Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Uncategorized

A Tale of Two Armies Part One

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 31, 2021.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/part-one-a-tale-of-two-armies-the-uk-army-s-capacity-for-cognitive-dissonance

The British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance.

The Sri Lankan armed forces won a remarkable victory over the LTTE in 2009 ending 30 years of suffering for Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim alike. The “international community” did its best to prevent this victory at the time. The Sri Lankan Army has never invaded another country, although Sri Lanka has often been occupied by western powers. The army that won its famous victory served a democratically elected government of a sovereign independent nation which was trying to re-establish control of its legitimate jurisdiction against the brutal and criminal efforts of an evil terrorist organisation.

In a speech in Chicago in April 1999, Tony Blair proposed a “doctrine of the international community”, criteria for deciding when to go to war to protect another country’s own inhabitants. My Irish compatriot, Samantha Power (who is now back in the US government) developed the doctrine of R2P, Responsibility to Protect. In 2003, the UK army invaded Iraq. The enterprise did not turn out well. Despite their own part in invading and attempting to occupy foreign states, the UK is still, twelve years after the SLA comprehensively and convincingly trounced the Tamil Tigers, calling into question the manner of that victory. To add insult to injury, they are also telling the present-day Sri Lankan government, which has a resounding mandate from free and fair elections, how to conduct its business, i.e.to reduce its use of the military which has been an essential part of its Covid strategy. The UK is part of the UNHRC claque that has the galle face to tell the Sri Lankan government how it should use the military today.

A recently published book shed a harsh light on the shortcomings of the British military. The Changing of the Guard by Simon Akam was published by Scribe on February 11, 2021. Akam takes 704 pages to destroy the reputation and credibility of the British Army. Akam conducted 260 interviews covering a wide range of military ranks. He also spoke to soldiers’ families, journalists, Iraqis and sex workers from a bordello near Fallingbostel in Germany.

Peace and War

Akam writes that peace is not good for armies. They can ossify and become obsessed with matters that are trivial and incidental to their real purpose.” It is not just that they go a bit soft or out of practice: “As with all armies in peacetime, form and function have blurred”. Ways of doing things become archaic and no longer quite suited to the real world of violence.

Violence is a major theme in Akam’s book. There are structural and systemic factors which promote violence. One might argue that it is a soldier’s job to be violent; he is paid to kill people and his government gives him permission to do so, although this is not allowed for Sri Lankan soldiers.  However, armies are also supposed to be disciplined.

Akam describes the Black Watch on R&R. “Alcohol is pivotal to the existence of the regiment, and to the army as a whole, in particular in Germany. It has been this way for a long time, but it still sits very awkwardly with the institution’s notion of itself as thoroughly professional and speaks to the British Army’s impressive institutional capacity for cognitive dissonance. The army has managed to distil an already problematic British — and in this case explicitly Scottish — turbodrinking culture into a wildly dysfunctional spirit that treats alcohol not as an ancillary to any social situation but rather as its own entity: alcohol is something to do, not to drink.” There are orgiastic scenes at a German brothel called the Pink House. “The atmosphere is mad, a collective release.” The Germans are sympathetic. “Poor boys. Our heroes”. One worker, Nadine, sees one soldier bend over another. Blood spurts. “She realises, with horror, that the man has bitten a section of his compatriot’s nose clean away. They summon an ambulance.” Akam comments: “endless boozing only works as preparation for war when there is no real war that needs to be attended to.”

Theories of Counterinsurgency

According to Akam, the British army’s primary objective was to impress the Americans. Unfortunately, they were also condescending to the Americans, holding the deluded belief that their experience in Northern Ireland made them experts in counterinsurgency, particularly in urban settings. Remember Bloody Sunday when the Paras killed 13 unarmed civilians in Derry. Forty-nine years on, only one man, Soldier F, remains the sole individual facing court and there is a public campaign supporting him.

In Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal came in and spoke about counterinsurgency, “courageous restraint”, winning the hearts and minds of the local population (as General Westmoreland said in Vietnam, “grab ‘em by the balls and their hearts and minds will follow”.) — COIN, in military jargon. Because of the tiny numbers of troops, and outposts in remote areas that could survive only through lavish use of airpower, the consent of the local people would be helpful. McChrystal continued in the background to run the kind of kill-or-capture operations he had led in Iraq, with problematic results. In Rolling Stone magazine, Michael Hastings described McChrystal’s staff as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, geniuses, patriots, political operators and outright maniacs”.

The confusion on the ground about the correct approach was exemplified by the different behaviour of two groups of the Royal Marines. 42 Commando (pronounced as Four-Two Commando) is a subordinate unit within the Royal Marines 3 Commando Brigade, the principal Commando formation, under the Operational Command of Fleet Commander.45 Commando Royal Marines (pronounced “four-five commando”) is a battalion sized unit of the British Royal Marines.

Members of 42 Commando, ‘J’ Company in particular, had become victim to “otherisation” or “dehumanisation” — a key factor that history has proven time and again will, left unchecked, lead to atrocities. By contrast, 45 Commando tried to prepare itself to wage a campaign in line with courageous restraint. The philosophy was that “kinetic action” resulted in Afghan funerals which generate brothers and cousins bent on revenge. 45 Commando saw an 86 per cent reduction in the number of violent actions in the south compared to the previous deployment.

 A senior development officer with experience of Afghanistan remarked, that when considering Muslim countries, “lots of soldiers talk about what is culturally unacceptable. What is culturally unacceptable is dropping 5,000lb bombs on their towns and raiding their houses, pulling wives and daughters out of bed. Same as in Britain, really.”  Patrick Cockburn notes, “Four years after the British arrived in Sangin, a local farmer was quoted as saying ‘the Taliban do not even have a bakery that they can give bread, but still most people support the Taliban – that’s because people are sick of night raids and being treated badly by the foreigners’ “.

The aggressive approach that 42 Commando was encouraged to take by its officers was dramatically out of kilter with the conduct of the rest of the brigade. “They did not want to do finessed counter-insurgency. They wanted to go toe-to-toe with the Taliban, to be aggressive, to see who blinked first”. In 2011, one of two insurgents was seriously injured by gunfire from an Apache helicopter sent to provide air support, and the marines from 42 Commando found him in a field. Sergeant Alexander Blackman, from Taunton, Somerset, shot him and killed him. His action was recorded on a helmet camera. Blackman received a life sentence for murder in 2013. This was reduced to manslaughter after a high-profile campaign, and he was released in 2017. Blackman was left to carry sole responsibility for his actions, as if he were a single bad apple.

In this video many people excuse Blackman by saying we can never understand the trauma affecting soldiers in the situation in which he found himself. His wife seems a decent and intelligent person. Can the UK government not extend the same empathy to the Sri Lankan soldiers who were fighting to save their own country? Blackman was in a foreign country where he was not welcome. So many Sri Lankan soldiers died or lost limbs. Do they not count?

 

On March 23, 2021, the House of Commons passed the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill by 345 votes to 260. This law is designed to prevent British soldiers accused of war crimes being brought to justice. In June, an independent British investigator looking into allegations of misconduct by British troops in Iraq said that all but one of thousands of complaints – which ranged from rape and torture to mock executions and other atrocities – had been dropped.

More about this next week.

Nostalgia and Melancholy

This article was published in Ceylon Today on March 12, 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/nostalgia-and-melancholy

 

More and more, we compare reality to images, instead of comparing images to reality.

