Recently I’ve been getting emails from the Cato Institute plugging their new website, HumanProgress.org.
Personally, I find the way that this website works to be annoying and confusing and just generally off-putting in a way I can’t quite pin down. I can find stuff, but every time I try to make progress through it, I am assaulted by what feels to me like mild-to-severe waves of user hostility. The screen, for instance, frequently covers itself in grey, in a manner which feels to me like it’s not working properly. But it could easily be that it is just me that is now semi-permanently annoyed, confused and hostile. I’d be slightly interested in whether anyone else shares my annoyed, confused and hostile reaction to the way this website works.
But I am really far more interested in the message that the website is trying to put across. It could be that there is just so much good news about human progress to be navigated through, such an abundance of data choice when it comes to learning about how well the human species is doing just now, that any website devoted to such matters is bound to overwhelm and confuse someone like me, whose brain is rooted in the twentieth century, when news like this was so much harder to come by and when websites were only being dreamed of. (The multiplication of genuinely useful websites seems to be a story that HumanProgress.org doesn’t seem to provide data about, but maybe they do and I just haven’t spotted it yet.)
This message, of relentless human betterment, will surely remind many readers of Steven Pinker’s recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I wrote about here (where there are links to other and earlier postings on the same subject).
A couple of weeks ago I blogged about the beginning of the Zabern Incident. Well, now it’s got a whole load more serious.
There have been further incidents in Alsace. Mainly these have involved locals insulting soldiers and the soldiers reacting with extra-legal brutality but they haven’t been without their farcical side. In one incident, the participants in a court case managed to get caught up in riot and various judges, clerks and advocates found themselves spending a night in the cells. In another, Lieutenant Förstner, the 18-year old who sparked it all, went out on a shopping trip. Normal enough if you discount the escort of four soldiers with bayonets fixed.
And now it’s reached the floor of the Reichstag. And the Chancellor, Bethmann Hollweg, has lost a vote of confidence.
The Times 5 December 1913 p9
In a democracy (e.g. France which in this very week in 1913 has also no-confidenced its Prime Minister) that would mean it’s time for the Chancellor to pack his bags. But not in Imperial Germany. In Imperial Germany the Chancellor is answerable to the Kaiser not the Parliament. Democratically elected representatives can huff and puff as much as they like but they are not going to blow the Prussian Army’s house down. At least not for another 5 years.
This kinda sorta brings me on to an observation: the end of monarchy is a bloody and protracted affair. In England the process began in 1642 and was probably all over by 1700 and involved a couple of civil wars and a military dictatorship. In France it took about 80 years (1789-1871) and involved three revolutions, a terror and a twenty-year war. In Germany (at least the Western half) it lasted from 1914 to about 1948; in Russia from 1917 to 1989; in Spain from about 1920 to 1980. In each case millions died. Oh, and China of course (1911-1980).
The only exceptions I can find are Portugal (although that had a period of dictatorship) and Turkey (dictatorship again). Japan is almost impossible to categorise not least because you have to decide who you take as the monarch: the Emperor or the Shogun?
Getting back to Imperial Germany, the tragedy is that here we see them within touching distance of a proper, functioning democracy. So near and yet so far.
Madsen Pirie describes how he invited his University of Brighton audience to look at the world “through neo-liberal eyes”, rather than through the sort of eyes they are probably more used to using:
Others look at what is and compare it with a vision in their mind of what it might be. We are more empirical, comparing it to what was. Life expectancy about 150 years ago was about 30 years, and had been so for millennia. Now it is about 68 years globally, and higher than that in developed countries. We look at death to mothers in childbirth, and see it is now a tiny fraction of what it was even at the turn of the previous century. We look at infant mortality and see how that, too, is now a tiny fraction of what it was. Many of the diseases of the past have been conquered or controlled, and although there are new ones now that we live longer, we are in the process of controlling those, too. In the past most people battled to survive at subsistence level, whereas now we have more people above poverty and starvation than ever before in the history of humankind.
