Friday, 19 August 2005

Fewtril #19

I should not be surprised to hear it said that the bourgeoisie is also to blame for the occurrence of haemorrhoids.

Thursday, 18 August 2005

Fewtril #18

Committees which thrive on problems should in all honesty adopt the motto: “We'll consider anything but a solution”.

Tuesday, 16 August 2005

The Comforting Thought of George Monbiot’s Death

I’m all for a noble serenity towards those regrettable but unavoidable facts of life, such as death. After all, there is no dignity nor anything else to be had by running around weeping and gnashing the ivories at the outward bleakness of life. Moreover, I should fain forbid all poetry on the subject, if only for the sake of decency and a good night’s sleep.
.....There are some persons, however, who claim not only to be untroubled by the thought of their own death, but also to be positively comforted by it. One such man is George Monbiot of The Guardian, who has this to say on the matter:

Darwinism implies that the only eternal life we have is in the recycling of our atoms. I find that comforting.
A Life with no Purpose”, The Guardian, 16th August 2005.)

I too must accept – as an agnostic – that life may well be no more than that which Mr Monbiot describes, but I fail to see how I could derive any comfort from this. Hot buttered toast is comforting. I dare say the thought of an eternity with seventy-two virgins promotes optimism. But the thought of personal annihilation in a cold, purposeless universe is hardly what I'd call heartening. Indeed, it strikes me as odd that a man might claim to take the prospect of his own utter annihilation as comforting.
.....Now, for all I know, this attitude might describe a perfect state of stoical ataraxia, but then again, it might describe a perfect state of numbness. But is it not more likely that it describes as perfect a state of pretension as one is ever likely to find in life? As a claim it serves well to display a supposedly dauntless, rational and no-nonsense attitude towards life and death; but I wager that it is a species of pretension that enjoys wide circulation amongst those who would have themselves seen as hard-headed; for who amongst them would dare first admit that he is not exactly chuffed at the prospect of his own death?
.....Perhaps I do the man a disfavour; for I must concede that I do not know what it is like to be George Monbiot. It may be hell, than which anything – even everlasting oblivion – is more agreeable. If that is the case, then I should like to join Mr Monbiot in finding the thought of his death quite comforting.

Fewtril #17

A fool believes that an extraordinary intellect says extraordinary things, and thus one has only to wait a short time before he says something extraordinarily stupid.

Monday, 15 August 2005

Hackish Humbug

Our journalists have been clinched by a queer mania that takes the form of a besetting urge to describe morons as “obviously bright”. I gather that so great a gap between description and reality is most likely a function of a perverse ideal of social justice; for almost invariably the moron afforded this hackish approbation is not some lamebrain or braying dolt of the middle or upper classes, but rather some wan-witted lowly rascal from the streets. The latter receives the largesse of our journalists; the former can expect no such charitable misrepresentation.
.....This bug of belying beneficence, that would in vain redress the scales of life, has its other side in miserliness, whereby a well-to-do person of ample wits is characterised as being a bit dim. Accordingly, if we were in madness to overthrow our senses and take the journalists at their words, we would build a picture of Britain in which the lowest quarters abounded with intellectual talent, and above which there was only a steady growth in privileged dimwittedness. False description weighs nothing, however, and serves only to measure the falsifier’s shortcomings.

The Rot Spreads

The rot of social inclusion spreads to Glyndebourne, “home of genteel country house opera and black-tie picnics”, which is “to try to update its image by staging a rap version of one of Mozart’s best loved works [Cosi Fan Tutte]”. (Ben Dowell, “Glyndebourne invents da hip-hopera”, The Sunday Times, 14th August 2005.).
.....According to Mr Dowell of The Sunday Times, “The decision to stage the new Cosi . . . is part of an attempt by David Pickard, general director of Glyndebourne, to attract younger audiences to the medium.” The illogic of this ruling philistine goes something like this:

The youth of today is not attracted to x,
Therefore, in order that it is attracted to x, we must make x not-x.

Charlie Parker, a hip-hop producer and creative consultant to this travesty, is quoted as saying: “Traditional British people have to start re-examining themselves and their culture in terms of addressing the new age.” In other words, it is imperative that we destroy all vestiges of culture.

Friday, 12 August 2005

Fewtril #16

We moderns have a provocative way of dealing with our useless and talentless citizens: we make the conditions amenable to their shortcomings, so that they might become designers, architects, museum curators, and gurus of every kind.

Wednesday, 10 August 2005

Fewtril #15

To call oneself educated, it is not enough to be able to read a book; rather, it is to be able to understand the history of thought that led the writer of the book to get into such a frightful mess.

