h1

What caused the global financial crisis? Libertarianism on trial.

October 23, 2012

In this blog I will attempt to provide a very brief overview of the economic woes we experience today in the United Kingdom, and to uncover the root cause of these woes. The conclusions I draw are neither new nor definite, but I hope to present what is an immensely complicated economic situation in the simplest terms and to identify a cause that if not wholly responsible, must surely at least bear some degree of responsibility.

I will try to avoid economic complexities as far as is possible in such a discussion; I have little formal education in economics, and I do not intend for this discussion to be only accessible to those with good knowledge of economics. Instead, I will assume as true economic factors that are widely accepted by economists, and focus as much as possible on logic and critical thought.

Many people may be unclear on the nature of debt, deficit and recession, and so I shall start by outlining the issue posed by each and try to identify which are responsible for our current predicament, and from there I will discuss what is the ultimate cause.

Image

National Debt

UK national debt is, historically, relatively very low. It is not the case, as Conservatives would claim, that Labour “maxed out the nation’s credit card”, nor does our national debt represent impending economic doom. Economists do not regard government borrowing as a bad thing (it is encouraged), yet our current government are treating the reduction of the national debt as their number one priority. They have their priorities wrong. The debt itself does not represent a problem for the day to day life of the UK citizen, it is only when the debt reaches a level that we cannot afford to repay it that we have problems. We are nowhere near that level and there is no reason to think we will reach it. Theoretically, interest payments on the national debt mean we are losing money that could be spent elsewhere, but it is worth noting that borrowing itself provides funds that can be spent elsewhere. Inflation and GDP growth devalue debt over time so that the payment of interest becomes less of an issue. For example, if I borrow £100 on the understanding that I pay back £150 in 5 years time, I lose no money in real terms if in 5 years time £150 could buy me the same as what £100 could buy me today. To lament that our debt repayments could have paid for X number of hospital beds is either disingenuous or myopic.

Since the financial crisis began in 2007/08, debt has risen rapidly, and it is the case that at some point we will need to tackle it lest it become unsustainable, but it is wrong that is should be the number one priority when we are experiencing an economic slump.

The Deficit

The deficit is the shortfall between government revenue and government spending, and is the reason debt is rising. If our outgoings are less that our income, we have to borrow to make up the difference. It is important to establish the difference between a structural deficit, and a cyclical deficit. Running a cyclical deficit is not necessarily a bad thing (in fact in some situations – such as a recession, it is considered a good thing), but most economists believe a structural deficit is a bad thing. The structural deficit is the level of deficit experienced when an economy is at it’s peak. In other words, if we have a structural deficit then we will always have a deficit and our debt will rise. Cyclical deficit is any deficit experienced beyond structural deficit. It is the case that we need to eliminate the structural deficit, and deficit reduction is the current government’s approach to debt reduction. It is not the case, however, that it is imperative this reduction occur immediately. Mainstream (Keynesian) economic theory holds that with nil structural deficit, budget surplus in economic booms cancels out a budget deficit in slumps. In an economic slump, government spending (and therefore deficit spending) should increase as job creation and investment in infrastructure promote economic growth. We are in an economic slump.

Recession

Recession occurs when GDP decreases. This represents the biggest problem for the UK citizen as poorly performing businesses fail, lay off employees, or freeze hiring – all of which contribute to rising unemployment. Furthermore, wages either fall or rise more slowly, meaning that when combined with inflation, the cost of living in real terms increases. These are real issues that affect us all. Not only that, but the secondary problems of budget deficit and debt were caused by the recession; government revenue decreased due to diminished tax receipts (due to reduced consumer spending, poor business performance and unemployment) and spending increased (unemployment results in greater benefits payout). Hence the increase in deficit which caused the increase in debt.

We are currently technically in recession, experiencing in 2012 the double-dip that Vince Cable warned us spending cuts would cause back in 2010. In the period between the two recessions, growth has been negligible. This is the primary problem we are facing. Not only are the deficit and debt secondary problems that were caused by the recession and should only be dealt with once we have established economic growth again, but it is the recession itself that impacts on the lives of everyday people. The culture of austerity is mind-boggling; it is one of the fundamental basics of economics that you don’t cut during a recession. It is increased spending that is needed, that if used wisely will kick-start the economy.

Image

What caused the recession?

The economic downturn is a direct result of the financial crisis experienced in 2007/2008 (this is not contentious). The cause of the financial crisis is heavily debated but started with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US (unscrupulous lenders increasingly lent to high-risk customers, resulting in defaults when house prices started to fall in 2007 and mortgages started to become worth more than the real estate, the result being the collapse of financial institutions) and was compounded by the collapse of the unregulated shadow banking system, and widespread misinformation, risk-taking, off-the-book practices and corporate malfeasance in the financial sector. The result was the fall of high profile businesses in the US, damaging investor and consumer confidence and willingness to lend by financial entities, leading to a massive reduction in consumption that characterises recession.