I have been reading yet another book about the internet and social media. This one was a little different, quirky and fragmentary, perhaps because the author is a philosopher and a poet. Maël Renouard has taught philosophy at the Sorbonne and the École Normale Supérieure on the rue d’Ulm, of which he is a graduate. The book is called Fragments Of An Infinite Memory: My Life With The Internet

Among other things, M Renouard served as a speechwriter for François Fillon when he was prime minister. Spell-check suggests “felon” as the correct spelling, which is quite apt as in 2020, Fillon was convicted of fraud and misuse of funds, and sentenced to five years in prison (three of them suspended). Only this week, Fillon’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was sentenced to three years for corruption.

This fairly short book is divided into eleven chapters, in which the author offers vignettes which show how sites like YouTube, Wikipedia, Google Earth and Facebook have changed how people organise their lives and store their memories. Smart phones offer immediate access to captured images where once analogue film would have to be sent to a lab for processing costing money and time and also inhibited one in what one chose to photograph. The internet allows people who have the inclination to display their genitals to the world to do so from the comfort of their own home rather than going to a cold park in a dirty old raincoat.

Self-Exhibition

The internet is a repository for knowledge, recordings, and images. Only the individual retains the entirety of self but you can choose your self. Some people have created their desired personas through internet entries. It is even possible for a person to exist online but not in real life. Renouard describes how even dead people can continue to live on social media.

Renouard writes, “Social networks have already created the experience of a new moral landscape, in which self-exhibition has become the norm and therefore cannot be blamed in itself. This change of atmosphere is so universal that we aren’t necessarily aware of it, or else we very quickly forget it. Judgment has not been abolished, but it rests on other nuances.”

Nostalgia

Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos (homecoming) and algos (pain),  and was coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. Sometimes nostalgia is thought of as a good thing, at other times a bad thing. For centuries nostalgia was considered a potentially debilitating and sometimes fatal medical condition. In 1985, the psychotherapist Roderick Peters concluded that nostalgia “persists and profoundly interferes with the individual’s attempts to cope with his present circumstances”.  The modern view is that nostalgia can be a positive emotion that many people experience often, improving mood, increasing social connectedness, enhancing positive self-regard, and providing existential meaning. Nostalgia has also been associated with learning and memory consolidation. On the other hand, too much wallowing in the past, can lead to a chronic disposition or personality trait of “nostalgia proneness.” It is one thing to respect one’s own past and to delight in sharing fond memories, but it is not healthy to strongly desire to be in the past (it cannot happen) and to despise the present.

The psychologist Kyrstine Batcho writes. “To the extent that old photos make us feel good, nostalgic reminders of our past can increase our attachment to our devices.” Amy Bucher, a design expert and author of Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change writes, “Leveraging personal memories fulfils both parts of the equation for tech companies. People have an investment in seeing their memories now, but that feeling of longing can drive them to continue to interact with Apple or Facebook so that they refresh the supply of memories.”  

Melancholy

Renouard discovers a great deal of nostalgia on the internet, nostalgia that has morphed into melancholy. In one of the vignettes in the book, he ploughs through a number of music postings on YouTube and compiles a series of comments from viewers. This amounts to a bizarre and quite depressing collage of extreme misery, worthy of illustration by Gustave Doré or Henry Fuseli.

“When , in the dead of night we go searching on YouTube for the music of ten, twenty, or thirty years ago, we find that we have joined a community of lonely individuals leaving the trace of an intense, ambiguous feeling, born of a reunion with time past that can take place only because these moments have been utterly lost…The internet shows that recollection has charted the path of technology -infinite distancing and preservation – and melancholy is the future of emotion.”

Stammering Greatness

“Funes the Memorious” is a story, by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, of one Ireneo Funes, who, after falling off his horse and receiving a bad head injury, acquired the amazing talent—or curse—of remembering absolutely everything.  Funes is incapable of real understanding. A poor, ignorant young boy in the outskirts of a small town, he is hopelessly limited in his possibilities, but (says Borges) his absurd projects reveal “a certain stammering greatness”. Funes, we are told, is incapable of Platonic ideas, of generalities, of abstraction; his world is one of intolerably uncountable details. He finds it very difficult to sleep, since he recalls “every crevice and every moulding of the various houses which [surround] him”. There is a term for this condition: “hyperthymestic syndrome”.

Renouard writes: “With the internet—which fulfills to a supreme degree the externalization of memory first initiated by writing—we might get the feeling that we have simultaneously become capable of forgetting nothing and incapable of remembering anything at all.”

Exhaustion

Kyrstine Batcho warns: “The more we rely upon our devices to store, organise, and retrieve greater portions of our lives, the more likely it is that the devices become extensions of ourselves. Many people are already very stressed if they are separated from their tech. We feel as if we need to have our device near us at all times.”

I will let Renouard have the last word. “A day will therefore arrive when everything has been said, when it will no longer be possible to say anything that hasn’t already been said. Then, by virtue of the correspondence between deeds and words, no event will be able to take place that hasn’t already occurred as well. The world will have exhausted its stock of events. It will end and begin again.”

Of Saris and Grapefruit by Rukmini Attygalle

 

A review

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on January 21 2021

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/book-review-of-saris-and-grapefruit

Rukmini Attygalle writes in her acknowledgements in her debut collection of short stories entitled Of Saris and Grapefruit, “To all those who, in one way or another helped me to: See clearly; Feel deeply; Laugh heartily.”

The first story in the collection is “The Setting Sun”. The story hints at the dark side of tourism. Wimal impressed his contemporaries with his relative wealth. He was fifteen but “seemed older and was the richest young man in our village. Although, most of the time he walked around barefoot, like the rest of us, he did actually possess a pair of shoes.” One can guess how Wimal makes his money and the narrator is soon following the same path. “’You will work for this gentleman today. Do as you are told, and he will give you a good tip.’ Mr. Jinasena nodded at the man, smiled at me, and walked away. “

In “Dawn of Birth and Death”, we see life in the midst of death. From the terrors of tourism, we turn to the terror of the Tigers. “Kusuma, the eldest daughter now heavy with child, sat on a low stool watching her father busying himself with wood, hammer and nails, making a cradle for his soon to be born grandchild. …No one in the family nor anyone in the village, for that matter, possessed a cradle. Somapala had wanted to make something special for the expected child. Although a farmer, he had inherited his father’s love of carpentry. “

The family’s peace is soon disturbed and their modest expectations thwarted. Nearby Kumbukpitiya village had been attacked by the LTTE. Kusuma “instinctively picked up the child, cut the umbilical cord and separated it from the afterbirth. She ripped her underskirt, wrapped the child in it to keep it warm and nestled it against her.” Kusuma knew that Somapala was never going to come back. “As she cradled the child in her arms, Kusuma’s eyes rested on the legacy left to her son by her father – the cradle which was ‘almost finished’ and needed ‘only a bit of sand papering.’ “

We are in a lighter mood with “Money Lender” and “Let-Down”; both stories deal with the narrator’s encounters with a shrewd beggar called Andoris, who plied his trade mainly in and around Colpetty market. He was double-jointed and had the ability to contort his limbs to such an extent that, when it suited him, he could appear horribly deformed. “He never ever verbally claimed that he was in any way disabled. If others thought so – well that was their prerogative! Their undoing too!”

In the afternoons, he went into the market-square to work as a porter and hailer of taxis. “He seemed to change miraculously from the pathetic deformed figure prone to breathing difficulties to a man-of-action. The agility with which he pranced about on his thin stick-like legs never failed to amaze me. Veins bulged out of his upper arms as he lifted heavy shopping bags, and he seemed very much happier doing this than his morning work.”

The narrator’s eccentric relationship with Andoris begins when she is on her way by taxi to a social function and is horrified to find she has not brought any money. She borrows money from the beggar, which, of course, she repays. “What I had given him was much more, very much more than what money could buy. To him, the entire transaction between us was like an exchange of gifts between two friends. Momentarily, he had been the benefactor and I the beggar. And I? I was so glad. Grateful too.”

