Tag: politics

Cultural power not too important to give to politicians

Posted by – January 10, 2011

Leftism is the ideology of students, intellectuals, labourers, people who rely on the welfare state in some way, women, and artists. With that in mind, here’s a list of the most influential figures in Swedish cultural life, as compiled by Göteborgs-Posten:

  1. Lena Adelsohn Liljeroth, Minister for Culture
  2. Fredrik Reinfeldt, Prime Minister
  3. Anders Borg, Minister for Finance
  4. Marie-Louise Ekman *, Managing Director of the Royal Dramatic Theatre (“Dramaten”)
  5. Kennet Johansson, Director General of the Swedish Arts Council
  6. Eva Hamilton *, Managing Director of SVT, the national television channel
  7. Cissa Elwin Frenkel, Managing Director of the Swedish Film institute
  8. Björn Wiman *#, Head of the culture section of Dagens Nyheter, the largest Swedish newspaper
  9. Peter Englund *, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy (which selects the repient of the Nobel prize for literature)
  10. (shared)
    Daniel Birnbaum *, Director of the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm (Moderna Museet),
    Jonas Bonnier *#, CEO of the Bonnier group, a media conglomerate,
    Kerstin Brunnberg, Chairman of the Swedish Arts Council

I’ve marked people with some kind of relevant experience or training with a * and people whose jobs aren’t under some kind of political control (publicly funded) with a #.

It’s somewhat natural that since leftism advocates the public funding of art, many artists are attracted by the belief that leftist politicians understand artists, and perhaps more mercenarily by the simple expansion of opportunities for them to do profitable work. But isn’t there a very serious downside to being an artist within a system ruled by politicians? According to the Swedish list, culture there is most influenced by career politicians who have no special interest or ability related to the arts. For them its encouragement and content are political questions, and I think it’s very difficult to avoid it showing. Not as party politics, of course, but as a deeper level of lackeyhood.

In Finland, some arts are completely dominated by public money – examples that come to mind are theatre, dance, classical music, television, video installations and performance art. Literature is mostly private, I think (or is it?). The remaining visual arts and movies are probably somewhere in between. Artists are probably one of the most politically uniform groups (at least in public) I’m familiar with.

Of course, the flipside is that without political power, it’s not idealistic, freethinking artists who are in charge but Oprah and Madonna.

The source of national populism

Posted by – October 6, 2010

In most every European country, a national populist party has emerged over the last 15-20 years to capture a meaningful (and fast growing) share of the vote. The standard analysis has been to examine the voting public: how has it and its environment changed to cause it to change its voting behaviour? I propose that the more important change has been in the existing political parties and the mentality of the intelligentsia that determines their policies.

In the twentieth century, politics (in democracies) focused on negotiating around the different interests of different voting blocs. Underlying the negotiation was a wider concept of national interest: different Finnish parties hoped to benefit different groups of Finns, but they all focused ultimately on a Finnish national interest (with the exception of little practical importance of internationalist communists). Politicians were driven by status: they wanted to be the top dog, bringing home the big prizes to their voting bloc and ultimately arising to statesman status. This philosophy is still the norm among the broad public, but academics, political commentators and cultural circles have generally moved to a very different political ethic: one of abstract universalism motivated by personal satisfaction and internal status.

The intelligentsia interacts among itself, and its status points are won not by practical results but by any exercise of ideological power. Admirers of the Soviet Union didn’t lose their credibility by being outrageously wrong – on the contrary, their ongoing defiance of reality has won them a certain sense of nobility. The echo chamber of the European Parliament self-importantly celebrates itself not despite colossal amounts of waste, inefficiency and malicious bureaucracy but because of it – after all, they must be powerful people to pull all that off. Nay, not powerful, but powerfully good. After all, do they not devote much of their energies to fighting global climate change, solving the problems of global poverty and inequality and curing their own societies of parochialism, racism and lack of diversity? If you’re unhappy with the practical results, maybe you should give them more resources and power – or perhaps strive to achieve the ultimate good and become a political activist yourself.

