And start again

From the ‘found while looking for something else’ file.

In May 2003 the Iraq invasion had just been declared complete; nobody knew quite how bad things were going to get. So the chances are that Danish academic Per Mouritsen wasn’t thinking about Iraq when he wrote this:

Peasants of Piemonte or Bretagne did not begin to accept their taxes or respect laws emanating from Rome or Paris before they could see themselves as belonging to a community stretching beyond the nearest villages and as a people with a state of their own. They would only do this when patriotic subjectivities were created by churches and armies – and when given material reasons for citizenship in the shape of schools, hospitals and the opportunity to channel grievances towards a recognisable political centre. The point was recently demonstrated in Eastern Europe. Civil society did not just need liberation from totalitarian states, but also something else and better instead. There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state – difficult as this is. In the absence of such a state or the relatively recent memory of one, instead of citizens there will be alienated individuals, fending for themselves, instead of market capitalism there will be mafia economies, and instead of velvet revolutions there will be more stolen ones

There must be reasonable and operative laws before people will learn to respect them, working institutions before national solidarity, and rights before anyone would wish to be a citizen. The first step towards civil society is a civil state. In other words, you can’t just blow the ‘totalitarian’ lid off a society and assume that peace and democracy will develop of their own accord. To be a citizen is to be a part of social institutions – and if those institutions aren’t there, calling yourself a citizen will mean about as much as calling yourself a constitutional monarchist in China, or a Communist in Cheltenham.


Ten years dead

First, have a look at this table; it represents some highlights from the voting records of two MPs in the 2001-5 parliament. Neither of them’s particularly far to the Left or Right – they both voted for the Iraq war and for a lower age of consent for gays, for example. But there are some definite differences, most of them pointing in one direction.

Policy MP 1 MP 2
Control Orders 100% 0%
Foundation hospitals 100% 30%
Fox hunting ban 100% 0%
Liberalised gambling 100% 25%
Elected House of Lords 100% 38%
Iraq Investigation 3% 97%
Restrictions on protest near Parliament 98% 46%
Legalise recreational drugs 50% 16%
Smoking ban 42% 4%
Terrorism laws 100% 13%
University education fees 93% 1%

Some pretty consistent differences, I think you’ll agree. I’ll come back to that later.

I wanted to tell you about this letter we got today. It was very exciting, it didn’t have a stamp on but both our names were on the envelope, handwritten in blue biro. There was a single sheet of blue notepaper inside, also handwritten in blue biro but opening “Dear Neighbour”. Apparently our Liberal Democrat candidate “just wanted to write to say thank you for the warm welcome”. So not only has he forgotten our names between the envelope and the letter itself, he’s forgotten that he’s never actually met us. All very odd.

Closer inspection revealed a “Printed by…” rubric along the bottom of the sheet, leading me to suspect that the note wasn’t actually written by a human hand. Even closer inspection suggested that it wasn’t composed by a human brain. One paragraph reads as follows:

Across our city the Liberal Democrats have pledged to put more police on the beat to tackle rising crime levels. It was an honour to take more than 5,000 petition signatures for more police on the beat to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing St. The Conservatives and Greens are losing support and cannot possibly win in our area.

RACTER, is that you?

The letter came with a leaflet which reminded us that the candidate’s a local lad and that the Lib Dems are the only party that can beat Labour, in this area. Apparently the council election in this particular ward is a “two-horse race”, which sounds quite unusual. And there was a bar graph showing the relative support of Labour and the Lib Dems at the last election, although I’m not entirely sure it was to scale, and…

enough already. What Kerron Cross said in answer to the question “Why do you take such a dislike of the Lib Dems?” has been widely quoted around the Web, and rightly so. They’re a bunch of unprincipled, opportunistic chancers – or rather, they’re a bunch of opportunistic chancers on principle, cheerfully committed to offering the people whatever the people tell them they want. In practice they’re still rather to the Left of Labour on most things (at least in this area), which might mean that one more Liberal Democrat councillor would do some good – but actually voting for them would stick in the craw.

Labour, then? I don’t think so. As I wrote in comments at Bill’s this morning, Voting Labour means voting for Best Value, for PFI and for the evisceration of local democracy through elected mayors and salaried ‘cabinets’ – these are the things Labour has actually done, and if we endorse them they’ll do more of the same. And that’s just some of the local issues. Then there’s Iraq. And then there’s everything else. The idea that Blair was a great Prime Minister and a popular hero right up until Iraq has been mooted recently – notably on the ITV News last night, which floated the word ‘IRAQ’, Mysteron-style, across tableaux intended to represent New Labour’s successes. In today’s Indie, Mark Steel gave this idea a well-deserved kicking:

perhaps there’s another explanation for the decline of Blair and his project. The joy felt by so many at the fall of the Conservatives was a sense of a new atmosphere; an end to an era in which greed triumphed over all. At least to some extent, there’d now be a challenge to the rule of excessive wealth. And here we are. As one newspaper fumed with rage yesterday that “this has been the greatest decade in British history for the very, very wealthy. Under New Labour the worth of the 1,000 richest people in the country has soared by 263 per cent. It has indeed been their platinum age.” And the newspaper complaining about this was the Daily Mail. The Daily Bastard Mail.

It wasn’t one mistake or one flawed policy that eroded all that initial optimism, it was New Labour’s very meaning. In fact, Blair’s support for Bush was a result of that adoration for the wealthy and powerful. Iraq wasn’t an aberration, it was a consequence of all he stood for.

I disagree with Steel on one thing, though.

Ten years ago today was brilliant. It was a euphoric sunny optimistic morning. It’s hard to remember it like that, just as it’s hard to recall you had a wonderful romantic wedding day, if it turned out you’d married a junkie who then sold your furniture and smoked your hamster.

But that shouldn’t rob of us of that night of joy – Mellor, Hamilton, the ones you’ve forgotten like Waldegrave – then that glorious awesome sight, containing an inner transcendental beauty like a majestic sunset over the Pacific: the demise of Portillo.

I remember that; I was still up for Portillo, as they say. I remember Portillo looking rather dignified in defeat, and Stephen Twigg looking like a smirk in a suit. I’ve learnt since that the candidates already know the result when it’s announced; Twigg did a very bad job of hiding it. It didn’t bode well.

Policy MP 1 MP 2
Control Orders 100% 0%
Foundation hospitals 100% 30%
Fox hunting ban 100% 0%
Liberalised gambling 100% 25%
Elected House of Lords 100% 38%
Iraq Investigation 3% 97%
Restrictions on protest near Parliament 98% 46%
Legalise recreational drugs 50% 16%
Smoking ban 42% 4%
Terrorism laws 100% 13%
University education fees 93% 1%

It’s that table again. MP 1 is Twigg; MP 2 is Portillo, who was re-elected in 2001.

So, if you support university tuition fees, control orders, PFI, more casinos and a clamp-down on protest, vote Labour. If you don’t, then… well, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you vote Tory, even if Michael Portillo is standing in your ward. But think about who you’re voting for and what they’re going to do with that mandate. Voting Green (say) may seem useless or unrealistic, but voting Labour because of what the party used to be or what it ought to be is just as unrealistic – and it’s worse than useless, because your vote will go to support the party as it is now.

The party could change; the very fact that the Lib Dems are using such a left-wing pitch shows that there’s a constituency for policies well to the left of New Labour. And perhaps, after Blair, the party can change. I’ll believe it when I see it – but it’s hard not to feel some hope at the prospect of a post-Blair era. I’ll give the last word to Tessa Jowell, of all people:

There will, of course, be sadness when Tony departs. He has led this party to historic victory after historic victory. But we have to take a lesson from the American songwriter, activist and trade unionist Joe Hill, whose last words to his supporters were: ‘Don’t mourn, organise’. And that is exactly what we must all do together.

I think she might be right.

All those numbers

I like a good fallacy; I managed to get the Base Rate Fallacy, the Hawthorne Effect and Goodhart’s Law into one lecture I gave recently. So I was intrigued to run across this passage in Jock Young’s 2004 essay “Voodoo Criminology and the numbers game” (you can find a draft in pdf form here):

Legions of theorists from Robert K Merton through to James Q Wilson have committed Giffen’s paradox: expressing their doubts about the accuracy of the data and then proceeding to use the crime figures with seeming abandon, particularly in recent years when the advent of sophisticated statistical analysis is, somehow, seen to grant permission to skate over the thin ice of insubstantiality.

I like a good fallacy, but paradoxes are even better. So, tell me more about Giffen’s paradox:

Just as with Giffen’s paradox, where the weakness of the statistics is plain to the researchers yet they continue to force-feed inadequate data into their personal computers

Try as I might, I wasn’t seeing the paradox there. A footnote referenced

Giffen, P. (1965), ‘Rates of Crime and Delinquency’ in W. McGrath (ed.), Crime Treatment in Canada

I didn’t have W. McGrath (ed.), Crime Treatment in Canada by me at the time, so I did the next best thing and Googled. I rapidly discovered that Giffen’s paradox is also known as the Giffen paradox, that it’s associated with Giffen goods, and that it’s got nothing to do with Giffen, P. (1965):

Proposed by Scottish economist Sir Robert Giffen (1837-1910) from his observations of the purchasing habits of the Victorian poor, the Giffen paradox states that demand for a commodity increases as its price rises.

Raise the price of bread when there are people on the poverty line – ignoring for the moment the fact that this makes you the rough moral equivalent of Mengele – and those people will buy more bread, to substitute for the meat they’re no longer able to afford. It’s slightly reassuring to note that, notwithstanding Sir Robert’s observations of the Victorian poor, economists have subsequently questioned whether the Giffen paradox has ever actually been observed.

But none of this cast much light on those researchers force-feeding their personal computers with inadequate data. Eventually I tracked down W. McGrath (ed.), Crime Treatment in Canada. It turns out that the less famous Giffen did in fact describe the willingness of researchers to rely on statistics, after having registered caveats about their quality, as a paradox (albeit “one of the less important paradoxes of modern times”). I still can’t see that this rises to the level of paradox: surely being upfront about the quality of the data you’re processing is what a statistical analyst should do. If initial reservations don’t carry through into the conclusion that’s another matter – but that’s not a paradox, that’s just misrepresentation.

Paradoxical or not, Giffen’s observation accords with Young’s argument in the paper, which is that criminologists, among other social scientists, place far too much trust in statistical analysis: statistics are only as good as the methods used to produce them, methods which in many cases predictably generate gaps and errors.

It’s a good argument but not a very new or surprising one (perhaps it was newer in 1965). Moreover, Young pushes it in some odd directions. The paper reminded me of Robert Martinson’s 1974 study of rehabilitation programmes, “What Works?” – or rather, of how that paper was received. Martinson demonstrated that no study had conclusively shown any form of rehabilitation to work consistently, and that very few studies of rehabilitation showed any clear result; his paper was seized on by advocates of imprisonment and invoked as proof that nothing worked. This was unjustified on two levels. Firstly, while Martinson’s negatives would justify scepticism about a one-size-fits-all rehabilitation panacea, the detail of his research did suggest that some things worked for some people in some settings. Subsequent research – some of it by Martinson himself – bore out this suggestion, showing reasonably clear evidence that tailored, flexible and multiple interventions can actually do some good. Secondly, if Martinson was sceptical about rehabilitation, he wasn’t any less sceptical about imprisonment: his conclusion was that ex-offenders could be left alone, not that they should be kept locked up (“if we can’t do more for (and to) offenders, at least we can safely do less”). For Martinson, rehabilitation couldn’t cut crime by reforming bad people, because crime wasn’t caused by bad people in the first place. Sadly, the first part of this message was heard much more clearly than the second.

