Wednesday, 13 December 2017

The sincerest form of flattery

Here’s an idea: let’s abolish the wheel. Let’s escape the tyranny of the circular device, and spend the money saved on axles, spokes and hubs on — oh, I don’t know — the National Health Service (NHS). Let’s take back control of rotation! But wait a minute. This can’t be done overnight. We shall still need some means of transporting ourselves and our goods until we have formally renounced the wheel, but before we have agreed on a new device. There’ll probably need to be an “implementation period” in which we remain “aligned” with the existing circular format.

Then, when we’ve finally got rid of the old system — let freedom ring! — we’ll need a new, bespoke mechanism. What we’ll want is our own round component that rolls around an axis; an independently designed disc that turns reliably to enable easy movement. Something that gyrates smoothly along the ground. I wonder what we should call it.
Matthew d’Ancona, in a piece titled "Theresa May’s new Brexit campaign is a mirage", published in the Gulf Times, where they presumably know a thing or two about mirages.

What seems to be going on is a reversed version of the branding exercise that a certain discount supermarket does when it wants to make its cheaper own-brand products look as close as possible to their popular branded equivalents, without actually crossing the line into outright counterfeiting:
Alcafé Gold Roast is a work of fiction. Any similarity to other brands of coffee, instant or gold, is purely coincidental.
But where the discount retailer wants its own products to look just like their almost-identical equivalents, the Brexit Delivery Team want their product to look completely unlike the thing they're desperately trying to duplicate in excruciating detail:
Government: "We are proud to announce an innovative new form of circular component, intended to rotate on an axle bearing."

Every Reman and Leave voter who's still awake: "It's a wheel, isn't it?"

Government: "No, it's totally not a wheel. Our old wheel was blue, with yellow stars on it. This is an entirely novel type of component - look, it's red, white and blue!"
Still, at least the government has found an excellent way to unite the whole country - simultaneously patronise and disappoint everybody who voted to leave the EU and everybody who voted to stay. Anyway, good luck trying to get your novel innovation past the patent office, guys.

Friday, 8 December 2017

Bordering on the sane

I woke up very depressed this morning, to a dreary chorus of crowing from the UK press about "progress" towards delivering the suicide pact between the lunatic fringe of the Conservative Party and the DUP.

But, in a world where creative ambiguity means that things like detailed planning and comprehensive risk assessments can simultaneously exist in excruciating detail and not exist at all, language doesn't always mean what you think it means. So it was with some relief that I turned to the Irish press, where Fintan O'Toole has been thinking about what the Irish border deal actually means. If he's right, the latest agreement may be good news for traitors, saboteurs and enemies of the people everywhere:
"This saga has taken many strange turns, but this is the strangest of all: after one of the most fraught fortnights in the recent history of Anglo-Irish relations, Ireland has just done Britain a favour of historic dimensions. It has saved it from the madness of a hard Brexit. There is a great irony here: the problem that the Brexiteers most relentlessly ignored has come to determine the entire shape of their project. By standing firm against their attempts to bully, cajole and blame it, Ireland has shifted Brexit towards a soft outcome. It is now far more likely that Britain will stay in the customs union and the single market. It is also more likely that Brexit will not in fact happen.

Essentially what this extraordinary deal does is to reverse engineer Brexit as a whole from one single component - the need to avoid a hard Irish border. It follows the Sherlock Holmes principle: eliminate the impossible and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the solution. The Irish Government, by taking a firm stance and retaining the rock solid support of the rest of the EU, made the hard border the defining impossibility. Working back from that, the Brexit project now has to embrace what seemed, even last Monday, highly improbable: the necessity, at a minimum, for the entire UK to mirror the rules of the customs union and the single market after it leaves the EU. And this in turn raises the biggest question of all: if the UK is going to mirror the customs union and the single market, why go to the considerable bother of leaving the EU in the first place?"
It is indeed hard to see how the UK can be outside the customs union and the single market (in any more than name) and enjoy a "free flowing" border with an EU member state, so I'm rather cheered up by Fintan's analysis. A second look at the UK press makes me feel even more optimistic. Apparently Nigel Farage* really hates this deal, which is also a pretty good indication that events are moving in a slightly less insane direction.

I'm not one of those people who use the faintest smidge of Irish ancestry to go big on the whole St Patrick's Day thing. But, going back a century and a half or so, a sizable chunk of my DNA can be traced back to County Mayo, so I hereby pledge that, if Ireland proves to be the final straw that breaks the Brexit camel's back, you can count on me never to ignore another St Paddy's Day.


*Seriously, why is anybody still listening to the ex-leader of a fringe single-issue party which once reached the dizzy political heights of having one, solitary, MP (who they had to poach from another party and who subsequently deserted them)? Is it because the empty suit who's currently supposed to be leading Ukip has risen without trace?
What does Henry think about this deal? Nobody cares. Poor Henry.

Mad scheme gets green light

This is not good news.
"When politics becomes the whims and mad schemes of a small minority that only listen to themselves, unmodified by the normal checks and balances of a functioning democracy, it should be treated by the non-partisan media for what it is, not normalised as just more of the same...