In other words we see things as being better than they were. Of course we can imagine a future which will be better than our present, but the empirical approach is to compare present with past, examine what made the difference, and attempt to do more of it. What made the difference was economic development and wealth creation, not the redistribution of existing wealth. It was opportunity, not equality, that drove progress, and we who support freedom want to see more of it, so that the future world will be as different from the present as ours is from the past.
I agree with everything there, except that very first sentence, about how “others look at what is and compare it with a vision in their mind of what it might be”, the implication being that we “neo-liberals” don’t do this.
I think it is truer to say that we do indeed think in exactly the empirical yet optimistic way that Pirie describes, but that we also compare what is with what might be. The difference is not that we look to the past and our opponents look to the future, but that we look more intelligently at the past than they do, and we also look to a different and better future.
I do not welcome, for instance, a future of “equality”, the sneer quotes there being because equality of the sort that is equal enough to satisfy the sort of people who demand equality will require someone to impose it, and that someone has to be unequally powerful to be doing such imposing. If you truly believe in equality, then you – you personally – will do what you can to improve the circumstances of those at the bottom of the heap. The poor will keep their freedom, thereby ensuring that whatever improvements you offer them really will be improvements. And you will not contrive these improvements by robbing richer people, because that will require you to be – unequally – powerful enough to do that, and there goes your precious equality. It will be equality that does not apply to you.
But just because I do not dream silly dreams of imposed equality, this does not mean that I dream no other dreams, dreams of freedom, dreams of progress, and yes, dreams of greater equality, that really is that, rather than just inequality that has been rearranged a little, in favour of new equalising rulers.
And nor does it mean that Madsen Pirie himself refrains from any such dreaming. He dreams – does he not? – of a future world that is – in a good way – “as different from the present as ours is from the past”. And he compares, as I do, that dreamed future with the present, to the present’s disadvantage.
These ten quotes by Che Guevara are getting quite a mention around the blogosphere, and deservedly so.
David Thompson includes a link to them in his latest clutch of ephemera. Instapundit linked to them. And now I’m doing it here.
This is exhibit number five of the ten, picked pretty much at random, to illustrate the atmosphere of these ghastly pronouncements:
To send men to the firing squad, judicial proof is unnecessary. These procedures are an archaic bourgeois detail. This is a revolution! And a revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.
This posting is now at the top of this long list of Che Guevara postings here, but will surely sink downwards in the future, as we all continue to point out what a monster this man was.
A great deal longer ago than I now enjoy remembering, I rashly promised the authors of America 3.00: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century – Why America’s Greatest Days Are Yet to Come, James C. Bennett and Michael Lotus, that I would, very soon, write something here about this book. But this is not a regular book review. I have an agenda of my own to plug with regard to America 3.0, which is, in two words: Emmanuel Todd.
I have greatly admired Emmanuel Todd, the French anthropologist and historian, ever since, in a 1980s remainder shop, I first encountered English translations of two of his most important books, the English titles of which are The Explanation of Ideology and The Causes of Progress, my copies of these two books being among my most treasured possessions. America 3.0 is in no small measure the book that it is because Bennett and Lotus have also acquainted themselves with Emmanuel Todd’s style of thinking, and have applied it to America. And the most interesting fact about America 3.0, from where I sit, is that its publication may prove to be some sort of breakthrough for Emmanuel Todd in the place that James Bennett himself has dubbed the Anglosphere. My hope concerning America 3.0 is not so much that what it says about America will captivate lots of Americans, although I’d be very happy if it did, but that it may, because its authors based it partly on a foundation constructed for them by Emmanuel Todd, help to spark what I think is a long overdue debate throughout the Anglosphere, a far grander debate than a merely American discussion about America. This debate will encompass the entirety of Emmanuel Todd’s grand narrative, and will concern the entire world.
