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Archive for November, 2010

WikiLeaks: 251,287 Rorschach tests

I believe if there is a lesson to be learnt from the latest WikiLeaks scandal it will be this: freeing up information provokes a lot of discussion, but no real harm. It is the storm that kills you, not the weather report. For all the data suddenly released, they will act as little more than a large collection of Rorschach tests where the reader sees what they want to see (for example, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not surprisingly sees it as propaganda, or at least claims to).

No doubt diplomatic skills around the world are being put to the test right now. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that some arrangements are tweaked or that a commercial contract or two is agreed (or cancelled) that otherwise wouldn’t have been. But in the grand sweep of geo-politics in action, I very much doubt the public revelation of things already widely known will make any significant difference.

As an example, that is the official conclusion of the previous Afghanistan leak. Seeing as this latest batch isn’t in relation to an ongoing war, is there any reason to think terrible consequences will ensue? Look at the various intractactable situations around the globe, and you won’t find a single one where the parties would suddenly change their tact simply due to public suspicions being confirmed. People dig in to their positions when facts appear to contradict them. The sheer volume of information won’t change this.

Julian Assange of WikiLeaks will eventually be seen as someone doing these things not so much for the public good as for his own personal reasons (on the subject of Rorschach tests, look at his Wikipedia page and decide for yourself whether his motives are purely altruistic). But I don’t think that is a bad thing. He reveals government and corporate actions, not private lives – we benefit people doing that as much as we benefit from businesses run by people with a profit motive. Perhaps more.

There will always be a necessity for private discussions – human nature is unlikely to change any time soon. Therefore there will always be ways to conduct negotiations in private – at best, WikiLeaks will simply push them to come up with new ways. Governments will consequently always have information they seek to protect, and have others know they are capable of keeping a secret. And yet, one lesson of the rich, developed nations is that things work best when the people believe their actions will come to light at some point. We can therefore be confident that the additional pressure of a potential WikiLeaks-like event is unlikely to have a detrimental effect in the long term.

In the short term, there is a definite benefit. With this level of information being released to the world without the sky falling in afterwards, what excuse does any national or local government have for keeping truths of lesser consequence hidden from their own citizens?

Pickles the Pillock

I see Eric Pickles is trying to keep the old war on Christmas meme alive. What a pillock.

First off, he should have some self-respect and not import political slogans from right wing nutjobs in America. The whole “war on Christmas” nonsense started over there as part of the whole “why can’t we live in the 50s anymore?” thing that many white people are going through. I do have a degree of sympathy for people not quite coping with the changes happening around them. But not the people that exploit them writing books like The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought, which was high on the list when I googled for the origins of the phrase. That author follows it up with the no doubt equally magnificent How the Left Swiftboated America: The Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History.

He also references the Grinch, also part of the American right wing playbook on using religion as a political weapon. Note the irony of using a secular character to get a religious message across. Does Pickles realise how much he demeans the Christian faith by reducing it to fancy lights and pretty pictures?

Eric Pickles doesn’t strike me as savvy enough to realise that the current right wing in America is generally seen as one of the most destructive forces on the planet. He may not even realise where the origin of lines that he is probably only repeating, parrot-like. But it shouldn’t be too hard to realise that if you have a problem with political correctness – which essentially involves being told what the right thing to say and do is – then you shouldn’t be telling people what the right thing to say and do is.

Methinks by the next general election, the best thing Eric Pickles will have done is give the Lib Dems a long list of examples of how the Tories just don’t understand what “localism” means.

“Progressive”: Orwell himself thinks it’s Orwellian

Iain Sharpe makes a righteous defence of the use of the word “progressive”. He says it distinguishes “those who, regardless of party, see their political outlook as being about championing the poor, the excluded and the disempowered against the established order.” I don’t deny for a moment this is what many people intend the word to mean. The problem is, if that is what it means, it can be paraphrased as “I care more than other people do.” That makes for a dangerous word in political discourse.

The other problem is that all Iain’s references to its historical meaning go back a hundred years or more. It makes no sense to use the word “progressive” if you’ve got to regress a century before it starts making sense. Politics and the general social order changed significantly following the two world wars. It had an unavoidable impact on the English language. Here’s some thoughts on the subject:

Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Petain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language, 1946

Note the inclusion of “progressive” in what Orwell goes on to call his “catalogue of swindles and perversions”.

Consider Iain’s well meaning definition. When we say it distinguishes those who champion the poor, who does it distinguish them from? Nasty people, presumably, like the Conservative Party? Let’s face it, its British meaning currently is “anyone but the Tories”. That’s precisely why Clegg is chasing his tail trying to redefine it.

Going back to last year, the established order was the Labour party. There was a government happy to wield the power of the state against people so disempowered as to indulge in online fantasies of terrorism, that failed on income equality and social mobility. So are progressives opposed to Labour?

What about Thatcher, who was rather famously against the established order? She ripped into civil service and state industries, and believed that the right-to-buy was championing the excluded and the disempowered. Would “progressives” hold up Thatcher as an idol?

It’s a useless word. It is quite literally Orwellian. It has no real meaning beyond, “I’m more in tune with today’s morals than some other people, you know the ones”. It’s a feel good word for those who claim it for themselves, and a cheap insult to those they oppose. It is at best a synonym for “left wing”. Going back to Orwell’s piece, he had two relevant tips:

ii. Never use a long word where a short one will do

v. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent

Maybe I react strongly against “progressive” simply because I don’t normally talk in the jargon of political philosophy. And having waded through a pile of it recently, I hope I never do. Left and right will do me fine when that’s obviously the subject in question.

