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]

COVID-19 and the Political Economy of Mass Hysteria – a quotation

Investigating the possibility and extension of a mass hysteria related to COVID-19 is beyond the scope of this article. In this article, we analyze a more fundamental question, namely, the role of the modern welfare state in mass hysteria. There can certainly be mass hysteria without the state in a private law society or within the context of a minimal state. This possibility exists due to the negativity bias of the human brain [55], which makes people vulnerable to delusions. Due to biological evolution, we focus on bad news as it may represent a possible threat [56]. Focusing on negative news and feeling a loss of control [57] may cause psychological stress that can develop into a hysteria and propagate to a larger group.

In a society with a minimal state, negative news may start such hysteria. Due to the negative news, some people start to believe in a threat. This threat evokes fear and begins to spread in society. Symptoms can also spread. Le Bon [58] called the spread of emotions through groups “contagion”. Once anxiety has spread and the majority of a group behaves in a certain way, there is the phenomenon of conformity, i.e., social pressure makes individuals behave in the same way as other members of the group. In the end, there may be a phenomenon that has been called emergent norms [59]: when a group establishes a norm, everyone ends up following that norm. For example, if a group decides to wear masks, everyone agrees to that norm. Emergent norms may explain the later stages of contagion. Contagion by fear can lead people to overreact strongly in a situation, even in a minimal state. Nonetheless, in a minimal state, there exist certain self-corrective mechanisms and limits that make it less likely for a mass hysteria to run out of control.

– from COVID-19 and the Political Economy of Mass Hysteria.

I strongly recommend reading this entire paper as it really does an excellent job of explaining where we are now.

Enraged is not a good way to end the year

So I will post this without comment:

The New York Times Helped a Vindictive Teen Destroy a Classmate Who Uttered a Racial Slur When She Was 15

May better times lie ahead for all reading this. It is a relief that Brexit is done. Boris’s deal is far from ideal, but there were times during the last four years when I would have counted us lucky to get the referendum vote honoured at all.

Happy New Year!

And the lesson for today is…

…from the Second Book of Kings, Chapter 20, Verses 12-19:

12 At that time Marduk-Baladan son of Baladan king of Babylon sent Hezekiah letters and a gift, because he had heard of Hezekiah’s illness. 

13 Hezekiah received the envoys and showed them all that was in his storehouses – the silver, the gold, the spices and the fine oil – his armoury and everything found among his treasures. There was nothing in his palace or in all his kingdom that Hezekiah did not show them.

14 Then Isaiah the prophet went to King Hezekiah and asked, ‘What did those men say, and where did they come from?’

‘From a distant land,’ Hezekiah replied. ‘They came from Babylon.’

15 The prophet asked, ‘What did they see in your palace?’

‘They saw everything in my palace,’ Hezekiah said. ‘There is nothing among my treasures that I did not show them.’

16 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord: 

17 the time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. 

18 And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’

19 ‘The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?’

While I would not go so far as to claim this post was divinely inspired, 2 Kings 20: 12-19 actually was the lesson in a church service broadcast on Radio 3 on Wednesday morning. I caught a little of it while in the car heading down to Bisley to perform an activity that once would have been proudly described as contributing to national security. (Do not try this line now.)

Anyway, for some reason over the next few days I found myself paying a little more attention to news stories like this one from today’s South China Morning Post,

“US blacklists about 60 more Chinese firms including top chip maker SMIC and drone manufacturer DJI”,

…or to this one from the BBC two days ago, “Huawei: Uighur surveillance fears lead PR exec to quit”,

Or to any of a thousand others. But what is the lesson for today? What should we do about the threat from the People’s Republic of China? “War is the health of the state”, wrote Randolph Bourne, and cold war is its daily vitamin pill. It was not so long ago that people like me were enthusiasts for China’s turn to capitalism. I still am, mostly. Now that their rulers have cast off all but the fig leaf of communism, a significant fraction of the human race has been lifted out of poverty in my lifetime. The Chinese people are not free, but they are much more free than they were in the days when the Eight Revolutionary Operas were almost literally the only music allowed. I am happy for them.

Yet when I see that famous video of Joe Biden, the man soon to take up residence in the White House, jovially saying, “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man”, I cannot but remember the words of the prophet:

And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’

‘The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?’