The historian Alan MacFarlane, author of, among other books, one called The Origins of English Individualism, whose work is aligned with that of Emmanuel Todd, is one of the few historians writing in English to have given Todd the time of day. The authors of America 3.0 tell me that in an email to them, MacFarlane said that Todd is “roughly right” in what he says. Which sounds like rather faint praise. But when you realise that what MacFarlane reckons Todd to be “roughly right” about is one of the most confidently reductionist, yet original and interesting, and above all persuasive explanations of the entire process of political and economic modernisation that has been accomplished and is still being accomplished by our relentlessly formidable and complicated and belligerent and inventive species, everywhere on earth during the last five centuries and more, and for at least the next several decades, then you begin to see where my admiration for Emmanuel Todd is coming from. Many very capable and admirable historians score eight, nine or even ten out of ten for their life’s work. Compared to them, I would give Todd about eight hundred out of a thousand and counting. The man is operating at a different level of explanatory reach to all other historians I have ever read, or have ever read about or heard of. Yes indeed, as MacFarlane’s comment illuminates, Todd has, over the years, got quite a few of the details of his grand narrative somewhat wrong, in fact he probably gets far more things wrong than most good historians ever get right. But what he does get right … well, it is an epic story, and furthermore, a story that I now believe, with MacFarlane, to be “roughly right”.
So, what has Emmanuel Todd been saying?
→ Continue reading: First thoughts on America 3.0 – the Emmanuel Todd connection
The King of Camelot was killed by a commie loser. The impossibility of processing that drove the left crazy, and they still can’t face it.
- Glenn Reynolds, who clearly enjoys annoying conspiracy theorists, as I do. Meanwhile, Janet Daley reflects on what it was like to be a Kennedy supporter back in the early 1960s.
White Sun of the Desert writes on Obamacare.
Parallels between the soft evils of the modern UK or US and the monstrous twentieth century dictatorships do not usually appeal to me for reasons I need not rehearse. However I think that in this post Tim Newman has made an acute psychological comparison.
Time to appeal to the vozhd.
I have just fixed to do one of Christian Michel’s 6/20 talks at his home in west London, on January 20th of next year.
In the spirit, which Christian encourages, of lots of us being libertarians but not droning on all the time about libertarianism, I have chosen a subject that will, I hope, cut across and rearrange the usual ideological divisions at these evenings.
Here’s the bit of the email I sent to Christian, explaining what I had in mind to talk about:
What Digital Photography is doing for us and what Digital Photography is doing to us.
I will speak first about the recreational pleasures and economic benefits of digital photography, making fun and memories for us, and communicating information about products for sale and work progress, or lack of progress, accidents, and so on. In general, I would say that the fun side of digital photography is quite well understood, but that the (other) economic impacts of digital photography are less often talked about.
And I will also muse more speculatively, about the effects that digital photography is having on our lives, minds and culture. What difference does it make to how we live, how we experience the present and the past, and how we feel about such things as privacy, and the right to turn over a new leaf when changing from crazy adolescent to responsible job-seeker? Or from crazy adolescent to solid married person? What does digital photography do to personal relationships? I have trouble predicting what I’ll say in this bit, because I have lots of further thinking to do.
I have never spoken formally about this subject before, and will be making guesses and asking questions, as well as supplying answers. In both parts of my talk I will solicit assistance from whatever audience shows up. Almost all of us have experience of using digital photography (perhaps in surprising ways), and have thoughts (perhaps also surprising) about its impact on our lives.
Christian’s reply included this:
The second part of the talk is clearly the more interesting one, at least to me. You have much time to develop it.
I have already written here about the economic impact of digital photography, here, and here. But what of the second part of my intended talk, the part that Christian would prefer me to concentrate on? Does the Samizdata commentariat have any thoughts as to how I might set about answering the questions above about the difference that digital photography makes to how we live, and to how we feel about how we live? Any thoughts along these lines would be greatly appreciated.
I think it was the experience of dashing off the commentary on these wedding photos that got me thinking about giving this talk. In that posting, I speculated about how the contrasting ways in which photography was done in the past (very clunkily and expensively and rarely) and now (with ridiculous ease) has affected our picture (literally) of the past. That’s the kind of not-quite-obvious effect I am looking to be told about.
The Times 11 November 1913 p7
The Saverne Affair
(or Zabern Incident) occasionally gets a mention in discussions of the origins of the First World War.
It is one of those multi-dimensional disputes in which one conflict slams into another. One of those conflicts is a straight ethnic one – familiar to anyone with a passing interest in Northern Ireland – between Germans and Frenchmen. The other is between the German military and Germany’s burgeoning democracy.
