Archive for December, 2009

The eye of the beholder

31 December, 2009 1 comment

Over the summer, I heard Tyler Cowen on EconTalk, the economics podcast with Russ Robert that I’d highly recommend. He was discussing his recent book, Create Your Own Economy, in which Cowen, who has recently realized that he is somewhat autistic, describes how society today is much more amenable to autism than times past, given the more common tendency to collect information online. He also finds many historic and even fictional people who he believes could be described as autistic. Two he mentioned were Adam Smith and Sherlock Holmes.

I had to smile to myself, because I had felt both could be gay. In the case of Smith, when I did a course on the History of Macroeconomic Thought, our lecturer, Prof. Antoin Murphy, took the time with each of the economists we studied, from William Petty to Henry Thornton, to give a brief biography. So I couldn’t but notice that in both his case and David Hume’s, they never married or seemed to have any relations with women, explained by saying that they were very close to their respective mothers. As I had before noticed Smith being cited by the Conservative Humanist Association, it was amusing to think that the man who most popularized the ideas of classical economic thought in the Enlightenment might be, like myself, a gay religious skeptic.

As to Holmes (also a rationalist skeptic), it had first occurred to me in my early teens, as I was towards the end of reading all sixty Holmes Adventures for the second time. In the fifty-fourth story, The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, Dr John Watson, Holmes’s housemate and chronicler,  is shot, and for a moment Holmes shows true compassion for his injured friend. It seemed to me to make sense as a romantic attachment, so that when I saw Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes later, it was not the first time I considered whether Holmes was gay. Of course, the normal reaction of close friends would probably be no different, but there was something in the way that he had not till that moment been anything other than wholly reserved about his feelings. He never seemed to care much either for Watson’s short-lived marriage (Robert Downey’s portrayal of this in Sherlock Holmes what prompted me to write this). There was Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia, referred to Holmes as The Woman, but the intrigue for him could well have been just admiration for her ability to outwit him.

Which is not to say that either Smith or Holmes is or is nor autistic or gay. But we all have a tendency to find such likenesses, particularly with those characters or figures we admire, and where there is little chance of falsification.


On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill

31 December, 2009 Leave a comment

In 1859, 150 years ago, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) published On Liberty, one of the finest expostulations of individual liberty in political philosophy. Mill was someone whose words in the years since his death have been expropriated by both socialists, who emphasize his ideas on collective ownership of firms, and by conservatives, who emphasize his suspicion of the state. While he does offer a lot to many political traditions, he should still be regarded primarily as a liberal, given his continual emphasis on the importance of the individual as a political and moral agent in society.

On Liberty is, of course, most famous for his delineation in Chapter One of the role of society in restricting the actions of individuals, with what has become known as the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.

His words have since been appealed to in opposition to laws regulating private actions and speech. Read in context of the work as a whole, it is clear that Mill was cautious not just of the arms of the state itself, but also of society in general, which in the later Victorian era had become exceptionally moralistic. It had taken on a very middle-class puritan outlook, and he was critical of this attitude of social conservatives even when they did not specifically manage to get the point of legislating against what they determined as vice. He strongly defends freedom of opinion and expression, but his justification is more on the usefulness of alternative points of view in challenging received opinion than on the simple right of the individual. In his defence of freedom of practice and custom, he asks his English reader to consider their position in another society with different customs and taboos, which it would surely be wrong to compel them to follow.

Mill was no armchair philosopher. From early in his life he showed his deep concern for society through his actions. Richard Reeves, in his biography Victorian Firebrand, describes how at the age of 17 he found the corpse of a newborn infant, and from then realized how important education on birth control would be to the lives of the working classes. He distributed literature on birth control, contravening laws on obscenity and spent two nights in jail. At the same time, he strongly believed that parents, and not the state had a deep responsibility for the children they had borne. In Chapter Five of On Liberty, he believed that the state should require a certain standard of education, but that it should be “fulfilled, at the charge, as far as possible, of the parent”. While he did accept that the state should pay for the education of the children of those who could not pay for it, his beliefs that parents should be responsible for providing for their offspring were such that he argued that beyond those who could not provide for them should not have the right to bear children, something few who have a followed him could stomach, following the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus (1766–1834). While still on the subject of education, he anticipated Milton Friedman’s school vouchers in arguing against a state school system, saying that “a general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another”.

