Sunday, August 30, 2009

Powell and Bose

When Fitzroy MacLean parachuted into Yugoslavia in 1943, little was known of Tito and the Partisans. Rumours suggested Tito was a woman, or a committee. MacLean found a communist.

During a subsequent meeting with Churchill, which he reported in his book Eastern Approaches (I can't find my copy so can't give the page reference), MacLean pointed out that supporting Tito, though militarily advantageous in the fight against the Germans, meant that Yugoslavia was being condemned to communist rule. Churchill asked him whether he was planning to live in Yugoslavia after the war. MacLean replied that he was not. Churchill said he wasn't either, and that concluded the conversation.

Not only were they both willing to take their enemy's enemy as their friend, they were prepared to condemn a whole country to what both regarded as tyranny, if that furthered their own national interest. From a modern British perspective, it's possible at least to understand their reasoning, whether or not we agree with it. They were defending liberal democracy against fascism. It's much harder to understand it when we are the bad guys, the enemy, in the fight against whom others are prepared to make alliances with evils. In fact, it's very difficult to accept we might have been, or even might still be, the bad guys in conflicts.

During World War Two, also in 1943, there was a famine in Bengal. There hadn't been a bad harvest, the famine was a man-made thing caused by both speculative and panic buying - the latter raised prices and made the former attractive - and by a sluggish colonial administration, British, that continued to export food as the famine worsened. Some three million people died, about half the death toll of the Holocaust. During the second half of the nineteenth century, between 30 and 40 million Indians died during famines. There have been no famines in India since independence in 1947.

These experiences of famine and of the absence of famine were of central importance to the work of Indian economist Amartya Sen, who suggests that democracies with free presses do not experience famines. Although his message is a complicated one, and places importance on the idea of "positive" liberty, liberal and free market types, like me, like to quote Sen from time to time. Tim Worstall quoted him a month or two ago, here, for example. If Sen is right, though, the blame for these famines in India lies in the fact that there was a colonial administration. It lies with the British.

About twenty years ago, I had some contact with one of Bose's sons, on and off, for a year or so. He was very proud of his lineage, in fact the reverse of his business cards mentioned it. He saw no reason at all why a white Englishman should not compliment him on it. Neither could I. Bose was not a fascist any more than Fitzroy MacLean was a communist. I think Bose made the wrong choice. I think he should have opposed the Nazis then opposed British rule, by peaceful means - not least because they were more likely to succeed, as events in India showed. I think the same about the IRA.

What's more, Britain was not, in the late 1930s, going round the world fighting fascism. We didn't help the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War and we tried very hard to maintain "peace in our time" and NOT fight the Nazis. We were a lot less principled than we'd now like to think.

So on to the blog spat. Mr E wrote about the:

... mock outrage on the left over Dan Hannan's warm words for Enoch Powell - despite the fact that Hannan made no reference to Powell's views on immigration
Oliver Kamm thought differently:
Powell's broader political outlook was consistently ridiculous and he is remembered for one thing above all. He inflamed debate and debased the political culture by his incendiary and carefully judged comments on race. In Powell's words in 1968, under the Race Relations Bill (later the Race Relations Act) "the immigrant communities can organise to consolidate their members, to agitate and campaign against their fellow citizens, and to overawe and dominate the rest with the legal weapons which the ignorant and the ill-informed have provided".

This wasn't aberrant in his philosophy. Powell was a pig-headed, anti-American, anti-European, xenophobic, crank conspiracy theorist. It was no accident (the dreary Marxisant formulation is apt here) that his wider writings were so preposterous: witness his forays into biblical criticism and his belief that the works attributed to Shakespeare were in reality written by the 17th Earl of Oxford. These were the recreational outlets for a mentality that found political expression in paranoid malevolence.
The important point about Kamm's criticism is that it was not restricted to the subject of race. Setting that aside and accepting that Hannan does not agree with Powell's stance on the subject, Powell is still a ridiculous figure to hold up as an intellectual hero. But given that Powell has become symbolic for ethnic minorities in Britain, using his name is probably unwise, for a politician, and whatever point one might be trying to make could probably be made in another way.

