The Siberian Ice March

Ice, like fire, scorches skin.
It stiffens men like ash.
We will die clumsily
With our sins unredeemed.

Spring will melt our graveyard.
We will sink like Russia.
There will be no summer.
These are lands of winter.

Did I do my duty?
Did I serve with honour?
Does it even matter
In the cold of failure?

Pity the poor sailor
On this ice-bound water
Where our frozen bodies
Are the rubbish of time.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

The Migration Mess…

I feel for the migrants who arrived in Britain this week. They smiled and waved for the cameras, happy to see a warm welcome, unaware of the hatred their faces would inspire. Maybe some of them are lying about their age. It’s unsurprising given the circumstances. Maybe some of them have bad intentions. I don’t know their souls. But it’s probable that most of them just want a better life. I don’t think that all such people should be allowed into Britain but who could resent them for wanting the opportunity?

Liberals think it ludicrous that people are angry about such small numbers of migrants. (And, to be fair, some of the reactions are ludicrous, such as the Sun calling for a sports pundit to be fired for condemning anti-immigrant anger in a private capacity. This kind of censoriousness is as obnoxious from the right as it is from the left.) There are reasons for concern about our selection process, the most obvious being that there are rapists at large in Calais, and, while it is probable that none of these young men were among them, it is not unreasonable to expect caution. But I’m not sure people are angry about them per se. I think they are angry about the millions who came before them, transforming Great Britain, in the face of consistent, concerted opposition. I think they are angry about seeing terrorism, hate preachers and street grooming – and while it is of course true that such crimes are committed by a small minority of immigrants, and that there is a small risk of being affected, this does not stop people being angry, and scared, because they did not want to make such strange, disturbing calculations – and they do not know how future factors might change the results. At the risk of being patronising, I think most conservatively minded Britons are neither splenetic bigots or scholarly observers of the literature on labour markets, social trust and cultural assimilation. They are, like everyone, people with local attachments and familiar affections, who have watched the undeniably radical and unprecedented change in their society with increasing consternation – as well as, of course, the even more troubled and troubling changes in other European countries. I suspect that Brexit has indeed encouraged people to express these fears and frustrations. A reaction has been just as inevitable as hot soup boiling over.

Posted in Britain | Leave a comment

The Slave-Owning Sex Pest and A Note on Self-Criticism…

However moral our outward behaviour is, our internal monologue features more dark, disturbing impulses or reflections. Whatever the moral code of this or that society, behind its wall its law and principles will be broken. Man is imperfectible. We are what we are.

John Henry Hammond, a South Carolinian politician in the 1800s, expressed this argument, as an apologist for slavery, in response to critics of alleged sexual abuse on plantations. “I wish the topic could be avoided,” he declared

I am of the opinion…that the public exposure and discussion of this vice, even to rebuke, invariably does more harm than good; and that if it cannot be checked by instilling pure and virtuous sentiments, it is far worse than useless to attempt to do it, by exhibiting its deformities.

It is true, to some extent, that people should avoid morbidly dwelling on vices that cannot be eliminated. But we can accept this only when they have been minimised. Hammond did not do this for a simple reason: he was an abuser. A review of this distinguished pervert’s diaries informs us that after molesting his four teenage nieces, which he had the audacity to blame on their seductiveness, he

…jeopardized his own marriage by taking an 18-year-old slave for a mistress; when the only child she seems to have had by anyone besides Hammond turned 12, he took her for his own as well.

You might think I am flogging the bones of a horse. No one has kind words to say about slave owners whether or not they were up to nasty things in the bedroom. But there is a more relevant point that I’m stumbling towards, which occurred to me as I compared the high-minded pragmatism of these public statements with the cruel degeneracy of this private behaviour: a deterministic attitude towards human nature might have some epistemological virtues but it can also be a lame and irresponsible excuse for failing to strive to maintain our own moral standards. If you have the intelligence to analyse actions in such depth you should do better at civilising your own.

Posted in History | Leave a comment

Nick Land on Fascism…

The absurd thesis of neoreaction used to be that America was a communist country. Now, it seems, according to Nick Land, America, and Britain, and, I guess, the whole of Europe are fascist. Defining fascism has, of course, been controversial but even holding a broad, inclusive understanding of the term I fail to see how this is anything but ludicrous. The Western world has not been marked by themes of decline or victimhood; militarisation or racial supremacism; the cult of the masculine; the cult of leadership or the rejection of modernism. Quite the opposite. It has been optimistically, guiltily internationalist, immersed in deconstruction and progressivism. But, says Land, we have adopted “blatantly fascistic” policy objectives such as, well, nationalisation. Never mind that nationalisation predates fascism. Never mind that in cases such as those of the rail services and the Royal Mail it has been rolled back. Fascism means what he wants it to mean.

Land is on firmer ground when he insists that “tribal mobilization”, fuelled by “demographic engineering” and “partisan asymmetry”, could lead to a resurgence of at least quasi-fascism. True, the fact that this has come about because of highly cosmopolitan, internationalist and morally progressive politicians, academics and corporate executives, along with trends towards economic globalisation and social stratification, undermines his eccentric revisionist theory of modern fascism. If anything, overreaction against ideas associated with the Axis powers has been more problematic. But when Land worries Weimarishly he does have half a point. The right has been on the rise in Europe, and America, and its radicalisation is at least plausible. His determinist assumption that this is the inevitable apex of democratic politics, however, seems wrongheaded. We do not observe this in Japan, or South Korea, or even more conservative European countries like Switzerland. It is not impossible that democratic governments could ease the situation. But Land’s is a counsel of despair – despair, anyway, if one gives a damn.