His own family and personal life was interesting. He was subject to a harsh educational regime by his father, the philosopher James Mill (1773–1836). In his Autobiography, he recounts beginning to read Latin at eight, and Greek at an earlier age, and reading many of the classic works in the original language at that age. He asserts his belief that any child subject to such an education at that age could learn as he did, in line with idea of the blank slate, where the capacity of our minds are not determined at birth, something I would highly doubt. He never got a chance to try such methods with any child of his own, being in a long-term relationship with a married woman. He met Harriet Taylor in 1830, married since 1826 to John Taylor. Harriet and John Stuart soon fell in love, but her husband remained alive till 1849, John Stuart and Harriet marrying in 1851, when she was beyond child-bearing age.

Mill also served a term in parliament from 1865 to 1868, and was an active voice, speaking strongly in favour of the Union in the American Civil War, in defence of the life of condemned Fenians, and on suffrage reform. His greatest parliamentary legacy was the beginning of the campaign for political equality for women. He moved an amendment in 1867 in a debate on the Reform Bill to change the word ‘man’ to ‘person’. He viewed the position of women in most households as an anomaly akin to slavery, “not felt to jar with modern civilization, any more than domestic slavery among the Greeks had jarred with their notion of themselves as free people”. He was critical of the Reform League for the aim of manhood, rather than universal, suffrage.

He had ideas on voting reform that received very little popularity, specifically the idea that votes should be given in according to the degree of education. Every ordinary unskilled labourer would get one vote, a skilled labourer would have two, and so on, so that lawyers, doctors, clergymen and artists would get five or six. Proposed when those at the bottom end of the scale had no vote at all, this was better than nothing, but was unlikely to appeal to many. He also opposed the secret ballot, believing that people should be able to account for their votes.

He also voted against the abolition of the death penalty, arguing “what else but effeminacy is it to be so much more shocked by taking a man’s life than by depriving him of all that makes life valuable”, and was an advocate of compulsory military service, so that there could be an army called at any time if necessary, without a permanent force, believing the latter more likely to be oppressive.

In economic terms, Mill was clearly a classical economist. He opposed progressive taxation, “to tax larger incomes at a higher percentage than the smaller is to lay a tax on industry and economy and to impose a penalty of people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours” and he criticized the paternalistic nature of factory legislation, creating “in the minds of labouring people the persuasion that it is the business of others to take care of their condition”. In his later years, however, he supported the rise of the working classes, believing that they should seek to own the sources of labour collectively, through cooperatives. Given changing times he lived in, it is difficult for any contemporary political tradition to claim his views wholesale, though with this mix, he fits most closely with the Liberal Democrats, as one would expect. He has served as one of the great influences for those across the political spectrum, and his ideas remain a yardstick by which people seek to justify their political actions.

Living a lie

29 December, 2009 Leave a comment

On a night out before Christmas, someone from my class who had read this blog asked what I made of Gareth Thomas coming out. I could make very little of it really. Obviously, it is a good thing for young gay men and boys, particularly in Wales, that someone people look up to, in a sport with no other openly gay players, has now said that he is gay. But he meant very little to me. I hadn’t heard of him till this was news, and even writing this, I had to check that I had his name right. In primary school, a lack of interest in sport was something that often separated me from every other boy in the class, and I’m not going to become interested now just because one of the players is gay.

Something about the story, though, did re-occur to me. Talking about it, people worked on the assumption that he had denied his sexuality, hidden it from himself or others. Unlike Dónal Óg Cusack, the Cork hurler who came out earlier this year, Thomas had been married, according to Wikipedia, to his childhood sweetheart. One commentary I read assumed that without the institution of the closet, this could all have been avoided. No one can be sure about this particular marriage, but I’m not sure if we can be certain of that. There are degrees of obviousness to individuals, and not necessarily determined by societal pressure. It’s quite possible to be in a perfectly tolerant society, with no disadvantage to being known to be gay, but for someone to come out late enough, having allowed others to work on the assumption that they were straight, without personal dishonesty.