Hannan says he simply praised Powell
... for his prescience in understanding the threat that European integration posed to national democracy.
If that was the case, no more certain way could be found for the point about European integration to be entirely smothered and lost in an avalanche of criticism, than by citing Enoch's wise words on the subject.

So Hannan was apparently making what I'd regard as a reasonable point in a way almost calculated to be self-defeating. There are, of course, less charitable interpretations available. "Enoch was OK" is often code for "there are too many darkies". Hannan doesn't, so far as I can see, feel this is the case. So it was doubly stupid for him both to lose his argument in a welter of irrelevant criticism, and to sow a seed of (I believe unfounded) suspicion that he might be a closet racist.

Powell was a crank who, in my view knowingly, stirred racial discord. Bose was an Indian nationalist who was willing to ally with extraordinarily evil powers in the furtherance of what he saw as his own national interest. Powell was a British nationalist who was willing to ally with an extraordinarily evil power - I'm not aware he criticised our wartime alliance with Stalin. Both were willing to fight with courage for their country. The balance of awfulness favours Bose here.

Me E called it the other way:
I myself view neither Powell, Castro nor Bose as political heroes. But if we're really going to go down the route of choosing our leaders based on their views about divisive hate figures from the past, I'm afraid it's not much of a horse race. Give me the one who supports the democrat over the ones who support the dictators every time.
That's fair enough - though I'm not sure which democrats were available for an alliance with Bose. In the course of his argument, though, Mr E also criticised Sunny Hundall:
... one can't help noticing the lack of such outrage when Southall MP Virendra Sharma praised the pro-independence Indian leader, Subhas Chandra Bose. Indeed, Sunny leapt to his defence...
Hundall's response was:
Erm yeah. One was a high-ranking British politician who warned that black and white people mixing would lead to race war. The other was a lowly freedom fighter trying to get rid of the British Raj from India who had ruled his country for centuries and killed millions of people in the process. Obviously both are roughly in the same situation. By the same measure Churchill is a dictator who should never be spoken off highly forever.
Tim Worstall weighed in:
Bose fought for an[d] with the fascists. Indeed, if Powell had had his request granted to join the Chindits he would have fought directly against Bose and his fascist allies.

By continuing Sunny’s logic we should all therefore be supporting the BNP for they are indeed fighting with, not against, fascism. Or something.
Oh, there's nothing like a good blog spat.

I hate to say it, though, but in this one I agree with Sunny. If we'd been fighting the Soviets in 1939, we'd have allied with fascists too.

Friday, August 28, 2009


From this week's Normblog Profile, of Vanessa Cabban. I've changed the sequence of these slightly:

What do you consider to be the main threat to the future peace and security of the world? > The male of the human species.

Who are your intellectual heroes? > George Orwell.

Who are your political heroes? > Nelson Mandela.

Who are your cultural heroes? > Nick Park, Roald Dahl, Pippi Longstocking.

Who is your favourite composer? > Michael Nyman.

If you could have any three guests, past or present, to dinner who would they be? > Michael MacIntyre, Roald Dahl, Alan Titchmarsh.

If you could choose anyone, from any walk of life, to be Prime Minister, who would you choose? > Andrew Marr.
Pippi Longstocking is fictional.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Blunt and sharp

From a post at the LPUK blog:

However as is usual with our lefty friends they don't actual [sic] present any solid arguments in support of the NHS.