So far, a German officer has been rude (or has he?) about the Alsatians and there’s been a riot. There will be further riots followed by votes of no-confidence in the government.
The point is that it served as a reminder to the French that Alsace had been lost in 1870, while in Germany, it demonstrated that democracy was advancing at the expense of the military. I believe that fear of losing their privileges was one of the factors that led Germany’s rulers to go to war.
… the victims of the French Revolution. Today is 20th Brumaire in the year CCXXII. On this day in in Year Two, 10th November 1793 in the former calendar, the Festival of Reason was inaugurated in the Temple of Reason, before and afterwards known as the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
When reading his description of the first Festival modern readers may find it difficult to share the outrage expressed by the highly partisan nineteenth century politician and historian of the French Revolution, denounced alike by Carlyle and Marx, Adolphe Thiers. The Catholic Church under the ancien régime was oppressive and parasitical, and the Festival can seem to modern eyes like nothing much worse than an embarrassingly amateur charity pageant run by the Women’s Institute:
The first festival of Reason was held with pomp on the 20th of Brumaire (10th of November) It was attended by all the sections, together with the constituted authorities. A young woman represented the goddess of Reason. She was the wife of Momoro, the printer, one of the friends of Vincent, Bonsin, Chaumette, Hebert, and the like. She was dressed in a white drapery; a mantle of azure blue hung from her shoulders ; her flowing hair was covered with the cap of liberty. She sat upon an antique seat, intwined with ivy and borne by four citizens. Young girls dressed in white, and crowned with roses, preceded and followed the goddess. Then came the busts of Lepelletier and Marat, musicians, troops, and all the armed sections. Speeches were delivered, and hymns sung in the Temple of Reason ; they then proceeded to the Convention, and Chaumette spoke in these terms :
“Legislators ! Fanaticism has given way to reason. Its bleared eyes could not endure the brilliancy of the light. This day an immense concourse has assembled beneath those Grothic vaults, which, for the first time, re-echoed the truth. There the French have celebrated the only true worship, that of liberty, that of reason. There we have formed wishes for the prosperity of the arms of the republic. There we have abandoned inanimate idols for reason, for that animated image, the masterpiece of Nature.” As he uttered these words, Chaumette pointed to the living goddess of Reason.
Whatever the semblance, nothing about the French Revolution was harmless. The Goddess Reason ascended her throne two months into the Terror. When the Catholic peasants of the Vendée were so ungrateful for the blessings of the Goddess as to attempt counter-revolution, Momoro, the man whose wife had played the role of the Goddess, was deeply involved in its brutal suppression. Chaumette, too, was one of the leading enragés, and soppy modern “liberals” inclined to praise the Cult of Reason as an ancestor of their own views might like to read more about its teachings regarding women. Neither Momoro nor Chaumette had long to enjoy their status as founders. By spring of the next year Robespierre decided to replace the Cult of Reason with the Cult of the Supreme Being. From then on it was the People’s Front of Judea scene from Life of Brian with real deaths. The Committee of Public Safety sent Momoro to the guillotine on 24th March 1794 and Chaumette followed him on 15th April. Robespierre himself fell from power in June and was guillotined in July.
A few paragraphs later Thiers describes “restraints” being imposed on a people that he thought were unprecedented in all prior history. They were not, alas, unrepeated in subsequent history:
If then we survey the state of France at this period, we shall see that never were more restraints imposed at once on that inert and patient part of the population on which political experiments are made. People dared no longer express any opinion. They were afraid to visit their friends, lest they might be compromised with them, and lose liberty and even life. A hundred thousand arrests and some hundreds of condemnations, rendered imprisonment and the scaffold ever present to the minds of twenty-five millions of French. They had to bear heavy taxes. If, by a perfectly arbitrary classification, they were placed on the list of the rich, they lost for that year a portion of their income.
