Thursday, 18 October 2007

Fewtril #214

Any failure to take into consideration that the highly intelligent are also capable of great stupidity is not a sign that one is not highly intelligent; it is a sign that one is capable of great stupidity.

Fewtril #213

The greatest thing about a state-education is that it gives one the opportunity to spend a lifetime trying to overcome it.

Fewtril #212

A most subtle test of character is set in the absence of adversity.

Conspecific Controversy

James Watson is in trouble again, this time for claiming differences in intellectual capacities between races. “It is sad to see a scientist of such achievement making such baseless, unscientific and extremely offensive comments,” says Keith Vaz [1], holding to the baseless, unscientific, and extremely odd belief that the forces of nature must necessarily conspire over time and space to make all groups of the same species equal in their capacities, at least as regards the species Homo sapiens. [2] None of this is cause for a tantrum, except amongst the race-class-sex reductionists; for a man is, after all, more than simply his race, class, and sex; indeed he is a person insofar as he is more.
[1] The Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, quoted by Cahal Milmo, “Fury at DNA pioneer’s theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners”, The Independent, 17th October 2007.
[2] Perhaps those who believe so should begin the search for the natural mechanism of it, to which they could give a fancy name, the Conspecific Law of Equalising Inertia, or somesuch. Speciation might take some explaining, mind you.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Europe in the Frame

It is trivially true that one cannot give one’s opinions on some matter without the possibility of colouring that matter to some extent with those opinions, though one trusts that everyone of at least moderate sensibility is aware of this, and can distinguish between fact and mere opinion, or between what is established and what is asserted or argued, and that he has his own mind to discriminate between probable and improbable, fair and foul, temperate and harsh, and so on, such that he is not led insensibly or mindlessly to accept one’s own colouring of the matter, but rather he comes sensibly and mindfully on his own terms to accept it as the true or proper or sensible colour if it be so.
.....It is regrettable, however, that words can work upon men much as bells did upon Pavlov’s dogs [1], and furthermore that many a man is swayed by the most intemperate or unfair of opinions, even against his better judgement, if it be that they whisper in his mind’s ear what he wishes to hear, or set fire in his belly against his enemies, and if he has not first guarded against the inferior part of his constitution. [2] All effective propagandists understand this, and appreciate moreover that the mass-mind is a dumb and ignoble one, albeit with the power to overthrow the nobler part of a man’s constitution.
.....All of which brings me to the matter of the framing-technique of political language — not, that is, of the incidental colouring of matters by language, which might arise through the expression of one’s opinions, but of the intentional setting of the terms of debate for deceitful purposes — and in particular to a ready but rather humble example thereof, though, it must be said, not humble par crapulence: that of Ms Polly Toynbee of The Guardian. [3]
.....If one is susceptible to the framing-technique of political language so crudely displayed by Ms Toynbee, one might register the impression that those who oppose the European Union are “fanatical Europe-hating”, “malevolent and xenophobic” “Euro-crazies” who are given over to “Euro-hysterics” about the “the work of devious” and “filthy federalising foreigners”. [4] Now, I am aware that she aims some of these epithets at the newspapermen, who themselves, as chefs of discontent, are not averse from over-egging the pudding, but still, we all know which frame Mr Toynbee is seeking to strengthen: that against so-called Eurosceptics, wherewith such people are to be seen as narrow-minded, xenophobic, and silly baboons who think Belgium is a dirty word (well . . .) and Germany, a land fit only for carpet-bombing. That is to say, in terms of the “debate”, such people are to be seen to be beyond the pale. The terms are set to foster the view, above all, that hatred or dislike for the European Union is in fact hatred or dislike for Europe itself. Well, I shall not speak for anyone else, but for my part, it is because I love Europe—or rather, what it has been—that I hate the European Union.
.....By the way, if citizens of the smaller nations of Europe want a good reason why they should not be part of the European Union, Polly Toynbee inadvertently gives them a hint of one:
At the crucial Nairobi climate summit, it was a bad idea that the president of a very small country represented all of Europe, and not very well. [5]
For, you see, whilst it is seen as legitimate that a representative of a large nation of Europe may represent the European Union, it is not seen so with a representative of a small one. The small nations must submit to the interests of the big nations. Citizens of small nations, therefore, might heed the words of Leopold Kohr:
In contrast to his counterpart in great, populous states, the small-state citizen has much greater personal dignity, representing, as he does, not an infinitesimally small share of the state sovereignty, but a proportion that can definitely assert itself. Since the concept of sovereignty does not increase in quality with the increase in population . . . the effect of increasing population is the diminution of individual importance. [6]
Besides, there is some reason to believe that Europe’s richness of culture is owed in part to the many and diverse particularities of its peoples living in its many and diverse states and parishes. As far as I can see, if the European Union is the only hope for Europe, then there is not much hope for it at all.