Like Martinson, Young is able to present a whole series of statistical analyses which seem obviously, intuitively wrong. However, what his examples suggest is that statistics from different sources require different types and levels of wariness: some are dependably more trustworthy than others, and some of the less trustworthy are untrustworthy in knowably different ways. But rather than deal individually with the different types of scepticism, levels of scepticism and reasons for scepticism which different analyses provoke, Young effectively concludes that nothing works, or very little:

Am I suggesting an open season on numbers? Not quite: there are … numbers which are indispensable to sociological analysis. Figures of infant mortality, age, marriage and common economic indicators are cases in point, as are, for example, numbers of police, imprisonment rates and homicide incidences in criminology. Others such as income or ethnicity are of great utility but must be used with caution. There are things in the social landscape which are distinct, definite and measurable; there are many others that are blurred because we do not know them – some because we are unlikely ever to know them, others, more importantly, because it is their nature to be blurred. … There are very many cases where statistical testing is inappropriate because the data is technically weak – it will simply not bear the weight of such analysis. There are many other instances where the data is blurred and contested and where such testing is simply wrong.

(In passing, that’s a curious set of solid, trustworthy numbers to save from the wreckage – it’s hard to think of an indicator more bureaucratically produced, socially constructed and culture-bound than “infant mortality”, unless perhaps it’s “marriage”.)

I’ve spent some time designing a system for cataloguing drug, alcohol and tobacco statistics – an area where practically all the data we have is constructed using “blurred and contested” concepts – so I sympathise with Young’s stance here, up to a point. Police drug seizure records, British Crime Survey drug use figures and National Treatment Agency drug treatment statistics are produced in different ways and tell us about different things, even when they appear to be talking about the same thing. (In my experience, people who run archives know about this already and find it interesting, people who use the statistics take it for granted, and IT people don’t know about it and want to fix it.) But: such testing is simply wrong? (Beware the persuasive adverb – try re-reading those last two sentences with the word ‘simply’ taken out.) We know how many people answered ‘yes’ to a question with a certain form of words; we know how many of the same people answered ‘yes’ to a different question; and we know the age distribution of these people. I can’t see that it would be wrong to cross-tabulate question one against question two, or to calculate the mean age of one sub-sample or the other. Granted, it would be wrong to present findings about the group which answered Yes to a question concerning activity X as if they were findings about the group who take part in activity X – but that’s just to say that it’s wrong to misrepresent your findings. Young’s broader sceptical claim – that figures constructed using contested concepts should not or cannot be analysed mathematically – seems… well, wrong.

Young then repeats the second of the errors of Martinson’s audience: if none of that works, then we can stick with what we know. In this case that means criminology reconceived as cultural ethnography: “a theoretical position which can enter in to the real world of existential joy, fear, false certainty and doubt, which can seek to understand the subcultural projects of people in a world riven with inequalities of wealth and uncertainties of identity”. Fair enough – who’d want a theoretical position which couldn’t enter in to the real world? But the question to ask about creeds is not what’s in them but what they leave out. Here, the invocation of culture seems to presage the abandonment not only of statistical analysis but of materialism.

The usual procedure … is to take the demographics and other factors which correlate with crime in the past and attempt to explain the present or predict the future levels of crime in terms of changes in these variables. The problem here is that people (and young people in particular) might well change independently of these variables. For in the last analysis the factors do not add up and the social scientists begin to have to admit the ghost in the machine.

People … might well change independently of these variables – how? In ways which don’t find any expression in phenomena that might be measured (apart from a drop in crime)? It seems more plausible to say that, while people do freely choose ways to live their lives, they do not do so in circumstances of their own choosing – and that those choices in turn have material effects which create constraints as well as opportunities, for themselves and for others. To put it another way, if the people you’re studying change independently of your variables, perhaps you haven’t got the right variables. Young’s known as a realist, which is one way of being a materialist these days; but the version of criminology he’s proposing here seems, when push comes to shove, to be non- or even anti-materialist (“the ghost in the machine”). That’s an awfully big leap to make, and I don’t think it can be justified by pointing out that some statisticians lie.

What arguments based on statistics need – and crime statistics are certainly no exception – is scepticism, but patient and attentive scepticism: it’s not a question of declaring that statistics don’t tell us anything, but of working out precisely what particular uses of statistics don’t tell us. A case in point is this story in last Friday’s Guardian:

An 8% rise in robberies and an 11% increase in vandalism yesterday marred the latest quarterly crime figures, which showed an overall fall of 2% across all offences in England and Wales.

The rise in street crime was accompanied by British Crime Survey indicators showing that public anxiety about teenagers on the streets, noisy neighbours, drug dealing, drunkenness and rowdiness has continued to increase despite the government’s repeated campaigns against antisocial behaviour. … But police recorded crime figures for the final three months of 2006 compared with 12 months earlier showed that violent crime generally was down by 1%, including a 16% fall in gun crime and an 11% fall in sex offences.

The more authoritative British Crime Survey, which asks 40,000 people about their experience of crime each year, reported a broadly stable crime rate, including violent crime, during 2006. … The 11% increase in vandalism recorded by the BCS and a 2% rise in criminal damage cases on the police figures underlined the increase in public anxiety on five out of seven indicators of antisocial behaviour.

Confused? You should be. Here it is again:

  Police BCS
All crime down 2% stable (up 1%*)
Violent crime down 1% stable
Robbery up 8% stable (down 1%*)
Vandalism up 2% up 11%

* Figures in italics are from the BCS but weren’t in the Guardian story.

Earlier on in this post I made a passing reference to statistical data being bureaucratically produced, socially constructed and culture-bound. Here’s an example of what that means in practice. Police crime figures are a by-product of the activities of the police in dealing with crime, and as such are responsive to changes in the pattern of those activities: put a lot more police resources into dealing with offence X, or change police procedure so that offences of type X are less likely to go by unrecorded, and the crime rate for offence X will appear to go up (see also cottaging). Survey data, on the other hand, is produced by asking people questions; as such, it’s responsive to variations in the type of people who answer questions and to variations in those people’s memory and mood, not to mention variations in the wording of the questions, the structure of the questionnaire, the ways in which answers are coded up and so on. The two sets of indicators are associated with different sets of extraneous influences; if they both show an increase, the chances are that they’ve both been affected by the same influence. The influence in question may be a single big extraneous factor which affects both sets of figures – for example, a massively-publicised crackdown on particular criminal offences will give them higher priority both in police activities and in the public consciousness. But it may be a genuine increase in the thing being measured – and, more to the point, the chances of it being a genuine increase are much higher than if only one indicator shows an increase.

In this case, the police have robberies increasing by 8%; the BCS has theft from the person dropping by 1%. That’s an odd discrepancy, and suggests that something extraneous is involved in the police figure; it’s not clear what that might be, though. Vandalism, on the other hand, goes up by 2% if you use police figures but by all of 11% if you use the BCS. Again, this discrepancy suggests that something other than an 11% rise in the actual incidence of vandalism might be involved, and in this case the story suggests what this might be:

British Crime Survey indicators showing that public anxiety about teenagers on the streets, noisy neighbours, drug dealing, drunkenness and rowdiness has continued to increase despite the government’s repeated campaigns against antisocial behaviour

Presumably the government’s repeated campaigns against antisocial behaviour have raised the profile of anti-social behaviour as an issue. Perhaps this has made it more likely that people will feel that behaviour of this type is something to be anxious about, and that incidents of vandalism will be talked about and remembered for weeks or months afterwards (the BCS asks about incidents in the past twelve months).

That’s just one possible explanation: the meaning of figures like these is all in the interpretation, and the interpretation is up to the interpreter. The more important point is that there are things that these figures will and won’t allow you to do. You can say that police figures, unlike the BCS, are a conservative but reliable record of things that have actually happened, and that robbery has gone up by 8% and criminal damage by 2%. You can say that victim surveys, unlike police figures, are an inclusive and valid record of things that people have actually experienced, and that vandalism has gone up by 11% while robbery has gone down by 1%. What you can’t do is refer to An 8% rise in robberies and an 11% increase in vandalism – there is no way that the data can give you those two figures.

But that’s not a paradox or even a fallacy – it’s just misuse of statistics.

I can turn you into gold

As a genre, fantasy has something in common with utopian fiction. Utopias begin with a challenge – Let’s say that everyone’s happy – and then set about answering the questions that challenge provokes. The interest of a utopia is precisely which questions the author believes need to be answered: is it “Who will do the dirty jobs?” or “What about men?”, “What about the idlers?” or “What about aggression?”? The way these questions are answered – and the way they’re framed in the first place – tells us what the utopia is about, what drives it and sustains it – and by implication tells a story about what matters to us, in our world.

Fantasy fiction works a similar trick, at a less exalted – or perhaps simply a less programmatic – level. Let’s say that there are these people who are not like us… and let’s say they can get whatever they want… and let’s say that there are good people and bad people, and the bad people are really easy to identify… I think that something like this set of assumptions lurks behind a lot of fantasy fiction, a kind of unacknowledged comfort zone that the narrative quietly hankers for. The skill of fantasy is then to pull against the tug of wish-fulfilment and play with these assumptions, thinking about their implications and their limits, working out whether people could actually live with them – and if so, how. And, again, the specific questions that get asked (“what about death?”, “what about science?”, “what about pride?”) tell us what the fantasy is about – and, for the author, what matters in the world out here.

So, about Harry Potter…

I’m surprised when sometimes people say to me, “Oh, you know, the books are getting so dark.” I’m thinking, “Well, which part of ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ did you think was light and fluffy?”
– J.K. Rowling, interviewed 16/7/05

Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrols at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!
– back cover copy, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, paperback edition (43rd printing, Dumbledore picture)

Fluffy, perhaps not – but that blurb is a perfect example of how the Harry Potter books might be read as ‘light’. Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy – until he is rescued – and boom, we’re off. Everything from there to the climactic caps and exclamation mark offers to lift the reader into unbounded fantasy, far from the ‘ordinary’ world of work and pain, love and boredom. (The threat implied by that duel might have done a bit of anchoring, if only it hadn’t been a deadly duel – the two words cancel each other out.)

That’s just a blurb, but I think the books are heavily involved with this weightless, comfort-zone version of fantasy – and that it accounts for a lot of what’s most disappointing about them. By which I mean, most of what isn’t plot or character, and some of what is. From the first chapter of Philosopher’s Stone, we’re encouraged to invest in Harry as a boy who has survived real traumas and will face more – “The boy who lived”, with all that that phrase implies. Yet Harry’s surroundings are pure wish-fulfilment. In an interview a while ago, J.K. Rowling said that she’d acquired an instant fan base among enthusiasts for boarding school education and believers in magic[k], and that she had no interest in either topic except as a fictional device. I thought at the time that this was an extraordinary admission – it’s hard to imagine Anthony Buckeridge or Geoffrey Willans disclaiming any interest in schools. But then, Hogwarts isn’t like any other school – even Linbury Court or St custard’s. Those schools are described with an odd combination of quaint specificity and fantastical exuberance, which echoes the collision between childhood creativity and institutional routine. There are things you must and mustn’t do, places you must and mustn’t go, people you must respect and obey and avoid; how it all fits together is for you to find out – or imagine, in curlicues of private mythology. There’s little of this about Hogwarts: the exuberance is all in the real magical trappings of the school, while the quaint specifics are all perfectly logical. As a school, Hogwarts is identifiable as a fantasy above all because it makes sense – there are things the teachers would rather not share with Harry and friends, but there’s nothing that in principle they couldn’t understand. Even the Jennings books are truer to the limits and the mysteries of childhood experience.

As for magic, to say that magic is real at Hogwarts isn’t to say much more than that wishes come true there. Rowling’s bluff scepticism about magic outside fiction contrasts oddly with peers like Ursula le Guin or Philip Pullman. Le Guin has always taken at least as much interest in fictional ethnography as in plotting, while Pullman concludes “His Dark Materials” by saying that magic is real, here, now – it’s just that in our world it’s called shamanism or the I Ching. Set against Ged’s trances or Lyra’s reading of the alethiometer – or even the solemn, meticulous cod-Tolkien of something like Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series – spells like “Expelliarmus” or “Wingardium Leviosa” seem like awfully thin stuff. (Perhaps in the seventh book there’ll be some explanation of why spells are written in something that looks like Latin but isn’t. Or perhaps not.) There are odd moments when both the magic and the school setting come to life – think of Neville’s trouble with passwords or Hermione’s “Wingardium Levio-sah!” – but they’re all too rare.