Her friends and family disapprove of her friendship with a beggar and she allows them to dissuade her from accepting an invitation to the wedding of Andoris’s daughter.  “He probably accepted that socially I was considered his superior, but he knew, that we both knew, that on a basic human level we were equal.”

Leela, the central character in the title story, “Of Saris and Grapefruit” is happily settled in London working in a government office. She gets on with her colleagues but does not want to abandon her Sri Lankan identity and is aware that some people might struggle to accept immigrants. “Leela was proud of her national heritage and no amount of pressure subtle or otherwise would change her decision to continue wearing sari. She stood out like a parrot among a flock of grey pigeons.”

There was an initial British froideur but soon the people she worked with became friends as well as colleagues. Mary, however, still exhibited some reserve and continued to hold back. After an embarrassing incident when Leela’s sari fell off in the street at Elephant and Castle, Mary revealed more about her life and character and displayed her true worth as a friend. “She slowly left the room and returned with the British panacea for all stressful situations, a ‘nice-cup-of-tea’, and shyly placed it on Leela’s desk. Leela noticed a motherly gentleness in Mary’s face, that she had not seen before.”

My favourite story in the collection is “Shared Bench”. This is the longest story in the book and it has subtleties and nuances and twists of plot worthy of a novella. Swarnamali was sixteen when her mother died. She stepped into her mother’s role and took on the responsibility of caring for her siblings. Despite her eligibility to go to university, she joined the local Teacher Training College in Kegalle, so she could stay at home and help her father. Later Swarna went to live in London but made frequent holiday visits. This was the first time she had come to Sri Lanka since her husband Mahinda passed away.

Swarna had taught at the village primary school before she married and left Kegalle and memories come back as she now visits the school. She visits the Teacher Training College and thinks about Mr Raymond, her English lecturer, who showed great concern when she tripped and injured her knee. “He was tall, fair and good looking and also approachable with an easy manner and a good sense of humour.”

She was happy to see today that her favourite bench was still there under the kottang tree. “Again, a sharp memory came vividly to mind. She saw herself, of course slim and girlish and different from how she looked now, seated on the bench sketching when Mr. Raymond happened to pass by. He stops and says ‘Hello’. Swarna’s heart misses several beats; she drops her pencil and turns red with embarrassment, or was it pleasure, she now asks herself? He bends down, picks the pencil and hands it to her. Did her fingers touch his?”

Today, the seventy-year-old Swarna saw a figure of an old man shuffling along the sandy path waving a white stick in front of him. He was obviously blind.” As the blind man approached, she noticed his hunch; his balding head sparsely covered with downy white hair, not scraggy but neatly trimmed. His face was almost completely covered with a thick grey beard. His eyes and upper face plus the bridge of his nose were encased in a pair of outsize extra dark sunglasses that ran across from ear to ear.” The blind man, whom Swarna guesses is about ninety, introduces himself as Andaré (after the blind jester) and the two are soon enjoying a good conversation about culture and philosophy. I will not spoil your enjoyment of the twists and turns of the story by saying any more. Please read it.

This collection of eleven short stories displays many clear insights, much deep feeling and also an engaging sense of humour. Some of the stories are bleak, dealing with the horrors of terrorism and tourism. Some stories deal compassionately with marriage, aging, fading memory and mortality. There is also a lighter note of social comedy and acute observation of human interactions. The stories lead the reader on gently with simple, lucid prose that creates a subtle air of mystery.

Of Saris and Grapefruit is published by Bay Owl Press and is available in all good bookshops at Rs 850.

Crony Virus UK

This article was published in Ceylon Today on October 8 2020.

https://ceylontoday.lk/news/crony-virus-uk

I have written in these pages before how the Sri Lankan government’s success in dealing with the Coronavirus compares with the abysmal failure of the UK government. Comparing the leadership of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with that of Boris Johnson is embarrassing to the latter. The disgusting thing about Johnson’s performance is that his cronies are being allowed, nay encouraged, to make huge profits out of the death and suffering caused by the pandemic. The NHS is being undermined by outsourcing and creeping privatisation and the NHS brand is being tainted by forced association with profiteering incompetents.

Outsource from the Experts

The usual suspects who have already messed up so many aspects of British life are being given reserved seats on the new gravy train. These are corporate disaster zones with less expertise than the public sector with fewer resources and less accountability.

Government documents reveal that huge public sector contracts have been granted to firms with little health experience. This includes a dormant firm given contracts worth more than £52 million.

The online news magazine Byline Times (“What the papers don’t say”) has done invaluable reporting on how private companies are being handed huge sums of money by the government to do work of which they are not capable. During the first wave, the Government doled out £5 billion to private companies. Most of these contracts were awarded without competitive tendering. £180 million worth of PPE contracts went to people with links to the Conservative Party.

On June 25 2020, the government gave PPE Medpro Limited a £122 million contract to supply gowns. The company claims to be “a specialist manufacturer of personal protective equipment”. However, there is no evidence to back this up. The firm was set up only 44 days previously by Anthony Page and Voirrey Coole, both of whom work for Knox House Trust, a corporate wealth and investment management firm that is based on the Isle of Man, an offshore tax haven. Spivs!

£150 million worth of the masks supplied by Ayanda Capital were not fit for use in the NHS. The Government paid £364 million for full-body ‘coveralls’, which works out at £840 per bodysuit. One of the companies given a contract was Kau Media Group which specialises in social media, search engine optimisation, online advertising and e-commerce – not supplying PPE.

Serco

Instead of putting local public health experts and NHS services in charge of contact tracing, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, gave the job to private companies with no experience except experience of failure in other fields.

A Serco official has admitted that one in five contacts reported to the coronavirus test and trace programme by individuals who have tested positive are untraceable. Serco is one of the outsourcing firms benefiting hugely from the pandemic. A £432m Serco contract for COVID contact tracing has a clause which allows Serco to effectively rewrite key terms on service provision. The company does not have a good track record and no experience of the health sector. Serco has previously been fined for deaths of workers and members of the public that could have been prevented. A report called “Impact of liberalisation on public safety in the transport, water and health care sectors” said, “These deaths show the wide range of ways in which public safety can be affected by contractors’ failings. There are some recurring themes in the inquests and official reports into these deaths.”

The scale of Serco’s involvement in the government’s approach to COVID has attracted controversy because of the firm’s close ties to senior Conservatives. Health minister Edward Argar was formerly head of public affairs at Serco, while the company’s chief executive Rupert Soames is another Old Etonian, the brother of former Tory MP and party grandee Nicholas Soames and grandson of Winston Churchill.

Hays Travel, the holidays agency that took over Thomas Cook last year, has been given additional contract work as a subcontractor for Serco. Staff have been banned from speaking about it publicly, but one said that they had been given insufficient training. “We are not medically trained and I believe members of the public believed they were ringing medically trained people. The system we used constantly changed, wasn’t always communicated correctly so there were times we were following the wrong procedures.”

Anti-privatisation campaigners WeOwnIt have demanded that “not a single penny more” should now go to Serco, and that the money should be redirected to local councils.

Nepotism and Bribery

Meller Designs was awarded new contracts for the supply of hand sanitiser and face masks worth £81.8 million. This added to the PPE deals given to the company in May worth £66.9 million. David Meller is the former chair of the infamous President’s Club (there was a scandal when waitresses at one of their events – including Financial Times journalists- alleged that attendees sexually assaulted them). David Meller has donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservatives since 2009. 

