The French intervention in Mali has provoked predictable outrage in some dovish quarters, and has led to equally predictable axe-grinding over Iraq amongst those more hawkish. I have no idea whether this intervention is wise, but I would be inclined to agree with any pundit with the following record of support for previous wars and interventions:

1) Support for the Gulf War

2) Support for the intervention in Sierra Leone

3) Support for the intervention on behalf of the Kosovans against the Serbs

4) Opposition to the Afghan War

5) Opposition to the Iraq War

6) Support for the actions taken to assist the rebels in Libya

Some slack should be cut for positions on the Afghan war, the success of which, like the French Revolution, it is perhaps too soon to determine. And of course there are plenty of other conflicts that could be taken into consideration, not to mention conflicts that might have been  entered into but weren’t, such as the genocide in Rwanda. These caveats notwithstanding, I can’t think of any pundits with the above stellar record, but I’d be very interested to learn of them…


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Snow days

The other day on question time the topic that inspired the strongest feelings was not Europe or the country’s perilous finances; it was schools closing because of the snow. People were outraged – or, more accurately, OUTRAGED! – that so many schools had been closed. Teachers were lazy, headmasters couldn’t be bothered, Blighty’s gone down the pan, it wuren’t like that in ma day, we used to survive on gruel and live out of a plastic bag, and we wur grateful, GRATEFUL, I TELL THEE!

What a bunch of killjoys!

When I was at school, we used to relish snow days, so we could go out and play with our friends, making snowmen, sledging, snowball fighting, and suchlike. Missing a day’s school wasn’t the end of the world – the work would get done next week. And anyway, it was only learning Je m’appelle, or how to to add and subtract, or “take away”, as we called it, back my day.

In fact, I very much wish that we could carry the children’s ethic into the workplace…

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Free Speech and Bad Ideas

There is a view common among free speech advocates that in a free marketplace of ideas, the best arguments prevail most of the time. This view has a long history dating back to Milton who averred that “in a free and open encounter” truth would prevail. Taking us much closer to the present day, in a 2006 article for Time magazine, Nick Cohen lambasted the “European judges and politicians” who “do not believe that bad arguments can be defeated by better ones in a free society”. Leaving aside that I agree with Cohen in this particular case – he’s criticising a proposed ban on genocide denial in France –  I feel more circumspect than he appears to about the best ideas winning out.

The quality or ‘rightness’ of an idea or argument are only two factors among many in determining that idea or argument’s success. Some ideas may be bad or wrong, but they nevertheless prevail because they are flattering to those that believe them. Most wealthy people believe they have earned their success, whereas grousing socialists might see luck as a more important factor. Such beliefs are manifestations of self-serving bias, which is a psychological tendency to believe ourselves responsible for our successes but to attribute our failures to external factors. This is only one of many cognitive biases, each of which subvert rationality in a way that often obstructs us in alighting upon the best idea or argument.

Sometimes an idea prevails simply because the person holding it has an especially loud voice through privileged access to certain media. Rich people can often just buy their ideas success. They could, like Silvio Berlusconi or Rupert Murdoch, buy a bunch of newspapers and TV stations and staff them with people whose ideas they find congenial. They could pay a fancy communications or PR firm to package their messages in ways that give them broader appeal than they might otherwise have. They could spend vast riches advertising their speech, or, most troublingly of all, they could donate large sums to politicians with the tacit agreement that they support a particular law. Or, as in Berlusconi’s case, they could bypass this thickety process by just being one of those politicians…

I don’t think it would be wild speculation to suggest that some of these might be reasons why so many bad ideas seem to prevail. Whilst the evidence for global warming has accumulated and strengthened, a cottage industry of spurious research and confused journalism, funded largely by people like the Koch brothers, has developed. Not one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers opposed the Iraq war, a bad idea that might not have come to fruition had, say, the editors, publishers, and writers of the New York Review of Books had a similarly loud megaphone. Perhaps also President Obama would have passed comprehensive socialised healthcare in the US had there been a fewer healthcare lobbyists in Washington. (The ratio of lobbyists to congressmen was apparently 6:1.)

This is not to make some grand point that if only the access to society’s means of communications were more egalitarian, the best ideas would always prevail and we would be living in a land of Edenic bliss – though it wouldn’t hurt – but just to make the narrow point that that, contra Milton, a free and open encounter is not a sufficient condition for the best ideas to prevail.