Despite all this – and despite a writing style in serious need of fluff removal – the books remain interesting, in large part because they do think about the implications and limits of fantasy. What’s particularly interesting is the way that the three themes outlined above recur from book to book, sometimes being waved away in one book and chewed over more seriously in its successor.

In this respect, it has to be said, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t begin well. One of the key questions on the frontier between fantasy-as-speculation and fantasy-as-wish-fulfilment concerns the status of other people. To put it bluntly, are they real – specifically, are they as real as me? The fantasy setting offers plenty of opportunities to answer this in the negative, by allowing the reader to identify with the exceptional characters rather than the mere ordinary real people. Consequently, from an egalitarian perspective, many fantasy narratives are marred by either Tory paternalism (use your gifts to serve the less fortunate) or fascism (you have been raised up as a leader). Both Pullman and le Guin find ways around this trap. (It’s worth noting that Tolkien avoided it completely, by vesting paranormal powers in divine beings and consecrated objects – and dissociating heroism from both.) Rowling walks straight into it, in the opening words of the first book.

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Perfectly normal, thank you very much – reading that last phrase I can just see Michael Palin in a flat cap and Terry Jones in a skirt and a hat with cherries on top. It’s a caricature of a certain kind of English middle-class normality, so broadly drawn that it hardly qualifies as satire and – by 1997 – very tired. The Dursleys, in short, are unreal from the word go – even before the relentless accumulation of negative character traits that follow in the next four chapters. They are the worst surrogate parents Harry could possibly have had, the least deserving of any kind of respect, consideration or reciprocity. The wizard/Muggle distinction gets more interesting in later books, but as far as Philosopher’s Stone is concerned the Muggles par excellence are the Dursleys in all their grotesquerie. Which means that the people who matter are the people who are not like us – or at least, not like them, those boring ordinary people who go to work and watch TV. Score one for wish-fulfilment.

The book’s answers to the other two questions I’ve suggested are a bit more interesting. Yes, HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!, but it doesn’t follow that Harry can get whatever he wants – because what Harry wants more than anything else is to be reunited with his parents, who are dead. (And dead, at least in this book, is dead.) One of the weirdest and most moving moments in the book is Harry’s encounter with the Mirror of Erised, a kind of psychological version of Larry Niven’s ‘droud’:

‘It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. … However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge nor truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.’

To be presented with an image of our desires – and to sit before it, entranced – is quite a good image of the spectacle, as the situationists conceived it. It’s also a horribly telling critique of comfort-zone fantasy, that place where considerations of what is real or even possible don’t apply. It’s just a shame that the Mirror of Erised chapter is also the set-up for a really awful with-one-bound plot device (not to mention being one more example of Rowling’s tin ear for language).

The other big question is that of distinguishing between good people and bad people – or rather, between ‘good and bad’ and ‘friendly and unfriendly’ – or rather, between he’s a bad man and I don’t like him – or rather, between he’s a bad man and he doesn’t like me. (This last one is quite a lot to ask of a twelve-year-old; unsurprisingly, it’s a bit beyond Ron right to the end of this book. But then, that’s what Ron’s for.) As that awkward statement and restatement might suggest, this is a question that Philosopher’s Stone chews over thoroughly; it’s not what the book’s about, but it’s the main running theme. As you’ll know if you’ve read this far, we’re talking about Snape here (with whose help this theme will run and run). By the end of the book Harry has learned that Snape genuinely hates him; that he had some reason for hating Harry’s father, if not Harry himself; that, despite all this, Snape didn’t actually want Harry dead, and had in fact saved his life; and that somebody else was trying to kill him. It’s a shocking and persuasive demonstration of the difference between ‘evil’ (will kill hero if possible) and ‘unfriendly’ (will mark hero’s homework unfairly, but will save hero’s life if necessary). It’s only a partial break with comfort-zone fantasy; it’s still assumed that ‘evil’ and ‘death of hero’ imply each other, which clearly isn’t necessarily so (couldn’t Snape hate Harry enough to kill him, without necessarily being in league with the forces of evil? come to that, couldn’t the forces of evil do their evil work without Harry’s death being involved?) But it is a partial break – a tear in the fabric of the comfort zone – and more, and worse, will follow.

And what the book’s about? Love; specifically, Lily’s love for Harry, which saved his life and continues to protect him from Voldemort.

‘Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realise that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign… to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.’

Something so good as the self-sacrifice of a mother you never knew… There’s something slightly queasy there. Here’s another quote from that July 2005 interview:

Don’t you want to ask me why James’s death didn’t protect Lily and Harry? There’s your answer … because she could have lived – and chose to die. James was going to be killed anyway. Do you see what I mean? I’m not saying James wasn’t ready to; he died trying to protect his family, but he was going to be murdered anyway. … she was given time to choose. James wasn’t. It’s like an intruder entering your house, isn’t it? You would instinctively rush them. But if in cold blood you were told, “Get out of the way,” you know, what would you do? I mean, I don’t think any mother would stand aside from their child. But does that answer it? She did very consciously lay down her life. She had a clear choice. –

And James didn’t

Did he clearly die to try and protect Harry specifically given a clear choice? No. It’s a subtle distinction and there’s slightly more to it than that but that’s most of the answer.

Love as self-sacrifice – or rather, self-sacrifice as love, as a gesture of love so powerful that it enfolds the loved one forever after. This is a fantasy, but it’s a mother’s fantasy, not a child’s. It’s also rather morbid, and makes me wonder what’s in store for Harry’s emotional development. The other implication of that phrase “the boy who lived” is that the remainder of Harry’s life is a postscript to his first encounter with Voldemort, or at best a working-out of unfinished business. I wonder if Rowling is going to allow Harry at least to think about adulthood, and leave his mother’s sacrificial embrace behind – or will he always be the boy who had been loved? We know now that he’s never going to get together with that nice Hermione Grainger, but is anybody going to stay the course – or get the chance?

This doesn’t sound like an important question – it sounds like I’m reducing fantasy to a soap opera plot, and taking that more seriously than it deserves. But it is important, because it brings us back to the nature of fantasy. The other side of comfort-zone fantasy is the fantasy of a world where the hero is special because he’s marked out for destruction, he can’t get anything he wants and the difference between good and evil equals the difference between him and everyone else. Call it the fantasy of the discomfort zone. It’s an unrewarding, masochistic style of fantasy, but no less popular for that. Let Harry’s life be a vapour trail that streaks from one self-immolating explosion to another, and the only progress we will have made is from weightless comfort to ungrounded discomfort. Tolkien, le Guin, Pullman – all of them have faced up to the idea of a fantasy-figure embarking on a life after fantasy, and in the process drawn attention to what their fantasies were really about (humility and pride, death and fear, desire and science). I hope Rowling can do likewise.

[Sharp-eyed readers will have noted the lack of specific references in this post to the second and subsequent books. The plan is to write a separate post on each one, although hopefully not at quite this length. Stay tuned, and so forth.]

Hello, I’m a reject

I got my first PC in 1986; it was the upmarket model with the colour screen and the 40 MB hard disk (which I could only access as a single drive by running a non-standard version of DOS). I couldn’t get a PC that took the old floppies as well as the 3.5″ kind, but not for want of asking. I like backward compatibility.

I got my second PC in 1996, mainly to get online with. A 1 GB hard drive and a 100 MHz Pentium seemed pretty whizzy at the time, but by 2005 it was creaking badly. So I upgraded, this time to a Mac.

I’d never used a Mac before, but I found the switch surprisingly easy. I got used to a single-button mouse – and to pressing the splat key when I wanted a right-click – quite quickly. Not being able to Alt- to the menu bar was more irritating, and I couldn’t work out why I couldn’t delete files with the key labelled ‘delete’. Mostly good, though.

Some time later: the file-deleting thing was still bugging me, so I poked around a bit. OS X Help says you delete files by dragging them to Trash. Cheers. Some page somewhere suggested splat-delete. I tried it. It didn’t work. I asked around among Mac-using friends. Everyone told me it did work. Oh well, maybe I’ve got a duff keyboard.

Last month, the bottom row of the numeric keypad stopped working, probably owing to coffee, toast crumbs etc. I was pleasantly surprised to find my AppleCare cover entitles me to get a new one delivered (and maybe splat-delete will work on the new one!).

The new keyboard arrived two days ago. The numeric keypad works perfectly. Splat-delete doesn’t.

I do some serious poking around. (Maybe Apple are so keen on getting people to drag files to Trash that they’ve disabled splat-delete in the latest release?)

I notice that the Finder’s ‘File’ menu shows a key combination with a hollow arrow with an X in it. I’ve only got one key with a hollow arrow with an X in it; it’s the one labelled ‘delete’. The arrow points the other way, though. Funny.

I’m mystified by a page which advises newbies to use command+delete to delete files, then adds ‘the delete key, NOT the del key’. I’ve got a key labelled ‘delete’ – it’s the one I’ve been trying to use all this time – but there is no ‘del’ key.

I find an Apple page which makes a similar distinction, only this one refers to the ‘delete’ key and the ‘delfwd’ key. It further explains that the ‘delete’ key deletes the character to the left of the cursor. Light dawns.

So: the key labelled with the word ‘delete’, which is in a similar position to and acts exactly the same way as the ‘delete’ key on a PC keyboard, is not the ‘delete’ key. The ‘delete’ key is the big key with the long left-pointing arrow, which looks the same, is in the same position and has exactly the same function as the BACKSPACE key on a PC keyboard.

I don’t know why I didn’t realise that before.

The world looks so tiny


Back in the eighties when China was inviting “foreign friends” over, mainly to teach, as a means of preparing the locals for the forthcoming golden horde of businesspeople they weren’t too scrupulous about checking credentials. There was an absolute infestation of evangelicals, often in posts at fairly prestigious universities for which they had no qualifications whatsoever. “Plate tectonics later – but first, Jesus!”

This kind of thing is partly a by-product of evangelism being banned in China. Partly also it’s because the thought of 1.3 billion hellbound souls just gets evangelical sap rising. It’s a particular obsession in the US. None other than Henry Luce said that the great mission of the United States was to Christianize China.

Back in the early 70s, when I last went to church at all regularly, there was a hymn called “Thy Kingdom Come, O God” which used to come round from time to time. The last verse goes after the following fashion:

O’er heathen lands afar
Thick darkness broodeth yet:
Arise, O Morning Star,
Arise, and never set!

Apparently more recent editions bowdlerise the first line to “O’er lands both near and far”, which dodges the point rather neatly.

I don’t know if hearing that hymn at a formative age had anything to do with it, but a friend’s younger brother later got religion in a big way and trained as a missionary. I was slightly startled by this, but much more so by his first posting, which was to a village in India. (No, look… they’ve got a religion, they’ve had it for ages and they seem quite happy with it… and I mean, different religions, they’re all different, kind of, different pathways to the same… obviously you think Christianity’s the best pathway and I respect that, but…) Still, it’s not often these days that you get the chance to meet someone with a different mental universe, so I suppose we should be glad that the evangelical Christians are around.

The idea of the historic American mission to Christianise China also reminds me of the Early Modern trope of the conversion of the Jews, as mentioned in Marvell’s “To his coy mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges’ side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

The thinking here is, obviously, that the Jews won’t convert until the second coming of Christ and the end of the world.

But then came Zionism – Christian Zionism, in particular. (Regina Sharif’s Non-Jewish Zionism is terrific on this, if you can get hold of it.) For evangelical Christians, the rise of Christian Zionism meant that the Jews weren’t available for conversion any more, even in imagination. (Another church-going memory is of a visiting preacher praying for “thy people Israel”, who were having a bit of trouble in Lebanon at the time. I was taken aback – didn’t our status as Christians rather depend on the Jews losing the franchise? – but apparently this kind of eschatological double-vision is quite common in some quarters.) The enthusiasm of parts of the American Right for Nationalist China – their willingness to give the Kuomintang practical as well as financial support, and to withhold recognition from the People’s Republic until long after the game was up – has always intrigued me; it’d be interesting to see if the KMT fan base had much overlap with the Christian Zionist lobby. Perhaps, in the American evangelical imagination, Luce’s vision of the conversion of the Chinese took the place of the conversion of the Jews – although, the American evangelical imagination being what it is, it was seen not as an ineffably distant prospect but as a project to be brought about as soon as possible. Lucky Chinese.