[1] Just think of all the men who have come to espouse values attached to the honorific title of the Enlightenment, who might never have done so if those values hadn’t had that title attached, yet who wouldn’t know enlightenment from a slap in the face — which, come to think of it, and considering their insensibility, might be better suited to bring it.
[2] “Let a man first firmly establish the nobler part of his constitution, and the inferior part will not be able to take it from him.” Meng Tzü (Mencius), Mencius, VIa, 15, quoted by Fung Yu-lan, A History of Chinese Philosophy, Vol. 1: The Period of the Philosophers (from the Beginnings to circa 100bc), tr. D. Bodde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), p.122. I take that as a good prescription for the role of a basic education.
[3] One never knows: my preamble might serve in part to forestall the accusation that I am myself framing the language against Ms Toynbee, but, if it does not, then to those not satisfied, all I can say is that it is my honest judgement that Ms Toynbee provides an example par crapulence of a framing-technique that is in her hands quite crude. (I certainly cannot see it as refined, sophisticated, or even bog-standard.) Let the reader make of it what he will. One may reply that the framing that Ms Toynbee applies is, after all, a reflection of her honest opinions; and so it may be, in which case I can see no good reason not to call her a fanatic too.
[4] All these words and phrases come from one article: Polly Toynbee, “We can’t let the Euro-crazies drag us out of the club”, The Guardian, 16th October 2007.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Leopold Kohr, The Breakdown of Nations (Totnes, Devon: Green Books, 2001), p.118.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Abiding Mystery

When a man acquires much or all of the knowledge that has been revealed in his field of study concerning some aspect of physical reality, or when he sees all avenues of research exhausted and a coherent body of knowledge attained such that the study is said to be complete, he is wont to assume that he knows much or all about that particular aspect of reality. But it is a false assumption; for, although he knows the extent of his knowledge, he does not know the extent of his ignorance. [1]
.....Our knowledge of the world is a circle of light, as it were, but we do not know how much of the whole we have illuminated since, firstly, we do not know the extent of the whole, and secondly, we cannot see beyond that part of it which we have illuminated; nor should we assume that the circle will grow ever wider until we know it to encompass the whole; for not only must there be a limit to human understanding, but also we do not know where the limit of our understanding lies in relation to the whole, such that we could never know whether we had reached the limit of our understanding or the limit of the whole.
.....This acknowledgement of abiding mystery flies in the face of promissory materialism — as Karl Popper and John Eccles called it [2] — that peculiarly modern optimism which, in lieu of knowledge, promises nonetheless that materialism will reveal all. Yet from the fact that today’s knowledge is yesterday’s mystery, and from the sight of countless days upon which such has been the case — days that stand together as a monument to man’s understanding — it does not follow that today’s mystery must be tomorrow’s knowledge. At the edge of knowledge, there is mystery, and since there must always be an edge of knowledge, there must always be mystery.
[1] Physics, for instance, provides us with knowledge only of the structural or relational properties of matter, and leaves open the question of its intrinsic character. In this fundamental sense, “[t]he only legitimate attitude about the physical world seems to be one of complete agnosticism as regards all but its mathematical properties.” Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Matter (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp.270-1
[2] K.R. Popper and J.C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.)

Amis and Son

Kingsley Amis was “a racist, antisemitic boor, a drink-sodden, self-hating reviler of women, gays and liberals”. [1] It is true he was so much more interesting than his son.
[1] Terry Eagleton, quoted in “The ageing punk of lit crit still knows how to spit”, The Sunday Times, 7th October 2007.

