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

Marvellously melodic but mercurial: a review of Philip Norman’s George Harrison: the Reluctant Beatle

Douglas Young reviews George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle

How swell to at last have a major biography of that most aloof of all rock stars, George Harrison: The Reluctant Beatle, by respected pop music historian Philip Norman, and how sobering to learn that the reclusive rocker’s feet were all too completely made of clay. Though this book is quite detailed and very well written, I now know far more information about Harrison than his underlying motives. Alas, what is still a worthy biography could have been splendid if not for several shortcomings.

Perhaps the book’s top theme is George Harrison’s remarkable cornucopia of contradictions, something he alluded to in the “Pisces Fish” song on his superb last album, 2002’s Brainwashed:

Sometimes, my life it seems like fiction,
Some of the days it’s really quite serene,
I’m a living proof of all life’s contradictions,
One half’s going where the other half’s just been.

Massive contrasts define Harrison’s story. With bomb craters from World War II still decorating his neighbourhood, he grew up in a crowded little Liverpool apartment with no bathroom, whose only heat came from a “small coal fire,” and where the weekly bath was in a backyard bucket. But massive musical success would earn him enormous wealth. Harrison was the Beatle most in the background whose growing songwriting abilities were largely ignored by the group’s leaders, John Lennon and Sir Paul McCartney. But after the Fab Four’s 1970 breakup, the lead guitarist would stun everyone with his astonishing All Things Must Pass triple album to become the most critically and commercially successful Beatle of the early 1970s.

It is comforting to learn how Harrison was usually kind, caring, and giving. Not only did he co-write “It don’t come easy” and “Back off Boogaloo,” two of Beatle brother Ringo Starr’s biggest solo hit songs, but he did not even ask for a (quite lucrative) songwriting credit for either. Even when sick in bed dying of cancer, he offered to visit the drummer’s ailing daughter. But Harrison was a stubborn loner who was often moody and brutally blunt. As Ringo put it, “There was the love and bag-of-beads personality and the bag of anger. He was very black and white.” Indeed, when Beatle brother John Lennon queried his bandmates on what they thought of his girlfriend and future wife, Cynthia Powell, Mr. Curt remarked she had “teeth like a horse.” While the second Mrs. Lennon, Yoko Ono, conceded “George was very nice,” she still complained how “very hurtful” his caustic comments could be, to which John would shrug, “That’s just George.” And on a long flight when a stewardess asked the softly chanting Hindu convert if she could get him anything, Harrison snarled, “F#%& off, can’t you see I’m meditating?”

The supposedly most spiritual Beatle who publicly sang warnings about “Living in the Material World” privately luxuriated in a 25-bedroom gothic mansion, and the Beatle purportedly most at peace as a devout Hindu nevertheless smoked lots of marijuana, drank loads of liquor, snorted copious quantities of cocaine, and chain-smoked French cigarettes. He was also an inveterate adulterer who cheated in his own house when his first wife was home and even with his closest Beatle brother Ringo’s wife. This was a conquest too far even for licentious Beatle brother John who denounced it as “virtual incest,” and the affair led to the Starrs divorcing the next year.

Surprisingly for the superb composer who wrote so many beautiful love songs, including the classic “Something,” George did not appear to be all that passionate or romantic. He not only routinely betrayed both of his spouses but did not seem to mind losing his first wife to his closest friend, Eric Clapton – who remained his best buddy. While enjoying most of his time in the world’s biggest band for all the easy camaraderie with his bandmates and being too shy to perform on his own, by the latter 1960s Harrison firmly rejected any more concert tours and had grown deeply bitter that more of his compositions were not allowed on Beatle albums. Later calling himself “the economy-class Beatle,” he felt liberated when the group finally broke up and would never seek a reunion. Asked to help Sir Paul perform
“Let It Be” at London’s 1985 Live Aid Concert, George’s typically tactless retort was that his Beatle brother “didn’t want me to sing on it ten years ago, so why does he want me now?”

→ Continue reading: Marvellously melodic but mercurial: a review of Philip Norman’s George Harrison: the Reluctant Beatle

The Triumph of a Libertarian Comic: a review of Greg Gutfeld’s The King of Late Night

The Triumph of a Libertarian Comic: A Review of Greg Gutfeld’s The King of Late Night by Dr. Douglas Young, U. of North Georgia-Gainesville Political Science Professor Emeritus

Political comedian Greg Gutfeld’s new eighth book, The King of Late Night, explores what he sees as many recent U.S. cultural “flips” helping his TV show, Gutfeld!, trounce its late-night American competition. Throughout, the author offers sage advice to wannabe comics while making brilliant cultural and political observations exposing a surfeit of societal double standards demanding to be satirized. Despite warning of the lethal threat to our civil liberties posed by woke leftists, the book is laden with laughs since Gutfeld makes his points with humour as opposed to the angry ad hominem attacks so de rigueur today. All this makes for a most satisfying read.