Better call up the cops

My academic background is in sociology, sort of – you could also call it politics, or contemporary history, or European studies. One thing it wasn’t is criminology. So I have a lot of sympathy with the academics cited here, lamenting the decline of sociology at the expense of criminology. (I met one of them – William Outhwaite – while I was doing my doctorate. I wouldn’t say his example inspired my choice of career, but it certainly reassured me that I was on the right lines.)

Needless to say, they find broader social explanations for what’s happening:

Nick Currie, a criminology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), says he and his colleagues can confirm a shift in applications towards criminology. “Crime informs every aspect of public policy. There isn’t a car park or a housing estate designed now without taking account of criminal behaviour,” he explains.

“I think the growth of sociology was fuelled by the first wave of working-class people who started coming into universities and polytechnics in the 60s and 70s. Sociology was their subject; it was about them. That has changed. I don’t think students now are even thinking about what they really want to study; it is much more [about] what will make me employable.”

Despite being head of Oxford University’s centre for criminology, Dr Ian Loader is not in favour of the shift. “I started to think, when I worked at Keele, that criminology is replacing sociology as a core undergraduate subject,” he says. “But I don’t think criminology is a discipline. It is a field of study, but it is better for someone to come to it as a graduate, not for a first degree. But you try telling that to vice-chancellors. Universities are getting much more entrepreneurial, and crime attracts students.”

I teach Criminology students these days (sorry, William), but I think there’s a lot in this. That said, I think it’s arguable that the rise of criminology has responded to real social and political changes, which need to be studied and understood. As Nick Currie says, at government level crime informs every aspect of public policy – and we need to keep an informed eye on what that means in practice.

Take Blair’s celebrated soundbite about being tough on, well, you know. Here’s Ross McKibbin from the last LRB:

‘Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime.’ This was an entirely reasonable formula for a party that felt it was on the back foot over crime but knew that crime is largely generated by social deprivation. But policy has in practice been increasingly tough only on crime.

And here’s a letter I wrote in response (they haven’t printed it, the blighters):

Ross McKibbin repeats the common misconception that New Labour has been “tough only on crime”, neglecting the causes of crime. It’s true that Blair, like Thatcher and Major before him, does not believe that governments can or should try to prevent crime by promoting social justice. But on the broader question of whether government has any part to play in preventing crime, this government has departed radically from its Conservative predecessors. A range of theories about the causes of crime has been put forward – and acted on. Crime may be caused by drugs, with addicts stealing to fund their habit; if so, mandatory drug treatment will help prevent crime. Crime may be caused by yobs driving respectable citizens off the streets, making it easier for criminals to operate: if so, dealing with anti-social behaviour will help prevent crime. Crime may be caused by the incorrigible lawlessness of a small minority: if so, mandatory parenting classes will help prevent crime, by enabling parents to rein in disruptive children before they become delinquent adults.

Drug treatment and testing orders, parenting orders, anti-social behaviour orders (ASBOs): these are all New Labour innovations, targeting behaviour which is believed to lead to offending rather than waiting for offences to be committed. If we believe, with McKibbin, that “most crime is generated by social deprivation”, we may dismiss this approach as populist tinkering, but this would be to underestimate its coherence – and its impact. Over 3,000 ASBOs were issued in 2004 and 4,000 in 2005, prohibiting individuals from specified non-criminal activities (disorderly behaviour, drinking in public, entering specific areas…). The maximum penalty for breaching an ASBO – which, studies suggest, happens about half of the time – is a five-year prison sentence. This is getting “tough on the causes of crime” with a vengeance.

This isn’t what McKibbin would recognise as thinking about the causes of crime, but neither is it the know-nothing lock-’em-up approach of the Tories. Or rather, the Howard-era Tories – after ten years of New Labour, I expect Cameron will take an equally wide-ranging approach. I did a Web search the other day for the classic Daily Mailism “the cause of crime is criminals”; I found it on the UKIP Web site.

One footnote. The public image of the ASBO had already changed by the time it was introduced – it was originally intended as a measure to deal with “neighbours from hell” and serial intimidators, not the badly-behaved kids it’s now associated with. It looks as if a second shift has taken place in the last few years. The 2002 Police Reform Act introduced the “ASBO on conviction” or “criminal ASBO”, imposed to accompany or follow a penal sentence. Apparently 70% of ASBOs imposed between 2003 and 2005 were “criminal ASBOs”. Interesting. I don’t know what it means, but it’s interesting.

Not mine

David, of all people, points to a fascinating lecture by Rowan Williams. Who writes, among much else:

Take Scripture out of this context of the invitation to sit at table with Jesus and to be incorporated into his labour and suffering for the Kingdom, and you will be treating Scripture as either simply an inspired supernatural guide for individual conduct or a piece of detached historical record — the typical exaggerations of Biblicist and liberal approaches respectively. For the former, the work of the Spirit is more or less restricted to the transformation of the particular believer; for the latter, the life of the community is where the Spirit is primarily to be heard and discerned, with Scripture an illuminating adjunct at certain points. But grasp Scripture as part of the form taken by the divine act of invitation that summons and establishes the community around the Lord’s Table, and the Bible becomes coherent at a new level, as a text whose meaning is most centrally to do with the passage from rivalry and self-assertion and the enmity with God that is bound up with these to the community in which each, by the influx of the Spirit, takes responsibility for all, and all for each.

When it comes to Christianity I’m an ex-believer, if that – church membership was always about the ethics in our house. When the Archbishop says that Eucharist and Scripture alike have to be considered in relation to belief in the resurrection it doesn’t mean much more to me than if he’d said that Mercury and Venus alike have to be considered as the rulers of air signs – and what he writes about the theology of the cross … a revelation of glory through self-forgetting and self-offering finds me deeply suspicious and rather hostile. (Blame it on Crass. “Reality Asylum” – once heard, never forgotten.)

But still, the argument I’ve just quoted strikes me as powerful and fascinating – and resonant far outside the Anglican tradition to which it speaks. If these are two ways of working with Scripture, they’re also two ways of using theory or doing politics. At one extreme are the converted believers, who will talk endlessly about how the text changes their view of the world and the new conceptual possibilities it opens up, without ever putting it to the test of working with other people. At the other are the pragmatic activists, devoting themselves to what’s actually going on out there, returning to the text (if at all) to mine it for parallels and sources of inspiration. These are caricatures, but I think they’re based on real positions – the discussion provoked by Dave‘s recent decision to rejoin the Labour Party drew some very clear lines between hard-headed realists and self-indulgent purists, or between principled socialists and opportunistic renegades.

While it was, in all probability, no part of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intention to bang socialist heads together, his argument does suggest very forcefully that both sides in this debate were missing something. This isn’t just the familiar line about theory needing to be informed by practice and vice versa. The point is, rather, that theory (or Scripture) is something heard – a message – and as such needs to be embedded within a continuing conversation, within a community. (This may be closer to Jewish traditions than David suggests.) Neither the conversation without the message, nor the message heard by a single person, is adequate. I think there’s something profoundly useful and challenging here; it’s also profoundly depressing, given the current state of the Left. Still, to use theory to inform the intellectual life of a group – in Williams’ terms, to unite scripture with eucharist – strikes me as something worth aspiring to. Not that Williams’ thinking is flawless here; as that slightly grudging reference to the life of the community suggests, he doesn’t show much interest in what the community of believers is going to do in between Sundays. But a loss of focus on what an organised group is organised for is hardly unique to Christians.

There’s a lot more than this in Williams’ lecture. I particularly like the way he deals with St Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality, and the way it’s been used by conservative Christians; it’s the best exposition of what it means to take something out of context that I’ve seen. It’s hard going in parts – he knows his theology and isn’t afraid to use it – but I think it’s worth persevering with. If nothing else, it’s a corrective to the idea that religious thought is a contradiction in terms. If Williams were to lose his faith he could still write works of philosophy. (Not to mention sleeve notes for String Band re-releases.)

I call that education

It became apparent that most of them hadn’t heard of Twitter.

Tim Bray misjudges his audience. What’s interesting is that the audience in question was at something called Web Design World. This leads Tim to wonder just how small the ‘Internet in-crowd’ really is – and, conversely, if it is that small, how come it makes so much noise.

I wrote about this last year, and I think some of what I wrote then is worth repeating:

When I first started using the Internet, about ten years ago, there was a geek Web, a hobbyist Web, an academic Web (small), a corporate Web (very small) and a commercial Web (minute) – and the geek Web was by far the most active. Since then the first four sectors have grown incrementally, but the commercial Web has exploded, along with a new sixth sector – the Web-for-everyone of AOL and MSN and MySpace and LiveJournal (and blogs), whose users vastly outnumber those of the other five. But the geek Web is still where a lot of the new interesting stuff is being created, posted, discussed and judged to be interesting and new.

Add social software to the mix – starting, naturally, within the geek Web, as that’s where it came from – and what do you get? You get a myth which diverges radically from the reality. The myth is that this is where the Web-for-everyone comes into its own, where millions of users of what was built as a broadcast Web with walled-garden interactive features start talking back to the broadcasters and breaking out of their walled gardens. The reality is that the voices of the geeks are heard even more loudly – and even more disproportionately – than before. Have a look at the ‘popular’ tags on as I write, six of the top ten (including all of the top five) relate directly to programmers, and only to programmers. (Number eight reads: “LinuxBIOS – aims to replace the normal BIOS found on PCs, Alphas, and other machines with a Linux kernel”. The unglossed reference to Alphas says it all.) Of the other four, one’s a political video, two are photosets and one is a full-screen animation of a cartoon cat dancing, rendered entirely in ASCII art. (Make that seven of the top ten.)

[2007 update: still six out of ten, albeit only two out of the top five]

Yes, ‘insiders’ do make a disproportionate amount of noise. And yes, the in-crowd does look bigger on the inside than it does from the outside – so does any crowd once you’re in it. The mistake is to assume that your crowd is the only crowd there is – but it’s a mistake that every crowd makes. An old post about Technorati (this time from 2005) makes this point better than I could paraphrase it:

The equation of authority with ‘popularity’ is, in one sense, neither inappropriate nor avoidable … the distinction between the knowledge produced in academic discourse and the knowledge produced in conversation is ultimately artificial: in both cases, there’s a cloud of competing and overlapping arguments and definitions; in both cases, each speaker – or each intervention – draws a line around a preferred constellation of concepts. At some level, all knowledge is ‘cloudy’. Moreover, in both cases, the outcome of interactions depends in large part on the connections which speakers can make between their own arguments and those of other speakers, particularly those who speak with greater authority. (Hence controversy: your demonstration that an established writer is wrong about A, B and C will interest a lot more people – and do more for your reputation – than your utterly original exposition of X, Y and Z.) You may not like the internationally-renowned scholar who’s agreed to look in on your workshop – you may resent his refusal to attend the whole thing and disapprove of his attitude to questioners; you may not even think his work’s that great – but you still invite him: he’s popular, which means he’s authoritative, which means he reflects well on you. Domain by domain, authority does indeed track popularity.

But there’s the rub – and here begins the argument against Technorati. Domain by domain, authority tracks popularity, but not globally: it makes a certain kind of sense to say that the Sun is more authoritative than the Star, but to say that it’s more authoritative than the Guardian would be absurd. (Perverse rankings like this are precisely an indicator of when two distinct domains are being merged.) Similarly, it’s easy to imagine somebody describing either the Daily Kos or Instapundit as the most ‘authoritative’ site on the Web; what’s impossible to imagine is the mindset which would say that Kos was almost the most authoritative source, second only to Glenn Reynolds. But this is what drops out if we use Technorati’s (global) equation of popularity with authority. … This effect has been masked up to now by the prevalence of a single domain among Technorati tags (and, indeed, Technorati users): it’s a design flaw which has been compensated by an implementation flaw.