In Mere Oppugnancy

If we have eyes to see the ramshackle condition of our own society and culture, wherein an antipathy against authority and hierarchy prevails, then shouldn’t we at least take seriously the words of those men who, throughout the ages, have warned that, should authority and hierarchy be undermined, a ruination of society and culture would follow, or are we to continue to dismiss such words for the sake of our own dreams?
.................O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores,
And make a sop of all this solid globe;
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right; or, rather, right and wrong
— Between whose endless jar justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Ulysses, in the words of William Shakespeare, Troilus And Cressida, act 1, scene 3: ll.101-124.

Friday, 28 September 2007

Authority and Freedom

If and insofar as the common man lacks virtue and self-control, and society lacks authorities, moral strictures, taboos and codes of behaviour for him to follow, and insofar as the state still possesses civilising forces, then censorship and control by the state are necessary for some modicum of civility to survive. The weakness of self-control within men, and of the bonds between them, has made it necessary that the state be stronger, that it assume the control and fix the bonds that bind them together.
Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters. [1]
It is true to say that the state has grown upon the ruins of these civilising necessities of society — but it could hardly have done so without the ruination brought in the name of freedom. Institutions and authorities and particularisms that stand against the free exercise of power are attacked as the enemies of freedom, whereupon it is forgotten what freedom they have preserved against the advance of absolutism.
A similar pattern is to be observed everywhere: the institutions which make the survival of the pluralist society possible—the legal system, the school, the family, the university, the market—are attacked by totalitarian forces using liberal slogans, in the name of freedom in other words. Freedom appears as the absence of law and responsibility, in the anarchistic sense, and thus promises all the consequences which European social philosophy has pointed to for several hundred years: unlimited freedom for everyone means unlimited rights for the strong or, according to Dostoyevsky, in the end, absolute freedom equals absolute slavery. [2]
It is funny to observe that the watchword that holds the greater authority over people’s minds is not that of authority itself, but that of freedom. Ministers of the popular state, though they have gathered ever more power over people’s lives — more than any aristocracy by its very nature could ever have gathered — , still prefer to couch the whole process in terms of freedom rather than authority; and, to some extent, they are right to do so: the unlimited state works hard to free people from all other authorities, to level and destroy, until it alone is left standing.
That which makes an institution an institution is despised, hated, repudiated: one fears the danger of a new slavery the moment the word ‘authority’ is even spoken out loud. That is how far decadence has advanced in the value-instincts of our politicians, of our political parties: instinctively they prefer what disintegrates, what hastens the end. [3]
The marriage of the ideals of liberty and equality — first consummated in the French Revolution — has put in men’s minds the absurd expectation that something will be born of it that will secure both greater freedom and greater equality for all; but naturally, since there are many men of ignoble mien who, once set free of all civilising authorities and values, cannot conduct themselves decently, such that the state must step in with the most intrusive laws and regulations to guide and restrict them, to proscribe their behaviour and to set them on determined paths, so must every man under the aegis of equality be subject to the same proscriptions that bind these lowest and most ignoble of men to a regulated and legislated life, irrespective of his capability for self-control, irrespective of his dignity of self-determination, and irrespective of his particularistic values.
Where will it end? In the destruction of all other command for the benefit of one alone—that of the state. In each man’s absolute freedom from every family and social authority, a freedom the price of which is complete submission to the state. In the complete equality as between themselves of all citizens, paid for by their abasement before the power of their absolute master—the state. In the disappearance of every constraint which does not emanate from the state, and in the denial of every pre-eminence which is not approved by the state. In a word, it ends in the atomization of society, and in the rupture of every private tie linking man to man, whose only bond is now their common bondage to the state. The extremes of individualism and socialism meet: that was their predestined course. [4]
If you are a political libertarian seeking the limitation of the state, alarmed at its pervasive interference in society and aghast at political absolutism in all its forms, then your ideal is ill-served by your also being a social libertarian caring nothing for social order or authority, or even scorning those “stuffy” things that help to maintain it but for which you yourself can see no use and in which you yourself can see no worth; such freedom — or popular licence as it might better be termed — as this attitude helps to foster serves ultimately the expansion of the state and not the liberation of the individual.
[1] Edmund Burke, “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly”, 19th January 1791, The Works of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke, vol.1, (London: Holdsworth and Ball, 1834), p.490.
[2] Leszek Kolakowski, “The Self-Poisoning of the Open Society”, Modernity on Endless Trial (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p.172.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), §39, pp. 543-4; preceded by: “The whole of the West no longer possesses the instincts out of which institutions grow, out of which a future grows: perhaps nothing antagonizes its ‘modern spirit’ so much. One lives for the day, one lives very fast, one lives very irresponsibly: precisely this is called ‘freedom’.” p.544.
[4] Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of its Growth, tr, J.F. Huntington (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993), p.187.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Hidebound Progressives