Central to Gutfeld’s enduring TV and writing success is perhaps the most pronounced flip of all. Though U.S. Humor, Inc. had long been dominated by rebellious, edgy liberal firebrands like Richard Pryor and George Carlin, too many of today’s American liberal comedians have pretzeled themselves into unfunny political propagandists to appease the career-cancelling woke mob while gutsy conservatives and libertarians like Gutfeld poke fun at leftist shibboleths. Indeed, as Gutfeld sees it, “if Richard Pryor or George Carlin were alive, they would run screaming from campuses, chased by a crowd of nonbinary Oberlin students.”

This is because the Left has become the boring home of angry, intolerant, and utterly “humorless” censors while rightists have morphed into the creatively funny rebels taking on the establishment. As Gutfeld sees it, “the Left, once the haven for free speech, is now a bounty hunter for the truly outspoken – tracking the violators, and destroying careers…. The Left is now the old fart pushing censorship, and the Right is the side championing the offensive.” As proof, how bizarre that TV’s Comedy Central network is arguably not remotely as cutting edge or funny as Gutfeld’s programs (Red Eye, The Greg Gutfeld Show, and Gutfeld!) have been on the Fox News Channel. In woke America, liberal comics have become the stuffy parents while the libertarian and conservative clowns have evolved into the hip outsiders gleefully pointing out the woke emperor has no clothes.

Gutfeld contends that cowardice has compelled his late-night TV competitors to castrate their comedy since Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, and James Corden covet being part of the establishment clique and fear being fed to the wokesters if they ever make fun of President Biden or any other leftist sacred cows. Though thoroughly funny in his own right, Gutfeld repeatedly concedes that his rivals have cravenly sacrificed their humorous gifts to become scowling, strident blowhards content to score easy political points with a loyal but small audience of rabid partisans. Explaining his decision to enter the late-night comedy arena with Gutfeld!, the author concluded that “Comedy at night was no longer comedy: it was propaganda thinly disguised as entertainment.”

The backlash against the humorless Left provides another flip since it is coming from older, more established comics who can afford to be much more anti-establishment. Bill Maher, Dave Chappelle, Ricky Gervais, Russell Brand, Joe Rogan, and Gutfeld have been on stage for decades – thus, “the old guy is now the daredevil and the young ones are delicate daffodils.” How ironic but understandable that most young comics are too scared to risk the wrath of uber-sensitive wokesters eager to pounce on anyone daring to poke fun at them or their dogmas. As Gutfeld acknowledges, younger, less established comics can far less afford to risk career cancellation, especially when social media make past public statements so easily accessible.
The backdrop to all this and perhaps the ultimate recent societal flip Gutfeld dissects is how the Left has become the American ruling class zealously protecting powerful establishment elites against the underdog out-groups now championed by the Right. So it was Democrats hysterically pushing government mandates and bolstering big business during the Covid panic while folks on the right defended individuals’ freedom not to get vaccinated, locked down, or masked. Some Iowa college students were even “protesting that they wanted more Covid policies on campus” and, in a rich Orwellian irony, “the pro-mask protest was organized by the ‘Campaign to Organize Graduate Students,’ or COGS.”

Gutfeld sees the woke incarnation of leftism as “the ideology of punishment. There’s something addictive about telling people how to live their lives.” Observing how National Public Radio (NPR) even “developed a system to snitch on coworkers who aren’t complying with the very pro-mask-wearing policies,” he posits this is a mighty McCarthyist means to neurotically enforce leftist diktats. What a flip that the same libs who protested President Bush II’s Iraqi War are now the biggest backers of ever more U.S. military aid to Ukraine despite the risk of direct U.S. involvement in the Russian-Ukrainian War. Conservatives have become the anti-war skeptics, though Gutfeld suspects the Left would reject U.S. Ukrainian policy if a President Trump was pushing it.