Globus (Shetland) UK won a contract £93.8 million contract in July for the supply of FFP3 respirators.  This is equivalent to the total revenue of the company over the past two years. The company claims on its website that it has 25 years’ experience in supplying “industry and healthcare”. This includes experience in manufacturing respirators. The firm also made a series of donations worth £400,000 to the Conservative Party since 2016.

Another Old Etonian and Oxford graduate is Max Johnson, half- brother of the prime minister. Max has joined the advisory board of health company REVIV, which has branched out into coronavirus testing. Dr Michael Barnish, Medical Director for REVIV Global, said Max would “help them open doors with the government”. The firm’s CEO, Sarah Lomas, said Mr Johnson’s appointment would be a “critical point” in the firm’s “aggressive growth”.

Motes and Beams

Sam Bright of Byline Times comments: “It is interesting to consider how the press would report on the government of a less developed country awarding millions in state contracts – without scrutiny or competition – to insiders of the regime.” I have found it impossible to get any hearing in the western media for the Covid success story of Sri Lanka. All they are interested in is what happened eleven years ago (another Sri Lankan success story distorted by western media).

Sam Bright again: “For a party that has been historically and fervently opposed to wasteful public spending, it is now deeply ironic that the Conservatives are shelling out billions in taxpayer cash without proper scrutiny or competition. Crisis or not, the public deserves to know how its money has been spent.”

Move On. Nothing to See

Fuss about Nowt

There is a particularly creepy kind of commenter on Facebook. They will insidiously try to gain your trust by pretending that they are just like you. One of the good guys. The opening gambit goes something like this: “I am just as liberal and progressive as you are, probably more so, and I detest Brexit/Boris Johnson/Donald Trump/Dominic Cummings/Harvey Weinstein/Jimmy Savile/Adolf Hitler/Vlad the Impaler/Attila the Hun/Caligula (insert to taste) even more than you do, but, come on, in the interests of common sense isn’t the lefty press going overboard and stirring things up when really nobody cares so why don’t we  just move on and deal with the really important issues”. There will be talk of “moral panic”, “mass hysteria”, “witch hunts” “lynch mobs”. You will see these terms used often on Spiked by Brendan O’Neill and his merry band of contrarians.

Fintan O’Toole

The peregrinations of Dominic Cummings to the north-east have brought the “what’s all the fuss about? Nothing to see here.” brigade out in force. Veteran Times journalist Walter Ellis writes: “Not for the first time in recent months, the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole has seriously overestimated the extent of the outrage felt by the British people over the actions and behaviour of Boris Johnson and his cronies.” Ellis claims to dislike Cummings but asserts that he  has suffered more than is reasonable. Speaking as an Irish citizen brought up in England who is currently watching Johnson’s Britain from the jaundiced perceptive of my Sri Lankan sojourn, I would say that O’Toole has hit many nails on their heads. I am a regular reader of his articles in the Irish Times, the Guardian and the New York Review of Books. I always find them stimulating and would differ vociferously from the elegant view expressed about O’Toole by Rod Liddle (I almost wrote Rod Hull).  Recent articles about the disintegrating status of Britain under Johnson’s incompetent and mendacious rule were particularly effective. O’Toole is good on the dire consequences for Ireland of contamination by its neighbour.

Anger, What Anger?

Ellis asks the question: “Are ‘the people’ really baying for Cummings’s blood?”. Let us deconstruct that short question. Ellis puts ‘the people’ in scare quotes which nudges us towards thinking that it is not a concept to be taken seriously. Is anyone baying for Cummings’s blood? There have been some mild scenes of people expressing their discontent but very few would advocate causing him physical harm. This does not mean that we can hire the Eddie Stobart van and move on. Henry Mance wrote in the Financial Times (lefty rag), “The government wants us to move on so Dominic Cummings doesn’t have to”.

Maybe not ‘the people’, but some people, many people are angry. An Opinium poll on May 31 shows that 81% of all voters think Cummings broke the rules, and that 52% of Tory supporters think he should resign. Almost half of 2019 Tory voters say their respect for the government they voted in has been reduced. Many more people are sad. Many are tired and fed up. Many are insulted. I think O’Toole puts well how I feel watching Matt Hancock laughing uproariously on Sky News, Helen Whately giggling at Piers Morgan’s questions (and disintegrating on Question Time), Priti Patel smirking on the Andrew Marr Show, Johnson burbling vacuously and betraying his ignorance of the benefit system and just about everything else at the Liaison Committee. O’Toole writes about “the soundtrack to the images stored from these months in the mind and the heart, an unpardonable snigger of elite condescension.”

 

Ellis does not feel the way I do. “I don’t agree. O’Toole is mistaken.” Then he trundles out ‘the technique’. “There are certainly many out there who think Cummings was wrong to do what he did and that he is a nasty piece of work anyway. I am one of them.” Although Ellis claims to be one of the good guys in detesting Cummings, he asserts that there are not enough people who care about the issue to justify “serial blood-letting or a scene from opera bouffe.” Again, a jokey exaggerated language of violence is used to deflect us from the main point. He does the same again later: “The mob senses blood, and a hue and cry, based around revenge for Brexit, has been unleashed.” “It won’t be the mob, with torches and pitchforks that restores decency and competence to Downing Street”.

There is no mob. This is not about mob rule; it is about decent people who have been trying to follow the government’s own guidelines angered at being treated as imbeciles. A woman in rural Durham said: “If there were stocks in the village, Dominic Cummings would be in them. There is not one single person around here who is not disgusted. Everyone is furious because we have all played fair. People haven’t been able to go to funerals, they haven’t been able to go to weddings, they haven’t been able to look after people who are dying. I can’t go to see my friend in Barnard Castle who is dying and yet that four-letter word goes out for a trip. I was born in this county. I have never come across ill-feeling like this about anything. Everyone feels it is one law for us and one law for them. That is so unfair.”

Bloody Liberal Hypocrites

Blood came up again the next day when Ellis returned to the topic. “My post yesterday on the public’s reaction to the Dominic Cummings affair has brought home to me how easy it is to get on the wrong side of liberal opinion when its blood is up.” As if an experienced journalist like Ellis would be surprised at the reaction.  Note the casual contemptuous sideswipe at “liberal opinion”. Elsewhere, he described the “liberals” who disagreed with him as “hypocrites”. He is calling me a hypocrite for disagreeing with him. We are hypocrites because (Ellis knows this for a fact) we are picking on poor Dom because of his role in Brexit not because we care about the undermining of the strategy to deal with the pandemic. Ellis sees himself as a victim of the same “hue and cry” raised against Cummings.

Remember that Ellis said, “how easy it is to get on the wrong side of liberal opinion when its blood is up?” One might expect the leftie press to froth up on the subject but the Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Mail, the Financial Times, the Spectator and even the Daily Star have been highly critical of Cummings and Johnson.

Baying Tory MPs

The baying mob included many Tory MPs. Now Ellis says, “I clearly underestimated the extent of public disquiet over what Cummings did.”  He had said few people cared. He was wrong. A Guardian analysis covering 117 MPs found they received a total of 31,738 emails since the story broke. Across all 650 MPs, it would suggest the revelations may have sparked as many as 180,000 items of correspondence. More than 100 Tory MPs, many saying they were motivated by their constituents’ anger, criticised Cummings. In a statement to her constituents Theresa May said she could “well understand the [public’s] anger”. She said, “I do not feel that Mr Cummings followed the spirit of the guidance”. Another Tory, Bob Stewart, MP for Beckenham, said Cummings’s position was ‘untenable’ and that he certainly broke the rules.

