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]

Samizdata quote of the day

“This modern society seems to be threatened by a number of serious threats, and the one that I would like to concentrate on which will in fact be the central theme, although there will be a lot of subsidiary little items, the central theme of my discussion, is that I believe that one of the greatest threats to modern society is the possible resurgence and expansion of the ideas of thought control; such ideas as Hitler had, or Stalin in his time, or the Catholic religion in the Middle Ages, or the Chinese today. I think that one of the greatest dangers is that this shall increase until it encompasses the whole world.”

– Richard Feynman. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, page 98. The comment comes from a talk he gave in Italy in 1964. I don’t doubt that he’d be alarmed and saddened at the censorious crap going on some Western universities today.

12 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • such ideas as Hitler had, or Stalin in his time, or the Catholic religion in the Middle Ages, or the Chinese today

    Just for the record (or perhaps I could say, just for the pedantry 🙂 ) I remark that one of the above is not quite like the other three.

    Stalin, and then Hitler, reintroduced slavery to a region of the world where it had been long gone, and to a world overall in which that once common institution had been made very much rarer. The same is true of free speech and their destruction of it. The contrast with pre-communist Chinese society is a good deal less, but in several ways Mao was a huge regression, and the current regime is regressing from the relative gains after Mao.

    The catholic church of the middle ages was less of a contrast, let alone of a regression, compared to the remainder of the world at that time.

    (Obviously) I agree very much with Feynman’s concern, alas more relevant to the west now than when he made it.

  • Snorri Godhi

    In re-reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” last year, i have come to realize how much of a pioneer Feynman was in the fight against PC fascism. Perhaps, at 1st reading, i was deceived by his obvious anti-establishment attitude: i did not realize that PC fascism is, in fact, the philosophy of the establishment.

    such ideas as Hitler had, or Stalin in his time, or the Catholic religion in the Middle Ages, or the Chinese today

    Niall is somewhat ambiguous on this. Let me state clearly my opinion that the Catholic Church is the odd man out: not because it is or was flawless, but because
    (a) it survived for well over a millennium, which few other institutions* have, certainly not the 3rd Reich or the Soviet Union; and
    (b) unlike the 3rd Reich, the Soviet Union, or the PRC, the Catholic Church does not trace its intellectual ancestry to degenerate forms of German philosophy.

    * including the Chinese Imperial civil service, and the Japanese monarchy.

  • pete

    In the UK the state took control of the new medium of broadcasting before we had universal suffrage.

  • pete (January 26, 2019 at 11:56 pm), your point is technically correct, in that the BBC made its first broadcast in June 1920, whereas a woman had to be aged 30 or over to vote in the UK before 1928, when women’s voting age was made equal to men’s. However I see no connection between this and the political mood in which the BBC was created, so it is unclear what the point of your point is.

  • pete

    Niall, my point is that democracy in the UK is very young, younger than some people alive today.

    And that the establishment will always make sure it has control of things, hence the nationalisation of the BBC.

    In historical terms democracy is not the norm here or anywhere else.

    It might turn out to be a blip, to be replaced with some form of authoritarianism.

    That’s the way it looks at the moment with states seeking to control the internet, powerful people seeking to limit free speech and big business doing all it can to help them.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “That’s the way it looks at the moment with states seeking to control the internet, powerful people seeking to limit free speech and big business doing all it can to help them.”

    Free speech includes the right to advocate for banning free speech.

    The aim of free speech is that you will always have people in the public debate arguing for and against any policy – including free speech itself. It’s a way to ensure the reasons for why a policy is essential or desirable can be presented for scrutiny and checked. If we don’t continually argue about it, people forget why it’s necessary.

    So the fact that states are *seeking* to control the internet is not, as such, a bad thing. The question is, are there people arguing back? Are there protests and objections to what they’re trying to do? Are people in the wider public debate (i.e. outside the ‘libertarian fever swamps’) citing free speech in their arguments? Do these objections carry any weight in the balance of public opinion?

    I’ve seen a lot of discussion of what governments and social media giants are doing, regarding privacy, free speech, political correctness, political bias, and so on, and I get the strong impression it’s hurting them, reputation-wise. It’s not all from libertarians either – authoritarians on the losing side can often see the benefits of protecting free speech too (or at least, their own speech) when they suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of society’s whip. Politicians aims to follow the median voter, so as long as those voices are being heard, policy will generally be a compromise between the two extremes.