However strong the various factors that caused the crisis are, there are two clear underlying causes of them; avarice and lack of regulation. The government failed to regulate the financial market (particularly the emerging shadow banking system) and a culture of greed was allowed to run unchecked. How could this happen?

Libertarian philosophy holds that the role of government should be minimal. People and markets should be free from government interference; “let me do what I want and leave me alone”. Libertarianism naively assumes that government, and not other people, are the major threat to the individual. It is mid 20th century libertarian thinkers such as Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick who influenced the economic policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. It is the deregulation that these politicians set in motion that is ultimately responsible for the financial crisis. They created a surge in laissez-faire economics (unfortunately continued by their successors) that encouraged greed and removed repercussions. They were responsible for a culture where government regulation was viewed as a restriction of liberty and therefore undesirable. This culture is why the government failed to regulate the financial sector adequately.

Libertarianism has failed. It is inadequate economically; supply-side economics is largely discredited and economic libertarian ideology is ultimately responsible for the global financial crisis. It has also failed morally; the culture of greed and selfishness inherent to it cannot reasonably be deemed morally acceptable, and the inequality it promotes is profoundly unjust (just look at how the rich/poor divide has increased since libertarian ideology took hold in the 70s). What reason is there left for anyone to cling to libertarian beliefs? Good old fashioned paranoia about government?

It’s not difficult to at least appreciate the appeal in libertarianism. A focus on the individual; self-ownership and self-sufficiency. It seems intuitive and fair. It is a fantasy though, because it only works for the strong. The libertarian wants everyone to be the master of their own destiny, and yet a libertarian society is hugely environment-based. Libertarians cling to the childish notion that anyone can achieve something if they try hard enough, conveniently underestimating that a person has a much better chance at life if they’re born into a rich family. That isn’t meritocratic, it doesn’t give the individual power over their own destiny – it’s just brute luck. A libertarian society is precisely the kind of society that goes against libertarian principles.

I also understand why the philosophy came about; after the totalitarian governments of the 20th century, it’s not surprising that an anti-government political movement has become prominent. It has gone too far though. Hopefully an equilibrium can be achieved – but libertarianism is dead.

Next time you hear a Conservative moaning about the mess Labour left us in, remind them that it was actually the previous Conservative government that caused the mess – Labour just failed to clean it up. Blair’s premiership should certainly be criticised, not because of excessive spending, but because he embraced Thatcher’s ideology and took his party right of centre. He is responsible for what happened. So is Thatcher, so is Reagan, so is Rand, so is Milton Friedman. Libertarianism is the root cause of the global financial crisis and it’s time for a paradigm change.

h1

On the Psychology of Conspiracy Theorists (and why you won’t win an argument with one)

May 16, 2012

Those of you who know me, or who follow me on Twitter, will probably have noticed that I take a certain interest in conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists. Why they believe what they do fascinates me, especially when the evidence is overwhelmingly against them. I’ve refrained from blogging about the phenomenon before, mainly because it’s difficult to know which particular aspect to explore. All the main theories have been satisfactorily debunked, and so I’ve never felt like I could bring anything new to the discussion. Recently I’ve come to realise however that there are a couple of aspects that are currently rather unexplored; one is what underlies these beliefs, and the other is the psychology of adherents to these theories.

The two more immediate antecedents to this blog are an ‘argument’ with a conspiracy theorist I had earlier, and a talk I went to by a lecturer at my university, Dr Stephen Law, who was promoting his new book, “Believing Bullshit”. Dr Law explained how it’s pointless to try to engage a conspiracy theorist in a rational discussion as they simply don’t play ball. They have been taught to use various tricks and intellectual misdirection to further their point, whilst ignoring or sidestepping any rational argument presented against them. In the book he outlines the various tricks used, and suggests that the only way to get conspiracy theorists (or people slipping towards these kind of beliefs) out of their ‘intellectual black hole’ is to draw attention to their methods of argument, rather than the contents of argument (the latter being what most people do). In short, he outlines various kinds of argument, explains why they’re unacceptable and advises the reader “if you find yourself arguing in this kind of way, alarm bells ought to be ringing”.  I can’t go into anywhere near the kind of detail he does, but I will look at a couple of the tactics I’ve noticed conspiracy theorists use, attempt to pinpoint the fundamental principles of such thought, and discuss what we can learn about the psychology of these people.

If you do find yourself resorting to these methods of argument, then what you need to do is make a conscious effort to substantiate your point using more legitimate forms of argument. If you can’t do this, then be prepared to admit that you’re wrong. Unfortunately, the nature of being sucked into these theories is that you won’t be able to see that you’re using these kind of tactics – hence Stephen Law’s idea of an “intellectual black hole”. If you find yourself arguing against someone who is using these tactics, withdraw. They will not listen to reason.