This is, of course, a standard historical cycle: wealthy and dominant cultures, able to do as they please, produce a priest/idealist class which divorces itself from the mundane, earthly concerns of boring normos. This is how the pyramids were built, and also very much the internal story of the Soviet Union. The immediate result in the west has been the aforementioned rise of national populism – people who previously weren’t actively interested in nationalism outside of sports and historical reminisces are now voting for national self-interest, not because they’ve changed but because they used to vote for that no matter which party they chose. Unfortunately for them, the people in charge of these populist parties tend to be cynics, incompetents or both, so there is little promise of achieving their goals.

On gay marriage and unreasonable demands

Posted by – July 3, 2010

I’ve witnessed variations on the following dialogue more times than I can remember:

A: Gay marriage is a simple human rights issue. We can’t restrict a person’s rights just because they’re homosexual.
B: I agree that homosexuals should have the same rights as everyone else, and they do. Heterosexuals can’t have same-sex marriages either.

At this point A explodes with disbelieving fury, thinking that B is playing the fool. Surely B is disingenously twisting words! But after careful observation, I’ve come to the conclusion that B usually is sincere in his position. We have yet another case of communication breakdown… Let’s expand the dialogue (and the interlocutors’ capacity for mutual understanding):

A: The right to marry is society’s blessing on a loving and committed relationship, and homosexuals have as much a right to that as heterosexuals.
B: Maybe, maybe not – but even if they’re given the right, they still can’t have the kind of marriage heterosexuals have. It would make as much sense for them to demand the right to heterosexual sex between same-sex couples.
A: What do you mean? Are you suggesting that same-sex love is so inherently different from different-sex love that the concept of commitment doesn’t translate?
B: Well… yes.

At this point A again explodes with disbelieving fury, thinking that B is bigoted and prejudiced. We need to expand more – let’s take A and B into the past, to the murky, gender-warring 70’s-80’s.

A: The way men take advantage of women is an outrage comparable to slavery. Women are powerless and unappreciated in their own homes, in the workplace and society as a whole – and why? Pure sexism and prejudice!
B: Well, women just aren’t cut out for some jobs. Men and women are different, you know.
A: Different but equal! What job can’t a woman do?
B: Oh, I’m all for treating women right, but women aren’t going to do the dirty, dangerous physical jobs or be good at leading men. It’s biological.
A: What are you, a caveman? I just read an article about woman miners in the Guardian! Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister!
B: Sure, there are always exceptions.
A: Ugh, you always say that.

A’s position is that women are essentially equivalent to men, and even if they aren’t, to claim otherwise is to restrict the opportunities of those woman who are willing and able to do “men’s work”. B’s position is that stratification by sex is to be expected because men and women are so different. Some men are closer to the average woman and some women closer to the average man, but to demand women in general to be regarded as men is unreasonable, because people are used to their prejudices about men and women and find them useful. Back to gay marriage:

B: Anyway, same-sex couples already get civil unions or whatever. As far as I’m concerned, anyone can make any partnership contract they like, but I’m going to keep calling only different-sex marriages marriages.
A: What exactly do you find so threatening about the idea of gays marrying? Do you think it’s somehow a bad thing when a gay couple forms a stable family unit, like married couples?
B: Well, that doesn’t usually happen. Gay couples don’t have children and don’t have that incentive to stay together. The dynamics are completely different. Of course, it doesn’t harm anyone if they don’t stay together, and that’s exactly why it’s not like a marriage.
A: Some gay couples do have children, or would if it were easier. Do you just not care about them? And anyway, how is it your place to tell them what their relationships are like?
B: I’m just telling them what I consider marriage to be. And there’s always exceptions.
A: Ugh, you always say that.

Okay… so what do I think about all this? I actually rather sympathise with both viewpoints. Starting with the sexism issue, I think it’s foolish and destructive to equate a person with their sex and to be blind to the individual – but I, like everyone else, allow my first impression of a person to be coloured by their sex. To do otherwise would be to throw out useful information, and I don’t believe that can ever be a moral necessity.