If this is how the Democrats campaign, maybe the Republicans will win after all

With great glee, the Huffington Post reports,

Multiple Right-Wing Figures Pranked Into Thanking The Devil For Supporting Trump

Several prominent pro-Trump voices have been pranked into thanking “Iblis” — a figure in the Quran typically synonymous with Satan — for supporting the president.

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Fox News host Tomi Lahren, former Trump aide and right-wing radio host Sebastian Gorka and controversial Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio were among those who fell for the prank, engineered by Ali-Asghar Abedi, a comedy writer and contributor for various media outlets, including PBS, The New York Times and The Independent.

The videos — which were combined into a supercut that features the pundits and politicians thanking “Iblis” for his passionate support of the president and reminding him to make American great again — were filmed via Cameo, an app where celebrities can be paid to record personalized messages for a fee.

The great joke is meant to be that these minor celebrities recorded a supportive message for someone with a name they were told was of Arab origin. I fail to see why that should reflect badly on either their honour or their intelligence. Evidently, despite being Trump supporters, they were not consumed by hatred for Arabs. The other charge against them is that they failed to spot that “Iblis” means “Satan”. Mr Abedi thinks that reveals dire ignorance. He writes,

“They’re grifters who are stunningly ignorant and have no curiosity,” Abed said. “I left clues for them. I told them that Iblis was Arab American. If they had a sense of the world beyond MAGA, they’d research what Iblis means in an Arab context. I guess they’re true adherents to capitalism, placing money ahead of their own dignity.”

Abedi did point out that he was “a bit crafty” in the spelling of “Iblis.”

“I spelled it ‘Ebliz’ and laid out the pronunciation as ‘ibb-lease.’ But [I] figured mentioning that Iblis is Arab should have been a cue to vet the request with someone who knows Arabic.”

So upon hearing a name from another culture the rule is now that one should hasten to check that it does not mean “devil”? And it is not enough to check the name for non-fiendishness in the spelling as given; variant spellings must be checked as well. How quickly customs change. Only a few years ago this Guardian writer was denouncing harassed servers in Starbucks for querying the spelling of her unusual name or writing it down wrong on coffee cups.

The video featured by the Huffington Post is very popular. As I write this it has had just short of six hundred thousand views. As someone who would like Trump to win (or more to the point someone who would like the censors of Twitter, Facebook and the media to lose), but is pessimistic, I feel hope stir.

Three days before an election and this is how Democrats campaign? Laughing to each other (but in a public forum) about how trustingly friendly to people of other cultures those Republicans were? Whose vote do you think will be changed to Democrat by the revelation that there are Republicans out there who do not know the equivalent of “Beelzebub” in every language on Earth? Meanwhile Republicans are talking to people who don’t usually vote Republican.

The Scottish Justice Secretary says that hate speech in people’s own homes ‘must be prosecuted’

Sometimes I try to think of a funny or attention-grabbing way to introduce a news report that I will link to in a Samizdata post. The following report from the Times grabbed my attention without artificial aids, as it should grab yours. It is not funny.

Hate crime bill: Hate talk in homes ‘must be prosecuted’

Conversations over the dinner table that incite hatred must be prosecuted under Scotland’s hate crime law, the justice secretary has said.

Journalists and theatre directors should also face the courts if their work is deemed to deliberately stoke up prejudice, Humza Yousaf said.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill has been condemned by critics including the Scottish Catholic Church, police representatives, academics and artists. It will introduce an offence of stirring-up of hatred against people with protected characteristics, including disability, sexual orientation and age.

The bill is loosely based on the Public Order Act 1986, which outlaws threatening, abusive or insulting words and behaviour but includes a “dwelling defence” that states the threatening language cannot be prosecuted if it is spoken in a private home.

Mr Yousaf said that there should be no “dwelling defence” in his bill. He told the Scottish parliament’s justice committee that children, family and house guests must be protected from hate speech. He told MSPs: “Are we comfortable giving a defence to somebody whose behaviour is threatening or abusive which is intentionally stirring up hatred against, for example, Muslims? Are we saying that that is justified because that is in the home? . . . If your intention was to stir up hatred against Jews . . . then I think that deserves criminal sanction.”

Mr Yousaf said theatre directors and journalists should not be exempt from the bill, to prevent activists stoking tensions under the cloak of dramatic licence or freedom of expression. He said: “We wouldn’t want to give the likes of Tommy Robinson a defence by saying that he’s ‘a blogger who writes for The Patriot Times so my reasonable defence is that I am a journalist’.”