Tory MPs Sir Roger Gale and Richard Fuller reported a sharp increase in their mail and stressed that these were all individual, sometimes emotional, communications and not computer-generated or cut-and-paste. Several Conservative MPs in marginal seats said they had received more than 1,000 emails about Cummings, Alex Chalk, MP for Cheltenham, has a majority of 981; Stephen Hammond, MP for Wimbledon, whose majority is 628; and Andrew Bowie, the MP for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, with a majority of 843. Elliot Colburn, 27, the Conservative MP representing the marginal Carshalton and Wallington seat, wrote to Johnson to say he had received more emails on this issue than any other. He said “many hundreds of messages from concerned constituents” had called on Cummings to resign. Many MPs said their mailbox was overwhelmingly weighted towards criticism of Cummings.

Tory hardline Brexiter Peter Bone dismisses the idea that it is Remainers stirring trouble. “Every announcement on changes to the lockdown rules, track and trace, and government support, is bogged down with questions about Mr Cummings. I believe that Mr Cummings did break the rules. Now, if he had accepted that he had done something wrong, and apologised for it, as a fair-minded person, I would have thought that that would be the end of it. It is the insistence that he did not break the rules and the refusal to apologise that has outraged so many.”

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, has already relayed the extent of anger on the Conservative benches to Downing Street.

According to the Guardian, “Other Conservatives vainly try to claim the fuss is being whipped up by bitter and twisted leftwing and liberal Remainers who want revenge on Cummings for delivering Brexit for Johnson.” That is exactly the line taken by Walter Ellis.

Baying Bishops

Senior Anglican bishops criticised Cummings’s actions and his refusal to apologise.  Many of them received death threats as a result. The Bishop of Worcester said “the whole Cummings drama is not about politics but life and death”.

Baying Experts

The government’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam went out of his way at the daily coronavirus briefing to make clear that people in positions of authority had a duty to lead by example and obey lockdown rules.

Senior UK academics and health administrators wrote to number 10 to warn that public faith in the government is essential if the Covid-19 crisis is to be tackled effectively. They say that trust has been “badly damaged by Dominic Cummings. “The public mood is fragile and unlikely to cope with another over-optimistic target-based strategy that goes on to fail.”

At Least Cummings Isn’t a Butcher

Ellis is aware of all this but he is insouciant. Still he says, “I would hazard a guess that a majority of people will have other things on their mind today than the fate of one 48-year-old political apparatchik.” Of course they do, but that is not the point. Cummings” is not Jack the Ripper or one of the Shankill Butchers. He is a political apparatchik who made a poor decision and has suffered for it more than is reasonable because he is who he is, the Butcher of Brexit.” Jack the Ripper killed five people, the Shankill Butchers 23 – the virus has killed a possible 60,000 in Britain. Chris Bryant, Labour MP for the Rhondda, said he received 20 messages a day all angry with Cummings and has had a constituent tell him he now has no intention of abiding by the lockdown rules.

Consequences and Condescension

Fintan O’Toole does not speak for the Irish people or the British people but I doubt if many people would call him “naive to think that ‘the people’ are working themselves into a frenzy over this.” Ellis is using a variation of the straw man trope. If we all agree that not everybody is worked up to a frenzy we can move on. The issue is not about how many people Ellis thinks are angry. The issue is not about punishment. It is about the disastrous effect on the public psyche and indeed public safety of the actions of this arrogant man and the clown who is supposed to be prime minister.

Where does Ellis now stand on his assertion that “Fintan O’Toole has seriously overestimated the extent of the outrage felt by the British people”?

Enough people are disturbed about this whole business to mean that moving on is not possible. James Butler wrote in the Guardian, “consequences are for little people and, in any case, anyone who really matters is in on the act”. The little people ARE angry. They may not be clear what they are angry about or what to do about it. There is a general feeling of being disrespected. Politicians are taking the piss. To add insult to injury those politicians are making a complete bollocks of everything.

Blame the Media

Because of Cummings and Johnson things will never be the same again. What is the main thrust of Ellis’s argument now that he admits underestimating the extent of public disquiet? In the rose garden Cummings went for the Trump line of blaming the media.  “A lot of that anger is based on reports in the media that have not been true,” Cummings said. It was the media’s fault. Is that what Walter Ellis is doing? In spite of all the evidence, is he still saying this is a non-story puffed up by the media? Ellis says Cummings has suffered more than is reasonable.

I watched Johnson’s performance at the Liaison Committee several times. I couldn’t believe how awful it was the first time. Bernard Jenkin was not as bad as expected but bad enough. He did ask one fairly challenging question but then did not control the proceedings. He allowed Johnson to take the Walter Ellis line. We’ve heard enough about this. Move on. Jenkin chastised Yvette Cooper for over-running her time and for repeating questions. She had to do this because she was not getting answers. Johnson was batting away questions by saying he had dealt with that already. However, the previous answers also only consisted of “I have ben quite clear about that before” and “We mustn’t let petty politics divert us from the task ahead”.

It is clear that government decisions are not motivated by concerns of public good. They are rushing out new wheezes and crashing apps to distract our attention.  Johnson is facing new criticism for easing the lockdown too soon and risking a second wave of infections. There is a perception that this is being done to distract attention from the Cummings affair. Why is Walter Ellis, posing as the representative of common sense, trying to distract our attention?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter from Colombo

This appeared in Private Eye number 1516, dated March 3 2020. It is somewhat different from what I originally drafted.

 

Letter from Sri Lanka

from Our Own Correspondent

 

THE Rajapaksas are back! Just four years after Mahinda was ousted from the Sri Lankan presidency by an opposition plan of Baldrickian cunning, he’s once more in the hot seat, now as prime minister – with his younger brother Gotabhaya as president.

 

Gota polled 52 percent in November’s elections, but his victory was as much his rivals’ defeat: the previous faction-riddled and mediocre government had promised yahapalanaya (‘good governance’) but failed abysmally to deliver.

 

Gota is not short of critics. Civil society groups link him to what we call the ‘white van culture’, a nod towards impunity for anonymous violence against dissenters. Members of the Tamil diaspora accuse him of war crimes during the brutal civil war and its even more brutal conclusion a decade ago and bandy the word ‘genocide’. Other accuse him of supporting militant Buddhist monks who persecute minority Muslims during more recent spasms of violence.

 

The members of Gota’s interim cabinet do not inspire much hope. There are numerous old lags from Mahinda’s past (including another brother) as well as a few crooks and thugs. During the October 2000 general election, Lohan Ratwatte (son of a former defence minister) was accused of voter intimidation and ballot rigging and was alleged to be in control of a death squad that killed ten members of the Sri Lanka Muslim Conference on December 5th, 2001. He is now a minister. A policeman who had been investigating claims of impropriety against the Rajapaksas made a speedy exit to Switzerland.

But Gota is also widely admired and even hero-worshipped, the saviour of a nation that gave women the vote in 1931 and has kept faith with democracy since independence in 1948 but has been fatally weakened by corruption and sectarianism.

 

The new President  likes to present himself as a cut above the normal (and widely disliked) party political careerist – efficient, competent. Many who were not among the victims thank Gota for winning the war and for modernising Colombo. The previous government let Gota’s improvements slip and demonstrated a lethal incompetence in security matters. There is the little matter of the Easter bombings. Gota managed to create the impression that it would not have happened if he had been in charge, and it’s certainly the case that senior officials’ reckless incompetence and personal vendettas in the government at the time played a big part in 300 needless deaths and the ruination of the tourist trade.

