Friday, 5 May 2017

You and Your Mate go Shopping: A Parable About the Labour Party

It's time to go and get the weekly shop and, on this occasion, you've been put in charge by your housemates, having never done it before. Your friend, who has been the one in charge for all the recent occasions, insists on going along. He's not happy about this arrangement, as he makes very clear to you at the outset.

"You're going to fuck this up," he says, as you clamber into the car. "I know you're going to fuck this up. You should let me do it."

"Everyone said that they want me to do it," you reply. "At the very least, if you're not going to be helpful, you could be polite."

"It's not fair," he spits. "I build us all up. I got us the house. I ran all the operations well. Why am I suddenly being punished like this?"

"Because you and your American friend got drunk and drove a car through a shopping mall."

"But I installed insulation in the house," he whines.

You decline to point out that he lost everyone's money playing Three-Card Monty, lost the house and the new tenants had already ripped out the insulation and were converting the garden into a car park. You start the engine and set off on the road in silence.

Well, almost silence. Your friend is insistently tapping at his phone as he sits in sulky silence.

Your phone buzzes and you glance at it when you hit the lights. It's a pretty nasty message. You turn to your friend. "Did you tell Sasha that I called her a 'flatulent bitch'?"


"So why does she think I called her a flatulent bitch?"

"Because you did say that."

"No I didn't!"

"Well, it sounds like the sort of thing you might say."

You practice every spiritual technique you know to calm yourself. It doesn't really work but you reach the shopping centre without further incident.

Inside you check the list and pick up the items. You turn to your friend. "Should we get the Coke?" you ask, indicating the bottle.

Your friend shrieks and hurls himself to the floor. He slams his fists on the ground. He kicks his feet. "You're messing everything up!" he howls. "You're excluding me!"

Bewildered you look around and feel a bit embarrassed as a crowd starts to form.

"Leave him alone you fuck!" someone shouts.

"Why won't you just give him what he wants?!" another cries. "Stop being a shit-head!"

"You're ruining this for everyone, dickhead!"

They shout more abuse. Your friend kicks and screams even louder.

"But I'm not--I haven't--you stupid--!" you protest. One of the people clutches his chest, his eyes wide with horror, as if he's been shot.

"How, how dare you say that to me!" he roars. "Did you hear that abuse!? Did you hear it?!"

You turn to go away. Your friend grips your leg and refuses to let go. You drag him out of the shop, the crowd pursuing. You arrive at the car and you start to open the door when a pick-up truck arrives. The tenants who took the house off you hop out and run into the shop. Gunfire is followed by screams.

"They're robbing the place!" you say, pointing at the shop.

"Don't try and weasel out of the real issue!"

"We need to stop them!" you say.

"Yes, go and stop them," someone says.

"I can't do it alone!"

"Not up to the task are you? Maybe you should let someone who is take over."

"Can someone call the police?" you ask.

"Yes someone call the police!" a voice shouts. "What he's doing to that man is inhumane!"

You wrench open the car door and leap inside. Your friend scrambles into the passenger seat before you can drive off. You drive out of the area, the crowd running alongside, shouting and obscuring the view. You peer through the window, trying to see, knowing you're driving along a cliff-face.

"Let me drive!" your friend shouts. "I can drive so much better!"

"Will you just--!"

Your friend dives for the wheel and tries to grab it from you. The car whirls and skids before crashing into the side barrier and flipping over it. The car hurtles over the side and down towards the water.

The people outside shout louder. "Why didn't you do something?! Why didn't you stop this?!"

And on the seat next to you, your friend bounces with barely contained glee.

"I knew you'd fuck it up! I knew it! I knew it!"

Friday, 21 April 2017

The Intolerant Left

Thanks to Clive Lewis sharing a joke flow-chart on how to vote in the general election and Philip Collins fucking up reading it, the horror of the Intolerant Left is now back in the news.

Because naturally, calling people twats for voting to deliberately immiserate some of the most vulnerable members of society is a far worse crime, and far more intolerant, than actually voting to immiserate some of the most vulnerable members of society. And kick out immigrants.

I'm not going to go into a long discussion on whether or not the left really is more intolerant than the right: I have my suspicions about why this result perhaps comes out, and you can see an indication on that in the paragraph above, but without seeing the data or the research methodology I can't go in-depth on it. Let's just assume it's true and ask what would be the more important question here which is: are there reasons why the left might be more intolerant than the right?

I think there might be. As a lefty your concerns are usually with the more vulnerable, the poor, the excluded, the minorities and so on and what you're normally going to be seeing is the effect that various policies have on these communities. If you're actively seeing and reading about the effects that cuts, needless cuts as Chris Dillow points out, are having on people's lives then you're not likely to be all that considerate towards those who actively vote for these things.

The right on the other hand tends to much more concerned with processes, mechanics and, crucially, costing. Thus it is that they'll, generally, dismiss stories about the hardships of the poor and disabled or being on benefits as evidence of an inability to work hard or save properly, but will absolutely blow their gasket at the news that a government department spent two pence more on office stationary than was necessary.