Logical Fallacies

Conspiracy theorists rely very heavily on standard logical fallacies. Modes of argument that are irrational, but appear rational to the casual observer. In my experience, the most commonly used fallacies are the straw man fallacy (David Icke does this a lot); the Texas sharpshooter (very popular amongst 9/11 conspiracy theorists, but also amongst conspiracy theorists in general); shifting the burden of proof (conspiracy theorists invariably do this as soon as you ask them for evidence. If they propose a theory, the onus is on them to provide evidence for it, not on you to provide evidence as to why they’re wrong); fallacy of composition (they tend to throw a lot of irrelevant facts into their argument, hoping that the reader/listener will assume the whole point is true just because some of the constituent points are. Similarly, they often cite novels like 1984, noting how some of Orwell’s ‘predictions’ have ‘come true’, hoping that we’ll then come to the conclusion that the whole book has/will come true); appeal to motive (“you only disagree because you don’t want to believe that it’s true!”).

Another tactic I find they often use (this is also a logical fallacy but warrants slightly more extensive discussion) is to try to incite an emotional reaction in their opponent. They will often put down their opponent by calling them blind or naive (anyone who has ever debated a conspiracy theorist will know what I’m talking about here), or ridiculing their position (“lol! next you’ll be telling me the BBC aren’t a government propaganda device!”). This is particularly nasty because it attempts to manipulate insecurities of their opponent. They hope that the person they are talking to will feel sufficiently foolish or humiliated that they’ll have to abandon their position.

Show me the evidence

What interests me most is the way they react when you ask them for evidence. They seem to react in one of two ways: the first is to challenge you to provide evidence to the contrary (see above). The other is to provide you with what they think constitutes evidence. Funnily enough, it’s never the sort of thing that most people think constitutes evidence. It’s almost always some long-winded article or YouTube video espousing the same view but in more detail, and that itself offers a plethora of citations. Each citation links to something of similar format but less relevant to the point of interest – and so on and so on. No hard evidence is ever uncovered, we just get lost in an exponentially increasing host of less and less relevant information. This is actually quite an effective method (despite adding no credibility to their argument), because they intend one of the following:

1) They hope that their opponent will see a long, heavily cited article, and rather than properly scrutinise it, will think “oh well this looks professional and well researched, it’s probably true”.

2) They hope that their opponent will see a long, heavily cited article, and just give up because it requires too much time and effort to read. The opponent fails to criticise the ‘evidence’, and the conspiracy theorist can then go “look! I provided him with the evidence and he’s remained silent! He knows I’m right!”.

I’ve noticed this a lot, they throw inordinate amounts of information at you and go “here, this is my evidence, criticise it if you can”, knowing full well you are unlikely to have the time or desire to sift through the mountain of crap they’ve provided you with. If they make a simple claim, it should be simple to verify it. If you’re having to delve into citations to uncover the actual evidence, then they haven’t provided you with the relevant source.

Essentially, it’s to confuse you. If they try this with you, just ask them for a more direct link to evidence.

You are being lied to

At this juncture, I think it important to establish just what constitutes good evidence. Some of the things we believe, we can verify personally because video evidence exists (funny then that the New World Order should allow video technology and the internet to become as prevalent as it is), but most of the things we believe, we haven’t experienced directly (I haven’t personally experienced the diameter of the moon, the number of votes cast in the last general election, or that Kim Jong-Il is dead). Generally, most of our evidence about what is going on the world comes from news outlets (sometimes we get conclusive video proof, sometimes we don’t). The conspiracy theorists love this because they are notoriously mistrustful of the western media. They will literally laugh at you if you cite a mainstream news article as evidence for anything. What is interesting though, is that the closest to hard evidence you will ever get from them in support of their view is journalism from some underground conspiracy theory website. So which set of journalists do we believe? Well, the mainstream media are subject to regulation. Not only that, but the fact that these outlets are so pervasive means they are subject to various other restrictions – if they libel someone, they will likely be sued. If some small conspiracy theory website libels someone, they will likely not be sued. If BBC News falsely reports that some international political figure has died, that person is not unlikely to make a public statement refuting this. If a conspiracy website makes a similar report, it’s highly unlikely that person will feel the need to refute it. The more popular a news outlet is, the more people exist to question and criticise it. In short, mainstream media is more reliable by its very nature.

Of course, this plays right into the hands of the conspiracy theorists. They simply respond by saying “yes but the regulators are part of the conspiracy. The law firms who would deal with libel are controlled by the conspiracy. They control everything!”. Whatever you say to them, they can respond by saying that the powers that be are pulling the wool over your eyes. And this I think, is the fundamental principle of the conspiracy theorists: “you are being lied to“.  Nothing ‘official’ should ever be believed because it’s all a part of the conspiracy. This is something of a master stroke; in one fell swoop they not only dismiss the reason for believing the ‘official’ account over them, they actually spin the strengths of the official account as weaknesses.