Tuesday, 9 August 2005

The Old Chicanery

It cannot be imagined how much misery has been caused by those who would make the world a happier and safer place. The reason such an avowed intent has produced its opposite is usually because, either the would-be do-gooder comes from the good-fairy-and-daisy-chain school of unthought, in which it is believed that the hard edges of reality can be smoothed off by goodwill, fantasy and the vigorous rubbing of fluffy bunnies; or the intention is really a sham, and the real motivation is to destroy the present system and replace it with one in which the “do-gooder” would enjoy more power.
.....It is often hard to distinguish between the two; for in the pursuit of power, the fraudster is prepared to be mistaken for the well-intentioned fool. This brings us swiftly into consideration of Mr George Monbiot of The Guardian, who believes that, “The world will be a happier and safer place when we stop putting our own countries first”. ("The New Chauvinism", The Guardian, 9th August 2005.)
.....An assumption underlying this claim is obvious: that patriotism is a cause of unhappiness and danger. Another is not so obvious, and may be one of two: that patriotism is either not a cause of happiness and safety, or, if it is, that the happiness and safety brought about by its absence outweighs the happiness and safety brought about by its presence. These two assumptions together are necessary and sufficient for Mr Monbiot’s assertion that an absence of patriotism would see the world “a happier and safer place”.
.....The first assumption is largely uncontroversial: there can be little doubt that patriotism is the proximate cause of some of the world’s unhappiness and danger. But the second is different. Is patriotism not also a source of happiness and safety? Do men not feel happiness in the love of their homeland, and do they not find safety amongst their like-minded fellows? If Mr Monbiot concedes that patriotism is a source not only of unhappiness and danger but also of happiness and safety, then the onus is on him to show that the happiness and safety of its absence outweighs those of its presence.
.....This is not easy to do. One of the hard edges of reality is that man tends to prefer the familiar over the foreign. Against man’s natural proclivities, therefore, a war must be fought if he is to be changed at the intellectual’s preferred pace. The claim that he will be happier and safer because of this war against him, however, is one that can only find a place in the perverse and philotyrannical utterances of intellectuals; for we have seen this war against man’s nature, and nothing has been more productive of slaughter and slavery.
.....There is no doubt that the attitude that Mr Monbiot evinces is more common than it was a hundred years ago; and this must fill Mr Monbiot and other “Friends of Humanity” with hope. Indeed the following statement of his might stand as a gloomy mantra of modern decrepitude:
I am not ashamed of my nationality, but I have no idea why I should love this country more than any other.
In fitting with this, it ought to be said -- lest anyone think him insufficiently hard-headed -- that Mr Monbiot is not ashamed of being his mother’s son, but he has no idea why he should love his mother more than any other.

Monday, 8 August 2005

Fewtril #14

Hitherto we have deplored the incompetence of intellectuals, yet we might well be thankful for so clear a guide to knowledge; for what intellectuals do not know is probably worth knowing.

The Spurious Claim that Anthropological Reports are More Certain than Arithmetic Facts

Quite often these days, there emerges from the close and sordid pages of an academic journal an anthropological report that tells of a distant, little-known tribe whose members do not know how to do arithmetic or how to count above two. In radically “sceptical” quarters, this is greeted with gleeful credulity, embraced as further proof – aha! – of the relativity of knowledge. An enfant of the terrible kind will perk up and say, “Seven plus nine equals sixteen only by social convention, and thus it does not constitute a universal truth”. Hoping we miss the tautology of this statement, he will regale us with the anthropological tale where this simple arithmetic reportedly does not hold true, and tells us that it is only we in our cultural arrogance that would foist our arithmetic faith on another culture.
.....Yet though he claims to doubt that an arithmetic fact such as seven plus nine equals sixteen is a universal truth, he holds no doubt in his empirical “fact” that there is a culture as described that holds a differing view, notwithstanding the evidently more uncertain grounds whence this “fact” was derived. If he can doubt the legitimacy of arithmetical or logical facts, what explains his faith in anthropological reports that are, after all, on epistemically less certain grounds? With all his doubts, how did he accept this “fact”? If this were not indication enough of intellectual bankruptcy, consider the conclusion that he drew from this anthropological “fact”:

Not every part of humanity knows how to do arithmetic,
Arithmetic ‘facts’ are not universally true