The basis of their argument for the NHS is that if we didn't have the NHS we wouldn't have a health care system. And everyone would die. Which is utter tosh.
The problem is, the post at Liberal Conspiracy being criticised makes no such claims. It's a silly post, but it doesn't suggest what is attributed to it. Left wing critics of health care reform in this country are, as His Eminence pointed out recently, curiously conservative, resisting change for the sake of it, waffling about our institutions being "the envy of the world" like some 1970s Tory talking about the (then eye-wateringly corrupt) police force. They let their own dogmas stand in the way of the simple pragmatism of taking the best from health systems around the world, and people suffer and die avoidably as a consequence. There's lots to criticise in this type of approach, but it's hard to see what attacking arguments they haven't made is likely to accomplish.

The LPUK post goes on, describing quotations from the LC post as "lies... nonsense... and spin": assertion without argument, solid or otherwise. When an argument does finally appear, it is this:
As we all know the 'free at the point of use' line rolled out by lefties to support the NHS is one of the most incredible examples of mass delusion possible.

It's similar to buying something online and then claiming it is 'free at the point of delivery' when it is posted through your door. Quite how anyone can suggest something is free when you've already paid for it is beyond me. Do people think hospitals grow on trees or something?
"Grow on trees"? That's parent-speak. I'll give you grow on trees...

The NHS is free "at the point of use". Arguably that's one of the things wrong with it; the addition of a small consultation charge for GPs might discourage frivolous use of their services. The qualifier "at the point of use" recognises that we pay for the NHS through our taxes.

In the LPUK post is a clip of Daniel Hannan being interviewed by Judge Napolitano on a Fox programme called Freedom Watch. Hannan is introduced as an MP (he's an MEP) and Prime Minister Brown is described as Chancellor Brown. Hannan is excellent but he is not surrounded, in these cases, by the sharpest implements from the tool kit.

LPUK showed some early promise, I thought, but seems to have turned into the saloon bar at a home counties golf club; its members have, for some reason, elected as their leader a cross between Captain Mainwaring and David Icke.

All very odd.

On the other hand, the Oxford Libertarian Society blog is worth an RSS subscription. There's a good piece here about the recently deceased G.A. Cohen's critiques of liberal and libertarian thinking. Among other things, it points out what is on the face of it a contradiction in some Marxist thinking: the notion that it is exploitation for capitalists to benefit from the labour of their employees suggests that these employees have moral ownership of the entire total of their individual outputs, whereas the idea that part of their outputs should be redistributed (according to need) suggests they don't. If someone can take away some of their output, why not those who have financed the business as well as, or instead of, the State?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009


Whether or not we should have lots of "shiny new polytechnics" isn't the issue that struck me, reading this post from Tim Worstall. In the comments, someone said:

... its a moot point how many people actually use- or even remember- the majority of what they were taught in schools. Perhaps there’s a case for saying we go overboard on education.
Perhaps not.

We might not remember everything we were taught in geography or history or maths lessons. We remember some of it, I expect, and that helps us in our lives. But the real point of exposing children to all the main academic disciplines is that we can't predict what will interest them and what they will excel in.

Some of the kids who study history will become historians, either in a small way in their school specialisations, or in a large way as academics or autodidacts in adult life. Many won't. But we ought to be giving them this exposure to the spectrum of thought and study, as well as equipping them with basic tools of numeracy and literacy. It's the only way they will be able to find their potentials.

And please don't underrate the importance of a plumber with a fascination in the reign of James II. That's just the purest snobbery - that person's life is far richer for their interest and, as Mastermind showed, some people gain deep knowledge of their subjects just as hobbyists and amateurs. Such outcomes are very much one of the purposes of education.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Two against one

It's brief, so in full. Glenn Reynolds:

SCENES FROM A NEW AMERICA: So I dropped the girls off at a movie, and — since the Insta-wife was lunching with her mom — stopped at a Sonny’s Barbecue for lunch. A man — late 40s, big, with a wife and a daughter — came in with an empty holster on his belt. As he sat down at the booth next to mine, the manager came by and asked him if he’d left his gun in the car. Yes, said the man, who had a permit but thought he wasn’t allowed to carry in restaurants in Tennessee.. Well, they’ve changed the law, said the manager, and if you want to go get it that’s fine with us. It’s legal now, and I’m happy to have you carrying — if somebody tries to rob me, it’s two against one.

