Ron Paul says, of the public debate following the most recent shooting in a school in the USA:
Many Americans believe that if we simply pass the right laws, future horrors like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting can be prevented. But this impulse ignores the self evident truth that criminals don’t obey laws.
But they don’t believe that, do they?
There’s a tendency, everywhere, to think that people who disagree with us are idiots. Comment threads on blogs mean I can’t deny some are, whatever the politics. But in the main they’re not. If they haven’t mixed with people who have other ideas, they can have unexamined opinions, but most people of an opposing view are reasonably rational about it. And that’s true whatever your politics are.
Nobody thinks that making guns illegal will mean every criminal meekly hands in their weapons. Gun control advocates think that reducing the availability of legal firearms will reduce the availability of illegal ones, that it will more or less eliminate very public mass murders – which do seem to be carried out with legally-held weapons.
There’s also an aesthetic. Some people viscerally detest the thought of people having guns. It presents a landscape they find appalling. That means it isn’t rational. Equally, other people pose with assault rifles and go to the shooting range, hunt, wear cammo clothing. That’s equally visceral and equally not rational.
Neither is irrational, they’re just not born of reason.
From what I can see, there’s a very irregular pattern in the world of gun ownership against factors of suicide, murder, other crime. This post isn’t about that evidence. As it happens, I tend towards thinking people should be able to own handguns, rifles and shotguns, but not assault rifles or ground-to-air missiles. But this isn’t a religious view, I’m open to persuasion.
This post is about not assuming, or pretending, that people who disagree with you are idiots. Because it gets in the way. We should want the best outcome, however that’s achieved.
Andrew Mitchell is in trouble for calling a police officer a ‘pleb’. He apparently swore as well, but the ‘p’ word is his real problem. Just this morning, on Radio 4′s Today program, we were reminded by a classical scholar that plebs were the non-aristocratic class of Ancient Rome, ruled over by patricians and aristocrats, in a culture quite unlike today’s democracies in which the government are the servants of the governed.
Mitchell’s disdain for the lower orders has no place in modern society. Nobody should show the ordinary people of Britain such contempt. Nobody.
Nobody, that is, except the Institute for Government and the Cabinet Secretary, Head of Britain’s Civil Service Sir Gus O’Donnell, on behalf of the entire arrogant, patrician edifice of government. Sir Gus writes, in the Foreword to the Institute’s publication ‘Mindspace’:
Influencing people’s behaviour is nothing new to Government, which has often used tools such as legislation, regulation or taxation to achieve desired policy outcomes. But many of the biggest policy challenges we are now facing – such as the increase in people with chronic health conditions – will only be resolved if we are successful in persuading people to change their behaviour, their lifestyles or their existing habits. Fortunately, over the last decade, our understanding of influences on behaviour has increased significantly and this points the way to new approaches and new solutions.
They think they should seek to change people’s behaviour in areas like diet and exercise because the plebs are too stupid and rudderless to manage their own choices.
MINDSPACE explores how behaviour change theory can help meet current policy challenges, such as how to:
ensure environmental sustainability.
Today’s policy makers are in the business of influencing behaviour – they need to understand the effects their policies may be having. The aim of MINDSPACE is to help them do this, and in doing so get better outcomes for the public and society.
Reducing crime is certainly part of the role of government. Tackling obesity isn’t. Environmental sustainability is a waffle term for imposing the preferences of a few, mainly aristocratic, cranks on the population at large*.
Quoting further from the main report:
David Hume argued that “all plans of government which suppose great reformation in the manners of mankind are plainly imaginary”.
Such sweeping scepticism is unfounded, since there have been many policy successes in changing behaviour: for example, reducing drink driving, preventing AIDS transmission and increasing seatbelt usage. Nevertheless, some behaviours - such as antisocial behaviour and lack of exercise – have remained resistant to policy interventions. We need to think in more integrated and innovative ways about how policymakers can intervene in ways that help people help themselves – and that also help society reduce inequalities in health and wellbeing that are avoidable and considered unfair.
The entire document reeks of patrician arrogance. It gets the relationship between citizens and government exactly wrong: it is we, the voters, who should get to influence the behaviour of governments by voting for the ones who promise to behave in ways we want.
Instead, professional politicians lie to gain power, then try to modify the beliefs, behaviour and allegiances of the plebs.
Mitchell was just too honest.
* You might enjoy Lobos Motl’s reply to the question “How to stop a star”. The question includes this gem:
One might say that, on time scales measured in trillions of years, the stars are an unsustainable use of the universe’s fuel.
