We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

It is about metacontext

I vote for the fifth option, which is “There should not be a drinking age”, on the basis that it is none of the government’s damn business.

Marking for life

This story will not help the blood pressure of our regular readership, I am sure:

A flagship database intended to protect every child in the country will be used by police to hunt for evidence of crime in a “shocking” extension of its original purpose.

How marvellous. Makes one’s heart swell with pride.

ContactPoint will include the names, ages and addresses of all 11 million under-18s in England as well as information on their parents, GPs, schools and support services such as social workers.

Tremendous. I almost want to sing “Land of Hope and Glory” (sarcasm alert).

The £224 million computer system was announced in the wake of the death of Victoria Climbié, who was abused and then murdered after a string of missed opportunities to intervene by the authorities, as a way to connect the different services dealing with children.

The death of this girl, like that of all children in the care of monstrous parents, is a terrible story but the creation of this database is not the answer. Punishment of the offenders surely is (I’ll leave it to the commentariat for what those punishments should be).

It has always been portrayed as a way for professionals to find out which other agencies are working with a particular child, to make their work easier and provide a better service for young people.

No doubt.

However, it has now emerged that police officers, council staff, head teachers, doctors and care workers will use the records to search for evidence of criminality and wrongdoing to help them launch prosecutions against those on the database – even long after they have reached adulthood.

And this, of course, is the nub of the issue. Governments down the ages, whether in the real world or in the dystopias of fiction writers, have sought to spot criminals ahead of their actually being criminals. I remember watching the Spielberg movie “Minority Report” – loosely based on the old Philip K. Dick novel – and wondered just how long it would take for NuLab or its equivalents to come up with an attempt to do stuff like this. Now it is becoming reality. But although the creators of such databases may like to kid themselves that they are protecting the little ones, in truth, they are placing dangerous power in the hands of state officials that can be used against people for the rest of their lives.

I am glad the Daily Telegraph is creating a stink about this. Question: will the Tories pledge to shut this database down? (Cough, nervous laughter).

After humans have gone

A few days back, I watched a programme, or least about 15 minutes of it, that speculates on what the Earth will look like once humans disappear. There is lots of stuff about how houses, roads, bridges, airports and sewage systems start to crumble, how rats and other animals take over. There are lots of photographs of wrecked cars with plants growing out of the windows. On one level, if you are into wildlife or the study of botany, some of this is pretty interesting. The programme is very slickly put together.

There are two ways to view this film. Perhaps it taps into a very powerful theme amongst what I might call the dark Greens – the idea of Homo Sapiens as a disease, almost a curse, on the “pure” Earth. While the narrator has a civilised tone of voice, it is hard not to miss a sort of gloating at the demise of humans and their artifacts.

On the other hand, it is quite useful to be reminded of what happens once the basic infrastructure of modern civilisation goes into decline, such as electrical power, clean water, mass transportation, and so on. Which is why it matters a great deal if we forgo important sources of power generation, for example, all because of coming to the wrong conclusions about supposed Man-made climate change, for example. So maybe one perhaps unintended consequence of this sort of film is to sharply remind us of what happens when we take our modern civilisation for granted and flirt with “going back to nature”.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s war of words against the USSR

We have of course already alluded here to the passing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Here is another tribute to this great man, from Theodore Dalrymple twelve days ago, which I think is spot on:

Contrary to popular belief, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who died last week at 89, told the world nothing that it did not already know, or could not already have known, about the Soviet Union and the Communist system. Information about their true nature was available from the very first, including photographic evidence of massacre and famine. Bertrand Russell, no apologist of conservatism, spotted Lenin’s appalling inhumanity and its consequences for Russia and humanity as early as 1920. The problem was that this information was not believed; or if believed, it was explained away and rendered innocuous by various mental subterfuges, such as false comparison with others’ misdeeds, historical rationalizations, reference to the supposed grandeur of the social ideals behind the apparent horrors, and so forth. Anything other than admission of the obvious.