The man stepped outside and returned with a Springfield XD in the holster, chatted with the manager for a bit about guns, and then sat down and had lunch with his family.
Most of the time, it's the gut response that separates us; horror or comfort at the sight or thought of a family man sitting in a restaurant with a gun on his hip. The political rationalisation follows.

I don't think the guy would be any more likely to start shooting if he had a gun than if he didn't. Unless there was a robbery. That's why I feel comfort. Whereas the robbers... they have guns anyway.

I hope the coffee was on the house.

Via Tim Blair - who has also picked up on some Amazon one star book and film reviews:
Moby Dick, Herman Melville: “Too nautical for me.”

Life's what happens...

... while you're making other plans.

I haven't been blogging so much recently. That's because I've had some opportunities I hadn't expected and I've been trying to do two things at once, the day job with computers and some new things.

It seems the new things are winning out. I'm moving out of my computer work and into screenwriting. There'll still be a transition period, but it's now a matter of phasing out my involvement with IT. Some new people have come into that business and will be taking the company in a slightly different direction, and I hope they do well with it.

In the meantime, I have a screenplay to finish.

With a bit of luck I'll be able to blog a bit more soon.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Guppy on Iran

Azarmehr writes today about a piece by Darius Guppy in The Independent a few days ago. I'd missed it.

Guppy's theme is that Iranians look with horror at the decadent place the UK has become, with drunken chavs falling over each other and vomiting in the street. By contrast, Iranian culture is sophisticated, ancient and noble. The latter is true enough, if you take a selective view of it. Of course you could take an equally selective view of Western culture and talk about Chaucer and Auden. Guppy doesn't focus on the nobility of raping girls before their judicial murder, but shows no signs of being discomfited by it. Guppy also says the election results were fair.

But it would be a mistake to get too drawn into his argument. Guppy's theme is not, in fact, Iran. It's Darius Guppy. Ever since being released from jail, he has been convinced that Britain's failure to hail him as a warrior prince is a sign of its decadence. This was in him before, in the form of a fascination with strong-man leaders of the past, like Napoleon and Hitler, but has become more entrenched since.

Earlier this year he wrote a letter to the Telegraph about his plot to have a journalist beaten up, in which he suggested that in the Britain of the past he would have been hailed as a man of honour for doing this. Of course, almost no society ever has considered the cowardly hiring of thugs to settle scores to be honourable, especially not that of Britain 150 years ago. Waiting on the steps of a man's club, armed with a horsewhip, perhaps. Challenging them to a duel, perhaps. But the anonymous hiring of thugs, no, not ever.

So he is a deluded man, sitting in exile, hating the society that failed to see and admire his nobility. This is why he thinks Britain is decadent, and it has nothing to do the contrast with Iran, that's just a convenient hook for his already-held view.

In his piece, Guppy refers to a phrase he apparently thinks deserves to enter the modern lexicon: "McDonald's-munching slaves" - that's the British, if you hadn't guessed. I have some slight sympathy, I don't like McDonald's burgers myself. I've only eaten them three times in the last twenty years, that I can remember. On two of these occasions, I was in the company of... Darius Guppy, who insisted on it. He liked McDonald's, and explained to me, with the frisson a coprophiliac might feel as he smeared excrement over his face, that he knew it was plebeian, but he just was drawn to the underbelly occasionally.

So why did The Independent print this piece by the McDonald's-munching Guppy? There is a strange connection between the two. Twenty years ago, Kim Sengupta was a very dapper young crime correspondent working for Express Newspapers, one with what I can only describe as excellent contacts within the police force. I met him at that time, still have his business card. He wrote a lot about Guppy, occasionally with surprising levels of insight into events behind the scenes.

Today, Sengupta writes for The Independent and specialises in Islamic countries and the War Against Terror, or whatever you want to call it. He is not a Neo-Conservative. I have no idea whether this had anything to do with the commissioning of Guppy's piece, but if the two did have any contact, they must have had a lot to talk about.