The mask slips

In today’s Sunday Times Camilla Long has a slight but amusing piece called “Jeffrey Toobin is caught with his pants down and he’s the victim? That’s a touch too much”. I realise that this audience would have little interest in the doings of the titular Toobin-

Oh, all right. Here it is:

If you thought the weak, the poor, the sick and the elderly had it bad during Covid, you might like to consider a new and extremely vulnerable and at-risk minority group: bored, rich, horny alpha males between the ages of 50 and 70 who have been shut away in their luxury triplexes with not a single sexy secretary or waitress to perve over.

In normal times these poor and lonely red-blooded millionaires wouldn’t go five minutes without putting their hands down their own pants or someone else’s — but now they must do everything for themselves, including, disastrously, setting up and managing Zoom calls.

My heart goes out, for example, to “the Tiger Woods of legal journalism” — Jeffrey Toobin — who was reported to have suffered some kind of extreme trouser event at his computer during a Zoom session with his colleagues at The New Yorker. During an “election simulation” — easy, fellas — with a radio station in which journalists assumed various roles, the 60-year-old writer — famous in America for his coverage of the OJ Simpson trial — apparently forgot to turn his camera off while his co-workers enjoyed a “strategy session” in “their respective breakout rooms”.

Toobin seemed to be “on a second video call”, said witnesses; when the groups returned, he had lowered the camera and was “touching his penis”. He then left the call, came back and, in the manner of someone who’s rarely been held accountable for anything — a boomer for whom life just falls into place — he seemed oblivious to the fact he’d destroyed his career, literally at a stroke.

Though as Ms Long points out later in the piece, working two jobs at once has not destroyed his career, because

…if there’s one group even more protected than a rich white alpha male in our society, it’s the rich white alpha male who hates Donald Trump.

All very amusing, but the last two paragraphs spoilt my mood:

It is true that the desperate scramble to shore up the hopeless Biden has reached extraordinary levels of deceit and manipulation — accounts are locked, reporting is pulled, likes and retweets seem to be managed.

Three months ago I myself got on the wrong side of Twitter’s political posturing by questioning whether masks worked — and my account is still down, with no response to appeals. If you think it’ll censor over that tiny issue, why not the presidential election?

My opinion is that masks probably do almost nothing to protect the wearer from Covid-19 and similar bugs, but they do confer significant protection to others. Feel free to discuss this question if it interests you, but I will not be participating in that particular debate. My uninformed opinion would add no value. And in any case the processing power that is available inside my head to think about any topic related to masks is entirely consumed by trying to deal with the revelation that Twitter censorship goes that far. I was naive. I did not know. Ms Long is quite wrong to call it a “tiny issue”. As with climate change, my now rather shaken belief in the “scientific consensus” was based on thinking it was a scientific consensus. I think it was Sir Peter Medawar in Advice to a Young Scientist who said that the dominance of the dominant hypothesis should be like that of a champion prizefighter: he is the champ because he has taken on and beaten all comers, and because he extends an open invitation to the whole world to displace him if they can.

But when people begin to suspect with good reason that the dominance of the dominant hypothesis is more like that of the champion golfer Kim Jong Il, it is no wonder that conspiracy theories spread like wildfire.

I thought they were better than this: recollections of how the London Times covered Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination

Two years ago the worldwide media furore over Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the US Supreme Court was at its height. Every second story in the British press seemed to be about Dr Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation of sexual assault against Kavanaugh. Some may find it difficult to cast their minds back to the fevered atmosphere of that time. In these enlightened days of 2020 we rest secure in the knowledge that American politicians of all sides respect the principle of the presumption of innocence, which is why a TV report about Tara Reade’s accusation of sexual assault against Joe Biden is only being shown in Australia.

The Times of London is the Times. It has been the voice of the British establishment for over two centuries. It is seen by many, including itself, as the standard bearer for serious journalism on serious issues for serious people. I have been a Times subscriber for many years, as my parents were before me. At several points over that time my faith in the paper wavered, but never enough to make me switch to another paper. Which one would be better? The Guardian? The Telegraph? The Daily Mail? So ingrained is my own habit of regarding the Times as at bottom a responsible newspaper that I had to spend some time checking that its coverage of the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh really was as bad as I remembered.