Forget “progressive”. The best it will do is give people on the right an easy way to claim their policies are progressivism for the modern era. It not only lacks clarity, it’s bad politics too.

“New Progressive” – the next New Labour?

Nick Clegg’s article on the Guardian is going down a very dodgy path. New versus old progressives? Twaddle. For starters, the word “progressive” should be taken outside of UK politics and shot. Or rather, restricted to its technical meaning in tax discussions. I’m a reasonably well read chap and had never heard of “progressive” politics in the UK until the whole hung parliament circus this past May. I thought it was simply the word used by American liberals who had given up the fight against the Republican smear machine.

Secondly, “new progressive” is awfully similar to “New Labour”. At a time when maintaining a separate identity to the Tories should be a key Lib Dem strategy, who on earth thought it would be a good idea to adopt Blair’s “heir to Thatcher” neologism?!

Thirdly, since when has it been a good idea in times of pressure to suggest that those of your party who disagree with you are old-fashioned and destined for the scrap heap?

Fourth, those of us concerned about the pace of cuts don’t take well to the suggestion that we want to do things “slowly”, that we are “indecisive”. This country would have got by perfectly well with quick but shallow cuts to settle the markets, followed up by a 5 – 10 year reduction plan. The line about saddling the next generation with debt is particularly badly judged. People are still ripping into the party on tuition fees that take a working lifetime to pay off.

Fifth, if the mortgage rate is low, it’s nice and lovely for those with mortgages but not so much for those of us without. The housing market is being propped up, and saving isn’t rewarded. A while back, I was being told we all had shared responsibility for the crisis – bollocks to that, I saved, left my credit card alone, didn’t take out an irresponsible mortgage, and voted for the party that wasn’t kissing up to the City. Does Clegg really want to be the guy saying, “And where did that get you? Get on board, son, responsibility is old fashioned!”

There may be some good points buried in the piece. But the defensive, us-vs-them, clinging-to-the-Tory-trouserlegs tone spoils it for me. I’m someone who joined the Lib Dems post-coalition, too. If I find the article off-putting, I can’t imagine the general reaction. Clegg and co need to pull their collective fingers out and figure out how to talk to their constituency.

Is emotional voting always irrational?

Matthew Gibson makes a good case that the Lib Dems need to get more emotional.

There will always be those, particularly in the Lib Dems, who focus entirely on policy. There will always be wiser-than-thou comments about the intelligence of the electorate. But in doing so they risk ignoring an important fact: emotion and cognitive bias are unavoidable flaws of policy making, too.

Any sophisticated voter is going to take the candidates themselves and the parties’ biases into account. Manifestos and policies will be inherently flawed by that party’s own emotional makeup. Voters are going to make judgements on the ability of the party to actually deliver what they say they will. They ask whether a given policy is a genuine intention, an idealistic pipe dream, or simply a sop or a bribe. To assume one’s policies are a fair and pure reflection of one’s future performance is naive and high-minded – an accusation the Lib Dem technocrats should be aware of. Read more

World’s Richest Man: “Raise my taxes”

What could be more perfect timing that just after Lord Young’s recent gaffe for Warren Buffet to say that the rich “have it better than they’ve ever had it“? He then goes on to say,

The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you. But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on.

Buffet is actually only the world’s third richest man these days, and he’s talking about the US not the UK, but even so I think it’s fair to say that still makes him a more credible source of opinions on economic realities than Lord Young. Perhaps the most important difference is the lens through which they see the world. One of the world’s most successful men looks down and says, “I could give more, and some of the people down there could do with some help.”

The more mediocre talent says, “they should be grateful for what they’ve got.”

There are any number of ways you could spin Lord Young’s comments. David Mellor put in a particularly nauseating defence on Radio 4 that had me shouting at the radio. But it boils down to a simple fact that defines for me why the Tories will never progress beyond a 19th century interpretation of liberalism: There are people at the very top, industrious people quite happy with a market economy, who nonetheless do not feel the need to resort to the kind of “nature is red in tooth and claw” kind of thinking so beloved of the Tories. People like Lord Young, even towards the close of their life, surrounded by wealth and free of any need to climb the greasy pole, still cannot find within themselves the basic empathy that sees there is more to being human than mortgage rates and investment returns.

Buffet is in contrast an interesting and important character. The European left could never be happy with the inequality his money represents. But assuming they forgive a man for being a product of his environment, they would agree with much of his wisdom. Given his incredible business success, we would all do well to use it when talking to people who only listen to money. Here’s a great quote from earlier this year, taken from a letter to Fortune magazine (and found on his wikipedia entry)

My luck was accentuated by my living in a market system that sometimes produces distorted results, though overall it serves our country well… I’ve worked in an economy that rewards someone who saves the lives of others on a battlefield with a medal, rewards a great teacher with thank-you notes from parents, but rewards those who can detect the mispricing of securities with sums reaching into the billions. In short, fate’s distribution of long straws is wildly capricious.

The question of how to deal with “fate’s distribution of long straws” is at the heart of today’s politics. Since the coalition agreement, many people see no difference between the Lib Dems and the Tories. In my mind, the starting point to realising there is one lies in the gulf between Buffet and Young’s attitudes. Overall, the market system does treat our country well. The biggest thing that sets the Lib Dems apart is to treat that fact as a starting point, not a conclusion.