    You’ve got to expect authoritarians to continue the fight. You’ve got to expect them to win a few victories, too. But they’ve already discovered that it is incredibly difficult to control the internet. They tried for years with music sharing, and eventually surrendered. If they push hard enough on speech that they create a mass market for ways round it, someone will get very rich providing what the public wants. You can ban things that only a handful want, but Prohibition for things that lots of people want is always a disaster. And lots of people want freedom for at least their own speech, if not everyone’s, and so there will always be a coalition of viewpoints that will want to stop censorship moving too far.

    Even under Uncle Joe Stalin, there was Samizdat! And the Western attempts at censorship are far less serious about it than Stalin was, and the capabilities of the internet for evading them far greater.

    I’m not worried about the fact they’re trying. I’ll only start to worry if everybody stops fighting them on it.

  • Julie near Chicago

    NiV,

    “Even under Uncle Joe Stalin, there was Samizdat!”

    Under Stalin, samizdat tended to get you to the ARC (as in 1990), the Gulag, or dead.

    “Free speech includes the right to advocate for banning free speech.”

    Yes, of course.

    “So the fact that states are *seeking* to control the internet is not, as such, a bad thing. “

    China is assiduously seeking to control the Internet…. Here’s an excerpt from a Beeb report, “Why China censors banned Winnie the Pooh”:

    Sit down next to a friend who also has Wechat on their phone. Now try and send them a text message using the name “Liu Xiaobo”.

    On your phone it will appear as if you have sent the message but your friend will not get it.

    The Chinese authorities can just punch certain words or phrases into whatever blocking mechanism they use and shut down discussion of a topic.

    https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-china-blog-40627855

    “The aim of free speech is that you will always have people in the public debate arguing for and against any policy.”

    Yes. Or, perhaps I’d put it more like this:

    “The reason why we insist that governments guarantee to honor the right of free speech is in the hope of ensuring that….”

    “So the fact that states are *seeking* to control the internet is not, as such, a bad thing.”

    Um? That states are trying to do that shows that they are trying specifically to prohibit free speech.

    It’s not just Internet “social media” (and searching) that China censors. They also censor what the public can be told about Chinese history, and the spin put on it. At least if you can believe the NYT:

    “Learning China’s Forbidden History, So They Can Censor It”

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/02/business/china-internet-censor.html

    This really does seem fairly Orwellian. Remember, W. Smith was engaged as a cog in the censorship machine, which was a 24/7 operation engaged in rewriting history. Strategy Page has a piece about this, “Information Warfare: 1984 Becomes Real In 2024”:

    “Since the late 1990s, China has been spending a lot of money and effort on regaining control of the media. Any effective police state must have tight control over what information people have access to.”

    Read the rest at

    https://strategypage.com/htmw/htiw/articles/20190120

    “I’ll only start to worry if everybody stops fighting them on it.”

    NiV, I assume that in fact your whole comment was meant only to apply to Britain, or to Britain and some other parts of the Anglosphere. Quite a few countries, including France, Sweden, Denmark, and more in Europe and around the globe, including New Zealand, have granted themselves the authority to ban certain names for babies. This info from Business Insider:

    https://nordic.businessinsider.com/50-banned-baby-names-from-around-the-world-2016-12

    We who do see the importance of truly-free speech had better keep screaming to the high heavens about it.

  • Nullius in Verba

    Yes, Julie, and people in Britain have been arrested for repeating the speeches of Churchill.

    But even China has its people fighting it on the subject, and finding ways round it. Even China is embarassed when other nations bring the subject up.

    Those are all good evidence that we haven’t *won* the fight, not evidence that we’ve given up, or are losing it. There has *always* been censorship. It’s not new. It’s not even new in recent times.

    It’s like poverty. We can still point to examples of poverty today. There are still street urchins today digging a living out of rubbish tips in India. There are still subsistence farmers in Africa living in scrapyard huts who dream of one day owning a bicycle. There are still shanty towns full of people on two dollars a day. Even in Western countries there are poor people, losing their jobs and their homes. You can point to all of this, and weep. Should we therefore conclude the world is getting poorer? That we’ve lost the war on poverty? We’re all going down, into neo-Malthusian starvation? Hans Rosling would have disagreed!

    It’s the same with liberty. Yes, there’s still much to do. Yes, there are frequent reverses. But still, overall, we’re a lot freer today with things like the internet happening than we were in past centuries. As with poverty, it’s important to maintain a historic perspective.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Oh, I agree with you entirely on all that, Nullius. And I agreed with your main point in the earlier comment, too; only I can’t quite relax into total optimism, because I think that we are being pursued by a very large bear.