Solzhenitsyn’s achievement was to render such illusion about the Soviet Union impossible, even for its most die-hard defenders: he made illusion not merely stupid but wicked. With a mixture of literary talent, iron integrity, bravery, and determination of a kind very rarely encountered, he made it impossible to deny the world-historical scale of the Soviet evil. After Solzhenitsyn, not to recognize Soviet Communism for what it was and what it had always been was to join those who denied that the earth was round or who believed in abduction by aliens. Because of his clear-sightedness about Lenin’s true nature, it was no longer permissible for intellectuals who had been pro-Soviet to hide behind the myth that Stalin perverted the noble ideal that Lenin had started to put into practice. Lenin was, if such a thing be possible, more of a monster than Stalin, not so much inhumane as anti-human. Solzhenitsyn was always uncompromising – and, of course, quite right – on this point: no Lenin, no Stalin. Insofar as Solzhenitsyn finally destroyed the possibility in the West of intellectual sympathy for the Soviet Union (which inhibited the prosecution of the Cold War), he helped bring about the demise of the revolutionary, ideological state, and for that he will be remembered as long as history is written.

But I suspect that this may also be right:

The problem for Solzhenitsyn’s literary reputation is that the subjects his books address no longer seem so compelling to younger readers. Astonishing as it may seem to people who lived through the time when Solzhenitsyn appeared as a colossus, many people younger than 30 – not only in America and Western Europe but in Russia itself – have never heard of him or do not know what he did. Of course, literary reputations wax and wane; but his disappearance from the consciousness of young people at least raises the question of whether his achievement was more political and moral than literary.

Ever since I read A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (out loud on the University of Essex radio station as it transpired), I always had Solzhenitsyn clocked as: Great Writer? – not sure; propagandist – all time great. In this respect, I particular recommend his memoir called The Oak and the Calf, which is about how he did his propagandising, which was all mixed up with how he managed to keep himself alive to go on propagandising, which was a mighty achievement in itself under the murderous circumstances that he described and publicised so well.

Quite aside from the fact that I don’t read Russian, this judgement of mine surely has much to do with the fact that I have no very definite idea what a great writer is in any language (although I know very approximately what I like) and am myself scarcely a published writer at all. I’m not saying he was a great writer of literary fiction, and I’m not saying he wasn’t. On the other hand, I know quite a lot about propaganda and have myself done it with some glimmerings of success. In rather the same way that if you actually play football in some very lowly division you are an order of magnitude better than I am at knowing just how good Pele was or Ronaldo is, I can tell you that Solzhenitsyn was, when it came to spreading ideas, awesomely good, and that this was no accident. He brought skills like those of a chess grandmaster to the ideological struggle between him (and all his Samizdat allies) and the USSR. and his industry and attention to detail (to say nothing of his sheer courage) was extraordinary. The notion that he won his ideological battle without any hard graft besides the hard graft of just writing it down in some isolated dacha is quite wrong. He was the spokesman for an entire generation of other writers and record keepers. He was the leader of an entire underground movement. He created a fact-shifting machine as surely as any Western press magnate. He quite consciously set himself the task of destroying the USSR using only the power of the written and published word, and more than any other man – with the possible exception of Ronald Reagan, who also had the awesome military clout of the USA at his disposal – he succeeded.

Not that Solzhenitsyn was himself indifferent to or ignorant of military affairs. Towards the end of his life he wrote several novels about the First World War. He was in the artillery before being swallowed up by the monster that he named the Gulag, and he thought of all the truths that he gathered about the Gulag as ammunition, and the publishing of them as the launching of artillery barrages. If Dalrymple is right, it will be for the war of words that Solzhenitsyn conducted against the USSR, and for the fact that it succeeded so brilliantly, that he will be most admiringly remembered. But now that he is gone, fresh looks will surely be taken from the purely literary point of view at Solzhenitsyn’s achievement, and posterity may arrive, as Dalrymple says, at a somewhat different conclusion.

Man’s inhumanity to taliban

Lynne Doucet, talking at the Edinburgh International Television Conference, gave a speech on the complexities of reporting in Afghanistan. She lamented that she was unable to convey the complexities of the conflict or the perspective of the Taliban factions. Whilst some may view this as a criticism of television reporting in general, snippets of her speech show the quest for impartiality. Let us consider what she says within that framework.

Doucet wishes to show the motives and perceptions of the Afghan population, yet uses the term Taliban rather than Afghan: her true target is those who resist, not those who support:

“What’s lacking in the coverage of the Afghans is the sense of the humanity of the Afghans.

“In the Prince Harry coverage for example, there were all these people out there you never really saw them.

“You knew that the bombs were dropping in that direction and the guns pointing in that direction but you never got a sense of how Afghans are as a people.”