Likewise, I don’t think the day will ever come when my abstract mental images of couples consisting respectively of two women, two men and a man and a woman are identical, and I don’t think the societal importance of those forms of partnership will be the same. Also, I absolutely believe that all three of these relationships are capable of any kind of commitment/meaning/crappiness or whatever else comes to mind when you think about couples. Whether all of those couples “deserve” the same word seems to me a strange question. Personally, I think they’re sufficiently different to justify different words, but if the gay people in my life get married and care about that word, I’ll use it about them. It’s kind of like the question of which word to use about black people – even if you don’t mean anything bad by using the word “nigger”, everyone else believes that you do.

So on balance: I support gay marriage on the grounds that I don’t want to offend people. As for the “social effects” of gay marriage, I have no idea, and I don’t know that it’s feasible or moral to legislate on such a basis – some of the complications of that question are explored rather well in this blog post by someone else.

The hidden systems

Posted by – May 11, 2010

What economic system do you live in? For readers of this blog, the answer is probably some blend of market capitalism, corporatism and socialism. It is defined by your interactions with the state: sometimes it gives you resources or subsidises your choices, sometimes it expropriates resources and taxes your choices, sometimes it does neither. All of the time it arranges things for the benefit of powerful institutions.

But that’s far from being the only economic counterparty you have (unless the state is completely socialist) – the state is only special because it has the violence monopoly, so in theory it can dictate anything it wants. In a free market system, you also have a counterparty in your employer, in the customers of your yard sale, in people who trade stocks with you (or your pension scheme) and so on. These are all market systems themselves, and free market theorists like to call the free market system “natural” because it seems to occur wherever there’s no coercion.

Margaret Thatcher famously said that there’s no such thing as “society”, but only individuals. That sounds like a rather pointless truism, but I suppose she had in mind something like the small-scale economic arrangements I listed in the previous paragraph, which are all free market and (supposedly) show by their existence that humans are inherently meant to operate in free markets. However, it seems to me that one of the most significant economic arrangements has been omitted here – that of families (ostensibly families are important to conservatives, but I think Thatcher may have been an exception). Families, it occurred to me, are instances of neither free markets nor coercion, and typically operate under some some kind of socialist syndicalism. For many or most people they’re also more significant than any other economic arrangement in their lives.

Let me address some obvious criticisms of that idea. Firstly: are families really both free and non-market? Most libertarians I’ve talked to would probably say that they are free markets, because they’re arrangements people freely choose in their own best interests. And if they don’t freely choose them, well, then it’s a system of oppression. I’m not unsympathetic to that viewpoint, but it strikes me as a rather too coarse a distinction.

If you’re a child in a family, the family supervises your life and determines your best interest for you, rather like an ideal communist state. But you probably don’t hold that against them (or you do when you’re a teenager, which is probably the brain’s way of saying that it wants to get out and control its own resources and make its own babies). Or if you’re married to someone, you may very well feel like a hostage, staying in an unpleasant situation for the kids, out of memories of love or because you don’t want to lose status or be poor. A libertarian might say that that’s still free choice, because you chose to get married and can choose to get divorced, but again, that doesn’t quite capture the entire situation. And even if only physical coercion counts, plenty of people in marriages still experience that or the threat of it.

If we accept for the sake of argument that families aren’t a form of coercion or instances of free markets, what are they? At first I thought that they were some form of socialism, but that’s not true for all families at least. Some families have a Soviet-style implementation where power is concentrated and one or both parents (or plausibly grandparents) decide for the benefit of all. Some have a more syndicalist system where everyone gets some kind of say in everything. Some hippie families have probably even tried anarcho-syndicalism. Some families live under despotism, where one person rules for his own benefit. In fact a market system family is one I haven’t really ever seen. Could it work? What other systems are there?

Every civilized country

Posted by – May 10, 2010

It’s a common tactic in national politics to state that since all civilized countries do X, so must Examplestan. There’s some variety in how useful it is: in big countries like the US it doesn’t mean anything, in small ones like Finland it’s practically law. However some small countries, like Poland, are very nationalistic and therefore don’t care. Other small countries, like the UK, consider themselves to simply be a special case in everything, so they also aren’t as affected.