Yet another flip begging for satire is what Gutfeld calls “the changing face of women’s sports (which now comes with a five o’clock shadow)” since woke feminists now insist on biological men’s supposed right to dominate women’s sports under the banner of transgenderism. Conservatives and libertarians have become the real feminists trying to protect female athletes from having their hard-fought dreams dashed by far bigger men loaded with testosterone. The book boasts a bounty of trenchant cultural and political points, perhaps chief of which is something conservative alternative media trailblazer Andrew Breitbart argued — that culture drives politics. Gutfeld holds that “it’s really all about culture. And we need to win some of it back. Or it will be all gone soon.” Contending that everyone enjoying free speech must stand up to the wokesters or we will lose our rights, he also agrees with author Dennis Prager that what drives the Left is its endless lust for power and that we cannot let it redefine language in its Orwellian drive to dictate the terms of debate since “Words are to ideas what fetuses are to
babies.”
→ Continue reading: The Triumph of a Libertarian Comic: a review of Greg Gutfeld’s The King of Late Night

You can’t joke about that… a review

Comedy is a serious subject: A book review of Kat Timpf’s You can’t joke about that: Why everything is funny, nothing is sacred, and we’re all in this together (2023)

By Dr. Douglas Young, U. of N.GA-Gainesville political science professor emeritus

Comedienne and libertarian commentator Kat Timpf’s first book is a serious examination of comedy that is also quite funny and challenges many well-intentioned but mistaken myths about social taboos. A regular on TV’s Gutfeld! and former National Review writer, Timpf taps personal experiences, extensive observations, a slew of studies, and relentless logic to make a convincing case that humor has remarkable power to help us heal, face our fears, grow, and come together. Despite some disappointments, You can’t joke about that: Why everything is funny, nothing is sacred, and we’re all in this together makes a reliably witty, warmly candid, and solidly convincing case that the present censorious atmosphere surrounding comedy harms us on many fronts.

Indeed, Timpf persuasively argues that our society is mired in an unprecedentedly restrictive cultural climate constipating so much of our public and private dialogue, including comedy. As proof, she cites a passel of comics’ careers recently destroyed due to a single joke that upset the cancel culture mob on social media, as well as survey data documenting that over three times as many Americans say they censor themselves today than in the supposedly straitjacketed “1950s – the era of McCarthyism.”

Despite their self-righteous boasts of being devoted to protecting “marginalized” communities, Timpf contends that today’s “woke” censors are generally totalitarian bullies virtue-signaling in the pursuit of power. In fact, she argues: “[c]laiming ‘words are violence’ is a tool to dictate and control, all while engaging in a massive fraud that they are on the side of compassion.” The reality as she sees it is that “[t]he words-are-violence crowd doesn’t want conversation – at least not one that is an equal playing field… They want to make you afraid.” Noting instances of even violence against individuals for mere controversial jokes, Timpf posits this is in fact inevitable because, “[w]hen you say that words are violence, you inherently are saying that violence is an acceptable response to words, because violence is universally considered an acceptable response to violence.”

Interestingly, she holds that:

[H]umans have actually treated words as violence for most of our history. From the caveman days all the way through the Civil War, duelling to the death was a socially acceptable way to deal with a dispute. If you consider words violence, you’re not a forward-thinking progressive; you’re a knuckle-dragging troglodyte. It’s only as we have become more modern and civilized over the past few hundred years that we have moved away from this, opting to instead respond to words that insult us with words.

At the core of the book is its case for the healing power of humor. Citing a plethora of personal experiences, as well as a multitude of observations and respected studies, Timpf believes poking fun at even our most painful ordeals not only can relieve stress through laughter but knock down walls to create connections with others. Of her early days performing stand-up comedy when her life was a miserable mess, she fondly recalls:

[T]here was only one thing to do: Go to open mics and tell jokes about my dumpster-fire life onstage. Everything was awful, but I’ll never forget how great it felt to turn my pain into jokes that made me — and other people — laugh about all of it. During the loneliest time of my life, comedy became my means of connection. It was my one refuge from hopelessness, the only thing that gave me power over the things that were making me feel so powerless… I didn’t feel powerless or lonely when the audience was laughing along with me.

Reflecting the book’s title as she examines lots of times when humor helped her endure a variety of traumas, Timpf boldly asserts that “[t]he darker the subject matter, the greater healing that laughter can bring, disarming the darkness and making the people who are feeling isolated by their trauma feel less alone.”

To further reinforce this theme, perhaps the book’s best and most brilliantly original chapter points out many parallels between comedy and religion, including medicinal ones. Regretting the loss of the comforting Catholic faith of her youth, Timpf confesses that “the closest thing that I have to any sort of religion is comedy,” and cites research showing both worship services and laughter “are associated with an increase of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin in people’s brains, making them feel happy.” As to “[t]he power of comedy in terms of coping emotionally with difficult or even traumatic situations,” she cites U.S. “Vietnam War prisoners who claimed making jokes about their captivity was even more helpful than religion in getting them through it.” Timpf goes on to reference research showing that, like religious faith, “laughter can make a difference in terms of physical healing, too.”