Posted in Conservatism, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Petition to Ban the Word “Amusing”…

This is not important. This is a pet hate. But it is a pet hate of pitbull proportions. The word “amusing” is used in two senses: to damn with faint praise, in which case it is slimily passive aggressive, and to express one’s contempt for the thought and behaviour of one’s rhetorical opponents. People who employ it thus will not admit to feeling contempt, however, or disgust, or anger, or offence, or any feeling at all, because they wish to paint themselves as being serenely, cynically above the average earnest and emotional human being. In fact, they are just smug, sounding less like an argumentative genius than a bad Bond villain.

Posted in Language, Rhetoric | 2 Comments

The Meaning and Meaninglessness of Brexit…

I don’t vote in British elections because I don’t live in Britain. Even if I did, however, I would have had a tough time choosing between Leave and Remain. The problem with the Leave campaign, I think, is that it played on grievances that are far bigger than the European Union and that will “remain” whether or not we sally forth. Take immigration. EU immigration has more economic advantages and fewer disadvantages than non-EU immigration. EU migrants, by and large, are more assimilable to our culture than men and women from other countries. Poles, Czechs and Hungarians are very rarely terrorists. This is not to claim that there is no reason to be critical of the Schengen Agreement but that it is less significant than many have proposed.

My doubts have not been assuaged by the shrill and unconvincing triumphalism of the Brexit crowd; wallowing in the superficial patriotic symbolism of blue passports and royal yachts in what is hard to see as anything but an attempt to distract themselves and us from the potential economic disasters ahead. Gerald Howarth, for example, has said that the decommissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia was “one of the darkest moments of my political life”. Putting this minor event into the same conversation as, say, the attack on London by Islamic militants, the national disgrace of the Iraq invasion, is astonishingly childish.

The EU debate was, in a sense, an excuse to have an argument – an argument  it could not resolve. Good or bad, however, the consequences will be no less real.

Posted in Britain, Europe, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

More Fun With New Atheists…

More astonishingly unintentional new atheist humour comes from the biologist Jerry Coyne. Coyne is known for reviewing books he has not read and now attacks a conference that has yet to take place. Not only is Coyne’s hostile judgement based on the conference blurb – and, thus, potentially valid but superficial assumptions – it is based on a preposterous misreading. He quotes the blurb, from the conference “Beyond Reductionism”, as asking…

…can science itself fall prey to the same kinds of emotional pitfalls, fallacies, and even fanaticism we more often associate with religious literalists and fundamentalists?

…and then suggesting…

given the capacity of every human being to be swayed by emotions and appearances in contrast to hard evidence, would it not be prudent to hold our practice of science and reason to the same standards of scrutiny that we apply to religious truth claims and thinking?

This is, any fair minded person would conclude, a call for sceptics of religion to be as sceptical of scientific truth claims as religious ones. Coyne is not a fair minded man. He somehow thinks that it implies that religious claims are more valid than scientific claims. He huffs…

…it’s incredibly insulting to science and rationality for these authors to suggest, with their faux naiveté, that science and reason need to adhere to the same (presumably more rigorous) standards used by religions to adjudicate their truth claims. Let me give you some news, Drs. Koepsell, Stein, and Abbot: religion has NO rigor in its truth claims, but an emotional commitment to deities and their will that lack any supporting evidence. It is science that has the hard standards, and religion that should adhere to the standards of science when adjudicating its claims.

First, how the hell does Coyne know that Koepsell, Stein and Abbot authored this blurb? Even ignoring his lamentable misinterpretation it is, yes, incredibly insulting for him to abuse them for authoring words they might have had nothing to do with. Second, this is, yes, a lamentable misinterpretation, and Coyne’s resultant invective is incredibly insulting to the author of blurb. Third, this condescending snark about religious belief is incredibly insulting to religious believers. The rigor of Augustine, Aquinas, Al-Ghazali, Leibniz et cetera can be questioned but the idea that they were only expressing “an emotional commitment to deities” is incredibly insulting to the intelligence.

In the comments, Coyne was nudged into realising that he had misread the blurb, and promised to “fix the text a bit”. The paragraph I suspect he added reads…

Now it’s possible that the “we” in the bit above means “rationalists and skeptics” rather than “all people, including believers.” If that’s the case, though, and the workshop is asking us to apply uniform standards of skepticism to all empirical claims, then my response is this: WE ALREADY DO! So what’s the point of this workshop?

It is not just possible, it is hugely probable. As for his exasperated howl of “WE ALREADY DO”: that is, no doubt, what the conference will question. For sure, it might be a parade of fallacies, but the fact that Coyne is unwilling to even accept that it’s possible that science could be damaged by science or fanaticism is, ironically, a case of fanatical bias.

I’m not sure what it will take for some atheists to accept that they indulge unreasonable patterns of thought but hunting for heretics is not exactly subtle.

Posted in Rationalism, Religion, Scepticism, Science | 2 Comments