And let's not even get started on the subject immigrants and refugees (the latter of which I've seen run the gamut from 'their just economic migrants seeing an opportunity to live a life of luxury' to 'they should stay and fight for their country').

So the left do have lots of things to be intolerant about (and that doesn't mean it's a good political strategy), but it's also that the discourse is structured in such a way that it promotes opportunities for the left to be intolerant, whilst keeping it on subjects that enables the right to speak with more tolerance.

In the brief moments when that shifts it's quite easy to spot right-wing intolerance, and it doesn't take long for it to emerge. It's just that, at those moments, it suddenly becomes an important discussion about 'very real concerns'.

And I suspect that there's all sorts of reasons why people aren't too keen to discuss why that is.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Action and Inaction with Military Humanitarian Interventions

Syria is the news again, first from Assad's horrific use of chemical weapons and then with mass cheering and celebrations as Donald Trump fired off missiles at an airfield, which is apparently the equivalent of drawing Excalibur from the stone in American politics. This has led to much warbling about the costs of inaction and pile-ons of Jeremy Corbyn, as is tradition.

First something to dispense with quickly, before the serious discussion: it is worth noting that there are always important lessons to learn from the consequences of inaction, but never any important lessons to learn from the consequences of taking action. It is notable that the people who have wailed and gnashed their teeth over what inaction has done tend to be the same people who get very shirty if you point out that the Iraq War led to ISIS, or who pretend that Libya is a country with the same status as Narnia.

The main thing about the inaction/action dichotomy, and the one that tends to get obscured, is this:

It's never a choice between inaction and action but rather inaction and a specific form of action. And that's the key point. Back in 2013, when the original vote was taken, it was a choice between inaction, and taking the time to rethink the plan and come up with something better, or firing a couple of missiles at Damascus and then slapping each other on the back shouting 'we did something! We did something!'

This is a point that is missed frequently--when Ed Milliband whipped Labour to vote against the war the position was not 'no war' but 'this plan sucks, come up with a better one'. It was Cameron who subsequently threw a temper tantrum and refused to do anything. Doing something other than firing missiles or dropping bombs would have, after all, forced him to actually think about the situation.

All wars are complex and civil wars especially so: they don't reward people bounding in without any clue of what they're doing or what their end goal is. And that is the level the discussion on action should take: what are we doing? Why are we doing it? What the end goal is? And how is this going to help? These are the bare minimum of questions that need to be asked and answered before military humanitarian interventions are taken. After that there is more planning. It's a time consuming process that requires a lot of careful thought, but all actions that directly involve human lives should be thought about carefully.

And even then, military humanitarian interventions are not the only forms of action that can be taken. There are others that can be just as helpful, if not more so. For example, we could have taken action to help Syria. We could have welcomed in the refugees. We could have set up humanitarian centres to protect people, give them food and safe passage. Instead we spent most of time actively making it harder for people to get out of danger, actively making it easier for them to drown in the Mediterranean and using them as an excuse to run racist campaigns and push personal agendas.

Firing missiles is not taking decisive action to resolve a situation. It's just virtue-signalling with a body count.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Motte and Bailey Rhetoric

There's a particular form of argumentative reasoning that's dubbed a 'motte and bailey strategy' and it works like this:

A motte-and-bailey is an old form of medieval defensive system. The motte was a raised area of earth surrounded by a stone wall, whilst the bailey was a larger, but more weakly defended, area in front of the motte. As a rhetorical strategy the motte contains a true, but trivial, claim that a person can retreat to in a argument if their bailey argument - the one they want to make, but the one that is shakier as it's a more outlandish and extreme claim.

Recent discussion in the UK on the subject of opposition pressure operate according to this principle:

Bailey: Corbyn is useless and its only thanks to brave Conservatives that thing x is being stopped.

Motte: Labour doesn't have a majority, so only Conservatives rebelling could have stopped thing x.

The second is true, but also trivial. This is standard stuff about the mathematics of majorities in the House of Commons. The first, however, is making a stronger claim -- namely that it is only because of Conservatives following their own hearts that they're rebelling, nothing to do with opposition pressure whatsoever. That claim is wrong, or at the very least much harder to defend, hence why there's so much stampeding to the motte.

The particular impetus for this is the NIC U-turn that Hammond has announced, but note that this is nothing new. After all, how was it portrayed with Osborne u-turned over tax credits? Was it pressure from the opposition spooking Conservatives into changing their minds? No it was brave Tories, concerned about the impact on the common folk challenging their leadership. It was wise George Osborne recognising his mistake and changing his mind. When the government u-turned over the prison deal with Saudi Arabia? Michael Gove, with his wise wisdom and stern love of liberalism, was the hero of the hour.

And when Article 50 was voted through, with all amendments being voted down, was the story about cowardly Conservatives refusing to defy their government, showing no concern for what damage they might do to people's livelihoods or using EU citizens as bargaining chips?

Of course it wasn't.