In passing, I notice that Guppy has been furnished with a supplementary nether orifice in the following posts, and commend the authors for their perspicacity:

The Poor Mouth - Darius Guppy: From prison bitch to regime apologist

Tim Collard - Darius Guppy, full-dress apologist for Iran's thuggish regime [Sock puppet in comments alert]

And Lucy Lips at Harry's Place put things succinctly: "Fuck you Guppy, you sleazy little crook." - also pointing out that it has been reported that Guppy is a closet anti-Semite, which might have some bearing on his views if true. In fairness, I have to say I never heard him say anything to suggest this.

The largest number five

This is strangely put:

France is home to Europe's largest five million Muslim population.
There's a smaller five million population somewhere?

The piece is about a ban in France on a woman wearing a small tent, a "burkini", while swimming, because she is a Muslim. Interestingly, since the far left in the UK has tended to ally with political Islam, we have this quote:
André Gérin, a Communist MP, who is heading a parliamentary commission looking at whether to ban the burka, yesterday said the burkini was "militant provocation" and should be banned.

"There is a political and militant project behind this outfit - perhaps even gurus who are whispering to her to play the victim and publicise her complaint," he told Le Parisien.

Some swimming pools had already caved into women-only sessions, he said, but this was apparently "not sufficient for fundamentalists".

"What they want is a world of burkas," he warned.
He is correct, that is what they want. The various rights involved, of society to maintain a common secular space, of individuals to dress strangely if they want to, are hard to balance. But there certainly is a systematic effort by Islamic militants to impose their values on us all, and this should be opposed. On balance, I think France is getting this more right than we are. In a conflict situation, some rights have to be abrogated.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Quote of the day

Are you even making a proposal? Or just asking the cash trucks to form an orderly line in front of the state school black hole?
From the comments to a post at Harry's Place advocating the introduction of vouchers for schools. The post is titled "Why progressives should support school vouchers". That's revealing in itself, containing as it does an acknowledgement of, and appeal to, an orthodoxy: this should be the orthodoxy for progressives, you're a progressive therefore you should agree with it.

The post itself makes some very good points. But the comments carry this sense of orthodoxy on. Some argue on the merits of the proposals, but many just assert things like "we should not let the public education system fail". Why not? Can we make it fail, or stop it from doing so? Maybe it's failing because of intrinsic problems.

All this reveals a herd mentality that is a genuine barrier to progress. And this is most apparent in some of those who call themselves progressives.

The biggest fake charity of them all?

Who do you think this might be?

Government funding comes in the form of Parliamentary Grants-in-aid which, over the last four years (most recent accounts 31st March 2008), has amounted to: £31.7m, £32.9m, £36.6m and £44.9m respectively. So from 2005 to 2008 the government’s contributions have increased by about 42%.

The next heading in the accounts is ‘Other grants and contributions’, which suggests more support from the public sector. For the same period this amounts to: £9.5m, £8.8m, £7.3m and £7.8m. It looks as though, you can add about another £8m (on average) in public funding to the amount received from Parliamentary Grants-in-aid.

Turning to the expenditure side of the accounts, we find that items that are attributable to research funding amount to £29.0m, £30.2m £32.3m and £38.4, an increase of 32% over four years. So the Society’s activities as a conduit for government funds directed towards research have also increased at the same time as the Parliamentary Grants-in-aid, but to a lesser extent.

But it is some other items of expenditure that really caught my eye.
2005 Informing scientific policy £0.4m
2006 Independent advice nationally and internationally £1.1m
2007 Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice £1.5m
2008 Influence policymaking with the best scientific advice £2.3m
This area of expenditure has increased by nearly six times.

Although the wording in these entries varies, it is pretty clear that they all cover the same activities, and the latter two entries are quite unambiguous. Moreover they look very much like allocations for lobbying activities directed towards the government, which in turn funds the Society.
One clue: It's sometimes described as an "august" body or institution.