→ Continue reading: You can’t joke about that… a review

Book Review: Konstantin Kisin “An immigrant’s love letter to the West” Part I

Konstantin Kisin is a former stand-up comedian who, along with current stand-up comedian Francis Foster hosts the YouTube channel Triggernometry, which is partly a political interview show and partly a comedy show. His thoughts have even been referred to a couple of times here on Samizdata. Kisin is also a Russian who moved to this country when he was eleven to study, oddly enough, at the same English public school that produced Earl Haig.

And now he’s written a book. I have only just started reading it so these are initial observations hence the Part I bit. There may be a Part II but I promise nothing. Kisin is a good writer (all the comedy stuff showing through?) and a thoughtful one. As he says:

If there is one thing my Soviet childhood taught me, it’s that subscribing to someone else’s ideology will always inevitably mean having to suspend your judgement about right and wrong to appease your tribe. I refuse to do so.

Kisin’s essential argument is that we in the West don’t know how lucky we are. We don’t know what it is like to live in non-Western countries. We don’t appreciate how much better life is here. And if we do we don’t know why it is so much better. Kisin has seen Russia and he has seen Britain and it is not difficult for him to decide which is better. Which is why he is so angry when well-meaning (and not-so-well-meaning) activists start playing around with our traditions and institutions. They – the well-meaning ones – think that they’re just improving things. He thinks that they are playing a game of civilisational Jenga – at least he does since Foster came up with the analogy. Jenga’s the one where you have a tower made of sticks you remove them one by one and eventually the whole edifice collaspses, isn’t it?

So far I’ve read chapters on the Soviet Union, slavery (and the Soviet Union) and free speech. All good stuff. Or mostly. In one bit he says, “Think of it like Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28 – which forbade the promotion of homosexuality in Britain in 1988.” That’s not how I remember it. I remember it as local councils not being allowed to promote homosexuality as “a pretended family relationship.” Otherwise people were free to promote homosexuality to their heart’s content. And did. He also seems to think that people were broadly-speaking equal in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union of my imagination has Zils, dachas and shops for party members only. Not equal at all. I suppose this is how distorted history gets propagated down the ages but that is the subject for another blog post.

One of those reviews that makes you buy the book then and there

Mark Honigsbaum reviews Viral by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley in the Guardian:

The tragedy is that in their desire to make a plausible case for a lab accident, Chan and Ridley neglect the far more urgent and compelling story of how the trade in wild animals, coupled with global heating and the destruction of natural habitats, makes the emergence of pandemic viruses increasingly likely. That is the more probable origin story and the scenario that should really concern us.

Edit: The Guardian is not allowing comments to Mr Honigsbaum’s review. But his tweet about it is open to comments and is receiving them.

A flinching depiction

A Google search for the words “unflinching depiction” got me 57,100 hits. Not so long ago “unflinching” was only just edged out by “edgy” as a term of praise for a work of fiction. Novelists prided themselves on their willingness to probe the depths of the human psyche. No criticism by a reviewer stung more sharply than to say that the characters in a novel were “sanitised” or “bowdlerised”.

We know better now. And how uplifting that our modern novelists submit to the judgement of the people and engage in spontaneous self-criticism!

“Elin Hilderbrand asks for Anne Frank reference to be cut from novel after complaints”, reports the Guardian.

It features a short passage in which Vivi, as a child, is planning to stay in her friend’s attic. “‘You’re suggesting I hide here all summer?’ Vivi asks. ‘Like … like Anne Frank?’ This makes them both laugh – but is it really funny, and is Vivi so far off base?”

Judging from the extract quoted, I will not be rushing out to buy Ms Hilderbrand’s latest even after it is cleansed of the fictional depiction of one child making a tasteless joke and another child laughing at said joke. There are some things one cannot forgive. The novel appears to be written in the present tense.

Of what crimes do the contents of your bookshelves convict you?

My mother was in her early teens in World War II. I once asked her what it was like not to know who would win. Alas, I cannot remember in detail how she answered, but among the things she said was that she did not speculate about it much because any such discussion would have been instantly quashed by her father, a former soldier, with some words along the lines of “There will be no defeatist talk in this family, young lady!”

Yet this atmosphere of stern patriotism did not stop her openly reading a translation of Hitler’s Mein Kampf on the principle of “Know thy enemy”.

“Owning a book isn’t a declaration of belief,” writes Janice Turner in the Times.

Journalists own a lot of odd books. Some are sent to us unsolicited, others we buy to illuminate a news story. That Michael Gove, a former Times columnist, has The War Path by Holocaust-denying historian David Irving nestling among Alastair Campbell diaries and Stalin biographies does not alarm me. But the online outrage at a photograph showing this book on Gove’s shelves does.