Suppose forty or fifty years down the line, if practically no Western liberal democracy had any prohibition on gay couples marrying, if it was perfectly normal in society’s eyes to be gay, there would be boys (girls too, of course, but it’s easier for me from my point of view to refer to boys) who at a young age would realize that they’re gay, and that would be grand. But there could still be those who think they might be gay, but then notice some girl and feel attracted to her. This could go on for many years, and with every girl he liked, and could imagine forming a relationship with, probably with only the immediate short-term in mind, it could feel real. He might go out with a girl for a while, with quite a genuine feeling of attraction, a pattern reinforced by the greater number of girls than gay men in most groups of people, before eventually realizing that in the long-term, he would rather be with boys.  Even after that point, he might still feel the occasional attraction towards girls, but be less likely to act on that.

Alfred Kinsey, after years of interviews, devised a simple scale, with 0 as heterosexual and 6 as homosexual. Most of the population are at 0, with a varying distribution at other points. In a future society unprejudiced on this point, we could assume that most 5s and 6es would always be known to be gay. The 4s would probably still be a little slower to settle down as gay. And there would still be those 3s, people who are genuinely bisexual. There is not a simple binary distinction between those who are gay and straight.

I think people would implicitly appreciate this subtlety, that with no societal pressure, it would not be a case of someone lying to himself or others if it was late enough that he came out.

Consider two late nineteenth/early twentieth-century writers. E. M. Forster (1879–1970) was unmarried, and was probably never likely to marry. Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), on the other hand, was married with two children before he met Robert Ross and became actively gay. Presumably before that point, Wilde had noticed his attraction to the male form, but had not felt it so overriding that he would not marry. Of course societal attitudes, but it made more of a difference in some people’s case than others.

And so today, between the clear closet of earlier times, and an ideal unprejudiced future, and in many circumstances closer to the latter, we should not presume that all those who are gay are equally so, and those who come out later than others are necessarily living a lie.

Capitalism and Christmas

23 December, 2009 Leave a comment

Here’s a nice article from Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute in a head-to-head on the meaning of Christmas. Though Miss Rand herself was not known to be particularly warm, perhaps this shows how the Christmas spirit brings out the best in all of us.

This focus on earthly joy is the actual source of the emotion most commonly identified with Christmas: goodwill. When you genuinely feel good about your own life and when you’re allowed to acknowledge and celebrate that joy, you come to wish the same happiness for others. It is those who despise their own lives who lash out at and make life miserable for the rest of us. …

Christmas as we know it, with its twinkling lights, flying reindeer, and dancing snowmen, is largely a creation of 19th-century America. One of the most un-Christian periods in Western history, it was a time of worldly invention, industrialization, and profit. Only such an era would think of a holiday dominated by commercialism and joy and sense the connection between the two.

Though I think anyone writing on this side of the Atlantic would have to give due credit to Charles Dickens, who so popularized the merriment of the season.

The Decline of American Liberalism, by Arthur A. Ekirch

22 December, 2009 Leave a comment

This book, written in 1955, recounts the history of the United States from the perspective of the declining importance and success in politics of the liberal tradition as expounded by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Prof. Arthur Ekirch (1915-2000) praises the liberalism of eighteenth century political thought, and how the American Revolution was clearly a liberal one, where Washington did not become a Caesar, a Cromwell or a Napoleon. The American revolutionaries were conscious of the need to avoid replacing the military rule from Britain with a domestic equivalent.

Prof. Ekirch sees the decline of American liberalism beginning effectively from the end of the Revolution, with a brief life under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the book, he holds agrarian Jeffersonian liberalism as the ideal. He quotes Jefferson, in a sentiment that typifies the principles and attitude of the book,

Government should not only be prohibited from interfering with the rights of individuals and from creating a large bureaucratic class who could live at public expense … The greatest of all dangers to democratic freedom and equality was the use of political power by an aristocracy, a bureaucracy, a mercantile oligarchy, a pressure group, or any other minority interest in order to increase their wealth or to obtain the privilege of living parasitically on other men’s labor.