Go on, have a guess before clicking through to find the answer.

Via Benny Peiser.

Did you mean...?

If you type "recursion" into Google, it asks, "Did you mean: recursion."
John Rentoul.

Never a truer word spoken

'I am kindly and old. But I am not harmless'
Tony Benn

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Farewell, Sam

Very sad:

Sam, the Australian koala who became an international symbol of hope in the aftermath of the “Black Saturday” bushfires earlier this year, has died in Melbourne.
David Tree, the Country Fire Authority volunteer who was photographed giving the exhausted Sam a drink of water, agreed a vaccine needs to be found to help the animals fight the disease [Urogenital Chlamydiosis].

"It's like not worth it now, that she managed to survive the fires but die from a disease that they should be able to vaccinate her against," Mr Tree told Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper.

"I'm sobbing like a baby and I am a grown man. She meant so much - she highlighted the plight and vulnerability of Australian wildlife around the world.''


This is a good one, even by the high standards of The Guardian:

This article was amended on 28 July 2009. Due to editing changes, the original said that the dragonfly family "has more species than any other mammal". This has been corrected.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009


In Afghanistan:

The war is serious here; earlier in the day, another soldier from 2 Rifles had been killed upriver at Kajaki. Though morale in the U.K. seems to be slipping, I see no evidence of low morale among the soldiers, though there are increasing grumbles that they don’t get mail from loved ones due to helicopter shortages. Helicopters are one of our great advantages against myriad disadvantages, yet our combat forces are shortchanged by penny-wise, pound-foolish governments. The helicopter shortages are adversely affecting our op tempo.
Michael Yon on the ground with British troops.

An inspiration to us all

Jack Nicholson, at 72.

(Thanks, Kes, for the swimming pic)

Rapid evolution

Interesting 15 minute talk here from Professor David Skelly. His study of the Cane Toad in Australia suggests that very rapid evolutionary changes since its introduction as a foreign species in 1935 account for its unanticipated ability to spread to new forms of habitat.

He is now looking at how species might adapt to climate change in North America, comparing populations of tadpoles in warm and in cool ponds.

What struck me, though, is that while both AGW and the cane toad in Australia have a history of the same order of magnitude, some tens of decades, it has been possible to observe changes in the toad, introduced from South America, but not in species of amphibians living in North America.

Climate change, it appears, has yet to start happening - at least, if this is anything to go by.

Tim Blair noticed something similar.


... recent evidence suggests that America's hard-working hometown legislators are feeling the pinch from a fickle and increasingly out-of-touch voter class who no longer serves our needs.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Mill and the burka

In On Liberty, Mill argued that the only acceptable reason for interfering with the freedom of another person was to prevent harm, either in self defence or on behalf of a third party; interfering to prevent harm to the person whose freedom would be curtailed would not meet this condition.

In Utilitarianism, Mill argued that morality (and to some extent public policy) should be guided by the principle of bringing the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

On the face of it, those two ideas can conflict. Arguably, the case has to be made that they can be reconciled; how can any collective weighing of happiness influence a view of liberty that does not even acknowledge the collective?

You can reduce the frequency of conflict by assuming that people are good judges of what makes them happy, so a utilitarian outcome can be achieved by leaving them alone. This doesn't deal with issues like capital punishment; if there's a deterrent effect to be achieved by hanging someone who turns out to have been innocent, that might be the utilitarian outcome.

This might not be in conflict with the Liberty principle. If the deterrence saves the lives of third parties, haven't they been prevented from coming to harm? Mill believed that in cases of the most exceptional gravity, when evidence was conclusive, there should be a death penalty.

But did Mill progress from one idea to the other? Probably not. He was raised as a utilitarian. That's unusual, but so was his upbringing. He published On Liberty in 1859 and Utilitarianism in 1863. His speech in favour of capital punishment was delivered to the House of Commons in 1868. Either he suffered from an outbreak of liberalism in the late 1850s but reverted to utilitarianism, or he held both ideas at the same time.