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“Their” or “his or her”

Freddie de Boer, a part time blogger and full time linguistics postgrad, has written a post exploring what he terms “Pronoun X”:

We have this problem in English: we’re lacking a particular pronoun, the third person gender-neutral singular. The conventional way around this is to use their: “every student picked up their paper.” But this usage drives prescriptivist grammarians crazy, as “every” is singular, which we can tell from how “student” inflects as singular. (It’s “every student,” after all, not “every students.”) The typical advice is to instead us “his or her” in place of their. That’s a technically satisfying answer, but as anyone who actually uses English knows, it’s imperfect: it sounds clunky…

Leaving the linguistic debate to Freddie, I think you can tell a lot about a person’s psychology from whether they use “his or her” or “their”. People who use the former, caring greatly about the technically correct grammar, are more likely to be anal, rigidly organized, dyspeptic and eager to look clever; whereas people who use the latter, caring more about what sounds right, are more likely to be relaxed, creative, and comfortable in their own skin.

Of course there are many exceptions to this scheme: myself, for instance. I tend to use ‘their’, but do so because, well, who wants to be perceived as a ‘his or her’ person? Not me, that’s for sure!

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One more thing on Julie Burchill and Free Speech…

…I couldn’t resist!

The Observer’s publishing Burchill’s article actually demonstrates a particular benefit of free speech: at least now a lot of people know how vile Julie Burchill can be. As with other things noxious, better out than in, I say!

Moreover, the whole imbroglio has brought to light the antagonism between a certain kind of feminist and the transexual community, something I, in my detached patriarchal naivety, had been hitherto unaware of. In addition to Julie Burchill, Suzanne Moore and Julie Bindel have also made surprisingly nasty statements about transexuals. Perhaps this is a generational thing because Laurie Penny, the 26 year old author of Meat Market: Female Flesh under Capitalism, has written a great piece standing up for transexuals.

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Julie Burchill and Free Speech

The Observer has removed Julie Burchill’s controversial article, in which she insulted transgender people, from its site, leading many to complain that the paper is guilty of censorship. The Telegraph has gleefully reprinted the article, and its blogger Toby Young, an old friend of Burchill, has penned a piece lambasting the Observer for their decision.

This raises a couple of interesting questions about free speech: Is removing a writer’s article from a website, in effect de-publishing it, an act of censorship? And if it is, is that censorship justifiable?

Our intuitions about what counts as censorship vary according to the particular situation in which the speech is forbidden. If for some unfathomable reason Julie Burchill decided that she really wanted to write a similar piece of bigotry for my own blog but I refused to publish it, that would hardly count as censorship. There are plenty of other places Burchill could go to print her stuff, and the proprietor of a particular platform is not obliged to give space to people or speech just because that person wants them to. If they were I would be complaining vociferously about how this country’s national press just won’t print my stuff!

It feels differently, however, when the platform is a national newspaper that has repeatedly published material by the writer in question before, as is true in this case. The Observer is a national newspaper, and as such it is part of our public sphere, a place where issues are to be debated. Its editors have in effect blocked off a part of the public sphere to a writer they deem to be offensive. As Burchill is a prominent journalist whose views many are eager to read, the Observer is denying those readers that chance, which does indeed seem like censorship.

But is that censorship justified? As the Telegraph’s witty blogger Tim Stanley pointed out, Burchill’s prose could have been “recited in the middle of a pub fight”. She refers to transexuals as “trannies”, “shemales”, and “shims”, words no doubt uttered by many a red-faced boozer across the land. There can be little doubt many in the transsexual community would find such language offensive. Indeed the LGBT hate crime charity Galop have expressed their “overwhelming sense of sadness and anger”, adding that articles like Burchill’s “help create a society that allows [harassment of transsexuals] to happen”.

Sensibly Galop have rejected calls to prosecute Burchill under any hate speech legislation, but they have reported her to the Press Complaints Commission (She must be pertified!). It will be interesting to see what the PCC thinks about this, especially after the criticism they have endured since the phone-hacking scandal.

My own personal view is that the Observer should not have published the piece because it was a crudely offensive attack on a persecuted minority, but, importantly, their publishing it should not be criminalised. People should be free to say the things Burchill said, but national newspapers should be wary of publishing them.

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“Enough of the false nostalgia: we don’t really miss HMV. If we’d cared, it wouldn’t have died”, proclaims Tom Chivers in the Telegraph.

Well, perhaps. Like Chivers I have not bought anything from HMV in years; nor had I been into Woolworths or Comet prior to their closing. And I am too young to have ever known a time when one would toddle down the cobble-stoned street picking up goods from the butcher, the baker, and the candle-stick maker, meeting kindly neighbours along the way.

But I do feel that that would have been a nice experience, and I do think someone can feel sad at the passing of high street stores even if they didn’t use them much.

I don’t doubt that the web and online shopping have – apologies for the forthcoming Spock-like language – seen a net increase increase in utility for most people. But just because an old way of doing something has been superseded by a newer and better way, does not mean that there is not a sadness to in the older thing’s passing.

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