He chastises attempts by the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to aid business in the early years of the new state. The book, however, should not bee seen as a diatribe by a pseudo-libertarian small government conservative, as gives more space to a criticism of the Alien and Sedition Acts instituted by President John Adams’ administration in 1798, and heavily attacked by Jefferson. Then Jefferson’s own two terms show the difficulties even true liberals have in governing true to their principles, particularly in light of the nationalism provoked by the continuing Napoleonic wars in Europe.

Ekirch believed there was promise in President Andrew Jackson following in the Jeffersonian tradition, but this was ultimately confined to the sphere of economics. “Retaining only its economic program, the Democratic party of Jackson worked out an alliance among southern slaveholders, western expansionists, and the urban and immigrant masses of the North. National unity was thus preserved at the price of liberal values”. Then followed the single greatest example of the decline of American liberalism, in the perpetutation of the practice of slavery, and the extent to which the country had to go to end it. In the case of the Civil War, while Ekirch does give voice to pacifists, he does not write against it, as he does other wars. He does, however, lament the illiberal practices by the government during the time of the war, such as conscription, arbitrary arrest and the seizure of property.

Ekirch’s argument really takes hold recounting the years after the Civil War, when with nationalism the scope of the government grew significantly, and with it the possibility of patronage and favours. He recounts the corruption of the Republican Party in the postwar years. He is also of critical of the Reconstruction policy, “based on force and military occupation of the former Confederacy, was the opposite of liberal”. But there are times when a liberal needs to use coercion, and had they ensured that there would be a democratic society based on liberal values, then I think it would have been justified. The real fault was that the policy of Reconstruction was often times triumphalist and not being directed on liberal ends.

He is strongly critical of the Populist movement, who began in years from 1887 to institute segregation laws in railroad travel and the beginning of the Jim Crow Laws. As poor white activists sought greater political power, they used this to assert a higher place in society than the black population. This time also saw the rise of protectionism, with the Morrill Act from 1862. The Republican Party, as the party of big business, were all too happy subsidize and protect the business and trade of their supporters. During the same period, the native American population lost their separate nation status, with an act of 1871 stipulating that no more treaties be made between Indians and the Federal government.

For much of the late nineteenth-century years, the Republicans were more likely to interfere in the economy, with the Democrats taking a classical liberal approach. This saw a break when President Gover Cleveland, hitherto known as a liberal, used Federal forces to break the Pullman Strike in 1894, led by Eugene Debs against private railroads. The criticism of Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalist outlook is interesting as he was frequently cited by Sen. John McCain last year as his favourite president. In a speech on praising state education, Roosevelt said that “the commonwealth will get from every citizen the highest service of which he is capable”, as McCain spoke of patriotism and the virtue in serving a purpose higher than oneself.

Liberals saw hope in the election of Woodrow Wilson in1912, but were to be disappointed by his eventual entry into the First World War. He initially received the support of many liberals, for his entry into the War, but when this did occur, there was a growing resentment at the illiberal policies of the war at home, particularly in terms of conscription and censorship. The description of these years again brought to mind recent years, with a war ostensibly fought on liberal grounds leading the government in an illiberal direction. Similarly the reluctance of Republicans to criticize Democrats for entering a war was to reoccur when LBJ started the Vietnam War.

Ekirch shows a particular respect for Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party, who was imprisoned in 1919 for his opposition to the draft during the war. President Wilson proved particularly vindictive in his case, and it took the election of a Republican president, Warren G. Harding, to commute his sentence and invite him to the White House.

President Harding’s return to normalcy was not to see any revival of liberalism, as the 1920s were to witness a rise in anti-immigrant feeling; a resurgence of racism manifested in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan; a constitutional prohibition of alcohol; laws on sexual vice; the prohibition of narcotic drugs (which of all these, is the one to remain to this day); censorship of books and film; and the increase in the brutality of police techniques. There was not even the trade-off for a classical liberal of free trade, as the GOP returned to its old policy of higher protective tariffs.

