Thursday, October 30, 2014


My local pub used to be great for serving after time. It was fun drinking there until the early hours. Then they changed the licensing laws so that pubs could stay open legally. Everybody went home at eleven. Legalised late opening meant that the pub closed earlier.

Banning something is often the best ways of encouraging it. So, this report came as no surprise.
The Home Office comparison of international drug laws, published on Wednesday, represents the first official recognition since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act that there is no direct link between being “tough on drugs” and tackling the problem.
It only takes a casual glance to see that 'the war on drugs' has been a colossal failure. Addiction is a medical, not a criminal affliction. And though we focus on the tragic cases of deaths caused by people having no control over dosage, never knowing whether they drug they take has been adulterated or is pure, the real tragedy is further down the supply chain where organised crime is at its most ruthless.

Read this and then tell me that we should not decriminalise the use and control the supply and production of drugs.
No newspaper dares to publish the truth about the drug lords in Tamaulipas. Those who break the silence on Twitter and Facebook are marked for death.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Reflections on evil

Here are two articles that discuss the relationship between liberalism and evil. The first, by John Gray, was published this week. The second was first published in 1940 and has been reissued on the New Republic website as part of their centenary. In it Lewis Mumford reflects on American isolationism at the outbreak of the Second World War. They are chalk and cheese.

Let's take John Gray first. He is a master of pessimism. He seems to revel in gloom. So it is unsurprising to see an essay from him that ends like this:
Our leaders have helped create a situation that their view of the world claims cannot exist: an intractable conflict in which there are no good outcomes.
He is talking about the Middle East of course and ISIS. And his theme is that liberalism has failed as it cannot comprehend evil. This is because,
... evil is a propensity to destructive and self-destructive behaviour that is humanly universal. The restraints of morality exist to curb this innate human frailty; but morality is a fragile artifice that regularly breaks down. Dealing with evil requires an acceptance that it never goes away.
Whatever their position on the political spectrum, almost all of those who govern us hold to some version of the melioristic liberalism that is the west’s default creed, which teaches that human civilisation is advancing – however falteringly – to a point at which the worst forms of human destructiveness can be left behind.
Gray once wrote a book called Straw Dogs. I think that Straw Men might be more appropriate here. He defines liberalism solely as being synonymous with a particular notion of inevitable progress. This idea may be held by some liberals, but they also believe in liberty, human rights, democracy, etc. And rather than predict the inevitable withering away of evil, liberalism tends to eschew eschatology. Rights and liberties are ends in themselves, to be guarded and protected. If the propensity for evil is a constant, then liberalism proposes a way in which it can be confronted and contained.

And the essay contains other puzzling statements, such as this:
A cynic is someone who knowingly acts against what he or she knows to be true.
Er, no. That isn't the definition of a cynic, it is the definition of an idiot. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a cynic as,
One who shows a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions, and is wont to express this by sneers and sarcasms; a sneering fault-finder.
Seeing as Gray goes on to describe Tony Blair as,
Too morally stunted to be capable of the mendacity of which he is often accused
I don't think that calling him a cynic would be unreasonable.

The essay ranges over many areas, there are a few points of agreement, but all the way through you know where it is leading. And sure enough, you stumble through it to a commonplace and ill-informed conclusion. And at that point you realise that the whole piece is simply an over-long Simon Jenkins column or a more academic Russell Brand video. You know the stuff; it is all our fault, imperial hubris, an unwinnable war, we have failed, we have made it all worse, and the familiar conservative dismissal of the capacity of other peoples for democratic governance.
There is no factual basis for thinking that something like the democratic nation-state provides a model on which the region could be remade
 Although Gray does write,
Given the west’s role in bringing about the anarchy in which the Yazidis, the Kurds and other communities face a deadly threat, non-intervention is a morally compromised option. If sufficient resources are available – something that cannot be taken for granted – military action may be justified.
It only leads to a sorrowful, pro-Assad position.
In Syria, the actual alternatives are the survival in some form of Assad’s secular despotism, a radical Islamist regime or continuing war and anarchy.
He may start from a position that recognises the persistence of evil, but ends with one that accepts it.

Lewis Mumford answered him perfectly - seventy-four years earlier.

Mumford is an interesting writer. He was a disciple (his term) of Patrick Geddes, although their only meeting was a disaster,  and he took forward and developed many of Geddes' ideas for a future generation. He was writing from within an alternative left tradition that had spun off from late 19th century anarchism and ecology. What appalled him about the liberalism of his day was its failures in opposing fascism and its tendency to make accommodations with evil, rather than confront it. The liberals in his sights were people just like John Gray.