Some final brief thoughts. Blogging tends towards conversation. Conversation routes around gatekeepers (Technorati is, precisely, a gatekeeper – but an avoidable gatekeeper). Conversations happen within domains. People cross domains, but domains don’t overlap. Every domain thinks it’s the only one.

Except, of course, the domain shared by readers of this blog, which is plural and open to a high degree. A uniquely high degree, in fact…

The wills and the won’ts

Ellis links to an excellent appreciation of Raymond Williams. I’ve got nothing to add to it, except that I’d forgotten just how well he wrote – it’s an odd tone of voice, with a kind of patiently strenuous quality, but it’s very powerful and rather beautiful, once you tune in to it. I can’t think of another writer who so consistently combines reasoning and anger without slipping into preaching or polemic.

And here’s one I prepared earlier:

Culture is ordinary: Raymond Williams and cultural materialism

Raymond Williams developed the approach which he named ‘cultural materialism’ in a series of influential books – Culture and Society (1958), the Long Revolution (1961), Marxism and Literature (1977). I came to cultural materialism by another route. I’d just read Williams’ Drama in performance – a survey of the conditions under which plays have been put on over the years, and how changes in staging practice parallelled developments in society. One night, I had a dream. I dreamed I saw a series of scenes, each showing a group of people in their usual surroundings; I remember a group of cardinals, standing outside St Peter’s in Rome. The relationships between the elements in each scene – the architecture, the clothing, the rituals, the social roles – were luminously clear. I woke up with a clear, unshakeable sense of the validity and power of the cultural materialist approach.

By the time I read Williams’ theoretical work, in other words, I’d already been converted. This experience has had some odd effects. I find Williams’ writing clear and easy to read, for instance, which I gather is unusual; asked for a comment on Marxism and Literature, the historian Gwyn A.Williams said, “I defy anyone to read that book without going stark raving mad.” With this in mind, I’ve attempted to suggest why Williams’ work continues to merit the attention of socialists.

Cultural materialism was always, for Williams, a Marxist theory – an elaboration of historical materialism. “Latent within historical materialism is … a way of understanding the diverse social and material production … of works to which the connected but also changing categories of art have been historically applied. I call this position cultural materialism.” Cultural production is itself material, as much as any other sector of human activity; culture must be understood both in its own terms and as part of its society. The implications for cultural work are vast: imagine relating Howard Barker’s plots to the contemporary demographics of theatre-going, or setting the rise of Zoe Ball in the context of the economics of the BBC. Cultural studies – a discipline whose existence owes much to Williams – has scratched the surface of this approach to the arts, but following it through is a daunting prospect.

Williams’ conception of cultural materialism went further, however. The key question was how the relationship between society and culture was understood. In his 1958 essay “Culture is ordinary” Williams cited the Marxist tenet that “a culture must finally be interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production” and glossed it as follows: “a culture is a whole way of life, and the arts are part of a social organisation which economic change clearly radically affects.” The second part of this statement indicates Williams’ resistance to the classical Marxist idea of culture as a ‘superstructure’ which echoes an economic ‘base’. The first part suggests how he would bridge the gap: culture was “a whole way of life”. This Williams counterposed to ‘high culture’ – “this extraordinary decision to call certain things culture and then separate them, as with a park wall, from ordinary people and ordinary work”.

Hence, culture is always political. This is not to say that the crimes of the ruling class can be read off from a film or an advertisement, any more than they can from a party political broadcast. Still less does it imply that work which aims for that level of explicitness is the best or most important. Rather, culture is political because the social process addressed by political analysis is always embedded in culture. Williams reversed the terms of the usual analysis. Rather than being a specialised area in which we see reflections of the political processes governing society, culture is the “whole way of life” which makes up human society; political analysis is a specialised framework which can be used to understand it.

Much writing on culture treats political change as an external force: something which impinges on ordinary people’s lives from outside, and which writers may choose to focus on or not. This assumption underpins the tendency of right-wing critics to claim authors for their own – ‘apolitical’ – perspective. “By the fifties the trick was being turned that if you thought George Eliot was a good novelist, you had to be against socialism. There was a directly political confiscation of the past that was intolerable.”

Radical criticism is often little better. Even the approach of reclaiming ‘apolitical’ works, re-attaching them to their history – reading the Industrial Revolution into Wuthering Heights, for instance, with Heathcliff seen as a dispossessed proletarian – made the same mistake, Williams argued. “Social experience, just because it is social, does not have to appear in any way exclusively in these overt public forms. In its very quality as social reality it penetrates, is already at the roots of, relationships of every kind … When there is real dislocation it does not have to appear in a strike or in machine-breaking. It can appear as radically and as authentically in what is apparently, what is actually family or personal experience.” Wuthering Heights was “central to its time” because of the power of its articulation of emotional experience – an experience which was characteristic of a society which was being torn apart, psychologically as much as socially, under the stress of industrialisation.

Politics for its part is always cultural. The history of the Left and the labour movement is the history of attempts to develop an alternative culture – a long, complex and contradictory process. Williams resisted prescriptive approaches to culture: if it was intolerable for the Right to appropriate George Eliot, it was absurd for the Left to claim that certain art forms were or were not ‘socialist’. “A culture is common meanings, the product of a whole people, and offered individual meanings … It is stupid and arrogant to suppose that any of these meanings can in any way be prescribed; they are made by living, made and remade, in ways that we cannot know in advance.”

The culture of the Left exists on a number of levels. There are continuing and developing art forms, such as the art of banners, flags and quilts. There are the achievements of the continual drive for working class ‘self-improvement’ – in fact a movement of resistance to exclusion from education – from the Institutes of mining villages through to today’s WEAs and the Open University. More broadly again, there is the body of collective experience built up through struggle. (“The single most shocking thesis to established liberal opinion in Culture and Society … was that I did not define working-class culture as a few proletarian novels … but as the institutions of the labour movement.”) Marches and demonstrations, strikes and occupations, all create new forms of consciousness and promote awareness of different ways of living; on a more mundane level, they also bring out ordinary people’s ability to organise and co-ordinate activity. Williams insisted that those achievements – and resources – should not be forgotten or minimised.

Moreover, political struggle itself takes cultural forms. The ‘DiY Culture’ [sic] of squats, anti-roads protests and Reclaim the Streets actions is, among other things, a direct assertion of new cultural possibilities – and of a way of living in which culture, art, pleasure would play a central part. Actions such as these often involve the playful reappropriation of buildings and monuments, symbols of the dominant culture: in Williams’ terms, an emergent culture is imposing itself, making itself heard. Predictably, the full armoury of the dominant culture and social order is brought into play to combat it: from “the scum on the front pages of the richer newspapers” (to quote Williams from 1968) through to direct – political – repression. For capitalism has not ceased to be victorious: the space available for cultural or political opposition is continually under attack, from the reappropriation of radical symbols to the literal occupation of social territory through CCTV. And culture cannot substitute for politics – cannot be a short-cut to a larger social transformation, any more than the instrumental model of left politics could function without culture. The complex set of transformations which Williams labelled ‘the long revolution’ could only triumph by dispossessing “the central political organs of capitalist society”: “the condition for the success of the long revolution in any real sense is decisively a short revolution”.

Williams’ assessments of the prospects for change were sometimes bleak. He believed that neither the Labour Party nor the union movement had advanced a genuinely reformist project for many years, preferring to manage capitalism and take sectoral gains: “The underlying perspectives of a reforming Labour Party and of a steadily bargaining and self-improving trade-union movement – a perspective within which so many major gains have been achieved – suddenly look like and are dead ends,” he wrote in 1982. The following year he developed this analysis in Towards 2000, in which he analysed the new managerial politics – a politics which he named ‘Plan X’, in which the only goal is the continued functioning of capitalism and the pursuit of strategic advantage. Williams didn’t live to see New Labour, but I’m certain he would have recognised Plan X through the rhetorical fog.

That said, the space for alternatives is never entirely blocked: “no mode of production and therefore no dominant social order and therefore no dominant culture ever in reality includes or exhausts all human practice, human energy and human intention”. There is always – must always be – space for opposition: for thinking and action directed towards the elaboration of another social order. This refusal of despair was also a refusal of indiscriminate anger and weightless theory, of critiques written in the margins of the dominant order. Its roots were in Williams’ sense of loyalty: to class, to community and to history. The sense of community he had known in Wales was crucial to him: his recognition of green issues and the politics of place extended rather than diluting his earlier emphasis on class.

His loyalties gave Williams a quiet steadiness which sometimes made him seem like a placid gradualist – a deeply misleading impression. On other occasions the impression was more brutal. In 1985 he wrote: “As the [miners’] strike ends, there will be many other things to discuss and argue about; tactics, timing and doubtless personalities. But it is of the greatest possible importance to move very quickly and sharply beyond these, to the decisive general issues which have now been so clearly disclosed.” After Williams’ death R.W. Johnson recalled this passage, attacking Williams for attempting to forestall a critique of the NUM’s ‘tactics, timing [and] personalities’. The charge is accurate but irrelevant. Williams deliberately refused to play that game, for reasons which recall his enduringly controversial critique of George Orwell (“while travelling seriously, he was always travelling light”). Of Orwell’s “plain style” Williams commented, “the convention of the plain observer with no axes to grind … cancels the social situation of the writer and cancels his stance towards the social situation he is observing.” The miners’ strike, Williams believed, created new possibilities for oppositional thought and action, even in defeat; a socialist writer who ignored these possibilities in favour of post-mortem recriminations would truly be ‘travelling light’, cancelling out their own social position and political goals.

Three years earlier, Williams had helped set up a group aiming to work on those “decisive general issues”: the Socialist Society. The work of the Socialist Society led to the Chesterfield Conferences, the Socialist Movement and the newspaper socialist – eventually reborn as Red Pepper. Several of the people now involved in Red Pepper were active in the Socialist Society in the late eighties and early nineties – myself included. With this history in mind, it is worth asking, finally, what directions Williams’ work suggests for the Left in 1999.

Firstly, work is still needed on understanding ‘New Labour’. While the genuine reforms enacted by this government cannot be ignored, the heart of New Labour is an attempt to graft reactionary and managerial values onto the image, language and organisational resources of the Labour Party. The true dimensions of ‘the project’, and the weaknesses in Labour which allowed it to triumph, remain to be analysed. A second area in need of reassessment is the Left itself. The bizarre and disastrous positions adopted by much of the Left during the Kosova crisis attest to the work which now needs to be done, to reconnect the Left with its founding humanist – and Marxist – values.

In a small country undergoing rapid change, national identity is another important theme. While trans-European linkages may be beneficial, their uneven development, dominated by the requirements of capitalism, puts the identity associated with the British state under strain – particularly accompanied by Scottish and Welsh political self-assertion. One symptom is the English cultural valorisation, ever since Trainspotting, of a curiously regressive image of young Scottish masculinity. The advent of these Celtic rebels without a cause is related to a fourth theme, gender politics: in particular, the recurrent anxiety as to whether feminism has ‘gone too far’ or ‘lost its way’.

Finally, the late nineties have given us two further concerns which Williams could not have foreseen. The Internet has been hailed as transforming the nature of work and even of capital. Serious work is now being done to test these claims; this needs to be complemented by an awareness of the real potential of the Internet as a medium for radical communication and action. Lastly, the nineties have been marked by an extraordinary growth in three inter-related ideologies: ‘New Age’ beliefs, often associated with alternative therapies; belief in the paranormal and extra-terrestrial life; and ‘conspiracy theory’. While the last of these, at least, has something to offer serious politics, taken together these beliefs indicate a loss of belief in established authority – and a loss of faith in our own ability to reason and act.