It seems Gota has been listening to good advice, distancing himself from his older brother’s stock-in-trade personality cult. So far, there are no statues or ten-foot high posters. He dresses simply. He cut down drastically on his security detail and travels in a convoy of fewer than five vehicles which stops at traffic lights. He ordered that his portrait not be hung in government offices. He turned up unannounced at the airport to talk informally with staff and tourists and made similar surprise visits to government offices, asking members of the public how long they have been waiting. Human rights campaigner Jehan Perera was a strong critic of the previous Rajapaksa regime. He has said of the new president: “He has made executive directions by himself that show him as a leader who is different.”

Gota is well aware that Muslims and Tamils distrust him. He told Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that he intends to focus on development of the Northern and Eastern regions and not on political issues. “Judge me by my record on development of the North and East after five years.” Gota announced, “I am the president of all Lankans – those who voted for me and those who did not”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Quality of Musil

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 14 2019.

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/news-search/padraig%20colman/print-more/21911

 

During 2018, I often quoted the words of Fintan O’Toole, the Irish journalist and literary critic. He made many trenchant and perceptive comments on Britain’s folly over Brexit. He has published a book on Brexit (Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain) which swiftly became a best-seller. In an interview with the London Observer on Sunday December 30 he was asked “Which classic novel are you most ashamed not to have read?” His reply gave me some encouragement. He saidRobert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. I’ve tried about five times. The problem is with me. It’s obviously a great book, but I just get bogged down.” I bought a three-volume Panther paperback edition of an English translation of Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften in 1969 and started reading it in February 1970 in a freezing bed and breakfast in Rusholme Manchester. I have just finished it and it only took me 50 years. It was worth it.

I think that what I then held in my chilblained fingers was the first English translation by Eithne Wilkins and Ernst Kaiser published in 1953. I am now reading a Kindle version which is in more modern (sometimes anachronistic) English. The translation is by Sophie Wilkins and Burton Pike. The work is well over a thousand pages long in its unfinished form. Some have asserted that the intended length of the work was twice as long as the text that survives. Musil never decided how to end the novel and left a large section of drafts, notes, false-starts. In the German edition, there is even a CD-ROM that holds thousands of pages of alternative versions and drafts. Musil started writing the book in 1921, spent more than twenty years on it and died before he finished writing the book. I am happy to report that I have finished reading it before I die. Musil died in Switzerland on April 15 1942 and his remains lie in an unmarked grave in Geneva.

Kakaesque Futility

The novel is set in 1913 in Vienna. Musil refers to Austro-Hungary as ‘Kakania’, a name derived from the German abbreviation K und K (pronounced “ka oond ka”) for kaiserlich und königlich or “Imperial and Royal”, but ‘kaka’ is also a child’s word for faeces.  Musil uses the adjective Kakanien to convey the lack of political, administrative and cultural coherence in Austria-Hungary. In the novel, a committee is established to prepare for the 70th anniversary of Franz Joseph becoming Emperor. The year of the anniversary, 1918, would also have marked 30 years of the rule of the German Emperor Wilhelm II. Many bright ideas are discussed, for example, The Austrian Year 1918, The World Year 1918, The Austrian Peace Year 1918 or The Austrian World Peace Year 1918. The novel provides an analysis of all the political and cultural processes that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. Musil’s cruel joke is that what was planned as a celebration of peace and imperial cohesion collapses into chauvinism, two world wars and the destruction of Austro-Hungary and Prussia.

Three Volumes

The main character, introduced in the first volume, A Sort of Introduction, is a 32-year-old mathematician named Ulrich. Although he is described as a man without qualities, he is intelligent and witty and successful with women. Musil said that Ulrich’s main principal characteristics were indifference and ambiguity towards life and society and a kind of passive analytical mind. Novelist Jane Smiley puts it nicely: “As an idle pastime, he gets to know the leading lights of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who, somewhat like their counterparts in the American south of the 1850s, have no idea they are passing into history.” Ulrich lacks hope as well as qualities. “He is always right, but never productive, never happy, and never, except momentarily, engaged. The reader may enjoy his talents and his state of mind, but Ulrich is building to something that may not be pleasant.” A man for today.

In the second book, Pseudoreality Prevails, (The earlier translation renders ““Seinesgleichen geschieht,” as “The Like of It Now Happens.”) Ulrich is persuaded to serve on a committee making preparations for a celebration in honour of 70 years of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign. Ulrich’s participation in the committee introduces him to many interesting characters. The voluptuous Ermelinda Tuzzi, called Diotima, is Ulrich’s cousin as well as the wife of a senior civil servant. Arnheim, a Prussian business magnate and prolific, if superficial, writer whose character is based on the figure of Walter Rathenau (with perhaps a soupcon of Thomas Mann). Count Leinsdorf, an elderly conservative nobleman, chairs the committee and has been described as being “incapable of deciding or even of not-deciding”. General Stumm von Bordwehr of the Imperial and Royal Army, is initially tiresome but becomes more sympathetic to this reader at least and becomes friends with Ulrich. He makes himself unpopular by attempting to introduce a methodical approach to the mystical atmosphere.

The last volume, entitled Into the Millennium (The Criminals), focuses on Ulrich’s relationship with his sister Agathe. There is a hint of a mystically incestuous stirring and the twins become soulmates when they meet after their father’s death.

Now I feel a little superior to Fintan O’Toole. Like those other forbidding mammoths (Ulysses and À la recherche du temps perdu) this book is often funny. Musil called himself Monsieur le Vivisecteur” “that’s who I am! My life: the wanderings and adventures of a vivisectionist of souls at the beginning of the twentieth century!” and I am sure that he would have had some cutting things to write about 21st politicians.

Kindle is an excellent format in which to read The Man Without Qualities. Because the book is so long it is handy to have the thousand pages in one’s pocket, to dip into it while stuck in Colombo traffic. Kindle allows one to highlight passages and cut and paste. That facility allows me to bring to you examples of Musil’s wit and wisdom. I will do that next week.

Poverty in the UK

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on March 292018

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/news-search/padraig%20colman/print-more/1616

 

In the UK, the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions changes its name every few years to protect the guilty. When I worked for it, it was called the SS) is more unloved than it ever was – and that is saying something.

A combination of austerity measures and a deluded faith in outsourcing has caused a great deal of extra suffering to already vulnerable people. The National Audit Office (NAO) has reported that 70,000 benefit claimants were underpaid by an average of £5,000 each since 2011. 20,000 people could be owed around £11,500 each and “a small number of people” could have been underpaid by £20,000.

There are many people who desperately need that money. Poverty is not just a problem for people who cannot find jobs. Even people in full-time work struggle to exist. Two-thirds (67 per cent) of children growing up in poverty, live in a family where at least one person works. A family might move into poverty because of a rise in living costs, a drop in earnings through job loss or benefit changes.

Data released by the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that in 2015, some 4.6 million (7.3 per cent) people were enduring “persistent” poverty. The technical meaning of ‘persistent poverty’ is living in relative income poverty in the current year and at least two of the three preceding years. The figure marks a 700,000 rise in people who are persistently poor since 2014, affecting 6.5 per cent of the population.

It is generally agreed that the effects of experiencing relative low income for long periods of time are more detrimental than experiencing low income for short periods. The proportion of women who were persistently poor in 2015 stood at 8.2 per cent, compared with 6.3 per cent of men – marking the biggest gender gap since data began in 2008. Such levels of poverty are having effects on people’s mental health.  Almost a third of the population was recorded as being at risk of poverty for at least one year between 2012 and 2015.The figures do not compare badly with other EU countries but things have got worse since 2015.