Mumford and Gray would agree on a number of things. For instance, Mumford also deprecated the blind optimism of the liberal idea of progress. Both Gray and Mumford share a contempt for the idea that evil is simply the product of bad institutions. Instead, both agree on its persistence and existence within human personality, not simply as a product of social arrangements. But there the similarity ends. Gray surrenders, Mumford picks up his weapons and heads for the barricades.

Mumford did not see liberalism as a unified doctrine, he described two distinct elements. The first, "ideal liberalism",
... arose long before modern capitalism: they were part of a larger human tradition ... humanist traditions of personal responsibility, personal freedom and personal expression ... The most important principles in liberalism do not cling exclusively to liberalism: what gives them their strength is their universality and their historical continuity.
I got little sense of this ideal from Gray's essay. But he certainly concurred with the second of Mumford's elements. This is historically specific, deriving from the intellectual, commercial and scientific revolutions of the late eighteenth century onwards. He calls it "Pragmatic liberalism", which he describes as:
... vastly preoccupied with the machinery of life. It was characteristic of this creed to overemphasize the part played by political and mechanical invention, by abstract thought and practical contrivance. And accordingly it minimized the role of instinct, tradition, history; it was unaware of the dark forces of the unconscious; it was suspicious of either the capricious or the incalculable, for the only universe it could rule was a measured one, and the only type of human character it could understand was the utilitarian one.
And Mumford and Gray are in agreement about the liberal underestimation of evil:
Evil for the pragmatic liberal has no positive dimensions: he conceives it as a mere lack of something whose presence would be good.
And there Gray leaves the argument; sorrowfully, resigned and pessimistic. Faced by the threat of fascism, Mumford saw the universal values of ideal liberalism as something that needed to be fought for, just as much contemporary liberal opinion hurried to the illusionary safety of the isolationist bunker.
The liberal's notion that reasoning in the spirit of affable compromise is the only truly human way of meeting one's opponent overlooks the important part played by force and grace. And his unctuous notion that evil must not be seriously combated because the person who attempts to oppose it may have to use physical force ... is a gospel of despair ... it means in practice turning the world over to the rule of the violent, the brutal and the inhuman, who have no such fine scruples, because the humane are too dainty in their virtue to submit to any possible assault on it.
What is more, the emphasis on cold, dispassionate calculation without engaging the emotions undermines judgement,
... this liberal suspicion of passion is partly responsible for the liberal's ineptitude for action.
And so Mumford concluded,
In a disintegrating world, pragmatic liberalism has lost its integrity but retained its limitations. The moral ardor of the eighteenth century liberals, who faced difficult odds, strove mightily, risked much, has gone. The isolationism that is preached by our liberals today means fascism tomorrow. Their emphasis upon mere security today ... means the acceptance of despotism tomorrow. While their complacency, their emotional tepidity, their virtuous circumspectness, their unwillingness to defend civilization with all its faults and all its capacity for rectifying those faults, means barbarism tomorrow. Meanwhile, the ideal values of liberalism lack support and the human horizon contracts before our eyes. While the barbarians brazenly attack our civilization, those who should now be exerting every fiber to defend it are covertly attacking it, too. On the latter falls the heavier guilt.
It is an accusation that can be made today. Except there is plenty of passion, but it is pointing in the wrong direction. Rather than confront evil, we excuse it and blame ourselves.

There are parts of Mumford's article that have dated, but much of it is strikingly modern. Then again, these arguments are not new. They have been going on since the nineteenth century with the Peace Society's acrobatics over the Bulgarian Atrocities. Though nothing will ever change the minds of die-hard anti-war activists and writers, I sense the tide is turning. When an oppressed nation like the Kurds takes up arms to defeat a threat from a genocidal insurgency that beheads an Eccles taxi driver, is intent on bringing back slavery and is re-introducing crucifixion as a method of public execution, it isn't hard to know what side to be on. Previous opponents of western action are now calling for solidarity and military support. They have seen a clear, unambiguous evil, impervious to reason. It is obvious that it has to be defeated.

And if Mumford is right and these values are universal, it is our struggle too. 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Adult education - another rant

It's a nice profile and it is good to see Alan Tuckett's work for adult education recognised in this piece by Peter Wilby. It starts by tackling a common stereotype that is often used to denigrate adult learning and whilst he disposes of it neatly, it still sets the agenda. So much of our time has been spent trying to justify adult education's utility against charges of irrelevance, fired against it by both left and right, that we tend to undersell the reality.