→ Continue reading: I thought they were better than this: recollections of how the London Times covered Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination

The foundling

Anyone know whose baby this is?

Mystery Deepens Around Unmanned Spy Boat Washed Up In Scotland

Ask not for whom the tik toks

“TikTok and WeChat: US to ban app downloads in 48 hours”, reports the BBC.

All things considered, I do still want Trump to win the US election, but this sounds like a stupid measure. Banning things is almost always intrinsically stupid, as is running your politics by the threat of bans. It will also lose him votes from people who happen to like TikTok.

I suspect that like Sadiq Khan’s ban on Uber operating in London (the appeal against which will be heard on 28th September), Trump’s move is basically a shakedown. Note the delay before implementation in both cases. Either ban could be reversed at a moment’s notice for the right price. So far as I know Londoners can still use Uber now, and that will continue until the appeals process is exhausted, which could mean ten days or ten years. As for Tiktok in the US,

If a planned partnership between US tech firm Oracle and TikTok owner ByteDance is agreed and approved by President Trump, the app will not be banned.

How not to oppose the Scottish hate crime bill

The Courier‘s Jenny Hjul is on the right side. She knows the Hate Crime Bill (Scotland) needs to be opposed:

JENNY HJUL: SNP’s hated hate crime bill would outlaw all controversial debate… it has to be stopped

The SNP’s Hate Crime Bill seems to have created a rare consensus in Scotland, with just about everybody agreeing that it is at best naïve and at worst plain dangerous.

She leads with the point of principle:

The Justice Minister, Humza Yousaf, said the Scottish Government was aiming for zero tolerance of hate crime, which is increasing in Scotland. The problem with his new law, however, is that in trying to make bad people nicer it will also potentially make good people villains.

She deftly follows up with the practical point that the proposed Scottish bill is wider in scope than the equivalent law in England and Wales:

If passed, the bill will criminalise those judged to have spoken abusively or offensively, and could imprison them for up to seven years. It goes further than similar laws in England and Wales, where intent has to be established for a person to be criminalised for their behaviour.

Later in the article Ms Hjul points out that Nicola Sturgeon’s proposed new law is opposed by experts, including those who might be expected to have some personal sympathy with her:

Alistair Bonnington, former honorary professor of law at Glasgow University – and Nicola Sturgeon’s one-time lecturer – slammed the legislation as “daft” as well as naïve.

“This is yet another example of the SNP’s failure to understand fundamental principles of Scots law,” he said this week, referencing other instances of “stupidity”, such as the Named Persons legislation and the “outstandingly idiotic” law forbidding sectarian singing at football matches, which was later rescinded.

“Fundamental human rights freedoms, such as free speech, are not understood or respected by the Scottish government,” he said.

Finally Ms Hjul correctly observes that the bill is so hated that even sworn enemies have come together to denounce it, and furthermore that the police, often suspiciously keen on the sort of policing that can be done in comfort via a screen, do not fancy enforcing this one at all:

Among those who agree with him are the Law Society of Scotland, the Catholic Church – which fears the bill would criminalise possession of the Bible, the National Secular Society, and the Scottish Police Federation, which warned that the legislation would see officers policing speech.

But Ms Hjul undoes much of the good work she has done by the following ill-judged foray:

Perhaps the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill might have achieved more support if it had sought to target a specific Scottish problem: the spreaders of hate in its own movement, for example.

If it could stifle once and for all the most toxic elements of Scottish nationalism and make stirring up hatred of unionists a crime, it might not be a complete waste of time. But that is a political perspective.

I have no doubt she did not literally mean that the Hate Crimes Bill would be acceptable if only it also targeted hate among Scottish Nationalists. It was probably meant as an exasperated joke. The trouble is that those two sentences turn off those she most needs to convince: people who usually support the Scottish National Party but are troubled by this and other authoritarian measures the SNP have put forward. It is this group who Sturgeon’s government are most likely to listen to.

The political purity spiral as experienced by the Instagram knitting community

I cannot knit and I am not on Instagram, but as someone who sews and is into politics, I cannot think how I came to miss this article from Gavin Haynes when it came out in January of this year. After seeing it recommended on the UK Politics subreddit, I hastened to post it here:

How knitters got knotted in a purity spiral

Mr Haynes discusses purity spirals throughout history, then narrows his focus to a couple of examples from 2018/19:

Our documentary analysed just two latter-day purity spirals — Instagram knitting culture and young adult novels. Both seemed perfectly-sized to be taken over — they were spaces big enough to have their own star system, yet small enough for the writ of a dominant group to hold.