The genius doesn’t end there. The “you are being lied to” principle that underlies all conspiracy theories is also not only unfalsifiable, but renders all evidence to the contrary as unverifiable. No matter what evidence you come up with to disprove their theory, they can dismiss it as having been manufactured by the conspirators. This is why arguing with conspiracy theorists is pointless. This is an effective principle, but is not without weakness. If we accept that we are being lied to, why should we believe the conspiracy theorists’ version of events instead? Any reason to not believe the BBC can also be used to not believe their ‘news’ outlet of choice. Why shouldn’t we believe that they are lying too? Are we really ruled by reptiles from the constellation Draco, or is that just what the crab-people from Taurus want us to believe? Indeed, this uncertainty has caused much in-fighting amongst conspiracy theorists, with many of them labelling other conspiracy theorists as being part of the conspiracy. If we accept that we are being lied to on such a large scale, we have to resign ourselves to the fact that we do not know what is really going on. I don’t know about you but I’ve never seen a conspiracy theorist say “I don’t know what the real truth is”.

The psychology of conspiracy theorists

What then of the psychology of conspiracy theorists? Whilst I think it’s reasonable to believe that most conspiracy theories are untrue, we do not need to rely on this belief. It is certainly the case that many are untrue, as they are often incompatible with each other. Therefore, adherents to these theories are misled for some reason. So how can we psychologically profile such a person? Well firstly, they often hold right-wing beliefs. Conspiracy theories tend to be based on mistrust or dislike of government, and mistrust/dislike of government in western society is something particularly characteristic of the libertarian right. We should perhaps not be surprised then that anti-semitism often pervades such theories. Studies also show that conspiracy theorists tend to be mistrustful in general and experience disaffection and feelings of alienation (Goertzel, 1994).  One suggestion is that people who experience such negative feelings need a tangible enemy upon which to focus their anger (Volkan, 1985), hence why they invent these conspirators.

A couple of things have struck me in debates with conspiracy theorists. One is that they love to put down their opponents. They call them naive, deluded, blind. They often compare them to sheep. It is certainly the case that conspiracy theorists think that they have access to the truth where the majority of people do not. They think they’ve noticed something that other people either haven’t noticed, or refuse to notice. They think they’re either more intelligent or more open minded than most people. On a psychological level, I think this is what drives them. The idea that they have some esoteric knowledge that most other people are blind to. Perhaps a symptom of an inferiority complex?

My final question is this: are they consciously aware of their deception? At the Stephen Law talk, he outlined ‘tactics’ and ‘methods’ used by conspiracy theorists (as I have done in this article), which immediately invokes the idea of a conscious effort. I’ve always assumed that conspiracy theorists genuinely believe the stuff they say, but the talk made me consider that there are at least some people who know they are being dishonest, due to the existence of such calculated tactics. I posed this question to Stephen after the talk, and he immediately told me there was no doubt that some of them were deliberately lying as in the past he’d refuted some of their points and then overheard them making the same points to other people later on. Perhaps he’s right, although I think it not unlikely that the people to whom he is referring simply still believe their points even after refutation. There is perhaps a certain irony that they engage in such doublethink.

h1

Some thoughts on same-sex marriage

March 20, 2012

This will probably be unsurprising to those of you who know me well, but this is an issue I care a great deal about. Recently, I’ve become rather frustrated by the misinformation that is circulating over the current proposals, and the tripe that the “Coalition for Marriage” (how devious is that name?) and their associates are peddling. Before we get into all that, have a picture:

I know it’s nothing to do with the subject at hand but let’s face it, the only picture anyone ever uses for articles about same-sex marriage is that one of the two groom figurines on a wedding cake.

To start with, let’s establish some facts about the situation. Everything on here I’ve researched into but if I’ve made any mistakes then please, please, please let me know.

  • Currently, same sex marriages are illegal based on government legislation (Matrimonial Causes Act 1973)
  • The current consultation is on the best way to proceed with the legalisation of same sex civil marriage
  • Same sex partners can enter into civil partnerships, which confer the same legal benefits as marriage
  • Heterosexual couples cannot enter into civil partnerships, but can enter into civil or religious marriage

I suppose the thing that winds me up the most is the oft-quoted line by equal marriage opponents, “government shouldn’t interfere with church business”. This is curious on two counts; firstly, the reason why gay marriage is currently illegal is government legislation (the clue is in the word “illegal”) and nothing to do with the church at all. Supporters of equal marriage are effectively proposing the lessening of government interference in the institution of marriage – surely this is exactly what the ‘against’ camp want? The second curious thing about this line is that what is proposed is nothing at all to do with religious marriage, only civil marriage. In fact, if (when) the government legislates for same-sex marriage, churches will still not be allowed to marry gay couples even if they want to. How’s that for interfering with the churches business?