    I just wanted to point out that although there will always (I hope and believe) people trying for a little more freedom of thought and freedom of expression, they don’t always get it, and sometimes the weapons of this or that regime are too mighty to resist effectively. When that happens, the turtle usually tucks his head in under his shell and pretends to be a little unthreatening piece of gravel.

    Real political freedom comes at considerable cost, and hanging on to it can also be quite costly.

    But happily, you and I are in circumstances such that we can freely discuss freedom and its lack. Now if the Evil Hippo decides to throw a tantrum, well…. :>))

  • Runcie Balspune

    my point is that democracy in the UK is very young, younger than some people alive today.

    Putting the democracy cart before the liberty horse.

    What is under threat in this country is liberty, without that democracy is a sham.

    I believe there is still a great tradition of liberty in this country, it inspired working democracies elsewhere.

    I’d say Mr Feynman is less concerned with democracy, it doesn’t matter if you can vote if you aren’t allowed to think.

  • Pete writes at January 26, 2019 at 11:56pm:

    In the UK the state took control of the new medium of broadcasting before we had universal suffrage.

    And at January 27, 2019 at 2:15pm:

    Niall, my point is that democracy in the UK is very young, younger than some people alive today.

    I call Pete out on this: for claiming any dominant line can be drawn in a continuum: for suffrage; for democracy; for other things associated.

    As Niall points out, and Pete presumably claims, there is the female franchise change (30 to 21 age limit). Also: some (males only by custom, not statute; some females voting) elected parliaments from 1265; 1432 (forty shillings freehold property requirement); 1689 regular parliaments and free elections; 1832 (more males, statutory ban on female franchise, abolition of (some) rotten boroughs, more urban constituencies); 1867 (even more, males); 1884 (even more, males); 1918 universal male suffrage from age 21 (no longer any property restriction), and females from age 30 ‘with property’; 1928 equal male/female suffrage at age 21 with no property restriction; 1948 prohibition on plural voting (ie in 2 or more constituencies) and abolishment of university constituencies; 1969 reduction of age limit to 18 years.

    Now my point is that one cannot reasonably choose any one of these changes and say democracy existed after then but not before. Inequality between males and females is undoubtedly an important issue, but cannot override the presence of English/Scottish/UK democracy long before 1928. Otherwise there would be argument that democracy did not exist before the 1969 age limit change – and democracy would retrospectively disappear and restart anew should the voting age ever be dropped below 18 years. Surely also the country (well, at least the female half) felt that real change occurred in 1918 – as well as an improved version in 1928.

    And (city state) Athens of 500+BC is widely accepted as the birth-place of democracy (as a distinct form of government); this despite females and slaves not having the vote. And France introduced the female franchise only in 1944: but that did not stop women celebrating in 1789; and this despite very early (though mostly nominal) existence of 612 representatives of the Third Estate (commoners) of the Estates General (assemblies advising the monarch).

    Try here for scoring of current ‘democracies’ on a scale of 0 to 10!

    Best regards

  • Paul Marks

    Yes the Ruler of China (President Xi) is dedicated to high tech thought control – as is the entire ruling group.

    And it is intended to NOT be confined to China – the “Social Credit” system which is intended to be fully operational in China by 2021 is supposed to replace “mere money” with a system based, in large part, on expressing the “correct” thoughts and behaving in the “correct” way.

    And the Chinese elite is NOT satisfied with this – after all people could fake things, they could express “correct” thoughts whilst really having the “wrong” thoughts, and so science is to be enlisted to make sure that people have the “correct” thoughts.

    Even George Soros (not known as a right winger) has expressed deep concern with what President Xi and the rest of the People’s Republic of China are planning – indeed it claimed that the research they are funding is already producing “excellent results” (well “excellent” if one thinks that “the Borg” from “Star Trek” are a good idea).

    However, much of Western Big Business (at least the “left coast” high tech companies) think what the PRC is doing is basically on the correct lines – and are HELPING.

    After all society should no be based on “mere money” – the “Social Credit” system is how the UNITED STATES (and the rest of the West) should be organised in 2021 (perhaps by President Elizabeth Warren).

    As for mind control – what better way to prevent “hate speech” than preventing “hate thoughts”.

    The education system and much of Big Business in the West is on board with the project preventing bad thoughts – “racist” thoughts, or “sexist” thoughts, or “homophobic” or “transphobic” thoughts – if need be by radical interventions into the brain, via high technology.

    If anything they appear to believe that President Xi is not going far enough.

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