate) any particular framework, but some predictions will be shown to have been more accurate than others.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The UK and the EU

It may not seem all that significant that a popular moderate conservative figure in the the UK has come out in favour of Britain leaving the EU, but Boris Johnson is rather special, and I suspect his decision will tip the balance in the current referendum debate.

If Britain did leave, it would be very significant not just for the UK, but for Europe as a whole and to some extent for the wider world. For anyone with an interest in geopolitics, this is a big deal.

This is how Boris Johnson's article in the Telegraph in which he announced his decision to support the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union opens:

"I am a European. I lived many years in Brussels. I rather love the old place. And so I resent the way we continually confuse Europe – the home of the greatest and richest culture in the world, to which Britain is and will be an eternal contributor – with the political project of the European Union. It is, therefore, vital to stress that there is nothing necessarily anti-European or xenophobic in wanting to vote Leave on June 23."

Crucially, Johnson's stand will help convince wavering voters who are repelled by backward-looking, reactionary or xenophobic thinking that voting for Brexit does not not entail anti-European or unenlightened attitudes.

There is one aspect of Johnson's article I would quibble with however. Given that the pioneers of project which has resulted in the EU were intent on an eventual European federation and given the natural tendency of bureaucratic structures to take on a life of their own, couldn't the current situation, at least in general terms, have been reasonably predicted long ago – well before German reunification which (as Johnson notes) hastened moves towards integration, and well before the UK joined the Common Market in 1973?

In other words, could it not be seen as having been a mistake from the start to imagine (as many in Britain imagined or were persuaded to believe) that the progress of the new structures towards a unified federal state would be – while those structures remained in place – anything other than inexorable?

When in 1975 a referendum was held to determine whether the UK would stay in, the political establishment and the mainstream press were overwhelmingly in favour of doing so. This is no longer the case, and a British withdrawal is now very much on the cards.

If Britain does pull out, the consequences both for the future of Britain and for the rest of Europe are unpredictable. But it is certain that a British withdrawal would precipitate radical changes to a Continental status quo which – partly because of a poorly designed common currency, and partly for wider social and economic reasons – is already tottering and clearly unsustainable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

On social ideals and values

Can you talk about human values, social ideals, etc. in a clear and objective way? Indeed you can – but only if you recognize that value-based claims and commitments cannot be objectively grounded as other sorts of claim can be. Much unnecessary conflict and confusion will be avoided if this fact is recognized and acknowledged.

In a piece recently published at The Electric Agora, I set out my views on this matter, sketching out, as concisely and dispassionately as possible, the implications of a particular (and I think perspicuous) view of logic, language and human knowledge. There was nothing particularly unusual or original in what I was saying, but it is a view which is strenuously rejected in many circles.

As I see it, value claims (which are based in biology and social and cultural interaction) are quite unlike ordinary factual or scientific claims. They are (I argue) simply not the sorts of things that can be objectively assessed as being true or false, correct or incorrect. And this idea has profound social and political implications. Embracing it entails a rejection of dogmatism, fanaticism and all forms of 'political correctness'.

In the essay I deal first with the nature of ordinary factual and scientific claims and then with aesthetic and moral claims respectively. Here is the final section – on morality.

Morality is a more difficult topic, partly because it is an intrinsically vague concept. Moral judgments can overlap with aesthetic judgments (courtesy and politeness, for example, have both a moral and an aesthetic dimension) and also, I would claim, with prudential judgments. (My views here are more in line with Classical than Christian thought.)

Prudential claims could be seen to have a greater claim to being objectively true (or false) than purely value-based claims as they relate to observable effects. Consider proverbs, for example, which tend to have a pragmatic and prudential (rather than a strictly moral) focus. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive.” “Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Pretty vague and sweeping, but you could conceivably finesse these sorts of claims into testable hypotheses. The same goes for other proverbs many of which (helpfully? – well, perhaps not…) even incorporate numerical values. “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” “A stitch in time saves nine.” “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

By contrast to factual or prudential claims, we have, almost by definition, no way of testing value-based claims. Which human qualities are most to be valued (and encouraged), for instance? Individuals will differ in their views. Do we favor an ethic based on martial values of courage, strength and self-sufficiency; on justice and righteousness; or one based more on compassion and equality (i.e. a commitment to ‘social justice’)?

Or do we want to refuse to play that game altogether and adopt a ‘non-ethical’ (or amoral) ethic or perspective? (Machiavelli, Max Stirner…).

Politics and religion obviously come into the picture also, but it must be borne in mind that many religious and political claims are not mere value claims. Most traditional religious doctrines, for example, involve (sometimes testable) claims about how the world is. Likewise political ideologies (e.g. the social and economic predictions of various versions of Marxism or classical liberalism). So basic value elements often need to be isolated or disentangled from other elements.

But even if in many instances isolating the value-based elements is a difficult task, my central point stands, I think. We cannot demonstrate that someone making basic value claims which diverge from normally accepted standards is wrong or mistaken. The best we can do is to show them (if they are not already aware of the fact) that they are in a very small minority on the issue.

Of course, in the event of these anomalous views being associated with antisocial actions or behaviors, it is important that social mechanisms be activated to prevent (further) social harm. Nothing I’ve said here should be seen to deny or undermine this. Robust informal regulatory mechanisms exist in every functioning society. And, with respect to more formal mechanisms, it’s quite clear that efficient and equitable systems of law and law enforcement need not be in any way dependent on a commitment to notions of moral realism, natural law or natural rights.