Monday, March 23, 2020

Viral nonsense

I was supposed to be going to Greece in a week's time. Flights were cancelled and travel advice changed, so I am locked out of my Greek home and into my Manchester one. I had no choice, but it felt wise. Coming from this country, with its lax approach to the contagion, I would be a risk to others. But I can't help but cast a wistful glance at my Greek life and be impressed by Greece's serious and rigorous reaction to the pandemic.

Greeks are locked down and restricted, but what of Britain today. It's the country without bog roll (except in millions of domestic cupboards, safely under lock and key). It's a nation of panic buyers (try and find butter, pasta, tinned food, and other basics in big supermarkets. Try and find paracetamol anywhere). And we're a people that loves nothing more than to squeeze into confined spaces and gather in crowds when told not to. This is a nation unaware of the risks it faces. It's also a country with a hesitant government, slowly abandoning a policy, which was always an outlier, once the consequences of hundreds of thousands of additional deaths became clear. It's a country cursed by an unserious and insubstantial prime minister who won power by imposing a disaster and is now mismanaging a catastrophe.

As for the people, panic and confusion was inevitable. We have always scoffed at public information campaigns. The difference this time is that there aren't any to scoff at. It's an extraordinary failure of government. In a vacuum only partly filled with Johnsonian waffle, we have become a contradictory mess of fear, ignorance, and resentment. British stoical stiff-upper-lip resilience, as romanticised in popular history, is either fictional or a mixture of complacency and fatalism. It was invoked endlessly to assure us that the disruption of a no-deal Brexit would bet met with calm determination by a special people. Who now thinks that Britain can take it? Who now wants to follow one vast economic disruption with another in December?

Alex Andreou is stranded too. He is in a surreal Greece, quietened by a full social lockdown. It has given him time to write a splendid piece contrasting the two countries. He makes a telling observation.
... Britain finds itself under attack from two pandemics: Covid-19 and a plague of inane punditry.
He could have added the word profitable. There's a good living to be earned from dismissing reality. He attacks the right, but could have just as easily included a leftist strand too. It fits Harry G Frankfurt's definition of bullshit perfectly. 
Bullshit is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.
It's not the same as lying.
The bullshitter ... does not reject the authority of the truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all. By virtue of this, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
It's a way of talking with authority and conviction from a position of near total ignorance, thereby hiding your inexpertness from both your audience and yourself. The bullshitter does not lack confidence. As for the recipient of it, you pick your ideology and choose your bullshit according to your preconceptions. It's comforting rather than challenging. You can believe the current pandemic is overhyped or apocalyptic, you can think it will change nothing or will change everything, you can hope for a cure and vaccine or despair that we are doomed to an eternity without football. And whatever you instinctively think, there will be a bullshitter waiting to convince you that you are right.

At a time like this, we need to hear from virologists and epidemiologists. They will not give us the simple solutions we would prefer to hear. They may not be comforting or certain. They may well insist that we do things that we really don't want to do. But they will be informed, knowledgeable, and expert. They know what they are talking about. We need experts. We really need experts.

Initially, our government did not follow the policy of other countries. It did so with a sense of superiority. It was a little unnerving, and partly convincing, until it fell apart after a critical analysis of the consequences from Imperial College, London. 250,000 dead was sobering. But why did we go down that route in the first place? It's puzzling until you realise that both our Prime Minister, together with the powerful Minister for the Cabinet Office, Michael Gove, were opinion columnists. They were professional bullshitters. They have both been advised by the unelected power behind the throne, the arch-bullshitter Dominic Cummings. The core of government is Vote Leave; a campaign which paid no attention to truth at all and has lumbered us with a mad act of self-harm driven by dubious ideology. Bullshit is the essence of our government. Now it is payback time. Reality is knocking.

Reality has a habit of doing this. For anti-vaccination loons, this is what a world without vaccines looks like; for Corbynistas, yes that was a catastrophic election defeat; for eugenicists casually disregarding deaths, here are a quarter of a million of them for you to handle the consequences. We will move back into line with others with far more stringent measures because we have to. The bullshitters will continue to claim that it was the plan all along. They won't be lying, because truth has never bothered them. I doubt that it ever will. But the consequences of their illusions certainly will.

Monday, March 09, 2020

Government by delusion

This is good from Tom McTague in the Atlantic. He shows that the confrontation between the government and the civil service is structural and ideological.
The row also reveals the deeper philosophy of Brexit, which drives this Johnson administration and has yet to be fully grasped by those who routinely show exasperation at its apparent refusal to listen to expert advice. Johnson, they say, is pursuing a future that makes no sense, one in which sovereignty is prioritized over economic alignment with the EU, meaning that Britain will be poorer than it needs to be. 
But this misunderstands the core of the Johnson-Cummings project. It is not that they disagree with experts’ forecasts, or that they are attempting to be populist. They actively reject this model of government, believing it to be systemically and empirically flawed. They argue that Britain needs to free itself from centralized bureaucratic control, rather than rely on it, to be able to react both to domestic crises and the ever-changing international environment. This is a project to remake Britain into a country agile enough to adapt quickly to the dramatic change that is inevitable and unpredictable, not to perfect an existing system that avoids unwanted shocks.
This is the central assumption. Whereas the government is about delivering "the kind of change voters want," bureaucracy is about frustrating it to protect the status quo. The trouble is, it's bollocks. But it's seductive enough bollocks to base a long-running comedy series on it. This is not about what voters want, it's about what rulers want. They are projecting their ideology on to voters in order to justify it. At best, the statement should read 'what many voters want, but many others oppose.' That's why the Cummings theory of government is anti-democratic. Democracy accepts dissent as legitimate, feels it should be listened to and accommodated. Sometimes the protection of minorities should overrule the will of majorities. Democracy is slow, can be cautious, but democracies can also act decisively in response to a crisis and, because of their very nature, can effectively mobilise consent for emergency actions. 

The Cummings approach to government is ludicrous. Reality conflicts with it daily. Look at the tardy response to recent shock events - flooding and the coronavirus pandemic. This is a political failure, not an administrative one. An inadequate political class is throwing blame around to avoid responsibility for its own failings.

The likes of Cummings are in thrall to any fashionable nonsense that panders to their narcissism and inflated egos. Only 'weirdos,' 'blue sky thinkers,' 'people who work outside the box,' and the like, have any value. Those who are still in touch with reality are the enemies of these visionaries. And so, they must be sidelined and disposed of to promote the "agility" of this new elite. Of course, the biggest enemies of all are the institutions of representative democracy. There's nothing new about this. It's the currency of authoritarianism throughout history.

What we are seeing is a crisis of the Conservative party. It has abandoned conservatism. It has embraced the cranks and loons, a disparate collection of right-wingers who had been hanging about on the fringes for years. Brexit has been their vehicle for power. Sceptics, the real conservatives, have been expelled or consigned to the margins. The ascendent faction is a destructive force, not just wrecking our place in Europe, but dismantling liberal democratic institutions. It claims the old mantle of the 'man of action,' sees bullying as a virtue, opposition as a sign of the unworthiness of opponents, and is convinced of its own doubt-free rectitude. Nothing must constrain its freedom of action.

All the institutions of the post-war settlement are under attack. All are seen as opponents of this right-wing ascendancy, the ones who would restrict its power to do something stupid. They must go - the judiciary, the civil service, the BBC, Parliament, and, of course, the European Union. This rightist ideology would dismantle all the collectivist institutions that have underpinned an enduring consensus, including the NHS. These bodies might be stuffy and unglamorous, but they can save us from the serial stupidities of ideologues who think they know best. They need to be defended from the attack by these rebels against reality.