This isn’t a historical problem. Democide, the mass murder of citizens by their own government, has continued into the twenty-first century. Democide relies on the transformation of people with political, national or ethnic differences into distorted boogymen whose imaginary evil provides – is the only thing that could provide – the necessary degree of justification required for the commission of righteous atrocities.
So this matters. This sort of inaccurate caricaturing of political opponents should be challenged wherever it’s seen. Most people are trying to do their best. Few greens or socialists want everyone shackled to human-drawn ploughs in agrarian communes (though after sufficient demonisation of the bourgeoisie that has happened); few conservatives or libertarians want to step over poor sick people in the street. Dehumanising people just because you disagree with them is dangerous and destructive.
And that is what both of the above tweets were doing.
Take the first. Iain Duncan Smith (IDS) founded the cross-party Centre for Social Justice in 2004 (current Chairman, Labour’s David Blunkett). He is passionate about the problems of Britain’s socially disadvantaged. Whether you agree with his policies is one thing, but the suggestion he would ever wish to destroy the welfare state is grotesque. Michael Gove, influenced by his own difficult start in life, is passionate about improving the educational chances of the poor. Again, you might disagree with his policies, but to suggest he wants to destroy the educational system – wants to destroy it – is a bizarre distortion of reality.
But what of people who did want to destroy welfare and education? Why, rounding them up, smashing their spectacles and making them do menial agricultural work could be a form of justice.
As for the second tweet, it turns out that Republican voters in the USA, a group that includes some people with strongly libertarian tendencies, give more of their time and money to charitable causes than do Democrat voters. It might be that some Objectivists associate weakness with altruism, but there aren’t many of those about, and Rand loathed libertarianism, holding it in contempt. Libertarians actually believe in self-ownership and in the principle that one should never initiate violence. All else stems from those principles. They can get a bit silly, and their isolationism is unattractive, to me, but they are not sociopaths.
Sociopaths, of course, are dangerous. We shouldn’t allow them unrestricted freedom. Maybe we could re-educate them in special camps?
Incidentally, there’s a context to that second tweet. Note the reference to Atheism Plus. This is a newish group that wants to combine atheism with far-left student politics. It has emerged from the extremely funny contemporary sceptical movement that grew up around Richard Dawkins, James Randi, PZ Myers and others – funny because the one thing you absolutely can’t be, if you want to be a part of it, is sceptical. There are a set of ideas that many of its most vocal figures are stridently adamant must be held. Indeed, Atheism Plus is a reaction to the fact that some atheists and sceptics disagree with some of the strident folks’ political opinions. More on this in another post but, for now, enjoy the spectacle of a sceptical movement splintering because some of its members are sceptical and the others don’t like that.
Back to the demonisation. Have you noticed that this relies on collectivism? Individuals don’t get demonised, it would be exhausting to single enough individual people out to wind up with a decent-sized massacre. Instead it’s Tories, Commies, Moslems, Christians, Jews, Catholics, brown people, white people, men, women – always groups. Always Jews too, but that’s another story.
Individualism – originally a synonym for Liberalism – is being attacked in both those tweets. Both IDS and Gove are driven by determination not to treat people as members of a disposable group, not to accept that there’s a natural underclass that will always need to be supported by the rest of society.
They don’t want an affluent, powerful public sector managing the throwing of money at permanent failure, glowing with the warmth of the bloated self-esteem that comes from – or perhaps leads to – imagining anyone who disagrees with what you’re doing is simply evil, that they can’t have a reasoned and possibly reasonable political position.
Atheism Plus says of itself (link above):
Atheism Plus is a term used to designate spaces, persons, and groups dedicated to promoting social justice and countering misogyny, racism, homo/bi/transphobia, ableism and other such bigotry inside and outside of the atheist community.
The bigotries mentioned all depend on collectivisation. If people are treated simply as individuals without group membership, by the state, then no such discrimination can be possible. Instead, Atheism Plus, though at an early stage, seems to be from the political wing that is most obsessive about group membership, some even on a par with racial separatists.
Bigotry comes from these divisions, it isn’t solved by them. Bigotry was on display in the tweets I started with. The civilised approach to differences of opinion is to debate them, not to attack, unjustly, inaccurately, people who hold different views.
[Alan] began squatting a few months ago when his marriage broke down. He enquired about social housing, but was told none was available. “I was born in London and have lived here all my life but it seems I’m expected to go somewhere else where I know nobody,” he says. “Is that what the big society is all about?”