In each, a vast tapestry of what were effectively small businesses competed for attention online by fluidly mixing personal and professional brand. On social media, opinion, diary and sales often existed within the same posts. Each individual small business was uniquely vulnerable to being un-personed, ‘cancelled’. But, simultaneously, each could benefit enormously from taking on the status of thought leader — from becoming a node that directed moral traffic.

To take the example of Instagram knitting: the unravelling began with a man called Nathan Taylor. Gay, living with HIV, nice as pie, Taylor started a hashtag aimed at promoting diversity in knitting, Diversknitty, to get people from different backgrounds to talk. And he did: the hashtag was a runaway hit, spawning over 17,000 posts.

But over the following months, the conversation took on a more strident tone. The list of things considered problematic grew. The definition of racism began to take on the terms mandated by intersectional social justice ideology.

The drama played out in the time-honoured way:

Finally, just as the guillotine had eventually come for Robespierre, Nathan Taylor, who had founded the #Diversknitty movement, found himself at its sharp end.

When Taylor tried to inject positivity back into Diversknitty, his moral authority burnt up inside minutes. A poem he’d written asking knitters to cool it (“With genuine SOLEM-KNITTY/I beg you, stop the enmity”) was in turn interpreted as a blatant act of white supremacy. When the mob finally came for him, he had a nervous breakdown. Yet even here, he was accused of malingering, his suicidal hospitalisation described online as a ‘white centring’ event.

Gavin Haynes also made a half hour Radio Four documentary telling the same story. (A BBC iPlayer sign-in is required to listen.) I am about to listen to it now.

Exposing baby racists

“‘Cancel culture’ grows increasingly cruel”, writes Jeff Jacoby.

…A working man fired because his hands fell into what some read as a “white supremacist” gesture and someone took a picture He had never heard of this gesture and was not even white.

…A woman denounced by name in the Washington Post because she wore blackface to a party two years ago. She was a private citizen, not famous or active in politics. Once upon a time that would have meant that she was safe from the level of scrutiny that we expect to fall on those who seek office – but in these times ordinary people can be plucked out of obscurity to be pelted by the mob while the Prime Minister of Canada is forgiven for almost the same offence.

I had heard of these cases, and most of the others that Jeff Jacoby writes about. I thought I knew about the cruelty of the American Red Guards. But the next example of it that Mr Jacoby wrote about took my breath away:

Even children are being targeted as racist, with the encouragement of adults who explicitly call for the destruction of the kids’ future prospects.

Skai Jackson, a former Disney Channel star, urged her young social media followers to expose their classmates or peers for posting racist comments or videos. “If you know a racist, don’t be shy! Tweet me the receipts,” Skai tweeted on June 4. On Instagram, she posted a similar threat, saying she would spotlight “Caucasian teens” who say or write something inappropriate: “Let me say this: If I see you post it, I WILL expose you!! If you think you’re big and bad enough to say it, I will most definitely put your own words on blast!!”

What followed, predictably enough, was a flood of submissions from informers eager to publicly accuse young people of racism, sometimes expressed in online remarks years ago. Jackson readily publicized the accusations, making sure to include the targets’ full names and social-media handles. And for going out of her way to ruin the reputation of people for being young and foolish, she was extolled as a heroine. Entertainment Tonight hosts applauded Jackson’s “bold move” in ensuring that “justice can be served.” Essence magazine commended her for “using this time to reverse the blatant racism she’s seen on social media.”

“I am so proud of you, @skaijackson,” tweeted actress Yvette Nicole Brown. “The good work you’re doing exposing all these ‘baby’ racists will ensure that their names, faces & deeds will be known as they enter the work force down the line. Which will protect everyone from the havoc racists cause in the workplace.”

Note that the children whose lives Skai Jackson and Yvette Nicole Brown want to ruin for having succumbed to the common infantile desire to say shocking things are not the only children being harmed. The children who Jackson and Brown tempt into informing on their schoolmates and siblings will also have to live for a lifetime with the consequences of hasty words spoken before they were old enough to know better.