Perhaps one might invoke a “slippery slope” argument – if this goes through then it’s only a matter of time until religious gay marriage is legalised, and then after that only a matter of time until churches are forced to marry gay people even if they don’t want to. There are a couple of ways to respond to this; firstly, since the inception of the gay rights movement, legislation has gradually but surely improved the legal standing of gay people. Why is this issue so different that it should be considered the beginning of a slippery slope? Why not civil partnerships, gay adoption, or even earlier? If we’re on a slippery slope then we’ve been on it for a while, and if you have an ounce of sense then you will agree that it’s been a force for good so far. Why should it be otherwise now? My second objection to the “slippery slope” argument is that it seems misguided. If your objection isn’t to civil gay marriage itself but to the possibility that one day the church might be forced to marry gay people (say you’re concerned about freedom of religion), then save your breath and object to the issue you really don’t like if it ever comes about. If your only objection to the current proposal is that you object to a future potential proposal, then you clearly think that the future potential proposal is inherently considerably worse than the current one – and therefore you ought to expect more support for your cause if the time ever comes when that proposal is on the table. Why even bother objecting now? It seems to me that if your only reason to object to a proposal you theoretically agree with is that you are opposed to a completely different, theoretical future proposal, then your objection is misguided. Perhaps my response here is rather shaky, and only applies to people whose only issue with the current proposals is the “slippery slope”, but I don’t believe any other argument against the current proposals is even fleetingly convincing – and so it’s important to make this point. I believe that there are many people who only oppose the current proposals for the “slippery slope” reason (consciously, at least. The unconscious reason may be homophobia). My final objection to the “slippery slope” argument (and this is with my apologies, as I’ve spent rather more time on this issue than I intended) is the assumption that it would be such a bad thing were we to force churches to marry gay couples. Freedom of religion, as with freedom of anything else, has its limits. People can believe and preach what they like but when it comes to practical matters, it is not acceptable to discriminate. If heterosexuals and homosexuals can enter into a civil marriage but only heterosexuals can have a religious marriage, then homosexuals are still second class citizens. To add to this with what I know is a somewhat clichéd point, but still valid: what if churches refused to conduct interracial marriages? How many of you would proclaim “hey, it’s their choice. Don’t interfere”? Furthermore, there are already many priests from all religions who are, in theory, willing to conduct same-sex marriages (after all, almost all opposition to homosexuality in the church comes from the top). Presumably, that number will only increase. If churches are eventually forced to conduct same sex marriages then there will be no shortage of ministers willing to conduct those ceremonies, and the idea of priests being forced by law to conduct these marriages through gritted teeth is ridiculous (and that’s not even considering how reluctant gay couples would be to be married by someone who clearly doesn’t believe they should be wed). In fact, with this in mind, I believe that some degree of prudence may protect the churches from being forced to conduct gay marriages (if indeed you believe the rather dubious assertion that that will ever be a possibility). If religious gay marriage were legalised, it is possible that church leaders may forbid ministers from conducting gay marriage on pain of excommunication. This would be a foolish move. If religious gay marriage were legalised, then churches would do well to allow their ministers to conduct ceremonies as they see fit. Assuming no shortage of ministers prepared to marry gay couples (see above), then forcing churches to marry gay couples may never be on the cards as it might only become an issue if gay couples were having difficulty finding churches who would marry them.

The other widely quoted objection to gay marriage is the so called “traditional marriage” argument. I am told that traditional marriage is between one man and one woman and we shouldn’t mess with time-honoured institutions. After all, there could be nonspecific profound consequences (cue scary music). I really needn’t spend too much time on this ridiculous point – I think this is one of those objections that is really just an excuse, an attempt to disguise what is really just homophobia. The argument holds no weight whatsoever. It is not the case that in virtually the entirety of human history marriage has been between one man and one woman. Throughout human history, marriage laws have frequently allowed polygyny or anti-miscegenation (both of which were justified using religion). Ironically, the threat of polygamy is one of the scaremongering tactics the “coalition for marriage” use when arguing against equal marriage. What is “traditional” about one man and one woman is quite unclear, other than that it has been the definition of marriage in the period of history conveniently chosen by those who wish to champion it. Those who oppose gay marriage due to marriage being between one man and one woman “by definition” may rest assured that when the definition changes, same sex marriage must then therefore become acceptable to them. To round this one off, if you’re worried about the “family unit”, all the current evidence shows that children of same sex couples are not in any way disadvantaged compared to children of heterosexual couples.

Finally, opponents to equal marriage (especially the Catholic church) have been claiming recently that the UK public are against it, and that therefore the government, who didn’t include the proposal in their respective manifestos, have no mandate to carry through the legislation (lolNHS). This particular claim is based on the results of a rather dubious poll, commissioned by the Catholic church themselves, which appeared to show that 70% of Britons opposed gay marriage. The news that has had more trouble reaching our glorious right-wing newspapers is that two polls since (commissioned by the newspapers themselves) have shown quite the opposite: A Populus poll showed 65% support for gay marriage (vs 27% opposition) and An ICM poll showed 45% support for gay marriage (vs 36% opposition).