While an attempt can be made (is made, above) to reconcile the principle from On Liberty with capital punishment, it's also possible to argue in the opposite direction, that a general good is not one of the two justifications for restricting the liberty of a person. The stronger argument for capital punishment comes from Utilitarianism. In a manner of speaking, for Mill at least, in this case utilitarianism trumps liberty. Is this a general rule?

Thought experiments might seem to suggest so. If a lifeboat can only hold seven, and there are eight people hanging on to it, and so it is sinking, should one person, however selected, be jettisoned so the others can live? Utilitarianism says they should and points out that the jettisoned person will drown either way, so it does them no (extra) harm.

If a city can be saved by handing over a hostage? Same argument.

But what if a terrorist can reveal the location of a ticking nuke in a major city, but only if tortured? This time it isn't so clear. That might be because it's a case we have had to consider recently, with the waterboarding scandal. And it seems that when actually faced with such an issue, the prevailing consensus has been the Liberty argument. It's widely agreed, though there are dissenters, that torture is never acceptable.

And would we really prise someone's fingers from the lifeboat and leave them to drown? Or give up a hostage to certain death? I have a feeling we wouldn't. We'd take it in turns to drag behind the boat on the end of a rope; we'd stall, the negotiator would offer himself as a hostage. Someone would make a noble gesture. We'd fight, perhaps, even against heavy odds. We'd take the liberty argument.

So is that a rule? Does liberty trump utilitarianism? Not always. We have abolished capital punishment, but the entire penal system is an exercise in utilitarianism. People were waterboarded, but this, it is widely agreed, was a moral wrong. Prisons, on the other hand, are generally accepted as necessary, even if they are necessary evils.

And perhaps there are some deeper, basic rules we know we should never break - not killing, not stealing - and these are inviolate. Perhaps throwing someone over the side would break one of these rules and it is this that prevents us from doing it, and not Mill's principle of liberty.

I can't see any general rules, or laws, that derive from these arguments, to be applied when individual rights conflict with the interests of groups of people. I think there might be things we regard as absolute wrongs and that these provide a baseline. Beyond that, when utilitarianism and liberty conflict, it has to be considered on a case by case basis - though we have some measures to lay the problem against. How does it affect liberty? How is the general well-being affected? Those are good measurements to take.

Norman Geras disagreed with Oliver Kamm about the banning of the burka, and in the course of doing so wrote the following:

[Kamm] needs to show, adducing evidence which is compelling, that women who wear the burka do so under duress, or at least that the great majority of them do. Even then, he has further to meet the point that the most natural response to the problem by way of policy would be to place a legal prohibition on the duress - on the coercion of women to wear what they would rather not. After all, if there are some or many women whose own choice it is to wear the burka, a legal ban on their doing so does not uphold their equal citizenship
This is a clear case of conflict between the rights of individuals to wear a burka, and the rights of (a group of) other women not to be coerced and forced into a second-class status, or worse. But I don't think Norm was right to say there should be a majority of coerced burka wearers. At least, not correct when Mill's measures are used. This is a question not of the greatest number of people, but of the greatest harm.

Is a greater harm done by coercing a woman into an inferior role than by banning a mode of dress? Is it really one for one, onto the scales, or does a form of slavery, at the worst, matter more than the prohibition of an extreme form of costume? I think it must. That's not to say the harm done to the individual who wants to wear a burka is insignificant. It isn't, but it is less than that done to the coerced woman.

How widespread is this sort of coercion in Europe? I have no idea. Not a clue. I don't think anyone does. How would you even gather the information on which to base an estimate? Let's just say some are. In other places, parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for example, we know it's a characteristic of the society, allied to other things like the throwing of acid into the faces of girls who go to school.