Williams never lost that faith. He believed that the Left could understand the dominant order: we faced, not “some unavoidable real world”, but “a set of identifiable processes of realpolitik and force majeure, of nameable agencies of power and capital, distraction and disinformation”. But naming the blockages was not enough. “The dynamic movement is elsewhere, in the difficult business of gaining confidence in our own energies and capacities.” The task was to establish the lines of development for an alternative. “It is only in a shared belief and insistence that there are practical alternatives that the balance of forces and chances begins to alter. Once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope. If there are no easy answers there are still available and discoverable hard answers, and it is these that we can now learn to make and share.”

A version of this essay appeared in the August 1999 issue of Red Pepper.


The English novel from Dickens to Lawrence (1970)
Orwell (1971)
Politics and Letters: interviews with New Left Review (1979)
Towards 2000 (1983)
Marxism and Literature (1977)


“Culture is ordinary” (1958), “Why do I demonstrate?” (1968), “The forward march of Labour halted?” (1982), “Lukács: a man without frustration” (1983), “Mining the meaning: key words in the miners’ strike” (1985).

All essays are in Resources of Hope (1989) except “Lukács”, which is in What I came to say (1989).

Feels like 1974

I haven’t said a lot about Labour or the Left here lately, mainly because I’ve been saying it all at Dave’s place (another example of the essential superiority of Usenet over blogging). Here’s a slightly edited version of my comments on recent threads.

Dave argues that this government’s left-wing achievements have been localised and timid (Blair worships the god of small things) and that these are vitiated by its failure to break with the neo-liberal agenda set by its Tory predecessors (Tory anti-union laws and Tory privatisation policies stayed in place).

I’d argue that this is praising with faint damns – it’s much worse than that.

It’s true that there are positives, from the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament to the minimum wage, but loyalists tend either to ignore all the negatives or to tacitly assume that they would have been the same under any other government. I study the criminal justice system in my day job, and it’s extraordinary the way things have changed since 1997:

Parenting Orders.
Penalty Notices for Disorder.
Community Support Officers.
Drug testing on arrest.
DNA swabs on arrest.
All offences made arrestable.
Terrorism Act 2000…

That’s just one area where New Labour has gone beyond the Tories. They’ve also taken neo-liberal economic policies further than the Tories ever did – and probably further than the Tories, with a Labour opposition, ever could. Privatisation and competition have reached far further into the public sector under Blair than they did under Thatcher. As for Blair’s foreign policy, it’s hardly any less anti-European than Thatcher’s was – and it’s much more subserviently pro-American than her delusions of imperial grandeur would allow her.

In short, Blair’s presided over a government that stands to the right of the Tories – even Thatcher-era Tories – in almost all areas, and he’s done so with the backing of the Labour movement. It’s quite an achievement. It also puts left-wing Labour loyalists in an impossibly difficult position. If Labour were campaigning for unambiguously right-wing policies, could a Labour leftist still advocate a vote for Labour? Even if they were consistently attacked from the Left by the Lib Dems (or, God help us, the Tories)?

It’s not hard to imagine this happening, sadly. Suppose that your MP retires suddenly, precipitating a by-election. Labour policy at a national level is pro-PFI, pro-ID cards and pro-Iraq war. The Labour candidate is an identikit Blairite – enthusiastically pro-PFI, pro-ID cards and pro-Iraq war. The Green candidate, the Lib Dem and even the Tory are all opposed to Labour policy in these areas, or at least unenthusiastic about it. Someone tells you that, as a socialist, they can’t possibly vote for the Labour candidate – look at their policies on PFI, ID cards and Iraq! What could you tell that person, to persuade them to vote Labour one more time? And, perhaps even more importantly, what would you tell them after the election, when their vote had helped elect another identikit Blairite?

One answer would be that the Labour Party is a potential vehicle for progressive change in a way that the other parties aren’t. (The unions are the obvious example here – I’d still advise a colleague to join the union even if the leadership had repeatedly sold us out.) This being the case, however reactionary our actually existing government might be, a Labour government could still become an instrument for reform if it was dragged back to the Left by pressure from rank-and-file members. The trouble is, in the current state of the party’s democratic machinery, I can’t see any way in which rank-and-file members can actually bring that pressure to bear. One Labour leftist reminded me that “the policies of the Labour party as decided by Conference include renationalisation of the railways, an end to Foundation Hospitals and privatisation of the NHS, an end to PFI, the immediate restoration of the pensions-earnings link, the restoration of trade union rights, direct investment in council housing, etc”. Nevertheless, the Labour government has pursued the opposite of all of these policies with impunity for the last ten years – and done so with the votes of a lot of good Labour MPs, many of whom almost certainly have serious misgivings but don’t want to get in trouble with the Whips. Another answer would be that Labour’s union links mean that the party is the party of the organised working class – but again, I don’t see much evidence of leftward union pressure on the party having any effect.

It seems to me that New Labour is a coherent project which is reactionary, pro-capital and anti-working class in almost every way; that New Labour reforms to party structures make it titanically difficult to impose a change of course from below; and that individual Labour councillors and MPs – however left-wing they may be as individuals – have very little freedom of manoeuvre. All that being the case, voting Labour will almost invariably mean voting for someone who will (for example) stand up to the leadership on Iraq and the NHS but toe the line on Best Value and ASBOs. In other words, in the short term they will both do good and do harm – and in the process they will do long-term harm, by helping to turn the New Labour agenda into the ‘common sense’ of Labour.

Labour governments have always had left-wing opposition, but I believe this is a different kind of situation: we’re not in the seventies any more, with a Labour government offering a few crumbs and the Left demanding the loaf. If the New Labour project is anything like what I’ve described, then New Labour is actually working against the interests of the working class, and those of the Labour Party. Opposing the project some of the time isn’t really good enough if it means you’re assisting it the rest of the time.

My pre-election advice remains what it was two years ago:

Don’t abstain. Don’t be an idiot and vote Tory.

But don’t vote Labour.

Then don’t think twice

I haven’t got much of a comments policy. Any spam that makes it through the filters will be deleted, that’s a given. Apart from that, there are a few types of comment that I don’t like – people commenting for the sake of plugging their own blogs (human spam); anonymous comments; ad hominem attacks; anonymous ad hominem attacks – but nothing I could define tightly enough to put in a spelt-out Acceptable Comments Policy.

I came to blogging after several years on Usenet, and in particular on a newsgroup (alt.folklore.urban) which had very high informal standards for the content of posts and very low standards of civility and politesse. I believe the two were connected. It was understood on a.f.u, in its heyday, that a badly-written post could and would be torn line from line, with contempt, with wit and quite often with swearwords. It was a spectator sport, often undertaken for fun and without any real anger; most of the time the group’s sympathies would be entirely with the poster doing the shredding, not the one whose post had been shredded. It was also understood that this wasn’t personal: we might have called you an idiot on the basis of posting a stupid and ill-informed argument, but that should just encourage you to come back and try again. (I was particularly scrupulous about this myself, and used to tell people that they were being an idiot.) Most of the time it seemed to work: most people either shaped up or shipped out, although a few would always insist on hanging around and complaining. Either way, they rapidly gained a name for themselves, which was always a big part of being on Usenet.

With that experience behind me, it’s hard to get too worked up about anonymity – or rather, it’s hard to define anonymity. If an anonymous commenter signs off with his or her given name, and I recognise them as someone who’s in my phone book, is that really anonymous? Conversely, if a commenter with a screen name gives a valid URI and a valid email address, none of which give any clue to his or her real-world identity, is that not anonymous? What about the regular commenter with a consistent screen name – if one block of text can be linked to the author of several others, how much does it matter that nobody knows what their real name is? Deep waters.

More to the point, my a.f.u experience means that I find it hard to endorse any kind of blanket condemnation of ad hominem attacks, let alone ‘bad language’ or ‘rudeness’. Writing out of personal spite and contempt is bad (“don’t drive angry“). Writing to offend is bad; writing to provoke is bad; writing to arouse spite and contempt in other people is bad. But I don’t see that you need to use swearing or incivility to do any of those things – and I don’t see that swearing or incivility is a good indicator that you are doing any of those things. I’ve been deeply offended and angered by blog posts and blog comments before now, but I don’t remember that any of the offending material was rude.

Do I deplore ad hominem attacks? Yes, generally – but I also recognise that some attacks take passive-aggressive form, presenting the attacker as a well-meaning observer or a wronged victim who only wants justice. Scrupulously polite and civil language may convey the most hurtful sentiments. On the other hand, what can look like attacking language may be robust or even playful criticism. That said, I’m not so naive as to think that everyone who gives offence is just being playful or that everyone who takes offence is over-reacting. Setting out to cause offence and being offensive certainly overlap – but the first doesn’t imply the second, and vice versa. If we imposed a rule of universal politeness, it might drive personal attacks underground – or between the lines – but it would do nothing to stop them; those who want to would find a way. (And, at some time or other, we all want to.)

So, do I delete ad hominem attacks, or abuse, or anonymous trolling? No, not most of the time. And yes, sometimes – although this doesn’t necessarily correlate with the overt level of offensiveness. Essentially my comments policy is Tom‘s:

Please stay on-topic, informative and polite. I reserve the right to remove comments for whatever vague capricious reasons seem reasonable at the time.

You can argue with that if you want to – you might change my mind, or you might not. Either way, I won’t delete your comments. Probably.

Sometimes I wonder

The estimable Unity – who well deserves the title him- or herself – has nominated me as a ‘thinking blogger’, so I guess I’d better pass on the baton. I’ll take the easy way out and say that my blogroll is full of ’em, and I’d especially recommend you check out… well, any blog on the list that you aren’t reading already. (I’ve built up and merged two separate blogrolls, one consisting almost entirely of left-wing Brits and the other consisting almost entirely of Americans who know about Web 2.0, so I’d be quite surprised if there isn’t anyone on the list who qualifies.)

If I had to single anyone out, it would be Chris, who is utterly wrong in some way that I’ve never yet managed to put my finger on; reading his posts is always good, if frustrating, mental exercise. Unless it was Shelley, who’s very smart, very human and very rarely wrong. Or Jim, whose posts are a constant reminder not only that things could be different but, more unsettlingly, that some time soon things are going to have to be different.

The other part of the deal is to say what I think about the category of thinking blogger. I think it’s a bit of an unfortunate term, but it does correspond to a recognisable blogging style. A thinking blogger isn’t a comedian, a diarist, a fisking railer or a controversialist – they’re all good ways to blog, but they’re not what I’m talking about here. A thinking blogger is a blogger who makes you think: makes you develop your own ideas in response to theirs – or reconsider your own ideas in response to theirs – or both. A writer who makes you wonder, once again, just what the Guardian pay their columnists for.

A recent post by Dave Rogers reminds me that a thinking blogger is also someone who invites you to slow down. Dave:

“thinking” is kind of like preparing a meal. It takes some time, and if you want to make a good meal, you kind of have to work at it. … This is one of the “problems” with the internet, and I believe it contributes significantly to episodes like the one most recently surrounding Kathy Sierra. It’s too easy for us to jump on our machines, which we are far too connected to, and dash off the quick post. I will guess that it has something to do with the reward centers in our brains and dopamine receptors. We go for the “quick fix” (as in drug fix, not “repair” fix). We don’t take the time to really think.

So a thinking blogger’s blog isn’t the blog you read first; on the contrary, it’s one you sometimes save for last – and sometimes save for another day – because you know it’s going to need your full attention. Indeed, I could name some thinking bloggers who I never read at all – although that’s probably just me being lazy.

A thogger, on the other hand, is a devotee of the school of literary appreciation named after Thog the Mighty. But you knew that.

And we moved to Paraguay

Will is keen to dispel some myths about think tanks:

Imagine you’re throwing a party, and invitations have to be equally split into three factions. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. Secondly, you must invite your colleagues. And thirdly you must invite the kids who hang around the local park. When they arrive, they inevitably split into their respective groups, and congregate in separate areas of the room. As the host, it’s up to you to come up with topics of conversation on which all three groups will engage enthusiastically and frame that conversation in language that all three groups can understand. If any group opts out or feels alienated by the conversation that you introduce, you have failed in your hostly duties. Within those limits, you have complete freedom to take the conversation where you like.Now substitute ‘government, business and media’ for ‘grandparents, colleagues and kids’ … and you have a sense of how much independence a think tank has in what it says.