Poverty affects one in four children in the UK. There were 4 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2015-16 – look at it as 9 in a classroom of 30. That wonderful cosmopolitan city London has the highest rates of child poverty in the country. By GCSE, there is a 28 per cent gap between children receiving free school meals and their wealthier peers in terms of the number achieving at least 5 A*-C GCSE grade Men in the most deprived areas of England have a life expectancy 9.2 year shorter than men in the least deprived areas. They also spend 14% less of their life in good health.

According to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report in 2011, in the year to 2009/10, the child poverty rate fell to 29%, the second fall in two years. Child poverty fell by around one-seventh under the previous Labour Government. More recently, Campbell Robb, the current chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, warned of “signs we could be at the beginning of a sharp rise in poverty, with forecasts suggesting child poverty could rise further by 2021.”Government figures now show that 300,000 more people are now in poverty compared to last year

This suffering is not due to irresistible natural forces or even the spurious laws of economics. This is the result of boneheaded government policy. It has been government policy to impose austerity measures and cuts in public services and to entrust the administration of benefits to those more interested in profit than welfare. Many cuts have not yet worked their way through the system. Many of the most significant reductions to working age benefits will not be reflected in the 2016/17 figures but will bite harshly later on. Robb urged the government, “to restore the Work Allowances in Universal Credit to their original level.

By doing so, lower earners could keep more of their earnings ensuring they could reach a decent standard of living, benefiting over three million low income working households and protecting 340,000 people from being pushed into poverty by 2020 – 21.”

In a press release dated only a few days before I wrote this, 22 March 2018, Robb, said: “We share a moral responsibility to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to build a better life. The government must act to right the wrong of in-work poverty.”
We will see.

 

PC and Kevin Myers

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 10 2017.

https://ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=27346

 

Misogyny and Anti-Semitism?

There was quite a kerfuffle in Ireland last week when veteran celebrity columnist Kevin Myers was sacked by the Irish Sunday Times. (Please note that this is a Murdoch paper and has no connection to the Sri Lankan Sunday Times or the Irish Times). Myers decided to comment on the news which had been recently released of the very high salaries being paid to some BBC presenters. Of the 96 stars who appear on the list 32 are women. There has been speculation that some of the highest paid male presenters may face pay cuts in order to pay women more.

Myers chose to concentrate on this gender gap and highlighted the fact that two of the highest paid women were Jewish. Vanessa Feltz is paid between £350,000 and £400,000. Claudia Winkeleman (who also writes for the Sunday Times) is listed as being paid between £450,000 – £499,000. Some of the rage that erupted might have been because Myers’s column was given the headline “Sorry ladies, equal pay has to be earned”, and the writer probably was not responsible for that.

In the article, Myers wrote: ““I note that two of the best-paid women presenters in the BBC – Claudia Winkleman and Vanessa Feltz, with whose, no doubt, sterling work I am tragically unacquainted – are Jewish. Good for them. Jews are not generally noted for their insistence on selling their talent for the lowest possible price, which is the most useful measure there is of inveterate, lost-with-all-hands stupidity.” He thus left himself open to charges of both misogyny and anti-Semitism as well as bad writing.

Reactions

Kathy Sheridan is another veteran Irish journalist. I recall that she provided excellent coverage from Sri Lanka of the tsunami. In her own column in the Irish Times she showed Myers no mercy. She wrote: “no decent man or woman can afford to shrug off the rank misogyny of last Sunday’s column”. According to Ms Sheridan, Myers has previous in the misogyny department. “All of 20 years ago, I challenged Kevin Myers in print, when he argued that the only reason a decent man was in jail was because of spiteful, whiny females.”

Myers has admitted that he has a tendency to undermine himself with “throwaway lines” but Ms Sheridan is having none of that: “The clear intention was to shoehorn women – any women – into a particular narrative of victimy, spiteful bitches. It was the kind of hateful, utterly unsubstantiated assertion that regularly reduced colleagues to howls of rage.” Myers himself has a tendency to self-pity (on behalf of males as a class rather than himself alone) that is not at all attractive. As my wife often tells me, self-pity is never attractive.

 

Defenders

I am myself somewhat queasy about the fact that a writer should be sacked and his articles deleted because people did not like what he was writing. I have had the unpleasant experience of seeing supposed libertarians calling on editors to ‘silence’ me. I have been fortunate to encounter editors honourable enough to resist such calls for censorship. Myers claims that he has lost his livelihood and his reputation is “in tatters”.

The Jewish Representative Council of Ireland issued a statement defending Myers. Myers had established something of a reputation for himself as a “holocaust denier”. “Branding Kevin Myers as either an anti-Semite or a Holocaust denier is an absolute distortion of the facts. More than any other Irish journalist he has written columns about details of the Holocaust over the last three decades that would otherwise not have been known by a substantial Irish audience. “David Quinn, whose father helped establish the Israeli Embassy in Dublin, said “The Most Pro-British and Pro -Journalist in Ireland has been sacked by a British Newspaper for Antisemitism”.

The distinguished Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards was disappointed that some of her Jewish friends should vilify Myers whom she considereda brave man who has incurred a great deal of unpopularity in Ireland by sticking up for Israel and consistently reminding people about what the Nazis did to Jews.”

PC Again

While I am prepared to listen to the arguments of those who deny that Myers is anti-Semitic and I am concerned that a man should lose his livelihood for expressing his opinions, I start to see a red mist when the concept of “political correctness” is introduced into the scenario. Some defenders of Myers find it refreshing that he did not always follow liberal received wisdom. He is contrasted with favourably with Jeremy Corbyn because he took a principled stand against the Provisional IRA.I have also taken a stand against the myths of Easter 1916 and the brutal use to which they have been put. I am completely on the same page as Ruth and Kevin on that subject.

Ben Lowry points out that Myers “was an early critic of appeasement of violent Islamic fanatics. He mocked the naïveté of anti-war demonstrators who inadvertently help protect war-mongering dictators. He was one of the first people to see that if Europe accommodates large numbers of migrants, more will come (or die in the Med). He ridiculed environmental opposition to nuclear power that resulted in more carbon emissions.” He scoffed at the notion of equality.

What is “PC”?

It seems to me that PC is a ruse by which right-wingers attempt to fool everybody else that they are the legitimate guardians of “common sense” and everyone who believes in civility and justice is a cretinous subversive.  Take Donald Trump – please! Trump has shown that he is xenophobic, racist, homophobic, misogynistic and insensitive to people with disabilities. What people like Trump (and people who like Trump) mean when they condemn ‘political correctness’ is, in reality, is that they have no time for common decency, civility and empathy.

Ian Mayes was the first Readers’ Editor, a kind of Ombudsman, of the Guardian. He fought a long but ultimately futile battle against sloppy and hurtful language relating to mental illness.  “I feel a strong commitment to this policy. It has nothing to do with political correctness. It has a lot to do with the way we treat each other, or wish to be treated, and in particular the way in which we relate to each other in times of need.” It was sad to read Mayes’s columns over the years because however many times he returned to this subject he just could not stop Guardian journalists using the word schizophrenic in a sloppy and hurtful way.

Widespread use of the term politically correct and its derivatives began when the political right adopted it in the 1990s as a pejorative term suggesting Stalinist orthodoxy. The right claimed sole ownership of Common Sense. All else was mere ideology. The term Political Correctness used by the right means “excessive deference to particular sensibilities at the expense of other considerations”. Many of the most widely publicized anecdotes about PC were more myth than reality. The British tabloid papers ran a number of fictitious stories about Islington Council going to ridiculous lengths to avoid the word “black”. Boris Johnson floated many myths about EU bureaucracy in his columns written from Brussels. The term “politically incorrect” came into use as implicit self-praise, indicating that the user was not afraid to speak plainly. Some might say they were just rude and insensitive.