Because if I’d covered, say, the 1996 libel case brought by Irving I’d have bought his work, too. Why? Curiosity; the desire to quote from original sources; to hear Irving’s authorial voice; to understand how he magicked away mass murder. Later, my piece written, I’d have squeezed it in my unruly shelves with Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth and Naomi Wolf’s Vagina.

At this point I feel I ought to mention that the original Times article has that last word in italics.

Yet owning Irving’s book was to activist-journalist Owen Jones a window into Gove’s dark soul. On Twitter, people questioned why you’d read Irving rather than his many critics, as if they couldn’t trust their own minds not to be swayed. Gove was accused of “proudly displayed” antisemitism in his home. But books are not posters or cushions, mere expressions of personal taste.

What is the correct thing to do when you’ve read this book, in case some visiting fool concludes you’re a Nazi? Donating it to a charity shop risks further dissemination of evil. Well, you could burn it. That always goes well.

Here is Owen Jones’s tweet in all its glory.

Which of the books on your shelves would make you wish you had enabled the “blur background” function before turning on Zoom?

Apart from the obvious – a copy of Chavs by Owen Jones – I have three coffee-table books of reproductions of selected articles from the English language edition of Signal magazine, issued by the Wehrmachtpropaganda from 1940-1945. (It continued to publish an English language edition even after the US entered the war, ostensibly for the benefit of the Channel Islanders.)

How about you? Confess all and the tribunal will be merciful.

Keeping it long

Volume 9 of of the collected works of Kim Il Sung is now out, and Mick Hartley is having a hard job containing his excitement:

Let’s hope the book maintains the powerful tradition in Korean revolutionary literature of keeping sentences long, with plenty of clauses which further elaborate on the idea first mentioned in the opening clause, thereby ensuring that the original idea becomes ever more entrenched within the consciousness of the reader as the theme is expanded upon and elaborated, very much in the way that a piece of music takes an original theme which is then embellished and repeated in different formats and combinations, which serves to increase the power of the music and can similarly be a powerful device to increase the power of a revolutionary thought or indeed instruction from a Great or Dear Leader, even if there is a risk, among those perhaps insufficiently devoted to the drive towards a successful and dynamic socialist country, that the original thought that started the sentence may have been forgotten by the time the reader comes in, panting but nevertheless certainly wiser and also older, to the end of the sentence.

Hartley has also been very good on the lockdown.

Spaced Out review

Found on the 8-12 shelf, Space Case by Stuart Gibbs is a science fiction adventure story set on a realistic moon base in which its twelve-year-old protagonist helps to solve a murder mystery. Its sequel, Spaced Out, is about a missing person mystery. A relatable protagonist, some science fiction with proper science, a location with opportunity for adventure and an engaging mystery: these ought to be great ingredients for a book my son could enjoy.

The first problem, however, is that the protagonist is very negative about living on the moon. It would be possible to complain a bit about the poor food and the lack of space while also being excited and in awe of the achievement of living on the moon. But no, there is no upside. Even the boredom is only relieved by terrible events, leading the protagonist to yearn for boredom once more. And he’s not an inspiring chap who faces his challenges head on, with aplomb. He mostly moans about things or is scared. Instead of being relieved to get out of the micrometeorite storm alive, after the discovery of a hole in the top layers of his suit, the author dwells on his fear and dislike of returning outside even when the threat of incoming meteorites disappears.

Minor spoiler in the next paragraph…

→ Continue reading: Spaced Out review

Book Review: Dangerous Hero by Tom Bower

I recently read the book Dangerous Hero: Corbyn’s Ruthless Plot For Power, by renowned investigative journalist Tom Bower. Bower has also written books on various people such as Richard Branson, Rupert Murdoch, Robert Maxwell and Tony Blair, with varying degrees of deserved brutality. He now has turned his attention on the leader of Her Majesty’s opposition.

Much of the book is not quite the trove of astonishing revelations that it might have appeared to be, if only because I had realised quite some time ago what Corbyn is and stands for, and read about his involvement in, and support for, hard-Left causes for quite some time. I knew about his support for Hamas, his attendance at a funeral of a killer of Israeli athletes (he initially lied about it), his outreach to Sinn Fein IRA within days of the Brighton bombing of 1984 (I was a student living in Brighton at the time, and it was when the name “Corbyn” first entered my consciousness), his holiday-making in the Soviet satellite states and so on. I knew much of this, and assume that most political junkies who follow UK affairs had a reasonably solid grasp of all this gruesome detail.