He sees Franklin D. Roosevelt’s victory over Herbert Hoover as inevitable given the circumstances, but condemns the way the New Deal created institutional framework to the advantage of big business. Ekirch is critical of the way the US prepared for and fought the war. Here he is speaking as a pacifist; as a European pleased on balance with the outcome of the Second World War, I cannot go as far as he does. But he is right to condemn the treatment of Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were citizens, sent to government detention centres, and of conscientious objectors (of which, the author’s biography at the end reveals, he was one, sent for two years to a public service camp).

The ten years between the end of the War and writing his book provided ample further material to account for the declining force of liberal ideals in government, with the way the Cold War was being fought and national loyalty required. Spending on security continued to be high, the Secretary of State was for the first time a former professional soldier, and freedom of speech and association was curtailed for communists. There was some good, however, in the righting of the ancient wrong by the beginning of granting political liberty to the black population. Still, government exercised greater control over education, with laws to fire teachers who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the nation. Sen. Robert Taft was particularly adamant in his opposition to this practice, and Ekirch is critical of liberals for leaving this role to a conservative.

Ekirch’s work here is certainly thorough, cataloguing the encroaching role of the state in all the time since the United States’ independence. He is to be commended for truly taking a universal approach to liberalism, not confining it simply to a single issue such as the economy or war policy, and also for seeing those as different in other aspects as Eugene Debs and Robert Taft as intellectual allies depending on the cause. My one criticism is that he does not give enough room for a discussion of the movement for racial equality, and of the racism of politicians such as Woodrow Wilson. I would certainly recommend it, though it is difficult to come across, as it was a book I had to order in from the Independent Institute in California.

Conformity is Rebellion: Rage consumers did what they were told

22 December, 2009 Leave a comment

So Rage Against the Machine’s Killing in the Name Of became this year’s UK No. #1 Single. I listened to this song on YouTube for the first time on Friday night. For those few of you who have not had the fine pleasure of hearing this before, it ends with a repeated refrain of “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me”. A standard anti-man type of song then. So to get at the man of manufactured pop music, a Facebook campaign started, ultimately successful, to try to beat Joe McElderry, winner of the X-Factor from getting the #1 spot. Thousands of people did what their friends and a Facebook group told them, and bought this Rage Against the Machine song.

I’m not writing here against Rage Against the Machine. I heard their song in isolation, didn’t think it was great, but have no particular objection to it. My taste in music is conservative enough, between The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, ABBA and R.E.M., but I do occasionally listen to punk or metal, like The Clash, Metallica or the Sex Pistols. It’s the campaign here I wasn’t impressed by. It’s been pointed out many times, but both songs were owned by Sony, so whether or not the campaign was covertly orchestrated by them to try to get the top two slots, it achieved as much.

I’m quite a fan of individualism, just not the collectivist sort. If people had bought the X-Factor winner in the past few years just because it was the thing to do, this was no less the case for those who bought Rage Against the Machine this year. There was nothing rebellious in this act, or at least nothing positive. Ideally the charts should reflect the music people want to hear, not the destructive pleasure people get out of something else not topping a chart.

Some people may not like it, but pop music is popular. Millions tuned in week after week to see who was in or out of the X-Factor, with nearly 10 million watching the final. Even if you have no interest in the X-Factor, as I mostly had, why is it considered sophisticated to deride others’ pleasure? Those who bought The Climb did not necessarily mean to suggest it was great music. They enjoyed it on the night, wanted to hear it a few more times, maybe it was they wanted to tell their friends they had it. Whatever it was, it was probably not a mass attempt to get the X-Factor song as the Christmas #1. They bought The Climb because they genuinely wanted to hear it, not because they were told to.

Surely an anti-groupthink attitude towards the X-Factor would be to ignore it completely, to simply not care whether it or anything else reached the #1, and to dismiss such charts as just a flash in the pan.

As I’m writing about music, here’s a song the Pet Shop Boys released earlier this year that I’ve come back to listen to a few times in the past week.

I hate communists

9 December, 2009 Leave a comment

I can get like this at times.

Categories: Politics Tags: , ,