The other ridiculous claims made by the C4M (heterosexual marriage will be sidelined, heterosexuals will be discriminated against in adoption, schools will be forced to physically teach primary school children how to have gay sex, etc) are not worth discussing.

It could be worse, though. At least our politicians aren’t as bad as in the US. Here’s a genuine quote from Republican Mike Huckabee (ex presidential candidate),

“There’s never been a civilization that has rewritten what marriage and family means and survived.”

Well, Mr Huckabee, begging your pardon but by definition the only societies that have survived are the ones that are still active now, and of those, the ones who have legalised gay marriage have shown no signs of crumbling.

h1

A bit of self-evaluation to try and make myself feel better

February 17, 2012

Hello my lovelies, have a nice picture:

That there is Doolan and I enjoying a nice mug of coffee. If you have to ask, you don’t need to know. So, first thing’s first(ish) – sorry for not blogging in ages; I have been exceptionally busy. If you know me well, you’ll probably know that I’ve had a rather rubbish week, so I’ve decided to do a sort of self-inventory as an exercise in making me think about the good things in my life. Hopefully this will cheer me up, although it may come across as rather self-serving. Hey, it’s a personal blog. The main purpose of me writing this is for me to arrange my thoughts and having a permanent record of them, rather than what people think of it (not that I don’t care about the opinions of you gorgeous specimens of humanity).

I experience recurring depression but whilst I’ve been a little sad for a month or so now, I don’t think depression is what is currently occurring. But it can only be a good thing to remind myself of why my life isn’t bad. Ok:

  • I’m not scared of being alone. I’ve never been the sort of person who needs a relationship to be happy; I’m still young and I’ve got plenty of time to fall in love. I’m quite (and I use that word carefully) good at controlling my emotions and resisting falling for people who will be bad for me. Were my attitude different, I know I’d have no trouble whatsoever finding a relationship, and even with this attitude I’ve managed to find some fulfilling relationships. I think I have a lot going for me – I’m clever, funny, amiable, deeply ethical, compassionate, understanding, loyal and apparently not bad looking.
  • I absolutely adore the career path I’m on at the moment. I (finally) graduated in 2011 and am now doing a master’s degree that I’m deeply passionate about and am getting a great deal from. I decided some time last year that I wanted to be a lecturer and now have drive and ambition that I’ve unfortunately lacked before. My course is going really well (well on track for Distinction, although it’s still relatively early days).
  • I have my health. A lot of people take that for granted, I like to think I don’t.
  • I have utterly superb friends, I’m around them constantly and they make me smile. I also know that if I’m upset there are many of them who I could call on and within less than an hour (or even instantly with some) they’d be by my side listening to me whine.
  • Sense of humour aside, I’m pretty mature and I think I have a good sense of perspective on things.
  • I care less and less about money, which I’m glad about. Money brings out the worst in people and lacking drive to be rich I think keeps me grounded. This is quite fortunate since I’m usually broke (and will be for a long time given the career path I’ve chosen).
  • I have a great relationship with my family. This is another luxury many are not afforded.

So yeah, I needed to arrange those into some kind of tangible medium. I imagine I shall reflect more on these points tomorrow. Thanks for reading, if you did.

X

h1

On Uncle Alan

August 19, 2011

This is my uncle, Dr Alan Megahey, my Dad’s brother (although 18 years older). Probably the most brilliant person I’ve ever met; super intelligent, kind, warm and funny. He was a rector for a number of Anglican churches in Lincolnshire and his family and parishioners meant everything to him. Easily one of the most fun people to be around; constantly cracking jokes and laughing, I’ve never seen him in anything less than the best of moods. My Dad is also a bit of a joker (which is where I get it from probably) but not on the level of his brother. His sense of humour and upbeat nature, along with his intellectualism (he published books and had a veritable library of theological and philosophical books in his house) are the reason he is someone I aspire greatly to be like. After I started studying philosophy he used to chat to me about my course and share anecdotes about Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had only left Cambridge shortly before Alan studied there. It’s probably only recently though that I’ve realised just how much I want to be like him.