Sometimes, at the requisition of a representative or of some agent or other, they were obliged to give up their crops, or their most valuable effects in gold and silver. They durst no longer display any luxury, or indulge in noisy pleasures. They were no longer permitted to use metallic money, but obliged to take and give a depreciated paper, with which it was difficult to procure such things as they needed. They were forced, if shopkeepers, to sell at a fictitious price, if buyers, to put up with the worst commodities, because the best shunned the maximum and the assignats : sometimes, indeed, they had to do without either, because good and bad were alike concealed. They had but one sort of black bread, common to the rich as to the poor, for which they were obliged to contend at the doors of the bakers, after waiting for several hours. Lastly, the names of the weights and measures, the names of the months and days, were changed ; there were but three Sundays instead of four ; and the women and the aged men were deprived of those religious ceremonies which they had been accustomed to attend all their lives.
It was a straight road from Revolutionary France to Soviet Russia, but if you look carefully the twisty paths from there to nearly all the “political experiments” and other horrors of the twentieth century can be discerned, including the two great wars remembered today.
Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
Today is the Saturday nearest to Guy Fawkes Night. In half an hour I will be off to a fireworks party to commemorate the foiling of a dangerous Catholic plot against the realm. My Catholic family never had the slightest compunction about burning the chief conspirator in effigy. The plot was real, feasible and evil. In the years that followed, many innocent Catholics were suspected and sometimes killed for plots that were imaginary. The cry of “Popish plot” retained its power to whip up the mob for generations afterwards.
The target changes. I do not usually link to articles behind the Times paywall, but this piece by Matthew Parris, “Our need to hate creates another victim”, is so timely and true that I shall break that rule.
On Tuesday an item appeared on page five of this newspaper. Our treatment was typical of most of the national press: only The Independent put it on the front page. Fleet Street does not appear to have judged that readers would see this as a big story.
Our headline was: “ ‘Paedophile’ killed by neighbours was wrongly accused — Disabled man had photographed flower vandals”.
Bijan Ebrahimi, who lived alone and had learning difficulties, loved tending to hanging baskets of flowers outside his Bristol flat. When youths vandalised them he photographed the incident, to complain. A neighbour decided he was a paedophile, the rumours spread, and an angry crowd gathered outside his home, chanting “paedo, paedo”.
Every reader will be familiar with the very great difficulty we face when the burden of our advice to an anxious friend is not that a problem is imaginary but that he or she has got it out of all proportion. You are not claiming his worry is groundless; you are not even trying to make light of it. You are really just trying to get the worry into some kind of perspective. How does one strike the balance between scaling an anxiety down to size and appearing to dismiss it?
I find myself in that difficulty now, when what I want to suggest is most emphatically not that the problem of paedophilia does not exist, but that as a society we have become unhealthily obsessed by it. A kind of madness is gripping our age: I felt that as I pictured the terrified Bijan Ebrahimi, the crowd chanting “paedo, paedo” outside his flat, and nobody daring to try to protect him. And this in my own country.
I suppose the obvious comparisons are with the 17th and other centuries’ waves of hysteria about witchcraft, and my fellow columnist David Aaronovitch once made those comparisons bravely and powerfully on this page. But (as David acknowledged) there’s a difference: the case is easier to make when the object of the public’s fears simply doesn’t exist and never did. Paedophilia does exist, and this generation’s better understanding of how widespread it can be and what harm it can do acknowledges truths that our grandparents’ generation overlooked or ignored. If we must go back centuries for our parallels in the English imagination, maybe French spies or Popish plots are better comparisons, for these were by no means always imagined. . . but those days seem so distant.
For a public panic that some who are alive today can remember, I’d suggest we cross the Atlantic and return to the 1950s. So poisoned has Senator Joe McCarthy’s reputation become that we tend to forget that the threat to the security of the West from the USSR was probably real. There really were Communist plots, there really was an extensive network of Soviet espionage, there really were unAmerican activities, and Moscow really did hope to foment revolutionary unrest in Western nations. It’s just that McCarthy whipped the American public into a state of disproportionate fear about it all and ruined many innocent lives.
The bloke who posted this describes it as,’The same scene everyone knows, except it is from a film called “Hitler: The Last Ten Days” starring Alec Guinness.’ Presumably both this film and Der Untergang followed Traudl Junge’s diaries quite closely for this scene.