If this harm elsewhere is linked to the burka wearing on our streets, then the weight of harm from the latter becomes far greater. Can that link be made? I think it can in at least this way: it can only impede attempts at reform in those places if the cultural practices that need to be reformed are spreading into Europe. The forced subjugation of women should be an ebb tide, not a rising one.

In what way is it more acceptable to have women prevented by law from working if they choose to, from wearing the clothes they want, from going out unaccompanied by a man, to be refused an education than to have the sort of race apartheid that was so unacceptable internationally in the past?

In the list immediately above is "wearing the clothes they want". This cuts both ways. Individual rights are affected whether you ban the burka or not - those of the voluntary wearers if you ban it, of the coerced ones if you don't. But the wider group interest, the moral weight of the other things that accompany this coercion, the entire second-class status, on the one hand has no counterweight on the other.

What if apartheid South Africa not just still existed, but there were advocates of apartheid in European countries loudly proclaiming that apartheid was the way forward, the future of man? What if many of them came from South Africa and had brought black South Africans with them, and maintained them in a second-class status, obliging them to wear striped trousers with frayed bottoms, held up with rope, and to go barefoot? What if some of the black Africans also thought apartheid was the way forward, and chose to dress like that?

Where's the cultural opposition to sexual apartheid, the way there was with South African apartheid? Of course it comes mainly from the left, this sort of cultural opposition, and the left is crippled by splits over just this sort of issue.

There's an argument that, working from practical considerations as well as the principle that everyone should be treated the same, wouldn't let anyone in a burka anywhere someone in a ski mask would be challenged or refused entry, like a bank, or a jeweler's shop, or passport control. Or a school or a hospital. This is a secular argument, it refuses to make exceptions on religious grounds. It's also rejects cultural relativism, refusing to make exceptions on cultural grounds. I think it's right.

So some restrictions on the places where a burka can be worn is reasonable. How about a ban? There's a tactical argument. Maybe banning burkas or stripey trousers with frayed ends isn't the right way to bring the problem to an end as fast as possible. I don't think arresting women for wearing burkas would help. But a formal ban on them being worn to schools (I'm using the word burka to include any religious dress that covers the face)? Yes, that's reasonable and flows from the ski mask test - ski masks would also be rejected by schools.

I'd summarise the arguments as follows:

  • The burka can't be banned because we can't have the police arresting someone for their clothing, except where there's a clear danger of a breach of the peace (a Klansman in Harlem, perhaps). That's for practical reasons, but also on utilitarian grounds: greater general happiness would probably exist in a society in which the police aren't dragging screaming women into vans, than in one in which they are.

  • Practical reasons aside, the burka should be banned. The rights to wear and not to have to wear particular clothing balance out. But the burka is a part of a system of oppression that has no counterweight in the equation. The rights of the voluntary burka wearer are out-weighed; the burka should be banned.

  • The practical difficulties mean the burka should not be banned.

  • We shouldn't make special exceptions for the burka, so it should be treated like any other mask. That is, we should all be equal under the law. Equality of treatment is implicit in Mill's idea of personal liberty. Making exceptions generates widespread disaffection and makes only a few happier, so it also fails on utilitarian grounds.

  • The case against sexual apartheid is overwhelming; the practical struggle against it is not helped by European countries adjusting to accommodate it.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

On balance

This is more of a feature than a bug:

The latest crime-fighting gadget, a cigar-sized camera attached to a police helmet, has gone up in smoke after problems with its batteries setting* on fire.

*Isn't that rather tortured syntax? "Batteries setting on fire"? Setting what on fire?

UPDATE: I wish my grammar was better. What is that? A reflexive use of the present participle?

Famous first lines

Aldous Huxley taught Eric Blair (George Orwell) at Eton. It's a fair chance that, just as Huxley was affected by 1984, so Orwell was affected by Brave New World. It's noticeable that both use the same technique in the opening sentence.

Brave New World:

A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

"Only" 34 stories... clocks striking 13... we are not in our normal world.

Brave New World
was published first.