And this startled me as well:
Sir John Daniel, former assistant director-general for education at Unesco, once said that adult educators had the reputation of being “boring, sanctimonious, backward-looking and paternalist”.
Eh? In thirty years of working in adult education I have never met such a bunch of enthusiastic, creative and entrepreneurial lunatics. OK, I know of one or two who were capable of making you lose the will to live, but they were never successful. Adult education is market driven. If you are boring, the students drop out and the classes close. You have to be good to survive. This is another misperception, a prejudice held in total contradiction to the reality of doing the job. The whole of my career was spent trying to counter these popular myths that were constantly turned against us.

The picture of adult education that, "It’s just flower arranging, tap dancing, Pilates, lonely old folk going to dusty classrooms to learn about the Tudors", was never the whole truth. There may have been a time in the post-war boom when so-called 'leisure classes' were the most visible part of our provision, but it is atypical of our history. Political radicalism, social egalitarianism and adult education marched together as part of a movement for emancipation; the Mechanics Institutes, working class autodidacts and self-improvement associations, the university extension movement, the WEA, trade union education, the residential colleges, Birkbeck and so on, were all constructed in the belief that what we now tend to call lifelong learning was central to the creation of a better society and to the development of individuals and communities. It was a cause.

And we lost this sense of mission, together with its language, and with them went the provision, as Wilby makes clear in an understated way. Fighting back with utilitarian justifications was always going to seem to be special pleading. We need to recover that vision of human possibility, though I fear it is too late.

I had a glimpse of just how much adult education is a deep human need today when my window cleaner tried to recruit me for his pub quiz team. He was intrigued by the number of books he saw in the house and thought I might help them win things. He described how he reads anything and everything, sitting in bed every night with a factual book, learning. He loves learning things, anything. Adult education's problem is that this is seen as having no utility, a private pleasure maybe, but never a public good. I see it as something more, as a human right. And we're losing it.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The company he keeps

Nigel Farage's new best friend:
Korwin-Mikke, whose party has two remaining MEPs and received 7.5% support in Poland during May’s European parliamentary elections, is one of the most outspoken figures within the far-right groupings of parliament. 
In July, he declared in English that the minimum wage should be “destroyed” and said that “four million niggers” lost their jobs in the US as a result of President John F Kennedy signing a bill on the minimum wage in 1961. He went on to claim that 20 million young Europeans were being treated as “negroes” as a result of the minimum wage. He refused to apologise and was fined 10 days of allowances for his comments. 
Korwin-Mikke has also called for the vote to be taken away from women, has claimed that the difference between rape and consensual sex is “very subtle” and said that Adolf Hitler was “probably not aware that Jews were being exterminated”.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Manufacturing a rant

One of my pet hates is Noam Chomsky. It is pointless picking up a book by him as you know exactly what he will say without having the chore of reading his deathly prose. In Manufacturing Consent he paints a doleful picture of people being deliberately manipulated by systematic mass indoctrination. He knows, is absolutely certain, that if only people stopped watching football they would agree with him. It is the standard delusion of political certainty.

And it is everywhere. After the Scottish referendum, ludicrous conspiracy theories saying that the vote had been rigged emanated from the 'yes' camp, alongside assertions that voters had been scared by the dishonest propaganda of 'no' campaigners and influenced by the 'bias' of the BBC. How about admitting that there were real, rational reasons for voting no, that it was a conscious choice, and not falling back on the line that people were fooled?

There are so many elements to this way of thinking - holding an orthodoxy that admits no doubt, wishful thinking, even sheer paranoia. Chomsky's fan club is prone to claiming that his views are being deliberately silenced and marginalised despite his many books, newspaper articles, respectful TV interviews, documentary films, magazine front covers and, of course, his prestigious academic post. And this is just one example of many.

I find this disrespectful to ordinary people who aren't as simple-minded and gullible as assumed, but more importantly, this way of thinking lacks any form of self-criticism and is sealed off from reality. Sometimes the failings are yours, not others' - it is entirely possible for you to be wrong. I wonder just who it is that is being brainwashed.

It is quite true that sometimes a minority view is right, is morally justified, yet is also marginalised and berated. But is this solely the product of deliberate indoctrination? There is a clear bias towards inertia in relatively peaceful and prosperous societies, mass dissent is the product of crisis. Propaganda will only work when it tallies with the real, material experience of the uncommitted and with their pre-existing prejudices. Otherwise they will just get on with enjoying their lives.

There is an element of truth in that we are all influenced by the media, especially when we lack detailed knowledge. And mainstream media will always tend towards an acceptance of the status quo, but this doesn't tell the whole story. This isn't some monolithic system of mass manipulation, it has competitors in the influence business and they are doing quite nicely. So let's forget the manufacture of consent and talk about the manufacture of distrust instead. This poses as anti-establishment and portrays itself as 'talking truth to power'. Much of it isn't. It is often the powerful and the powerless allied in talking bollocks. Instead of reason, we have a world-weary cynicism that absolves us of the need for evidence or thought. Here are three examples.

