Monday, 6 April 2020

Guess the Guardian headline

Europe’s Roma communities are often living on polluted wastelands and lacking running water or sanitation in their homes as a result of “environmental racism”, a report has concluded.

The European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a pan-European network of green NGOs, found Roma communities were often excluded from basic services, such as piped drinking water, sanitation and rubbish collection, while frequently living at or near some of the dirtiest sites in Europe, such as landfills or contaminated industrial land.

One of my minor browsing games is to pick out media headlines which look like Guardian headlines. I play the game because I'm right often enough to be amused at how easy it is. Many of us poke fun at the Guardian, but it survives and seems to provide what its readership needs. If the Guardian didn't do this particular flavour of ideological silliness some other outfit would. 

The interesting questions are surely obvious enough. Is the ideological silliness the deliberate cultivation of a particular readership? If so, is this one way in which useful idiots are cultivated? Sounds like a conspiracy theory that latter question but the Guardian is so batty, so middle class and yet curiously prominent in the media arena.

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Trending towards cock-up

As we all know, squeezing good information from the coronavirus debacle is not easy. The pandemic is ferociously complex and reporting standards are both variable and complex. Uncertainty is the big problem as it always is in the natural world. As ever the mainstream media make a considerable addition to the uncertainty.

Yet as we have two radically different strategies for containing the pandemic in Europe, it is worth comparing the current UK strategy with the far more relaxed Swedish approach – as many have done already. Here we have a situation where COVID-19 deaths should eventually show a significant difference between Sweden and the UK. Otherwise the huge economic, social and political damage caused by the UK approach will have been a disastrous decision.

Ignoring a number of caveats connected with COVID-19 death rates in the UK and Sweden, we could compare deaths per million people within each population. We may as well add Germany to illustrate the uncertainty headache when it comes to assessing the effectiveness of containment policies.

The situation yesterday was –

UK          64 deaths per million people
Sweden   37 deaths per million people
Germany 17 deaths per million people

As a further comparison there are about 9000 deaths per million people each year in the UK. So far the virus is virtually insignificant in terms of overall UK mortality although that may change significantly. We hope not of course, but it may.

As we know the situation develops day by day and tomorrow both the UK and the Sweden numbers will be significantly higher. However, at some point the UK number must turn out to be significantly lower than the Sweden number or UK containment policy will be seen by many of us as a disastrous failure.

At the moment we can’t say that, but UK containment policy is currently trending towards failure in the restricted sense that it now seems unlikely that it will be unambiguously successful and worth the enormous cost. The trend may change and it may change radically, but at the moment it is what it is. A major UK government cock-up is certainly on the cards.

If so it will be denied – vigorously.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Welcome whiff of comedy

Sir Keir Starmer has vowed to lead Labour "into a new era with confidence and hope" after decisively winning the contest to succeed Jeremy Corbyn.

Inevitable I suppose. Labour needs a posh, titled, London-based millionaire QC to reconnect with those northern heartlands.

Maybe he'll be the straight man in a double act with Angela Rayner, a Corbyn groupie from a political milieu where it is permissible to hate posh, titled millionaires such as - er - Sir Keir Starmer.

After she took on the role full-time, representing the Stockport branch, she featured in a Guardian series called A Working Life.

At the time, her office was covered in newspaper clippings, picturing her with Gordon Brown and Ed Milliband at Labour Party conferences.

She told the reporter that people always underestimated her, adding: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time.

“I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

That would be some form of loud stealth presumably.

Friday, 3 April 2020


Strewth - now we know how quickly a police state can be rolled out. As it will not be rolled all the way back again it is even more necessary to keep our focus on totalitarian trends. For example, here in the early decades of the twenty first century we have a level of prosperity almost unimaginable only a few generations ago. Which is fine, there is little point moaning about prosperity, but at what cost have we arrived here? Because there is always a cost – something we could have aimed for instead. More research into virus pandemics for instance. 

However it is not easy to say what the cost might have been even with hindsight, but suppose we begin with the 1950s. WWII was behind us, rationing was fading into history and new freedoms, new technology and new prosperity appeared to be on the horizon. What should we have done to make the best of those promises?

In the 1950s we had the death penalty, we understood the importance of marriage and the nuclear family, we had no mass immigration and we understood patriotism, we valued education, self-improvement, integrity and honesty, we respected the law and the police, we understood the value of inequality, we valued science, technology and engineering. 

Certainly we have to remove the rose-tinted spectacles when considering such matters. They were by no means universal and were diluted with numerous caveats and shades of opinion but we also knew that many social and political radicals were also totalitarians.

Totalitarians eh? Yes – we understood totalitarians better than we do now. We were emerging from a disastrous world war – of course we understood totalitarians as people with disastrously repressive political ideals. Or rather many of us understood totalitarians in that way. Now we don’t because the totalitarians survived and multiplied. 