There’s a bunch of assumptions here which could do with unpacking – who is ‘media’? who is ‘business’? come to that, who’s ‘government’? Do the answers change over time, and do think tankers make any contribution to the way they change?

But what struck me was something about the metaphor itself. Firstly you must invite your grandparents, great uncles and great aunts. What this tells me is that British thinktanks are populated by young people. The last time I could have invited a grandparent anywhere, Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister.

I used to work in IT – programming was my first job after college (Thatcher was in power then, too). Over a period of years I learned that young coders tend to be very bright, very keen, very confident and very prone to screw up (myself, in retrospect, very much included). They could really crank out the lines of code, but you needed to watch them. You wouldn’t let them do their own program design without severe misgivings, and you certainly wouldn’t let them go out and talk to the business.

This has nothing to do with intelligence or ability to learn – I had plenty of the former when I was a junior programmer, and probably more of the latter than I have now. (I seem to remember I had something called ‘energy’, too. Wonder what that’s like?) What I didn’t have was experience – including the experience of screwing up horribly. Consequently I didn’t have a lot of the other qualities that go under the heading of ‘maturity’ – caution, circumspection, the sense that things are probably more complicated than you realise and that other people probably know more than you understand.

Greater than all of these is the sense that it’s all been done. Back on (those were the days eh?) one of the regulars summed up the “old coder” mindset as

10 We tried it
20 It didn’t work
30 GOTO 10

Which makes the encounter with old coders frustrating as hell for new-broom managers and business consultants.

Admittedly, this isn’t a good guide to (in)action all the time – you’d end up with the character in La Peste who’s described as a saint because he sits in bed all day, and hence doesn’t do anyone any harm. But I can’t help thinking that the old coders are likely to be right more often than not.

So, think tanks are meeting-places for government, business and the media, and places where they go to hear new and interesting ideas. And think tanks are staffed by young coders. I guess that explains a lot.

Red, gold and green

David Cameron: active hypocrite or passive hypocrite? Or both?Jim has an excellent post up discussing Tory Boy’s not-quite-admission to a dope-smoking past. Clearly Cameron’s a hypocrite, in the sense that he’s conformed to other people’s standards while covering up his past transgressions. But, Jim argues, that only accounts for passive hypocrisy; what’s really objectionable about Cameron is that he’s an active hypocrite, who advocates standards for other people which he couldn’t meet himself.

This is a useful distinction: passive and active hypocrites are very different creatures. A passive hypocrite is simply someone who fails, sometimes, to live up to the standards he or she publicly advocates. If we share those standards we may find fault, but we’re more likely to sympathise, particularly given that we’re human ourselves. If we don’t share those standards, the worst we’re likely to feel is indifferent. Indeed, passive hypocrisy can be a positively good thing if it helps to erode bad and destructive standards. You can even think of it as a tactical move, temporary reticence: I never thought I’d vote for a dope-smoker, but seeing as it’s that nice Mr Cameron…

Active hypocrisy, on the other hand, can only be bad news. I don’t want someone who’s failing to live up to standards I share to police those standards – they’re not likely to do the job very well, for one thing. Again, perhaps the reason they’re not living up to those standards is that the standards need revising – they may be standards which humans can’t live up to. Passive hypocrisy might not make it any easier to make that discovery, but active hypocrisy – denouncing other people’s shortfalls while concealing your own – actually makes it harder. In the case of standards I don’t share, active hypocrisy is even worse – if you can’t even live up to them yourself, why impose them on other people?

I’d got this far in my thinking about Cameron – which was broadly in alignment with Jim’s – when a colleague asked an unexpected question: What if he’d been a shoplifter? What if the criminal escapades Cameron had concealed, in passive-hypocrite mode, had involved theft rather than dope smoking? There are two questions here: would we still regard him as an active hypocrite for denouncing teenage shoplifters? And, relatedly, would anybody much care?

I think the answer to both questions lies in an unexamined assumption about drug use, which is shared by many people on both sides of the debate. It was summed up by one of the more crazed letters printed in Metro, on one of the two or three days when the story was news. I forget the details, but the message was that Cameron could never be trusted on anything ever again – and not because he’d covered his past up, but because he’d been a “druggie”.

Drugs are different. Thieving is something you do; a druggie is something you are. Or rather, it’s something you become when you start using drugs – and never cease to be thereafter. Once your mind’s been warped by drugs you can never go back; you’ll always be confused, unreliable, self-indulgent, half-crazed and essentially a bad person.

This is presumably why it was headline news. What’s interesting is just how few people would actually put their name to this kind of attitude: John Reid certainly wouldn’t, and all the vox pops I saw were equally relaxed about the whole thing. The news media seemed more upset about the whole thing than anyone else in the country (and speaking of hypocrisy…). Presumably the calculation was that the story still had the potential to be scandalous, even though most people didn’t give a damn, because those people who do care about it care a great deal. It’s a clear case of valuing beliefs, not because of their content, because they’re strongly held – and it shows what a bad idea that is.

(Incidentally, I think the outrage expressed by some advocates of illegal pharmaceuticals springs from a very similar outlook to that of our ‘druggie’ friend, albeit with a more positive version. You can steal and then not be a thief, you can start fights on a Friday night and then not be a brawler, but you can’t use drugs and then not be a user: you can never go back. For drug criminalisers and advocates alike, Cameron isn’t denouncing an activity he once indulged in and now wishes he hadn’t: he’s denouncing a permanent fact about himself.)

So, passive hypocrisy’s not such a bad thing – it’s pretty much part of being human. The active hypocrisy charge is tougher, but Cameron could dodge it by making it clear that he doesn’t regard drug use as something that changes the user forever. It was illegal, he tried it, bad idea, it should stay illegal, end of story. (Yes, it would probably be better all round if he came out for legalisation – it would certainly be more interesting – but I don’t think even Cameron is going to push the Tories that far.) This would be a particularly good strategy in view of the allegations of cocaine use which have stuck to Cameron since his PR days. Admitting to teenage cannabis use would make it all the easier to brazenly deny adult cocaine use. This might get Cameron into the realms of flat-out lying rather than mere hypocrisy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing – as the relative popularity of Blair and Brown makes clear, the public prefers a liar to a hypocrite. (This comparison courtesy of David Runciman.)

So why hasn’t he done this? Why does he persist in dodging the question and waiting for the issue to blow over? (Oh, it has. I’ve been a long time writing this post…) The answer, I think, lies in another odd feature of the drug laws, or the mentality underlying them. Since the days when constables of the Watch kept a look out for breaches of the King’s peace, there has always been something chancy about public, social crimes: to be prosecuted depends on a three-way conjunction of offender, victim and guardian of the law. If you get nabbed while you’ve got your hand in the till, fair enough, but if not… well, the police can’t be everywhere. (This is one of the reasons why the level of crime reported in victim surveys is so much higher than the level recorded in police figures.) And I think our way of thinking about crimes like this incorporates this assumption. We might want the police to be more effective in preventing burglary, but nobody thinks they’re ever going to prevent it entirely. (The police themselves certainly don’t – they’re the first to recommend target-hardening and victim-centred crime prevention.) There’s an acceptable level of burglary, theft, taking and driving away – or at least a level which we accept is never going to go away.

Drugs are different. To say that a substance is controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act is to say that the government wants it not to be used at all: the underlying mentality is one of prohibition. Some theft will always go on, and some will always go unpunished; even for the hardest law-and-order zealot there’s a margin of resigned tolerance there. In the minds of drugs prohibitionists, there is no margin of tolerance for drug use: ideally the law would ensure that no drug use went on, and failing that it would ensure that no drug use went unpunished.

This is the real problem for Cameron. It’s not that he’s a druggie at heart and can’t be trusted – or that he once turned on and shouldn’t now denounce his brothers in the herb. (As I’ve said, I think these attitudes are essentially mirror images of each other, and I don’t really like either of them.) The problem is that every drugs law is a zero-tolerance drugs law. For a politician, to admit to teenage shoplifting is to say I did it and I shouldn’t have, but to admit to teenage dope-smoking is to say I got away with it and I shouldn’t have. Which would leave Cameron with only two options. One would be public penitence – and I’m sure the Home Office could find a course for him, something to address drug-related offending behaviour. The other would be to come out and say that, yes, he got away with it and, damn it, people like him actually should get away with it. I suspect that if Cameron said that he’d be neither lying nor hypocritical.

Eat y’self fitter

Inconsequentially: it occurred to me the other day that I’m firmly convinced that some kinds of food and drink are good for you. In most cases this belief doesn’t appear to have any rational basis – although in some cases it’s probably based on experience, which is almost as good. Anyone else have a similar list at the back of their mind, or is it just me?

Healthy Food

Anything with ginger is good for you. Fact. A friend once advocated ginger tea to me as a cold remedy so persuasively that I was genuinely disappointed still to have the cold when I finished the pot. (It did do me good, obviously, just not quite that much good.) Chopped ginger in cooking is good, or sliced ginger. Crystallised ginger, even (lots of sugar is generally bad for you, but the ginger makes up for it). I’ll reluctantly concede that chocolate ginger probably isn’t very good for you. (Better than chocolate without ginger, mind.) Gingerbread. Ginger cake. Lebkuchen (although not the ones with jam in). It’s all good.

Anything with lemon is good for you, apart from sweet things. Apart apart from hot lemon with honey. Bizarrely, hot lemon with honey and whiskey is even healthier.

Chinese soups
Those clear broth ones. They’re good for you. It’s true. Not so much the ones with all the egg in or those crabstick ones. Hot and sour I’m not sure about, either. But the clear ones, they’re great. Same goes for any of those Chinese main courses which are basically a slightly drier version of one of those soups, with noodles or boiled rice (not fried, sadly).

Goat’s cheese
Not just goat, though. Blue Stilton, that’s got to be good for you. And white’s even better, if you can get it without the fruit salad stuck in it. Goes off in no time, mind you. So that’s white Stilton before it goes off. Careful now.

Fruit and stuff
Yeah, I suppose.

Healthy Drink

Anything fizzy
Well, OK, not anything. But mineral water, certainly, and basically anything non-alcoholic. And a nice gin and tonic, that’s got to be good for you.

Beer with yeast in the bottom
Bound to be healthy, isn’t it? (As long as you drink the yeast. Whether you do this by swirling it up and drinking it out of the bottle or swirling it up and pouring it into the glass depends entirely on the type of beer. But you knew that.)

Not all beer, obviously. Not stout, and only some porters. And not keg beer, obviously. A nice well-kept bitter, that’s what you want. Mild’s even better.

So there you have it. Of course, you wouldn’t want to let your life be governed by a list like this. Variety is important; custard, Guinness and curry are fine in moderation. But if you really want to pig out, go for Stilton, Hefe Weizen and a nice Chinese.

And ginger. Anything with ginger is good for you.

Great big bodies

I think the thing that really irritates me about the Long Tail is just how basic the statistical techniques underlying it are. If you’ve got all that data, why on earth wouldn’t you do something more interesting and more informative with it? It’s really not hard. (In fact it’s so easy that I can’t help feeling the Long Tail image must have some other appeal – but more on that later.)

As you may have noticed, this weblog hasn’t been updated for a while. In fact, when I compared it with the rest of my RSS feed I found it was a bit of an outlier:


The Y axis is ‘number of blogs’: two updated today (zero days ago), 11 in the previous 10 days, 1 in the 10-day period before that, and so on until you get to the 71-80 column. Note that each column is a range of values, and that the columns are touching; technically this is a histogram rather than a bar chart.

You can do something similar with ‘posts in last 100 days’:


This shows that the really heavy posters are in the minority in this sample; twelve out of the eighteen have 30 or fewer posts in the last 100 days.