Because politics is the mind-killer, there’s a considerable amount of myopia in declaring this type of universality, eg. Europeans consider the death penalty to be the height of barbarity, yet it is in use in the dominant culture of the age.

This occurred to me in particular with reference to the UK elections. Firstly, it would be “out of the question” to implement the UK electoral system anywhere else because it is so undemocratic, but the British have had it for a long time and are strangely ambivalent about it (also: monarchy).

Secondly, I only recently learned that each candidate has to pay a £500 deposit to stand, to be repaid if the candidate secures at least 5% of the vote. This has given me a new standard of respect for all the Monster Raving Loony Party members spending that much on a practical joke. There’s no way a Finnish politician could ever suggest such a plutocratic law and keep their career. According to this jubilant website, the BNP has forfeited at least £131,500 in contesting the present election. I guess they were able to afford it – the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (I think the main socialist electoral group) mustered 41 candidates at the cost of £20,500 just to stand. For these marginal groups, that must be one of their more significant expenses – not to mention that for major parties, the equivalent cost is zero.

Some civilized (non)universals with exceptions:

  • A national airline (US, which has antitrust laws)
  • Freedom of expression (Finland has special protection for religion, the Finnish flag and the pride of national and ethnic groups, the UK has hate speech and “antisocial behaviour” laws, Germany has banned holocaust denial and Nazi symbols, in Australia even drawn or written depictions of child pornography are illegal (except for Lolita, because no civilized country would ban a famous book like that)… you name it, someone’s banned it)
  • Legislation mandating disabled toilets (there are no exceptions to this, you really live in a shithole if you don’t have it)
  • Universal suffrage (criminals and people considered insane often excluded, stupidity is no obstacle)
  • Rule of law (surely a mistake, this doesn’t exist anywhere -Ed.)
  • continued on page 37

Communion breakdown

Posted by – September 20, 2009

Holy shit, someone just explained to me what radical Islam is all about:

The history of religions sometimes resembles the history of viruses. Judaism and Islam were both highly virulent when they first broke out, driving the first generations of their people to conquer (Islam) or just slaughter (Judaism) everyone around them for the sin of not being them. They both grew more sedate over time. […]

I have a theory that “radical Islam” is not native Islam, but Westernized Islam. Over half of 75 Muslim terrorists studied by Bergen & Pandey 2005 in the New York Times had gone to a Western college. (Only 9% had attended madrassas.) A very small percentage of all Muslims have received a Western college education. When someone lives all their life in a Muslim country, they’re not likely to be hit with the urge to travel abroad and blow something up. But when someone from an Islamic nation goes to Europe for college, and comes back with Enlightenment ideas about reason and seeking logical closure over beliefs, and applies them to the Koran, then you have troubles. They have lost their cultural immunity.

(emphasis mine)

It seems so obvious now, as always.

The interesting thing is that most people’s response to this isn’t “beliefs which lead to immorality/absurdity when consistency and logic are applied to them are immoral/absurd” but “you shouldn’t apply too much consistency and logic to your beliefs”. Go figure!

This also happens with other things than religion. The other night I was talking about politics with someone and was reminded of how different our respective attitudes are (in caricature):

  1. one should formulate a consistent set of principles to decide everything with
  2. one should try not to break anything and to gradually improve things that seem particularly broken

I suspect 2 contains the idea that you shouldn’t be “too” principled because society is too complicated to be consistently improved by your preferences. To me that sounds like giving up. (Maybe giving up is the correct move here, but I’m not convinced yet.)

OP continued:

The reason I bring this up is that intelligent people sometimes do things more stupid than stupid people are capable of. There are a variety of reasons for this; but one has to do with the fact that all cultures have dangerous memes circulating in them, and cultural antibodies to those memes. The trouble is that these antibodies are not logical. On the contrary; these antibodies are often highly illogical. They are the blind spots that let us live with a dangerous meme without being impelled to action by it. The dangerous effects of these memes are most obvious with religion; but I think there is an element of this in many social norms. We have a powerful cultural norm in America that says that all people are equal (whatever that means); originally, this powerful and ambiguous belief was counterbalanced by a set of blind spots so large that this belief did not even impel us to free slaves or let women or non-property-owners vote. We have another cultural norm that says that hard work reliably and exclusively leads to success; and another set of blind spots that prevent this belief from turning us all into Objectivists.