His timing could not have been worse. From Saturday Alan and up to 20,000 other squatters in England and Wales face eviction as police prepare to enforce a radical change to the law which criminalises those occupying residential buildings. Ministers are calling it the “end of squatters’ rights” and the first guaranteed protection for home owners.
For 667 years, between 1166 and 1833, a far better remedy was available to property owners in England. It was called the Assize of Novel Disseisin and was a far more humane and proportionate response to the wrongful occupation of property than criminalisation.
King Henry I of England died in 1135 without an immediate male heir (his son had been drowned in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120). His daughter Matilda and another of William the Conqueror’s grandchildren, Stephen, both felt they had a claim. Stephen acted quickly, travelled to London and had himself crowned. Matilda then invaded and most of Stephen’s reign was disfigured by the ensuing civil war, during which many land holdings were appropriated, and re-appropriated, by force in the absence of legitimate civil authority.
When Henry II came to the throne in 1154, disputes over land holdings were one of his biggest domestic problems. The modern English legal system has evolved from the steps he took to deal with the crisis. King’s Justices, travelling the country holding courts to hear disputes about land tenure, called together juries of local worthies who could adjudicate based on their local knowledge and memories of who had held which pieces of land under Henry I, whose reign was taken as the reference point. In effect, Stephen was written out of history; any grants he had made were undone.
Henry also introduced two ‘Assizes’, or legal processes that could be called on where there were certain types of disputes over land occupation. Mort d’ancestor was aimed at situations where someone had been deprived of an inheritance, typically when the inheritor had been of minority age at the time of their relative’s death. Novel Disseisin dealt with what we now call squatting.
Obviously, that’s an anachronistic way to put it, but it would have dealt very well with squatting. If you felt your property was unlawfully occupied by other people, you could apply to the Sheriff for a writ of Novel Disseisin. In doing so, you would have had to prove that in the recent past you occupied the property yourself. If that could be shown, the Sheriff would issue the writ and the occupiers of the property would have had to leave immediately.
The point of this was not to circumvent proper legal process. The writ didn’t affect anyone’s rights. The ‘squatters’ could take the restored occupiers of the disputed property to court and show they had a rightful claim, if they did. All it affected was who was in possession of the property while this was being resolved.
The tactic of many squatters, especially the most cynical or openly abusive, is to occupy the property while the dispute is heard. When they lose, having caused great expense and distress to the property owner, they move on.
Novel Disseisin would have stopped this strategy working, without criminalising anyone and without infringing anyone’s rights.
The medieval approach was better than the modern, which ought to be a sobering thought.
UPDATE: On Twitter, JuliaMasked: “We criminalise other thieves, don’t we? Why not squatters? Why should they get a parallel legal system?” Since that’s a question a lot of people would feel warranted, I’ll answer it here.
Squatting is done by some of the most vulnerable people in society as well as some of the most predatory. Runaways squat, for example. While I do want the owners of property to have recourse to very fast and cheap restoration, I don’t want to see the vulnerable criminalised. This is especially true with the increased importance and use of Criminal Record Office checks by employers, which seem designed to make sure that offenders have no legitimate alternative to crime.
The writ of Novel Disseisin allowed property owners to get their properties back immediately, without expensive process, and also without criminalising the squatters unless some other crime is committed, like theft of furniture or damage. It would not prevent criminal proceedings if there were other crimes. I think that provides the best solution to the problem. It mixes effectiveness with compassion.
The last theme crashed Internet Explorer – Dom, thanks for letting me know – so I have updated temporarily. I don’t use Windows, therefore haven’t used I.E. for years. Any bug reports like that are very welcome.
Norm Geras, writing in the Jewish Chronicle yesterday:
It is not difficult to understand the long affinity that has existed between Jews and the left. Common traditions of opposition to injustice, the commitment within liberal and socialist thought to ideals of some sort of equality, opposition to racist and other similar types of prejudice – these things have long served to attract Jewish people to organisations and movements of the left, and they continue to do so.
This is awkward territory. The same supposed affinity for socialism is part of anti-Semitic discourse among some parts of the far right. It’s also, I think, awkward to try to suggest virtues are characteristic of racial or ethnic groups, since the general attribution of characteristics to ethnic groups is a hallmark of racial prejudice.
What’s more, injustice and equality mean different things to liberals and socialists, so you can’t group them together. Liberalism is essentially individualism, whereas socialism is essentially a collectivist philosophy. I suspect Norm is referring principally to the socialist interpretation of these words.