What is nonetheless striking about this book is the way it shows that Corbyn’s Marxism was quite possibly formed in a period when – never fully explained in his own accounts – he left Jamaica (in the late 60s) and had, so Bower speculates, gone to Cuba. Corbyn’s hatred of the UK, and the empire it created, is very much at the core of his political credo. Corbyn is incurious in some ways about enterprise – other than loathing it, and has tended to leave the details of how a socialist state will direct our lives to colleagues such as John McDonnell. What really floats Corbyn’s boat is his adversialism towards the UK and West as a whole. Any power and person whom he thinks has the ability to hurt the UK and the West as a whole gets his support, no matter how murderous or malevolent.

This anti-British, anti-Western stance is a coherent strand throughout. It explains Corbyn’s cozying up to Iran (and willingness to appear on Iranian TV and get paid for this) – because he hates Israel (a pro-Western, broadly free nation); it explains, even his anti-semitism (Bower is very clear about this; no sophistry about how Corbyn is anti-Zionist but not anti-semitic); it is the key to his hatred of the US and the UK. It shows why he has been a champion of the cause of a united Ireland, preferring to support the IRA, and attend the funerals of IRA operatives, rather than focus on the messier routes of democratic politics in Northern Ireland. And it also shows why he has more recently praised Venezuela, at least until its recent disasters, because that country was seen as being a pain in the bum for the US. To take another Latin American case, Corbyn was happy, it seems, for the Argentinian junta to invade the Falklands Islands, a UK territory, and never mind the democratic wishes of the island’s locals.

One of the most useful parts of the book was its account, told with moments of unintended humour, of Corbyn’s time as a Labour Party councillor in North London, and of how he worked to remove real/alleged enemies and take control. Bower also shows that while Corbyn obviously craved the approval and circle of senior hard-Left figures such as Tony Benn, he was no real intellectual himself and did not contribute original ideas. What Corbyn was very effective at – and Bower ruefully admits this – was being an organiser of protest. He also had a sort of rubber-ball quality – he seemed able to take all kinds of abuse and setbacks and kept ploughing on. He was and is also fairly immune to straightforward venality and corruption, one of his few positive traits. (That does not mean his views are less unpleasant, but as far as one can tell Corbyn was not motivated by money in the way that Tony Blair seems to have been.) It also seems that he is quite a red-blooded sort of bloke, but also not very easy to get on with for the long haul: three marriages as of the time of writing. Another nugget: One of his former wives said that she never saw him read a book during the time they were together.

It is sobering to think that Corbyn has learned nothing from the past half a century in any way that would affect his thinking away from socialism. The many disasters of socialist states have had no impact on his thinking. The end of the Berlin Wall is, one suspects, a grave sadness to him, and people around him, such as media advisor and unashamed Stalinist, Seamus Milne. This fixity of ideological purpose makes me think that socialism really is, for some, a secular religion. The Bower book contains the nugget that John McDonnell, now shadow Chancellor, once thought of going into the priesthood.

Now, a socialist might scoff and say that libertarians can become a bit dogmatic too (that is correct), but there’s a big difference: a market-based economy has, through the processes of bankruptcy and profit, a feedback system in which bad, mistaken ideas fail, and good ones succeed. With socialism, by contrast, failure (such as the misallocation of resources in Soviet Russia) is taken to mean that the State must do even more socialism, that “beatings will continue until morale improves”, so to speak. The free market is like a sort of constant Karl Popper-style testing of hypotheses (business ideas). Socialism does not have any sort of equivalent process.

What to explain how far Corbyn has come despite all this? Bower gives some idea about this. Corbyn is sly and enjoys letting others do the dirty work of knifing colleagues and betraying real/alleged enemies, and likes to appear above it all (he is not unique in this, of course), and play the part of the scruffy, dotty-but-endearing Leftie with his vegetable patch and penchant for photographing street furniture. It is striking how even the joke tag “Magic Marxist Grandpa” is almost an affectionate term, until you realise what Marxism will do. Corbyn shows you can get away with appalling, mistaken views if you speak softly, are bit of a “character” and have good manners (although he can lose his temper when confronted in some cases). And finally, there is Corbyn’s quality of patience. He’s been working away, waiting for his chance. In 2015, when the former Labour leader Ed Milliband stood down, the party’s leadership/voting rules allowed a person such as Corbyn to stand. People voted to let his name go on the ballot. It is proof that random events can really make a difference. (Ironically, it rather undermines the Marxist idea that we are propelled deterministically by economic forces and relations of production. Specific human acts can make a big difference.)