It is very odd that progressives — those who believe most strongly in the malleability of mankind and who thereupon push for unprecedented change in order to engender a significantly new and better society — are often compelled to express the opinion that some major aspects of society do not undergo any significant changes at all. Thus, if one talks of the decline in civility or of the increase in crime, one gets the stock-moronic response that “it’s always been that way”. One would think that such a response would be the last thing one would hear coming from the mouths of men who profess to believe not only that mankind is very changeable but also that a thing’s always having been a certain way is no justification for acquiescence or complacency in the light of its continuing existence, nor a barrier to its improvement, but rather even a spur to a determined fight against its very existence — and yet it is often the first thing one hears them say! But they are not called progressives for nothing. They do not believe in mere change, they believe in progress, that is, change for the better, as an infallible function of their ideas, and so, whilst their ideas predominate, at least as far as they can see them in policy and practice, they are loath to see any changes for the worse, except, notably, in the behaviour of reactionaries or foot-draggers, those dreadful people who oppose or appear indifferent to the promise of the better society to come.

Difficulty and Complexity

From the easiness or difficulty of a problem, we are accustomed to assume that the thing about which the problem concerns itself must be correspondingly simple or complex in its objective nature. It does not follow, however, that there is necessarily a one-to-one correlation between the degree of a thing’s objective complexity and the degree of difficulty in understanding it, such that we must understand more easily those things that are objectively simpler. If our conceptual machinery is geared a certain way, then we may more easily comprehend more complex matters in that way than simpler matters in another. It may well be that many things that come easily to us are objectively complex, and many things that we find difficult or impossible to understand are objectively simple.

Self-Evident Foolishness

It takes centuries of work by the sharpest and most curious minds to bring to light some particular of knowledge, whereupon it takes only moments for any fool to declare it self-evident. That, say, the blueness of the sky is owed to an unconscious physical process rather than the daily interventions of a god is not at all self-evident. Only presumptuous thoughtlessness or linguistic misusage could declare it so. Hitherto it was assumed that the gods had a hand in everything, and now it is assumed that they have a hand in nothing. Neither can be described as self-evident — except by fools in loose-tonguedness or in receipt of beliefs or facts that they would never have had the wit to decide or discover for themselves.

Advocates of Violence

It is becoming more common to hear a man claim that in no circumstance would he be an advocate of violence. In almost every case this is either humbug or thoughtless talk. Everyone but the genuine pacifist is an advocate of violence; for let us say that I were to break down a man’s door, drink his brandy, and ravish his wife, would he not then be an advocate of violence, even if only by the proxy of the police-force? It should happily go without saying that some violence is justified. The genuine pacifist who argues against this proposition must take the contradictory: that no violence is justified, which, assuming a moralism on his part, means that he believes that violence ought to be avoided at all costs, even at the cost of his brandy.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Nach Deutschland

I am off to Germany tomorrow for a few days, where I intend to be very mindful of local traditions conducive to the happiness of the soul. I must also bear in mind that, when boarding a bus in that great land, if someone wishes me a good trip in English, I must answer him in English, then look a little Scottish and horrified, and then run off. That is one of our traditions.

Crime and Innocence

“Innocence is very far from finding as much protection as crime does.” [1] Thus noted La Rochefoucauld, who hadn’t even read The Guardian.
[1] [“Il s’en faut bien que l’innocence ne trouve autant de protection que le crime.”] François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, tr. S.D. Warner & S. Douard (South Bend, Indiana: St Augustine’s Press, 2001), §465, p.84.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Young Scallywags

“These young people [gang-yobs] need to be given value and more than that they need to experience economic equality”; [1] for only through the expropriated wealth of others can these misunderstood young scallywags afford to dress themselves in even more expensive sports-clothing, to buy even fancier mobile-phones, and, if old enough, to fit their cars with even wider tyres and exhaust-pipes, because, you know, without these upgrades, they will be forced to be even more violent and unpleasant. Or we could sterilise them — before they start breeding.
[1] Crystal Mahey, “Gang value”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 5th September 2007.