In further detail, she notes the factionalism of the Taliban, yet does not move beyond her original goal of giving the opponents a voice or conveying their ‘humanity’. Doucet understands that part of her moral mission is to explain the complexities of the conflict, but her method is to give the mic to the other side.

Her impartiality is already flawed by her admission that journalists in Afghanistan support the troops through coverage of the Prince Harry mission:

Canadian-born Doucet said: “It probably did bring a lot of people to think about Afghanistan who normally wouldn’t ordinarily think about Afghanistan. If the Prince Harry story can bring more people to think about Afghanistan then that’s a good thing.

“There was a lost opportunity. There was hardly any mention of Afghans, even of Afghanistan … (just a) sense of ‘I went to a country far away’.

But she added: “Viewing figures went up, Prince Harry got a hero’s welcome and recruitment for the British Army went up so an objective was achieved. Did that mean people knew more about why Britain was there? I don’t think so.

Doucet wishes to be the gatekeeper for explaining the conflict: living up to her perceived concept of impartiality by maintaining a position of neutrality and providing access to all parties fighting in Afghanistan. But her freedom to report is bounded by the protection that the Western forces provide: the Taliban would neither respect her as a woman or as a non-Muslim. Without this understanding of her own limited freedom of movement, she is unable to provide a rounded understanding of the limits to reporting in Afghanistan.

Journalists find that they are unable to report voices where values are incommensurable and their own position is at risk, since they are viewed as the enemy. Underneath all the verbiage, Doucet’s unspoken lament is that the Taliban consider her the enemy too, when all she wishes to do is understand them. Poor lamb.

Samizdata quote of the day

[M]aterial prosperity enables people to develop morally as well as intellectually. It provides the very basis through which individuals can begin to live like humans and not act like animals.

– Neil Davenport, in the course of a sp!ked piece that neatly demolishes David Lammy’s barmy theory that British teenagers stab each other because they want to be rich. Lammy’s article is more wide-ranging in its insanity than Davenport allows. He ends up advocating compulsory social service and apprenticeships for all as a cure for gangs.

An amoral solution to Russia’s existential crisis

A few days ago, the venerable Glenn Reynolds linked to an article published in the Asia Times titled Americans Play Monopoly, Russians Chess. The article, written by pseudonymous columnist Spengler, is something of an interesting read, as it offers up a comprehensively explained and intriguing motive for the former superpower’s recent machinations in Georgia.

Many Western commentators ascribe the recent Russian belligerence to a newly acquired military ability able to act upon the yearning of its current leadership which is trying to recapture the glory days of Soviet power. A good dollop of credible force applied carefully should make Russia’s tiny neighbours wake up to the fact that they are kissing the wrong butt. Spengler contends that the truth is rather less vainglorious; Russia’s recent adventures represent moves in a long-term game in which the country’s very survival is at stake.

After all, it is – as any moderately informed individual knows – facing what present-day figures predict to be a near total demographic collapse in the coming years. Russia is, says Spengler, exercising a grand strategy to eventually absorb the Russians and other ethnic populations living in the nations in its so-called “near abroad”, declaring them all Russian and thus halting the country’s disastrous population decline. This will also ensure the minority status of the Muslim population in Russia (the only ones who are breeding) and, lo and behold, win the survival of the nation in the eyes of those pulling the levers in the Kremlin. It is an insightful alternative analysis of what is driving the crisis in Georgia – not groundbreakingly so, as I am certain a number of Samizdata contributors and commenters could have provided us with much the same explanation – but nevertheless well worth consideration. → Continue reading: An amoral solution to Russia’s existential crisis

Senator Obama picks Senator Biden

Firstly the many people who signed up for the ‘special’ text message announcement of Senator Obama choice for “running mate” were treated with great disrespect. Democrats were out singing the praises of Senator Biden (for example on Fox News) on Friday morning. Then an aircraft was sent to pick up Senator Biden from Delaware and take him to Chicago (this was first spotted by a blogger I believe) – so that he could appear with Senator Obama in the Saturday event.

This was duly noted (by both American and international media) as confirmation that Senator Obama had picked Senator Biden.

Everyone paying even slight attention knew.

Everyone from evil ‘rightwing’ foes of all that is ‘socially just’ in Britain (people like me), to casual watchers of, for example, Indian English language television.

Everyone knew – accept those activists who had trusted the Obama campaign to send them a text message and were away from the broadcast media or the internet. The texts were not sent out till this morning.