The book, however, for all its pace and verve, is unlikely to convert a lot of people away from Corbyn and what he stands for, although I suppose one or two people might be swayed. I do think that the anti-semitism must have rattled a few even more devoted fans, and his dithering over the EU issue is a delight to watch because Brexit is an issue that doesn’t fall into any obvious map that Corbyn has in his head.

An issue with this book is that Bower has no references or footnotes, a fact that Bower justifies by saying that so much of what he was told was off the record, and that he took legal advice to that effect. The problem with no references is that it is easy therefore for some people to attack the veracity of some of his details. Peter Oborne, who like some right-wingers has a sort of madly odd affection for Corbyn, on the grounds that he is “authenic” (I fail to see what is great about being an authentic nasty piece of work), has attacked the book’s accuracy. Bower hasn’t responded. I remember many years ago, when I wrote pamphlets for libertarian causes, that Brian Micklethwait and other old friends such as the late Chris Tame drummed into me the importance of references and sources, with lots of specific details, in the interests of good scholarship. If a book is going to drive a stake into the heart of Corbyn, I think it would have been more effective had it contained some explicit sources.


Dangerous Hero
is a gripping read – I went through it very fast – and it is gruesome, even chilling, reading. It is a well-paced, angrily written account of the life of a man who, let’s not forget, is still a potential prime minister of this country. As his IRA chums used to say, defenders of freedom have to be eternally vigilant, because for the likes of Corbyn, they need to be lucky just once.

Stephen Davies on the Wealth Explosion (1): How Europe was and was not exceptional

About two hundred and forty years ago, the human species began to experience a wealth explosion. Poor people, who had been living and dying on the edge of starvation for millennia, began to get less poor, and slightly richer people started to become even richer, and much more numerous. Every graph measuring human comfort, wealth, progress, length of life, and so on, switched – historically, in the blink of an eye – from being a nearly horizontal line to being a nearly vertical line. This wealth explosion began in North West Europe, and quickly spread to other parts of Europe and to the USA. Now, poor people everywhere are getting less poor in unprecedentedly vast numbers. It’s a different world, and for just about everyone, a hugely better one.

What caused this wealth explosion? And why did it first erupt where it did, in Europe?

For some time now I have been getting to grips with a new book by Stephen Davies entitled The Wealth Explosion: The Nature and Origins of Modernity.

The central and most striking arguments in this book concern how Europe was – and just as significantly, was not – exceptional, as a potential detonator of this wealth explosion.

Clearly there was something exceptional about Europe, or the wealth explosion that we all now enjoy would not have started here. And equally clearly, all the positive ingredients needed for the explosion had to be present here for it to start happening. But the mere presence of all these positive ingredients, says Davies, is not what made Europe exceptional. Until Europe started exploding economically at the end of the eighteenth century, it had been, globally speaking, an economic and cultural backwater. All of these ingredients – demographic, economic, social, institutional, intellectual, spiritual – had been present, in greater strength and for far longer, in other parts of the world, most notably in China. The economic and cultural centre of the world, at least until the late eighteenth century, was not Europe but rather the lands around the Indian Ocean. So, why did the wealth explosion not happen there?

The answer that Davies supplies in The Wealth Explosion is that Europe was exceptional in being the only one of the world’s great civilisations that was not, at the historical moment when it mattered, politically unified. No European “hegemon” emerged in the centuries just before the wealth explosion got started, in the way that single imperial regimes had emerged to dominate Russia, the Middle East and India, and as had long been in successive imperial command in China.

This was the decisive negative ingredient that Europe possessed but which was lacking elsewhere, and this was what made the difference. The wealth explosion got seriously explosive in Europe because, when it started and from then on, nobody in Europe was powerful enough or motivated enough to stop it. On the contrary, the rulers of Europe never stopped competing with one another, and were therefore strongly incentivised to keep their wealth explosion going, despite all the upheaval that it caused. Economic stasis, and cultural stagnation of the sort that would have stopped the wealth explosion, was not, for the various contending rulers of Europe, an option. They needed guns, guns which had to keep on getting better. They needed money, to pay for the guns, and for the ever increasing numbers of people needed to develop, fire and later to carry the guns into battle. They needed the wealth explosion, no matter how much it was empowering new classes of citizen producers and citizen warriors. So, they let it happen. They even encouraged it. At which point the only way not to be beaten by the wealth explosion was to join it. And there we have it: the modern world.