Complementary medicine may have no proven clinical worth, but it is a multi-billion pound industry. Given that it doesn't have to support costly clinical trials or use expensive ingredients, the profit margins must be huge. Instead of evidence, the pedlars of woo have only to assert some magical, sciencey sounding claims and throw in a bit of unsubstantiated anecdotal evidence to get people to part with their dosh. The most potent weapon in their armoury is the denigration of 'big pharma'. They do this deliberately, using carefully constructed techniques that they know will not work on sceptics like me. Those videos and articles with long rambling preambles before they get to the crunch are designed to turn away sceptics but reel in the true believers who are likely to make a purchase at the end. And it is not just the ordinary punter that they go for, people like the Tory MP, David Tredinnick wants to hand over wads of public money to herbalists, homeopaths and astrologers.

Secondly, I saw one of these on-line petitions circulated about fur farming. It had the standard gruesome picture of animal suffering and called for signatures on a petition to a well-known clothing store to end the use of fur in its products. I looked at some of the on-line discussions. One commenter made a factual observation. The firm that was being petitioned doesn't use any fur and never has. Everything they sell is faux fur. It is already their policy. This wasn't enough for another who wrote that the company was lying. The reason was that this individual once had a coat of theirs, singed its faux-fur collar and it 'smelt like hair'. Cognitive dissonance or what?

Finally, and this is most important, there is the blanket distrust of politicians. This is reinforced daily. 'They are all the same', 'they are only in it for themselves', etc, etc. This is manifestly untrue of all, but certainly true of some - as could be said of all professions (the reason I taught is because they paid me, even if I was dedicated to adult education. Being paid for writing is proving more elusive). But it is this mood that the likes of UKIP feed off. They play at being the plucky outsider taking on the establishment - even if they look remarkably like the establishment to me. Cynicism is the playground of the demagogue.

And so we need to once again fall back on sceptical, critical thinking. We should be shouting to all who will hear that complementary medicine is nothing if not capitalism at its most exploitative, that firms do not use more expensive materials secretly so that they can satisfy their cruelty, and that UKIP is a right-wing, populist movement as cynical as the cynicism it feeds off.

Excessive distrust of institutions is as corrosive as slavish adherence to the powerful. Both are human traits, reinforced by the marketing industry, but neither are wholly successful. You may be able to fool sufficient of the people sufficient of the time to make a few bob, there are others out there who can spot a charlatan a mile off. Liberal democracies are not populated by automatons waiting to be enlightened, but by human beings with all their cognitive weaknesses mixed in with intellectual strengths. Oddly, it is those like the Chomsky devotees who turn out to be most unthinking disciples of all. Maybe all they are doing is talking about themselves.

Friday, October 03, 2014


This post will only really interest people involved with academia. However, I really liked this piece from Steven Pinker based on his new book. For those of us who have suffered trying to read some of the indigestible prose that seeps out of universities, he attempts to explain a mystery, "Why Academics Stink at Writing".

He doesn't indulge in the fashionable view that obscurity is the product of appearing to be profound when you have nothing to say, instead he puts it down to something more simple. Clear writing is difficult.
When Calvin explained to Hobbes, "With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog," he got it backward. Fog comes easily to writers; it’s the clarity that requires practice.
Absolutely! And this brings me to one of my favourite, and usually completely ignored, big speeches. Students need good training in how to write - as well as how to think critically and spot rhetorical devices and dodgy arguments. And good writing means clarity obviously, but also something else - finding a voice, something distinctive, a way of expressing themselves that is their own and expresses what they want to say, not what the institution wishes to hear. And this is the bit that usually gets me into trouble, I think that the training should be a compulsory and accredited part of all degrees. Instead of being an add-on, it should be central. Not many academics agree.

Clear writing involves techniques that can be taught and learnt. How well they are used is something else and depends on the individual, but it is perfectly possible for good students to be let down by bad writing. Help is made available for all students, it is getting much better, but it is usually voluntary and when I see courses in academic writing being offered, I want to run one on how not to write like an academic. The trouble is, and I have been just as much at fault in doing this myself, we tend to give students a formula instead of a framework. The results are dull, endless repetitions of the same essays.

And all this applies to academics too - in spades. Pinker points out some common flaws - all of which can be found in my writing - that should be avoided. It is a guide that I will use. But if the foundations are laid properly at undergraduate level, we should be spared the awful tedium of an essential article in the Journal that Nobody in their Right Mind Should Read.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

In Eccles

From trees and lamposts, houses and street signs, a smattering of yellow.

The Middle East conflict is not remote here. It matters.