...Those who brought us Brexit and backed or tolerated Trump have to be disgraced as the harbingers of disaster. Their control of the Republican and Conservative parties must end."
Open Democracy

Thursday, 7 December 2017

If David Davis has been telling the truth all along, it's time to panic

As Arthur C Clarke said about intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe, two frightening scenarios exist:
"Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying."
After David Davis's appearance before the Brexit select committee yesterday, I think that the search for intelligent life in the Department for Exiting the European Union yields a similarly terrifying pair of binary options:
1. David Davis is telling the truth now, when he says that the impact studies and analysis don't exist, but he was lying in the past when he said they existed in "excruciating detail"

2. David Davis is lying now, when he says that the impact studies and analysis don't exist, but he was telling the truth in the past when he said they did.

1. is terrifying because it means that the UK is taking the most significant peacetime decision in its history with virtually no planning or risk assessment. 2. is terrifying because the risk assessments exist, but Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is pretending they don't, presumably because their conclusions are too frightening to share with the public.

Unfortunately for fans of neat correspondences, and for people who think that surely by now we must have reached rock bottom, a third possibility exists:
3. David Davis is telling the truth now, when he says that the impact studies and analysis don't exist and he was also telling the truth in the past when he said they did.
3. could be true if DExEU did analyse the probable impact, but the results were so horrific that they subsequently destroyed their work and ordered everybody who knew of its existence never to speak of it again. In that case, Davis could then have been technically telling the truth all along, with implications that are even more terrifying than scenarios 1. and 2.

Logically, there's a fourth possibility, that Davis was lying in the past and is lying now, but this one doesn't really make much sense to me. DExEU could have failed to do its homework when Davis was confidently assuring everybody that it was all well in hand, then cobbled something together at the last minute, but if that's true and the work exists, why stand before the committee and pretend that his department hasn't done it? Unless, or course, the conclusions of the department's  last-minute impact studies and analysis were as terrifying as 2., or as utterly horrific as 3.

Whatever the right answer, just be grateful that you're not David Davis. Or, as Monty Python sang:
So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth;
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!

Monday, 4 December 2017

Virtue-signalling? Seriously?

"Hypocrisy" said François de La Rochefoucauld "is a tribute vice pays to virtue." Nobody talks about virtue much these days, except for a few media types who never tire of scolding others for the modern sin of "virtue-signalling."

When somebody  complains about virtue-signalling, the odds are quite high that the complainer hasn't got anything very interesting to say, but has simply found a more impressive-sounding way to call somebody else a prig. As David Shariatmadari pointed out last year, the phrase might have a technical, social sciencey sound, but it doesn't amount to much more than saying "I bet you didn't really mean that good thing you just said":
1. Bill is saying something right-on
2. Virtue-signalling is when you say something right-on just to sound good
3. Therefore Bill is virtue-signalling

But 3. is not justified by 1. and 2. You can argue for something that happens to make you look virtuous because you genuinely think it is the best solution. That’s the case, for example, with most religious beliefs. Do we really think the pope is just virtue-signalling?
According to David Shariatmadari, the phrase was first popularised by the Spectator's James Bartholomew in April 2015, so if it ever had any specific meaning, (apart from being a longer, more pretentious way to call somebody a prig), it should have meant something back then.

And maybe it did. In 2015, just before the Brexit-Trump inflecton point, the economic and political elite was still trying to justify its hegemony with token gestures towards equality and diversity,  rather than just appealing to the post-2016 values of zero-sum nationalism and authoritarian xenophobia. In that specific historical context, the idea of empty "virtue-signalling" by an elite that wanted to look inclusive, while jealously guarding its exclusivity did actually make some sense, as this article suggests:
At the core of this ethos were ideals of “diversity,” women’s “empowerment,” and LGBTQ rights; post-racialism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. These ideals were interpreted in a specific, limited way that was fully compatible with the Goldman Sachsification of the U.S. economy. Protecting the environment meant carbon trading. Promoting home ownership meant subprime loans bundled together and resold as mortgage-backed securities. Equality meant meritocracy.

The reduction of equality to meritocracy was especially fateful. The progressive-neoliberal program for a just status order did not aim to abolish social hierarchy but to “diversify” it, “empowering” “talented” women, people of color, and sexual minorities to rise to the top. And that ideal was inherently class specific: geared to ensuring that “deserving” individuals from “underrepresented groups” could attain positions and pay on a par with the straight white men of their own class. The feminist variant is telling but, sadly, not unique. Focused on “leaning in” and “cracking the glass ceiling,” its principal beneficiaries could only be those already in possession of the requisite social, cultural, and economic capital. Everyone else would be stuck in the basement.
If you'd said that David Cameron was "virtue-signalling", back in 2006, when he had himself photographed cycling to work (while his briefcase was being chauffeured to work in the car behind), you'd have actually made a specific point about token gestures.

But that progressive neoliberal moment is over. When Donald Trump wanted to distract attention from the fact that his much-vaunted tax reforms were going to do squat for the folk on Main Street, while handing him and his billionaire buddies tax breaks on their private jets, he didn't have himself photographed cycling to work, or hugging a husky.