We became more prosperous and as we became more prosperous the iron fist pulled on a velvet glove so we became more tolerant towards totalitarian politics. Young people dabbled in it as they always do, but unfortunately many seem to have encountered no reason to let go, no reason to put aside the toys of childhood. In a complex world simplicity appeals.

Now there are numerous prominent totalitarians in public life but we don’t recognise them as such. Totalitarians have become commonplace, invisible. Climate change is totalitarian politics where we have discovered something amazing - even the climate, even the natural world can be used to promote a thoroughly totalitarian political ethos. Or rather we haven't discovered it - merely some of us have. 

In their different ways Jeremy Corbyn and Prince Charles are totalitarians but millions do not see it. Prince Harry is an environmental totalitarian, numerous celebrities are totalitarians. Earlier generations would perhaps have recognised them as such, seeing the signs, the moral rot. Not now.

One to avoid

The BBC will offer daily programmes to help parents and children with schoolwork at home during the lockdown.

Starting on 20 April, videos, quizzes, podcasts and articles will appear on BBC Bitesize Daily via the BBC iPlayer, red button, BBC Four and BBC Sounds.

Thursday, 2 April 2020

To level the mountains

Demons  is a fascinating and powerful novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky published between 1871 and 1872. For those who haven’t read it, a brief summary from Wikipedia -

Demons is an allegory of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the political and moral nihilism that were becoming prevalent in Russia in the 1860s. A fictional town descends into chaos as it becomes the focal point of an attempted revolution, orchestrated by master conspirator Pyotr Verkhovensky...

'Demons' refers not to individuals who act in various immoral or criminal ways, but rather to the ideas that possess them: non-material but living forces that subordinate the individual (and collective) consciousness, distorting it and impelling it toward catastrophe.

The demons of the title are effectively evil ideologies which take possession of susceptible people. As Jordan Peterson has said, ideologies possess people, not the other way round. Dostoyevsky's novel also sheds a powerful light on our modern world and our apparent inability to preserve the civilisation which nurtured us. We cannot absorb the lessons of history, having lost sight of the political and moral nihilism eating away at what we are – soon to be what we were.

Dostoyevsky saw the danger and described it - as perceptive and articulate people still do today, but the message is not quite simple enough to take hold. The climate change narrative, to take just one modern example, is just as morally nihilist as the political disease Dostoyevsky saw in Russia 150 years ago. Just as demonic.

Here are two extracts.

“Listen, Stavrogin. To level the mountains is a fine idea, not an absurd one. I am for Shigalov. Down with culture. We’ve had enough science! Without science we have material enough to go on for a thousand years, but one must have discipline. The one thing wanting in the world is discipline. The thirst for culture is an aristocratic thirst. The moment you have family ties or love you get the desire for property. We will destroy that desire; we’ll make use of drunkenness, slander, spying; we’ll make use of incredible corruption; we’ll stifle every genius in its infancy. We’ll reduce all to a common denominator! Complete equality!

Listen. I’ve reckoned them all up: a teacher who laughs with children at their God and at their cradle; is on our side. The lawyer who defends an educated murderer because he is more cultured than his victims and could not, help murdering them to get money is one of us. The schoolboys who murder a peasant for the sake of sensation are ours. The juries who acquit every criminal are ours. The prosecutor who trembles at a trial for fear he should not seem advanced enough is ours, ours. Among officials and literary men we have lots, lots, and they don’t know it themselves. On the other hand, the docility of schoolboys and fools has reached an extreme pitch; the schoolmasters are bitter and bilious. On all sides we see vanity puffed up out of all proportion; brutal, monstrous appetites.... Do you know how many we shall catch by little, ready-made ideas?

Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Demons (1871-72)

Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Snail's pace

The European Union has weathered the storms of eurozone bailouts, the migration crisis and Brexit, but some fear coronavirus could be even more destructive.

In a rare intervention Jacques Delors, the former European commission president who helped build the modern EU, broke his silence last weekend to warn that lack of solidarity posed “a mortal danger to the European Union”...

“This is definitely a make-it-or-break-it moment for the European project,” said Nathalie Tocci, a former adviser to the EU foreign policy chief. “If it goes badly this really risks being the end of the union. It fuels all the nationalist-populism.”

The coronavirus debacle has exposed a number of previously obvious EU failings, but a major failing has been its inability to react in a timely manner. The EU is painfully slow in its deliberations. We may criticise Boris and the UK government, but compared to the EU it has responded like lightning. 

Oddly enough this suggests that the EU has been lucky up until now. It has not had to respond to such a fast-moving crisis as this and its turgid inability to change gear has not been so obvious. Now it is obvious.