As for Senator Biden himself: a totally pro-union (i.e. supportive of government special pro-union laws) politician. And someone who is ardently in favour of expanding the size and scope of American government health, education and welfare programs – a Welfare Statist.

Almost needless to say Senator Biden is also a ‘gun control’ man and so on.

However: Senator Biden’s son will be off to serve in Iraq this October – which will show patriotism. And Senator Biden himself is strongly anti Castro – and is clearly from the non-communist left. Perhaps this is what Senator Obama meant when he promised (on CBS) that he would pick someone with very different opinions from his own, who would “challenge my thinking”.

That old UK bugbear of class and envy

Jeff Randall, writing about the excellent performance by Britons so far in the Olympics, reckons some people are getting all het up about the sort of folk who have been winning the gongs:

Unfortunately, no sooner had our rowers, cyclists and sailors collected their medals than the carping started – largely on account of their successes being clocked up in “posh” sports. That a disproportionately high number of these British champions went to fee-paying schools is regarded by some as a symptom of a divided society, evidence of a deep-rooted malaise.

In place of celebration, there is consternation: dark mumblings about the benefits of privilege. In the warped view of the Grumblies, middle-class successes are to be resented, as if, like those of drugs cheats, their places on the awards podium were the result of improper behaviour.

Britain’s middle classes are already in the dock for heinous crimes, such as seeking the best schools for their children, paying extra for private healthcare and determining the output of Radio Four. Now, it seems, they must endure being rubbished for having the audacity to produce results in a sporting arena that the nation expected to be dominated by foreigners.

He has a point, but I have not sensed much of this sort of snide carping. What I tend to notice from the coverage has been how pleasant and modest most of the sportsmen and women, of all backgrounds, appear to be. I watched as one guy with a thick Scouse accent was interviewed after he fought in a hard boxing bout against a chap from China, I think, and I remember thinking of how decent and philosophical the man was about his chances of success. The meritocracy of the whole event, and the way it has reached people of all classes, is what has shone through.

For all that I dislike the politicking and corruption that goes along with the Games – I dread the likely bill of the London Olympics, which I oppose – there can be no denying that the folk who have done well in th Games, from all nations, are, with the odd exception maybe, pretty admirable sportsmen and women and that bleatings about their class have not been much in evidence.

Randall continues:

But, for me, the finest moment was when the British men’s coxless fours rowed down the formidable Australians to snatch gold. Some will denigrate them as “posh boys”, largely because they can tell the difference between an adjective and an adverb, but that doesn’t make them substandard Olympians.

Quite. It is a pity, though, that something like accent or polish in a TV studio now is considered a measure of a sportsman or woman. After all, our Jeff speaks with the twang of London, so I am not sure what is going on there.

Nannies good and bad

Above this race of men stands an immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to match over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. It would be like the authority of a parent if, like that authority, its object was to prepare men for manhood; but it seeks, on the contrary, to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing. For their happiness such a government willingly labours, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances; what remains, but to spare them all care of thinking and all the trouble of living?

Alexis de Tocqueville, quoted in The Constitution of Liberty, by FA Hayek, page 251.

This paragraph remains a superb summary of the essential flaw in what we nowadays call the “nanny state”. Unlike a proper nanny caring for little children, the paternalist state has no interest in raising children into adulthood, but instead, infantilises the public, hence finding ever more justifications for treating the populace like five-year-olds.

At least the moral scolds of the early 19th Century as related in entertaining fashion in this book at least relied, in part, on moral exhortation rather than outright bans all the time, although there was plenty of that. But De Tocqueville and other great classical liberal writers spotted the authortarian dangers of do-gooderism from an early stage in modern, industrial countries. It seems a shame that the lessons have still not been fully learned.

On a related point, I see that California, which seems to be in the grip of puritan buffoons, is now referred to in some parts as “Nannyfornia”. In fact, if you Google up the term, it says, “Did you mean California?”. That’s gotta hurt.

Michael Moore gets the Airplane! treatment

A new film is out later this year in the US taking the p**s out of Michael Moore. It looks quite amusing. Here’s the trailer. Some of the one-liners are excellent.

Samizdata quote of the day

“We live in a world where Ben Affleck won an Oscar and Robinson didn’t. Where’s your god now?”

Dirty Harry’s Place, talking about the late, very great Edward G. Robinson.