A little reason can be a dangerous thing. The landscape of rationality is not smooth; there is no guarantee that removing one false belief will improve your reasoning instead of degrading it.

Sad but true.

People like us

Posted by – July 6, 2009

How does everyone know who to root for in instances far-flung political unrest? We want Mir-Hossein Mousavi to be the president of Iran rather than Mahmoud Ahmedinejad and figure that there must be some kind of cheating going on because our guy didn’t win. Far as I can tell, Mousavi is supported by young, English speaking people with mobile phones and Internet access and Ahmedinejad by illiterate peasants. Why isn’t Ahmedinejad the default romantic leader of the people like Castro or Mugabe before they went out of fashion? How is Mousavi a reformist considering that already served as prime minister during most of the eighties, including over a 1988 mass execution of political prisoners? I’m not being facile, I genuinely am not sure why this is so. Sure, Mousavi has made some noises about relying less on the “moral police” and being nice to everyone, but it’s unclear why anyone should believe either in his sincerity or his ability to bring about such changes.

Also: Honduras. Unless I’ve misunderstood something, the president tried to subvert the constitution of that country to stay in power beyond his term limits. The courts ruled this illegal and he was detained for “treason and abuse of authority, among other charges”. How does everyone know we’re supposed to support him in his quest to stay in power indefinitely like Chavez?

The greater fools

Posted by – April 1, 2009


A protester at the G20 summit is too caught up in
changing the world to notice the cameramen

photo: bbc.co.uk

Governments determined to combine worst of all worlds

Posted by – January 23, 2009

Bill Clinton and Tony Blair used to talk about a “Third Way”, meaning the combination of efficient markets with some wealth and opportunity redistribution. You don’t have to like it, but as a guideline for a capitalist economy it was probably better than most of what had gone before. Now Finland’s prime minister is evoking the Third Way as a total opposite: spending untold billions in projects for his rural constituency that are essentially guaranteed to be inefficient.

Economics stupidity is pretty much a requirement in politicians; without it they seem dispassionate, cold and, well, apolitical. If someone suggests that a change would be beneficial whether you’re a socialist or a free marketeer, nobody believes him. Thus in this country, for instance, the state-owned rail monopoly does its best to negate the benefits of rail transport with its pricing structure.

State monopolies are expected to service both profitable and unprofitable connections, and to do this they typically choose to make large profits on the profitable connections to pay for the unprofitable ones. In theory it sounds workable, but in practice it means that the whole point of rail travel disappears; mass transit is supposed to be cheap, whereas now it’s cheaper for two people to pay for petrol and drive to, say, Tampere from Helsinki. If train tickets were priced at running costs (or to some realistic traffic capacity) and the unprofitable connections were directly subsidised (rail maintenance gets subsidised already, by the way), the whole venture would make a lot more sense with a large increase in system usage and potentially even the profitability of the profitable lines.

Private rail systems have been discovered to be able to have even worse problems, but this is one thing they do get right. If you’re not considering what people want when you’re pricing and designing the system, you’re doing it wrong. For the state to get a hard-on for building “mining infrastructure” and motorways wherever the most electorally profitable place is doing it wrong. Buying up billions of pounds of failing investment banks or billions of dollars of failing car manufacturers is doing it very wrong. It’s combining the inequities and inequalities of capitalism with the idiot cronyism and inefficiencies of 20th century socialism. Why take only the downside of the market?

The second shot won’t be a warning

Posted by – January 17, 2009

Israel is fighting for its existence about thirty years down the line, the Gazans are fighting for their lives right now. The Gazans are currently desperate, Israel is ultimately doomed. Individuals Gazans have no property, no rights, no future, no perspective; Israel is being demographically buried – surrounded and soon populated by anti-semites made stupid by religion – and its political influence and allies are on the wane. I can’t help but understand and sympathise with both, but I also hate them for making the status of humans as lunatic animals painfully obvious.