But let’s go with it anyway. Let’s say that Jews have historically been drawn to the socialist left. Why might that be?
And let’s exclude the notion that Jews are any more drawn to justice and equality than other people, instead saying they are more drawn than many groups towards collectivism. Why?
Jews have a shared collective experience. In many ways it’s a very bad collective experience. It’s one of being singled out for hatred, in many parts of the world, often for religious reasons by Christians and Moslems, for many centuries.
But that has thrown Jews back onto each other. Jewish communities are very close and mutually supportive. They are also, in my experience, very welcoming to outsiders who don’t exhibit signs of Jew-hatred. Jewish culture has had to be collectivist, whatever people might have wanted under other circumstances, and socialism is just a broader political expression of that reality.
This tallies with the notion that we seek rationalisations for our predispositions in politics. That is, political philosophy doesn’t guide people to conclusions, rather it justifies the ones they have already reached.
This would also explain the tendency some people have to be socialist in youth, growing less so as they get older. Normally this is seen in terms of youthful idealism and a cynicism and self-interest as one gets older and acquires more. Instead you could see youthful socialism simply as a quest for a political system that mirrors the communism of the family home and the authoritarianism of school – the environments young adults are most used to.
And it would explain why people become less socialist as they gradually get used to the more fragmented, individualistic adult world. It is a process of getting accustomed, not a calm analytical investigation, that leads people to change because this is how predisposition changes. As that develops, so the rationalisations we select for the politics we already have change too.
I say it’s “Never, never, never, never, never” from King Lear.
Cordelia lies dead in her father’s arms. He says:
No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
and thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
never, never, never, never, never!
I could see the first “never” being querulous, questioning. The last one has finality. Between the two is a path, a trajectory that Lear’s thought takes, vocalised at intervals. For an actor or a reader, or a member of an audience, that path becomes personal. It’s a brave line to write. You completely leave it to other people.
But by doing so, you let them re-invent it. That’s why Shakespeare plays were popular 200 years ago and today. It’s why they are popular in Japan and Germany. It’s what characterises Shakespeare.
Hannan then Tweeted what might be his favourite line:
And scants us with a single famish’d kiss Distasted with the salt of broken tears…
Mel Gibson used to visit a schismatic Catholic church in Norfolk, near Wisbech, for his pre-Vatican II services. On one occasion, I am told by a local, a farmer turned round in his pew and asked Gibson, “Who are you?”
Joe Eszterhas seems to wish he’d never found out. An apparently private letter from him to Gibson has been released and placed on line in full by The Wrap. Eszterhas, one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, had been asked to write the screenplay for a planned Gibson movie, The Maccabees. According to the letter, from the start Gibson displayed a flair for the demotic, calling Jews ‘Hebes’ as a matter of routine – this in discussions about a project designed to put to rest the idea Mel is an anti-Semite.
I’m not going to quote from the letter. It’s just too weird and should be read in full. Girlfriend-beating jostles with the murder, according to Gibson’s father, of a Pope by a Cardinal sitting on his face.
Gibson has responded. He says the script sucked. He says, “the great majority of the facts as well as the statements and actions attributed to me in your letter are utter fabrications” and points out that Eszterhas stayed with the project through the bizarre behaviour he reported. He doesn’t, though, deny anything specific, not even the routine use of terms of racial abuse. In fact, he admits to some of this when he refers to a letter he says contained “colorful words [...] you apparently now find offensive”.
The use of the word ‘apparently’ in that sentence shows how far Mel is from understanding how the world reacts to him. Boiling that down, I take it Eszterhas has some documentary evidence of Gibson’s use of language and so Gibson can’t make specific denials.
It’s a shame we don’t all need to ask him, “Who are you”. He should be left to slide back into the obscurity he so richly deserves.
I know there are different views about the role of government. I generally vote conservative because I see in your party the closest match to my own, which is of a government that holds the ring in which private citizens conduct their business. I feel the government should maintain law and order and national defence, uphold contracts and agreements and provide a safety net welfare state.
The recent coalition proposal that ISPs retain all electronic communications that pass through their networks is, quite simple, a proposal to abolish the private citizen entirely.
It is profoundly illiberal (in the original and correct sense) and extraordinary coming from a party that, in opposition, fought against the Labour Party’s more predictable addiction to general precautionary surveillance.
It seems to me proof that we are actually governed by a semi-hereditary class of authoritarian civil servants who ‘capture’ new administrations, whatever their best intentions might have been in opposition.