It takes no great brain to spot that the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The conclusion that logically follows is: Arithmetic know-how is not universal. An established anthropological fact this may be, but then I don’t know that it is – I am told so by some anthropologists, but given the past commitment of some anthropologists to using their field not as a means of gaining knowledge of other cultures, but rather as a political tool in the cultivation of their own, I remain sceptical of the claim. Of course, I know that arithmetic know-how is not universal in one sense: amoebas, for instance, cannot add up, and British school-children have great difficulties, but then I doubt these are what the chaps have in mind when they use the phrase “universally true”. So what is meant, then?
.....Note the implicit criterion in the argument that for something to be true, it must be universally believed or known to be true, and thus conversely, that something is false if it is not universally believed or known to be true. I suppose, therefore, that what is meant by “universally true” is “universally believed or known to be true”. And yet time and again, the phrase “universally true’ is foisted into an argument, where properly the term “universally believed” or “universally known” should stand. This is in an effort to support the belief that truth is relative to culture and so forth, and yet it is merely a sophistic restatement of that belief. At the risk of labouring the point, consider the following reformulation of the illogicality: Because x is not known among culture A, it is not universally true. The proper conclusion should read: it is not universally known, which states merely that there is ignorance of the facts somewhere, but not that the facts are not known elsewhere.
.....We have then, on top of a spurious argument, the curious idea that a thing is false precisely because not everyone believes in it, and that a thing is true only if everyone believes in it. Well, I can tell you now that not everyone believes that anthropologists are intelligent, well-adjusted persons who seek honestly to clarify our understanding of the world.

Friday, 5 August 2005

Fewtril #13

It may fairly be conjectured that, if we sat an infinite number of French philosophers at an infinite number of typewriters for an infinite amount of time, they would still produce nothing but gibberish.

Thursday, 4 August 2005

The Mayor of Fatuity

In The Guardian today, Ken Livingstone makes a curious statement in the course of arguing for the admittance of Yusuf Al-Qaradawi to Britain: “Whatever his individual views, he is seen as a moderate and is fiercely opposed to al-Qaida”.
.....Before this statement was made, Mr Livingstone’s argument for the admittance of Qaradawi to Britain posited a moral parity between Israeli leaders and supporters of Palestinian suicide bombers, such that if we were to ban the latter from Britain, we should ban the former. But Mr Livingstone must have felt that it was also important to make some case for Qaradawi’s moderation, or, to put it another way, to persuade us that he is not an extremist. I think that Mr Livingstone is right to see this as important to the acceptance of his argument. We do not wish, after all, to admit some extremist homicidal lunatic.
.....The only expression in Mr Livingstone’s essay that suggests that Qaradawi is a moderate, however, is the one quoted above. Now, if it is meant to persuade us of his moderation, as would be useful to Mr Livingstone’s argument, it does a poor job; for it does not even address his moderation. It says only that he is seen as a moderate and that he opposes al-Qaeda. Well, I might say two things: (1) that Tracey Emin is seen as a talented artist with impeccable taste; and (2) that the Bolsheviks fiercely opposed the Mensheviks. The first testifies to the existence of cretins (or fakers); the second, that one extreme may oppose another.
.....But perhaps I have been unfair to Mr Livingstone, and his statement does address Qaradawi’s moderation. In other words, the statement is not simply meant to point out that Qaradawi is seen as a moderate, but rather that it is meant to intimate that he is a moderate. To judge his moderation, therefore, we need to assess his views. Yet with a flighty “whatever”, the mayor asks us to disregard Qaradawi’s views, the very things by which we must judge his moderation!
.....Thus, if Mr Livingstone wishes only to point out by this statement that Qaradawi is seen as moderate, then his statement reads as follows: Whether his views are extreme or not, he is seen as a moderate and is fiercely opposed to al-Qaeda. If, on the other hand, we are charitable in our interpretation, and believe that he means to intimate by this statement that Qaradawi is a moderate, then the statement is as follows: Whether his views are extreme or not, he is a moderate and is fiercely opposed to al-Qaeda. The first is fatuous and does not support the case for Qaradawi’s moderation, which would support Mr Livingstone’s case for his admittance into Britain. The second is absurd, and supports the case that Mr Livingstone has not obeyed his own exhortation for “clear thinking, not rhetoric”.
.....Mr Livingstone should hope, therefore, that we are not charitable in our interpretation; otherwise we should think him absurd.

Wednesday, 3 August 2005

Fewtril #12

Most people think they possess ideas, but usually it’s the other way round.

Monday, 1 August 2005


"I am always astonished by the way people always suppose that, if there were any justice in the world, they would be better rather than worse off. To the contrary, many should thank their lucky stars that there is no justice in the world: for otherwise they would die in prolonged agony."

Theodore Dalrymple, "Why equality of opportunity is impossible to achieve - but intellectual elitism can offer opportunity to all" The Social Affairs Unit, 28th July 2005.

Fewtril #11

If we are to believe what we read in our newspapers, courage is possessed by anyone who suffers misfortune.