Fintan O’Toole wrote about Myers: “He didn’t notice that he was doing something he generally avoids: insulting people who can answer back.” O’Toole saw the Irish Times as being complicit in Myers’s offence. “The paper did him no favours when it decided in February 2005, under the influence of a misplaced anxiety about being seen to censor dissenting views, to publish his column calling single mothers “mothers of bastards” and was then very slow to apologise for this gratuitous kick at the weak. What Myers learned from the episode was not to mind his words but that he would be indulged and rewarded for inverting the usual journalistic imperatives and using his formidable talents to afflict the afflicted.” I do not believe Myers should have been silenced but he is old enough (70) and experienced enough to know that words, like sticks and stones, have consequences.

 

Mind-Forged Manacles

This article was published in Ceylon Today on Thursday May 25 2017.

In every cry of every Man, 

In every Infants cry of fear, 

In every voice: in every ban, 

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear 

 

William Blake

 

http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170401CT20170630.php?id=21718

 

Jim Morrison was a big fan of Blake – The Doors got their name from Blake. In Unhappy Girl

Morrison sings: You are locked in a prison/Of your own devise. Perhaps Morrison was also inspired by Richard Lovelace: Stone walls do not a prison make /Nor iron bars a cage. All three poets seem to me to be saying that we delude ourselves when we think that we are independent agents blessed with free will which enables us to make informed rational judgements. In reality, we are restricted from fulfilling our true potential by an accumulation of bad and good habits or addictions, futile daily rituals, false memories, gut feelings, tribal loyalties. We are our own jailers – although Lovelace was actually in a real prison with stone walls and iron bars when he wrote To Althea.

 

Behavioural Economics

 

The first article I published, on 31 October 2008, under the byline ‘Padraig Colman’ was on the subject of behavioural economics. Behavioural economics combines the insights of psychology with the rigour of economics, factoring human unpredictability into market analysis. Nine years on, behavioural economics is still being discussed but it has come to be considered somewhat sinister by some critics despite the efforts of proponents to portray it as a benign form of Libertarian Paternalism.

 

Michael Lewis recently published a book on the subject, which renewed the controversy. The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds , describes the friendship and intellectual partnership of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the psychologists whose work provided the foundation for behavioural economics. Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow was a best-seller. The book summarizes research that Kahneman conducted over decades, often in collaboration with Tversky.

 

What Is Behavioural Economics?

 

Behavioural economics studies the effects of psychological, social, cognitive, and emotional factors on the economic decisions of individuals and institutions and the consequences for market prices, returns, and resource allocation.

 

Kahneman characterized the human mind as the interrelated operation of two systems of thought: System One, which is fast and automatic, including instincts, emotions, innate skills, as well as learned associations and skills; and System Two, which is slow and deliberative and allows us to correct for the errors made by System One.

In real life, economic behaviour does not fit in with the accepted norms of economic theory. In reality, homo economicus failed to pursue his own self-interest. Decisions were based on received wisdom or bizarre rules of thumb rather than logic. The key factors are inertia, overconfidence, and loss aversion. In their everyday existences, people tend to stick with what they are doing, even if trying something different would be easy as well as beneficial.

Kahneman and Tversky developed heuristics, or rules of thumb, to describe specific flaws in our intuitive thinking: the “endowment effect” (overvaluation of what we already have), “status quo bias” (an emotional preference for maintaining the status quo), and “loss aversion” (the tendency to attribute much more weight to potential losses than potential gains when assessing risk) are all related to an innate conservatism about what we feel we have already invested in. We find it hard to tune out information that should, strictly speaking, not be of high relevance to our judgment.

Behavioural economists have taught politicians and policy-makers that the ‘invisible hand’ of the market is not infallible. Their theories and experiments are of interest to politicians because of their relevance to decisions in the public sphere – whether to grant patients buying power in the health service, whether to compel individuals to save for their old age.

Rationalising the Irrational

The systematic errors that psychologists have identified make human irrationality predictable and people can be helped to avoid bad outcomes through “nudges”. Cass R Sunstein devised “choice architectures” or “nudges” that would work with the intuitive apparatus people have in order to guide their choices. For example, if people refuse through inertia to choose between retirement plans, government can help them by automatically enrolling them in the most beneficial plan with the option to withdraw.

Behavioural Economics and Government

 

Richard Thaler has built upon the work of Kahneman and Tversky in books such as Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness which he co-wrote with Cass Sunstein. Thaler wrote a column called Anomalies (sometimes in collaboration with Kahneman, the first psychologist to win the Nobel Prize for economics).

 

Governments have taken up these ideas. Thaler taught at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and was close to Austan Goolsbee, who was Obama’s economic advisor. Sunstein was for ten years a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago Law School (he is also the husband of Professor Samantha Power, who was Obama’s foreign policy adviser until she resigned after calling Hillary Clinton a ‘monster’). Sunstein oversaw the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama White House (Obama subsequently created a Social and Behavioural Sciences Team). Thaler was an advisor to David Cameron’s Behavioural, based in the Cabinet Office.

 

Nudge or Manipulation?

The Economist’s columnist, Bagehot, suspects that the theories of behavioural economists appeal to politicians because they provide a cover for a hands-off approach to problems they should be facing head-on. “Nasty behaviour—such as the propensity of some British teenagers to drink too much, get pregnant or stab each other—is often symptomatic of a deeper malaise: skewed values, social atomism, despair and so on.” Problems of this kind might require the smack of firm governance, rather than a gentle nudge, but the term “nanny state” has long been part of the dictionary of political abuse.

Sunstein’s Libertarian Paternalism might well be what philosopher Bernard Williams called “Government House utilitarianism” a moral philosophy underlying the practice of the British Empire that envisaged an elite who knew the moral truth and could put out simple rules for the natives (or ordinary people) to use.

 

Hidden Persuaders

Heuristics have a relevance to business in the private sector for what they can reveal about consumer behaviour. Thaler has an investment company, Fuller and Thaler’s Asset Management Inc. whose mission statement says: “Investors make mental mistakes. Fuller and Thaler’s objective is to exploit them”. More sinister still, Frank Babetski, a CIA Directorate of Intelligence analyst has called Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow a “must read” for intelligence officers looking for ideas about control and coercion.

In 2007, and again in 2008, Kahneman gave a masterclass in “Thinking About Thinking” to, among others, Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Nathan Myhrvold (Microsoft), Sean Parker (Facebook), Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla), Evan Williams (Twitter), and Jimmy Wales (Wikipedia). Psychologists helped to develop myPersonality, a Facebook application that allowed users to take psychometric tests and gathered six million test results and four million individual profiles. Scores on these tests could be combined with enormous amounts of data from the user’s Facebook environment. The architects of myPersonality claim that these tests, in conjunction with other data, permit the prediction of individual levels of well-being.

Facebook

Many people manacle themselves to Facebook. As well as possibly being the cause of them not using their time most productively, they are leaving themselves open to manipulation by those expert in the dark arts of behavioural economics.

Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, writing in the Swiss publication Das Magazin, claimed that Cambridge Analytica (a data science firm created by a British company with deep ties to the British and American defence industries) had used psychological data culled from Facebook, combined with vast amounts of consumer information purchased from data-mining companies, to develop algorithms that were supposedly able to identify the psychological makeup of every voter in the American electorate. The company then developed political messages tailored to appeal to the emotions of each one.

As Sue Halpern wrote in the New York Review of Books: “Donald Trump is our first Facebook president. His team figured out how to use all the marketing tools of Facebook, as well as Google, the two biggest advertising platforms in the world, to successfully sell a candidate that the majority of Americans did not want.”

How about that for a nudge!

 

 

 

 

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