So it looks as if I’m reading a lot of reasonably regular but fairly light bloggers, and a few frequent fliers. If you put the two series together you can see the two groups reflected in the way the sample smears out along the X and Y axes without much in the middle:


My question is this. If you can produce readable and informative charts like this quickly and easily (and I assure you that you can – we’re talking an hour from start to finish, and most of that went on counting the posts), what on earth would make you prefer this:


or this:


I can only think of two reasons. One is that it looks kind of like a power law distribution, and that’s a cool idea. Except that it isn’t a power law distribution, or any kind of distribution – it’s a list ranked in descending order, and, er, that’s it. The same criticism applies, obviously, to the classic ‘power law’ graphic ranking weblogs in descending order of inbound links.

You can compute a distribution of inbound links across weblogs using very much the techniques I’ve used here – so many weblogs with one link, so many with two and so forth. Oddly enough, what you end up with then is a curve which falls sharply then tapers off – there are far fewer weblogs with two links than with only one, but not so much of a difference between the ’20 links’ and ’21 links’ categories. However, even that isn’t a power law distribution, for reasons explained here and here (reasons which, for the non-mathematician, can be summed up as ‘a power law distribution means something specific, and this isn’t it’).

The other reason – and, I suspect, the main reason – is that the Long Tail privileges ranking: the question it suggests isn’t how many of which are doing what? but who’s first?. A histogram might give more information, but it wouldn’t tell me who’s up there in the big head, or how far down the tail I am.

People want to be on top; failing that, they want to fantasise about being on top and identify with whoever’s up there now. Not everyone, but a lot of people. The popularity of the Long Tail image has a lot in common with the popularity of celebrity gossip magazines.

Music of the future

About twenty years ago there was a Radio 4 sketch show called Son of Cliché, scripted by the not-yet-celebrated Rob Grant and Dave Naylor. Nick Wilton was one of the regulars (what’s he doing these days, I wondered when I remembered this; the answer’s “panto, mainly“). The music was by Peter Brewis, including one of the funniest moments in musical comedy I’ve ever heard: the credits sung in the style of Bob Dylan, to the tune of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s door”, with each verse ending

“And the music was by – Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis,

Peter Brewis, Peter Brewis…”

Well, I liked it.

There’s an interview with Peter Brewis in today’s Indie. It’s not the same one – this one’s a member of Field Music – but I do wonder if he’s any relation. Now, Field Music, although they’re quite young lads – this Peter Brewis would have been in nappies when the other one was doing his Dylan impression – make angular, jerkily melodic, thoughtful music, heavy on the keyboards and woodwinds. They’re so 1970s they ought to be on Caroline, in other words. They’re not alone, either. The Feeling are Pilot on a good day (or Supertramp on a bad one), and the Klaxons…

The Klaxons are a bit more complicated (not better, but more complicated). The Klaxons (or is it just Klaxons? I neither know nor care, actually) are ‘new rave’, apparently. Judging from the track “Atlantis to Interzone” (on the B-side of their single “Golden Skans”), ‘new rave’ essentially means ‘retro’; the track starts with whooping sirens and (I kid you not) a woman singing the words “Mu mu”. Then the bass kicks in. A couple of minutes later it kicks out again and the sound gets stroppy and punky, with a kind of 1979 art-school cockney vibe; my son pricked up his ears at this point and asked if it was Adam and the Ants. (He’s a fan of Adam and the Ants.) “Make it new” clearly isn’t an injunction that’s troubled the Klaxons greatly. “Golden Skans” itself takes me back to a period I’d completely forgotten: post-glam, pre-punk pop-rock. Think Graham Bonnet-era Rainbow, but without the metal cliches or the long hair, and with aspirations to make both three-minute singles and deeply meaningful albums. Think Argent earlier in the 1970s, or City Boy later on, or John Miles at a pinch. Punk cut a swathe through prog rock, but the pop-rock scene it destroyed. But it’s back in the hands of [the] Klaxons. I think they can keep it.

The Earlies, now – there’s a fine band. I’m listening to their new album The Enemy Chorus at the moment, and even though it’s only the first listen I can thoroughly recommend it. Most of the tracks have that “I’m going to like this later” itch to them, and a couple are instant synapse-flooding beauties. (Like a good strong cafe con leche, when it’s cold outside. With two sugars. Like that.)

But even their music has its 1970s and late-60s echoes. It’s stacked with them, to be honest – I’ve been reminded of Soft Machine, Robert Wyatt, Faust, Neu! and the Beatles, and several times of Family (someone in that band knows Music in a Doll’s House and Family Entertainment).

I’m not complaining about the Enemy Chorus – it’s a wonderful album. But still… it’d be nice to hear something that would pin my ears back the way punk did – and, for me personally, the way the Desperate Bicycles and Scritti Politti did. The Fugees did it; cLOUDDEAD did it (cLOUDDEAD were very punk). Since then, not so much.

I wonder what they’ll find to play at Noughties Nights.

Better in the long run

Pessimistic Clive, 28th December:

When I find myself largely agreeing with UKIP leader Nigel Farage over the two new EU member states, despite disagreeing with the very basis of his party and being largely pro-EU, how much longer can the Union continue to keep its loose supporters on board with all this prevarication, shoddy decision-making and incompetence? There’s only so long you can hold on to hope in the face of so much mounting evidence of ever-worsening illness, after all – and no matter how much you may love your dear dog, at some point the realisation has to dawn that it’s so poorly, so incapable of looking after itself, and so unlikely to recover that the kindest thing is simply to have the poor mite put down and go get yourself a new one.

Optimistic Clive, New Year’s Day:

In the short term, the lack of progress on the constitution, the lack of progress on deregulation, the ever-increasing piles of pointless directives, mountains of wasted produce, and continued disasters caused by the Common Agricultural and Common Fisheries Policies – all of these are problems, some more major than others.But all of these problems are transient in the grand scheme of things. Even if they continue throughout my lifetime, if these initial birth-pangs of an organisation that will only reach its half-century this year are the worst that the EU can produce – after all the centuries of warfare that Europe has suffered to date – then I think we can surive them, if this is what it takes for our children and grandchildren to inherit a better world.

It’s not the volte-face that bothers me so much the particular face Clive seems to have volted into. When I was about fourteen I converted to Communism; it came a bit after my flirtations with Buddhism and Christianity, but lasted a lot longer. I’d read a bit about Cuba, and the news from China was all very inspiring at the time, but what really did it was an anecdote our History teacher told in class (yes, it’s a story within a story – David Mitchell look out). Our teacher said that he’d once met the Russian Ambassador, and asked him whether he really believed that the socialist states were progressing towards communism. Apparently the Ambassador said that he realised that he wouldn’t live to see communism, and he doubted that his young children would – but maybe, just maybe, if everyone kept the faith and worked hard, maybe his grandchildren would live in a communist society. And that thought alone was enough to make him a believer.

To his great credit, our teacher told us that he personally couldn’t believe anything like that, but that he did believe that people could make things a bit better in their own lifetimes, and that was why he considered himself a socialist. Me, I was a sucker for the grand plans and the glorious hopes and the torch of faith handed down through the generations, and I fell for it. It sounds rather as if Clive has too. I’ve arrived at roughly the point my History teacher was at in the seventies – I don’t believe social projects have some sort of Hegelian essence which enables them to develop coherently over more than one human lifetime. I certainly don’t believe in birth-pangs that last half a century. I wonder where the Ambassador’s children are now.

To illustrate the kind of mentality I’m thinking about, particularly for anyone who’s puzzled about some of the terminology I used up there (whether the socialist states were progressing towards communism and so forth) here’s a poem, Roque Dalton’s “On headaches”. (Dalton was a Salvadorean guerrillero, tragically shot by his own side in 1975; he was 39.)

It’s a great thing to be a Communist,
although it causes many headaches.

And a Communist headache
is a historical phenomenon, which is to say
that it can’t be treated by painkillers
but only by the realisation of the earthly paradise.
That’s just how it is.

Under capitalism our heads hurt us
and they take our heads off.
In the struggle for the Revolution our heads are bombs with delay fuses.
During the period of socialist construction we plan out our headaches,
which doesn’t make them go away – quite the reverse.

Communism will be, among other things,
an aspirin as big as the sun.

It’s a beautiful dream – but I don’t trust politicians with dreams.

Update 3/1/06: Clive strikes back, and explains how he can be both cynical and idealistic about the European project. Long, but good stuff.

No secrets left to conceal

Daily Mail, 5th June 2004:

Dr Phil Edwards is the national press officer of the BNP.

He may have an academic title, but Dr Edwards makes his living by letting off fireworks. When contacted via the mobile phone number given for his fireworks display company he is, unusually for a party political press officer, baffled and then furious that a journalist can call him, knows where he lives and has dared to pay a visit.

And, by the way, Dr Phil Edwards isn’t his real name. It is Stuart Russell. When asked, Dr Edwards/Russell tetchily says he uses a pseudonym for ‘personal reasons’ and it’s none of my business why. He is not unusual among his cohorts. Several have used names other than their own for ‘personal reasons’.

Stormfront ‘White Nationalist’ board, 17th April 2006

boutye: Phil Edwards did a great job, and the interviewer knew it. Someone was on earlier from Searchlight saying that isn’t his real name. What’s the crack on that?.:.BNP.:.: His real name is Stuart Russell, he is the father of Julie Russel
[attaches picture of Julie Russell with Jean-Marie Le Pen]

Sweetlips: That’s a bit strange. Why doesn’t he use his real name for heaven’s sake?

BNP’er: Strange? I’ll tell you what’s strange! The Doc and his missis have suffered so much ****e you couldn’t wave a stick at it. He is a personal friend of mine and, like me, he has suffered for the cause of his race. No wonder it was decided to give him a non-de-plume. What I find strange is some stupid bitch trying to imply he has something to hide.

Guardian, 27th April 2006:

Even if it is not your usual thing, there is a video report worth watching on the Sky News website. It concerns Phil Edwards, the far-right BNP’s national press officer, and the recording of a telephone conversation he had at the start of last year with a student. When the student started working, Mr Edwards explained, he would be paying taxes to raise black children who would “probably go and mug you”.

Daily Telegraph, 27th April 2006:

Dr Raj Chandran, a GP and Mayor of the Borough of Gedling, Nottinghamshire, was not prepared to let the unfounded allegations on the BNP website go unchallenged, said solicitor Matthew Himsworth.

Mr Himsworth said that the BNP press officer Dr Stuart Russell – who wrote the article – and website editor Steve Blake “freely and completely” accepted that Dr Chandran was misidentified in the article.

Guardian, 21st December 2006, “Exclusive: inside the secret and sinister world of the BNP”

The techniques of secrecy and deception employed by the British National party in its attempt to conceal its activities and intentions from the public can be disclosed today. Activists are being encouraged to adopt false names when engaged on BNP business, to reduce the chance of their being identified as party members in their other dealings with the public.

The techniques, adopted as part of the campaign by Nick Griffin to clean up his party’s image, were discovered after a Guardian reporter who had joined the party undercover was appointed its central London organiser earlier this year.

Nothing like investigative reporting, eh?

Update 12/2/07

Last week “Dr Phil Edwards” made another appearance in the Graun, in an article co-authored by Ian Cobain (he who went underground in the BNP and emerged with the shocking news about activists being encouraged to adopt false names). I complained, as I generally do, but this time I included some of the material I dug up for this post. The result was a phone call from Ian Mayes (the paper’s Readers’ Editor) who was very concerned; he said he’d advise the news department to refer to Stuart Russell under his real name from now on, and asked me if there was anything else I wanted from them. (I said No, since I don’t really feel that I’ve been defamed by the blighter. There was one occasion a few years back when my mother said she’d heard “Phil Edwards of Manchester” announced on Any Answers and been quite surprised by the views which followed, but I doubt many people were confused.)

So: a result, provisionally (we’ll know when the Graun refers to Russell under his own name). I think it was probably the Torygraph quote that swung it. Top tip: if you’re going to publish under a pseudonym, don’t write stuff that puts you in the dock for libel.

Update 8/5/07

Here we go again:

Asked if there were serving police officers who were also BNP members, Phil Edwards, a spokesman for the extremist organisation, said: “I believe there are.”

I’ve written to the article’s author and to Ian Mayes, again. We shall see.

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