He always seemed to me to be the picture of perfect health. Despite enjoying his drink and pipe, I’ve never known him to be ill, and he’s always been happily bouncing around going about his business, with the energy of someone half his age. A few weeks ago we got the sudden and unexpected news that he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had 6 months to live. It was bizarre to think of him as being ill, and even more bizarre to think that the illness was terminal. We went to visit him a few days later. He was the same as ever, completely upbeat (and not in a way that was put on – you could tell he genuinely was happy), talking about work and smiling and laughing as ever. He was very matter-of-fact about his illness and seemed to have readily accepted that he was going to die. His faith was probably a great factor in this. The visit was one of the more surreal moments of my life. To see someone who I never thought of as able to get ill, as jolly and healthy looking as ever, yet knowing he was dying. It was more than a little bit difficult to get my head around. We decided we’d visit a number of times in the coming months, but last week we got the news that he in fact only had weeks to live, and not months. This afternoon, he died. My mum told me about half an hour ago. I just can’t get my head around it at the moment, which is probably why I’m writing this rambling blog, to try to get all my thoughts coherently organised. Solace ought be taken in the facts that I saw him one last time before he died, that he didn’t suffer, that he completely accepted what was going to happen, that he was happy right until the end, and that we had a little time after the diagnosis before he died (even if only a couple of weeks).

To me, he was the model of what all religious people should be like – warm, loving, selfless, intellectually curious, non-judgemental and tolerant. In fact I think he serves as a damn good model of what all people should be like, and certainly exactly what I want to be like – his life was spent pursuing intellectual matters, helping others and being happy. If I grow up to be half the person he was then I will be deeply lucky.

Requiescat In Pace. x

h1

Human rights? They’re only for human beings.

August 10, 2011

From the off, responses to the rioting in the UK have been a quagmire of irony, paradox and widespread burying of heads in sand. Supposed left-wingers have shown their true colours and leapt to the right – the same right that has caused all this trouble in the first place. The right wingers who supported, even demanded, conservative socioeconomic policies last year, are paradoxically the ones who are most angry about the consequences of these policies. This irony isn’t lost on me, and nor is the irony that pseudo-liberals have chosen this time to leap to the right. Ironic, but not surprising. Events like these elicit strong emotional responses, and emotional responses compromise rationality. Business as usual then for the wrathful right.

Property is of course, still more important than the human. Three people were killed during rioting in Birmingham last night, yet most discussion of the unrest of the last day is focused on Manchester, where a lot of shops have been destroyed, but with minimal human injuries. These riots are still essentially crimes against property, and human casualties are on a very small scale. The almost complete lack of disorder in London last night is a testament to the fact that the police are more than capable of handling this situation. Yet still people clamour for military involvement. The government have authorised use of rubber bullets and a water cannon. Now people clamour for live rounds. Racism is rife at the moment; the EDL marched in Enfield last night with Facebook and Twitter users flirting with the idea of approval, half-silently spurring each other on with a nod and a wink. Shit is getting ugly. Central to this ugliness is the dehumanisation of people involved. We’ve already covered that property is more important than human beings in this society, and this creates a fertile environment for dehumanisation, hatred and racism to flourish. After just the first day, rioters were being called “animals”, “rats”, “dogs”, “feral”, and so on – and it’s getting worse and worse. People call for bullets to the head and withdrawal of all human rights for those involved, many of whom are just engaging in petty antisocial behaviour. The ability to dehumanise others is biologically ingrained in us and is essential for capitalism to thrive. Neuroimaging studies show that in empathising with other people, a region in our medial prefrontal cortex becomes activated. The less similar to ourselves we perceive people to be, the less strong the activation, and in some cases of interaction with certain people, the region isn’t activated at all – meaning we don’t even acknowledge them as human beings. This is the result of humanity evolving to favour ingroup people and mistrust people who are dissimilar to ourselves. What this all means is that the capacity to treat people with varying levels of preference, and to even cease regarding some people as human beings is hardwired into us. The ability this gives us to justify inequality is essential for capitalism to work, and the ability to dehumanise people causes a vicious circle. Dehumanise people -> treat them less fairly than others -> they become marginalised and deprived -> they resort to crime -> rinse, repeat. If you don’t want this rioting to continue over the next decade, the vicious right wing cycle of deprivation, crime and vengeance must be broken.

It’s worth mentioning that the authoritarian ideology of Tony Blair’s New Labour, having been ingrained into us for the last 13 years, has probably had an effect on peoples response to the rioting. This, along with the standard right-wing seething, plus increasing pseudo-liberal crypto-facism has prompted the use of baton rounds to be authorised. Don’t worry though, David Cameron has promised they’ll only be used if officers’ lives are in danger. Given we’ve probably already seen the worst of the riots, and that no officers have had their lives seriously threatened thus far, we can all rest assured that none of these rounds will end up being discharged. Yeah, right. Times like this bring out the worst in the police too:

Right-wing response to this video has been crude and obtuse. Apparently “robust police response” simply means “be more violent”. It’s not clear whether videos like this represent collateral damage to these people (and I would be grateful if people realised that a robust police response is perfectly possible without having people attacked and beaten without provocation), or whether they think the police should be allowed to do stuff like that. But be warned: you criticise a few armed thugs for beating up an unarmed kid on a bike and you will be branded a filthy anarchist, against any police involvement whatsoever.  I have many more friends in the police than most do, and I’m happy to say that I don’t think any of them would behave in a way such as that seen in the video. This position, however, has given me a sense of enlightenment as to the culture that still pervades much of the force, and particularly riot officers. It’s a culture of machismo and ‘getting stuck in’. When victims of this culture are so keen to get involved, blood pumping, eager to apply force to rioters, they are motivated primarily by their own perverse sense of justice, and not by the good of the community. And that is when innocent people get hurt, and when incidents as seen in the video occur.