Instead, he retweeted some hateful nonsense being circulated by a bunch of neo-Nazis, so his base were too delighted, and everybody else too horrified, to notice what was really going on.

Apparently, vice no longer sees why it needs to pay virtue anything.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Donald Trump - full of empathy and free of guilt?

Thanks mainly to the Twit in Chief, the topic of hate speech is trending again. There's a widely-accepted theory to explain what's going on with people who use demeaning, insulting language:
"If we’re experiencing guilt about our treatment of some person, or group, or class, and having trouble reconciling that guilt with our notion of ourselves as good people, our brains are extremely adept at resolving the situation by othering the people we feel that we’ve wronged. If we dehumanise someone, and distance our empathy with them, then we won’t have to feel bad about the shabby way we’ve treated them."
So we inoculate ourselves against our instinctive empathy with language that disables our better instincts towards others. This may be true in a lot of cases, but it doesn't quite ring true for a lot of Trump's own outbursts. The mindset behind a lot of Trump's own tweets seems closer to the one characterised in a recent article by Paul Bloom:
"At some European soccer games, fans make monkey noises at African players and throw bananas at them. Describing Africans as monkeys is a common racist trope, and might seem like yet another example of dehumanization. But plainly these fans don’t really think the players are monkeys; the whole point of their behavior is to disorient and humiliate. To believe that such taunts are effective is to assume that their targets would be ashamed to be thought of that way—which implies that, at some level, you think of them as people after all."
This so captures the essence of Trump that you could bottle it. His instinct to go for the emotional jugular, to goad and humiliate others, seems to be the flip side of his own limitless appetite for status, respect and adulation.

As far as I can see, Trump hasn't turned off his sense of empathy. He acts as if he believes that other people are like him and share his overwhelming neediness and desire to be respected and loved. He also seems to view social relations as a zero-sum game - there's only a limited amount of respect and love out there, so the best way to get some is to take it away from somebody else. So he uses his instinctive empathy, his innate feeling for the things that would most hurt him (loss of status, mockery, belittling), and turns them against his targets.

This isn't the behaviour of somebody who needs to overcome feelings of guilt about treating others in a shabby way. It's the behaviour of somebody who feels no guilt about inflicting distress. I suspect that acting badly doesn't make him feel ashamed - only losing status can do that.

If he was just one bad apple, however influential, this wouldn't be a problem. But, of course, he's not. Most of us share some Trump's desires for love, respect and status, although not in such grotesquely hypertrophied forms - he wouldn't keep on trying to humiliate people if it didn't sting.

And Trump fits into the structures and mechanisms of humiliation that we've created. His own T.V. show, The Apprentice was both the perfect vehicle for Trump and the perfect example of an engineered environment made for the perpetuation of Trumpist values. It's an arena where desperate supplicants compete for the patronage of the highest-status individual in the room, who acts as judge, jury and executioner.

Social media was sold to us as the opposite - an anti-hierarchical space which would democratise speech and give everyone a voice, but many aspects of it seem to have replicated the values of The Apprentice's war of all against all - the endless competition for followers and reach, the new opportunities it gives to the powerful and shameless to shame and silence the less powerful.

This sort of thing can only happen where inequalities of power enables bullies - if the person doing this doesn't wield power, you can walk away, or decide not to care. Maybe this partly explains the current fashion for rediscovering Stoic virtues* and the idea that, if we can't take up arms against the slings and arrows of outrageously powerful buffoons, we can at least suffer them with dignified equanimity. It might be worth a shot, as we endure the depressing wait for the day when the Trumps of this world finally overreach themselves and bring their gilded age of toxic inequality and status-obsession to an end.

*Is Stoicism the new mindfulness?

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Furious celeb SLAMS Hull's Christmas trees as ISLAMIST PROPAGANDA

Any insufficient display of enthusiasm for things Christmas-related is usually cited, by members of the alt-right, as evidence for a mythical "war on Christmas" allegedly being waged by an improbable alliance of hard-line secularists and Islam's most inflexible God-botherers. The people behind this odd victim narrative have to get quite creative to come up with anything that looks like evidence for this apostate/heathenish plot (the zombie legend of Winterval, or subversive symbolism hiding on Starbucks coffee cups, among other outlandish claims), because of the overwhelming evidence that most people in the UK routinely celebrate Christmas without any fear of persecution.

Still, at least this means that if you do do something Christmassy, these silly people will get off your case, right? That must be what Hull City Council thought when they came up with the bright idea of decorating the anti-terror bollards around the city's Queen Victoria Square with Christmas trees. As a make-over, I think it works pretty well, but the local authority hadn't reckoned with the now-too-toxic-even-for-the-Daily Mail former reality star, Katie Hopkins, who tweeted, bizarrely:

"Do not use OUR symbols of hope to cover up for THEIR hate. Deport jihadi bastards."
Her (hastily-deleted) Twitter outburst is a useful way of reminding everybody else that there's obviously no pleasing these people, so there's absolutely no point in trying to appease, or reason, with them. Fortunately, now she's lost her soapbox at the Mail, it should be easier than ever to do the right thing and completely ignore Katie Hopkins and her incoherently ignorant opinions.