The above is my best shot at summarising what I think is the most important line of argument in The Wealth Explosion. I had intended to write a single, quite long, mostly glowing review of this book. And I tried, I really tried. But the task defeated me (especially the “quite” long bit). Despite its small size for such a subject (only 248 pages) The Wealth Explosion contains so many interesting ideas besides those summarised above, so much pertinent historical detail, and so many judgements based on the voluminous writings and discoveries of other historians, that I found it impossible to say everything that I wanted to say about it in one blog posting, while remaining confident that anyone at all would want to wade through all that I had written. So, I abandoned the attempt to say everything, and instead decided to make a start by merely saying something. I now intend that there will be several more postings here about The Wealth Explosion (in the manner of these recent postings here by Patrick Crozier about Ulster).

That’s the plan anyway. I’ll end this first posting about The Wealth Explosion by saying that, although I don’t now want to elaborate on why I find the central argument of this book, as outlined above, to be so persuasive, I do find it to be very persuasive, and the book in general to be fascinating. And since the historical event in question is arguably the biggest single fact that there is about the world that we now live in, that makes this a very good book indeed. How do you write an excellent work of grand historical theory? You ask important questions and you supply convincing answers. You support these answers with many other interesting and closely related truths, and with reports of relevant debates among and with your fellow historians. This is what I think Stephen Davies has done.

Meanwhile, to learn more about The Wealth Explosion, read the review of it that Ananya Chowdhury did manage to write, for the Adam Smith Institute blog. Or, read what Stephen Davies himself wrote about his book and its conclusions, for CapX. Or, if you like it when people are good at talking to camera as well as good at writing (Stephen Davies is very good at both), listen to what Davies said to the Cato Institute about his book, as recorded in this video.

Book Review: Apollo In The Age Of Aquarius

The 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space flight to and from the Moon has been covered extensively in a raft of books, television programmes and films. A few weeks ago I watched the Apollo 11 film of that name. This is a documentary that features, so the film-makers say, previously unseen footage, and it certainly is a remarkable film. One of the good things about it is that it does not involve any narration: the film and the action do the “talking”. I watched it on a large IMAX screen at London’s Science Museum. I heartily recommend it. I actually found it rather moving. That sequence of when Armstrong takes control of the Lunar Module and flies to the surface, with Aldrin counting out the altitude, knowing they have precious little fuel to spare, is one I can watch over and over. (Armstrong is one of my all-time heroes. The very fact that he conducted himself in such a modest way since the mission ended only reinforces that.)

The space missions of the 1960s were, of course, part of a much bigger set of actions involving the US, former Soviet Union and other select powers. Let there be no doubt: the Moon missions were a big “front” in the Cold War. We libertarians will debate whether all the spending on such a programme was justified (I will come back to this point in a bit) but it strikes me that the success of the Apollo missions were surely a valuable morale booster for the West and for America. It showed that for all the Soviets’ early successes in beating the US in some aspects of space flight, that by the mid to late 60s that edge had gone.

Putting the likes of Armstrong, Aldrin et al up there was a way for the US to poke Moscow in the eye. But it was about much more than that. It appears to me (born in May 1966) the product of a time when governments still had tremendous confidence in technology, as did much of wider society. And yet as we know, the end of the Moon programme coincided with events such as various environmentalist campaigns calling attention to the real/alleged damage Man was doing to the environment; it also overlapped with the Vietnam War, the oil price shock and the challenge to established Western assumptions about energy. And there was the rise of radical feminism and the Civil Rights campaign.

A lot of people have noted how the space programme contrasted with all the tumult and messiness of wider American/Western society at the time. At more or less the time that Armstrong was taking his “giant leap” for Mankind, Jimi Hendrix was playing his version of the Star Spangled Banner at muddy Woodstock (he’d probably be condemned by today’s left for being a reactionary conservative for playing it at all); Charles Manson and his fellow monsters were causing havoc. Several major public figures, such as Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy, were murdered. The space programme was, on the other hand, all clean, with white rockets and gleaming craft; it had a focus on scientific precision and a celebration of human efficacy. It was about what Man can do and achieve, given rational focus on a goal. It was also a very technocratic thing, and an example – which is often trotted out by politicians who like big vanity projects – of a big government effort actually working pretty well. (From the moment that JFK gave his speech about the Moon in 1962 it took just eight years to pull that feat off. It takes people longer to make James Bond films these days.) The men (and some women) at NASA looked different from the rock musicians and protesters of the time: whenever I see photos and old films of the chaps at Mission Control, for example, they all have air force-style buzzcuts, narrow dark ties and have names like Dave, Deke and Al. They drive Corvettes , live in small neat homes with pools (this impresses a Brit) and talk with clipped Midwestern or occasionally more gravelly Texan accents. They play golf. Al Shepard even took a golf club up to the Moon. How middle class is that?) They don’t look like Janis Joplin fans and probably could not give a damn about recycling of single-use plastics.

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