The most worrying developments at the moment are the simmering of racial tensions and hints of vigilantism. But the authorisation of more extreme force is to be condemned too, especially as the situation in London yesterday demonstrates that police are quite capable of dealing with the situation already, provided their strategy is adequate. Batten down the hatches, Britain.

h1

London is threatened! Man the boundaries, protect us! Do your duty to the city!

August 9, 2011

So it seems like the situation has developed somewhat since my last blog yesterday afternoon. Last night saw the worst night of rioting thus far, and this morning saw the greatest anger I’ve seen from the English public since the 7/7 terror attacks (or possibly even longer). I mentioned public response was going so far that some people were even calling for martial law – well today it seems like half the country is. People being interviewed on the news are struggling to not lose their temper, and Facebook is awash with calls of “shoot them all!”. Apparently it’s not just murder of police officers and children that some people want the death penalty brought back for, but theft too. Some fool even started a petition to stop people involved receiving benefits. Wow, blinded by rage much? These riots are the result of high unemployment and deprivation, and people think the solution is to push people further into deprivation and deny them their only possible legal source of income in the face of unemployment? The result of that will be estates becoming no-go zones where gang leaders rule and lawlessness and illegal activity dominate the community. Not something I particularly want to see in 21st century Britain.

One particularly ugly response I’ve noticed (and one that I have to say surprised me greatly) is increasing racism against black people. People I’ve never noticed making bigoted comments before are coming out with drivel like “oh, and they all just *happen* to be black of course”. Someone even said to me yesterday, while discussing the death of Mark Duggan, “His ethnicity is very germane to the events. Do you imagine these events would have occurred had he been white?”. At first I thought he was making the point that police may have been less heavy handed were he white, but it turned out he was just being stupendously ignorant. This is perhaps one of the most worrying consequences of this unrest; racial tensions are going to rise and that will not have a happy ending. The rioters are people from poor and deprived areas. If the majority of deprived people happen to be of a certain ethnicity, that speaks volumes about the society we live in and not about the deprived people themselves.

Last night was extremely heavy. The police obviously went in with completely the wrong tactics, or severe underestimation of how widespread the rioting would be, and London burned. Once again though, it’s worth pointing out that this is essentially violence against private property and not against people. Unfortunately, as mob mentality takes over, people do end up getting hurt, and tragically one person was killed last night in Croydon (although as I’m aware, this may not necessarily have been connected to the riots). Of course, this isn’t what most people are talking about. They’re talking about the pubs that are burning and the shops and businesses that have been smashed up – and they quite literally want heads to roll. On the one hand, I can see why people are so affected by this; many people have lost their livelihoods – but they are physically safe. Being pretty much anywhere in London last night must have been very scary (although people inside their houses generally weren’t in any danger) and large buildings burning out of control into the central London night sky is terrible to the point of being apocalyptic to behold. Large buildings on fire have a very profound effect on people; they convey an extreme danger and lack of control, which is really what is scaring people. If you were glued to news footage, or live in one of these hotspots then you might be forgiven for thinking that some kind of revolution is in progress – but it’s not. And a military response would only be appropriate if it were. The police need greater numbers and a more effective strategy. They were unprepared last night and caught off guard. Many areas were experiencing disorder for over an hour before any police officers showed up. This crisis can be solved without curtailing civil liberties, and certainly without mobilising our military against our own citizens. Thankfully, though the BBC are irresponsibly talking about activating the military, all the politicians they are speaking to are discounting that possibility. Make no mistake though, these riots will not be over within a few days. They are the result of harsh austerity measures and rising unemployment. They will occur sporadically for years, as they did in the 1980’s under Thatcher.

I will finish by reiterating; people calling for disproportionately severe punishments, people who are blaming ethnic minorities, people who are calling for benefits to be removed – you should be ashamed of yourselves. Most people involved were guilty of little more than theft or public order offences, and you would have them being shot down en masse. You are sowing the seeds of discord and fanning the flames of social and racial tension. It is the attitudes of people like you that lead to these problems in the first place.

 

——————–

 

EDIT (19.00) – To what extent does everyone think we’ll experience rioting tonight? So far it seems smaller cities are experiencing unrest and London is a lot quieter. It seems that perhaps people are targeting places with lesser police presence. I suspect London will be much quieter than last night. The IPCC have now confirmed that Mark Duggan did *not* shoot at police before being killed. I invite those people I targeted in my blog yesterday to prove me wrong and publicly air their retractions.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.